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Research has taken on a different flavor now that I don’t have a teaching post.  I’ve started work on my next book after Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ll reveal more about it eventually, but the topic does require research.  Much of the reading required for both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was done on the bus.  Those long commuting years weren’t exactly conducive to getting a lot of writing done, but there were hours of built-in reading time each weekday.  My research often involves reading big books and I’m a slow reader.  It’s a valid question why a slow reader would go into editing for a career.  A bit of research on this blog would reveal the answer to that, but the fact remains that big books take a huge amount of time to get through.

Back before any of this was a concern, back when I was a mere seminarian, I had plenty of time for reading.  One summer I volunteered for an archaeological dig at Tel Dor in Israel.  This involved meetings ahead of time and a lot of advanced planning.  One of the questions that naturally got raised was how many books to take.  It was a long flight from Boston to Tel Aviv, and I didn’t have much cash for sightseeing.  Most people, I was told, take James Michener’s The Source.  This is his archaeologist book.  In addition to that, it is a long work, just like most Michener novels, which meant you only had to take one book for the entire trip.  I decided to buy a paperback of Tolstoy’s War and Peace instead.  What a luxury it seemed in those long Israeli days to read such a tale.

In fact, I didn’t finish the book during the flight over, the six weeks at Pardes Hanna, and the return flight.  It took me at least until winter back in Boston.  These days when I take on a big book I generally read smaller ones alongside it.  You see, I have to see some progress as I’m going.  I tend to read nonfiction before work in the morning and fiction after work is done.  My days are literary work sandwiches, I guess.  And the stuff that I need to do around the house doesn’t pause while I indulge in my favorite vice of reading.  Yes, my research has definitely taken on a different flavor since being paid to do it.  What hasn’t changed is the desire to push knowledge forward, one page at a time.

Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.

Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

The Place of Temples

Gobeklitepe, or more properly, Göbekli Tepe, stunned the archaeological world a few years back.  This site in what is now Turkey contained what is apparently a sanctuary—purposefully buried—and advanced architecture for its age.  It was that age that was so shocking.  Gobeklitepe dated from around 11,000 years ago.  Now, in case ancient history’s not your thing—this will be painless—agriculture began, according to the standard chronology, about 10,000 years ago.  This led to surplus production that in turn led to the first cities, indeed, what we recognize as civilization itself.  While Gobeklitepe wasn’t permanently occupied, it was an example of a temple before agriculture, and according to the standard thinking, this should not be.  Consequently not too much has been published on the site because nobody likes a smart aleck, even if said aleck is an archaeological site.

Just within the last weeks, Anadolu Agency announced that an even older site was found in Turkey, near the city of Mardin.  Reports coming out of Boncuklu Tarla suggest that it is a millennium yet again older, dating from 12,000 years ago.  The article doesn’t include many photos, but suggests the site is similar to Gobeklitepe.  If this holds up, a new paradigm for human history will need to unfold.  What drew people together at first was not tilling the soil and reaping a surplus, but religion.  Even in the still standard paradigm, kings could only emerge with the backing of gods, so early cities had impressive temples.  What the evidence now suggests is that the temples came first and ancient people came together at sacred sites before they had a surplus to bring.  You can’t pick a sacrificial animal without having a heard or flock from which to take said victim.

We live in a technological era in which intelligent people are scratching their heads with their smart devices because religion just won’t go away.  I have suggested before that the reason it won’t is that it is deeply engrained in our biology.  We can try to reason the gods away, or abstract them to the point that we can call them laws or principles, but we can’t escape the fact that we’re held down by forces beyond our control.  Ancient people in Turkey, hunter-gatherers in our current paradigm, were gathering together and putting massive energy into building what look like temples before they had a secure and steady source of food.  Before, indeed, they had smart phones or even dial-up.  Millennia later we would rediscover them and wonder about things even as religion would be the deciding factor in elections in the most technically advanced cultures on the planet.

Photo credit Zhengan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scrolls Not Living

Of the many ancient finds in Western Asia, none captured the imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The timing and romance of the find itself, the scandals that almost immediately broke out, and the subsequent “secrecy” over the contents made the secular news.  I’m convinced that a large part of the mystique has to do with the somewhat spooky name—Qumran scrolls never caught on, even though it is more accurate for many of the documents.  Their discovery came after the Second World War when people were wanting good news, and, perhaps, an indication that all of this stuff was somehow predicted.  Enter the scrolls.  No doubt, these documents gave us quite a lot of information on the Second Temple Period—the time from the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BCE until its destruction under the Romans in the first century CE.  Now the scrolls are back in the news.

A story by Nicola Davis in The Guardian announces that the origin of the scrolls is once again open to interpretation.  The reason is somewhat technical—scrolls that were written on vellum (animal skins) had to be prepared for writing.  One of the steps involved chemically treating the writing surface with a fine powder (the details are beyond me) so that it could be written upon.  We’ve reached the point where the salts left behind can be tested for place of origin.  The Guardian story notes that the Temple Scroll—one of the important non-biblical texts—was not prepared at Qumran (the site where most of the scrolls were found).  That means that the scroll itself came from elsewhere, depending upon with whom you speak.  The scrolls gather controversy like the Ugaritic tablets gather dust.  

Part of the charm here is that there are many unanswered questions about these ancient texts.  Who exactly wrote them is debated.  Their find-spot suggests they were hidden away by the quasi-monastics who lived in nearby Qumran, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily wrote them.  It’s still debated whether the Qumran community was made up of Essenes or not.  One thing we do know about them is that they were able librarians.  The scrolls themselves are symbolic of the strife in the region, having been discovered just as Israel was declared a nation.  The scrolls were quickly politicized.  They were kept under the auspices of a small group of academics and priests for many decades.  And they still have a way of catching headlines.  Even when its a matter of who powdered their faces.

 

 

 

 

 

Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

Digging Bad?

Academics, as a rule, focus on books by other academics.  Theirs is a specialized vocabulary with specific goals (tenure, then an Ivy League position).  It’s easy to see, sometimes, why they distrust books by those of us outside the academy.  We aren’t as constrained, and can say some speculative stuff.  I just finished Evil Archaeology: Demons, Possessions, and Sinister Relics, by Heather Lynn.  Now, most academics I know won’t take seriously a book where the author is cited by “Ph.D.” on the cover.  That’s a sure sign of trying to impress a lay readership.  This book is clearly heartfelt, and personal, but it does raise a host of questions regarding sources and details. I found myself wondering where the author found out so much about Pazuzu when I, who hold a doctorate in ancient West Asian studies, had such trouble locating sources.  Then I checked the bibliography.

Even academics have been known to cut a corner or two, now and then.  For my last book I didn’t have access to a university library so I had to make do with what I could get my hands on.  (JSTOR is not cheap for individuals, in case you’re wondering.  If you teach and you get free access from your library, you don’t know how lucky you are!)  So it is with my present research.  I muddle along, often buying used copies of the books I need, sometimes from eBay.  Researchers can be driven that way.  Lynn’s book covers a lot of territory, and not all of it seems related to demons.  Little of it covers archaeology in any detail.  But then, it’s not intended for academic readers.  I learned a thing or two.  I also distrust a thing or two she claim (having once been in the academy), but there’s no doubt she’s trying to do a service in this book.

Demons cut a wide swath.  Lynn discusses bits and pieces from here and there, and at times her treatment is rather a gallimaufry of anecdotes.  There are interviews, personal experiences, and urban legends.  It does seem hard to believe that scientists worldwide are studying demons in order to explain illnesses, though.  For me, finding a new book on demons just when I was finishing my draft on the same topic, it was imperative to read what she had to say.  It’s clear she’s seen some of the same movies I have.  I like to think that, as an inbetweener I can still read academese as well as regular writing.  You always find interesting things there in the middle.

Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

Excavating above Ground

It’s like a horror movie. You’re about to enter a place where the dead were laid to rest. You’re out in the remote Orkney Islands, and nobody knows you’re here. This cairn, although it has a modern entryway, is prehistoric, and to get to the burial chamber you have to descend the stone stairs into total darkness. There’s no towns anywhere nearby. The guidebook advices bringing a trustworthy flashlight. At the bottom of the stairs, as the daylight from the door fades, you face a tunnel lined with stone. You have to stoop to walk through it until you come to the burial chamber itself. Completely isolated from the rest of the world. It makes you stop and think.

While I was a student at Edinburgh, my wife and I made two trips to the Orkney Islands to explore the antiquities. The expense of getting to the islands north of the mainland is the most prohibitive part of such a journey. Once on the islands you find things relatively inexpensive, and safe. As the local at the car hire asked us, “It’s an island—where would a criminal go?” Nobody locked their doors. But the tombs. Orkney, being relatively unpopulated, hosts more available antiquities per square mile than just about anywhere else in Europe. Tramping through barren grasslands where you might encounter a few sheep, you can hike to a burial chamber that was built thousands of years ago and, after archaeologists tidied it up, has been left for you to explore on your own.

My wife sent me a link to Historic Environment Scotland’s Sketchfab page. Using photogrammetry, the site offers three-dimensional, manipulable images of the various cairns and soutterrains you can find on Orkney. You don’t need to crawl through the damp chambers on your hands and knees, or even bring a flashlight. The technology brings back memories, but I do wonder if something hasn’t been lost here. There was a reckless sense of discovery being a young couple in an isolated, underground chamber where no one, not even my doctoral advisor, knew where we were. No smartphones, this was off-the-grid living. Not once did we encounter anyone else in these Neolithic chambers. Gray skies and windswept cliffs. Puffins cowering in the lee of a North Sea gale. None of this can be experienced on this armchair odyssey, but it can certainly be recalled. And after exploring the exotic underground chambers, I know I have to make my way to a similarly windowless cubicle above the ground and have the audacity to state that this is the world of the living.

Fictional Facts

“If you want truth,” Indiana Jones famously said, you need to go to philosophy class. The sad fact is most people have little practical training when it comes to such issues as discerning truth. Some time ago I read an article about how fake news travels faster and is more deeply believed than actual truth. I suspect that’s because the truth is hard. The age-old trope used to be a wizened elder sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position. A lifetime of thinking through the labyrinthian corridors of wishful belief to get to what is finally and unassailably true. Our president, with the full complicity of the Republican Party, is out to dismantle the concept of truth once and for all.

Indiana Jones was contrasting facts to truth in this scene from The Final Crusade. The idea was that facts sometimes make you question truth. In GOP University, however, facts have alternatives. He who bellows the loudest is the harbinger of truth. Never mind that still small voice that comes after the raging wind. The voice that can stop a fiery prophet in his tracks—a man who could raise the dead, for crying out loud—but even his successor called Herod a FOX. In the culture of the shrug, who really cares? Finding the truth is so much navel-gazing. There are real enemies to bomb and somebody has some money that I can take away and claim as my own. To do so we can make up facts as we go along and lies will see us through. With the Evangelical seal of approval.

Even with rumors of a fifth film swirling, I miss Indiana Jones. In his formative days fascists were the enemies, even of the Republicans. Although he was showing his age in Crystal Skull, Jones still couldn’t countenance oppressive regimes. Scientific studies show people would rather believe fake news. We’re hopelessly prone to fantasy, I guess. Even as I volunteered on the archaeological dig at Tel Dor, although I had little money a fedora was required. There was a difference, however. I knew I really wasn’t Indiana Jones. I was digging for facts so solid that they could be held in my hand. Unlike Dr. Jones’ students, I did go down the hall to Dr. Trammel’s philosophy class. Surrounded by the young Republicans of Grove City College, none of us doubted that truth was spelled with a capital T. Now Truth is apparently an artifact buried in the sand, awaiting a hapless archaeologist to bring it to light. Amid all the forgeries that non-specialists can’t tell apart.

Lazing Around

I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.

Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons

Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.

Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.

One Isaiah

Everyone wants to be remembered. While many don’t wish to be famous, we all hope that someone notices the noteworthy things we’ve done. By any measure Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have succeeded. Every year around Christmastime his words, set to music, are sung in churches around the world. He gets regular readings among those who attend synagogue and even those who take secular Bible classes have to reckon with him. Isaiah even attracted imitators before his book was finally compiled. According to the Good Book he was a trusted advisor to King Hezekiah. But what do we know of him as a person? Biographical episodes in his book are rare, unlike those of his fellow major-leaguers Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Who was Isaiah?

It’s not Christmastime, so why am I writing about him now anyway? Well, a friend pointed me to a recent archaeological discovery from Jerusalem that is a broken seal impression (technically called a bulla) that may have originally read “Isaiah the prophet.” The news was broken in Biblical Archaeology Review, but it can be read about for free here. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist publishing the inscription, notes that it reads “Yesha‘yah[u] nvy…” As often happens in archaeology, the end of the inscription is missing. In case your Hebrew’s even rustier than mine Yeshayah sounds a lot like Isaiah—go ahead, sound it out. The word prophet is nvy’. Don’t let that apostrophe fool you; it’s a full-fledged consonant in Hebrew. If that final letter has been reconstructed correctly the seal would read “Isaiah the prophet.”

My friend asked me what I though of this. My initial impression is that it would be odd for anyone to sign themselves with the title “the prophet.” If they did it would require a bit more hubris than I mentally attribute to Isaiah. You see, a prophet was selected, so they believed, by God. Chosen even among the chosen people. It wasn’t a pleasant job—once again, Jeremiah’s jeremiads come to mind. Would someone have signed himself “the prophet”? We don’t have a terrible lot of information from the ancient world about individuals. What we do know is subject to exaggeration and other forms of hyperbole. Did Isaiah, mouthpiece of Yahweh, carry an official seal declaring that the contents were bona fide possessions of a man who saw God sitting on his throne and survived to tell the tale? Or is it a hopeful reading of those who want to demonstrate the Bible is true? It’s a question the reader must decide, for, as always seems to happen, the evidence is broken just at the crucial point.

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.