Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Birth

"To be born again...first you have to die.... To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly." (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses)

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Useful Tannenbaum

Evidently, an artist is seeking recycled Christmas trees in London in order to turn them into wood three-legged stools. See here. It is a good idea, but they are being sold for $621 a piece. Frankly, I think I could make my own Christmas stool.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

To Ascend in Flame: To See God and Live 2

Yesterday I wrote a post on seeing God and living, even though none should be able to see God (at least face to face) and live. Yet there are many passages in which Jacob, Moses, elders, Hagar, and Manoah and his wife all see God and live and comment upon the fact in astonishment. I had left the discussion of Manoah and his wife until this time because it is quite an extensive, quite astonishing, and under-studied passage.

Some initial issues of note: this is one of two passages in which a woman is the primary recipient of the vision of the LORD/Angel of the LORD. It is a special birth narrative comparable to the one of Abram/Sarai, Hannah, perhaps Hagar, and one in which, like Hannah, I think makes an impression on the Jesus birth narratives with the angel's visitations to Mary and then Joseph. But there is so much more to this passage.

Quoting from the RSV:

And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, "Behold you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:2-5)

For most, the interest of the passage is for the miracle of the birth of Samson, the promised Nazirite. It is for this reason, in fact, that she is commanded not to drink wine or "strong drink," which, as a recent archaeological article argues, just means beer, rather than any birth defects that we, as moderns, associate with drinking alcoholic beverages while pregnant. There is a gendered aspect to this passage. The story starts out with a discussion of Manoah--the male is the named marker. His wife remains unnamed throughout the entire story, yet she is the one who is vouchsafed the initial vision. This is what differentiates this birth narrative from, for example, Sarai's--when the three men come to Abram and Sarai and she laughs--or even Hannah's, in which the communication is decidedly one way--Hannah prays to God, but God does not answer, unless Eli's answer counts as such. And this is what makes this miraculous birth story much closer to the ones in the Gospels. Of course, the Gospel of Luke's Magnificat is based upon Hannah's prayer, but it is in response to a vision from an angel (here Gabriel) giving the message of a miraculous birth: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus" (Luke 1:30-31). In Luke, she sees the vision rather than Joseph. In Matthew, however, Mary is just stated to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit and Joseph receives a vision only when he is about to separate from her privately (Matt. 1:18-25). So Mary gets the vision in Luke; Joseph in Matthew. This makes our passage in Judges a little more unique, since both Manoah and his wife receive a vision successively (you can only do this with the gospels by harmonization). Nonetheless, in these two stories we get a vision of an angel giving a message of the miraculous birth, a quite stunning vision, as Manoah's wife says:

Then the woman came and told her husband, "A man of God came to me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel of God, very terrible; I did not ask him whence he was, and he did not tell me his name..." (Judges. 13:6-7)

In what follows she repeats the message of the angel to her husband. This passage resembles Genesis 32 in some ways. The figure seen is a "man" of God (Gen. 32:24), its uses "God' rather than "LORD/YHWH" in the dialogue, and there is the issue of the unknown name (Gen. 32:29). Moreover, the "man of God" looks like an "angel of God"; that is, the appearance was terrible. If Ezekiel 1 is any indication with the living creatures/cherubim, these would be frightening. This tradition persists, since the Angel Gabriel has to tell Mary not to be afraid (Luke 1:30), as well as Zechariah (1:12-13) and the shepherds (2:9-10). Angels are supposed to be glorious, frightening, and "terrible." She also did not ask "whence he was," where he came from. Does she doubt the angel's origin with God? He looks like a messenger of God...but was he...

Manoah then entreats God:

O LORD, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born. (Judges 13:8)

Manoah's petition is successful; God listens to him. Once again, Manoah's wife is the contact person, however. So, while Manoah can successfully speak to God, God sends his messenger to Manoah's wife.: "and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but Manoah her husband was not with her. And the woman ran in haste and told her husband, 'Behold, the man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.'" (Judges. 13:9-10).

Subsequently, the Manoah comes to the man/angel of God and questions him of how to take care of the boy. The angel/man simply answers: "Of all that I said to the woman let her beware..." and then he repeats what he said to her. The man/angel basically says that his message to Manoah's wife was sufficient. Manoah, it seems, either was looking for more information, or wanted to hear for himself.

The next part is particularly interesting. Manoah asks the "angel of the LORD" to stay and they will prepare a kid for him, offering hospitality. The angel refuses to eat with Manoah and his wife, but instead tells them to offer a burnt offering to the LORD (Judges. 13:15-16). The parenthetical remark is what is initially startling: "For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the LORD." This presumably explains why the angel refuses to eat with the humans, although this is no obstacle in Gen. 18:1-8. So this raises a question of whom Manoah thought this figure whom his wife described as a "man of God" like the "angel of God" because his appearance was "terrible." Perhaps a lesser angel? Perhaps just a striking prophetic human? Some sort of intermediate being? By using so many terms, this passage perhaps creates a bit of confusion: man, man of God, angel of God, angel of the LORD are all applied to this figure. Why were they willing to follow this figure's orders if they did not know "whence he was" and who he was? Any supernal being will do? There is a similar human/divine slippage also present in the Jacob passage in which the "man" becomes revealed as God. Or perhaps an unfolding revelation of identity.

Much like the Jacob passage, the issue of the name comes up once again:

And Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, "What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?" And the angel of the LORD said to him, 'Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?'" (Judges 13:18)

In both Gen. 32 and here, the man/angel/god(?) refuses to give the name. Here the reason is given that it is wonderful. It is over-awing. It also reveals a bit of Manoah's cautiousness toward the figure: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He wants to know the name (who is this figure, and where does he come from?) so that after these things come true they can honor him (as man, as angel, as god?). If/when these things come to pass--proving the prophecy/revelation true--they will honor him. There is a tinge of doubt in the conditional.

The next part is quite astonishing. Manoah sets up the altar and takes the kid with a cereal offering. He offers it to the LORD, "to him who works wonders.":

And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar, while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground. (Judges 13:20)

The angel of God/the LORD uses the flame of the burnt offering as a transportation device--he ascends through the flame of the offering. I cannot think of another biblical source in which an angel ascends through the flames of an offering. If there is a source, I would be happy to hear of it. And this is the proof that Manoah needs. For the first time in the passage, they both fall to the ground with their faces to the ground in a position of reverence. Due to this fiery ascent, they seem to have figured out the whence and who of the angel, and do not need to wait for the birth for proof to honor this figure who is now clearly not a man.

The angel of the LORD appeared no more to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. And Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God." But his wife said to him, "If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted the burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these." (Judges 13:21-23)

There is a certain irony in the passage. As long as Manoah doubts and they both do not quite know the identity of the figure, the figure stays. When they intuit that it is the (angel of the) LORD or God (made clear through the fantastic fire-traveling trick), they no longer see the figure. Manoah then picks up the tradition of not being able to see God and live (as seen with Jacob, Moses, Hagar, and most recently with Gideon), but his wife reassures that is not the case. If God was going to kill them, it would cancel the message given. So God has to make exceptions to the rule for the case of revelation (one can't reveal something to someone for a particular purpose and kill them before fulfilling that purpose, even give the fact that one should not be able to see God and live). And, what is more, it is just bad manners: God accepted their offerings, it would be rude to kill them after that.

In all, Manoah's wife is the primary recipient of a vision of God/angel of God/angel of the LORD/ the LORD (they are equivalent in the passage) and the primary interpreter of that message. Manoah himself is there to seek reassurance from the figure (who tells him basically to listen to what he already told his wife), offer some hospitality, and set up the offering, which turns out to be the angel of God/the LORD's transportation home. He offers some doubt as well--as to the figure's identity and, once the identity is intuited, of whether they will live. It is here that his wife, the original recipient of the message, offers reassurance, since the message needs to be fulfilled.

All in all, Manoah and his wife are privileged company because they saw a vision of God (or angel of God). While God often pops in and out in Genesis, God is much more distant in Judges. Only Manoah, his wife, and Gideon are vouchsafed with such a terrible vision.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To See God and Live

In Exod. 33:20, the LORD famously tells Moses, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." Moses then is allowed to see God's backside (v. 23). One might compare Exod. 3:6 where Moses is afraid to look at God.

Recently I was asked if I would write up a little piece on seeing God in late antique Judaism. It is quite a broad topic, and, of course, should I take up the task I will be looking at some of the Hekhalot texts. But my mind also began buzzing about something else--I wonder how Rabbinic literature, particularly the Targumim and the Midrashim, handle these passages of seeing God and living or not living. That is, even though we have this passage of God telling Moses no one can see the LORD's face and live (although perhaps God's backside), there are plenty of passages where people do see God's face and live--even Moses himself.

God says he speaks to Moses face-to-face in Num. 12:8 (as opposed to everyone else to whom he speaks in dreams and through indirect means). Perhaps most famously, Jacob remarks after he wrestles with the mysterious "man," "For I have seen god face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (Gen. 32:30). Gideon is amazed that he continues to live after seeing the (Angel of the) LORD in Judges 6:22-23. These passages are aware of the rarity of being able to see God; they are both aware that one should die from seeing God; and in both cases they live.

These are all individual visions of God, but there is a collective vision in Exod. 24:11: "And he [the God of Israel] did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and at and drank." As one might suspect, much of this has been explained through source criticism (that is, the differences between LORD and Angel of the LORD, and especially the use of God versus LORD in this verse). Nonetheless, even this source, which does not mention death to those who see God in a pronounced way denotes the danger and exceptionality of the collective vision, since it notes that God did not lay his hand on them--God restrained the typical consequence of death.

Deuteronomy changes much of the language to speaking and hearing: "Did any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?" (Deut. 4:33). Nonetheless, some visual language sneaks in: "The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at the time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain" (Deut. 5:4-5). This is an interesting passage because it seems at odds with itself. Part of what marked the Israelites as special in Deuteronomy 4 was that they HEARD God and still lived. Deuteronomy 5 takes us a step closer and then two steps back. They not only heard God and lived, but God spoke with them "face to face" as God speaks to Moses in Numbers 12. And just at the moment of potentially seeing God and living, the Deuteronomist moves away from these implications: they did not quite see God (or perhaps fully hear God), since Moses stood between them and the LORD, because they were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.

I want to end this posting with a meditation on two more passages of seeing God and living. When I first started thinking about this project, I immediately had thought not of Moses, but of Hagar. I thought she might be an interesting figure to track down the history of interpretation, since she is one of the few women who sees the (Angel of the) LORD and lives and one of the few (perhaps the only?) foreigner who does (she's Egyptian). How do later interpreters handle her vision? Genesis 16 is a fascinating passage. I often assign it to students to do an in-depth literary analysis on it. She is fleeing Sarai and is in the wilderness where the Angel of the LORD appears to her. For my current purposes, the ensuing conversation is less important, but it ends as follows: "So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "Thou art a God of seeing"; for she said, "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered" (Gen. 16:13-14). This passage has a few quite unique features. Firstly, Hagar names the LORD, "God of seeing." One might compare other passages, such as Moses (Exod. 3) or Jacob (Gen. 32) in which they request the name of the LORD, whereas Hagar names. Secondly, while other passages state or exclaim that one has seen (or heard) God and lived, here Hagar (perhaps...) questions this. Different translators have either placed this sentence in the indicative or the interrogative, and I would like to look at it more carefully to consider this (and perhaps this is something that might come up in Rabbinic interpretation of the verse). It is clearly a marked passage. Not only do we have the exceptional vision of the LORD or Angel of the LORD remarked upon (of course, the LORD/Angel of the LORD appears multiple other places, especially in Genesis, without comment of living/dying, such as with Abraham), but we have a foreign woman who sees and lives and questions this fact.

The most remarkable passage, in my opinion, however, of seeing the LORD and living has to be in Judges 13 when Manoah and his wife (otherwise known as Samson's parents) see and live. I had previously thought that Hagar was the only woman in the Hebrew Bible who sees God and lives (or at least remarks on the case of seeing God and living), but I was wrong. Manoah's wife--never named--does as well. She is the lead seer in this passage, and she takes charge. There are some similarities, I think, between this story and the Jesus birth story--both have an Angel of the LORD, both have the angel appear to both husband and wife, wife first, and both about the birth of a special child. It is a very extensive vision with several important elements. For this reason, I think it deserves a post of its own. So, be on the lookout for Manoah and his wife seeing the LORD and living.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Peter Schafer's Origins of Jewish Mysticism

After listening to a couple reviews by Jim Davila and Seth Sanders at the SBL of Peter Schafer's expensive and important new book on the Origins of Jewish Mysticism, I was happy to see that it is now coming out in paperback (in May) at a reasonable price. This book by the preeminent scholar of the Hekhalot literature will, to be sure, be a must-read for anyone interested in late-antique religion and the history of Jewish mysticism. I will be looking forward to getting my paperback copy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Blake's Imagination

The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself
Affection or Love becomes a State, when divided from Imagination
The Memory is a State always, & the Reason is a State
Created to be Annihilated & a new Ratio Created
Whatever can be Created can be Annihilated Forms cannot
The Oak is cut down by the Ax, the Lamb falls by the Knife
But their Forms Eternal Exist, For-ever. Amen Halle[l]ujah

William Blake, Milton: Book the Second, Plate 32 [35]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ancient Babylonian Math

The NYTimes reports that there is an exhibit of ancient Babylonian Mathematics at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

Most of the ancient tablets appear to be classroom exercises, yet they may show a very high degree of sophistication, predating many of the Greek insights--such as the Pythagorean theorem--by millennia (or approximately 1500 years). The newspaper article indicates that Greek thought has shaped our own mathematical thought, but that we can see that we owe a great deal more to the Babylonians than previously thought. I should also note that much of our mathematics derives from medieval arabic mathematicians as well.

The tablets from Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University will be on exhibit until December 17. Unfortunately, I heard about this too late to take advantage of the exhibit and will not return to NY until after the exhibit closes. But I would love to hear or read people's responses below.

Sistine Chapel 360

I just saw this site that shows the inside of the Sistine Chapel in 360. You can use your mouse to look at different parts and to zoom in and out. All without having to be guided in like cattle with all the other tourists.

It's pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


One of the more interesting things I have begun to notice in biblical literature in my past year of reading or so is something of "uncreation." This is not necessarily the cataclysm of the end of time, although it can be that. It is not quite that final. It is more of a working backward from order to chaos in order to reintroduce an element of chaos in the world, showing that God is the God of chaos and not just order. I find traces of this in Isaiah, but it is all over the poetry in Job, including Job's own personal "uncreation" in Job 3 (an observation I owe to one of my students) to God's cosmic "uncreation" in Job 38 onward (an observation I owe to Carol Newsom's book on Job). With this interest in mind, I read the following from Rumi's poems that is almost an uncreation at points:

I am sprung from you and likewise you have devoured me,
I melt in you since through you I froze.

Now you press me in your hand, now under your foot with grief;
for the grape does not become wine until it is pressed.

Like the light of the sun, you have cast us on the earth,
then little by little carried us back in that direction.

We return from the body's window like light into the orb of a sun,
pure of sin and blemish.

Whoever sees that orb says, "He has become alive,"
and whoever comes to the window says, "So-and-so is dead."

He has veiled our origin in that cup of pain and joy;
in the core of origin we are pure, all the rest left behind like dregs

(Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi, trans., A.J. Arberry, pp. 302-3)

This is definitely not the same as the chaos/cosmos theme in Job or elsewhere in ancient Jewish writings. It is almost like reading Hosea (the latter chapters), Job, and the end of 1 Corinthians together. In Hosea 10 and 11, there is much talk about devouring. Job seeks "uncreation" and self-annihilation by negating his own birth. But take this language and put it into a more positive spin of returning to one's source.

The antitheses are what caught my attention: the one who created will devour (like God in Hosea? like Kronos/Saturn?); the one who froze us will melt us. In language elsewhere in Rumi and other Sufis, I take the freezing as the placement of our true essence into form; the removal of the form "melts" us, but releases our unformed/pre-formed/un-created self. That is the first part. The second part is a purification: the breaking of grapes to create wine. But the pressing of wine has the same function: the removal and destruction (death) of the solid form for the liquid essence to flow and mature. Our bodies, though, are "dregs" while our true self is the soul that is purified wine.

These two first parts, then, focus on our form and formlessness, the next part shows why we need to pass beyond our form: to return. As the diffusion of the light of the sun we were cast upon the earth. Here Rumi sounds almost Sethian as souls are presented as rays of light cast upon the earth that will return to their source--the original orb--all without a demiurgical element, though. I am struck by the fact that the light's return to its source is gradual. It is not all at once. This indicates that Rumi is not seeing the, well, annihilation of the egoistic self as it is reabsorbed into its source in terms of death (or not solely), but as a self-annihilation that occurs in life. The deathlike scene of return comes next, when one returns through the body's window (the eye) to return to the sun. Light came into the body through the window and it will escape in the same way. Whoever looks at the source will think of the soul as finally truly alive (unfrozen); those who look at the form--the grape--will see death. In another poem, Rumi says concerning the only one who truly is: "Inwardly you are the soul of the soul of the soul, outwardly you are the sun of the sun." To return, in fact, one must go into one's most inward self to find the highest element of the universe.

Death, though, includes perhaps more than just death, but as Montaigne would say how death insinuates itself into our lives through pain and as well as joy. Such distractions, for Rumi, I think would be more like death--that is to be unconnected or less aware of one's origin--whereas through self-annihilation before and absorption into the one who truly is one truly exists and lives. The death of the egoistic, solid self is the birth of the diffusive liquid self that, as such, easily blends back into its sunny source.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Blogging the SBL on Blogging

One of the most enjoyable and best -attended sections I went to at the SBL this year was the panel on Biblioblogging. While as the speakers noted that blogging has been greatly expanding the past five years in the field of biblical studies (broadly conceived), it is measured not only by the number of bloggers but the number of unofficial and now official gatherings of the bloggers (many of whom know each other by their blog names rather than their real names--even when their real names are not secrets). As has been the case the past few years, there was a dinner (which I was unable to attend), a lunch organized by John Hobbins. This year, the bloggers have an official group that meets to discuss issues of blogging, online publication, and burgeoning online technologies in research and instruction.

The meeting I attended had a nice panel from a well-established scholar to a more recent dissertation defender and all in between; it included scholars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament, and Targumim who came together to discuss their perspectives on this new technology. I am speaking more precisely of Jim Davila of Paleojudaica, whose paper is available on his site, Christian Brady or Targuman, also with his paper posted online, Michael Barber of the Sacred Page, James McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix, and Robert Cargill of XKV8R, the last three who have not (yet?) posted their papers online.

[Update: Robert Cargill has posted his discussion here, Michael Barber here, and James McGrath has promised to do so.]

[Update: Finally, James McGrath has posted his talk here]

It was an atmosphere of geekdom filled with a great deal of humor, prophetic prediction (both fulfilled and to come), and free exchange (open access?) of ideas.

There were many issues raised that new online technologies raise about our discipline in terms of how blogs are viewed (that is, should and could they be used for tenure and promotion committees, and if so, how could they be evaluated?), for pedagogical purposes (using blog platforms, pod- and vod-casts for dissemination of information, using possibilities for mixed medias that blogs are flexible enough platforms to hold to change the way we conceive of course construction--as well as research outlets), and the place of conferences--if panels are often already disseminating papers ahead of time (and Jim Davila always posts his papers ahead of the conference) would it not be better to have asynchronicity in participation by having a virtual conference, which would also be cheaper for those who cannot afford the traditional conference? Or a hybrid form of videoconferencing that allows people to come to panels physically (as usual) and for monitors to be set up so that others can participate virtually?

We do need to rethink the academic conference, I think. A couple years ago, I had written here (but I am currently too lazy to look for it, but I bet you can find it under the "academic conferences" tag) that conferences are a thing of the past and that virtual conferences in which people meet at a particular platform to exchange papers on topics and then write comments at the time or even later would be the way to go. At that time, however, I considered the traditional conference's continuing validity for two primary reasons: professional networking and for job interviews.

I am rethinking some of this. I have met a lot of scholars through my blogging activities (as well as publishers and book review distributors, etc.). Moreover, due to the economic difficulties of sending job search committees to conferences, so many places are using the phone interview or videophone interview as a replacement for the initial interview stage (before the traditional on-campus interview).

So where does that leave conferences? It retains the human face. As I have noted, as bloggers have increased, so have blogger-related activities at the SBL, both official and unofficial activities. They are face-time. While many bloggers do not come to these events (since there are hundreds of bloggers and only a couple to a few dozen come to the blogger events), most bloggers are not just sitting up curled with their computer on their bed all day. They are physically networking with people they have already networked with virtually. It is a solidification of a bond. Interestingly, I have two tendencies that I think I share with others: I am more likely seek out bloggers at the SBL to get a face and a voice and a physical presence to the person, and at the same time, I am more likely to read a blog of someone I have already met in person. It is a cycle that constantly feeds back into itself.

Perhaps soon we'll transition into a hybrid conference that is both physical and virtual--those who can physically and economically come will, but those who cannot will not be excluded and have a virtual presence.

As was noted in my first SBL session I attended that reviewed Guy Williams's new book on the Spirit World in the Pauline Epistles, we may have a new inflection of being somewhere in spirit.

This is just one of the many fruitful issues that came out of that single session--a rarity in the current climate of the proliferation of sections. I am sure that many other bloggers will blog about what they saw and heard and may want digital copies of the pictures that James McGrath showed.

If anything, the blogging section at the SBL inspired me to post again, which I have been doing so little lately.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Divine Horror: Ezekiel 20:26

The Bible is weird: this could be the subtitle of my introduction to biblical literature class. I have a tendency to point out those parts of the Bible that most people skim over because they are not particularly helpful for one's contemporary faith. There are these passages that, while overlooked most of the time in modern religious communities, when scrutinized and taken seriously shock the reader; remind the reader that these works are products of a different time and place.

I have been sort of collecting these passages this semester, and perhaps I will find some time to post some of the earlier ones I have discussed in class (Gen. 6:1-4; Exod. 4:24-26; most of 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 10, etc.). One such passage is for my class this friday. When reading Ezekiel's reasoning for the exile, which it is fruitful to compare to Isaiah's and Jeremiah's warnings, one finds that the problem is that the people have persistently and consistently not walked in God's ordinances and statutes (cf. Leviticus 18:1-5) and have not kept the sabbaths (the use is in the plural like in the Holiness writings). This problem was there since Egypt--that is, in Ezekiel 20, Ezekiel basically argues that there has not been a time when the Israelites actually did follow God's ordinances, statues, and properly revered God's sabbaths. This differs from the emphases in Jeremiah and Isaiah that the reason for (impending) destruction is lack of justice: not properly caring for the vulnerable in society, such as orphans, widows, and the oppressed. Although this surely can be included in Ezekiel's statutes and ordinances, the emphasis for Ezekiel tends to be more cultic: proper and improper worship. But in the process there is quite a difficult line:

and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the LORD. (Ezek. 20:26)

Ezekiel, as noted, is very close on most topics to the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), but on this point, compare Lev. 18:21 (see also Deut. 18:10):

You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.

It is unclear what offering one's child to Molech would be. Whether this is another deity or the LORD as king (Melech). In both passages, the practice offering one's child by fire (as a burnt offering) has a negative valuation. One might argue that "first-born" for Ezekiel is not one's own human children, but this would not explain why it is so horrifying. It takes the offering of the first-born sons (e.g., Exod. 22:29) very literally.

For Ezekiel, this burnt offering is a command from God; in Leviticus it is forbidden by God. While in Leviticus, this action would profane God's name, it is interesting to note that the reasoning behind God's actions in Ezekiel 20 throughout--the reason why God does not continually punish the Israelites--is for the sake of God's name. Thus while in Leviticus, offering one's children as a burnt offering profanes God, as a divine command in Ezekiel, it defiles the people.

So, let's run down the checklist for this one verse: God demands burnt offering of one's first-born child; God is trying to horrify; God is trying to defile through the very mechanisms of sacrifice. That is, sacrifice, which is supposed to remove one's ritual impurity and moral defilements is here the very means of that defilement (and again portrayed as a divine command).

These two too contrary passages end on the same Holiness note: "I am the LORD." It is a statement that punctuates the Holiness code; it is the exclamation point and the underlying powerful reason why one should obey. For the Ezekiel passage, this divinely inflicted horror is so that the people can actually KNOW that "I am the LORD." It is the ultimate expression of divine authority. God is demonstrating ultimacy by being beyond morality, ethics, and even purity and defilement. Horror demonstrates God's terrible power, instilling fear.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Most Important Archaeological Discovery!

Or at least archaeological argument: God drank beer! In a recent article in BAR. Here for the full article. Well, of course!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Gods We Stand by

I am rereading William James's Varieties of Religious Experience for my fall class Interpreting Religious Experience, and ran across this passage in his lecture on the "Value of Saintliness."

The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.

Spoken as a true pragmatist. This assertion of content that the popularity, "use," persistence of worship, etc., of any particular deity depends upon social circumstances of obligations and responsibilities between self and neighbor that make a society work reflects a pragmatic point of method: that religious issues of god, saintliness, etc., can be or can be best approached through social questions and standards. Together, they form a thesis that the divine, holy, and particularly the status of saintliness represent a distilled, idealized form of individual and social values.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Looking toward a New Year

I have been insanely busy lately. I have been finishing up my dissertation, and last week I finally distributed it. I have also taken a yearlong position at my alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University, and so have been working on my fall classes, packing, moving, etc. In the midst of all of this professional business, I am getting married next month. Nonetheless, I have just found a window of time to create my "new faculty bio" for IWU. If anyone has been wondering what I have been up to since I haven't been posting, you can get an appetizer here:

Jared Calaway (IWU Class of ’03) is excited to be returning to IWU as a visiting faculty member after pursuing his M.A. (2005), M.Phil. (2007), and Ph.D. (expected August 2010) in the History of Religions in Late Antiquity at Columbia University in New York City. For two years in a row (Fall 2005-Spring 2007) he was the Morton Smith Presidential Fellow at Columbia, which enabled him to travel through Greece and Italy. For the past two years, he has taught a yearlong literature course for Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, covering twenty-six works of literature from the Iliad to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. His dissertation investigates the interrelationship between sacred space and sacred time in ancient Jewish and Christian literature by tracing how the Sabbath and the Tabernacle variously come together in the Hebrew Bible, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. He has additionally co-authored a new translation and commentary on a late antique Coptic poem called The Thunder: Perfect Mind to be published this November by Palgrave. At IWU he will be joining the Religion Department and teaching “Religions of the World,” “Religious Experience,” and “Introduction to Biblical Literature.” He is looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, while getting to know some of the new.

That's what I have been, what I will be doing! And that's why I haven't been blogging much lately. If you have any suggestions for the courses I'll be teaching this fall, I would love to hear them. If you are around in the midwest, I would love to catch up sometime this academic year.

Monday, June 28, 2010

SBL and AAR Making Up

After a nasty break-up and trial separation, it seems the SBL and AAR have decided they want to be together after all. As a member of both organizations, I am happy to see this. This next year is going to be particularly ridiculous, since they are meeting in the same city--Atlanta--just a few weeks apart. We were already to meet together in San Francisco next year, but now we will also be meeting the following years in Chicago and Baltimore, which will be cold!

Here is the joint letter from Kent Richards and Jack Fitzmier, the presidents of the two organizations:

June 28, 2010

We are pleased to announce that on June 10, 2010, the Society of
Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion signed a Letter
of Intent that outlines an agreement to hold concurrent Annual
Meetings beginning in San Francisco in the fall of 2011. These
meetings will

Occur in the same city—though the venue will change from year to year;
Occur at the same time—the weekend before the US Thanksgiving holiday;
Feature a single, jointly managed Publishers/Software/Book Exhibit;
Feature a single, jointly managed Employment Center;
Feature distinct and separate AAR and SBL programs planned with open
communication between the organizations;
Encourage the organizations’ members to attend each other’s programs
and events at no additional cost;
Allow the organizations to pursue their unique, if sometimes
overlapping, missions;
Enhance cooperation, not competition, between the organizations.

The advertising for these conventions will use the city name, the
year, and will identify the SBL and AAR as hosts. For example, the
first of these meetings will be known as “Annual Meetings 2011 San
Francisco, hosted by the American Academy of Religion and the Society
of Biblical Literature.” This name will appear on the registration
gateway, on signage at the meetings, on promotional materials, and on
other common elements.

A Conventions Management Committee, consisting of the Executive
Directors and staff members from each organization, is developing
operating policies and procedures that expand on the considerable
detail that already exists in the Letter of Intent. Each year the
Committee will review the most recent meetings with an eye toward
making improvements in subsequent gatherings. Nine concurrent meetings
are being planned for 2011 through 2019. Beginning in 2013 the
organizations will begin operating on a seven-year planning horizon
that includes a mechanism by which the organizations can, on an annual
basis, extend the seven-year agreement for an additional year. Dates
and venues of the first three concurrent Annual Meetings are as

November 19-22, 2011 San Francisco
November 17-20, 2012 Chicago
November 23-26, 2013 Baltimore

We believe that concurrent meetings will serve the interests of our
members, will help to advance the many disciplines and areas of study
we represent, and will maintain and advance the critical inquiry that
characterizes the work of our societies. We invite you to join us in
building this exciting new future.


Jack Fitzmier
American Academy of Religion

Kent Richards
Society of Biblical Literature

Now we can be one of the largest conferences in the U.S. again behind the MLA.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hyksos in the News

It isn't everyday that the Hyksos, the foreign invading group that ruled ancient Egypt for a time makes the news, but there is an article in the Guardian about possibly finding their capital in Egypt using radar imaging:

An Austrian archaeological team has used radar imaging to determine the extent of the ruins of the 3,500-year-old one-time capital of Egypt's foreign occupiers, according to the country's antiquities department.

Egypt was ruled for a century from 1664-1569 BC by the Hyksos, a group of warriors from Asia – possibly Semitic in origin – whose summer capital, Avaris, was in the northern Delta area.

See the rest here.

Oldest Images of the Apostles Found in Rome

From BBC News:

Art restorers in Italy have discovered what are believed to be the oldest paintings of some of Jesus Christ's apostles.

The faces of Apostles Andrew, John, Peter and Paul were uncovered using new laser technology in a catacomb in Rome.

The paintings date from the second half of the 4th Century or the early 5th Century, the restorers and Vatican officials believe.

The images may have influenced later depictions of Christ's early followers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In the Mail

Today I received a copy of Amanda H. Podany's Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shapes the Ancient Near East from Oxford University Press.

Here is the product description:

Amanda Podany here takes readers on a vivid tour through a thousand years of ancient Near Eastern history, from 2300 to 1300 BCE, paying particular attention to the lively interactions that took place between the great kings of the day.

Allowing them to speak in their own words, Podany reveals how these leaders and their ambassadors devised a remarkably sophisticated system of diplomacy and trade. What the kings forged, as they saw it, was a relationship of friends-brothers-across hundreds of miles. Over centuries they worked out ways for their ambassadors to travel safely to one another's capitals, they created formal rules of interaction and ways to work out disagreements, they agreed to treaties and abided by them, and their efforts had paid off with the exchange of luxury goods that each country wanted from the other. Tied to one another through peace treaties and powerful obligations, they were also often bound together as in-laws, as a result of marrying one another's daughters. These rulers had almost never met one another in person, but they felt a strong connection--a real brotherhood--which gradually made wars between them less common. Indeed, any one of the great powers of the time could have tried to take over the others through warfare, but diplomacy usually prevailed and provided a respite from bloodshed. Instead of fighting, the kings learned from one another, and cooperated in peace.

A remarkable account of a pivotal moment in world history--the establishment of international diplomacy thousands of years before the United Nations--Brotherhood of Kings offers a vibrantly written history of the region often known as the "cradle of civilization."

I was attracted to it because I am interested in reading about ancient, particularly Bronze Age through Late Antiquity, relations, particularly trade routes, but diplomatic relations would also show up on my radar. The reason behind my interest is to consider the world of trade, diplomacy, etc., alongside the adaptation of particular stories or types of narratives from group to group, to see if there is a social and material underpinning to the circulation of stories. Of course, given that I am finishing up my dissertation this summer and preparing for three courses in the fall, I unfortunately will not be able to get to this book soon. But check back in around December or January and perhaps I'll have some thoughts on it then.

My Return to Illinois

Today I received my contract, and so can officially announce that I have received a visiting position at my alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University. The wheel has come full circle: I left a student and will return a teacher. I will be there for a year. So, for those of you in the midwest, come stop by while you can!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Temple of Living Pillars


La Nature est un temple où de vivant piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
-Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.

(Charles Baudelaire, "Correspondences," Les Fleurs du Mal)

This fantastic poem incites all of the senses, but perhaps mostly the most potent, memorable, and evanescent one of all: smell. It ranges from such sensuous activation to the rapture of the soul (les transports de l'esprit et des sens), all within the temple of living pillars that is nature. This temple is confusing (de confuses paroles) and dark (dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité), and yet familiar (regards familiers). It is beyond confusion and clarity, beyond light and darkness, encompassing them both (comme la nuit et comme la clarté). It is dense (des forêts de symboles) and vast, infinitesimal and infinite (ayant l'expansion des choses infinies). The second line, by the way, is where Victor Turner got the title for his book Forest of Symbols. Baudelaire's words, themselves, permeate like a sweet perfume in this natural temple, in this forest of symbols.

Monday, June 14, 2010

To Live in the Shadowy Realm of Dreams

All would be well
Could we but give us wholly to the dreams,
And get into their world that to the sense
Is shadow, and not linger wretchedly
Among substantial things; for it is dreams
That lift us to the flowing, changing world
That the heart longs for. What is love itself,
Even though it be the lightest of light above,
But dreams that hurry from beyond the world
To make low laughter more than meat and drink,
Though it but set us sighing? Fellow-wanderer,
Could we but mix ourselves into a dream,
Not in its image on the mirror!

(W.B. Yeats, The Shadowy Waters 177-89; 1906)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Standing in God's Holy Fire

Sailing to Byzantium


O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


(W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium," The Tower, 1928)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Slouching towards Bethlehem

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921)

I really do not have much to say to this amazing poem. The centrifugal force of the first stanza of the doubly turning gyre, the falcon flying from the falconer loosened from its earthly tether, anarchy, blood-dimmed tide that drowns all innocence, are all best encapsulated, I think, in the line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." The center spins and all spin chaotically away.

This stanza of chaos invokes a cosmic storm; the apocalyptic storm of the Second Coming. It is a chaos that seeks meaning; a chaos that seeks revelation. Even if that revelation is death and destruction, it is foreseen death and destruction in the sight of eternity--the divine plan of the Second Coming. That the Egyptian sphinx is the spirit of the world would indeed be a vexing image. It is a vexing figure: the sphinx who tells riddles is itself a riddle. This makes the world itself a riddle, but it also makes this world a ruin. A ruin has two sides: it is incomplete due to the ravages of time, but it also has endured the ravages of time. The sphinx as the world spirit is an enduring image that counterposes the instability of the first stanza. Both, however, are unsettled as a new beast slouches toward Bethlehem. The new beast born in Jesus' birthplace. A nightmare to be brought up. A violent thing that has taken its time to come to its consummation. Slouching may be slovenly, but it is also unhurried. The rough beast will work at its own pace to bring a violent end to the chaos by chaos.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Clouds about the Fallen Sun

These are the Clouds

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.

(W. B. Yeats, "These are the Clouds," The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910)

I don't know why, but I found this poem particularly beautiful. Published in 1910 it anticipates the sense of brokenness and fallenness to permeate literature and philosophy after World War I (see, e.g., Woolf and Proust) and especially World War II (do I need to say more than Paul Celan?). Yet as an Irish poet, Yeats acutely sensed imposition from foreign powers, living in a country without self-governance but with great local ferment (to understate). But such historical circumstances may or may not have prompted this sense of brokenness, which, with all great and insightful works, speak beyond the moment of their writing.

First there is a poignancy in the opening couplet. There is an ominous tone with clouds gathering about the sun, as one slips into grayness and darkness when light should have been possible. There is not a full storm at play, but the gathering clouds simply shut out the light and who knows when the sun will shine through again, when the sun shall re-open his burning eye and bring light back to us. The repetition of the couplet at the end of the poem creates a sense of sadness, the end of poem, at first reading, shows no progress from the beginning. The clouds gather; the sun's eye is shut; there is no light. Its return is left for the future, but "although it be for children that you sigh" somberly indicates that the end of the darkness is not in sight for one's own and even for one's children's lifetimes. It seems endless.

I have difficulty reading the middle portion's tone. The weak lay hand on what the strong has done bringing it tumbling down. Is this the clouds? Is the "majesty" of the sun the equivalent of the strong? The clouds and weak then associated with discord and the majestic sun and strong associated with the previous (but now lost) unison? It seems so. Thus sun=strength=unity and clouds=weak=discord. It is with the next lines that difficulties really come in my mind. Since now that the strong's achievements have been brought down and the sun's majesty is shaded, "all things at one common level lie." This line seems to prompt eulogy: "And therefore, friend, if your great race were run / And these things came, so much the more thereby / Have you made greatness your companion." Vocatively addressing "friend," who has run his "great race" and these things came--these things being the breaking down of the strong and the hiding of the sun and the sowing of discord and the destruction of unity--his friend has made "greatness" is companion. How is this so? If the weak has brought down the strong and all things at common level lie, is it that the weak is now strong, the last shall now be first--or to be totally without hierarchy the weak now has access to greatness. The tumbling of the edifice of the strong that leads to temporary discord (and one whose end is not quite in sight) is also a moment of opportunity. In this second thought, the friend who has achieved greatness does not sigh from the grief of the children's grim future, but his current "sigh" represents the great effort and race that secures their future by gathering the clouds and forcing the majestic sun (cipher for monarchy?) to turn its scorching heat elsewhere. As such, while at first glance the gathering clouds seem somber and sad, it is rather hopeful at the same time if those clouds provide shade from debilitating heat and if WE are those clouds. Even though Yeats has given the exact same couplet at the beginning and end, by the end it has acquired a very different (even opposing) valuation and feeling.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

The classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has not been out of print since its publication, turns fifty this year with fifty parties and events set up across the country in celebration. See here:
Few novels have achieved both the mass popularity and the literary cachet of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book was originally published in 1960 by J. B. Lippincott and Company (now part of HarperCollins), won a Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since. It has sold nearly one million copies a year and in the past five years has been the second-best-selling backlist title in the country, beaten out only by the novel “The Kite Runner.”

Learning from Other Faiths: Article by the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (number 14), Tenzin Gyatso, has an op-ed article in the NYTimes. It isn't every day that you see an article in the Times by a world religious leader. He writes on religious intolerance and the need to learn from other faiths while remaining faithful to one's own:
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

Interestingly (at least for me), he says he learned this truth from the Trappist monk and Columbian Thomas Merton:
An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

In what follows he traces the thread of compassion across major religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Islam), emphasizing the necessity of personal contact with people of different faiths to learn about how their traditions emphasize compassion and the inspire mutual compassion for one another. When pulling on their resources of compassion, they can work together to reduce the suffering of those around the world:
Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

It is an interesting article. I may have the opportunity to teach an introduction to the religions of the world next year, and wonder if this might be a good way to start it off as religions increasingly come into contact due to globalization and ongoing migrations.

For a fairly negative reaction to this article, see John Hobbins here. Hobbins characterizes the article as a "strong misreading." I think this characterization is overly strong. Hobbins simply and rightly emphasizes context and faithfulness to a particular faith tradition--something that I did not see the Dalai Lama denying, but, rather, promoting in the article; I read the article as finding intersections among traditions while holding to one's own: the point is finding platforms for dialogue across traditions while remaining true to one's own. Only by engaging on those platforms--whether it is the Dalai Lama's point about compassion or something else--does one see how things are framed differently in different contexts. As Max Müller said about the study of religion, whoever knows one, knows none. I think the point of misreading is different: compassion, although found in various religious traditions and framed differently in different contexts of those traditions, is Tenzin Gyatso's own hobby horse. It is clearly the platform of dialogue set on his own terms. What would the platform if a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu leader set the terms?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Peace Between Heaven and Hell: The Harmonizing of Beauty

So, I've talked about the Symbiosis of Heaven and Hell with Blake and Bulgakov, and the Hellish Heaven and Heavenly Hell with Blake and Calvino. Let's give Blake a little rest and turn to Yeats!

The Rose of Peace

If Michael, leader of God's host
When Heaven and Hell are met,
Looked down on you from Heaven's door-post
He would his deeds forget.

Brooding no more upon God's wars
In his divine homestead,
He would go weave out of the stars
A chaplet for your head.

And all folk seeing him bow down,
And white stars tell your praise,
Would come at least to God's great town,
Led on by gentle ways;

And God would bid His warfare cease,
Saying all things were well;
And softly make a rosy peace,
A peace of Heaven with Hell.

W.B. Yeats, "The Rose of Peace," The Rose, 1893)

Yeats transfixes Michael, God's archangelic general, in a domestic moment. He does not stand on the field of battle, but in his heavenly home. A homely and very physical home: "door-post," "divine homestead," "God's great town." In the contemplation on the unnamed rose, thoughts of wars become a garland of stars. The greatest angel, the heavenly bodies, bow down before the earthly rose. As aesthetics overcome ideology, it is by peace, by "gentle ways" that people come to God's fold, to his "great town." Beauty is greater than the Manichean fight of light vs. darkness, good vs. evil: it is all beautiful when the "vs." is removed; when the "vs" is removed, it is peaceful. When it is peaceful, that is when the "folk" will be impressed. When heaven ceases its quarrel with hell, finally all things will be "well." The line "saying all things were well" is an interesting twist on Genesis 1. In Gen. 1:1-2:3, when God creates something, he often ends the creation by saying that it was "good" or saying it was "very good." The shift from "good" to "well," from goodness to wellness emphasizes the health and wholeness of all things--they are harmoniously working together, unlike in the disease of war that tears down and infects, making all things ill. In beauty, one moves beyond good and evil to well and ill.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Imitation

But imitation requires not only the absence of any unconquerable originality but also a relative fineness of ear which enables one first of all to discern what one is afterwards to imitate.

(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Famously, since Plato and Aristotle, art has been defined as the imitation of life or nature. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, fascinatingly, reversed the direction of imitation, saying in his portrayal of Actaeon's transformation by Diana into a stag that is torn apart by his own dogs that nature imitates art--he is speaking of the rock formations around Diana's pool that are in the form of arches--the famous Roman architectural feature. Dante, on the Ledge of Pride in his Purgatorio, similarly, depicts an ecphrasis that is so real that nature could not compete with it. Art imitates life; life imitates art; it is an endless circle of mimesis. This is a fairly creative view of mimesis; Proust, however, takes a more ambivalent point. Imitation lacks originality. In high modernism, however, there is a cult of originality that ultimately is not original, as people clamor to imitate the artists who are "original." This is not a part of the loop of mimesis between life, art, and nature, but an exaggerated offshoot in which art imitates art. Or, in what he speaks of, is the circulation of particular mannerisms and trends among the upper classes. The other side of this ambivalence, however, is discernment. One' ability to discriminate what to imitate versus what not to imitate: this, it seems, is a useful social skill. It can be directed toward toadyism, for shameless self-promotion, or just surviving the shifting waves of society. The real issue, however, is whether or not "originality" is an illusion. What seems original is probably just the reorganization of partially imitated elements combined into new configurations. If originality is an illusion, creative mimesis is all there is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two Phrases that Should be Banned from Scholarship

I have returned to working on a book review that I have been dreading--partly because I am now receiving some pressure from the journal to do it. And in the same chapter the author uses two phrases that I find jarring.

Phrase 1: "The burden of proof lies with those who..."

This phrase always pertains to the position one opposes. It assumes that the consensus lies with you and that others must argue against it. It also indicates that you are not going to provide an argument yourself. To say that the "burden of proof lies" with whoever opposes your assumptions is just scholarly laziness, saying you will not (or perhaps cannot) effectively demonstrate your assumption. The burden of proof lies with whoever is making an argument, meaning, it lies with all of us.

Phrase 2: "The exception that proves the rule."

No, it is just a plain old exception. That it might stand out among a great deal of evidence, making it striking by comparison can be duly noted. But, especially for those of us who study antiquity in which we have very little surviving evidence and the evidence that survives most often reflects the concerns of later individuals and communities who transmitted them, omitting documents or even destroying documents or just failing to copy documents that did not fit their own perspective, it is not surprising to find large scale agreements on some issues in the ancient evidence with occasional exceptions that broke through. This, however, is not evidence that what we have is an exception that proves the rule. It is a surviving scrap that barely made it that might reflect a much broader perspective that was later forgotten or suppressed as its supporting similar evidence was lost.

Both phrases should be thrown out of serious scholarship. Neither is a form of careful argumentation; both are rhetorical ways to dismiss alternative viewpoints or dismiss inconvenient evidence.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

From the NYTIMES, a discussion of what a philosopher is, from the silly to sublime.

See more commentary (which refers to other blogger responses) here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Paroxysm of Patriotism": Religious Symbols on Public Land

Stanley Fish writes a fascinating opinion piece in the NYTimes on a recent Supreme Court decision concerning a Cross used in a memorial on public land in the Mojave desert. The argument that won the day was to argue that the cross did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was a secular rather than a religious symbol (something, I should note, is similar to why French students can wear cross necklaces to school, but other religious symbols are excluded). The irony is quite apparent:

Notice what this paroxysm of patriotism had done: it has taken the Christianity out of the cross and turned it into an all-purpose means of marking secular achievements. (According to this reasoning the cross should mark the winning of championships in professional sports.) It is one of the ironies of the sequence of cases dealing with religious symbols on public land that those who argue for their lawful presence must first deny them the significance that provokes the desire to put them there in the first place.

It has become a formula: if you want to secure a role for religious symbols in the public sphere, you must de-religionize them, either by claiming for them a non-religious meaning as Kennedy does here, or, in the case of multiple symbols in a park or in front of a courthouse, by declaring that the fact of many of them means that no one of them is to be taken seriously; they don’t stand for anything sectarian; they stand for diversity. So you save the symbols by leeching the life out of them. The operation is successful, but the patient is dead.

At the end of the piece, Fish claims that he has no problems with the use of symbols of public land, but does have problems with the disingenuous reasoning used to keep them there.

UPDATE: the cross has been stolen! This is a crazy case. See here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Titular Editing

My old banner subtitle of "my musings on antiquity, religion, and other phenomena and ephemera," while perhaps complete, since all things perhaps fall under "other phenomena and ephemera" still seemed incomplete to me given the many postings I have done on Proust, Shakespeare, etc--basically the increased occurrence of non-antique literature. Thus, I have included "literature" into my subtitle to represent more accurately the content you might find here--still heavily biblically and anciently oriented, but inclusive of a great deal of musings on other literature.

Thank you for reading!

Hamlet's Last Words

I confess I never really thought of Hamlet's last words until I watched the PBS production of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company's performance. They take out the aftermath of Fortinbras picking up the shattered pieces of Denmark, and end simply with Horatio's words: "Good night, sweet prince, / and fights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Yet just before this, Hamlet's final words just before death are quite strange, eerie, interesting:

"The rest is silence" (V.ii).

The rest is silence. As in the interview for the PBS special, the actor who plays Hamlet says he is going off into oblivion. It is as if he has gotten his answer to the problem in the "to be or not to be" speech. For, indeed, it is the fear of things to come, the "undiscover'd country" that makes cowards of us all--that is, if living is cowardly. I am struck, as a specialist in the study of religion, in this particular phrasing--"the rest is silence." Indeed, the interpretation of oblivion may be preferred, may be most correct. But, there is another way to read it. Silence, indeed, need not mean oblivion--it need not be Lear's "nothing." Silence could be a more poignant word for peace. After the noise of life, a particularly neurotic one in Hamlet's case, silence/peace. Not the noise of the inferno, but perhaps not the choirs of heaven either: a completely unimagined, unimaginable silent peace; not oblivious nothing but superfluous silence. I am reminded, however, of ancient traditions of holy silence. For example, it is said (in the Letter of Aristeas) that the entire officiation in the temple is done in silence. It is as if silence is the necessary auditory posture before God. In the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a Hermetic work, an adept ascending through the heavenly spheres, observes the angels singing songs in silence. This paradox of songs and silence also appears in the work found with the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, depicting heavenly praise by the heavenly host on the Sabbath. Silence, in fact, is often associated with the most holy and most heavenly, as if silence were the result of perfect harmony. Was Shakespeare tapping into something of the silence of an afterlife of rest? I mostly doubt it. But I do wonder...especially when we reread the second word of "the rest is silence."

As readers we have been assuming that "rest" means "what remains." But what if it means something more like "repose." The rest, the cessation of work, is silence, itself a synonym of rest. In this reading, "the rest is rest." It is a tautology, something the opposite of Lear's "nothing" because it is complete in and of itself. We should note that in the ancient Jewish tradition, particularly prominent in Rabbinical writings and thereafter the Sabbath--the day of rest--is a precursor of the world to come; that is, the world to come is an everlasting rest. This did carry over into Christianity--for example, St. Augustine's Confessions and City of God both end with a meditation of heavenly rest based upon an exegesis of Gen. 1:1-2:3. The afterlife as "rest" is such a truism these days that we abbreviate it as "R.I.P." Rest is peace. Rest is silence. Perhaps complete nothingness, complete oblivion would be best for Hamlet, but his last words have a doubled edge. It could mean that the "undiscover'd country" is no country at all, that it is nothing--a fairly radical statement. Or it could be tapping into the extensive Jewish and Christian associations of the afterlife with rest, peace, and silence. It is up to the audience to decide, and that ambiguity in phrasing that could go either way is, indeed, how Shakespeare's speech continues to live with us, how it speaks to so many different people of such different dispositions. It, it seems, never rests. It is never silent.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

From Self to Society

People foolishly imagine that the broad generalities of social phenomena afford an excellent opportunity to penetrate further into the human soul; they ought, on the contrary, to realise that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that they might have a chance of understanding those phenomena.

(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Born Again with the Weather, with Proust

Although it was simply a Sunday in autumn, I had been born again, life lay intact before me, for that morning, after a succession of mild days, there had been a cold fog which had not cleared until nearly midday: and a change in the weather is sufficient to create the world and ourselves anew. Formerly, when the wind howled in my chimney, I would listen to the blows which it struck on the iron trap with as keen an emotion as if, like the famous chords with which the Fifth Symphony opens, they had been the irresistible calls of a mysterious destiny. Every change in the aspect of nature offers us a similar transformation by adapting our desires so as to harmonise with the new form of things. The mist, from the moment of my awakening, had made of me, instead of the centrifugal being which one is on fine days, a man turned in on himself, longing for the chimney corner and the shared bed, a shivering Adam in quest of a sedentary Eve, in this different world.

(Marcel Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Reborn by the changing of the weather leads to something else. It is an exterior change that leads to interiority and a search for a new Eden. But it is not just weather, it is adapting to new forms. As it turns out, these new forms turn out to be literature. New forms of literature are new because they create new associations between things, associations heretofore unseen. When this new literature shows new associations between things, we ourselves are transformed as we adapt to these new associations. This, however, means something about literature--that is is not static, that it progresses. In fact, it is a different perspective of art in the association between works of art:

And I was led to wonder whether there was any truth in the distinction which we are always making between art, which is no more advanced now than in Homer's day, and science with its continuous progress. Perhaps, on the contrary, art was in this respect like science; each new original writer seemed to me to have advanced beyond the stage of his immediate predecessor; and who was to say whether in twenty years' time, when I should be able to accompany without strain or effort the newcomer of today, another might not emerge in the face of whom the present one would go the way of Bergotte? (ibid.)

Bergotte is the writer the narrator adored in his youth, but now has found new forms of art that show new associations between things that build upon, advance beyond his youthful favorite author. That new author, in turn, shall be surpassed as new associations between things are discovered or, better yet, imagined. In reading something new, by seeing new associations, we are reborn as we incorporate these new associations into ourselves and see them in our own lives.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the Symbiosis of Heaven and Hell

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell
(William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

This past week I just finished up my Literature class by reading Mikhail Bulgakov's amazing Master and Margarita, which happens to be one of my favorite books. One thing often commented on about the novel is the prominent solar and lunar imagery: the sun and the moon align the scenes as they alternate between 20th century Stalinist Russia and first century Jerusalem. The sun is often portrayed as merciless, unbearable, taking away one's breath. The moon allows one to breath, but can be deceptive, creating shadows in the dark. Yet, considering the dark, in the end Night personified strips away all illusions--it is as if illusion and deception were used in order to reach deeper truths. For example, when the devil, Woland, comes to town, he stages a theatrical magical performance, using magic (the real thing) in order to discern the inner truth about humanity--humanity's greed--but, interestingly, also humanity's ultimate mercy.

One might want to suppose that we have a series of opposing binaries between light and darkness, sun and moon, and finally Yeshua (as Jesus is called in this novel) and Woland. But that turns out not fully to be the case--neither Woland nor Yeshua are particularly associated with the merciless sun. They both have strong connections with the moon. When it comes to light and darkness--with Yeshua associated with light (and compassionate, merciful light, like the moon?) and Woland with darkness (in which that darkness shines), they seem to work together to bring deceptive and revelatory light in the darkness. Woland speaks to Levi Matvei (Yeshua's disciple), who shows up in Moscow, allowing the Moscow and Jerusalem chapters to blur, in which Levi addresses Woland--who, by now, has becomes somewhat of a sympathetic character--quite rudely, calling him "Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of the Shadows," and wishing him evil. To this Woland responds:

You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living things beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid. (trans. Burgin and Tiernan O'Connor)

Woland notes that perhaps light could exist without darkness, but it would be naked light without any life. As long as there is any life, the light hits it and creates a shadow; and therein lies Woland. Darkness and shadows will exist as long as life exists. Interestingly, it turns out that the light needs the shadows as well. The reason Levi is there is that Yeshua (or "he") requests, very nicely, that Woland grant peace and rest to the Master (who wrote a novel about Pilate that Yeshua really liked). Woland grants Yeshua's request. Woland and Yeshua, it seems, work together, and work well together, as interdependent beings. Woland exposes human vices and executes divine justice; Yeshua acknowledges the inherent goodness of humanity and grants mercy. (Blake's note of the passivity of Good resembles Yeshua, who recognizes the inherent goodness of all humans, who is also ultimately passive--Yeshua tells Pilate that all forms of power are violence; that in the kingdom of light to come, there will be no power at all and, therefore, no violence.) Each, as Woland says earlier in the novel when Margarita begs mercy for someone suffering eternal torment, belong to their own "department" and do what is expected of them in their respective "departments" of justice and mercy, but do not infringe on the other's territory. Both are necessary and both need each other. There is a great deal that resembles Manichean doctrine here, but, I would note, for at least Bulgakov's novel, light and darkness are not in opposition, but excepting the stupidity of Levi Matvei work together.

God Made in Our Image

There is an ancient truism that is the inversion of the Genesis statement that God made humans his God's image that humans always image God in their own image, and that if horses could speak, they would speak of God as a horse (I do not quite recall the reference off-hand, but if someone would like to supply it in the comments, it would be much appreciated).

But such truisms, however true, seem trite to just speak it outright, and so to help make the point, I have enlisted a poet (W.B. Yeats):

The Indian Upon God

I passed along the water's edge below the humid trees,
My spirit rocked in evening light, the rushes round my knees,
My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace
All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase
Each other round in circles, and heard the eldest speak:
Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak
Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky.
The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from his eye.

I passed a little further on and heard a lotus talk:
Who made the world and ruleth it, He hangeth on a stalk,
For I am in His image made, and all this tinkling tide
Is but a sliding drop of rain between His petals wide.

A little way within the gloom a roebuck raised his eyes
Brimful of starlight, and he said: The Stamper of the Skies,
He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He
Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?

I passed a little further on and heard a peacock say:
Who made the grass and made the worms and made my feather gay,
He is a monstrous peacock, and He waveth all the night
His languid tail above us, lit with myriad spots of light.

(W.B. Yeats, "The Indian Upon God," Crossways; italics original)

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Foreign Body

It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.

(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

In his essay, "On the Power of the Imagination," Montaigne gives examples of psychosomaticism: basically the physical manifestations of a robust imagination--how the imagination affects and transforms our body and bodily states as well as society, from the realm of male impotence (a psychological issue with measurable effects) to religion (belief in spirits, ghosts, saints, and gods/God). Proust, by contrast, seems to identify the self wholly with the mind, our minds are the "we" and our bodies are the "them." Nonetheless, there remains a psychosomatic trace--the great chain. It does remind me a bit of the ancient Greek notion of the body as a prison; here it is our ball and chain. But it is a quiet chain until sickness disrupts it, sending reverberations down it to the mind, reminding the mind of its own vulnerability and of its own limitations: language. Language allows the mind to express itself (notably through the body: the tongue, the mouth, the lips, the throat, not to mention non-verbal communication). Even if the body is the instrument of communication to other minds, it does not understand this language nor does the mind understand the body. Even as the body is the mediator to other minds, another mind must be our mind's mediator with our own body: the medical doctor. The physician has learned the language of the body and acts as the interpreter between the mind and the body. But the physician also belongs to the world of the mind, and so her or his understanding of body language is not that of a native speaker--the physician may miss certain nuances or inflections apparent to a native speaker; thus, cannot be fully trusted:

For, medicine being a compendium of the successive and contradictory mistakes of medical practitioners, when we summon the wisest of them to our aid the chances are that we may be relying on a scientific truth the error of which will be recognised in a few years' time. So that to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not of greater folly still, for from this mass of errors a few truths have in the long run emerged. (ibid.)

There are only two follies available to the mind vis-a-vis the body: to believe medicine is folly; to not believe is greater folly still. To reach truth by error reminds me of Razumikhin's statement in Crime & Punishment of finding truth through lying. Or even in the Master & Margarita where the Devil (Woland) uses evil in the service of ultimate good (that is my reading of Woland, anyway--and frankly I do not find him very evil at all). Sometimes the best way to reach our desired goal is to walk in the opposite direction of it with an untrustworthy interpreter. That is the means to health, but, it seems, in health is the means to forgetfulness of one's chains.

Brown and Clegg Hiking their Leg

From BBC. Most awkward and yet humorous picture of the day: why do both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown both have the same leg in the air at the same time? It is like both are doing balancing acts while David Cameron puffs his cheeks and looks off skyward.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Online Coptic Resources

AWOL (Ancient World Online) has posted on a site Coptica that gives a great wealth of digitized Coptic material collected together, including free unicode fonts and digitized manuscripts. It will prove to be an invaluable resource for those of us interested in Coptic literature and language. I will also place this site in my sidebar.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Hamlet

I am excited about the new filmed version of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company that premiered this evening on PBS. It has Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius. Here is the info on the Great Performances site where it will soon be available in its entirety.

I really liked the use of mirrors in the production, particularly broken mirrors (a broken self?).

Judy Redman's article in the latest JBL

I know a lot of other bloggers have spoken about this, and I am not going to say much, except READ Judy Redman's article on memory in psychological research as it bears upon the gospels. It is quite thought-provoking and, frankly, a breath of fresh air on what seem to become rather stale debates.

Just one completely unimportant note: Her discussion of schema reminded me of Albert Lord's definition of "theme" as something of a standard outline to fill in with detail (with each new remembering for Redman; with each new performance for Parry/Lord). She does speak of Lord briefly to discuss the memory of trained tradents, although I think I read Lord a little differently. Whereas she indicates the oral tradents' usage of verbatim speech--what Lord would call the Formulae--my reading of Lord (which is something he highly emphasizes in his introduction to the Singer of Tales) is that the moment of performance is itself the moment of composition. The entire narrative is not repeated verbatim, but constantly changes from context to context in length, in elaboration, etc. Certain formulae may be remembered verbatim (but these are limited to repeated clauses, like "rosy-fingered dawn," "manslaughtering Hektor," "godlike Akhilleus," etc.), but the smaller units of narrative, the particular imagery used in simile, and even larger chunks of narrative change with each new performance, since each new performance is a new composition. This is neither here nor there, however, for Redman's main point, since the earliest "earwitnesses" as Redman calls them were hardly highly trained bards.

New York as Babel in Reverse

Or perhaps it is a veritable Noah's ark of language. New York has become a refuge for dying languages. According to a recent New York Times article, New York may be home to around 800 distinct languages! Different languages from pockets in Eastern Europe, African tribes, and what might interest biblicists...Aramaic! Mandaic!
In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign
languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic,
Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian
Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan
or Tajikistan), Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands), Irish Gaelic,
Kashubian (from Poland), indigenous Mexican languages, Pennsylvania
Dutch, Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland) and Romany (from the
Balkans) and Yiddish.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Ideal Introductory Literature Course

Today in my Literature Humanities class, we were a bit reflective, reflecting over the year and critiquing our syllabus from the year. There was much catharsis, I think, in this discussion. There were several issues raised, but the root of much frustration with the syllabus is that there are simply too many works on it (other issues are that it is too western-focused, too androcentric, too historicist--the last refers to the structure or sequencing). And so this evening, I have begun to reflect what my ideal introductory literature course would be like. What if we started from scratch?

I decided that my ideal course would be one in which we would read a single work for the entire semester in great detail intertwining our close readings with the various approaches that have been taken in studying literature (formal, Marxist, feminist, Freudian/Lacanian, historicist, new historicist, etc.), skills, theoretical approaches, and methods of reading and writing that would then be transferable to other works. In fact, everyone would write papers using these skills, methods, theoretical positions on other works and presenting them to the class (that is where the diversity of literature would come in). That one work could be most anything....almost. Many may not be complex enough to sustain a semester's reading and the various approaches of reading. And this is where my curiosity set in. I have asked my class the following question and asked them to think on it a bit: if you had to choose any work of literature in the world (whether it was on Columbia's Lit Hum syllabus or not) to read for an entire semester, what would it be? And why?

OR: If you simply object to this ideal course, what would your ideal course be?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Being Born Circumcised

A long while back, I posted on how Jubilees portrays Angels as being created already circumcised. These pre-circumcised angels mirrored Israel, much like they mirror them in things like Sabbath observance, etc. It turns out, however, that pre-circumcision is not limited to angels! According to Genesis Rabbah, which I have been slowly working through, Noah's son, Shem, was born already circumcised:

Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Surely Japheth was the eldest? [Shem, however, is written] first because he was [more] righteous [than the others]; also because he was born circumcised, the Holy One, blessed be He, set His name particularly upon him; [other reasons for his priority are that] Abraham was to arise from him, he was the minister in the High Priesthood, and because the Temple would be built on his territory.

(Gen. Rab. 26.3; trans. Freedman)

The passage tries to explain Shem's priority given Japheth being elderly--I should wonder, however, given that Ham is the most accursed in the story, why his name comes second and not last? The reasons for Shem's priority: more righteous, he's pre-cut (and, therefore, God set His name on him), Abraham's ancestor, a high priest, and his future territory would have the temple. Two of these deal with covenant (pre-circumcised and Abraham), and three the temple/cult (Name, high priest, and temple). I say the name is related to the temple because of Deuteronomy, wherein the future temple is where God will cause his Name to dwell, and the fact that the Name--the tetragrammaton--was inscribed on the headdress of the high priest. To have God's name set on you is to represent God on earth to the people. He receives this name, however, because he comes pre-circumcised; thus, the covenantal and temple issues are causally connected. What does it mean, however, to be pre-circumcised, especially at this moment before circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of the covenant? My guess would be chosen-ness; to be born circumcised pre-circumcision is to be especially chosen (chosen for God and chosen as God's representative). I don't know if the Rabbis speculated on angelic phalli, but if they thought of them in terms of Jubilees (a big if), this would make Shem like one of the angels.