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.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit:, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

The Bald Truth

The book of Judges is one of the most fascinating in the Bible. The “judges” are colorful characters, often rule-breakers, who ultimately seem to deliver the early Israelites from their enemies. Many of their names are familiar: Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah. Well, Jephthah may be a stretch for those who haven’t read the book lately. Anyway, among the most interesting facets of the book is the fact that there are female judges. The most prominent is Deborah. Although she doesn’t seem actually to fight in battle, she leads Barak and he is able to defeat the Canaanites, through the agency of God, of course. The story is told in great detail of how the Canaanite general Sisera gets his chariot bogged down in the mud, flees the field, and finds the tent of Jael, who invites him in. After she lulls him to sleep she drives a tent peg through his skull, killing him. Jael is celebrated for her part in the deliverance.

Gory images aside, I’ve been thinking of Sisera. I wonder what he looked like. I realize that he may not have been an historical person, but still. The Bible is generally shy about describing the outward appearance of people. We get a few people with details revealed, but Sisera is not one of them. The reason I’m wondering is that I’ve got an image lodged in my head. A childhood story that we were read about Deborah showed Sisera as a bald man with a beard. Totally bald. I know that complete baldness can and does occur, but the little iconography of Canaanites we have doesn’t show them as being particularly bald as a fashion statement. As I was reading about Sisera the other day I tried to picture him as a man with a headful of hair, and I just couldn’t do it. The image was too mentally jarring. Sisera was bald.

The images that we’re shown as children, especially for powerful stories, have a way of becoming canonical. It’s like learning to tie your shoes. The first way that leads to success is the right way. We never need to learn another. How many images of Sisera does one person need to have in his or her head anyway? So my Sisera is bald. Religions often provide us with images that impact us for the remainder of our lives. The impressions laid on young gray matter are not easily erased. Now that I know many of the stories in the Bible have no historical veracity, I still can’t help but think of the early images I learned. These are the canonical images and anything else is too difficult to contemplate. My Sisera will always be bald.

Palma got it wrong.

Palma got it wrong.


LopezNorthAmericaAs winter begins to settle in, I recall reading Barry Lopez’s masterful Arctic Dreams many years ago. That book left such an impression that when I saw his The Rediscovery of North America—a very small book—I thought it was worth the asking price. Lopez is one of those nature writers who can transport the reader into the world he observes. This brief volume, however, takes the reader to a very different kind of world—the world of European interaction with North America. As children we (and I speak for myself, or perhaps my generation) were still taught that Columbus was a kind of hero. He ventured into the unknown and discovered an entire new world. That world became the everyday place we inhabit with our comforts and our toys. Things only got better from there. Of course, I learned to distrust this view by the time I was an undergraduate, and my perspective has turned a bit more serious since then. These events, viewed from the perspective of the Native Americans, have a completely opposed outlook. Lopez tries to capture a sense of how to rectify these wrongs in his Thomas D. Clark lectures that make the basis for this book.

Greed, no doubt, drove the early explorers of the new world. And a sense of entitlement that has not diminished with the passing centuries. While it is not as simple as tracing this sense of ownership back to Genesis, clearly the Bible plays some role in it. Religions that teach their adherents that they have the sole truth will inevitably lead to entitlement. Monotheism, as I’ve noted before, possesses the tendency to make absolute claims. One God, one Church, one Truth. And non-believers become expendable. To the Catholic Spaniards setting out for the new world (or actually, old world, but tripping up on the new along the way), as Lopez points out, were driven by lust for gold. And spices. And fornication. Things that, if one took it seriously, would be decried by the church as vices. Still, taking advantage of the gullible and helpless is a time-honored practice among many religious bodies, and we know that genocide ensues.

Somehow history has taught us that some genocides are worse than others. Those inflicted on native populations, perhaps because they weren’t always intentional (in the case of diseases) are sometimes still given a silent assent. Yet, as Lopez makes clear, the intention to murder was there already. The conquistadors had already decided that the natives did not deserve the same rights as the God-blessed new arrivals. What saddens me—and I think Lopez too—is that this same sense of entitlement, instead of tempering with time, has continued to increase. Tea Parties and American Values often include removing those who disagree. Inconvenient indigenous populations that aren’t mentioned in the Bible except as Canaanite stand-ins. And should we care to make right what was perpetrated, perhaps we ought to consider rediscovering North America.

Biblically Literate Ichabod Crane

I’m trying to pace my viewing of Sleepy Hollow, but autumn is never long enough for me. In many ways the FOX series exemplifies the current love-hate relationship popular culture has with the Bible. While its dictates and commandments seem tedious and petty, its prophetic view is so very full of possibilities. The millennium has passed but we’re not weary of the apocalypse yet. Even from the pilot episode with its cringing reference to “Revelations” three or four episodes into season one tidied that book title down to the proper singular and have begun to introduce other biblical characters along the way. Since the conceit of the series involves the four horsemen, the Bible is never far from view. Forensics can’t figure out what’s climbing out of the woods of the Hudson valley, but we already know that the demon is Moloch. Many fingers, I trust, have been scampering across keyboards to investigate this biblical figure.

Moloch_the_godMoloch is a “Canaanite” deity. He is also one of the least understood of biblical archenemies. Scant references to making children “pass through the fire” for Moloch have led to widespread assertions of human sacrifice. Others have argued that the passing was just that—kind of like racing your finger through the flame of a candle—to appease the angry god. We don’t know that Moloch was angry. No extended myths about him have survived from antiquity. His name means “king,” an epithet fit for most gods. The vacuum left by the historical records allows imagination to fill in the gaps. Sleepy Hollow does that nicely, and although I haven’t reached the end of season one yet, I have my suspicions that he’ll be showing up for some time to come.

The Bible, viewed so disparagingly because of the ministrations of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their intolerant ilk, remains a mystery to many. Let’s face it—it’s a daunting book. Even with onionskin paper, it is a massive undertaking to read it all. Many a spiritual soldier lays slain on the beach-head of Leviticus, and that’s only three books in of the Protestant 66. What Leviticus doesn’t finish, Chronicles will polish off. And yet we have such colorful characters as Asherah, Resheph, Leviathan, and Moloch scattered throughout. Sleepy Hollow has brought back the dead. I regret that I no longer have classes of students to ask about such things, because I too, through the magic of television, am beginning to believe in resurrection again.

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

Be Kind to Your Canaanites

You can never find a Canaanite when you need one. This has been the bane of scholars of the Ancient Near East for many years. While teaching my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions the question frequently arises: who are the Canaanites? Problem is, nobody really knows.

The Canaanites have prominence in the ancient world due to the Bible. The people already occupying the land that would one day become Israel are called Canaanites. They appear to have been culturally contiguous with Aramaeans in what is now Syria, the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon, and even with the Israelites. While there are references to the Canaanites in antiquity, we have yet to discover a people who call themselves Canaanites (unless the Phoenician inscription from Brazil is legitimate!). Canaanite, at this point in time, is only attested as a name used for somebody else. “They are Canaanites,” not “we are Canaanites.”

An Egyptian version of a Canaanite

In this we have a useful paradigm. Today religions continue the “us versus them” mentality. In the Hebrew Bible it is often open season on Canaanites since they worship other gods. Today this fear and distrust continues with members of some religions declaring war on those in other traditions. Sometimes it is even within a single religion: Catholic versus Protestant, Baptist versus Catholic, or everyone versus Unitarians.

Religion is, however, always taken on faith. No technique exists to determine, empirically, which is the “true religion” or whether they are all paths up the same mountain. Religions are not fact, they are belief. And religions evolve. It would be the greatest evolutionary leap forward for religions to accept each other, to do away with the ersatz Canaanites. Not that Canaanites should be decimated or eradicated, but they should be accepted for who they are. Who are the Canaanites? They are anyone who practices a religion different from your own.