Look Out Below

Demons are seldom what you think they are.  Bernard J. Bamberger’s Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm isn’t so much about demons as it is about, well, fallen angels.  A classic in the field, it was published in 1952 and has been periodically reissued when interest revives.  There are many aspects of this book that deserve development in a place like this blog, but I need to suffice with a few.  I won’t take much of your time, I promise.

First and foremost, Bamberger, who was a prominent rabbi, presents the seldom heard Jewish perspective on the topic.  The Devil really had more explanatory value for Christians than for Jews, and it is no surprise that he appears rather abruptly in the New Testament.  There are, of course, plenty of antecedents for him both in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, but the idea, and character, grabbed his main hoof-hold in Christianity.  This dualism has periodically been a source of embarrassment, but in general it has served the Christian narrative well.  We seldom see the Jewish outlook on it.

A second noteworthy feature of this book is its wide survey of these ideas in both what is now termed Second Temple Judaism and that of Late Antiquity.  The fallen angels seem to be there in the Good Book, but close reading of the texts suggests other meanings.  Judaism has never felt the compulsion that many Christians feel toward having the one, correct outlook.  Spend a little time with the Talmud and see how dialogical the search for the truth can be.  With no Pope or supreme human authority to declare the rightness of one outlook, the search must remain a process of discussion rather than an ex cathedra pronouncement.

A third, and for now final, observation is the sheer number of characters that pick up the baton of evil in both early Judaism and Christianity.  Even Islam.  A bewildering number of names for lead fallen angels and other demonically sourced characters populate these pages.  Since Judaism tended not to buy the fallen angel narrative, other sources for demons were considered.  Few doubted that they existed in the early days, but whence exactly they came was an open question.  Bamberger explores the options here and, beyond his book many others also exist.  That evil exists in the world seems patently obvious.  Religions of all stripes ask what’s to be done about it.  Some delve into its origin myths.  In the end, however, it is how we choose to respond that matters most. 

Like One of Us

Some envision America as a nation of—God help them!—only people like themselves.  This is Trump’s America, and therefore, the America of the Republican Party.  We can’t quite say it’s a white male America because there are many white males who simply don’t share that vision, but it is hate-filled enough to rouse bombers and shooters and Mitch McConnell.  American terrorists, in a word.  Yesterday, the Sabbath, saw a shooter in my familiar city of Pittsburgh who left 11 dead.  The response of Trump?  The synagogue should’ve had armed guards.  I propose that we ought to put walk-through metal detectors outside churches—better yet, full body scanners like they use at airports.  Might as well see everything the faithful bring with them.

Apart from the obvious tragedy of the innocent victims, another disturbing element of this horrific event is that Trump can’t see that his own rhetoric encourages it.  His mouth may say we shouldn’t hate, but his mouth says a lot of things.  Most of them lies.  His public posturing as the angry white man, the “Christian” bully, the Rambo of the Lord, has jarred people across the world.  When you rail against the media daily from the highest position in the land, you’ve got to expect sycophants (e.g. Republicans) to try to please you with their own acts of outrage.  What more cowardly way can one devise than to shoot those at worship?  Does 45 not understand that armed guards would make a very mockery of what goes on inside?  What do they teach at his church?

Coming up on two years ago, after election day, many people warned that just this sort of thing would happen.  Knowing that the Manchurian candidate they’d nominated couldn’t think for himself, the GOP decided it was a good time to polish up their hit-list.  Those who don’t belong in their white bread, white face, white male country.  This is evangelicalism gone wild, no, Rev. Graham?  Those who can think for themselves are not welcome in a party run by hatred so pure and rife that decent people feel they must take a shower after they leave its presence.  And what of the dead?  For the “party of Lincoln” they have died in vain.  They should’ve had armed guards, as if worship were some kind of dangerous, subversive activity.  The party of the NRA, formerly known as the GOP, has never watched The Witness.  It has never shed a tear for the dead.  And it most assuredly has never been to church, or synagogue.

Image credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, via Wikimedia Commons

In God’s Name

If anyone ever bothers to go through my personal zibaldones (if the word’s unfamiliar, please use the search box for my post on it) they’ll find my personal shorthand. It’s not extensive since I’m a firm believer in explaining things and if I don’t write things out I often can’t decipher what I meant. One of the shorthand marks that I do use is the Greek letter theta. Those who know me will have no trouble guessing that it stands for “God.” Or more appropriately, “theos” the Greek word for God. This particular Indo-European lexeme has a venerable history and appears in such forms as deus, Zeus, and deity. Although in a case such as Zeus it can be used as a personal name, it is, in fact, a title. Somewhat like “president” used to be. And it can be used for any number of divinities.

In the Bible there exists a well-placed concern not to dis the Almighty. God—to use his title—had a temper and was known for not being afraid to show it. Among the Ten Commandments is one not to take God’s name in vain. Scholars argue over what exactly that means, but Judaism, on the ground, had to make decisions about it in a practical way. The best way to avoid divine wrath was never to say the divine name at all. God’s name isn’t “God.” That’s a universal word, applicable to any garden variety divinity. God’s personal name, we think, was Yahweh. To ensure the keeping of the commandment whenever this noun was encountered in the Good Book, the word “Lord” was used. That’s the convention behind Lord in small caps in some Bible translations. If you don’t say the name you can’t break the commandment.

In more recent days, in print culture, a further caution has been introduced. In academic writing it’s common to see “G-d.” I can guess the origins of this convention, but I have to admit that concern can lead to obfuscation. Nowhere does Scripture proclaim that you can’t use the title of the ineffable one. I can’t help but think this is following the conservative tendency to see the use of “God” in exasperation as swearing. The fact that another common swear abbreviates itself as “G. d.” might caution against using this particular combination in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the title. No one ever doubted that Baal was a god—but note the carefully lower case “g”—or for that matter, Mars or Zeus. Or, just to be safe, B-l, M-rs, and Z-s. May I suggest, based on personal experience, that theta might be used instead? But only if referring to the true G-d.

Jewish Annotated

A project with which I have some small acquaintance is the second edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (some of you may be noticing an annotated theme lately). The idea behind it is deceptively simple: most of the writers of the New Testament were Jews. What do modern day Jewish scholars see in the text? This annotated Bible gets adopted into both Christian and Jewish courses, and many seminaries have an interest in learning what the writers might have been thinking as they were composing “the other testament.” So far, so good. I was looking at the Amazon page for the book the other day, specifically for the Kindle edition. As usual, you can’t please everyone, and some of the negative comments had to do with functionality. Then one said simply, “There is no such thing as a Jewish New Testament.”

I’m not so naive that I don’t know what trolls are, but I got to thinking about this comment. It didn’t come from a “certified buyer,” so it could be an opinion piece. The mononymed reviewer might be Jewish, Christian, or neither. From a Jewish perspective s/he might mean: Jews don’t accept the New Testament as scripture, so what else is there to talk about? From a Christian perspective the point might be: this is a Christian document so it doesn’t matter what Jews think about it. Either way there’s a call for some exegesis here. Both perspectives can be argued against. Jews have a very real interest in what Christians say about them. And, like it or not, the first Christians, and even Jesus himself, fell squarely within Judaism.

Christianity has become a religion of privilege. That happens when you’re the biggest religious body in the world. Christians get a bit testy when Islam begins encroaching on its numbers. There’s still some hard feelings about the Muslim expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries, too. Being an imperial religion will do that to you. Thoughtful Christ-followers, however, have begun to look back and wonder how this whole thing got started in the first place. Without Jews there would’ve been no Christians. Nobody’s claiming the New Testament is Jewish scripture. Neither side wants that. It’s simply a recognition that we might have something to learn from each other. And that’s not a bad idea. In fact, if we were willing to listen a bit more than talk, who knows how much true understanding might come to pass? The Jewish Annotated New Testament is one possible place to start.

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Analyze This

Reading other people’s scripture is a privilege. Although somewhere in my long study of the history of religion I must have read excerpts of The Analects, I have not concentrated on reading them through before. Reading other people’s scripture is like being invited into their houses. You can learn a great deal in a little time, but that doesn’t make you an expert. Confucianism is about the same age as classical Judaism. The foci of the belief systems are clearly culturally bound, and those of us raised in cultures heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity find scriptures like The Analects somewhat bewildering. For those raised in Confucian cultures, the Bible must also be like coming into an unfamiliar country. That’s the way scriptures are, and it doesn’t mean that any are more or less valid than others. That’s often difficult to accept.

I don’t know much about Confucianism, but it is clear that The Analects are intended as a guide particularly for those who seek public office. In Confucian thought, unlike that of the current United States, only the brightest are believed to be worthy of high office. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Analects at this time in history and not see that Trump is so wrong in multiple languages. Master Kong’s description of “the small man,” the petty sort who has no business governing, is the job description of the GOP right now. Is it possible that one political party has ruined two religions? Probably far more.

Learning—even in small increments—of the religions of others takes away the need to feel superior. In fact there are many commonalities between religions, particularly on the ethical front. Reading other people’s scriptures isn’t easy. There’s so much that’s foreign in them. But like the fact that foreign trade brings desirable things from abroad for us, so should be the study of other religions. There is much of value here. I don’t read Chinese. I’ve never been to China. Reading The Analects, however, demonstrates that the noble minds of different cultures have much to learn from one another. No scripture is perfect. All are necessary. It’s only when one faith decides that it alone is true that religious strife begins to replace religious respect. I’m not about to become a Confucianist, but I do have a a slightly better sense of what it might mean to be one. And small steps can lead to impressive places for those willing to learn.