Ancient Cyrus Cylinder Stirs Modern Passions and Debate

What should we do with knowledge that undermines a force for good? I attended the Cyrus Cylinder symposium at DC’s Freer Sackler Gallery, the artifact’s first stop on its U.S. tour. It was a sunny Saturday morning, yet the hall was packed, and no one was snoozing. Rightly so, as the presenters are among the world’s “A team” scholars of ancient Persia.

But from the start, things did not go as many had hoped. For the scholarship presented complicates our widely accepted and most popular images of Cyrus the Great as a uniquely benevolent ruler who instituted policies of peace and tolerance such as the world had never seen before.

Thanksgiving Riff: A Call or Call It Prayer

Where is God that we may give thanks?

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays and not only because it’s specific to our nation. It’s also the one that everybody, no matter what else they believe, can get on board with. We even, for a brief moment, acknowledge the extraordinary people who called this land home before European settlers came along.

Last year, President Obama caught a lot of flak for not mentioning God in his Thanksgiving address to the nation. I understand — “God bless America,” and all that. Yet even as this nation may be “one… under God,” exactly who defines God and how is not clear. Nor should it be. This is a nation of diversity and strong because of that.

Some Musings on the Name of God

There is a long-standing tradition that no person, no mere mortal, should presume to possess the name of God. The Name, as the reasoning goes, is a holy thing, a handle on the divine not to be trifled with. We hear concern about its misuse in the ancient biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain.”

But what is that name? The short (but incomplete) answer is that it’s the four-letter word that God introduced to Moses — a Hebrew word that played on the verb “to be”: “I am who I am.” Transliterating those four Hebrew letters yields some variation of YHWH or JHVH.

Mean and Ugly Prayers

One thinks of prayers as nice things and of the Bible goodness, wisdom, and light. What an ugly wake-up, then, to find supposedly decent people praying for the President’s death. And they’re using the Bible to do so, no less. This, against a president who shares with his detractors Christian faith and belief in the sanctity of the Bible. Goes to show that not all Christians are, well, “Christian”; and while the Bible indeed contains great wisdom, lofty ideas, and words of comfort and peace, it also contains much that requires intelligent and wise treatment.

Holiday Bible Surprises

Some things one might expect to find in the Bible aren’t there at all; while sometimes what we do find is downright surprising. Take Hanukkah, for instance — not there! Ironically, not in the Jewish bible, but it is in the Orthodox Christian bible (in part — 1 Maccabees, if you’re looking). Meanwhile, the Christian Christmas stories don’t all jibe, and they include some surprises of their own.

Jewish Perspective on the New Testament

The new Jewish Annotated New Testament is a welcome addition to the variety (cacophany?) of voices weighing in on Christian scripture these days. It is fresh, intelligent, and informed, actually a lot better informed than most of what’s out there. Published by Oxford University Press, it includes comments and insights from Jewish scholars, some of the New Testament. Now, I’m sure there are critics already blustering away about how a Jewish person couldn’t possibly understand Christian texts, but that’s nonsense. For one thing, specifically Christian biblical texts are just a small part of a long continuum of Jewish texts. Listening to the ways that people other than those within one’s religion read one’s sacred texts can be profoundly enriching. I’m grateful to editors Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt University) and Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis), contributing writers, and Oxford UP for putting this resource at our disposal. And I’m eager to hear what thoughtful Christians make of it.

Creation’s Cacophonous Chorus

Biblical imagery draws richly from the world of the ancient Middle East, including its hills, waters, arid stretches, and wildly diverse animals — domestic and not. Trees “clap their hands” and the beloved is likened to a swift, graceful gazelle. These days, as I wander out to examine my new garden, trying to diagnose yellowing leaves and how best to eco-kindly loosen Virginia’s hard clay, I am serenaded by the buzzing of different kinds of bees, too many to count. If my squash blossoms drop or the cheery yellow cucumber flowers come to nothing, it’s not a loss. The humming of that pollen-gathering band is delight. 

bee and cucumber flower

May Your Father’s Day Not Be Entirely Biblical

Despite a common assumption that the Bible is all sweetness and light, filled with upstanding moral models for individuals today, it doesn’t always translate so neatly. After Adam, the next father is one who murdered his brother. There’s Noah’s drunken nakedness whose story involving his sons ended up endorsing the slavery of Africans, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, Lot’s sleeping with his daughters, Isaac’s tragic failure to discern the difference between his sons, Jacob’s favoritism with the resulting conflict between Joseph and his brothers,… and by golly we haven’t even gotten out of Genesis. That said, of course there are models of fatherhood in both Old and New Testament books that strike readers as better for men to emulate. And there are texts that honor fairness, strength, generosity, and love by fathers. Finally, of course, as Rabbi Daniel Brenner wrote, “On Father’s Day, we honor our fathers not by comparing them to some ideal, but by acknowledging them for whom they really are.” I am lucky to have a dad who takes the Bible seriously but (and?) judges for himself what is right and good. Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there! May you be not entirely biblical in your parenting and loved whatever the case.

The Perils of Bible Reading

Alternatively: “On Not Reading the Bible”; but then I must hastily add that I’m not against reading the Bible… not exactly. But when it comes to the Bible, reading and knowing about it can be quite different things. Some time ago (if you read here regularly, you may remember), I was a bit put off by editing that changed an essay of mine into something that I actively disagree with — to suggest that I think the first thing a person should do to understand the Bible is read it.  (The editors responded to my outcry, whew, with corrections.) Again, I don’t mean to suggest that I think people shouldn’t read the Bible, it’s just that it’s a really unusual book for which some background information is crucial (hence Bible Babel). The whole thing got me thinking more about this business of reading versus knowing. The following is some of what recently showed up on Huffington Post (again not a title I would have chosen, but oh, well.) Hey, thanks to my husband for the funny monk anecdote — I love it, and it’s a great illustration of what I’m talking about.

In the Game of Cultural Background: Iran vs. Israel

Referring to the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad is reported as saying that it represents the kind of foundation on which people can build a highly developed civilization. So far, so good, as it goes. But he reputedly went on to note the relative lack of such a foundation for the “Zionist regime” — meaning Israel?, Judaism? Let’s see… the Bible?! Not that I believe that we should look to the Bible for a modern nation of Israel, but gosh, in the game of cultural background, I’m afraid he’s going to need a new strategy.