Sunday, April 27, 2014

Who the Heck's Melchizadek?

Every once in a while in the Bible, a righteous, God-fearing person will pop up out of the blue, with no connection to the rest of the Biblical narrative.  They are not descended from the Holy Line and received no instruction from the Established Patriarchs.  Nevertheless, they know and believe in the One True God and are honored by Scriptures as righteous men.

Melchizidek is one such person.  His name means “Righteous King” or “King of Righteousness” and the text calls him “king of Salem”, which is presumed to be an older name for Jerusalem, and is related to the Hebrew word for “Peace.”  In addition to being a king, the text also says he was a priest of the God Most High.  He brings out bread and wine to refresh Abram and pronounces a blessing on him.
Blessed be Abram by God Most HighCreator of heaven and earthAnd blessed be God Most HighWho delivered your enemies into our hand.(Gen 14: 19-20 NIV)
Abram gives Melchizadek a tenth of the spoils.  How this works out, since a couple verses later Abram rejects the King of Sodom’s offer of a share of his own, the text doesn't explain.

That is the last we hear of Melchizadek, at least in Genesis.  Psalm 110 makes an interesting reference to him, though.  The psalmist, in this case identified as King David, speaks of one to come, who will be exalted to the LORD’s right hand and who will rule from Zion, (the mountain on which Jerusalem was built).  In the midst of his description of glory and might and his military imagery, the psalmist adds:
 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind.  “You are a priest forever, in the Order of Melchizadek.”  (Psalm 110:4)
Granted, the Psalmist might not be referring to a proper name here; a more recent Jewish translation renders this verse as “... You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree.”

Either way, Christians have interpreted this psalm as speaking of the Messiah.  In fact, the author of the Book of Hebrews cites this passage in his lengthy meditation on Christ the Great High Priest; (Hebrews chapter 7, and heck, most of the rest of the epistle as well).  But what does it mean to be a priest in the Order of Melchizadek?

The priests of the Old Testament, who served in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, were all descendants on Aaron, the brother of Moses, and so can be considered the Order of Aaron.  Melchizadek predated Aaron and Moses and even, one might argue, Abraham.  So if there is a priestly tradition of Melchizadek, then it lies outside of and independent from the Abrahamic tradition; yet also parallel to it, in that it grows out of the same Semetic culture that Abraham did, and also worships the One True God.

Unlike the priests of David’s day, Melchizadek was both a priest and a king.  It actually wasn’t all that uncommon in ancient times for kings to participate in religious duties; we get a glimpse of this much later in the Roman Empire, where one of the Emperor’s titles was Pontifex Maximus, and performed public sacred rituals on important holy days.  Moses, however, decreed a kind of separation of church and State.  The priesthood was a hereditary vocation with rigidly defined duties and qualifications; and secular leadership was something else.  In the book of 1 Samuel we see King Saul getting in trouble for presuming to perform a sacrifice himself, (1 Sam. 13) and later on King David’s desire to move the Ark of the Covenant to his political capitol caused problems as well.

Martin Luther speculated that Melchizadek might have been Shem, one of the sons of Noah.  If you want to play the game of trying to reconcile the various genealogies listed in Genesis, you can work out a fair argument that Shem could have been alive at the time of Abraham, and therefore he could plausibly have been the King of Salem around then.  Maybe.

Another idea is that Melchizadek was the pre-incarnate Christ, on the theory that the Second Person of the Trinity must of been doing something while he was hanging around waiting for The Fullness of Time and so he’d pop into the Biblical narrative every now and then and do cameos.

Put that way, it does sound kind of silly, and I don’t think I buy it.  It gains a little support when we remember that the name “Melchizadek” means “Righteous King” and that as ruler of “Salem” he was in a sense the “Prince of Peace”; but I still think it works better to regard him as a pre-figuring of Christ rather than a ret-conned previous appearance.

I prefer to think of Melchizadek as a reminder that although the Old Testament is mostly concerned with the Line of Abraham and with telling the story of the Children of Israel, that God was interested in other people too; and that other people sought him and worshiped him in their own ways.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Patriarch's Posse

We don’t really think of the Patriarchs as butt-kickers.  The Patriarchs are more... well... Patriarchal.  They wear long beards; they do a lot of begetting; and they administer the complex soap opera of their extended families.  It’s hard to imagine someone like Abraham leading warriors into battle.  And yet this is just what he did.

When Abraham, then known as Abram, left the land of Ur at God’s command and journeyed to the Promised Land, his nephew Lot accompanied him.  Both men possessed considerable herds of livestock, and they found that there wasn't enough water and grazing land where they had camped to support the both of them.  Their herdsmen kept fighting with each other and Abram saw that this could not go on.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let‘s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.  Is not the whole land before you?  Let‘s part company.  If you go to the left, I‘ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I‘ll go to the left.” (Gen. 13:8-9)

Lot chose the rich verdant lands surrounding the Cities of the Plain of Jordan, and pitched his tent near the city of Sodom.  Abram moved west to Hebron and set up camp near the great trees of Mamre.

Unfortunately, Lot wasn't the only one who liked the rich, verdant plains of the Jordan.  The five Cities of the Plain had been subject to  Kedorlaomer, the King of Elam, a land east of Mesopotamia on the Persian Gulf, for about twelve years, but had recently rebelled.  A year following the rebellion, Kedorlaomer and three of his neighboring kings embarked on a campaign to subdue several of the tribes in the region.

(In case you were interested, his allies were Amraphel, the king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, and Tidal king of Goiim.  Shinar is a region in Mesopotamia, and Amraphel was once mistakenly identified as Hammurapi, the great lawgiver of Babylon.  He probably wasn't, though.  The word “goiim” in Hebrew means “foreign nations,” so it’s unclear if it’s meant to be a name for a specific nation here.  Ellesar is the elvish name for King Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but he has even less to do with the story than Hammurapi.)

The five Kings of the Plain, (Bera, king of Sodom; Birsha, king of Gomorrah; Shinab, king of Admah, Shemeber, king of Zebolim; and the king of Zoar who isn't named; remember, there‘ll be a test) prepared to meet the Four Kings in the Valley of Siddim, near the Dead Sea.  They were overwhelmed by Kedorlaomer’s forces.  Many of their men perished in the tar pits of the valley and the rest fled into the hills.

The army of the Four Kings sacked the Cities of the Plain, carrying off everything that wasn't nailed down.  This included Lot, who as you'll recall had moved his tents to the neighborhood of Sodom.  The text suggests that he had actually moved into the city by this time; although I have to wonder if the attack by the Four Kings were what convinced him to settle down someplace with walls.

This raid by Kedolaomer and his cohorts presents something of a problem.  We’d like to see Kedoraomer as the bad guy, for coming in with an army and carrying off Abram’s nephew.  Except that Sodom and Gomorrah are bad guys too.  Some commentators have been so uncomfortable about presenting Sodom in a sympathetic light, that they insist that the Cities of the Plain were wrong to rebel against Kedolaomer, and that the raid by the Elamites was God’s just vengeance against the disobedient cities.  I don’t think I’d go that far.  But whether their rebellion was justified or not, Lot found himself caught up in the Elamites’s retaliation.

One of the survivors of the battle came to Abram, who at that time was swelling near Hebron, near the great trees of Mamre, an Amorite chieftain who along with his brothers were allies of Abram.  We don’t don’t think of the Holy Land in conjunction with big trees, but the rocky landscape of today is the result of centuries of deforestation.  These huge trees on Mamre’s lands were apparently local landmarks.  We also don’t think of Abraham schmoozing with Canaanite chieftains, but Abram and his neighbor Mamre seem to have been on good terms.

Wen Abram heard of Lot’s predicament, he gathered up his own men, “318 trained men, born in his household”  (Gen. 14:14).  The word in Hebrew is obscure; in other ancient sources it means “armed retainers.”  These men seem to have been Abram’s private security force, a cadre of fighters who protected his herds and flocks from wild animals and marauders.  That’s my guess anyway.

Abram led his men in pursuit of he army of the Four Kings all the way to Dan, near the headwaters of the Jordan River.  He split his forces into two groups and defeated Kedorlaomer’s army, recovering the plundered loot and rescuing Lot and the other captives.

And this brings up a puzzle the text does not address.  How did Abram manage to defeat the army of the Four Kings with only 318 men?  Kedorlaomer and his allies had just conquered several other tribes in the area as well as defeating the armies of the Kings of the Plain.  You’d think they’d have more soldiers than a guy in a tent with some livestock, no matter how affluent that guy was.  The text doesn't say.

Perhaps the 318 men the text mentions are just Abram’s own men and that his buddies Mamre and his brothers, who accompanied Abram, contributed men of their own.  Perhaps  he might have gathered additional troops from the survivors who escaped the battle of the tar pits, as Gandalf gathered the scattered troops of Rohan to relieve Helm‘s Deep.  It’s also possible that Kedorlaomer’s forces were burdened by all the prisoners and plunder and so fought under a disadvantage.  Or perhaps the text is exaggerating Kedorlaomer’s importance; maybe Kedorlaomer was never that big a king after all and Lot was simply carried off by a desert warlord and his large band of brigands.  In the 19th Century, Biblical scholars thought they had identified some of the kings named in Babylonian sources, but later scholarship disagrees.

The text says that Abram divided his forces into two groups.  Possibly he caught the enemy in a narrow valley where they’d be pinned between the two flanks.  Perhaps Abram caught them by surprised as Gideon did to the Midianites (Judges ch. 7), and that is how he was able to defeat a superior force.  Once again, the text is annoyingly vague.

What it does say is that Abram returned with all the captives and plunder.  They are met by the King of Sodom, who was among the refugees from the previous battle.  The King of Sodom offers Abram a generous share of the recovered loot to repay him, but Abram refuses.  He allows Mamre and his brothers to take a share, but he won’t take anything for himself, “so that you will never be able to say ‘I made Abram rich.’” (Gen. 14:23)

Another guy shows up at this time accompanying the King of Sodom.  His name is Melchizadek, and he’s another of the the Bible’s mysteries.  We’ll get to him next time.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

They Might Be Giants

The pious Iowa revivalist found himself in a discussion with a skeptic.  “You don’t really believe all those stories in the Bible about giants and such, do you?” the fellow scoffed.  The minister vehemently asserted that he did, and pointed to a verse in Genesis to support him:  “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

Some of the most tantalizing stories in the Bible are the untold ones; the passages that make a passing reference to something but never tells us any more.  Of these untold stories, perhaps the most intriguing is the introduction we get to the story of Noah:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.  ... There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.  (Genesis 6:1-2, 4 King James Version)

This passage presents us with two mysteries:  Who are these “sons of God” and who are the giants they begat?

Well, if you grew up in the ‘70s as I did, the first question has only one answer.  They were space aliens obviously.  At least that’s what Erich von Däniken used to say.

The phrase translated as “sons of God” literally means “sons of the powers”, and in some places, such as Job 1:6 and Jude 6-7, it refers to angels.  In this particular context it certainly sounds like the text is referring to some kind of demigods or semi-divine beings, especially since the offspring of these beings are described as giants.  This interpretation doesn't fit so well with the traditional Jewish and Christian views of God.  Perhaps this passage, like a few others in Genesis, might be cultural relics of a time before the Hebrews adopted monotheism which the writer who compiled the Book of Genesis neglected to fix.  If that’s the case, the Holy Spirit could have used a better copy editor.

Orthodox Judaism interprets the phrase differently; as “sons of nobles“.  Similarly, an ancient Christian tradition holds that “sons of God” refers to the godly descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, those who had a Covenant Relationship with God; and that the “daughters of men” belonged to the line of Cain.  This seems possible, but doesn't capture the imagination quite like the notion of angelic space aliens getting it on with sexy earth girls.

The apocryphal Books of Enoch, written between the 3rd and 1st Centuries BC, expands considerably on the Genesis 6 passage.  Ostensibly written by the patriarch Enoch before the Flood, it identifies the “sons of God” with angels called Watchers, whose job was to watch over humanity. Uatu the Watcher from Marvel Comics is probably related to them.

Some of these Watchers were the ones who began fooling around with human women and who also taught humans forbidden knowledge like astrology, weapon-making, and cartooning; (well, “the art of writing with ink and paper“). The movie Noah plays around with this idea and represents the Watchers as huge creatures whose angelic forms are encased in rock and earth, embodying their fallen state.

Which brings us to the children of the sons of God and the daughters of men.  King James follows many ancient translations and calls them “giants”, but the Hebrew word used in the passage is “nephilim”, which means, depending on your point of view, either “fallen ones” or “those causing others to fall.”  (Or, it could be related to the Aramaic word “Nephila” for the constellation of Orion, which brings us back to space aliens.)

But were they giants?  A more prosaic interpretation suggests that the Nephilim of Genesis were giants in a metaphorical way rather than a literal one; that they were simply “mighty men of renown”, the same way we might call a corporate CEO a Titan of Industry, or a mathematical genius a Colossus of Intellect, or a college football star the Big Man on Campus.

I suspect that the identification of the Nephilim with giants comes from the only other place in the Bible where they are mentioned.  In the Book of Numbers there is a story in which Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan to do reconnaissance.  Their initial report was not promising:

But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13: 31-33 NIV)

Are these the same Nephilim from Genesis? The reference to Anak, who was one of the Canaanite kings, would suggest that they were, or at least were descended from them.  Then how did these ancestors of Anak survive the Deluge that wiped out the rest of humanity?  I don’t know.

But another strong possibility is that the spies were exaggerating.  “These guys were huge, man!  They were like freakin’ King Kong!”  It’s not all that implausible to suppose that the Canaanites, living as they did in a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, had a better overall diet than the nomadic Israelites and were on average taller; but all that stuff about looking like grasshoppers?  I don’t think so.

That’s the last mention we get in Scriptures of the Nephilim.  Maybe the writer who compiled Genesis didn't know any more about them than a name passed down in oral tradition.  Or maybe the writer was more interested in recording the history of Abraham and his ancestry, and that he regarded these half-mythical beings as peripheral to his story.

Either way, the giants of those days stuck in people’s minds.  In 1869, when a farmer in upstate New York digging a well uncovered what seemed to be the petrified remains of one of these giants, it seemed vindication at last for the Genesis account.  The “Cardiff Giant”, of course, was a hoax, perpetrated by the same scoffer who had argued with the Iowa revivalist, and who decided that if people wanted to believe in such things, he would give it to them.

And so, for a time at least, there really were giants in the earth.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Adam's Ex

I have to admit:  I’m cheating.

Having said I was going to blog about obscure stories in the Bible, my first week I wrote about the Creation -- not exactly unknown here -- and this week I’m writing about a character who isn't even in the Bible.  Well, not technically.

Although Lilith is never exactly named in the Bible, she does have an association with Adam. She‘s part of the pop theology which has accumulated around Creation these past few millenia.  Some people think she was in the Bible, and some others think she should have been.

The name Lilith is thought to derive from Lilitu, a type of female spirit or demon from Babylonian and Assyrian mythology associated with the night wind. An ancient Mesopotamian tablet depicting a nude goddess with bird’s feet and wings has been thought by some to represent Lilitu, although other scholars identify her with Ishtar or other goddesses of the region.  There’s also an incident in the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the hero rids a goddess’s huluppu tree of a snake, a zu bird and another garden pest which some translators have identified as a Lilith.

It  seems likely that Lilith entered Hebrew folklore during the Babylonian Captivity, where she was seen as a demonic spirit who preyed on women and young children.  She was frequently portrayed as a beautiful woman, sexually preying on men as they slept giving them wet dreams and enticing them to grow hair on their palms.  I made up the last part.

The only place in the Bible that comes close to mentioning Lilith is a passage in Isaiah describing the destruction of Edom.  It describes the land becoming a desolate place, inhabited by unclean beasts and supernatural terrors.  This is how a modern Jewish translation puts it:

“Wildcats shall meet hyenas, / Goat-demons shall greet each other; / There too the lilith shall repose / And find herself a resting place” (Isaiah 34:14)

The King James Verison renders the word “liylith” in the original Hebrew as “screech owl”; which is perhaps appropriate given Lilith’s associations with the night and with birds of prey.  Other translations translate it as “night creature”, “night hag” or “vampire”.

Over time, Lilith developed two aspects: the slayer of newborns, and the seducer of men. The latter can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls,  which contain a reference identifying  Lilith with the warnings in the Book of Proverbs against seductive women.

The former is reflected by a Hebrew tradition that an amulet bearing the names of three angels, (Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, which would make a great name for a law firm), would protect a newborn boy in the crucial eight days before his circumcision, , when he was vulnerable to evil influences.

But what does any of this have to do with Adam?

As we've seen, the Creation account in Genesis 1 suggests that Man and Woman were created at the same time, but the account in Genesis 2 states that Adam was created first and that Eve came later.  The Genesis Rabbah, a Jewish commentary on the Book of Genesis written some time after the Babylonian Talmud, explains this apparent discrepancy by postulating a First Wife for Adam, created with him on the Sixth Day.

(Personally I don’t have a problem with assuming that the “male and female” from chapter one refers to Adam and Eve from chapter two; but these learned rabbis did; and this is how they reconciled the two texts).

In the Middle Ages, sometime between the 8th and 10th Centuries, a book titled The Alphabet of ben Sirach identified this hypothetical First Wife as Lilith.  The book was a series of acrostic proverbs modeled after those in the Apocryphal book Wisdom of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus; along with commentary.  Many scholars consider the work to be satirical due to the number of fart jokes in it.

According to the Alphabet, Lilith was Adam’s first wife; but because they had both been created from the earth, Lilith refused to take a subordinate role to her husband.  Specifically, She Wanted To Be On Top during sex, and Adam insisted that she could only be Underneath.

Lilith’s demand for equality has made her popular with modern day feminists, although I doubt that the author of The Alphabet intended her as a role-model.  She left Adam and took up a new career devouring children.  And things for Lilith kind of went downhill from there.

In Medieval Jewish and Christian folklore, Lilith became known as the mother of all manner of supernatural creatures, some demonic and monstrous, like giants and trolls; some just otherworldly, like elves and fairies. C.S. Lewis alludes to this idea in his Narnia books, when he has a character comment that although the White Witch claims to be a Daughter of Eve, she is actually descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith.  The Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald, who was one of Lewis’s inspirations, wrote a novel called Lilith in which she is portrayed both as a seducer of men and as an enemy of children, but who nevertheless receives a chance for redemption.

But back to the legend.  God had to try again making a new mate for Adam, and this time he created the woman out of Adam’s flesh so that there would be no question as to who had seniority and who was in charge.  This fits in with the way a lot of people interpret the story of the Creation of Eve; that being formed out of Adam’s rib is supposed to symbolize Eve’s inferiority to Adam.

I don’t read the story quite like that.  As I see it, the Genesis account’s depiction of Eve being created out of Adam’s rib is not a matter of who wears the pants in the family; (which at that point in the story was neither; pants came later); but rather to portray Eve as a part of Adam; “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” as Adam himself puts it.  And the story concludes with a passage later quoted by Jesus and which is frequently used as a wedding text:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24 NIV)
To me, that verse says nothing about which one is in charge, but rather that both form a partnership.  The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 provides us with a brief glimpse of the ideal of marriage.  Perhaps the bickering Adam and Lilith of legend is closer to the reality, but it’s a cynical view.

Some have claimed that Lilith was “left out” of the Bible; which is rather like complaining that Rudolph was “left out” of the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  Even though the Lilitu of Sumerian myth existed before the writing of Genesis, she did not become associated with Adam until much, much later.

Some feminists have tried to rehabilitate Lilith, claiming that she was originally a goddess of childbirth and fertility, like Ishtar or Isis, who was vilified when patriarchal religions gained ascendancy.  I suppose it’s possible that the name Lilith was once associated with such a deity; but I don’t see that having anything to do with Adam.  And for all Lilith’s assertive independence that we might admire, her portrayal in legend is to my mind more misogynistic than anything in Genesis.

Sadly, we don’t see much of Eve’s character in Genesis.  She gets the spotlight in one story:  the story of her Temptation; and she doesn't come off very well in it.  We don’t really know what she was like apart for her apparent willingness to believe talking snakes, and she quickly recedes into the background. Which is a pity, because I’d like to know more about her.

Brash, ballsy, bad-girl Lilith grabs our attention, but I can’t help but feel that her story diminishes both Eve and Adam.  I guess I prefer to think of Adam and Eve as the First Couple.

And Adam certainly has enough screw-ups to his name without having him be a jerk to his ex on top of everything.