Mind Blown Again by Thomas Sowell

The following paragraph sums up several pages of data:

In short, major social transformations within the black community were having an impact in their economic condition. It would hardly be surprising if it also has an impact on how whites viewed blacks, as had happened [in a previous wave] in the nineteenth century. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s may well have been an effect of the rise of blacks, rather than the sole or predominant cause of that rise, as it has been represented as being, by those leaders — black and white — with incentives to magnify their own role in racial progress.

Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, p. 51

If you want to see the reactions of those with incentives to magnify their own role, go find this book on Goodreads and check out the 1-star reviews.

This is Exactly How I Feel about my Cowboy Hat

“Why did you decide to be a cowboy?” she asked.

“There are no real cowboys anymore, just a lot of pickup drivin’ wanna-be’s.” He shrugged. “Me, I love the wilderness, horses, and saddle leather. They just sorta come together out here.” He removed his hat and stared at it. “This is just functional gear that goes with it all I suppose.”

White Out, by Robert Marcum, p. 24

… by which I mean it is practical for sunny, windy environments. Not that I have horses like he does.

The Unseen Realm by Michael S. Heiser

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This review will bring a number of threads together, but it won’t give you a comprehensive sense of everything discussed in this book, because it is a long, complex book with lots of things to chew on.

The Unseen Realm is a theological book written at a popular level, but with lots of footnotes. I would say it is for serious lay students of the Bible. It frequently refers to the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament that was in popular use in New Testament Times), and to other different ancient manuscripts of various Bible passages, some of which have slightly different wording that can be key for Heiser’s arguments. The scholarship on the many topics that this book encompasses is voluminous, so much so that there is a companion web site with additional articles for all the things that this book can’t get into in detail.

All of that said, it is not boring, at least not if you are interested in its main idea, which is that of a divine council of “gods” being present not only in other ancient mythologies but throughout the pages of the Bible. I came to this book for my research into future fiction projects that I may or may not be working on (ooo so mysterious!). I found out less detail than I had hoped to about the divine council, but even when we don’t learn something, we learn something. In this case, I learned that the Bible does not give us a lot of detail about this divine council, its members, or how it supposedly operates. We can assume this is on purpose.

The Main Idea: the Divine Council

It was very common in the Ancient Near East to believe that there was a council of gods or divine beings which would meet, typically on a mountain far away, and decide the affairs of men. That’s why you will often hear the title “Most High God.” Heiser’s contention is that the ancient Israelites shared this view, and that in fact the Bible endorses it. It starts very early, with God saying, “Let us make man in our image.” Though some people see this as evidence for the Trinity, Heiser contends that what is being evoked here is that God is addressing a group of beings which have already been made in His image, but are not humans. God then, all by Himself, makes man in His image, with the other beings presumably just watching.

The flagship Bible passages for Heiser’s thesis are Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8 – 9. In the latter, it asserts that God “divided up mankind [and] fixed the borders of the peoples according the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is His people, Jacob his inheritance.” The idea is that God assigned each “son of God” (divine being) a nation to rule over, but He took the Israelites as His own nation. Psalm 82 shows God reaming out the gods for not having done a good job ruling over the nations, promising them that “they will die like mere men” and that “all the nations” will become God’s inheritance.

These are the two most obvious passages that indicate this idea, and even they are often translated to so as to hide the fact that the original authors assumed that divine beings existed and ruled over the nations. My NIV, for example, translates Deut. 32:8 as “… according to the number of the sons of Israel.” It also puts scare quotes around the word “gods” in Ps. 82.

Ugarit

Ugaritic is the ancient Semitic language most closely related to Hebrew. In Ugaritic cosmology, the chief deity was El. He had a divine council that met in a lush garden or on a mountain. He had seventy “sons of El” who made up his council, and he had a coruler, Baal (which means “lord”). Much of the imagery, vocabulary, and cosmology of Ugarit is echoed or riffed off of in the Old Testament, always making the point that Yahweh is the true Most High God, the one who sits on a throne over what looks like a sea of glass, that His garden is the true garden and His mountain is the true mountain. The Israelites, though, did not quarrel with the idea that there were seventy lesser divine beings who served God. This seems to have been accepted cosmology, sort of like we accept heliocentrism. The Bible does not come out and say this directly, because it was common background knowledge in the Ancient Near East.

The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, shows 70 nations branching off from Noah’s three sons. The idea was that subsequent to Babel, each of these nations was assigned to a son of El – a lesser god. The Most High was done with them. He would no longer be their God directly. Of course, some day the lesser gods, who did not do a good job with their people, would be demoted. Yahweh had plans to bring all the nations of the earth back and make them His own people once again.

The Divine Council in the Redemption Story

Heiser spends the rest of the book tracing this idea of the divine council, of Yahweh as the true God, and of the disinheritance and re-gathering of the nations, throughout the Bible, seeing how it plays in to the big redemption story. He gets into discussions about whether idols are nothing at all or whether they represent something more, and whether the word demon (shadim) means just a supernatural being or something evil. He gets to the giants. He gets to Jesus putting the local gods on notice when He starts crashing around Galilee. He visits the miracle of the tongues of fire at Pentecost. It’s all really interesting, really intricate, with a lot of scholarship.

Some of the ideas in this book were truly mind-blowing. For example, I had never before heard the term Monotheistic Binitarianism. (Wild!!!) “The startling reality is that long before Jesus and the New Testament, careful readers of the Old Testament would not have been troubled by the notion of, essentially, two Yahwehs — one invisible and in heaven, the other manifest on earth in a variety of visible forms, including that of a man. In some instances the two Yahweh figures are found together in the same scene. In this and the chapter that follows, we’ll see that the ‘Word’ was just one expression of a visible Yahweh in human form” (page 134). This is a consequence of mysterious Old Testament passages where Yahweh will appear to, say, Abraham in human form … but sometimes there are two or even three human figures, and the passages seem to be intentionally ambiguous about their identity or how many are there at any given time. There are not just a few of these instances either. Heiser says that this idea of “two powers in heaven” was “endorsed within Judaism until the second century A.D.” (135, footnote). It was the background to the famous passage in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning …”

Other ideas, if I may venture, were less mind-blowing than Heiser seemed to expect them to be. Perhaps this is because I have been studying what you might call the weirder aspects of the Old Testament for some time, but even for someone who had never heard this idea, I sometimes got the feeling that Heiser was writing to a straw man. For example, he has a whole chapter about how God’s plan for a Messiah was hidden in the Old Testament, in hints that couldn’t be pieced together beforehand, but only made sense in retrospect, types and shadows. This is pretty standard Christian teaching, at least in the Reformed circles I move in, but Heiser seems to think that his readers have been given the impression that God’s whole plan of salvation was spelled out super clearly in the Old Testament. “Chances are good that you’ve heard the New Testament mistakenly read back into the Old hundreds of times. Therefore you might be surprised to hear me say that the Old Testament profile of the Messiah was deliberately veiled” (241). In the rest of the chapter, he proceeds to read the New Testament back into the Old. “It couldn’t be emblazoned across the Old Testament in transparent statements.” Yes, we know. After Jesus rose, He said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything that is written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24:44 – 45, quoted by Heiser on page 242) Yes, we know. The New Testament Christians could not see the significance of the Old Testament passages until Jesus (and, later the Holy Spirit) opened their eyes to see it. In fact, they spent the rest of their lives making “So that’s what that was about!” discoveries. Perhaps some modern Christians don’t realize this, but I think most people do who have spent years doing Bible study. In fact, many of the doctrines that we take for granted had to be worked out by the church through history.

Similarly, Heiser has a whole chapter about why God’s plan included making beings with free will and how this necessitated evil and how He couldn’t just erase everything and start over as soon as we messed up. Heiser is not a fan of Calvinism. Like most Arminian arguments, he seems to have a shallow understanding of what “free will” means and a shallow understanding of Calvinism as a sort of dystopian vision wherein people (and gods) are mere sock puppets directly controlled by God. I am willing to accept that God is sovereign, and that beings other than Him exist in the universe (human and supernatural), which make real choices that are in some sense free. I get that these two things should not go together, but that we have good evidence for both. So it is a paradox. I don’t need to choose between sovereignty or free will to understand the idea of a divine council.

What We’re Not Told

After reading Heiser, I am convinced that it is a biblical idea that there are spiritual “divine” beings that exist in an unseen realm. (Heiser points out that the word for these beings, elohim, is a place-of-residence word. They live in the unseen realm, therefore they are elohim. The word itself says nothing about their moral status.) Their existence plays a role, though I would still say not the major role, in God’s plan of salvation for humankind. In some ways, they are relevant, especially in their role as rogue gods of the nations. In other ways, a lot of what goes on in the unseen realm is none of humankind’s business.

Perhaps this is why the Bible does not tell us — and thus, Heiser does not tell us — the sort of details about the elohim that a researching novelist would naturally want to know. Here are a few unanswered questions:

  • Are there really only seventy of them? What happened when the seventy nations multiplied into many more?
  • There appears to be a hierarchy in the unseen realm, but what is it like? How many levels?
  • Are the beings on the different levels different species/different in appearance (if that question even means anything)? Does the unseen realm have the equivalent of animals?
  • We know some elohim rebelled against God, but how many? When? Was there more than one rebellion? Are all the rebel spirits organized under Satan, or are there rogues and factions?
  • How does or did this divine council even work? In almost all of the glimpses we are given of it, it’s basically just God announcing His intentions and the council members just watching.
  • There is a well-established association between the gods and the stars or constellations, but how does this work? Are they the same or symbolic? Is it a one-to-one correspondence?

This is the kind of thing that a really good novelist would get all nailed down before writing a book like, say, This Present Darkness … but it’s impossible to nail down because we are not told this stuff. Again, this is probably because it is none of our business. So if you are going to write a novel that includes gods, I would recommend you just delve into the mythology of one particular nation (Ugarit, say, or Greece as many authors have done to great success), accepting that you are riffing off of one particular nation’s interpretation of all of this, an interpretation that is based on something real, but is definitely not going to be accurate in all its details.

Quotes from a Book I Binged

The book is Before the Ruins, 2020, by Victoria Gosling.

It’s been a while since I binged a book, but I finished this one in just a few days. It is so well-written that it’s almost like unrhymed poetry. Almost every page has something quotable, even when the quotes are ones I disagree with, like the following …

I remember Peter’s father in the church telling the story of Jesus and Pilate, and jesting Pilate asking Jesus what the truth was but then not staying for an answer, and so we never got to find out, not any of us, not ever. I was so disappointed and on our way back to the vicarage, hell-bent on my share of the roast dinner — chicken, chicken, let it be chicken! — I pestered the vicar, “But why didn’t the disciples ask him instead? There he was on the cross, it’s not like he was going anywhere. Why didn’t they ask him?” With his hand on the gate, he turned. A watery smile. “Sometimes, Andy, I think you are the only one who is listening.” Which, of course, was no answer at all.

Nor was there anything in the Gospels that shed light on what Jesus would have said about [my abuser]. I don’t remember anywhere in the Bible Jesus meeting a truly wicked man.

Before the Ruins, p. 114

*pinches brow*

No, Jesus never met a truly wicked man … except the ones who hunted, slandered, gaslit, and betrayed Him. And then tortured Him to death. Except the majority of people he met. Except those.

He never said anything about child abusers … though there were certain passages about the sea and millstones and whitewashed graves and the fires of hell.

His disciples never asked Him “What is truth?” … except all those times they did, and He said “I am the truth,” and the time Philip said to Him, “Show us the Father,” and Jesus said, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.”

It’s interesting, because a big theme of Before the Ruins is how difficult it is to really know people, even people you love very much. And how difficult it is to let people know you, even if you really want to.

When not on the subject of the Gospels, the book has a lot of insight and achingly evocative passages about childhood and growing up. Passages like that will break your heart. Passages like this one:

It made me aware of how dormant I was most of the time. How my life — my job, my screens — made it easy to be occupied every waking moment, hurrying, distracted, and equally, on some level almost entirely asleep, comforted by dreams of effortless transformation.

But I was not Cinderella. Instead, there was another story Peter and I had often found in the books of our childhood. It came in different disguises. It was the one about the traveler who arrives at an island, or a castle, or a secret door into the side of a mountain. There, welcomed, the traveler stays, perhaps against their instincts. Often they eat or drink — strange fruit, or wine from a goblet. There is always something they should be doing, an important task for them to fulfill, but they forget it, they are waylaid, and if they ever remember, their companions, if there are any, distract them with promises, or songs, or riddles to ponder.

Often the traveler sleeps, sometimes they dream, always they are nagged by the sense that there is something they are forgetting, something they must do. Their true love is waiting, or their aged parents. There is a sick child they must bring herbs to, a kingdom for them to inherit. But they do nothing; they are paralyzed. And when they wake, if they ever get away, once back in the world they find that centuries have passed, that they are too late, too late for everything, and that all that they loved, everything that truly mattered, is lost forever.

To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.

Before the Ruins, p. 181

I Feel Like It’s Time I Re-posted This Quote

Originally posted this in July of 2020. Now it has become relevant again.

More than one side can be the bad guys at once.

“What I know about Mendoza,” Palmer said slowly after a while, “is that he’s a petty gangster who enjoys pushing people around. I’ve already told you what I think of Cobar: a psycho killer.”

“But in his book –“

“I know,” Palmer said, lifting a hand. “But a killer who writes a book is still a killer — even if it’s a book about peace and justice. A thug with a lot of high-blown political ideas is still just a thug in the end.”

“But he’s at war with a brutal government …”

“Gangsters get in wars with each other all the time,” said Palmer. “That doesn’t make one side good and the other bad. And it doesn’t mean I have to care which bunch of bullies and thugs wins the day. You think the people in this village will be any better off when it’s Cobar’s government murdering them instead of the government they had before? The only one who’ll feel better about it is you, because you’ll think it’s all for some higher cause — fairness or justice or whatever they’re calling it nowadays. Whatever they do call it, it always translates to the same thing in the end: obey the man with the gun or he’ll kill you. The truth is, Professor, there’s only one higher cause I know of. That’s the right of every man to go his own way and spend his own money and speak his own mind and find his own salvation. You show me the side that stands for that and I’ll fight for them.”

If We Survive, YA book by Andrew Klavan, pp. 218 – 219

Let’s Learn Lapine

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Lapine is rabbit language.

Yes, it’s made up. But it’s no less brilliant for that. Lest we forget, the entire Lord of the Rings cycle started with J.R.R. Tolkien learning to read Old Norse and reading the Elder Edda in it, and then making up several fictional languages based on Norse and Welsh. In the process, he discovered that “a language implies a mythology,” so then he had to make up a mythology to go with his fictional languages … and the rest is literary history.

But back to Lapine. My source here is the amazing, but dense and demanding, novel Watership Down by Richard Adams. The main characters in this book are rabbits. Their problems are rabbit problems. Their solutions are rabbit solutions. The book eases you in to learning rabbit culture, mythology, and yes, language. On the third page of the story, we meet a small rabbit, the runt of the litter, called Fiver, and we get this footnote:

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above four is “hrair” — “a lot,” or “a thousand.” Thus they say U Hrair – “The Thousand” — to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits — fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc. There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means “Little Thousand” — i.e., the little one of a lot or, as they say of pigs, “the runt.”

Watership Down, p. 13

Presto! We have already learned two rabbit words:

hrair = five, or a thousand

elil = enemies, predators

We’ve learned three words if you count u, which later will be used not only to mean “the,” but also like the vocative O.

In the next few pages, we learn that every warren has a leader, called a Threarah, and that he has a group of enforcers called the Owsla. Later, we will find out that the Threarah is addressed by adding -rah to his name, as in Hazel-rah.

Later still, we will learn some other words:

silflay = eat. Specifically, silflay is the event when rabbits go out at dawn and dusk to graze.

hraka = droppings

tharn = the state a frightened rabbit gets into, when they cannot move or think

Frith = the sun. Also, God in the rabbit cosmology

Ni-Frith = noon

Inle = the moon. In rabbit myths, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the embodiment of Death.

Fu Inle = moonrise

yona = hedgehog

homba = fox

hrududu = motor vehicle (I think this one is onomatopoetic.)

embleer = damned … O.K., I just checked the glossary, and it actually means “stinking, e.g. the smell of a fox.”

zorn = destroyed, desolate. Denotes a catastrophe.

All this vocabulary is taught as it comes up in the story, through footnotes that are just as fascinating as the story, and through words being used in context.

By the time we had almost finished the book, I and my son could immediately understand the untranslated line that Bigwig (Thlayli), a warrior rabbit, speaks in defiance of the leader of an enemy warren:

Silflay hraka, u embleer rah.”

After finishing, in the post-reading-a-really-good-epic glow, I belatedly discovered that the book has a glossary at the back. But by that time, we hardly needed it.

Definitely Not Political Post of the Week

Any resemblance to reality is entirely due to C.S. Lewis’s wisdom.

A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. Edmund couldn’t quite see what they were eating, but it smelled lovely and there seemed to be decorations of holly and he wasn’t at all sure that he didn’t see something like a plum pudding. At the moment when the sledge stopped, the Fox, who was obviously the oldest person present, had just risen to its feet, holding a glass in its right paw as if it was going to say something. But when the whole party saw the sledge stopping and who was in it, all the gaiety went out of their faces.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered.

“Speak, vermin!” she said again. “Or do you want my dwarf to find you a tongue with his whip? What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence? Where did you get all these things?”

“Please, your Majesty,” said the Fox, “we were given them. And if I might make so bold as to drink your Majesty’s very good health –“

“Who gave them to you?” said the Witch.

“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox.

“What?” roared the Witch, springing from the sledge and taking a few strides nearer to the terrified animals. “He has not been here! He cannot have been here! How dare you — but no. Say you have been lying and you shall even now be forgiven.”

At that moment one of the young squirrels lost its head completely.

“He has – he has – he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand.

“Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures (one with its stone fork fixed for ever halfway to its stone mouth) seated around a stone table on which there were stone plates and a stone plum pudding.

“As for you,” said the Witch, giving Edmund a stunning blow on the face as she re-mounted the sledge, “let that teach you to ask favour for spies and traitors. Drive on!”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Ch. 11

Quote: When Good Poets Go Bad

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In the following quote, Fiver, a sensitive rabbit, has just heard an evocative poem recited by another rabbit, in an underground hall.

They followed Fiver up the run and overtook him at the entrance. Before either of them could say a word, he turned and began to speak as though they had asked him a question.

“You felt it, then? And you want to know whether I did? Of course I did. That’s the worst part of it. There isn’t any trick. He speaks the truth. So as long as he speaks the truth it can’t be folly — that’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it? I’m not blaming you, Hazel. I felt myself moving toward him like one cloud drifting into another. But then at the last moment I drifted wide. Did I say the roof of the hall was made of bones? No! It’s like a great mist of folly that covers the whole sky: and we shall never see to go by Frith’s light any more. Oh, what will become of us? A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel.”

Watership Down, pp. 111 – 112

The X-Files Book Tag

I saw this tag on Emily Hurricane’s blog and I guess we are of the same generation, roughly, because there was a time when I watched the X-Files religiously, much to the annoyance of the people who lived with me. (I was a bad roommate. But that’s a story for another day.)

What can I say? I like aliens, dimly lit sets, interminable subplots, attractive actors, and Scully’s intelligent, sardonic mumble. And red hair. And … aliens.

Here are the rules for this tag: • Take out your fake FBI badge and answer the questions • You can link back to Book Princess Reviews if you wish • Keep the alien love alive and tag any and all X-Files fans you know…or just other people. (I myself will be tagging aliens only. So if you get tagged, I’m on to you …)

Fox Mulder

Mulder is known to have some “out there” beliefs, so name a book that you believe in despite everyone/ratings/reviews tell you perhaps isn’t that great.

Easy: the Bible. The more I read it, the more convinced I am that it’s the most amazing, epic, big, composite history book ever. But for people who have an issue with it, often one of their first complaints is that it’s not historical.

Dana Scully

Just like the resident FBI skeptic, name a book that you’re skeptical of (because of hype, sketchy cover, etc.)

Any book that offers a one-factor explanation for all the problems in the world, be that factor evolution, industrialization, racism, intolerance, capitalism, lack of faith in yourself and the universe, cholesterol, sugar, or whatever. Unfortunately, one-factor explanations are always popular. Which ones are most popular cycle through, and when an explanation is enjoying its moment in the sun, it seems to generate multiple books every year.

I Want To Believe

What book do you believe, just like the famous tagline, will be your next 5 star/crown read off of your TBR?

I hope this isn’t cheating, because I already started it just today: The Unseen Realm by Michael Hieser. (cue spooky X-Files music) I think this is going to be my go-to reference as I plan my next novel. I am borrowing it from a loved one, and let’s just say I hope he is not planning to use it any time soon.

Aliens

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Name a book on your TBR that is from a genre that seems out from another book world to you but still sounds super good.

When I attempted to enter a reading challenge at my local library last year, I read my very first Jack Reacher novel. I don’t usually enjoy spy stories or military stories, because I have sometimes found them hard to relate to. (Sometimes the people’s personalities disappear among all the high tech, action, or the inhuman-seeming military culture.) Not so with Jack Reacher. I will be coming back.

The Lone Gunmen

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Name a book that comes along with an epic team just like these three hacking men.

My rabbit-obsessed child and I just finished reading Watership Down together, and … talk about an epic team! Of rabbits! It starts with Fiver, a small, seemingly barely functional Cassandra of a rabbit who sees visions of the future. Then add Hazel, the only rabbit who believes Fiver when he says something terrible is coming. Then Bigwig, a large warrior rabbit who gets his rough edges sanded off, and Blackberry, clever enough to understand foreign concepts like boats, and Dandelion, the storyteller …

This is an amazing book, and I will definitely be saying more about it in the future.

Walter Skinner

Skinner is the boss that forever teeters on the edge of good and evil, so name a conflicting character for you (whether the character is just conflicted or you’re conflicted about your feelings for them).

(Hey, doesn’t every boss forever teeter on the edge of good and evil? Leadership is hard. You find out when you have to do it. If you manage not to mess up royally and ruin lives, you deserve a medal.)

Hope this isn’t cheating, but there is a very conflicted character at the center of my book The Great Snake, due to come out this spring. Klee has good intentions, but she’s mad at the world (and at her family). She has good reasons, but her harsh judgement of them leads her into some bad decisions. They, meanwhile, are also conflicted. They did let her down, but it was in the process of trying to navigate a messy situation that didn’t offer good solutions.

Cigarette-Smoking Man

Name the worst book villain you can think of just like this smoking fiend who refuses to stay dead.

Last year I read The Gulag Archipelago (abridged) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. So I would have to say Stalin. Stalin did die, finally, but only after setting up systems that would continue making things worse and worse long after he was gone.

What do you think? Do you have books for these categories? Are you an X-files nerd? If you are an alien, shapeshifter, cave dweller, or a Bigfoot, please join the tag! All others may comment below.