About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2021/07/23

Jonah and the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Just imagine for a moment this purely hypothetical scenario:

Imagine a person or persons who present themselves as deeply religious, who know all the right religious answers, and quote the Bible up and down, but strangely remain untouched by its spirit.

            Imagine those who use religion to prop up all their resentments and prejudices, who are harsh and unforgiving towards others but love to play the victims, who on the surface might seem kind and caring, but they turn religion into a tool of vicious vindictiveness. Imagine those who are religiously self-righteous and thus unwilling and unable to change and to forgive.

            Hard to imagine such a scenario, right? Very likely you never met such people, they probably do not exist. Such people do not rule many denominations and religious organizations. They do not use religion to scale to political power and when they attain that power, they do not want to pass harsh and harmful laws and they do not hide their racism behind a holy religious facade.

            But just in the highly unlikely case that you are to meet them, what can you do? How to dissuade them from this hypocrisy and religious travesty?

            You might not know it about the Bible but in the book of Jonah God treats this sick, sick, sick religion with humor and in the final chapter of that book God sends a very hungry caterpillar to gnaw holes into this bigoted, prejudiced, self righteous religion. That is our theme this Sunday.

 

 


 

2021/07/15

Biblical Anachronisms

A substantial part of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Testament, was written much much later than many people are made to believe. That is to say, it is much younger than it pretends to be. The ubiquitous anachronisms are tale-tale signs.

            What is an anachronism? If I told you that on my last visit to my European homeland I saw the King of Prague you would know that something was up, that I was pulling your leg or I had lost all my marbles. The Czech Republic is not a kingdom and there has never been any king of Prague. It would be like saying the Queen of London or the King of Stockholm.

             We read something similar in the book of Jonah about the king of Nineveh. There was never a king of Nineveh! It was always a king of Assyria. Perhaps, it might be a king IN Nineveh, but that is not what is in the Bible.

           More over the Assyrian Empire had a number of capitals. Nineveh was perhaps the best known capital of the Neo Assyrian empire, but the dates simply don’t fit even if we take seriously the dates of legendary Jonah. It does not fit by about 100 years.

            And so the King of Nineveh in the book of Jonah might sound plausible on the surface, but when you look closer it is all an inaccurate anachronism because the Book of Jonah was written hundreds and hundreds of years later and for other purpouse than history.

            Jonah was clearly written as a parody or satire book. It is even possible that these anachronisms were part of its satirical aim (like for instance our spoofs about The Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers). But primarily, the book of Jonah was written to ridicule and thus to provide a balance to chauvinism and religious intolerance of its time and of such biblical books like Ezra, Nehemia or Ester.

            Jonah is a comedy book with a serious purpose - supporting a tolerant, unbiased, cosmopolitan outlook. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.

 


2021/07/08

Biblical Monsters

The Hebrew Bible is surprisingly aflush with mythical primordial monsters which it shares with other Near and Middle East religions and cultures. It is especially surprising when you consider that is coming from one of the driest parts of the world full of savannas, deserts, and semi-deserts.

            Probably best known among those monsters is Leviathan. In Ugaritic known as Litanu. Sometimes it is paralleled with a serpent monster, possibly with seven heads.

            Next well known monster could be Behemoth. Possibly a bull like amphibian beast present in water as well as on land. One is almost led to imagine it like a monstrous hippopotamus. In ancient Near East sources it might be associated with similar amphibian monsters like Atik and Arshu.

           Besides these two well-known water monsters there was also Tannin, known in Ugaritic as Tunnanu. There are signs it was perceived like a monstrous crocodile but likely with two tails. This monster eventually made it to the Greek language as Tuna fish  and thus also into our tins. ;-)

            Then there was a monster called Rahab known possibly just from the Bible. But there might be two instances of it in broken and obscure Akkadian texts. It is also likely that this monster was known under its descriptive names like for instance “Seven-headed Serpent”, or “Encyrclerer”.  

            Finally there was Tehom known from Babylon as Tiamat, a monster of primordial chaos. In the Bible Tehom is often demythologized as "the ocean deep", but there are also well documented instances where it is clearly a divine or semi-divine demonic figure (for instance in Job 28:14 or Pslam 42:8).

          And the presence of all these mythical monsters in the Hebrew Bible is something you might not know about it.

- - -

All these sea monsters are clear vestiges of a rather complex creation mythology. The world was created and made habitable by all these monsters being slain, vanquished or at least captured and kept under check.  

            The first battle happened at the beginning of time. The forces of chaos were defeated and an orderly and civilized world came into being.

          Unfortunately, some of these monsters, or the forces they represented, were only rebuffed or perhaps they escaped. They need to be constantly under check. That is the source of persistant anxiety as well as a reason for many prayers. And in this context we can observe these monsters being linked with historical enemies: Egypt, Babylon, Hellenistic kingdoms or later in the New Testament Rome.

            But the final and complete victory is coming. These monsters will be decisively defeated at the end of time. This part of the myth is for instance present in the biblical book of Revelation in its vision of the final victory over the dragon. 

           As you can see, this is a rather complex tripartite monster-mythology embracing the entirety of time. Its presence in the Bible is another thing you might not know about the Bible.

- - -

All of this is, as you can recognize, quite a dense mythological material. It does not fit neatly with biblical monotheism and its program of toning down old mythological references. And so the biblical scribes and editors used several strategies to make it fit with their overarching program.

            Firstly they re-naturalized these monsters. They attempted to return them back to the beasts from which they most likely originated. There are clear attempts to portray Behemoth as hippopotamus, Tanin as a crocodile, and  Leviathan as a whale.

           Secondly and somehow overlapping with the previous strategy, these monsters were “domesticated”. They were made less horrifying and even portrayed as playful. For instance, Psalmist (Psalm 104:26) describes Leviathan as created by God to romp in the sea.

            The next step was when a sea monster was made to faithfully serve divine purpose. In the book of Jonah a sea monster follows divine command and swallows a rebellious prophet. Being thusly swallowed by a monster must had been the stuff of horrid nightmares! But then we realize that the monster had a hard time keeping the rebellious prophet inside. And as soon as God allowed, it vomited him on shore (Jonah 2:10).

          Such use of a mythical sea monster for parody and comic effect was the last stage of the biblical demythologization of monsters. And that is yet another, third thing, you might not know about the biblical monsters.



2021/07/01

Hilarious Bible

The ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of a healthy self-esteem. And for religion it is an important sign of healthy faith.

            Consider for instance the book of Jonah. It is a marvelously crafted religious parody. No, I am not speaking about that tall story about a bloke surviving three days in the stomach of a big fish. That had been a focal point for millennia and is a minor issue. In myths and legends something like that can happen every day. With Jonah, the entire book is written like a joyful and irrelevant inversion and parody of a self-obsessed, pretentious, buffoonish religiosity.

            You don’t need to take my word for it. It is an understanding of current biblical scholarship. The main disputes are now whether it is a satire or irony, a comical folk story or intellectual parody.

            One thing is for certain. Humour permeates the vocabulary, grammar, and style even its penchant for quoting and inverting older texts, concepts, and expectations. The entire story is written in the sensational style of yellow journalism. Take for instance the word “great” (גָדוֹל in Hebrew) - no other biblical book has a similar density of this word. (And biblical Hebrew is rather frugal with adjectives). I would argue that it should be translated as "HUGE", because everything in Jonah is larger than life.

            Similarly, many sacred religious concepts and words are mercilessly inverted and satirized. This book pokes holes in self-assured religiosity at every turn in order to liberate us from self-obsessed religion and deliver important messages. 

            Among them are cosmopolitan sentiments and interreligious understandings while at the same time undermining egotistic religion and religious chauvinism. And all of it is achieved with great humour. Indeed, the book of Jonah is one entire humourous book with very important and serious messages. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.

 

Now, for the month of July, each Sunday we will take one chapter of this unique book to enlighten us with its humour and its wit. But don’t despair, there will be not only a pontificating  pastor boringly explaining biblical jokes and their significance. Each Sunday on the bulletin cover we will have one original cartoon drawn for us by a friend of our church and New Yorker cartoonist, Barbara Smaller. So come to church this Sunday to get the hard copy of this cartoon made just for our church.

 


 

2021/06/17

Biblical Chaoskampf

Can you walk on water? I would doubt it! Such skill is reserved only for deities!
Prophet Isaiah (43:16) speaks about YHWH

     who makes a way in the sea,

           a path in the mighty waters.

And similarly Psalmist (77:19) sings about YHWH:

Your way was through the sea,

    your path, through the mighty waters;

        yet your footprints were unseen.

And for those who might be a little slow in understanding the Psalmist spells it out and drops a direct hint:

            You led your people like a flock

            by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Of course, those walking-on-water reports are actually references of Exodus and the Israelites escaping from Egypt across the sea. The Hebrew Bible, especially the poetical parts, seems to have plenty of these direct and indirect hints of God subduing, defeating and controlling unruly waters while at the same time liberating and protecting God’s faithful people. And, of course, that image is picked up in the New Testament when Jesus calmed the stormy sea and even walked on it. All these biblical passages are hinting, alluding and reenacting the Exodus - this formative and quintessential event of the people of faith - both Jews and Christians.

            But then... then there is a problem. Actually an entire mound of problems, big problems

because such references and allusions are not limited to the Bible. There are many renditions of this image of calming, subduing or walking on an unruly sea which are predating not only the Hebrew Bible - they also predate the theoretical date of Exodus whenever you might think of placing it. These Ancient Near East examples predate anything in the bible by hundreds and even thousands of years.

            In the Babylonian myth  Enūma Eliš god Marduk defeats, crushes and tramples on the watery monster Tiamat and you can find similar stories throughout the Ancient Near East. Among the scholars of religion this mytheme is called Chaoskampf - struggle, fight against the powers of Chaos.  And there are also many iconographic examples - cylinder seals, engravings and other depictions from all over the ancient Near and Middle East. On an attached picture is a stela of god Baal from the late bronze age city of Ugarit. You can see  Baal standing, trampling and thus dominating waves of the sea. Just like we read in the Psalm or in prophet Isaiah.

            These could not be allusions of Exodus because that was still in the distant future for many of these examples. And hardly any orthodox Jewish and Christian theologian would claim these instances were pagan prophesies foretelling the birth of those religions.

            But strangely, in a special, unique way, these might very much be exactly something like that! Those Bronze Age Babylonian and Syrian myths can be seen as foreshadowing the future. They were preparing a building material for the future, for the birth of the biblical religion.

            And the authors of the Hebrew Bible and later of the Christian New Testament took over those myths and used them, adapted them to tell their own stories about their own heroes and their victories over chaos and creation of the new world, new people. But most importantly, their re-purposed stories had the same function and purpose - reassuring audiences, listeners and readers of ultimate divine victory and thus bringing hope to the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

          When Jesus walks on the billows of the sea and calms the raging waves or when we hear about Moses leading people from slavery through the sea to freedom - in these dearly beloved biblical stories – we hear that God will act the same way again. And while listening we are actually touching something very precious. We share our hopes and our stories with people at least 4,500 years ago and we are connected with the dawn of the civilization, almost as far back as the written records go. In these formative stories of our faith we encounter deep archetypal fears and also hopes. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.

There is also a YouTube video clone of this blog.

 

Join us this Sunday, we will rejoice in the New Testamental reworking and reshaping of this powerful ancient theme.

And here is a video from the worship.

 

2021/06/10

Biblical automata

When we say these days that something is automatic we probably imagine some mechanical contraption or a behaviour which is certain and predictable. But this association of automatic with machines is relatively recent, 200 or maximum 300 years.

            When the ancient people spoke about automatic they meant something completely different. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New

Testament and even Jesus in one of his parables spoke about automatic behaviour and they did not mean any mechanical contraptions.
            AUTOMATOS (Αυτοματος) in the Greek literally meant “to act on its own inner volition, by its own inner desire, simply self-willing.” Automata acted without clear or obvious reason or causation by themselves and from within. The ancient automaton was not any dull machine performing mechanically preset commands. In certain sense all creatures including humans could be called automata when they acted on their own and without commands or obvious causation, when their actions were coming from the inner mental space and independent, free will.
            Thus, when Jesus, just like the Old Testament spoke about the Earth automatically growing and producing crop - they actually assigned to the Earth this inner mental space, its own agency and even its independent and free will. Quite a radical idea and something you might not know about the Bible. 

 

And you can join us in worship this Sunday in celebrating the divine gift of life which is the ultimate force of nature. 

2021/06/03

Beelzebub or Beelzebul

In the New Testament Jesus was accused of conspiring with Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, which was how he was able to heal and expel demons. We all know that Jesus had a quite tense relationship with the religious authorities of his time. No surprise there! What is really interesting in this instance is the name of his alleged demonic ally.
      In the New Testament he is consistently called Beelzebul, while the Hebrew Bible presents him as Beelzebub.
      The Hebrew version of this name can be easily translated as Baal (Lord) of the flies (unpleasant insects). This interpretation is further confirmed in the Septuagint, an Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where it is translated that way into Greek.
      So why does the New Testament have only Beelzebul, what does it mean and what is the significance of it? It cannot be easily translated. Over the years theologians offered a number of different explanations and translations: 1) The Lord of the lofty house; 2) The Lord of the Flame; 3) The Lord of the illness/affliction.
      Then, in the middle of the 20th century, as the cuneiform texts from Ugarit a Late Bronze city in Syria were translated and better understood there were many surprises and among them scholars noticed that the word zbl was used as a title also with a number of divine names. Soon a consensus formed that it was a royal title, something like “Prince” “The elevated one” “His highness”. And in those texts were also instances where name was b‘l zbl -- Ba‘al Zebul best translated as Baal the prince.
      Thus it was confirmed that Hebrew Bible’s - Beelzebub Ba
al Zebub was an intentional misspelling to denigrate, to slander a foreign god. We know that the biblical scribes did that especially to the god Baal - replacing his name occasionally with BOSHET - “shame”. In this case they replaced the royal title with the unpleasant insects - from “Baal the prince” was “Baal/The Lord of the Flies” 
      But in the Ugaritic texts were also another rendition of this divine name
zbl b‘l ars - which can be translated as Prince, Lord of the netherworld. And there were several (unfortunately badly broken) incantations which invoked this Prince, Lord of the underworld, to drive out illness/demons. That well fits the well-known role of the chthonic (underworld) deities who were often believed to possess these curative powers over illnesses and demons.
       So here you have it - the New Testament rendition of this divine name Beelzebul was closer to the original pagan context rather than the one from somehow older Hebrew Bible. And even the accusation of healing with the help of Beelzebul, the lord of the demons better fits the ancient context.
       And that is something you might not know about the Bible. 

And here is a video clone of this blog on YouTube.

And on this Sunday (2021-06-06) you can join us in worship, we will certainly mention the dark forces instigating the civil strife in our world, but we will go further and rejoice in the truly healing, life giving, realm of our Prince of Peace.