The Particular Exasperations of Learning Biblical Hebrew

“The language of God,” Biblical Hebrew. I’m off soon to teach our third week’s class, and we’re in the thick of it now. The alphabet (or aleph-bet) is kind of fun — little ditties, the novelty of recognizing letters completely different from what we see in English, of reading from right to left. But the rose is paling as we get into “weak roots” and the finicky needs of gutteral letters. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, a.k.a. “Hebrew Bible,” because… ok, you get it… can be exasperating. So many rules that hardly qualify as rules for all their exceptions, shape-shifting letters, and other letters that simply disappear from the words you’ve laboriously memorized. But what a thrill to recognize the multi-layered nature of sacred text, to be able to unpack a single Hebrew word to yield a full sentence, to see the wordplay for oneself, and to contemplate the possibilities and limitations of translation. I hope the students catch that energy at least as often as they grimace at “compensatory lengthening” and “virtual doubling.”

Bullying in the Bible?

This is the first I’ve heard: the rising problem of bullying linked to the biblical Goliath. But it must be true, I read in my birth-town paper. Or at least I read that an expert on the topic made such a connection in his Duluth, MN presentation. Walter Roberts, who’s worked for years with kids as teacher and counselor, wrote a couple of books and word has it that in one he draws on the biblical story of David and Goliath. I’m assuming that Goliath’s the bully but don’t know for sure. Duluth, it’s such a sleepy pretty old city on the tip of Lake Superior, that I’m often surprised by its progressive, activist side. Anyway, you can still get in on Roberts’ talk, if you want, and ask him about Goliath for me. It’s tomorrow night at the fancy Radisson — $18… which includes dinner. I love Duluth.

Bible at the Movies… Again

Job and Proverbs. Texts from those (very different) biblical books launch the two movies that I’ve seen most recently — Secretariat and True Grit. Stories about determination and perseverance, success in the face of misfortune and seemingly impossibilities. But this wee post isn’t about the movies so much as to note how they begin — with biblical texts, both from the Old Testament, yet opposite in sense. The character Job in the Bible is described as a righteous man who nevertheless suffers tremendously. He challenges the accepted theology that he must have done something to deserve this corrective punishment from God. (We readers know that he has do nothing wrong.) The whole book questions this situation of undeserved suffering and God’s role in it. When God finally answers, it’s not an answer per se (though some find an answer in it). Rather, God goes on and on about the intricacies of the natural world. It’s a strange response with some intriguing implications, which I explore a bit in Bible Babel. And it’s frankly quite beautiful. The poetry is exquisite and the images evocative. Among them, praise for the graceful, strong, and swift horse. So that’s how Secretariat begins. True Grit begins with a pithy saying from Proverbs, a book full of pithy sayings. What those proverbial sayings have in common is a solid sensibleness — that everything follows as it should. So, live responsibly, work hard, be decent, and you’ll enjoy good reputation, health, and material success. Quite the opposite of Job. But “the wicked flee when none pursueth” is a fitting beginning to the story that True Grit tells. (Interesting: a Coen brothers film; the Coens also made A Serious Man, based on the book of Job.)  It also lends the whole a kind of biblical righteousness patina… and so invites faith-based interpretations and contemplation such as and but doesn’t require Bible-based religious faith to appreciate. And I’ve been thinking: how about a True Grits restaurant? Love the grit(s).

Anne Rice, the Bible, and Cyrus the Great

I just finished Anne Rice’s Servant of the Bones. From the original queen of vampire writing, who’d have thought? A book that includes not just the gothic but profound questions of purpose and identity and (here’s what’s especially intriguing to me right now) reflects some good research into ancient Near Eastern religion and history. Marduk, the god of ancient Babylon, plays a role, Cyrus II, who founded the Persian Empire; so too the Jewish hasidim of our time.  The main character learns to love and pursue learning, even while he dissolves, shape-shifts, kills, saves, and knocks on heaven’s door. A cool read, all around…

“Enough” and Challenging the Bible in The Christian Century

If you have a chance to check out the Sept. 21 issue of the Christian Century, I hope you’ll have a look at my “Living by the Word” essays. Ironically, one of them pushes the idea of “living by the Word” to include actually challenging that Word. The other concerns a particular word that I’d like to see more of these days — “enough.” I also composed more personal companion pieces for the “Century Blog.” One describes my great Aunt Esther, who definitely had enough, despite giving everything away. The other meditates on challenging authority, even when that authority is God. I hope you’ll have a look. And if you have a chance, do let me know what you think.

Philistine Temple + Earthquake = Samson?

Archaeologists recently discovered a temple, with two great pillars, in what was once the Philistine city of Gath. And they discovered evidence of a huge earthquake. One of the Bible’s most dramatic stories tells about the not always admirable but surely impressive Samson who, duped by his lover Delilah, loses the secret to his power (his hair) to the enemy Philistines. After a humiliating stint as their blinded prisoner, Sampson’s final tour de force is the dramatic destruction of the Philistine temple. Having regained his strength, he breaks its massive pillars to bring the temple down on the heads of his enemies. Some will likely determine that this find corroborates the biblical story. Others, reading less literally, may appreciate how architecture and natural events from biblical times influenced how the stories were told.

Cain as Vampire?

Word has it that the Good Word is jumping on the vampire bus. For all sorts of reasons, it’s not as great a leap as you might think — more on that later… Meanwhile, here’s the scoop: Will Smith as the lead in The Legends of Cain a re-telling of Genesis’ story of the first kids, the first brothers, and the first murder in which Cain is a vampire.  That’s all I know so far. Do let me know if you learn more.~ … (later) Thanks to Jospeh Laycock, a doctoral candidate at Boston University, for his essay in Religion Dispatches on the topic. Really interesting. Check it out.

A Time to Lose

        I attended a funeral recently — “untimely,” one might say, because the man who died did so at his own hand. There was so much about it that defied expectation, defied logic. There’s the suicide itself, of course, an act that makes sense only to the person killed, if at all. But there was more about this funeral that messed with my head… and heart, though I’d never even met the man. C. was a physician who specialized in medical ethics and the work of alleviating end-of-life-suffering without assisted suicide. So, there’s that. Plus, one of the readings struck me as particularly odd.


Forgetting… and Remembering

Living as a nomad, it was bound to happen: I left my computer behind. Bouncing between cities (two) and offices (four) as I’ve done the past semester, I rely on THE LIST — things to do before leaving the house (empty the kitchen compost, e.g.) and things to bring (er, that’d be the computer, e.g.). The list works great… if I actually use it. Last week, I didn’t. The irony is, I’m finally settling in again, finally staying put  — one city, one office, for the most part, anyway. Maybe that was it. I let my guard down, got cocky.

Kagan, Justice, and Judaism

Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court got me thinking about Jewish traditions of justice, at least as the Bible suggests and reflects. Near as I can tell, it bodes well for the work she’d be doing. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that justice is a major preoccupation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) — the Jewish Bible.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Kagan and Obama.jpgOne thing that makes me optimistic, if Kagan is informed by these roots, is how the Bible clearly champions justice while accepting that the just thing is not always immediately clear. Rather, doing justice requires wrestling with the particularities of certain circumstances (think of all those specific “laws” in Exodus and Leviticus, for example), balancing absolute “thou shalt nots” with the fact that sometimes we do anyway, and determining where and when is the most just thing actually mercy.