Wednesday, February 09, 2022

A Cave Full of Fumes and a Law Etched in Stone

I have mentioned the first century Greek biographer Plutarch in a couple of previous posts as I am currently wading through his compiled Lives of famous Greeks and Romans, including everyone from Theseus (he of minotaur-killing fame) to Julius Caesar. Among the writers of antiquity, I find Plutarch especially of interest because he lived during the period in which the New Testament was written. He is more of a historian than an observer of the culture of his own day, and maintains a studiously neutral approach to his subject matter.

All the same, after about 1,000 pages, you start to get a feel for what makes a man tick: how he thinks about the world, what he values or dismisses, whether he is religious or not, and if so, what his beliefs mean to him and how they affect his life. Plutarch is no exception.

Between Atheism and Superstition

Plutarch vigorously rejected both atheism and many of the religious superstitions of his day. About superstitious religious people, he writes:

“You see what kinds of thoughts the superstitious have about the gods; they assume that the gods are rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel, and easily offended; and, as a result, the superstitious man is bound to hate and fear the gods. How could he not, since he thinks that the worst of his ills are due to them, and will be due to them in the future?”

And in refuting Herodotus in his biography of Solon, he says this:

“Therefore, since the god is good, he is not — as most people claim — the cause of everything that happens to human beings but only of a few things, for good things are fewer than bad ones in our lives. He alone is responsible for the good things, but we must find some other cause for the bad things, not the god.”

Neo-Calvinists take note. But unlike many of his peers, Plutarch refused to entertain the idea that a truly divine being would arbitrarily disrupt human affairs or act spitefully. He believed in good gods, though of course not the God of the Bible.

Yet for all his strong opinions about the disposition of the gods toward mankind, Plutarch is utterly incapable of offering anything of substance to back up his claims beyond his own reasoning. He is painfully short on authoritative statements from the gods themselves.

A Cave Full of Fumes

Plutarch’s pantheon of Greek gods was thought to express itself through oracles, the most famous of which resided at Delphi where Plutarch himself served as a priest of Apollo. This oracle was a priestess called the Pythia. The Pythia spent her day sitting in a cavern full of fumes reputed to possess hallucinogenic properties, which explains why the things she would tell those who consulted her were reliably nebulous and open to multiple interpretations: she was probably high as a kite.

So then, Plutarch certainly believed the gods were capable of speaking to men and revealing their will — but on every occasion when he refers to oracles consulted by the men whose histories he is writing, he finds himself agnostic about the messages they received from their gods, not least because so frequently the prophecies given to devout Greeks tended to lead them in the wrong direction entirely, often resulting in their untimely demise.

The oracle at Delphi was consulted regularly for a period of fourteen centuries, a testimony to the very human obsession with knowing the unknowable. That makes a cave full of fumes a pretty apt metaphor for the entire ancient Greek religious experience.

Laws Etched in Stone

Back to me. While reading Plutarch I am simultaneously going through Exodus. So, in the afternoons I have been marinating in Plutarch’s odd blend of strong opinions about the character of the gods arrived at by use of his ability to reason, accompanied by near-total uncertainty about everything the gods were trying to reveal when they interacted with mankind. In my morning devotions I am encountering the precise opposite.

The Hebrew writers of scripture had none of Plutarch’s tentativeness about the divine will. They had a God who spoke clearly and unambiguously about what he wanted from them, and that reality is reflected everywhere God is mentioned in Exodus. That is not to say that Hebrew prophets never said anything difficult to interpret, but where the will of the Greek gods was expressed in a cavern full of smog, the Israelites had their laws literally etched in stone.

The Lord Commanded Moses

The phrase “as the Lord had commanded Moses” or some variation thereof occurs 18 times in the last two chapters of the book. The tabernacle is under construction, and God has previously described exactly how he wants almost everything in great detail. Chapters 36 through 40 describe what Bezalel, Oholiab and others did and how precisely it conformed to God’s instructions in every respect.

On one level this is completely unnecessary. Chapters 25 through 30 have already detailed exactly what God wanted done. With a few minor exceptions, chapters 36 through 40 could basically be summed up in four words: “And they did it.” Except it isn’t, possibly because four words are all too easy to overlook. Instead, we have five chapters of explicit detail about how the tabernacle was constructed, and after each of its features is described, we have a comment from the writer of Exodus that this was done in absolute accordance with the commands of God.

So then, there was no ambiguity about what God wanted in the mind of Plutarch’s Jewish contemporaries. They had written records of everything their God had ever said to them. The only thing to be decided was whether or not they wanted to do it.

The Basis for Belief

Jordan Peterson once floated the idea that maybe the Law of Moses was largely (if not entirely) an encoding of the Israelite nation’s existing practices rather than something specifically revealed by God at a particular moment in history. I’m not sure he still thinks that today, but it is certainly easier to believe that wisdom acquired over generations was eventually written down and preserved by prudent men than it is to believe that God appeared on a mountain top at a specific point in human history and sent his prophet to a chosen nation with two tablets of stone and a whole bunch of brand new rules for life. But the first hypothesis makes liars of the men who wrote over and over and over again that they were engaged in obeying God’s commands to the absolute letter. The second takes them at their word.

The basis for what these men believed was neither the use of their ability to reason nor their wild guesses as to the correct interpretation of some obscure oracle. It was the word of God.

God spoke. God commanded. Men obeyed and wrote it down, very, very carefully. That is the claim our Bibles make. You can reject it if you like, but you can’t say there is anything ambiguous about it.

Plutarch lived in a world of opinion, ignorance and speculation that sounds an awful lot like the present day. You and I don’t have to.

Image courtesy Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0

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