Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Moral Philosophy, and some pragmatism

As long-time readers of this humble blog (all 2 1/2 of you) know full well, I was among the humans who were most vociferous in condemnation of the U.S. -- U.K. invasion and occupation of Iraq. In fact, I wrote a whole separate blog about it for some 15 years. It was an illegal war of aggression, justified by pretextual lies, there were hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and U.S. and British troops, and mercenaries, committed atrocities. People in the U.S. didn't seem to care about the human cost in Iraq nearly as much as they do already about Ukranians, and I don't have to tell you why.


The objective was to install a regime more congenial to North American and European interests, which in the view of the perpetrators included being friendly to Israel. What they got was social collapse and a horrific civil war, followed by a regime more friendly to Iran. There are a couple of points that might make a minor moral distinction between this war crime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One is that the majority of the Iraq population did want an end to the Saddam Hussein regime, although they invaders didn't really understand anything about Iraq and in particular that there wasn't any common national identity or aspiration that could quickly lead to the emergence of a stable, less oppressive order. The original intention also was not to stay long or continue to exercise coercive control over the country. These points of difference don't make it okay, but they do need to be acknowledged.

As I said in the previous post, another difference is that Saddam didn't have a friend in the world. Many governments, including notably that of France, did condemn the invasion, but they didn't do anything to sanction the U.S. or assist the Iraqi resistance. The only exception was Iran. Once Saddam was gone, Iran did fund and arm a Shiite resistance in Iraq, for which of course the U.S. called them sponsors of terrorism. Attacking American soldiers, on the battlefield, who have invaded and are occupying your country, is considered terrorism by the United States, and there are even people in prison today for doing just that.

But obviously, that doesn't make what Putin is doing right now okay. It is in fact worse, for both moral and pragmatic considerations. The most important pragmatic consideration is that it is far more dangerous, threatening to expand beyond the borders of Russia and Ukraine and in fact to endanger human civilization. (In case that hadn't occurred to you.) That also makes it even more morally reprehensible, as to the undeniable facts that Ukraine has an elected government and a strong sense of national community; and the objective is either to install a puppet government or annex the country. In other words it's an imperialist adventure, which the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not precisely.

While I wish that the international community had come together more forcefully to condemn the Iraq war, that doesn't mean I shouldn't be glad that the world is coming together to oppose Putin now. There should be no need to review the imperialist history of the U.S. The entire country consists of stolen land; and I lived through Vietnam as well as Iraq. But we need to achieve a new global consensus that this is not acceptable. If it takes Russia attacking some white people who aspire to have a western European style democracy, so be it. And to pretend that Ukraine, or NATO for that mater, somehow represent a threat to Russian security is utter nonsense. 


Update: I don't know how to embed tweets so I'll just give you the image:


PS: The NATO intervention in Afghanistan was indeed under color of its mutual defense mission, a response to the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Obviously, sticking around for 20 years was not in the original plan. How the U.S., and the alliance, got sucked into that futile endeavor will be a life's work for some historians. The Libyan intervention is a complicated story. It was not originally a NATO operation, but it was authorized by the UN Security Council because of purported intelligence that a massacre of civilians was imminent. This was ultimately determined to have been false. NATO took over only after the operation had gone awry, because some of its member states believed that would provide more responsible leadership, and under NATO auspices the operation ended. I would prefer that NATO be unnecessary, but clearly right now it isn't. Whether expanding the alliance eastward was wise is debatable, but it's what the new member states wanted.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Sunday Sermonette: Yet more of that good old Biblical morality

We're getting to the end of Samuel: just four more chapters after this. But it doesn't get any less ugly. In this chapter David shuts his concubines up in the house because they've been raped. I don't know if they're particularly put out that he doesn't have sex with them, but the idea is that women who have been raped are spoiled.  Since these women are already slaves, however, it's not that big of a change in status. There's yet another rebellion, but this one seems to depend entirely on the individual who incites it. Once they get rid of him, they're all set. And Amasa gets murdered in a very cowardly manner, for no apparent reason other than he took longer than expected to complete a task. At the end, David appoints a guy to be in charge of forced labor. That's one of the principal cabinet offices, it seems.

20 Now there happened to be there a worthless fellow, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite; and he blew the trumpet, and said,

“We have no portion in David,
    and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse;
    every man to his tents, O Israel!”

So all the men of Israel withdrew from David, and followed Sheba the son of Bichri; but the men of Judah followed their king steadfastly from the Jordan to Jerusalem.

Again, we have the idea of the two kingdoms. It's kind of like Great Britain, evidently.

And David came to his house at Jerusalem; and the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house, and put them in a house under guard, and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood.

Then the king said to Ama′sa, “Call the men of Judah together to me within three days, and be here yourself.” So Ama′sa went to summon Judah; but he delayed beyond the set time which had been appointed him. And David said to Abi′shai, “Now Sheba the son of Bichri will do us more harm than Ab′salom; take your lord’s servants and pursue him, lest he get himself fortified cities, and cause us trouble.”[a] And there went out after Abi′shai, Jo′ab[b] and the Cher′ethites and the Pel′ethites, and all the mighty men; they went out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri. When they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Ama′sa came to meet them. Now Jo′ab was wearing a soldier’s garment, and over it was a girdle with a sword in its sheath fastened upon his loins, and as he went forward it fell out. And Jo′ab said to Ama′sa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Jo′ab took Ama′sa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 But Ama′sa did not observe the sword which was in Jo′ab’s hand; so Jo′ab struck him with it in the body, and shed his bowels to the ground, without striking a second blow; and he died.

Yeah, nice guy.

Then Jo′ab and Abi′shai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri. 11 And one of Jo′ab’s men took his stand by Ama′sa, and said, “Whoever favors Jo′ab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Jo′ab.” 12 And Ama′sa lay wallowing in his blood in the highway. And any one who came by, seeing him, stopped;[c] and when the man saw that all the people stopped, he carried Ama′sa out of the highway into the field, and threw a garment over him. 13 When he was taken out of the highway, all the people went on after Jo′ab to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri.

The only sense I can make of this is that the men don't go with Joab to hunt down Sheba because they're standing there gawking at Amasa's body. That seems strange but whatever.

14 And Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-ma′acah;[d] and all the Bichrites[e] assembled, and followed him in. 15 And all the men who were with Jo′ab came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-ma′acah; they cast up a mound against the city, and it stood against the rampart; and they were battering the wall, to throw it down. 16 Then a wise woman called from the city, “Hear! Hear! Tell Jo′ab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you.’” 17 And he came near her; and the woman said, “Are you Jo′ab?” He answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your maidservant.” And he answered, “I am listening.” 18 Then she said, “They were wont to say in old time, ‘Let them but ask counsel at Abel’; and so they settled a matter. 19 I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city which is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” 20 Jo′ab answered, “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! 21 That is not true. But a man of the hill country of E′phraim, called Sheba the son of Bichri, has lifted up his hand against King David; give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city.” And the woman said to Jo′ab, “Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall.” 22 Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and threw it out to Jo′ab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, every man to his home. And Jo′ab returned to Jerusalem to the king.

23 Now Jo′ab was in command of all the army of Israel; and Benai′ah the son of Jehoi′ada was in command of the Cher′ethites and the Pel′ethites; 24 and Ador′am was in charge of the forced labor; and Jehosh′aphat the son of Ahi′lud was the recorder; 25 and Sheva was secretary; and Zadok and Abi′athar were priests; 26 and Ira the Ja′irite was also David’s priest.


  1. 2 Samuel 20:6 Tg: Heb snatch away our eyes
  2. 2 Samuel 20:7 Cn Compare Gk: Heb after him Joab’s men
  3. 2 Samuel 20:12 This clause is transposed from the end of the verse
  4. 2 Samuel 20:14 With 20.15: Heb and Beth-maacah
  5. 2 Samuel 20:14 Heb Berites

Friday, February 25, 2022

Pootie Poot

Yep, Pootie Poot was Chimpy's nickname for Vlad. Shrub said "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." So the right wing fascinated adoration for the Pootster goes way back. Anyway, the invasion of Iraq by President Cheney and his stooge GW Bush was arguably as egregious as Putin invading Ukraine, but maybe not quite. They were lying about the Weapons of Mass Destruction™ but they weren't lying about the nature of the Saddam Hussein regime. It was also not dangerous on as large a scale. Saddam didn't have a friend in the world. While the invasion and occupation turned out to be catastrophic for the people of Iraq, and the catastrophe eventually metastasized to northern Syria, it never really threatened to go any further. 


The current situation is so dangerous that hardly anyone is pointing to U.S. hypocrisy. Maybe that's fair enough anyway because while Joe Biden voted to authorize the Iraq war, he later said it was a mistake, although he also claimed, somewhat misleadingly, that he was against the war from the beginning. The linked NYT article tells the story of Biden's actions as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 at length. Essentially was he was saying at the time was that he didn't want the war to happen but he didn't want to deprive the "president" of the authority.

Be that as it may and whatever you may think about it, two wrongs don't make a right and it's deeply disturbing that a large segment of the Republican party, including its ultimate leader, is openly expressing admiration for Putin. The party has descended into the sewer, and it needs to be flushed away.

I commend to you attention the most excellent Brett Devereaux. It's a fairly long read but it tells you everything you need to know.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Wednesday Bible Study: The Return of the King

But unlike Tolkein, it's not the triumph of good over evil. I wouldn't want any of these assholes for a king. This chapter is confusing, and it has a couple of sub-plots of no particular relevance. As usual, the scribe has evidently cobbled together material from various sources without much concern for continuity. This begins with David mourning Absalom and quite evidently not giving a shit about the army that brought him victory. So Joab sets him straight and tells him to stop his whining and accept his responsibility.


19 It was told Jo′ab, “Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Ab′salom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people; for the people heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Ab′salom, O Ab′salom, my son, my son!” Then Jo′ab came into the house to the king, and said, “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you; for today I perceive that if Ab′salom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now.” Then the king arose, and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, “Behold, the king is sitting in the gate”; and all the people came before the king.

David Recalled to Jerusalem

Now Israel had fled every man to his own home. And all the people were at strife throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies, and saved us from the hand of the Philistines; and now he has fled out of the land from Ab′salom. 10 But Ab′salom, whom we anointed over us, is dead in battle. Now therefore why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?”

11 And King David sent this message to Zadok and Abi′athar the priests, “Say to the elders of Judah, ‘Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his house, when the word of all Israel has come to the king?[a] 12 You are my kinsmen, you are my bone and my flesh; why then should you be the last to bring back the king?’ 13 And say to Ama′sa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? God do so to me and more also, if you are not commander of my army henceforth in place of Jo′ab.’” 14 And he swayed the heart of all the men of Judah as one man; so that they sent word to the king, “Return, both you and all your servants.” 15 So the king came back to the Jordan; and Judah came to Gilgal to meet the king and to bring the king over the Jordan.

There continues to be this idea that Judah is somehow separate from Israel. But David has ruled a unified Kingdom for some 40 years. Remember that Judah was identified anachronistically as a separate realm in 1 Samuel, although at that time it had no historical existence. This seems to be a projection of more recent history into the past.

David’s Mercy to Shimei

16 And Shim′e-i the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, from Bahu′rim, made haste to come down with the men of Judah to meet King David; 17 and with him were a thousand men from Benjamin. And Ziba the servant of the house of Saul, with his fifteen sons and his twenty servants, rushed down to the Jordan before the king, 18 and they crossed the ford[b] to bring over the king’s household, and to do his pleasure. And Shim′e-i the son of Gera fell down before the king, as he was about to cross the Jordan, 19 and said to the king, “Let not my lord hold me guilty or remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem; let not the king bear it in mind. 20 For your servant knows that I have sinned; therefore, behold, I have come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the king.” 21 Abi′shai the son of Zeru′iah answered, “Shall not Shim′e-i be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?” 22 But David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeru′iah, that you should this day be as an adversary to me? Shall any one be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” 23 And the king said to Shim′e-i, “You shall not die.” And the king gave him his oath.

Just so you know, later on David condemns Shime-i to death on his own deathbed. 

David and Mephibosheth Meet

24 And Mephib′osheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king; he had neither dressed his feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came back in safety. 25 

This is presumably Mephib'osheth the son of Jonathan, grandson of Saul. Maybe the writer is using "son" to more generally mean descendant. However, there is an apparently different Mephibosheth who is explicitly identified as a son of Saul, who David turns over to the Gibeonites as a human sacrifice in order to end a famine in Ch. 21. (Really! It's coming soon.)

And when he came from[c] Jerusalem to meet the king, the king said to him, “Why did you not go with me, Mephib′osheth?” 26 He answered, “My lord, O king, my servant deceived me; for your servant said to him, ‘Saddle an ass for me,[d] that I may ride upon it and go with the king.’ For your servant is lame. 27 He has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you. 28 For all my father’s house were but men doomed to death before my lord the king; but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, then, to cry to the king?” 29 And the king said to him, “Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land.” 30 And Mephib′osheth said to the king, “Oh, let him take it all, since my lord the king has come safely home.”

Just as a reminder, Ziba told David that Mephibosheth had chosen to remain in Jerusalem because "for he said, To day shall the house of Israel restore me the kingdom of my father." (2 Samuel 16), whereupon David gave Ziba Mephibosheth's estate. Ziba was lying, but Meshibosheth says, let him have it anyway. No, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

David’s Kindness to Barzillai

31 Now Barzil′lai the Gileadite had come down from Ro′gelim; and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan. 32 Barzil′lai was a very aged man, eighty years old; and he had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahana′im; for he was a very wealthy man. 33 And the king said to Barzil′lai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” 34 But Barzil′lai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? 35 I am this day eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? 36 Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king recompense me with such a reward? 37 Pray let your servant return, that I may die in my own city, near the grave of my father and my mother. But here is your servant Chimham; let him go over with my lord the king; and do for him whatever seems good to you.” 38 And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you; and all that you desire of me I will do for you.” 39 Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over; and the king kissed Barzil′lai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home. 40 The king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him; all the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel, brought the king on his way.

41 Then all the men of Israel came to the king, and said to the king, “Why have our brethren the men of Judah stolen you away, and brought the king and his household over the Jordan, and all David’s men with him?” 42 All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is near of kin to us. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king’s expense? Or has he given us any gift?” 43 And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, “We have ten shares in the king, and in David also we have more than you. Why then did you despise us? Were we not the first to speak of bringing back our king?” But the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.


  1. 2 Samuel 19:11 Gk: Heb to the king, to his house
  2. 2 Samuel 19:18 Cn: Heb the ford crossed
  3. 2 Samuel 19:25 Heb to
  4. 2 Samuel 19:26 Gk Syr Vg: Heb said, I will saddle an ass for myself


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Harm Reduction

One of the very worst public policy mistakes of the 20th Century,  one which is still with us, was the criminalization of what we now like to call Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The laws were enforced with literally grotesque inequity, filling the jails and prisons with Black and Latino people for "offenses" that white people committed at the same or even higher rates but were seldom prosecuted for. Imprisoning people is ineffective at treating SUD, but even so it is wrong to imprison people for falling victim to misfortune. It is extremely expensive, and it makes it nearly impossible for people to build a successful life once they are released. If anything, it creates more crime, not less.

Fortunately, we are beginning to make some political inroads with the idea that treating SUD as a criminal justice problem is a total failure, both practically and morally. Here a few facts that seem to surprise many people. 


  • The vast majority of people who use criminalized potentially addictive drugs one or more times never develop dependency and it's never a problem -- unless of course they should have the misfortune to be arrested. 
  • Much of the harm that is caused by dependent illicit drug use is caused by its illegality. Illegality makes drug dependence very expensive, causing people to commit petty crimes to pay for it. This is not a moral failing: addiction creates powerful compulsions that drive people to behavior that is inconsistent with their values, and punishment won't stop them. 
  • Illicit drug use is stigmatized even by many health care providers, driving people away from basic health care and from potential treatment. 
  •  Because the supply of drugs is illegal and unregulated, buyers can't know what's really in them, leading to the epidemic of overdoses and overdose death, a problem exacerbated by the need to use the drugs surreptitiously.  
  • Because access to paraphernalia such as sterile injection equipment is restricted, SUD risks transmission of infectious disease including acute infections, and chronic infection with HIV and HCV.

More enlightened countries such as Portugal have decriminalized SUD, with dramatically successful results.  We are finally making some inroads in the U.S. with the harm reduction philosophy, which rather than criminalizing SUD, seeks to provide people with resources and support to be safer and cause fewer problems for others while they are using; and to reduce or eliminate harmful drug use. 

But of course "conservative" politicians are screaming about "enabling" drug use. Paul Waldman in a series of tweets presents a succinct case study, beginning with "A case study in how mainstream outlets like the New York Times launder Republican disinformation: Step 1: Far-right "news" site invents race-baiting lie about govt program ("Biden is giving away crack pipes!") Step 2: Republican politicians repeat lie, claim to be outraged . . ."

Of course there's a powerful vested interest in the prison industry.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Science and culture

I hope to have a good deal more to say about this anon, but I wanted to jot down a thought or two right now. Living through the past few years has been disturbing in many ways, but what has disturbed me the most has been the widespread rejection of scientific conclusions and expertise.

Based on some reading and thinking I've been doing of late, I realize that it's very important to put this in historical perspective. What we call science did not exist before the 17th Century. Galileo, Newton, and their successors created a novel enterprise. Yes, the ancient Greeks investigated nature and made some discoveries that have held up, but actually very few and mostly in the field of mathematics. Most of what Aristotle, Plato, and Archimedes believed either seems pretty much like gobbledygook today, or at least doesn't have much any relevance to what we call scientific understanding; or else it was total bunk. Yet people continued to believe this bunk, in many cases, for 2,000 years.

What happened during all that time is that people reasoned from religious dogma, metaphysical speculation, or in some cases political or cultural interests. But science demanded that all this be put aside and that the only meaningful truth claims were predictions that could be verified by observation of the real world. This implied certain demands. First, precise definition, measurement and counting of entities. This often required developing novel tools, such as telescopes, microscopes, and more recently high resolution cameras, electronic digital computers, and particle accelerators. It required devising methods of disproving hypotheses, and mathematics to go along with it, such as the randomized controlled trial or electromagnetic wave interference. It required an infrastructure of scientific publishing with standards of methodological quality and of inference, to build the base of scientific knowledge for future research to stand on. 


It required a system for training scientists in these requirements, including the requirement that they isolate their scientific investigations from their philosophical, political, or religious beliefs and from any other reason why they might favor one conclusion over another apart from the real world evidende they observed. The problem is that most people just don't work that way. Pretty much nobody did for 300,000 years of the existence of Homo sapiens, and then about 350 years ago a subset of people quite suddenly did. Without speculating for the time being about why that happened, I'll just say that it probably shouldn't be a surprise after all that much of the world has yet to go along with the program.  But they need to, because otherwise, we're totally screwed.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Getting a couple of (difficult) things straight

To return to physics, let me first state again that my expertise is that of a life-long reader of Scientific American and a reader of a few books written for otherwise well educated lay people. That said, I do understand quite a lot about the substantive and philosophical implications of contemporary physical and cosmological theory.

The quantum theory does not admit the possibility of miracles. Events at unimaginably small scales -- measured in picometers, that is 10^-12 meters, i.e. 1/1,000,000,000,000 meter -- are probabilistic rather than deterministic. That is, we can only say that the probability of a neutron in a radioactive nucleus decaying within a certain time is so much, but we can't predict when it will actually decay. We also cannot predict when an "excited" electron -- one at a higher than normal energy state in an atom -- will fall back to its lower state and emit a photon, but only the probability of it happening within a certain time. There are many other non-deterministic processes. 

However, when you put together millions of atoms to make objects that we can interact with in our macroscopic world, including ourselves, all of those probabilities add up to a definite and fully predictable reality. We know how billiard balls will bounce off of each other, and we know we can't walk through walls, even though we can't predict exactly how subatomic particles will interact or whether they will "tunnel" through a higher energy state to a lower one. Newtonian physics and our everyday experience work just fine in the world we live in for all practical purposes. Quantum effects matter to us only because we manufacture micro-electronic devices. 

Second, while we don't know why the universe came into being or why it has the properties we observe, for damn sure it wasn't created for our sake. The Hubble telescope found about 100 billion galaxies, but more sensitive telescopes will find more. And if there are more beyond the 13.8 billion light year horizon, we can't see them at all. They each have something like 100 to 200 billion stars. And it took 13.8 billion years from the Initial Singularity for us to appear on this single planet. 

People do wonder why the universe is hospitable to us. Change one or more of the fundamental constants of nature and we can't happen. One answer to this problem satisfies some people entirely, and others not at all. That is simply that we observe a universe in which our existence is possible. If it weren't possible, we wouldn't be here, but maybe some other kind of entity that can observe and wonder would be. Or maybe not. While any given outcome may be vanishingly improbable, that there will be some outcome is a certainty. 


A stronger version of this explanation holds that there may be innumerable universes, and we happen to be in the one of them in which we are possible. And while we can't answer the question of first causes, just saying "God" is meaningless. Where did God come from? And if there is some agency behind the universe, it in no way resembles the god of any actual religion. So again, I'll just live with mysteries until and unless they are solved.

Sunday Sermonette: Physical impossibility

Much is puzzling about 2 Samuel 18. The first is David's decision not to lead his troops into battle, but to stay behind. The rationale is that if the troops flee, Absalom's men won't pursue them if David isn't with them. It seems a very strange decision to accede in that way to his troops' cowardice. 

I don't know what to think about David's continuing concern for Absalom, who has usurped his throne, spent two years trying to kill him, and set up a tent so he could rape David's concubines in public. But I suppose a father's love knows no bounds. I am completely baffled, however, by how Absalom gets hung up in that tree. He's riding a mule, and manages to hit the branch of an oak tree, and finds himself suspended and unable to free himself. I have thought long and hard about this and I can see no possible way for that to happen. I also don't understand how the forest killed more men than the sword -- we seem to be dealing with ents. Finally, I don't understand why Absalom thought he didn't have any sons since we learned just a few chapters back, in 2 Samuel 14:27, that he had three sons and a daughter. Anyway, maybe you can figure it out.

18 Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. And David sent forth the army, one third under the command of Jo′ab, one third under the command of Abi′shai the son of Zeru′iah, Jo′ab’s brother, and one third under the command of It′tai the Gittite. And the king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.” But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us;[a] therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. And the king ordered Jo′ab and Abi′shai and It′tai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Ab′salom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Ab′salom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of E′phraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.

And Ab′salom chanced to meet the servants of David. Ab′salom was riding upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging[b] between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 10 And a certain man saw it, and told Jo′ab, “Behold, I saw Ab′salom hanging in an oak.” 11 Jo′ab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a girdle.” 12 But the man said to Jo′ab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not put forth my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abi′shai and It′tai, ‘For my sake protect the young man Ab′salom.’ 13 On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life[c] (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” 14 Jo′ab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Ab′salom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15 And ten young men, Jo′ab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Ab′salom and struck him, and killed him.

16 Then Jo′ab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel; for Jo′ab restrained them. 17 And they took Ab′salom, and threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones; and all Israel fled every one to his own home. 18 Now Ab′salom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Ab′salom’s monument to this day.

David Hears of Absalom’s Death

19 Then said Ahi′ma-az the son of Zadok, “Let me run, and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.” 20 And Jo′ab said to him, “You are not to carry tidings today; you may carry tidings another day, but today you shall carry no tidings, because the king’s son is dead.” 21 Then Jo′ab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed before Jo′ab, and ran. 22 Then Ahi′ma-az the son of Zadok said again to Jo′ab, “Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.” And Jo′ab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for the tidings?” 23 “Come what may,” he said, “I will run.” So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahi′ma-az ran by the way of the plain, and outran the Cushite.

24 Now David was sitting between the two gates; and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he lifted up his eyes and looked, he saw a man running alone. 25 And the watchman called out and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.” And he came apace, and drew near. 26 And the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the gate and said, “See, another man running alone!” The king said, “He also brings tidings.” 27 And the watchman said, “I think the running of the foremost is like the running of Ahi′ma-az the son of Zadok.” And the king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.”

28 Then Ahi′ma-az cried out to the king, “All is well.” And he bowed before the king with his face to the earth, and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.” 29 And the king said, “Is it well with the young man Ab′salom?” Ahi′ma-az answered, “When Jo′ab sent your servant,[d] I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.” 30 And the king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” So he turned aside, and stood still.

David Mourns for Absalom

31 And behold, the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the power of all who rose up against you.” 32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Ab′salom?” And the Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be like that young man.” 33 [e] And the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Ab′salom, my son, my son Ab′salom! Would I had died instead of you, O Ab′salom, my son, my son!”


  1. 2 Samuel 18:3 Gk Vg Symmachus: Heb for now there are ten thousand such as we
  2. 2 Samuel 18:9 Gk Syr Tg: Heb was put
  3. 2 Samuel 18:13 Another reading is at the risk of my life
  4. 2 Samuel 18:29 Heb the king’s servant, your servant
  5. 2 Samuel 18:33 Ch 19.1 in Heb

Friday, February 18, 2022

What is reality?

I have just finished reading This Way to the Universe, by Michael Dine, a theoretical physicist. It's essentially an overview of what physicists think they do and do not understand about the universe, trying to convey it to lay readers. I won't try to quantify how much of it I think I understand, but hardly anybody really understands it, including at the deepest level the theoretical physicists themselves.

But the details aren't really important to any but a few of us. The Big Picture is that scientific understanding has left all of our intuitions behind, along with all historical beliefs about the structure and meaning of reality. These old beliefs were mostly religious but also included metaphysical speculations that didn't need God, myth or scripture. But most people still depend on their intuitions about reality, and they needs metaphysical explanations that they can understand.

I'm willing to accept that 13.8 billion years ago the universe was compressed into a volume so small that spacetime as we know it could not exist. I'm willing to accept that before 10^-43 seconds after it started expanding, the four forces of nature - electromagnetism, the strong force, the weak force, and gravity -- were unified as a single force, whatever that exactly means. I accept that at about 10^-37 seconds, the universe underwent an enormous expansion, increasing in volume by a factor of 10^78 before the inflation stopped at 10^-32 seconds, then continued to expand more gradually. It wasn't until about 370,000 years that it cooled enough for protons and electrons to form hydrogen atoms, and light could travel freely through the universe. This event is the origin of the cosmic background radiation.

I can go on but again, the details are not the point. The standard model of particle physics and the quantum theory are equally bizarre. Actually quantum theory is even more bizarre. Physicists understand the history and the future fate of the universe through a combination of general relativity and quantum theory, but they haven't been able to put the two of them together into a single theory. But they do know that our universe is extremely improbable. All sorts of constants have to be just right for the universe to have been stable this long and to have produced stars and planets and people. 

This last problem has turned physicists into metaphysicians. They don't speculate the way the ancient Greeks did -- they have a whole lot more concrete information to go on. But they still don't know where everything came from, or why it came into existence at all, and in particular whether there may be other, even infinitely many universes, or what it even means to say that because the universe is, by definition, everything we can possibly observe.

What we definitely do know is that all religions are wrong, but we have nothing to replace them with when it comes to explanation of first causes. Buddha taught that it is pointless to speculate about first causes, but religions generally insist upon them. And most people can't free themselves from dependency on these explanations. I am content to live with the mystery, but it seems it is intolerable to the majority, and so we have preachers. If they can tell people what to believe about this, they can tell them what to believe about anything. And that is a problem.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Wednesday Bible Study: Pretzel Logic

Chapter 17 features David's spy Hushai giving what is purported to be bad advice to Absalom, which God causes Absalom to accept because God has evidently decided to give the kingdom back to David. Well okay but Ahithophel's advice is to attack with 12,000 men, whereas Hushai's advice is to attack with the entire army, which is evidently much larger. Why an attack with a larger force will fail, whereas an attack with a smaller force will succeed, is kind of hard to understand.

Anyway Ahithophel thinks that Hushai's plan will fail, so he kills himself. There's a lot of detail about who is put in charge of what and the supplies somebody gives to David and whatnot. Don't worry, it all ends in the next chapter.

17 Moreover Ahith′ophel said to Ab′salom, “Let me choose twelve thousand men, and I will set out and pursue David tonight. I will come upon him while he is weary and discouraged, and throw him into a panic; and all the people who are with him will flee. I will strike down the king only, and I will bring all the people back to you as a bride comes home to her husband. You seek the life of only one man,[a] and all the people will be at peace.” And the advice pleased Ab′salom and all the elders of Israel.

The Counsel of Hushai

Then Ab′salom said, “Call Hushai the Archite also, and let us hear what he has to say.” And when Hushai came to Ab′salom, Ab′salom said to him, “Thus has Ahith′ophel spoken; shall we do as he advises? If not, you speak.” Then Hushai said to Ab′salom, “This time the counsel which Ahith′ophel has given is not good.” Hushai said moreover, “You know that your father and his men are mighty men, and that they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field. Besides, your father is expert in war; he will not spend the night with the people. Behold, even now he has hidden himself in one of the pits, or in some other place. And when some of the people fall[b] at the first attack, whoever hears it will say, ‘There has been a slaughter among the people who follow Ab′salom.’ 10 Then even the valiant man, whose heart is like the heart of a lion, will utterly melt with fear; for all Israel knows that your father is a mighty man, and that those who are with him are valiant men. 11 But my counsel is that all Israel be gathered to you, from Dan to Beer-sheba, as the sand by the sea for multitude, and that you go to battle in person. 12 So we shall come upon him in some place where he is to be found, and we shall light upon him as the dew falls on the ground; and of him and all the men with him not one will be left. 13 If he withdraws into a city, then all Israel will bring ropes to that city, and we shall drag it into the valley, until not even a pebble is to be found there.” 14 And Ab′salom and all the men of Israel said, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahith′ophel.” For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahith′ophel, so that the Lord might bring evil upon Ab′salom.

Hushai Warns David to Escape

15 Then Hushai said to Zadok and Abi′athar the priests, “Thus and so did Ahith′ophel counsel Ab′salom and the elders of Israel; and thus and so have I counseled. 16 Now therefore send quickly and tell David, ‘Do not lodge tonight at the fords of the wilderness, but by all means pass over; lest the king and all the people who are with him be swallowed up.’” 17 Now Jonathan and Ahim′a-az were waiting at En-ro′gel; a maidservant used to go and tell them, and they would go and tell King David; for they must not be seen entering the city. 18 But a lad saw them, and told Ab′salom; so both of them went away quickly, and came to the house of a man at Bahu′rim, who had a well in his courtyard; and they went down into it. 19 And the woman took and spread a covering over the well’s mouth, and scattered grain upon it; and nothing was known of it. 20 When Ab′salom’s servants came to the woman at the house, they said, “Where are Ahim′a-az and Jonathan?” And the woman said to them, “They have gone over the brook[c] of water.” And when they had sought and could not find them, they returned to Jerusalem.

21 After they had gone, the men came up out of the well, and went and told King David. They said to David, “Arise, and go quickly over the water; for thus and so has Ahith′ophel counseled against you.” 22 Then David arose, and all the people who were with him, and they crossed the Jordan; by daybreak not one was left who had not crossed the Jordan.

23 When Ahith′ophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and went off home to his own city. And he set his house in order, and hanged himself; and he died, and was buried in the tomb of his father.

24 Then David came to Mahana′im. And Ab′salom crossed the Jordan with all the men of Israel. 25 Now Ab′salom had set Ama′sa over the army instead of Jo′ab. Ama′sa was the son of a man named Ithra the Ish′maelite,[d] who had married Ab′igal the daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeru′iah, Jo′ab’s mother. 26 And Israel and Ab′salom encamped in the land of Gilead.

27 When David came to Mahana′im, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, and Machir the son of Am′miel from Lo-debar, and Barzil′lai the Gileadite from Ro′gelim, 28 brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, meal, parched grain, beans and lentils,[e] 29 honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat; for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.”


  1. 2 Samuel 17:3 Gk: Heb like the return of the whole (is) the man whom you seek
  2. 2 Samuel 17:9 Or when he falls upon them
  3. 2 Samuel 17:20 The meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain
  4. 2 Samuel 17:25 1 Chr 2.17: Heb Israelite
  5. 2 Samuel 17:28 Heb lentils and parched grain