The Devil Made

Some things you just don’t mess with. Just in case. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is lack of biblical support, many Christians no longer believe in Satan, or “the Devil.” As I written before, the Hebrew Bible has no such diabolical character and he seems to have been devised from an old Zoroastrian dualistic belief system when he finally does appear. In other words, Satan is not among the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, according to an Associated Press story the Satanic Temple is petitioning to have a statue of Satan placed on the capitol grounds in Oklahoma City. The action was prompted by the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in this public space, and, invoking the freedom of religion clause, the Satanic Temple has decided to play tit for tat. Either religion is free, or it’s not.

Backer_Judgment_(detail)Although the Satanic Temple claims to be sincere in its beliefs, the group’s website indicates that it understands religious belief in a metaphorical way, and that it wishes to parse superstition from religion. This envisions revising Satan as an “icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny,” according to the AP story. The commissioned monument includes a Baphomet-style Satan (goat head and beard, wings and pentagram—you get the picture), that features—sure to raise the ire of Oklahomo sapiens—children gathered around the dark lord. It will double as a seat where individuals may sit on Satan’s lap, although I’m not sure what they might be asking for. Various representatives of the Sooner State say they’re all for religious freedom, but Satan just has no place in the conservative breadbasket of the nation.

Provocation occurs on both sides in this trial of wills. Justice can be realized without Moses’ top ten on every courthouse lawn. The Code of Hammurabi demonstrates that. People are capable of enacting justice without God, or the Devil, telling them to do it. The triumphalism of religion is the heart of the issue. In a world daily aware of those outside the neighborhood, finding that other religions exist and thrive is an affront to the “one true faith,” whatever it may be. It may be that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have no problems with the ten commandments. Other religions might. Leading with having “no other gods before me” starts the conversation off on an awkward tone. The solution may be as simple as amending the commandments to add just one more. If we can see our way to doing that I have one that I’d like to propose: “thou shalt not let thy religion cause childish behavior.”

Holy Land Grabs

Civilization began in the “Middle East.” Ever since then, it has been a struggle to keep it together. One of the sad realities of the last century and continuing into this is that peace in this region seems as elusive as a Tea Partier with compassion. Claims to land are among the most complex of human inventions. Having never been a property owner, I’ve only ever watched this from the sidelines, but I know the endless surveying, assessing, and negotiating that goes into drawing invisible lines across the surface of our planet in order to determine who owns what. At least as early as the Code of Hammurabi, the placing of property markers was considered the concern of the gods. Humans are clearly among the most territorial of animals.

When my wife showed me a CNN story about an archaeological dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa in Israel, this old issue raised its weary head once more. The site, whose ancient name is not yet known, is being suggested as “the city of David” by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. The evidence for the suggestion, as far as I can tell from news reports, is that the city fits the right time period and lacks pig bones. With the Bible’s great claims for David’s very large kingdom, archaeologists have been unable to find evidence that such a grand entity ever existed. David himself is not historically attested outside the Bible. Those who make land claims based on a putative gift of God, however, must find physical evidence to back it up. This wish hovers like a dove over every excavation.

The death of an archaeologist

Archaeology has frequently been commandeered by special interest groups. The field of study began in the “Middle East” to find evidence for the historicity of biblical stories, some of which were never intended as history. Daunting emotional claims, however, weighed heavily on the minds of those who led the excavations. The Bible made what they supposed to be historical claims, so the physical evidence had to back it up. When Jericho was excavated and found to have been abandoned at the time of Joshua not a few heads were scratched. Archaeologists returned to the city in later excavations to try to question the results. Jericho was a ghost town long before Joshua came along because the story of Jericho has something more important than history to convey. That larger message, applicable throughout the world, seems to be: don’t base claims to special privilege on the Bible. Tea Partiers could even learn a thing or two from that message as well.

Kings and Codes

I readily acquiesce to the suggestion that others are smarter than myself. In a world of overly competitive commerce that has wormed its way into higher education, I have found myself ill-equipped to compete against those who are more clever at working the system. At times I can be decidedly pre-medieval in my perception of fairness. Thus it was a combination of self-denigration and legitimate surprise to find a brief piece in the May edition of Wired magazine on the Code of Hammurabi. In this arena I would have supposed myself to be on firmer ground. The piece by Joel Meares appeared in the Blast from the Past section of the “Humor Issue” of the erudite magazine. The writers at Wired are by default well beyond my ability in the tech scene, but this piece was a consideration of how Hammurabi’s justice still plays its way out in popular culture. Beginning with the 1970’s movie series Death Wish, Hammurabi is given credit for inspiring Hamlet, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Red Dead Redemption, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Batman. Holy pedigree, Hammurabi!

Each semester I try to explain to my students why study of the ancient world is still relevant. It may be overly simplified to suggest that Hammurabi directly inspired all these works (the Akkadian language wasn’t really deciphered until the middle of the nineteenth century, CE, long after Shakespeare), but clearly the trajectory had been set long ago. Even before Hammurabi. The earliest known law-codes predate Hammurabi by many centuries and demonstrate that our sense of justice and fair play were being bandied about by the gods long before Hammurabi was a twinkle in Shamash’s eye. If we want others to play nice, the best way to convince them to do so is to lay the dicta in the realm of the gods.

Maybe I can’t figure out where Death Wish and Moby Dick share anything beyond a cursory resemblance to Hammurabi, but it is clear that the Mesopotamians were the first to articulate the idea that the gods set the rules and it is our duty not to upset them. Of course, in our society fair play is frequently sublimated to corruption at various levels. Someone is always willing to bend the rules if the covert payment is enticing enough. After all, doesn’t it look like Hammurabi is placing his fingers to his lips while receiving a kickback from Shamash on the pinnacle of the famous stele bearing the code that now bears his name?

Hammurabi winks at Shamash