№ 10: Those Who Make Them Become Like Them
Humanism and artificial intelligence. Also grabbing genitals and reading Genesis 38 as a story about David and his household
This is our last substack from NYC for another two and a half months - Susannah is off to Venice for Carnevale (get ready for LOTS OF PICTURES in the next substack!) and Alastair, much to his own relief, is not off to Venice because that would involve dressing in Regency menswear, than which he would rather have his fingernails ripped out by the roots.
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Key events of the last two weeks:
Alastair took me out for a meal celebrating the first anniversary of our engagement. It was spectacular.
We finally made it up to Ghent, to my father and stepmother’s house, to celebrate a very belated Christmas with them, and to watch My Name is Nobody, a thoroughly freakish spaghetti western. Our friend Hannah Long and my dad are between them educating both of us on the Western; see here for Hannah’s Plough piece on the subject.
We’ve both gotten a good deal done work-wise in the city, which also continues to be entertaining.
And some of that work has been to do with several upcoming joint book projects (!) which we are planning together. More to come!
Last night, we finally met up with Ari Lamm and Dru Johnson, two biblical-scholar friends who we’d been attempting to meet in person for months. After a two hour intensely intellectually exciting conversation over Thai food, we are happy to confirm that they are real people not just characters on Twitter.
Finally, yesterday, my brother’s wife went into labor, and this morning, as I was headed to the airport, we learned that she had given birth to our niece! Oona Kingsley Black is now my favorite member of the family, and her grandmother is headed over to LA immediately to meet her. I’ll be heading over myself in - well, the plan was in June. But to be honest I don’t think I’m going to be able to hold out till then. OONA!
Writing this from the airport, and boarding has just started. My heart is full of joy.
Humanism, Idolatry, and Artificial Intelligence
Susannah: One of the things that the ChatGPT discourse is good for is showing the worthwhileness of abstruse dorky philosophy of mind thought experiments. Because while only lately has the technology been able to actually do ChatGPT, people have been thinking about what something like ChatGPT could be - and could not be - for millennia.
How is this possible? Well, the basic question of ChatGPT - can a computer, something existing in the material world, have an intellect - is the inverse of one of the oldest questions in philosophy: are our minds, our intellects, physical, or are they immaterial? More to the point: do we have an immaterial soul? Essentially everybody has asked this question.
As soon as computers came on the scene, the inverse popped up: could this “thinking machine” be a thinking machine in reality, as opposed to in breathless Scientific American articles from the 1950s? The person who is most associated with trying to poke at this question (in between cracking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, thus arguably winning the war) is Alan Turing. The Turing Test is one which has baffled me since I first heard about it. Basically, when Turing was asking himself what it would mean for a computer to become sentient, he decided that he would count a computer as sentient if, in conversation with it, you were unable to tell whether or not it was a human being.
This struck me as bizarre at the time, and more bizarre as we have seen the test be run thousands of times in peoples’ conversations with ChatGPT and its ilk. (For those who missed it, in June of last year, Blake Lemoine, one of Google’s engineers, was fired after he became convinced, “talking” with one of the prototype natural language simulations, called LAMBDA, that the chatbot was in fact conscious). If there is one thing humans are good at, it’s believing things to be persons. It’s like… very easy for us, and very hard for us not to do. We are persons, and we anthropomorphize absolutely everything. I used to be scared of the curtains in my parents bedroom because in the dark it seemed like there were people standing behind them. The tendency to see faces in patterns is so pervasive that it has a name - pareidolia.
We are even prone to do this if we make the thing in question: if we paint a frowny face on a rock we kind of feel like the rock might be unhappy. If you give a child a stuffy, you know that child is going to immediately begin to ascribe personhood to it, even if it is a stuffed animal you made and she saw you making it. Of course humans would be able to make a computer program that would be able to fool other humans into thinking it was a person, and in Lemoine’s case, able to fool himself. We’re incredibly good at making personish things and incredibly good at then kind of thinking they are persons.
Just to point out, this tendency, to make personish things, then get excessively impressed with and excited about them and ascribe agency and maybe power to them and ask them for help with things, is noted in the Old Testament a good bit; it is called idolatry. This is Isaiah, writing in around 740 BC about that favorite theme of the prophets, Israelites Behaving Badly:
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!" And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!"
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, "Is there not a lie in my right hand?"
Lemoine’s bosses at Google were about as patient with his own little bit of self-deception as the Prophet Isaiah was with the Israelites’; they pointed out that obviously the Chatbot was not sentient, and fired Lemoine for being a publicity-seeking idiot.) Here and here are some bits of further analysis of the specific ChatGPT/LAMBDA moment we find ourselves in (tl;dr the first of those links is to a piece titled “No, AI isn’t sentient, you absolute morons;” the second is a discussion of the fact that we have, through decades of Googling, become accustomed to… like, trusting that computers will… sort of tell us the truth, or be a neutral source of good information, and this is entirely not what any chatbot is able to do or programmed to do.
However this only scratches the surface. Because while Silicon Valley was ramping up, a whole new generation of philosophers started using computers as characters in their thought experiments (not running thought experiments on computers, because, as you may have begun to gather, computers do not think.) And others in that same generation have approached the question from the other direction, returning to the original Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments for the immateriality of the intellect, now much refined and brought into conversation with people like Kripke and Chalmers (he of Hard Problem of Consciousness fame). Of the first, Hubert Dreyfus is foundational; of the second, Ed Feser is a good contemporary exponent, and his work will point you back to the older stuff. (That Feser link is to a paper; here’s his Beginners Guide to Philosophy of Mind, which is spectacularly good, if you’d like more.)
Then there’s the amusingly bitchy set of responses to e.g. Ray Kurzweil’s incredibly influential claims about the human brain being a computer, exemplified by this piece by Robert Epstein: He points out that the idea of the brain being a computer, or a computer being a brain, is… a metaphor, and that the fact that we’ve become virtually unable to talk about our brains without using computing metaphors, and about computers without using mind metaphors, is preventing us from being able to think clearly about what’s going on, and what we are.
And then there are the pushbacks from Silicon Valley bros themselves. They have a tendency of course to like, or at least be intrigued by, the idea that AIs will become conscious, because it’s dramatic and kind of cool, and because they tend to be philosophical materialists. And they have a tendency because they are science and engineering bros to believe that science and engineering are the only fields that one must investigate if one wants to investigate reality. But SOME of them also have clocked to philosophy as a separate thing, and have brought their own less armchair understanding of what goes into computing to the discussion. See here for David Hsing on why artificial consciousness is impossible, which argues like it says on the tin.
What a lot of these discussions do is make it clear that we are not talking about a question of technology and how far along it has gotten. We’re talking about what consciousness is, and because consciousness is experienced subjectively, we don’t actually have more information now than, well, than Plato did. We all know what it is like to think and to perceive, to see the color red, to understand why a sound logical proof must be the case, to analyze and imagine. We have all always known this.
The problem is not that AIs might actually start to become conscious. The problem is that we have a little bit of an idol problem, as humans, or at least a pareidolia problem, which really is not a problem usually, but in this case it might be.
As Phil Christman recently said on Peter’s and my podcast, "I don't think we're going to have strong AI. We’re going to continue to make machines that we then lop off pieces of ourselves in order to serve. But we've been doing that for a long time."
Because we also have a little bit of a tendency to not understand or value ourselves or other people as humans, and so while AIs won’t (unless something supernatural and immaterial becomes involved, which of course also might happen) become conscious, we sure might start thinking of ourselves as, basically, AIs. And that would be about as disastrous as thinking of ourselves as meat robots always is.
This was part one of what I think is probably going to be a fun (for me!) series of pieces about what I am calling the Reactionary Humanism Project. Stay tuned for part 2, not in the next issue, but in the issue afterwards (because next issue… is the VENICE ISSUE.)
Taking Matters by the Balls
Alastair: In my current Davenant Hall class, I’m teaching skills of biblical reading. One of the passages that recently came up in discussion was Deuteronomy 25:11-12—
When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.
This is an exceptionally bizarre law, in several respects. On the surface, it seems quite out of place in its context. It deals with the strangest scenario: a wife grabbing the genitals(!) of her husband’s assailant. The punishment—cutting off the woman’s hand—is surprising too. What are we to make of all of this? As usual, we must start by paying closer attention and by considering all potentially relevant details. We will need to draw on our scriptural knowledge.
Let’s see what we observe.
We must begin by attending to the context. Chapters 6-26 of Deuteronomy follow the order of the Ten Commandments of chapter 5, exploring the core principles successively in detailed case law and the like. By my reckoning, the division is as follows: chapters 6-11—the first commandment; chapters 12-13—the second commandment; chapter 14:1-21—the third commandment; chapter 14:22—16:17—the fourth commandment; chapter 16:18—18:22—the fifth commandment; chapter 19:1—22:8—the sixth commandment; chapter 22:9—23:14—the seventh commandment; chapter 23:15—24:7—the eighth commandment; chapter 24:8—25:3—the ninth commandment; chapter 25:4—26:15—the tenth commandment. 25:11-12 seems to fall in the section concerning the tenth commandment.
A further contextual point: the verses preceding verse 11 concern the laws of levirate marriage (verses 5-10). And immediately before those laws is another odd law that might at first seem to be misplaced (verse 4): ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.’ In the context of the tenth commandment, the performance of the levirate duty can be seen as a radical alternative to covetousness. The levir places the interests of another ahead of his own and acts in a radical way to ensure that their name is not blotted out. Observe also the verbal parallels that highlight the conceptual contrast between the levir’s concern that his dead brother’s name not be blotted out (verse 6) and Amalek’s attempt to blot out Israel when it was at its weakest, for which its name must be blotted out (verses 17-19).
The Apostle Paul notably argues that this law must be taken symbolically in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18—the ministers in the Lord’s threshing floor (note the temple was built on the threshing floor, 2 Chronicles 3:1) can enjoy a share of the fruits produced for the Lord by their service. Read in relation to the levirate law, we might understand it as teaching that the one performing levirate marriage could enjoy the usufruct of his dead brother’s property while he was raising an heir for him.
The levirate law itself also has very odd elements: ‘then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face’ (verse 9).
In order better to understand these strange laws, we should consider the narratives with levirate marriage (the argument that strange case laws often relate to episodes in the patriarchal narrative has been developed by such as Callum Carmichael). The two key narratives are those of Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) and Ruth. The Ruth narrative has peculiar details recalling Deuteronomy 25:4—Boaz was on the threshing floor, Ruth ‘uncovered his feet,’ and lay at his feet. Commentators typically note the seeming sexual euphemism: elsewhere ‘feet’ can be used euphemistically and the expression ‘covering the feet’ seems to be used as a circumlocution for a person relieving themselves in private (Judges 3:24; 1 Samuel 24:4).
In Ruth 3, it is as if Ruth were petitioning Boaz to perform the role of the kinsman redeemer through a kind of symbolic enaction of the law of the ox on the threshing floor. Boaz, the ox on the threshing floor, is to ‘tread’ out the woman at his uncovered feet to bring forth the seed. Note that, the next morning, Boaz asks Ruth to hold out the garment she is wearing and places six measures of barley upon her (Ruth 3:15). Holding the barley in her garment in front of her, one can imagine it looking like a pregnancy: Boaz’s response is also in the form of symbolism.
The other famous story of levirate marriage is found in Genesis 38. Onan is the man who disgraceful refuses to raise up offspring for his dead brother, wasting his seed on the ground. Perhaps the removed sandal (uncovering the ‘foot’) and the spitting euphemistically enacts Onan’s crime back to him.
If Deuteronomy 25:4 might be (among other things) a symbolic presentation of levirate marriage, is there a possibility that verses 11-12 might be too? Could levirate marriage—indeed, a particular story of levirate marriage—provide an explanation for the bizarre scenario?
Let’s look at the elements: 1. two fighting men; 2. the wife acting to deliver her husband; 3. grabbing the assailant’s genitals; 4. punished by having her hand cut off. There is some similarity with levirate marriage, as a woman is acting to deliver her husband. In levirate marriage, the widow acts to rescue her dead husband’s line from extinction.
Looking at the story of Judah and Tamar in particular, more commonalities emerge. In Genesis 38, Judah practically condemns his deceased son Er’s name to extinction, refusing to give Tamar to Shelah. Seeing this (verse 14), Tamar tries to take hold of Judah's genitals, as it were! She successfully does so and produces offspring, Perez and Zerah, though she nearly loses her own life in the process.
There is an interesting detail in the story of Perez and Zerah: in the peculiar manner of their birth, Zerah has a scarlet thread tied around his wrist. Significantly, while Perez’s line leads to David, while not utterly removed, the strength of the line of Zerah is cut off in a key figure, Achan (Joshua 7).
My suggestion, then, is that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is legal commentary on the narrative of Judah and Tamar. Let’s put the pieces together.
The fighting men are Judah and Er. Tamar wants to deliver Er from complete extinction by raising up offspring for him. As her dead husband is powerless, she needs to rescue him. The grabbing of the assailant’s genitals is her attempt to rescue Er by sleeping with his father apart from his knowledge.
Besides the weirdness of the scenario more generally, the Judah-Tamar story connection helps to make sense of the strange hand punishment. Zerah has a cord like blood tied around his wrist, suggesting the severing of that limb. The twins are Tamar’s two ‘hands’. And one of the two will be cut off.
David and His Household in Genesis 38
While on the subject of Genesis 38, during our conversation with Ari Lamm and Dru Johnson last night, Susannah observed the way that Tamar’s revelation of the man by whom she was pregnant was similar to the prophet Nathan’s catching of King David in his own judgment in 2 Samuel 12: ‘You are the man!’
Susannah observed this connection independently, but several scholars have commented upon the possibility of a deeper connection between the stories of David and his ancestor Judah. I believe that their claims merit closer examination as there are several features of David’s story that recall Judah and his story.
David, of course, is the descendant of Judah, tenth in his line (Ruth 4:18-22), the one in whom the royal destiny of Judah’s line is finally realized. David also has a daughter called Tamar, another woman who gets brutally raped, by her brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. Genesis 38 mentions a man from Adullam, a place most famously associated with David and his band (1 Samuel 22:1-2). His name is Hirah. Hirah appears in three different episodes in the story: Judah’s departure from his brothers is associated with his turning aside to Hirah (Genesis 38:1), Hirah accompanies Judah when he goes up to Timnah to his sheepshearers (verse 12), and Judah sends the young goat by Hirah’s hand to the unknown prostitute (verse 20). However, one could easily drop Hirah out from the narrative without loss to the surface plot. Hirah’s role was one of the initial details that made me wonder whether more was going on in the passage. His name also reminded me of Hiram, the king of Tyre and David’s most prominent ally.
Judah marries the daughter of Shua (38:2), called Bath-shua in 1 Chronicles 2:3. Significantly, there is one other woman who has this name: Bathsheba is also referred to as Bath-shua in 1 Chronicles 3:5. Could these two women somehow be connected? We might start with the observation that both were forbidden women in some sense: Judah should not have married a Canaanite and David should not have taken another man’s wife.
In Genesis 38, Judah is divested of items that seem to be associated with his rule: his signet, cord, and staff. Some commentators have seen the episode of chapter 38 in the background of the blessing of Judah in 49:8-12. The story of the chapter is one of Judah departing from his brothers and his family slowly descending into death. At the nadir of the narrative, Judah symbolically surrenders the tokens of his princely authority to an apparent masked prostitute.
Jeffrey Geoghegan has some fascinating remarks on the Judah and Tamar story in its relation to the David narrative. He observes that the context of sheepshearing and punning on the root פרץ recurs in David stories. Gary Rendsburg draws further connections. He suggests that Onan corresponds to Amnon. Onan rapes his sister-in-law, Tamar, using her sexually but not fulfilling his levirate duty. Amnon forces himself on his half-sister, Tamar, and then sends her away.
Notably, Genesis 38 interrupts the story of Joseph, occurring immediately after Joseph was sold into Egypt, with Judah as the ringleader of the brothers. The ‘please identify...’ in 37:32 corresponds with the one in 38:25. The torn robe of the favoured child, worn by David’s Tamar (2 Samuel 13:18-19), recalls Joseph’s famous torn robe of many colours. Rendsburg also suggests that Shelah corresponds with Solomon. Like David, Judah declares strong judgment upon the situation, not realizing he is condemning himself.
The story of Genesis 38 and its relation to the sale of Joseph might be alluded to later in Jacob’s rather cryptic blessing of Judah in chapter 49. Calum Carmichael explores this possibility in an article on the meaning of some of Jacob’s blessings. In verse 9, Carmichael sees an allusion to Judah’s role in the sale of Joseph: ‘from the prey of my son you have gone up.’ The prey is Joseph. Notably, the word used for ‘prey’ here is related to the terms (טָרֹף טֹרַף) used to describe Joseph as torn by a wild beast in 37:33—Judah is that wild beast.
Carmichael suggests some further connections. The difficult term sometimes translated as ‘Shiloh’ (שִׁילֹה) in verse 10 is a reference to Shelah, Judah’s third son. And, for Carmichael, this raises the possibility that the ass (עִיר) and the son of his she-ass (בְּנִי אֲתֹנוֹ) in verse 11 are allusions to Er (עֵר) and Onan (אוֹנָן) respectively. They are asses because of their Canaanite ancestry, Judah’s ‘she-ass’ being Bath-shua. The Er connection is a neat wordplay and, while there isn’t the same potential in the Hebrew for an ass-related wordplay upon Onan’s name, the chosen expression still might be seen loosely to evoke Onan’s name in its sound, especially when taken with the play on Er. Carmichael suggests that the vine represents the line of Judah. However, in binding two asses to his vine, the entire ‘vine’ of Judah’s line is threatened with destruction.
The sceptre and the staff of verse 10 might remind us of the tokens suggesting royal prerogative that Judah unwittingly gave to Tamar in Genesis 38. However, Judah’s authority can’t be passed on to an heir until Shelah/Shiloh comes. The problem in chapter 38 is that Shelah is not given to Tamar and so Judah’s line, his vine, is about to be destroyed by the wild asses that he has tied to it.
The garments Judah washes in wine recall his role in washing the garment of Joseph in the blood of a goat. However, the irony, as Carmichael observes, is that Joseph was not actually torn by a wild beast and the blood was not real. Joseph escaped death. Yet Judah’s sons Er and Onan, the asses tied to his vine, did both die (note that, when Reuben offers to guarantee the safety of Benjamin in 42:37 he says that Jacob may put his two sons to death if he does not return with him). Joseph’s garment is washed with the blood of the vine, with the blood of Judah’s own two sons.
Carmichael is less sure about the final line of the blessing of Judah. However, he has some suggestions. In Genesis 38, the sceptre and staff of Judah had not in fact been passed on by him. Shelah had not come. Rather, it was taken from him by Tamar. Judah’s eyes, Carmichael suggests, were dull from wine, which is why he went into a harlot and lay with her, unaware of her identity. The wine and milk are a cryptic allusion to Judah and Tamar’s sexual encounter (cf. Song of Solomon 5:1).
By this point, we might have a sense that something very important is going on in Genesis 38, and that it provides insights into the Davidic dynasty, its origins and its destiny. The chapter seems to present a configuration of key features of the David story in a manner that invites reflection.
Tamar’s story in 2 Samuel recalls the other Tamar’s rape by Onan and the sale of Joseph. In its immediate context, it also replays and accentuates the sin of David with Bathsheba two chapters earlier, as I have noted elsewhere. Could there be associations between Judah’s sin and Onan’s, as there are with David and Amnon’s sins? Judah is happy to use (the disguised) Tamar for his pleasure, but refuses to give his seed (Shelah) as his levirate duty.
In Genesis 38, Judah surrenders tokens of his rule and authority, he engages in failed attempts to cover up his sin and retrieve the tokens, then he is caught in his sin by his own judgment. All this is very similar to what his descendant David does in his sin concerning Bathsheba and Uriah. David’s royal authority is never quite the same after his sin. Seemingly the first child of Judah and Tamar’s union to come out of the womb, Zerah, was ill-fated: Zerah would be cut off in the character of Achan. David and Bathsheba’s first child would suffer a similar fate. However, Solomon, like his ancestor Perez, would produce the dynasty.
We might perhaps see a connection between Shelah (שֵׁלָה), Shiloh (שִׁילֹה), and Solomon (שְׁלֹמֹה). David’s ‘vine’ is ravaged by his wicked sons—Amnon and Absalom in particular. Like Shelah in Genesis 38, Solomon is a bystander to all this drama in the royal household. However, it is with him that the hope of the vine ultimately rests. In Solomon, ‘Shiloh’ finally comes and the authority of the dynasty can be passed on.
There is a great deal more going on in Genesis 38. I could comment on possible connections with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 or connections with the story of Samson. We might also consider the significance of the place names in the chapter. Why mention the location of Judah when his wife bore Shelah? What does that detail add? The name Chezib’s meaning of lying or deceit might be significant, though. Likewise, that Judah encounters Tamar at Enaim (‘two wells/fountains/eyes’) might be significant. More significant still, she is at the ‘opening’ of ‘two eyes’, perhaps accentuating the Fall themes in the narrative, with Judah as Adam and Tamar as Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit rolled into one. Dothan, the fateful location to which Joseph was directed in the preceding chapter (37:17) could be understood as meaning ‘two cisterns’, paralleling it with Enaim. Timnah (the town to which Judah was going) and Shechem (the site to which Joseph first went) are also both terms that might be used to refer to portions (cf. Genesis 48:22). The connection and juxtaposition of the Joseph and Judah narratives might perhaps be filled out further along such lines.
Much of this remains highly speculative and a lot needs to be brought into greater focus. I would love to hear any thoughts you might have in the comments!
After writing the rest of this, I was made aware of this rich and perceptive reflection on the connections between the story of Judah and Tamar Genesis 38 and those of 2 Samuel 11-12 concerning David and Bathsheba by Ezra Zuckerman Sivan. Sivan identifies many of the associations between the stories that I already noted and mentions a few I hadn’t observed (or at least underlined), including the following:
1. The stories begin with Judah and with David abandoning their brothers.
2. The announcement of an illicit pregnancy is pivotal in both.
3. The woman is encountered in the context of water (Tamar at the well and Bathsheba while bathing) and both are attired in a way that excites the male protagonist’s lust (Tamar veiled like a harlot and Bathsheba unclothed).
4. Both women are ironically referred to using the root for holy, kadosh. He observes: ‘In Tamar’s case, it is the word for cult prostitute (kedeishah; Genesis 38: 21-22). In Bathsheba’s case, it refers to her immersing herself after menstruating (ve-hi mitkadeshet mi-tumata; II Samuel 11:4).’
5. The role of other commissioned agents to do the dirty work is prominent in both (again, consider the role of Hirah).
6. Both stories connect sexual relations to the cessation of mourning.
7. Flock animals feature prominently yet seemingly extraneously in both stories (the sheepshearing and the goat in the story of Judah and the ewe lamb is Nathan’s parable).
He mentions further linguistic connections between the two passages, most notably the shared expression employed for the description of the Lord’s assessment of David’s sin (2 Samuel 11:27) and his assessment of Onan’s (Genesis 38:10).
The most striking insight that Ezra brings is that the levirate themes of Genesis 38 shed light upon both the sin of David and the manner of his repentance. In David’s behaviour concerning the child of his adulterous relationship it is evident that, while he is not the rightful father, he is the biological father. In his actions, he is essentially supplanting Uriah and robbing him of any legacy. He is performing the opposite of the levirate.
His repentance requires the open acknowledgment of his sin, but also that Uriah’s stolen legacy must be granted to the one who now stands in his place, his widow, Bathsheba. Bathsheba and Nathan’s claim in 1 Kings 1, that he had promised that Solomon would be his heir (a promise we do not find elsewhere), needs to be understood in light of this. Solomon is the fulfilment of David’s duty of levirate to the man he murdered (which might make more sense of the Shelah/Shiloh/Solomon associations). In Solomon, David ensures that Bathsheba and Uriah’s names will not be blotted out. Note the wording of Matthew 1:6 in this connection: ‘And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.’
❧ We have both frequently returned to questions of nationalisms and nationhood over the last few months, especially as they relate to an American context. One of my concerns has been the way much conversation about nationalism from all quarters has both flattened out the complexity and contradictions of ‘nationalism’ as a cause and a force and has employed the notion with scant attention to the specific historical and demographic realities that it claims to name and order. In an attempt to address some of this neglect, I invited the historian Dr Miles Smith to join me for a wide-ranging discussion of American nationhood and nationalisms on my podcast. We discuss matters such as the factors that make American nationhood peculiar, some of the material factors that shape its expression, and where we should look for analogies.
❧ I had another conversation on my podcast with Dr Patrick Schreiner, the author of a recent commentary on the book of Acts in the Christian Standard Commentary series (Patrick joined me a few years back to discuss his book on the ascension). Patrick’s approach to commentary is theological, sensitive to the literary form of the text, attentive to typology, and practically inclined. The result is a marvellous commentary for pastors and lay persons who are interested in going deeper in their understanding of the scriptures. Within our discussion, we examined some of the principles of interpretation that lead to divergent approaches to biblical commentary. We discuss some of the key episodes in the book, overarching themes, and how the book sheds light upon and relates to other parts of the New Testament.
❧ Austin Freeman is the author of the recent book Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth and clearly knows his chosen subject matter inside-out. We were privileged to have him on a recent Mere Fidelity podcast.
❧ A recording of a sermon I delivered on Genesis 11 while in Greenville, The Tower and the City.
❧ I recently wrote a review of Paul Copan’s Is God a Vindictive Bully? for First Things. Paul Copan sent a gracious response to the review and his letter and my response were just published. Within my response, I argue we should attend to the surprising ways in which Scripture can direct our gaze, as these can suggest meaning beyond the surface literal sense of the text:
Later, in the concluding chapter of the book of Judges (which records events chronologically prior to most of the rest of the book), we see surprisingly paralleled events, once again in a climactic narrative in its respective book. Phinehas (cf. Judges 20:28) is once again involved in the sending out of 12,000 men—a thousand from each tribe—to fight a holy battle. In Numbers 31, 32,000 virgins were taken; in Judges 21, four hundred (that is, 32,000 divided by eighty) were taken.
Numbers 31 focuses on the division of the huge number of 840,000 items of spoil into two halves and the offering of tribute from it, Judges 21 on the challenge of doubling a small number into a tithe of the number of Israel’s 12,000 by obtaining brides for six hundred Benjaminites (numbers are an important narrative feature of the concluding chapters of Judges).
❧ I recorded an interview with What Your Pastor Didn’t Tell You podcast on the cosmic and archetypal symbolism of water in the Bible. It will go live on March 17th. Watch this space!
❧ Our friend Tim Vasby-Burnie has arranged a 'Psalm Roar' at St. George's Church in Shrewsbury for the 22nd April. The evening before, I'll be delivering a talk on the theology of the psalms and of psalm-singing. Sign up for the event here!
❧ Before that bigger event, we also have a meet up and group walk, followed by a pub lunch, planned near Shrewsbury on Saturday, 4th March. If you are interested, sign up here. You can see pictures from a previous walk here.
❧ The forthcoming Theopolis Workshop on ‘Numberology’ is open for registration.
Numbers are found all over the Bible, in many different forms: in death tolls, ages of famous individuals, enumerations of geographical features, in the counting or ordering of hours, days, and years, in physical measurements, quantities of materials, among many other examples. They are found in stories, in visions and prophecies, in genealogies, in censuses, and elsewhere. Some are clearly visionary and symbolic, others concrete and historical.
This course will demonstrate their importance as frequent and integral elements of the biblical text and its narratives. It will explore the ways that numbers are seamlessly related to the literary, theological, and typological forms of Scripture, and vehicles of its theological and spiritual communication. Students will learn skills by which they can discern the import of various biblical numbers, while also developing the caution and care that will help them to guard against speculative excesses or departures from the biblical form of numerology.
❧ Alastair has a Davenant Hall course on ‘A Biblical Theology of the Sexes’, starting in mid-April.
❧ Alastair will be returning to Davenant Hall to teach the summer program in June.
❧ Most of Alastair’s work is as an independent scholar, funded by Patreon donors. His primary goal is to create thoughtful yet free Christian material for the general public, most notably his largely-completed chapter-by-chapter commentary on the whole Bible (available here and here). If you would like to support his continuing research, teaching, writing, and other content production, you can do so here.
Susannah and Alastair
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