Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

Revisiting Jericho

I don’t get out from the office much. As those who commute to New York City will readily tell you, there is a constant anxiety about getting to and from the city that keeps you in the office (cubicle) as long as possible. Just yesterday my bus broke down on halfway there. I seldom take lunch away from my desk, and even more rarely get out to see what’s actually in Manhattan. Besides work. Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Berlin Wall. Wanting a picture that wasn’t somebody else’s work, I decided to visit the famous slab of the wall in Paley Park. Like many parks in Midtown, this is a mere pocket in the shadow of a high-rise, but a large slab of the Berlin Wall had been there for years, drawing tour guides and history buffs alike. It is only 19 blocks from my office. I’m a fast walker, and I made it all the way catching only three red lights. Since the anniversary of the wall’s Jericho moment had been twenty-five years and a day before, I expected crowds. Instead, no Berlin Wall was to be found. Businessmen smoking away their lives and lunch hours, but no oppressive wall. I double-checked my location. Triple-checked, with GPS. Then I walked 19 blocks back.

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Visiting the comments on one of the wall’s websites, I saw that it had been, perhaps unintentionally symbolically, removed. After standing in this pocket park for nearly a quarter of a century, the slab had been absconded mere weeks before the anniversary when I, and given the number of cameras I saw, not I alone, had gone to see and to reflect. Where does one put the Berlin Wall? There was another piece, I read, at the United Nations gardens. You only had to pay 18 dollars to get in. Although it is close to my old office at Routledge, it is a lengthy walk from where I now find myself. Once I arrived home I searched for answers. The wall had been removed for restoration. A wall that had been sufficient to divide a city, scrawled with graffiti, apparently, required restoration. On the long walk back, I considered my similarly ill-fated trip a couple years back to find the closed Gotham Book Mart. Like the wall, have I become useless history?

My Germanic ancestors came to America nearly two centuries ago, and although I never knew that side of the family well, I suspect it was for economic, not religious reasons. It is sometimes easy to think, given all the rhetoric, that Europeans came here to be part of a Christian free-for-all. No doubt, some did. Many others, however, had more mundane motivation. A strong Protestant work ethic that somehow seems genetic, and a belief that somewhere else is better, will help you get along. So I’m told. So the tale goes in the book of Joshua. Israelites, wanting to cross the water to a new home, blowing their trumpets and raising a shout. Yes, the Berlin Wall did come down. Like the fallen wall of Jericho, it’s nowhere to be seen.

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.

IMG_0555

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.

Six Red Flags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Holy Land Grabs

Civilization began in the “Middle East.” Ever since then, it has been a struggle to keep it together. One of the sad realities of the last century and continuing into this is that peace in this region seems as elusive as a Tea Partier with compassion. Claims to land are among the most complex of human inventions. Having never been a property owner, I’ve only ever watched this from the sidelines, but I know the endless surveying, assessing, and negotiating that goes into drawing invisible lines across the surface of our planet in order to determine who owns what. At least as early as the Code of Hammurabi, the placing of property markers was considered the concern of the gods. Humans are clearly among the most territorial of animals.

When my wife showed me a CNN story about an archaeological dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa in Israel, this old issue raised its weary head once more. The site, whose ancient name is not yet known, is being suggested as “the city of David” by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. The evidence for the suggestion, as far as I can tell from news reports, is that the city fits the right time period and lacks pig bones. With the Bible’s great claims for David’s very large kingdom, archaeologists have been unable to find evidence that such a grand entity ever existed. David himself is not historically attested outside the Bible. Those who make land claims based on a putative gift of God, however, must find physical evidence to back it up. This wish hovers like a dove over every excavation.

The death of an archaeologist

Archaeology has frequently been commandeered by special interest groups. The field of study began in the “Middle East” to find evidence for the historicity of biblical stories, some of which were never intended as history. Daunting emotional claims, however, weighed heavily on the minds of those who led the excavations. The Bible made what they supposed to be historical claims, so the physical evidence had to back it up. When Jericho was excavated and found to have been abandoned at the time of Joshua not a few heads were scratched. Archaeologists returned to the city in later excavations to try to question the results. Jericho was a ghost town long before Joshua came along because the story of Jericho has something more important than history to convey. That larger message, applicable throughout the world, seems to be: don’t base claims to special privilege on the Bible. Tea Partiers could even learn a thing or two from that message as well.

Feline Angels and Demons

Happy National Cat Day! Well, to you readers in the States in any case. October 29 has been declared National Cat Day, and as a blogger who has frequently posted on ancient cats, I feel a sense of duty to include our feline friends in today’s entry.

Elsewhere on this blog I have extolled the divine nature of cats. The Egyptians revered them to the point that killing a cat was a capital crime, but the evolution of domestication was probably very practical. Domestic cats appear in the archaeological record along with the advent of grain silos, also an Egyptian invention. When the grain attracted rats, the rats attracted cats, and the cats stole Egyptian hearts. Even before the Egyptians, however, archaeology points to associations of cats and humans in Neolithic Jericho, perhaps the oldest city in the world. As early as 9000 years ago, cats were stalking the allies of the city of the moon god. They have been among our most loyal companions.

The domestic cat’s spread into Europe only began in earnest, it seems, when Christianity reached the continent and the cat was no longer considered divine. Perhaps cats had to be profaned before being admitted to the church’s roster of approved animals. Nevertheless, under the influence of a predominantly Christian milieu, in the Middle Ages Europe had come to see cats as the demonic companions of witches and vampires. Did some memory linger of the divine cat of Egypt? Did those dark days of suspected sorcery glance back to the magicians of Egypt and their suspect pets? We will never know the answer as to why cats, long encouraged to join human households, became evil in superstitious Europe. Even my stepfather in the twentieth century America counted to ten after spotting a black cat, and followed the count with a solemn cuss each and every time.

I, for one, cast my vote on the side of the felines. I don’t have cats (allergies and irate landlords, and such), but I enjoy them when I visit those who do. Sure, they rip up furniture and bring unwanted gifts of dead things to you as a kind of feline worship, but with their loving nature I simply can’t see a devil in our everlasting cats.

Swiped from Dr. Jim's Thinking Shop

(Swiped from Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop)