Author: Ben S.

Definitely a cult. Maybe.


A recent CNN blog post referred to a “cult” and described their sacred rituals as  “completely violent, mind controlling and alarming.” Indeed? Let’s examine. The worshippers gather together in the countryside, on the land of the leader’s extended family. He stands at an altar before them and shouts in a loud voice, reciting the strict and detailed requirements of the adherents which he claims (don’t they always claim this?) came from God, governing their eating habits, sexual habits, hygiene habits, even where they can live and whom they can marry. The worshippers chant their agreement in unison after each rule is read out, agreeing to all he tells them God says. After reiterating these “laws” hand-picked young men loyal to the leader slit the throats of cattle, and begin splashing the cow blood all over the adherents, binding them to the cult community and strict obedience, on pain of death by throat cutting. “Completely violent, mind controlling and alarming” and…

Beyond Translation: Job and Isaiah at Ugarit? Part 2


In Part 1, I promised some Biblical examples of where translation alone fails to convey all the meaning an Israelite would have grasped. I’ve broken these examples into three fuzzy categories. 1) Israel is often described in the Torah as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” We probably all have milk and honey in our kitchen, yet not quite what is described here. In the Old Testament, milk doesn’t usually come from cows, and honey doesn’t come from bees. Cattle were primarily used for beef, while milk came primarily from goats, only rarely from cattle. Israelites didn’t raise bees, so honey was likely difficult to acquire. “Honey” was a boiled-down thick sweet syrup, usually made from dates or  some other fruit, though on rare occasion “honey” does seem to clearly indicate bee-honey. Israel, we might say then, was “a land oozing with chèvre and fruit-honey.” 2) Several times in Genesis 1, curious circumlocutions appear. There’s no mention of the…

Priests, Babylonians, and Seven 24-hour Days of Creation


Even though it comes first in the Bible, Genesis 1  represents the youngest of three Israelite creation traditions. As happens in culture and even inspired religion, traditions of the past were once again adapted and (re)appropriated to meet the needs of the time. Genesis 1-2:4 is generally believed to have come from a priestly tradition associated with the tabernacle/temple, and received its current form sometime around the Babylonian exile (which explains some of its anti-Babylonian polemics, which go totally unnoticed by modern readers.) Several characteristics of Genesis 1-2:4a suggest priestly and temple associations, but the most important for our purposes here is the emphasis on sacred time over sacred space (see here, #3 in particular.) If you’ve ever talked to Jehovah’s Witnesses about birthdays, you know they don’t celebrate them, because no one in the Bible does. And this is generally true, because Israelites weren’t the ultra-specific hour-by-hour calendrically obsessed society we are today; as with literacy, they neither had…

Beyond Translation: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, part 1


Communication is not just about words, but the context, culture and worldview in which they are embedded.1 A simple translation of words will fail to communicate the entire message, because it doesn’t include this information. The complexities of communication are manifest in obvious and less obvious ways; sometimes we know what we’re missing, and sometimes we don’t. Here are some examples. Teenagers can carry on entire conversations at the dinner table or on Facebook by quoting movies their parents haven’t seen. If it goes far enough, the parents realize that something beyond the actual spoken words is being communicated. They may not know what the actual message is, because they haven’t seen the movie; they’re unaware of the culturally-embedded context, which carries meaning beyond the words. If it doesn’t go far enough that the parents catch on, then the kids have communicated a message in plain sight with the parents completely unaware. Let’s say I’m a college chemistry professor with…

Books of Interest to the LDS Nerd

A few of these are forthcoming, a few have appeared recently. I am compelled to read them all, as soon as I can get to them. Now Available Charles Harrel,“This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Kofford Books) “In this first-of-its-kind comprehensive treatment of the development of Mormon theology, Charles Harrell traces the history of Latter-day Saint doctrines from the times of the Old Testament to the present.” I have my doubts that someone who does not equally control original Biblical sources and LDS history, as well as the vast amounts of secondary literature on historiography, exegesis, etc. can give LDS doctrine a truly comprehensive diachronic treatment, and compress it into 597 pages. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to Harrel, an engineering professor, for making the attempt and I look forward to reading it. Too many LDS labor under the assumption that the status quo sprang fully formed from Joseph Smith. I don’t recall which of my friends said, but…

Orcrist the Philistine-Cleaver

One of the difficulties in reading the Old Testament is an unconscious assumption of uniformity between their time and ours. Modern readers often assume that they shared the same doctrinal understandings, worldview/Weltanschauung,assumptions, or culture as we do today. This is not the case, and often contributes to difficulties of interpretation and understanding.1 The Old Testament worldview and cultural setting turns out to have much in common with Lord of the Rings.2 If you want to get a general feel for the world of the Old Testament, watching or reading Lord of the Rings approximates that foreignness in general, if not always in specific.

YSA and the Bible: Observations from a KJV Conference


On Saturday June 11,  nearly 200 YSA gathered at the Lincoln Center chapel, the same as houses the Manhattan Temple, for a YSA conference that centered on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Saturday from 1-4, three one-hour workshops were held on the Bible. Three Bible Nerds were on hand to teach:  Jon H (MA, Biblical Studies, Yale) covered the writing and transmission of the books of the Bible; Jon R (MA, New Testament, Duke) spoke on using modern translations and other study aids, with extensive slides and books on display. We each submitted a brief teaser description. Mine read, How to Read the Bible and Love It– Many LDS are less familiar with the Bible than our other scriptures, and feel more uncomfortable with it when they do read it; the Bible is “weird,” and Bible-reading can seem like a more Protestant kind of thing. However, the Old and New Testaments were central for Joseph Smith and…