Like an Egyptian

“And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  The words are from the Good Book.  Specifically Exodus 10.7.  They’ve been on my mind as the coronavirus is beginning to yield in all developed nations but our own.  Let me set the scene: the Israelites have become slaves in Egypt.  Moses was sent to set them free, but a Trumpian Pharaoh stood in the way.  Plague after plague was sent, but the president, er, I mean Pharaoh, refused to acknowledge what the evidence indicated.  Moses would appear before the senate and declare the coming disaster.  In the mythical world of the Bible, though, the senate actually saw reason.

“Knows thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  Instead of addressing the Covid-19 crisis the White House has decided to turn a blind eye.  Nearly one-fourth of the worldwide cases of the disease are recorded in the United States.  In the past week several record-setting days of new case numbers were set even as the administration was insisting that schools be opened without any plans, or even ideas about how to help.  “Have them make bricks without straw,” you could almost hear echoing around the Oval Office.  Ah, indeed, this is the most biblical of administrations.  Our economy has been tanked for years to come.  The environment has been degraded to the point of disaster.  And yet Moses is ignored.  The real plague was the Pharaoh.

“This is the finger of science!”

Exodus is a story of liberation.  What’s more, according to the Good Book, God himself wanted Israel to be set free.  The Pharaoh, it seems, was not personally afflicted with the plagues until the darkness fell.  Prior to that, if it didn’t affect him personally he simply didn’t care.  Too many self-aggrandizing monuments to be built to his own name.  Ancient Egypt was like that.  Meanwhile plagues brought the mightiest nation of the time to its knees.  Beyond that.  It brought them prone.  Most of us, I expect, are ready to get on with life.  We’ve been self-isolating for over three months and yet the number of cases continues to increase.  We could use a word or two of guidance from a sympathetic leader.  Instead we’re entering hurricane season.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve got my Bible all ready.  And right now it’s open to Exodus.  

Spoken Against

“Antilegomena” is a word that appears more often in New Testament studies than it does in those of the Hebrew Bible.  Still, it’s an important part of the discussion of “the Bible,” especially since Heaven stands at the end.  Antilegomena is the Greek word for “disputed texts.”  You see, when the Bible was being compiled, there were many books from which to choose.  The twenty-seven books generally recognized as the New Testament included several that were disputed.  The Antilegomena included these books: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, all fine and good.  But the list continues: James, Jude, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.  This final half-dozen made the cut, although Revelation is still disputed in some quarters.  All of these books were, however, in some early Christians’ Bibles.  The exact date that the New Testament canon was fixed isn’t certain, but it wasn’t widely recognized until the fourth century C.E., that is, over 300 years after Jesus.

The first time I learned about canonization in college I was shocked.  Like most people raised on the Bible, I believed that it had come, fully written, from the hand of God.  Maybe there was even an autographed copy somewhere.  Grove City College, at the time, disputed the Documentary Hypothesis of J, E, D, and P, but to the credit of the religion department they did tell us about it.  Moses, of course, we were taught, did the actual writing.  But then there was the problem of the New Testament.  There were other gospels, some as old as those that made it into the Bible.  The realization dawned that “the Bible” was much more complicated than I had been led to believe.  And what was up with the Apocrypha?

One of my professors said that the problem with inerrancy is that it proposed a Bible more perfect than God.  I’m not sure that I follow the logic there, but I take his point (they were all “he”s, whoever he was).  The Bible may not be a perfect book  There are parts missing and repeated bits.  It is nevertheless one of many sacred books from around the world, and it is the holy book of much of Christianity.  From the very beginning some of the contents were disputed.  Even as an undergraduate I had some inklings that a journey that involved taking the Bible seriously was going to lead to some strange places.  That single book that had always been presented to me with a definite article—“the” Bible—was actually a book that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t know.  And they seem to have got along fine, as far as getting to Heaven goes.

Refillable Ideas

Maybe I’m too slow of thumb, but this ought to be simple. For many years I kept a small slip of paper in my pocket, along with a pen. Eventually I upgraded the paper slips to Moleskine notebooks since they’re harder to lose and the covers mostly prevent the smudging of my ideas. When something strikes me I don’t reach for my phone—by the time I enter the passcode, select the app, and try to type with fat thumbs, the idea’s gone. Instead I pull out my Moleskine, battered and frayed by the final pages, and my pen. The problem is I’m still enough of a working-class guy to lose pens. If a cord comes disconnected beneath my desk, I’m down there on my back fixing it rather than calling IT. Pens fall out of my shirt pocket on planes, trains, and automobiles.

A lost pen shouldn’t be a problem, but finding a pen that writes right away is. Like most people I have scores of throw-away plastic pens handed out by vendors with their company name on them. I prefer a good quality pen—the kind a family member gives you for your birthday—but they hurt when you lose them. I finally settled on a happy medium. One of my kin gave me a heavy-weight, refillable pen that has a robust clasp so it doesn’t slip out of my pocket, down between the seats of public transit vehicles. Refills, however, are another story. Who would’ve thought that I’d spend my time reading reviews on Amazon just to find pen refills that write the moment inspiration strikes? Well, I do.

Unlike those who whip out their phones to write things down, I still pull out my notebook. Nothing is more frustrating that feeling an idea evaporate while waiting for the ink to flow. My most recent refill is on strike most of the time, while that cheap pen from the health fair at work never seems to have a problem until it runs out of ink and has to be tossed into the landfill. I wonder if the Bible would’ve ever been written had Moses to rely on the poor quality of pen refills available before the common era. Maybe he had less commuting time, although I’d say 40 years in the wilderness qualifies. His stone tablets may have been heavier than my Moleskine, but his chisel was sure and his words still adorn courthouse lawns everywhere. Perhaps I’m too modern after all.

Recognition

I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…

One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.

By Numbers

Numbers 12.3 always struck me as one of the oddest verses of the Pentateuch. This was back in the days when I’d been taught that Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, in toto. When I read “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” I had to wonder about the literalness of Scripture. How can someone who is humble boast of being the humblest person on the planet? Humility is a commodity sorely lacking in contemporary times. This shortage, in an era of fake news and border walls, finds expression in some very odd places. The White House, for example.

Kellyanne Conway, who’s apparently still around, recently told televangelist Pat Robertson, on the air, that Trump’s most characteristic trait is his humility. It seems that good old Moses got one wrong. The most humble man on the face of the earth is Donald J. Trump. You can tell that by the way he took a horrific hurricane and managed to make every media appearance concerning it about himself. It is quite a burden, being so humble. Especially when your race is the best one on the planet and there’s bad behavior on all sides when a white supremacist murders an innocent person for disagreeing. What would Moses do? Pat Robertson—you’re a literalist—help us out here! Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the humblest of them all? I surely hope the Bible isn’t participating in fake news.

It used to be called the good news. The message was one of love for all people and acceptance of the poor, the outcast, the widow, and yes, even the tax collector. I forget which chapter in Matthew it is where Jesus suggests building a wall to keep the gentiles out. It must be in there somewhere next to the chapter where Moses builds a tower up to heaven and then names it after himself. He was, after all, the humblest man in the world. He could afford to throw away entire calves made of gold, right? Humility will do that for you. Since we’ve just undergone a major natural disaster, we might as well start pushing our own self-image again. If Moses promised to build a wall, even if thousands and thousands are suffering and could better use the money, he must push through with his plan to erect a wall. And when he’s done he’ll put his name on it for all to see. That’s the price of humility.

Commander in Heaven

I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.

The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.

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This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.

Religious Laughter

Reader’s Digest famously runs a feature, “Laughter: the Best Medicine.” I’m not a Reader’s Digest reader, and I’ve generally only seen it on coffee tables and bathroom cabinets of friends. Still, that’s the feature to which I always find myself turning. The jokes, this being Reader’s Digest, are always inoffensive. Safe subjects that are nevertheless funny. Usually. As adults we come to know that the taboo subjects of childhood are often the funniest. Off-color jokes about sex or religion, sometimes both together, elicit the most boisterous laughs. We don’t use them, however, because someone will surely be offended.

A recent article in The Guardian by Gary Sinyor raises the question of religious humor. Sinyor, who is Jewish, wrote a comedy play called “NotMoses.” As he farmed the idea and advertising around to advisors and friends, he was warned how he might be putting his life on the line for his humor. Reflecting on this, he comes to the conclusion—spot on, in my opinion—that the religions that don’t laugh at themselves are somehow insecure. His parade example is Scientology, as humorless a religion as exists. As he points out, although widely banned, many Christians found Monty Python’s Life of Brian very funny indeed. Of course, some branches of Christianity weren’t, and still aren’t, laughing.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

The world can be a humorless place. There is so much to worry about: the ill treatment of women, starvation, horrific diseases, Donald Trump. What right have we to laugh? I once had a close friend with cancer. Most would agree that this is no laughing matter. During treatment this friend lost all her hair and at one point another friend encouraged her to laugh about it if she could. “If there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well laugh,” was the advice. In poor taste? Perhaps. Nevertheless, there was some truth to it. My friend recovered. The disease is not something she cares to talk about. Nevertheless, humor helped her get through it. The most serious things, in other words, sometimes cause us to laugh. Religious comedy, after all, is not laughing at religion, but at how seriously we take religion. There is a difference. And laughter can, even if I got it from Reader’s Digest, be very good medicine indeed.

Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

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Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

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Go Down, Moses

For a time, I tried to write down family tradition. My family was somewhat unusual in that regard. Family saying came generally from my maternal grandparents—my father wasn’t around for my childhood years—and since my grandparents died when I was relatively young, I didn’t hear much of their wisdom firsthand. Still, my mother told me various things her parents used to say and I tried to keep a record. Kind of like I wanted to be an anthropologist for raw folk sayings among the, non-elites. One thing my grandmother used to say, so I was told, was “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” I was always intrigued by this since I supposed it had something to do with Moses the miracle-worker. I guess I imagined Moses waving his rod and the lights coming back on. That single question is all I ever heard of this particular family treasure. I forgot about it until recently, though the miracle of the world-wide web, I learned that the query comes from a song.

Moses gets down

Moses gets down

The song, it turns out, exists in multiple versions. The Library of Congress has a recording dating to 1901 available on the web. According to this version, written by Harry von Tilzer, Moses was not “the” Moses, but a preacher condemning gambling. Also, “lights” is rendered in the singular. So much for the canonicity of family tradition. Duke University library has an undated, but clearly old, version of another song by the same title. This one does reference the biblical Moses, also the name of the song’s narrator. A child afraid in bed at night falls in love with and marries his nurse girl who used to ask him the question “Where was Moses when the light went out?” as he was falling asleep.

Yet another version, dating from 1965, has the question “Where was Moses when the lights (plural) went out?” followed by the answer, “He’s in the dark.” With all of this instant information from the internet, I’m still not certain what was being conveyed by my grandmother with this cryptic question. My mother said she used to say it when someone walked into the room too late to help with something, a kind of sarcastic “Where were you when I needed you?” What is clear is that the song was about as old as my grandmother and she found it somehow appropriate in an unconventional situation. I have to wonder how much of sacred tradition, including the Bible, might have come from misunderstood original instruction. We will, of course, never know. I don’t know what the original lyrics were, but I have learned that even family wisdom has a backstory, like any Scripture, for those who look hard enough.

Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

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Always with You

DeerHuntingIf you read only one book this year, let it be this one. I picked up Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus at a used book sale because of the title alone. The blurbs on the back suggested it would be hilarious, and even the subtitle, Dispatches from America’s Class War, didn’t sink in until I began reading. Written during the dark ages of the Bush administration, the contents are a bit dated, yet timeless. Although there’s humor here, I, like Bageant, was born and raised in a working class environment. My father was a house painter (before it became chic) and my stepfather was a blue-collar Joe who did the kinds of jobs nobody else wanted to do. Life was coarse and rough at times, but the people I knew were fiercely patriotic and staunchly Republican. Most adults I knew had never read a book since they’d managed to escape from high school. Deer hunting was nearly as religious as church, and anything you heard in either venue was to be taken absolutely literally. And yet government programs to help them get along were merely shams that politicians knew they couldn’t see.

Like Bageant, I feel at home among the working class. I am one of them. My job may be in Manhattan, but the sensibilities that got me this far are from the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Those who know me outside the office still occasionally call me a redneck. Perhaps it’s an affectation, but it is an affectation born of deep appreciation of the honesty of the worker. They’re no saints, the working class. They will get away with what they can (what bobble-head wagging above a white collar can honestly claim that it doesn’t as well?), they will laugh at the crudest jokes, and they will be mean and turn on each other if provoked. They are, however, good people caught in a system that won’t let them improve. The only possibility is education, the one service governments slash at every opportunity. The system, as Bageant shows, was built just to do that. Like Moses, throughout the book, he calls them “my people.” I know exactly what he means.

When I visit my hometown, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. Windows are boarded up and the streets seem even meaner than they were when I was a kid. These are people in ill health with a government that would rather not spend the money on them—we’re used to it, and Uncle Sam knows that—so it assures that the only businesses that thrive are fast food and liquor stores. You can also find a television and rifles, but not much else. The liberals, as Bageant states, don’t know how to relate to the common man. In my own experience, the redneck who earns a doctorate won’t have a chance of getting a job. The university liberals have their own agendas, too busy trying to save the planet to worry about the real people who make their lifestyle possible. I picked up Deer Hunting with Jesus as a joke, but found it the most important book that I’ve read in many years. Please read it and try to understand.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

Behind the Exodus

Over this past week two of my friends/colleagues were quoted in major media outlets about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Being merely a blogger with nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew Bible means, naturally, that I have nothing valuable to say. Nevertheless, I would meekly venture to make my own observations and cast them out there into the world-wide web and see what happens. I haven’t seen the movie since it only opens tomorrow. I already know it is only loosely based on the Bible. Still, I wonder at the talking heads who constantly declare the Bible to be irrelevant to a throughly modern world. Okay, so I realize that this is about money, but Manhattan is often seen to be one of the more sophisticated cultural landmarks in the country. This summer I couldn’t walk more than a book or two without being inundated with Noah posters. Now I am finding the same with Exodus paraphernalia. If we try to put the Bible away, it seems, it will come to find us.

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The Bible, relevant or not, is full of great baseline stories. Even in a secular society we can see the appeal of Noah and his menagerie to young children who are so fascinated with animals. We decorate youngsters’ sleepwear and toys with elephants and lions and giraffes (interestingly not mentioning that these are primarily African animals) aboard an ark with an unfailingly cheerful Noah. Now we have another classic—the great liberation story (also set in Africa) of a people held in bondage being released by divine command. We are a post-Christian society, according to the pundits, so who this divine one is remains an open question. The idea that one people is kept oppressed by another people, however, is presented as unequivocally wrong. Moses rides out on a horse, weapons in hand. Are we not focusing on the larger point yet?

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This latest love affair with the Bible as a source of great cinematography will not last forever. It will surely ebb away until only a few old blog posts might remain to remind us there was a time when Holy Writ inspired screen writers and directors. Nevertheless, the Bible bides its time. Back in the days when I used to teach Hebrew Bible Hollywood didn’t do too much to help out. Students had to slog through pages of picture-less Bibles to get the gist of the what God had in mind. The results may not be the same from those comfy seats in movie theaters, but a future generation will come to see Charlton Heston as a white man who loved guns being overcome by a newer generation of producers and directors who know there is a larger story here. Of course, I’m only a blogger with no credentials. Still I know what I see on the streets of the city.

Texodus

I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

The Open Sea

498px-Christopher_Columbus“In 1492,” they tell me, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” As a feat of science in the age of discovery, there is no doubt that this was an event worth celebrating. Over time, however, the luster has diminished somewhat. Although I can speak only for myself, I often feel that being a male caucasian is a decided liability. It certainly has been in my professional life. Although my ancestors were probably busy grubbing an existence from the soil as Columbus nobly stood on the forecastle, spyglass in hand and India in his heart, we are classed together. Attitudes toward divine destiny were much different then. The European powers that had made the world they discovered in their image could only see this as the will of the Almighty. That’s the liability of omnipotence. What happens is, by definition, God’s will. As technology led from success to success, Columbus set off to shrink his world. And get rich in the process. What’s so wrong with that?

The view among the displaced may be very different. People, if pagan, happened to be living in Canaan before Moses arrived, according to Holy Writ. They were, however, an annoying inconvenience to a God who had it all planned out. And since that torch had been passed to the Christian leaders of Europe, although contested by the Muslim leaders elsewhere, they had to follow their destiny to these sacred shores. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you sitting here? And those who march in the parades do it a bit more self-consciously while the majority of us continue to work in New Amsterdam as if nothing extraordinary had happened. As if a genocide hadn’t led to prosperity. As if, although God has disappeared, this wasn’t manifest destiny after all.

Humans can’t be blamed for being curious. It is part of our nature. I do wonder what will happen when we finally stop fighting one another and land ourselves on another inhabited planet. One where they haven’t achieved the technology that we have. Will we have learned anything from the St. Columbus Day massacre or will we still be guided by our confidence in lenses that can see billions of years into the past, see the havoc we’ve visited upon our own planet and still say, “it is good”? Even on the bridge of the Enterprise there is only one alien standing, and he is wearing earth clothes. Can we be disinterested observers when potential wealth lies below the feet of those we meet? We respect your culture, but hey, what’s that you’re standing on? Mind if we take it? You’re not using it. And once their voices have been silenced, we’ll seek other oceans blue to sail.