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.

Aaand, This Is Where Graham Hancock and I Finally Part Ways

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Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.

It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.

Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.

I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.

In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.
But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work.  …
Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …

“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito

And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.

In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.

I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.

So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.

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

“Haven’t You People Ever Watched Any Sci-Fi?”

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The following is a rant.  Enjoy.

There is a type of sci-fi that is triumphalist.  In this kind of sci-fi, people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal, enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and all goes well.  This is welcomed as a good thing. 

Then there is another type of sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased out.  This is what sci-fi is for, after all: thought experiments.  “What would be all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but routine?”  This thoughtful strain of sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.

It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers.  All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”

Here are a few examples …                   

Think it would be great if all parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?

Go watch Gattica.

Predicting people’s behavior and assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions?  Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?

Gattica again.

Interested in “designer babies?”

There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that created them.  They are understandably bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their genetically edited strength and smarts.

How about perfectly executed plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.

Creating a human/animal hybrid?

The movie Splice.

Storing all our important personal information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?

The Net.

Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?

1984.

What if we take this wonderful stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it at any time?

Back to The Outer Limits.  In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies.  The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace.  Poor guy.  (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)

How about “smart homes,” where our electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much more?

I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can function.

Really smart AI?

The Terminator.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised communally?

Logan’s Run and The Office of Mercy.  Oh, and Soviet orphanages.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised in families, but these families are assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?

The Giver by Lois Lowry.

How about we find or create a portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it?  Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …

Event Horizon.

(But actually, we shouldn’t need a movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything through a portal that we don’t know where it goes.)

OK, OK, you’re right … no one is seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes.  Not that I am aware of.  Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:

“I know, let’s bring back an extinct creature and create an ecosystem for it to live in!”

The Jurassic Park franchise.

Post your own examples below.

Don’t Tell Me Your Story is About Misfits. Because That Tells Me Nothing

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I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.

Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:

  • the girl who is plain or fat
  • the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
  • the orphan or stepchild
  • the sensitive, misunderstood artist
  • the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
  • the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
  • the person who stands out because of their race
  • the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
  • the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
  • the drag queen

That’s just off the top of my head.

When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.

Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.

We Are All Misfits

Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!

It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.

In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.

So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.

To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.

Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin

In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?

The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.

Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.

Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness

This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?

Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.

I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)