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.

Brain Dead

I’ve been thinking about brains (is there any more existential thing to do?). Reading a book this week about the mind (see Thursday’s post) probably has something to do with it. And also having finished a book on zombies maybe contributes as well. You see, I find it strange when scientists assume that we can figure out all the answers with our limited brains. Although we are endlessly fascinated by them, neuroscientists have long noted that they do have weaknesses—they (brains) are easily fooled, and, for those who find no room for the mysterious in the universe, we’ve made up gods to keep us company. We know that relative brain size—relative to body mass, that is—is a large factor in intelligence, but we seem not to imagine the possibility of larger brains than those we carry around. I suppose it’s not without reason that alien brains are disproportionately larger than our own, according to the standard image of the “grays.” We don’t like to think there’s something smarter than us hanging around. It’s a frightening thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.35.48 AMOn the more earthy side, brains have been the usual fare for zombies in one sub-division of the zombie movie neighborhood. George Romero gave us flesh eating as a paradigm, but eventually zombies settled on brains. This was on my mind as I finished the epic Strangers in the Land that Stant Litore kindly sent me in Kindle form. I’d read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on my own, and the author wanted me to read more. Litore’s zombies are more in the canonical Romero sector—they eat flesh and their bite conveys zombiehood. Strangers in the Land takes its base story from the book of Judges. Only Deborah becomes a zombie slayer. Brains aren’t eaten here, but they must be destroyed for a zombie to—what? Redie? Full of colorfully drawn characters, the story rambles through the countryside of ancient Israel, plagued with zombies. It is the brain that keeps a zombie going.

While I have to stand by my recurring assessment that the zombie is a hard sell in novelistic form (here goes my mind again! Reading a book gives your brain too much time to focus on the utter impossibility of bodies missing organs or vital tissue to move, or “live,” even with a brain) Litore is onto an interesting idea here. Looking at it metaphorically (as surely he intends it) helps. Perhaps I just miss the lumbering revenants of Return of the Living Dead calling out “Brains! Brains!” The Bible, however, is endlessly open to reinterpretation. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was post-biblical. This current installment moves us into the realm of reception history. I’ve been researching reception history and the undead for a few months now. I have some conclusions to share in an academic paper a few months down the road, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out brains. Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.

Thy Will Bee Done

Today I had to do battle against the bees. That’s the way I must steel myself for the task of mass specieocide. Watching those little tiny creatures struggling, kicking their six legs and antennae into the air, trying to get the poison off is heartrending to me. They are, after all, only trying to do whatever it is that yellow-jackets do. But it is a heat wave right now, and without central air we need to open windows as much as possible, and today they tried to invade people air space. I had to do something. So standing over the carnage of an Ezekielian valley of damp exoskeletons, I recalled the bees of the Bible. (May their entomological souls rest in peace.)

Bees are one of the more innovative weapons in the divine arsenal. They are used to chase people away, like God’s little army of armored stinger missiles. And as in any arms race, it is numbers that count. Hundreds of them to the one human being holding a putrid can of chemicals trying to defend home against their incursions. In the book of Judges, the one prominent female judge is Deborah. Her name translates to “bee.” She is the bane of the Canaanites. So much so that general Barak (“lightning”) refuses to go to war without her. Bees were a potent curse in ancient times as well, strong enough to drive a family from their home.

Bee careful around this one, because love hurts!

Bee careful around this one, because love hurts!

A Sumerian cylinder seal depicts what appears to be a divine scene with a killer bee goddess (not an Africanized killer bee, but a slang killer bee). One wonders what the worshippers must be thinking. Perhaps they too had watched Phase IV when they were kids! Bees could also be benevolent. Honeybees provided a rare treat before sugarcane had been discovered, and even Israel’s “promised land” flowed with milk and honey. So like most of life, bees were ambiguous. They bore all the markings of the divine: a wonderful sweet residue, nice trendy color scheme, but a painful sting that could even be fatal. Gifts of the gods are like that. So no matter how humane my temporary solution may be, I still feel like I’m taking on the gods.