Where did this wolf-tribe [of KGB torturers] appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?
It is our own.
And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”
It is a dreadful question if one really answers it honestly.
So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.
Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.
From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb.
And correspondingly, from evil to good.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, abridged version, from pp. 73, 74, 75
I don’t know why this feels so important, but it seems to be, somehow. Perhaps it just drives home how little we understand genetics and human development.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how archaeologists are constantly finding human cultural items that break records for “the oldest”: the oldest city, the oldest stone, temple, etc. Now here’s another one.
Two great things about this cave painting: it’s in Indonesia, and it’s of a pig.
“‘The people who made it were fully modern, they were just like us, they had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked,’ [Aubert] added.”
Also, the painting is accompanied by stenciled hand prints that are made by placing your hand on the wall, filling your mouth with powdery dye, and blowing the dye onto your hand and the surrounding area. The last line of the article says that “the team are hoping to try to extract DNA samples from residual saliva.” Wouldn’t it be cool if they could do this and then sequence the DNA? And what if they were able to find a modern person who shares distinctive DNA with that unknown artist who made these hand stencils so many thousands of years ago? If they do, I think it’s a good guess they will find that person living right near the cave. That’s often how it works out. Modern-day relatives of the Ice Man were found living not far from where his body was discovered.
As I heard a podcaster say, “The plural of anecdote is data.”
Wait. Are We Even Sure It Was Worldwide?
You can make a case that the account in Genesis 7 – 8 is not necessarily describing a global flood. This is because the same Hebrew word can be translated “world,” “earth,” or “land.” How we interpret it depends upon context. There is a case to be made, for example, that the whole book of Revelation is describing the devastation of the land of Israel during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (hence the frequent warnings that it is going to happen “soon”), and that lines like “one third of the people on the earth died” are better translated as “one third of the people in the land died.”
I have even seen people try to interpret the poetic descriptions of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 as happening from the perspective of a person standing on the surface of the earth, in the land of Israel.
However, getting back to the flood narrative, there are good reasons to think that the text is in fact describing a global flood. This passage is set in very ancient times, before the nation of Israel existed. It’s before Abram was called by God out of Ur. Before Abram was even born. Before the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). So, not only was there no nation of Israel at the time of flood narrative, but we can’t even be sure there was a land of Israel, given the dramatic damage that the flood did to the earth’s geography. (And by the way, yes, I have just revealed that I think the flood narrative was not composed by Moses — even under the inspiration of God — but was passed down to Moses from a much older source.)
Finally, it’s hard to imagine how a local flood could “cover the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (Genesis 7:20) … especially for enough of a length of time for Noah and his sons to take soundings so as to estimate this depth.
So, given all this, I don’t think it’s straining the text to say that the flood account in Genesis is meant to be describing a global event.
Like so many sensational things in the Bible, the flood account sounds hard to believe, but the longer we look at it, the better it matches with the world we live in. Here are some features of the world we live, which are features we would expect if the dark millennia of our past concealed a worldwide flood.
Oral Flood Histories from Around the World
I have written before about Graham Hancock. I really enjoyed his book Fingerprints of the Gods, which posits an ancient period of cataclysms that included “earth crust slippage,” a geological upheaval so dramatic that it would have caused catastrophic floods among many other disasters. Hancock keeps changing his theories, and he has his own reasons for collecting the historical data that he does. However, here is some of the data that he conveniently collected about flood legends worldwide:
More than 500 deluge legends are known around the world and, in a survey of 86 of these (50 Asiatic, 3 European, 7 African, 46 American and 10 from Australia and the Pacific), the specialist researcher Dr. Richard Andree concluded that 62 were entirely independent of the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.Hancock, Fingerprints, p. 193
|People Group||page in Fingerprints||summary|
|Aztec||98||“First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. In this age lived the giants … The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near the water. Others say there were seven couples who hid in a cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations …”|
|Sumerian||188 – 189||The Noah figure is called Utnapishtim. He later tells his story to Gilgamesh. It almost exactly parallels the Genesis 7 account.|
|South American tribes||191 – 192||Hancock mentions flood accounts coming from the following tribes: Chibcas (Colombia); Canarians (Ecuador); Tupinamba (Brazil); Araucnaian (Chile); Yamana (Tierra del Fuego); Pehuenche (Tierra del Fuego); and numerous groups in Peru.|
|Inuit||192 – 193||“a terrible flood, accompanied by an earthquake, which swept so rapidly over the face of the earth that only a few people managed to escape in their canoes or take refuge on the tops of the highest mountains.”|
|various North American tribes||193||Lusieno, Huron, Montagnais, Iroquios, Chickasaw, Sioux|
|China’s Imperial Library||193 – 194||“The planets altered their courses. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon, and stars changed their motions. The earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.”|
|Southeast Asia||194||Flood accounts in: Chewong (Malaysia); Laos and northern Thailand; Karen (Burma); Vietnam; tribes along the northern coast of Australia|
|Hawai’i||194||“The world was destroyed by a flood and later recreated by a god named Tangaloa.”|
|Samoa||194||The flood is survived by “two human beings who put to sea in a boat which eventually came to rest in the Samoan archipelago.”|
|Japan||194||The Pacific islands were formed after the deluge receded.|
|Greek (Hesiod)||195 – 196||After a series of races of gold and silver, there is a “bronze race” who “have the strength of giants, and mighty hands on their mighty limbs.” After Prometheus gets them into trouble, Zeus wipes out the bronze race with a flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha float over the sea in a box for nine days and finally land on Mt. Parnassus.|
|“Vedic India”||196 – 197||The Noah figure is named Manu. He rescues a fish, which in return warns him of a coming flood. Manu loads a ship with two of every living species and seeds of every plant. The fish turns out to be Vishnu, who pulls Manu’s ship through the flood.|
|Egypt (Book of the Dead)||197||Thoth says, “They have fought fights, they have upheld strifes, they have done evil, they have created hostilities, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble and oppression … I am going to blot out everything which I have made. This earth shall enter into the watery abyss by means of a raging flood, and will become even as it was in primeval time.”|
|Mayan (Popol Vuh)||203||“It was cloudy and twilight all over the world … the faces of the sun and moon were covered … Sunlight did not return till the twenty-sixth year after the flood.”|
|Norse||204 – 205||An awful lot happens in this apocalyptic tale. First a “hideous winter,” then worldwide war, then Yggdrasil (the earth tree) is shaken, causing the earth to literally fall apart. Then, worldwide fire. And finally, a flood. “The earth sank beneath the sea … Yet not all men perished in the great catastrophe. Enclosed in the wood itself of the ash tree Yggdrasil — which the devouring flames of the universal conflagration had been unable to consume — the ancestors of the future race of men had escaped death. In this asylum they had found that their only nourishment had been the morning dew. Slowly the earth emerged from the waves. Mountains rose again …”|
The charming thing about these origin tales is that couple who survive the flood usually end up landing on the local mountain, founding the nation that is currently telling the story, and not moving from that spot ever since. This is similar to how nearly every people group has a local landmark (usually a mountain, terrain permitting) that is believed to be the home of the gods or “the center of the world.”
This is what origin stories are supposed to do. They ground the local community in the great ancient story of the world, and they also give the ancient stories credibility by grounding them in local features “still seen to this day.” This is not to say, however, that origin stories are simply made up out of whole cloth. They are handed down the generations, and though they might get tailored to make human beings look better, and have bits of other interesting stories added to them, they ultimately have some kind of origin in actual events. (Especially since they often come with genealogies that are also handed down.) I can’t imagine the coincidence that would be required for hundreds of peoples all around the world to make up a traditional flood story.
Yes, But It Could Still Have Been Local, If …
… if all of these widely scattered people groups were descended from a small number of couples who were once all in one place and who experienced a catastrophic local flood together.
That is true. Could still be true. And, in fact, even if the entire world were experiencing earthquakes, uplifts and sinkings, tsunamis, etc., all at once, there wouldn’t necessarily have been a moment when water was covering all the land on earth all at the same time. On the other hand, there wouldn’t have to be, for events to satisfy the description given in these flood accounts, including the Genesis one. After all, the perspective from which these stories are told, is that of human beings experiencing the flood and associated disasters, not the perspective of an observer looking at the globe from outer space. The mental picture of the whole world sitting under a flat layer of water, while not impossible, is more of a Sunday School stylization of the account, than the actual claim being made.
Buried Beneath a Wave of Mud
In all of these accounts, the flood is sudden, dramatic, and overwhelming, whether or not it is accompanied by other disasters such as earthquake or fire. Even the Genesis account (often simplified to sound like just rain) says “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11, NIV).
In a world in which this had happened, we should expect to find the remains of plants and animals that had been instantly buried under huge waves of mud and essentially frozen in time. And that is exactly what we do find. Here is the latest example, which was called to my attention by Google within the last month:
This poor dino mom, if she had been given any warning that she was about to be buried in an oxygen-free environment that would later prove convenient to future paleontologists, would probably have fled or tried to move her eggs to safety. OK, maybe she would have stayed to protect them. But we also find fossil dinos caught in the act of, say, eating prey. We find mammoths apparently flash-frozen with summer plants still in their mouths and/or stomachs. I can’t imagine how that could have come about, but it can’t have been gradual. (Although here are some fish who appear to be frozen in a wave, but the process was a quite different.)
It’s an odd world we live in, guys. I dunno.
The items in this picture come from around the world and from different aesthetic traditions, so it’s surprising that they look so good together. At least, I think they look good. You be the judge.
The prints on the quilt squares come from clothing items actually worn by my husband and me when we lived in Indonesia. Some of them are batik; others are more modern tropical prints. In Indonesia, formal dress for couples goes as follows. The man wears black slacks, a black pillbox type hat called a peci (peh-chee), and a shirt made of a batik print. (Batik can come in many different patterns and color schemes.) The woman wears a long, narrow skirt made of the same batik as her husband’s shirt, and this is topped with a lacy, fitted, tunic-length blouse called a kebaya. The kebaya can be black, white, or in a color that coordinates with the batik.
In a tropical country, you don’t wear your clothes seasonally. You wear them year-round, until they wear out. After several years in Indonesia, I had all these worn-out shirts and pants in unique prints that now had sentimental value. Now we come to the second aesthetic stream: #grandmacore. We happened to be living in a place where there was a sewing room, with a small army of volunteer grandmas who were happy to take on sewing projects to help stressed-out young families who had just landed from overseas or were planning to return there. I brought the batiks to the grandmas and asked whether they could make several small quilts, suitable to hanging on the wall, with them. They did a great job!
Our formula so far goes,
Batik + Grandma
The rest of the stuff on the table is more boring. It was all bought in the U.S.A., and what could be more American than Red Hots in a Mason jar? But put on the batik quilt, it suddenly looks planned.
The orange-and-white ramekin, though boringly bought in an American department store, brings another aesthetic stream into this murky pool. It’s from the collection sold by Pioneer Woman, who lives on a ranch in Texas and has monetized her lifestyle with cookbooks, children’s books, and now kitchenware. Most of the kitchenware is colorful and detailed, and would tend to dominate any table it was put on. This ramekin, though a little busy, appeals because the flowers on it look like folk art. And who knew that American-style folk art would play so well with batik? Or maybe it could, because if you look at folk art from around the world, there is a certain similarity.
Most notable achievements involve multiple factors… What this suggests is that an individual, a people, or a nation may have some, many, or most of the prerequisites for a given achievement without having any real success in producing that achievement. And yet that individual, that people or that nation may suddenly burst upon the scene with spectacular success when whatever the missing factor or factors are finally get added to the mix.
Poor and backward nations that suddenly moved to the forefront of human achievements include Scotland…
Scotland was for centuries one of the poorest, most economically and educationally lagging nations on the outer fringes of European civilization. There was said to be no fourteenth-century Scottish baron who could write his name. And yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a disproportionate number of the leading intellectual figures in Britain were of Scottish ancestry — including James Watt in engineering, Adam Smith in economics, Dave Hume in philosophy, Joseph Black in chemistry, Sir Walter Scott in literature and John Stuart Mill in economics and philosophy.
Among the changes that had occurred among the Scots was their Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read, so as to be able to read the Bible personally, rather than have priests tell them what it says and means. Another change was a more secular, but still fervent, crusade to learn the English language, which replaced their native Gaelic among the Scottish lowlanders, and thereby opened up far more fields of written knowledge to the Scots.Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities, pp. 9 – 10
And now for two of the best clans …
Evolutionary researchers are still not positive that having a grandmother around is physically good for moms and babies. But they are bumbling towards proving it. And we all know it’s true.
Much in this article is speculation, like the idea that there was an 8,000-year gap between people planting gardens and “full-blown agriculture” (whatever that is). Also, as always, the exact dates.
But this does seem to support the general picture that has been building … namely, that people got to the Americas a very long time ago, traversed them very quickly, and started gardening almost immediately … or perhaps already knew about agriculture before they got there, even if they had abandoned it for a generation or two while traveling. Or, as we like to say around here … (drumroll) … ancient people were already very sophisticated in the earliest records we find of them.
The Original Text
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”Matthew 2:1 – 18
This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.
Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.
The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.
The Perils of Crossing Cultures
I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.
There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.
And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.
Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.
That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.
The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”
They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.
So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.
Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).
They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.
For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.
If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”
I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”
I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.
I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.
In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.
At the dawn of this new year, I am about to get sentimental on you.
Or am I?
Yesterday, we had a bit of a downer post about the human condition. Today, same topic, but with hope.
The idea of a lost golden age is found in all sorts of cultures, sometimes in some very strange forms. Some cultures and/or religions also add the hope of a future golden age. Of course, you want to watch out for promises of utopia on earth. They usually go wrong quickly and badly. But, the fact that we cannot bring about this future golden age ourselves, does not make the longing for it an illegitimate pursuit. This longing is the universal human recognition that something is wrong with our present world, with our present selves. It expresses the wish for redemption.
So maybe it’s not sentimental to long for a future golden age in which all tears will be dried, even if the song below is a little bit sentimental its instrumentation, coming as it does out of the late 80s/early 90s, when I was a moony teenager. And (*whispers*) I find this song even more moving now than I did as a teen, perhaps because in the intervening years I have seen even more of this broken world.
Here we go.