A Soldier’s Story

My great-grandparents, James David and Sarah Ella (Harp) Lupo. In all probability, my great-grandfather had no memory of his father, who died in the Civil War at age 25, when my great-grandfather was three.

Note: This essay is reprinted from The Cheese Toast Project available from online bookstores, and in Kindle format from Amazon.com. An earlier draft appeared on this blog 5 August 2014.

On the freezing morning of Sunday, 29 November 1863, Union soldiers defending Fort Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee leveled their rifles at advancing Confederate soldiers and fired, killing or wounding more than eight hundred, and thus set in motion a chain of events that would lead to my birth, not quite a century later. One of the Confederate soldiers who died was Nathaniel G. Lupo, my great-great-grandfather. Nathaniel may have died from a single shot, a barrage of bullets, or a mortar blast. He may have been tripping over the baling wire that had been strung between tree stumps to slow down any assault, attempting to scale the frozen wall of the fort with a stand of colors, or struggling in the ditch surrounding the fort, while, above him, Union gunners rained down bullets on him and his comrades. The exact circumstances of his final moments have been lost to history, though one can be certain they were chaotic, and undoubtedly horrifying, with death and devastation surrounding him on all sides. The poorly planned assault on Fort Sanders, carried out by troops serving in the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under James Longstreet, lasted approximately twenty minutes and gained absolutely nothing for the Confederate cause. The only certainty is that Nathaniel’s death altered the course of his family, affecting every generation since, including my own.

I know very little about my great-great-grandfather. While I have vague memories of my grandfather, who died when I was ten, and knew my great-uncle reasonably well, my interest in the history of our family had not yet manifested itself, and by the time I started asking questions, neither of them, nor my great-aunt, were around to supply any answers. My father claimed to know very little about his ancestors, but if I asked him specific questions, such as whether or not his great-grandfather fought and died in the Civil War, he usually knew the answer. The Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, compiled by Lillian Henderson, lists four Lupos who fought in the war for Georgia, two brothers, one close cousin, and one distant cousin.

What I know of Nathaniel mainly comes from the few official records he left behind. Given his age on the census, he appears to have been born around 1835, most likely in Houston County, Georgia. He appears on the 1850 census, living in the household of Robert D. Sinclair, a physician and large land owner in Dooly County, Georgia. On 2 November 1854, he married Sarah Amanda Cone, and by 1860, Nathaniel, his father David, wife Amanda, and uncle Giles, and their families, had moved to Jackson County, Florida. A letter from David Lupo, dated 1 April 1860, mentions Nathaniel, and reports the activity surrounding their farm. Nathaniel and Amanda had three children listed in their household in 1860, Nancy T, age 5, William, age 3, and my great-grandfather, James David, who was about eight months old. There is a story in my family, told to me by one of my older cousins, that Nathaniel was a fiddle player, which would be interesting, considering his ancestors were as well, but I have no other information with which to confirm or refute this.

In 1861, Nathaniel and his family, returned to Dooly County, where on 22 June 1861, he enlisted for service in the Georgia Volunteer Infantry. His company, dubbed “The Dooly Light Infantry” and headed by Captain Joseph Armstrong, was sent to Cobb County for training, and later to Virginia, where they became Company I in the 18th Georgia Regiment, which was initially part of John Bell Hood’s “Texas” brigade. In 1864, Hood would be the general who surrendered Atlanta to Sherman, but in 1861-62 the youthful Hood was just establishing his reputation for being a fierce and reckless commander. His Texas brigade, including the 18th Georgia, was responsible for breaking the Union line at Gaines Mill, and turning the tide in the Seven Days campaign, where Lee drove McClellan from Virginia. The battle-hardened 18th Georgia was later transferred to Thomas R. R. Cobb’s Georgia brigade (later led by William Tatum Wofford), where they continued to be a part of the shock troops, first in, and last out, in many of the battles in which they participated. The 18th Georgia played a decisive role at Second Manassas, fought at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, and was stationed behind the Stone Wall on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, which was an absolute bloodbath for Union troops attempting to take the position. The First Corps under James Longstreet, including the 18th Georgia, which was heavily engaged in the Peach Orchard, participated during the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Records show that shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Nathaniel was admitted to the hospital in Virginia, but the cause isn’t given.

In short, Nathaniel didn’t just serve in the war, he was front and center at some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting of the bloodiest war in America’s history. Having never served in combat myself, I cannot begin to imagine what participating in such carnage can do to a man’s psyche. Records show, in addition to the aftermath of Gettysburg, that Nathaniel spent time in hospitals following several battles, including Antietam, without the cause being reported. The 18th Georgia was among the troops who accompanied Longstreet on detached service in Tennessee and Georgia in fall and winter of 1863, though the 18th did not participate in the Battle of Chickamauga, the one battle the First Corps fought on Georgia soil. Longstreet didn’t get along very well with Braxton Bragg, who was in command of forces around Chattanooga, and left to conduct independent operations in Eastern Tennessee, which brought the First Corps to Knoxville by early November.

Surviving accounts of the battle in which Nathaniel lost his life are marred by the fact that in the aftermath of the assault, Longstreet brought charges against several of his subordinates, including Major General Lafayette McLaws, who was in command of the division which included the 18th Georgia. Longstreet accused McLaws of not providing proper equipment to carry out the assault, while McLaws pointed the finger at Longstreet for providing him with faulty reconnaissance. The main point of contention appears to center around how much of an obstacle the ditch surrounding the fort would be, and McLaws stated he was assured by Colonel E. P. Alexander, artillery commander and a military engineer, and by Longstreet himself that they had witnessed a soldier crossing the ditch without difficulty at the point where the attack was to occur. McLaws confirmed that the majority of soldiers who died were killed in the ditch. A report by opposing General Ambrose Burnside, stated that casualties were left in the ditch overnight in freezing conditions, with the wounded calling out for help, until the following morning, when Burnside proposed a truce, which Longstreet accepted, allowing the Confederates to tend to their wounded and bury their dead. Burnside reported that ninety-two bodies were turned over to the Confederates. Nathaniel was most likely among them.

I do not know if I would be here, had Nathaniel lived. In all probability, I would not be, given that his death is the main event which started my family on their journey through the next century. Nathaniel’s actions, returning to Georgia, and enlisting for service, probably felt obvious to him. He may have felt he had no choice in the matter, yet every step of the way, he made the choices, up to and including where he stood in formation in preparation for the assault on the fort on 29 November. Just as I do not know the exact circumstances of his death, I also do not know what became of his body. In all likelihood, he was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield, and left behind as the army moved on. His name does not appear among those re-interred in the city cemetery after the battle, though recently, the grave of his commanding officer, Solon Z. Ruff, has been located and marked in Knoxville, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Reports of the battle indicate Ruff died in the ditch surrounding the fort while cheering on his men, and since he was commanding Wofford’s Brigade, which included the 18th, most likely, that’s where Nathaniel died as well. Most of current day Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, was built over top of the battlefield. In 1982, I went there with two friends to attend the World’s Fair, with no idea of the importance the city had in my family’s history. While I’m not a believer in signs, I will report that the first day we were there, it rained the entire time.

One cannot speak of Confederate ancestors without invoking the memory of the cause for which they fought. Let me be clear, I do not honor the Confederacy as a governmental entity, nor do I believe in what the politicians of the Southern states attempted to accomplish by breaking away from the Union. Secession was a horrible idea in 1860, and those in the South who invoke the specter of secession for their own political ends today, merely perpetuate the arrogance and ignorance of those who led the South to secede, leading to thousands of needless deaths in the resulting conflict.

Since the end of the war, states which made up the Confederacy have attempted, and largely succeeded, in changing public perceptions about the war, shifting the cause from slavery to states’ rights. None of this matters. We don’t need to speculate on why Georgia seceded because the people who made the decision to secede spelled out in fairly clear terms why they were doing it. Georgia’s declaration of secession gives a comprehensive outline of the animosities between slave states and non-slave states and makes it clear that those who drafted the document believed owning slaves was a Constitutionally protected right that the non-slave states had violated. Lincoln’s election was cited as a culmination of the non-slave states’ efforts to disenfranchise the slave-holding states and was listed as a direct cause of secession. The drafters of Georgia’s declaration stated that had protections for slavery not been written into the Constitution, the slave-holding states never would have ratified it. Further, the United States government’s inability to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is mentioned as a mitigating factor. That’s about as explicit as one can get on the issue. In fact, slave-holding states had called upon the United States government to nullify laws in states such as Massachusetts which prevented slave owners from reclaiming slaves who’d run away, and granted freedom to any slave who happened to travel there with the slaveholder.

As to why the individual soldiers signed up, in the absence of correspondence from them, we cannot know their specific motives, but, most likely, Nathaniel, and others like him, signed up for service because he thought his home and family were threatened by a potential invasion of the state. Nathaniel returned to Georgia, volunteered for Georgia, was trained and equipped by Georgia to fight for Georgia, and instead, he and other volunteers immediately found themselves shipped out to Virginia to protect the Confederate capital, leaving Georgia’s defenses in disarray. In a dispatch to the Confederate War Department dated 11 November 1861, Georgia’s governor, Joseph E. Brown, specifically requested return of three brigades including Wofford’s, which comprised the 18th Georgia, because of a feared invasion by enemy forces. This wasn’t a trivial matter given Georgia’s extensive coastline. Dispatches show considerable apprehension among the governor and mayors of several cities of an invasion targeting Savannah, Brunswick, or Augusta. The request was denied by the Confederate war department, as were other requests by Governor Brown. At the time, there was tension but no outright hostilities in Virginia, and the 18th Georgia had been assigned to picket duty around Richmond.

Regardless of Nathaniel’s motives in taking up arms against the United States, it is pointless to ignore or downplay that aspect of my family’s history, as it plays so great a part in it, just as my ancestors played their part in the history of this country. While I do not always agree with the decisions my ancestors made, I cannot deny those decisions played a part in the circumstances which eventually led to me being here. Had Nathaniel lived, he may have decided to take his family west, as many did in the wake of the war; or returned to Florida; or traveled elsewhere in Georgia. Records show that his death had a devastating effect on his young family. Other than her listing on a record of widows who received a salt ration in 1864, no records whatsoever have been found on his widow, Amanda, until she applied for a pension with the state of Georgia in the 1890s, and the fate of their daughter, Nancy, is unknown. Their son William shows up on the incomplete census of 1870, in Dooly County, living near the family of Nelson Moye in or near Pinehurst, Georgia, and in 1880, their son David can also be found near the Moyes in Pinehurst, living away from Nathaniel’s brothers and sisters in and around Vienna.

References:

  1. Henderson, Lillian, Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, 1861-1865, Georgia State Division of Confederate Pensions and Records, Longina & Porter 1960.
  2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, United States War Department, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1880-1901.
  3. Georgia Declaration of Secession, Official Records of Georgia, Serial IV, Volume 1, pp. 81-85, text found online at the website for Yale University’s Law School.

The End of History 

While many might believe life on Earth would be simpler if we could all be brought together under a single, unifying philosophy, no one can come to any sort of agreement on what that should be. Every social, political, economic, and religious movement since the dawn of civilization has sought to unite people under a common set of beliefs, or economic system, or way of life. Utopian movements speak of such a time, when everyone finally agrees on a guiding set of principles as the end of history. This does not mean the end of human advancement, just the end of our struggles to find a system which best promotes that advancement.

Few can doubt that the old order is swiftly passing away and a new one is taking its place, but rather than controlling how the future will develop, I see people like the current administration in the US as a catalyst for finally destroying what’s left of the old ways of thinking. They’re the last gasp of the tribal mentality dying out. Once they and their cronies are done, it’s up to the enlightened throughout the world to pick up the pieces of what’s left and start over.

We are seeing, on the world stage, the beginnings of a global movement aimed at protecting the environment, insuring peace and prosperity for all, encouraging women and protecting them from such brutal practices as enforced marriage and genital mutilation, and respecting individual rights and beliefs. We need to take the initiative to insure that what develops promotes the goal of uplifting and empowering all people. Philosophies such as that of the Taliban, which holds that it’s okay to shoot a teenaged girl in the face for wanting an education, are so abhorrent that they deserve no place in the discussion, and humanity will be best served when such ideas are wiped from the face of the Earth.

Race, religion, politics, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, are all used to exclude people. Remove these as barriers and we all have a seat at the table. The truth is constantly being revealed to us. It’s not written in any particular book nor does it come from any particular period of world history, but it’s always there, always speaking to us in everything that exists, and all that occurs. We should stop assuming any one set of beliefs should predominate and start embracing the uniqueness of each individual. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we exist. We should strive to make the most of this opportunity.

Here and Now


I was raised in a conservative Christian household, in an evangelical church, in the Southern United States, in the 60s and 70s. It’s doubtful anyone can tell me anything about Jesus I haven’t already heard. People ask when and why I lost my faith and my response is, I didn’t. I never really had any faith to lose. It’s easy to believe in a concept when one is only presented with a single point of view and simply accepts what one is told, and I did. People I respected and admired helped to form the basis for my initial “faith” and I had no reason to question what they told me. Once I started to scratch the surface, however, what I thought was my faith started to evaporate.

I have heard the explanations and the arguments in favor of a benevolent father figure watching over us, and I have rejected them. The universe is a vast and chaotic place which exhibits no signs of enforced order. I came to this conclusion totally on my own, of my own free will, and based on many observations with much study and contemplation on my part. My mind is my own and I take responsibility for the decisions I make. While I have read much on the subject from many diverse sources, I chose the lessons I took from those sources. I accept nothing at face value, and know that each person has his or her own perspectives, biases, thoughts, feelings, and limitations which color how he or she sees the world.

I believe all “holy” texts to be the work of the people, mostly men, who produced them, and were developed to serve a particular community at a particular time and place. According to the strictures of human nature, they are affected by the limitations and biases of those people. It’s dubious to accept a piece of literature as “the truth” when we are several thousand years removed from the original context in which it was written, and not reading it in its original format or language. What we call “The Bible”, for instance, has been edited and reedited throughout its existence and translated into languages that didn’t even exist at the time of its original conception. The translations with which we’re most familiar often come from translations of the original source material which has been lost to history. Faith in such a text means faith that every single individual or group who wrote, rewrote, edited, translated, or transcribed it always did so perfectly and without ulterior motives. Since humans are fallible, the work they produce cannot be without errors even if they believe it to be divinely inspired.

I believe that most creatures have some form of consciousness, but humans have developed a method of recognizing and documenting it. Anyone who has an animal in his or her household can attest to the fact that animals dream, and respond to those dreams. Do they recognize them as dreams, however? Humans do. We also have the capacity to examine the world around us and draw conclusions based on those observations. Despite this, we leave far too much to chance, hoping for a desired outcome, when, with a little ingenuity on our part, we could have more easily defined results. Science is one such method for insuring more predictable outcomes, yet many dismiss science or ignore its conclusions when they don’t match with a given set of beliefs.

If the conclusions of many contemporary religions are correct, then the only purpose for our lives on this Earth is to be tested to demonstrate our worthiness for entering heaven. Much like the Green Stamps my mother used to collect when I was a child, we’re storing up our thoughts and deeds in order to cash in when we get to the next world. To believe this, however, runs the risk of making life on this Earth totally meaningless in and of itself. I believe if we can train ourselves to live in the here and now, not focusing on some imagined future nor worrying about mistakes from the past, we may find a level of contentment we never before knew existed.

The Bible Tells Me So


Some years ago, the Reader’s Digest caused quite a stir by issuing a condensed version of the Bible. Televangelists were up in arms, some going so far as to burn the book and calling for an all out boycott of the Reader’s Digest organization. Despite all the outrage, no one seems to care that there are numerous versions of the Protestant Bible, different translations, different interpretations, different concordances, each of which alters the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. Many still view the authorized King James Bible as the official version, totally ignoring that it was based on Greek and Latin texts which may not have agreed with one another.

Marcion, an early Christian leader with Gnostic leanings, in the second century, made one of the first attempts at organizing a canonical version of the Bible. His list included mostly Gospels and Epistles and none of the Hebrew scriptures. While his version was never considered authoritative by the emerging Western Church, it served as the scripture for his congregations for several centuries, and Marcion is credited among those who began the discussions that led to the Christian canon being formalized. Thomas Jefferson compiled his own condensed version of the Bible that included the sayings of Jesus and rejected books such as Revelation, which he described as “the ravings of a maniac”.

Scholars agree that the earliest versions of most of the Gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his closest followers spoke or wrote. This would not have been unusual for the time, since only the most educated and specially-trained in society would have been able to write in Latin or Greek and most people spoke in the dialects common to the region in which they lived. Scholars have also noted many changes, transcription errors, and additions common among different texts of the same Gospel. Mark, for instance, in its familiar format, has sixteen lines added to the end of it that don’t appear in the earliest known versions, and once had a secret version that included extra lines, which was written about by early church fathers who considered it problematic but nonetheless regarded it as authoritative. The Gnostics claimed Mark had three versions, the commonly known version, the secret version, and an oral version Mark would only share directly with believers.

For many Christians in the United States, the English translation of the Protestant Bible is considered to be the inerrant word of God. This is despite the fact that the English language as we know it was not spoken by anyone when the material that made it into the Bible was being written and compiled. There is significant evidence to show that the works in the Bible are not rendered in their original form. One such example can be found in Richard Elliot Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, which recreates what Friedman has called the world’s first novel, that was chopped up and dispersed throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible itself speaks of its incomplete nature, citing in Kings and Chronicles the very works on which these summaries are based and referring readers to them, and in other places, mentioning sources that are now lost to modern readers.

With any translation there are two problems to confront: comprehension, or, does the translator understand the material he or she is reading, and interpretation, is the translator accurately conveying what the material is saying. Translating from Spanish to Italian, for instance, may not yield many overt problems, because the languages are similar and come from the same root, Latin. Translating from Spanish into German will most likely pose more problems, since the languages have very little in common. Even so, the material being translated can have a huge impact on how successful the translation will be. A shipping list of common household items will likely be easier to translate than an epic poem, since objects are much easier to describe than ideas.

The task is compounded by cultural differences. People who live in a land-locked mountainous region are likely to have ideas and concepts that would be foreign to coastal, seafaring people, even if they speak the same language. If one is trying to convey a concept to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s helpful to have concepts with which to compare it, and it’s not always possible to find a reliable comparison. Perhaps the mountain dwellers have a word to describe the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the trees. Relaying that word to the seafarers will tell them what it means, but simply knowing the meaning would not convey the memories or sensations the mountain dwellers invoke when using it. Another example would be equating the Jewish concept of a Messiah, that is a ruler from the Davidic line of kings with the Pagan concept of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior-king such as Attis.

The people who wrote and compiled the Bible lived in a much different world, under vastly different circumstances than we do. Ideas and concepts we take for granted would be as foreign to our ancestors as theirs would seem to us. We have their static words, but not how they used their language for day to day affairs, or to communicate important beliefs or rituals. Words can sometimes lose certain nuances when written rather that spoken, as anyone who has ever misread a text or Internet post can attest. Since many of the stories which comprise the Bible started out as oral folklore, how the storyteller told the story was often as important as the words being said. Describing a leader as “great” has a different meaning if the person saying it has a sarcastic edge to his or her voice and unless this delivery is recorded with the words, the meaning will be lost. Since we were not present to hear how these stories were told, we cannot be certain how they were intended. Finally, people in a culture can develop shorthand in communicating where they leave out concepts that are generally accepted in their society, assumptions a native would know without being told. Our society takes cars for granted. If we’re communicating with an isolated tribe in the Amazon which has mostly been shielded from modern technology, telling them we “drove” someplace won’t have much meaning for them.

One cannot claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God when there are multiple official versions of the Bible that are accepted as authoritative and which do not always agree with one another. If the Protestant Bible is the inerrant word of God, then how does one assess the Catholic Bible, which is older, contains more material, and which includes the Septuagint, which was the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures for several centuries, up to and including the time of Jesus. While one can isolate portions of the Bible which may have sprung from what seemed to be divine inspiration, such as the Psalms, or Ecclesiastes, there are many more portions that exhibit obvious editorial oversight, such as the book of Judges, which constantly reminds its readers that the stories took place before Israel had a king. Mark is believed by most scholars to have been the first Gospel and was the basis for Matthew and Luke. In his Gospel, Matthew corrects instances where Mark erred, such as in relating the pronunciation of Jesus’ final words on the cross, or when Mark, not familiar with the geography of Judea, got place names wrong. Apparently the author of Matthew did not regard the author of Mark as infallible.

Real Bible Studies: Genesis, Isaac


Isaac is almost a footnote in the history of Israel. He’s born; he’s almost sacrificed by his father; he marries Rebekah; he buries Abraham; he fathers Esau and Jacob; he almost gives Rebekah to Abimelek; he’s tricked into giving away Esau’s blessing to Jacob; then he reconciles with Jacob and dies, all in the span of a few chapters. Abraham’s story takes up most of Genesis 12-25, from the call of Abraham to his death. Isaac’s story overlaps Abraham’s in chapters 21-25 and by chapter 27, the story of Jacob is starting to overlap that of Isaac. By chapter 28, the focus of Genesis has shifted to Jacob, now on his way to his uncle Laban’s household, where many of his adventures will occur, and we only have a few mentions of Isaac from here on. The only story about Isaac that’s not tied to either Abraham or Jacob is Genesis 26, which is a verbatim retelling of the story of Abraham and Abimelek, from Genesis 20, but unlike his father, Isaac doesn’t get cattle or grazing rights out of the encounter. The incident with Abimelek adds nothing tangible to the story of Isaac, and seems to have been inserted simply to give Isaac an adventure of his own before skipping to the story of his son Jacob.

Even in stories where he’s featured, Isaac takes a secondary role. When YHWH tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (something that was never done with Ishmael, the oldest) it’s to test Abraham’s faith. Abraham accepts the request without question, which seems rather odd. Recall that in Genesis 18, when YHWH tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, Abraham barters with YHWH to gain concessions for the denizens of those towns, yet here, YHWH is telling him to sacrifice the son he’s waited until his old age to have and Abraham seems totally okay with it. We’re not told how old Isaac is, but at one point, he speaks to Abraham, so he must be at least five or six years old, and maybe as old as eight or nine. Despite this, he doesn’t say anything when it becomes apparent Abraham is about to sacrifice him.

In the ancient world, whenever a town was founded, often the founder would sacrifice his oldest child, usually a son, to become the guardian spirit of the town. There’s a mention of this practice in 1 Kings 16:34, describing the rebuilding of Jericho. In this instance, however, Abraham is not founding a city, as he’s still depicted as a nomadic herder. There are clues to suggest that in the original legend, Abraham sacrificed Isaac, and this fact was altered by the author of Genesis, who was writing after human sacrifice had been abolished. The death of Sarah immediately follows the story of Abraham being tested, and the death of a son she had at an advanced age, combined with all the other factors working against her, might have been sufficiently stressful to hasten her end. If this is so, it placed quite a burden on the author of Genesis to account for an individual who wasn’t originally in the story line.

The solution seems to have been to make Isaac the conduit through which Abraham was connected to Jacob. Either that or there was a tradition among the tribes that Isaac was the father of Jacob but that they were somehow descended from Abraham, so the author of Genesis made the logical leap. In genealogy, it’s often a common error to attribute a child to a nearby family with a similar name. It’s also possible that then, as today, many different people claimed descent from Abraham with no rhyme or reason as to how and Isaac was used by the children of Israel to make their connection. Unlike Abraham, who started out as Abram, and Israel, who started out as Jacob, Isaac is not given a new name, signifying a covenant with YHWH. His “covenant” was through that of his father, and fulfilled by the descendants of his son.

In all probability, these stories are based on authentic legends about Isaac and Jacob, since they don’t show Jacob in the best light, being deceptive in taking his brother’s birthright and later in deceiving his uncle Laban (who pretty much deserved it) into giving away the best of the flock when they divided their assets. Most of the story of Abraham and his descendants through Jacob are part of the “hidden book” discovered by Richard Elliott Friedman in the pages of the Old Testament and chronicled in his work, The Hidden Book in the Bible.

Big Bang


Trying to discern the origins of the universe from within the universe is like trying to figure out how a cake was made using only the evidence of the finished cake. It’s there; we see it, but deciphering all that went into it is difficult, because the finished product is more than just the sum of its parts. We can speculate, based on our senses, what some of the ingredients were; we can develop theories as to how the various elements came together, but we can’t know for sure how it came into being unless we’re there to observe the process of creating it. Of course, in the case of a cake, we can be there to observe how one is made. Not so with the universe. 

Religion tells us God created the heavens and the Earth; science shows us the nuts and bolts of what went into building the universe. Religion says it began with light; science says it all began with a bang. With sound moving much slower than light, it’s possible to still hear echoes of the big bang provided one has the right equipment. What set it off, though? What was the catalyst that put everything in motion? To date, no one on either side of the debate has a definitive answer that satisfies everyone. All anyone knows is that it’s here; we inhabit it; all living things are a part of it. 

Most of what we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell is an illusion, created for us by how our brains interpret the signals the environment throws at us. How one person perceives the world may be vastly different than another person. We use language to help bridge the gap, but even language is a tool we’ve invented to serve a specific purpose, and often falls short in conveying an accurate description of the sensations of living. Time is another tool designed to give us reference points in our perception. In truth, we live in neither the past nor the future but in the eternal present experiencing what goes on in the world as it happens. Our brains allow us to store memories and recall them, perhaps with a bit of alteration, and to imagine outcomes not yet realized, giving us a semblance of a past and future. 

We created the notion of God because humanity believes it needs a parental figure watching over us, someone to tell us who we are and why we’re here. Everything has a beginning and an end, and individual humans have parents, therefore humanity has to have such “parents” from whom we sprang. This model is already faulty, though, because individual humans have two parents, regardless of whether both are known, whereas most modern religions only mention one parental deity. In much of nature, it’s the female who bears the responsibility for giving birth, but in many modern religions, the female deity has been erased from the equation.

As humans, we have an inherent need to understand our origins. Where we came from and why is at least as important to us as what we’re here to accomplish. There are no easy answers to the question. It remains for each individual to determine the answer for himself or herself. We may, one day, come to definitive conclusions about our common origins, but in the meantime, we should do all we can to enjoy the pursuit.

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.