Lingua Franca

The history of Israel and its neighbors has been appropriated deeply in the mindset of western cultures.  Both the British and Americans, for example, have thought themselves the “new Israel,” for once a people is chosen so all people wish to be.  I’ve been thinking about this in linguistic terms of late.  To get to the main point, we need to read a little history—it’ll be painless, I assure you.  Israel was a nation frequently conquered.  The imperial powers to the east, beginning with Assyria and continuing through Babylonia and Persia, overran the land.  This hostile takeover involved not only Israel, but its neighboring nations as well.  These early, violent attempts at globalization worked themselves out linguistically, in part, by the necessity to communicate in a common language.

In the broad sweep of world history, the conquering nation tends to impose its language on the conquered.  Think of Alexander of Macedon and the adoption of Greek as the “lingua franca”—the official language of empire.  Ironically—and this is what captures my attention—when Assyria overran Israel, it also conquered “Aram.”  (Aram was the area north of Israel, roughly what we think of as Syria today.  Their language was Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew.)  Instead of the Assyrian language being imposed on the defeated peoples, the invaders adopted Aramaic as the official imperial language.  Some of this may have to do with the fact that Aramaic, being alphabetic, was much easier to learn to write than syllabic Assyrian (known generically as Akkadian, along with Babylonian and its dialects).  It may have been the last time a conquering nation admitted at least some of the culture of the defeated was superior.  (Ironically, the Romans felt that way about the Greeks.  Those who have ears…)

Aramaic continued in favor even as the conquered adopted Alexander’s Indo-European Greek centuries later.  Lingering into Roman times many of the people of what was left of Israel were bilingual, knowing Greek and Aramaic.  The latter was the language of Jesus.  Aramaic later survived in the form of Syriac, but the area was overrun by Arab invaders and Arabic became the lingua franca.  Still, nestled in the middle of this linguistic history is that episode of the ascension of Aramaic to imperial levels.  That’s the thing about globalization—it’s an exercise in compromise.  Many distrust and hate it, and even today some sub-cultures fear they’re being wiped out by granting too much to those who “don’t belong.”  In some ways it’s an understandable fear.  Learning new languages is hard, especially for adults.  There is perhaps a lesson in the survival of Aramaic, though, that might still come in handy when cultures collide.

Ask an Evangelical

News stories this year have plowed up a frequently repeated question: what’s an Evangelical? This was the subtext to a Washington Post story that declared “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy,” as if it’s news. The media’s a little shy, I get it. Those of us who grew up Evangelical could have told them that at least 40 years ago. As a child I knew that Israel had to be fully restored for Jesus to return. Politics, we thought, were holding God hostage. You see, if the Bible says something, and it’s infallible, then even the Almighty has to obey it. And some parts seem to indicate that Israel has to be restored—interpreted a certain way—before Jesus gets his invitation back.

This Evangelical support isn’t because they love the Jews. No, no. Let’s not get personal about this. It’s because the second coming isn’t coming until the pieces are laid out in order. The Bible’s like a crystal ball, only it’s holy. It can predict the future with great precision. You can be sure someone like Trump is in there someplace, maybe in the passage where an ass speaks. In the 1970s it was Nixon. The wonderful thing about prophecy is that it’s made with interchangeable parts. As Millenniarians know, if you get your year wrong never apologize. Simply recalculate and keep preaching as if nothing happened. The Almighty is a forgiving God. At least to those He likes.

Intellectuals seem to think Evangelicalism is contagious. Well, to be fair, historically it has been. That was the whole point of camp meetings. Most Evangelicals aren’t too shy to tell you what they believe. In fact, their reading of the Bible sort of insists that they do. If you’re too bashful, many of those in the academy (or even formerly so) started out in their ranks. Rare is the biblical scholar who decided on that field of study purely based on intellectual curiosity. There was likely a method to their madness. Yes, of course Evangelicals support any politician who moves the embassy to Jerusalem. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The divine heels have been dragging for a couple of millennia now, so it’s time to get this show on the road. All you have to do is ask an Evangelical. They’re not hard to find; in fact, they seem to be everywhere these days.

Two Thoughts

I recently read that efforts are underway, by some parties, to teach Arabic to Israelis. My limited experience of Israel led me to believe that most people were already bilingual, judging by the roadsigns. Like our progressive neighbor to the north, I supposed people were expected to know both languages passably well. Having forgotten more languages than I care to remember, I am a believer in language education. There’s no better way to get to know how people think than learning their language. In my hometown, which was small and not especially prosperous, there was only one language taught in schools. I suppose that was “practical” since we had no hispanic population and not even one ethnic restaurant.

Israel, in the modern sense, is a state formed where other people (Palestinians) had been living. I wonder if the conflict might’ve been somewhat ameliorated had the new neighbors spoken the same language as the residents. Thinking over the long and sad history of colonialism, I suspect that many of the world’s woes would have been less deleterious if those invading stopped to learn to speak to the locals. What would it have been like if, instead of taking their land and forcing them to assimilate, early American colonists learned to speak Indian languages? What if local schools were required to have been bilingual with the local nations? I can’t help but believe that things would’ve turned out much better for everyone involved. I can’t listen to the rhetoric of the right supremacists without seeking a safe place to throw up. Nobody is better than anybody else by virtue of their race. As they might say in Canada, “vive la différence!”

I’m not naive enough to believe that simply learning languages would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor do I think it would’ve stopped European imperialists with too much gold on their minds from taking the land that belonged to Native Americans. I do think that if people took the time to learn what their neighbors were saying, in their own words, we be less inclined to suggest that our program is the only way. Or to build walls. Or shoot unarmed citizens. We’ve lost the interest in learning to talk to one another. Language is more than just a bunch of words. Let the linguists argue about syntax. The rest of us might benefit simply from learning to listen, and to understand.


Avoiding Ritual


While on my current British kick—not really intentional, but sometimes life gives you limes—I thought I’d mention another piece sent to me by a friend. This one falls under BBC Earth, and it’s about “Why Ancient Brits threw out their most valuable possessions.” You can find the story by Amanda Ruggeri at the link. The basics are pretty simple: some people with a metal detector discovered what turned out to be a Bronze Age “hoard” in Lincolnshire. You have to understand that, in a way that makes me totally jealous, the United Kingdom has tonnes of ancient artefacts still undiscovered. While my wife and I lived there it wasn’t unusual to read about such finds in the newspaper. (Newspapers still existed then.) People had been smelting in the British Isles for a long time. The Phoenicians actually popped round the pub to get their tin—which can be one of the main ingredients for Bronze. What the article somewhat embarrassingly addresses is the nature of the hoard.

Hoards are where a large number of (usually metal) objects are discovered, after having been deliberately buried. These are not uncommon, what with Phoenicians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, and others invading all the time. The issue that embarrasses is the “r word.” Ritual. While we don’t know the reason, the fact that people deliberately deep-sixed their valuables, routinely, suggests a ritual. As the article makes clear, professionals try to avoid the r word. Ironically, such deliberate burials, often with items purposefully broken, is also known from the ancient Levant, often predating the hoards of the prehistoric UK. Intentionally broken items—often of clay, and not infrequently depicting perhaps deities—were buried in biblical times. We don’t know why, but scholars suggest they could’ve been offerings. After all, breaking something potentially useful is an act of faith.

I’m not suggesting a direct connection here. I took a sound scholarly thrashing some years ago for suggesting a tale I heard on the streets of late twentieth-century Scotland had its origins in ancient Sumer (grad students are prone to such thinking). Still, it might not hurt anthropologists to cast a wider eye now and again. People had similar rit— well, let’s just say strange habits, in a land far away. Just cross the Channel and make a left. When it starts getting arid head south. The ancient world may have had more of an “internet” than we think. While that pathway may not always be marked by material remains, we now know ideas travel fast. Even something such as putting a daily post on a blog might become a ri—, strange habit.

Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.

Only Hummus

I remember the moment well. I was in Jerusalem on my own. Although in my early twenties, I really didn’t know much. The man at the vending cart didn’t speak English, but I was hungry. My first experience of falafel would certainly not be my last. After I married a few years later, I introduced my wife to the various Middle Eastern foods I’d tried. Hummus became a personal favorite, especially after I became a vegetarian. There are plenty of things for vegetarians to enjoy, and many cuisines of the world have less meat-heavy options than many restaurants I’ve experienced in the States. Hummus, to get to my point, can be rather bland. It is generally inoffensive, and people of many dietary and religious restrictions can eat it. The Christian Century ran a blurb recently about a hummus restaurant in Netanya, Israel. This eatery offers a fifty percent discount to Jewish and Arabic customers who sit together. Here is a workable idea for peace.

We all have to eat. Half the trick to world peace is getting people who dislike each other to sit down and do it together. Those of imperialist bent may not realize, or even be able to see, that we have more in common than most agitators think. Human needs are the same, and often, very easily provided. You like hummus? I like hummus! We must not be so different, after all. If instead of weaponizing themselves, radical believers armed themselves with food to share, not nearly so many warplanes would have to take to the air. I admit I’m an idealist. I don’t think peace is impossible. We can choose to focus on what divides us, or on what we have in common.


Perhaps if I’d never traveled to Jerusalem I would never have tried hummus. I didn’t travel for the food, but travel led me to a kind of serenity. Both falafel and hummus are made primarily of chickpeas, a versatile vegetable that has a verisimilitude of peace. If we could learn to eat together we would find it harder to hate each other after that. Sharing our mutual needs sometimes, as the restaurant owner in Netanya understands, requires a financial incentive. Although it may be lucre that lures those who are different to the same table, it is the peace itself that, I believe, will keep them coming back.

More Blessed to Give

Religions, we are told, are in violent opposition. There’s no denying that sometimes it’s true. It is a sad commentary on belief structures when one way of looking at the world only finds validation in the destruction of other perspectives. Despite all that, religions can, and do, reach beyond their parochial interest to assist others. Recently I mentioned a story in The Christian Century of an Islamic effort to raise funds to rebuild vandalized black churches in the US south. The idea of Muslims helping Christians reestablish their, by nature, heterodox teaching is, I believe, newsworthy. The most recent issue of The Christian Century has a story of a Jewish group in Israel raising funds to help repair a damaged church in the Holy Land. These two stories have made me wonder why we so seldom hear of Christian groups raising funds to help rebuild mosques or synagogues. Surely it must happen, but we, who rely on the mainstream media, so rarely read of Christians helping others that it becomes a surprise when they do. Is this reality or just what we’re taught to see?

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that Christians don’t help others. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Christian movement was the care of others, be they pagan or orthodox. Still, in my own life I’ve experienced the heartless, cold treatment doled out by “conservative” groups who believe that maintaining their idiosyncratic view is the highest possible mark of faith. Well beyond reaching out a hand to those in need. Far and above the care of fellow human beings. This distortion of any kind of historical Christianity has become what the mainstream media presents as normal. Meanwhile, millions still attend church every week, trying, in some measure, to make the world a better place.


This isn’t the same, all politics aside, as supporting Israel as a nation. Many Fundamentalist groups do. In fact, they insist that our national budget include aid for Israel. Not because they particularly care about the Jews. In some viewpoints, the end of the world cannot come without Israel regaining a status that some read into obscure Gospel passages and the book of Revelation. This is not the same as donating to rebuild a torched synagogue. It is worlds away from restoring a vandalized mosque. It is naive to suppose that there is one normative Christianity. Historians inform us that such a monolithic entity never has existed. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques—these are all expressions of the deepest of human longings to find and be in communion with that which is beyond the everyday. Any religion can become radicalized. All, however, also have the potential to look beyond themselves. When they do it is newsworthy indeed.