An Insoluble Puzzle

Sad topic today.

An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.

I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest.  Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture.  In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families.  Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.

The Limits of the Options

Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to.  This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer.  As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible.  It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically.  As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.

There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family.  In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.

So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart.  Rebukes don’t work on such a heart.  Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser.   They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood.  If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children.  In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.

When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.

The Limits of the Law

These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts.   Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?  

Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir.  The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape.  Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it.  I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious.  He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).

The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do.  These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone.  If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse.  This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking.  If you have time, give it a listen.

Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.

Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

Two Views on the Sons of Noah

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

For those who take the early chapters of Genesis seriously as a history of the human race (albeit a not very detailed one), here are two different interpretations of the sons of Noah. 

The sons of Noah are listed in Genesis 9:18 – 19 as “Shem, Ham and Japheth.”   Though they are always listed in that order, this is not necessarily their birth order.  Genesis is focused with laser precision on redemptive history.  Thus, it foregrounds Shem, from whom the nation of Israel would later be descended.  We are given a lot more detail about Shem than about the tribes descended from the other brothers.  It’s possible that Ham was actually the oldest son.

It’s also worth noting that the Table of Nations (Genesis chapter 10) gives a list of the tribes known to be descended from each brother as of that writing.  This means that some tribes are listed who were later lost to history.  Others are mentioned but are not followed all the way to where they eventually settled centuries later.  When we are told where they lived, most of the locations are in and around the Ancient Near East, even for tribes that we know later ended up in Africa (for example Mizraim = Egypt and Cush = Ethiopia).  If we take the account of Babel as true (which my novels do), then the human race first clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and tried to build a centralized civilization.  Only later did they end up migrating to the ends of the earth.  So, for a time, you had the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth living right on top of each other.

Here are the two theories.  I will spend more time on the second one, because it is the more novel and interesting one.

The Traditional Theory: Most of the World is Japhethite

This is the theory that I was taught when I studied Old Testament Backgrounds.  It has been the majority interpretation of the Table of Nations (which is, admittedly, hard to interpret).  On this view, Shem was the father of all the nations that traditionally speak Semitic languages: basically, the Hebrews and the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula.  (Yes, Arabs and Jews are related.)   Ham was the father of all the nations of Africa, including the Egyptians, Ethiopians and all the subSaharan nations.  And Japheth was the father of the Indo-Europeans, East Asians, Pacific Islanders and (via the Land Bridge) the Native Americans. 

This view isn’t perfect, because no broad explanation of human distribution is perfect.  That said, it does make some intuitive sense.   This is the interpretation that I used when writing my novels, because it was the only one that I was aware of at the time.  So the family that my story follows are, in the novel, all descendants of Japheth.  One of them, Hur, has fair skin and hazel eyes, and his mother was blond.  The others all have straight dark hair and more or less East Asian features, in some cases shading towards Native American.  The books are set during a time that was pre-race.  People knew each other by their extended families.

I now kind of regret that I used this theory for my novels, because the one that is coming up is so much cooler.

Arthur C. Custance Says Most of the World is Hamite

Only after I was well committed to my series did I discover the web site of Arthur C. Custance, where you can read a wide selection of essays and booklets by him.  Here is his big theory.  Like many sweeping, alternative theories of history, it takes some getting used to, but seems to make more sense the longer you look at it, if you are willing to look at it.

Arthur C. Custance believes the Table of Nations should be interpreted as follows.  Shem was the father of the Semitic peoples, as above.  Japheth, whose name probably means “fair” in Hebrew, was the father of just the Indo-Europeans.  Ham was the father of everyone else: not just the African nations, but all the indigenous peoples of Asia, Polynesia, and the Americas.  Basically, anyone who doesn’t have a historical tradition of being descended from Shem or else a freakily white complexion like us Indo-Europeans.

The Gifts of the Peoples per Custance

Custance’s theory is not just about physical descent.  He also believes that each of these broad groupings of humanity have a gift to give the human race as a whole: some cultural feature that they are especially good at.  

For Semites, it’s spiritual insight.  Semitic groups have “gods that are gods of righteousness.”  The Hebrews, obviously, received the revelations of God and gave an up until then very oppressive world the gift of ethical monotheism.  The Arabs, also, have managed to found a monotheistic religion that is focused on righteousness and is a force to be reckoned with.  In both cases, their main cultural focus is religion to a much greater degree than in most cultures.

The Japhethites’ gift is intellect.  Their gods tend to be “gods of enlightenment.”  Japhethite peoples, according to Custance, as a culture are basically the absentminded professor type.  They excel at building elaborate intellectual systems of thought that may or may not have any connection to the real world.  So, the Greeks gave us philosophy, but their natural sciences consisted of speculating about ideal plants and animals rather than doing fieldwork.  The elaborate Hindu systems of philosophy were developed by the Aryans, an Indo-European group that invaded India from the North.  The Germanic peoples gave us Freud and Nietzsche.  (Thanks, guys.)

Japhethites, per Custance, are not, as a culture, good at practical matters.  That is the special gift of the Hamites.

Now, here is where it gets cool.  The Hamite gods tend to be “gods of power.”  What the Hamite peoples excel at is innovation in the multitude of practical disciplines that make life in this world possible.  This includes (to name just a few of them in alphabetical order),  administration, agriculture, architecture, arithmetic, arts and crafts, botany, city planning, mechanical engineering, medicine, metal smithing, mining, music, navigation, pottery, stoneworking, textiles, weapons innovations, and basically every other type of technology.

Custance argues that nearly every major urban civilization was founded by Hamites.  This includes Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, ancient China, and the great cities of the Americas.  It also includes the urban civilization of India, which was developed by the dark-skinned Dravidians before India was taken over by the Aryans, at which point, argues Custance, technological innovation in India basically stopped.

Furthermore, on this view the Hamites were the first to colonize the world.  With their extreme practical survival skills, they made it all the way across Asia, the Americas, and Polynesia while the Semites were hanging out in the Middle East and the Indo-Europeans were still building kurgans on the plains of the Ukraine.  This explains why almost anywhere people have gone in recorded history, they find that there are already dark-skinned people living there (for example, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Negritos of the Philippines, possibly the Etruscans in Italy, and the dark-haired, pre-Celtic inhabitants of Europe).   

Finally, Custance argues that beautiful things happen when the children of the sons of Shem, Ham, and Japheth get together.  Semitic spirituality plus Japhethite intellectualism results in theology.  Japhethite intellectualism plus Hamitic technical know-how gives us modern science.

The Picture is Complex

Now, I realize this is a broad brush.  Obviously, every nation has some kind of tech and some kind of religion (philosophical systems come later and Custance argues that they are the least important of the three).  And it’s not as though the nations of the earth have lived hermetically sealed lives.  There has been plenty of migration, intermarriage, and spread of ideas, even starting in very ancient times.  Custance’s idea is that when we trace the sources of ideas and innovations, we tend to find technological innovation coming from Ham, intellectual systems coming from Japheth, and spiritual insight coming from Shem. 

I need hardly say that none of these gifts is “the best.”  We need them all.

Custance also notes a pattern where Japhethite peoples tend to take over territory from Hamitic peoples and then adapt, benefit from, and often take credit for Hamite innovations and discoveries.  Clearly this has happened in modern times, but there are examples that come from well before the modern age of European colonialism, such as the Aryans taking over India and the Greeks getting elements of their civilization from Egypt and Ethiopia.  That said, because of the nature of the case there have necessarily also been many instances of Hamite peoples migrating into other Hamite peoples’ territory, such as the Austronesians migrating into the Philippines to find the Negritos already there. World history is complicated.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, I encourage you to visit Custance’s web site via one of the many links in this article.

If I had followed Custance’s theory when writing my books, Zillah and her children should have been Hamite, and Hur should not have been able to speak their language.  He could not have stayed with them or eventually married into their family.  So unfortunately, I can’t rewrite my entire series to follow Custance.  Bummer.

But here is a song about when all the children of Noah worship together.

A Song Where God is the Actual Hero

A few weeks ago, I posted an awful contemporary Christian song that makes “you” the hero instead of Christ. So I think it only fair to post this one, in which we find out after everything is over that it was he who was calling us. The technical term for this is sovereign grace.

The only problem is, I couldn’t find the version of this song that I like. My first introduction to it was in the form of an arrangement that sounds a bit peppy, like a folk song. In the arrangement, the words of the last verse are used as a fast-moving refrain. But I can’t for the life of me find said arrangement anywhere on YouTube. So, I have posted the original hymn with the lyrics handily printed out. The hymn has a very different sound – almost like plainsong. It’s okay, but I like the energy of the arrangement. So if you can find the arrangement, please post it in a comment.

Behold the Worst Contemporary Christian Song Ever Written!

Ok. I don’t know whether it’s really the worst. It’s the worst one that I know of.

This song has been around since I was a kid. Listen to it, and if you can get through it without throwing up, we will discuss.

“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. Here are the things I hate about the song:

It gives a false impression of heaven.

Heaven is not going to be about finding out how wonderful we are.  It is going to be about finding out how wonderful He is. 

We already spend way too much time trapped in the world of our own efforts, our own talents, our own flaws, our own accolades.  Everyone knows that this self-focus is not in any way heavenly.  It is hellish! 

Gee whiz.  We go to heaven to get away from this stuff.  To finally be free to focus on something truly worthwhile.  I can’t think of a more depressing lie than being told that heaven will consist of finding out that it’s all about “you.”

It gives a false impression of service.

This is a very minor point compared to the fact that the song makes “you,” instead of Christ, the hero of the story.  So please, don’t take this second point as being nearly as important as the first. However, having once engaged in idolatry, the song then compounds the error by making it sound as if it’s easy to earn all this adulation. 

What did the hero of the song do in order to create all these wonderful effects?  He gave some money to missions when he didn’t have much wiggle room.  (Sounds like it was just one time, after a presentation, perhaps – forgive my cynicism – to make himself feel better because the missionary’s “pictures made him cry.”) 

And he taught Sunday School.  This is admittedly hard, as it involves dealing with kids.  But, in the song, the thing that made such a big impact was the simple act of praying an opening prayer.  Something that takes less than a minute.

Both of these examples make it sound like you can do an act of service once, at relatively low cost to yourself, and – boom! – lives are changed. 

Real service is very different.  It consists of years of effort that often feels futile.  For example, the act of getting up day after day, providing for your family, sticking with your spouse, staying in relationship with your children, is far more impactful than either of the examples in the song. 

As for “giving to the Lord,” as someone who has actually tried it, let me tell you what it is more like.  You start out trying to do something good.  Then you find out that your motives were all wrong.  You repent.  Then you find out (maybe years later) that even with right motives, you were undertaking your labors in the wrong way, missing critical bits of information.  In many cases, you discover that you have done more harm than good. (For more information about this experience, see the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al, and the novels No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliot and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.)

In my personal version of the scene above, I arrive in heaven and eventually get an opportunity to ask forgiveness for my grievous mistakes from the people I once started out so confidently trying to serve. And I find out to my relief that despite my inadvertent efforts to keep them from entering, they are there anyway. And they are no longer ticked about my mistakes because Jesus got to them directly, without my “help,” and they are just so thrilled to be there.

But none of this would be the first thing that happens. It’s heaven. The Lord is there. I think we will have higher priorities right at first than sorting out who did what to whom.

It gives a false impression of the Christian life.

My worst nightmare would be that someone who does not believe in Christ would hear this song.  (And they probably will, now that it’s on my blog.)  It paints a repellent picture of what it means to be a Christian.  It makes it sound like the life of faith is all about going around patting ourselves on the back, rather than about progressively recognizing and repenting of our faults, and coming to admire and depend on Christ more and more.  If we are engaged in back-patting, then we have not yet embarked on the path of Christ.  We are still stuck in Pharisaism, with all its attendant miseries.  This is already the impression that many people have of Christianity.  The last thing we need is a song like this to further obscure the Gospel.

The Grain of Truth in the Song

Having said all this, I have to be fair.  There is a grain of truth in this song. 

I mentioned that people who attempt a life of service usually find themselves engaged in years of work that seems fruitless and sometimes actually seems to do more harm than good.  Human efforts are futile.  “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1, 2:11, 2:15, 2:17, etc.)  That’s in the Bible too.

It is one of the ironies of the universe that often a person can put in intense labor without achieving the desired result, only to have some small, random thing that they did turn out to make a huge impact.  That may be the phenomenon that this song is trying to capture.  (I think it does a really lousy job of it.  Perhaps we shouldn’t try to capture years of wisdom and experience in a 5-minute song.  But there is truth in this insight.)

Jesus said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There is humor in this statement (Jesus’ humor is under-appreciated).  Dallas Willard has pointed out that when our hands do things automatically, without us having to think about it, it is because we are engaged in some routine process such as brushing our teeth.  Our hands automatically coordinate themselves, and the whole thing runs on muscle memory.  And this only takes place with things that we do often.  Jesus was saying that our giving should not be the kind of thing for which we pat ourselves on the back, but rather a completely normal part of life that we hardly notice we are doing. 

So perhaps what this odious song is trying so clumsily to capture is the truth that it will be small actions, ones we hardly notice we are doing, that will turn out to have blessed others the most.  I could see that would be an encouraging message if it were better expressed. However, there has got to be a more nuanced and less idolatrous way to point this out, so let me go on record as saying that I still hate this song.

God is Multilingual

The Last Supper with Twelve Tribes by Hyatt Moore Copyright 2001

Yesterday was Pentecost. It commemorates the following event, which happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment. Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”

Acts 2:2 – 4, 6 – 8, NIV

I don’t think the point of this story is that every Christian, down to today, ought to be able to “speak in tongues.” The point is that God does.

Although He first revealed Himself to a very specific people group in a very specific cultural context, God has given humanity His word in linguistic form and it’s capable of being translated into any language and culture. Those who have participated in this process will tell you that it’s delightful to see what each unique culture does with it.

Actually, the fact that translation is possible at all is sort of a miracle in itself.

Occasionally you’ll see an essay by an amateur philosopher of language which will try to argue — usually with a fairly abstract argument — that translation is not possible. Sometimes these arguments are logically perfect and very persuasive. And yet. Translation happens every day. It’s sort of like the (apocryphal?) argument that according to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee should not be able to fly.

Other times, someone will try to tell you that a particular word or concept from another culture is “untranslatable.” They will then proceed to explain to you what this word or concept means. In other words, to translate it. In these cases, what they mean by “untranslatable” is that you cannot translate it into, say, English with a one-word gloss. It requires a paragraph, or sometimes a story or a history lesson to give a full sense of the word. But it is still possible to convey, in another language, what the concept is, and once it has been explained, non-native speakers will understand what is meant even if you just continue to use the original, “untranslatable” word. Their argument that the concept cannot be translated ends up being a demonstration that it actually can.

The image at the top of this post is a scan of the front and back of a bookmark … which contains a tiny print … of a huge painting by artist Hyatt Moore. It shows a version of the Last Supper with the twelve disciples represented by a man from each of twelve different minority language communities. (Or, in some cases, countries. For example, Papua New Guinea is represented by just one man, but it has hundreds of different languages.)

God is the ultimate polyglot, and this painting shows a bit of His heart.

Poem: The Raven Speaks of the Gospel

The death of a king.

He hangs here, fair,

bound, blue of skin and flowing hair,

with oken leaves to cover him.

Soon he will groan, a-crushing ‘twix two sacred stones,

and never a morsel for me, for me,

for after they will burn his bones.

The Precious Blood.

It costs, men say,

can stave off some god’s judgment day,

so valuable gods find him.

And others, too … a hundred valuable kings pass through,

but never a morsel for me, for me,

though I be Raven, black and true.

The Sacred Tale

may be told again,

when he’s long gone, of such great men

as Lancelot, God save him.

As Gawain, Percival, great lights, a sad score sacrificed by night,

(though never a morsel for me, for me),

and lastly, greatly, of the Christ.

The First of Kings,

ancienter than these,

was hung, in past age, on a tree,

with never a leaf to cover him.

And he did groan, and later All shall become his own —

but that’s to be. For now it’s me,

in grimmest vigil, all alone.

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.