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The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — IDF terminology and the Gaza conflict, explanations of Exodus, an IDF video, Megillah 10b and the koan “with God on our side” / “with God on all sides” ]
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photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire

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I’m curious.

The IDF calls today’s Israeli operation in Gaza “Operation Pillar of Defense” in English, but as John Cook points out in Gawker, uses the term Hebrew term “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew.

There’s a great deal of interest here, apart from the difference between their use of non-Biblical terminology in English and Biblical terminology in Hebrew. One point that catches my ear, a poet being a poet, is that the phrase “Pillar of Cloud” is in fact only one half of a double reference…

Thus in Exodus 13.21-22 we read:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.

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There are various ways of understanding the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only one pillar —

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud… [Exodus 14.24]

which is called a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, perhaps simply because we are speaking of theophany — the Divine Presence made visible — perhaps because smoke from a brazier is more visible in daylight and flames at night — perhaps because as Hans Goedicke, then chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, suggested, the source of both fire and smoke was the eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE.

The difference in worldviews behind those explanations alone is a matter of considerable interest.

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Linguistically, however — and this is where the poet being a poet comes in — there are two pillars, and I have to wonder whether the name “Pillar of Fire” is being saved for a later and perhaps more impressive (“shock and awe”) operation, or — in line with the “by day and by night” distinction — refers to the covert side of the same op?

Not that anyone would be likely to give me that information, or that I’d have any use for it if they did.

But the Biblical phrasing is powerful, and “Pillar of Defense” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — besides, cloud and fire go together in Hebrew in much the same way smoke and mirrors do in English.

Of the three choices, I’d have gone with “Pillar of Fire” myself.

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An IDF spokesperson, in a response to Cook’s Gawker article, claimed:

I think that every example of Bible quotes you cited has defensive connotations, rather than “vengeful.”

One of those quotes is Exodus 14:24, which I quoted above but will now give in full, along with verse 25:

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

I think calling that “defensive” is a bit one-sided, but on the other of the two hands in question, so is calling it “vengeful”.

The Israelites saw themselves in the larger context as escaping Egyptian oppression, the Egyptians obviously considered themselves under attack in the short term — just as surely as the people of Gaza must feel under attack by the oppressive Israelis today, while the Israelis clearly feel under attack by terroristic Hamas and its rockets. But hey, the IDF spokesman only offered his explanation that the Pillar of Cloud and Defense was “defensive” as “Just my two cents”…

FWIW, those two verses from Exodus sound just a little like Quran 33.26:

And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything.

That’s an ayat that has always interested me, because of the use of the word “terror” found in a number of translations including this one, by AJ Arberry — others have “awe” or “panic”, but “terror” is interesting in the context of its contemporary usage.

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Here’s the current strike counter strike in two tweets:

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Okay, let’s get as close to visceral as modern technological warfare permits. After the recent truce was broken and numerous rockets fired into Israel, the IDF fired a missile that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and quickly put the video feed up on YouTube:

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People are killing and getting killed. Should that be a matter for concern, or delight?

The narrative from which the IDF drew the name of their campaign in Gaza is taken from that of Israel’s escape from Egypt in Exodus, which also includes the parting of the waters and destruction of the Egyptian army:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided…. [Exodus 14.19-21]

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [Exodus 14.24-27]

Here again we see an instance of what I have called the two-fold logic of scriptures: In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, R. Johanan tells us:

The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

to which R. Eleazar responds:

He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.

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To my mind, what we’re looking at here is a global koan: the immediate and eternal paradox of life and death.

But more on koans shortly.

Book Review: Lords of the Sea by John R. Hale

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale 

“I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.” – Themistocles

Nautical archaeologist Dr. John R. Hale, an expert on bronze age shipbuilding and seafaring, has written a delightful and robust popular history of the navy of ancient Athens, but more importantly, a poignant political history of the Athenian navy’s  intrinsic relationship to radical Democracy and Empire.  A page turner with enough detail about triremes and warfare in the Aegean to leave you crying “The Sea! The Sea!”,  Lords of the Sea will be enjoyed by naval buffs and philo-Hellenes alike.

As you would expect, there is much in Lords of the Sea about the design, construction and care of triremes, Piraeus and the Long Walls, the shipsheds at Zea Harbor, the financing of the Athenian navy, trierarchy, naval tactics, rowers and rowing, superstitions of Athenian sailors on campaign, the deforestation of Athens for ship timber, comparisons with Spartan, Persian and Macedonian naval prowess and the great sea battles of the ancient world. Plenty, in fact, to keep naval aficionados happy while reading Lords of the Sea and all of which I am spectacularly unqualified to comment upon. I can say that in regard to ancient navies, I learned much that was new to me.

What was of greater relevance to me was Hale’s major theme of the political nature of the Athenian navy. That the imperial glory and thalassocracy was irrevocably bound up with democracy itself and bitterly opposed by the wealthy, would-be, oligarchs who consistently preferred a much diminished Athens they controlled as Sparta’s vassals to a democratic Athenian empire where they shared power with the people:

….The resumption of work on the Long Walls jolted Athens’ oligarchs into action. A small group of upper-class citizens still hoped to destroy the radical democracy. These men feared that once Athens was permanently and inseparably linked to its navy by the Long Walls, the common people would never be unseated from their rule. Before the walls had been completed, the oligarchs sent secret messages to a Spartan army that was at that moment encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica. The oligarchs invited the Spartans to attack Athens, promising to assist in the overthrow of the current regime. In their own minds, these men were patriots, pledged to restore the ancestral consitution.

Traitors are always heroic in their own minds.

Hale was a student of Donald Kagan, whom he credits with inspiring him toward an investigation of the naval prowess of Athens, however in covering the history of Athens, including the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Hale is more evenhanded in his assessments than Kagan. The  faction of oligarchs come off quite badly, except for the rising to the occasion of the Areopagus, patriotism and sacrifice is to be found  by Hale primarily in the demos, especially the thetes and newly freed and enfranchised slaves who rose to the call to defend the city in the hours of Athens’ maximum  danger. However, the demos in the Assembly were not without fault; rule by the people also proved to be impetuous, arrogant, capricious toward Athenian generals and cruel toward allies and enemies alike. The Athenian empire was, in short,  afflicted with hubris and this caused their downfall.

Hale ties both democracy and Athens’ unparalleled cultural creativity to thalassocracy. When the political will to maintain Athenian naval dominance and independence as a power faded among the Athenian upper-classes, the spirit of oligarchy ignominiously surrendered Athens to a foreign king, despite a mighty navy and eagerly betrayed their own countrymen:

….The Assembly sent Phocion and Demades and Xenocrates, the head of the Academy, to ask Antipater [ Alexander the Great”s regent and successor ]  about terms: a war hero, an orator, and a philosopher to negotiate the fate of a once-great city. Antipater demanded a payment of indemnity equal to the full cost of the war, the handing over of Demosthenes and other enemies of Macedon, and the evacuation of Samos. The thetes of the demos, defined as all citizens with a net worth of less than two thousand drachmas, were to be expelled from Athens. The wealthier citizens who remained must surrender the fort on Munychia Hill in the Piraeus to a Macedonian garrison.

…..So the Athenian envoys returned to Athens with the terms of surrender that gave up Athenian independence and, for all practical purposes, Athenian identity. The incredible had happened. Almost three-fifths of the citizens – 12,000 out of 21,000 – failed to pass Antiper’s test of wealth. They were the rabble, the mob, the radical democrats who were everywhere blamed for all the crimes of restless, ambitious, and expansionist Athens. They were now to be banished for the good of all, not merely from Athens but for the most part from Greece itself

The Athenian Assembly would have been far better off keeping Demosthenes, executing the trierachs who had cravenly surrendered to Cleitus the White and his Macedonian fleet, ostracizing Phocion, Demades and Xenocrates and resuming the war. From this defeat, there was no recovery for Athens, nor did the new oligarchy, secure in their power now, seek any. Without the thetes there were no crews to man the ships or skilled laborers to build them at Zea. Athens was broken as a power and a polis forever.

Strongly recommended.

Crucifixion and Resurrection, ancient and modern

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — religious resonances of the Tupac video, from the Drachenloch cave bears to today ]
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As the 2006 book and DVD covers above suggest, the themes of crucifixion and resurrection have been associated with Tupac Shakur for a while.

R.N. Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar and is a doctoral candidate in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She makes the same connection clear in a post titled Smilin’ Serpent: the Violent Passion of Tupac Shakur on September 13, 2010:

Projects revealed Shakur’s pseudo-schizophrenic obsession with death and resurrection. These tropes manifested in videos like “I Ain’t Mad Atcha” or the collabo featuring Scarface “Smile,” and the coverart of The Don Illuminati: the 7 Day Theory(1996).

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Death comes before resurrection: Tupac Shakur died of gunshot wounds in 1996, after completing his final album, Makaveli — which was posthumously released:

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What may be more surprising is that he was brought back to something approximating life — in a holographic performance that included a duet with a decidedly non-holographic Snoop Dogg– just this week…

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But then, that’s religion.

Time-bound, mortal and frankly disintegrating as we are, we’d like there to be more to the story after death, and that yearning is something that religion addresses.

Perhaps to get the point across in an interesting way you’ll allow me to quote from a move in a game I played some years back:

Exploring the Drachenloch cave in Switzerland, Emil Bachler found cave bear skulls arranged in wall niches in one part of the cave, and stone tombs in another chamber containing cave bear skulls and bones. Ursus spelaeus, the cave bear, has now been extinct 10,000 years, while the Neanderthal inhabitants of the caves appear to have ceased as a species themselves about 40,000 years ago.

In Shepard and Sanders’ book, The Sacred Paw, which deals with both the natural history of the bear and its appearances in myth and ritual, Bachler surmises that his finds provide “the first evidence in man of an already awakened higher spiritual life.”

But why the bear in particular? What could we learn from the bear that we couldn’t learn anywhere else? Shepard and Sanders’ answer is that the bear seemed able to teach us how to survive bodily death. Hibernation isn’t just a “natural” phenomenon — it’s also a “spiritual” revelation… I’ll let them explain in their own words:

The bear, more than any other teacher, gave an answer to the ultimate question… an astonishing, astounding, improbable answer, enacted rather than revealed. Its passage into the earth, winter’s death, and burial under the snow was like a punctuation in the round of life that would begin again with its emergence in the spring…

The miracle was double, for the bear burst out with young — birth and rebirth. Somehow the bear knew when to reenter the world again, emerging just ahead of the snowmelt, as though its very heat set the new year in motion… Clearly the bear was master of renewal and the wheel of the seasons.

The bear ‘knows’ about death and how to survive it… She is therefore seen by traditional peoples as a guide to the movement between worlds.

So the bear is not only the first shaman, s/he’s also the first dying and rising God, and the first divine “Mother and Child” — teaching us two things that are still at the heart of religion 40,000 years later: nativity and resurrection!

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Death and resurrection certainly date back quite a ways. Attis, Osiris and Odin are only a few of those thought to have died and been resurrected — and indeed the early Christian writer Justin Martyr confirms (In his First Apologia XXI), the similarities between Christian and pagan teachings when he writes:

In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union, as Jesus Christ our Teacher, and that he was crucified and died and after rising again ascended into heaven we introduce nothing new beyond those whom you call sons of Zeus. You know how many sons of Zeus the writers whom you honor speak of — Hermes, the hermeneutic Word and teacher of all; Asclepius, who was also a healer and after being struck by lightning ascended into heaven –as did Dionysus who was torn in pieces; Heracles, who to escape his torments threw himself into the fire; the Dioscuri born of Leda and Perseus of Danae; and Bellerophon…

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Here’s the video:

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Max Eddy, blogging at The Geeoksystem today, not only describes the technology used to bring Tupac back to artificial life, but gives us a feel for the event:

The Tupac Hologram put on an eerie performance. When it appeared, the crowd became noticeably quiet while the show continued so achingly aware of its strangeness. The CG simulacrum even declared “I’m a ghost” during a rendition of “Hail Mary.” The ghostly, semi-transparent image went on to do two more numbers – one opposite a likely perturbed Snoop Dogg – before, no kidding, dissolving into triangles in a blaze of otherworldly light.

He also gives us an overview of the endurance of the resurrection motif within the music biz. He writes:

While I must confess ignorance to the life and body of work of Tupac, the resurrection obsession is part and parcel of the music industry. We can get specific: Back in 1995, the surviving Beatles recorded two new tracks along with unreleased demos recorded by John Lennon in 1977. Lennon had been dead since 1980. For his 75th birthday in 2010, Elvis Presley netted $60 million despite having been dead since 1977. Deceased in 2004, Ol’ Dirty Bastard still managed to appear on 2009?s “Blackroc,” a rap album put together by the Black Keys.

Though resurrections are a phenomenon that is particularly common in the music industry, it’s notable that CG recreations of dead actors haven’t broken into mainstream film. Perhaps it’s because fooling the ear is easier than fooling the eye.

Posthumous musical careers are clearly not unique to Tupac, but Shakur’s has been particularly lively. Since his death, seven albums have been released under the rapper’s name. For Forbes’ 2002 edition of the magazine’s annual list of top-earning dead celebrities, Shakur came in at number ten. A 2003 documentary about Shakur’s life, titled Tupac: Resurrection, was narrated entirely by Shakur. From 1997 on, Shakur has made 49 guest “appearances” on the tracks of other recording artists.

All of this is not to mention the rumors held by some ardent fans that Shakur is, in fact, still alive and in hiding somewhere.

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I don’t know whether this image is taken from an early archaeological report on the Drachenloch caves, or is just a reconstruction of what those first bear-altars with their carefully arrange skulls and bones might have looked like. I don’t really know if the dying-and-rising-god meme has been overblown or not — or the circumpolar bear cult for that matter.

But bears hibernating and coming back to life, Attis and Adonis, Christ, Arthur, the Once and Future King, more recently, Elvis sightings — and now Tupac coming back, as a hologram — it makes me wonder.

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I’ll give Max Eddy the final word:

When a singer is on stage, he or she is mostly their celebrity, with their humanity tucked safely away for later. At home, they are someone else, but on stage they fill a role assigned to them by their fans and perhaps by themselves. Some take it to an extreme – Ozzy bit the head off a bat. For others, it’s subtle – Roy Orbison’s dark glasses, for instance.

Unlike them, the Tupac Hologram has no humanity; it is only celebrity. The Tupac Hologram will not go home and read Shakespeare, as Shakur did. The Tupac Hologram will not make controversial political statements. The Tupac Hologram will not visit Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur Davis. The Tupac Hologram is empty, and we made it.

[ … ]

When we look into the Tupac Hologram, we see ourselves reflected brightly on a thin Mylar screen.

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A hat tip to Doug Breitbart, for suggesting I check out the Tupac video and nudging me along the way. The details of Crucifixion and Resurrection are from the superlative Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald (ca. 1510).

Dead Sea Scrolls & Nag Hammadi Codices online

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — archaeology, Biblical scholarship, eschatology, digital literacy ]

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Both the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran and the Gnostic and associated codices from Nag Hammadi are now available for study online:

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The Nag Hammadi Archive can be explored via the Claremont Colleges Digital Library, and the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls via the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Here’s a description of the War Scroll from Qumran, which “is dated to the late first century BCE or early first century CE”:

Against the backdrop of a long biblical tradition concerning a final war at the End of Days (Ezekiel 38-39; Daniel 7-12), this scroll describes a seven stage, dualistic confrontation between the “Sons of Light” (the term used by Community members to refer to themselves), under the leadership of the “Prince of Light” (also called Michael, the Archangel) – and the “Sons of Darkness” (a nickname for the enemies of the Community, Jews and non-Jews alike), aided by a nation called the Kittim (Romans?), headed by Belial. The confrontation would last 49 years, terminating in the victory of the “Sons of Light” and the restoration of the Temple service and sacrifices. The War Scroll describes battle arrays, weaponry, the ages of the participants, and military maneuvers, recalling Hellenistic and Roman military manuals.

You can see why I’m interested.

The Nag Hammadi texts are a little less well known but include — along with a variety of other texts, some of them self-described as “apocalypses” — the now celebrated Gospel of Thomas, which Bart Erhman reads as continuing a “de-apocalypticizing” of Jesus’ message which he finds beginning in Luke and continuing in John:

In the Gospel of Thomas, for example, written somewhat later than John, there is a clear attack on anyone who believes in a future Kingdom here on earth. In some sayings, for example, Jesus denies that the Kingdom involves an actual place but “is within you and outside you” (saying 3); he castigates the disciples for being concerned about the end (saying 18); and he spurns their question about when the Kingdom will come, since “the Kingdom of the Father is spread out on the earth and people do not see it” (saying 113).

Again, you can see why I am delighted that these texts are becoming available to a wider scholarly audience…

In both the Nag Hammadi codices and Qumran scrolls, we have texts that were lost for almost two thousand years and discovered, somewhat haphazardly, in 1945 and 1947 respectively, providing us with rich insights into the religious ferment around a time and place that have been pivotal for western civilization.

Now, more than half a century later, the web — as it becomes our global museum and our in-house library — brings us closer to both…

Herodotus Rising

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Herodotus, the “Father of History” has received some new props in terms of his reliability from archaeologists digging in Egypt.

Vanished Persian Army Said Found in Desert

The remains of a mighty Persian army said to have drowned in the sands of the western Egyptian desert 2,500 years ago might have been finally located, solving one of archaeology’s biggest outstanding mysteries, according to Italian researchers.

Bronze weapons, a silver bracelet, an earring and hundreds of human bones found in the vast desolate wilderness of the Sahara desert have raised hopes of finally finding the lost army of Persian King Cambyses II. The 50,000 warriors were said to be buried by a cataclysmic sandstorm in 525 B.C.

….”We have found the first archaeological evidence of a story reported by the Greek historian Herodotus,” Dario Del Bufalo, a member of the expedition from the University of Lecce, told Discovery News.

According to Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, sent 50,000 soldiers from Thebes to attack the Oasis of Siwa and destroy the oracle at the Temple of Amun after the priests there refused to legitimize his claim to Egypt.After walking for seven days in the desert, the army got to an “oasis,” which historians believe was El-Kharga. After they left, they were never seen again.

“A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear,” wrote Herodotus.

A century after Herodotus wrote his account, Alexander the Great made his own pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun, and in 332 B.C. he won the oracle’s confirmation that he was the divine son of Zeus, the Greek god equated with Amun.The tale of Cambyses’ lost army, however, faded into antiquity. As no trace of the hapless warriors was ever found, scholars began to dismiss the story as a fanciful tale.

Herodotus was long disparaged by historians as an entertaining and unreliable mythologizer, who instead upheld his younger and envious rival Thucydides as the model of ancient historical purity and accuracy. The empirical basis for this position is eroding fast and while Thucydides has his own greatness that can never be denied, the shadow he long cast over Herodotus has waned.


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