Archive for August, 2011

Language is the Art of Community

August 31, 2011 7 comments

I’m sure most people have heard some variant of this before, but it bears repeating: language is the primary means by which we establish our identities and humanity with other people. You can show up looking like a hairy stone-age guy who badly needs a shower, but if you reel off a quote from, say, Romeo and Juliet, at least some people will be willing to forgive you your appearance.

In other words, nothing says more about you than the way you speak.


The thought may have particular importance as the school year revs up. It has always astounded me how little attention we pay to language skills in the United States. Everyone is worried about buying new computers and building science classrooms, but no one seems to understand that unless we cultivate English and a knowledge of languages generally, our community’s cohesion is at stake. It’s not simply a matter of being understood, it’s also a matter of what you know and the impression you make.

And it’s clear that we aren’t trying hard enough: when many colleges teach their Freshmen remedial English, our High Schools are failing to teach even basic language skills. Not to mention things like Latin and Greek, which not only help students develop a better mastery of their everyday speech, but also open up the possibility of reading the gospels, Thucydides, and Cicero in their original languages.


I know that many schools are maxed out just trying to integrate students whose families have come to America from all over the globe, but let’s not forget that it pays to get our young people past the basics and give them some mastery of the culture that they are inheriting.       RT


Image: The Rosetta Stone; WikiCmns; Christian Theological Seminary; Public Domain.

A Global Trust Bank?

August 27, 2011 1 comment

With the number of disasters, either natural, man-made, or both, mounting up in recent years, maybe it’s time to think about planning for emergency and recovery relief efforts.

Consider these recent disasters: The 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency; the 2010 BP oil disaster; Hurricane Katrina (2005); and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. (and now, Hurricane Irene.)

In the case of the 2004 tsunami alone, billions of U.S. dollars have been pledged by nations, NGOs, private corporations, and individuals, as well as food, medicines, equipment, and personnel. As always when such large sums of money are involved, there have been allegations of abuse and fraud. UNICEF reported in 2009 that it had spent USD 608.4 million on 2004 tsunami relief.

To some extent, of course, the response to such disasters must be piecemeal, determined as the overall character and details of the event become clear. On the other hand, considering the sums of money and the coordination required by such incidents, wouldn’t it make sense to start setting aside money and establishing relief mechanisms now?

A trust bank to administer relief funds for disasters around the globe might help. It would be administered like the World Bank, with a board of directors appointed by the nations that capitalize the bank. Perhaps we could start with a board that monitors current relief funding? (and while we’re thinking about it, what about funding the creation of multiparty democracies in places such as Libya and Egypt?)

Just a thought….    RT


Photo: Floating House after 2011 Japanese Earthquake. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

The Camel and the Sistrum (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Sidebar)

August 25, 2011 1 comment

Reconstructing the stories behind the Bible isn’t always a matter of incredibly patient work–the Novgorod Codex and the Elohist notwithstanding; sometimes it’s a matter of fact checking, as in discovering the role that camels have played in the history of desert places.

To begin with, camels weren’t domesticated until the 12th Century B.C. (the age of the oldest camel saddles discovered so far). So when a biblical passage mentions camels–such as the Ishmaelite caravan that Joseph’s brothers sold him to in Genesis 37:27, we know that that part of the story (as it turns out, part of the “J” text) can be no earlier than the late 2nd millenium.

Perhaps more important, the domestic camel opened up desert terrain to human settlement. Not only did the animal offer transportation across the desert, but its milk is a whole food that can sustain people for months. When we think of this development and the appearance of the Israelite sourthern tribes in the late 2nd millenium (and the rise of Judah), it seems clear that the camel at a minimum facilitated the lifestyle of the southerners.


About sistrums: they are not rattles (precussion instruments that have a hollow body filled with small objects such as beads or sand); rather, sistrums are made of a handle attached to a U-shaped frame that holds several crossbars; the small rings suspended from the crossbars, when shaken, produce a clanking that can vary from soft to strident.

The sistrum was used during sacred rituals and dancing in Ancient Egypt, and was especially associated with the worship of Hathor, the Cow-Goddess.

Now the sistrum is particularly interesting because it was the instrument used by Miriam and her followers to celebrate the drowning of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea, and it is known that the sistrum was used in rituals to prevent the flooding of the Nile River. Could Miriam have been a priestess of Hathor? And how would her role affect events during the Exodus?

Dale R. Broadhurst has been considering these questions for some time. I highly recommend his web page, the Sistrum in the Sinai.


Images: 1) Camel Corps at Magdhaba; Source: Wikipedia, Camell; Licence: Public Domain. 2) Mosta Olerie, Sistrum; Wikipedia, CC 3.0 Unported; author: Lalupa.


August 21, 2011 2 comments

A ferrofluid is a carrier fluid in which magnetically sensitive particles have been suspended. This image was selected as a Wikimedia Picture of the Day on 9 November 2006. Author: Gregory F. Maxwell. Licence: GNU Free Documentation Licence 1.2 only.


Samaria (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part II)

August 21, 2011 3 comments

The comments by Creative Isthmus on the first installment of this thread has set RT to thinking. While I started this topic because I had a hunch that important biblical sources (and their connections to regional history) are being overlooked, I am now reminded that more important questions may be at stake in this thread–above all, in what ways have the complex development of religion improved our lives? One can always point to a decline in violence as a principle benefit of the emegence of the biblical tradition–an end to human sacrifice, the prohibition of murder, and the general adoption of peace as an important goal in human affairs. But at the same time, a price was paid–the suppression of women and the adoption of the notion that only one religious perspective can be correct. How can we maintain our adherence to peace while acknowledging our respect for and committment to previously disenfranchised people? 

Samaria, otherwise known as the Kingdom of Israel, is the next stop on the way to understanding the origins of the Bible. The account given of it in Kings and Chronicles, while containing valid information, is heavily biased by political considerations, but fortunately has now been supplemented by archaeological research. The biblical writers have left the impression that the Kingdom of Israel did little except trangress the laws given by God; archaeological findings suggest a wealthy and sophisticated society. Answering the question, “Who were the Samarians?” is critical to tracing the origins of the Bible and the connection of the biblical authorship to the developing Z Revolution in the ancient Middle East.

The account of the birth of Jacob’s children is the place to begin examining the Samarians. And in fact, the bible contains not one but two accounts of their births: the Elohist (or “E”) and Yahwist (or “J”) versions. If we look at the E version (and we are supposing that E is older than J), we find that the order of birth is 1) Dan; 2) Naphtali; 3) Gad; 4) Asher; 5) Issachar; 6) Zebulon. With the exception of Gad, these are all became the fathers of northern tribes (and I think Gad may originally have been located in the north). Moreover, not only are these northern tribes, but the list starts with tribe that was located farthest north and moves steadily south from the headwaters of the Jordan. What this suggests to me is that the original conquest of Canaan was from the north–an idea supported by Abraham’s departure into Canaan from Harran, a city so far north that today it is part of Turkey.

The northern (and original) tribes of Israel carried their northern culture with them. Why did they not continue their conquest farther south, into the Negev Desert? Because they ran into the cultural boundary that cut ancient Palestine in half. To the north, the country is reasonably well watered and can support agriculture; to the south, the country is desert. The northern tribes simply did not have a technology and lifestyle that permitted them to live in the harsh conditions of the south. What is most important to realize is that the cultural boundary continued to exist throughout the history of ancient Israel, and prevented the union of the two cultures, Israel and Judah, that sprang up in Palestine (even the United Monarchy under David and Solomon apparently deepened the cultural divide between North and South).

The god that the northern tribes brought with them was probably the Semitic moon god, Sin (Harran was one of the centers of his worship); but as they passed through (or conquered) the sophisticated cities of Phoenicia, they acquired a two new high gods: El, the supreme god of the Ugarit sacred texts, and his son, Baal. Readers should take note: The cult center for Baal was Mt. Hermon (on the edge of tribal allotment of Dan); the center for El was Beth-El (in the middle of Palestine, not far from Jericho).

As if all this were not complicated enough, Yahweh, the God of Judah (and perhaps early on, of Edom) began to win adherents in the north. Based in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant had been settled after the Exodus, priests of Yahweh worked to build support in the more northerly tribes.

In sum, then: three gods had major followings in Israel: Baal, El, and Yahweh.

With this cultural and historical background in place, I think we can finally propose an answer to the question: who was the Elohist? The first thing to realize about anyone writing a sacred history of ancient Israel is that he or she was primarily concerned with integrating the diverse and competing religious communities in the nation. Most likely, the Elohist was working during the reign of a strong king, one with enough power to attempt to the unite the fractious ten tribes; but Israel produced only a few such kings–and of them, Ahab (r. circa 870-850 B.C.)-and Jeroboam II (r. circa 786-746 B.C.) seem likeliest to have attempted a religious unification in their realm.

To determine which of these monarchs sponsored the E author, we turn to an important feature of the E text–namely, it seems to have been heavily edited. In other words, there is an E-1 text, which was edited to produce an E-2 text, which was the version that made its way (one again edited) into the oldest portion of the Bible, the JE text. The most plausible date for the composition of the E-1 text was Ahab’s reign; the E-2 text, it seems, was produced by the priests at Shiloh, probably after the reign of Jeroboam II, the period when the approaching collapse of the Northern Kingdom was apparent. In short, the original Elohistic work dates to about 860 B.C.

Can we say yet more about the Elohist? I think so, but that’s for another post…   RT


Photo: Statue of Baal (object at the Louvre Museum); WikiCmns; author: Jastrow; Public Domain.

Translators are writers

August 14, 2011 Leave a comment


Some sage words on the translation process from a fellow WP blogger: Translators are writers.

Chief Gall, Sioux Chief

August 14, 2011 5 comments


Chief Gall, a Sioux Indian who fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn under Sitting Bull. Taken by D.F. Barry in the 1880s. The full story is at WikiCommons. A powerful portrait, an important moment in American history. (photo: Public Domain).

Happy August!

August 12, 2011 3 comments

Bearer of life, trigger of allergies, pop art… here’s to wildflowers, cures, and beach balls!   RT

Photo: Pollen, WikiCmns, Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Public Domain.

The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part I

August 11, 2011 4 comments
Relief of Farvahar at Persepolis

“Brilliant things–not weeping–will be the reward of those who reach the Truthful One.”

–from the Gathas

Not much is known about Zoroaster, the man who founded Zoroastrianism, the world’s first monotheistic religion (that is, if you don’t count Akhenaten’s short-lived revolution). Apparently, he was a priest, born in northeastern Iran or adjoining Afghanistan; the year of his birth, however, is uncertain, with dates ranging from the mid-2nd millenium B.C. to the 6th century B.C. The religion he was raised in was traditional Persian polytheism, which worshipped daevas, supernatural beings or gods, and focused on animal sacrifice and the use of haoma, an intoxicant meant to induce visions. At 30, Zoroaster received a vision from Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, and, rejecting the old religion and its daevas, he began to preach his belief in a single, transcendent god.

Zoroaster did not meet with much success at first, but eventually converted a king in Bactria. He lived into his 70s, and after his death, his faith gradually spread westward throughout Iran. (It should be noted here that Zoroastrianism is dualistic–that is, its supreme god, Ahura Mazda, is constantly struggling against an evil god, Angra Mainyu.)


Why should Zoroastrianism matter to us? The answer lies in the transformation that overtook the Middle East between about 850 and 540 B.C. At the start of this period, ancient Mesopotamian culture, the roots of which stretched back to Sumer and the Epic of Gilgamesh in the mid-4th millennium, was still in place; by the period’s close, this culture had been swept away, and the entire region was ruled by the Persians under a monarchy that grew steadily more Zoroastrian. The religion founded by Zoroaster in a remote area of Iran had provided much of the spiritual drive behind the sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. and enabled, through the Persian King Cyrus II, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This profound cultural shift could be called the Z Revolution.


How did this happen? The history of the Assyrian Empire can provide some answers.


The Assyrians have not been fondly remembered–the conquerors of the Kingdom of Israel, the creators of the most fearsome war machine the world had known up to that time, the beseigers of Jerusalem, the destroyers of the ancient Egyptian state–they recorded their victories and methods in explicit terms and graphic images on the walls of their imperial palaces. But we should remember that the ferocity of the Assyrian drive for domination really only characterized its House of Sargon, the last four emperors–Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal. Before that time, Assyria preferred to rule indirectly, though a web of client states that received military protection and preferential economic treatment in exchange for tribute. What triggered the change to a policy of annexation and cultural integration?

My short answer: the beginnings of the Z Revolution. Around 850 B.C., the Persians emerge for the first time in the historical record. The Assyrian monarch Shalmanesar III encountered them during a campaign in the north, when they had occupied the southeastern shore of Lake Urmia, the large saltwater lake in the far northwest of present-day Iran. He extracted a pledge of tribute from them, but little else. But then Shalmanesar III was a monarch of the old school.

The Persians themselves are an Indo-European people who had migrated from Central Asia into Iran during the preceding centuries. It seems likely that they were converted to Zoroastrianism during this migration–indeed, may still have been in the process when Shalmanesar encountered them. And make no mistake; the monotheistic basis of their new religion, especially with its emphasis on the struggle between good and evil, represented a direct challenge to the ancient polytheism of the Assyrians. And the Persians were not the only people dabbling with new religious conceptions.


Enter the Israelites. Too famous to require much introduction, the Israelites were already living a lifestyle different from their neighbors when they entered Canaan. Archaeology confirms one dietary practice: there are no pork bones at ancient Israelite sites. Whereas other cultures deified pigs and gave them an important role in their mythologies, Israelites banned this important food source from their diet. Something seems to have been distinctive about these people from an early date.

The Patriarchs and their descendents also had a history of wandering–first from Mesopotamia into Canaan, and later back from Egypt during the Exodus. And they were literate, using a variant of the new alphabetic script to record their stories.

When did they begin setting down the materials that later became the Hebrew Bible? About the same time that Shalmanessar encountered the Persians–860 B.C. That is when the Elohist began writing. And who was he? Stay tuned for more answers…    RT


Part II, Bible & the Z Revolution is here.


Images: 1) Relief of Farvahar at Persepolis, Roodiparse, WikiCmns, Public Domain. 2) Map of Assyrian Empire (dark green, earlier extent; light green, later extent), Ningyou, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

Monday Afternoon Haiku

August 8, 2011 2 comments



Should I take a shower?

Dirt under my fingernails,

and I feel alive.

Image: The Emblematic Hand of the Mysteries; WikiCmns; Public Domain.