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."

2021/07/28

Moses in Attic

I hear Moses in Attic. Well, more precisely, I hear Moses speaking Attic. And I do not mean he was a rich New Yorker living in a penthouse or a poor student in a mansard apartment. I mean Attic in the sense of the Classical Greek language, culture and influence.
    It has been a known and well established fact for centuries that the Hebrew Bible is full of anachronisms. Those are historical and geographical realities which simply do not fit the period into which they are being cast (like Jonah meeting the king of Nineveh or Abraham having camels). But very often they do not fit even the period in which they were supposedly being written down. And so the location name “Ur of Chaldeans” could not possibly be given by Judean exiles in Babylon, they would know it was nonsense.  
    Well, Five books of Moses were written in Hebrew, just like lion share of the Hebrew Bible (not counting a few chapters in Aramaic).  But in their final form they came into existence and were greatly influenced by the Greek culture. The entire idea of writing a history points towards the specific period when it became “a thing”.  This desire to write history came around the time of Herodotus and not much earlier. Before that, there were monumental inscriptions, royal annals and heroic legends, but not concerted attempts on writing a narrative history.
    That brings me to even a stronger argument of the literary genre. The narrative genre of these writings is important and greatly revealing. Homer wrote epic poetry while Herodotus or Xenophon wrote in prose. Ugaritic legends of King Keret or Danel were all written in epic poetry while Books of Moses are predominantly written in a narrative prose. Biblical prose is the biggest anachronism of all biblical anachronisms, staring right into our face and thus almost invisible. Biblical prose is but unique and unexplainable unless we date it to a different epoch.
    Both the desire to write a history and the style in which it is being accomplished point towards the late classical and early Hellenistic period and towards Greek cultural and intellectual influences. And thus, the Books of Moses were written in Hebrew all right, but I hear them speaking Attic in respect of their period and culture.
    This is a relatively new and still developing biblical scholarship called Copenhagen or Scandinavian School. And thus it is quite likely something you might not know about the Bible.

Come this Sunday to rejoice in transformative and liberating consequences of these new theological developments.

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Occasionally there are questions about the academic sources of claims made in these blogs. I decided to list some of the sources.
Did Moses Speak Attic (Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period) Edited by Lester L. Grabbe, Sheffield 2001.

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.

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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.

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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.