Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.


An Apple a Day

Corporate logos are among the most instantly recognizable symbols in the world. Even in “developing” countries, kids know what the golden arches represent. Not a real fan of large corporations, I still buy things not knowing who the manufacturer is, if it is something I need. I find the frenetic need of non-profit organizations—even colleges and universities—to “brand” themselves vulgar and distasteful. Why do those who truly have something to offer feel like they have to snuggle up to Wall Street and its resident demons? Still, the corporate logo has a way of drawing attention to products. And sometimes we look for more significance in them than they actually have. Keep in mind corporations’ goals are merely to separate you from your money. Often it doesn’t take much thought.

IMG_2585

When I was a child I thought the golden arches were supposed to be french fries. And when I started to use computers—always Apple—I wondered if their logo might not be the most infamous bitten apple of all, the apple of Eden. Forbidden knowledge. It seemed to fit perfectly. Too bad it’s incorrect. Interviews with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and various marketing designers have revealed that the Bible had nothing to do with it. The original Apple logo was Isaac Newton under an apple tree with the apocryphal fruit falling toward his head. It was felt that this detailed and complex logo didn’t have the instant recognition that a trademark requires, and so a marketing firm came up with the apple we all recognize. Initially it was a rainbow apple, but now the mere outline tells us what we need to know.

But what’s with the bite mark? Surely that must be a throwback to Eden? No, apparently not. We don’t know that Newton ate his apple, but a stylized apple looks a lot like a stylized cherry. The bite mark was added to the logo for scale. You don’t want to confuse the buyer. Corporate logos are markers that say, “place your money here.” Non-profit organizations used to exist to provide valuable services—services that couldn’t be rendered in matters of dollars and cents. Now there is no other way to show value. We have followed the false idol of corporate thinking and the only way we can imagine to draw attention to what we offer is to brand ourselves. So it has always been with cattle, where branding was much more obvious. Yes, those who follow corporations should remember that the brand began with red-hot iron and it left an indelible scar. Of course, I’m writing this on an Apple computer.


Last Genesis

Roger Corman was famous for saving a buck on his movies. When it came to low-budget sci-fi and horror, he could be counted on to stretch pennies into dollars. The B quality with which this impresses most of his films makes them all the more addictive. I watched my share growing up, but I’m still discovering ever more as an adult. The Last Woman on Earth is one I recently found and the religious implications of the film were so obvious that they seemed worthy of a little exegesis. The plot is simple enough, three skin-divers, a man, his wife, and his lawyer friend, are the only survivors of an anoxic episode. When Harold Gern (the man) wonders what happened his friend Martin says, “A new and better bomb, act of God, it doesn’t really matter.” The destruction of humanity is a time-honored divine pass-time, so no one considers the statement blasphemous.

Naturally enough, within a short time Martin starts to feel that Harold’s claim on his wife Evelyn (clearly, by choice of name, an Eve figure) is a bit unreasonable under the circumstances. Biology is, in this instance, the misogynic element as the men increasingly step up their hostilities. Evelyn eventually decides to run away with Martin, but Harold is in hot pursuit. The entire episode takes place on Puerto Rico, and so there are a limited number of places to hide. Martin tells Evelyn to await him in the church, which she dutifully does. Harold catches up with Martin and blinds him. Martin finds his way to the church and when Harold comes in Martin provides a final homily (including some lines from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) declaring that there is no more God. He then dies on the church floor.

The movie ends with Harold and Evelyn leaving the church to try to learn what life is all about. Reading up on the movie, I learned that Corman wanted to keep the costs down so that the writer of the script was cast as Martin for the film. The script wasn’t finished before they started shooting. Nevertheless Robert Towne’s story brings the overall trajectory back to an updated Garden of Eden story. Puerto Rico, a tropical paradise, where the one woman is Eve, is the scene of the first sin—the murder of Martin by Harold. Throughout the movie, Martin is clearly the Abel character while Harold is selfish, unsympathetic, and emotionally absent. Cain wins the epic struggle and God, we are told, is no more. Not the most profound of story-telling, but the themes and concepts are very much biblical. And when the final couple leave the church the remainder of world history is set to begin. I’d gladly give this one a B.


Paradise by Half

Some times the Bible is best taken in small doses. I’m no technical guru, but I do know that Twitter doesn’t always display the Bible bits I type in daily. Perhaps in some far distant future civilization that has learned how to recover “data” from fried pieces of digital storage devices, the Bible will be woefully incomplete. Maybe not woefully, depending on whose point of view sees it. Reading over passages worn smooth by timeless repetition, it is sometimes difficult to notice the harsh undertones. My twittering is up to Genesis 3 now, the infamous Garden of Eden episode. Over the last few days I’ve tweeted, “And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done?”

The weary “blame it on the woman” trope aside, several things stand out. God seems to be interested only in Adam. Perhaps the divine Dad wants to take his boy aside for a man-to-man chat, but it seems more likely in the context that Eve is simply irrelevant. Even Adam’s response is completely void of Eve, “I heard,” “I was afraid,” “I hid.” For a man about to shove the blame off onto his significant other (sorry, Tea Partiers, nowhere does Genesis say Adam and Eve were ever married), he is strangely circumspect about his recondite female. Even God sounds surprised, “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” Hmmm, who else is there in the Garden? Adam suddenly abandons the first person singular and begins his response with, “The woman whom thou gavest…” Blame anyone but Adam. The tragic disappearance of Eve until blame is to be attributed should warn us that the remainder of the Bible will not be a happy book.

The first chapters of Genesis have a lot of uncovering going on. God, like a detective in a CSI drama, tries to uncover the mystery of the naked man. When man is found naked he blames the woman, not even bothering with her name. Much is revealed here. Coming as it does as the first biblical story of human interaction, this tale sets the stage for all subsequent developments. From this point onward, with rare exceptions, the story will be a male narrative. Women will be assigned to, literally, support roles. Is it any wonder that women gather to protest against women’s rights, when under the thumb of such teaching? I suggest that what is required is even more uncovering. If we examine the bare facts of the Bible, we might be able finally to get to the root of this problem. That root lies deep in the literal interpretation of mythology.

Who's missing?


The Afterthought

This week I finished Genesis 2 on my venture to tweet the Bible, and even before reaching the famous snake scene in Genesis 3, I blushed. Not in a good way. Reading each word of the text in King James English (ironically, technically Elizabethan English), it becomes clear just how androcentric the text is. As a reader with sensitivity to historical eras, it is important not to judge the past by present standards. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be offended at the assumed male primacy that had begun to be dismantled, only to be propped up again by sacred writ. As soon as people began to realize that sexual dimorphism did not equate to sexual dominance, the Bible came into the hands of the laity and there, beginning in Genesis 2, became the prooftext that women were made for men. Note: “for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

One of these things is not like the others...

This passage is, of course, very familiar. Too familiar. Accompanying the ready availability of the Bible was the concept of divine writing. To a society of chamber pots and horse manure in the streets, the idea that God could write a book was sensible enough. The problem is, as our sophistication grew, our biblical sense couldn’t keep pace. Centuries later with probes soaring beyond our solar system, rovers on the moon, and space stations circling the planet, we still believe God wrote a book. And since God is male, the man’s point of view is normative. Of course, no one knows the reason for the story of Adam’s rib, but there is no doubt that ancient society, at least in this instance, was hopelessly patriarchal. It is society that determined which words would be considered sacred. The tale they chose matched their worldview.

The problem is that worldview gave an excuse to a patriarchal tour de force that has lasted for dozens of generations leaving women in their biblically predetermined place. There may be no sin as insidious as literalism. Those who cling to the King James do so only with special pleading, for anyone who has studied Hebrew (or any foreign language) knows that translation is an inexact science. Even Genesis 1 with man and woman created the same day, both in the image of God, still lists man first. Ironically the literalists miss the humor of a God who thinks man will be satisfied with the animals. Presumably all the animals were guys at this point, although the Bible literally doesn’t say. No religion that claims victims has the right to declare itself universally true.


Genesis Too

My Twitter Bible verse yesterday landed on a passage that has been routinely ignored by the church in favor of a different mythic construct in Genesis 2. Assuming the Bible to have been written by a human-like god, the natural expectation is that the manuscript would have been checked for inconsistencies before being sent to the publishers. Any close reading of the Bible, however, reveals a number of contradictions that have crept into holy writ through what seems to be poor editing. The verse to which I’m referring is Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Readers and commentators have endlessly remarked upon the tripartite structure equating deity-male-female in this passage. This single verse, however, is soon forgot once the need to harmonize with Genesis 2 sets in. There man is given utter primacy and woman comes almost as an afterthought, even after the animals. That is the version fundamentalists consider inspired.

Readings of scripture are done only with the pre-decided outlook of the believer. We do this all the time, unconsciously, when we read. We approach texts with expectations, outlooks, and assumptions firmly in place. When dissonant notes sound, we try to harmonize. We’ve got a whole chapter stating that man was god’s first thought, and woman only comes later. We have only a single verse stating their equality. Before Paul and company distorted the story of Eden into a “fall” narrative—note the words “fall” and “sin” occur nowhere in the account of Eve and Adam—some ancient readers toyed with the idea that maybe the first human was actually intersexed (or hermaphroditic) and the word translated “rib” meant “side.” Genesis 2, in this reading, understood women and men to be equal and of the same creative moment of God.

Some in the early church, however, valued doctrine over equality. Afraid that heterodox teaching might win out—we know there were many early Christianities, not a uniform body only latterly split apart—what came to be orthodoxy rallied around Paul and his fallen humanity with man first and woman second. And thus it has stayed in the sand castles of power for two millennia. Setting aside the unreliable narrator, our present sensibilities for reading are generally to take the first information as correct and later changes to be embellishments. In the case of Genesis, this tendency is overlooked. Too many men have too much invested in male priority to suggest that the Bible actually says what it does. Such is the problem with sacred texts—they are far too serious to be read for its plain sense, which is, after all, its common sense.

We're all in this together


Trouble with Triffids

Some time ago, I posted about the John Wyndham novel, The Day of the Triffids. In playing on the loss of humanity’s primary sense of sight, the story creates a truly eerie scenario in which people are harvested by plants. Not just any plants, but alien plants! Of course, such an idea demanded a movie rendition. The film was released the year I was born, but I only just got around to watching it. Compared to the psychologically thrilling novel, the movie doesn’t ever reach the intended level of terror. Nevertheless, religion, as usual, plays a role in the movie. As Bill Masen, the protagonist, makes his way from London to Paris, attempting to find other people who retain their sight after a devastating meteor shower blinded most of the world, he comes upon a mansion where the wealthy owners are caring for the disabled. (Hard to imagine that these days, but it was the 60’s, and idealism was kicking in.) While discussing their rather hopeless options, Bill suggests there is little reason for optimism. His new-found love interest, Christine, says “We must keep faith,” to which Bill replies, “It’s going to take more than that to get through this.”

Indeed, God is no help against the triffids. These intelligent, moving plants are soon everywhere, consuming humans and intent on taking over the planet. Bill and Christine, along with their adopted daughter Susan, make their way to Spain in hope of finding a military solution. They stop at a mission, topped with a cross and inhabited with a helplessly blind, and expecting, couple. The message is clear—there is no god to help those left to their own devices. Even those who live in god’s real estate have been abandoned. Those who survive are those who help themselves. Eventually our hapless heroes are rescued by the navy and a submarine moves them safely away from triffid-infested Europe. Then, in the final scene, our blended family is seen walking into a church while a voiceover declares that the triffids did not defeat humanity after all, and “Mankind survived and once again have reason to give thanks.”

Exegeting this film, however, leads to some uncomfortable conclusions. Those who had no divine aid give thanks to an impotent deity after it is all over. The solution for destroying triffids—salt water (you might want to store that away for future use)—is discovered by scientists and is applied at their personal peril. Even the heavenly-based origin of the menace has divine overtones: colorful portents in the sky are the provenance of God. In 1962 science had not yet even reached the moon. The default fallback, based on decades of evangelical sculpting of culture, is to give thanks to the Lord, despite the devastation. Indeed, a new Garden of Eden might be said to have resulted from the triffid assault. In this garden parasitic plants teach humans to give thanks, but the vast majority of humanity remains blind.


Paradise Re-Lost

It is through the astute eye of my colleague Deane Galbraith that I came to know of my most recent reading project, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford. BWL (since the author’s name is a mouthful and since it took me four hours to get home tonight (at a distance of less than 30 miles) I’ll abbreviate her title. Being a fellow New Jerseyan, I’m sure BWL will understand) surveys various attempts that have been made over the past century-and-change to try to locate the Garden of Eden. Spurred on by the discovery that her own educated, rational great-uncle had also wondered about the mythical location of our mythical ancestors, she sketches various attempts to find Eden. Tracing a course that often crosses paths with my own academic background, BWL notes the pervasive—one might say undying—belief that once upon a time in a land far away there was a garden paradise.

Quite apart from the obviously folkloristic, and Mesopotamian, origin of the creation story, BWL demonstrates that the unifying factor behind the search for Eden is the four rivers mentioned in Genesis. The Tigris and Euphrates should be no-brainers, and no-brainer is a word that frequently comes to mind when otherwise intelligent people sincerely suggest Eden lies beneath the North Pole, or in Ohio, or Florida. Clearly this story left only psychological traces on the impressionable. Far more mysterious are the Pishon and the Gihon. The fact that these rivers have never been found (never existed) has fueled the economy of adventurers and bibliophiles for well over a century. The fact that people buy BWL’s book underscores the point. The end result is that any confluence of four rivers could potentially be Eden. What is lost is the biblical worldview.

The four rivers of Genesis 2 flow to the four points of the compass to water the entire earth since all ancient people seemed to have believed they lived in the middle of everything. The Genesis writer takes for granted that we’ve heard of them, and who, among the sophisticated, wants to admit otherwise? Since the story never happened, no physical evidence should be expected. And that’s what all of BWL’s explorers find. Nothing. Of course, if you want to run for President you’d better claim to believe in Eden, for plenty of Americans, despite our educational system, do. Many an ape is wiser. So if you want to find Eden, locate the center of the world. Given the traffic tonight, it surely must be New York City. If you’re going to look for it, you’ll want to take a book to read while the rivers of cars stop flowing. I’d suggest Brook Wilensky-Lanford’s Paradise Lust.


Dark Materials

After three years we have finally finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass, a fantastic story made into a very disappointing movie, followed the adventures of Lyra as she struggled against the insidious designs of the Magisterium, Pullman’s not-so-subtle code for the church. The story picked up again when Lyra met Will in The Subtle Knife and revolves back to the Garden of Eden in The Amber Spyglass. It becomes clear early in the book that Lyra is a type of Eve, about to open a Pandora’s box for the entire universe. Along the way Metatron and the symbols of the old religion, including God, die. Detractors like to hurl accusations of atheism at the author, although Pullman tends to call himself agnostic. Whatever label is pasted to him, the fact is the message of the trilogy is profoundly in keeping with what is purported to be the message of Jesus. Not to put too fine a point on it, the message is “Christian.”

Of course, these days that word has to be qualified. “Christian” has been co-opted by so many special interests theologies that its vagueness is useful for little more than winning presidential elections. Part of the difficulty begins with the fact that we don’t have any objective way to assess what Jesus actually said. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was written some three decades after the events that it recounts. There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark while John, written much later, blazed his own trail. Some of the statements attributed to Jesus in these variant accounts differ, but the basic idea seems to be: love others, try not to harm each other, and be willing to be the victim once in a while. These precepts permeate that story of Lyra and Will as they flee from an institutionalized church that seeks to destroy them. Yes, the parable is transparent here and even today many would-be rulers understand the power in the blood of the lamb. Accusations of someone being non-Christian can turn a red tide against them.

Ironically, today “Christian” often has the connotation of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We see the wealthy and powerful adopting the rhetoric when it suits their purposes but refusing to live by its principles when the poor reveal their underprivileged faces. Taking Jesus out of context they like to say, “the poor will always be with you.” As if Jesus never spoke a harsh word to the wealthy. Something that Pullman makes abundantly clear is that power corrupts. The church in his books is not evil, but corrupt. It is too powerful for its own good. Above all, the books are a tale of growing up. Lyra realizes the danger that the Magisterium poses, and fights it with the conviction of the young. She learns to love and liberates the dead. She learns the pain of loss. Indeed, her sacrifice is for the salvation of the universe. Sounds like something Jesus might have approved of—when he wasn’t busy lining the pockets of the wealthy, that is.


Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"


Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started


Origins of Evil

The Bible might have benefited from a good editor. The final product is a world classic, of course, but contemporary people with their busy lives prefer straight and simple answers. These, often, the Bible refuses to yield. During a discussion of prophecy in class the other night the question of the origin of evil arose. I incidentally made reference to Isaiah 45.7 where God casually drops the line, “Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating evil, I am Yahweh making all this.” Many English translations attempt to mask the bald use of ra‘ “evil,” in this passage with nicer words such as “woe” or “calamity.” As I explained to my students, however, in a truly monotheistic system all fingers must point the same way for the ultimate responsibility. In this passage of Isaiah, Yahweh is presented as causing evil.

Now the editing of the Bible was never undertaken with the intention of creating uniformity, despite the railing of Fundamentalists. There are plentiful internal inconsistencies and disagreements. We should expect no less of a book written over a period of about a thousand years by several different writers grappling with life’s big questions. Inevitably students ask about the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2.17 has Yahweh state that newly created people must not eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil (ra‘).” Here the evil grows on a tree. Who planted that tree? It’s like blatantly laying the keys before your teenager and saying, “now don’t take the car.” Who is the source of that tree? (And, less frequently noted, the eating of the fruit in Genesis 3 is never called “sin.”)

The quintessential problem with a compilation is lack of uniformity. This did not bother ancient people as much as it does modern Fundamentalists. One reason is that many people equate the Bible’s value with it being a book that has all the answers from a single viewpoint. This the Bible lacks. According to the Bible there are various sources of evil. According to a strict monotheism (late in the Hebrew Bible) there can only be one. Enter the devil. To save the goodness of God a Zoroastrian anti-God had to be introduced. But the devil must stand in line to make his patent claim on evil.


The Politics of Dentistry

A story from the Associated Press on NPR this week announced the discovery of some teeth. No ordinary teeth, these perhaps belonged to Homo sapiens at 400,000 BP (“Before Present,” no apologies to gas-guzzlers). And they were found in Israel. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University are quoted as stating this could rewrite the story of human evolution, suggesting that modern humans emerged some 200,000 years earlier than thought, and in Israel instead of in Africa. Now those are some ambitious choppers! Coincidentally, the discovery was announced the day I was discussing the earliest human occupation of the Levant in my Winter Term class. Of course. One of my students pointed the article out to me.

One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of archaeology and paleontology is the constant surprise of discovery. Often I have to remind myself that the past only exists in reconstruction. Once the moment is over it is lost forever, only to be rebuilt by specialists in documents and artifacts. Reconstruction, however, often comes with a political price tag. Anyone who follows the claims based on archaeological finds knows the folly of discovery. In disputed territories the work of archaeologists is used to stake claims to modern land ownership. Who in the world would not want to own the first location where modern humans emerged on the planet? What staggering claims could be made!

I have always sensed a comfort when thinking of human origins in Africa. Far from the (modern) industrialized mayhem of “civilization,” early hominids took their first tentative steps in Africa. Cut off from the rest of the post-Pangean continents except via the narrow passage of the Sinai, Africa harbored our pre-sapiens ancestors. Once they reached Asia and Europe, they interacted with Neanderthals, as genetics now demonstrate. Interaction led inevitably to extinction, so politics had to have been involved. To find the pre-political Garden of Eden, we need to cast our eyes on Africa. Anthropologists are even now disputing whether the teeth are of Homo sapiens or not. I find, when I’m in the dentist’s chair, it is best to leave politics out of the discussion.

From the Associated Press


Star Trek Paradise

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Trekkie. I did watch the reruns of the original series after school on our black-and-white television, but I have never owned “Spock ears” nor does my cell phone look like a communicator. To the best of my recollection, I haven’t even seen all the episodes. I’ve mentioned before that some generous in-laws purchased the first season of the series for a gift last year. Since then my wife (a convenient excuse) has been interested in watching the remaining two seasons. We found a reasonably priced second season set and have been working our way through over the weekends of the summer.

Paradise-busters?

This weekend we watched the episode entitled “The Apple.” Even a fair-weather Star Trek watcher such as myself can’t help but notice that the series as a whole is biblically literate. Biblically literate, however, only in a popularist way. This became clear once again in “The Apple.” Stranded on a planet modeled after a troubled Garden of Eden, Captain Kirk and his landing party soon must destroy a serpentine “god” that keeps the luau-ready inhabitants in a state of perpetual ignorance. Diametrically opposed to Eden where it is the serpent who tempts with knowledge, this is a serpent that tempts with ignorance. Long, pleasant life without intellectual development and the “god” receives daily sacrifices. A world of status quo.

Back on the Enterprise, Kirk points out that the only one on the ship that bears resemblance to the Devil is, by implication, Spock. This is where the popularist interpretation grates most heavily. The Genesis version of Eden has no Devil, no Satan in it. Only a much later, revisionist re-reading, (certainly post-Zoroastrian) equates the snake with Satan. Genesis does not condemn the acquisition of knowledge. It comes with pain, true, but that is simply the way life is. Perhaps it would be easier for us all if some great Kirk might vanquish the inhibiting serpents of our apotheosis, but that’s simply not the way life works. In this instance, the Bible trumps Star Trek.