Tuesday, June 26, 2007

So what's up with Ananias and Sapphira?

So long as we've started with problematic Biblical passages, I guess we might as well continue. But first, a clarification: when I say, "problematic", I mostly mean morally problematic. I'm not really qualified to delve deeply into textual difficulties, but I figure I'm allowed to ask pointed questions about passages that seem to endorse things that are morally repugnant.

This isn't an attempt to repudiate the Bible or anything. In my opinion, it's absolutely ridiculous to hunt around for objectionable passages out of this book or that book, and follow that up with a conclusion that the Bible is worthless. By contrast, this is an attempt to expose questionable pieces of scripture that we might use to justify our own misbehavior. It's an attempt to allow ethics to affect how we interpret and assign normative value to various parts of scripture, when we usually do this the other way around.

So let's take a peek at the passage that was the sermon text at my church this past Sunday. It's the story of two early Christians, Ananias and Sapphira, and is found in Acts 5. I'll start my quotes a little earlier, in chapter 4.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"

"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Now, let me begin by saying that I don't think we should let Ananias and Sapphira off the hook for being greedy. The story obviously presents them as trying to get the church to approve of their generosity while feathering their own nest. But really, does the punishment fit the crime? So that's my first question about the ethics implicit in this passage: how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?

My second question has to do with Peter's attitude. Like one of my friends at church said, "Peter doesn't seem to be acting very much like Jesus." To make this a little more obvious, imagine Ananias and Sapphira as a couple from your church. You can even imagine some people you don't like very much.

Now imagine that the husband comes in to talk one of the church leaders, lies to him, and then keels over dead from a heart attack. When the wife comes in a couple hours later, what would you expect the church leader to do?

A. Gently break the news of the husband's death.
B. Warn the woman to be honest so God doesn't strike her dead.
C. Craftily cross-examine the woman and get her killed too.

I would hope for A, or at least B, but Peter seems to be doing C. Yep, those are the kinds of leaders I want for my church! So the second question is: how is Peter morally justified in entrapping, rather than comforting, Sapphira?

My third question isn't really specifically moral, but in light of ConcernedEngineer's recent comments - about how rejecting him is the same thing as rejecting God - I want to ask this question too. When Sapphira lies to Peter, he responds with, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?" My third question is: How is lying to Peter the same thing as "testing the Sprit of the Lord"?

My hunch is, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. There is no way to justify the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. There is no way to justify Peter's entrapping Sapphira. And lying to Peter is absolutely nothing like testing the Spirit of the Lord. Combined with the fact that this is one of only two New Testament stories about God striking people dead (excluding whatever the heck is happening in Revelation ... and correct me if I'm wrong), I think we should be very cautious in trying to interpret this story and apply it to today's church. Frankly, I'm tempted to take the scissors to this story, but that would put an ugly hole in the middle of the story of Stephen, so I'll refrain.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Giving notice

Although I hate to give ConcernedEngineer his own post, I've never expected to have to ban anybody before, so I guess it's good to make this all aboveboard.


This is my blog, and therefore I feel responsible for keeping it a hospitable environment for discussion. Your comment spamming, backposting and intellectual arrogance do not contribute to a pleasant environment. Incidentally, neither do your malice and misogyny.

I thought that if I teased you a bit, you would understand that I find you ridiculous, and then you would lighten up or go away. Obviously I was wrong.

So because this blog has only one rule, let's go back to the rule. Please answer the following questions for me:

Obviously, you believe that God exists. Is it possible that you might be wrong, and that God does not exist?

Obviously, you consider the Bible the Inspired Word Of God. Is it possible that you might be wrong, and that people, not God, were responsible for the biblical text?

Obviously, you believe that your interpretation of the Bible is correct, even on nebulous doctrines such as trinitarianism, which are not explicitly laid out anywhere in the Bible. Is it possible that you have wrongly interpreted the Bible?

If you cannot admit your own limitations with regard to these three topics, I will invoke the one rule of this blog, and ban you from it altogether.

(Also, if any of you think I should do something different, or think I'm misapplying my own rule, please comment.)


Monday, June 18, 2007

So what's up with the end of Job?

I was thinking about the book of Job on Friday afternoon ... in particular, the end, where God shows up and scolds Job for trying to get a straight answer out of the being who created the earth:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?


Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? ... Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?

Having read the previous 40-odd chapters, this whole monologue just sounds wrong to me. This God isn't any more righteous than Job's four "friends", and everything God says just begs for a similar rebuke from Job. Maybe something like this:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."

"Interesting question," Job replied. "Where where you when my flocks were stolen? And when my servants were murdered? And when my sons and daughters were crushed under a ton of rubble?"

"But," the LORD blustered, "can you put the leviathan on a leash for your girls?"

"Perhaps you've forgotten," said Job. "My girls are all dead."

"Oh," the LORD said. "Good point."

So the LORD blessed Job with more sons and daughters and money than he had before.

"But my sons and daughters are still dead," Job said.

"Would you shut up already?" the LORD snarled. "Who do you think I am, God?"

Exit The LORD

So I started backpedaling through Job. Back through God's speech. Back through Elihu's speech. All the way back to chapter 31, where we find Job's last rebuke to his so-called friends, and this curious sentence:
The words of Job are ended.

What gives? Because the words of Job are definitely not ended. After Elihu shows up, and God shows up, he gives that little kicker about how he had heard of God, but now he's seen God, so he repents in dust and ashes.

Maybe ... could it be possible that the last 11 chapters of Job were added onto an original narrative? Let's look at the first part of chapter 32, right after "the words of Job are ended..."
So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. But Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God. He was also angry with the three friends, because they had found no way to refute Job, and yet had condemned him. Now Elihu had waited before speaking to Job because they were older than he. But when he saw that the three men had nothing more to say, his anger was aroused.


Is it just me, or is that passage practically begging us to conclude that there's a second author who glued his stuff onto the end of Job?

I suspect that it is not just me, and that there's a whole bunch of scholarship that says that Job is the work of at least two authors. But I haven't gone looking for that textual stuff yet. I'm just busy being blown away because I didn't notice this before.

So, my textual-study-type friends ... do you know anything about the authorship of Job?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Linky Linky

Normally, I am content to tag interesting articles that come through my feed reader and let you pick the ones you find interesting out of the "News and Opinion" widget over there on the right side of the window.

Over there. ->

But given our brief conversations about epistemic humility and the gender of God, and given my interest in seeing our traditional doctrines as metaphors, rather than reductionistic descriptions of metaphysical truths, I think you should read the following blog post at Find and Ye Shall Seek.

Trinity Sunday
The doctrine of the Trinity was a tool; it served a means of consolidating victory by Nicean forces in the Christian power struggles of that century. It lent a much needed theoretical foundation for the victorious side, one that various factions could coalesce around. The doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Gregory of Nyssa, actually made for an interesting and sophisticated theology. Unfortunately, whereas it should have served as a jumping off point for further free inquiry into the nature of God, the opposite is instead what happened; it became a tool with which to bludgeon dissidents. This is because the various factions that coalesced around it colluded with Roman state power to stamp out Arianism or any other free thinking doctrine.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Shibboleth

I am hereby announcing a rule for my blog.

This is significant because it is the first rule ever to be declared on my blog. And really, I don't like making rules. Usually, most people are already following all the rules they are willing to follow, and they don't need any more rules, kthx.

But after visiting other blogs and encountering the same exasperating, circular conversation over and over again, I am going to institute a rule ... not because the readers of my blog have a big problem with this issue, but because I think this rule should be a "best practice" that will help create thoughtful and productive blogging communities.

The rule is this:

If you are unwilling to admit the possibility that you might be wrong, I will delete your comments.

I think this rule will be fairly easy to enforce. We will simply use the phrase "but I might be wrong" as a shibboleth. If you are incapable of admitting even the *possibility* that you might be wrong, you're not discussing, you're proselytizing, and we'll thank you to go away. Take this discussion for example:

Sully: The USA is evil? Do you think it's *possible* that you might be wrong about that?
Biff: No, there is no possibility that I am wrong. I am unequivocally right, I know the Truth and I am here to share it with you.
Me: Biff, please go away. You are in clear violation of the first rule and your subsequent comments on this topic will be deleted.

So beware! At any time, you may be called upon to pronounce the Shibboleth.