The Red Heifer

One thing struck me as unusual in the latest Blogging the Bible post. Our blogger mentions the red heifer story and says it is vaguely familiar.

Also, an unusual ritual is described: An unblemished red heifer is sacrificed, burned to ash, and scattered over holy water. This sanctified water is used to purify people who have handled a corpse. I remember reading a few years ago about efforts to breed an unblemished red cow in Israel. Hmm, perhaps this was the story. Apparently, the red heifer is necessary before Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which is a prerequisite for the Messiah to come.

I also remember the red heifer story and remember exactly what was about. As Plotz says, the red heifer is a pre-requisite for the rebuilding the Temple which is, in turn, a pre-requisite for the Tribulation, the second coming and the end times.

As I remember it, a group of fundamentalist Christian Texas ranchers helped a group of ultra-orthodox Jewish farmers in Israel to breed a red heifer without blemish to try to hurry the end times along a little bit. A quick Google search for “red heifer” turns up dozens of stories about it like this one at the National Review. Interestingly, many of those hits are environmentalists like the Sierra Club members who point out people who think the world is likely to end any minute now are not going to have too many concerns about the long-term consequences of, say, pollution.

Blogging the Bible – The Smiting Begins

I have been following the Blogging the Bible series at Slate, reading a few chapters each week, and today I reached the book of Numbers.

In my past attempts to read the bible, I always enjoyed the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph stories (when I was very small I named my fluffy rabbit Benjamin after my favourite of Joseph’s brothers) but they read like ancient myths. I suspect that they were even thought of as ancient myths when they were written down 2700 years ago – much like the Homeric stories provided a background mythology for the religion of the Greeks.

The Moses stuff is interesting too until you get into the laws and the endless wandering in the desert. It’s hard to keep track and that’s usually about when I lose interest and give up. I made it further this time – all the way to Numbers. It helps that I am not actually reading it this time 🙂
Numbers is cool because it documents the founding of Israel as a nation as opposed to a group of tribes wandering in the desert. Those stories provide the reasons for why things are the way they are in the pre-exile lands of Judah and Israel. They also lay the foundation for the next couple of thousand years of Jewish and Christian history. If you believe in the documentary hypothesis (as I do), it is all the more interesting to imagine those stories being written down by the ruling classes and the would-be ruling classes to justify their rule.

Anyway, I am about halfway through Numbers. I haven’t peeked ahead yet to see how far gets. I hope he makes it to the end and that I make it with him.

Parodies in danger of extinction!

In my research for the entry on global warming, I found a number of sites that were protesting the Landover Baptist site. To my horror, I found that I had no way of knowing which of those sites were, themselves, parodies. They have exactly the same style of out-of-context quotes, garish ads for inappropriate Jesus-wear and messages-from-our-minister that the Landover Baptists have. It’s like they copied them!

No True Catholic Scotsman

Andrew Sullivan posts a letter from someone who claims to be a Cultural Catholic.

Andrew doesn’t like the idea at all and proposes an acid test for being a Christian [a believer in the resurrection and the message of the gospels etc]. In a later post – in which a reader claims that a Catholic must believe everything or nothing. Andrew refines that to a belief in the creed. I presume (not being a Catholic myself) that Andrew is referring to the Nicene Creed.

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. Born of the Father before all ages. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. Begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father. By Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And He became flesh by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary: and was made man. He was also crucified for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was buried. And on the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And of His kingdom there will be no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Who together with the Father and Son is adored and glorified; and Who spoke through the Prophets. And one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And I await the resurrection of the dead. And the life of the world to come.


It’s interesting that both Andrew and his correspondent reject the idea of a cultural catholic, but each sets the bar for Absolute Catholic at a different height. By his correspondent’s rules, Andrew would be excluded.

When I lived in New York, Joe Faglione once asked me how, since I am not a Christian, I could justify celebrating Christmas. My answer, after a period of reflection, was that Christianity is woven through every element of the culture in which I live. You cannot understand western civilization unless you understand Christianity. I recited The Lord’s Prayer everyday at school and spoke the Nicene Creed in church. I don’t remember that I ever believed them. Non credo!
In this regard, I agree with Andrew – if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you are not a Christian. But the trappings of Christianity – decorating the tree, singing Once in Royal David’s City, ashes to ashes, til death do us part, reciting the creed – are a part of who I am.

Culturally, I am a Christian even if, by Andrew’s test and intellectually, I am not Christian.

Blogging the Bible

I have started reading the Bible several times – starting at the very beginning – but I never made it past Exodus. Slate has a series called Blogging the Bible in which the author, David Plotz, has embarked on the same journey and is blogging as he goes. I just made it to the end of Genesis.

It’s interesting to read the analysis by a Jew because I have only ever seen the bible through Christian filters. I know almost nothing about modern Judaism – I know more about Abraham’s religion than I know about a modern Jew’s – so it’s fascinating to read along with him as he discovers things about his own religious practices that he didn’t previously understand.

David Plotz has made it as far as Leviticus. I hope he keeps going to the end – and maybe even through the New Testament – and I hope I can keep going with him. It’s a good book ™.

UPDATE : I didn’t previously notice that there was an intro to the series.

Christianity not compatible with conservatism

It’s official! John Derbyshire says so…

Trouble is, Jesus was not a philosopher. The Bible is full of inspiration and spiritual insights, but as a handbook for conducting worldly affairs, it needs to be taken with a dash of, well, worldliness. Taking in strangers may get you robbed. Turning the other cheek may get you killed.

Like many liberal, atheist types I have always been a big admirer of Jesus’s philosophy and have struggled to reconcile the conservative worldview with Jesus’s outlook on social affairs – What would Jesus drive? What kind of gun would Jesus own? etc. and, most germane to this post,

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth [Matthew 5:38]

Thanks to the Derb, I no longer have to struggle with the paradox. The Christian Right isn’t.

Funerals for atheists

A little while ago, Jeff and I attended a funeral because Julio reminded us that you should always go to the funeral and on the way back we talked about how the one thing religions really do well is funerals and that it was a pity that atheists didn’t have anything as good.

The discussion led to all kinds of ideas and eventually a business plan for Kev and Jeff’s House of Death. A big part of the funeral experience comes, I think, from the comforting traditions. Traditions are always difficult things to get going of course but, if enough of us put our heads together, maybe we could come up with a few.

Coincidently, Scott Adams is planning his funeral today, too. One of his readers suggested a sad clown for his funeral. Just sitting up front, moping, not saying anything. One idiot poster was surprised that an atheist would want a funeral at all as though atheists don’t believe in death or something. I had always hoped for one of those Tibetan jobbies with the long sticks and the vultures but Georgina is against it. Most likely I’ll end up with one of those gatherings where my best friends sit around and laugh and get drunk and tell stories like at the best funerals that I have attended.

Religious funerals have a built-in advantage over atheist funerals because they help explain the whole what-happens-next issue in a way that is comforting to children. I know what happens afterwards, but it would be nice to have a story to tell my five year old daughter – something that weaves in the Circle of Life with a generous helping of how extraordinarily lucky we are to experience life in the first place.

Julio, Fabienne and Morgane, our thoughts are with you.

Innoculation against extremism

Scott Adams proposes a plan to rid the world of religious extremism

I have often thought that America’s strict rule about not teaching religion in schools is responsible for the fact that the more fervant forms of christianity are more widespread in america than they are in europe. In english schools religious education is (was?) compulsory and usually took the form of comparative religion and the history of religion.

I expect that, if people knew more about the origins of their respective religions, they would be far less likely to adopt fundamentalist positions. A timeline that takes in the origins of the pentateuch, the early christian synods, the arian heresy, the filioque clause and the spanish inquisition would innoculate most kids against some of the wackier ideas that masquerade as religion.