Wednesday, July 08, 2009

God as a blogger?

In Parshas Chukas, God behaves almost like a blogger. Rather than authoring his own material, our Lord and Creator twice references the published work of other people.

The first occurrence is a cite from the the Book of the Wars of the Lord a book that was lost, and excluded from the canon.

Robert Alter speculates that the book was not preserved because the dieties and events it describes were too mythological. Later authorities, he says, were uncomfortable with a book that represented God as a warrior, in direct combat with Israel's enemies, rather than working through the agency of Israel. I'm not entirely sure why Alter feels comfortable with such a speculation given that just a brief snippet from the book is extant, but there it is. If Judaism has another theory to explain why this book was forgotten, I don't know it.

The little bit of this book that we have seems seriously wierd. In the King James translation, it reads as follows:

"...Waheb in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the site of Ar and lie along the border of Moab."

What this means is anyone's guess, forcing us to ask: If God had something to say, why didn't He put it in His own ordinary, easy to understand words instead of borrowing something impenetrable from someone else's book?

The second occurrence of divine blogging is even more mysterious. After describing an Israelite victory over Sihon king of the Amorites, the Torah tells us the land Israel took from Sihon first belonged to Moab. The claim is supported not with a historical notice, or a narrative assertion, but with a snippet of poetry. Yes, poetry. The lines are attributed, vaguely, to "moshlim" who (Alter again) may have been something like the Celtic bards who composed and recited verses celebrating the legendary exploits of chieftains and heroes. Today, we might call them folk singers.

In the KJV, their song is translated this way:

Come to Heshbon, let it be built, Let the city of Sihon be repaired.
For fire went out from Heshbon, A flame from the city of Sihon;
It consumed Ar of Moab, The lords of the heights of the Arnon.
Woe to you, Moab! You have perished, O people of Chemosh!
He has given his sons as fugitives, And his daughters into captivity,
To Sihon king of the Amorites. “But we have shot at them; Heshbon has perished as far as Dibon.
Then we laid waste as far as Nophah, Which reaches to Medeba

For those of us saddled with a Torah-true perspective this is about as queer as a three dollar bill. Secular poetry? In the Holy Torah? It's a little like using a Bob Dylan verse to clinch an argument about halacha. (This doesn't work) (Unless getting tossed out of class is your goal)

Again, we're fleft wondering why God preferred this poem to His own writing.

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