Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Political Science

In my opinion, 1 Samuel 8 is the most interesting chapter in the Bible so far. It requires some exegesis. Remember that we believe King Josiah commissioned the deuteronomic history as a mythic validation of religious orthodoxy and central authority -- specifically his. Ancient states were typically ruled by an alliance between a priestly caste and a warrior king. Israel got there, but we don't know exactly how or when - this history is certainly fictitious. But it's crafted to support a conclusion.

As we have seen, the era of the judges -- of which Samuel is the last -- is a highly repetitious tale. The Israelites are weak, in apostasy, and subordinate to another people. A judge emerges who restores the worship of Yahweh and the military power of the Israelites. They prevail against their conquerors and regain independence and prosperity. But the judge fails to establish an effective successor, and the society once again deteriorates and become prey for a conqueror, until another judge emerges. 


Now the people have had enough, and they ask Samuel to establish a kingdom of Israel. Samuel doesn't like the idea, so he has a chat with Yahweh, who explains that the problem is that between judges, the people keep rejecting him. So maybe the people are right, this is the way to go. However, the judges have generally been benign rulers. With the notable exception of Samson, they have even been ascetic. A king is another matter: kings are likely to be exploitive and oppressive. So Samuel warns the people, but they want a king anyway.

How would Josiah have viewed this passage? It may have been added later, or course. You can look at it in at least two ways. The king may want to deliver the message that yes, I may do a lot that you don't like, but that's the price you pay for social stability and military strength. It's a deal that the people actually agreed to at the founding of the kingdom, so you have no right to complain. Alternatively, it may be an interpolation by a later dissenter who wants people to reconsider the monarchy. In any case, this is the first time the writers have stepped back and reflected on the society they depict. As political philosophy, it may not rise to the level of Plato or Confucius, but it's pretty clear-eyed, What do you think?

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders.[a] The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”


  1. 1 Samuel 8:1 Traditionally judges
  2. 1 Samuel 8:5 Traditionally judge; also in verses 6 and 20
  3. 1 Samuel 8:16 Septuagint; Hebrew young men

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Administrative note

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Monday, September 27, 2021

This time I really do know what I'm talking about

I don't often write here explicitly about my own research. I've been writing this blog for something like 15 years now -- actually probably more than that -- so the subject would have been largely exhausted long ago if I'd concentrated on it. But I'm expecting to be interviewed about an aspect of it this afternoon so I might as well get my thoughts together.

I have found that people on average do not accurately remember about half of the important information, recommendations and decisions that happen in a routine medical visit. That's consistent with what others have found. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. The first is obviously that if people don't properly understand or remember how they are supposed to take their medications or change their diet or watch out for certain symptoms or whatever it may be, their health may be compromised. Basically the time, effort and money spent on the visit has been wasted, or worse. 


The second is that medical decisions are usually not straightforward. There are potential benefits from a given medical intervention, but also costs and risks. If we just depend on the physician to tell us what to do we may not end up doing what makes sense for us individually. But if we don't understand the issues, we can't meaningfully share in decision making. There are other possible repercussions, such as transmitting inaccurate information to family and friends, unnecessary anxiety, and more.

The traditional conception of a medical encounter was that there would be one main issue to be processed and dealt with -- the "chief complaint." Medical students were taught to proceed through steps called Chief Complaint, Present Illness, Past History, Family History, Social History, Systems Review, Physical Examination, Other Investigations, Diagnosis, and Treatment Plan. In the real world, that is very rarely what happens. In a typical visit, there are at least five different issues that come up, and there may be as many as 15. And they don't get processed one a time, they get all mixed up, with digressions from one to another and some getting dropped entirely before they are resolved. The more of them there are, the smaller percentage people understand accurately and remember.

How can we improve on this? There are several ways which have actually been recognized for a long time, but doctors don't do them. One is to have a brief discussion at the beginning about the agenda for the visit. What is the patient's list of concerns? What is the doctor's? If it looks like too much to deal with in 15 minutes, what are the priorities and what can wait until later? Another is to use "teach back." Saying to someone "Do you understand?" is a waste of oxygen. The person might think they understand but they have it wrong. Or they may be afraid to say "no" and look like a dunce, or seem to insult the doctor as being a bad explainer. What is useful is to say something like, "I don't know if I always explain things as clearly as I might, so in your own words, can you repeat what we just talked about to make sure we have it right?" But doctors seldom do that either. Another good practice is to do a wrap up at the end. "Okay, we talked about X, we're doing to do this about it, we talked about Y and we're going to do that, we talked about Z and we're going to do the other thing." But doctors don't do that either.

So you, in the role of patient, can try making those things happen, since we've given up on getting doctors to do it. When the doctor asks what your concerns are, and you start to say the first one, the doctor will typically interrupt before you have a chance to state your second and third. Don't let that happen. Speak up and say okay but I have a couple more. When the doctor explains something, say "Is it okay if I repeat that back so we can make sure I got it right?" When the doctor says you're going to get a prescription or recommends a procedure, ask "Okay, can you tell me what the likely benefits are, and what I might expect as far as side effects or risks?" And by the way, when people participate in the decision, they are more likely to remember it correctly. At the end of the visit, you can say "Okay, can we go over again the main things we talked about?"

I can't promise your doctor won't be offended if you do all this, but that's just too bad.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: A note on sources

1 Samuel 7 is just another version of the Groundhog Day story that constitutes most of the previous Book of Judges. A leader emerges who rallies the people to return to exclusive veneration of Yahweh, and he rewards them with victory in battle. As I need say no more about that, let me say something about the document we are reading.

I have from time to time mentioned the Septuagint and the Masoretic text. The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, that is the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean world from the 4th Century BC and many centuries thereafter. The Masoretic text is the authoritative Hebrew Tanakh, used in Judaism today. It was canonized by rabbinical scholars in the 10th and 11th Century CE, but the documents on which it is based, and their history, are lost. 


The Septuagint is so-called because the legend is that Pharaoh Ptolemy II commissioned 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars to create it for his library at Alexandria in the Third Century BCE. The truth is that various books were translated by different people at different times over the course of a century or so, centering on the reign of Ptolemy. The reason is simply that few people spoke Hebrew any more: a vernacular Bible was needed. The Septuagint includes several books that are not included in the Masoretic text, and they differ on many other points. 


Ancient fragments of the Tanakh, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (which were created around 300 BCE) differ in respects from both, but are closer to the Masoretic text. The important point is that the books of the Hebrew Bible were not entirely standardized until the Rabbinical period. There is a legend that one or more "Gold Standard" copies were kept in the Second Temple, but if this is true it didn't work. Not surprising since books had to be copied out by hand and there was always the possibility of both mistakes and deliberate editing.

The Catholic Old Testament is based on the Septuagint and contains six books which are not included in the Masoretic text, which Catholic scholars believe are referenced in some way in the New Testament, although this is disputable  as the references are not explicit. The Masoretic text is the main source for Protestant versions of the Old Testament, and that's what we're reading here. (Notably, the 10 Commandments are somewhat different in the Septuagint and Masoretic versions, and hence the Catholic and Protestant 10 Commandments are different.)  'Nuff said. 

So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord. They brought it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the Lord. The ark remained at Kiriath Jearim a long time—twenty years in all.

Samuel Subdues the Philistines at Mizpah

Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord. So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.

Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leader[a] of Israel at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. When the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. He cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and the Lord answered him.

10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. 11 The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.

12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer,[b] saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

13 So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines. 14 The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.

15 Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life. 16 From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. 17 But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also held court for Israel. And he built an altar there to the Lord.


  1. 1 Samuel 7:6 Traditionally judge; also in verse 15
  2. 1 Samuel 7:12 Ebenezer means stone of help.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

You are hereby commanded . . .

 .  . to read Dan Froomkin

This is a long essay and I'm not going to try to summarize it. But just so you know what it's about:

Misinformation, disinformation and gaslighting have become rampant in our political discourse, turning citizens against each other, choking the legislative process, eroding confidence in elections, and, in the age of Covid, literally getting people killed. A striking number of voters are laboring under a series of delusions that make them incapable of rational decision-making. The country is still reeling from a violent attempted coup in the name of a Big Lie – a lie that has essentially become doctrine for one of our two major political parties.

Despite all this, our elite political media recognizes no need for a course change.

Indeed, even after four years of Trump — and his continued domination of the party — there has been essentially no self-reflection from the reporters and editors who set the tone for national news coverage. They just keep doing what they’ve done for decades: remain aloof and detached from the urgent and crucial political issues that underly the partisan divide, so intent on covering the play-by-play and “not taking sides” that they have refused to scream out the truth. As a result, they’re being drowned out by the lies.


Froomkin proposes solutions. Let us know what you think. And Froomkin is proposing that journalists distinguish between truth and lies. Giving equal credence to both is not "balance."

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Shit happens for a reason

 Eric Boehlert is shrill:


[T]he rest of the world must be looking on in slack-jawed astonishment as Trump voters lead a mad movement powered by Fox News. The network is doing what no other outlet has done in the history of television news — it’s deliberately getting people killed during a public health crisis by feeding eagerly gullible red state viewers a mountain of lies.

From PizzaGate, to QAnon, to the current anti-vaccine and anti-mask hysteria, the GOP has been brainwashed. It’s no secret — lots of victims openly admit it. Still, the press shies away, nervous about offending conservatives by portraying them as mindless zombies being easily duped about a miraculously safe and effective vaccine. (It’s the same reason news outlets refused to call Trump a “liar.”)

Yep. "Vaccine hesitancy" and purportedly libertarian resistance to mask wearing doesn't just happen, and it has nothing to do with actual conservative beliefs or ideology. It's happening because Republican politicians and their propaganda organs are manipulating people into killing themselves and their children. The rest of the corporate media might at least have the courage and decency to point that out.


Wednesday Bible Study: Lost in translation

I have warned you that some weirdness goes down in 1 Samuel. Exactly how weird Chapter 6 is depends on whether you're reading the King James or the New International Version and kindred later translations. The Philistines realize that holding on to the Ark is probably not a good idea so they ask their priests how to appease Yahweh. In the KJV they propose sending the Ark back accompanied by 5 golden mice and 5 golden hemorrhoids. In the NIV it's 5 golden rats and 5 golden tumors. The tumors seem strange enough but it's hard to imagine what a golden hemorrhoid would look like. (I suspect the Hebrew word encompasses both mice and rats, so take your pick.)

What happens to the gold sculptures is not revealed. Some Levites grab them, but apparently the high priesthood is currently vacant so one wonders who eventually gets them. As for the number of Beth Shemeshites who die for looking into the ark, KJV has 50,070, NIV has 70. As the footnote states, manuscripts differ on this but the population of the town in the early iron age could not have been more than a few hundred. Also, 50,070 is a very strange number, so 70 seems more plausible. However, it would be a strange error indeed to accidentally add 50,000 to the total! The footnote does not state what the Masoretic text has. 


FYI Beth Shemesh was a town founded by Canaanites and named after their sun God. Apparently Hebrews took it over at some point, but kept the name. It was destroyed by Sennacharib in 701 B.C., but a  nearby place was resettled and named for it, and a town by that name is there today.


When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”

They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.”

The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?”

They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?

“Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.”

10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh.

13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron.

17 These are the gold tumors the Philistines sent as a guilt offering to the Lord—one each for Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. 18 And the number of the gold rats was according to the number of Philistine towns belonging to the five rulers—the fortified towns with their country villages. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.

19 But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy[a] of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them. 20 And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?”

21 Then they sent messengers to the people of Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to your town.”


  1. 1 Samuel 6:19 A few Hebrew manuscripts; most Hebrew manuscripts and Septuagint 50,070




Tuesday, September 21, 2021