Kings of Israel

Eating out is something that has become more of a habit than it should. Still, when we get together with friends it’s a cause for celebration, and a restaurant is usually somehow involved. You only live once. Well, maybe. In any case, while waiting for a seat at a new place I happened to glance over at the bar. Two huge bottles of wine stood there. I asked our friends if they knew what they were called. I can’t recall how I’d learned, but the proper name for them is “Jeroboams.” Jeroboam, in case your reading of 1 Kings is somewhat rusty, was the first king of Israel when the “United Monarchy” split into Israel v. Judah after Solomon’s reign. The curiosity of my friends led me to research the subject a bit. What I found was alcohol of biblical proportions.

Another name for the same size bottle as a large Jeroboam is Rehoboam. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son, the king of Judah while Jeroboam took over Israel. Moving up to a 6 litre bottle the name becomes Methuselah. Methuselah, of course, is the Bible’s oldest man. Symbolically, if you do the math, he drowned in the flood. Nine litres will be called a Salmanazar, also known as Shalmaneser, a king of Assyria who attacked Samaria. Twelve litres, and perhaps the namers were getting a bit tipsy here, is either Balthazar or Belshazzar. The former, while not biblical, is the name of one of the three Magi from the visit of the wise men. Belshazzar was, according to Daniel, king of Babylon and is somehow scripturally mixed up with Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, by the way—famous for his madness in Daniel—denotes 15 litres. An 18 litre bottle, depending on which line you’re following (if you can) is either Melchior—another of the Magi—or Solomon, the father of Rehoboam and one time boss of Jeroboam. The 27 litre bottle is called Goliath, for obvious reasons. And if you’re still standing, the 30 litre bottle may either be Midas or Melchizedek. The latter is the mystical king of Salem, later to be called Jerusalem.

I’m personally no fan of wine, so much of this was news to me. Not all bottle sizes are biblical, but many of them are. Spirits, in all seriousness, were taken to be related to the spirit world in ancient times. And the Bible, a book most familiar to those engaged in the industry of wine, was a natural place to find often ironic names. According to John, Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana. Prohibitionists shudder to read that the carpenter from Nazareth changed six jars, each holding between 20 and 30 gallons, into free spirits. Wine bottles, perhaps to society’s benefit, never grow so large. But it’s time to go, our food has arrived.

Psalms of Lament

Fate can be decidedly cruel sometimes.  Accidental discoveries can be the most painful of all.  As my regular readers know, I wrote a book on the Psalms (Weathering the Psalms, Wipf & Stock—on sale now!) while teaching at Nashotah House seminary.  I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press, and it was declined on the basis of one review.  Subsequently, I met the reviewer at a conference reception and he is now working on a book proposal for me.  Such are the ironies of life.  I can let that go with a chuckle of existentialist bonhomie.  The twist of fate comes in through helping a colleague with a question about the Psalms.  I grabbed the nearest book at work that would help, the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Psalms.  I’d glanced through it before, but this time it fell open to the contributor’s page and the words “Nashotah House” fell upon my eye.

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During my years at the seminary, I published at least one academic article a year, as well as a book, and I attended and delivered papers at the major professional conference every year.  No one ever approached me about contributing to a Handbook, apart from my advisor and friend Nick Wyatt.  I labored at building an academic career for 14 years in obscurity.  Now, the newly hired replacement (not the faculty member hired to replace me) gets invited to contribute to a major reference work.  I do not know the man.  He may be a perfectly personable chap.  Some of us, however, can work our hardest and never get noticed.  It seems as if the world of scholarship is really just a house of cards. 
 
Perhaps in times of schlock and flaw, such as these, I should turn to Ecclesiastes for comfort, rather than Psalms.  Yes, the Psalms say some pretty challenging things to God—not as challenging as Job or Jeremiah, but still.  Ecclesiastes, however, is the one to calm the intellectual’s soul.  There are those who claim that the Bible no longer has any utility in a post-Christian society.  Wise Qohelet, I’m sure, might just agree, even as he disagrees.  I tried, without benefit of sabbatical, and with additional administrative duties, to make an academic life for myself.  I was, in reality, just shuffling the deck with old Solomon.  We took turns building layer upon layer, he and I, both knowing that our house, like any built on sand, could never stand.  It must be some of that sand in my eyes; otherwise I can’t explain why they are watering so.

Rock Hard Cafe

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At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”

But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.

My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.

Leggo My Congo

When I first saw the trailer for Congo, back in 1995, I was a new father and my interest in talking apes understandably took a back seat. While the movie sat back there like a quiet child, it was slowly forgotten. Something prompted my memory over the weekend, so I finally watched it. Now, I had plenty of time to read the negative reviews, but I have a soft spot for both talking apes and bad movies. The really fascinating aspect of Congo, however, was the fantastic liberties it takes with the ancient world, particularly the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon has been under investigation over the past few decades. Archaeologists have not found evidence of the biblical opulence concerning both his wealth and fame. It seems likely that he was an actual king, but the king of a small nation that did not have quite the pull that later tradition granted to it. Still, Solomon has become a cultural trope for great wealth and splendor, and if a movie-maker wants an easy frame of reference, well, some people will recognize old Sol. Those who do recognize Solomon probably won’t have a ready inventory of his assets to interrupt their enjoyment (that presumes a lot) of the movie.

The motive factor that brings our unlikely traveling companions together in Congo, are the fabricatedly mythical diamond mines of King Solomon, located in the Congo. A self-styled archaeologist and professional con-man from Romania assists to finance a flight to Africa to help return a homesick gorilla (Amy) who also, by the way, talks. The only realistic aspect of the heroes is that the university professors are the ones who are completely broke and have to rely on corporate funding to get their monkey off their back (well, actually she’s an ape). And then there is the huge communications giant (TraviCom) that needs the diamonds for their communications equipment. And a bunch of Africans who just want to stay alive (most don’t succeed). Solomon was never really associated with diamonds in the Bible. His wealth is described in terms of gold, silver, bronze, peacocks, and suprizingly, apes. Why and how he would have managed a mine in central Africa when even the Egyptians didn’t travel there is never explained.

Well, I shouldn’t be so hasty about the Egyptians. Our Romanian con-man is also able to translate Egyptian heiroglyphics, liberally scribbled on the walls of the fortress surrounding Solomon’s mine. These preserve the story of the “myth of the killing apes” that generated an honest-to-god guffaw from my cynical self. New mythology and corny characters aside, the movie didn’t fail to reach me. I’m always a sucker for talking apes and under-funded education, both of which represent a kind of extinction. If Solomon really had a reach all the way to the Congo, and if he extracted the huge diamonds the movie showed scattered around on the surface of the ground and if universities could actually get media attention for causes other than the shortcomings of their football programs, there could be cause for hope. In what is a bit of probably unintended social commentary, after the mine is destroyed in a volcanic eruption, only one diamond remains. And that diamond benefits neither the single surviving African nor the underfunded university professor. It becomes a weapon in the hands of a large, private corporation.

Conversation with Solomon

“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country,” wrote George Baer of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. In 1902. Along with Melville I’ve been thinking about old Ecclesiastes and his gloomy prognostications. The writer of this neglected book of the Bible claimed that nothing was new under the sun; what is has been before. I read the quote above in David DeKok’s Fire Underground (on which more later). I thought of Occupy Wall Street and the supposed great wisdom of the “Christian men” that God “himself” has appointed to towers of wealth for our benefit. As long as we keep our mouths shut and our hind-quarters out of Zuccotti Park. The data, Old Solomon, I must admit, are depressing. The staggering wealth of the top one percent is beyond unconscionable. Solomon? Are you still listening? After all, as one of the Lord’s chosen, Solomon was also a king. In his day, according to the book of Kings, silver was as common as the dust in the streets. Is that rain, or just drool from the towers of power?

Old Ecclesiastes said the more that things change, the more they stay the same. He also inspired the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As a society we have become reluctant to turn. Where did all that wealth go, Solomon? Did it not go to the temple and the palace? Seems there was a Religious Right even back then. As soon as Solomon died the common folk revolted. The chosen people split into two kingdoms that were never again reunited. Turn, turn, turn. The Christian men to whom God has given control have abandoned their posts. They’ve taken the cash and shared with their friends. Yes, America has kings. When the disparity is so great no other name applies.

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” Old Ecclesiastes says, “and it will come back to you in time of want.” I doubt that Solomon was ever unemployed. After working for “the Christian men” for over a decade, I was cast out on the waters, never to return. My stint of unemployment wavered in and out for six years. And I am one of the lucky ones. In that time I don’t recall feeling any wealth trickling down. I sure spent a lot getting the requisite degrees for a job that never materialized. So I sit down to read Ecclesiastes. Those who are addicted to wealth and power simply never took the words of the old sage to heart. We can excuse them, I suppose, since most clergy ignore him as well. When in need of some honesty, it is nice to know there’s a book in the Bible that is unafraid to utter the truth.

Agnostic Gnostic

Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.

Cedars of Lebanon

My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.

Somebody's eye is watching you.

The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.

Origins of Sacrifice

Podcast 22 is a discussion on possible origins of the practice of animal sacrifice.

Archaeology in the Service of Politics

People are political creatures. Unfortunately. Politics, as most honest observers of society admit, serve the interest of the ruling party over the good of the whole. This is a nearly universal human flaw; a glance at any newspaper will demonstrate its prevalence. Those who practice politics can hardly be blamed for using the system they’ve inherited, but the system leads to many instances of unfortunate posturing and suffering. Clearly seen in Middle Eastern current events, it is nonetheless no less so in the “western world.” Often in both political arenas the Bible is invoked.

An article in this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger bears the headline “Archaeologist links ancient wall to Bible and King Solomon.” The story goes on to describe how excavations in Jerusalem outside the Temple Mount have unearthed a stone wall that might have been part of the legendary temple of Solomon. Of course, putting biblical names to mute structures amounts to voicing ownership claims. Solomon is not a historically attested individual yet – the only source referencing him is the Bible – and claims to have found his temple are premature. As the story states, “Palestinian archaeologists have criticized their Israeli counterparts’ rush to link finds to the Bible.” Amen. So they have; the structure itself is used as a form of dominance. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist named in the article, is quoted as having said that this wall, “testifies to a ruling presence.”

The Haram es-Sharif, or Temple Mount, is one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on the planet. Embedded within these claims are acclamations of ownership. This brief post does not offer the space to unfold the complex issues in any substantial way, but it is an opportunity to note how archaeology is often used to establish tenuous holds on a past that is too foggy to penetrate. Like the classic dystopias of the twentieth century, politically oriented individuals use the evidence to write their own versions of the past. Pasting the name of an uncertain Solomon on a building that the Bible states was built by Phoenicians is an ironic historical twist indeed.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

Is the Truth Under There?

Each semester I introduce my Hebrew Bible students to the dangers of “biblical archaeology.” Not that there is any wrong-headedness in excavating sites of importance to ancient Israel, but I warn them of requiring proof for religious beliefs. Early archaeologists digging in the lands of the Bible were open about their agendas — “proving” the Bible to be “true.” The problem is proof is certain only in mathematics, not in matters of faith. Truth cannot be known, but must be believed. When archaeologists excavate the unknown, they cannot know in advance what they might find.

As a young academic wannabe, I volunteered at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987. Before the introductory orientation sessions Dor was only a shadow of a reference to one of King Solomon’s administrative cities mentioned in 1 Kings; I knew nothing of its location or importance. I’d had enough of seminary to be skeptical of many truth claims even then, and the irreverent outlook of many of my fellow diggers underscored the secular nature of the venture. We were digging for the truth, but we might not recognize it when we found it. Apart from the scorpions and tarantulas, we unearthed many mute trinkets from Israelites silenced by time. My square team was assigned to the city gate; we were seeking the coveted fourth chamber to place the city in a Solomonic context.

To the best of my knowledge, our humble efforts did not prove the Bible was true. After manually hauling out tons of dirt, we found what appeared to be a gate chamber and perhaps even a rubbish heap. Of these two features the rubbish heap was the more interesting to me. Here it was that the cast-offs of ancient life had been consigned to oblivion only to be rescued by bewildered strangers far in the future. Truth is often in what we hide. It may not be glamorous or worthy of biblical paeans, but it is that part of our lives that we discard. Finding “Solomon’s” gate proved nothing, but what “his” people threw away contained nuggets of the truth.

Is the Truth Under There? Tel Dor 1987