Geography, Jerusalem, & Origins

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This is a terrain map by Google, centered roughly on the Middle East, a commercial and culture crossroads where ideas and people have intermingled for millennia. Jerusalem is a very old trading city and its name is derived from the Semitic root SLM—known in Hebrew as shalom and Arabic as salaam, meaning peace. Trust is a key element of trade, and it’s possible that religion and culture were ways of creating trust and solidarity among trading groups. At the very least, ideas moved.

Most religions of the time were polytheistic in that people worshiped numerous gods: for the sun, the moon, for dawn and evening, for storms and places.

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This image represents the Babylonian Sun God. In the West, as Samuel Noah Kramer described it, History Begins at Sumer. There, in present-day southern Iraq, a (probably Asian) people created one of the earliest urban civilizations (dating perhaps to 5,500 BCE). Early urban civilizations also emerged in the Indus River valley in present-day Pakistan and northwest India (c. 3,300 BCE) and Nile River valley civilization in Egypt c. 3,000 BCE), and the the Norte Chico region of Peru (c. 3,500 BCE. (For what it’s worth, ancient Chinese civilizations along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers may date to 7,000 BCE).

But back to Sumer and polytheism, or the belief in the existence of many gods. Even polytheistic religions often had “high” gods—a little higher up and more powerful than the other gods. Think: Zeus, Marduk, Atun, Shang-ti.

 

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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.

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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:

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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?

 

Boston Breaks New Farming Ground

There’s a nice post on Boston’s Article 89 legislation, enabling all kinds of unconventional farming locations, in today’s Raw Story:

Gloosgap and the Whale

Gloosgap, the Great Father of all things Wabanki, needed to cross the bay. So he sang to the whales, for one to come carry him. The first whale was too small. Gloosgap placed his left foot on the whale’s back, and the whale sank. A bigger whale, a strong female, swam by and Gloosgap stepped on and stood safely on her back. She swam across the bay but did not want to swim in the shoals, for fear she would beach in the shallow water, but Gloosgap assured her it was fine, even when she swam in so close she could hear the clams singing. It’s fine, he told her, and she swam right up to the shore and beached. Oh I will die now, she cried. Gloosgap tapped her snout with his bow and she slid back into the water. She swam out, relieve, then came back. Say, she said to Gloosgap, don’t you have some tobacco and an old pipe? He did, and filled a pipe for her and she swam away happily, smoking her pipe.

Important Resources for Rethinking How We Operate

This will be a grab-bag for now until I can synthesize the contents of all the sources I mean to cite. First up:

A New Shared Economy for Appalachia: An Economy Built Upon Environmental Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, Renewable Energy and Ecological Design by John Todd at the University of Vermont. Todd has been thinking about and inventing new systems for many years, notably through Ocean Arks, http://www.oceanarks.org/–ecological resources for the 21st century. For example, natural water treatment ought to be primary consideration in dealing with the Great Bay’s pollution problem. Projects in the Northeast that use plants and landscapes to purity water can be done, and have been done, by John Todd and associates.

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?”

“No.”

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.