Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse:" A Postulate of Biblical Criminal Law

In his classic essay, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,"* Moshe Greenberg threw down the gauntlet at historical and comparative approaches that he saw as draining the life and meaning from our analysis of biblical law: "...until the values that the law embodies are understood, it is questionable whether any individual law can be properly appreciated, let alone profitably compared with another in a foreign system."

Greenberg then observed two crucial distinctions between "biblical" (meaning all of the legal material in the Torah, treated as a single system) and Mesopotamian law: First, Mesopotamian law is authored by the king, while biblical law is never authored by a human:
"Not only is Moses denied any part in the formation of the Pentateuchal laws, no Israelite king is said to have authored a law code, nor is any king censured for so doing. The only legislator the Bible knows is God; the only legislation is that mediated by a prophet."
Second, in biblical law human life has an absolute value: unlike supposedly more advanced Mesopotamia or supposedly more primitive bedouin cultures, you cannot pay money ("damages," in our terms) to restore a life. For these two distinctions alone his article retains enduring value.

But Greenberg then makes a move with stunning potential consequences: Offhandedly fusing historically and juridically distinct laws from Deuteronomy and the Covenant Code of Exodus with Priestly law, he concludes that "In the sphere of the criminal law, the effect of this divine authorship of all law is to make crimes sins, a violation of the will of God," citing Numbers 15:30's claim that anyone who violates the law "affronts the Lord, and will be cut off from among the people." "The way is thus prepared," writes Greenberg, "to regard offenses as absolute wrongs, transcending the power of men to pardon or expunge."

Indeed. The greatest impact of the idea that any violation of biblical law was an unforgivable offense against God came from another brilliant holistic Jewish interpreter who also treated the entire Torah as a single legal statement:
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law...
St. Paul's audacious claim in Galatians 3:10-13 is that the law had become a curse because any violation of the law is not merely wrong--a human act that must be made right by human means, but a sin against God, a cosmic stain that human power can never wipe away. And Judeans who had experienced repeated, crushing defeats and exiles, all of which seemed predicted in just that section of Deuteronomy Paul uses, might have understood just what he was saying. We remain defeated; we must have violated some part of this sweeping law, which has cursed us; our law is a curse. Of course, there was a corresponding positive holistic reading of the text, well known and popular in Paul's time but in which he was understandably uninterested: the idea that repentance and the Day of Atonement together completely remove precisely this cosmic stain.

My argument, implied in the joke fusion of my title, is that when "holistic" reading frees scholars from historical context--the obligation to heed individual biblical voices--they may unintentionally conjure up powerful ghosts that only theology can confront. Come to think of it, speaking of powerful theological ghosts the next post should be about Jacob Taubes.

* Greenberg's "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law" was originally published in Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion, the Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, ed. Menahem Haran (Jerusalem, 1960), and its interest in discovering a qualitatively distinctive biblical-Jewish approach to law that could not be explained by social evolution fit well with the dedicatee's brilliant nationalist project.

Monday, December 14, 2009

UCLA Talk: Epigraphy and the Invention of the Jewish People

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 from 4:00pm - 7:00pm, I'll talk about what my empirical work on Iron Age Israelite writing and identity says about the historicity of Jewish peoplehood. Hint: it's real, but it was never about blood or authenticity.

Second Book - Rituals of Revelation: The Ancient Near Eastern Roots of Jewish Mysticism

Because I can't stop now. I'm submitting this to Brill at the end of the summer (perhaps the De Vermis Mysteriis to The Invention of Hebrew's Necronomicon?):

The origins of Jewish mysticism are hotly contested: many of its most mysterious and compelling elements are found in Mesopotamian and early Jewish texts but not in the Hebrew Bible. How do we explain the new myths and rituals of Jewish mysticism? This project builds on recent advances in interpreting the data for connections between early Jewish and ancient Near Eastern intellectual culture. The Jewish intellectual culture of Qumran participated in
an international high culture through the medium of Aramaic, as exemplified by the astronomy of the book of Enoch, the first apocalypse and a key text in early mysticism. The project examines not only borrowing but how people experienced these myths religiously. How did the belief arise that this cosmic knowledge could be embodied by worshippers? I investigate mysticism not as an ineffable and inexplicable internal state, but as linguistic practice. Beginning with Sumerian incantations in which the exorcist claims to be Adapa, the semi divine sage who went to heaven, I will explore how the grammar and pragmatics of this ancient Near Eastern ritual tradition let practicioners adopt illuminated divine personae. The project is equally concerned with historical causation: why do these traditions only emerge in Judaism during the Hellenistic period? Here the loss of native kingship and the increasing autonomy and creativity of scribal culture are key. Myths of sovereign power are transferred from a top- down model in which the heavenly ruler empowers the earthly one to judge and militarily protect the individual to a model of audience, in which the individual appears before the heavenly throne to share liturgically in the benefits of cosmic rule and heavenly knowledge. Ritual enacts politics, as early Jewish mysticism empowers worshippers to live out Near Eastern myth under the new conditions of Hellenistic colonialism.

Me, Thomas Friedman, and Obama's mom

Aside from the satisfaction of showing those people who had faith in you that they were right, you really did have it in you, one of the remarkable things about having a book out in the world is the way it starts to show up, seemingly unbidden, in places that mean a lot to you. Today that tireless and good-hearted informant, my mom, told me that my book had landed on the front table of the Seminary Co-op bookstore.

Growing up in Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, I got a strong minority of my education and maybe a majority of my inspiration from spending time in that comforting maze, hidden safely in the bowels of the Chicago Theological Seminary. The front table was where I, and untold numbers of the scholars and students at Chicago, found out what was happening in intellectual life outside of the neighborhood. In high school I remember the first time I wandered into the University's Regenstein library to find a book on H.P. Lovecraft. I remember being stunned, mesmerized by the fact that there were books next to this one that I'd never heard of. Some had been well-used, and some seemed not to have been touched since they first made their way to these quiet shelves. Someone could have written something amazing 50 years ago and I might open that book and discover it. Hidden, waiting for that accident to unlock the remarkable potential in it. Yes I mean the Necronomicon.

Now that my book is slowly and tentatively making its way through the academic libraries and bookshelves of the world, my book too could unlock untold eldritch horror on a helpless world. Thanks, mom.