One of my pet peeves is the way people throw around the word “holy” to mean a lot of things other than what the word historically means. Sometimes when word-use shifts you just have to shift with it; thems the breaks in the evolution of language. Sometimes it’s worth the effort of preserving the older usage alongside the new one and recognizing which one you are facing in any given context. But sometimes, if the word and its concept matter enough, you just have to draw a line in the sand and say “No further!” and break your little ships if people try to take liberties with the word.
“Holy” is one of those latter words.
I think that the erosion of the meaning of the word “holy” has been a disaster for thinking seriously about the meaning of life and religious matters. I go out of my way to teach a basic sense of the word to my younger students and always resolve to find more ways to use the concept with my older students. I have occasionally alluded to the correct use of this word in some of my older posts, but I have never set down a full account of what I take to be the essential features of the concept of “holy.” Let’s remedy that. Continue reading Sacrifice and Sanctity
Let’s reinvent the wheel a little bit. By the end of this we will have come back around to a very common, very basic doctrine of the Catholic Church. In writing this I have in mind primarily my students, for whom connecting all the things we teach is usually very difficult.
We begin with justice, the repaying of debts that we owe. Among all the different kinds of justice-relations we can find ourselves in, the just person above all recognizes that there are some debts that can never be properly repaid. To be truly just is to attempt to repay those debts anyway, even knowing that it will never really be done.
By way of introductory example, consider the case of one person saving another person’s life. It doesn’t seem strange to imagine a person feeling that they could never repay their savior, but that they would in any event constantly strive to do so. Just because “thanks” or “a check for a million dollars” doesn’t seem to cover the debt doesn’t mean we should do nothing. It’s not hard to imagine the indebted party gladly doing good for their savior in a variety of ways, hoping that some day they could reciprocate in some genuine way. Anyone who shrugged and ceased to care about their debt because of the inadequacy of their efforts would be wicked. Continue reading Debt, Worship, Sacrifice
Remember when I was playing with biblical weaponry and speculated on a muddy, probably-impossible-to-prove distinction between rhomphaia and machaira as divine and human swords, respectively? You have suggestive uses like the cherubim wielding a rhomphaia to keep people out of the garden; you have an explicit contrast in Ezekiel’s doom against Egypt between the machaira Pharaoh wields and the rhomphaia God will give to Babylon; but mostly you have an unclear mixture of the two throughout the Old Testament. It feels to me like there’s an idea lurking behind it all but much too obscure and inconsistent to do much with it.
Well, enter the New Testament.
New Testament authors refer to swords 36 times and there is a very strong pattern indeed. Here’s a quick list, with commentary to follow. Continue reading Rhomphaia in the New Testament
[This is an old draft I want to push out, warts and all, so that I can riff off of it with another post coming up. It’s verrry imperfect but hopefully amusing. This investigation is what inspired me to write my post on the Septuagint and the Masoretic text two years ago.]
You know who likes ancient weapons? This guy.
Trying to get a handle on the use of framea for spear in the Vulgate sent me down a rabbit hole of Biblical word studies for naming all the different tools you can use to kill people. There’s quite a tangled web of words and strange choices by biblical authors.
I’m no closer to being an archaeo-armorer, but I can share the fruit of my paltry labors. Think of it as another “how to say ‘tree‘” post, but with gore this time. Continue reading Biblical Weaponry
Why isn’t Josiah the greatest of all the kings of Israel?
Sure, David is the gold standard by which all future kings are judged. They either walk in the ways of David their father or (much more commonly) they do not. He writes the psalms, the prayer-book of the people of Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He brings the ark to Jerusalem and attempts to build God a temple, which leads to God making him a covenant mediator on par with Abraham and Moses. None of this even touches upon the countless stories of his great personal faith in God.
But then again he has epic failures. No other king has so much ink devoted to them, and quite a bit of that ink draws an unflattering portrait. He multiplies wives. He massacres the blind and lame of Jerusalem in response to a taunt. He rapes a woman and murders her husband, one of his own trusted warriors, to make her his own. And that’s not even the worst one! He brings down a curse of death upon the people of Israel through the taking of the census against God’s command. So at a minimum Josiah compares quite favorably to David by what he doesn’t do; there are no epic failures counter-balancing his greatest accomplishments. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Josiah’s Failure
As Elisha nears the final hour of his life, we get this perplexing scene in II Kings 13:
14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands upon the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; and he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”
What a horrible old man that Elisha must have been! A grieving king comes to him in his final hour, full of filial devotion for this departing holy man, and instead he gets yelled at and blamed for Israel’s future ills because he didn’t correctly read Elisha’s mind? How awful!
Just kidding. What, do you people not read the whole Bible or something? Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Elisha’s Death
The most crushing objection I’ve ever seen against the use of the death penalty is given by St. Thomas Aquinas as the first objection in ST II-II Q64 a2. Let’s marvel at the objection for a bit and then look at how Aquinas responds.
In the Summa Theologiae, very often the first objection of an article is the conclusion of a previous article. You might think of these as consistency objections, or an introduction to further refining a point. “But wait a minute, you just said…” in the most annoying student voice you can muster.
On the other hand there are many objections which are just very intuitively powerful or insightful. Reading the really great objections, being rocked on your heels, finally seeing the problem, really seeing it for the first time–these are perhaps the greatest the pleasures of reading St. Thomas.
The first objection against the use of death as a penalty is one of these, but with a bit of a twist: it’s a quotation from Sacred Scripture. Why is that weird? Well, very often I find his Scriptural objections fairly week or formulaic, or at least a bit of an interpretive strain to see how it really works as an objection. There are exceptions of course, but I usually steer my students away from these so they can focus more on the main argument.
Well this is definitely one of the exceptions. I’m not sure Aquinas ever gives a Scriptural citation with as much power as this one. For those who know the reference, you probably don’t even need to see the text or have it explained to realize the problem for someone inclined to argue in support of the death penalty. It is the famous parable of the wheat and the tares from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
The text, si placeat: Continue reading Aquinas Against the Death Penalty
If you are not familiar with how the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, first read II Kings 18-19 (it’s also in Isaiah 36-37). Then read Lord Byron’s immortal take, even though the psalmist beat him to it by about 2500 years.
For Holy Saturday, it is the harrowing of hell.
“Notus in Judaea” (Psalm 75)
 In finem, in laudibus. Psalmus Asaph, canticum ad Assyrios.
Unto the end, in praises. A psalm for Asaph, a canticle unto the Assyrians. Continue reading Translating Psalms (75)
It’s Friday. Focus on the chalice.
“Confitebimur tibi” (Psalm 74)
 In finem, ne corrumpas. Psalmus cantici Asaph.
Unto the end, lest you corrupt. A psalm of a canticle for Asaph. Continue reading Translating Psalms (74)
Why indeed would God be angry with us? Maybe because we just sold His Son into the hands of death? A total desecration of God in the triumph of the enemy? An overthrow of God in the garden of His holy place?
Sure if this weren’t Holy Week I could talk about what I think the historical setting of this psalm is–some later stage of the kingdom when the foreign cults were overwhelming the worship of God. But that doesn’t matter compared to seeing Jesus heading to the garden to be betrayed by his friend.
“Ut quid, Deus” (Psalm 73)
 Intellectus Asaph. Ut quid, Deus, repulisti in finem, iratus est furor tuus super oves pascuae tuae?
An understanding of Asaph. Why, O God, have You repelled unto the end, has been angry, Your fury, over the sheep of Your flock? Continue reading Translating Psalms (73)