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Call Me Ishmael

Back to the story of Abraham. By the time the family returned from Egypt, Abraham and Sarai were quite old–in their nineties, according to tradition. At this point, God and Abraham have a personal relationship. God speaks directly to him, offering advice and continuing to promise descendants numberless as the stars.

Sarai urges Abraham to impregnate her maidservant/slave Hagar. Abraham does, and Hagar bears a son, Ishmael. Despite Sarai’s recommendation, she is furious with Hagar and has have Abraham send Hagar and the baby away. This image, which suggests some ambivalence, is by the 17th century Italian painter Cristoforo Salvolini.


Hagar and the baby are lost and on the point of death when an angel appears and sends them back to Abraham. The angel promises Ishmael too will have numberless descendants. Once the family is reunited, God makes two strange requests of Abraham. The first is that Abraham, and all the men in his household, including 13-year old Ishmael be circumcised as a symbol of their covenant–that is, a special, self-expending relationship–as shown here by the 17th century Flemish engraver Michael Vandergucht. 1-Slide19

God’s next request is yet more painful.



Genesis: The Prequel

So God creates the World and everything in and around it, as shown here by William Blake, with the spirit of God hovering over the formless void. In the Hebrew, the “spirit” is literally breath, ruah. The yogic tradition might call it prana.


In Blake’s image there’s a hint of future peril in the snake wrapped around the torso of the man God appears to be bringing into being.  Sure enough, Adam and Eve fall. They are shown fleeing Eden in the image on the left, painted by Massacio. They beget sons, Cain and Abel, which also does not end well. The image on the right that shows Cain fleeing his murdered brother and an astonished God is from Blake, again.

Human wickedness does not abate, and God punishes the whole world with a flood.


This painting is by Edward Hicks, a 19th century American folk artist. This post-flood God makes a covenant with Noah. This God is a universal god.

The Nature of the Bible

The Bible influences anyone who grows up in or lives in a Western culture. Believers or not, we all hear the stories and see the art. The Bible is part of how we make meaning, especially in terms of purpose and trust. And, I would add, shame.

This is a scrap from the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which we stored in jars in a cave for centuries. It’s a passage from Genesis. The Bible is a collection of stories gathered from these and other scrolls and organized according to temporal and cultural needs.


The Hebrew Bible basically follows the history of the people Israel. Its Hebrew name is TNK, or Tanak, an acronym for its three parts: Torah (teaching), Nevi’m (prophets) and Ketuvi’m (writings).  Some of the stories are very old, dating back to 1200 BCE and before but the TNK was probably compiled during Babylonian Exile and the Second Temple period. (Using the terms BCE–before the common era–and CE–common era–is a way of accommodating the Christocentric dating system of BC and AD without offending other religions.)

Before we go any further, I should clarify that I am not reading the Bible as though it is Absolute Truth but rather as history, sociology, creativity.


Some Thoughts on Early Christianity & Judaism

In April 2015, on the seventh anniversary of my father’s death, I gave a talk in Israel. The talk was on the Bible, Bibles, really: the Christian one and the Jewish one, and how they tell somewhat different stories using essentially the same texts.

The Bible (the books), based on stories dating back about four thousand years ago and officially compiled in the 5th century BCE, has at least four versions: Hebrew, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

Left to right: Hebrew Bible (in Hebrew), Protestant Bible (in German), early Christian Bible (in Greek). Sorry’ I couldn’t find a public domain image of an Orthodox Christian Bible.

Each one organizes the individual books differently–the Hebrew Bible compresses 12 prophetic books into one, for example–so that the number of “books” in each differs, from a low of 24 books in the Hebrew Bible and a high of 53 books in the Orthodox Bible. You can learn more from this chart compiled by Felix Just.

But the key difference, and the source of my talk, is in the order of the books. All versions begin with the Torah, the five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch. Even here we should note that in the Hebrew Bible the Torah translates to “teaching.” In Christianity, these five books are known as “law”. So the foundations, though identical, are positioned differently.

The biggest change is the order of subsequent books. The difference, writ large goes:


The key difference is the placement of the prophets. The Hebrew Bible places them in the middle of the story, so to speak, where the Christian Bible places them at the end. So placed, they are clearly positioned to herald the arrival of Jesus Christ.

How and why did this happen?


History, Like Sex

[Note: This story took place many years ago.] Passing a freight yard on our first family trip by train, Gabriel, aged seven, is struck by a funny thought: people traveling in freight cars. I don’t tell him that Jews, his very own great-great aunts and uncles, were shipped to concentration camps in freight trains. Fudging the issue, I agree it would be odd, never hinting that it happened. I wonder when I will break his innocence.

It seems something like sex, this question of history. I elect to wait until he asks me something about it.

Some weeks after that train ride, I find Art Spiegelman’s book Maus at the library and bring it home. Spiegelman’s artistry is not lost on my son. He grabs it eagerly and begins to read.

Not ten panels into the book, Spiegelman has raised the issue of French anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair, the Nazi collaborationists. Gabe skips those hard words, and I offer no explanation. After dinner, he urges me to read Maus to him—I’m so much faster a reader. “It’s a very sad story,” I warn him, “it’s awful.”

The beginning is bucolic, funny. Spiegelman’s father Vladek is so cheap is rations wooden matches, but leaves the gas burner on all day, because someone else pays for it. He has the dogged, powerful self-interest of the survivor. His scrimping old man ways are laughable. Soon, however, the story shifts back to Poland, 1944, to Vladek’s capture and arrival at Auschwitz.

“Does this frighten you?” I ask Gabe.

“No. Keep reading.”

The cartoon figures are naked now, with the face of mice and the bodies of men, and the camp guards, German cats and Polish pigs, are yelling the mice, who shiver, barefoot and shirtless, in the snow.

“Is this going to give you nightmares?”


I read on. Spiegelman’s gritty black and white cartoons now include smokestacks which Vladek grimly acknowledges.

I  ask, “Do you know that this is about?” We have only recently, the past Veteran’s Day, discussed the two world wars. I have probably even mentioned Hitler as the ruler of Germany, but have never spoken of his treatment of the Jews.

“Yes,” Gabe says. “The Germans killed the Jews.” He is matter of fact.

It is like sex, revealed to him some years ago by an older girl. Someone else has already told him about this history. Colin, a nine-year-old neighbor child whose favorite games involve lining the younger children up in order to shout orders and blow his whistle at them, has broken to Gabe the truth that seemed too dangerous for me to tell him.

Gabe has wept for hours about the injustice of Colin’s grandmother putting an inconvenient cat to sleep, and he has, as a younger boy, poured cup after cup of water down an anthill for the sheer thrill of the pandemonium it creates, but he has just begun, barely, to put the two together, the pity of an individual’s death and wholesale, unthinkable terror of mass murder.

He is too young to know he has lost his innocence about history. No longer a technical virgin in the human story, he has still has plenty more to learn. A more serious parent than I could start in: Hiroshima. Stalin. Pol Pot. Where would they end?

Some days after our reading of Maus, I hear him ordering his younger brother around in the language of a camp guard.

I keep writing history as though somehow this may be a story that goes somewhere, that shows some progress.

I wanted, like mothers before me, to protect my child from something unpleasant, in this case, one particular nightmare of twentieth century history. But history, like sex, will break through.

Linoleum Cuts from the Past

These date from about 1970. I went through a whole phase of these but most did not survive.



Skateistan is a short, moving film about young people in Kabul–their ruined city.