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Friends Meeting: the B sides

#8 A Bible story from Jan 2008

Good morning Friends.  I read something in the Bible which troubled me.

Actually, that happens pretty much all the time, but this one tale got pointed.

I read the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in the book of Numbers (or Bamidbar).

“Korah… [a Levite] Dathan and Abiram [members of the tribe of Rueben]… became insolent, and rose up against Moses.  With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.  They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them.  Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”  (Numbers 16:1-3)

What happens next is a supernatural showdown.  Moses, who is supposedly the most humble man who ever lived, and chosen by God no less, according to the writers of the Torah, says that Korah and company have gone too far.  The Lord tells Moses that he’s going to destroy Korah et. al. And of course in that “old time religious” sense, ‘destroy’ includes their wives, kids, sheep, goats, dog, cat, parakeet...  hamster…

Moses tries to intercede with God on their behalf - “please God don’t kill them” - but God just has to be God I suppose. Complete annihilation ensues.  Even the 250 well-known community leaders get fried.  The metal censers which survive God’s consuming fire are hammered into sheets and overlay the altar, perhaps as a symbolic reminder of: “if you know what’s good for you never question authority including this here human authority” which claims to be used by God and of course is ever so humble.

The story of Korah felt like a full frontal assault against some concepts which I have heard labeled “Universalism”. Furthermore, this morality tale appeared to be a stinging rebuke to significant Quaker traditions, in as much as I know them thus far!

I can easily imagine some Friends today speaking to the hierarchy of some other religious denominations: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of US, and the LORD is with US.  Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”

In fact, Howard Brinton tells us that the First Publishers of Truth even sent a delegation to Rome to convert the Pope.  Would they be considered “insolent”?

But is there not that of God in everyone?

And have I not seen enough corruption with many religious leaders who call themselves Christian to ask why did they set themselves above the rest of us, who were all brought into this world by God?

I am drawn back to a few chapters earlier in Numbers, 11:29, Where Moses says:

“I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

I have great trouble reconciling this wish with the story of Korah.

I have no idea what the original Hebrew words are or mean, but the English word ‘insolent’ means “boldly disrespectful in speech or behavior”. 

No matter what the words are, there will always be a problem of interpretation.

This past summer I saw a bumper sticker which read “militant agnostic: I don’t know and neither do you!”

So in the interests of rigorous honesty, I submit this starting point for common ground: not a single person alive today, nor any person who lived during the last 3000 years witnessed this supposed event.  Even the people who were at this posited phenomenon did not write down the account in the Torah themselves. 

Three general possibilities arise, to my mind at least:

#1 – Absolute literal accounting.

Every event occurred exactly as we see it written in the Bible today, from the numerous copies over in the First Day School, all the way back to Dead Sea Scroll fragments and beyond.  In order for absolute literal accounting to have occurred, someone who was at the scene has to have told their kids and grandkids exactly, without any embellishment whatsoever.  This “oral tradition bucket brigade” must proceed flawlessly until it is written down by someone for the first time, and then the scribes do their ceremonial Xeroxing through the ages.

#2 – Oral embellishment.  Naaaaww… no way that could ever happen. Never heard of such a thing! 

Simple honest query for historians and archeologists: how many generations  are likely to have passed before the oral stories were first written down?  Wikipedia suggests Moses and Aaron died around 1437 BCE, Numbers written during 500s BCE, if we push that back to at most 599 BCE, this leaves 838 years for embellishment.  If a generation’s influence is around 30 years, 838 / 30 = ballpark figure of 28 generations before pen goes to papyrus, or sheepskin.  That’s plenty of time for big fish stories to evolve – oops, excuse me – grow!

#3 – Scribe embellishment, or ex nihilo propaganda.

I recently read a provocative article by Eric Walburg claiming that it was primarily Hellenized Jews in Alexandria who wrote the TeNaKh, mostly in the third century BC*.  “The references to Old Israel of the distant past are directed at the enlightenment of people living at the time, and have much more to do with events at that time than some distant mythical history which was never recorded in stone, so to speak…”

Even if parts of Walburg's article are inacurate, the possibility of scribes embellishing or creating stories ex nihilo, when they first write down the TeNaK is not easily dismissed. Again, none of us were there to witness the scribes writing.

I suspect the root of my troubles is somewhere behind door #2 and door #3: the embellishment process of oral traditions, and writing down stories onto scrolls for the first time allows for completely new material to be added to whatever ‘real history’ there may have been, and what purposes does all of this serve?  In whose interests was the Torah and the rest of the Bible written?

A very wise woman taught me that all human communication has an author, audience and a message, and that all three need to be studied for better understanding of any piece.  Since then I’ve been alerted to how the medium itself can shape the message.  But more significantly I have wondered about agendas and bosses.  Who works for whom?

It occurs to me that having scribes write scrolls in 300 – 500 BCE might be somewhat like owning a printing press in the year 1450, or perhaps having computer scientists program X.25 for the internet in the 1970s: not many people could afford this.  What I’m getting at is: “freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.”

Educating and sustaining a scribe who is dedicated to working indoors and not subsistence farming like almost everyone else is not trivial.  Who’s paying the bills?  Either wealthy individuals or a tremendous community effort is involved.  Whose bread you eat his songs you sing.  Why yes, sometimes I think I can see the man behind the curtain too, Toto.

I feel that I am not arguing with Moses, if such a person ever existed.  I will allow that at one point some Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, at least some managed to escape by some means, and among any group there usually arise some leaders.  More than that, and you’ve got a lot of selling to do.

I suppose that I am arguing with some ancient goat herder’s granddad who felt it necessary to frighten his uppity rugrats into ever tighter obedience.  Or perhaps my beef is with the political leadership of a privileged elite class for whom the scribes wrote.

This is why I suspect the story of Korah was made up as a propaganda piece to discourage dissent within a tentative Israelite “nation”: I am too familiar with contrived “unity”, glossing over numerous social and economic differences with populist appeals and empty rhetoric. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. 

To try and maintain some humility and integrity here, I must go back to my starting reference: I do not know and furthermore all of this is unknowable!

Science is the study of repeatable phenomenon.  History is not.  Biblical scholarship is not demonstrably true in the same sense that the natural sciences are.  The most prestigious and well educated guesses are still – guess what?! – guesses!

I suspect that the oral-literary conglomerate behind the Moses-character would not really be happy with “all the Lord’s people prophesying” unless we all prophesied in the right way, meaning their way, regurgitating the same conventional pieties.

If we really believe that any and all of us can tap into some ultimate underlying Source ourselves, without the need of a carefully appointed priest to mediate, the priests, and the social-political-economic order for which they work, wittingly or no, might be very threatened indeed.

Isn’t that why early Quakers were imprisoned so often – the threat of a good example?

I may have found some answer to these problems of Biblical interpretation in a recent FMC Bulletin:

“What is truth in the Bible is there because it is true, not true because it is there”. -Henry Cadbury 1959*** 

Does this allow for there to be un-truth in the Bible?  And so we have some work to do to separate the un-truth from the truth in the Bible?

For those of you who bristle at the idea of untruth in the Bible, here’s a query for you: how many women went to the tomb where Jesus was buried?  The gospels give 4 conflicting accounts.  At least three out of four are untrue.

OK, so now I can admit that even I “have gone too far” – I’m thinking too hard!

To sum up: my problems at their roots seem to lie under this question:

What role does the Bible play in Quakerism?

From what I can recall in Quaker literature, classes and discussion is that some “answer” will come from listening to that Source which is available to us all, and was available to the writers of these ancient scrolls.

But then up pops that story of Korah suggesting that I am not qualified to listen, even though Moses, whomever he was, wished that we all could experience a direct connection with God.

Ok, I’d better stop now.  My head hurts.


so maybe i took an aspirin: a few more thoughts to polish off:

Why question scribes / benefactors motives?

Hebrew community appears to be anything but egalitarian: they own slaves, own concubines, own their wives, can own their fellow Hebrews for limited periods of time.

And if the numerous accounts of genocide are remotely accurate – these people were anything but peaceful!

For that matter – very few if any human societies are egalitarian.  1st Christians (acts 2 and 4) practiced communism on a small local scale.  Iglesia communities, liberation theology in some latin American countries, but pretty rare to see a thorough-going egalitarian culture.

I suspect that the violence towards outsiders, a milder economic / indebtedness violence or control through inequality, competition are linked.

I wish to overcome denial and self-delusion.  At best I can dig up some questions which a few others have not thought of before.




*“Colonizing a Metaphor. The Bible and Middle East History” By ERIC WALBERG


**To support my hypothesis of some parts of the Bible as a propaganda piece for social control I submit the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22 – 24.  Balak just sounds like a comic book villain, created only for the crowds to boo and hiss at, and then laugh when he, and his entire people, get wiped out.  And then Balaam is the “enemy convert”.  The contrived moral of the story is just too transparent – if even one of our enemies can know from listening to God that we’re just the cat’s meow, then boy we really must be the cat’s meow, right?!

Characters throughout the Old Testament are set up like bowling pins, from Saul, to whom God sends an evil spirit, to Pharaoh, to numerous kings who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even Balaam gets killed by the Hebrew army after he outlived his usefulness in this nationalistic rah-rah shish-boom-bah.  So much of the Torah sounds like jingoism at its best.

***Here’s the quote:

The Bible is not the dictator of our conduct and faith. It is

rather the record of persons who exemplified faith and virtue.

It does for religion that which the dictionary does for speech.

Its value consists in its agreement with experience, or with

truth. What is truth in the Bible is there because it is true, not

true because it is there. Its experiences “answer” to ours, that

is, they correspond to ours. This is the repeated discovery of

generations of Bible readers. “I meet that in Scripture,” said

Coleridge, “which finds me.”

There is its range over more than a thousand years giving

us the perspective of religion in time, growing and changing,

and leading from grace to grace. There is its clear evidence

of the variety of religious experience. Even the uncongenial

and the alien to us is happily abundant in the Bible. The

needs of people today are partly to be measured by their

difficulty in understanding that from which they differ. At this

point the Bible has no little service to render. It requires

patient insight into the unfamiliar, and provides a discipline for

imagination. —Henry Cadbury 1959




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