Covenants and Mathematical Monotheism

More from the Winter 2023 SOTS conference.

(It was January 2023, so not entirely sure whether the date above is a typo or for when it was originally scheduled.)

As promised, I will tell you about the two papers which I enjoyed the most at the SOTS conference. They both helped to shape my understanding of who God is—and are far removed from the way God is presented at Sunday School. As before, please note that I am describing the lectures as per my own understanding, with apologies if I am not accurately describing what the papers said.

Peter Hatton: ברית as treaty

The Hebrew word ‘beret’ (ברית) is frequently used in the Old Testament, and is usually translated as ‘covenant.’ Therefore, God made a ‘covenant’ with Noah, that he would not flood the world again, and he made a ‘covenant’ with Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and so on. However, Peter Hatton suggested that our understanding of ‘covenant’ is misleading, and ‘treaty’ would be a better word. He said, “You don’t make covenants with friends, but with enemies.” There is an element of threat when a covenant is made—and we tend to forget this today. A ‘covenant’ or treaty is very different to a contract, which is an agreement between two equal sides, with no underlying threat, and with a right to appeal if things change.

He then discussed the treaty made with Noah, which was symbolised by a bow in the sky. A bow was a sign of power, a threat of attack. Peter showed several examples of pictures of bows from the ancient world, and each time they were signifying threat and power. The bow shown to Noah is a bow (not a rainbow) and it is immediately after God has murdered/executed all the people and animals in the world (so definitely something of a threat would be understood). [This is not something my Sunday School teachers emphasized, with our songs about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God is love…’]

The treaty with Abram included a sign too. Abram had slaughtered animals, and cut them in half, and fire had gone between the halves. In the ancient world, people sometimes walked between divided carcasses, to symbolise the idea that if they went back on the agreement, they would be like the dead animals. [A little like in a Court of Law, we swear to tell the whole truth ‘so help me God’ in other words, only God will be able to save me if I lie.] In the example of Abram, God was saying that he would be like a divided carcass if the covenant was broken. [I am unclear here as to who the he might be. According to my notes, Peter Hatton said that Abram would be like the dead animals, but when I later read a commentary, they said that it was God himself who was saying he (God) would be like the animals if he didn’t fulfil the covenant. I think the Hebrew can mean either, so you can decide for yourself. Either way, the covenant/treaty held an element of threat.]

Peter’s paper then considered why this element of threat might be important. When people are in situations of conflict, pretence tends to disappear, and people are very real/honest. Peter said that when he has counselled couples with marriage problems, they are in conflict, and they tend to be honest about the hurt and difficulty. He remarked that in this situation, when people are genuine about the pain, they can start to rebuild. He also said that marriage is a covenant/treaty between people who are different (because individuals are different). [He lost me a little here, perhaps I was tired, but I don’t entirely see the same link with a marriage covenant and conflict/threat. But maybe you can work that out for yourself.]

Philip Jenson: Mathematical Monotheism

For me, this was the most helpful paper of all, because I have been struggling with the idea that the Old Testament is very clear that there is ‘One God’ and yet Christians are very strong on the Trinity (which to my mind, is basically three Gods working as one).

Philip Jenson pointed out that ‘monotheism’ is a term that first arose in the 17th century, which is when understanding of mathematics and science was developing rapidly. The idea (rather than the word) of monotheism first arose during the exile. Before then, people held a belief in monolatry (that only one God should be worshipped, above all other gods).

The Hebrew word for ‘one’ is אחד and it means more than the mathematical idea of quantity. אחד is about quality, about being incomparable, being in a position above all others. ‘God’ is not countable. Numbers are unhelpful here. God is known by power. אחד might be better translated as ‘unique’ rather than ‘one.’

[I think some of these comments about inappropriate translations maybe arise because language is not static, and our understanding of words changes over time. Therefore, when Hebrew is being translated today, words like ‘one’ or ‘covenant’ have slightly different nuances than they did during the reign of King James and the Authorised Version.]

Another problem with this is our understanding of the word ‘god.’ What is a god? Modern people don’t like to think that there could be lots of different gods floating around. However, the Bible speaks of ‘Heavenly Beings’ and some are named (Eg. Seraphim). These might be who were understood to be ‘gods.’ Or perhaps the ‘gods’ were man-made, anything that was worshipped and revered, anything that people treated like a god. Anything that rivalled people’s loyalty to God. Therefore, they did exist, but not in a way that was separate from human perception. A carved animal was a god, because it was worshipped as a god but if placed on a shelf as a mere ornament, it was not a god.

The paper then considered texts that possibly contradicted this idea, such as Isaiah 44: 6, “…beside me there is no god.” This seems to exclude the possibility of other gods. But this ‘exclusion formula’ might refer to power rather than the existence of other gods, so is inconclusive.

The conclusion was that God, YWH, is incomparable, and his multiple titles add to the hierarchy (because a lack of names implied a lack of status in the ancient world). The implication in the Bible is that other gods were created by God, and were potentially mortal (ie. not eternal).

I found it all extremely interesting, with lots of ideas to mull on. I also find it helpful when thinking about the Trinity, because I don’t need to try and explain an apparent contradiction between ‘one God,’ and that I believe Jesus was God, and yet he prayed to his Father, who was God. I can stop worrying about how many I can count, and focus on the unique, incomparable being who is God. I am very happy to admit that this God is beyond my understanding, and leave it there.

Hope you have a great week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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The Papers Presented at the Society for Old Testament Study

As promised, here is a brief overview of some papers presented at the SOTS conference that I attended last week. It is all new to me, so please be aware that I may have misunderstood some of the points being made, but these are the main highlights from my point of view. [I will add my own thoughts in square brackets.]

Moritz Adam: Ecclesiates

Moritz thought that Ecclesiates was well-introduced by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is sometimes linked to Christ, in an attempt to understand the books (though obviously this adds a whole layer of later history). Solomon is alluded to, but not named, possibly to widen the book’s appeal to later generations. However, the authorship is firmly linked to Solomon, ‘even if Solomon was not an historical figure’. [The scholars presenting papers often added this caveat—I don’t know whether they themselves doubted that Old Testament figures actually existed in history, or if they were ensuring their paper would be accepted whatever the reader’s view.]

There was a lot of discussion about how Ecclesiates potentially had Greek influence, such as the Hellenistic style of linking people with deeds: Moses—Exodus, Solomon—Proverbs. He suggested that the idiosyncrasies in Ecclesiates reflect a Greek style, as Hebrew doesn’t ‘do abstract’ very well. [I took notes, but found all this difficult to grasp as my own knowledge of Greek history is very limited.]

Moritz suggested that themes within the book reflect Greek thought, with no context for the ideas that are presented. He also quoted an Egyptian saying: ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’ [I think this implies some of the thoughts may have come from Egypt, but to be honest, I didn’t really catch that bit!]

One idea that I enjoyed, is that ‘paradise’ is linked to the gardens of Persian courts.

Megan Daffern: Psalms

Megan was considering how the Psalms use self-reflection. [‘Talking to yourself’ in other words.] She said that sometimes this allowed the author to distance himself from the Psalm, and examine what was being presented. Sometimes it is used as a device to reassure oneself, to remind oneself that God offers security.

It was suggested that psychology today uses self-distancing to aid motivation [like when we talk to ourselves, saying we can achieve something].

David Firth: Psalm 40 and Psalm 70

Psalm 70 is basically the same as Psalm 40: 14-18. [I have never noticed this, have you?] David remarked that the Masorites [the scribes who added vowels and punctuation to the Hebrew texts] added a title to Psalm 70. Apparently, if a psalm has no title, it was possibly linked to the psalm before. [I didn’t know that, either!]

The paper then considered whether these two psalms were a copy of each other, or if both are original. It’s possible that both are included in the collection of psalms because they are very similar. Or, one may have been altered to be like the other.

The Hebrew word: ישב is a common verb in psalms 69, 70 and 71, which is some evidence that psalm 70 stands alone, and is not just an extract from psalm 40.

[Personally, I suspect that someone was feeling a bit desperate, read the extract in psalm 40 and wrote it out as it fitted his mood. He tweaked it a bit, and this then became part of the collection of psalms, because people liked it. But obviously I have no evidence for this.]

Kirsi Cobb: ‘Using Fiction to Fill the Gaps’

I hoped that this paper would be about how fiction writers can aid understanding by writing stories based on Bible narratives. But it wasn’t. The paper was basically a slating of a fictional book, stating that the concepts are badly presented. The whole paper made me furious, especially as at times it seemed to be a personal ridiculing of the author of the book being reviewed. There is a lot I can say, but I will leave it there.

[After the seminar, I remarked on the apparent personal attack, and I was told that this is normal. Scholars consider each other fair game for insults, and they don’t consider politeness to be a virtue when reviewing each other’s work. I hope I am never like this. Whilst I admire their brains, I did not always admire their manners.]

Paul Joyce: Inappropriate Optimism

This paper considered the unrealistic optimism that was presented by the false prophets, such as in Jeremiah. It discussed optimism as a cognitive illusion, and suggested that people tend to ignore evidence and lean towards optimism. [I feel I should introduce him to some of my family, as this seems very much a generalisation to me.]

He did note that biblical criticism and psychology share similar concepts, which I found interesting.

There are two other papers that I really want to tell you about. One was about covenants (you will never look at a rainbow in the same way again) and one was about whether the Hebrew Bible presents monotheism (there is only one single God). I will write about them in other blogs.

As you can see, most of the papers were full of information and ideas, and even though I am not as scholarly as most of the audience, it was extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Have a good rest of the week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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I was invited to attend the Society for Old Testament Study conference. It sounded interesting, and not something I have experienced before, so I was keen to attend. I sent off my application form and fee, booked a train to Sheffield and put the date in my diary. That was the easy part. (I also explained to my family that ‘SOTS’ did not mean what they thought it meant! They had images of drunken old men sharing sticky bottles of whiskey.)

British Rail announced strikes, and my train to Sheffield was cancelled. I decided that the conference was still worth attending, so booked a train for the day before, and a room in a Premier Inn. Worried that the cost/hassle was now increasing. A few other people from college were going, some by coach on the day of the conference, and one via the same train and Premier Inn as me. We would all travel home together after the conference. This is important. I have very annoying issues with anxiety, but usually if I force myself to do things, especially with other people to distract me, then it’s fine and no one notices. I strive to be normal.

However, the train drivers then announced a strike for the 5th, which is when we were travelling home. I agreed with my friends that we would catch a coach from Sheffield to Victoria. Which sounded easy until I thought about it. The coach picked up from a motorway junction. This might be tricky to reach with all our bags. The coach only went as far as Victoria, and there were no trains to bring me nearer home. It also looked like I would be travelling alone the day before the conference, and staying in the Premier Inn on my own, as the others opted for different travel plans. It was the final straw, and I was about to cancel. Husband then kindly said he would drive me, book an Airbnb where he could work, and drive me home afterwards. Phew! I was saved. (This is why I love the man. That and his wickedly funny sense of humour.)

The first day of the conference arrived and I desperately hoped it would be cancelled. It wasn’t. It was held at Sheffield University, which I found very confusing when arriving on a dark January afternoon. Managed to find the registration place, and checked into the ‘hotel’ (which was basically a student room. But a much nicer one than when I was a student.) I told my son, who knows the university, that the seminars were being held in ‘The Edge.’ He told me this is the student bar, and I should watch out for the jello-shots. (Not sure the family fully believed my explanation of SOTS.)

The itinerary was full, with lectures interspersed with drinks or meals. I soon got into the swing of it, my brain switched into conference mode: chatting to strangers over drinks, checking the timetable, listening to people present papers, learning almost as much from the questions that followed.
Most of the papers were very interesting, despite being read. I have realised that this is a thing in academic circles. Someone writes a paper (Eg. ‘The false prophets were overly optimistic, which is a human trait.’) They are then given 45 minutes to read it, followed by 15 minutes of questions.

Often the questions were not really questions at all. Sometimes they seemed a veiled criticism, suggesting someone else had already written about the subject extensively. Sometimes they were adding information from their own studies in the past. Sometimes they were an opportunity to cite their own paper/book. And occasionally they actually were questions, usually asking for clarity or how the paper tackled a certain problem raised elsewhere. It felt combative, and whilst enjoying the intellectual to-and-fro, I was glad that I wasn’t presenting anything.

There were about 80 scholars attending each session.

I was aware that everyone was more learned than me (most seemed to be lecturers at universities). Most were probably more intelligent. I listened, and learned.

I also drank a lot of coffee.

There is not room here to talk about the papers that were presented. Some of them were brilliant, so I will write a few brief blogs to tell you about the ideas being discussed. I arrived home feeling drunk — nothing to do with alcohol, more complete saturation-point of my brain. I am so glad that I went.

Thanks for reading. I hope your brain has a work-out this week too.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Who Influenced the New Testament World?

It has been fascinating during my studies, to hear about different influences that have changed the way people see themselves and their world. Today, we accept things like a ‘sub-conscious’ or an ‘inner spirit’ without really thinking about where those ideas came from. They are part of our cultural thinking, and we refer to them effortlessly during conversations. Yet, they have not always been known concepts. They were introduced at a particular time by a particular philosopher.

The same has been true for centuries, and one aspect of studying the New Testament, is knowing which philosophers influenced the thinking at the time. This isn’t disputing any inspiration from God, but it’s recognising that the books were physically written by humans, and those people lived in a culture, and there were certain philosophies that we see reflected in what they wrote. They couldn’t have written about ‘outer space’ or ‘gravity,’ and especially not ‘cyber’ or ‘virtual’ because those things were not yet thought about. Here is a brief summary of the philosophies that were well-known the New Testament world. You can decide whether some of the thinking is incorporated into what was written. (I am only including the snippets of their teachings that I found interesting—you can do your own research if you want to know more!)

Socrates (470 -399 BC)

Socrates said: “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” He was killed by being forced to drink a cup of hemlock. He didn’t write anything, so we mainly know of his teaching via his pupils.

Plato (428 – 348 BC) Plato was heavily influenced by Socrates. He wrote a story, with Socrates teaching about cave dwellers:

‘A group of people lived deep in a dark cave. They sat behind a fire, and a puppeteer moved puppets, casting their shadow on the cave wall, telling the story of the world. This is how the cave people understood the world. But one day, a man left the group, and walked past the fire and out into the sunshine. At first he was blinded by the light, but gradually his eyes adjusted, and he saw that the plants and animals in the real world were better in every way to the shadow images he had seen previously. He went back into the cave and tried to tell his friends, but they refused to listen because his eyes could no longer see in the dark cave, and they decided he was blind.’ Plato wanted to teach people to ‘see’ the real world.

Plato said that the material world is transitory, and humans are capable of reaching an ideal state, which is eternal. He thought the intellect was the most important part of a person, and he differentiated between the intellect/spirit and the material/physical. Two separate parts of humans.

He also had an interesting idea for how society should operate: Plato divided people into those who were ‘rational’ (had wisdom) and said they should govern. The ‘spirited’ people were brave, so they should be soldiers and teachers. ‘Sensuous’ people should be providers, part of commerce, because they were temperate (knew moderation). This, he said, would bring social order and justice. [Looking for politicians who are wise might be difficult today, when being fast-talkers and good presenters seems more likely to get them elected than being wise. I guess Plato lived in a different time.]

Aristotle (384 – 323) Aristotle was Plato’s pupil. He thought that thinking (which he called ‘contemplation’) was superior to doing things. He thought the point of life was to contemplate God, and to serve him, and to pursue happiness. (I confess to be slightly confused by this, as he also said that contemplation is how humans can imitate gods, so not sure he was referring to God.) He taught that good action leads to good habits which leads to good disposition. All things should be tempered by moderation.

Sometime around Plato and Aristotle we had the Stoics. Stoicism taught that God was omnipresent, and everything was subject to his will. People should therefore not worry about what they cannot change (apatheia). Whatever happens, should be accepted. They said everyone should be treated well, because everyone shares the same spirit. Virtue is to know God’s will, and to follow it.

Plotinus (204 – 270 CE) He was a Neo-Platonic philosopher, and he tried to build on Plato’s work. He not only separated the body and soul, but also decided that ‘matter’ or the physical body was evil, and only ‘reason’ or spirit, are good. Therefore, the soul is more important than the body.

They all said lots more, obviously, but a lot of it was boring or confusing or both, so I have given you a brief overview. Interesting, huh?

I will tell you more about my studies in another blog. Thank you for reading.

Hope you have a philosophical day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Something completely different: Have you read a copy of Out by Ten yet?

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Out by Ten is a thoughtful novel for those who enjoy reading. Available from Amazon. Treat yourself, buy a copy today.

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Which One Is You?

Part of my course has involved looking at the different ways people view the Bible. I found it quite challenging, as looking at various definitions makes me notice things about my religion in a whole new way. The way that people use the Bible says a lot about their beliefs. I’m going to give you three brief definitions—though there are lots of variations in-between. Which one do you think best suits you?

  1. “The Bible is the infallible Word of God”

This is often said, but it can mean several different things so you need to decide: Firstly, what is ‘the Bible’? In Scripture itself, there was no word for ‘Bible’ or ‘Scripture,’ they only referred to ‘writings’ which is slightly vague. It can either mean the selection of books that you have, gathered together into a single book, called the ‘Holy Bible.’ Or it can refer to the original texts, written in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek on individual parchments, long-since lost. We now only have copies of copies of copies, and the Hebrew has been ‘translated’ into biblical Hebrew (it was probably a much earlier form of the language—like Chaucer’s English compared to today’s).

The books we now call ‘Scripture’ themselves refer to other books, which are not included in our Bible—so are they also infallible, or only the bits that are actually quoted? (Eg. Jude 1:6.) And do you mean the whole selection of books we currently have, which means their position within the Bible are important, or the individual books? Does infallibility extend to the actual book (which is probably English) that you read today? Even though versions and translations are different?

Next to decide is what you mean by ‘infallible.’ Do you mean that the authors were like automatons, so none of their own views were included? Though their bad grammar was, and so were some mistakes when they quoted other parts of the Bible. (Check out Matt 27:9-10, when he says he’s quoting Jeremiah, but actually he quotes Zechariah 11:12-13. An easy mistake, we’ve all done it, and it doesn’t affect his point at all. But would you say a mistake was ‘infallible’?) Plus, some of the ‘facts’ are a bit questionable—like the sun going round the world, and the order of some events in the gospels are different. And if you believe the Bible is infallible, does that mean it all has equal status, so you give as much emphasis to some of the Old Testament laws as you do to the teachings of Christ?

Now, an interesting question if you hold this view—do you go to great lengths to justify it? Are you comfortable saying, ‘That bit doesn’t seem to make sense.’? Or do you produce reasons to explain why it does make sense, even if it isn’t obvious at first look? Is the emphasis of your worship teaching, or reading the Bible?

In my experience, the sermon (which is the speaker’s interpretation) is usually longer than the reading of Scripture. Which might imply we don’t think God can speak to individuals through the Bible—which is not what we state. If someone disagrees, do you spend time explaining your view, and are you unhappy unless everyone believes much the same thing?

The explaining/justifying is even reflected in some Bible translations: Isaiah 7:14 uses a Hebrew word, עלמה , which in that context probably means ‘young woman’ but the NIV translates it as ‘virgin.’ It’s quoted in Matt 1:23, and the Greek uses the word ‘virgin.’ However, I don’t think Matthew is using the quote to describe Mary, he is using it to describe the son, Jesus, the Messiah. Therefore, by changing the Isaiah meaning, the NIV has added its own view to Scripture (rather than allowing Scripture to speak as it will).

2.God Speaks Through the Bible (But the Bible is not equal with God)

This view means you believe God uses the Bible to guide people, to reveal himself and to provide a standard of right-and-wrong. But the writings are not ‘infallible.’ It is a theological book, the words have meaning and it’s the meaning that’s important, not the actual words. So for example, the parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ explains something about God’s love. But the words are not necessarily a direct quotation of what Jesus said, and the situation surrounding the parable may have been changed, to help the reader understand the point. The writers were inspired by God, they were listening to his Spirit as they wrote, but they were still human, they may have made mistakes about timing or science—things that don’t affect the theology.

People who believe this are usually comfortable admitting that some bits of the Bible are difficult to understand, or don’t seem to make sense, or were part of the culture of the ancient world and therefore the theology still applies but not the literal words. However, you need to decide which bits should be taken literally, and which parts are less important. If God allowed mistakes in the Bible, how do you know which are the right texts, and which should be ignored? If God speaks to individuals through the Bible, then how do you stop people finding support for their own views, and misunderstanding passages? Is it okay if everyone in a church believes something different and there is no uniformity?

Churches who hold this view usually ensure that both Old and New Testaments are read at each service, and the emphasis is on the Bible, not the teaching/interpretation, so the sermons are less important.

3. Logic and Reason are Most Important, the Bible Contains Some Useful Teaching

If this is your view, then you acknowledge that there is some good teaching in the Bible, and that God can use it to speak to people, but unless the narration is logical, you doubt if it’s true. You like everything to be ‘proved.’ This means the miracles in the Bible were either misunderstood ‘tricks’ or made-up by the authors to explain a theological point. You believe the Bible is pure theology, and not at all historically reliable. Reading it can point to good behaviours and an understanding of God, but it shouldn’t be taken literally, and the events described might, or might not, be true.

People who believe this tend to focus on discussion, listening to a range of views and beliefs. They are open to being persuaded, and give more emphasis to what other people say and write than to the Bible itself.

As I said, there are a whole range of views between these, but they give a basic framework. Which one is you? The thing I find interesting, having spoken to various people, is that whatever view they hold, they all say that God speaks to them through the Bible. I believe them, which is rather marvellous don’t you think?

Thanks for reading.

My next blog is about our trip to Iceland. I kept hearing that it is a beautiful place, but I wasn’t so sure. Is lava beautiful? We booked a trip and went to see. I will tell you about it next week.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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How Do We Read the Bible?

Learning How to Read the Bible

Reading the Bible

As my college lectures continue, I am beginning to meet some new ideas. One of my subjects this semester is ‘Reading the Bible’ which happily is more complex than it sounds. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since I learnt that we don’t actually have an original copy of the Bible even though we do have other writings that predate some of the Biblical books. So why did God not preserve an original manuscript of the books in the Bible? Could it be that perhaps we are giving it too much emphasis? Or the wrong sort of emphasis? Are we meant to be completely sure that we have all the answers?

Part of my lecture preparation this week is to read an article by N.T. Wright. Not sure if you’ve come across him? He writes lots of Christian stuff. I tend to think that he writes about interesting issues, but I find his books very difficult to read. Some writers produce work that flows easily into my head, and others are more of an effort. I’m not sure why, maybe it has something to do with speech patterns. If you want to read the whole article by Mr. Wright, the link is here:

Mr Wright begins by questioning what people mean when they talk about ‘the authority of the Bible.’ This intrigues me too—what exactly do they mean? People often tell me: “The Bible is God’s word,” but I’m never quite sure whether they mean the original books (which we don’t have any more) or their own translation, or the essence of the books but not absolutely every word/sentence/paragraph. It does seem that sometimes people treat the Bible as if it is God. I was interested to read that Mr Wright also struggles with this (well, to be fair, he didn’t say that he struggled, so he might be completely sorted on this point). He notes that the Bible itself only gives authority to God. He says that the Bible is one way that God reveals himself.

He then describes (not especially kindly) people who look at the Bible for ‘a daily blessing’ or ‘the answer to a question’ or ‘divine inspiration.’ He thinks this is a misuse of the Bible. Whilst I sort of agree with him (in the same way as I think people often use prayer as if God was a genie in a lamp, waiting to grant their requests) I didn’t much like his tone. In the Bible, people came to God for all sorts of wrong reasons, like they were scared of dying, or they had just watched a miracle and thought following Jesus would be the ancient equivalent of knowing the lottery numbers each week. Mostly, people came for selfish reasons, but God took them anyway, Jesus let them follow, and they learnt the truth along the way. People probably rarely come to God—or read the Bible—for the right reason. Not initially, anyway. However, the next thing Mr Wright wrote was, I thought, rather clever.

An ancient book

He described a pretend situation where a new play by Shakespeare had been discovered, but the last act was missing. Rather than produce the play while incomplete, or ask a modern playwright to write the ending, a group of Shakespearean actors decided to produce the play themselves. They thoroughly learnt the first few acts, so they were familiar with the characters, they knew how they would respond, they knew the situation they were in, and then—following the essence of the original—they finished the play. They didn’t simply regurgitate an earlier scene, nor did they ignore the essence of what was already written; they kept to the ‘authority’ of the first part whilst creating something that finished the drama completely in-keeping with what had gone before. This, says Mr. Wright, is how we should view the Bible. We are ‘making up’ the final act of the play, but it needs to be consistent with what has gone before.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and I think I probably agree with it. We do need to be immersed in the Bible, so we know the message that it presents, but rather than it being a static, historical work, we can make it something alive, something relevant for today. Which means that the selecting of certain passages to ‘make rules’ is a dangerous game, not really what our purpose is meant to be. They might not apply in ‘the final act.’

I will mull on the idea, and try to think about the wider issues—but so far it looks like a useful analogy. What do you think? Of course, you do need to actually read the Bible. Do you?

Thanks for reading. I’ll give you more updates on what I discover at college as I go. It’s mainly been very interesting so far (one bit isn’t, but I’d better not talk too much about that!) Have a good day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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All ten ducklings healthy and happy.

The Gilgamesh Epic

Here is the quick summary of the Gilgamesh epic that I promised you last week. As you read it, think about how it compares to the garden of Eden story told in Genesis. To remind you: Genesis was written during the Iron Age, though was told (orally) much earlier. If you choose to believe it was first told/written by Moses, then the date of the Exodus was about 1446 (according to my own calculations).

(The link to my long ramble about when Moses should be dated is here:

The Story of Gilgamesh is actually an epic poem, written in Akkadian, about 2000 BCE (so before Moses). It was written in cuneiform script, which simply means it was written in wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. A chap called George Smith was working at the British Museum in 1872, deciphering things that were stolen/bought/being kept safe (depending on your viewpoint) and he managed to translate a fragment of tablet found in the site that was once Nineveh. (You might recognise Nineveh? Story of Jonah and the whale.) Anyhow, this fragment seemed to have the story of the Genesis flood, and everyone got very excited and sent George back to try and dig up more. I think that this is when Gilgamesh was discovered.

The Story of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the name of a king. He was pretty nasty, so the god Anu decided to create a counterpart, called Enkidu. He is created from clay (similar to Adam in Genesis story) and is made in the image of a god. Enkidu sets off to meet Gilgamesh, but is waylaid by the temptress Shamhat, and they spend a week making love. He is somehow transformed by this, and realises he needs to wear clothes. This frightens the animals (who previously had been his friends) and they run away. He goes off to meet Gilgamesh, they fight and then become friends.

They travel to a forest, which is guarded by Huwawa. They chop down trees, there is a fight, Huwawa is decapitated. The gods are angry and send a bull to punish them, but they kill that too. The gods are more angry, and decide one of the pair should die, so Enkidu is made ill, and then dies, going to ‘the house of dust.’. (There is stuff here about how the gods let him be like a god, but in the end withheld immortality from him, which also mirrors one of the themes in the Genesis story.)

Gilgamesh mourns his friend, and sets off to try and achieve immortality. The poem then has side stories of scorpion people, and lands of darkness, a beautiful garden and a ferryman. He is looking for Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood, as he holds the secret to immortality. As an aside (this story has a lot of asides) Utnapishtim survived a great flood by building a boat, and taking two of every animal inside. They floated until the boat came to rest on a mountain top.

Gilgamesh manages to find Utnapshtim, and asks how he can gain eternal life. At first, Gilgamesh is told not to sleep. He then sleeps for 7 days (not a great start!) He’s then told that he needs to acquire the plant of life (which mirrors the tree of life). He manages to get the plant, but then leaves it by a pool while he swims (as you do) and it is stolen by a snake. The poem then becomes very confusing, but I think that eventually Gilgamesh becomes both wise and immortal. Though in some versions he simply becomes content to be mortal. My Akkadian is non-existent so I can’t confirm either.

(There’s an entertaining video on Youtube if you fancy watching another quick summary of the story: )

Mesopotamian art has lots of images of Gilgamesh.

So, what are your thoughts? Remember, this epic was written before the Old Testament was written. Though if the events in the Bible are factual, they would of course have happened before Gilgamesh, so you could argue that the Bible events influenced the writer of the epic, which then potentially influenced the writers of the Old Testament. I guess there’s no way of knowing, but it’s worth thinking about, because whatever you believe, you should be able to defend the logic of it.

Next week I’ll tell you about the arguments of James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick, who are very convincing. They also don’t think the garden story was about ‘original sin’. Thanks for reading. Take care, and try to avoid talking snakes.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit … A Synopsis

Hello, and how are you? I hope you enjoyed my blogs last week—I messed up and sent two by mistake (I usually keep one in hand for the next week). Too much on my mind. However, I promised you a quick review of the garden story, as told in the book by Ziony Zevit. If you want to check your English version, it’s at the front of your Bible, Genesis 3 and 4, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.


The book is more interesting than the cover.

Zevit is a Hebrew scholar, and says the story can only be understood if you read it in Hebrew. His book is worth reading, and you don’t need to understand Hebrew to read it (but you probably do to evaluate his claims, so read it with a sceptical mind). He looks at the language used, and tries to assess what the story meant to the people who wrote it. It was told orally long before it was written down, and Biblical Hebrew is a translation of ancient Hebrew, so we can’t be sure, even when we read the Hebrew. Zevit makes some bold claims.

Firstly, he claims the story wasn’t written as a myth, but as an historically accurate event. (Of course, this doesn’t mean it was historical, only that those writing it believed it was.) He also says it overlaps a lot with the Gilgamesh Story, which would have been well-known to those reading it. You might not be familiar with Gilgamesh, so I’ll give you a quick summary next week—but Zevit is right, lots of it is very like the Genesis story (and it was written first).

Zevit makes some interesting translation choices. The one which has earned him a not-too-flattering nickname is his claim that Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, but from his penis. His evidence for this is the Hebrew word used means ‘side’ in most other places, and that Hebrew writing of this time used various euphemisms for body parts and this is just another example. He also notes that humans are the only species which don’t have a bone there, as it works on hydraulics (and he provides drawings of skeletons to prove it). Whilst it’s an interesting view, I think it’s bit speculative (and slightly weird). It’s true that the Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘rib’ and ‘side’ would be a closer translation (and every scholar I’ve read agrees with that). But I don’t think he’s correct on the rest of it.

Another point he makes is that humans were created mortal—in other words, they were always intended to die. I have heard lots of sermons (especially at funeral services) that say death is a result of sin, and not what was intended, but I think Zevit is right here. The story seems reasonably clear that humans were created with the intention to die when old. Otherwise the world would become too full (because reproduction also seems to have been intended) and why would ‘the tree of life’ have been created if people already lived forever? The Old Testament doesn’t see death as a bad thing, it talks a lot about people living to a good old age, and ‘going to sleep’ and joining their ancestors.

He also says that the idea of idle paradise is not what the story is about. The humans were created to work in the garden—first Adam, and then the woman to help him. (Please note, the word used to describe Eve as a ‘helper’ does not imply Adam was the boss! It’s the same word used many times in the Old Testament to describe God helping people, and if anything it implies a stronger being helping a weaker being. But we won’t go there.)

The most dramatic (for me) of Zevit’s claims is that the humans did not sin, and they were not punished. The language used to describe the command given to Adam (before Eve was made) was, Zevit claims, more of an ‘aside’ than a specific command. The main command was to eat from every tree, followed by, “Oh, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” He sees the story as a ‘coming of age’ story, whereby humans gained knowledge, and this resulted in them becoming aware of certain things, which increased their discomfort. If you don’t know childbirth is painful, then you don’t fear it and it’s less painful.

I think some of his points are true, and I’ll discuss them in a later blog. Scholars such as James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick have similar beliefs and I found them more reliable. Certainly some of Zevit’s points are true—the woman was not cursed (a point worth making as I have heard the pain of childbirth described as a curse). He also makes the point that the words used about Cain being born, are pluperfect, so Eve ‘had previously given birth,’ before they ate the fruit. This ties in with Adam naming her ‘Eve’ and calling her ‘the mother of all living beings’ because that would make no sense if she hadn’t yet had a child. Only the snake and the ground were cursed, the people were simply told things would be harder for them. There is no evidence of anger in the story, nor do words akin to ‘punishment’ appear.

Of course, if you decide Zevit is correct, and the garden story is not primarily about sin, then Augustine’s notion of ‘original sin’ (which I mentioned last week) would need to be re-examined. But you need more information before you can do that. Next week I’ll tell you the Gilgamesh story—it’s bit weird (but possibly not more weird than a talking snake).

Have a good week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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My Week

Hello, how was your week? I am writing this in a rush, because it’s the end of my college semester and essays are due and exams need to be revised for.

Actually, if you take away the fear of failing the above, it has been quite a fun week. My lectures were interesting, and I managed to meet my daughter for lunch one day and have a good chat. I also managed to lose my purple gloves, which wasn’t so good, but maybe they’ll turn up.

We did Eschatology this week. Not sure if it’s possible to do that in one week, but we tried. (This is a fancy word for talking about ‘the end times’ and what might happen.) It sounds more exciting than it was.

Wednesday we had a lecture about digital theology. This was more interesting than it sounds. It showed all the ways that we now use technology, and how it has stopped being weird and has become part of everyday life (even my mother can now shop online). This extends to us actually incorporating technology into our bodies, so lots of people have artificial hips, or new knees. Some people have brain implants to help control an illness, or prosthetic limbs. The natural extension of this would be sort of cyber-hybrid-people. Some people apparently hope to ‘upload’ their brain into computers, or replace enough of their broken body to delay death for decades, maybe even longer. So we were asked to consider whether technology, with its ever-present, all-knowing, reaching-inside-us aspects was beginning to replace religion. Do people look to technology where they once looked to God? And how should Christians react to this?

Thursday I had a Hebrew test, when I desperately tried to remember all the different verb forms (and mostly failed, but remembered enough to pass). The big exam is in a couple of weeks, so I have verb paradigms scattered around the house in the belief that if I have copies of them next to the loo and stuck on the fridge door, I will magically assimilate them. Not working so far…Maybe future theologians will be able to simply upload a file of them straight into the memory part of their brain.

Friday I wrote an essay. Well, to be accurate, I deleted most of an essay, to try and squash it into the tiny word-limit that has been set. I have always talked too much, now I find that I also write too much, and squeezing all my arguments, and referring to various scholars, into a measly 4,000 words is very difficult. I have to evaluate a book, so I made rough notes, and this came to over 10,000 words before I’d even started to refer to other scholars or give my own opinions. To make it even harder, every time I refer to someone I have to add a footnote (which counts as part of the word count) saying what they wrote and when, and I can’t use contractions (‘would not’, instead of ‘wouldn’t’) which all adds to the length. Writing the first draft was great fun, and I wrote a blinder! Now I have to delete most of it and hope it still makes sense.

Then it was the weekend, which is when I try to clean the house and have conversations that aren’t linked to theology. Not very good at either of those things. I did however move all the unattractive cleaning products off the downstairs washroom window sill and replace them with a plant, and one of those smelly diffuser things that I was given for Christmas. It smells quite posh in there now. Hoping it will help me to learn the verb paradigms that are stuffed behind the toilet rolls. Hope you have a great week, whatever you’ve got planned. Thanks for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Deconstructing My Religion

When I started my theology course, one of the first things they told us was that they hoped to make us question and evaluate every part of our faith, to take it apart, decide on what it was based, and then reconstruct it from a basis of understanding. I would now say that this is a fairly accurate description of the process I am experiencing; the lectures and books I am absorbing are raising lots of questions. It’s an uncomfortable process, sometimes difficult as I evaluate ‘truths’ that I have believed since childhood, only to discover that in the cold light of ‘logic’ and the piercing eye of ‘experience,’ some of them don’t seem as ‘true’ as I thought.

I was deliberate in my wording of the title. It is my religion, my beliefs, that I am questioning, not God. I have experienced too much in my life to ever be able to properly question God. I have heard his voice correcting me, felt the warmth of his peace at my most desperate hour, known his touch. I cannot deny those things even if I would. But everything else, the outworking of religion, what God actually wants, what I should believe—those things are less certain.

It began a while ago, when I started to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, hoping to read and better understand the original manuscripts that our Bible is based on. Bit of a shocker to discover that we don’t have any existing original manuscripts, our English translation is based on scraps of parchment (some of them very scrappy!) which were written centuries after the original manuscripts were written. Copies of copies of copies…not all the same. This was huge for me. We do have other writings, carvings on Egyptian stones, and myths from Mesopotamia, which have survived. So the question has to be, why did God not ensure the books that form our Bible survived? Is it because he didn’t want us to be completely certain that we understood everything? Is it because humans have a horrible tendency to decide they know exactly what’s right, and then apply the rules that arise to other people? Perhaps we are meant to be a little uncertain.

I think perhaps we should read paraphrased versions of the Bible more often. I have always been irritated by Bibles such as The Message which give an updated version of the books. But actually, at least when we read them, we all know we shouldn’t take them literally, they are the essence of the Bible but not the actual words that were first written. All our English translations are also this, but sometimes we forget that.

What I realise is that to have a belief seems to create more questions. I am currently studying the Garden of Eden story (the one with Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit and the snake—you remember it?) Now, I have always believed that this was the point whereby sin entered the world, that by eating the forbidden fruit humans became sinful, and from then on, every generation that followed was also sinful. Some scholars (like Augustine, a monk from centuries ago) named this ‘original sin’ and taught a tidy lesson about what this means for humans. All humans, because they are descended from that first man, are sinful. The problem with this, is that we also believe that Jesus was human, descended from his mother Mary. We also believe that he was God (because his father was God) but logically this creates a problem. Did Jesus inherit ‘original sin’ from his mother, and if not, why not?

Some people solve this problem by stating that Mary was therefore without sin too. But was she? There isn’t much evidence for that from what I can see. And of course, if Mary was without sin, then what about her parents? Why didn’t she inherit sin from them? We end up having to form convoluted explanations about how Mary either was made pure somehow before conceiving Jesus, or Jesus somehow didn’t inherit that bit of humanity. It all feels a little unsatisfactory to me. I don’t doubt that everyone sins—I can see that for myself—but as to why? Not so sure.

Of course, the Garden Story causes all sorts of other problems. There are a few ways to view it, which one is you?

 Either you don’t believe it at all, think the whole thing was created by Iron-Age people as a story and it has no relevance today. Or you might think it literally happened, as stated, in an actual garden somewhere at the source of four rivers. Or you might think that it’s a myth or parable, not an historically literal event but a story that explains a situation. Which one is you?

I have spent several weeks reading the views of different scholars, looking at the story in biblical Hebrew, trying to discern what it means. It has been a fascinating study. There are so many ways of looking at the story, and a tangle of conclusions that people have drawn from it (like Augustine with his belief in original sin). I will write a few blogs describing the different views. Whether you believe in ancient giants, or carbon-dating and fossilised evidence of evolution, I hope you will find the different views interesting. You can draw your own conclusions when you have read the evidence.
Thanks for reading. Take care.
Love, Anne x

As the story was first written in Hebrew, I will begin with an appraisal of the book by Ziony Zevit (a Hebrew scholar). He shows how Eve wasn’t made from a rib, and Cain was born before the couple left the garden, and the snake never actually told any lies. All very interesting…