Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.

Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.

Flood Warning

If you’re like any number of others in North America, you may be wondering when spring will arrive. Not meteorological spring—that has flown past already—but the warm, salubrious air that bears no wind chill factor. You might, like many, turn to the Weather Channel website. While you’re there you might see a story about extreme weather and Noah’s Flood. (You might need to scroll down the page to find it; the link seems to have been cursed.) The flood myth is a pervasive story. It appears in countless novels, movies (even Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, for those who are willing to believe), and many baby’s nurseries. The weather this year has many wondering about global warming, although, honestly, we’ve known about it for years. Some are speculating that floods will become more common, and that’s almost certain. The Weather Channel, however, uses the myth to point out that people have experienced extreme weather from “the beginning.”

The trouble with this reasoning is that the story of Noah’s flood is not original to the Bible. It seems virtually certain that the writers of the biblical stories (there are two) knew the Babylonian version embedded in the tale of Gilgamesh. The writer of the Gilgamesh Epic knew the Sumerian version of the story, already centuries old by that point. And the story never really happened. At least not in historical time. Floods, yes. World-wide flood, no. The stories were told to make points, as most stories are. The point here seems to be that gods can be pretty petty if you neglect to offer them their due. Even minor sins can set you treading water for weeks at a time. Still, the Weather Channel considers the possibility that this could reveal ancient meteorology. Ancient morality is closer to the truth.

Every year around Easter the media peppers its workaday headlines with biblical tropes. It is the time to catch the quasi-religious thinking pious thoughts and click-throughs are more likely. Never mind that biblical scholars have known for many decades that this fetching tale is based more on a primitive Schadenfreude than modern science. Not that the Bible is devoid of ancient weather. I once wrote an ill-fated book about the topic. The people of ancient times knew that God has a special place in his sacred heart for the weather. It is one of the most awesome demonstrations of divine power. So it is in the story of Noah. For those of us in the twenty-first century it may still be a morality tale. This time, however, the flood is caused by human greed and lack of control. And this, when all is measured in the scales, may be among the worst sins humanity has ever committed.

Martin,_John_-_The_Deluge_-_1834

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”

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Banned Bible?

Florian b.'s 2005 image

Florian b.'s 2005 image

It’s Banned Book Week again. Each year the American Library Association promotes free thought by raising awareness of books that have been, or currently are, banned. Having just exited ABE books’ Weird Book Room (among the currently featured: Paint it Black: A Guide to Gothic Homemaking, The Bible Cure for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Is Your Dog Gay?), it is easy to see how the morally squeamish might wish that some books had never been written, but being a firm believer in personal expression, I give them a rousing cheer. Odd ideas are also among the Lego blocks that build our world.

I also ponder the texts with which I have spent so much time, and wonder what the ancient censors would have done with the great classics of antiquity. History’s first great novel, the Epic of Gilgamesh, would certainly have been on their crushed clay list. On only the second tablet we read, “Enkidu sits before the harlot. The two of them make love together… For six days and seven nights Enkidu came forth, mating with the lass. Then the harlot opened her mouth, saying to Enkidu: ‘As I look at thee, Enkidu, thou are become like a god” (Speiser’s rather tame translation). A sex scene with the first woman Enkidu ever met? We can’t have our kids reading that! Where do you put the V-chip in this tablet?

Perhaps the people of ancient Ugarit would have fared better? Their epic tale, the story of the trials and ultimate triumph of Baal, includes his unfortunate defeat at the hands of death. Baal is ordered to the underworld. “Mighty Baal obeyed. He loved a heifer in the pasture, a cow in the steppes of death’s shores, seventy-seven times he laid with her, she let him mount eighty-eight times.” Whoops! Hope the kids weren’t reading that. Surely this is some kind of sacred marriage ritual with Anat and not a cow? Good thing we never figured out where KTU 1.10 fits into the cycle! There’s another one for the rock crusher.

It’s a good thing the Egyptians were more civilized. Their culture would never allow for such liberal, naughty writing, would it? Well, maybe if we ignore the Memphite Theology. Not for the shy, here we are told how Ptah brought the Ennead into being using just his fingers.

I started reading the Bible as a child. To my surprise, it would not have gotten away with a G rating either. It seems to me that books deal with the greatest complexities human beings face. Sacred books as well as secular delve into the darker grottoes of the mind, and here the Bible is clearly among them. If we had systematically destroyed all written work that had offended others throughout history, we wouldn’t even have the Good Book left to argue about.