Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this great talk:
Dull disciples will not light the way nor draw people to the kingdom. The philosophies of the world cannot do it, for so far as having some saving and consequential core to them, such philosophies are like peeling an onion. Perhaps that is why we cry when we peel onions.

Illustrations of Leadership II

The second leadership tip is:
Be fair to all. A good leader shows no favorites.
Both positive and negative examples of this tip come from the reign of Xuanzong (玄宗) of the Tang dynasty (AD 712-756). The first part of his reign, Xuanzong avoided favoritism by keeping the eunuchs and consort families out of politics. He also enforced economy on the court. The Tang dynasty reached its pinnacle. About the time that he turned sixty, however, after his first wife died, he became enamored of one of his son's wives, Yang Guifei, and took her as a mistress. Economy went out the window, and her favoritism of a general, An Lushan (who was rumored to also be her lover) caused disastrous results. An Lushan used his position to amass power and try to usurp the throne (he did proclaim himself emperor). Xuanzong was forced to abdicate. The resultant wars, which lasted after Xuanzong's death, devastated China. The population fell from 53 million before the war to 17 million a decade later after its conclusion. The Tang dynasty never quite recovered in the century and a half that it lasted. So in a way, Xuanzong's favoritism was the Tang dynasty's swan song.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Of One Heart (1975), 36:
The philosophies of the world at their best are but strands of truth, several times diminished. Some men are delighted to take such threads, weaving these inferior strands into tapestries in which they glory more than in the whole truth itself.

Apostasy in Judith

The following sentiment is one that we typically associate with the Book of Mormon. It comes, instead from the apocryphal book of Judith in a brief summation of Israelite history:
As long as they did not sin against their God, they had the good things, for God is one who hates iniquity among them; but when they apostatized from the way which he set for them, they were destroyed . . . (Judith 5:17-18).
So, according to this God set for Israel a path, a way, for Israel to go in. As long as they followed the path that he set, they were blessed with good things. This would have included peace, prosperity and posterity. Leaving the path that God had set is termed apostasy. It is a rebellion against his plans. This apostasy brought consequences; they lost both the good that they once possessed and they were destroyed.

The Book of Mormon sees the same pattern applying to the descendants of Israel in its times. Modern apostles say that the same still applies in our day. We should not be surprised to watch it happen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Moral Busybodies

If you liked Greg Smith's last post, you should enjoy this one as well:
Persecution becomes inevitable when time, money, or other resources are redirected to ends which the givers have not approved.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Look Back at Sodom (1975), 21:
A little mud sliding down a hill soon became a flood of filth, for when a people ceases in its pursuit of righteousness, it does not halt, but slithers even faster into evil.

Sacred vs. Secular at BYU

Greg Smith has another thoughtful and very much on-target post on the difference between BYU and a secular university. He begins by quoting Elder Neal A. Maxwell on the difference between the two and how
This may seem a small point, but in fact the opportunity for the infusion of gospel concepts confers a major advantage.
Having taught the same class at both a secular university and at BYU, I can appreciate the difference. The secular subject is the same but the slight difference in approach makes a big difference in outcome. BYU simply provides more academic freedom to discuss what really matters, to integrate the gospel into one's subject, and to make one's subject interesting and relevant. Secular approaches are so much more stifling. Having experienced both, I pity those small-minded souls who abandon the "large and spacious field, as if it had been a world" (1 Nephi 8:9, 20) for the confines of the "great and spacious building" (1 Nephi 8:26, 31). Those who want to make BYU into merely another secular university are misguided.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Deposition of a Disciple (1976), 89-90:
Paul warned about the early Saints being spoiled "through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." (Colossians 2:8.) Combine that scripture with the tardy but truthful admission of Korihor, an "anti-Christ" and a clever man of devilish dialectic, who said he taught as he had taught because he had been tutored and deceived by the devil, appearing as an angel, because the concepts "were pleasing unto the carnal mind"; and because he had so much success, he really came to believe his words were true! (Alma 30:53.) . . .

Because it is a special case, it is also especially illuminating. Classic cases help us to deal with ancillary cases. For instance, the "caving in" to Korihor of so many otherwise good people made his movement and method self-reinforcing; attachment to true doctrines dissolved before him, not because the doctrines were faulty, but for the reasons elaborated. False doctrines are carnally convenient!

Illustrations of Leadership I

The Boy Scouts, back when their word meant something, put out an interesting document called the Guide to the Boy-Led Troop. On page 9 of this interesting document are a series of leadership tips. These leadership tips are sound and there are ancient examples that show the wisdom of following them.

The first of these is:
Keep your word. Don't make promises you can't keep.
The effect of someone who keeps promises can be seen in the taking of Sardis by Cyrus. Cyrus promised his troops that the first man to scale the walls would receive a reward and this prompted Hyroedes the Mardian to scale the cliffs and invade the city (Herodotus, Histories I.84-86).

Would someone who did not keep his word inspire someone else to make that risky climb?

The other side of this issue can be seen in the behavior of Gaius, otherwise known as Caligula. He seduced Ennia Naeva, who was married to the commander of the guard, and promised to marry her if he became Emperor, but as Suetonius relates (in the translation of Robert Graves):
It would be hard to say whether the way he got married, the way he dissolved his marriages, or the way he behaved as a husband was the most disgraceful. (Suetonius, Caligula, 25).
Caligula's word was not worth much, and although he rose to power on a wave of good will inherited from his noble father, he squandered all the good will away.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
Mostly, brothers and sisters, we become the victims of our own wrong desires. Moreover, we live in an age when many simply refuse to feel responsible for themselves. Thus, a crystal-clear understanding of the doctrines pertaining to desire is so vital because of the spreading effluent oozing out of so many unjustified excuses by so many. This is like a sludge which is sweeping society along toward “the gulf of misery and endless wo” (Hel. 5:12). Feeding that same flow is the selfish philosophy of “no fault,” which is replacing the meek and apologetic “my fault.” We listen with eager ear to hear genuine pleas for forgiveness instead of the ritualistic “Sorry. I hope I can forgive myself.”

On Descriptions of Dragons

I have always liked J. R. R. Tolkien's description of the dragon in the first chapter of the Hobbit:
Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can't make a thing for themselves, not even mend a loose scale of their armour.
Tolkien was well versed in medieval lore and a wry observer of behavior. His description of the dragon reminds me of Hugh Nibley's description of managers that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Should one consider a dragon as a manager, or a manager as a dragon?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
The millions who have lived on this planet in the midst of the famine foreseen by Amos, one of hearing the word of God, have never known the taste and nourishment of whole-grain gospel (see Amos 8:11–12). Instead, they have subsisted on the fast foods of philosophy. When Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life, it caused some to walk no more with him (see John 6:66). No wonder Jesus said, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me" (Matthew 11:6; see John 6:61). To which I add, "Blessed is he who is not offended by the Restoration!"

Treaty, Law and Covenant

Last year, K. A. Kitchen and P. J. N. Lawrence came out with a massive compilation of every (or nearly every) treaty, law, or covenant from the ancient Near East, called Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East. The work is 1642 pages long (A4) and weighs 5.5 kilograms.

At one point in the conclusions the authors note the importance of their work for establishing the date of certain biblical texts based on the form and outline of the text. They provide a brief outline of the various source criticism theories and the dates that they yield for biblical texts:
Naturally, it is with embarrassment and some distaste, that we have in effect to declare that "the emperor has no clothes": but that situation is not of our making. Other people's theories and their lack of actual material support are not our responsibility. Our work can only operate on tangible data, never simply or exclusively upon hypotheses. Thus, we use throughout virtually exclusively real, physical documents, written or engraved on clay tablets, stone monuments, papyri and ostraca, or in actual early or antique MSS in libraries or museums. None were invented by us. (p. 3:261, emphasis as in original).
There is, in fact, no actual evidence for either the multitude of sources for biblical texts or the late dates proposed by many scholars. Most scholars should feel some obligation to provide some evidence for their beliefs. They continue:
Therefore, no biblicist can have any factual ground for complaints if we are constrained to present very different dates from theirs, for segments of proto-Exodus + Leviticus, much of basic Deuteronomy and Joshua 24, or of the archaic traces embalmed in Genesis. We possess and thus can present good-quality, original comparative data, all with very clear date-limits: therefore, with all respect, one cannot possibly consider substituting physically unsupported theories or wholly theory-originated "works" in their place. (ibid.)
One of the traps that disciplines can fall into is to be so wholly absorbed in their own field and theories that they cannot recognize assumptions that are glaring to those on the outsides or the margins. Biblical scholars, for example, often fail to realize the special pleading they make for their theories about the formation of their texts. Source criticism is simply absurd. While the biblical texts have been edited and probably have sources, speculating what they are is an intellectually hazardous enterprise. Kitchen's work demonstrates that.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

 From Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward (1977), 2-3:
The webbing of the world contains so many ways to clasp us. The peer pressure that advances one his first step toward the tragedy of alcoholism. The devilish juvenile dare that draws one into fornication, which unrepented of foreshadows later adultery. The cutting of a corner to avoid embarrassment that leads one to lying on an as-needed basis. The natural desire for recognition that is twisted just enough to set a soaring ego free, causing a little leapfrogging of one's perceived competitors and ending up in a hellish heedlessness of others. A tendency to hold back on the giving of one's time and talents that mushrooms into a monastic or hedonistic life-style. A discerning eye for flaws in others that soon focuses on searching for their shortcomings. Little trends later become terrible traits.

Repentance for Cain

We typically think of Cain as one of scripture's first lost causes. The readings of the Targums provide some insight into Cain's situation before his turn for the worst. Abel's sacrifice had been accepted but Cain's had not. He was feeling dejected and like he was always under his younger brother's shadow. Genesis 4:7 reads as follows (the parenthesis shows a textual variant):
If you do good, it shall be forgiven you; and if you do not do good, (your) sin is retained until the day of judgment; recompense will be required of you if you do not do good; but if you do good, it will be forgiven you.
In the Targum for this verse (which reflects a first-century Judean understanding of the text) Cain is offered the chance to repent. The terms of repentance offered Cain are:

  • He can do good. Doing good shows his repentance. Doing the right thing is what God asked Cain to do.

  • Doing good brings a remission or forgiveness of his sins. The Aramaic term here, yištabêq, is the same verb used in the Aramaic version of Psalm 22:1 that Jesus quotes on the cross (the sabachthani in Matthew 27:46), and means to abandon, to desert, or to forgive. If we abandon our sins, God will abandon them as well. Forgiveness in Genesis 4:7 is God abandoning our sins and abandoning keeping track of them. They are not retained for the day of judgment.

  • If he does not do good, his sin is retained and he is not rid of it, and it will come back to him at the day of judgment.
Cain was offered a clear choice. He could do good or not. Doing good would count as repentance and bring a remission of his sins. Or he could hold on to his sins.

Cain, however, chose not only to hang on to his sins but magnify them. His envy of Abel, who did well and was accepted, caused him to betray and murder Abel. When confronted with his iniquitous deed, Cain denied it, and rationalized it. He did not even try to repent of his treachery against his more righteous brother.

The Targum does not supply a motive for Cain's actions. The Book of Moses, however, does:
And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands (Moses 5:33).
Cain thought that being rid of his pesky righteous brother would make him somehow free to pursue his own agenda. He also confiscated his brother's possessions that he had labored to acquire. They were now his to do with as he pleased. Cain sold his soul for a few flocks.

So in the end, if Cain was a lost cause, his own choices and his own sins made him so.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
There is a legal doctrine meaning "the thing speaks for itself." The Everest of ecclesiastical truth built from the translations and revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith speaks for itself as it towers above the foothills of philosophy. Even so, most will ignore it.

Christina Hoff Sommers on Students

This is a little video where Christina Hoff Sommers talks about students today. She claims that students want to avoid argument, but notes that
“They think that will create tension or there’s something wrong with it. Well, if you can’t argue, you can’t think.”
I can understand wanting to avoid conflict, especially unnecessary conflict, and I am not a fan of argument for the sake of argument, but there are some things worth arguing about and some positions worth defending. For some issues silence is not an option.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward (1977), 9-10:
We must never make the error of assuming that the wicked believe in tolerant pluralism—in a "live and let live" philosophy. Misery may crave company, but darkness detests light. Evil people are not polite pluralists—they are predators, as Lot found out in Sodom. Hitler's hatred of the Jews did not remain a private gripe. Private immorality finally makes itself manifest publicly.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Charity I

Charity seems a lot like humility. Those who have it do not brag about it; those who brag about it do not have it. In talking about humility, Elder Marlin K. Jensen noted:
Consciously trying to acquire humility is also problematic. I remember once hearing one of my colleagues in the Seventy [Albert Choules Jr.] say about humility that “if you think you have it, you don’t.” He suggested we should try to develop humility and be sure we didn’t know when we got it, and then we would have it. But if we ever thought we had it, we wouldn’t.
I think about this when people claim to be charitable or to be more charitable than others, especially when I have never thought of them as charitable in the first place.

On the face of it, a claim that one is more charitable than others cannot be charitable. Charity "rejoiceth not in iniquity" (1 Corinthians 13:6). For an individual to brag that they are more charitable than another is to rejoice in the other's iniquity (of not being charitable, or sufficiently charitable). This observation does not necessarily apply to third party comparisons. For person A to say that person B is more charitable than person C says nothing about whether person A is charitable. For person D to say that he is more charitable than person E is not a charitable act. Besides, charitable individuals have no reason to brag because "charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up" (1 Corinthians 13:4).

In charity, the proof is not in our words---it is not how charitable we claim to be, or think we are, or claim that we will be if the occasion arises---but in our deeds. After all, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). To see some who pride themselves on their magnanimity to their enemies while treating their friends like dirt undermines those very claims to magnanimity (see 1 Timothy 5:8). Jesus, after all, did not say, "Love your enemies and hate your friends." Such is not charity.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Deposition of a Disciple (1976), 47:
An understanding of this past is essential. So many present things are bound up in that past. So many present needs will not be met without knowing our past.

Thoughts on the Bible as Literature

William Dever has some thoughts about the Bible as literature:
Today the preoccupation of many biblical scholars is with the Bible as "literature," to the extent that history no longer matters much. It is not a question of whether the stories tell us anything about actual events in the past, but only about how these stories "function"; not what the stories say, but "how they are able to say what they say." Since the stories are all myths anyway (i.e., fiction), their ancient and modern use must be to give them theological legitimacy. In approach to the Hebrew Bible, there are no privileged experts, no right interpretations, only whatever will "sell" to a particular community. Thus the emphasis of New Literary Criticism and the New Historicism advertises itself to the "margins," any anti-establishment constituency --- the radical left; the world of grievance politics; doctrinaire feminism; psychological criticism; extreme third-world liberation theology; the Green movement; and, more recently, queer theory. I regard much of this as "radical chic." Of course, the Bible is "literature" (what else?), especially didactic literature, and therefore it is more about the literary imagination of a few creative minds than it is about "real life." But I shall try to show that what makes this literature believable at all is that it does reflect some actual events. That's why the stories "work." (William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005], 72-73.)
Dever hits on some important points here, that might easily get lost in some of his sarcasm. While Dever describes himself as not even a theist, he understands some things about the situation perhaps better than some believers.

  1. Of course the Bible is literature. This is somewhat tautological. But like most literature, it suffers in translation. With most literature, we could probably say that it suffers from translation. Isaiah's use of puns is completely lost in translation, as are Paul's uses of both rhyme and alliteration. Ancient authors generally tried to express themselves in the best language they could command. But most of that is stripped away by the translation process (usually by translators of lesser literary capacity).

  2. The Bible as literature movement is of use primarily to people on the margins, not to believers. Believers do not need to think of it as literature in order to find reasons to read the text. It is those who are outside the core of belief that need to make up an excuse to read it. While the core or believers focus on internalizing the messages, those on the fringes are often on the fringes because they have difficulty internalizing the messages, and are interested in finding or concocting alternate messages more to their liking. They want to find that although the Bible really disapproves of (fill in the blank) that there is some secret way of reading the text that allows them to think that the Bible approves of their particular vice.

  3. The stories in the Bible do not work if they are not historical, if they do not reflect some actual events. As a myth the parting of the Red Sea is quaint but hardly worth remembering, much less devoting a week's worth of time on every year. If it is a foregone conclusion that the Exodus never occurred, is it really worth foregoing bacon? It is not clear why anyone should have faith in a figment of the imagination. So treating the Bible as merely literature has a tendency to cause people to lose any faith.
It seems to me that treating scripture as mere literature is a recipe for undermining faith, which is why I am not a fan of either the Bible as literature classes or of classes on the Book of Mormon as literature. Scripture is not merely literature. Yes, it is literature and has literary qualities (in the original languages) but it is more than literature.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A.D. 311

In A.D. 311 the emperor Galerius ended his persecution of Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. It was also the year he died. The edict was one of partial toleration, and there was an ulterior motive behind it. Galerius had become ill and wanted everyone to pray for him. If that meant stopping his persecution so that the Christians might pray for him so be it. What was most important, for him, was that he be healthy. It did not work. He died that same year.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Deposition of a Disciple (1976), 43:
Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him in every dispensation, and he stood ready to roll back, wherever repentance was real (as in the case of the city of Nineveh), any prophetically projected dire consequences. Not only readily but gladly!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
Contemplate two walks up, and then down, the slopes of two adjacent mountains—Mount Moriah and the Mount of Olives. Up one mountain came Judas "with a great multitude" to kiss and to betray the Master. One wonders what the walk down the mountain that night was like for Judas and which was more searing—his lips on Jesus' face, or Jesus' words to him, "Betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?" (Luke 22:48). Few scenes of pathos rank with that of a guilty Judas trying to give back the thirty pieces of silver and seeing how those who had used him fiendishly were devoid of mercy and empathy for him. Judas' soul-slide was not a sudden thing, and his subsequent suicide ranks as perhaps the most self-contemptuous in history.

In contrast, early in the morning—centuries before—an obedient Abraham walked up and then down nearby Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac: "They went both of them together." Abraham had been told, "Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest." We do not know what, if anything, the father and son conversed about on the way up Moriah, but ponder what marvelous moments when father and son walked down that mountain!

Significantly, Abraham did not see the substitute ram on Mount Moriah—until after the moment that mattered—when he obediently "stretched forth his hand, and took the knife" (Genesis 22:2–13). Sometimes the cross must be taken up decisively. There is no time for an agonizing appraisal.

His Hand is Stretched Out Still

Five times in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah uses the refrain:
For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4)
This phrase was recently cited to me as an instance of God's mercy. I can see how and why someone might take it that way, but doing so fails to understand the English, the underlying Hebrew, the scriptural context and the cultural context of the scriptural passages. There is actually a dissertation being written on this subject (see here), but I will give my own take.

Let's start with the scriptural context. The refrain occurs in Isaiah after passages wherein Isaiah discusses the various punishments that will befall the wicked. This includes having their carcasses strew the streets (Isaiah 5:25), the Syrians and the Philistines devouring Israel (Isaiah 9:12), having no mercy on the fatherless and widows (Isaiah 9:17), burning up the people and subjecting them to cannibalism (Isaiah 9:18-21), subjecting the people to captivity, slavery and death (Isaiah 10:4). So, whatever stretching out the hand is, it occurs in the context of punishing the wicked.

The English sentence is constructed to say that in spite of the punishments afflicted ("for all this") "his anger is not turned away" so that the punishments do not satisfy the Lord's anger. To the contrary ("but") the hand of the Lord is still stretched out. So a stretched forth hand, by any careful reading of the English, is a hand administering punishment.

The Hebrew is also clear on the subject. The idiom is yado netuyah [again, I do not have time for the diacritics] which means that the hand is hanging over, threatening, or bent. It is thus a threatening gesture.

Looking at the cultural context, Canaanite deities are often depicted as having their arms bent, hanging over, threatening, or stretched out. There is a good example in a stele from Ugarit, now in the Louvre (and for a better photograph, see the Louvre site):
Canaanite deity, possibly Baal (Louvre AO 15775)
This stele shows the god holding a weapon over his head ready to strike. His hand is netuyah, stretched out, bent, hanging over, and threatening. The upraised arm is the one that is netuyah. The same pose is known from statues from the same area.

Unidentified Canaanite deity (BM 134627)

A Canaanite deity, possibly Reshef (BM 25096)

This is the imagery that Isaiah is using and familiar to his audience, since there are many other examples of this sort of iconography in statues and steles of gods from Canaan. The iconographic motif comes from Egypt where it means the same thing.

Smiting scene at Medinet Habu

This is not a god in a merciful attitude.

What causes God to act this way? Isaiah enumerates these reasons in his discussion: calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), being wise in their own eyes (Isaiah 5:21), taking away justice from the righteous (Isaiah 5:23), despising the law and word of God (Isaiah 5:24), not seeking the Lord (Isaiah 9:13), the leaders of the people causing them to err (Isaiah 9:16), decreeing unrighteous decrees, and depriving people of rights (Isaiah 10:1-2). Those guilty of such things should expect the wrath of the Lord to descend upon them.

So can God extend his hand in mercy? Absolutely! This metaphor in Isaiah, however, is not an example of that. God can also smite you, which is what this metaphor is about.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Apocryphal History

One of the more revealing things about the Apocrypha is how disconnected they are with history. Both apocryphal and biblical books mention historical events, but the biblical books usually line up with actual history, the apocryphal books may not.

Consider the beginning of the book of Judith:
In the twelfth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled Assyria in the great city of Nineveh, in the days of Arphaxad, who ruled the Medes in Ecbatana. (Judith 1:1)
Nebuchadnezzar, was the king of Babylon, not Assyria and ruled from Babylon, not Nineveh.

Likewise, 1 Esdras scrambles the order of the Persian kings.

This is not to say that there are not historical difficulties with biblical books, but they are nothing like the historical problems of some of the apocrypha.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From A More Excellent Way (1967), 63 (punctuation altered):
Because of the growing uniqueness and size of the Church, it will be increasingly tempting for members of the Church to play down their convictions and commitment — to appear less committed than they really are.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From That My Family Should Partake (1974), 121:
With God as our guide, we have a guide who will never betray us, for "he cannot walk in crooked paths; neither doth he vary from that which he hath said; neither hath he a shadow of turning from the right to the left, or from that which is right to that which is wrong. . . ." (Alma 7:20.)

Dever on Israelite History

William Dever has an interesting paragraph summary of ancient Israelite history:
Political conditions were so deplorable that the writers of the biblical books of First and Second Kings approved of only two kings. They predicted the collapse of the state and were proven correct by the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C. The political history of both Israel and Judah was "nasty, brutish, and short," as the saying goes, characterized by dissension, treachery, corruption, frequent bloody assassinations, and ultimately the failure to create a viable state. (William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005], 15-16.)
That about sums it up.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Vague Spirituality

Greg Smith has another thoughtful post on those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. It seems a bit like those who claim to be algebraic but not mathematical. Most of those who claim this that I have met seem to have vague notions about being good but no concrete ideas about what is good. They genuinely want to be nice people. The term nice, however, comes from Latin nescius meaning ignorant. In Middle English nice meant foolish. The following passage from Chaucer illustrates this usage:
And somme seyen that we loven best
For to be free and do right as us lest,
And that no man repreve us of oure vice,
But seye that we be wise and no thyng nyce.
(Chaucer, Cantebury Tales, "Wife of Bath's Tale," 935-938.)
The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first definition as "foolish, stupid, senseless." The second definition is even worse: "wanton, loose-mannered; lascivious." Third comes "strange, rare, uncommon." The fourth definition is "slothful, laxy, indolent." Only with the fifth definition does the term acquire any positive quality. What does it say about our society that we prize those who are nice?

Spiritual but not religious is slogan thinking. It says that the person wants to be thought of as a good person but does not want to make any commitments, and certainly no covenants. Or, if they have made covenants, does not want to be thought of as actually keeping them. Revelations 3:15-16 comes to mind:
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
God wants commitment, not some vague, wishy-washy spirituality.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From A More Excellent Way (1967), 53:
If one does not really love those he seeks to lead, he will soon disappoint or betray them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From A More Excellent Way (1967), 41-42:
When Jesus queried Peter and others "Will ye also go away?" Peter said: "To whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." (St. John 6:67-68.) It is this kind of uncommon, spiritual common sense that permitted him to be a great follower, and therefore, a great leader. By being candid and open, Peter maximized his chances to learn by creating a climate in which he was asking, in effect, to be told if he were wrong. And, being told by one whose authority he could respect, he learned.


There is occasionally some discussion about the Seraphim. The word comes from a Hebrew verb, sarap, meaning to burn. They are thus the burning ones. That piece of information alone makes people think of fiery, flaming beings. That impression, however, is misleading. We will return to it a bit later.

The Seraphim are mentioned in Numbers 21:6-9; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 6:2-6; 14:29; 30:6. The reference in Numbers is the most familiar. The children of Israel complained about the lack of food (Number 21:5) and so God sent fiery serpents (hannechashim hasseraphim) [sorry, no time for diacritics] to bite the children of Israel (Numbers 21:6). When the people repented, Moses made a serpent of brass and placed it upon a pole and whoever looked at it lived (Numbers 21:7-9).

The Seraphim are thus a type of snake and, according to Isaiah 6:2-6, they have wings.

Here is a line drawing of an Israelite seal that shows a Seraph:

One can see the influence of Egyptian iconography on this Israelite Seraph.

Thus Seraphs are burning ones because their bites burn.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From A More Excellent Way (1967), 41:
When our relations with our peers are not open and loving, our progress is limited because the blessings of brotherhood cannot be fully felt. It is not good for man to be alone—even in a group.

Dever on Religion

William Dever, who is an archaeologist, describes his view of studying religion:
As an archaeologist and an anthropologist, and thus a historian, I shall argue that philosophy and theology are distractions. These disciplines may well be legitimate and interesting in their own right; but they get us nowhere. . . . Indeed, they are barriers to understanding. (William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2005], 8.)
Archaeologists deal with realia, real things. People who deal with real things tend to have a different view on things than those who do not.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From "Panel Discussion on J. Reuben Clark, Jr. November 21, 1972," BYU Studies 13/3: 374:
It is too bad that the young members of the Church today do not know President Clark, because there is so much about him that they would appreciate. They would resonate to his immense personal integrity and consistency. Today the young are reaching out to find those who are believable and who tell you clearly where they stand.

Living Souls

Genesis 2:7 in the Hebrew says:
And he breathed into his nose the breath of life and the man became a living soul.
The phrase "living soul" occurs throughout the Old Testament, mostly in the early chapters of Genesis, in Leviticus 11:10, 46, and Ezekiel 47:9. A "living soul" is a common trope in Egypt; the phrase occurs in Book of the Dead chapters 85, 130, 134, and 137A, as well as the Daily Temple Litrugy. By the Ptolemaic period, it also appears in Book of the Dead chapters 17, 127, and 153 and in the Document of Breathing Made by Isis.

The difference between the Egyptian use of the term and the Hebrew use of the term illustrates the problem with the verse. In Egyptian, a "living soul" always refers to a person. In Hebrew, it mostly refers to animals (as in Genesis 1:20-24; 9:10-16; Leviticus 11:10, 46, and Ezekiel 47:9), although it can include humans.

The Targum Onkelos, which is a first century Jewish interpretation of the text in Aramaic, reads just a bit differently:
And he blew into his nose the breath of life and it became a speaking spirit in the man.
The Targum alters the text so that man receiving the breath of life sets him apart from the dumb animals. Not just the ability to breathe is at issue, but the ability to talk. Communication becomes the important thing, rather than just inhaling and exhaling.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Persian Dream Interpretation

Ancient dream interpretation can be a very strange thing, as ancient Egyptian dream manuals seem mostly opaque. The final verses of the Septuagint version of the book of Esther provide an interpretation of Mordecai's dream from the initial chapter of Esther. What is interesting about the interpretation is that Mordecai is finally able to interpret his enigmatic dream after the events have already occurred.

Prophecy is often like that. The prophecy is often not so much post hoc (or after the fact) as the interpretation is. Often only after things have happened are we able to figure out that God had warned us of them beforehand, but we were too busy paying attention to the wrong things.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From A More Excellent Way (1967), 80-81:
One of the most intricate challenges facing us as human beings, as well as those circumstances where we are playing a leader's role, is to avoid intellectualizing our faith.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Amusing Item

This post, entitled "The Stupid Things People with a Ph.D. say on Airplanes," is about political scientists, but really, it is only to easy for those with Ph.D.s to fall into this sort of trap. The advice proffered is good. Most of the time I end up next to some person who works in a fascinating field very distant from mine.

On Forgiveness

Greg Smith has three thoughtful posts on forgiveness. Read his posts first.

I have one thought to add. While we are commanded to forgive, no time frame is set on this forgiveness. Sometimes the forgiveness comes, just not immediately. Certainly we should neither expect or ask a victim in an ongoing abusive situation to forgive the abuser while the abuse continues. The abuse must cease first.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Look Back at Sodom (1975), 19:
Those who had asked for tolerance for themselves were later not content to let [others] alone, since [they] strove to live after the manner of the Lord. What started out merely as a plea on the part of the wicked for tolerance for themselves later turned into a fierce oppression of others, and they were stirred up to anger against that which was good.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Look Back at Sodom (1975), 19-20:
Any man may blink as the rays of the morning first touch his eyes, but some blink and then turn with irritation away from all light. So it is also when some men encounter an individual illuminated by the light of truth.

Crucify Him!

In the book of Esther, Haman decides to humiliate Mordecai before all the people by having a fifty cubit high gallows erected in his yard upon which to hang Mordecai. At about twenty-five meters high, the gallows would be hard to miss and should have been able to be seen for some distance. The Septuagint version just has it as a wooden object. When Haman's plot is exposed, he ends up the victim of his own planned punishment. What is interesting, however, is what the king says in pronouncing his punishment:
σταυρωθήτω (Esther 7:9 LXX).
This is exactly the same thing said when Pilate asked the Jews what they wanted him to do with Jesus (Matthew 27:22-23):
Crucify him!
(Technically, I suppose it should be: "Let him be crucified!")

This seems a bit unusual since the Persians were not particularly noted for crucifixion, and the Hebrew version just says that he should be hung.

In modern times, when the book of Esther is read at Purim, the reading is interactive with appropriate boos and hisses for Haman. One can wonder, given the odd wording in the Septuagint, if the book of Esther (whether in the Septuagint or not) might have influenced the crowd on the original Good Friday. Jesus had noted that "they have called the master of the house Beelzebub" (Matthew 10:25) so equating him with the devil as they did Haman (Esther 7:4; 8:1 LXX) is really not a stretch.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Of One Heart (1975), 56-57:
The ways of the adversary are such, as men's hearts grow increasingly hard, that any who seem to have any tolerance whatsoever for the people of God will be viewed with anger by those who would destroy us.

The Devil in the King's Court

The Septuagint version of Esther 7:4 has Esther say something significantly different than the Hebrew version does:
The devil is not worthy of the king's court.
The term for devil here is simply διάβολος, the standard word for devil (originally meaning the accuser) but a fairly rare word in the Septuagint. The term is applied to Haman, as is clear in Esther 8:1, where he is called "Haman, the devil."

As one of the comparatively rare usages of the term in the Septuagint, the usage has some unmistakable coloring on New Testament usage of the term. The fact that the Septuagint version of Esther influences the New Testament, makes it worth looking at Haman and why he is called a devil.

Esther uses the term when she exposes Haman's plot to the king. In the first part of Esther 7:4, she outlines the consequences of Haman's plot:
I and my people are forced into destruction, and plunder, and slavery, we and our children to servants and maidservants and I overheard, for the devil is not worthy of the king's court. (Esther 7:4 LXX).
Incidentally, the term translated plunder is a form of the Greek word used in Philippians 2:6 that the King James translators gave as robbery and for which I prefer the word usurpation when it says that Jesus did not think it was robbery to be equal with God.

So what did Haman do that makes him a devil?
  • He was a high-level administrator in the king's palace. 
  • He plotted to get rid of God's people because he did not like their behavior.
  • He persuaded the king to sign the decree to kill the Jews.
  • He personally had a vendetta against Mordecai and tried to get rid of him and make a public example of him.
  • He used flattery to obtain his position.
  • He sought veneration from the people.
  • He sought to usurp the royal prerogatives.
  • He misused his power.
  • He tried to hide what he was really doing.
  • He denied his part in the plot when confronted.
  • He tried to force the queen.
It is also worth noting that he flew into hysterics when Mordecai was honored by the king rather than him.

Haman's motivation in his plot seems to have been jealousy. He wanted Mordecai to bow down to him (which was idolatry and Mordecai knew it) and he wanted the honor and glory which were given to Mordecai. Haman's motivations are similar to those of Iago, the villain of Shakespere's Othello, who gives the reason for his treachery as:
have told thee often, and I retell thee again and
again, I hate the Moor. (Shakespeare, Othello I.iii.364-366.)
This is repeated only a few lines later: "I hate the Moor." (Shakespeare, Othello I.iii.386.) And so Iago takes advantage since
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are. (Shakespeare, Othello I.iii.399-402.)
For the Septuagint version of Esther, as in Othello, the plotting middle management plays the part of the devil. Such devils are not worthy of the court.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Interconnected Ancient World IV: Coptic Buddhism

As an undergraduate, I noticed the tendency among academics to specialize in smaller and smaller corners of a field of knowledge. There was a spoof article circulating about Inca ruins in the Yucatan that read simply, “There are none” followed by a two page footnote. Along the idea that one might specialize in the intersection of two fields that did not actually intersect and thus have nothing that one might actually study, I imagined at the time that since Coptic was essentially a Christian language that Coptic Buddhism would be a similarly empty field. In graduate school, however, I discovered that the intersection of the two fields was not as empty as I had imagined.

In the latter half of the third century A.D., the Manicheans became popular in Egypt, although they seem to have disappeared from Egypt by the end of the fourth century. They had a program of translating their works into Coptic. One of these works was a document containing the basic doctrines of the Manicheans, called the Kephalaia. It contained a brief biography of the Buddha:
“When Buddha himself came also [. . .] about him that he himself also taught [. . .]  much wisdom. He chose his congregation [and] perfect his congregation. He revealed to them his hope. Yet he just did not write his wisdom in scrolls. His disciples who came after him, when they remembered any wisdom that they heard by the hand of Buddha, wrote it in scrolls.”[1]
According to the Manicheans, the gospel was taken
“to the east [by] Buddha and Aurentes and the others [. . .] who were sent to the east from the coming of Buddha and Aurentes until the coming of Zarathustra to Persia, the time that he came to Hystaspes, the king, and from the coming of Zarathustra until the coming of Jesus [Christ], the son of the Highest.”[2]
While we know of not a single convert to Buddhism among the Copts, it is clear that even what might be thought a Coptic backwater knew something about Buddha. This example shows that even cultures that one might be inclined to say were not in contact might know something about each other.

[1] Kephalaia, ed. H. J. Polotsky (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1940), 1:7-8.
[2] Kephalaia, 1:12.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Whom the Lord Loveth (2003), 77:
David, the mighty warrior, probably felt he "deserved" Bathsheba. But did Uriah therefore "deserve" to be betrayed both in his marriage and then on the battlefield? (2 Samuel 11:14-17).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
Conversation is a dying art that may go underground—not because it is afraid of light, but because, in certain conversations, confidentiality and mutuality go in tandem.

1 Peter 3:15 Sighting

President Thomas S. Monson quoted 1 Peter 3:15 in the priesthood session last night. I would be willing to venture that he wants us to pay attention to it, especially since he said as much.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
Random goodness is, by itself, not enough to resist the march of evil, which takes its victims without pity or remorse.

General Conference

In honor of General Conference today, here are some great quotes from the last conference:

I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs. I need someone to preach my gospel and defend my faith.(Jeffrey R. Holland)
So we have neighbors to bless, children to protect, the poor to lift up, and the truth to defend. We have wrongs to make right, truths to share, and good to do. In short, we have a life of devoted discipleship to give in demonstrating our love of the Lord. We can’t quit and we can’t go back.(Jeffrey R. Holland)
There have always been a few who want to discredit the Church and to destroy faith. Today they use the Internet. (Neil L. Andersen)
Son, would you sell your soul for a nickel? (Robert C. Gay)
Even the attainment of seemingly worthwhile objectives can bring their own dangers of unhelpful pride, where we aspire more to the honors of men than the approbation of heaven. (Daniel L. Johnson)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Whom the Lord Loveth (2003), 66:
We are free to choose, but choices bring certain consequences, affecting us and others and bringing happiness or misery. Outcomes do follow decisions, even if we did not directly choose the outcomes and their many consequences.

Godless Esther?

It has often been noted that the book of Esther in the Old Testament has no mention of God. That may be true of the Hebrew text but it is definitely not true of the Septuagint version of Esther, which has several additional passages not in the Hebrew Bible. Here is a quote from one of them, Esther's prayer on finding out about the execution order:
O God, who has power over all things, hear the voice of those who have been rendered hopeless, and save us from the hand of the evil-doers, and save me from my fear. (Esther 4:17z LXX).
There are obviously two ways of looking at this situation. Either the Greek version is the original and the Hebrew version has deliberately removed references to God, or the Hebrew version is the original and the Greek version added the piety back in.

In the ancient world it is rare for anything to be written without reference to a god of some sort. The Hebrew version of Esther is an anomaly, and not just in the Hebrew Bible.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Whom the Lord Loveth (2003), 65:
Trying to rationalize evil--nothing is finally wrong or a crime--is not merely naive but terribly tragic (Alma 30:17).

Ancient Reasons to Study a Foreign Language

In war, intelligence of the situation becomes a precious commodity. When Sargon II was preparing for battle against Mannea around 716-714 B.C., he needed reliable reports. The problem was that there was a language barrier. Then as now, having people capable of understanding the language was a very desirable thing. That is why, Kubaba-ila'i was sent to Tikrish to gather information, since the king knew that "he was a master of the language" (ABL 342 18 = SAA 5:217 18). The Assyrians seemed to realize that having someone who actually knows the language is a desirable thing, and not just for spying. Judean scribes recorded the use that an Assyrian official made of language for propaganda purposes (2 Kings 18:17-37). Knowledge of another language can be a good thing.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From this talk:
I saw, too, the realities that crucial causes often fall into the hands of those least able to champion them effectively and also that the media use people—sometimes cruelly.

A Salute to Courage

In days when it is popular to hide behind masks of anonymity, it is worth pointing out examples of those who show the courage of their convictions and salute them. Having the courage to stand up for what is right when it is not popular or when you are the only one is not just important; it is crucial for society.

One example is retold here. A more recent example came to my attention from two different sources. The secular side, retold here, emphasizes the tyrannical actions of instructor, Deandre Poole, who, wanting to "push students over the ethical line," asked all the students in her class "to cooperate in a blasphemy." Poole was following an exercise in the book written by Jim Neuliep. A number of missing and important points of the story are given here.

Hats of to Ryan Rotela for having the courage to stand by his convictions. Rotela, perhaps not so incidentally, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We need more people to have the courage to stand for their faith, even when they are alone.

The Apostasy of Sodom and Gomorrah

The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah are proverbial. Still, the phrasing of the Targum Onkelos for Genesis 14:4 is amusing:
Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and the thirteenth year they apostatized.
The Aramaic term here, maradw, means to rebel but it also means to apostatize. Jews around the time of Jesus who listened to the Targum would have understood it in that sense, but it is not clear that they would have distinguished between rebellion and apostasy the way we do in English. They seem to have had a clearer notion than we do.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Whom the Lord Loveth (2003), 78:
Selfishness causes us to e acquisitive and possessive. We also like our own marquee, be it a noticed role or a signature specialty of some kind. We can easily be taken in by the almost caressing touch of the "praise of men" (John 12:43), emanating as it does from those who occupy the mortal galleries to which we earnestly play. Nevertheless, there are merely rented galleries, and the ushers of succeeding events will evacuate them again and again.

A.D. 293

The year A.D. 293 sticks out as the year that Diocletian established the tetrarchy. The Roman Empire was ruled by two emperors (Augusti), each assisted by a Caesar. Diocletian was Augustus in the East, with Galerian as his Caesar, while Maximian was Augustus in the West, with Constantius Chlorus as his Caesar. As Mattingly and Warmington explain:
The tetrarchy was an attempt to provide each part of the Empire with a ruler and to establish an ordered, non-hereditary succession. It broke down when his dominating personality was removed (OCD 346).
The tetrarchy was inherently unstable and when Diocletian left the scene, civil war immediately broke out.

Oddly enough, through the entire period of the tetrarchy Rome was neglected. The imperial residence might be in Nicomedia, or Treviri, or Sirmium, but Rome, the origin of the empire, was a neglected afterthought. To be sure, the tetrarchy gave lip service to Rome, but not much more. But this was nothing new as Rome had been neglected for years, through most of the third century in fact. H. H. Scullard notes that "while the armies played the game of emperor-making, the security and unity of the Empire was nearly destroyed" (OCD, 932). The economy largely did and so did politics. So much for Rome as an ideal. The fact that Aurelian (270-275) had to build a wall around Rome showed that while the emperor might reign from the oceans to the stars (Virgil, Aeneid I.287), there were plenty to molest and make afraid. Scullard notes "increasing difficulties in communication, and above all the general sense of insecurity and lack of confidence" (OCD, 933).

Nevertheless, the tetrarchy had a convenient scapegoat, and they could always blame their personal failures on the Christians and use it as an excuse to persecute them. Christians ever after would remember this time as the great persecution. Their fondness for Constantine, who later replaced Constantius in the tetrarchy saved the tetrarchy from bearing the appropriate brunt of the ill will of the people. Diocletian alone would be remembered for it, even if it was his right-hand man, Galerian, who was probably more behind the persecutions.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sticks and Stones

It might not occur to readers of the sagas who see, for example, the description of Gunnar's wonderful halberd in Njals Saga that it was so lovingly described because it was so rare:
Only few people in Iceland owned weapons, usually the chieftains, their retainers and some wealthy farmers. The most common weapon in Iceland was stones. In the biggest battle in Icelandic history, at Örlygsstaðir in 1238, the chieftain Gizurr Þorvaldsson commanded his men to stop throwing stones at their enemies, because they could fling them back. (Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, “Kings, Earls and Chieftains,” in Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages [Leiden: Brill, 2011], 74.)
Sigurðsson praises the "peaceful character of Icelandic society . . . depicted in many saga episodes."  (Someone less well versed probably remembers fewer of these.) Still, this illustrates at least two points: (1) In a pinch, anything can be turned into a weapon. Humans tend to be inventive that way. (2) Fancy weapons are expensive and are prestige items. This is true whether one is talking about jewel encrusted swords, pearl-handled revolvers, or nuclear weapons.

Today's Maxwell Quote

From a talk at the FARMS Annual Recognition Banquet, 27 September 1991:
I want to say in closing a few words about consecration. You''ll recall the episode in the fifth chapter of the book of Acts about how Ananias and his wife "kept back part" of the monetary proceeds from their possessions (Acts 5:1-11). We tend to think of consecration in terms of property and money. Indeed such was clearly involved in the foregoing episode, but there are various ways of "keeping back part" and these ways are worthy of your and my pondering. There are a lot of things we can hold back besides property. There are a lot of things we can refuse to put on the altar. . . . Scholars might hold back in ways different from those of a businessman or a politician. There's an almost infinite variety in the number of ways you and I can hold back a portion. One, for instance, might be very giving as to money, or in even serving as to time, and yet hold back a portion of himself or herself. One might share many talents, but hold back, for instance, a pet grievance, keeping himself from surrendering that grievance where resolution might occur. A few may hold back a portion of themselves so as to please a particular gallery of peers. Some might hold back a spiritual insight through which many could profit, simply because they wish to have their ownership established. Some may even hold back by not allowing themselves to appear totally and fully committed to the kingdom, lest they incur the disapproval of a particular group, wherein their consecration might be disdained.