Serendipity

On Friday, I posted about Ancient Near East culture and how understanding it can help us understand the context for Exodus and Leviticus. In the comments section of that post, Rachael raised a question about the origin of animal sacrifice, which naturally leads to questions about the origin of “clean” and “unclean” animals.

Serendipitously, the very next day Alistair Roberts posted a video about clean and unclean animals and what exact criteria seem to be used to distinguish them. He also touches on one possible reason the Israelites were forbidden to eat meat with the blood still in it. Don’t miss the discussion near the end about how the way that we eat helps make us human.

A few days later, I discovered another Alistair Roberts video that relates to my ANE post. In it, he discusses the differences between ritual, natural, and civic law. (Some are arbitrary, and others are not; some are universal, others are particular to culture.) It is just as sensible and insightful as we’ve come to expect from Alistair Roberts. There’s a reason I link to him from my blog.

If you have time, check out one or both of these videos.

Why Everyone Should Be Educated about the Ancient Near East

Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31

Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.

On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East.   It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.

Description Is Not Prescription

First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding that nevertheless seems to be widespread.

Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history.  The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors.  In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape.  In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism.  And so on.  It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.

God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy

But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff.  It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force.  Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad.  If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.

I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves in at the time that God gave them all these laws?

Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence.  Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them.  They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices.  They had no war, no rape, no slavery.  They did not even eat meat.  They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.

No, no, no.  Come on.  That picture is the exact opposite of the truth.  There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.

The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East

Public Domain. Maarten van Heemskerck’s interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the background, the ziggurat (temple) towers over the city.

When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:

In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.  If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or were a farmer attached to, a city-state.  At the center of your city would be the temple of that city’s god.  Typically the king was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her representative on earth.  So, the god was ruling you through the king.  Every citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service and sacrifice.  And how was that religion practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures in which livestock represent wealth.  But actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.  Temple prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of and in some places it was common. 

Public Domain image of Moloch, the Phonecian god. Children were sacrificed by being placed inside the fiery metal statue. In some versions, the statue is shown with arms stretched out in front of it, into which the baby is placed. This god was popular in Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest.

In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy.  All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites.  The power of the ruling class was considered absolute.  Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king.   There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law.  Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.

For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.

It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World

Public Domain. The temple of Jupiter towers over Rome during the days of the Republic.

Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East.  The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical.  The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia.  Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.  Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture.  In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.

Public Domain. Pre-Aztec pyramid/temple complex at Teotihuacan.

But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and secular, with lots of social mobility (and no animal sacrifices whatsoever).  For many people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized theocracy comes when they open the Bible.  They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had commanded all of this.  But no, He was not instituting theocracy, animal sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it.  Those things were already universal.  He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the norm.  He spoke to them in their terms, but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His character.

Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?

You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?”   This would, of course, have made no sense to them.  They would have been completely unable to understand the message.  If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies.  You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it.  But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.

Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again, limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their own land … where, for many years, there was no king.

If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.

Sources

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)

Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.

Can We Please Just Admit the Neanderthals Were People?

Here is a cool recent article about Neanderthals. Turns out they were more widespread than we used to think. This article does refer to them as humans. But it also distinguishes them from “modern humans.” And some articles refer to them as different “species.”

But they have tools at their sites, and the reconstructions of their faces look like people we might meet anywhere. (I know that’s an old joke, but it’s also a truism.)

And now, accompanied by a creepy speculative picture, we are told Neanderthals and modern humans were “lovers, not fighters.”

Here’s my take. They were just people, OK?

Leviathan

Some time ago, Rachael requested in the Comments section of my Dinosaurs post that I post a picture of the Leviathan. At the time, I thought that I didn’t have time to do one. (I’ve gotten away from drawing and painting in favor of home schooling, knitting, and a writing career.) But then I realized I had on hand a watercolor that I had done years ago which includes the Leviathan.

The image below is from a version of the Book of Job that I did for my kids when they were little. I made it because there simply were no children’s books that accurately summarized the Book of Job. It’s not a popular topic in the first place, and even when it is dealt with, it tends to be handled very moralistically as being all about Job’s patience and righteousness. But that’s a rant for another day.

The reason the animals are portrayed as being in a tornado is that God “spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.” My son, at the time, was equal parts fascinated and terrified by the idea of tornadoes. The animals shown are unicorn, eagle, behemoth (the sauropod) and, in the lower left corner, Leviathan. (I include a unicorn because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, mentions “monoceros” or “unicorn” where some English translations render “wild donkey” or “wild ox.”)

I must admit this Leviathan owes more to C.S. Lewis’s description of the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’ve portrayed it as a deep-sea creature. There is no hint of fire breathing or scales bumpy enough to leave an impression in the mud. Sorry, folks.

And … tah dah …!

Omigosh, a Huge Chunk of Asteroid Struck North America 12,800 Years Ago!!! … Or, Wait, False Alarm

On my shelf is a 2009 book called First Peoples in a New World by archaeologist David J. Meltzer.   I have learned many things from this book, not least of which is that North American archaeology is really, really contentious.  (I may post about this later.) 

On pages 55 – 58, right in the middle of a discussion of the causes of the Younger Dryas, is a long callout box in which Meltzer goes on a delightful rant:

In 2001 the Mammoth Trumpet, a newsletter for a lay audience … carried an unusually long, highly technical article declaring there’d been a Pleistocene doomsday.  A supernova-caused neutron bombardment centered over the Great Lakes had fried the earth 12,500 years ago … heated the atmosphere to over 1,800˚ Fahrenheit, and radiated plants and animals at the equivalent dose of “a 5-megawatt reactor for more than 100 seconds” … and so spiked atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations that ages on Paleoindian sites were thrown off by up to 40,000 years. …  [In 2007] the supposed Pleistocene extraterrestrial catastrophe was hyped as fact from FOX News to The Economist.

Meltzer pp 55 – 56

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis

This claim is now called the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis.  The supposed comet impact or impacts are alleged to explain a number of phenomena:

  • Just as the last Ice Age was ending, right in the middle of a warming period, the climate unaccountably got cooler again for about 1000 years.  This glacial encore is called the Younger Dryas.  The idea is that a comet impact could have caused a bunch of glacial ice and water suddenly to be dumped into the North Atlantic, cooling temperatures there and interrupting the warming cycle.
  • The approximate date for the impact is around the same time that North America’s megafauna (mammoths, giant sloths) were dying out.  Paleontologists are not sure why they died out, because it’s very difficult to get an accurate sense of numbers or of how quickly the extinctions happened.  But if there was a comet impact, that would obviously be the #1 suspect in their demise.
  • Also around this time (about 10,800 BC) there is a geologic layer called the Black Mat, a carbon-rich layer that might be burned organic material or might be peat, as from the bottom of a pond.  In some places, it contains nanodiamonds and other unique mineral things that are usually only formed with high heat and pressure.
  • This is also the time period in which some archaeologists think the Clovis culture (of humans) was dying out in North America, though this die-off too is controversial.

Impact, Schmimpact

Meltzer, in his 2009 book, is scathing: “The claim was so far out literally and figuratively … it was met with bemusement, or simply ignored.”  He finds all kinds of evidentiary problems with the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis.   He doesn’t think an asteroid impact is required to explain the Younger Dryas, for one thing.  (The cooling cycle could have been kicked off by meltwater from the North American glaciers even without a super-hot space rock, since the glaciers were already melting.) Furthermore, Black Mat evidence is inconsistent.  So is Clovis evidence.  So is evidence about the megafauna.  And, the biggest problem of all, in 2009 when his book was published, no one had found an impact crater.

Well, that has changed.  A 31-kilometer-wide impact crater was recently discovered under Hiawatha Glacier in Greenland.  And the proponents of the YDIH have also discovered what they say is additional evidence of impacts as far away as Chile.  (See the links below for more information.)

In Conclusion, We Are Not Sure the World Actually Ended

So, did a huge comet – or multiple pieces of a comet – really hit earth about 12,800 years ago?  Nobody really knows.  But – and this is the only point of this article – how can we not know this? How can we not be sure whether an apocalyptic, species-killing, continent-setting-on-fire event even happened? 

The fact there can be controversy about such a hard-to-miss event just illustrates how difficult it is to figure out anything that happened even a mere 12,000 years ago. Pause for a moment and allow your jaw to drop, as mine did when I first read this, over all … that we don’t … know.

Sources

Fernandez, Sonia. “The Day the World Burned: Geologic and paleontological evidence unearthed in southern Chile supports the theory that a major cosmic impact event occurred approximately 12,800 years ago” posted Friday, March 8, 2019 on UC Santa Barbara, https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2019/019375/day-world-burned

Haynes, C. Vance, Jr.“Younger Dryas ‘black mats’ and the Rancholabrean termination in North America”  Proceedings of the National Academcy of Sciences of the United States of America, published online 2008 April 24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2373324/

Hurst, K. Kris. “Clovis, Black Mats, and Extra-Terrestrials: Do Black Mats Hold the Key to Younger Dryas Climate Change?” ThoughtCo.com, updated January 15, 2018 https://www.thoughtco.com/clovis-black-mats-and-extra-terrestrials-3977231

Kennett, D.J., et al.. Abstract, “Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas Boundary Sediment Layer” in Science 02 Jan 2009, Vol. 323, Iss. 5910, p. 94, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/323/5910/94

Meltzer, David J. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America, University of California Press, 2009

Voosen, Paul. “Massive crater under Greenland’s ice points to climate-altering impact in the time of humans” posted in Science, Nov. 14, 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/massive-crater-under-greenland-s-ice-points-climate-altering-impact-time-humans

Genetic Engineering in the Ancient World

We have discussed in previous posts the idea that the people of the very ancient world were much smarter than we give them credit for, probably smarter than we are today.  This post will explore the idea that genetic engineering may have been tried thousands of years ago.  By the nature of the topic, the post will be highly speculative and will contain some stuff that is not for the squeamish.

Old Testament Laws Against Mixing Kinds

The Old Testament is famous for puzzling and obscure laws.  Here are a few:

“Keep my decrees.  Do not mate different kinds of animals.  Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.  Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”  Leviticus 19:19

At first glance these three rules seem arbitrary.  But they may actually have been a prohibition on attempting to create genetic hybrids of animals or plants. 

This verse comes in the midst of a passage that forbids the Israelites to do a number of different, mostly disgusting things that were part of contemporary pagan practice in Canaan, including child sacrifice, “divination,” self-mutilation, bestiality, and “eating meat with the blood still in it.”  Translated into modern terms, all of these practices could potentially relate to genetic manipulation.  They reflect an attitude towards people as disposable products (child sacrifice); a desire to carve up the human body and make it into whatever we desire (self-mutilation); a desire to find out hidden knowledge or secrets so as to take control of them (divination); and a desire to mix characteristics of humans and animals (bestiality, consuming blood).  We know that these impulses were not confined to Canaan in the ancient world.  See nearly every Greek myth ever recorded, but the particularly the story of the Minotaur.

Of course, we tend to think of these practices as religious, and no doubt they were.  But this doesn’t mean they were not also an attempt to alter the nature of things in the physical world.  Pagan religion is often a path to maintain the agricultural cycle and prevent infertility.  These particular pagans took things one step further and sought to “improve” these natural processes.

The Canaanites may even have had some success with their genetic experiments.  Israelite spies managed to bring back from Canaan a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole between two men (or possibly between two poles, depending on the translation, which would make it even bigger). (Numbers 13:23)

Genetic Engineering in Really Ancient Times

The Israelite conquest of Canaan took place about 1400 BC according to conventional dating.  This is very recent compared to the dates this blog usually has in view.  It is more than a thousand years after the Sumerians, well after the probable date of the Tower of Babel, and even farther after the speculated date for the Giza pyramids.   Many of the hints of genetic engineering – both in the Bible in other historical sources – come from these even more ancient times. 

Hints from the Bible

There is a strong emphasis in the creation account in Genesis on all things reproducing themselves “according to their kinds.” Almost every time a particular class of plant, bird, fish or animal is mentioned, it is followed by the phrase “according to their kinds” or “each according to its kind.”  This was the intended order of creation. 

It was violated a mere six chapters (but possibly untold thousands of years) later, when the “sons of God” (some of kind spiritual or transdimensional beings) lusted after human women and “married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 3)   Their hybrid offspring were the Nephilim, who were giants.

The speculation goes that these “sons of God” or their hybrid descendants may also have begun to violate animals, either sexually (ew!!!) or through some other, unknown means of genetic manipulation, and that people began to learn these techniques and the attendant values.  The general picture is a slow obliteration of all “kinds.”  There would have been creatures running around that were hybrid animals (chimeras perhaps?), other creatures that were part human and part “divine,” and perhaps “divine” animals and animal/people as well.  The world was on its way to complete biological, sexual, and perhaps even dimensional chaos.  Soon no one would be safe from any kind of sexual violence or grisly experiment.  This was the world that, thousands of years later, the Canaanites were still trying to bring back.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.  God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”  (Gen. 6:11 – 12)  The word corrupt here may mean more than just morally corrupt.  There had been some deep perversion of the natural order of things.  So God decided to destroy all the people and birds and animals (verse 7).  He chose Noah.  My translation of verse 9 says that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.”  It is possible that a better translation of this phrase is “perfect in his generations.”  That is, Noah was still 100% genetically human.   His family line had not intermarried with the gods and had not been genetically manipulated (Van Dorn 36).   God then asked Noah to gather “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.”  He was going to re-start the world using the originally created kinds.

It is possible that the secrets of genetic manipulation were not completely lost after the Flood.  Around the time of the tower of Babel, we get the figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [or against] the Lord,” who founds a number of ancient cities and is later worshiped as a god by the Babylonians.  Genesis 10:8 says in the NIV that Nimrod “grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth,” but the grammar allows for the translation “began to become a giant.”  (Van Dorn 77)   Perhaps he found a way to alter his own genetic code.  That would certainly have made his city-building task easier, especially if he was planning to use megaliths.


Hints from Other Historical Sources

The general picture we have painted of the world immediately pre-Flood is a terrifying one.  It is also strikingly similar to the picture of mythological times found in cultures worldwide.  

Greek myths, as everyone knows, routinely feature gods impregnating human women, giants, part-god “heroes” (often very badly behaved themselves), and entities that mix characteristics of animal, human, and/or divine.  Not to mention countless “monsters” created by the gods.  It all adds up to a portrayal of a world that is fascinating from a distance, but also chaotic and deeply unsettling.  It is not a world that a sane person would wish to live in.

But this is not confined to Greek mythology.  Stories of giants are found everywhere.  So are stories of human/divine intermarriage, and stories of people mating with various animals (or even inanimate objects such as stones), and producing monsters.  It is a truism that these are common features of myth.  All these very strange ideas are, no doubt, deep in the human mind.  But perhaps there is a story behind the way they got there.  Perhaps this was, in fact, the world that humankind lived in for some generations. 

Finally, I give you a visual image that is not proof of anything, but that might be suggestive.  It is the caduceus, a very ancient symbol that came to be associated with the Greek god Hermes in his capacity as a healer and as a patron of doctors.  It is two snakes entwined around a winged pole.  The symbolic association of snakes with healing in world mythology is too big a topic for a post that has already gone over 1,000 words.  But, if you buy in to the idea that ancient people were very smart and may have engaged in genetic manipulation, it is interesting that this ancient medical symbol resembles a double helix, or DNA molecule.

Sources

Giants: Sons of the gods, by Douglas Van Dorn.  Waters of Creation Publishing, 1614 Westin Drive, Erie, CO 80516, 2013.  Van Dorn’s book was the source for all the original ideas in this post.

Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992.  The Dictionary contains many references to giants, monsters, and to sexual activity between people, animals, rocks, etc.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.  Scholastic, March 2010.  First published 1962.  This is a classic illustrated book for children that sanitizes the myths somewhat.  Of course there are many other reference books for Greek myths. In addition to many other suggestive stories, D’Aulaires’ mentions that the smith god, Hephaestus, “built for himself two robots of gold and silver to help him about.  They had mechanical brains and could think for themselves.   They could even speak with their tongues of silver.  They also served him as helpers in his workshop on Olympus.” (page 28)  Here again we see at least the idea of very advanced technology in an ancient context in which we would not expect it.

Just Because We Haven’t Found It, Doesn’t Mean It Didn’t Exist

Nile shipwreck discovery proves Herodotus right – after 2,469 years

I love to see an ancient source vindicated. This article concerns a detailed description by Herodotus of a certain style of boat building that was doubted because archaeologists never found any examples of it … until now.

That’s actually a fairly tame claim to have vindicated. Some of Herodotus’s descriptions of exotic peoples, for example, seem pretty hard to swallow. But pretty much all such descriptions sound hard to swallow out of their context. Take this classic anthropological-ese description of American hygiene and medical care. Read it for a laugh.

I realize we can’t just rubber-stamp every ancient account we like while discounting the ones we don’t like. We have to have some kind of standard of proof. Still, historical proof is not like scientific proof. There’s a slippery slope between “We have found no proof that this [whatever it is] existed” and “We have found proof that this didn’t exist.” Some people fall down it.