Boosting literacy by 1000%

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)
Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Five years ago I linked to a post by Chris Rollston The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet:Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus the URL has changed,but the post is really interesting. I still have no desire to differ from Chris’ expert view his “story” is fascinating and largely convincing. Yet I still think he misrepresents the impact of his evidence on the rise of literacy due to the invention of the alphabet. One quote highlights the issue, and in it Rollston highlights some earlier silly claims:

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

But the literacy estimates Rollston quotes show that for prealphabetic societies literacy rates were about 1%:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

Yet for societies using alphabetic scripts the estimates he quotes are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

Taking, as an approximation, the middle of this range, the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, from 1% to 10%. This is an increase in literacy of 1000%, an imporessive achievement.  An increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (half this increase or a factor of five or 500%), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.

At 1% literacy few rural people would have easy access to someone who was literate, at 10% it is likely that within a few hours walk most would. Thus his own figures suggest that the alphabet would produce a true social revolution. Clearly not producing a modern writing based culture, but nevertheless bringing text and textuality into the realm of experience of ordinary people as well as elites.

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)

Old_Ladies

On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []

Inspiration and Incarnation

Enns

For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.

Help me please

For work I am doing on the “confessions of Jeremiah” I need two sorts of help. I need help because here in the hills between Rotorua and Tauranga I library resources are limited to a journal database and Google books (plus Archive.org):

  • People with friends: if you have a friend who has worked on the “confessions of Jeremiah” please help me contact them.
  • People with access to Baumgartner’s Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament or Diamond’s The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context. (Both books I owned and gave to a seminary in Myanmar when I retired, and both have limited access on Google.)For Diamond I need to know if his first few footnotes (probably just #1) to the “Introduction” give any indication of the origin of the usage “Confessions of Jeremiah”. (The PhD his book was based on is listed by the British Library but is not accessible.)For Baumgartner the issue is a little more complex does he in Chapter 1 (in the first few or last couple of pages of the chapter) talk about this at all? Or indeed use an expression like “the confessions of Jeremiah”?

I would be really thankful is someone could help me in either or both of these two ways.

Otherwise I am stuck, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when expressions like confessions of Jeremiah were used to refer to the content of (much of) the book (Cheyne 1888), or to a particular mode within the book, but already Buttenweiser (1914) talks of “the so-called confessions” and may have the collection of texts we name thus today in mind, certainly the habitual use of the expression to refer to particular texts seems established at the latest by John Skinner, Prophecy & Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), 114 and ch.xi.

Skinner regards the usage as “common”:

These two passages are interesting in another respect. They are the first of a unique series of devotional poems commonly known as the ‘Confessions of Jeremiah,’ which unfold the secret of his best life, the converse of his soul with God through which the true nature of religion was disclosed to him. (114)

On p.201 Skinner calls the usage “recent”, yet I have so far found no use of the expression with this meaning before Buttenwieser!

I am stuck and stumped, and lack access to a suitable library to get much further alone. Please help!

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

God and the Joys of Sex

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!

Wash your hairy feet! OR Sometimes a foot is just a foot

tutl38[1]
[Back when I was new to Facebook, I did not know how to bring blog posts into this (then) new (to me) medium. So I began posting some posts on Facebook. This was the very first, and I still rather like it :) ]
Sean the Baptist has a post ‘And with two they covered their feet’ in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that “feet” is (sometimes) a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible. Basically the idea is: 

That is that the word for feet רַגְלָיו sometimes refers to what we might politely call ‘other parts of the (male) anatomy’. 

I have never really been convinced by the claim. Sean cites the following passages as the best evidence for this supposed usage (the order is mine, as are the comments in straight type):

Exodus 4.25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
Now why on earth would one suppose that “feet” here is a euphemism – after all no euphemism was used for “foreskin” עָרְלַת seems explicit enough.

Deuteronomy 11.10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
In Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing? No wonder they brewed so much beer! Or maybe the small earth dams on irrigation ditches are quite easily broken by foot?

Ruth 3.7: When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
If this one is a euphemism, does it not remove all the tension from the chapter where the most significant “gap” the hearer must fill is: “Did they or didn’t they?” there is plenty of other innuendo in the chapter to build up the tension, without this (possible, maybe) one.
Isaiah 6.2: Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Really? Now why should face and feet not simply mean face and feet? Please explain!

Isaiah 7.20: On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Hairy feet or hairy [euphemism]? Which is more plausible? Though I suppose if the euphemism is for the whole genital area, this one might make sense.

Judges 3.24: After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself (literally ‘covering his feet’) in the cool chamber.” cf. 1 Sam. 24.3
At first sight, this one is good! In this sample I am almost convinced, there is a good case to answer, though why “covering his feet” should be a euphemism for peeing, and not merely another example of the rather gross schoolboy humour of the passage I am unclear.

2 Samuel 11.8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.
Could be a euphemism, but then it could be that the sentence is euphemistic even if the “feet” are literal. “Wash your feet” = “make yourself at home”…

So, in the end, what evidence is there for this conventionally supposed common euphemism? Two cases where you might argue with some strength that reading euphemistically is the “best” reading, a couple more where it might just be possible but overall I’d say: No case to answer. In the Bible feet are just that. And Eglon as well as excessively fat, and greedy, also was known to his servants as having a poor aim. As the sign in our downstairs loo read for a while (we had teenage boys in the house) “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

[Back in those heady days bloggers used to respond to one another, instead of, as we do today, merely writing to ourselves – which is perhaps the second sign of madness.]

Following my post Wash your hairy feet! Sean-the-Baptist updated his post ‘And with two they covered their feet‘ to respond (briefly within the limits of time available) to my critique of the commonplace notion that “feet” in the Hebrew Bible can often serve as a euphemism for “male organ”.

On Deut. 11.10: the point is exactly that the Promised Land will be naturally fertile and thus will not require irrigation by other means (of course the language is symbolic, irrigation is as necessary there as in Egypt in reality). Tim asks ‘in Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing?’ – well no, but neither is there literal milk and honey flowing in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps good deal more irrigation took place by this means than by carrying water on your foot (images of hopping with a bucket attached anyone?)

But why interpret the language as “symbolic” whatever that means here, I had assumed that even read as a euphemism the use was intended literally.

Irrigating with the feet would then refer to the habit of opening and closing irrigation ditches using the feet. While I cannot really see how the euphemistic reading works, in the promised land water falls from the sky, while in Egypt humans had to pee to water the ground – presumably entailing frequent trips to the irrigation ditch to drink…

On Ruth we basically agree – except whether Boaz’ “feet” are literal or euphemistic (I still wonder at the plural euphemism here?).

On Is 6:2 Sean brings up the topic of ANE iconography, as Jim Getz said in a comment on a post: Another “Feet” Euphemism in the Hebrew Bible? on this topic on Shibboleth I think I was convinced by Keel’s identification of the Seraphim here with Egyptian uraus snakes, my copy of Keel is at college, so i can’t check, but I do not remember these snakes as having prominent phalluses which might need covering to preserve Hebrew modesty! On Is 7:20 I am quite willing to agree thsat ritual humiliation is in view, and that a euphemistic reading is possible. But when the “head to foot” shaving seems to cover that pretty comprehensively I do not see the need to invent a new “euphemistic” reading. (And that is really my point, I believe that those who repeat conventional wisdom and claim a common euphemism in Biblical Hebrew “feet” = “phallus” need to provide some evidence to support this view. And where simply reading “feet” as “those two things we walk on that stop our legs fraying at the ends” works fine then they have NOT provided such evidence EVEN IF “phallus” works just as well.

Uraeus. Col. Tutkhamón from http://www.uned.es 

On 2 Sam 11:8, again we agree in our interpretation of the passage, and IF the feet-euphemism were already (on the basis of evidence) established it would make a good reading here. However, it is not it is merely “traditional” in biblical scholarship. AND reading feet literally works fine.

Result, I am still unconvinced that this particular item of “popular wisdom” has a leg to stand upon! Sometimes in the Bible, when you read “feet” they do simply mean “feet”, now on the basis of Ugaritic evidence one might I think (someone could ask Duane about the abnormally interesting uses of “finger” in those texts, and perhaps also look at Hebrew Bible texts like 1 Kings 12:10).