Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Mclean Bible Church Edition

One last interesting takeaway from my megachurch experience:

That I wasn't particularly impressed with the scholarship evident at Mclean Bible Church message this last Sunday didn't mean it didn't serve it's purpose. The sermon wasn't intended to go deep into the intricacies of the text, or to introduce you to the nuances of Bible scholarship. It was meant to reinforce your New Year's Resolution to Go To Church, and to sound both warm and authoritative. It was not intended to speak to an audience that knows much about the Bible. Those sermons tend to drive off the noobs, or, rather, drive off people who don't like realizing how complex the Bible actually is. That glossy simplicity is why I found myself, on several occasions, going...HWaat?? like Dave Chapelle's Lil' Jon.

Yeah, I know, it's a dated reference. But I'm gettin' old. I can't help myself.

One of my more significant HWaats came as the sermon introduced us to the villain of the Esther story, Haman. Now, I know Haman well. He's a major character in the life of Jews, and being the proud papa of a couple of Jews, I hear about him annually at synagogue. Every year during Purim, my kids spin their groggers to drown out his name with loud clackings. He's the arrogant official in King Ahasuerus's court before whom Esther's uncle Mordecai refuses to bow, the story goes...faithful Mordecai only bows before God. Haman then seeks to avenge that slight by not just seeking the death of Mordecai, but by plotting the slaughter of every Jew in Persia. His come-uppance by Esther is the great victory in this tale, as the cruel, proud and powerful antagonist is routed by the beautiful, brave orphan girl.

That's the story that's retold every year in the synagogue and the story we get in Veggie Tales, anyhoo.

But what I heard at Mclean Bible on Sunday was different. From the pulpit came the assertion that Haman hated Mordecai not because he was a nasty piece of work whose ego had been pricked, but because Haman was an Agagite, a people who traditionally despised the Jews. And the moment I heard that, I said...Hwaat? Agagite? I'd never noticed that detail before, as it seemed essentially irrelevant to the thrust of the story.

Now, I know my "-ites" from the Deuteronomic histories. You say "Jebusite," and I'll have some clue what you're talking about. And no, it has nothing to do with Homer Simpson. But Agagite? No such people is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings. But it seemed familiar somehow.

As the sermon went on, my mind churned. Agag? Where had I heard that name? Then, it clicked. Agag, King of the Amalekites. That must be the reference, and it's one I know well. We hear about Agag in 1 Samuel 15. I know this story well, because this is one of the favorite passages of the neoatheist movement. It describes the genocidal massacre of the Amalekites at the purported command of God. The command in that story is to slaughter all of them, down to the infants and livestock...and Saul does. All the Amalekites are utterly destroyed with the sword, all save Agag, who gets executed later. But when Saul fails to kill some of the sheep, he forfeits the right to rule Israel. It's an nasty little tale, one that a Spirit-filled heart knows is utterly at odds with both the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the nature of the loving God he proclaimed.

At first, I thought the pastor must have just randomly googled this bizarre factoid. I was all prepared to get huffy and judgmental about the unscholarly nature of his message. is so often the case...I was wrong. Upon returning to my study, I discovered that the "Haman-hated-Mordecai-because-he-was-an-Agagite-racist" is a common theme in many commentaries. The pastor had done his homework.

Up to a point. Because making that claim opens up an interesting can of worms for those of us who like to actually think about the implications of what we say.

It establishes a rather interesting tension between texts. On the one hand, the Bible clearly states that all of the people of Agag were butchered, every last one of them, completely, in an ugly genocide. Then again, Haman is, as a descendant of Agag, supposed to be an Amalekite. And not just Haman. Digging into it further, it appears that after this total "genocide," there were still plenty of Amalekites kicking around. David fights 'em agin in 1 Samuel 30. I tend not to buy the argument some conservative scholars make that he's fighting a zombie Amalekite army. I like zombie exegesis as much as the next guy, but this one seems a bit of a stretch. An Amalekite also shows up at the story of the death of Saul. He appears not to be undead, either, as no mention is made of David's soldier needing to double-tap him to be sure he's finished off.

This poses a problem for both neoatheists and biblical literalists. For the neoatheists, it means that the total genocide they eagerly point to as evidence of the monstrous evilosity of our bloodthirsty Sky-Daddy probably wasn't quite the event that's described. The text is still hardly the ethical highlight of the Bible, but looking at it from a broader historical-critical biblical perspective, it also doesn't seem to be quite the thing it says it is.

Which is, of course, the problem for literal inerrancy. These texts are clearly and in their plain meaning in tension with one another. Does "completely" not mean "completely?"

Fascinating. Learn somethin' new every day!