“In the past, He let all nations go their own way”

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.

Paul, speaking to a crowd of pagans in the city of Lystra, Asia Minor, Acts 14:15 – 17

More Isaiah-y Goodness

His Enemies Becoming His People

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. They LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

Isaiah 19:19 – 25

It might be kind of hard to appreciate how bizarre all this would have sounded in the context in which Isaiah gave this prophecy. Egypt and Assyria were the two big baddies. They were not the chosen people of God; they were their enemies. “Blessed be Egypt my people”? A blessing on the earth?

But if we think about it today … are there Egyptian Christians? Are there Assyrian Christians? Why yes, yes there are!

That Surreal Feeling

They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink! Get up, you officers, oil the shields!

O my people, crushed on the threshing floor, I will tell you what I have heard from the LORD Almighty, from the God of Israel.

What troubles you now, that you have all gone up on the roofs, O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry? Your slain were not killed by the sword, nor did they die in battle. All your leaders have fled together; they have been captured without using the bow. All you who were caught were taken prisoner together, having fled while the enemy was still far away. Therefore I said, “Turn away from me; let me weep bitterly. Do not try to console me over the destruction of my people.”

The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”

Is. 21:5, 10; 22:1 – 4, 12 – 13

Can I get an Amen?

Cortes and the Aztec Conquest

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by Irwin R. Blacker, 1965. A book review.

I picked this book up from our local library. “Oh, I only know the outlines of this period of history. I need to know more.” Then I let it sit around for several weeks. As a history book, it is probably boring, right?

Wrong.

Honestly, I would not put any of this stuff in a novel, because no one would believe it. In the first few chapters, at least once per chapter there was an “I can’t believe that just happened” moment. In the second half of the book, there is such a moment every one or two pages.

This book doesn’t pick heroes or villains. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward account of what happened, from Cortez sailing from Cuba, until the fall of Tenochtitlan. Also, perhaps because this book was published in 1965, it does not go in for the excessively dry, boring writing that academic history sometimes strives for. The writing is matter-of-fact, not sensationalist, and moves along quickly.

History is Full of Surprises

I went in to this with certain pre-conceptions. The general impression I had received from my previous exposure to this topic was that Cortez was awful, and the Aztecs were awful, and they deserved each other. I expected to read a story populated by a bunch of scoundrels, and that was what I got. However, as the book progressed I found myself more and more sympathizing with Cortez, because he is the underdog for literally the entire book. (The harsh ruling and enslaving the Indians stuff came later.) In every battle (not just with the Aztecs, but with the Tabascans, and then the Tlaxcalans), he is outnumbered tens of thousands to hundreds. Many of the I can’t believe this moments were caused by How did the Spaniards not die? and by watching Indian lords and generals snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Here are a few of the things that surprised me, and might surprise you too:

  • Though the Spaniards had a very early version of a gun (the harquebus), a few light cannon designed for ships, and a handful of horses, these things did not allow them to just roll in and conquer Mexico through overwhelming force of technology. They had only about 16 guns and horses, and about the same number of cannons. The horses were surprising at first to the Indians, but they did lose their shock value. The horses and cannons were difficult to transport through the swamps and mountains, and in every battle, as I said, the Spaniards were outnumbered about 100 to 1. The Mexican armor, which was made of padded and starched cotton, was almost as effective as the Spanish armor, and much lighter and cooler. The Aztecs and the other groups were experienced, hardened warriors.
  • With literally every people group Cortez encountered (whether they were allied with Montezuma or not), Cortez initially tried to parley and trade, and they insisted on going to battle. This is not to say that Cortez was there only to trade, merely that this, his opening move, never got past the first step. As he progresses through Mexico toward Tenochtitlan, we see him again and again forced into battles. Finally, after he defeats the very persistent Tlaxcalan Indians, they ask him to ally with them against Montezuma.
  • As per human nature, both sides were internally divided. The Tlaxcalan army, which had been holding out for years against Montezuma, lost to Cortez because their military captains would not co-operate with each other. Cortez, meanwhile, had left on his expedition without the approval of Velasquez, the governor of Cuba. He had some of Velasquez’s relatives in his fighting force, and had to worry about them fomenting mutiny. At one point, he had to leave Tenochtitlan and go fight a battle against an army representing Velasquez that had landed on the coast. With constantly shifting alliances among both the Spaniards and the Indians, this book read like a spy novel.
  • Cortez did not immediately attack Tenochtitlan, Montezuma’s capital city. He first approached as a visitor, and there was a weird period of several weeks when the Spaniards stayed there as guests? Or prisoners? Montezuma, for his part, was divided in his mind. He was not as confident in his role as priest as he had been in his youth, as a warrior. He wasn’t sure what his gods wanted him to do. Thus, he kept giving Cortez evasive answers, but also ended up giving Cortez much more leeway than he should have. He missed many good opportunities to have the Spaniard killed.
  • The great city of Tenochtitlan makes an amazingly interesting setting for a battle. It was built out over the middle of a shallow, salt lake (deep enough to drown in, however), and was approached from other lakeside cities by four long causeways, each of which had bridges that could be taken up, leaving wide gaps that were impassable for an attacking or fleeing force. These tiled causeways were also slippery and disorienting for horses, and anyone caught on them could be attacked by war canoes. Inside the city, the sections were divided by canals which could also be used to seal off the different sections of the city. There were high rooftops, leading up to the temple at the top, from which defenders could spot approaching or fleeing attackers, rain down missiles, and sound the alarm with conch shells and drums.
  • When the Spaniards finally did destroy Tenochtitlan, it was their Tlaxcalan allies who wanted to commit atrocities on the civilians there. “The Spaniards were too few to control their allies” (page 142).
  • Cortez was accompanied throughout by a young woman whom the Spaniards called Dona Marina. “She was a young, highly intelligent princess who had been sold into slavery by her parents” (page 34) and given to Cortez by the Tabascans after he defeated them. Dona Marina spoke both coastal Mayan and Nahuatl (the Aztec language), and she served as an interpreter. Amazingly, Dona Marina survived the entire conquest.

A True First-Contact Story

For me, the overall impression is that what we have here is the meeting of an Ancient Near Eastern style culture, with city-states, bureaucracies, temples, human sacrifice, and a tyrannical priest-king, with a late medieval/early exploration-age Western European culture. This could not be a purer first contact story if Cortez had gotten hold of a time machine and attempted to loot Babylon.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in military history.

“Our gods are good”

Taking almost all his men and horses, Cortes rode out to meet his host at the great temple. When the Spaniards arrived, Montezuma was at the top of the temple making human sacrifices. Several Aztecs came forward to help Cortes to the top, but the Spanish captain general brushed them aside and mounted the 114 steps unaided.

At the top of the temple, Cortes and his companions were horrified to find the Aztec idols spattered with flesh and blood. The whole place reeked, and on the floor there was more blood, encrusted and black. Shocked and repelled by what he saw, Cortes tried to explain to the emperor-priest that these idols were no more than devils and that the sacrifice of humans was blasphemous.

The mighty Aztec, injured by the Spaniard’s remarks, said that his gods were good and that he regretted having allowed the Spaniards to visit the temple at all. Seeing that his host was angry, Cortes quickly made overtures to pacify the emperor and then departed.

Cortes and the Aztec Conquest, by Irwin R. Blacker, p. 68

Links? Nope, Isaiah

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Hi all! So, cool as they are, I’m a little tired of posting links to archaeology-related articles. So, for the month of Advent, I’ll be posting quotes on Wednesday from an actual ancient document: the Book of Isaiah. That’s right, we are going to have double quotes for the next few weeks.

“Isaiah wrote during the stormy period marking the expansion of the Assyrian empire and the decline of Israel (late 700s B.C.). Although the fall of Jerusalem would not take place until 586 B.C., Isaiah assumes the demise of Judah and proceeds to predict the restoration of the people from captivity. Isaiah predicts the rise of Cyrus the Persian, who would unite the Medes and Persians and conquer Babylon in 539. The decree of Cyrus would allow the Jews to return home in 538, a deliverance that prefigured the greater salvation from sin through Christ.” (my NIV study Bible, p. 1008)

The book of Isaiah sees a lot of traffic around Christmas time, and you will soon see why.

The LORD spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. He said:

‘Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy;/do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it./The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,/he is the one you are to fear,/he is the one you are to dread,/and he will be a sanctuary,/but for both houses of Israel he will be/a stone that causes men to stumble/and a rock that makes them fall./And for the people of Jerusalem he will be/a trap and a snare.’

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob./I will put my trust in him.

Isaiah 8:11 – 14, 17

NW Reads a How-To Book

This book, the first in the Crossroads trilogy, takes place 850,000 years ago. I read it because it’s in my genre (sort of), and we indie authors writing about super-ancient times gotta stick together.

In my persona as a cave woman, I was hoping to pick up some tips on raw survival. One main strategy employed by Xhosa’s tribe seems to be Running Away. Me approve, as I am a master at this and so are the characters in my own books.

In Survival of the Fittest, Xhosa and her tribe travel from somewhere in the interior of Africa, north, crossing the Great Rift Valley and then (I think?) the Red Sea, or whatever that used to be 848,000 years ago. Once in the Levant (the Arabian Peninsula? Or did such exist back then?), they meet up with another tribe that is already successfully living there, plus a pair of young misfits, accompanied by their pet wolf, who have come all the way from what is now China.

The book moves fast, covering a lot of territory, both literally and metaphorically. It never really took off for me. There were lots of different episodes, each of which could easily have been its own book. The narrative moved back and forth between different groups quite a bit. With Big Idea novels like this one (and like my own books), the reader has to be at least intrigued by the theory of history that the author is exploring, so perhaps my problem was that this element was missing for me.

Another thing that harmed the verisimilitude for me was what appeared to be inconsistencies in the language. On the one hand, the characters don’t have enough abstract thought to count other than saying, “One, another, another …” On the other hand, they can describe to one another things that the hearer has never seen, such as the sea. They call the Cro-Magnon people Big Heads (which seems fair enough), but occasionally they will talk about things using modern terms, like Lucy (yes, the Lucy) or “tsunami,” which seems like an anachronism to this linguist. To be fair, any time we are writing about people in an ancient time, we are writing in translation, so the modern writer has to decide when to use a “free translation” (using words that modern readers will recognize) and when to use more literal glosses on the characters’ vocabulary, which gives a more atmospheric feel but is also harder for the reader to understand.

However, the author does lay some land mines that I presume will be stepped on in the next book, notably the obvious danger posed by Xhosa’s ambitious head warrior, Nightshade. If you believe that people evolved about a million years ago, started out not wearing clothes or counting past one, and you’re fascinated by what life might have been like during that time, then this series is for you.

There are lot of notes about terminology and the different humanoid groups at the beginning, which were helpful, but one thing I really, really wanted was a map. I tried to picture the characters’ routes, and I was checking modern maps of Africa, but realizing that the land has probably changed a lot since the time this book is set. I wanted to know exactly where they crossed the Great Rift Valley (which is pretty large, after all); what body of water they were crossing; and exactly where in the Levant they ended up. If there had been a map at the beginning of the book, I would have been flipping back and forth to that puppy every few pages, and perhaps would have been more engrossed in the story.