After the Gold Rush

The morning I flew to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, the headlines in the morning paper were about the rocket attacks in Tel Aviv. Ironically, the in-flight magazine cover on United, I noticed as I fastened by seat belt securely low across my waist, read “Three Perfect Days in Tel Aviv.” The irony wasn’t so much funny as it was sad. The situation in the Middle East is hopelessly entangled, but it all comes down to our obsession with dividing people into groups. Religious, ethnic, social: somehow we are not like them. We’re better, superior in some way. It matters not that proving superiority is a purely subjective enterprise. After all, we just know it. When history places one persecuted group in a position of persecuting another group, well, I’m afraid we all know what happens.

The problems in the Middle East are largely biblical and predominantly petroleum-based. Even those who tend to read the Bible figuratively can see a land claim based on an Abraham who probably never existed as strangely literal. Especially when there’s oil in them thar wells. Isolationism served the United States well until it was discovered that they had more black gold than even Texas does. Establishing a foothold in the region was not such a subtle policy; the x-ray vision of politicians funded by heavy industry saw beneath the sandy soil to the real deity that lay beneath. Dig a well, hit a gusher, and, like the Bible says, “he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Good news for modern capitalists. But some people will have to die.

As I sat in the lobby of a posh hotel, waiting for an appointment, I heard a fragment of a conversation as a couple of scholars rushed by. They were discussing the aftermath of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. One suggested to the other, in the context of how many Palestinians might die in retaliation, “well, if they can keep the numbers down…” and then they were gone. My mind jumped to The Prisoner. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” crashed in my head with the way that the dead in the Middle East are piled up as “the numbers.” I’m sure it was only intended as a convenient turn of phrase. Outside the hotel lobby the striking workers from the Hyatt labor disputes were protesting in a cold, crisp Chicago morning. They were soon cleared away. My fear, Number Six, is that you are wrong. We are all numbers, even the best of us.

AAR/SBL Chicago

On just about any playground you’ll spot the kid who’s watching from the side, instead of playing with the others. That’s me. I don’t suspect that anyone starts life wanting to be left out, but some of us—attuned to the subtler messages of life—become aware that we’re not really invited or welcome. That sensation bathed me in its eldritch light once again while waiting for my flight to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I’ve often wondered what it must be like for those innocent aeronauts not clued in that the Friday before Black Friday (the real holiday, I’m led to believe) that flights to a specified city will be choked with crusty professors of religion. Sitting in Newark Airport and hearing the word “Ugaritic” from the seat behind me, I knew it had begun. I turned around. No flash of recognition. If was as if I hadn’t spent years learning that obscure language and publishing in the main journals. The invisible man.

The airport before the AAR/SBL annual meeting is a theological locker room where the guys gather to compare the size of their, um, theses. It’s pretty hard not to overhear, once you’re tuned in to your specialization, as colleagues lay out their publications, invited papers, international travel plans. I’ll admit to being jealous. They’re living the life for which I trained. I had taught for nearly twenty years and was never really invited to play. Now here I sit, knowing what Ugaritic is among the perplexed business travelers, but I’m not one of the big boys.

I realize that outside the rarified world of higher education Ugaritic matters even less than the homeless unfortunates shivering in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago. Back in the brief days when I tried to be a player, I remember attending an Ugaritic conference here in Illinois. Crowded into an elevator with renowned colleagues, one of them joked, “If this elevator falls, the field of Ugaritic studies may never recover.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Present company excepted. Of that august group, only one was asked to step off into the void. His exit was barely noticed. Ugaritic studies thrives. The poor beg for alms. And one kid, even though he now understands the rules of the game, still watches from outside.