Sunday, July 13, 2008

Assyria Invents Missionaries? 2 Kings 17:24-41

This post is part of a Biblical commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

With the Israelites for the most part all shipped off into Assyria (most are relocated to Halah, the Habor river, and Medes, though I have no idea where those places are), the Assyrians move Babylonians, Cuthahites, Avvites, Hamathites,and Sepharvaimites into the land of Israel. This tactic of mass forced resettlements is a common one among Biblical-period states (and has also been adopted occasionally by more recent states), intended to cut off local resistance movements and dilute cultural independence in a way that is significantly less bloody than Israel's traditional method of simply killing everyone.

This time, though, something odd happens. The blessing of God, for some theologically inexplicable reason, has passed from the people of Israel to the physical land of Israel. So does his wrath - the new Assyrians don't worship God either, so he curses them in various creative ways, including an invasion by lions.

The king of Assyria devises an interesting solution: he wants Israelite priests sent back into Israel from their new homes in order to preach to the Assyrian settlers and teach them to serve God. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the result is apparently a syncretic religion involving some Israelite ritual practices along with the preceding practices of "each national group." Christianity has often done this in order to aid in its expansion, but the author of 2 Kings is less convinced, judging that "even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols."
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Going to Rome

After forays into Anglicanism over the past several years, in the past three weeks I've begun attending a Catholic church here in Ottawa with my Catholic girl friend (she's really not going to like that I said it that way). This is a great irony because it turns out that a considerable number of Anglicans are considering crossing the floor. They're experimenting because the Anglicans are too liberal. I'm experimenting because the Anglicans are too conservative - though Catholicism can't really do much about resolving that.

As you can see from the pictures here, it's a rather impressive structure and no doubt the interior decorating costs could have fed a small island country for a year. It's also the first church I've gone to that had a real genuine organ, which was impressive to me, though perhaps less so for others.

I don't know what to think of Catholicism. I could actually keep up with 90% of the liturgy - it being fairly similar to the Anglican liturgy I'm more familiar with. The sermons - homilies, I guess I should say - are also quite recognizable. (Conservative, evangelically inclined speakers are apparently the same pretty much everywhere; so are liberal ones, though the lines are drawn a little differently than they were in Anglicanism.) The ceremonial aspects were more elaborate, though this might partially be because I was in a much larger and more established church than I'm used to. There was also less singing, which turned out to be okay - this meant not having to flip awkwardly between multiple songbooks the way the Anglicans do.

I doubt I would ever convert to Catholicism, partly for the same reason that I would not actually call myself an Anglican - I have no real interest in submitting to the structure of any church. It turns out there are Catholic anarchists - the Catholic Workers, for example - but I have no reason to use a label that means nothing to me. If the Catholic Church begins ordaining women and blessing gay couples, maybe I'll give some marginal thought to reconsidering. In a way this is a shame because there are a considerable variety of Catholic charity organizations, at least in the east, which would be interesting to work within. The evangelicals of my own past weren't very good at doing charity without preaching.

The fact that I'm formally excluded from communion is also irritating. The fact that this irritates me also interests me, because it's not as if I was ever particularly attracted to the formality of it in any church. Apparently I was only care-free on the subject so long as I had freedom of choice. Even today, when there's a real conflict, the refusal of communion takes on considerable symbolic significance. For this reason, during the gay marriage debates back in B.C., there were some churches whose members would refuse to take communion when visiting certain other churches. (Some conservatives in Vancouver, for example, would refuse to take communion in a church that was willing to bless gay couples.) Communion politics are an intriguing holdover of the religious conflicts of the past five hundred years. The Catholic Church isn't the only one which technically, at any rate, restricts baptism to its own membership, though most Protestants now offer communion to anyone who is baptized (in theory), or to everybody who wants it (in practice).

The decision to restrict communion only to baptized or converted Catholics is of course the Catholics' own prerogative. Formally, the Catholics and certain Protestant groups, I think including the Church of England, have formally recognized one another as Christians, but the Catholic church argues that this is a partial, "imperfect" communion, and therefore - in spiritual terms - apparently we cannot share fellowship before God. I suppose it's a start - in one of my Baptist churches, the question of whether Catholics could even be considered Christians would have been a very divisive one, and most of the congregation would have settled on the negative. Of course, the pope's idea of returning to full communion with Rome appears to be acceptance of his own authority as chief spokesman of God, so I have to say that the Catholic pronouncement of the goal of reconciliation rings somewhat hollow.

Still, I find it rather ridiculous. If we accept that we worship the same God, according to the same Apostles' Creed (though I do have some problems with that one, and this gets more complicated if you toss in the Orthodox, whose creeds are older and unedited), and we're willing to eat together as people (which we are, for the most part), then it seems rather silly to say that we cannot eat together before God. Of course, then there's the whole transubstantiation thing, but the Catholic church doesn't really exclude people based on doctrine, but rather based on baptism.

Ah, well. Yet another church I feel obligated not to join.
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The End of the Kingdom of Israel: 2 Kings 14 - 17:23

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Now that Elisha's gone, the story of the kings starts getting even more depressing than Judges, which at least blanketed evil in a comforting layer of inexplicable superpowers.

After good king Joash of Judah comes Amaziah, who kills all the conspirators who murdered his own father, then defeats the Edomites in glorious battle, and then, excited by his military success, provokes a pointless civil war with Israel. Even the sinful king Jehoash of Israel seems to realize this is worthless and tries to avoid battle, but eventually their armies meet. Jehoash wins and captures Amaziah as a prisoner of war, then goes to Jerusalem, breaksdown the Jerusalem wall, and raids the temple of the Lord for gold and silver. (This seems to happen pretty much once every generation, so in a way it's kind of surprising there's any gold left in that temple.)

Jehoash's son, Jeroboam II, actually leads a successful military campaign against foreigners, restoring Israel's original boundaries. However, the author of 2 Kings actually reverses the traditional logic that God's approval is known through success in battle, instead arguing that in this case God doesn't give a damn about Jeroboam - he's only letting Jeroboam win in battle because he cares about the people of Israel, who are suffering greatly under various oppressive rulers.

Once Jeroboam dies, it's time for another revolution in Israel. His son Zechariah is assassinated by Shallum of Jabesh, who proclaims himself king. In a rather gruesome aside, the Bible tells us that his capital city was sacked by Menahem of Gadi, who in the process "ripped open all the pregnant women." His rebellion successful, Menahem proclaims himself king. Later he has to amass a huge silver payment to the Assyrians to prevent an invasion. Menahem is supposed to be evil, but at least it's worth noting - for me, anyways - that he collects these silver by taxing only the "wealthy men." Progressive taxes!

Israel thereafter considers its downward spiral. Menahem's son Pekahiah becomes king, but is assassinated by the military under Pekah of Remaliah. Pekah becomes king but can't prevent a series of successful invasions by the Assyrians - nor can he prevent a conspiracy by Hoshea of Elah, who assassinates him.

It's under Pekah that Israel as a people finally starts to dwindle. During the Assyrian invasion, all the people of the Naphtali were rounded up and "deported" into Assyria to become slaves. I don't know if we'll ever see them again - I know they become a "lost tribe" at some point.

Back in Judah, Azariah has become king, and continues to be both personally righteous but openly tolerant of other faiths. (This is becoming a trend in Judah, which despite having loyal kings and the Jewish Temple seems to be the most tolerant kingdom.) For this sin, God punishes the king with leprosy, and he's forced to give day-to-day control of the kingdom to his son Jotham (yet another J) even while he's still alive. Joram, which the Bible later incorrectly says is the son of "Uzziah" rather than Azariah, leads a pretty uneventful reign.

By this time, however, the Assyrians are invading the Kingdom of Israel, and Jotham's son Ahaz decides something will have to be done. Trouble is, he's become as evil as his pagan cousins to the north, and converts to foreign religions. He's caught off guard when Israel, which really ought to be worrying about the Assyrians, instead signs a treaty with the Arameans, who attack Judah with Israelite assistance. Ahaz decides to call in the Assyrians himself, formally completing the separation of the two kingdoms, who have fought "civil" wars against one another before but, at least until now, haven't allied with foreign states against one another.

The Assyrians obligingly invade and sack Damascus, then kill the Aramean king Rezin. Ahaz goes to Damascus for a peace conference with Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser (cool name), and while there sees a pagan altar he really likes. He takes sketches and sends tem to his chief priest, Uriah, to build a replica in Jerusalem. Later Ahaz takes the Jewish Temple's bronze altar and places it alongside the new pagan one. Ahaz proposes a novel new idea: he will offer his sacrifices on the pagan altar, but he will ask for the guidance of the Lord on the Jewish one. I think this mix of Jewish and pagan religious practices is supposed to mirror the mix of Jewish and pagan state politics that has occurred under the disastrous reigns of kings Ahaz and Pekah.

Finally, God's had enough and decides to wash his hands of the troublesome Kingdom of Israel. Hoshea, who replaced Pekah, makes a treaty with the Assyrians, but secretly approaches the Egyptians, who are apparently better hegemons than the Assyrians. Every time the Israelites turn to the Egyptians, it's always a bad omen. This time, the Assyrians find out about the secret talks and invade, imprisoning king Ahaz and marching around Israel capturing Israelites and deporting them into slavery. The author of 2 Kings finally can't hold back and engages in a long rant about the sins of the Israelites, delivering a lengthy verdict and ultimately concluding that the destruction of the kingdom is clearly the sentence delivered by God in punishment for their many sins.

The role of God here is intriguing. He doesn't really seem angry that his own people are out of the land - if he was, you'd think he'd have attacked the Assyrians immediately. Instead, he only sends in the lions when they ignore his laws and worship pagan gods. Later, they mix in some Jewish religious practices with their own, and God is content to leave the Assyrians alone.
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Friday, July 11, 2008

Elisha's Done: 2 Kings 13

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, things are falling apart even faster than in Judah. In a confusing series of "J" kings, Jehu's son Jehoahaz becomes king, listens to God for only a brief period of time, frees his people from Aramean oppression for a short time, but eventually loses his entire army to the Arameans. He's followed by Jehoash, who becomes while even while Joash is king in Judah.

It's during Jehoash's time that Elisha the prophet kicks the bucket, apparently after a long illness. He therefore gets one last story in chapter 13, but unfortunately, Elisha's miracles still seem rather aimless. King Jehoash comes to see him because he needs to rebuild the army in order to fight another war with Aram. Elisha, for no obvious reason, immediately tells him to fire an arrow out the east window. As soon as he does, Elisha announaces that the arrow is "the Lord's arrow of victory over Aram."

Then, stranger yet, he tells the king to start striking the ground with the arrow left in his hand. The king obligingly strikes the ground three times.

Not good enough! Elisha is most upset that the king didn't keep striking the ground until he told him to stop. By way of punishment, Elisha explains, instead of totalling defeating the Aramean invaders for all time, Israel will win only three key strategic victories. As prophecied, Jehoash defeats the Arameans three times and "recovered the Israelite towns."

Later, Elisha dies and is buried. Quite coincidentally, the Israelites bury another man in the same tomb and his body happens to touch Elisha's. Immediately, the man is raised back to life and "stood up on his feet."

Although these powers are impressive, they continue in the same vein of miraculous but seemingly ungodly - or at least non-Godly, which I suppose is an important distinction - acts commonly practiced by the ancient prophets, with Elisha simply being the most important example. There is a fairly restricted set of things that prophets can apparently do on their own, without needing any further help from God: they can find donkeys and lost axheads, heal the sick, bring food, raise the dead, and so on. God's powers are only called in when they need to move outside their personal skill set and do things like strike entire armies with blindness or hold magic bull sacrifices to intimidate the Baal prophets.
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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Joash Rebuilds the Temple: 2 Kings 11-12

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

In the aftermath of Elisha's meddling, a clever priest named Jehoiada - acting without any direct and explicit inspiration from God, according to the narrative - is able to piece together an order in Judah. As a result of Elisha's and Jeru's murders, Ahaziah's mother Athaliah was able to control the kingdom - and kill most of the rest of the royal family, for good measure. Her daughter Jehosheba manages to save one of Ahaziah's sons named Joash, and hide him away with the help of the priesthood.

I don't know where the priests go for most of these stories, but the author of Kings seems considerably more sympathetic to them than to the kings. Eventually Jehoiada manages to negotiate control of most of the army; with them standing watch, he brings out Joash and proclaims him king of Judah. Athaliah realizes she's been betrayed but it's too late: Jehoiada has her killed. He also has the Baal priests killed.

Because the temple is falling into disrepair, Joash invents the building fund, consisting of free will donations to be used to "repair whatever damage is found in the temple." Unfortunately, most of the priests have less integrity than Jehoiada, and after 23 years (you'd think Joash wouldn't have waited nearly so long to check up on the fund), they admit they've been taking the money and spending it elsewhere. So Joash the tinkerer also invents the collection box: a "chest" with a hole bored into it which will hold all the money. Only the high priest and the royal secretary may count the money in the box, and they have to do it together - an interesting merging of church and state in order to prevent corruption. The work finally gets finished. Unfortunately, no sooner has the temple been redecorated than the Arameans invade Judah and Joash has to raid the temple for "sacred objects" to give to the Arameans to prevent them from sacking the city. Shortly after this embarrassing defeat, his officials assasinate him while traveling on a road outside town.

Even though God remains silent, king Joash seems half-decent, as far as kings go. This might be because he was only seven when he was crowned, and therefore grew up under the influence of the priest Jehoiada - after all, the book of Kings is considerably more sympathetic to the priesthood than to the monarchy. Joash is a proper Jewish king but pemits religious tolerance - that is, he lets the "high places" remain intact so that the peple can offer sacrifices.
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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Elisha's and Jehu's Grand Massacre: 2 Kings 8:16 - 10:36

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Like all good men in the Bible, king Jehoshaphat of Judah is a useless father, so naturally his son Jehoram becomes king but "does evil" and fails to put down a rebellion by the Edomites, amongst other failures. He's succeeded by Ahaziah, who is equally useless. Ahaziah and Joram fight a joint war against the Arameans but the latter is seriously wounded.

At this point Elisha returns to the scene, once again playing the role of covert kingmaker. (I suppose this is marginally better than simply supporting the existing pagan establishment in Israel, but still, he really lacks the punchiness of Elijah.) At thsi point he's recruited his own "company of prophets," out of which he selects one and sends him to Jehu, one of Jehoshaphat's younger sons. Jehu is from the Judean royal line, but with the Israelite king wounded, Elisha sees an opportunity, so he orders his junior prophet to secretly anoint Jehu as king of Israel.

Jehu is pleased by his new task and promptly rides to Jezreel to get rid of the wounded Joram. Joram tries to send messengers but, when Jehu won't reply, eventually rides out in his own chariot to see what's going on. Jehu insults Joram's mother, accusing her of "idolatry and witchcraft" (some of the cooler, older translations say "whoredoms and sorceries"). Joram realizes he's in trouble and turns to flee, but Jehu shoots him in the back with a bow.

After this, Jehu goes a little nuts: he sees king Ahaziah of Judah and orders his men to kill that king, too. Later, he also has the villainous Jezebel killed too. This murder is particularly gruesome: she's thrown out a window, and then trampled by horses (so that "some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot"), and finally eaten by dogs.

Jehu's not finished! Continuing his murderous rampage, he sends messengers to the guardians of all 70 of Ahab's children who were still alive, challenging them to combat. These were much younger boys, it seems: the Bible doesn't actually say they were chlidren, but it implies it by saying that the letters were written to their guardians rather than to the boys themselves, and that the guardians were those who were "rearing" the kids.

This makes what follows all the more chilling: none of the guardians accept the challenge, so Jehu sends out an ultimatum: they must kill their young charges, or else. All 70 of the "leading men" promptly slaughter the boys, "put their heads in baskets and sent them to Jehu."

Still not finished! Jehu stacks the heads of the children in two piles at the gates of Jezreel and delivers a speech to the people of the city in which he condemns the hous of Ahab. Then he kills all the remaining friends, priests and servants of the house of Ahab. Later, Jehu goes up to Beth Eked and does the same thing to the survivors of Ahaziah, murdering 42 of them; and then goes to Samaria and indulges in yet another massacre.

Jehu has one more murderous rampage up his sleeve. Out of nowhere he announces that he's converting to Baal worship and orders a grand religious service performed to commemorate his conversion. But it's a ruse! No sooner has the ceremony started than Jehu draws his sword, slaughters all the Baal priests, and trashes their temple. And so Baal worship in Israel came to an abrupt end.

Now, all of this is a result of Elisha's political meddling, and you might conclude from this that it's divinely blessed. Well, it's certainly divinely authorized - God always enjoys killing pagans, it seems - but it's in no way an indication that honouring God is back in vogue. You see, Jehu isn't killing the Baal worshippers because they've offended God - he's killing them because they've offended the golden calf gods who, it turns out, he's been secretly worshipping all along!

So God continues to sit in the background as his people squabble. The murderous rampage sparked by Elisha dosen't result in a new, revitalized, God-fearing Israel - it just results in a lot of corpses. Jehu might have had a chance to unite the clans - after all, he killed both the Judean and Israelite kings - but he fails to do even that, becoming king of Israel only. So much for Elisha's influence.
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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Elisha the Establishment Prophet: 2 Kings 6:8 - 8:15

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The Arameans attack Israel, and finally Elisha finds a purpose for his magic powers - not a very good one in my mind, though. He starts aiding the king of Israel, who as you will recall is living well outside the grace of God. God's previous prophets hated the kings of Israel - and the feeling was usually mutual, because authoritarian leaders generally don't take preachers unwilling to toe the appropriate patriotic line. But Elisha doesn't seem concerned about such things.

In order to do his bit in defending Israel, Elisha starts feeding critical intelligence to the king, telling him in advance where the Arameans will attack. The king of Aram eventually divines that a prophet is responsible for this and sends out a force to kill Elisha. Finally, Elisha actually prays to God for a change, but these aren't normal prayers - they're basically commands, which God promptly "obeys" (at least according to the narrative). Elisha strikes the enemy force blind, then stands before them and tells them he is a guide. The deception accomplished, he leads them into Samaria and surrenders them to the king as prisoners of war. King Joram is ready to kill Elisha's prisoners, but instead, Elisha decides that they ought to live. So he commands a great feast prepared, wines and dines the foreigners, and then "sends them away" back to Aram.

Later, the Arameans return to Samaria in force and besiege the city, trapping king Joram inside. Food grows so scarce inside the city that donkey heads become prized commodities and the poorer folk begin engaing in cannibalism. For some reason, a frustrated Joram decides that Elisha is responsible for the siege and decides to kill him. To save his life, Elisha promises his best miracle yet: the siege will lift and immediately food will become cheap again.

Just as promised, during the evening God causes all the Arameans to hallucinate, imagining they're hearing the sound of an enormous cavalry force charging the camp. They decide that Hittite and Egyptian mercenaries are intervening on behalf of the Israelites, and promptly flee, leaving their tents and supplies behind. Four lepers are the first to discover the abandoned camp, because as lepers they're already living outside of the city, and at thsi point quite coincidentally decide that they should try to defect to the Arameans.

The lepers feast on the army supplies and then race back to the town to declare the good news. Initially Joram believes it must be a ruse, so he stands outside the gate and despatches scouts on fast horses. The people are more willing than the king to accept their good fortune, though, and stampede out to the Aramean camp. In the process, Joram comes to a most ignoble end: he is trampled to death by the crowd.

After this, Elisha appears to retire from politics again. He proclaims a famine, though for no apparent reason - he doesn't bother condemning anyone or providing a reason why God is going to cause this famine. He finds the woman whose son he resurrected and carts her off to live with the Philistines for the duration of the famine. Later he leaves Israel himself, going to Damascus to meet with the Arameans.

Elisha's next act is a most strange one. The Aramean king, Ben-Hadad, is ill, and sends his chief aide Hazael to offer Elisha forty camel-loads of "finest wares" in exchange for a treatment, or at least a prophecy about the illness. Elisha admits to Hazael that the king is going to die, but inexplicably he orders Hazael to tell Ben-Hadad he's going to recover. Why the deception? Elisha also prophecies that Hazael is going to be king after Ben-Hadad dies, something which distresses him greatly because he seems to think Hazael is going to do great harm to Israel and its people. Hazel, cheered by the prophecy, promptly goes to the palace and assassinates Ben-Hadad.
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Monday, July 07, 2008

What the hell is a superbishop?

While the Canadian Anglican church careens towards what looks increasingly like an inevitable schism, the global Anglican church is headed in much the same direction. Not just over gay marriage, it turns out, but over something equally scandalous, the ordination of women. I was really disappointed to read this article. I thought that after I'd left the Evangelical Baptists, who at the time had just fought over the issue (my side lost), this wouldn't be too much of a problem anymore. Reason No. 22 why I won't actually call myself an Anglican despite my current preference for that denomination.

(Speaking of which, at the moment I've started going to a Catholic church. I'll write about that another time, perhaps.)

The article is both vague and flat-out wrong on the history so I'll provide my own. Activism during the 1960s led to a concession at the 1968 Lambeth Conference that there were no conclusive, Scripturally-justified arguments on either side of the debate. This is an interesting concession since a conservative could definitely argue that there is just such a Scriptural argument against the ordination of women, and also because it bears an intriguing parallel to Canada's current inconclusive approach to homosexual marriage.

During the 1970s, renegade provinces - Canada, the U.S. and Hong Kong - began ordaining women without formal international permission. At the 1978 Conference, there was an air of crisis over the issue, but it was resolved with a traditional Anglican compromise, one which unfortunately that church seems unwilling to apply to the present issue of gay marriage: live and let live. Provinces were allowed to decide for themselves on the issue of female ordination. The compromise was repeated at the 1988 Lambeth Conference, though shortly thereafter, New Zealand and the U.S. upped the ante by appointing the first female bishops.

By the 1998 conference, formal egalitarians commanded an international majority. The conference was attended by a dozen female bishops, all from Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand. This provoked outrage from some of the more extremist conservative bishops, who apparently believed that the uterus ruins one's ability to discern God's will. Most of the protestors were American; some decided to hold a parallel conference of their own, and others decided simply not to show up for sessions where women were present.

The conference won broad approval for formal gender equality, though with a disturbing compromise option available for those groups within the church who wished to preserve traditional morality, i.e. traditional sexism: the Church would supply acting bishops to parishes who didn't want to accept the authority of a woman over them. These bishops became known by the hilarious informal term of "flying bishops."

The new proposal would provide a formal framework for the informal "flying bishops," under which they'll now be known as "superbishops" and be made available anywhere there's a female bishop. The Daily Mail seems to think this is a new proposal, but actually it's just a formalization of the old policy. There are also rumors, incidentally, that some conservative bishops are considering moving back to Rome over the issue.

This is of course a ludicrous sham compromise and sooner or later will have to be resolved. Ironically, if they were shorter on ethics, some of the egalitarians might be able to win some friends by siding with the conservatives on the other issue that's now threatening schism, homosexuality. (This promises to start other fights at the 2008 Lambeth conference). The oppressor of my victim is my friend.
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Elisha the Pointless Prophet: 2 Kings 3 - 6:7

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I was wrong before - this new king Joram is still of Ahab's line, just a younger son. His chief benefit is that he's no quite as evil "as his father and mother," which is a bit of a backhanded compliment but more than one might expect under the circumstances. At this point, Moab was still paying tribute to Israel, but at some point after Ahab dies, they decide to stop and see what happens. Joram therefore mobilizes Israel's armies to punish Moab. Once again, king Jehoshaphat agrees to send some troops from Judah to help Israel. The army of Edom ends up with them, though it's not clear why.

After a week's pursuit, the three kings realize they're in the middle of the desert and short on water. Why they were foolish enough to get into such a predicament is also not clear, but now, Jehoshaphat decides, it's time to call upon some prophets of God to find out what they should do. It just so happens that Elisha is nearby, and they decide to consult him.

Now, I have to say that so far I'm disappointed by Elisha. He certainly has all the miracle-working power of his mentor Elijah, but he seems to lack purpose. The old prophet would have mocked and tormented these incompetent kings and no doubt peformed some sort of exaggerated ritual to prove his point, complete with fire from heaven. But Elisha merely gives military advice, and even magically brings water to the land so that the army can drink and recover - but only after a harpist is summoned to play him a song, which seems like an odd trade. With Elisha's help, the Israelites invade Moabite land and win major victories, destroying towns and damming brooks and cutting down "every good tree."

Usually Israel is permitted to wage wars against its foreign enemies with complete impunity, and according to the old militarist yardstick, God must be with them on this occasion - after all, are they not fighting the evil Moabites? Has not the prophet of God given water to the army? Well, maybe. But this last statement about the war contains a key warning: the Israelites cut down the "good trees." They're not supposed to do that - back in Deuteronomy, the rules of war explicitly protected trees.

Once the war's over, Elisha wanders off again, and what he does next sort of proves my point about him lacking a purpose. With apparently nothing better to do, he starts trying to reproduce the miracles once performed by Elijah. First he performs the old ever-flowing-jar-of-oil trick. Then he goes to Shunem and raises someone from the dead - once again a young boy - in a very similar ritual, except that this time when the boy returns from the dead, for some reason he sneezes seven times.

With that over with, Elisha branches out into some miracles which parallel Christ's later miracles in the New Testament. He blesses a pot of stew and turns it from "death in the pot" - whatever that is - into good food. He takes twenty loaves of bread and feeds a hundred man (actually, this seems within the realm of possibility, especially if Elisha is doling out the bread in contemporary communion-sized helpings).

However, perhaps the lowest point in Elisha's career as prophet so far is when he sinks to the level of the donkey-finding prophet, the silly little God-blessed mystic that seemed popular in Saul's time. At the beginning of chapter 6, a lumberjack working along a lakeshore accidentally loses his iron axhead in the water. Fortunately a prophet was found - Elisha, naturally - to perform an inexplicable ritual involving throwing sticks into the water, after which the axhead was retrieved. This is a variant of the "find the donkey" story - in this case, prophets can recover your belongings through magic tricks if you've accidentally lost them somewhere.

With nothing better to do, Elisha goes into the private medical business. An Aramean army commander named Naaman comes to Israel hoping that this famous prophet will cure him of his leprosy and, fortunately, Elisha can do just that; he prescribes a treatment including seven separate baths in the Jordan river. Elisha seems willing to do this for free, and when his servant Gehazi secretly demands payment for the cure, Elisha flies into a rage and strikes him with leprosy instead. In the meantime, Naaman asks for - and seemingly gets - Elisha's permission for a very strange thing: the right to worship foreign gods. He won't offer any sacrifices to those gods, Naaman promises, but he will bow down in their temples because he is expected to by his master, the king of Aram. Perhaps, because Naaman isn't an Israelite and therefore simply isn't subject to the laws of Moses, Elisha is simply telling him that he has to make his own moral judgements. If so, that would be cool, I guess.

Unlike Elijah, Elisha isn't following God's explicit guidance in performing most of these miracles. Back in 1 Kings, Elijah would hear God's word, and then would go and do something. Elisha doesn't. Random things just seem to happen around him.

In fact, I have to wonder at the divine authenticity - if there is any - for what Elisha is doing so far. He has basically no political or social role as an activist or dissident, the way most of the major prophets have so far. He can certainly perform miracles, but he doesn't seem to ascribe any great theological meaning to what he does. He's even responsible for the Israelite strategy of damming creeks and cutting down trees, which basically means that this so-called "prophet" is telling the Israelites to commit war crimes prohibited by God's own law.
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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Elijah Checks Out: 2 Kings 1-2

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Ahab dies and his son Ahaziah replaces him as the kingdom of Israel's chief pagan flunky. Flunky, indeed: Ahaziah promptly falls out of a window in his "upper room" and "injures himself." I'll bet he did. Most distressed, Ahaziah sends messengesr to Ekron to ascertain from the pagan god Baal-Zebub how long it will take him to recover from his injury.

And... it's Elijah! Again! Taking his marching orders from God as usual, Elijah intercepts the messengers on the road and gleefully informs them that because Ahaziah sought advice from the wrong god, now he's going to die.

Ahaziah doesn't take the news well. Once again, a king is upset at the fact that God's prophets are behaving more like political dissidents, so he sends a force of soldier to arrest Elijah. Fifty soldiers to one prophet, which aren't nearly as good odds as you might think. "If I'm a man of God," Elijah vows when the soldiers confront them, "then may fire come down from heaven and consume you." As soon as he's done speaking, that's exactly what happens, and Elijah goes on his merry way. Ahaziah sends another fifty men, and Elijah burns them to a crisp, too.

So Ahaziah, who like most of his lineage is dumber than paint, responds by sending still another group of fifty men, though you'd think he might have detected a pattern by now.

The third captain is clearly smarter than his king; he beggs Elijah to save his men's lives. Elijah says "take me to your leader," or some Hebrew equivalent, and the captain in question escapes with his life. Elijah sees Ahaziah right on schedule and says, with his usual caustic wit, "Did you go to Baal-Zebub because you couldn't find a god that was closer to home? Now it's time for you to die!"

Ahaziah dies before having children, and for that reason, his line dies. (He's succeeded by Joram, of uncertain lineage.) With Ahab's blood gone from the throne, Elijah's work is also done, so God prepares a fitting finish for his kickass prophet: a fiery chariot that flies in a whirlwind. Before going, Elijah works one last miracle - he splits the waters of the Jordan so that he and his apprentice Elisha can across on dry land - and then formally passes on the mantle of chief prophet to Elisha. Then the chariots come down and he "went up to heaven" in a way that hasn't happened since Enoch, way back in Genesis.

I'm going to miss Elijah.

Fortunately, in the meantime we can comfort ourselves with Elisha, who at once sets about establishing his authority as prophet in the manner to which the ancient Israelites were apparently accustomed: fancy miracles, in this case for little apparent purpose. Elijah strikes the waters of the Jordan so that he can walk across on dry land, just like his master. Then he walks over to a nearby city where the water supply has apparently gone bad. Elisha throws some salt in, which really shouldn't do all that much, and then declares that he has "healed the water" - and he has! Then he gets jeered by some "youths" along the road, so he calls two bears out of the woods, and they proceed to maul 42 of the youths. This one seems a bit unnecessary, since the most serious insult they could come up with was apparently "baldhead."

Interestingly, in the Elisha story we have an early echo of the sort of scene that happens in practically every modern book and movie when the hero falls and the apprentice picks up his mentor's sword, or gun, or tools, or books, or whatever the hell he needs to do his job - and then carries on in his master's name. In this case, Elijah drops his cloak while he's climbing into the chariot. So Elisha picks it up and starts flapping it around, and it's at this point that the miracles start happening, because, of course, Elijah's cloak is actually a magic cloak.
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Saturday, July 05, 2008

More Meddlesome Prophets: 1 Kings 22

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Thanks to the diplomatic skills of the comparatively righteous (and at least God-fearing) king Jehoshaphat of Judah, Judah and Israel are trying to bury the hatchet. Jehoshaphat and Ahab meet and plan a joint war against Aram, in order to retake the land of Ramoth Gilead. Ahab's ready to go into battle but Jehoshaphat, following the old military tradition, thinks they should seek divine guidance first.

Ahab's reluctant. There's only one real prophet left in Israel, he admits, and it's an annoying man who's always insulting him. (Once again, 1 Kings describes prophets as social activists rather than donkey-finders.) Jehoshaphat doesn't care and summons this "Micaiah son of Imlah" anyways.

While they wait for Micaiah, Ahab brings in a group of other, quite useless prophets who behave more like hawkish newspaper columnists than spokespersons of God. Some of them even seem to be religious con artists, the sort who today can be found selling holy water and other magic charms. One named Zedekiah, for example, presents the kings with a pair of iron horns and announces that these can be used to "gore the Arameans until they are destroyed."

Eventually Micaiah arrives, but he refuses to agree with the pro-war prophets. Before he goes into the king's presence, the messenger who summoned Micaiah tells him he'd better agree with the other prophets and support the war. For some reason, Micaiah does this, but even Ahab seems suspicious by the terse answer he gives, and commands that Micaiah tell the truth.

I've no idea why Micaiah lied, but his next answer is clearly critical: the people of Israel, according to God, "have no master. Let aech one go home in peace."

Ahab doesn't like the notion of the people of Israel not having a king - after all, that would mean the end of his very profitable career! He turns to his fellow king Jehoshaphat and tries to commiserate: "See why I never bring this troublesome prophet to my court?"

A little irritated that they're talking over him, Micaiah imparts another vision, claiming that the Lord summoned the demons to his own heavenly throne room and asked them to lure Ahab into battle at Ramoth Gilead so that he could die at the hands of the Arameans. A "lying spirit" came forward and volunteered to do just that. This lying spirit, Micaiah claimed, has subsequently come and infected all of the king's false prophets.

The false prophets in question are irate and Zedekiah, strangely, wants to know "which way the spirit went" after it left God's throne room. Huh? Micaiah keeps provoking them, so Ahab orders him thrown in jail until he gets back from the coming battle. He never gets back, of course - he's shot and killed by an Aramean archer. Jehoshaphat returns to Judah and leads his kingdom in righteousness and peace (not military victory, but rather peace, I note). Israel, by contrast, gets another useless pagan king, in the form of Ahab's son Ahaziah.
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Friday, July 04, 2008

Elijah's Back! 1 Kings 21

This post is part of a revolutionary Biblical commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Another day, another sorry episode in the life of corrupt King Ahab. This time he wants to buy a vineyard near his palace, which is owned by a man named Naboth. Naboth refuses to part with it, either for a fair price or in exchange for another vineyard. The land is his inheritance, Naboth says, so he won't sell it. Actually, it's worth noting, if it's inherited land he can't sell it to Ahab, under the laws of Moses. But I guess that hardly matters because no one's following those laws anymore anyways.

Ahab sulks over the failed land deal but his wife Jezebel, who once again is the female embodiment of evil, promises to get it for him. (I'd say something about troublesome women in the Bible but I think I've said it more than enough already. Suffice to say that, as usual, women are causing trouble by their very presence.) Jezebel holds a banquet and frames Naboth for blasphemy; on the bribed testimony of some "scoundrels," the people of Naboth's city stone Naboth to death. With Naboth out of the way, Ahab marches into the vineyard and attempts to occupy it by force.

This little scheme would have worked, presumably, except that God decides to have some fun at Ahab's expense, and sends in Elijah. In exchange, Elijah pronounces, he is going to "bring disaster on you": Ahab will lose "every last male in Israel," and dogs are going to eat his wife! What's particularly chilling here is that Elijah is speaking in the first person, as though he is going to do these things himself. My NIV translation puts in the appropriate extra quotation marks to make it seem as though Elijah's just repeating God's words here, but there weren't any such marks in ancient Hebrew. This appears to genuinely freak out Ahab, and he puts on sackcloth and begins fasting and behaving "meekly" for a change.

Afterwards, God and Elijah get together and compare notes on their little operation. God is quite pleased with himself: "have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me?" He decides to postpone the coming "disaster" until after Ahab dies.
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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Judge Not Others...: 1 Kings 20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Our fun tour with Elijah over, it's back to the sinful kings of Israel. The king of Aram mobilizes an enormous combined force, with the help of 32 allied kings, and besieges the Israelite city at Samaria, demanding gold, silver, and women in tribute. King Ahab accepts the terms initially, but King Ben-Hadad gets greedy and says he's going to send more looting parties to search the king's palace and other houses and make sure nothing is missing. Ahab summons the elders of Israel and then decides to refuge Ben-Hadad's demands. In response, Ben-Hadad attacks.

We know Ahab is an entirely ungodly king, but for whatever reason, Ahab successfully enlists the help of prophets in devising a winning combat strategy. They surprise Ben-Hadad's army in the early afternoon, just after the latter has finished a large liquid lunch. The surviving Arameans try to flee, but the Israelites overpower them even as they retreat.

The Arameans, distressed by the loss, consult their own prophets, who offer an interesting philosophical rationale for the defeat. According to their rather unlikely explanation, the Israelites won the battle because it took place in hilly territory, and the Israelites worship "gods of the mountains." So the next battle should take place on the plains - because the Arameans worship the gods of the plains. As an afterthought, they also suggest that all the defeated kings be replaced with competent military officers, which certainly makes much more sense.

The Arameans attack again, and this time God again comes to Ahab's aid - not for Ahab's sake but for his own, because, he explains, he wants the Arameans to know that he is a god of the plains as well as a god of the hills. The Arameans lose again and this time Ben-Hadad and Ahab negotiate a peace treaty.

Today, we'd call this a decent ending to a tragic war, but unsurprisingly, the God of the Old Testament doesn't see it that way. Ben-Hadad is an enemy of Israel and therefore he ought to have died in battle. Ahab needs to be told this. So God sets up an absolutely ludicrous confrontation between Ahab and yet another wandering prophet, who are so implausibly numerous in 1 Kings that you'd think you couldn't walk a mile in ancient Israel without accidentally bumping into one.

This particular wandering prophet is walking up to people on the road asking them to injure him. The first refuses, and as a result, the prophet kills him (well, actually, God kills him using a lion, but you get my drift). Eventually someone agrees to strike and wound him, wihich the prophet accepts with grace. Then he stands by the road waiting for Ahab to ride by, pulling his hood down over his face to hide his identity.

Ahab arrives and the prophet falsely identifies himself as a soldier who was present at the battle and was set to guarding prisoners of war, but let his prisoner escape, for which he now fears that his life is forfeit. Under standing orders, if you let a prisoner escape, you either had to forfeit your own life or pay a fine of 75 pounds of silver (quite a bit of silver, actually). Obviously this is a test.

Interestingly, it's also a test that Jesus later retells as a parable, so remember this outcome: Ahab is unsympathetic, saying that if that's the penalty the soldier must pay, the soldier will simply have to pay it. He offers no money to help out, and we have to assume the result might have been different if he had. As it is, the prophet lifts the cloth from his face and tells Ahab that he's going to be judged by the same standard by which he would have judged the soldier: "you have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life."

Despite the bizarre "strike me or I'll kill you" beginning to this part of the story, it's actually well written. Ahab is judged by the standards by which he would have judged others.
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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

These are the Days of Elijah: 1 Kings 17-19

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

We interrupt the sad procession of failed kings to bring you the prophet Elijah, who really kicks ass as far as prophets go. Elijah the Tishbite appears out of nowhere before Ahab and proclaims that for "the next few years," he and he alone has the power to decide when it will rain and when it will not. Then Elijah turns on his heel and walks out. He moves to a ravine east of the Jordan, where, of all things, he has ravens bring him breakfast every morning and dinner every evening. Eventually, the lack of rain causes his creek to dry up, so he moves out of the ravine and starts getting food from Sidonian widows instead. (As compensation for this, he blesses their flour jars and oil jugs so they become magic and never run out of food.)

Elijah can be a bit of an obnoxious asshole when he's angry, but at least he has God on his side, which is more than pretty much anyone else in this part of 1 Kings can honestly say about themselves. We know this not just because God routinely talks to him - which he does - but also because of Elijah's impressively varied repertoire of miracles, which include everflowing oil jugs, psychic control of ravens, control of the weather, and - for the first time in the Bible - raising the dead. Yes, Elijah raises his supportive woman friend's deceased son who dies of a strange illness. Unlike Jesus, however, Elijah's resurrection spell is rather complicated, requiring an intricate ritual in which he "stretches himself out on the boy" three times while praying. God, I hope that isn't a euphemism. Eventually the boy recovers and Elijah happily announces his progress to the boy's mother.

After a few years of clowning around in Sidon, Elijah decides to go back to Ahab. On his way, he meets a fellow prophet named Obadiah, who has spent the last several years hiding prophets in caves so that they won't be killed by Ahab. Elijah's been withholding the rain, so Ahab tells Obadiah - who apparently he's still on speaking turns with, despite the whole hiding-prophets issue - to go to find some springs and rivers somewhere. "Go tell your master that Elijah is here," Elijah says ominously. Obadiah complains at length, apparently fearing that Ahab will kill him upon hearing such news, but Elijah tells him to go and do it anyways.

Ahab meets Elijah in person, calling him a "troubler of Israel," which is a cool title for a malcontent, I suppose. I wouldn't mind being a "troubler of Canada." Elijah is unperturbed, proposing what amounts to an early interfaith debate - actually, one that I think should be the model for all future debates on the subject of "does God exist?" or, more appropriately, "which gods exist?" because that's the one really at issue here. Elijah will represent God and no less than 850 pagan prophets, handpicked by Ahab, will represent Baal and Asherah. Elijah doesn't seem troubled at being so heavily outnumbered.

Elijah asks for two bulls to be brought. Then he summons the pagan prophets and sets down the ground rules for the debate: each side gets to build an altar using only the wood available on hand, and place a dead bull on that altar. The victory conditions are pretty basic: whoever's god sets fire to the sacrifice first, wins. This game, he adds, is for all the marbles. Whichever god wins gets the complete devotion of everyone in Israel.

Elijah, always generous, spots the Baal priests an eight-hour head start, which the pagans use to pray and call upon Baal. During this time, he gleefully mocks them, suggesting that perhaps their god is meditating, or working, or on vacation, or even sleeping.

After their head start time is up, Elijah casually begins building his altar, which apparently he hasn't even started yet. He decorates the altar with a shallow trench and twelve marker stones, one for each tribe - "my altar is called Israel," he declares as he sets the stones in place. He lays the bull on the wood, then he dumps twelve large jugs worth of water onto the altar, so that the wood is drenched and the trench is full.

Finally he points triumphantly at his creation and prays confidently for divine intervention. God promptly strikes the altar with a pillar of fire, burning the sacrifice, the wood, and even the stones, and leaving the soil scorched black.

"Thus my argument prevails," Elijah says, or something to that effect anyways, after which he tells the Israelite onlookers to storm the debate floor and kill all the pagan prophets. Then, at long last, he calls down rain. And then, hilariously, he tells king Ahab to go have a drink. Alone except for a servant, Elijah climbs up a hill and sits, hanging his head between his knees, to await the coming rain.

It's brilliant. Except for the mass murder bit, I definitely think we should institute this format for religion debates. It's certainly going to be a lot less annoying than watching Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort arrogantly tell ridiculous stories about bananas and soda cans. I promise you today, the first priest I see who can call down fire from heaven to burn up a stack of logs will win me as a convert for life.

Unfortunately, Jezebel isn't nearly as impressed, and plots to have Elijah murdered. He flees from Israel into Judah and, somehwat depressed, actually prays for God to kill him. Instead, an angel gives him food and drink to lift his spirits. He lives in a cave for a while, then hears from God that it's time for another impressive performance.

This time, Elijah stands on a mountain and proclaims the "presence of the Lord." God's presence comes, preceded first by a "great and powerful wind" so strong it "tore the mountains apart," and then by a powerful earthquake, and then a wildfire. Finally there is "a gentle whisper," which apparently is the "presence of God." Very nice, author of 1 Kings.

Next, God sends Elijah to Damascus, where he's supposed to anoint someone named Hazazel as king of Aram, then anoint Jehu of Nimshi as King of Isarel, and finally appoint Elisha of Shaphat as his own successor as prophet. Somewhat ominously, God is apparently planning a massacre: he says that Jehu will murder any who Hazazel doesn't, and Elisha will murder any who Jehu doesn't, and then there will be seven thousand left who "have not bowed down to Baal." Elijah promptly goes out, finds Elisha plowing a field, and makes him "his attendant." Naturally, Elisha responds by throwing a feast and killing all the oxen he was just using to plow the field - all twelve of them.

Elijah is brilliant, cruel, and sarcastic, the Dr. Greg House of ancient prophecy. If he wasn't so bloodthirsty, I'd really love him.
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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

One Useless King After Another: 1 Kings 14:21 - 16

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

With Jeroboam out of the way, 1 Kings launches into a long and confused summary of the reigns of the dynasties of Judah and Israel, moving back and forth fast enough that it's easy to get confused. The general theme is that all the kings are sinful and all the kings support the worship of false gods, and that as a result God abandons the kingdoms to their depravity and lets foreigners win in battle (a partial return to the traditional militarist yardstick).

In Judah, Rehoboam (whom we talked about before already) lets his people set up Asherah poles on every hill and under every tree (a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps?). There are "even male shine prostitutes" in the land now, which is particularly disgusting to the Israelites because of the threat that sex between men poses to the traditional gender order. After a few years, Judah is invaded by the Egyptians, who ransack the palace and the Temple and carry off most of Solomon's gold trinkets. Rehoboam tries to replace them, but he can only afford cheap bronze replicas.

Rehoboam's son Abijah (confusingly, Jeroboam also has a son named Abijah, which makes one wonder whether there's a mistake here somewhere) becomes king of Judah after his father and apparently does no better. The author of 1 Kings makes the ridiculous and totally false claim that God let Abijah remain as king because David was without sin in the eyes of the Lord, with the singular exception of the murder of Uriah the Hittite. God does permit a continuous civil war between Judah and Israel, however.

Abijah's son Asa is the next king of Judah. He seems to be a decent guy: he expels the shrine prostitutes, dismisses his own grandmother for idol worship, and disperses the royal treasury to make peace with Aram. (This is where the good news stops - once Asa is at peace with Aram, he convinces the foreigners to join him in making war against Israel.) His punishment for this, 1 Kings records, is that as he grew older "his feet became diseased." How awful for him.

Over in Israel, Jeroboam is replaced by his son Nadab, who is as sinful as his old man. He also has to deal with some rebels, one of whom - Baasha - succeeds in assasinating Nadab and becoming the new king of Israel. Baasha promptly murders Jeroboam's entire family. But Baasha turns out to be no better, and God sends a prophet to try and scare the king straight. (It doesn't work.)

It's rapidly becoming apparent that, unlike Judah, Israel can't even maintain political stability (both sides are united in their general sinfulness, but Judah has a functioning monarchy to oversee its depravity - is this better or worse? I'm not sure...). Baasha's son Elah becomes king, but after only a couple of years, the commander of his chariots, Zimri, stages a coup. Zimri tries to proclaim himself a king, but he's committed one of the most basic mistakes of military conspirators - he's forgotten to make sure he actually has the support of the military. The infantry refuses to recognize a charioteer as king and names a competing king, Omri. Then they march on Israel's new capital of Tirzah, where Zimri sees the approaching masses and promptly sets his palace on fire, immolating himself in the process. Yet another Biblical ritual suicide, it would seem. Omri eventually does become king, though only after killing a few other challengers to the throne. He's a pagan too, though, so God is still angry.

The last king in this sequence is Omri's son Ahab, who rules Israel for 22 years and is more evil than anyone yet. He marries a foreign girl named Jezebel (always a bad idea) and introduces Baal worship to the various other pagan faiths already in Israel. He also lets his subjects begin rebuilding the city of Jericho, which has been laying fallow since Joshua's time and was never supposed to be rebuilt.

At this point God has basically stepped out of the narrative. Aside from the occasional grumpy prophet, the only role he plays is to stand around progressively getting angrier and angrier.
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