Monday, January 4, 2010


Genesis 10-11

At the end of chapter 9, the earth has been de-populated, as God washed away most of mankind in the flood. So the next step is repopulation. Chapter 10 is a genealogy chapter, listing the descendants of the sons of Noah. There's very little narrative, though it does contain the first mention of Nimrod, son of Cush, "a mighty hunter before the LORD." He is credited (though we might use that term advisedly) with establishing a kingdom in Babylon, and building the city of Nineveh. Each of those is a kingdom that will be viewed negatively by the people of God, so maybe "blamed" would be a more apt description than "credited."

And then, in chapter 11, the world re-populated promptly lapses again into sin. The story of the tower of Babel is, surprisingly for a story with such reknown and impact, only 9 verses long. And that's followed by more genealogy, as we get the line of descent from Shem to Abram.

And that is more than enough of the "book report" format.

    Odds & ends
  • Interesting to see the sons (Magog, Canaan, etc.) whose names appear later as places or tribes.
  • A note at the biblegateway says that "sons may mean descendants or successors or nations" so I guess it isn't that interesting.
  • Likewise, of course, "father may mean ancestor or predecessor or founder."
  • In modern speech, "anti-semite" tends to refer only to hatred/dislike/discrimination against the Jewish people. But the Semitic people are the descendants of Shem, and most are not Jewish, as we're still several generations before the birth of Israel.
  • Apparently, some traditions attribute the building of the tower of Babel to Nimrod. I wasn't aware of that, but it's not hard to see why. He has just been mentioned as one that built a powerful kingdom, "a mighty hunter before the LORD" doesn't mean the same thing as a mighty hunter for the LORD, and the names Babel and Babylon may be (apparently are) the same name. UPDATE: I've checked the Hebrew, and yes, the Babylon of chapter 10 and the Babel of chapter 11 are the same word. Exactly the same word, not just sharing a root, but exactly the same - Bet-Bet-Lamed.
  • In a pattern that is to be repeated throughout the Old Testament, and indeed, human history on scales both great and small, punishment does not bring about permanent change. It has some immediate effects, but as time increases, past punishments lose their motivating impact. The first generation may be more-or-less permanently corrected, but sin creeps in to the second, and subsequent generations don't have any experience of the correction. It's just a story. Some are better preserved and more obviously true than others, as Edmund Burke said, "example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other."
  • Also, a "fallen" mankind, infected with "original sin," can not avoid continuing to sin.
  • The story of the tower of Babel has a particularly unflattering portrait of God.
    And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
    We know that God is a "jealous" God (and I'll discuss that when I get to that usage), but rather than a punishment, this actually reads as a preemptive strike against a presumptive foe. As if mankind actually represents a threat to God's sovereignty.
  • The postdeluvian numbers have changed significantly. In the genealogy from Adam to Noah, the sons were born to fathers aged 65 to 180. From Shem to Abram, the typical ages are 29-35. Shem was 100 and Terah was 70, but the rest are at what we would now consider typical ages for first children.
  • Terah had three sons - Abram, Nahor and Haran. But Haran is clearly both a person (the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Abram, father of Milcah and Iscah) and a place ("they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.")
  • If the relationships are correct and complete (that is, there aren't intervening generations or unnamed persons involved) then Nahor married his niece. Obviously, this long predates the Levitical laws in which that would be forbidden. And I don't know when humanity would have grasped the biological fact of the problems associated with close blood relatives procreating.

Proverbs 4

I'll be honest - I'm not certain that I could tell chapter 3 and chapter 4 apart. As I said last time, there are an enormous number of individual "sayings" in this book, and many of them are saying exactly the same thing. Sometimes, the words are a little bit different, or ordered a little bit differently, but it would take a far more detailed examination of the book than I'm likely to do, including source and textual criticism, to wring out any more than the surface meanings.

For example, consider this passage from chapter three:
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
and this one from chapter four
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.
Not exactly the same, true. But not very different, either. It's hard to say that we've seen anything in these last two chapters other than exhortations to wisdom. Which is all well and good, and obviously it's better to be wise than otherwise1, but once you've acknowledged that, are the additional poetic exhortations really helpful?

I suppose that this is a form issue. One of the things that we need to remember is that we're not reading Proverbs - we're reading an English translation of a 2500-3000 year-old Hebrew text. A text that was composed at a time when the printing press was not available. Many (most? all?) of the Old Testament books are arranged in verse form, rhythmic and/or rhyming to facilitate memorization. They are designed to be sung or chanted and memorized. So much of what we see as excessive poetry, excessive verbiage, is probably there to structure the message. In current parlance, it's formatting.

1 - Which puts me in mind of what I once saw referred to as Carson's Law: "It is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick."

2 - And, like chapter three yesterday, here is chapter four in paragraph form:
Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law. For I was my father's son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me,

Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.

Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings; and the years of thy life shall be many. I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths. When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble. Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.

Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away. For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.

But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble.

My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.

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