The Grammar of Evil

I stepped into a devil of a situation. Elevators are strange spaces. Given the choice, I’ll take the stairs any time. At work, however, as one of the many quirks of Manhattan, our elevators only stop on certain floors and we’re not able to use the stairs unless it’s an emergency. After a meeting on a floor where the only option was to elevate out, I stepped into a crowded elevator where a conversation was going. “You always capitalize Satan,” someone was saying. The usual questions among non-religion editorial staff ensued. Why is that? What about “devil”? “It’s never capitalized,” came the reply. My profile at work is about the same as it is on the streets of New York. Not many people know who I am or what I do. Although I’ve struggled with this very issue before, on a professional level, I kept silence and waited for my floor.

So, was the elevator authority right? “Satan” has become a name, rather along the lines of “Christ.” Both started out as titles. In the Hebrew Bible “satan” is “the satan.” The accuser, or the prosecuting attorney—something like that. As one of the council of gods, the satan’s job was to make sure the guilty were charged of their crimes. Diabolical work, but not evil. By the time of early Christianity, however, Satan had evolved into a name. It is therefore capitalized. It was specifically the name of another title, “the Devil.” Or is it “the devil?” Do we capitalize titles?

The Devil wears underpants.

The Devil wears underpants.

In seminary and college the received wisdom among those of my specialization was that there is only one Devil and the title should be capitalized. My elevator colleagues were discussing the number of devils when I stepped out. Traditional theology says there’s only one. Not that the Bible has much to say about the Devil—he’s surprisingly spare in sacred writ. Demons, however, are plentiful. Some people call demons devils, just as many believe that when good people die they become angels. The mythology behind demons seems to be pretty well developed in the biblical world, but again the Bible says little. Demons can be fallen angels or they can be malign spirits who cause illness. Either way they’re on the Devil’s side. But should we capitalize his title? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help, giving examples of both minuscule and uncial. I suppose that’s the thing about the Devil; you never really know where you stand.

Nazis with Bibles

Some years back, when the Internet was young, I had just learned about email. Even today it seems incredible that only twenty years ago we still sent physical letters to communicate, and that we used paper maps and telephone books to get information. The main problem with email then was that not everyone was on it. I signed up for an Ancient Near East/Biblical studies discussion group. My barren inbox (being a scholar at a non-prestige school) was suddenly full every day. New discoveries, research ideas, online debates. It was all very exciting. Then someone voiced the fraught question: should we ignore the research of scholars who were later revealed to have been Nazis? The rancor raised forced the moderator of the discussion group eventually to make this a forbidden topic. Because I could not keep up with the inundation of emails and because of the vitriol (do people use the world vitriol anymore?) on the Internet universe, I eventually unsubscribed. Nothing raises hackles like Nazis. Especially in the field of biblical studies, which, naturally enough, revolves around issues of Jewish interest. I saw a blog post recently which brought this whole episode back to mind.

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The issue of political conviction and professional neutrality is a vexed one. Critical study of the Bible began, to a large extent, in German universities. Biblical studies in higher education was mainly a Christian enterprise, and many of the questions were, well, only academic. If someone was a Nazi, did he (and they were pretty much all he’s) have a hidden agenda? Today the question of agenda is often raised with conservative biblical scholars. Can someone who believes in the Virgin Birth and in Moses parting the Red Sea really interact critically with the biblical text? Just throw that question out there and watch the fun. (It helps if it is tossed out on a blog that actually has readers, rather than my insignificant efforts here.) Who can make the claims for true objectivity? Can a Nazi correctly parse that verb? Do one’s political views gainsay one’s credibility?

We are all children of our environment. Even the most empirical of scientists will admit that true objectivity is not what it seems. We are not, after all, gods. And even the gods seem to have distinct tastes. Evil done in the name of politics seems slightly less heinous than evil done in the name of religion, but people are people and we have convictions sprouting out all over the place. Nobody intentionally believes falsehoods. Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle. Can’t we all be professional about this? Emotions, however, do play favorites. If there’s any doubt, consider the question of using a person as an experimental subject with no regard for what they feel. We know it’s wrong. We won’t allow it. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Right now there are more pressing matters at hand, such as how to hire more adjuncts without destroying our credibility. It’s not a matter of wanting to hurt others, it’s just good business. Everything else is merely academic.

Paying Goliath

A friend pointed me to the story of David and Goliath. Well, actually, it was the Malcolm Gladwell story of David and Goliath. TED talks have become a regular part of public education and I was a little surprised to see one based on a Bible story. If you’d blink you’d miss it. I’d seen Gladwell’s new book on David and Goliath in the bookstore, and I had assumed it was about some hidden principle based on little boys challenging giants to single combat. Who knows. So when I turned on TED and heard Gladwell describing pretty much what I would do in class, and knowing that he was raking in the bucks for doing so, I gave it some thought. Yes, it is clear that he’s done some research into ancient warfare. Most of us who read the Hebrew Bible do, since ancient warfare is a large part of Holy Writ. (Yet the world seems surprised when religions turn violent.) Gladwell’s perspective is refreshing, but I can’t help think that the Bible does indeed view David as the underdog. Yes, slingers were always an important factor in warfare, just as archers were before guns were invented. I seriously doubt David was actually packing the firepower of a .45, however.

The interesting thing is that Gladwell takes the story so literally. Historically David’s existence is questionable, although I personally see the weight of tradition as bearing on the tipping point here. There were just too many stories of the boy who killed the giant in the Bible to say it was all made up. The fact that they don’t agree in details adds a hoary venerability to the tales. But can we take it to the level of seeing Goliath as having double vision because of his gigantism, and saying to David “why do you come at me with sticks” even though the lad is holding only one? Perhaps Goliath can be pardoned for using the plural instead of dual form (he is, after all, a Philistine), but the point here is that it is a taunt. David is what the dog saw, compared to the seriously shielded Goliath. Gladwell makes some good points, but, in my humble opinion, misses the giant.

Saul, the king of Israel, fears to send David into combat because the kid will be slaughtered and Israel will be enslaved. Yes, ancient armies relied on slingers, but, like archers, in great numbers. Perhaps it was David’s accuracy that was in doubt. According to the Bible, however, Israel boasted slingers who could hit a hair at distance, and these from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s own people. So the point of the story is that David’s victory is a miracle. Miracles no longer fly, of course. Those who write bestsellers know best. It stands to reason. Okay, so I’ll buy Gladwell’s book now, but I somehow feel that those of us who have spent a life studying the Bible really deserve something more that jobless obscurity. I come at the giant with a tiny blog, but then, I’ve alway been an underdog. An outlier, you might say.


The Trouble with Trajectories

The Bible has a way of defining lives.  I realized this at a young age, and although my experience was limited to what life reveals in a small town. Still it was evident that people even there traced trajectories defined by Holy Writ.  I used to ask my students that if something effected you every day, in ways both massive and subtle, and was potentially dangerous, wouldn’t you want to know about it?  Religion in general, and the Bible in particular, fit this description.  As the road began to fork at the usual junctures of my life (high school, college, whatever comes after college), the Bible played a role.  For some reason the Hebrew Bible captured my attention more than the Christian scriptures—perhaps it was because there was more narrative in the “older testament,” and more puzzles to be solved.  While the New Testament seemed to be definitive for matters of doctrinal importance, the Hebrew Bible retained a sense of mystery and intrigue.  Many of its characters, although ending up as “good guys” have decidedly questionable episodes in their pasts.  What’s not to like?


Ironically, however, I discovered a job market where someone from a Christian background was immediately suspected of a supersessionist outlook on the Hebrew Bible.  Why would a Christian have any interest in that, if not for fabricating prophecies?  Many Jewish scholars were focusing on biblical studies from “both” testaments, and my puerile interests were suddenly naive and not worthy of attention.  This dynamic has always interested me: what right does an outsider have to speak with any kind of authority about another peoples’ culture or belief?  You’d think in higher education we might be beyond such parochialism, but instead, this may be the very definition of its hotbed.  What does it take to gain scholarly credibility?  Being a “white” male in a pluralizing society certainly doesn’t help.

Books are like companions on life’s journey. My reading life started with the Bible and soon gained hundreds of other companions on that long, difficult path to a doctorate in biblical studies that defined an ill-fated career. I cannot reckon the number of books I’ve read along the way, hundreds of thousands of weary pages. And now I find myself back among the biblical crowd, from the outside looking in. They speak authoritatively, I merely whimper. Whether you see it or not, the Bible is here on the streets of Manhattan. Proclaimed or ignored, invisible or plainly manifest. And those of us who’ve spent a lifetime with it have nothing considered worthwhile to say. Once the Bible take a hold, the trajectory for life is set.


ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.

The Importance of Being Published

AtlanticThe crowd over at The Atlantic Monthly magazine are a formidable lot. Even with a Ph.D. and a modicum of writing ability, I’ve been frightened off from ever submitting to such an intellectual periodical. These are people whose opinions count. When The Atlantic named, in last month’s issue, the fifty most important inventions since the wheel how could I not peek? Especially when number 39 included a picture I recognized from my childhood in the cradle of the oil industry: Col. Edwin Drake standing outside a fledgling oil derrick in Titusville, Pennsylvania—just the next town up route 8. I felt like I might be somebody, by association. We all know that number one is best, so I wondered, as I flipped through the pages, what the most important invention was, although I suspected I already knew. The printing press, dating back to the 1430s, is certainly a contender, and was Atlantic‘s winner. Those of us historically inclined tend to think in regressions. The internet has forever changed our lives, but what is the internet without reading? (Okay, well, it is lots of funny pictures of cats and pornography, but you still have to be able to type in “cat” or “nude” or whatever, to bring you there.) It took the printing press to catapult reading from the academy to the hearth, and to reach that critical mass so that the Kindle could surpass the printed book.

My interest in studying the Hebrew Bible for a doctorate actually included an ulterior motive. You see, the Bible was among the first books printed. As much as western civilization owes to the New Testament, my regressive thinking insisted that the New Testament was based on the Old. As I learned in seminary, the Old was based on an older, and that on an even older, in a pleasing kind of regression. I ended up in Ugaritic, the earliest known alphabetic language. The alphabet, I might contend, vies with the printing press for most important invention since the wheel. Before the alphabet writing was so cumbersome that only very skilled specialists could read written languages cobbled together from signs that represented letters and symbols and entire words and entire classes of words. But, ah, it was writing! Mesopotamians seem to have brought the idea into existence, specifically, those of ancient southern Mesopotamia that we call the Sumerians, who, incidentally, also invented the wheel.

Those of us in the book industry feel a constant worry in our stomachs when we look at book sales figures. Even in the most highly literate of social periods a very small percentage of people would actually purchase books (especially in the New World). With electronic media, that number has declined alarmingly. Still, the internet—number 9 on The Atlantic list—owes its life to good old paper (number 6) and pen (which failed to make the list at all). And paper wouldn’t have evolved without clay—the very substance of which early written myths claim that humans are made—and stylus. Thoughts locked in our clay heads cry out for expression. Some of us are compelled to put them in the form of written words for others to see. It’s just that we know our place and wouldn’t presume to send them to The Atlantic Monthly, or any other magazine, where they would be certain not to make the cut.

What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.


The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.


Among the sensitive crowd known as biblical scholars, the chronological designations Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) have long been in use. Perhaps it is because, at some point in the recent past, Christian scholars realized that the Hebrew Bible, until then called the Old Testament, was also the Bible of Judaism. All of history, in the European version, is divided by the figure of Jesus, or more properly, Christ. BC stood for Before Christ, after all, and AD not for After Death (which would leave an embarrassing gap of about three decades), but Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord.” The conventions of BC/AD had become so entrenched that few bothered to linger over the implications, but implications there are. A case might be made, purely on historical grounds, for maintaining BC. There was a time before Jesus—even the Bible agrees on that point. And, again, from an historical view, the worldview of Christianity forever changed the direction of events for at least two millennia thereafter. It still does, if we pay any attention to the posturing of the Religious Right. We have to start counting somewhere, don’t we, to know where we are in time?

Anno Domini is a tad more colonializing. Short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, “in the year of our lord Jesus Christ,” those two letters make an assumption that the shared lord of the readers is indeed Jesus. For centuries in Europe and the New World, apart from those Muslims that from time-to-time made their presence felt, and the Jews who were conveniently suppressed, this worked for just about everybody. If you disagreed, after all, you were welcome to return to your backwater homeland and count your time by burning hour candles between your toes, if you wished. For the forward march of history, it was onward, Christian soldiers. AD held a proselytizing imperative. But then Christians began to notice two more ancient religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, both with pedigrees that predate AD. Not that this was a problem from a missiological point of view—we can just convert them, after all—but scholars began to consider the implications.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Time is inexorable. At least in our experience of it. No one stopped to begin counting when Adam and Eve were wandering about Eden, and the simple reference to the lifetime of a monarch seemed sufficient for most pre-capitalist business. What fueled the change to attempt an absolute time was the conviction that it was all about to end soon. Jesus seems to have predicted an imminent apocalypse; “some who are standing here will not taste death,” Luke tells us Jesus said. If that is the case, AD is the final countdown. With a delayed onset. Instead of Anno Domini, it might stand for Announcing Doomsday. And since that clock is still ticking, it might be time to acknowledge that we do indeed live in a Common Era.


It takes a mighty powerful stimulus to get the media to pay attention to biblical scholars. It is no surprise, therefore, when the Society of Biblical Literature meets with the American Academy of Religion each November that, for a few days a year, Bible becomes chic. This year various newspaper articles appeared, perhaps warning Chicagoans what all these crusty professors were doing invading their fair city, but the one that caught my eye was in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle is the purveyor of all that is high-brow and sophisticated, epithets seldom applied to the Bible. The story in November 19’s edition made this clear by throwing in a little scandal—some Bible scholars believe the Bible to be “morally bankrupt.” Now there’s a twist. Nor is it really that hard to understand. Anyone who’s read the Bible seriously will have to admit to having squirmed a time or two at the moral implications. Dashing babies heads against the rocks will be one of those places.


In a society accustomed to seeing in black and white, morally at least, it is difficult to get the religiously convicted to admit that the Bible is a pastiche. Some parts are morally sublime (yes, even in the Hebrew Bible where “love your neighbor as yourself” originates) while others are ethically execrable (can I get an amen from the babies?). It is always interesting to see friends quoted in the media. I taught Hebrew Bible for 18 years without anyone really being that interested (including most students). I guess maybe I wasn’t radical enough. To me the Bible has to be viewed in balance, the moment one falls on their knees before it the corruption has begun. Interestingly, the article focuses on the New Testament side of the equation. That’s where the sexier conflicts wallow.

People arguing about the Bible. Is there anything more representative of American culture? It happens every four years, at least. Ironically the Bible quite often stresses the unity of those who believe. With thousands of denominations mutually excommunicating each other, one has to wonder if the Bible is living up to its full potential. Not that anyone will notice. Amid all the well-heeled, tenured professors, satisfied with their lot in life mill the hundreds who’ve spent thousands earning their advanced degrees. They are the lost generation—those for whom there are no, never were any, jobs. They are every bit as capable, and in many instances even more capable, than their tenured compatriots. The level of concern, at least at a visible level: nil. That, more than anything, indicates to me the true morals of studying the Bible.

Where is it?

When I step outside to pick up the morning newspaper, I always look at the sky. I think this is a very early evolutionary trick. It may be because there was a time when primates were smaller and birds of prey larger, or it may be because some big cats like to drop on prey from trees. It may be simply that we don’t like to get wet, especially unexpectedly. For whatever reason, the sky is a source of endless fascination. Helen T. Gray, in a piece written for the Kansas City Star yesterday, ponders the place of Heaven in the space age. 80 percent of Americans report believing in Heaven, she points out, and she describes how Heaven has shifted from an improbably physical place to a transdimensional or neurologically embedded place. We, as a people, believe that there must be a better place than this. No matter where we locate it, Heaven is always a decided improvement on this place where too many people suffer too much and all of us suffer some of the time.

I once considered astronomy for a career. My high school, built in the fretful days of the Cold War, had an actual planetarium as the space race was burning over the red line. I took a high school class in astronomy and when I got to college I followed it up with an undergraduate course in the same. While I enjoyed learning about all the strangeness of space, it soon became clear that astronomy was simply another word for mathematics; the class involved intensive equations stressing a regularity that Metamucil would be proud to claim. And, of course, since we live on a sphere every direction is up. The belief in a better place is nothing if not resilient. It survived the knowledge that “up there” is either nowhere or everywhere, depending on your point of view. Most theologians after Galileo’s day finally admitted that. When I go for the paper, I still look to the sky, however.

In Hebrew the word translated “heaven” is the same word that is translated as “sky.” The Hebrew Bible knows no separate place called Heaven, but the latest parts do indicate a life restored after death. I wonder if Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley might not have gotten it right when they wrote the song that would help solidify Belinda Carlisle’s solo career. Maybe Heaven is a place where love prevails. Not just the erotic love of pop music, but the love that sees not a Muslim, an African, a Hindu, or an Oriental, but human beings. That stranger experiences those same feelings, hopes, aspirations that all of us do. He or she should not be left shivering, hungry on the street corner begging for quarters to buy his or her next meal. If it’s clear outside I linger as I gaze at early morning stars and planets, feeling deep yearnings I can’t hope to express. No, Heaven may not be a Mormon planet where you get to become God after you die (ahem). Heaven is not a mansion in the clouds (I’m sure some satellite would’ve picked it up by now). Heaven is not where I get to go and you don’t. Heaven is here and now, but we all have to work for it.

Disease Divine

Diseases, for most people of the modern West, are difficult to diagnose as divine. At my wife’s urging, I’ve been reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. I have a feeling I’ll be commenting on various aspects as I read through it, but something caught me almost immediately. Although the book is not about religion, the culture of the Hmong (about which I knew nothing just hours ago) is truly imbued with religion. Our medical science is, well, science (unless perhaps you’re from Athens, Georgia). Western culture since the Enlightenment has come to understand many of the body’s systems intimately, discerning just which chemicals to proscribe to treat this or that electro-chemical reaction in the body. And we consider it normal. Epilepsy, the condition of Lia Lee, is a disease that, as Fadiman points out, has had a long divine pedigree even in the west. The Judaic tradition at various stages considered it demonic possession, the Romans understood it as a kind of deity-induced madness.

Interestingly, Fadiman uses the case of Tony Coelho, an epileptic and congressmen, to make a point about the Hmong community. Coelho, she notes, had been intending to enter the priesthood but the Church has a canon forbidding ordination to an epileptic. This gave me a considerable pause. Clergy in many cultures must be “perfect” physical specimens. According to the Hebrew Bible, men who had certain deformities “down there” were disqualified, although, one notes, that they would have served fully clothed. Epilepsy, having been putative cured by Jesus many times, might seem a strange disqualifier from priesthood. I wondered why it was singled out from among the many maladies that might have seemed more pressing. Even in our enlightened age, epilepsy still bears the scars of the divine.

Narrating the experience of the Hmong in a Thai refugee camp, Fadiman notes that the subtext was often conversion. As she points out, for the Hmong medicine is religion. Although the missionaries had converted some, their very enthusiasm ensured that the Hmong would not generally go to them for treatment. Here is a stark difference between a people whose religion permeates every aspect of their lives and westerners for whom religion is compartmentalized in a different place than medical science. For the Hmong, wellness is part of a larger picture from which religious belief simply can’t be separated. For some epilepsy is a disease to be cured, if possible. For others it is a sign of a budding shaman. I look forward to reading more, as it is clear that by shifting perspectives, even the enlightened might have something to learn from those they deem uneducated.

The Price of Religion

Gender is a religious construct as much as a biological one. The study of religion has brought me face-to-face with the reality that religion appeals to many women and to those who would manipulate them. Lately I’ve taken to reading the memoirs of women who’ve discovered the abuse their faith has doled out to them and who’ve taken moves to reclaim their lives. This past week I read Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. As someone who has spent much of his life reading and re-reading the Hebrew Bible that gave fuel to the Mishnah that gave fuel to the Talmud that gave fuel to the Hasidic movement, I found Feldman’s narrative gripping. Some branches of Judaism, like some branches of Christianity, try hard to separate themselves from society. Their cloistered lives become secretive, and often by the standards of secular culture, incomprehensible. While reading this wrenching account of sexual domination, I kept wondering why Feldman didn’t try to escape. At the same time I already knew the answer.

I was raised by a religious mother who found her faith both a source of rules and a source of comfort. Unaware that religion can be a trap, women are frequently its victims. In a society that still refuses to give females equal opportunity for earning a living, is it any wonder that religions offer alternative routes that equally entrap? How do you appeal to a higher power when that higher power is, by biblical definition, male? Who will help you out when the largest religious structures in the world are male constructs? Yes, lately some religions have opened themselves to female leadership, but almost always at the cost of splitting off of factions that claim seniority and sanction from the beginning, when, they claim, only men ran this show. Deborah Feldman was trapped in a religion where her life, down to her hair and clothes and reading, was programmed by male expectations. In this continuum between religions we find the same progression in a series of degrees where men make the rules.

Many who read Unorthodox, I suspect, will see it as a condemnation of Hasidic Judaism. It is not. As Feldman makes clear, she has retained her Jewish identity, but she has let it evolve into a place where she is finally free to express herself. Gazing over the religious landscape, I see this as a place that many women find themselves. The very religions that had formerly held them down, however, continue to be male preserves. Even if women may join the club of bishops, clergy, or rabbinate, they do so with the constant reminder that they are only invited guests in what was once a masculine world. The world of men never voluntarily relinquishes its grip. As long as people are considered in the image of God they will always be by default male and female only as an afterthought. To conceive it any other way would be very unorthodox indeed.

Divine Checkmate

The first time I met Jehu I did not recognize him. When I first visited the British Museum a couple of decades ago I hadn’t had the benefit of teaching students long enough to realize the importance of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. But then, who really does? The obelisk, one of many artifacts essential to understanding the Bible in its context, contains the only known image of an Israelite king from a contemporaneous period. Jehu is here mistakenly considered the “son of Omri,” but is correctly identified as the king of Israel. He is bowing in tribute to a foreign king, a position in which no monarch likes to find himself. Before leaving the British Museum this time around I made sure to include him on my list of ancient people to meet.

The Bible contains far less history than we are accustomed to think, so when we find a case of convergence where Assyrian and Israelite agree, mostly, it is worth pausing to consider. Assyrian interests can only in the most abstruse way be considered religious; ancient peoples lived in a world where gods were both ubiquitous and largely irrelevant to daily life. Irrelevant in the sense that probably most people only tried to access a god’s pity when a time of trouble arose—priests existed to keep the deities happy on a daily basis. Citizens supported this system with taxes. How reluctantly we can only guess.

We have no reason to suppose that Israelites were more religious than the rest. Eventually, after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, they came to see their religion in terms of monotheism. Still, the work of keeping Yahweh happy devolved on the priests, with the backing of the king. The king was God’s representative on earth. In this sense the only surviving image of a king of Israel, showing him bowed before the unflinching might of the Assyrians, becomes an unexpected paradigm. Both kings were pawns of the gods, and at the end of the day one stands regally and the other bows in utter submission.

Genesis Rising

Educating against the grain of an unthinking religiosity is a sobering enterprise. Every semester students provide presentations for my intro class on various issues that the Hebrew Bible informs in wider society. Inevitably one group will choose evolution as the relevant topic. While the actual theory of evolution is outside the scope of a Bible course, I spend more time on Genesis than on any other book. I carefully explain how “science” is a concept absent from the biblical world and how the creation myths in Genesis have no basis in the physical reality we know. The world Yahweh is busy creating consists of a dome turned upside-down over a plate-like earth. That see-through dome keeps out the waters that rush back in a few chapters later to flood the world. It is a fantasy world that even the most intractable creationist can’t accept. (Well, maybe not the most intractable.)

Nevertheless, the Creationist movement that began about 1920 has done its homework. That homework, unfortunately, has been in disciplines that both biologists and biblical scholars ignore – public relations. Any observer of modern American society can easily see the distrust with which education is regarded. As a culture, we dislike those who “think they’re so smart” while we daily use the gadgets and devices they design and improve. Biblical scholars are especially suspect because they engage in the most hubristic of all human activities: storming Mount Olympus (oops, sorry, Heaven) itself.

In a typical Rutgers University intro class of 50 or so students, with a wide variety of majors including the sciences, student presentations on evolution ultimately end up suggesting “let the students decide for themselves.” Although they consistently rate my instruction highly, they just can’t let go of the gnawing belief that Genesis 1 describes the world as it actually is. Disappointed, I am not surprised. When headlines constantly demonstrate the antipathy – if not downright hostility – that governors and some presidents have for education, we will reap what we sow. That, by the way, is from the Bible.

(It's just made of green cheese)


Winter Term is underway, and one of the first aspects of the Bible I discuss with students is the fact that the Bible was a book that was compiled instead of written. In our society we are used to the concept of the Bible as a document that is unified by divine authorship, often forgetting (or ignoring) that none of the authors was intending to write a book with the tremendous authority the Bible now enjoys. Students ask how the Bible came to be; it was a process of gathering material widely utilized in Judaism. No one knows the actual composition history of the Torah, but after the Pentateuch got the process rolling, scrolls were gathered in collections and added to the Bible en masse. By the end of the first century of the Common Era, we had a Hebrew Bible.

Sometimes this historical reconstruction is a hard-sell to members of a society where a divinely written book is accepted alongside sub-atomic particles and super novas. Despite the technological sophistication that accompanies growing up in our engineered world, students are often ill-equipped to accept the Bible as a product of human exploration. The writers, whoever they were, traveled this same path of discovery that we continue to tread. They wrote down their hypotheses, based on their experience, just like modern people continue to do. The difference is they did this a very long time ago.

Those books that were selected for inclusion in the Bible became the defining documents of western civilization. Even though there is now an international space station orbiting out of sight above our heads, and even though quarks, leptons, and bosons fly out of cyclotrons large enough to encircle most small towns, God still holds a quill pen. The fixation just after the age of cuneiform is a curious one. If only God had held out for the invention of the Internet, the compilation of the Bible would have taken a very different course, I suspect. Instead of beginning its title with the word “Holy” it would more likely have commenced with “Wiki.”