Partiality to the Poor or Favoritism to the Great

August 25, 2010 1 comment

I imagine that Leviticus is one of those books that prevents some people from wanting to read the Bible from front to back. Though it is not a terribly long chapter, it is stuffed to the gill with detailed and repetitive rules, requirements, and rituals straight from God. If you want to know…

…which type of animal you can eat (those with “a split hoof completely divided” that “chews the cud”; Leviticus 11:3),

…how you should deal with your infectious disease (“The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”; 13:45),

…what you should do about unclean human discharges (Monica Lewinsky should have washed her dress; 15:17-18), or

…when it is appropriate to stone blasphemers (whenever they blaspheme; 24:10-23), then Leviticus is the book for you.

There are many rules concerning sacrifices, doing or not doing something for seven days, draining blood, and other similar matters throughout the chapter. Much of the material may seem dated or arbitrary, but rituals are important in religion and many of the rules had a practical element to them. Staying away from unclean things or people promotes good health.

Then again, it may take a more sophisticated understanding of ancient history, religion, and culture than I possess to understand why you’re not supposed to wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (19:19), cut your hair at the sides of your head, clip off the edges of your beard (19:27), or get a tattoo (19:28).

Other elements of Leviticus are more relevant to today’s society. Leviticus is one of the books that social conservatives have in mind when condemning homosexuality. Under Leviticus, gay sex is forbidden (18:22) and punishable by death (20:13). Seeing as how as much as 10-20% of the population is gay, does that mean that a literal reading of Leviticus calls for the largest holocaust humanity has ever seen?

Of course not. Leviticus calls for an even larger holocaust immediately prior, when stating that adulterers are to be executed (20:10). That would involve much more killing, including many of those who condemn homosexuality for a living.

So unless we’re ready to kill perhaps most of humanity, we should probably take a step back from the specifics of Leviticus and focus instead on some of the more general messages of the book. Chapter 19, Verse 15 seems like a choice cut.

***

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (19:15)

It’s safe to say that our society has some trouble following this message. Politics is dominated by partiality to the poor and favoritism to the great. For example, some believe that a system featuring higher tax rates for wealthy taxpayers is necessarily partial to the poor. They believe in the fairness of a flat tax, where everybody pays the same percentage in income taxes. This viewpoint neglects to notice that one dollar is more valuable to a poor person than it is to a rich person. If the goal is to not pervert justice, then a tax system should feature a flat tax on the value of income to the taxpayer, not the income itself. This requires progressive taxation. Of course, discovering the level of progressivity that does not pervert justice is impossible. So instead, we begin at some level of progressivity and then tweak in one or another direction depending on the political majority’s partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.

Perverting justice by treating the poor and the great differently is something I’ve experienced in my own little way. For two summers, I worked as a janitor at a hotel by morning and as a legal intern by afternoon. The former required me to wear a typical workman’s uniform, while the latter required dress clothes. I noticed that, while wearing the former, I was generally ignored completely while walking the streets. While wearing the latter on the same streets, I received plenty of eye contact, occasional smiles and nods, and was occasionally spoken to. Regardless of what I was wearing, I was always the same person. Merely the appearance of being “poor” or “great” was enough for others to pervert justice in their own minor way.

Even when we actively try to not pervert justice, we find that it is frustratingly difficult in practice. Treating people equally is hard, and the extenuating circumstances or unique characteristics of a person may suggest that they should be treated differently than others in order for things to be fair. But if so, how different should they be treated?

Not perverting justice is another one of those things that humans will always fail at, but effort and thought count. I’ll always try my hardest to not pervert justice, but don’t hold your breath waiting for me to not cut the hair on the side of my head.

***

On to Numbers.

From God’s Mouth to My #2 Pencil

I googled the exact title of this post, and this was the first picture that came up.

Everybody knows about the Ten Commandments. I was not aware that there are differing views of which commandments are the Ten Commandments, depending on who you ask. To understate the case, the Ten Commandments are a fertile ground for post topics. Unfortunately, with the state bar exam a little over a week away, I will be glossing over them completely.

Right after the introduction of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 21 and the next several chapters, God gives Moses laws with which his people are to be governed by. As someone who is studying for the bar exam, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by these laws. In just a modest snippet of the Old Testament, I came across laws covering various types of murder (Exodus 21:12-14), torts (21:33-34; 21:18-19), burglary (22:2-3), defamation (23:1), and kidnapping (21:16). God demands that thieves who don’t make restitution for the stolen property be sold into slavery to pay off the debt (22:3). That’s sort of like a debtor’s prison.

The Michelin Man was taken down by an unyielding rubber addiction.

On the other hand, creditors who lend money to the needy must charge zero percent interest and return the collateral by nightfall (22:25-27). No question, the Bible is harder on certain creditors than the Uniform Commercial Code. It’s good to know that there is somebody in a position of power (God) who has not been captured by the banks.

On the other hand, a man who beats his slaves to near death is not to be punished “since the slave is his property.” (21:20-21). Not to be snide, but I would enjoy listening to the literalists’ explanation for passages like these. When I read this, I immediately thought about the Dred Scot decision. The Supreme Court of the United States came to a series of sickening conclusions based at least in part on the “fact” that slaves were property of their owners. The majority opinion reads like a dispatch from an alternative universe, until you remember that this is our history and where we came from.

This topic could be explored further, but the bar exam beckons! Bible Front to Back will be on hiatus while I cap off the process of memorizing a thousand rules and the four thousand exceptions to those rules for long enough to regurgitate them over the course of two days while hanging out in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. The very next day, we will be moving our stuff from Bloomington to Milwaukee and officially pulling out our Bloomington roots forever. Kind of like how some critter pulled out the roots of the cilantro plant that was serving us the delicious herb all summer long. If only Exodus was good law in Bloomington. That critter, likely one of these rabbits I’ve seen milling about lately, would get sent off to pay the cilantro debt.

Bugs traded in the cilantro for a carrot.

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The Doubting Israelites

We all know the story well. The Israelites were in servitude in Egypt. God instructed Moses to get them out of there, and Moses succeeded through the power and guidance of God.

One thing that stuck out to me through that process was how queasy the Israelites were in various stages of the process. After all the plagues and once the Israelites left Egypt, they said to Moses:

“Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:12)

Oh no they didn’t!

Oh yes they did! If Moses and God had an off-the-record discussion about the Israelites’ doubt, I imagine it went something like this:

Moses:  Can you believe these people? We went through a great deal of trouble getting them out of Egypt and now they’re talking about how slavery is better than being in the desert? Unbelievable.

God (slowly shaking head):  Unbelievable indeed. Well, I guess it is believable. I’m God, I saw it coming.  Still, it’s a bit disappointing.

Moses:  Do they seriously think that You went through all the trouble of making those plagues happen without knowing that You’ll provide for us once we’re in the desert?

God:  Don’t they know who I am? I think an infinite amount of steps ahead, because that’s how I roll. And in case they haven’t noticed, I have the power to do anything. For My Sakes, I made it rain hail and locusts! I’d like to see those Egyptian magicians match that.

Moses:  Haha, yeah those magicians were straight up shook when you dropped the gnats on them (8:19). Well, what should I tell the Israelites?

God then let Moses know about His plans. Soon after that, He parted the sea to let the Israelites pass, and then He had the sea swallow the Egyptians who were chasing behind.

This miracle wasn’t good enough for the Israelites either:

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (16:3)

So God made it rain manna and quail. But then the Israelites complained because they didn’t have water. A confounded Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (17:4) So God made it rain water out of the rock at Horeb.

***

Please forgive the preceding silly fake conversation between Moses and God. It’s not even addressing the correct point. That conversation was considering the thought that the Israelites didn’t think that God COULD provide for them. Maybe they had doubts. But after seeing the miracles that they saw, I doubt it. Rather, they seemed to be wondering whether or not God WOULD provide for them.

For me, the moral of the story was that things often get worse before they get better, but that God will always provide. In a way, I think Jess and I are wandering through the desert right now. I left the comfort of academic life in Bloomington to come back to Milwaukee, where I’m studying for the bar without a job secured for afterwards. We’re preparing to lay roots down in a struggling metro area, with no assurances at the moment that we’ll be able to provide for ourselves. We’re prepared to make an investment in a community. But we’re not sure if we’ll be able to afford the down payment, and we can’t be sure that the investment would be a good one. This market isn’t doing well at the moment.

But, God is already leading us out of servitude. It’s a bit dramatic to compare academic life and life in Bloomington to servitude (it’s a very nice place and we had a good experience there), but there are correlates for us. I was actually paying for the privilege of working my tail off instead of getting paid. We were away from our families and the community that we call our own. There was financial comfort, but it was illusory and temporary.

Now we’re in the desert, with no such illusory comfort. But this is a necessary step along the way to a better and more fulfilling life. When I worry about the state of things, I need to remember that God does provide. He’s already provided so much to Jess and I. Each other, loving families, good health, and an overall appreciation for the beautiful struggle of life. When I forget these things and express doubts about the future, I’m no different than the Israelites forgetting of the miracles they witnessed and assuming that things have only gotten worse, without knowing that things get worse on their way to getting better. God has gotten us this far, He’s not going to stop looking out for us now.

That was my take home lesson. An alternative to that is the lesson that God will provide if you merely grumble, which seems to be how it went down for the Israelites in the desert. I’ll stick to my original interpretation.

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Joseph and Pharaoh’s Dreams


Joseph was a compelling guy. He had the power to interpret dreams and see the future. He saw his sheaf rise and stand upright, while the sheaves of his brothers gathered around it and bowed down to it. (37:7). When Joseph told his brothers about the dream, I imagine that it went something like this:

Joseph: Man, I had this weird dream last night.

Brothers: Oh yeah?

Joseph: Yeah. We were toiling. And then, all of the sudden, your sheaves were bowing down before my sheaves. It was crazy.

Brothers: What are you trying to say?

Joseph: Oh, oh, oh nothing. Just a weird dream is all.

***

Soon after, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of jealousy. They chose this instead of killing him outright because, after all, Joseph was their brother. Why kill him when you can sell him for money? (37:27).

Joseph was able to use his dream interpretation abilities to better his lot in life. This reached a crescendo when he accurately interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that Egypt would have seven years of good harvests and seven good years of famine. That’s when Genesis taught us the value of practical long-term budgeting. The Pharaoh collected food from the people during the seven good years, stored it, and used it up during the bad years. While surrounding areas were falling apart, Egypt had food during the famine.

Our world is learning the importance of practical budgeting right now. After going through a 30 year bubble when we didn’t save much and were conditioned by society to derive personal worth by spending money we didn’t have on things we didn’t need, we’re paying the price now that the famine has hit. The fall was steep, and it’s a long way to getting back to where we were. Locally, the State of Wisconsin will have extraordinary budget woes during the next cycle because of an inability to budget for the future. Milwaukee County is in perpetual budget woe. And while the City of Milwaukee has always done a decent job of budgeting practically, it’s almost mired in a permanent famine.

Because of his talent for forecasting, Joseph was able to pull himself up in status, and surrounding countries came to Egypt to buy food during the famine. Today, it doesn’t take a dream interpreter to think that there will be more tough times ahead. This isn’t an ordinary recession that we’re going through. We know we can’t artificially pump up our economy and our self-worth by spending money we don’t have anymore. If we do that long enough, we know it’s only a matter of time before our creditors take everything we own and put us into servitude (47:20-21).

The only answer is to take some of the money and time otherwise spent on frivolities and put them into investments. Keynesian economists tell us that doing this now could be disastrous, that it could prolong and worsen the famine . Of course, infrastructure, research and development, and unemployment benefits aren’t exactly “frivolities.” I don’t know when such debt spending goes from being the equivalent to saving food in preparation of famine to the equivalent of eating more than necessary even when a famine is approaching.

Individually, the case is a little clearer to me. Like saving when times are good, undergoing a change in how self-worth is derived is also challenging in the near-term. I’m sure that not getting the McMansion and luxury car is a tough pill to swallow for people with expensive tastes and a large line of credit. Avoiding the products advertised during reality shows might leave us feeling ordinary, and force us to build up our self-esteem the hard way. Avoiding the prescription drugs sold during the national news might force us to invest in knowing ourselves by enduring the pain of our circumstances, whether physical or psychological. These are all investments. If we stick to them, we’ll outlast the famine. If we don’t, we’ll beg those that do for help eventually. But we may not have anything left to give them.

After 9/11, President Bush told us to go buy stuff. During our economic 9/11, I think the better strategy is to save and invest stuff. When the stuff hits the fan, those that invested will be the ones with comfort. The rest will come begging. Just don’t tell that to those that don’t save and invest. They might get jealous and sell you into slavery.

***

Up next, Exodus.

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The Tower of Babel

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

-Genesis 11:1-9

***

When deciding what to say about this particular passage, my mind started bouncing from one idea to the next. But when I finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I just started babbling. My initial reaction was one of suspicion. Here are these people, united and working in concert. God sees this and acknowledges that humanity is capable of anything when united. He responds by confusing their languages and spreading them all over earth. Perhaps He even decided to split up Pangaea into the seven continents just to throw an extra wrench into things.

The classic interpretation, it seems, is that humanity was getting too uppity. They were using human-made materials (bricks, tar) instead of God-made materials (stone, mortar) to “make a name for themselves.” They were defying God’s earlier command to spread throughout the earth, so God hit the reset button (albeit in a much tamer way than the worldwide flood).

I was initially impressed with the tower, and disappointed that God seemed to consider it a bad thing that humanity could do anything when united. We could use some of that unity right now as there is a lot of division in the world today, like always. The national political scene is depressingly fractured. One can check in at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s article comments to get an over-the-top glimpse of metro Milwaukee’s lack of unity. While I read these Bible stories on the bus, the color of the bus turns from white to black and back again, putting on display the confused language and scattering of the city itself.

But it doesn’t seem that the unity of humanity was the problem for God, it was the purpose. The people of Babel were going down the wrong path and needed a correction. The result was the creation of the international diversity of culture and experience that makes humanity so great. We speak different languages, but (*New Testament spoiler alert*) humans have been shown to have the ability to speak in tongues through the power of God (or Google).

Globalization has made our planet smaller. We have more ability than ever to be a powerful united force, despite all the complications of the day. The hiccup is that we have to be united for the right reasons, lest God toss us about and confuse our languages again. What’s “right” is anyone’s guess, and those who claim to truly know are inherently suspect. Occasionally, new technologies or medical treatments, like stem cell research, get classified as “playing God.” Such research, or any myriad of technological innovations, inevitably looks a lot like the Tower of Babel to a great many people. Where do you draw the line on such innovation? Heart transplants? Cancer treatment? Processed food? Synthetic fibers? All of these are brick and tar innovations. Much of what we do today could be considered humans “making a name for themselves” or “playing God.” And I’m not sure that it’s always easy to distinguish humans who make a name for themselves versus humans who self-servingly make a name for a God that always happens to share their viewpoints.

In other words, how will we know whether we are building a tower for the right purpose or just building another Tower of Babel?

I do think there’s a “right” purpose out there, it’s just beyond our capabilities to see. But if we’re able to someday unite and stumble upon it (likely without knowing so), maybe God will be pleased with our perseverance and our resulting tower will stand strong.

I hope so, because I don’t want to have to go to my backup interpretation of this Bible passage: that God is a sprawl-loving, city-hating suburbanist.

***

I finished Genesis and have moved on to Exodus. I’ll probably have another Genesis post next time though. Comments welcome, and I’ll respond to the last ones soon, they were quality 🙂

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The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

My memory's recollection of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

I sure am starting off with a doozy! Genesis 3 and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil are the basis of a great deal of religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. I had to cut myself off from a more expanded inquiry into all of the concepts involved, as I have neither the time nor the expertise to carry on such an arduous task at this time. At the slight risk of overstatement, I think this passage can be convincingly related to theories on the meaning of life and the development of humankind.

We all likely know the story well. God told Adam and Eve to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, “for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). The serpent encouraged (tricked?) Eve into eating from the tree, telling Eve that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3: 5). The stuff pretty much hits the fan from there.

My faded memory of all of the religious instruction that I received while growing up Catholic had a serious spin on this story. As I remembered it, the tree was an apple tree. The serpent was evil, and eating the apple was a grand sin, a mistake of epic proportions. I did not recall that the tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For me, this changes things.

My current view of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

Over the years I’ve given a lot of thought to what I was taught as to the Christian definition of God. I recall learning that God is a being that is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), and omnibenevolent (all good). As I went through the process of breaking down my indoctrinated religious beliefs and rebuilding them on my own terms, I did not have a problem with believing that God was omniscient and omnipotent.

But I was always uncomfortable with omnibenevolence, thinking that this was human beings placing an impossibly perfect version of a human quality onto God. After all, imagine observing the planet earth from a distance, without any human beings. You zoom into various locations and see various happenings. An animal chasing, killing, and eating another animal. Another animal giving birth. Another animal dying. Are any of these things “good” or “bad”? I always felt that “good” was something that could only exist when human beings were involved. That it had no meaning without humans, just as “red” has no meaning to a group of blind people who have never been taught the word “red.” Further, I felt that humankind’s development of the concept of “good” was mostly a practical development. The golden rule helps ensure that our species doesn’t destroy itself.

The story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil puts a different spin on things. As I read it, Adam and Eve were basically animals prior to eating from the tree. Just like the animals in the above examples, they went about their business without knowing a thing about good and bad. In fact, they did not have the capability of doing good or bad things, unless you believe that someone can do something good or bad without having consciousness of what good and bad are.

I remember being taught that, if only Adam and Eve would not have eaten from the tree, everything would have been swell. What’s the definition of “swell” here? Is it humankind having animal-like consciousness and nothing more? Is that swell? It may well be. I for one feel blessed to have the opportunity to experience good and bad in my own life. To me, it gives life all of its meaning. I consider our consciousness of good and evil to be a great gift, but a gift that comes at a great cost. Experiencing the good requires experiencing the bad as well, and we’ve had an overwhelming amount of both throughout our history.

If I’m happy that we know good and evil, then I should be happy that the serpent talked Eve into eating from the tree. Was it Eve’s fault? By definition, she didn’t know good and evil prior to being tempted. Was it the serpent’s fault? God put the serpent there and the tree there, right? Isn’t it reasonable to think that God wanted Eve to eat from the tree, just as we have to believe that God necessarily wanted everything that has ever happened to happen?

Maybe the negative memories I have of this story were a way of highlighting the gravity of the ability to conceive of good and evil. It gives us more responsibility than we are capable of handling in a perfect or ideal way. We try our best, and it’s never good enough. It can’t be. Knowing this puts a constant weight on our shoulders that will always be there throughout our lives on earth. Maybe this is what God was talking about when He mentioned the “painful toil” and the “thorns and thistles” that result from eating from the tree.

Despite the toil, I’m glad that Eve ate from that tree. Life as we know it is a blessing, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Such a thought can be easily discarded as coming from a naïve human being who can’t conceive of any other sort of life, just as a bird can’t conceive of what life as a human being is like. Ignorance is bliss, and knowledge is “painful toil.”

***

Further reading:

Knowledge as consciousness, beginning with a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil, Allen R. Dyer, M.D., Ph.D.

Erich Fromm: “Fromm extolled the virtues of humans taking independent action and using reason to establish moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian moral values. Beyond a simple condemnation of authoritarian value systems, Fromm used the story of Adam and Eve as an allegorical explanation for human biological evolution and existential angst, asserting that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they became aware of themselves as being separate from nature while still being part of it.”

Something of an overly simplistic but still useful “conservative” and “liberal” interpretation of Genesis 3.

Light-hearted amusement: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a cannabis plant (I think the author is actually trying to be serious).

Feel free to add your own further reading in the comments. And as always, comments are welcome!

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Introduction

Welcome! After years of saying that I wanted to read the Bible from start to finish, I have finally decided to go ahead and do it. It seemed like a good idea to share this experience with the rest of the world. What better way to do that than with a blog?

I’m originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I just moved back to my hometown after nine years away pursuing education. My “soon-to-be” wife Jess and I are at something of a crossroads. We’re in the process of beginning a new life in our hometown, new careers, and an eventual family. Milwaukee itself is a wonderful city that faces significant challenges, and I am pursuing a career in public interest to hopefully help deal with some of these challenges. There is a lot of worry in our lives, a lot of hope, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of comfort and confidence. Mostly, though, there is a lot of uncertainty. What will we be doing with our careers? What part of the city where we settle down for the long-term? How will we cope with all the challenges and dilemmas that life will throw at us?

It is easy to just focus on the day-to-day responsibilities of life, but the larger meaning and purpose of things has always been very important to me. I feel that this time of great change presents the perfect opportunity to gain some wisdom and comfort through the Bible.

Regardless of how one views or interprets the Bible, there can be no doubt that it is a book of great wisdom. My primary purpose for reading it start to finish is to gain a sliver of that wisdom. Also, the Bible is the central source of worldview for many people, religions, philosophies, and ideologies. Gaining a greater understanding of the Bible will help me gain a greater understanding of everyone around me.

As I work my way through the Bible, I’ll post entries one or more times per week. In those entries, I’ll highlight specific passages that spoke to me. I may discuss a passage from a philosophical perspective, or highlight a particularly practical passage, or reflect on a passage that is relevant to something that myself or a loved one is going through, or view a passage from a legal or political perspective. There’s an infinite amount of potential topics of discussions in the Bible, so I don’t think it will be difficult to find things to discuss. Comments and critiques will always be welcome.

I’m not sure how long the process will take. I’m studying for the bar exam this summer, which involves quite a lot of reading. However, I’ll be taking the bus frequently, and this presents the perfect opportunity to get some Bible time in while traveling throughout the city. The blog entries themselves may be more difficult to keep up with, but I’ll do my best to provide an update at least once per week.

Thanks for reading and I hope you check out future posts. I’m hoping to have the next one available in the next couple of days. It will discuss the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

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