Real Bible Studies: Genesis, The Birth of Isaac


Throughout the book of Genesis, YHWH has been telling Abraham that his descendants will one day possess the land of Canaan, which usually meets with skepticism from Abraham. His sometimes sister, sometimes wife, Sarah, is barren and said to be well beyond the age when women could produce children. YHWH has gone so far as to change Abraham and Sarah’s names, and introduce the ritual of circumcision to Abraham to prove he means business. In Genesis 21, YHWH walks the walk instead of just talking the talk, and Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son, who they name Isaac. Abraham is said to be one hundred years old at the time, so we must assume Sarah is close to that age, since she’s been with him all along.

Of course, nowadays, we know one hundred year old women are no longer capable of giving birth, and most would have no intentions to do so if they could. Assuming she was a legend and not a myth, Sarah was probably in her early to mid-50s, a considerably advanced age for a woman of that time, and would have been perceived as too old to give birth, though it is still a possibility at that age. Genesis later records that Sarah dies before Abraham, and given how difficult childbirth is for a woman of any age, the rigors of a nomadic lifestyle, in addition to her advanced age would have made the process much more hazardous. Why it was deemed necessary to wait so long is one of the enduring mysteries of Genesis. In all probably, the story that’s recorded was influenced by the legend of Abraham fathering a child at an advanced age, which suggests Ishmael and Isaac may not have been his only offspring, since prominent men were allowed to have as many wives and concubines as they could support, and Abraham is constantly said to be one of the most prominent. It’s unlikely he was really one hundred, since the life expectancy wasn’t more than forty to fifty, and his many swashbuckling adventures, such as saving Lot, would have meant that he’d have needed to be exceptionally spry for his age, but he could have been in his sixties or seventies, which might have seemed like a hundred to people not accustomed to living past forty.

Speaking of Ishmael, the birth of Isaac creates problems for him and his mother Hagar. Genesis tells us Sarah catches Ishmael “mocking” during the celebration of Isaac’s circumcision. She orders Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and Abraham isn’t happy about it, until he receives word from YHWH that Ishmael will also be the progenitor of a significant tribe, just for being Abraham’s son. Abraham gives them some provisions and water and they wander out into the desert. When the water runs out, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush and moves some distance away from him, so she doesn’t have to watch him die. YHWH hears Ishmael crying and sends an angel to tell Hagar everything will be okay, then leads her to a well. Later, Hagar finds him a bride from among the Egyptians. From here on, we’re done with Ishmael until Abraham dies.

Abraham’s old pal Abimelek makes another appearance. Readers will recall that when these two met in the previous chapter, Abimelek tried to take Sarah as his wife, believing her to be Abraham’s sister and much younger than she actually is, which prompted a vision from YHWH to tell him it wasn’t such a good idea. Now Abraham approaches Abimelek about a well which is being disputed by some of his people. Abimelek seems stunned to hear about the situation with the well in question and he and Abraham agree to enter into a treaty over it, known as the Treaty of Beersheba. Finished bestowing Abraham with another sweet deal over water rights, Abimelek heads out with his army commander back to his kingdom. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree, and calls on the Eternal God, something we’ve not heard YHWH called in Genesis before, which concludes the episode.

There’s not a lot of obvious embellishment with the story, though some details raise some questions. As previously stated, it’s not clear why it was necessary to constantly remind Abraham that descendants of his, several hundred years in the future, will inherit Canaan. Obviously, readers with several thousand years of hindsight will understand the significance of these promises, but it’s not clear what a nomadic herdsman is supposed to do with the information. Abraham seems to have spent most of his time guiding his sizable flocks and herds throughout the region from Babylon to Egypt, telling people his wife is his sister and using the fallout from it to craft deals for more livestock, water, and grazing lands. He must have been a towering figure in the folklore to occupy such an important place in the history of the Children of Israel, though the stories in Genesis don’t always demonstrate why that is. He has certainly seemed very resourceful and shrewd, and his relationship to YHWH is unparalleled among most in the Bible, with the possible exception of Joseph or David.

Two-Party Tyranny 

Source: Free clip art from Aztec-signs.biz.

 

Democrats are just as much to blame for what happened in 2016 as are the Republicans, and in my view more so. They had a golden opportunity against a divided and rudderless Republican party to put forth a candidate from among their younger (meaning less seasoned), more progressive field of politicians, and had they done so, the outcome would have been much different. Instead, they backed Hillary Clinton, a qualified candidate but one for whom the voters in the US had absolutely no enthusiasm, and in many cases, outright animosity. Leaked documents from the DNC show the lengths to which they went to quash opposition to their selected nominee, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders waged an energetic opposition campaign which brought out young progressives in droves, garnering far more enthusiasm than the front runner. The manner in which the Democrats ran their campaign showed just how out of touch the party is with the people, simply assuming voters would obviously back Clinton instead of her opponent, and making no case for why they should.

People have been pointing to results showing that Clinton garnered more votes in the election, but none of this is relevant. Gore got more votes nationwide than Bush in 2000, and yet Bush became president. Both Clinton and Gore lost according to the established rules which each one accepted before and after the election, so overall vote totals don’t matter. Since their respective elections, I have heard neither Gore nor Clinton call for reform of the system, despite the negative outcomes they received.

Once again the Republicans have bested the Democrats nationwide and once again the Democrats are trying to play catchup. What a stark contrast to 2008, when they gave the voters a real choice and ended up in control of the House, Senate, and the Presidency. Now, the Democrats believe the electorate has no choice but to vote for them in 2018, just as they believed we’d have no choice than to vote for Clinton in 2016, and we see how that worked out. Documents which ended up on WikiLeaks painted a picture of a party with a single goal in mind, that of getting their anointed candidate elected at all costs. Regardless of how the DNC’s documents were leaked to the press, they got out and painted a very bad picture of how the party does business.

There are hopeful signs that many people have had enough of business-as-usual politics and are willing to hit the streets to demand change, but already the politicians are trying to co-opt these movements for their own ends. While they supported the actions, the Democratic party did not organize the women’s march on Washington in January, nor did they lead the spontaneous protests that occurred at airports in the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban. Despite claims by the Republicans, the Democratic party has not been responsible for the waves of constituents showing up at the offices and town hall meetings of their Congressional representatives demanding that their concerns over health care or the direction of the country be addressed. While there have been individual politicians, such as John Lewis, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and Bernie Sanders, who have vocally supported progressive solutions in response to the extremist policies of the current administration, most of the party prefers to remain centrist, reacting to what the Republicans do rather than proactively charting a new progressive course for the nation.

It will be a supreme tragedy if all the progressive fervor generated by this activism against the administration is simply channeled back into supporting Democrats for office. What’s needed is a break from the two-party tyranny which led to the inevitable outcome of electing our current president. We should not simply return to business-as-usual politics, but chart a new course, guided by the will of the governed and not the corporate-controlled professional politicians. The Republicans have already made their choice, choosing party over people, and history will judge them accordingly. Their epitaph will contain every bit of venom and rancor they have inflicted upon the public. If the Democrats follow them into the dustbin of history, so be it. They’ll have earned their reward for losing the confidence of the people.

Sol Invictus


To disseminate a new belief system, it’s sometimes necessary to employ the trappings of an earlier system to help followers make the transition. The early Christian church realized that people were unwilling to give up their feasts and celebrations surrounding the Solstices and Equinoxes, so rather than force them, the Church redefined the celebrations to make them relevant to the new religion. Rather than fight someone’s faith, simply alter the terms; use their words, but give the words a new interpretation. Before long, people forget the original definitions and accept that the terms have always meant what they understand them to be.

In a number of Easter hymns I heard growing up, Jesus is said to have been “nailed to a tree” but this wasn’t Jesus, it was Attis. Jesus was nailed to a cross beam. In all probability, the iconography of the crucifix is incorrect, as it makes more sense for the Romans, who were engineers, to employ a reusable scaffolding structure for crucifixions, since they occurred so often. This would explain how Jesus was crucified between two bandits (or insurrectionists). He occupied the space between them on the scaffold. There’s evidence the iconography of the cross predates Christianity by several millennia. Where then, do we get the symbolism of the cross.

The zodiac is depicted as a circle of symbols which rotate in the night sky. If one draws a line between each solstice and each equinox, one finds the heavenly cross. What’s referred to as the “Egyptian cross” is actually the Ankh, depicted in hieroglyphics several thousand years before the Romans employed crucifixion as a form of capital punishment. Early Christianity, which arose at the beginning of the astrological Age of Pisces, used iconography related to fish in its earliest incarnation. “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” It wasn’t until the Church was formalized in the fourth or fifth century that the cross became the dominant symbol of the faith. The emperor Constantine is said to have seen the vision of a cross superimposed over the sun just before he scored a significant victory, and this led to his conversion to Christianity.

In his book, The Invention of God, Thomas Römer traces the evolution of YHWH, from a tribal thunder god who dwelled on a mountain to the universal king of heaven followed by post-exilic Jews of the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. His research shows that each time a superior power overran a smaller tribe, those overtaken took that as evidence that the larger tribe’s god was more powerful. The Jews exiled in Babylon came to a different conclusion, that YHWH abandoned them because they failed to obey their God’s commandments. Christian Gnostics believed that God as described by Paul and echoed in the Gospels was separate from YHWH, who they regarded as a demiurge who had imprisoned people in their Earthly bodies, and it was only through specialized knowledge bestowed in Jesus’ teachings that they could break free. Perhaps their beliefs sprang from an unwillingness to believe the wrathful God of the ancient Jewish scriptures had somehow evolved into the loving Heavenly Father spoken of by Paul in his epistles.

The Gnostics were persecuted and driven underground in the early centuries of the Christian era, and later underwent a revival of their own in parts of France and Northern Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries, reemerging as the Cathars. Despite their resurrection of sorts, their beliefs were just as maligned by the Church as before, and were once again driven out of mainstream beliefs. It would not be until the discovery of the Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in the 1940s that the world would be reminded of this alternative sect of Christianity. The full significance of this discovery has yet to be realized.

Why Trump Won’t be Impeached 


In the entire history of the US, no chief executive has ever been removed from office by impeachment. Even though Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, neither was convicted nor lost his job because of it. Impeachment is a rigid process defined by the Constitution, as anyone old enough to remember the late-90s can recall. First, the House must draw up and approve articles of impeachment, describing the specific offenses with which the president is being charged, then must refer the matter to the Senate who will try the case with the Chief Justice presiding. When both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, they were Democrats, facing a hostile Republican Congress (Johnson was originally a Southern Democrat, chosen by Lincoln to balance the ticket). Trump is a Republican president facing a fairly sympathetic Republican Congress.

In the first place, the House will be reluctant to draw up articles of impeachment. Democrats don’t have enough power to do it on their own, there is little, if any, bipartisan cooperation in Congress anymore, and Republicans are reluctant to anger their far-right base, and many may have suspicious ties they don’t want exposed. Worse, impeachment wouldn’t solve the problem of Trump, who loves the spotlight and always portrays himself as the victim. A globally-televised trial before the Senate would be just the platform he would relish. If Congress tries and fails to remove him from office, he’ll only become more powerful, having vanquished an important check to his authority.

The current GOP-led Congress does not have the courage to take action against Trump. The reactionary forces of their own party, who are the very people who idolize the president, will keep them in check. Even if they draft articles of impeachment, there is no precedent to guide Congress in how to go about removing him, even if Trump is convicted. On top of that, a trial before the Senate would give Trump the worldwide audience he craves to be able to portray himself as the victim of a political witch hunt, which he would no doubt expand upon via Twitter.

The only option Congress has is to force him to resign. They may not be able to attack the public Trump, but they can go after the private Trump. If they can cut off his avenues for profiting from high office, they decrease his incentive to remain president. To get him to leave, they’ll have to hit him where it hurts. Cancel all government business with his enterprises, threaten to expose his dealings with foreign entities — in other words, sever the ties he’s been unwilling to sever on his own. They will need to bring the full force of the United States to bear against him, by attacking the source of income he’s generating while in office, and make it clear that Trump’s private business is no longer an avenue to the president for foreign leaders, or big donors. Now that there’s a special prosecutor to investigate his ties to foreign powers, Congress needs to scrutinize the avenues via which his company does business outside the US, freeze his assets, and enforce regulations which would prevent him from covertly controlling his company through his children. The question is, does Congress have the stomach for it?

Humpty Trumpty

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Fountain Hills, AZ. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Cropped and autocorrected. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/

Has there ever been an administration that sank into disarray and paranoia as quickly as that of Donald Trump? Everything Trump has done as president has been reactionary and divisive, and designed to elicit protests. Congress is reeling from phone calls, emails, polls, and demonstrations aimed at removing Trump from office, yet GOP “leaders” have hesitated to take action, as usual, fearing the reaction of their far-right base, who reportedly supports everything the president is doing, no matter how harmful it might be. 

‪The Trump administration is political theatre at its most idiotic and ridiculous, and not designed to last four years. This is probably why, in the waning days of the campaign, no one on the GOP side was criticizing Trump. The establishment allowed him to assume office and muck about for a month or so, and once he’s figured out how to leave and save face, he’ll be gone. At this point, professional wrestling has more credibility. When Pence is president, remember the term “bait and switch”. ‬

Signs that Trump has no intentions of sticking around include the fact that his wife has chosen not to move into the White House, and the frantic pace at which he’s issuing executive orders. He’s trying to fulfill all his campaign promises as quickly as possible so he can claim to have been successful when he’s gone. Once he finds a way to step down and still look like a martyr, he’ll do it. Otherwise, he’ll continue to act erratically until a member of his administration or Congress takes action against him. Sooner or later, he or someone in his administration will make one colossal blunder, and much of the administration will come crashing down, hopefully sparing the country, though that’s not assured. 

I believe the narrative being developed is for Pence to come in and save the day. ‪Pence is a politician, and knows of the tools at his disposal to effect an orderly transition of power, and Congress would fully support him.‬ The Flynn situation is just the sort of provocation he needs to step up and look like a decisive leader. Pence is constantly being portrayed as the cool head in this administration, loyal, but sometimes wary of the president’s actions. Now, he finds himself put on the spot, vouching for Flynn when he didn’t have a clear understanding of Flynn’s talks with the Russian ambassador. If it turns out Flynn committed a criminal offense, Pence can use his outrage at being deceived to make his break from the actions of the administration, and the 25th Amendment gives him the means to do something about it. 

We shouldn’t put much hope in the opposition party to lead “the resistance” against Trump. Democrats weren’t able to defeat a loutish reality show huckster who catered to neo-Nazis and was openly endorsed by the KKK. To now expect them to somehow arise as champions for the common individual is as ludicrous as the spectacle of Trump portraying himself as a working class hero during the election. If the Democrats had been able to connect with average individuals, they’d now be in control of the White House, and both houses of Congress, as they were in 2008, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t be in jeopardy. They’ve spent the last twenty to thirty years trying to outmaneuver the Republicans by being the party of cooperation and bipartisanship, while all but their hardcore base has dismissed them as ineffective. For eight years, they sat on the sidelines, scolding Obama for not being progressive enough, while he endured some of the most racist propaganda attacks hurled at any president. Along the way, they lost both houses of Congress and did little to prevent the US from electing one of the worst individuals it’s ever put in the White House. 

The protests which have arisen in the wake of Trump’s election demonstrate that there truly is a progressive opposition out there who are tired of business-as-usual politics in the US. Many politicians who aren’t afraid to identify with the Left have added their voices to the chorus demanding change. There’s also evidence that many left-leaning individuals have grown tired of the Democrats constantly waffling on how to deal with their right-wing counterparts. Elections in the US are stuck in a cycle we keep repeating over and over, which grows from dissatisfaction with the process. The sad reality is that we have no real choice. The Republicans have shown time and again that they know how to defeat the Democrats, so that even if they gain power, as in 2008, it’s short-lived. We need to develop strategies for defeating the extremists with or without the Democratic party. Instead of wasting energy helping the Democrats retake Congress, we should focus on what we, as citizens, need to do to save our democracy.

Real Bible Studies: Judges, The Song of Deborah

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In Judges 4-5, we meet one of the few women who stands on her own in all of the Old Testament. Deborah isn’t just identified as a strong woman, Judges tells us she’s leading the Israelites and holds counsel under the Palm of Deborah. She’s identified as a prophet, and the wife of Lappidoth. Despite being a married woman, who typically had little authority in the ancient world, when the tribes do “evil in the eyes of the lord” it’s to Deborah they turn for guidance. Jabin, king of Canaan is oppressing the Israelites sending Sisera, commander of his army, to keep them in check for more than twenty years. When the Israelites ask Deborah what to do, she instructs them to bring Barak, the son of Abinoam, from the tribe of Naphtali, to her. 

It’s likely that Deborah started out as a minor deity worshipped by one of the tribes, or as a consort to a god, who was humanized when worship of YHWH became more prevalent. It’s known that Astarte and Ashtoreth were two local names for the goddess Ishtar, worshipped in Canaan, Persia, and Babylon, and is sometimes mentioned as the consort to YHWH. Kings and Chronicles report that altars to her were destroyed by King Josiah, who insisted Israel follow monotheism. Getting rid of the goddess proved problematic for the children of Israel, however, as prophets, notably Jeremiah, continued to preach against Astarte up to the time of the Babylonian exile, and scribes exiled in Babylon attributed worship of other gods and goddesses than YHWH as factors in why Israel lost favor with their God. Astarte was a goddess of war according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Deborah fills a similar role in her story, selecting Barak to lead the troops against Sisera, and accompanying him as he marches into battle. The army mainly consists of Naphtali and Zebulun, so it’s likely this story originated with one of those tribes.

When Deborah calls upon Barak to go against Sisera’s army, he agrees, provided she accompanies him. She taunts him by saying that this will mean he’ll get no credit for the victory and that Sisera will be defeated by a woman. YHWH is credited with somehow thwarting Sisera’s army, neutralizing their 900 chariots, so the Israelites are able to rout the army. Deborah’s words to Barak prove to be prophetic, as Sisera flees the battlefield on foot and seeks refuge in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. First, Jael gives Sisera curdled milk instead of the water he requests, then, while Sisera is sleeping, Jael hammers a tent pole through his temple, killing him. When Barak arrives, Jael leads him to the dead body of his enemy. Energized by their victory over Sisera, the Israelites press on and free themselves from Jabin’s oppression.

Judges 5 is devoted to The Song of Deborah, which Isaac Asimov cites as perhaps one of the oldest contributions to the Bible in his guide to the Old Testament. It’s possible that Judges 4 was written to provide context to The Song of Deborah, which mostly gives an overview of the battle against Sisera, praising the tribes that fought, especially Zebulun and Naphtali, but also noting that Ephraim, Issachar, and Benjamin were among them. It contains the usual curses for the enemies of the Lord and any tribe that failed to support the battle, and praises Jael as “Most blessed of women”. The account in the song gives a slightly different telling of how Sisera died, implying he was standing when Jael delivered the death blow instead of sleeping as is stated in Judges 4, but it does include the detail of Jael giving Sisera curdled milk instead of water. Throughout, Deborah refers to herself in first person, but her words do sound similar to a goddess bestowing blessings on her people. Verse 12 seems to be an invocation to Deborah, “Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song!”

It says much about the importance of Deborah that even after worship of the patriarchal YHWH had taken over the land, the editor of Judges felt that her story needed to be included. If Deborah indeed started out as a local deity, it’s possible whoever compiled Judges is the one who humanized her, making her a legendary figure. By the time her story entered the Hebrew Bible, there may not have been anyone left who recalled her origins. Judges tells us that Israel lived in peace for forty years following her tenure as a judge.