14/23:- Reading "Ecclesiastics": Criticism

 There is another level of analysis that can be applied to “Ecclesiastes”. That has to do with how an audience is to take a document, what it will make of it. That is not an empirical question of reader response. It is a question of what a reader who knows something about life as well as literature and criticism will say about a document that takes a particular slant on life, the reader providing the document with the context of life rather than just the context of other literature. A critic’s own sense of life stands in for the common understanding of mankind of its position in the universe. And that, of course, is what has been expected of criticism at least since Dr. Johnson: not just to look at the aesthetics of the work but to evaluate in the context of what a well schooled intellect and a well developed soul will say about whether or not it is humbug or wisdom or any of the stages in between that have been invented by humankind and characterized by critics in terms of ideologies propounded, emotions exposed, stances taken, and so on.

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13/23- Reading "Ecclesiastes": Genre and Translation

What does it mean for desacralization to be completed? One suggestion is that happens when all the little twinkles in the universe that betoken a god have been snuffed out. No more angels; no more miracles. In that case, the task was accomplished by Leibnitz. Another way to think about it is when the idea of cause with its attendant idea that everything needs a cause is also abolished. In that case, Spinoza can be said to have accomplished that. A third view is that desacralization is accomplished when the universe is rid of purpose because that spells the end of not only gods and causes but also of even a functional plan for the universe, a final cause for it. That situation is already described within the Bible. “Ecclesiastes” is the statement of that nihilistic situation which is to be distinguished from the usual renditions of atheism which are willing to accept that there is some wholeness to the universe, just that it does not contain a presiding deity. The difficulty of coming up or even expressing such an extreme position requires the deployment of a number of ways to read a text.

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12/23- The Ten Commandments

The giving of the law on Mount Sinai is as momentous as the parting of the Red Sea even though it might seem to be different because the people might not think they need the law while they certainly knew that they could get across the Red Sea only if there were some sort of miracle. God again solves a problem, but only in extremis and at the last minute. These people could all have perished in the desert or at least have ceased to be recognizable as a people. So some may think that the Ten Commandments are natural in the sense that they are the rules of the road that any people would come up with, the fundamentals of any legal code. But not according to “Exodus”.  They are a particular code not so much in their content as for their categorical nature that associates on a general level issues of torts (not to want someone else’s property) with matters that are criminal (such as the prohibition against murder). And they have been imposed on the Israelites rather than discovered by them, yet another indication that this god is the God of the unnatural, of what is contrary to nature. Law does not “naturally” arise out of its functionality or as a reflection of reason but, according to “Exodus”, has to be imposed on people because they will not otherwise accept it and because it will not otherwise occur to them as a necessary part of going about the business of life.

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11/23- The Horseless Israelites

Only the Egyptians have horses in “Genesis” and “Exodus” though Canaanites do have horses in “Deuteronomy”. (No wonder the people of Israel were reluctant to embark upon an invasion of the Promised Land.)  Solomon had horses, but he is the possessor of what is supposedly a great kingdom. The domestication of horses is therefore the sign of great military power as well as of an advanced civilization. Wendy Doniger reminds us of this in her recent “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. She makes a big deal of the importance of horses, both for commerce and conquest and also as religious sacrifices. By that standard, the Israelites of the Five Books of Moses must be regarded as an inferior people even if they are possessed of what they think to be a superior God, one which is carried around by them, on foot, in an Ark. Remember, they walked rather than rode out of Egypt.

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10/23- The Rape of Dinah

There is another way of appreciating the stories of women in the patriarchal setting if one casts aside a preoccupation with the oppression of women. The stories are legend like tellings of the origins of civilized familial relations, or at least what would seem required to make family relations recognizably current in the court of an oriental despotism such as the Persia of the Exile. How, the redactoress might have imagined, could this primitive people have moved themselves beyond being primitive in those sphere of activities recognized as being under the influence of women?  The redactoress is remarkably insightful about what makes families workable as distinctive units caught up in the larger social structure.

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9/23- Lot and His Daughters

Feminists portray the patriarchal world of the early parts of “Genesis” as one which engaged in the oppression of women. That view makes the elementary mistake of confusing setting with plot. Women do hold subservient positions in the social structures; that is taken for granted by the texts. The important point, however, is that the social arrangements of tribal and nomadic life are described rather than advocated, for to advocate suggests that the arrangements are problematical, which they were not, while, on the other hand, the moral qualities of the people observed are problematical, and are therefore to be judged. That distinction made, the literature from patriarchal times has some very pointed things to say about how men and women get on with one another. Indeed, what George Bernard Shaw said was happening with the post-Victorian “New Woman”, that she was becoming opinionated and feisty and independent and fully able to handle her own intellectual and emotional needs, seems to have been largely accepted by those in Exilic Persia who edited the Old Testament, which gives some additional credence to Harold Bloom’s claim that the primary editor might well have been a woman, and certainly gives credence to the idea that there is something very secular about family relations in patriarchal times. Secularism presumes independence for women in that they are part of the workforce, make their own decisions about marriage, rather than leave that to their families, and have all the weaknesses and strengths of the other sex. Indeed, the absence of human rights or an adequate place in the workforce remains a cardinal indicator of whether, as in Saudi Arabia, a country has not yet emerged into secularism. A world of suppressed women is just what the secular world overcomes, testament to which are all the popular songs of the Twenties and Thirties that made love and marriage freely chosen rather than arranged and so the tangible meaning of a child of an immigrant generation taking his or her place among the modern people of America.

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8/23- A Moral God

The remainder of the tale of Abraham and his immediate family concerns why Abraham is the father of the monotheistic religions. It is because he rejects the last residues of the pagan tradition, as that is represented by the survival of angels as supernatural creatures, connections between this world and the next, or else to the mysterious world that exists in our dreams and fantasies, and replaces it with the awesomeness of a single God who is primarily the embodiment of morality, even as morality is a two edged sword: a claim that even people can make on God and so transcending God as well as being the same thing as God, God also the personage who can demand absolute and yet voluntary obedience, which might seem to be the opposite of morality in that morality is something to which both God and mankind are bound. This sublime and awesome recognition, something beyond the mere holiness of a god, has been made vivid ever since by the story of Sodom and the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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7/23- The Nature of Angels

Angels can be regarded as an essential part of the religious experience rather than just as some pleasing but fey images used to spell out religious experience. That is because angels can be regarded as part of the lively and continuing interchange between the supernatural and the natural, and so are on a par with the idea of the Mass or the revelations still made every once in a while to the leaders of the Mormon Church. If there are angels, then the age of miracles and miraculous creatures is not dead. Angels are just one of the ways God intervenes in the world. God sends particular supernal beings to intervene in individual lives, just as was the case in pagan myths.

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6/23-Longevity

Let us turn to the other major source of information about primitive times that is found in “Genesis”: the connective tissue of genealogy. There is, first of all, a very brief story associated with the name “Lemach”. The story acts as a commentary on the Cain story, showing that the message of God’s forbearance with the first murderer will be lost on generations of people more intent on revenge than on anything else, and so the Cain story is also a false start, because its message does not become part of human consciousness, only a message within the “consciousness” of “Genesis”, as that can be misread by the countless people who will read “Genesis” and claim to take it seriously.

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5/23- Primitive Times

In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.

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4/23- Noah the Technologist

Noah was a good enough engineer, whether he got the plans from God or dreamed them up himself under the inspiration of God, to correctly execute these very ambitious plans. The plans are spelled out in detail. The ark is to have three levels. It is to be caulked both inside and outside. It is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. The dimensions of the ark are given so distinctly that they serve the literary purpose, of course, of concretizing the description and so make it as if it happened. But this is an interesting set of descriptors. “Genesis” could have said large or very large or as tall as a cedar of Lebanon or some other metaphor for size. “Genesis” does tend to exaggerate when it gives particular numbers, as when it gives the ages of the generations between Adam and Noah. That makes the story legendary: an exaggeration of what might have happened in the past rather than treating the past as having a very different set of processes than does the present, which is what happens when a mythology is created. There seems to be a different reason for concretizing here in the Noah story.

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3/23- Noah and God

 The redactors of “Genesis” were concerned with the development of technology, something that is immediately experienced, pervasive, and stands out from the natural world as a human artifact that confounds otherwise ordinary senses of scale and distance. That is true of even the creation fable that leads off “Genesis”. The creation fable does not offer creation done instantly by a powerful god nor does it relate a story of conflicts between gods that would motivate a god to create the world. Rather, as was suggested previously, it offers the set of processes that have to be performed in a particular sequence whereby the natural world, as humankind would know it, might become established.  What is more fundamental comes earlier in the sequence. The separation between night and day had to proceed the separation of the water from the land and that had to proceed before the animals could be created. God stepped back after each day’s labor to note his accomplishment. So He made the heavens and the earth rather than simply called them into being. Joseph, at the other end of “Genesis”, offers the social technology whereby the results of a famine can be avoided. That, on a more mundane level, is also a story of how to get from here to there, the creation of an agricultural surplus a process and not simply an intrusion.

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2/23- Adam and Eve

The creation of woman should not be seen as an afterthought by a God who had previously provided each of his animals with a mate but overlooked doing it for Adam. God may have thought that Adam was a special enough creation, meant to rule over the rest of it, and so he did not need a mate. But either God changed his mind about that or always knew that he would make a special creation later. Woman was a special creation so as to emphasize that in the actual world the relation between man and woman is not like it is with the pairings of the other animals; some special kind of creation was required. Eve was as close to Adam as his own rib. As a legend might, the story of Eve’s creation suggests that woman has thereafter an ambiguous relation to man: part of him, descended from him, and yet a companion to him, and so clearly something different from what happens with some other created species no matter how much it might occur to a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve that the two sexes had different natures. We can see this more clearly if we consider the type of literary undertaking the story of the Garden of Eden is.

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1/23- The Creation Fable

This is the first of a twenty-three part series on the Bible. The general theme is that the Bible is for the most part in the vanguard of those who want to secularize history. That means that the authors of the Old Testament, and even of the New, are interested in dispensing with mythology, reducing the number of supernatural interventions in history, and moving the center of religious concern away from magical moments to moral questions.

The creation story in “Genesis” is a far more modern thing than it is usually credited with being  It is a kind of philosophical presentation and so very different from mythology which, as Ovid, that great student of mythology, noted, there are always biological transformations of things even while the gods remain subject to the forces of nature and the raging of human passions. Narcissus becomes his image but only symbolically, and not all narcissists become their images, which is what happens in a fable. The creation story is best explained as a fable, which is a story that explain a set of circumstances that do not seem to be created but which somehow were at a point in time and have become part of nature. Tigers have stripes and the Red Man got baked right, neither too much or too little.. Fables suggest that there is a history for what seems natural, a sometimes serious, sometimes fey attempt to make explicable what seems not to need explanation or else to make explicable something which seems paradoxical: how something could come into existence when it already had to be there.

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