16 November 2012

Times and means of rapprochement (IV)

In a note on page 341, Gane writes: “Transferability of blame / culpability is primarily attested in cultic contexts: Exod 28:38; Lev 10:17; 16:21-22. But the fact that it also appears in the noncultic setting of 1 Sam 25:24 and 2 Sam 14:9 shows that it is not... foreign to the mundane sphere of life." This statement is problematic on every conceivable level. Exodus 28:38 has nothing to do with the “transferability of blame", as it is perfectly equivalent to Numbers 18:1 and refers to the (unborrowed) Levitical responsibility for the sancta. The “sin offering" of Leviticus 10:17 is the very same as the one in 9:15 - an inaugural, purificatory sacrifice (no iniquity involved, unless one would argue that YHWH's glory was welcomed at the sanctuary with a small dose of ill-defined communal guilt). As a general statement on the purpose of חטאת‎ sacrifices (including those of Leviticus 9 and 16), Moses' words only suggest that they are meant to remove any obstacle to approaching the sacred. As for “the goat unto Azazel", quite a few commentators have stressed the fact that Aaron's confession itself suffices to instantiate the ominous onus to be carried away. Aaron and the sancta bear no guilt, no impurity.

To find any appearance of the “transferability of culpability" in narrative texts is even more preposterous. Both 1 Samuel 25:24 and 2 Samuel 14:9 contain highly rhetorical discourse, designed to persuade a figure of authority into clemency. A similar device is mentioned in Matthew 27:25, yet no amount of hand washing has ever exonerated Pontius Pilate. What's more, the two chapters of Deuteronomistic history are nowhere near suggesting the kind of guilt displacement envisaged by Gane. In the first one, Abigail opens her plea with a clear attempt to substitute herself to her nutty husband as chief of clan (so that she be allowed to negotiate with David on behalf of her entire household). She distances herself from Nabal's behavior, and assumes only the guilt of not having known of David's servants' initial arrival (v. 25). Abigail's gift (beracha, one of the names of the mincha that Jacob offered Esau - cf. Genesis 33:10-11) is to be accepted on her account, as it is her (more or less rhetorical) פשע that requires forgiveness (v. 27-28). Nabal is still to be judged for his egregious insolence, by the precise strike of David's God himself (vv. 26.39), through the felicitous scheming of his considerate wife (v. 19.36-37). Abigail never adopted his liability, only his responsibility. Collateral damage avoided - pissing against the wall decriminalized.

In 2 Samuel 14, the wise woman of Tekoa conjures up a case of manslaughter, for which the Torah provided the right of asylum. In granting his subject's (hypothetical) request, David does not pardon a murderer, but redefines the conditions of asylum. He is in no danger whatsoever of incurring guilt, as judges have always been interpreters, not automaton enforcers of the law. In v. 9, the woman simply offers to bear all the responsibility for the security of her son, which the king quickly counters with his willingness to be personally involved in thwarting any threat to said son (v. 10). David is generally quite inclined towards clemency, even to the point of proffering curses on the rightful avenger of blood, especially when clemency would have been politically expedient (see 2 Samuel 3:27-30 in context).

In his desperate attempt to read “transfer of guilt" into the Tanakh, Gane should have rather resorted to Numbers 30:16. The husband who belatedly nullifies his wife's oath is said to bear her guilt. But this would have only served to reaffirm what we've found already: forgiveness is never transfer of guilt in the Levitical world. Forgiveness extinguishes guilt (just as punishment does, with different results).

01 October 2012

To see, hear and taste

A nice, self-forgetful afternoon at The Courtauld Gallery. A self-indulgent, savory dinner at Sitar. Indian food cooked and served with French precision, glazed with sitar music. The untiring detail of a 14th century ivory diptych, the unforgiving eye of Lucian Freud.

I am glad to report that our second visit at the Royal Albert Hall, at the end of August (for Whitacre's Proms debut), was a happier affair than our first. The public was there for the music. Eric was there for the show (his music in his wake). I agree with this reviewer, when he writes that “the most extraordinary sounds came in American composer Edwin London's ingeniously simple re-imagining of Bach's harmonisation of a Lutheran chorale", and with this reviewer, when she declares herself unimpressed by the evening's premiers.

I do promise to finish my discussion of Gane's book. The aroma of incense beckons.

24 July 2012

Speaking truth to stupid

I've spent the last three weeks, since the latest post, catching a cold and passing it on to my wife, watching in bewilderment the disgraceful show many Romanian politicians and some Romanian media figures are putting on these days, discovering the new, controversial HBO series The Newsroom, taking a short trip to the Jurassic Coast, meeting old friends for the first time, and savoring leisurely, at dusk, the exquisite French food one finds at Thierry Tomasin's decadent Angelus. And yes, we have booked tickets to another Royal Albert Hall event - the late night, late August Whitacre concert. Fingers crossed.

The current Romanian PM is, ironically, a former prosecutor who has recently been shown to have plagiarized his PhD dissertation and who has orchestrated a parliamentary putsch. His actions and complete lack of moral rectitude serve to remind much of Europe that my native country is still a fledgling democracy, caught between its communist past (single-party politics, nationalist demagoguery, vilification of opposition) and its seemingly unending present as a banana republic (kleptocracy, endemic corruption, a disabled justice system). By the way, a comparison between recent developments in both Romania and Paraguay (the June ousting of president Lugo) would probably be quite revealing. 

The real drama, though, is not that those in power don't spend much time in front of a truthful mirror (part of the Romanian press has laudably reflected correctly the nature of intentions and machinations on both sides of the political dispute, and the real stakes), but that a worrying majority of the public, old and young, has not had a chance to learn anything about democracy and to internalize its values. Many still respond to puerile dichotomies (one figure or another is always distributed in the role of “the embodiment of evil"), to ritualistic violence (in language or actual public gesticulation), to a carnivalesque reversal of semantics (the thief brags about his honesty, the cowardly accuses others of his own unmentionable sin). It remains to be seen if speaking truth to stupid actually helps.

04 July 2012

Times and means of rapprochement (III)

Another exaggeration in Gane's treatment of Leviticus 16 is the emphasis on Yom Kippurim as a day of judgment. Not only is the rabbinic tradition ambiguous in this regard (Rosh Hashanah being strongly associated with the idea of judgment), but one could also take into account passages like Exodus 12:15 and Numbers 9:13, that imply a Paschal judgment (under the same threat of kareth as in Lev. 23:29-30). Covenantal loyalty was not to be tested only by the strictures of Yom Kippurim. But this is a minor point.

More significantly, Gane contends that טמאה ,פשע ,חטאת and עון are distinct categories of evil, with different ritual trajectories (cf. Lev. 16:16.21). This presupposes a level of terminological specialization that is simply lacking in the Pentateuch (or elsewhere in the Tanakh, for that matter). פשע for instance is nowhere associated with “high-handed" crimes (etymology does not suffice), while it is frequently used interchangeably with חטאת or עון (from Gn. 31:36 to Ps. 51:3-5 to Micah 7:18). Gane's thesis also relies on an erroneous syntactical judgment: he cites Lev. 11:46 in support of his claim that לכל־חטאתם in Lev. 16:16.21 is enumerative, not resumptive. But in 11:46, the lamed is clearly genitival, extending the argument of the constructus תורת, and decisively preceded by a conjunctive waw. In 16:16.21, the lamed breaks the syntactical sequence (as in Lev. 5:3; 11:42; 22:5) and is obviously appositive. Finally, maybe the only reason why the טמאה of Lev. 16:16 is replaced by עון in 16:21 derives from the fact that uncleanness cannot be properly confessed (the hitpael of ידה).

Since I've mentioned the category of “high-handed" sins, I should point out the fact that one instance where Gane is wrong precisely for being a Milgromite, and not (only) an Adventist, is his rejection of the idea that the death of those who defile the sanctuary eliminates any need for further atonement. The legal principle of elimination of offenses through capital punishment is upheld in passages such as Num. 35:33 and 1 Sam. 25:39 (Nabal's crime fatally returns on its perpetrator). By the way, if “the guilt of innocent blood" had to be promptly eliminated from the land of Israel (the NRSV of Deut. 21:9), why would YHWH have tolerated a full year of accumulation of “toxic waste" at his very sanctuary? And if God's justice was vindicated only by shedding forgiven guilt (i.e. the guilt of forgiving) once a year, did God have a right to forgive in the first place?

26 June 2012

Times and means of rapprochement (II)

Let's dwell a bit more on Leviticus 16. In note 41 on page 230 of Cult and Character, Gane writes: “In this verse [Lev. 16:33] כפר את takes the three parts of the sanctuary as direct objects because the blood is physically applied to them, but purification of the people is expressed with כפר על. Although these sacrifices benefit the people, the preposition על acknowledges that this benefit is not direct in the same way." This statement is a perfect example of how a grammatical point can be overinterpreted for doctrinal gain. כפר על is frequently used with inanimate objects to which blood is applied (even in Lev. 16). And isn't Gane relying on the same prepositional usage of the verb to argue for his theory of exclusive purgation of the sacrifice offerer(s) in Leviticus 4 and 5? Why wouldn't על indicate indirect benefit in the case of outer-sanctum and outer-altar offerings too?

Following many commentators before him, Gane also assumes that the high priest's bathing of Lev. 16:24 is a final step in the removal of sin and impurity from the sancta (and the priesthood). This interpretation fails to notice that the high priest also bathed before entering the sanctuary (v. 4). These priestly washings had nothing to do with shedding guilt or impurity collected from the sanctuary, but were part of the preliminary ritual that also included donning vestments (see m. Yoma in the Mishnah). Ex. 30:20-21 clearly states the apotropaic purpose of temple washings (similar to that of incense use in Lev. 16:12-13), and distinguishes between two types of cultic activities that are preceded by washings - entering the sanctuary and approaching the altar to sacrifice (a distinction obviously mirrored in the duties of the high priest on Yom Kippurim). Thus, there is no hint of decontamination in Lev. 16:24.

Even more remarkably, there is no mention of contamination in verses 26 and 28 either. Contrary to another popular assumption, the persons charged with the disposal of animals do not become unclean. Their ritual use of water is simply a rite of passage (the Mishnah is helpful here too, even if it does use the language of impurity, citing the legal opinion that impurity is incurred by exiting the city, not by contact with supposedly contaminated animals). This meaning of the mikveh is attested in passages such as Lev. 13:6, where the transition from a liminal state (quarantine) to regular community integration is done through water. Being quarantined did not equal being impure (cf. Lev. 13:11). But the road back to community passed through water (this context also illuminates the fact that establishing purity is not necessarily the reversal of a previous condition of impurity - see also vv. 58-59). Additionally, we know from Lev. 4:12 that the carcass of animals whose blood was brought into the sanctuary was to be burned in a clean place outside the camp. Thus, there is no hint of decontamination in Lev. 16:26.28.

24 June 2012

Times and means of rapprochement (I)

Roy E. Gane is one of the best teachers I've had. His cult for in-depth knowledge of primary sources and the understated beauty of his character make him a cherished professor. Not to mention that he is quite the pianist. It was only in the last few weeks that I've been able to read his Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy (Eisenbrauns, 2005). Seen through the pages of his work, Gane is primarily an Adventist, then - quite appropriately - a Milgromite (the late Jacob Milgrom was Gane's Doktorvater) and finally, and most importantly, wrong.

Anyone who is in the least familiar with Seventh-day Adventism knows how pivotal the two-phase theory of atonement is to Adventist history and identity. The Great Millerite Disappointment itself dissipated in the Adventist interpretation of the Levitical cult (and in the unhistorical historicism of some Adventist apocalyptic exegeses - a topic I will address another time). Therefore, it is no surprise that an Adventist scholar, writing on Leviticus, argues for “the chameleonic ability of the חטאת‎ blood to switch its nature" (Milgrom, in a 2007 response to Gane's book). I do not question my former professor's integrity (especially as I have just lauded his character). But the world of religious studies has its plentiful share of honest and competent specialists who can't all be right. What's more, I will attempt to show, over several posts, that Gane is wrong not only as an Adventist, but also as a Milgromite.

Let's begin right in the middle of it all. One of the main assertions of Gane's reading of Leviticus 16 is that the Yom Kippurim rituals are concerned primarily with the sanctuary, cleansing it, and only secondarily, by implication, with the priesthood and people of Israel (I should say that I agree with Gane and others who spend little time on questions of the history and redaction of the Pentateuchal text, just as I treat the Israel and temple of Leviticus as fictional). Thus, Gane is able to posit a contrast between the goal of inner-sanctum sacrifices and that of outer-sanctum and outer-altar sacrifices (his terminology), the latter always purifying the sinner(s) or the unclean (not the sancta, as in Milgrom's view).

This is patently false. There are 14 כפר goal-descriptive formulas in Leviticus 16 - in verses 6, 10, 11, 16, 17(x2), 18, 20, 24, 27, 30, 33(x2), 34. Seven of them (vv. refer the כפר activity to the priesthood and the community of Israel. Three of them indicate the location of the כפר activity (vv. 10.17.27). Of the four remaining, two could also indicate location (vv. 16.18), with only the final two (vv. 20.33) pointing to the temple complex as the object of כפר. Obtaining atonement for Israel is the purpose of the Yom Kippurim ritual (Lev. 23:28), just as with any purification sacrifice. Milgrom is perfectly justified in extrapolating from Leviticus 16 a modus operandi for all חטאת‎ sacrifices. But, as I will soon show, he is just as wrong as his pupil in assuming that the Levitical sanctuary is ever in need of decontamination. A clue, for now: it is not the prepositional regime of כפר that is decisive in the understanding of the priestly concept of atonement, but the semantics of כפר itself.

20 June 2012

Volodos and Lisitsa

My wife and I have recently attended two remarkable piano recitals - the May 22nd Royal Festival Hall rare London appearance by Arcadi Volodos and last night's YouTubed Royal Albert Hall debut by Valentina Lisitsa. I had heard Valentina before, in the 2004 inaugural concert of the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. She gave a lively, exciting rendition of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations that fabulous summer night, in the superb acoustic environment of Millennium Park's Great Lawn trellis. As for Arcadi, I had grown to love many of his recordings (I'll be sharing for a while a sampling of his Rach repertoire in the “box of delights").

While the RFH is a wonderful space for music, allowing a single piano in the hands of a master to fill the room with sound of utmost clarity and depth, the RAH is a miserable venue for a piano recital. Yes, it makes for a great video production setting, but the constant noise of the ventilation system and the (lousy) electronic amplification of stage sound wipe out almost any chance of musical enjoyment. Even so, what was really disturbing for us (especially for me, since I, in my atheism, take concert going religiously) was the public's behavior at both events. The unrelenting coughing, fidgeting, dropping of stuff, creaking of stuff, unwrapping of stuff, going off of phones and alarms, and just plain obnoxious muttering accumulate into a sea of despair where the simple pleasure of listening drowns. I have already promised myself and my wife not to attend another piano recital in London ever again. Studio recordings will have to do.

In spite of all that, Arcadi was a constant delight, a pianist in consistent control of his technique and rich in musical insight, while Valentina was a bit of a mess. Indeed, the Kievan has a winsome, unassuming personality (she spoke to the audience, even to let us know what the final score of England vs. Ukraine had been), and generally good interpretive instincts. But her performance is technically uneven and sometimes downright loose, her tempos can be unnecessarily brave, her thinking clouded by impetuosity. On the other hand, the Leningradian's Liszt sonata was an exquisite jewel, showcased with breathtaking simplicity and expressiveness. Some reviewers (musicologists, of course) have found his playing facile (in its seemingly effortless precision) and lacking in Idea. I deem them idiots who haven't understood yet that music itself - well served by the illusion of ease - is the idea.

23 May 2012

The wild will be wild

[A text originally written for and published by spectrummagazine.org in February 2011]

Terence Fretheim's Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic, 2010) is the vulgate, abbreviated version of several decades of theological research and reflection. The author of such classics as the older The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, and the still recent God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, distills his academic knowledge and pastoral wisdom in two sets of conferences included in this opening volume of the new series Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic, proposed by Nazarene Theological Seminary. 

Those acquainted with Fretheim's thought won't find much that is new in this book. However, the straightforward, lucid approach, the theological breadth and depth of the discourse, the surprising exegetical insight, the limpid style make for an excellent introduction to a still fresh perspective on the perennial topics of human suffering and theodicy. For the Adventist reader, there is much to love and much to be challenged by. 

The first three conferences, i.e. the first three chapters of the book, focus on key passages of the Old Testament - the Creation account, the Flood narrative, and the legend of Job. Each of these is brought to bear on a sensible theology of creation in an attempt to make sense of human suffering. The fourth chapter deals with the general theme of God's image in the Old Testament as it relates to the experience of evil. Finally, the fifth conference addresses practical issues, especially the meaning of prayer and the possibility of a meaningful relationship with God. 

Christians have often held on to a theological fatalism when it comes to the world we live in: “it used to be perfect, but not anymore, therefore all we can do is hope it shall pass sooner rather than later". This mode of thinking encourages “a theology of demolition" - creation is seen as a rotten fruit that needs to be done away with. In contradistinction, Fretheim proposes that “creation is a process" that “moves toward ‘good'". That it was never perfect, but rather “a dynamic reality... a long-term project, ever in the process of becoming". 

Thus, creation is not only the beginning of the world, but the very nature of the world. It is a collaborative process that does not exclude disorder. On the one hand, “God cannot be removed from some kind of complicity" in everything that is going on. And on the other, “the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment". We are in this together. Suffering is not the exclusive experience of humanity, just as creativity is not the exclusive attribute of God. 

The fundamental feature of reality is its interrelatedness. “Relationship is integral to the identity of God, prior to and independent of God's relationship to the world." Therefore, God's interactions with creation are governed by a profound kenotic principle - a divine self-limitation that lets the world “create itself", by “making room" and “letting-be" (a Moltmannian thread here). Ultimately, “human beings are called not to passivity but to genuine engagement, and the decisions that we make will have significant implications for the future of the earth and the nature of the future of God". 

The basic lesson of the flood is not that humans can change, but that God does. He gracefully adapts, as he is painfully entangled in his own creation. The world is dependent on divine suffering; and there are no danger-free zones in God's creation, not even for the Creator. The Biblical God acts more like a father, deeply, actively, riskily interested in the unstunted development of healthy personalities. Randomness, play, ambiguity, disorder, unpredictability are part of a good creation. “No necessary relationship exists between human suffering and human sin." Just as there is free will for us, there is “free process" in the nonhuman world. 

The moral order is an agent of God. He is responsible for creating the potential for suffering. But even the moral order allows for disorder, for failure, for randomness - no tight control. We are blighted with “systemic evils" and “plain old dysfunctionality". Yet, God as “a good medicine", works from within to make things better. And, impressively, “the Old Testament shows that God did not suffer for the first time in the Christ event, and even more, God did not suffer for the sins of the world for the first time on the cross". Christ only brings finality and universality. 

An Adventist reader will enjoy Fretheim's portrayal of God's engagement with human history (as in his noticing the divine prayer of Isaiah 65:2), especially if she has found Richard Rice or Fernando Canale convicing. But she would probably take exception to the remark that, in Genesis, only God rests on the Sabbath, while humans launch in their creative endeavors. Or, more significantly, to the idea that the satan of Job 1 and 2 is an inherent condition of creation, a personification, not a personal agent. Yet, she should be able to appreciate the power of Fretheim's reading of Job as a natural theology. God is, after all, in the whirlwind. 

I personally appreciated, among many things, the author's implicit deconstruction of the usual, deeply useless dichotomy of “natural vs. super-natural" and “moral vs. natural". But Fretheim's presentation is not without problems: if God is a “genuine agent", how comes he only mediates consequences? And is he a moral agent or a natural agent? This ambiguous framing of causality, dubious as it is philosophically, may exculpate God of any legal liability, but most certainly not of his relational responsibility. And, paradoxically, it also makes it hard to salvage any notion of God's personhood. 

Fretheim does a beautiful job at describing a certain quantum uncertainty in matters of faith, a fundamental humility in our theological formulations. “Heightened rhetoric and undisciplined certainty" make for bad, obnoxious believers. Most definitely, Fretheim's book is not for the faint of heart: “What we do and say makes a difference in the shape that the future will take. Indeed, they make a difference in the future of God."