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With its endless versatility, gold is many things to many people. Already at the dawn of civilization, both in the old world and the new, it was a valued commodity. It is one of the few things that conquistadors didn’t have to impose on their victims; love of gold was already there. One of the qualities of gold that makes it such a remarkable metal is that a little bit can go a long way. Gold plating, for example, can be accomplished with very thin sheets of gold. This made it ideal for decorating statues of gods in antiquity, or at least the heads of the statues, as reflected in Daniel’s dream of Nebuchadrezzar’s statue. “Thou art this head of gold,” even Daniel obsequiously crows. Today, of course, gold represents commerce and it often sits, unused, in great storehouses heavily guarded, so as to prove a nation’s worth.

Gold still has industrial uses in the book business, particularly with Bibles. A classic Bible with calfskin leather, gold letters stamped on the cover, and gilt-edged pages, can be a luxury item. The gold on the edge of Bible pages is only 1/300,000th of an inch thick, or thin, meaning that a Troy ounce goes a long, long way. Only books with an idolatrous value get this kind of treatment. And they still sell. Somehow an ebook just doesn’t compare. The irony here is that the contents of the Bible suggest that gold is of lesser value than the spiritual truths contained within. Still, we can’t help but smooth the outside with burnished gold. Show and tell it on the mountain.

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Although the populace demanding evangelical standards such as the Scofield Bible are going ever more and more towards the large-print editions, the leather-and-gold crowd is still alive and has the cash to prove it. The same content is available online with just a few keystrokes, but there is no gold coating here. All that glitters is not gold, goes the old saying. As we turn our gaze ever heavenward, the glass visors of space helmets are also covered with a thin layer of gold, as if the deity we might glimpse is best viewed through gilded glasses. From the moon—humanity’s farthest step—back to the early statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, even though it may be the thinnest veneer possible, we look at the world through gold.

Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!

Nebuchadrezzar’s Dream

One of history’s great ironies is that, despite being visually oriented creatures, we often do not know what famous people looked like. The further back in time we go the more difficult the reconstruction is. Ancient people practiced portraiture, although their efforts may have been hampered by stylistic conventions. Egyptian artwork is recognizable at a glance, and Mesopotamian art, with its weightier, angst-laden form is easily distinguished. Their stylized images generally do not allow for direct correlations to Renaissance portraits. When searching for specific individuals, even famous ones, however, the likeness may be completely absent.

Among the most notorious (from a biblical viewpoint) ancient emperors was Nebuchadrezzar. Demonized for his role in the destruction of the sacred temple in Jerusalem, Nebuchadrezzar becomes the hypostasis of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Daniel and even worse in Christian apocalypticism. For all that, Nebuchadrezzar seems to have been a jolly good fellow. An able emperor, he was noted for his building an empire and the loveliest gardens in Iraq. Yet no images of him survive. They may be out there, buried, waiting to be found, but we do not know what this emperor looked like.

A recent web search nevertheless turned up the clearly Greek version of that famous, if forgotten, face on an onyx cameo. It even appears on Wikipedia’s page for Nebuchadnezzar II as an actual image of the man, the legend; this despite the fact that William Hayes Ward, in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1887, explained how the cameo was an early forgery. Originally an “eye of Nabu,” the proto-cameo was the eye of a statue, the pupil of which was carved by a reconstructionist Greek artisan into what he supposed Nebuchadrezzar looked like – a Greek warrior – centuries after the fact.

From Ball's Light from the East

This might be a simple historical curiosity were it not for the fact that evangelical websites and wikis are quick to claim that this clean-shaven, Olympian-profiled vision of masculinity is an actual image of Nebuchadnezzar. Why? He occurs in the Bible and therefore must be “proved” to have been historical. Not only for the real Chaldean Empire, but also for the fictional one concocted by Daniel. Seeing is believing. While history did not see fit to leave a lasting image of Nebuchadrezzar, evangelical websites will use the tried and true god-of-the-gaps methodology to show us what he actually looked like (not).