Briefly Noted: Solomon and Sheba (1959)
The Hebrew Bible does not have a lenient view on idolatry. The Genesis, besides talking about the origins of the world and the existence of evil, also wonders how could idolatry exist in a world created by a good god. The authors of the Bible lived in a region where the worship of little household idols and local fertility deities were common and it is believed that this rant against idolatry was an attempt at distinguishing themselves from the local customs and traditions. When God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, one of the justifications is that the current inhabitants were polluting it with idolatry. The primary book of the Priestly school talks about ritual purity and moral purity and the three heinous sins on the moral side were idolatry, homicide and sexual transgressions. Since idolatry defiles the land, the offenders are to be stoned. All this is put to test during the Queen of Sheba’s tempestuous visit to Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.
According to myth, the Queen of Sheba, on hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, visits him. He too has heard about her and her cloven feet. Solomon talks to her about his God Yahweh and she converts. In the movie, the narrative is completely different. The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) are allies who after failing in an effort to capture Israel come up with another plan. The Queen will travel to Jerusalem and influence Solomon (Yul Brynner). She will introduce pagan rituals which involve idols to Egypt and thus cause a rift between Solomon and his people. Once that is done it would be easy to conquer Israel.
It was a solid plan with one major loophole. The pagan fell in love with the monotheist. The monotheist too fell in love with the pagan and was willing to do anything to please her including giving permission for an an orgy festival. This, as expected, turns the clergy against Solomon. God too turns against Solomon and hits the temple and the Sheban idol with lightning. Meanwhile the Egyptians, who were waiting for an opportune moment, attack and Solomon’s army has to retreat. Hearing the news, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple and affirms the supremacy of the one and only God. Solomon too asks for forgiveness. Everything goes well as Solomon defeats Egypt and returns right in time to Jerusalem to save Queen of Sheba from death by stoning. God forgives the Queen, but mandates that she return back to her country. Sheba returns, carrying Solomon’s baby.
The movie ends at that point, but according to an Ethiopian legend, the son of Sheba and Solomon returns to Jerusalem to meet his father. But on his return, he takes the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark has stayed in Ethiopia ever since.
- Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) by Prof. Christine Hayes, at Yale
Dead Sea Scrolls Online
In my article Secrets of the cellars (Pragati,Aug 2011), I wished if only the Mathilakam records were scanned and put online. That may never happen, but there is a model on how it can be done. Two thousand years after they were written, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were kept safe and accessible only to a a few scholars, went online. NPR has an article with photographs which explains how this was done using a $250K camera developed in California and Google’s help.
The appearance of five of the most important Dead Sea scrolls on the Internet is part of a broader attempt by the custodians of the celebrated manuscripts — who were once criticized for allowing them to be monopolized by small circles of scholars — to make them available to anyone with a computer. The scrolls include the biblical Book of Isaiah, the manuscript known as the Temple Scroll, and three others. Surfers can search high-resolution images of the scrolls for specific passages, zoom in and out, and translate verses into English[2,000-Year-Old Dead Sea Scrolls Go Online]
View and read the DSS here.
How Curious George escaped Hitler
Curious George is a popular story book for children written by Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey. George is a monkey and lives with “The Man with The Yellow Hat” in a big city. In the first book, published in 1939, he was not called George, but Fifi. In 1940 Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France and the authors of George being Jews had to think of their survival.
The Reys took the manuscript and cycled from Paris for three days. Eventually they reached Orleans and by taking a few trains they went across Spain and Portugal. From Lisbon they took a ship to South America and reached Rio de Janeiro. Two months later they boarded a ship for United States and reached New York City.
George found fame in America and later he became an animated series on PBS. Without the help of Curious George in keeping few enquiring monkeys busy, the posting frequency on this blog would have been much less.
(Pictures from a Curious George exhibit)
The Unknown Synagogues of Kochi
When tourist brochures in Kerala mention the Jewish synagogue, they all refer to the one in Jew Town, Kochi. It turns out that there are other synagogues — the Kadavumbhagam and Thekkumbhagam — which are older and perfectly neglected. (H/T Yashwant)
The structure which is believed to have been constructed around 1200 AD, was rebuilt in 1700 AD as a replica of the first temple in Jerusalem with its 10 windows symbolising the Ten Commandments.
“We try to keep the Synagogue in proper order using as much funds as our pockets permit since the government does not seem to be interested in protecting this heritage site,” says Josephai, one of the last remaining members of the congregation of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue. Though the usage of the holy structure as a shop might sound outrageous to some, it seems to be the only reason that keeps the Synagogue standing.
Right around the corner of Kadavumbagam Synagogue lies the Thekkumbhagam Synagogue, which is inruins owing to disuse and neglect.[Monuments, a picture of neglect]
Jay A. Waronker has a brief history of the Lost Synagogues
The first synagogue built in the Cochin region predated the resettlement of the Kerala Jews en bloc in the sixteenth century as a result of Portuguese aggression. Dating from 1344 and attributed to Joseph Azar, it was located in a village called Kochangadi (near Mattancherry), now a part of the city of Kochi. It was most likely built when the Jews abandoned an area in or around Cranganore after the Perriyar River flooded. This synagogue in Kochangadi was apparently razed by the army of Tipu Sultan during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the 1780s. The building was never rebuilt, and the Jewish community is thought to have moved to nearby Kochi no later than 1795. They carried with them the inscription stone verifying the fourteenth century date of construction and placed it in the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Mattancherry. Today it can be found inset in the east wall of the courtyard of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry.[Lost Kerala Synagogues]
Who owns the Heritage Sites?
As new nations form, an important issue is that of the heritage sites. This is especially important in Israel-Palestine area where everyone except people of Indic religions seem to have a stake.
“In any political arrangement, one side will have control of equities of the other,” Seidemann emphasised. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a conflict of territory but of identity and narratives, with archaeology and cultural heritage the physical embodiments of the narratives. Addressing these issues is critical for the stability of Israelis and Palestinians.” [Israel and Palestine: who owns what?]
As the vote for Palestinian statehood is coming up in September, there is lot of activity in the ground in West Bank.
Israeli officials have argued that heritage sites with Jewish historical connection must remain under Israeli sovereignty. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that position last year, after Unesco ruled that, despite being venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, heritage sites in Bethlehem and Hebron are Palestinian (The Art Newspaper, December 2010, p25). He denounced the decision as “absurd”, calling it “an attempt to disconnect the nation of Israel from its heritage.”
Palestinians counter that location, not religious identification, determines sovereignty of a site. “Palestinians are proud to host a diversity of cultural heritage which is also important to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. It is Palestinian policy to respect and apply international laws concerning cultural property and heritage using a professional approach to preserve and protect the sites based on geographic location,” said Gabriel Fahel, the legal adviser on archaeology to the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit (which closed last month). He also charged Israel with violating international treaties it has signed by excavating in the West Bank and removing Palestinian cultural property.[Israel and Palestine: who owns what?]
Since none of these groups give up easily, this is going to be an interesting debate.
16th Century Europe
In 1492 Christopher Columbus set of to Asia and reached the Americas. Six years later Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. Following these, Europeans made many such voyages, started trading companies and eventually colonized the world. But what was Europe like in those days? Movies like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Sea Hawk give us some images, but they do not present the complete picture.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has posted lectures given by Prof. George L. Mosse in the Fall of 1969. One of the lectures (mp3) deals with this question and the image of Europe of that period is not pretty.
By 1500, economic conditions were severe: a price revolution was starting, but it was also a time of bad harvests. 1500 saw a total crop failure in all of Germany that resulted in peasant uprisings, looting and pillaging, to such a proportion that in 1501 Europe for the firsts time saw a paid police force to maintain order. Additional scourges were diseases and epidemics. First and foremost, the Black Death: To the populations of Europe, this seemed like a willful and arbitrary punishment. Between 1499 and 1502, whole populations were decimated. A new disease, syphilis, joined the plague. This prompted preachers to call for repentance, penance and pilgrimages. The Plague was more frightening than the syphilis, because it occurred suddenly and greatly disfigured its victims. All of this leads to a heightened religious sensibility and a search for answers by all parts of the population.
To find answers, people turned to a kind of literature that had come down from the Middle Ages and was most popular: books of prophecies. Their content was simple, promising hope for the future: darkness would be followed by light, and after the Anti-Christ would come Christ. The roots of these books lay partly in the bible (which, Mosse tells the students, he is sure they have never read), especially in the Books of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is written in symbolic terms. Before the book of the seven seals can be opened, “the wine must be pressed and the harvest reaped” that means, before Christ’s return there will be bloody wars and mass the conversion of the heathens, especially of the Jews, to Christianity. Man lived in the expectation that the world was coming to an end; Luther believed it, and so did all protestant reformers and many of the intellectuals. With it came astrology. The stars were now in an evil conjunction. Saturn was “the evil planet”. The Anti-Christ would come up from the darkness; for a short while the Jews would rule the world before their conversion. Then the book of seven seals would be opened. (For example, Shakespeare firmly believed in astrology).[European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary]
Read the whole thing: European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary
God's Wife and Competitors
(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)
We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.
A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.
Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.
There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.
While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.
For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.
For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.
This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.
So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:
Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.
It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.
This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.
Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube
Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Ever since they were discovered in the caves of Qumran, the unanswered question has been: who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. There have been many theories though. It was widely believed to have been written by a messianic Jewish sect called the Essenes who moved to Qumran to escape Roman persecution. Then last year one scholar suggested that there were no Essenes; the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus. According to the new theory the scrolls were written by Sadducees, a sect descending from the high priest Zadok.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are important because they are the oldest known copies biblical manuscripts we have. They are important because they demonstrate the length Jews were willing to go to protect what they considered Scripture. The scrolls are important because while they have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity (i.e., nothing to do with John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Jesus, or the early Christian community), they demonstrate that the Christians were not the only Jewish sect reinterpreting Hebrew scripture and applying it toward their leader (the “Teacher of Righteousness” as opposed to Jesus), awaiting a Messiah (actually, two Messiahs were expected at Qumran as opposed to only one (Jesus) in Christianity), engaging in ritual purification (cf. baptism in Christianity), holding property in common (cf. Acts 2:44-45), and awaiting a final, apocalyptic battle (cf. the War Scroll at Qumran and the New Testament book of Revelation).[Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls Airs on National Geographic Channel: Some Reflections]
Yesterday National Geographic had a special (video) on this topic which brings new answers.
But new research suggests many of the Dead Sea Scrolls originated elsewhere and were written by multiple Jewish groups, some fleeing the circa-A.D. 70 Roman siege that destroyed the legendary Temple in Jerusalem.
According to an emerging theory, the Essenes may have actually been Jerusalem Temple priests who went into self-imposed exile in the second century B.C., after kings unlawfully assumed the role of high priest.
This group of rebel priests may have escaped to Qumran to worship God in their own way. While there, they may have written some of the texts that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many modern archaeologists such as Cargill believe the Essenes authored some, but not all, of the Dead Sea Scrolls.[Dead Sea Scrolls Mystery Solved?]
Dead Sea Scrolls and Proton Beams
Given a particle accelerator and the Dead Sea Scrolls, what would you do? If you are from Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy, you would send proton beams of 1.3 MeV into one square centimeter pieces of the scroll to find out if they were created elsewhere and bought to Qumran.
At the LANDIS laboratory (one of the INFN laboratories in Catania), non-destructive analyses were performed to obtain results on the origin of the scrolls. To produce a scroll, which was the writing material used at the time, a great quantity of water is needed. By analysing water samples taken in the area where the scrolls were found, the presence of certain chemical elements was established, and the ratio of their concentrations was determined.
According to this analysis, the ratio of chlorine to bromine in the scroll is consistent with the ratio in local water sources. In other words, this finding supports the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found. The next step in the research will be to analyse the ink used to write the scrolls.[Protons for studying the Dead Sea Scrolls]