Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.



AbrahamsCurseViolence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.

Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.

Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.

Dromedary Dilemma

Photo credit: John O'Neill, WikiCommons

Photo credit: John O’Neill, WikiCommons

This past week two friends have pointed me to news articles about camels. In the modern, western imagination camels are biblical animals, pushing their way onto the ark, carrying long-suffering patriarchs across the desert, and squeezing through the eyes of needles. These news stories indicate that camels were actually not introduced into the Levant until about the tenth century B.C.E., i.e., a few centuries too late for poor Father Abraham, whom, according to Genesis, was a noted camel owner. Of course, the reason that this is news is because Fundamentalist groups insist that every word of the Bible is literally true. If it says Abraham had camels, then, by gosh, camels he had—archaeological evidence or no. One story points out the problems for Zionists, for whom claims on the land derive from the mandate to Abraham (and, presumably, his camels). Biblical scholars have long been aware of the complex methods of scripture writing, and no camels are no problem. The bigger issue, I suspect, is that Abraham has been awol for some time as well.

Abraham, as the progenitor of the three major monotheistic religions, bears a tremendous weight on his weary shoulders. It is the weight of history. Or lack thereof. I may be a few years outdated here, but the earliest figure historically attested in the Bible is (or was) Omri, the king of Israel who spawned the notorious Ahab. Prior to that, historical records are pretty silent. Yes, I know the Tel Dan stele mentions “house of David,” but that is like mentioning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—it doesn’t make Mr. Wonka any more real (even though you can buy a Wonka bar at some candy stores). That means that, in the jumble of biblical history, everyone in Genesis falls into the questionable historical category. Even if Moses (himself historically dubious), wrote Genesis (and he didn’t), he wouldn’t have known Mr. Abraham personally. He had been long dead. If he’d ever been born. I’m getting worried about his camels.

Religions have often tied themselves to historical claims. Such claims are always tenuous and negotiable. For instance, I watched a movie about Abraham—Lincoln, it was called—where I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about a very historical Abraham. At the same time, I knew the movie wasn’t history. When we rely on history to cite our superiority (often one of the functions of religion), we had better be willing to take the risks. The first biblical historical figure is a “bad guy” king of a secessionist kingdom, this time in the north. Even once we learn that the storied characters of the Bible may have never trod the earth, we don’t leave them as camel fodder. They are part of the tradition, whether they participated in history or not. I realize, however, for some it would be easier to swallow a camel than to strain out this particular gnat.

Father Abraham’s Faith

Okay, so this is the scene: Abraham is old and he has just one son to whom a promise has been made (this is the biblical version, by the way). God had promised him that he’d have as many descendants as the stars in the sky, so it seem that Isaac has a long way to go. And the boy’s not married yet. Abraham calls in his trusted servant and gives lengthy, detailed instructions on how to go back to ancestral Iraq and find a wife for Isaac. Just to make sure the servant understands just how serious this is, Abraham says, “Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh,” (I can’t help thinking he added a big wink) and instructs him to swear to obey the instructions precisely. Readers of the Bible since at least the Middle Ages have recognized that “thigh” here really means genitals. The more we’ve learned of the ancient world the more we’ve discovered that men touching each other’s privates was a sign of a most serious oath—it’s a touch that can’t be taken back, and any promises made in this way must be kept.

I’ve been reading about monkeys. More precisely, about evolution. When reading about how baboons show intent to form an alliance, I was surprised to learn that males utilize scrotum-grasping. Since all’s fair in love and war, when baboons fight ripping off another guy’s jewels is considered perfectly acceptable. That means that allowing another male to fondle your testicles is a sign of ultimate trust. Baboons, it seems, have been doing it long since before Abraham showed up on the scene. I wonder if this then is a case of convergent evolution of whether Abraham’s oath goes back to nature in its most basic form. Once castrated, especially in antiquity, a man had no choice about going back. To invite another man to put his hands “down there” was a serious matter indeed.

The only requirement really given to Abraham by God was circumcision. Again, from what we know of ancient times this was not unique to Israel, but the theological freight associated with it was. For a man who’s been promised as many descendants as the sand on the sea shore, allowing another man to cut away part of your reproductive organs is a sign of ultimate trust. This is a behavior that seems not to go back to nature, however. Not even chimpanzees have quite figured out how to make knives or use them to carve up sensitive areas. This has none of the marking of evolution. An act like that seems to have come directly from the gods. Abraham, in a way most modern believers would find incomprehensible, was the paragon of faith.

Contemplating the ineffable

Just Druid Again

It would be difficult to suggest an ancient class of people with greater New Age credibility than the druids. Although I spent three years among the Celts, I claim to have no special knowledge of the druids, and when I saw Peter Berresford Ellis’ book on the subject, I decided to learn more. Not really a straightforward history—not enough of the druidic culture survived in any material form for the writing of such a history—Ellis instead summarizes a complex gallimaufry of evidence and speculations into a reasonable facsimile of who the druids might have been. Ellis suggests that the druids were more a caste of society, rather like the Brahmin caste among Vedic culture. Should that seem far-fetched, it would be difficult to read A Brief History of the Druids without noticing the obvious connections between the cultures. The Celts, of which the druids are a subset, have their origins in eastern Europe rather than the usual supposition of a homeland over the sea in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Connected to India via a common ancestral language, Indians and Celts both derive from the same Indo-European linguistic family tree.

Ellis’ book is so full of information that it is unwieldy at times, especially for those of us who find the formidable Gaelic names intimidating. Nevertheless, it is an excellent source for learning about the religion of the druids, insofar as it may be reconstructed. One of the most striking aspects of Celtic culture that emerges from the book is how it differed from the Roman culture that would come to dominate the western world. An obvious example is that Celtic society offered a much more enlightened place for female rights and leadership than would emerge along the Tiber. Another important difference was the Celtic antipathy to abuses of private property ownership. Gaelic bishops earned the ire of Rome by declaring that egalitarianism is the will of God. In the words of a fifth century Celtic bishop:

“Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the poor?… if you enrich yourself by making others poor? If you wring your food from others’ tears? A Christian is [one] who… never allows a poor man to be oppressed when he is by… whose doors are open to all, whose table every poor man knows, whose food is offered to all.” Words a Perry or Bachmann might do well to read.

So noble were the druids in the eyes of eighteenth-century antiquarians that many suggested Abraham was the original druid and that the great figures of the Bible were part of the druidic heritage. The world, alas, has gone after Rome instead. Rather than druids we have CEOs and politicians worth a mint before they ever “swear” an oath of office. If the current Celtic revival brings back some powerful druids, perhaps the world might just become a more tolerable place.

Bread Alone

The sad story of the death of an eight-year old girl from Irvington, New Jersey bears uncanny echoes to a case a year and a half ago of a mother who starved her children believing God would provide. The current case of Christiana Glenn’s death is heart-wrenching and the outlook is not improved when it appears that the girl’s mother had religious motivation to abuse her child. Christiana died from untreated physical wounds and malnutrition, prompting columnist Kathleen O’Brien to write about how food and religion often come together in unusual ways. As O’Brien points out, religions generally safeguard children from food privations, but less scrupulous leaders of what are frequently termed “cults” do not have the same strictures. The only real difference between a religion and a cult is society’s attitude toward it—religions tend to be larger and with finer pedigrees, but beliefs are beliefs. When religions seek control over believers’ lives, they often delve into the practice of deprivations, generally mild. More extreme groups take the idea to fatal limits.

Even the Bible records from near the very beginning that deprivations are part of the religious expectation. One of the most complex and frightening stories from Genesis is that of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. No matter how theologians wash it, this story retains its stain of an adult—whether directed by God or not is a mute point—attempting to harm a child in the name of faith. The story, many centuries later, still sent Søren Kierkegaard into a tailspin that came out as Fear and Trembling. What kind of deity asks for a child to be harmed, even in jest? For Christiana Glenn, there’s no taking it back. The Bible tells us nothing of how the interior life of Isaac responded to this episode.

Food and religion are among the most common elements abused in American society. For our bifurcated (if not bipolar) outlook, one sustains body and the other sustains soul. While science still lacks evidence for the soul, the body remains the only basis upon which we have to base our ethics. Even biology dictates that care of one’s own young is an evolutionary imperative. It is tragic indeed when a religion overrides what all cultures respect as the ultimate “should” —take care of your children. In a world overpopulated by religious experts the street value of the soul will never face a recession. Believers, characterized my many religions as sheep, will go wherever their leaders tell them to go. As a culture suspicious of funding the study of religion, it may not be food that is reaped at the end of this harvest.

Thou shalt not...

The Violence of the Lambs

Religious holidays are curious affairs. In many Christian contexts “the holidays” are often poignant scenes of tension and angst. Granted, much of this is generated by human family dynamics, but then, what of religion is not? An unfortunate shooting episode erupted yesterday in Baluchistan, Pakistan during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. According to Star-Ledger wire services, the followers of two rival religious leaders pulled out guns in the mosque and began firing. The festival of Eid is the commemoration of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. Islamic sources suggest the intended victim was Ishmael while the Bible claims it was Isaac. Whoever came under the knife, however, the implicit human sacrifice is disturbing.

Human sacrifice has been a part of human culture for a very long time. Never a common practice, it was generally reserved for times of severe crisis, when you really, really needed the gods to pay attention. The story of the Akedah, or “binding,” of Isaac demonstrates the reluctance in Judaism to speak of Abraham as an actual murderer of a child. After all, this was only a test. Many biblical scholars see this story as an etiology, a story of origins. The binding of Isaac explains why human sacrifice is not permitted in the religion of Abraham. When it does occur, for example in 2 Kings 3.27, it is effective. Nothing like a good, old-fashioned human blood-letting to satisfy the gods.

Soren Kierkegaard found the story of the sacrifice of Isaac so disturbing he wrote an entire book to deal with it. Even if we, the readers of Genesis, are given the advance knowledge that this is only a test, the image of a religiously devoted old man with the knife hovering over his bound son is the very definition of horror. And that frozen moment comes to life and acts itself out time and time again in acts of religious violence. One of the most recent was in Baluchistan, but as sure as the knife rises above the sacrifice, there have been other incidents of religious violence since that awful moment. Human sacrifice may be at the heart of religion after all.

Precious moments akedah, shamelessly borrowed from James McGrath's blog

Father Abraham

“Father Abraham had seven sons; seven sons had Father Abraham.” So began a camp song that I learned many years ago. The song always confused me because, no matter how I did the math, Abraham did not have seven sons. Abraham has a way of causing confusion. The story of Abraham contained in Genesis is complex and perplexing. He is presented as a man who experiences extraordinary occasions and then doubts what he learns from them. He is wealthy and timid, yet leads troops against an alliance of five armies. God speaks directly to him, and he remains in self-doubt. He always does what he is told, although he takes initiative once in a while as well. As Genesis tells it, he is the father of Ishmael and Isaac (and six others).

Historians have a somewhat different assessment. The only evidence we have for the historical existence of Abraham is Genesis. Although other ancient documents mention Abraham they clearly received their information from either Genesis itself or its oral sources. A prince powerful enough to route five kings might merit a reference in some clay annals somewhere, one might expect. Yet history is silent. Most historians require either multiple-source attestations or official, non-literary documents to support the historicity of ancient characters. Abraham simply doesn’t qualify. Those Genesis stories are foundation myths just like those common to all cultures. They represent self-understanding, not necessarily actual origins.

Nevertheless, religiously minded debates continue to flair around him. Abraham, through Isaac, is considered father of the Jews. Christians, courtesy of Paul, consider themselves adopted children who inherit over the natural born. Muslims sometimes trace their ancestry to Abraham’s first-born, according to Genesis, Ishmael. Abraham does not exit the stage as a single man, however. He bears in his person the promise of land, a very real commodity, granted by God himself. So the story goes. We have little trouble declaring other ancient (or not-so-ancient) characters legends or myths when they have no direct bearing on the historical origins of religion. Wars are not fought over Heracles or Theseus, after all. Because of Abraham’s inheritance, however, as the singly chosen ancestor receiving the divine favor, all major monotheistic religions wish to claim him. They are often willing to kill to make that claim real. Myths do have serious real-world applications. And I still haven’t figured out that bit about seven sons. Three seem to be far more than enough.

Abraham at sixes and sevens

The Chosen Peoples

My thanks go to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy of Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz’s new book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (2010). Briefly, the book traces the origins of the concept of being a chosen people in both Israel and the United States. This concept is then shown in relief with those who are “unchosen.” The authors conclude by highlighting the national sense of mutual goodwill between Israel and the United States. The full text of this review is on the Full Essays page of this blog.

I read this book wearing multiple hats. Since the first chapter traces Israel’s sense of chosenness from Biblical times to the present, I began by wearing my Biblical Scholar hat. Many of the questions asked and raised about the Bible reveal a naivety about traditional claims of biblical authorship. Although certainty cannot be achieved, biblical scholars have applied textual and literary techniques to the text for well over a century now, and many of the claims simply accepted by Gitlin and Leibovitz simply do not stand up. This may seem a minor flaw, but since Abraham is foundational to this outlook, it is essential to at least consider his lack of historical attestation. Gitlin and Leibovitz assume that Genesis, with its stories of Abraham, predates the books that follow. This is not a safe assumption to make, and using this background as a foundation for further analysis might well lead to structural problems with the argument later on.

Wearing the hat of an historian, I noticed how much of the force of the argument of the book is interwoven with the idea that God has actually chosen Israel. I have told my students for many years now that historians do not make claims on God or God’s alleged activities. Texts that narrate God’s actions tend to be classified as myths rather than history. The concept of chosenness, which Gitlin and Leibovitz are reluctant to relinquish, is based on the premise that God has indeed done the choosing. An historian would be extremely reticent to make such a claim. Having noted this concern, the authors do a fine job of providing a brief, readable history of the founding of modern Israel without recourse to what God was doing in the twentieth century. When the authority of the Bible is needed, it is quoted here in King James English, hardly the most accurate translation available.

Gitlin and Leibovitz suggest that chosenness is more a curse, at times, than a blessing. The reasoning seems to be that the concept of chosenness leads inexorably to Zionism. The ideas interact on a much more subtle level than that, although certainly the Zionist movement has owed and continues to owe quite a heavy debt to the concept. The generalizations here are a bit broad – political motivations may not receive their full due. Toward the end of the chapter the ideology of messianism is engaged and brought into the discussion. It is not clear that messianism is the same as chosenness; the two ideas both emerge in Judaism, but do not always overlap. When the authors state that Zionism has always been messianic at heart (p. 57), that may be correct, but it does not necessarily reflect chosenness. Gitlin and Leibovitz are very good at pointing out the inconsistent application of the idea of messianism in the formative stages of the modern state of Israel.

Please see the Full Essays page for the remainder of this review.

Biblical Lyres


The head of Ur’s bull harp stares at me from the article announcing Penn Museum’s “Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery” exhibit down the road in Philly. Despite recent questions of the ethics of laying off yet more academics, this exhibit beckons to those of use who’ve only ever seen pictures of the famous finds from the ancient world that we’ve spent our lives reading about. Penn’s museum is famous for its holdings from Sumer, and I’m trying to scrape together the change to go and take a gander.

Still, I was not surprised to see that the biblical angle was tied into the article as well. “The royal tombs of Ur (the city believed to be the home of the Bible’s Abraham) date to 2,600 to 2,500 B.C.” it reads. The article doesn’t go as far as to state that Abraham, not historically attested, if he ever lived, dates to at least a millennium later than Sumer’s heyday. No, Abe never strummed that beautiful bull-headed harp nor thought on Isaac as he stared at the “Ram-in-the-Thicket.” The only way to get the paying public in, however, is to play the biblical card. Were it not for Abraham, however, Sumer would likely have remained the orphan child of early antiquity.

Among the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Sumer failed to make it into the Bible. Its Mesopotamian successors Babylonia and Assyria marched into Holy Writ when they sacked Jerusalem and Samaria, and even the Hittites merit a mention with Abraham’s poignant loss of Sarah. Sumer was a civilization that stood on its own. No Bible story was necessary for any to see its greatness, yet there was no public interest without biblical bating. Nevertheless, this is a road-trip worth the taking. It will be nice to see the glory of Ur, even without Abraham lurking in the shadows.