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.

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Avoiding Ritual

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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.

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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.

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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.

Last Chance to Sea

I wasn’t brave enough to don swimming trunks in front of academic colleagues and climb into the Dead Sea. Instead, I dipped a finger in an touched it to my tongue. I’m not sure if it was the bromides or some other toxic minerals, but I immediately wretched and knew that I wouldn’t be putting any Dead Sea salt on my chips. Years later, for comparison, I tried a bit of the Great Salt Lake. Disappointing, to say the least. Already by the time I’d visited the Dead Sea it was dying further. In a recent article on NBC entitled “Thousands of Sinkholes Threaten Dead Sea’s Tourism Industry,” the fate of a sea already dead grows even worse. Water is always an issue in dry climates, and the only real source for renewing Dead Sea water is the Jordan River, which is being dammed and used for human purposes, robbing the Dead Sea of its renewal. The sinkholes are a result of underground salt deposits being dissolved by fresh water as the salty matrix gets siphoned away for industrial chemical farming. Dead Sea levels have dropped 100 feet since 1980.

The Dead Sea is one of the most striking regions on the planet. It is as far as you can go below sea level and still be on dry ground (at least on the shore, that is). The air smells like sulphur and the thickness of the atmosphere at that depth protects you from the sun’s rays, despite the heat. The water is so saline that only bacteria can live there. (The article, ironically, states, “it is very difficult for animals and plants to thrive there.”) By comparison the Great Salt Lake is practically drinking water. Famously, people are unable to sink in the Dead Sea, as its salt enhances buoyancy, so that you can read a newspaper while floating on your back. Like most natural wonders, humans are destroying it. The sinkholes are prophetic, I fear.

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Great evaporating beds line parts of the Dead Sea shore where minerals can be obtained without having to dig into the earth. You can buy some as cosmetics at the local mall. These mineral salts are what make the Dead Sea what it is. And it is shrinking. Satellite imagery of the Sea can bring salty tears to my eye. We’ve slowed the flow of Niagara Falls, and we’ve begun melting our polar caps. Even so, we can’t get enough water to sustain our lifestyle. It has been said that the next major war will not be over oil, but water. Even a glance at California can make me thirsty. In a rare show of cooperation, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority are building a pipeline to bring Red Sea water into the shrinking Dead Sea. I hope that this might bode well for the future in the region. Although there is no love lost between these neighbors, they all realize that something unique lies on their border, and when it’s gone it will be a loss to the entire world. That is the real Sodom and Gomorrah.

Piece on Earth

The New York Times recently ran a story about the academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association. For those unfamiliar with the ways of academics, many who teach in higher education participate in professional organizations. In my line of work it is usually either the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature. These organizations take on personalities of their own, often representing the character of the strongest voices within them. For example, a few years ago the American Academy of Religion decided it didn’t like the Society of Biblical Literature any more, and decided on a trial separation from their joint annual meeting. Like in most divorce cases, the children suffered. Eventually the two got back together and the study of religion could move ahead apace. The American Studies Association is an organization that has run out of patience with the Palestinian issue in Israel. The academic society is boycotting scholarship from Israel, as if professors agree with and support the policies of the government. A rare scenario indeed.

Growing up as a middle child, I often find myself in the role of peacemaker. Like AAR and SBL children, I know the lifelong insecurities caused in kids by divorce, and I know that it is important for people to talk to each other. The situation between Israel and Palestine is fraught. It is so much easier to make a decision about who is right when you don’t have as both sides populations that have been historically victimized. Like most people I have my personal opinions about who is in the wrong here, but I also realize the situation is far more complex than this small-minded biblical student’s ability to declare anything ex cathedra. It seems surprising that any academic organization would be willing to take such a stand. In most instances I’ve read of, it is politicians, not professors, who are the problem.

Of course, at the very root of the situation lies, like a snake curled, ready to strike, religion. It seems that mixed messages have been received from on high. Bethlehem, much in people’s minds this time of year, represents the issues coldly. Two groups claim the same land, broadly speaking, claimed by three major religions. Despite their common ancestry, the three major monotheistic faiths differ vastly from one another. The problem is, there is only so much habitable land. Historic ties going back hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, are not easily severed. Divorce hardly seems an option when both parties continue to live in the same house. Academic societies have minimal influence on public policy. They, however, can show public faces. Perhaps the best way forward does not involve silencing the voices of any who wish to speak. After all, we are told, even angels sang over the lowly town of Bethlehem in a time of deep political turmoil.

Ich habe einen Traum.

Ich habe einen Traum.

Alien Jesus

While trawling the internet over the weekend, I came upon an interesting article that ties together religion and paranormal belief. According to ADG, a unnamed woman (already the question marks erupt) in Galilee in 1967 was visited by aliens. Instead of photographing them, as most unnamed women would, she followed their instructions to point her camera at the lake (Sea of Galilee) and snap one for the album. When she turned back around the aliens were gone, and when she had the film developed there was a picture of Jesus and a disciple or two, walking along the sea in earnest conversation. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of Tobit to spot the apocryphal, and this obviously bogus story received far more hits than any of my posts do. People are fascinated by the concept, even though most of the comments show some healthy skepticism.

To me the fascinating aspect is that religion and paranormal topics hold hands so easily. That is not to suggest they are the same thing, but rather that they are both perhaps directed toward a similar goal. We find ourselves in a cold world, often. There are cruelties, atrocities, and a disheartening lack of care for others. We want to believe that somebody out there has got our backs. Is it so different to believe that God dwells in the sky than to believe that aliens do as well? What is more important than the putative fact of such celestial dwellers is the belief in them. Our minds, no matter how we may protest otherwise, are perfectly well aware of their own limitations. We can’t know everything, and so we must believe.

Many of us find ourselves in an uninspiring cycle of work, sleep, and work. Sometimes we actually even do sleep, too. Cogs in a capitalistic money machine, we leave our weekends free (sometimes) to pursue a little meaning. As much as some may castigate religion, we should not forget that without it we would not have the weekend! For a little while we can break the meaningless cycle, the treadmill upon which we heavily thump our way through five days out of every seven. Is it any wonder that so many want to believe that, like Calgon, aliens might come to take us away from our drudgery? If that doesn’t work, there’s always religious services. All you have to do is point your camera and believe.

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Sea Wonders

There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea, if we are to believe childhood songs. News reports this past week, however, have suggested that just the opposite applies to the Sea of Galilee. According to Science on NBC, a huge stone structure, larger than Stonehenge, rests at the bottom of the lake over which Jesus reputedly walked at the height of a storm. To the untrained eye, this stone pile looks like just that—a stone pile. The problem is that there is no natural source for the mound, and it seems highly unlikely that it was built under the water. This astonishing find is only one of the many underwater structures known that seem to defy conventional chronologies and logical behaviors. If this gigantic cairn was built on land, the means remain a problem. It is one thing to climb a conventional pyramid, complete with ramps and sledges, and quite another to mount a mound of apparently random stones to drop another on top. Perhaps it was built under water after all, like one of those tantalizing toys where you try to land your penny in the cup at the bottom of a tank of water.

Pacman's Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Pacman’s Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Ancient monuments are one of the great fascinations of antiquity. When no rational explanation is forthcoming, a religious one will be declared. Without written records, we know nothing of the real purpose of Stonehenge or Avebury, let alone Galilee-henge. With the pyramids of Egypt we have a better set of data, and we can feel justified calling them religious structures. But why were ancient people building massive rock mounds in what was to become the Sea of Galilee? The place has irrevocable religious associations to the modern mind. Did it possess such connections in the deep pre-Israelite period as well? The false mountain of Silbury Hill, not far from Stonehenge, comes to mind. People are mountain makers.

Cairns have been among the most persistent of human monuments, but what makes this new finding of interest is its location. Baptized in the very lake that holds the headwaters of River Jordan, the mysterious mound has already claimed its sanctity. Who built it, why and when, will take backseat to the fact of its holy location. Archaeologists will eventually dive and probe and will declare an anthropologically sound explanation for this newly found, artificial, miniature mountain. Mountains and gods go together, however, as readily as offering plates and churches. Whatever this newly discovered structure may turn out to be, it will always be a religious site for those who believe.

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.

In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.

Rock Hard Cafe

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At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”

But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.

My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.

After the Gold Rush

The morning I flew to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, the headlines in the morning paper were about the rocket attacks in Tel Aviv. Ironically, the in-flight magazine cover on United, I noticed as I fastened by seat belt securely low across my waist, read “Three Perfect Days in Tel Aviv.” The irony wasn’t so much funny as it was sad. The situation in the Middle East is hopelessly entangled, but it all comes down to our obsession with dividing people into groups. Religious, ethnic, social: somehow we are not like them. We’re better, superior in some way. It matters not that proving superiority is a purely subjective enterprise. After all, we just know it. When history places one persecuted group in a position of persecuting another group, well, I’m afraid we all know what happens.

The problems in the Middle East are largely biblical and predominantly petroleum-based. Even those who tend to read the Bible figuratively can see a land claim based on an Abraham who probably never existed as strangely literal. Especially when there’s oil in them thar wells. Isolationism served the United States well until it was discovered that they had more black gold than even Texas does. Establishing a foothold in the region was not such a subtle policy; the x-ray vision of politicians funded by heavy industry saw beneath the sandy soil to the real deity that lay beneath. Dig a well, hit a gusher, and, like the Bible says, “he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Good news for modern capitalists. But some people will have to die.

As I sat in the lobby of a posh hotel, waiting for an appointment, I heard a fragment of a conversation as a couple of scholars rushed by. They were discussing the aftermath of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. One suggested to the other, in the context of how many Palestinians might die in retaliation, “well, if they can keep the numbers down…” and then they were gone. My mind jumped to The Prisoner. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” crashed in my head with the way that the dead in the Middle East are piled up as “the numbers.” I’m sure it was only intended as a convenient turn of phrase. Outside the hotel lobby the striking workers from the Hyatt labor disputes were protesting in a cold, crisp Chicago morning. They were soon cleared away. My fear, Number Six, is that you are wrong. We are all numbers, even the best of us.