Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alien corny

Recently appearing at American Thinker is a delightful piece by one James Arlandson, Ph.D., one, or possibly all, of the authors of  Answering-Islam, with a massive kvetch about how the "religious left" thinks the government ought to "take up the cause of caring for the poor."
Despite the 126 programs [alleged by the Cato Institute to be run by the US government for the poor], does anyone notice that we still have poor people?  Maybe we need another way.
What does the Bible say about helping the poor?
Well, it turns out—you probably knew this already—that the Bible has a lot to say about helping the poor, and Dr. Arlandson finds that you can use it to prove that God does not want government getting involved.

For example, there's the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes:
To begin with, five thousand men followed Jesus to a mountainside in the country to hear him speak.  After a while he saw they were hungry, so he asked what food the disciples could gather from the people.  One boy had five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9). Working a miracle, Jesus multiplied the food and fed the entire crowd, with seven basketsful left over (Mark 6:30-44).
That is, Jesus did not call Peter, James, and John over to him and say, "Hey, you three! Run like the wind to Jerusalem and report that there are a lot of poor people out here! The Jerusalem central planners need to form a committee and set up a bureaucracy to feed them!"
Exactly. What kind of idiot runs to the government over every silly little problem when you can fix it yourself with one small miracle? Not only is it more efficient, but it helps you feel so much better about yourself!
Cornelius Edmund Sullivan, Loaves and Fishes, ca. 2000. From Icons and Imagery.

By the same token,
Paul also says widows can be cared for, but only if they meet certain requirements, like living a godly life and not being busybodies (1 Timothy 5:9-16).
Whereas the government would be heedlessly distributing it to all the yentes, with the same incomprehensible attraction that our own government feels for Cadillac-driving black ladies. But I digress, or Dr. Arlandson does.

More useful to the inquiry would be the Old Testament, I think, since the ancient Hebrews actually developed an explicit model of self-government, while for the early Christians the power of government was represented by occupying Roman troops, and a faraway emperor who claimed literally to be a bigger god than YHWH, and if they wanted government to do anything they could hardly have called a senator and asked for it.
Boaz encounters Ruth. From the Maciejewski Bible, ca. 1250, Morgan Library.

Arlandson finds even more evidence there, naturally. There's the story of Ruth, which clarifies the principle that the recipients of charity need to work:
the landowners were commanded to leave behind some of the crops and grapes so the poor could go out to get them; in other words, the poor had to work (Leviticus 19:9-10).
The Book of Ruth shows this harvesting law for the poor in action.  Boaz, a righteous man, left part of his harvest for Ruth, an impoverished Moabitess, a foreigner.  She regularly went out to the field to gather in the leftover grain.  Eventually they got married and lived happily ever after.
God smiles on the dumpster diver! I have to admit I hadn't thought of this interpretation before.

Another principle is that assistance to the poor should be physical and local:
In one law, the people are to bring the tithes (one tenth) to the local town, every third year, and store them, so the poor, orphans, widows, and resident aliens could take what they needed.  The Levites who had no allotment or inheritance in the land also received from this once-every-three year tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).  So this act of charity was done locally and physically.
In still another law, about celebrating the Feast of Weeks, people are to swing the sickle on the crops, harvest them, and then celebrate a feast at the place God chooses.  Not only do the well-off celebrate, but the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows do, too, thus breaking down class distinctions (Deuteronomy 16:9-11).
In these passages and others, a big central government, such as it was back then, does not stand over the shoulders of the people and perform charity in their place.  People did it with their own hands.
Obviously! If God had wanted them to write a check and mail it to some bureaucracy in Jerusalem he would have said so, right?
Bernard Picart, Jewish Meal during the Feast of Tabernacles, 1724. 1st-Art-Gallery.com.
But the fact is, alas, that Dr. Arlandson is not getting things quite right. The ancient Hebrews, as a matter of fact, developed a strong centralized state, and one that took responsibility for caring for the needy, and was in all respects quite unlike the Republican platform. That "place God chooses" isn't some random picnic site, either ("Hey, kids, God wants the barbecue pit over here!"), as we shall see—it's more like the main office of the IRS. And these passages from Deuteronomy are where it happens: where you can as it were see the Articles of Confederation of Exodus giving way to the Deuteronomic Constitution. Dr. Arlandson has homed in right to the spot that disproves his stupid point.

We could start with the Levites, who Dr. Arlandson seems to think were some kind of poor folk with a capital letter, like Untouchables perhaps, alongside the widows and orphans. Of course they weren't, though, they were the priestly caste, the descendants of Jacob's son Levi, the tribe from which Moses and Aaron came, and the top of the heap, with Aaron's own descendants, the kohanim, on the tippy-top. The reason they have "no allotment or inheritance" is that
They shall live on the food offerings presented to the Lord, for that is their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their fellow Israelites; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.This is the share due the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the internal organs and the meat from the head. You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, for the Lord your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always. (Deuteronomy 18:1-5)
Indeed, the children of Levi are not assigned one part of the Promised Land to dwell in, but dispersed all over it, in towns,  surrounded by commons where they can graze their animals, and take care of religious matters, dispense justice, and provide education for those who live on the land, and the tithe is given to them as compensation for the work they do, which includes passing on some of the goods to the widows, orphans, and resident aliens. The tithe is a tax, in short, and the Levites are the civil service.

This status came to them, according to the story, during the Hebrews' wanderings in the desert, after the incident of the Golden Calf:
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:25-29)
In return, the Levites were given charge of the Tabernacle, the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant was housed, and no one else was permitted to come near it. (Exodus 38:21; Numbers 1:53)  And they were endowed with 48 towns, including the six sanctuary cities where murderers were permitted to hide out from the law. (Numbers 35:6)
The Levites are rewarded for their obedience. From Barbara Griffiths, Moses Saves the People.
Then in Deuteronomy, which completes the narrative of the Pentateuch, bringing the Israelites from Sinai to the east bank of the Jordan and Moses' death, something different happens: the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, vanishes from discussion, and is replaced by a strange new description of something in the future, in full, "the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name." This place, and no other, is where they are to bring their sacrificial offerings. (Deuteronomy 12:8-14)

What had happened was in an entirely different time dimension, that of real life, in the reign of King Josiah, late 7th century B.C.E. As Norman Cantor slyly puts it,
The official story was the discovery, in the course of purifying and repairing the Temple, of a law book that outlined how the blending of prophetic and traditional practice could be accomplished.
Hilkiah and the Lost Book of the Law. From Charles Horne, The Bible and its Story, 1909.
 What had really happened, it seems, was that Josiah's Levites had put this book together out of some authentic sources and some new ideas, as a way of justifying reforms that the king was busily carrying out, suggesting that what he wanted to do was merely to put into practice the plans that Moses had made so long ago, and that David and Solomon might have been aiming at with the construction of the Temple as a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant some three centuries before:
the plan to centralize all worship in the Temple at Jerusalem. The shrines that dotted the mountains of Judah were destroyed, and the priests who had attended them were brought to Jerusalem and made subordinate to the priests of the Temple. The Temple itself was purified, and an austere ritual was mandated....
The Temple was, of course, the "place that the Lord will choose"; indeed, Solomon had centralized the animal sacrifices there before. And the book was what we now know as Deuteronomy, the "repetition of the law" (that is the meaning of Greek deuteronomia, though not, they say, of the book's Hebrew name—a mistaken translation with a meaning).

Anyway, it demanded that the whole people of Israel converge on Jerusalem three times a year, at Passover, Shavuot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles), with their tithing offerings presented to the kohanim there—except that once in three years they are to bring their own tithes—in other years reserved for partying—to their own local Levites as well. These are the regulations described in the passages from Deuteronomy 14 and 16 that our friend Dr. Arlandson leaps on.

Furthermore, they went for economic stimulus, and redistribution of income,  on a scale that would give your average Democrat a severe heart attack (though it would appeal to Occupy Wall Street, and apparently to our Founding Fathers as well). They took the Exodus provisions for the sabbatical year (every seventh year), when the land lay fellow and debt slaves were released, and added a new one, the remission of everybody's debts!

Comically enough, Dr. Arlandson drives right by that one too, noticing only the debt slaves, whom he takes as more proof that the recipients of Hebrew charity had to work it off (no: just as nowadays, if you have to work it off it isn't charity; the charitable would be to give the debtor a job, with wages and benefits, and say, "Look, pay me when you can").

Well, enough for today. I just want to add that the way Dr. Arlandson and his cohorts read the Bible is exactly the way Justice Scalia reads the Constitution—call it the Scalian Hermeneutic. I might get around to talking about it some time. Meanwhile, may your High Holy Days be as happy as you want them to be, and, leftists, atheists, read that Bible! Only get an edition with footnotes.

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