Category Archives: Bible

Posts that are specifically related to the Bible

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

Extra Baggage

So, I’m packing.  Have been, on and off, since January.  One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.  You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?  We have no danger of that.  Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.  Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.  Our closets have led full lives.  It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.  We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”  Then I came upon it.  The layer of SBL tote bags.  Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.

If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.  Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.  Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.  (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)  But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.  I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.  Do the math.  I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.  And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.

Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.  What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?  Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.  At least half of my totes have never been reused.  Zippers?  Who thought of that?  Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.  I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?  (San Francisco, 2011.)  The black leather edition—remember that one?  (SBL, n.d.)  The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.  You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.  Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.  From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.  I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.  I’m sure that’s just me.  Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.  I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.

Melting Psalmists

With weather like this, I could use a Psalm or two.  Of course, in my mind, weather and Psalms are closely connected.  Here in the mid-Atlantic states, we’ve been experiencing a heat wave.  Unlike many parts of the west, such heat here in the east is accompanied by very moist air, meaning that cooling down is only possible in a large body of water or air conditioned interiors.  We have neither readily available at our place, so we try our best to keep cool and compose psalms, mostly imprecatory, I fear, about the weather.  Although it was thunderstorms that stirred my interest to write Weathering the Psalms, I included a chapter about temperature, for the Psalter sings of hot and cold as well as lightning and thunder.

The world of ancient Israel was quite different from that of North America.  There are mainly two seasons in the Levant—dry and rainy.  The dry season isn’t always as hot as we tend to imagine it, although the day I visited Masada the air temperature was about 120 degrees.  Enough to make a dip in the Dead Sea look inviting.  The Bible often views high heat as a form of divine punishment.  Although we human beings have expanded to fill just about every ecosystem our planet has to offer, we thrive in central California conditions.  Not all of us can live there, however.  And it’s a good thing that global warming’s a myth since it’s awfully hard to function when it is over 90 degrees for days in a row.  WWDD?  What would David draft?  Perhaps, “I’m melting”?

The interesting thing about the global warming myth is how real it feels.  I suppose the solution is to use more fossil fuels to help keep cool.  Fans, arctic air conditioning, lingering languidly at the open freezer door.  I stand here sweating, wondering what the Almighty could possibly find wrong with a country that is now great again.  One that takes children from their mothers yet insists birth control is evil.  One that loudly and punishingly insists guns should be in every home.  One where the elected head of government is involved in over 3,500 lawsuits, yet gets to appoint justices in the Supreme Court.  David got caught, if not in flagrante delicto, at least within a couple months of adultery with Bathsheba.  Instead of paying her off, he had her husband murdered.  But then—and here’s the key difference—he humbled himself and repented.  The sweet Psalmist of Israel might yet have something to teach us yet about weather and the Psalter.  Until the United States becomes the chosen nation again, I think a cold shower will have to do.

Mythologies

Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!

Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.

I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.

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?

Let the Sunshine in

The earliest sunrise does not occur on the longest day. At least not at this latitude—I can’t speak for the entire world, but sunrise lags behind the latest sunset by a few days. In Germany the longest day was January 30, 1933. It seems that the Nazi Party did not win the majority, but Hitler was made chancellor anyway. All he wanted to do was to make Germany great again, right? No matter who it hurt. When Americans, who sacrificed thousands of souls, found the concentration camps they swore it would never happen again. That was, however, before Donald Trump was born. Indeed, those seeking the transmigration of souls might wonder where he’d been wondering for the previous thirteen months. There’s some cryptic stuff happening here.

How can it be that sunrise isn’t earliest on the longest day? Back in the days when science mattered, it was simply explained: the number of minutes the sun is in the sky maxes out on the summer solstice. Sunrise can keep getting earlier for a few more days, but so will sunset. The longest day, in the biblical world, was when Joshua was fighting at Makkedah. The slaughter was going so well that the big white guy upstairs (oh no, he’s not Jewish, you see) reached out and held the sun in place for another 24 hours so it could continue. That, you see, is the longest day. Not exactly sand chairs and sunscreen, although the latter might’ve been awfully useful.

Although in modern times the solstice is known as the first day of summer, in olden times it was considered midsummer. The solstices and equinoxes were the midpoints, not the start of something. Such a perspective can make a world of difference. June, it is said, is named for Juno, the pagan wife of Jupiter. The constantly cuckolded goddess of marriage. Only we call her long-suffering, since stormy weather should be over by June, shouldn’t it? With enough lawyers even sin can be made to sound righteous, for longest day brings everything out into the light otherwise. The longest day, you see, can be fake news. Around here the sun will rise still earlier tomorrow. Experts—those we no longer believe—tell us that the solstice was yesterday. And yet, what is that orange thing arising in the east so early in the morning? Don’t be fooled; the longest day is over.

For It Is Written

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” William Shakespeare wrote in his controversial Merchant of Venice. He was, in fact, using the Bible as the basis for this line. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness famously has Satan quoting the Good Book at him. It comes as no surprise, then, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, following Jeff Sessions, uses the Bible to justify cruel and unusual practices of the Trump administration, according to a story in multiple media outlets. Trump himself doesn’t know the Bible well enough to quote it, but his minions feel that it can be summarized in one principle—obey the government. Oh, hi, Mr. Orwell, please take a seat over there; I’ll be with you in a minute.

Back in the days before leopards could change their spots, evangelical Christians tended to say that Jesus came to free them from the law. It seems that what they really meant was that Jesus came to allow them to cherry-pick the parts of the law that make the best cudgels against those they don’t like. Those who actually read the Bible know that it can generally be used to support either side of most arguments. Ironically, matters such as adultery *ahem, ah, Ms. Daniels, we weren’t expecting you here; please wait next to Mr. Orwell* are non-negotiable. Even Jesus said so. But let’s not talk about that—we’re too busy trying to pry children from their mother’s arms. Doesn’t the Bible say Rachel can’t be consoled because she’s lost her children?

That which is most holy is most horrible when it’s profaned. The Bible can hardly be called “holy” when found in the mouth of habitual liars. If Jesus were a gentile I’m sure he’d agree that whites have the right to do whatever they want in his name, right? Separating families because it’s the law is robbing Peter to pay Paul, then blaming Thomas. Sanders, Sessions, and their ilk pander to the biblically illiterate who like the sound of the phrase, “the Bible says.” Prooftexting, as anyone who takes the Bible seriously learns the first day of class, is cheating. Ah, Rev. Luther—I didn’t see you come in. What’s that you say? “Sin boldly”? Now there’s a message our government can live with. Especially if you let the Devil into the room. Yes, he’s welcome at the White House these days. And yes, he knows the Bible very well.