Why did Moses get mad on returning from the Mount?

When Moses first came down from the mountain, with the ten commandments all carefully chiselled onto stone slabs, his first reaction was to smash them to pieces, storm off in a huff, and then do it all over again. Why?

KJB Exodus 32:19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.

Just prior to this, he spoke with Joshua:

32:18 And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.

Then I came across Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1955 movie, The Ten Commandments. In it, writing can clearly be seen on the tablets.
moses460.jpg

It took a little bit of fiddling, but I eventually got the text turned up the right way and translated, using Google’s Ancient Hebrew to English Translate tool…

moses-text-big.jpg

AFYF
EYE PLEFY
DFE FE>Y
P>EFFPEAC
NOWPPO
IYPPlFYY
EWPx>pAWY

Translated, this means: Great Party! Bring All Your Friends! Dancing and Song and Drink!

So that was it! Moses was pissed because he hadn’t been invited. There, simple as that. One disgruntled old man with a chip on his shoulder. Afterwards, he ordered the slaying of 3,000 people. All for having a party he wasn’t invited to!

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The Nativity Myth

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has stirred up a contentious debate over the truth or otherwise of the Nativity story from the Bible. He quite flatly denies that the story ever happened as generally imagined. Christ was probably not even born in December, according to the Archbishop. This might come as a shock to certain Christians, particularly those brought up on the popular retelling of the story. As the leading bishop of the Anglican community, this is no anti-Christian demagogue. His opinion as a scholar and believer needs to be taken seriously.

The basic nativity story, retold in various popular guises, has been expanded upon over many centuries of retelling and elaboration. What the Bible account leaves unsaid, ingenious authors have embellished. The core story is of a newly-married couple travelling to Bethlehem for a tax census, a virgin mother giving birth in a stable, laying her swaddled child in a manger, the adoration of the Magi (or Three Wise Men) who were guided by a star in the East, an angry King Herod seeking to slaughter the new-born child, an exodus to Egypt, and an eventual return to the Holy Land.

The gospels of Mark and John never mention the nativity. The relevant passages come from Matthew chapters 1 and 2. Luke gives a completely different story, adding the detail about the tax census ordered by Augustus, and the story of the shepherds visited by angels, but making no mention of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, or a star in the east. Indeed, he precedes the story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Elisabeth and goes to great pains to draw a connection between his birth and that of Jesus.

So why the differing accounts?

One clue to the mystery is Matthew’s continual reference to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.

In Matthew 1:22-23 he says

22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew 2:5

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet…

Matthew 2:14-15

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Matthew 2:17

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet…

Matthew 2:23

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

In Robin Lane Fox’s book, The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, he says that the Nativity is generally accepted by theologians and historians to be a post-facto myth. Here’s an excellent on-line account by a Bibilical authority, Geza Vermes.

What they agree on, in essense, is that the story was born from the urge to see Old Testament prophecies fulfilled and to assimilate the birth of Jesus to the existing mythical framework of a sun-king born on or near the winter solstice. Early gentile Christians – seeking confirmation of the significance of Jesus’s life as divine – were eager to link his birth and death to earlier prophecies.

But while this suggests a motive for distorting (or inventing) the nativity story to suit preconceived notions, it does not conclusively prove that the story is false. Indeed, I imagine that many Christians will still say that they believe it literally.

However, even aside from belief in the literal word of the Bible or not, the contradictions between Luke and Matthew on such basic details as Herod, the Magi, and a flight into Egypt, should make anyone – fundamentalist Christians included – stop and consider.

Let’s take just one basic question: did Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt or not? It is such a large claim to make. It could not be misunderstood or considered to be incidental. The claim is that Joseph received a visit from an angel, in a dream, warning him of Herod’s wish to see Jesus killed, and telling him to flee to Egypt until the coast was clear. In Luke, Joseph and Mary take their child to Jerusalem and to the temple: hardly the actions of a family trying to flee the King’s wrath.

Matthew claims one thing, but Luke contradicts him flatly. Since neither Mark nor John mention any detail of Jesus’s life before adulthood, they cannot be used to separate them apart.

So which “literal truth” are Christians meant to believe?

Geza Vermes flat-out denies the story:

We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of “birth tales” current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.

So there you have it. The Nativity story is a convenient tale, a wonderful story of prophecies fulfilled, the birth of a king or Son of God, and the magical happenings of an extraordinary birth. But none of it is literally true.

Islamic hypocrisy or just plain ignorance?

The papers are full of the story of Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year old mother and teacher, who was jailed for several days in Sudan for allowing the children in her school class to name a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. She was shopped to the authorities by a fellow school teacher. But that was only half the story: the local imams were calling for her execution and inciting crowds of people to demonstrate for the death penalty. Shamefully, the Sudanese government seems to have decided to play the situation for all it was worth, now deciding to release Mrs Gibbons to general grovelling and bowing from the British MPs who went to Sudan to beg for her release.

The subtext to all of these shameful shenanigans is the central issue of “respect” for Islam and its related superstitions and cultural hang-ups. Ms Gibbons was quoted as saying, “I have great respect for the Islamic religion…”. Quite. She knew that at heart the issue was about paying due respect to the authorities in the Sudan.

And all of this follows hot on the heels of stories about a rape victim being given 200 lashes as punishment for her part in her own gang rape.

No right thinking person can have “respect” for religions that rely on bizarre and draconian laws to enforce their will. No one in the West can truely respect their attitudes to women, homosexuals, science, apostates, writers or artists who “defame” Islam, and myriad other groups of unfortunate minorities. While doing all of this, Islamicists simultaneously adopt the endless mantras: that Islam is a religion of peace; that Islam respects women; that Islam is a force for good. Yada yada.

It is not a force for good. It does not promote peace. It is backward, medieval, stupid, crude, fanatical, and plain wrong on just about everything. They keep their subject people’s in thrall using propoganda, mass brain washing, the execution of apostates as a matter of policy, and extreme laws. Rule through ignorance and fear.

I may be accused of Islamophobia. If that word means, literally, “fear of Islam”, then I am guilty, I am Islamophobic. If it means that “I hate Islam”, then I am also guilty. But I am not personal about it: I pass Muslims in Dublin everyday of the week. I buy food in their shops and coffee in their cafes. I neither bear them a grudge or harbour a hatred of them, as people. Indeed, I have found them to be uniformly helpful and friendly. But their official religious beliefs are what horrify me.

And it goes without saying that I do not, i) demonstrate in the street for the murder of Muslims, or ii) advocate that they be killed, or executed, or otherwise punished for their beliefs, or iii) that I advocate any kind of cultural war or West vs. East WWIII kind of situation.

But I do think it is high time that Western culture stands up for itself and stop the hand-wringing and apologies and showing “respect” to Islam. We’ve given the world everything from classical music, Shakespeare, the mobile phone, the Internet, the chip, television, democracy, modern laws, freedom of speech, women’s emancipation, soccer, and the car. And what do we get from Islam? Everytime that question is asked, there follows the usual litany of medieval architecture, Islamic art, mathematics and chemistry (via algorithms and alchemy, both Arabic), and so on. But all of these developments happened hundreds of years ago. What have they given us recently? Nothing but fatwahs and death threats and repressive governments and mass killings on September 11th. Their culture is bankrupt. They cannot lead the world on any science or art or music or literature, because it is bankrupt of new ideas.

So before we go further, let’s ask the Muslim’s themselves what they’re about. Find out what they do with apostates, or raped women, or evolution (that last is no more whacky or ridiculous than Christian creationism, but so what?).

The basic truth is that any paternalistic, medieval, book-based religion is bound to be wrong on just about everything that matters. Life is too complex to be looked at through the prism of a book of inherently obscure writings handed down through the generations from revered prophets. When combined with poverty, exclusion, and the sense that their culture is headed for oblivion, it is a toxic brew. It is a disaster. The only hope is for a gradual period of containment followed by the slow withering and dying out of these beliefs. Otherwise, the world may have to confront the ultimate threat of nuclear war with fanatics, from Iran, Pakistan, or some other nuclear-armed regime in the Middle East. 

Worst of all, it makes me feel like George Bush or Dick Cheney. And that is awful.  

Modern problems, ancient ills

The Catholic Primate Archbishop Sean Brady has written a stimulating article (delivered as a speech recently) in today’s Irish Times. Many of his themes and the issues he considers are quite germane to Irish life today – stress, suicide, substance abuse, the love of consumerism and wealth. While I applaud the fact that someone is attempting to address these difficult issues in a thoughtful and constructive manner, I believe that his answers are utterly out of touch and inadequate.

The central message of his homily is that accepting God’s plan will solve all our problems:

the fundamental call of the Christian disciple remains the same in every age – to say “Fiat, voluntas tua” – “Be it done unto me according to thy Word!”

He correctly identifies a problem but incorrectly diagnoses the reason:

The land of saints and scholars has become the land of stocks and shares, of financial success and security. Tragically, it has also become a land of increasing stress and substance abuse. And all of this has occurred as the external practices of faith has declined.

The fact that two things are inversely correlated over time does not necessarily mean that they are related. I am determinedly against the notion that the decline of religion has led to the increase in stress and substance abuse. Not only does this argument ignore the rise and rise of other factors in our culture that might be contributing to stress – television, long commuting times, emigration, pollution, the changing gender roles of women and men, smaller family sizes, globalization, new technologies – but it ignores the negative effects of religion that have now been eliminated. In other words, declining religious observance might actually be contributing to a fall in stress levels, but it is masked by other factors which greatly outweigh it. But that is not really my main point: it is rather, that it is always the lazy assumption of religious people that a decline in religion is at the heart of society’s problems, and they steadfastly ignore the other possible factors.

The Archbishop further says:

People are seeking to control their future rather than entrust their future to God’s promise and plan.

Seeking to control one’s future is not appropriate, apparently, because:

The result is an increasing culture of insecurity and fear. What often appears on the outside to be a culture of confidence and certainty in Ireland is in reality a facade. More and more Irish people are becoming stressed out trying to bring a security to their lives that only trust in God can give. They are trying to control a future that is ultimately in God’s hands.

Dramatically, he quotes from the Catholic Cathecism:

“A sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it”

At the heart of this ludicrous argument lies a dire fatalism that must be soundly rejected. Firstly, it is deeply contentious whether there is in fact a God or not. Even if there were, it is not apparent that His will is manifested in human affairs to an extent that it has an impact on individual lives. Certainly, were I trying to purchase a house next week, I wouldn’t sit around and wait for God to rustle up the deposit for me.

Secondly, the “unhealthy curiosity” about the future is actually to be applauded. It is our human ability to be conscious of a future, to plan for it, and to change our world to make it better, that reveals our greatest strengths. “Unhealthy curiosity” is one of those inane platitudes from an all-dominating, paternalistic church that just infuriates me.

The Archbishop seems to suggest that we adopt a position of fatalism, or waiting for God’s plan to unveil itself to us and for us to accept whatever joy or pain he delivers. I think this is the worst form of religious arrogance and is incredibly bad advice. It encourages lazy thinking and the acceptance of poverty and ignorance. I believe that most things are changeable by the sustained application of human willpower, determination, and reason. We can and must improve our circumstances, both individually and as a society. I will not accept that things just happen because of the capricious will of some unearthly God. Even believers should see through this gross and stupid doctrine.

He further elaborates his theme by pointing out some home truths about modern Ireland:

You see it in our fascination with fast cars and consumption of the latest and the best. Yet look at the impact on our climate, on the beauty of our environment, on the sustainability of our world. You see it in our fascination with image and sexual fulfilment. Yet look at the consequences in terms of the stress and strain of keeping up with fashion, the increase in eating disorders, and most tragically of all, of suicide among the young.

I agree broadly with his description of a society that seems enthralled to consumerism and the negative impact this is having on our climate, environment, and psyches. It is the common complaint of the negative effect of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. But his diagnosis is disturbing:

The truth is that more and more Irish people are becoming trapped by the illusion of being able to control their future completely. They are putting their trust in an illusion, in things that will not satisfy.

I disagree. I think the problem is more complex than a lack of moral substance and lack of holistic thinking, although this is part of it. It is outside the bounds of this posting to discuss the issue in-depth, but I do take issue with the simplistic account given by the Archbishop.

He then tackles the issue of “new age” superstition:

One of the most subtle but disturbing signs of this underlying fear in Irish life is the increasing reliance of people on practices which claim to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, tarot cards, recourse to clairvoyance and mediums conceal a desire for power over time and a lack of trust in God’s providence. They are the new Irish superstition. Those who put their trust in them or take them seriously are colluding with an illusion, promoting a fiction.

I couldn’t agree more with the Archbishop on this one. I fully endorse his opinion that these are the “new Irish superstition”. Unfortunately, I would go further, and say that religion – specifically his religion – was the old Irish superstition. Those who put their trust in an omnipotent God or take Roman Catholicism seriously are colluding with an illusion, promoting a fiction. For every horoscope-wielding new-ager, there is a rosary-bead wearing Catholic. For every plam reader or medium, a priest, for every tarot card, a candle lit for the saints. Roman Catholicism is paganism dressed up in flimsy monotheistic clothes. Easter is a pagan spring festival par excellence, Christmas celebrates the birth of a new year, while the saints are glorified polytheistic gods. Share your sins with a priest and seek absolution; or consult a palm reader to divine your future. Take your pick of superstition.

Catholicism revels in the lowest form of new-age superstition imaginable: the Patron saints. Want a long life? Pray to St. Peter. Selling your home, just offer a quick prayer to St. Joseph. Quick back and sides? Hairdressers can pray to St. Martin de Porres, apparently.

The Archbishop lays it on the line, the solution to all of our problems:

Mary abandoned herself to God’s will. She did not ask the angel to tell her what the future would hold. She simply trusted God’s promise minute by minute, day by day. She trusted in the midst of the joys and her sufferings. This is the attitude of the blessed. This is the attitude every disciple of Christ is called to imitate. It is the attitude of a perfect love, a love sustained by the Eucharist and prayer, a love which casts out all fear. This is the perfect love shown by Mary.

So, the answer to all modern ills is to “abandon” ourselves to God’s will. And what is God’s will, pray tell? The answer, according to the Archbishop, is “For all its human imperfections, it is the church which still holds the answer to these questions.” So, the Church holds the answers: abandon your will and ask the Church to intercede on your behalf.

Let me see now: the very Church that opposes the creation of female priests based on outmoded concepts of gender; the Church that imposes celibacy on its priests out of some fear of sexuality; the very Church that haboured the peodophiles in its midst for many years; the self-same Church that thought the earth was flat and condemned Galileo for suggesting otherwise? This very same Church wishes you to abandon yourself to its interpretation of God’s will, to lay down all plans for the future and instead to trust in God to get you out of a fix.

No, thanks. I prefer to trust in my human intelligence, reason, and sense of morality. I prefer to trust in my friends, my family, my colleagues, and my state, imperfect though all of that is. It’s all I have. I intend planning for a better future by working and thinking and getting educated, by making appropriate financial and insurance arrangements, by living honestly and fearlessly.

The opposite of religion is not fear. It is self-confidence and humanity. It is humanism, tolerance, openness to new ideas. It is liberating and it unlocks the full potential of the human spirit. It behoves us all to reject the superstitious nonsense spouted by out of date institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. The Archbishop should listen to the sage advice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said: “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”.

Dawkins on the enemies of reason

Richard Dawkins usually goes through a repetoire of facial twitches and stern looks when he makes a TV programme. Last night, in the first episode of The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4, he had more reason than usual to express dismay and shock, but he managed to keep calm. Maybe he is mellowing out? I don’t think so. I guess he had been in training for weeks beforehand, to interview the crackpots and looneys without giving everything away with frowns and disgusted facial expressions.

That he managed to interview so many of them at all surprised me. They must have known who he was and that he only intended to dismiss their beliefs (everything from horoscopes and astrology, to mediumship and spiritualism). But they probably were either confident in their beliefs or were following the adage that no publicity is bad publicity.

At one point, he was a guest at a scientifically-organised, double-blind test of dowsing. None of the dowsers scored any higher than chance. Most of them shrugged off the test as a gimmick. But one poor woman was reduced to incredulity and tears. She clearly had had her precious illusions completely shattered by her failure in the test. Actually, my heart went out to her. She seemed so upset at her failure that her belief in her ‘gift’ was obviously genuine. I regard genuine people with illusory beliefs as eccentric, or harmless. This woman’s dowsing gift gave her a feeling of being special; a sense of connection with the natural world. It seemed harsh on her to have that illusion shattered. (Harsh on a personal level – but I agree with Dawkins that it is right to have it tested scientifically).

His attack on astrology consisted mainly of citing the psychological phenomenon called The Barnum Effect. It is a well-known and very well confirmed theory, that offering people random personality descriptions produces a suspiciously high self-identification rate. In other words, more people than you’d expect by chance say that some randomly chosen text refers to themselves quite accurately. Another way to put it, is that people are gullible. The effect produces distortions that astrologers cleverly exploit.

I remember once having a quite funny conversation with a woman who was convinced that astrology was scientifically valid. She posited the notion that planets changed behaviour via the differential effect of gravity on different types of brain, although she was hazy on the details. When I queried the possibility that the cyclical movements of planets placed millions of miles from the earth could have any conceivable effect on Capricorns or Geminis, she countered that the moon’s gravity caused the tides, so why would not Jupiter and Saturn’s gravity cause changes in humans? Nothing I said could dissuade her. But I remember that my main despair was not at her incredible beliefs but that I didn’t have the words to change her mind. I felt like I was using plyers to shift a rock. I felt undereducated myself.

Dawkins is a tonic. He doesn’t face these problems when put on the spot by the average faith healer or spiritualist. He knows what to say and he is efficient and accurate in what he says. Oh how I’d love to have had him by my side all those years back!

Christians United for Israel

I wrote a post about Islamic terrorism yesterday, so I might as well follow with one about Christian terrorism. Max Blumenthal has made a brilliant video about the organisation called Christians United for Israel. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Here are some choice quotes from the video:

Woman: Are you Jewish?
Max: Yes
Woman: So do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Max: No, I’m Jewish.

Max: Are you looking forward to Armageddon?
Man: Yes, I definitely am.

Pastor John Haggee: “…therefore it is time for American to embrace the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman and consider a military pre-emptive strike against Iran to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel”.

Lieberman: “Haggee is a man of God”.

It might be tempting to dismiss all this as the fantasies of a deluded minority. But Senator Joe Lieberman is right at the centre of it all. Only reason, science, rationality, and logic will thwart these people. Or not. Probably not. Damn.

I know! Let’s try ridicule and satire instead!

Charlatan

Ross Hemsworth has placed a bet of £100 with the William Hills bookmakers, at 10,000-1 odds, to prove to them the existence of an afterlife before Christmas. He stands to win £1,000,000. Either he is a fool or a charlatan, or both.

Let’s think about it. This man’s entire business – separating fools from their money via “talks” about the afterlife and the paranormal – rests on the assumption that an afterlife exists. But a reputable bookmaker is prepared to take a bet at gigantic odds that he is unable to prove the veracity of his central claim within a year. He is bound to lose. Both because he cannot prove something which is patently false. And secondly, because William Hill are not stupid and don’t go around putting odds on things that they aren’t confident of winning out on. According to them, they take bets on the moon landings proving to be an elaborate hoax at 100-1! So they consider Mr. Hemsworths claims to be 100 times less likely to be proven than that the entire world has been fooled for over 37 years about the moon landings.

Let’s face it, he wants the publicity for his forthcoming book. William Hill are happily taking his money from him, and the media (and myself!) are colluding in giving him free publicity. Which proves that he is a genius, of a sort, which means that he is definitely a charlatan and not a fool. This is a shameless act of publicity by a cheap, manipulative deceiver.

Holy driving

You gotta hand it to the Vatican. They have introduced a whole new series of commandments for the 21st century, another list of guilt-inducing, sin-producing actions. And not before time too.

The ten commandments for motorists, as listed by the document Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road, are:

1. You shall not kill.
2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
4. Be charitable and help your neighbour in need, especially victims of accidents.
5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
7. Support the families of accident victims.
8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
10. Feel responsible toward others.

Now, I would have thought that number 1 was already covered by the existing commandments, but you can’t have too much of a good thing I suppose. Number two emphasises, again, don’t go around killing people! As for courtesy, uprightness and prudence helping you swerve to avoid hitting people, or other unforseen events, I prefer to think that alertness, quick action, and sensible speed are more practical. But if you are going to hit someone, do make it courteous. And it would be prudent not to, if you can.

They should have ended number 4 with an admonition to be charitable to your victims. Going around being charitable to all victims would be a cause of bankruptcy before long. As for number five, well, I cannot think of any “occasion of sin” to be had in a car, can you?! Certainly not while driving!

Now, six is tricky. Try explaining to a drunk person (particularly, say, an Irish minister under the influence) to not drive, well,….there’d be little charitable about their reply to you. As for number 7, feck off! What am I, an insurance company? Now number 8, that’s a laugh! Are they trying to start a riot or something?

However, I cannot agree more with number 9. I am always the most vulnerable, everybody else can just feck off. And, yes, I feel responsible for others, I just choose not to act that way.

Can I suggest another top-ten list?

1. You shall not kill, unless they’re a protestant.
2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of dropping the kids off to school.
3. Leaving the car at home will guarantee you can deal with unforeseen events.
4. Be charitable and always let pedestrians have right of way, unless they are protestants (see 1 above).
5. Cars are great for occasions of sin, but stop moving first.
6. Convincing anybody not to drive when drunk is suicidal. Don’t do it.
7. Support the families of accident victims, especially your victims.
8. Bring guilty motorists to court so that they can undergo the liberating experience of being fleeced by the insurance industry.
9. On the road, project power! Never give way, always honk that horn, and answer your mobile whenever you feel like it.
10. Feel proud of that SUV and let others know what a tit you really are.