Michael Pahl, fellow Albertan and blogger extraordinaire, has posted a call for submissions for the next Biblical Studies Carnival on his The Stuff of Earth blog. I encourage you to submit a post today! This can be one of your own posts or you can nominate a post written by someone else — don’t forget that the post needs to fit into the general category of academic biblical studies.
It appears that Microsoft has committed a marketing faux pas with the name of their iPod competitor Zune — at least for Hebrew speakers. An ITWorld news article, “Microsoft Zune: Doesn’t sound sweet to everyone,” reports that the word “Zune” sounds like the modern Hebrew word for “f*ck.”
The word in question is ×–Ö´×™Ö¼Öµ×Ÿ, ziyyen, which originally meant something like “to arm,” while the related noun is ×–Ö·×™Ö´×Ÿ, zayin, “weapon.” In Hebrew slang this word became used to refer to intercourse, i.e., “to slip someone your weapon,” with “weapon” being slang for penis. The nominal related to the verb which in vulgar Hebrew is equivalent to the F-word is ×–Ö´×™Ö¼×•Ö¼×Ÿ, ziyyun.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
Hebrew linguists are divided over Zune. Tsila Ratner, the head of Hebrew courses in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London, says Zune is an unsuitable name for a product. However, Haggit Inbar-Littas, a 30-year veteran Hebrew teacher with the London Jewish Cultural Center, says while the name is “ridiculous” and close to the bad word, it’s unlikely to be mistaken.
Microsoft breaks the controversy down to pronunciation. “While we do acknowledge the similarity in pronunciation to Hebrew zi-yun, that is not the intended meaning of the name Zune,” according to a Microsoft statement. Bloggers have picked up on the difference — one humorously writing that if you say Zune to rhyme with iTunes, out pops the profanity.
I’m not so sure that the words really sound much alike, though I am not a native Hebrew speaker. I would be curious what my readers who do speak modern Hebrew think.
Inside Higher Ed recently reported on the findings of a survey regarding the religiosity of college and university professors in the United States. The study was conducted by by two sociologists, Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, and was for a presentation sponsored by the Social Science Research Council.
Here are some excerpts from the Higher Ed article:
Listen to many critics of higher education, and you would think that faith had been long ago banished from the quad â€” or at least all those quads not at places like Notre Dame or Liberty or Yeshiva.
It turns out though, that there are plenty of believers on college faculties. Professors may be more skeptical of God and religion than Americans on average, but academic views and practices on religion are diverse, believers outnumber atheists and agnostics, and plenty of professors can be found regularly attending religious services.
On the question of belief in God, the study notes the â€œcommon perceptionâ€? that professors are atheists and suggests that this view is simply not true. The following statistics show how professors aligned themselves:
Professors and Belief in God
Positions of Belief
% of Professors
I donâ€™t believe in God.
I donâ€™t know whether there is a God and I donâ€™t believe there is any way to find out.
I donâ€™t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind.
I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others.
While I have my doubts, I feel that I do believe in God.
I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.
While the study found no sector of higher education without believers, there are significant differences by type of institution and discipline. Faculty members at religious colleges made up about 14 percent of the sample in the survey and they were more likely to believe in God. While 52 percent of professors in non-religiously affiliated colleges believe in God either despite doubts or without doubt, 69 percent of those at religious colleges feel that way. Professors are most likely to be atheists or agnostics at elite doctoral institutions (37 percent) and less likely to be non-believers at community colleges (15 percent).In terms of disciplines, professors in psychology and biology are the least likely to believe in God (about 61 percent in each field are atheists or agnostics), with mechanical engineering not far behind at 50 percent. Professors most likely to say that they have no doubt that God exists are in accounting (63 percent), elementary education (57 percent), finance (49 percent), marketing (47 percent) and nursing (44 percent).
The survey found a â€œsurprisingly highâ€? proportion â€” 19 percent â€” of the professoriate that identifies as â€œborn-again Christian,â€? and they are not restricted to religious colleges. While very few professors (about 1 percent) have this identity at elite doctoral institutions, the share at secular institutions over all is 17 percent.
This is quite interesting. I imagine that the results would be a bit different for Canada, with a less belief — especially in the major public universities as compared to private institutions.
This is Mr. Kugel’s 10th book on scriptural hermeneutics and perhaps his most fascinating; for here he takes on the appalling family of Jacob in all its mingled squalor and grandeur. As he puts it, “â€˜Dysfunctional’ is probably the first word an observer would use to describe such a family in modern times.” That seems an understatement. And yet, the five episodes he considers touch on virtually every aspect of the human predicament.
One interesting result of his approach is that we steadily see how differently earlier readers interpreted a text. Genesis 28 contains the famous dream-vision that Jacob had on the way to Haran: “He had a dream; a ladder was stuck into the ground and its top reached up to heaven, and the angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing over him and He said, â€˜I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying I am giving to you and your descendants.” This passage had never struck me as problematic. But it bothered ancient readers. What was the point of the ladder? Couldn’t God have spoken directly to Jacob? And why, after he heard the voice of the Lord, did Jacob grow frightened and say, “How fearsome is this place!” Wasn’t God’s message with its promise of covenant reassuring?
The ladder itself called forth highly creative speculation. For Philo it represented the “ups and downs” of human experience. Others were intrigued by the statement that the angels were “going up and down” on it. If they were going up, they must have begun from the ground. What were the angels doing on the ground in the first place? Some suggested that they had been on a previous mission; but if so, why had they stayed so long before ascending again? One puzzle bred others. The text was a mere seed, the commentaries that sprouted from it a vast bramble that somehow, over centuries, came to cohere.
Whether discussing Reuben’s sin with Bilhah or the priesthood of Levi or Judah and Tamar, Mr. Kugel moves easily from moral dilemmas to textual enigmas; his book thus serves as a guide to interpretation as well. He analyzes motifs and explains such hermeneutic devices as “notariqon,” a method for explaining ambiguous words by breaking them down into their hidden components (as if we would gloss the word “hearth” by saying that it was composed of “heart” and “earth”). As he notes, exegesis itself became a kind of Jacob’s ladder over the centuries, with rungs capable of spanning the lowest and the highest in one swoop. His own book has that laddered quality. Maybe the point isn’t to reach the top of the ladder but to keep that angelic procession going up and going down to the end of time.
Here is an outline of the chapters from the publisher’s website:
Chapter One: Jacob and the Bible’s Ancient Interpreters
Chapter Two: The Ladder of Jacob
Chapter Three: The Rape of Dinah, and Simeon and Levi’s Revenge
Chapter Four: Reuben’s Sin with Bilhah
Chapter Five: How Levi Came to Be a Priest
Chapter Six: Judah and the Trial of Tamar
Chapter Seven: A Prayer about Jacob and Israel from the Dead Sea Scrolls
The book looks quite facinating — so much so I may adopt it for my Genesis course next semester (any other suggestions are welcome!).
Interestingly, the front cover is almost identical to another great book on the Jacob narrative: Frederick Beuchner’s The Son of Laughter: A Novel (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).
Dr. James Barr, an amazing biblical scholar, theologian, and linguist, died October 14 in Claremont, California. Students of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament will be familiar with his works (if not, they should be!). Here is an excerpt from the Vanderbilt press release:
James Barr, an influential Bible scholar and linguist who challenged the latitude taken by many translators of Scripture, died Oct. 14 in Claremont, Calif. He was 82.
Barr, a native of Scotland, taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1989 until his retirement in 1998 from his post as Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible. Upon his retirement, he was awarded the status of professor emeritus.
â€œProfessor James Barr ranks as one of the most influential biblical scholars and Semitists of the second half of the 20th century,â€? said Doug Knight, professor of Hebrew Bible and director of Vanderbiltâ€™s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture.
There is also an obituary in Wednesday’s The Times Online, which notes that Dr. Barr “was one of the most significant Hebrew and Old Testament scholars in Britain in the past century” (HT James Aitken).
Dr. Barr has published numerous scholarly works throughout his career, including the following:
His works on semantics and text criticism have been quite influential on my own thinking (The Semantics of Biblical Language is still a must read for any biblical scholar), as well as his biblical theological works (The Concept of Biblical Theology and The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality). I have also enjoyed reading his works on fundamentalism and Scripture, though I differ with some of his conclusions.
Dr. Barr’s contributions to the field will be a lasting testimony to his scholarship. Rest in peace.
The ForteanTimes (a magazine devoted to the world of strange phenomenon) has an interesting article entitled, “Flying Saucers From Hell” by Dr David Clarke, lecturer at Sheffield Universityâ€™s Centre for English Cultural Tradition. Here is an excerpt:
On the one hand there is a group of evangelicals â€“ mainly Americans, such as Dr Billy Graham â€“ who have said the UFO occupants may be angels sent by God to watch over us. The best-known exponent of this idea is the Presbyterian minister Rev Barry Downing, author of Flying Saucers and the Bible. Downing appears to be open minded about aliens as part of Godâ€™s creation and to look to the scriptures for evidence of early ET contacts.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are some members of the Christian Orthodox Church who find it impossible to accept that there is any goodness in the elusive and contradictory nature of UFO behaviour. The most extreme expression of this view is that there can be no ETs because life on other planets is not mentioned in the Bible. Itâ€™s a point of view that leads its proponents to a further conclusion: if there are no aliens in the Bible and the UFO occupants arenâ€™t angels, then UFOs can only be demonic in origin.
I personally don’t have any strong opinions about extra-terrestrials; I have never met or seen any — at least not that I am aware of! I find the view that they are angels or demons kind of silly, but that’s just my academic skepticism kicking in.
If you are interested in this sort of stuff I encourage you to read the entire article (you’ll have to register).
Even better, you can download an MP3 of a free public lecture that was given a couple years ago at Taylor on the same subject: “God and ET: Christian Reflections on UFOs and Little Green Men” by Randal Rauser, Assistant Professor of Historical Theology, Taylor Seminary (click here to download).
I have been working on this post for a week. Actually, I haven’t really been working on it for a week; this post has been sitting as a draft in WordPress as I have been avoiding it in light of the tragic events in my friend’s life. On the one hand, talking about lament is appropriate is view of such a horrific tragedy. On the other hand, more than anything else, I don’t want to sound trite. Job’s (so-called) friends did fine as long as they kept their mouths shut — it’s once they opened them that things went sideways! In my mind, this recent tragedy underscores the need for the church to embrace lament fully as ancient Israel did.
I have been discussing lament psalms in my psalms course over the last few classes and was struck once again of the importance of lament for the life of faith. Of all the different types of psalms in the Psalter, laments occur most frequently. While some of the details of their form and setting in life are elusive (at least to scholars), it is pretty easy to identify lament psalms by their tone, which is one of sorrow, complaint, disorientation, and suffering. Take the following examples:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lordâ€”how long? (Ps 6:2-3)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads (Ps 22:1, 6-7).
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me,
that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more (Ps 39:11-12).
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Ps 69:1-3).
You [i.e., Yahweh] have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend (Ps 88:6-10, 16-18).
Complaining in Faith to God
Many Christians don’t know how to handle tragedy. Consequently, they don’t know what to do with the lament psalms in the Bible. They think that “complaining in faith” to God is a contradiction. “Christians aren’t supposed to complain!” “We are to ‘rejoice always’ aren’t we?” But when we come to the book of Psalms we find it filled with complaints — and not just complaints about the psalmist’s circumstances, but also complaints directed towards God, challenging God’s perceived inaction (“How long, O Lord?”) and sometimes challenging God himself (“You have caused…”; see Ps 44:9; 60:3; 90:15). Roland Murphy has asked whether “we have lost the art of complaining in faith to God in favor of a stoic concept of what obedience or resignation to the divine will really means” (“The Faith of the Psalmist,” Interpretation 34 , 236).
Rather than understanding complaint and lament psalms as expressions of doubt or unbelief, it is more appropriate to see them as manifestations of a deep faith. No matter how virulent the psalmist gets â€” at least the psalmist knew where to direct his complaints! He or she had the inward conviction that God was there. There was no question in the psalmistâ€™s mind that God is there and that he will listen to the prayer and perhaps change his or her circumstances for the better. Lament psalms are not resigned lamentation; they do more than just whine about current hardships. They are fundamentally appeals or petitions to God to do something. What characterizes these psalms with few exceptions is the confidence that the situation can be changed if the LORD wills to intervene.
The Costly Loss of Lament
Walter Brueggemann broached this very subject (and I stole part of the title of his essay for this post!). In his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (JSOT 36  57-71), he explores the theological significance of lament psalms. In particular, he explores the question of “what happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” (p. 59) His answer to his question is twofold. First, when lament is lost, there is also a loss of genuine covenant interaction. Brueggemann argues that when the second party to the covenant (i.e., the psalmist/petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is only permitted to praise, then there is no real covenant relationship. God does not want only “yes men and women.” He wants people who are honest and real in their relationship with him. “Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control” (p. 60). I might add that such a situation only serves to reinforce the status quo and legitimates a view of God that doesn’t square with the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.
A second loss caused by the loss of lament, according to Brueggemann, is “the stifling of the question of theodicy” (p. 61). What he means by this is not theoretical questions of God and evil, but the capacity to raise legitimate questions of justice with God. I think here of Psalm 89 where in the first half of the psalm the psalmist rehearses and celebrates God’s promises to David (vv. 1-37), only to throw God’s promises in his face in the second half (vv. 38-51):
But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust (Ps 89:38-39).
The psalmist is raising a justice question related to God’s character. If he promised that, then why is this happening? In this sense lament articulates a formal complaint against God (see the book of Job as an extended lawsuit against God). Such articulation ensures that such questions of justice are not swept under the carpet. Like Ecclesiastes, laments recognize that the world is not as it should be — it is hebel – it is not right.
If we lose the ability or the right to lament, to complain to God, then we lose a vital component of our relationship with God. And when it comes right down to it, God knows our hearts, so why not be honest with God at all times? We should feel free to speak freely to God when we are walking through the darkest valley and when we feel like we could praise him forever.
Lament as One Stage in a Journey
Finally, while a few lament psalms end on a note of utter despair (see Pss 38; 39; 89; 143; and in particular Ps 88), most give way to hope. The distress the psalmist is experiencing is very real, but it is not final in the psalmist’s eyes. Parallel to the structure of the Psalter with its move from lament to praise, lament should be seen as only one part of the journey. Praise is the ultimate goal. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). That being said, we must embrace the night. We must embrace lament — and we must allow others who are walking through the darkest valley to embrace lament as well. Let us not be like Job’s friends and quote platitudes and Bible verses when we should be remaining silent and walking along beside our friend in silent prayer.