Sodom

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s an asteroid coming to wipe out a city!  One of the cottage industries outside biblical studies is the interest in finding historical events to explain Bible stories.  A few years ago it was proposed, with some degree of probability, that the flooding of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean, validated by archaeology, led to the story of Noah’s flood.  I recently saw a story suggesting that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam by an asteroid about 3,600 years ago might’ve been the basis of the story of the destruction of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah  most prominent among them.  The piece by Christopher R. Moore in The Conversation describes the moments of horror—mercifully brief—as the space rock exploded above ground and wiped the city from the face of the earth.

Since this happened near the location of Jericho, the destructive shock waves knocked its walls down, leading to another biblical tale.  I often wonder about these “theories.”  They show just how deeply biblical our society is.  The frame of reference is already there.  People know about Sodom and Gomorrah.  They know about the flood.  They know of naked Adam and Eve and a snake wrapped around a tree.  When a disaster happens in the right region, and before the biblical story was written, it is suggested as the etiology of the tale.  Many have tried to explain the plagues of Egypt using similar methods.  Our culture seems to long for some skyhook on which to hang our biblical hat.  Some indication of why people put such strange stories in the Good Book.

Biblical scholars look too, but with a different perspective.  Etiologies are stories of origins.  Traditionally the Genesis account of the cities of the plain is understood as an etiology of the Dead Sea.  A unique geological feature of this planet, it is, in a word, weird.  The story of Abraham’s nephew Lot seems to explain it.  The article makes a compelling case for a heavenly fireball at about the right time that wiped out a settlement of about 8,000 people.  Genesis wasn’t written yet at 1600 BCE, the time of the event.  Since the impact site wasn’t far from the Dead Sea it seems to fit  the bill for a valid etiology.  None of these events proves biblical stories true, but they do show possible avenues of transmission.  This one definitely has me wondering.

Image credit: Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Decade Fail

In a recent newspaper report on the state of the nation, local journalist Tom Moran cites a Pew survey in which most Americans surveyed rated the current and swiftly ending decade as the worst one of their lives. As a professional academic who was ousted from a highly rated, long-term teaching post this decade after a Fundamentalist takeover of the school where I taught, I am inclined to agree. Five years later I am still searching for any kind of meaningful full-time work, while yesterday I spied an ad for a “Ghost Twitterer” (as if someone is so important that they can’t write their own 140 daily words) and bowed my head in sorrow. Maybe we really have sunk to a new low.

What really caught my eye, however, was the statement of a fellow professor at Rutgers (where I have been an adjunct for nearly three years). Ross Baker noted that “It has always taken calamities of almost Biblical proportions to shake this country out of its smugness and complacency.” While I agree with his assessment, the use of the phrase “biblical proportions” demonstrated once again that my chosen field of specialization has a solid place in the popular imagination. Generally “biblical proportions” is a phrase used to refer to disasters, something along the magnitude of a world-wide flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the plagues of Egypt. These mythological episodes have left a deep impression on our culture that the message of the Bible is a fitting one for the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps we are really in trouble if this facile view of the Bible is wedded to a facile misuse of the same book for constructing prejudicial public policies and ill-conceived conservative “reforms.” If the past decade has been a wash in this country, I would attribute it to a conservative evangelical political machine that churned out a president who literally would have been pleased to bring on the mythical Armageddon. During this bushesque reign of biblical proportions, I lost a secure job teaching Bible and haven’t been able to find any other full-time work. I would continue my rant but I have to polish up my résumé, and hone my succinctness skills, and try for a Ghost Twitterer position.