Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

Thunderers

“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Reentry

Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons

They call it reentry, I suspect, because of the perils and stress experienced by astronauts reentering the earth’s atmosphere.  If the calculations are off, you either burn up or bounce back into the void.  Neither is a pleasant prospect.  It is also the feeling many of us experience at returning to work after the holidays.  We’ve had a taste of life without gravity, then suddenly you’re back into the thick of things.  It didn’t help that among my accumulated emails (I do not check work emails during my few allotted vacation days or holidays) was the notice of the sudden death of fellow scholar Gary Knoppers.  Gary’s interest early on included Ugaritic, before shifting to Second Temple Studies.  I once asked him over breakfast if he recalled the question I posed as a grad student when he presented an Ugaritic paper back in Kansas City.  Of course he didn’t; I don’t recall any questions I was ever asked either.  (With one exception.)

Gary died prematurely, just back before Christmas.  The usual venues for finding out such news, like the Society of Biblical Literature portal, were also on vacation.  It is maybe best that I didn’t learn about it until reentry.  Still, it didn’t make it any easier.  I can’t claim to have known Gary very well, but the suddenness with which someone you know dies can lead to shock.  Not so much the fact of death itself, but that it has claimed someone you knew.  I was working with him on a book idea for my employer.  We had traded health complaints about not being young men anymore.  It’s all so very human.

On Ash Wednesday a couple years back one of my colleagues asked if I was going to get ashes.  I replied that I thought about death every day and that I didn’t need ashes to remind me.  She thought it was a funny response, but it is actually true.  One benefit of my religious upbringing is that it early took away the fear of dying.  Since all people have to face mortality, it never made sense to me to fear it.  That doesn’t mean the same thing as wanting to die, but the price to pay is frequent visits to the valley of the shadow in my mind.  I was merely being honest that Ash Wednesday; my interest in horror is, by the way, related to that constant awareness.  Gary was a productive scholar and a kindly man.  Learning of his death so soon after the holidays became its own kind of reentry.  And a reminder that January looks both forward and back.

 

Water Monsters

Chaos is a monster.  More than personal opinion, that’s a biblical view.  If, like many modern people with theological training, you’ve been taught that Genesis narrates a creation out of nothing, you’ve become a victim of this monster.  You see, although ancient Israel had no “systematic theology”—the Bible can be quite inconsistent if you’re willing to read what it says—the view that chaos was constantly lurking outside the ordered realm of creation was a common one.  One of the more intriguing episodes in Ugaritic mythology involves a broken text where the god Hadad, aka Baal, refuses to allow a window in his palace.  The reason?  Apparently he feared chaos (in the form of Yam, the sea) might slip in and kidnap his daughters.

More than a theological statement, the story of creation was actually a singular episode in Yahweh’s ongoing struggle against chaos.  Step outside and look at the sky.  If it’s blue it’s because there’s unruly water being held back by a great dome over our heads.  If it’s gray, it may be raining, or it probably will be soon.  Stroll to where the land ends.  What do you see?  Water.  That water is lapping at land, trying to take it over.  Although the ancients didn’t have geologic ages (the Mesopotamians came close, with ancient kings living thousands of years) rivers eroded land and they had tendencies to flood.  The thing about chaos is that it makes you start again, from the beginning.

One of the many unfortunate things about biblical literalism is that it loses sight of this biblical truth.  It exchanges something everyone can understand for a theological abstraction that makes no sense in the world that we experience.  Ancient belief held that the human role in the world was to fight chaos, not to get to Heaven.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible there’s no concept of Heaven at all.  Instead, the commandments were all about order.  You can’t build on the water.  What you do build water tries to wash away—Israel has a rainy season, and one of the characteristics of such seasons is the occasional violent storm and heavy rains.  Although we need the water from the heavens, heavy rains cause, well, chaos.  In ancient thought, this was the monster hiding in plain sight.  That blue sky is a reminder that a dragon awaits.  Rather than starry-eyed Heaven-gazers, the ancient biblical person was a monster-fighter.  And that’s the biblical truth.

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Who’s Hungry?

I flatter myself to think that some people enjoy my daily musings, although they’re sometimes grim. Religion often is. One curious example of this is the “Hell-Mouth.” Some time back a friend sent me a link to a British Library blog post “Highway to Hell.” The story is about illustrated medieval manuscripts depicting the Hell-Mouth—a monster with wide, gaping jaws and a gob crammed full of human souls bound for eternal torment. Not a pretty picture. The BL post reasonably suggests that the image originates in early Anglo-Saxon literature. We know the Teutonic penchant for the gothic, so all is fine and good. In fact, however, the image is far older than that.

In sorely neglected and almost forgotten Ugarit there is a fascinating mythological text. Known to ancient northwest semitic nerds as KTU 1.23, the text is strange even by Canaanite standards. El, the chief god whose name translates as, well, “god,” seduces two young goddesses (presumably). The young ladies give birth to monsters—devourers with one lip reaching to the heavens and the other to the underworld. Every living thing is swept in. What is this if not a Hell-Mouth? Indeed, if I might indulge in my past passion for Ras Shamra just a touch more, the deity Mot (whose name translates to “Death”) is portrayed with an equally voracious appetite. Everything gets gobbled up, even Baal.

These lurid images of all-consuming mouths, however, aren’t direct ancestors to the Hell-Mouth. Although some of the ideas from Ugarit survived in the culture that would eventually emerge as the Israelites, the city itself was destroyed for the last time before Moses picked up his chisel. The people of Ugarit were long gone before he licked his thumb and applied his quill-pen to Genesis. Ideas, however, may be the closest to eternity that humans can come. The Bible doesn’t describe any Hell-Mouths as such, but Revelation can come close. Ras Shamra was only rediscovered in the 1920s, so no Anglo-Saxon had access to its vivid images of the Hell-Mouth that existed even before Hell itself became a thing. Humans are endlessly inventive. Ideas go underground for centuries at a time only to reemerge when the moment’s propitious. The Middle Ages with their Black Deaths and highly stratified society and burgeoning witch hunts and inquisitions were such a time. Looking over the current landscape I have to wonder if the recent revival of the Hell-Mouth might not have something to do with the time in which it has gained renewed interest as well. Some appetites will never be satisfied.

Bull

Bulls have long been symbols. If I write “that’s bull” your mind will likely fill in the missing implied word. In ancient times the king of the gods, El, was known as “bull El”—probably for a very different reason than the veiled scatological reference above. Bulls were powerful and, to those in settled, agrarian societies, necessary for life. Of course, they can turn on you and kill you with little thought. Even in our high-tech, urbanite world, we keep our bulls at hand. “Charging Bull,” a golden calf if there ever was one, is a famous Wall Street statue erected to the glory of mammon and greed. On May 7, to celebrate International Women’s Day, a statue called “Fearless Girl” was placed in front of “Charging Bull.” Our symbols require some reevaluation. In a kind of Trump-up, another artist placed a statue of a dog lifting its leg on the girl, according to the Washington Post.

We creative types can be sensitive about our work. Apart from writing I’ve dabbled in drawing, painting, and sculpting, although few have seen the results. I know that the space around an artwork is part of the art. I’ve posted before about Grounds for Sculpture, one of my favorite places in New Jersey. The idea of a sculpture park is that the context of the image is important. Statues show up fairly frequently in New York City. The ever-changing art along the pedestrianized part of Broadway in Midtown keeps the walk to work interesting. Interacting with art is performance. At the same time, the respectful viewer knows, artists are making a statement. Placing a girl before a charging bull says so very much.

“Fearless Girl,” unlike the great lummox she faces, is temporary. Nevertheless, the statement she makes is loud and clear. Wall Street might more aptly be named Ball Street for the amount of testosterone that surges through the place. Men erected a system to keep women out of positions of power. And even when a small symbol of female resistance is placed, some man has to have a pug pee on her. I wonder what our society’s become. We’re hardly agrarian any more, yet we still feel “bullish” about things. When’s the last time anyone used “girlish” as a compliment in a business context? “Fearless Girl” will be allowed to stand until February. The pug is temporarily gone, but will be back. When the girl goes the pug will follow. All that will be left in Bowling Green Park will be bull.

Dead Sea, Live See

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Nothing fascinates quite like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, unless you’re a disgruntled Ugaritologist. Mention the Dead Sea Scrolls and the journalists will form a queue. Never mind the relative importance of Ugarit. But I digress. There is something quite dramatic about the discovery and recovery of the scrolls. It involves science and sculduggery and that utterly captivating name “Dead Sea.” This past week the scrolls were in the news again as a new technology was used to read an illegible roll. The New York Times story by Nicholas Wade describes how something like a CT scan can be used to find the ink on an unrolled scroll and software can be devised that associates the ink to its nearest surface. A little virtual unrolling and you have a legible document that has no visible letters that the naked eye can see. Turns out this one happens to come from Leviticus. Figures.

You might think this would lead to joyful leaping on the part of someone who used to make a living reading ancient documents, but such are the times in which we live that even silver linings turn to lead. Years ago I learned about Van Eck phreaking from Neal Stephenson. I thought it was sci-fi, but in fact it is a legitimate—or illegitimate—method of reading a person’s electronic device without being able to see the screen. Since so few people are eager to read my blog, I can’t think anyone would be wanting to spy on my laptop. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technology that can—think about it—read a closed book, I have to wonder about the implications. Reading some dead scribe’s Dead Sea Scroll is one thing. Your sister’s locked diary can be quite another.

Being more of a clay-and-stick man, I was pleased when it was discovered that rapid flashes of light around the circumference of a clay tablet could lead to a virtual computer model that could be rotated 360 degrees with illumination from any angle. The technology had other applications as well, of course. (It certainly wasn’t developed to read forgettable texts.) With a clay tablet we can be reasonably certain that nothing too private was being impressed. But then that’s what you’d expect an Ugaritologist to say. It seems that my days of reading ancient documents are a closed book anyway. But that’s just the problem. Not even a closed book is safe any more. If I were in any danger, I’m sure it would show in my stats before anyone bothered to park a nondescript van outside my door and scan through all the countless tomes with which I surround myself daily. But I do wonder.

On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.

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As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

For Love of English

One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.

Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.

Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.

Scholarly Synchronicity

Simon Parker STH Professor April 2, 1999 PORTRAIT

Simon Parker
STH Professor
April 2, 1999
PORTRAIT

One of the great ironies in my life is having been basically ignored while I was employed in higher education only to have people make overtures to me once I no longer had the resources to undertake the task. I’ve been asked to peer review articles, and write articles and contribute to books. I even had a series editor try to get me to write a monograph. Thing is, I don’t have regular access to a library, and I spend eleven hours a day either at work or getting to and from work. When am I going to find time to write a well-researched book or article? Well, I’ve been working on my Society of Biblical Literature article since May and it should be ready by November. If it weren’t based on pop culture, I could never have managed it under present circumstances. Still, when a colleague asked me to contribute to Simon Parker’s Festschrift I couldn’t say no. Although I didn’t take classes with Simon, he was Academic Dean when I was at Boston University School of Theology. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we shared an interest in Ugaritic studies, and we exchanged articles and ideas via letter when I was in Edinburgh. We became friends. Simon died suddenly the year I lost my job at Nashotah House.

Since that time I’ve written over a couple thousand blog posts, and read a few hundred books, but that’s not the same as academic research. I’ve been worried about what I might contribute to do honor to a scholar and a gentleman. Then I tried looking at some old files from two laptops ago. Of course the new laptop can’t open them (that’s why Scrivener is a lifesaver). I pulled out a paper that I wrote the year I lost my job. I never did finish it, but it was well underway when my confidence began to crumble. After translating it to the new decade, I opened it only to find the first footnote dedicating it to Simon Parker. I stopped, stunned. That can’t be right. When I wrote this I knew nothing of a Festschrift. Then it hit me. I had originally written the article just after I learned of Simon’s untimely death. Do I still believe in signs?

So now I have a base from which to start. I have only a couple months to bang it into shape, and I also have to finish my SBL article. While at Nashotah House I produced an article a year and a second book (published only last year), i.e., the “academic standard.” Nobody invited me to contribute. Now that I have no time, people are finally interested in what I might have to say. Not interested enough, of course, to offer me an academic position, but it does look like the publication record might continue after all. It won’t be what it could have been had I had a library, but I am nevertheless honored. One of the accolades that academics covet is having colleagues care enough to write something for you. I guess that’s been on my mind for a decade in the case of Simon Parker. I only hope that I can do him proud from where I am.