Terms or Ideas to Learn  
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Week 1 July 5  
Were Yahweh and El the same deity? Was the difference in name due to different geographical areas? Did Judah and Israel have different names for God?

They are treated at the same diety in the bible. One theory is that Yahweh came from Zipporah's side--that's called the Kenite hypothesis, which has been revised with the understanding that there may have been no historical Moses. Here's a scholarly article on it, which talks about El, a god from the Canaanite Pantheon, and what we know about Yahweh.

Different authors of the Torah (more on this soon) use different names for God. J, for example, always refers to God as Yahweh, while the later priestly text only calls God Yahweh after Moses learns his name. But these differences don't depend on whether the author is from Israel or Judah (Judah does use different place names than Israel in many cases). We do know that God's name in some diaspora communities was Yahu (pronounced Yahoo!).

How can it be that people still take the bible literally? There are many fundamentalist traditions in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For these people, the bible can't be true if the facts are not true. For other people, the gradual unfolding of our knowledge of the universe (and the bible) are miraculous in themselves. I feel that people retreat into nostalgia when things get complex, and nostalgia always simplifies things in our minds. But certainly, plenty of people disagree with me!
If the curses God used to set the Isrealits free is based on factual events, how could any of that conceivably happen? There are films and books created just to prove the truth of the Exodus. For example, the Nile floods every seven years, locusts do hatch in large numbers sometimes, and snakes could be charmed to lie still and look like sticks. Moreover, Israel and Judah were clearly ruled by Egyptian overlords in the past, mainly in canaan as provinces of Egypt, but some people must have been exported as slaves (there are pictures of Asiatics (or Canaanites) in Egypt. See here (an Egyptian rendering of an "Asiatic" wearing a Hebrew Tefillin) and here (slaves with similar headbands).
Is  the original Hebrew bible still in existence somewhere? No. We have a Masoretic text that is from about 1000 or so, and we have texts from the first century CE of everything in the Hebrew bible but Esther. That's from around the time the Hebrew canon was closed--but these texts were in the possessions of the Essenes, who were not a mainstream sect, and their texts were buried for about 2000 years, so they weren't used to compile the first Hebrew canon. We also don't have any Christian texts from before the fourth century CE. A scholar named Bart Ehrman has written lots of best-selling books about the implications of our lack of these texts.
What other errors and lack of context are there in the bible? Well, lots, but that depends on which translation you're using. I mentioned my favorites--Lucifer being mistaken for a real demon in the Vulgate and "woman"being translated as virgin in the Septuagint. Another one I like is the word for screech owl in Isaiah, Lilith, which was later understood in the Rabbinical midrash literature to be a demon first wife of Adam (talk about the first wives club!). And in the King James, the name Asherah (El's first wife) or Asherim (totems commemorating her) are often translated as tree or grove. What I love is that the more you learn about Hebrew, the more you discover.
What exactly was the Jesus movement?

In the first century CE, followers of Jesus were just another sect of Judaism, often referred to as the Jesus movement. The gospel we now call Matthew's gospel is clearly written for an audience of such Jews, probably around 85 CE, and it asserts that this movement's members are the true heirs of the faith; the sermon on the mount in Matthew suggests these Jews should observe every law of the Torah more perfectly than the other Jews.

The term Christianity came along sometime after mainstream Judaism banned the followers of Jesus from the synogogues.

I should add that there were different strains of the Jesus movement; the two main ones were the Jerusalem movement, led by Peter and James, Jesus's brother, and the movement led by Paul, which was more more mystical and didn't depend on Jesus's actual teaching.

What books were in the dead sea scrolls. Everything in the bible except Esther--and lots of sacred texts, especially apocalyptic literature and commentaries, that didn't make it in. Here's a great web site (there are others).
Why do we translate El as God and Yahweh as Lord rather than leaving them in the original? I'm not sure I know the answer to that, except that it is not okay to say God's name in the original if you're Jewish. That's why YHWH (Yahweh) is always pronounced with the Greek Adonai. But Elohim (gods) has come to been seen as a noun rather than a proper name. The Young's Literal Translation and Hebrew Names bible keep a lot of the original, but I guess there's a sense that most of us don't know what "elohim" means.
Why would someone willingly sacrifice their son to show they worship a God?

As we discussed in class, that may be the most debated question there is about the bible. Here are some good discussions:

  • Wikipedia
  • Kierkagaard, Fear and Trembling
  • Spiegel, The Last Trial
  • Akedah in Jewish Literature

I should also point out that there's a midrash that tells us that Abraham did sacrifice Isaac, and that act is symbolic of the martyrdom of the Jews throughout history. There's some basis for this belief: Textual scholars believe the last-minute rescue of Isaac by an angel was added by a redactor or editor who found the idea of child sacrifice--very clearly a real thing in the ancient near east (see the story of Jepthah's daughter, for example)-- unacceptable.

How literally true was the story of Ruth? Most non-fundamentalist scholars read the story as fiction--partly because of the symbolic or allegorical names, partly because of the late language, partly because of the "once upon a time" beginning, partly because of factual inaccuracies.
Was Ruth really David's ancestor? We aren't really sure if there was a David, let alone a Ruth. But there is often a core of truth in many oral folktales.
Where do you stand spiritually? I love reading the bible. I admire many traditions and try to behave in an ethical manner. But I never joined a sect, and I'm more of a seeker and questioner right now.
If heaven and hell were not part of the Jewish faith, why worship anyway?

This is such an interesting question. Until late in the second temple period, most Jews didn't believe in an afterlife, so their worship was about finding meaning in this life. It wasn't a trial for the next life. Sheol, the word closest to hell in Hebrew, meant the pit. Gehenna, which is translated as hell in the New Testament, was a suburb where people burned garbage and apparently sacrificed children as well. It may have smelled bad, like Canton because of the paper plant. And there was a phrase "the bosom of Abraham" or "lay with his ancestors" but nothing close to heaven. Though some Old Testament translations use the word "heaven" in Genesis, the real word was sky or dome or waters above or firmament.

But some Jews in the late second temple period startied to talk about a resurrection of sorts; at first this was a kind of second coming or "Day of Yahweh." Daniel refers to it, and it's a standard element of apocalyptic literature. Probably one of the most influential views of the afterlife was in the book of Enoch (didn't make it into the bible) and Revelation (at the end of the New Testament). Enoch was probably a source for ideas about purgatory too, which is not a biblical notion.

Is Ruth progressive for taking charge as a woman, or do her forward actions consitute sexual assault?

There is lots of disagreement about what this means, among Jews and Christians. Here, for example, is a discussion of the "sex" argument.

As for whether Ruth was heroic or loose, I suggest looking at this list of popular commentaries, and comparing a recent commentary by a woman with an older commentary by a man. The responses are fascinating.

Why do we not have a specific idea of what these stories mean? I think the problem, or gift, is that we have millions of ideas. For better or worse, we all read differently, and now that we can't burn people at the stake for disagreeing with "orthodox" views, it's hard to back to a single way of reading. Ruth means different things to Jews than to Christians, and of course, your political perspective comes in too. Then, too, considering a text from the point of view of its original audience would be different than thinking about it today. For example, here is a list, shared above as well, for popular commentary about ruth since 1965.
What exactly is the ancient Hebrew alphabet like? Are there words/phrases like Chinese, or letters like English?

Hebrew has an alphabet (letters) like English does. The letters contain some pronunciation clues too. Both these alphabets are probably descendants of the Phoenician alphabet. In ancient Hebrew texts, scribes wrote consonants only, no vowels. Biblical Hebrew is like no modern language, and it isn't spoken anywhere, though it's taught and performed.

Modern Hebrew is still spoken, however. "Hebrew in its modern form is spoken by many of the seven million people in Israel. Yiddish (ייִדיש yidish or אידיש idish, literally "Jewish") is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages."

How are Tamar and Judah's shack up considered incest? According to scripture they are daughter-in-law and father-in-law?

This is complex. As we discussed, Tamar had a right to expect a "levirate marriage" to one of her husband's kin (preferably a brother) because she didn't have a child from her marriage. Closely connected to this is a law called Goel. These practices are sanctioned in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 (I didn't remember it; I just looked it up).

However, sex with one's son's wife is explicitly forbidden in Leviticus (see the 613 Mitzvot--commands--about whom you can't have sex with). The people you could have sex with are not encoded, but one can draw conclusions from the stories. Still, people seem to have practised levirate marriage until at least the first century CE. By the time the Talmud was finished around 500 CE, the practice was no longer accepted.

People reconcile these contradictions one of two ways. One is that the instance in Leviticus was the rule, and the situation in Deuteronomy was the exception. Others point out that even though the bible has Deuteronomy coming last, it was actually written first; Leviticus was really a set of priestly rules about temple worship encoded by priests like Ezra during exile, and by that time the practice of levirate marriage was already widespread.

While Christians don't tend to take things so literally today, Catholics believed strongly that having sex with one's brother-in-law was incest because of the "man and woman are one flesh" business in Genesis 2.

If Ruth and Boaz has a child for Naomi and that line, did they have another child for their own line?

The story, which many assume to be fictional, does not tell us. But I googled levirate marriage, and a Christian named Gary North believes that if they did go on to have more children, they would have been theirs and not Naomi/Elimilech's. (I don't know if Gary North is a reputable authority, and even he wasn't positive he was correct in this instance).

A story from the midrash, which is a group of rabbinically approved stories that became part of the Talmud (set down 200-500 CE but possibly older), says that Boaz told Ruth she would be the "mother of kings and prophets." But they must all be through David, because the story concludes by saying that Boaz died the day after the wedding.

Incdentally, I found out that there are some matriarchal traditions in the bible in which mothers can name children. Cool!

What would happen if Ruth and Boaz had a daughter instead of a son? Would they have to keep trying?

This is a cool question. In England, a woman can now inherit even if she has younger brothers; that change was just made a couple years ago!

From the little I learned about levirate marriage by googling, I think a daughter would have been okay. I don't know of any bibilical instances of such a thing, but scholars seem very anxious to reconcile prohibitions against marrying your sister-in-law with the command in Deuteronomy to give your brother a child. So I think they want to make sure this only happens when absolutely positively necessary.

Week 2, July 9  
How many languages has the bible been translated into? I got this answer from Wikipedia: Full bible 670 languages, the New Testament alone into 1521 languages.
How did people decide which prophets were true and which were not?

Jeremiah said you could tell a false prophet because his predictions (usually about the near future only) did not come true. I think it was more complicated; for example, prophets often inherited their vocation and rose up in ranks; a dying prophet would choose his or her successor (see the story of Elijah in Kings). So you could inherit credibility too. But I think prophetic credibility was boosted by "prophetic gestures" that seemed like performance art: walking naked, wearing a yoke, shaving one's head, roasting shit over the fire (Ezekiel did this to emphasize the unclean diet Jews would have to keep in Babylon).

Or maybe people just listened to prophets who gave them good news. After all, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah complained that people didn't listen to them. As we saw in class, good news was often rewarded with gifts, so the prophet probably preferred to keep bad news to themselves unless it was going to be helpful.

Were women not allowed to prophecy to the king?

Women didn't seem to be court prophets, as we heard; they tended to be outside the palace Perhaps that's because kings were primarily military leaders (for example, in Samuel, the Israelites ask for a king because they keep getting clobbered by the Philistines), and so they surrounded themselves with military leaders. While we know there were female judges, they tended to have male warlords (Deborah and Barak, for example). Miriam was described as a prophet, but she was in the wilderness.

One big expert on this subject is a man named Jonathan Stokl. He argues that the bible contains few women prophets because women tended to be prophets of Asherah, Ishtar/Astarte, or other female goddesses, and the bible did a great deal to exclude these goddesses from the canon (and the religion).

Stokl argues that women were active prophets all over the near east; I'm going to have to read his book to learn more.

What would happen if a prophet spoke against a ruler? A great question. This definitely happens in the stories of Elijah and Ahab/Jezebel, but these are probably folk tales. We know Amos spoke against the monarch, but he wasn't associated with the palace or any prophetic school. What little I know of the Mari letters has women prophets sending warnings that an enemy is double dealing (there's a phrase about water moving under straw). But the Mari letters to King Zimri-Limare just about the only surviving original archives dealing with this subject, and they were in the king's possession (probably he hid them). I'm thinking he wouldn't have received letters that were unflattering--too dangerous for the prophet.
How did Jeremiah become a deuteronomist? Did he just wake up one morning? My sense is the prophesy, like the priesthood, was an inherited profession, though I'm not sure about that. When Jeremiah says he's a son (ben) of Hilkiah, he means he's part of that school and/or a biological son. Hilkiah was the high priest under Josiah who "found" the book of Deuteronomy and began to institute deuteronomistic reforms, so it makes sense that his son/disciple would do the same. The deuteronomists interpreted all bad things as resulting from disobeying the laws of Deuteronomy (the other Torah books probably hadn't been set down yet).
How is it that such a small religion that by all rights should have been wiped out went on to become the most popular religion in the world? Is it the universality of exile/imprisonment, or was it just expertly sold?

The short answer is that Constantine needed a religion to unite the Roman empire in the 4th century CE, and he picked Christianity and imposed it on everyone. That accounts for Christianity's 2.1 billion followers as well as Islam's 1.3 billion (Islam came out of former empire territory).Judaism is way down in twelfth place.

Christianity may have outlived other forms of Judaism because it was expertly sold (Paul went everywhere with it, and he made conversion quite easy compared to other religions and forms of Judaism). Christianity welcomed women, which helped, and it didn't require any elaborate or secret conversion rituals.

Why this particular Yahwist faith as the source for all others? I don't know, but I would guess these factors gave it an edge: The diaspora allowed it to travel beyond territorial boundaries; it was written down and presented with history and coherence; it emphasized community over monarchy; and being among the chosen people was appealing. Plus the first-century synagogues were fun gathering places. That's my guess.

How/why do people see God in different forms?

Well, Judaism was very old, or presented itself as very old, and it came together from a very diverse group of oral traditions and written records. So some stories may come from prehistoric times when God was a sky god and a warrior god. Sometimes God appears to people in visions (In Daniel, he has a long white beard, and in Ezekiel he drives a chariot and looks like a sphinx or cherubim). In parts of Genesis and Job he has a court of gods (Ben Elohim) and seems very human. Some stories of God come from folktales, but others don't.

The priestly writers and deuteronommists, who wrote parts of the bible in exile, wanted to distinguish Yahweh from all other Gods. They worked the hardest to emphasize that Yahweh had no human form.

From a theological view point, you could say that God assumes a form that makes sense to the person he's communicating with.

I was always taught that God created Leviathan and Behemoth. Does the book of Job really say God fought them and defeated them?

The bible contains lots of stories of a primeval battle between God and the sea. For example, Psalm 89 says, "Who among the heavenly beings is like Yahweh, God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him? . . . You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm." This seems to be based on a Canaanite myth about subduing Yam (although in text we have, Baal is the one who defeats Yam). So in the Hebrew of Genesis 1, El defeats Yam by dividing the waters above from the waters below and creating a space for human beings.

Whether El (God) actually creates the earth seems to depend on the translation you read. NRSV says "In the beginning, God created." But the Hebrew probably says, "In the beginning of God's creating," implying he created the earth out of whatever (water?) was already there.

Why do you think God stopped Moses from going into the promised land?

Interesting. For one thing, Moses becomes a much more interesting character--a "suffering servant" not unlike the one in Isaiah. But we saw how MLK uses the same language to talk about his life: "I have climbed the mountain." The sight of the promised lang might, after all, be more fulfilling that actually going there. (In the original Star Trek, Spock once said, "Wanting is more satisfying than having." There'a kind of power in privation, in renunciation. Emily Dickinson once said, "We shun because we prize."

Then again, according to the logic of the narrative, Moses had the vision and the wandering. The promised land is a new chapter, and it had to be fought by a new generation.

In Paradise Lost, God tells Adam that because of his sin he will have to die. Then he takes him up a mountain like Nebo and lets him see all of human history from the fall to the second coming. It's tragic, but it ends well. And that vision is even more powerful than living forever.

What kind of specifications did Ezekiel end with?

Ezekiel ends with two boring chapters about how the second Temple should be built. It is worth noting that those specifications weren’t used—perhaps because Ezekiel imagined a kind of apocalyptic Day of Yahweh (sort of like a second coming) preceding the building, and that didn’t happen. More likely, the temple was smaller than he imagined because of expense or because a larger temple would have threatened their Persian overlords and other neighboring peoples.


Are there books in the bible we are certain were written by the people they were attributed to?

Yes, we do think Jeremiah’s prophecies were recorded by Baruch, his scribe, though not in any particular order. And Ezekiel’s prophecies are carefully dated, so either he or a scribe wrote them down as they were happening and, for a nice change, in chronological order.

Other prophetic books may have been articulated by their authors, but we know less about their actual composition, so they could have been oral prophecies collected later or, in the case of Isaiah, compiled and arranged later.

Many of Paul’s letters were recorded by scribes. The superscriptions have greetings from Paul and, occasionally, the scribe as well. Some of Paul’s letters were fakes (Hebrews, for example, was probably not written by him), and most other letters attributed to famous people (like James, Jesus’s brother) were clearly not written by them.

Was Josiah’s order to kill the prophets of the high places considered to be human sacrifice?

I think it would have been an example of “herem.” The notion is to completely wipe out the practitioners of other religions to prevent cross-contamination.  f anything, he may have been trying to wipe out the practice of child sacrifice that may have happened in these “high places.” (Still, the root of that word suggests the dead are “devoted to god.”)

There are mentions of human sacrifice in the bible (2 Kings has Ahaz and Manasseh doing it), and the character Jepthah does it in Judges. Certainly, Abraham did it or intended to do it (more on this later). Exodus 13 has God telling people to consecrate the first-born to him, and he gives instructions on saving the boys but not the girls. And the very fact that there are prohibitions against it suggests that it happened. And one article I read suggests that the real biblical prohibition was not against the sacrifice of children, but only of your own children.

Archeology has unearthed sites with many child bones in Amman, across the Jordan. Here is a 4th century image of a Phoenician child sacrifice. The Egyptians have portrayed Canaanites making human sacrifices.

If the books of the prophets were written around the same time, were any of them written in response to another or in opposition to another? You make me wish I knew the bible a bit better. Here’s what I know: Jeremiah and Ezekiel knew each other and may well have coordinated their messages. Haggai and Zechariah came back from Babylon together and prophesied to the Judahites rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple, so they knew each other. They also may been behind the community’s decision to disregard Ezekiel’s directions about the temple specifications. Micah and Amos lived in the time of Isaiah but had a more rural focus and emphasized the abuse of the poor by the powerful. Jeremiah, as we saw, complains about some false prophets and names them, but there work isn’t included in the bible. And Ezra /Nehemiah, while not exactly prophets, complained about some active prophets in the area, including one woman.
Do people still praise Asherah?

Not that I know of. There are Christians who use Asherah worship as a metaphor for things that distract them from God—money, Xboxes, hashtags, snapchat, fancy cars, etc.

However, a great book on this subject is The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai. He shows that while early Israelites worshipped several goddesses (Asherah, Anat, Astarte/Ishtar, Lilith, and others), several goddesses have made it into the Kabbala, a mystical offshoot of Judaism that probably dates from the 12th century CE but may have roots in the Talmud (200-500 BCE). Kabbalism is still around. I don’t understand Kabbalism, but I understand there are some pop forms practiced in Hollywood.
One word in the bible that is often treated as a goddess is the Shekhinah, the indwellingness of God or the feminine aspects of God. The closest Hebrew word is Chabad (Glory). I think it’s like the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit (Gk pneuma). Milton called it Urania, combining the Greek concept of inspiration with the holy spirit. Anyway, if you look at Wisdom’s descriptions of her origins with God in Proverbs 8 (I think), that’s another way of thinking about the Shekhinah. (The Hebrew word for Wisdom was feminine, but the Greeks chose a masculine concept, Logos, and understood the Logos to be Jesus, the incarnation of God.)

Marian (from Mary) worship is pretty popular in many countries where Catholicism has been possible historically. For a good example, see the Litany of Loreto.

Of course, there are some “neopagan” and Wiccan traditions that have revived several goddesses, especially Isis (Ishtar), Venus, Artemis, etc, and they have appropriated some Hindu goddesses as well.

You said Deuteronomy was performed. Does that mean people would go to the town square and perform/ read them aloud?

We know from Ezra-Nehemiah that Deuteronomy was read aloud. There's some belief that it would have been performed musically (example, Deuteronomy 31.16-22, which Yaheh calls "this song" in 31.19) which is why Cantillation (Wikipedia article contains some audio examples) emerged in the 1970s, to create a kind of musical way of reading the text (works from the Torah would be read in a major key, and works from the prophets in a minor key).

James Watts wrote an article called performing the Torah from which I take this quote: "In Deuteronomy 31, Moses
instructs the Levites to “read this law before all Israel in their hearing” every seven years at Succoth
(Deut 31:9-11). Later biblical books portray this occurring on at least three occasions: Joshua reads “all the words of the law” to the people after crossing the Jordan and conquering Jericho and Ai (Josh 8:34- 35); King Josiah has the law, recently rediscovered, read before the people at Passover (2 Kgs 22-23); and Ezra reads and his “book of the law of Moses” and has the Levites interpret it to the assembled Jerusalemites of the Persian period (Neh 8). So the Bible both stipulates and models the performance of
the text of Torah in a particular way: as an oral reading of the entire document to all the people of Israel."

Here's a nice cantillation of Lamentations, and here's one of my favorite settings, from the English renaissance.

How regularly do contradictions occur in the bible?

I would say too often to count, especially because we aren’t always sure what the bible is saying. For example, take this crux in Deut 32: “When the Most High[b] apportioned the nations,/     when he divided humankind,/ he fixed the boundaries of the peoples/ according to the number of the gods;/ the Lord’s own portion was his people,/  Jacob his allotted share.” Here “Most high” is El-yon, Lord is Yahweh, and “gods” (ben adam) is sometimes translated Gods and sometimes Israelites.  Some people think this means El and Yahweh are two different gods (El divides up the nations and Yahweh gets the Israelites) which would contradict the statement that they are the same god; others read this as just a parallelism, where God divides up the nations and keeps the best for himself. So on a basic level we don’t know how to translate this passage.

Do people argue that there is no original bible because of adaptations made for other cultures? If I understand the question correctly, yes, there are people who say that we can’t know what the earliest texts said because we have later drafts and we assume some changes must have been made for different audiences. Since we know that the Dead Sea scrolls text of Jeremiah, for example, is not the same as the MT text of Jeremiah, we know that either they diverged somewhere or that they were never the same. We know that the Torah the Samaritans had was not exactly the same as the one the Judeans had, and that may not have been the same as the Torah that the Elephantine community in the Nile had. (I don’t think anyone made changes in the bible for Catholic countries that venerate Mary, but it does seem that Christianity could be adapted a bit for those communities, but then, even in the U.S. we have hundreds of different sects of Christianity.)

In the same way, the New Testament gospels we have are centuries older than the original texts, which were themselves written 30-50 years after Jesus died. We know people in different communities in the empire  had different versions of the texts, too. The best we can do is try to imagine what the oldest texts might have looked like. It’s worth noting that in Shakespeare scholarship, the effort to figure out what Shakespeare himself actually said has been given up; we now realize that’s a futile effort, and maybe not even the right question to be asking.
If David and his family are cursed, why would Jews try to restore their line to a throne in Jerusalemn?

This is a great question, and I don’t feel equipped to answer it. But I’ll guess that it has to do with two things:

  1. The legendary David ruled at a time when Israel/Judah as people imagine it was at its greatest size and power. We learned that none of that may have been real; the legend of David may have been a “nation-building story,” meaning it was created to give a common glorious past to a diverse set of people in order to see themselves as a single nation.
  2. David was specially beloved by God—he was God’s original chosen king, who had a way of playing favorites. So bring back someone from his line means finally winning back God’s favor.
Why do you think God stopped Moses from going into the promised land? I think many stories in the bible were written to model suffering, endurance, and martyrdom. I think the gospel of Mark was written at the height of the Roman seize of Jerusalem to model to Jesus’s followers how to die. So I think Moses outside of Jerusalem models Jewish history after the exile—always looking ahead toward the promised land but never arriving. That’s how the Hebrew bible (as opposed to the Christian Old Testament) ends—with Cyrus’s command to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. So the temple is always and forever “still out there..” In class, we talked about longing and how much more profound a feeling it is than joy. So that’s my take on it, for what it’s worth!
What if you didn't have livestock to sacrifice?

Hmm--good question. I know that there was also a tradition of offering first fruits of your vines--Cain offered that in Genesis, but of course God didn't really care for that offering.

But you are probably asking what happens if you don't have any way of purchasing livestock to "redeem" your first-born child? You do not. You can sacrifice grain or even birds. I found the answer to this in a great handout by William Gilders, who teaches Hebrew literature at Emory (where Jacob Wright also teaches). I'm going to quote his long explanation about the kinds of offerings:

"A key fact to note (which I will discuss below) is that sacrifices were made with the mediation of priests, who had exclusive access to the sacrificial altar.

  1. Burnt Offering (Hebrew, ‘olah; lit., “ascending offering”) (Lev 1; 6:8-13). This could be a herd
    or flock animal (bull, sheep, or goat) or a bird (dove or pigeon). The defining feature of this sacrifice was that the whole animal or bird was burned in the altar fire. It was, therefore, the
    most extravagant sacrifice.
  2. Grain Offering (Hebrew, minhah; lit., “gift”) (Lev 2; 6:14-23). This was an offering of fine flour or unleavened baked goods, mixed with oil. A handful of the offering was burned (with incense) in the altar fire. The rest went to the priests.
  3. Sacrifice of Well-Being/ Fellowship Offering (Hebrew, zevah shelamim) (Lev 3; 7:11-35). A
    herd or flock animal could be offered. Innards (fat, kidneys, and part of the liver) were burned
    in the altar fire. Most of the animal was eaten, divided between the priests and the offerer. This sacrifice was, therefore, associated with feasting. As the name suggests, it had a strongly
    positive character.
  4. Sin Offering/Purification Offering (Hebrew, hatta’t) (Lev 4:1 – 5:13; 6:24-30). This sacrificial offering dealt with various forms of disruption in the relationship between human beings and
    God. The specific type of offering depended on the identity and status of the person who required it. The chief priest, for example, had to bring a bull, while ordinary Israelites brought a
    female goat or lamb; those who were too poor to afford a goat or sheep could offer birds; an offering of grain flour was acceptable from the very poor. In the case of the animals, innards
    were burned in the altar fire; the rest of the animal was sometimes eaten by priests, sometimes
    disposed of by burning away from the settlement.
  5. Guilt Offering (’asham; lit., “responsibility”) (Lev 5:14 – 6:7; 7:1-10). This offering dealt with distinct categories of wrong-doing that disrupted the divine-human relationship, for example, unintentional desecration of sacred things. The prescribed sacrifice was a flock animal."
If Judah thinks they were defeated because of apostacy (not following Yahweh & Deuteronomy), did they think the Babylonians did something right for Yahweh to use them? My sense is that the Babylonians, like everyone else on earth, were thought to be irrelevent. They are tools Yahweh uses to punish his chosen people. Now, this notion changes when Yahweh begins to be perceived as a universal deity, but my sense is that Marduk looked after the Babylonians. But I feel sure they believed Yahweh was more powerful and could have kicked Marduk's ass if he wanted to.
People feared to break the commandments in the OT. Why in the new testament do they ignore them?

Well, that depends on the gospel. Matthew's gospel says that the Jesus movement, as the chosen of the chosen people (the "right" Jews), should obey all the commandments: "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law [Torah] until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Mark's gospel has Jesus saying said you only had to follow two commandments: The Shemah plus "love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians throws out the Shemah. John says you just need to "love one another."

One argument is that all the commandments are contained in "love one another" or "love your neighbor as yourself" (which was actually a teaching of Rabbi Hillel). Paul said in Romans that if you have faith God will guide you to do good so you don't need the laws. (I'm oversimplifying, of course).

How did that happen? Well, the short answer is that the writers in Jesus's time had a very different kind of education from that of the writers in the time when the commandments were set down. They were more cosmopolitan and better read. But I also think they were writing after the second temple had been destroyed, so they were all trying to redefine what it meant to worship Yahweh. And unlike most Jewish sects, Paul's Jesus movement was trying to make conversion easier.

Are we translating and interpreting and adapting the bible now for our age, as people did in the past?

I think it's harder to adapt it, since we have a much stronger sense that texts should not be changed and that the canon is closed.

But we're definitely interpreting it and translating it. Dynamic equivalence translations are more likely to "interpret" by losely translating. This Wikipedia page has a long list of just the most prominent sects of Christianity (and that doesn't include Judaism and Islam). I would guess that each of those sects reads the bible differently. Every minister and scholar and reader probably does. It's mind boggling.

Moreover, I think we need to interpret, and sometimes that means facing the fact that some laws don't work for us. Almost nobody argues we should have slaves because the bible did. We live in different times. (For more, see this guy, who spent a year trying to obey all 613 laws).

Was there no resistance to the changes when the Greeks came? Or were all the people of Jerusalem like, "yah, okay. Whatever"?

The coming of the Greeks was arguably a greater crisis for Judaism than that of the Babylonians. One problem was that second temple Jews worshipped only one God; Greeks tolerated any worship as long as you also worshipped the emperor AS a god. Both Daniel and Macabbees tell about the horror they felt when the Greeks erected a statue of Antiochus II in the Temple. The Jews were horrified by the naked gymnastics, the secular culture, and more.

But there were other Jews that wanted to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by Greek schools, plays,and philosphy. Ben Sirach inaugurated an important tradition by trying to harmonize Greek philosophy with Hebrew wisdom, with the result that New Testament authors were influenced by ideas like reincarnation, eternal life of the spirit, gnosticism, and more.

As we'll see, the divisions that sprung up in Judaism never really healed. By the time of the temple's destruction in 70 CE, Judaism was diverse, fragmented, and extremely contentious. Some sects were militaristic (again,see Macabees) while others were peaceful. Apocalyptic works they wrote insisted on the rightness of one sect and the damnation of all others. For more on this, you might want to watch part 3 of the Kingdom of David film.

If men sent away their foreign wives, was that considered a divorce, and could they marry again? I ordered a book about this subject, which contains a chapter called "Divorce, marriage, and family in second temple judaism" by John Collins. If anyone knows the answer to this it is probably him. More soon.
Do you think the bible is still relevant to American society? Well, that question is loaded! I think the bible is very important to a lot of people in America--moreso perhaps that lots of other countries. When I say that, I mean that America has a great many fundamentalist Christians. But in church, I do think we tend to take the bible out of context sometimes--and in the Hebrew bible, people complained about that too. Jewish prophets often fault those who respect the letter of the law over its spirit. I am moved by the bible's importance in people's lives. But I think we have to have permission to put old problems in a modern context, to interpret, to respectfully disagree. My own sense is that the core of the bible is a message about love and care for the powerless, so when people use it to justify power or oprression, I think they're reading it wrong. IMHO
What "secret knowledge" do we have today that is controversial?

I know that the government keeps some things classified. I know too that there are lots of books in the Vatican the public has never seen, but I think it's probably covering up only dark chapters of its own history (I don't put much stock in the Da Vinci code).

What always amazes me is how much information is available that people choose to disregard. For example, most people don't even read the bible and yet they say they base their lives on it. When they find something they don't like, they just dismiss it as metaphorical.

In the same way, people reject science but they embrace its conveniences. Recently, it's been politically expedient for politicians to use terms like "fake news" to keep us from believing what is right in front of us. No, we don't have secrets. We just have people telling us not to believe what we know. (IMHO).

How much did Persian religion influence Judaism (and Christianity)?

The religion of Persian (what we would call Iran today) influenced both Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) a whole lot. Scholars believe our ideas about a good god and a bad devil come from the dualism of Persian Zoroastrianism (the good Persian God was Ahura Mazda, and the bad demon is Ahriman). I'm quoting Wikipedia here, for what it's worth: "Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over the evil Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation— even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to "darkness"—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda, returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time, a savior-figure (a Saoshyant) will bring about a final renovation of the world (frashokereti), in which the dead will be revived."

If you read that quote, you'll see it's not so different from the apocalyptic ideas we start to see in the Persian period (Daniel, for example, but also the apocalyptic Day of Yahweh predicted by many prophets). It's not a big leap to Christian ideas of resurrection.

Speaking of Christians, it is Christians who first take up the idea of a devil figure. As we'll learn when we read Job, the Hebrew bible had no devil figure. Lucifer is just a Latin misreading, and The Satan (the adversary) was just one of the servants (or sons) of God. Genesis does mention some deity-human hybrids (kind of like the Greek Titans) whom God seemed to want to wipe out of existence. Elaine Pagels, who wrote The Origin of Satan, thinks the Persian demon comes to preside over all the "false prophets" and wrong sects of Judaism that other Jews wanted to see in hell. It's the Christians who combine that figure with The Satan to get the devil we have today.

Persian religion also gives us angelic figures that become important in books like Daniel and the New Testament. They may combine Persian "yazatas" with prophetic "malachi" or messengers. Some earlier biblical sources also have a term called "ben elohim" (sons of God") which some thought were angels but which were probably initially just part of the pantheon.

Why does the bible use repetition so frequently?

In my answer, I'm going to distinguish stylistic repetition from doublets, which we'll talk about when we get to Genesis. Stylistic repetion is a musical or poetic device that's pleasing to the ear, like the modern musical refrain: "Aint no mountain high enough, aint no valley low enough, aint no river wide enough..." Classical Latin Rhetoric listed hundreds of repetitive tropes that were pleasing to the ear, like inverted repetition (chiasmus): "fair is foul and foul is fair," anadipolosis--"The love of wicked men converts to fear/ That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both/ To worthy danger"; anaphora, alliteration, and rhyme all use that principle. Here's two bible verses that use chiasmus: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them" or "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

One the other hand, the bible has an annoying way of just repeating things it just said. Since the 1800s scholars have accounted for this using the Documentary Hypothesis, which says different versions of the same story were actually woven together. Here's the best web site I've seen to understand this hypothesis; it was put together by PBS. Here's a doublet from Genesis 8.6-9: "At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth." According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the first part about the dove was written by the J (Judean) author, and the second part about the raven was written by the P (priestly) author. The fact that the two slightly contradict each other is glossed over.

I thought Ezra was a prophet. Is he a prophet or just a priest appointed by Cyrus the Great?

Technically, Ezra was a scribe, like Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe, as well as a priest (he claimed priestly ancestry). That is all the Jewish canonical bible says about him.

But if you are Catholic or Eastern orthodox, you might have heard other things about him, because he becomes more important in apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books and Rabbinic tradition. In Esdras, one of the apocryphal books, he is called a high priest. In 2 Esdras, which was written about the time of the gospel of John, he has a seven-part apocalyptic revelation. There are also Jewish traditions that say he wrote the prophetic book of Malachi, Chronicles, or even the bible itself, before ascending into heaven.

Why does the bible have so much negativity?

That depends on your definition of negativity. Some people think books like Ecclesiastes is negative because it emphasizes futility of human achievement in the face of mortality; its attribution to Solomon may be the only reason it gets included. Even the editors add at the end a P.S.: "Books are bad for your brain. Go outside and play!" (my paraphrase!).

The fact that the bible was written during a time of homelessness and military defeat may be one reason for its negativity, if by negativity you mean its emphasis on failure and loss. But that's what gives it its power for many of us, who turn to the bible during the darkest parts of our lives. It certainly tells us that enduring is more important than winning, and how you handle failure is more important than how you handle victory. So to me that's inspiring.

Now, what I find negative is the emphasis on slaughter of whole civilizations, as well is its justification of slavery and oppression of women. I think the colonial narrative about the conquest of Canaan is the most horrifying part of the bible; I stopped teaching it when I found not everyone found it equally horrifying. As for its justification of slavery and oppression of women and difference generally, I chalk that up to the times and to a particular xenophobic strain in the bible. Other strains in the bible counter it, so I feel free to question it.

July 16  
Is the ending of Job an add-on to make the story have purpose? Or was it something editors came up with to justify the Deuteronomist view. In my opinion, it is the latter. I know this is something scholars argue about a great deal. It does seem that the style of the frame is very different from the rest of the text. So either the ending is tacked on or, the way I see it (and I don't know) someone took the folktaleand added this fine series of dialogs within it.