Saturday, February 13, 2010

JW Study Meeting #32

Today at 2:00 PM, the Jehovah's Witnesses caught me just a little bit off-guard. I had lost myself in some genealogical research (one of my other hobbies), and the time had passed by quite quickly. So as I let them in, I said a silent prayer in my mind that their minds would be enlightened with the truth of God and that they would come to know God as he truly is. Uriah stepped in, and he had with him another Jehovah's Witness, whom I'll call "Raanan", who had some profoundly noticeable borborygmi throughout the meeting. We showed Uriah a nice, useful site that can help him save some money on eating out (this led to some discussions of various restaurants in the area), and Uriah also approved a flier I'd made for something coming up. (Stay tuned!)

Then Uriah asked what I'd thought of the circuit assembly, and I replied that I enjoyed it. (This is true, though with the caveat that I enjoyed it as an observer, but I have difficulty imagining reaping actual spiritual benefit from it.) We talked about assemblies for a while longer; Uriah remarked once again on how much more comfortable the seats are there, and Uriah and Raanan both talked for a while about some experiences they had when assemblies/conventions were held at more outdoor venues. Uriah had never gotten hit with any rain, but there was some light mist on one occasion; Raanan hadn't been so fortunate. We also spoke a bit of Ithamar's family, and I mentioned how much I really enjoyed talking to Talya (and, as it turns out, I'm not alone in having difficulty making out what she's saying). They also told a few other stories; Raanan related one about his grandson's friend's family moving to the Philippines. He had another interesting story about how a school had invited people of several faith traditions (a Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and himself as a Jehovah's Witness) to explain to some sixth-graders what their respective groups believe; the rabbi was a no-show and the Lutheran barely gave five minutes, so Raanan had to fill up most of the time, and then a number of the kids asked really intelligent questions. Later in the conversation, Uriah asked me how my girlfriend has been doing, and so I told him about her current quest for a more "solid" teaching position, and how she's currently substituting whenever she has the chance.

We finally got to the 'Bible study', turning to Chapter 10 of What Does the Bible Really Teach?, pp. 96-105; today we'd be getting through the first nine paragraphs on pp. 96-100. Before Uriah had me read the first paragraph, he asked me the three opening questions:

Uriah: Surprise, it's your turn to read. [*laughs*] Before you do that, "do angels help people?"

JB: Yep.

Uriah: You think so, okay. "How have wicked spirits influenced humans?"

JB: By suggesting horrible ideas, by tempting towards sin, by diverse manners, one might say.

Uriah: Okay. "Do we need to fear wicked spirits?"

JB: No.

Uriah: Okay--

JB: Be wary, but not fear.

Uriah: Okay! Okay, good, very good. Very good! Now you may read, sir.

With that, I launched into the first paragraph, which dealt asserted that it's important to learn about the angels--to study biblical angelology, in other words--because "getting to know Jehovah God includes becoming better acquainted with his angelic family", and the question for the paragraph was, "Why should we want to learn about angels?" Well, only an absolute dunce would fail to see the answer they were seeking, so I fleshed it out by referring to the angels as part of the great crowd of witnesses watching us contend for the faith on earth, and as part of the companionship we'll have in the age to come. Uriah, as is customary, added his own question:

Uriah: If a Christian is trying to teach God's truth to a non-Christian, a person who
didn't have an opportunity to believe or whatever, do you think the angels have
any feelings about that?

JB: I believe that they will be working alongside the Christian.

Uriah: Okay, good. Okay.

Raanan read the second paragraph, which.... well, here it is:
The Bible refers to angels hundreds of times. Let us consider a few of these references to learn more about angels. Where did angels come from? Colossians 1:16 says: "By means of him [Jesus Christ] all other things were created in the heavens and upon the earth." Hence, all the spirit creatures called angels were individually created by Jehovah God through his firstborn Son. How many angels are there? The Bible indicates that hundreds of millions of angels were created, and all of them are powerful.--Psalm 103:20.
Uriah then read the question ("Where did angels come from, and how many are there?"), and so I essentially returned the content of the paragraph, which--aside from the underlying sense of Jesus as merely the instrumental cause of their creation, rather than participating in the divine activity as efficient cause (although in a somewhat more instrumental fashion, with comparison to the Father)--was relatively unobjectionable, from a biblical standpoint. When I mentioned that the angels were created through/by Christ, Uriah asked whether that meant that there were no angels before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and I made clear that the angels antedate the earth. The third paragraph, which I then read, states this explicitly and also adds that Job 38:4-7 "shows that angels have feelings, for it says that they 'joyfully cried out together.' Note that 'all the sons of God' rejoiced together. At that time, all the angels were part of a united family serving Jehovah God." Again, nothing terribly controversial, save perhaps to an ardent Thomist. No difficulty in summarizing it to answer the associated question: "What does Job 38:4-7 tell us about angels?" (Seriously, if the level of difficulty in JW study questions is at all indicative of the level of intelligence of the average American, I weep for my country.) In giving my answer (which Uriah said was "excellent"), I mentioned that the unison of the angels would be disrupted later, and so he asked me to recap that further, to which I replied that "we know that there was the war in heaven, we know that Satan drew away about a third of the angels into his rebellion with him and thus broke the harmony that had once existed among the angelic sons of God".

We moved to the next section, titled "Angelic Support and Protection", comprised of paragraphs 4-6. Again, from a biblical standpoint, nothing especially objectionable, not unless we're going to delve into real minutiae. (But, as will become clear later in this account, I have nothing against such delving...) The fourth paragraph talks about the angels becoming sad/happy in response to our (dis)obedience to God, and the question was, "How does the Bible show that faithful angels are interested in human activities?" When I answered, I tossed in the bonus remark that it makes perfect sense for the angels to care, since "the human story is basically the centerpiece of God's creation, it's the narrative that it's all about, in one sense, then naturally the angels are going to be fascinated by it because they know that this is what God is truly interested in". (Uriah liked this answer and then brought up the God's-will-being-done-in-heaven thing, and then had to explain to Raanan that we have different views on that clause in the Lord's Prayer.) The fifth paragraph gave a number of examples of angelic intervention: saving Lot, rescuing Daniel, freeing Peter from prison, and strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane. The related question was, "What examples of angelic support do we find in the Bible?" (Hint: I just listed the ones they listed.)

The sixth paragraph stated that, while "angels no longer appear visibly to God's people on earth", they still protect us from spiritual harm, i.e., from the influence of evil spirits, rather than physical harm. There were two questions for this one. The first was, "How do angels protect God's people today?" After I gave the answer, Uriah asked if I believe that as well, and I said that I did; he asked if it was safe to say that I've never personally seen an angel, and I said, "Not that I know of." Laughing, he remarked, "Good! I don't always get that answer!" The second question for the sixth paragraph was, "What questions will we now consider?"--a pretty easy one, considering that the paragraph ended with three such questions. This whole section was fairly uneventful, but after the fifth paragraph, Uriah tried tossing me a little surprise bonus question:

Uriah: What about the times where we see that an angel came to strengthen Jesus? A couple paragraphs ago, we read that Jesus created the angels--or, Jehovah created them through Jesus. So how does that make sense, if he needed them to strengthen him?

JB: Well, of course, when Jesus became human, he took upon himself things like human weakness, physical weakness, the need to eat, the capacity to be profoundly disturbed, all sorts of things--conditions that would at times be greatly allieved by assistance.

Initially, I figured that Uriah was going to be tossing this out there as sort of a challenge to belief in the full deity of Christ, which he knows I believe quite deeply. However, when he phrases it as a problem to reconcile this biblical passage with a statement found earlier in the Bible Teach book, it becomes clear, at least to me, that this was another sort of test case designed to let us work on a problem shared by both of our positions, not something unique to Trinitarians like myself. Uriah found my answer quite acceptable.

The seventh paragraph was also not too objectionable; it spoke of Satan's great success in corrupting the antediluvian world, noting that Abel, Enoch, and Noah stood as three of the very few who remained faithful to God. The question was, "To what extent did Satan succeed in turning people away from God?" Like I said, aside from maybe a quibble as to the historicity of the 'antediluvian world' depicted in Genesis 1-6, nothing objectionable, at least not from a biblical standpoint. Uriah added the question, "Who did he not turn away--and I don't mean names, I mean as a group." The answer, as we both agreed, was those who refused to surrender to temptation and who instead insisted upon remaining loyal to Jehovah. The eighth paragraph stirred up some more controversy, mostly because I felt like being annoying. The text read:
In Noah's day, other angels rebelled against Jehovah. They left their place in God's heavenly family, came down to the earth, and took on fleshly bodies. Why? We read at Genesis 6:2: "The sons of the true God began to notice the daughters of men, that they were good-looking; and they went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose." But Jehovah God did not allow the actions of these angels and the resulting corruption of mankind to go on. He brought upon the earth a global flood that swept away all wicked humans and preserved only his faithful servants. (Genesis 7:17, 23) Thus, the rebellious angels, or demons, were forced to abandon their fleshly bodies and return to heaven as spirit creatures. They put themselves on the side of the Devil, who became "the ruler of the humans."--Matthew 9:34.
Before I'd deal with the question, I had a counter-question. This part of the text explicitly identifies the "rebellious angels" and the "demons", and I wanted to know if they had any explicit biblical backing for that statement. I let Uriah sort of fumble around for a while trying to figure out exactly what I was getting at, and then finally I said that the reason I was asking is because a number of Jewish and Christian exegetes from around the time of Jesus, give or take a couple centuries on either side, identified the demons with the Nephilim rather than their parents, the "sons of God". (I chose not to call into question the identification of the "sons of God" in this passage as angels, although one major traditional interpretation is that the "sons of God" are merely human, perhaps rulers; mostly, I didn't raise that issue because I'm inclined to favor the more traditional angelic view of the passage.)

This part included lots of silence and thumbing through Bibles. Basically, they stumbled around for a while, and the closest they came to offering a Scripture citation was Genesis 6:1-2 again, which of course never uses the term "demon" or anything like it; Uriah had originally considered trying to reference something in Revelation, but realized that it wouldn't do the trick, and so he eventually conceded that he'd never heard that question before (as I reminded him, I like to keep things surprising), and he agreed to see if he could find an answer for me. Later on, Uriah did indeed e-mail me the entry under "demons" from the JW two-volume publication Insight into the Scriptures. Needless to say, the article never actually provided an answer to the question, since the most it could do was insinuate that since the rebellious angels are wicked spirit creatures who want to subvert God's plan, and the demons are wicked spirit creatures who want to subvert God's plan, they're just obviously one and the same.

Anyway, the closest that Raanan came to giving a good reason to reject the Nephilim interpretation is that it would require the Nephilim to have an immaterial component to their being, and I agree. Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe that anything has such a component, but Uriah informed Raanan that I'm not convinced by their anthropological monism as of yet. And, as I added, even if one did accept that humans do not generally have immaterial aspects that endure beyond the death of the body, such a person could readily posit that the Nephilim, being the (hybrid?) offspring of angels and humans, might have a different ontological make-up that would include such an element. (I also made sure to mention that I'm not personally committed to the view that identifies the demons with the Nephilim; I mostly just wanted to see if they could come up with an answer, especially considering how proud they are of deriving all their beliefs exclusively from Scripture apart from "interpretation".)

We also discussed their opinion (shared, I think, with some early Christian thinkers) that the story of the Nephilim is related to the stories of Greek and Roman demigods. (Also, somewhere in here Uriah gave me the latest issues of The Watchtower and Awake!, as well as a print-out of an article about the pagan origins of Valentine's Day in the orgiastic festival of Lupercalia; when Uriah mentioned orgies, I made the comment, "Or as some people I know would call them, the good ol' days", which got a few laughs.) We also had a brief discussion of Greek food, and I mused with nostalgia about the way gyros are made in Greece.

At any rate, we agreed to deal with the 'demon' thing further later. When I suggested that perhaps I'd find the quotes of the aforementioned early exegetes of the passage, Uriah flippantly said something to the effect that Mark 7:7 ("It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach as doctrines commands of men") renders it irrelevant. (This brings me to another mini-rant: one highly disappointing thing about Jehovah's Witnesses is that absolutely zero consideration is given, at least where not obviously convenient, to anything not written by them or contained in the Bible. It's sola scriptura extremis of the worst sort, and it's little wonder that the result is a often-subtle perversion of the Scriptures.) I gave qualified answers to the questions for the eighth and ninth paragraphs: "How did some angels become demons?", "To survive the Flood of Noah's day, what did the demons have to do?", "What happened to the demons when they returned to heaven?", and "We will consider what with regard to the demons?" Again, working within the framework they've established, the questions and their intended answers aren't so much unbiblical as largely irrelevant. Uriah also asked why demons feel the need to mislead people, and Raanan and I both had the same thought: "Misery loves company." As to why they use people in this way, my answer was that since God himself is unassailable, the worst they can do is to hurt those God loves--namely, us.

That brought us to the end of what we'd intended to get through today, and my mother and Uriah had a conversation about how my grandparents had been good friends of Atarah's parents; this, of course, led to a conversation of many of the bars in the area, since my mother had been in them since she was small enough to walk under the tables; the conversation eventually turned to dogs biting people. So, at last, I bade the Jehovah's Witnesses farewell until 22 February, and after giving us some advice on some home repair stuff (the pipes between the floors of the house have issues, and now the ceiling is falling apart... again....) they trekked down to their car; they'd had to park quite a distance away because the sides of the streets were packed with tremendous quantities of snow from the blizzard.

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