Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil

Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3 ASV)

In ancient cultures, conformity to the majority was near the top of the hierarchy of values. In fact, the Old Testament takes great pains to enforce conformity to social norms through various and elaborate status rituals and harsh legal penalties. But, the Old Testament vision of social conformity is not conformity to society as such. Instead, the vision is of society conforming to the good, rather than the individual becoming a microcosm of society. The expectation of breaking rank when the rank and file turn to evil is an implicit demand to contemplate social norms and reason whether they be good or evil. This passage also calls for a rejection of social naivete which implies gaining some degree of contemplative virtue. And as a strange conclusion, the passage also proscribes allowing pity to substitute for truth. A conservative error is to equate poverty with vice. The liberal error is to equate poverty with virtue. The Biblical middle-ground is to pursue the good generally and legal justice particularly. The following passages from Proverbs illustrate the same principles in aphoristic format:

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. (Proverbs 14:5)

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:8)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. (Proverbs 14:16)

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Josephus: On why Moses is Superior to Greek Legislation

Below is Josephus’ comment on the superiority of Moses’s legislation to the Greek laws:

The reason why the constitution of this legislation was ever better directed to the utility of all than other legislations were, is this, that Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion; I mean justice, and fortitude, and temperance, and a universal agreement of the members of the community with one another; (171) for all our actions and studies, and all our words [in Moses’s settlement] have a reference to piety towards God; for he hath left none of these in suspense, or undetermined; for there are two ways of coming at any sort of learning and a moral conduct of life; the one is by instruction in words, the other by practical exercises. (172) Now, other lawgivers have separated these two ways in their opinions, and choosing one of those ways of instruction, or that which best pleased every one of them, neglected the other. Thus did the Lacedemonians and the Cretans teach by practical exercises, but not by words: while the Athenians, and almost all the other Grecians, made laws about what was to be done, or left undone, but had no regard to the exercising them thereto in practice. [1]

This is a remarkable observation of human nature. We’re naturally religious and superstitious. And while the logical arguments for virtue seem to hold, they are hardly capable of overcoming our superstitious desire to base our lives on our feelings and to expect a logical result. So Moses, instead of teaching religion as a part of virtue, Moses taught virtue as a part of religion and taught a religion that demanded virtue. Josephus goes on to argue that with respect to the two types of instruction in virtue, the law of Moses is superior because, “But for our legislator, he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice…”[1]

 

References

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

Two ways to store grain

Luk 12:16-21 ESV  And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, (17)  and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ (18)  And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. (19)  And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”‘ (20)  But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (21)  So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Pro 11:25 A generous person will prosper, and anyone who gives water will receive a flood in return.

Pro 11:26  People will curse whoever withholds grain, but blessing will come to whoever is selling.

Pro 19:17  Whoever is kind to the poor is lending to the LORD—the benefit of his gift will return to him in abundance.

Jesus, in Luke 12, tells the above parable about selfishly storing grain. There is clearly a point about the Pharisees vision of Israel in there, but the main point concerns how one manages the wealth of his household. But it can be very easy to mistake what Jesus says here for something else. Is Jesus saying that it is wrong to save or to store up grain? Or is he saying that it is wrong to store up grain without being rich toward God?

The reason I do not think that Jesus is opposing saving money is because the man is clearly portrayed storing up treasures without generosity. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel and its sequel, fairly rich patrons and matrons are praised for their generosity or for their literal selling of everything. So it isn’t the wealth or poverty per se that Luke or even Jesus sees as virtuous or vicious. It seems to be ones use of wealth. To illustrate this I’ve quoted three Proverbs. This might provide some helpful context for Jesus remarks about the man who stores up wealth. He never lends to God by caring for the poor (being rich toward God). He builds wealth without being generous as he builds larger storehouses for himself. And, he seems to be a loner, he talks to himself about the issue, not to his family or his servants. In this respect, the conclusion of Jesus’ parable of the clever manager comes to mind: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9)” Thus the man seems to not be particularly revered for his generosity amongst his countrymen.

Not coincidentally, the Old Testament has very clear laws for ancient Israelites concerning what they do with their grain:

Lev 19:9-10  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you are not to completely finish harvesting the corners of the field, that is, you are not to pick what remains after you have reaped your harvest.  (10)  You are not to gather your vineyard or pick up the fallen grapes of your vineyard. Leave something for the poor and the resident alien who lives among you. I am the LORD your God.”

So the Old Testament background here indicates is that this rich man is not being properly rich. He is not generous, he stores up so much grain that there is nothing left over, and it will go to nobody when he dies alone, cursed by the people, and without friends.

Jesus also seems to have another famous Israelite in mind when he tells this story. Joseph, during his stay in Egypt, stored up enough grain to feed the Israelites, Egyptians, and several other people groups during a brutal famine:

Gen 41:47-57  During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly,  (48)  and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it.  (49)  And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.  (50)  Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him.  (51)  Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.”  (52)  The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”  (53)  The seven years of plenty that occurred in the land of Egypt came to an end,  (54)  and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.  (55)  When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do.”  (56)  So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt.  (57)  Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.

Conclusion:

There is a right and wrong way to save up your resources. If you save up during times of plenty like the fable of the ant, then you will be able to live without anxiety and with generosity during times of famine. But the trick is to save up without being miserly. One must develop the habit of generosity even during times of plenty if one wishes to have unself-ish habits during times of want. At least, that’s my take on Jesus’ parable here.

Nick, the Rabbis, and understanding the Bible

Nick Norelli, a few months ago, posted:

Louis McBride just raised the issue about using rabbinic literature in NT studies, noting that he’s skeptical of the approach. He quotes Amy Jill-Levine who notes a number of problems:

Rabbinic literature is later than the NT
It’s often prescriptive rather than descriptive
It’s often contradictory

I agree with all of those points. I’d say that I think it’s value is limited because it represents a divergent strain of Judaism. The NT and rabbinic literature grew in the same soil but are the results of different strains of the same seeds and manifestly different manners of cultivation. If anything, I think the rabbinic corpus can help us, at times, to understand Jesus’ opponents. I don’t think they shed a great deal of light on the NT in general though.

I’ve been thinking on and off about the last sentences. I’ve come to a conclusion that is in line with his thoughts.

I think that since the Rabbinic literature is a major attempt at Old Testament interpretation, it can provide insight into serious efforts to see a unity in the Old Testament. Now, this unity is not unity in Christ that Luke 24 hints at. But as Christians we are obligated to accept that in some sense, the Old Testament had a unity and coherence prior to the Incarnation (it was Jesus’ Bible after all). I do think that, though our (read: Christian) Old Testament interpretation should be Christ centered and oriented, that we still have to interpret it in a fashion that is coherent. Thus, seeing efforts contemporaneous to collecting the New Testament canon at finding unity in the Old Testament can help us understand the integrity of the Old Testament. And a deeper understanding of the Old Testament can help us understand the New Testament.

Ancient Sexual Ethics

“For traditional societies, social justice, and not sexual conduct, is the basis for morality. Consequently, teaching dealing with virginity, marriage, divorce, infidelity, adultery, promiscuity, and rape are concerned not only with the sexual relationships of individuals or couples, but also with the social and economic relationships between the households in the village as a whole.”
Victor Mattews. 
The Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE (Henrickson), 31.

Ancient forms of ethics/law were concerned with the integrity of the whole group rather than the rights of individuals. It is not that individuals did not have rights, it is just that individual desires (the desire to sleep with whomever you wish) were to be regulated on the basis of the impact those desires would have if fulfilled. 

The modern ethic of authenticity (the idea that what I want is uniquely best for me if I seek it in the way that I know best because I am me) leads to a vision of virtue that I predict cannot be sustained in the long term. If everybody gets what they want then only some people can get what they need. And if everybody’s sexual impulses are equally good, then nobody’s are particularly bad or dastardly. This is playing out in a big confusing way in the entertainment and political realms right now.