Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joshua Berman's essay on the historicity of the exodus
The movie Exodus: Gods and Kings has sparked some discussions over whether was there an actual exodus. Liberal scholars readily came out and repeated their mantra that there is little, if any, historical value in the Book of Exodus.
There is a recent insightful essay written by Rabbi Joshua Berman (Senior Lecturer at the Zalman Shamir Bible Deparment of Bar-Ilan University) that challenges the liberal view (H/T: Gerald McDermott). Berman points out several phrases in the Book of Exodus that parallel Egyptian Pharaohs' imperial propaganda contained in the Kadesh poem. For instance:
In the Kadesh poem we read: Then when my troops and chariotry saw me, that I was like Montu , my arm strong, . . . then they presented themselves one by one, to approach the camp at evening time. They found all the foreign lands, among which I had gone, lying overthrown in their blood . . . . I had made white [with their corpses] the countryside of the land of Kadesh. Then my army came to praise me, their faces [amazed/averted] at seeing what I had done.

Exodus 14:30-31 is remarkably similar, and in two cases identical: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord.” As I noted earlier, “great hand” here and “great arm” in 15:16 are used exclusively in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the exodus, a trope found elsewhere only within Egyptian propaganda, especially during the late-second-millennium New Kingdom.
Evidence such as this suggests a relation between the Egyptian and Hebrew sources:
I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. [...] Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.
What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. [...]

To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. [...]

But my own conclusion is [...]: the evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate. 
There are three responses to Berman's essay. Richard Hess and Benjamin Sommer agree with him, while Ronald Hendel remains unconvinced.

Here is a short video that summarizes Berman's argument:

Monday, March 02, 2015

A response to Islamic Information & Services Foundation's distribution of translated Quran

The Islamic Information and Services Foundation (IIS) in Malaysia has launched “One Soul One Quran” programme, with the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad serving as its patron. The programme will translate and distribute 1 million copies of the Quran to non-Muslims and Muslims through Islamic institutions. 

The purpose of the programme is said to dispel misunderstanding of Islam as a “cruel religion”. IIS’s official has also stated that, “It’s up to non-Muslims to take them or not. We are also not taking down their personal information.” The project aims to deal with “Islamophobia as we want to spread awareness about Islam’s teachings. We do not want what is going on in the West to happen here.” 

The Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has since produced a statement to reprove the programme. The council states that the actual intention of the programme is “to propagate the Islamic faith to the Non-Muslims under the guise of removing misconceptions of Islam.” The statement also condemns the programme as “obnoxious as a similar right is not given to Non-Muslims.” Therefore, the council advises non-Muslims not to accept the translated Quran. 

 I am inclined to ask if there is another way for non-Muslims to respond to the “One Soul One Quran” programme? I think there is. What I am suggesting here is meant for Malaysian Christians, though it may also be applicable to believers of other religions. 

Another Way 
As someone who is tasked to lead a religious community, it is my responsibility to constantly ask what kind of religious people we are developing. Are we developing people (in my case, Christians) who are suspicious of the “religious others”, alienating them, and further fragmenting the fragile social cohesion of Malaysia’s pluralistic society? 

How we respond to initiatives such as IIS’s programme will shape the kind of people in our respective religious communities. The present world cannot afford to have more religiously motivated people who are cynical and hostile towards religious others. Neither should there be further escalation of religious ghettoisation that leads to the rise of Christian (or any other religions) version of Perkasa and Pekida

What our society needs but seriously lack of are religious communities that are able to relate to other religions in an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition as how we should relate to our own faith. 

Regardless of IIS’s intention, its “One Soul One Quran” programme will distribute translated Quran to non-Muslims. My take is that, instead of rejecting when given, Christians should be glad to receive them. There are three important reasons for doing so. 

First, by reading the actual (though translated) Quran, Christians get to learn about Islam from its original source mindful of the fact that reading the Quran does not guarantee right understanding and that we can also learn about Islam from other sources as well. If so, there is no reason not to include the Quran as part of our learning as it is the text that all Muslims deem authoritative, something that cannot be said of other books on Islam. 

Our knowledge of Islam and our relationship with Muslims should be cultivated by reading the Quran, various Islamic books and websites, attending lectures by Islamic scholars, and having conversations with Muslim friends. I learn about Islam in the same way as I learn about Christianity: through reading the sacred text alongside works by respected exegetes, attend courses, and talk to other ardent believers. This is not the best way but it has so far been the least unreliable way for me to gain certain degree of reliable understanding of complex phenomena such as religions. 

The second reason Christians should accept and read the translated Quran is for evangelical (or ‘evangelisation’ for Roman Catholics) purpose. There is no need for Christians to feel sorry or embarrassed for our evangelical intent as Christianity since its beginning is as much a missionary faith as Islam (the same can be said to all religions seeking followers). Reading other religious texts help us to understand how best to communicate with the religious others when we share our perspective of Christianity. Besides facilitating mutual understanding, it also enables us to introduce our faith to them with illustrations and analogies that are relevant to them. 

A good example of this is what Paul did at Aeropagus when he quoted from Aratus’ Phaenomena and Epimenides’ Cretica about Zeus to point his hearers to the gospel (Acts 17:28). The apostle has no hesitation to draw from the Greeks’ idea of their deity for evangelical purpose. Paul’s quoting of these works shows that he has read them and saw the missiological value in them. And he used them as illustrations when he shared the gospel to the Greeks. 

The third reason is simply that those translated Quran are free. I had to purchase the two different translations of the Quran for my own reading. So a complimentary copy is welcomed. I suppose non-Muslims who are keen to learn about Islam for the above mentioned reasons should not mind accepting a Quran as a gift. I would be glad to be given another translation of the Quran. So far I have only received a free copy of the Book of Mormon, a gift from Mormon Elders. 

Nonetheless, many Christians in Malaysia are not willing to accept the Quran because they are forbidden to distribute the Bible to Muslims: If non-Muslims are not allowed to distribute their religious texts to Muslims then Muslims should likewise be prohibited. The case of Al-Kitab further aggravated this sentiment among non-Muslims. We are not being treated fairly by the ruling Muslim party and its various interest groups and Islamic authorities. 

However I think there are several reasons why such unfair treatment on non-Muslims should not prevent Christians from receiving the Quran. First, Christians should not imitate the intolerant behaviour and siege-mentality exemplified by others (regardless of religion). Second, Christians should be open to learn from others even though others do not want to learn from us. Third, Christians can and should cultivate the ability to appreciate religious others without compromising our own faith and mission. Fourth, Christians can turn this unfair treatment around by making the best of the situation by appropriating it for our own learning and missiological purpose, as mentioned above. 

I understand there are concerns among Christians with such suggestion. For one, there is fear among Christians that believers will be led away from Christianity when they read the Quran. I think this fear is not only invalid but also hypocritical and unfair. 

It is invalid because if Christianity is true, then Christians should be able to engage other religions’ text with discernment. Of course, not every Christians may be able to do that, yet this means that all the more there is a need to disciple church members and equip church leaders with solid theological education so that they are able to discern. 

Secondly, such fear is hypocritical and unfair because if Christians welcome non-Christians to read the Bible, then we should likewise be open to be welcomed to read the text of other religions. If we are not willing to read others’ scripture, then on what grounds do we have to ask and expect others to read ours willingly? 

Another concern comes in the form of a question: many Christians do not even read the Bible and/or as often as they should have, then why should they read the Quran? I think this question can be used on everything: Christians do not even read the Bible as often as they should have, then why should they read newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, websites, blogs, novels, magazines, textbooks, journals, infographs, pamphlets, watch movies, dramas, and YouTube videos, and play golf? So, how consistent do we want to apply this in all other areas? At least, as I have outlined above, reading the Quran can help in evangelisation. 

As the journey to improve the governing structures of Malaysia is still going on, there is much we can do in response to challenges we face as a minor religious community. For one, Christians should not shy away from making use of the state’s designated funds for Islamic proselytisation for our own Christian evangelisation and peace-building work. If they distribute free Quran, we take and learn it. If they give out Islamic theological books, we include them in our seminaries’ library for research. If they have funds for further education in Islamic Studies, we take it and gain expertise in the field. 

The responsibility of Christian leaders to our community is twofold when it comes to interfaith matters in a pluralistic society. On one hand, we must not foster Christians who are resentful and alienating to the religious others, and further contribute to social hostility among different religious groups in the society. We must not become the Christian version of Perkasa, Pekida, or ISIS. On the other hand, we have to draw from the Christian scripture and tradition resources to inculcate an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition among our community’s members towards the religious others, as how we should be in relation to our own faith. We want to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles while at the same time being fair to the religious others as we want them to be fair to us. All these are to be pursued for the glory of God, for the work of the gospel, and for the cultivation of peace and harmony in our society. 

This article was originally published on New Mandala website, 2 March 2015.