Saturday, July 1, 2017

Obscure Men: People and Places Part I

           It occurred to me after posting my last entry that there can be a lot of confusion surrounding the names of people and places in the Bible. It doesn’t help that the history of Israel is hard to follow as it is. To add to that, it gets even more complicated when you take into account that the Bible was not written with historical accuracy in mind. And if you’re reading the Hebrew Scriptures you might wonder who or what they’re talking about. What is Israel? What is Judah? Who are the Hebrews, and who are the Israelites? Is there even a difference?

           To unravel these questions, I thought I’d write a series of posts about stories of origin. So first, let’s begin with a fancy schmancy word to impress your friends: etiology. An etiology is “a narrative that explains the origin of a custom, ritual, geographical feature, name, or other phenomenon.”[1] The Hebrew Scriptures are full of these little stories explaining why things are the way they are. Consider how the Adam & Even narrative explains why serpents crawl on their bellies, or how the Noah story gives an explanation for rainbows. These passages, of course, have much more theological significance than mere snakes or rainbows. Yet woven into the deeper narratives are these mythical interpretations of the natural world.

           Some biblical etiologies are about the origins of peoples. Just as we try to categorize and classify the human race in our day – and I’m not saying that’s an admirable thing – so did our ancient ancestors. Some things never change apparently. For the biblical authors, this was usually done through genealogies and etiologies. The men who are mentioned in these infancy narratives and lists of fathers and sons frequently represent people of a geographical region, language group, nation, or city. So let’s take a look at a handful of these obscure men from the Bible to see how they were identified with various groups of people.

Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gn 9:18 - 10:32)
           Do you know where the term “Semitic” comes from? It is actually not a synonym for “Jewish.” The term encompasses a much broader range of peoples, and it derives from the name Shem. Each of Noah’s three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – is identified as a patriarch for one of the three major linguistic and ethnic regions that concerned the biblical authors. The descendants of Shem are identified with Syria, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. Ham and his descendants are associated with northeast Africa and regions under Egyptian influence (as the land of Canaan had once been). And Japheth and his descendants are linked with modern-day Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.
This map is courtesy of Corey Baugher's website I do not have rights to claim this map as my own.

           For the record, the term “Semitic” nowadays is used more to refer to a particular language family that includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Akkadian – just as, say, the word “Romance” is applied to Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian.[2]

           There is one interesting thing to note about Ham. The biblical authors and compilers tended to tell the ancestral stories of their national adversaries in rather unflattering ways. Oftentimes the patriarch is involved in some kind of sexual taboo and/or gets cursed. The story of Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, tells of how he “saw his father’s nakedness” - a possible sexual euphemism - when Noah was drunk off wine. Noah then curses Ham’s son:

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!
Let Canaan be his slave.

May God expand Japheth,
and may he dwell among the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”
(Gn 9:25-27)

           In Scripture, the ancient Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan after the Exodus. If nothing else, this story should give you some indication of how they felt about the Canaanites.

Eber (Gn 11:10-26)
           Eber is a little-known name in Scripture, but an important one. Eber is the great-grandson of Shem and one of the ancestors of Abraham. It is from him that the name Hebrew derives. You can see the similarities in the Hebrew language: עבר (Eber); עברי (Hebrew). But the term Hebrew can be a confusing one. Today it is used as the name of a language, but not of an ethnicity. And it wasn’t used too frequently to speak of the Israelite people in the Old Testament either. Michael Coogan points out two contexts in which the term Hebrew was used in the OT. “First, it refers to Israelites or their ancestors living as resident aliens in another jurisdiction… The other context is for slaves, probably fellow Israelites.”[3] So when the Israelites were living in Egypt, they were known as Hebrews, but the term was not properly applicable once they left. In any case, it seems like Hebrew would have been too generic of a term for the Israelites, since Eber was about eight generations removed from their namesake, Jacob/Israel.

           Coogan also adds some clarification to the way the term Hebrew was used in the New Testament. Occasionally it was applied to the common language of Palestine, which was actually Aramaic. As such, it was sometimes used to distinguish the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine from the Greek-speaking Jews dispersed throughout other parts of the Greco-Roman world.[4]

Moab and Ammon (Gn 19:30-38)
           The last patriarchs I want to go over in this post are the eponymous ancestors of two of Israel’s national enemies. As with Ham, the father of Canaan, the biblical authors weave in a sexual deviance into the origin story of Moab and Ammon.

           After the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, Lot, the nephew of Abraham, settled in a cave in the hill country… far away from other people apparently. Well, after witnessing the calamity that fell upon two populous cities, he probably didn’t want to be around too many folks. It was just Lot and his two daughters. His wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back – you know, ‘cause that’s the sort of thing that happens in the OT – and the men who were going to marry his daughters did not escape. So what are two single girls desperate for offspring to do? Having children was very important in those days, especially for women.

           They decided to get Lot very drunk and sleep with him. Somehow he never noticed a thing, which means they must have gotten him really drunk. In any case, they both succeeded in bearing children. The first gave birth to Moab, which, according to the passage, is a play on the Hebrew word meaning “from my father.” The second gave birth to Ammon, for the words “son of my kin” and “Ammonites” sound very similar in Hebrew.

           Even though these and other etiological narratives were at times used as backhanded slaps to ridicule their enemies, by linking their rivals’ lineages with that of their own the Israelites acknowledged a profound interconnectedness that transcended the conflicts that arose among them. Moab and Ammon were kin to the Israelite patriarch, Abraham. Even in the book of Deuteronomy the Lord stipulates to the Israelites that, unlike the land of Canaan, they are not to try to take away the land he gave to the Moabites and Ammonites. The Israelites may have had contempt for these people, but they were still part of the family.

           My reading recommendations this week are the genealogies and stories of origin regarding the patriarchs above in bold. You can click the passage references beside their names for links on These might be spiritually dry readings, but as you go through them consider that we are all part of the one human family. We are all children of God, and thus all interconnected. Read these passages, and pray for people across the world, in the most obscure places and in the most difficult situations. Pray for the nations we are at war with, and give kind consideration to the cultures we struggle to understand. We are all sisters and brothers to one another, so let us pray that a spirit of unity and solidarity may reign in all of our hearts.

Until next time,
Peace and all good!

[1] Michal D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 562.
[2] Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), G-39.
[3] Coogan, 86.
[4] Ibid.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Wonder Woman vs. Jonah

What do Wonder Woman and Jonah have in common?

Not much, actually. The two characters could hardly be more different. The former so enthusiastic to accomplish her mission that she refuses her mother’s wishes to stay put, and the latter a reluctant schmuck. One matures in her understanding of divine justice, while the other pouts over the ethic of mercy. Yet both stories explore the themes of salvation and human nature with surprisingly similar conclusions.

            Normally, I am not prone to viewing super hero flicks in theaters, but a friend asked me to see Wonder Woman with him, and I was pleasantly delighted by the film. (Thanks Mario!) Not surprisingly, the movie integrates moral and religious concepts. Such is typical of the super hero genre, which grapples with questions about justice, goodness, evil, and love. What!? A secular work of fiction that plays on theological truths!? Sure. “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). See my post on Truth, Mystery, the Bible, and... Harry Potter.

            In one scene of the film, Diana’s ragtag companions drunkenly toast, “May we get what we want; may we get what we need; and may we never get what we deserve!” Clearly, the posse either doesn’t deserve much, or, for some reason or other, they deserve punishment for their transgressions – at least in their minds. But who of us can say that we’re blameless, anyway? Without giving away too much of the movie – nobody likes spoilers – Diana learns an important lesson about who is worthy of salvation. Ultimately, everyone shares in the responsibility of the ills of this world. No one is entirely blameless, and humanity probably does not deserve a hero or savior. But that is precisely why we need one; we’re helpless. And rather than getting our just desserts, we are offered love and mercy instead – even those thought least deserving of it.

            Jonah is taught a similar lesson, although his character sharply contrasts to that of Diana’s. The Book of Jonah is a unique text of the Hebrew Bible– one of my favorites, in fact. It’s short, funny, easy to read, yet deceptively deep and profound. With only four brief chapters, you can easily pick it up after reading this post and enjoy it for yourself. Or better yet, you can read it now by clicking on the link here. As for Wonder Woman, well, you’ll just have to see it theaters or wait until it comes out on DVD or Blu-Ray.

            Jonah may seem like an endearing story to us today, and we probably relish the message of God’s abundant mercy. But this narrative was likely a hard pill to swallow for many in its original audience – as much as it would be today if, say, the U.N. pardoned ISIS of all human rights abuses (assuming its members repented in sackcloth and ashes like the Ninevites). The ending of the story is as startling as it would be if the Boston Red Sox came back from a 10 point deficit in the ninth inning and won the World Series against the Yankees… at Yankee Stadium. I mean, if you’re a Yankees fan or just really hate the Red Sox.

            Jonah was written after the Babylonian Exile, which up until that point was probably the most devastating experience in Israelite history. The Babylonians were merciless to the people of Judah, deporting most of Jerusalem’s population to Babylon and destroying their sacred Temple. Nearly a century and a half before that, the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, scattering many of its peoples. After the fall of the north, the Assyrians laid an excruciating, but ultimately unsuccessful, siege on Jerusalem in the southern kingdom. The suffering they had inflicted, however, would never be forgotten.

            Naturally, Assyria, Babylon, and their allies were venomously hated for their ruthlessness toward Israel and Judah. The returnees from the Exile had nothing but spite for their enemies, even the memory of those who no longer existed. A lot of biblical ink was spilled in order to hurl curses at these nations. As tends to happen after a country experiences unspeakable trauma, a gross, exclusive sort of nationalism developed among returnees trying to reestablish their religious and political identity in Judah. This party was unforgiving toward foreigners and disdained those who had remained behind after the deportations and inter-mixed with their conquerors. They had a narrow concept of YHWH’s favor, believing that only the pure race of God’s chosen people, Israel, was worthy.

            To critique this mentality, Jonah is presented as a satirical figure, a kind of mirror to be held up to the faces of those who subscribed to the postexilic ideology of exclusivity. Yet for all of Jonah’s zealous contempt for the Ninevite pagans, he proves to have only passive faith in YHWH. When God charges him to preach against Nineveh, Assyria's capital, he goes AWOL, wanting nothing to do with the mission. Twice in the same verse the author stresses that Jonah was getting “away from the LORD.” He sets sail for what might as well have been the farthest corner of the world, and later falls asleep in the depths of the ship. Jonah may be a believer in YHWH, but his actions show that he prefers death over engaging his God with whom he seems at odds. So desperate to get away from the LORD, he apathetically volunteers to be thrown into the sea, an ancient symbol of chaos and death.

            This action only highlights his hypocrisy even more, for even though he just confessed that the LORD is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9), he doesn’t seem to realize that the deep isn’t going to hide him from the creator of the seas. By contrast, the pagan crew shows amazing faith in YHWH, begging for his forgiveness, offering sacrifice, and making vows to him.  

            The fish episode, like the sea itself, conjures up more imagery of primordial chaos and death. Jonah wants to get as far away from the LORD as possible, and God takes him to the brink. There is no farther place from God than death and the netherworld. Yet even there God’s saving power cannot be held at bay. There in the belly of the fish Jonah represents perhaps all of Israel, who knew that they had sinned against the LORD in the past and, as a result, had been brought to the edge of death in the experience of exile – almost total alienation from their God. Yet their time of exile came to an end, as would Jonah’s time in the sea creature. Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving is ironic, though. “Deliverance is from the LORD,” he says, but as we see in the end of the story, he’s infuriated that God extends that deliverance to the Ninevites too.

            So Jonah is spewed out on shore, and he preaches throughout Nineveh that they will be destroyed, and, in a shocking twist of events, evil Nineveh repents of their sins in an extravagant display of penance, from the king on high right down to the animals. God relents of the violence he was going to inflict, but this only pisses Jonah off. At first the reader might guess that he’s angry because his prophecy of calamity didn’t come true – a dilemma that might have labeled him a false prophet and cost him his life. But no! He’s mad because God is merciful, and he even admits that that was the real reason why he fled in the first place. Nineveh doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness! So blinded by his vindictive nationalism is Jonah, that he goes off to brood over the unscathed city.

            But God teaches him a lesson. He provides a plant to grow over Jonah’s head to give him shade, and this makes Jonah happy. But then God sends a worm to kill the plant, and Jonah, being just a tad over-dramatic, becomes so outraged at this point that he prays for death! And with that the LORD nails him with a rhetorical question: You didn’t do anything to merit that plant you liked so much, yet you’re so upset that it died. So why shouldn’t I be concerned about these thousands of pitiful people? Oh and let’s not forget their animals too.
Now, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Jonah!

            Though different in their approaches, it seems that both Wonder Woman and Jonah must grapple with this issue of divine justice. Maybe Nineveh didn’t deserve God’s mercy, and perhaps humanity didn’t merit Diana’s heroic assistance – at least, not in the eyes of Jonah or Diana’s adversary. But, thankfully, this isn’t the way God’s justice seems to work. God's love is universal. The "God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" extends his care and concern for all of his children, even the seemingly least deserving. This isn’t to say that we are excused from having remorse and contrition for our sins. Salvation is as difficult for those who think they can attain it by their own righteousness as it is for those who cannot humble themselves to ask for mercy with contrite hearts. We can never earn God’s mercy, though. That is what makes it so abundant and free. We can, therefore, only receive it.

            This is the kind of good news we like to hear, but sometimes, like Jonah, we’re faced with applying this ethic of mercy to those persons or groups of people we don’t like. It’s all warm and fuzzy until we realize that God cares as much for our enemies as he does us. God loves those we think, for whatever reason, deserve God’s wrath. Maybe we secretly hope that one day they’ll get their comeuppance, just like Jonah wanted the Assyrians punished. These so-called just desserts may or may not come, but in the meantime, who’s really suffering – your enemies, or you who are brooding over your resentments?

            My reading recommendation this week is, of course, the Book of Jonah. As you read it, though, think of a person or a group of people you might have some bitterness towards. It could be a political figure or party, a co-worker or boss, maybe it’s a national, cultural, or religious group. Or maybe it's the Red Sox. Read the Book of Jonah, and when you get to the last question posed by God, insert that entity you’re thinking of in place of the Ninevites. Pray for that person or group, and open your heart to loving them too. Remember, God loves them as well, and they are as worthy of God’s mercy and protection as you.

Until next time,
Peace and all good!