Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Stranger in a strange land

Exodus, continued: Yesterday and today, I have been reading all of the instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant. I will readily admit that I am not planning on building the Ark of the Covenant so my eyes have been glazing over a bit.
Before I started on the Ark of the Covenant, I read these bits of advice:
Exodus 22:20: You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9: Also you shall not oppress a resident alien, for you know the heart of a resident alien, because you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.
I find that to be helpful advice on welcoming foreigners. The advice on not mistreating or oppressing strangers and aliens could not be clearer.
Is that advice followed today?
What do you think?
In my opinion, the answer is no. A few days ago, I read in The Buffalo News about Major Jan Mohammad Arash of Afghanistan, who fled a training program in Cape Cod, along with two other Afghan officers. The three were looking to cross the border into Canada and seek political asylum there. They never made it to Canada. They were placed in a federal detention facility in Batavia, New York. Last Friday, Major Arash went to immigration court, where his request to stay in the United States was denied. Major Arash fears that, when he is deported to Afghanistan, he faces torture and persecution. The immigration judge, Steven J. Connelly, ruled that the United Nations' Convention Against Torture does not apply in this case because the Taliban, who would be the likely torturers, is not the official governing body of Afghanistan.
Does the fact that the torturers do not represent the governing body of a country make that particular torture any less of a human rights violation?
Is it a human rights violation to deport someone to a country where he is very likely to be tortured and persecuted?
Is it right to practice justice without any evidence of mercy? Are justice and mercy mutually exclusive? 
By sending someone to a country where he is very likely to be mistreated, is the government of this country (the United States) participating in mistreatment and oppression?
I believe that, in Exodus, the advice is to do otherwise. 
So many questions, so few answers.
I will keep reading.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Exodus, then and now

This week will be all about Exodus. The word "exodus" means, according to Google, "a mass departure of people, especially emigrants." When people leave like that, hastily and in large groups, they are generally leaving something intolerable.
Generally, when we talk about an exodus, we think of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians, who mistreated them and made them suffer for years and years. The story of the Israelites' exodus is very dramatic and it was made into a movie, featuring Charlton Heston as Moses.
There have, however, been other exoduses. Many people have fled intolerable situations in search of safer havens elsewhere. They could have been fleeing political persecution, hunger, or natural disasters. For example, in 1845 and the years following, Ireland suffered a terrible disaster that resulted in exodus. A plant disease called "potato blight" or Phytophthora Infestans. It is actually an airborne fungus that attacks potatoes, with devastating results. The potatoes turn to mush and are rendered inedible. Sounds disgusting to me. It was actually beyond disgusting. The results were disaster. Somewhere around one million people starved and another million fled Ireland, in search of food.
That exodus was caused by an agricultural disaster. One of the main problems was that the same type of potatoes were grown in the same land, year after year after year. The technical term for that type of agriculture is "monoculture." As I learned in my master gardener classes, growing a variety of crops is always preferable to monoculture. The people of Ireland, at that time, ate mostly potatoes and, when their food supply was attacked by the fungus, the result was disaster.
In more recent years, the countries that people have been fleeing en masse include Syria and Libya, where there have been civil wars and extreme violence. The people who flee these countries are looking for a safe haven in which to live, work, and raise their families.
So back to the Bible. Last time, I talked about dreams and about how Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh's dream as indicating seven years of plenty coming, followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh was grateful to Joseph and gave him a good job and hospitality for Joseph's family.
Much time passed, and a new Pharaoh saw that the Israelites were reproducing like rabbits! He was not happy about that, so he decided to treat the Israelites badly so that they would not take over Egypt.
Being treated badly didn't stop the Israelites from reproducing like rabbits.
Eventually, however, the Israelites grew tired of the unpleasant treatment, which included orders to kill newborn babies and other draconian measures.
This is where the story gets dramatic. For all of the details, you can watch "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh. It's great entertainment, with good special effects, especially considering that it was filmed in 1956. Of course, you could also read your Bible. You'll find that good, too, although you'll have to imagine the special effects. Your imagined special effects may be even more fun than the movie.
Anyway, Yul Brynner or the Pharaoh was one stubborn dude, and his people endured all sorts of unpleasant ordeals or plagues before the Israelites all departed. They endured the environmental nightmare of water turning to blood, too many frogs, lice crawling on their bodies and on the bodies of their animals, dog flies that bite people, diseased cattle, boils, huge and heavy hail, locusts, complete darkness, and the death of the first born. Ugh! The pharaoh said, please go.
Because the pharaoh was known to change his mind abruptly, however, the Israelites had to be prepared to flee at a moment's notice. They ate unleavened bread while standing up because it takes more time to stand up, especially if you are sitting on the floor.
The Israelites did all flee at one time. Thousands of people departed from Egypt. The Egyptian military went after them. Moses parted the red sea in a very cinematic gesture. Charlton Heston did a grand job with that. When the Egyptians with their chariots and charioteers went after them, it was not too good for the Egyptians. The water went back to where it had been, and the chariots and charioteers got stuck in the mud and drowned.
The Israelites ended up on the other side of the river. They had left the land of persecution, but were they happy?
Maybe or maybe not.
Are people forced into exodus currently happy?
Sometimes they are but sometimes, no, because the conditions that they face in refugee camps can be nightmarish.
More next week, as I continue reading Exodus.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dreams in the Bible

Last week, I wrote about trees in the Bible. Trees are necessary for the preservation of life and they are important parts of our ecosystem. At some point in the future, I intend to revisit that topic.
Today, I will talk about dreams.
We all dream. Sometimes, people will think that they don't dream because they don't remember their dreams. But they are dreaming, nevertheless. Often though, we remember our dreams. They may be funny, scary, or sad. We may wake up happy, disappointed, terrified, or energized. Dreams can tell us things about ourselves. For example, my sister had a dream that told her that she was watching too much television. Her dream was interrupted by four commercials. If your dreams include advertisements, you are watching way too much television. Plus, since it is unlikely that the advertisers are paying for their spots in your dreams, you are giving businesses free ad space in your head!
I've had a variety of interesting and bizarre dreams. In one dream, I was sky diving. This was quite a unique dream for me because I am afraid of heights. And not just a little afraid. Panic stricken terrified kind of afraid. Well, in this dream, I was free falling in a relaxed sort of way. I was floating through the clouds. The air smelled good and I felt so happy. When I finally pulled the cord to open the parachute, I woke up.
In another dream, I was in a privately owned prison that had been turned into a reality TV show. Some of my protester friends were in the Reality TV show prison with me. The odd thing about this prison was that it was co-ed. So, in the dream, I was standing around, waiting for my opportunity to do some sort of stunt and win a million dollars and a Get Out of Jail Free Card. While I was watching, a man was shown to a motorcycle and instructions were whispered to him. We were told that he was challenged to do stunts on the motorcycle and that, if he did the stunts, he would win a million dollars and a Get Out of Jail Free Card. The man got on the motorcycle and departed. It was announced that the man escaped and that he would not get the money and that the show's goon squad would chase him down and he would undergo Trial by Ordeal! I never knew what the ordeal was because, fortunately, I woke up.
The dream that made me disappointed to wake up was the one in which I went to a conference. Dinner was served and eaten and then, dessert was served. It was chocolate mousse with whipped cream. Just as soon as I got a spoonful of the creamy chocolate to my lips, I woke up! Darn! Not even a little chocolate!
Well, I have to admit that, in my Bible readings this week, there was not even one reference to chocolate. I have been reading about loaves and fishes and milk and honey and even about honey and locusts but no chocolate.
I'll talk about food at some other point.
This time, it's dreams.
Dreams seem to be a way in which God communicates with people. In the book of Matthew, which I have been reading for the past few weeks, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt because little Jesus was in terrible peril. Herod intended to destroy the child, whom he saw as a threat to his power.
In the book of Genesis, which I finished yesterday, dreams are extremely significant. Abram had a dream that he would have a son and become the father of nations. He, of course, doubted the veracity of that dream because he was getting old and he and his wife Sarai were still childless.
But God provided. Abram and Sarai did have a son, despite their advanced age. Their names were changed to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham did become the father of many nations.
The dreamer that I would like to focus on is Joseph. His is a dramatic story that was made into a musical, titled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in the 1970s. I have seen this show several times and always find it entertaining, as it is mostly music in a wide variety of styles. It is a good show to present at a boys' school because there are loads of roles for boys!
Joseph was one of twelve brothers and he was his father Jacob's favorite, mainly because he was the first son of Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob was not shy about showing that Jacob was his favorite son. He even gave Joseph a tunic of many colors, or an "amazing technicolor dreamcoat."
Joseph had a dream that he shared with his brothers. He said (Genesis 37: 6): "Hear this dream I dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf."
Later, he told his brothers of another dream. Genesis 37:9: "Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me."
These dreams caused the brothers to go into a collective fit of jealous rage. They plotted Joseph's murder. Then they decided to sell Joseph to a group of Ishmaelites. Well, I am guessing that it was ten of the brothers who plotted these deeds, as Joseph's younger brother Benjamin must have been just a little kid at the time.
Joseph ended up by being a slave in Egypt. Apparently, he was a very good slave and he performed his work admirably, which, unfortunately, attracted the attention of the wife of his master, Potiphar. She tried and failed to make Joseph into her lover. After she realized that she could not entice Joseph into her bed, she lied about Joseph and claimed that he tried to take advantage of her. Joseph was then unceremoniously thrown into prison!
But God was always with Joseph, even in that most unpleasant of places. I am guessing that jails at that time were rather gruesome places to be and that the food was inedible and... I'll spare you the details! Anyway, Joseph was in contact with other prisoners because, at least, the unpleasant ancient prisons didn't use the current barbaric technique of long term solitary confinement.
So Joseph was not only a dreamer, he was also an interpreter of dreams. He told a baker and a cup bearer what their dreams meant, which was good news for the cup bearer and bad news for the baker. The cup bearer was freed and the baker was executed. He asked the cup bearer to remember the interpreter of dreams when back at work for the Pharaoh. The cup bearer was so excited about being turned loose that he forgot all about Joseph and Joseph continued to languish in jail, eating yucky food.
Eventually, the Pharaoh had a dream that made no sense to him, having to do with a group of seven fat and good looking cows coming out of the river. After that, ugly and gaunt cows emerged from the river. They then gobbled up healthy cows. Then Pharaoh had a dream about seven stalks of healthy corn being devoured by seven stalks of blighted corn.
The Pharaoh assembled all of his wise men but no one understood his dream. And then, the cup bearer, who had conveniently forgotten Joseph after he got turned loose from the dungeon, suddenly remembered that he met a guy in prison who could interpret dreams.
And so, Joseph was brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh's dream. It was a prediction of agriculture in the land. The healthy cows and the healthy corn stalks were symbolic of seven years of good times. Things would grow and animals would thrive and all would eat, drink, and be merry. But then, seven bad years lay ahead, after the happy good times. There would be drought and famine and Death would stalk the land. Joseph figured out a technique for storing surplus food during the times of plenty so that no one would starve during the times of famine. Joseph was freed and was then put in charge of food distribution. That was a huge upgrade in status for Joseph, as the only person he had to report to was the Pharaoh.
When the years of famine started, Joseph's brothers were living with their father in Canaan, unaware that Joseph still lived. They were hungry because the land yielded nothing. All of the brothers, except for Benjamin, went to Egypt because they heard that they could buy food there. Their story is beautiful because the brothers were able to acknowledge that they had committed a great wrong against Joseph.
Joseph understood that his dreams came from God and, indeed, everything that he was and did came from God. He told his brothers about his experiences: (Genesis 50:19-21) "So Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for I belong to God. But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your households.' Thus he comforted them and spoke to their hearts."
I did not relate all of the details of the story of Joseph here. That would take too much space. Feel free to read it. Genesis 37-Genesis 50. It tells you about the power of dreams and the joy of forgiveness.

I anticipate having more dream stories in future entries.

Have a great weekend and thank you for coming on my Biblical journey with me.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Trees in the Bible

Yesterday, I finished my second week of 52 in the Read the Entire Bible in a Year project. Last week, I wrote about creation and about the numerous flood stories that exist around the world. It seems that all religious traditions have a flood story in them.
Today, I am going to write about trees.
In October of 2006, western New York was struck by a disastrous snow storm, called the "October Surprise storm." The result of all of that wet, heavy snow landing on trees that still had their leaves was a disaster. There was much loss of trees during that storm. Branches were breaking everywhere and people who were outside when it was occurring had to be careful to avoid being hit by branches. We are still planting trees to replace the trees that were lost.
We need trees. Human beings would not even exist without trees. There are a variety of reasons as to why trees are essential to life. Here are a few good reasons to appreciate the existence of trees:
  • Trees produce oxygen. We need to breathe and mature trees provide the oxygen that we need.
  • Trees absorb a lot of water so that the soil doesn't run off in a soaking rainfall. If too many trees are removed from an area, a rainfall will result in a great deal of runoff, resulting in extremely poor soil that will not be capable of supporting any sort of plant growth. 
  • Trees help to clean the air of pollutants and they absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise become greenhouse gases.
  • Trees provide shade and they break the wind.
Back in ancient times, people worshiped various types of trees. These included oaks and redwoods and baobab trees. The baobab tree is mentioned in Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince. But in that book, the baobab's are seen as a menace: huge trees that could tear apart the Little Prince's tiny planet.
Africans have a different impression of the baobab tree. For them, it is the tree of life. It can provide shelter, clothing, food, and water. Its fruit, which is called "monkey bread," is about the size of a coconut and is very tasty, with a flavor that resembles grapefruit, vanilla, and pear. Medicine can be produced from the leaves.
In the Bible, the Tree of Life is a very important image. Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had access to the Tree of Life and they could eat that fruit whenever they wanted. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they were forbidden access to the tree of life.

"Therefore, the Lord God God sent him (Adam) out of the garden of pleasure to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So  He cast out Adam and made him dwell opposite the garden of pleasure. He then stationed cherubim and the fiery sword which turns every way to guard the way to the tree of life." (Genesis 4:23-24)

Another tree that is mentioned in Genesis is the oak tree. There are some questions as to what type of tree is described in chapter eighteen, when God appeared to Abraham. Some versions of the Bible record the tree as a terebinth tree and others record the tree as the "oak of Mamre." The Bible that I am reading, which is the Septugint that I mentioned in last week's entry, described the tree as the "oak of Mamre." It was where Abraham discovered three men who came to visit. Abraham made sure to provide sufficient food and water for the men. 

next week: dreams described in the Bible

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Reading through the Bible, 2.0

Two years ago, I began a project of reading the entire Bible, from start to finish, with Father Earle King, of Saint Martin in the Fields Church, here in Grand Island, New York. It was my intention to blog my impressions of that experience. Unfortunately, due to computer problems, I was unable to complete the blogging, although I was able to complete the Bible.
This year, Father Earle announced that he would read the Bible through from start to finish again, and he issued the invitation that anyone who wanted to read along with him could do so.
And so, I saw that as an opportunity to restart the blog and, this time, complete the blogging so that I could share some reflections on my reading.
I have now completed my first week of reading and so, I offer this reflection for the week:

God's Creative Powers

Genesis 1:1-1:5 
The version that I heard in church this morning reads like this: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless voice and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." (New Revised Standard Version)
The Bible that I read daily has a somewhat different translation. It sounds like this: "In the beginning, God made heaven and earth. The earth was invisible and unfinished; and darkness was over the deep. The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. God saw the light; it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day; the darkness He called Night; and there was evening and morning, one day." (Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint)

In today's meditation, I am going to focus on just a few words from the Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint. 
But first, if you want to read this version along with me, the Bible that I am reading is called The Orthodox Study Bible, and it is published by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
The words that I am focusing on are: "The earth was invisible and unfinished: and darkness was hovering over the deep."

As an artist, I like to think of myself as creative. I set the paper or the canvas down in front of me. It is blank, just a plain white surface. It could represent a blinding snowstorm. But, usually, that's not how I want to leave it. I set up a still life or a go outside and find something interesting to paint. By the end of my painting session, I have an image on the paper or the canvas that was not there before. I feel good about having created a little two-dimensional world where there had been nothing.
But my creativity is so tiny. God created the heaven and the earth. He placed animals and plants and seas and dry lands. He did all that on an earth that was invisible and unfinished, basically an abstract concept because nothing was there. God was happy with His creation. The phrase "it was good" is repeated over and over in the first chapter of Genesis, giving Genesis a poetic effect. 
God created everything in just six days. They are not necessarily six days as we know them. They are six of God's days, which is beyond my understanding. But still, I can imagine. It seems to me that, when God was creating the earth, he was full of joy, putting something in the heavens that wasn't there. He made suns and moons and stars as well. It was a monumental creation.

So... a few more words: "The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water." What a beautiful image. I wonder if that is why, as people, we tend to be drawn to the water. Most cities are built of the banks of some sort of body of water, whether it is an ocean, a lake, or a river. The water feels sort of magical to us. It gives us life and nourishment. We can't live any longer than about three days if we are completely deprived of water. The water also takes life. We have floods and tsunamis and the water overwhelms us and drowns us and we are swept away in the power of the out of control water.
Water is a powerful image in the Bible. God creates the world, but He also wreaks destruction. He uses water, from which all life flows, to take life. In fact, God wonders if He made a mistake. 
Gensis 6:6-6:7. So God was grieved that He had made man on the earth, and He thought this over. Then God said, "I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the earth, from man to cattle, and from the creeping things to the birds of heaven, for I am grieved I made them. It sounds as if God had become depressed over a creation gone awry.
 In chapters six through nine of Genesis, which I read this week, the dramatic tale of the flood, which destroyed nearly all life on earth, is told. The only people who survive are Noah and his family. A selection of animals are saved, as well. I guess that the fish would have, in general, survived a flood because they were in their element. In chapter seven, verses 17 through 21, the flood is described as:

Now the flood was on the earth forty days and forty nights. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. So the waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters. The waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and covered all the high mountains. And all flesh died that moves on the earth; birds and cattle, wild animals, and every creeping thing that moves on the earth, and every man."\

Everything. Gone just like that. They died sadly: Thus, all things in whose nostrils was the breath of life, and everything on dry land, died... They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah and those with him in the ark remained alive."

Here is something that I find interesting and I hope that you do, too. There are numerous creation stories throughout the earth, and all of them include the telling of a flood story. The flood was massive and it destroyed all life on earth, except for a few who were seen as righteous, as Noah was.

In Wikipedia, I found this segment from a Masai flood story. The Masai live in Africa.
Once upon a time the rivers began to flood. Then God told two people to get into a ship. He told them to take lots of seed and to take lots of animals. The water of the flood eventually covered the mountains. Finally the flood stopped. Then one of the men, wanting to know if the water had dried up let a dove loose. The dove returned. Later he let loose a hawk which did not return. Then the men left the boat and took the animals and the seeds with them.

Here is a Mayan flood myth, complete with a footnote so you can look up the source:
In the first period of the world lived the Saiyamkoob, "the Adjusters," a dwarf race which built cities now in ruins. They worked in darkness, as the sun had not yet appeared. When it did, they turned to stone, and their images can be found in the ruins. Food for the workers was lowered by rope from the sky, but the rope was cut, the blood ran out of it, and the earth and sky separated. This period ended with water over the earth. The Tsolob, "the Offenders," lived in the second period. These, too were destroyed by a flood. The Maya reigned during the third period, but their period was also ended by flood. The fourth and present age is peopled by a mixture of all previous races. [Alexander, 1920, p. 153]

Here is a telling of the flood story, from Ecuador:

Murato (a branch of the Jivaros):
A Murato was fishing in a lagoon of the Pastaza River when a small crocodile swallowed his bait. The fisherman killed it. The mother of crocodiles was angered and lashed the water with her tail, which flooded the area and drowned all people except one man, who climbed a palm tree. It was dark as night, so he dropped a palm fruit from time to time. When he heard it thud on ground rather than splash, he knew the flood had subsided. He climbed down, built a house, and began tilling a field. Being alone, he cut off a piece of his flesh and planted it; from this grew a woman, whom he married. [Frazer, pp. 261-262]

This is a Celtic version:
Heaven and Earth were great giants, and Heaven lay upon the Earth so that their children were crowded between them, and the children and their mother were unhappy in the darkness. The boldest of the sons led his brothers in cutting up Heaven into many pieces. From his skull they made the firmament. His spilling blood caused a great flood which killed all humans except a single pair, who were saved in a ship made by a beneficent Titan. The waters settled in hollows to become the oceans. The son who led in the mutilation of Heaven was a Titan and became their king, but the Titans and gods hated each other, and the king titan was driven from his throne by his son, who was born a god. That Titan at last went to the land of the departed. The Titan who built the ship, whom some consider to be the same as the king Titan, went there also. [Sproul, pp. 172-173]

Transylvanian Gypsy:
Men once lived forever and knew no troubles. The earth brought forth fine fruits, flesh grew on trees, and milk and wine flowed in many rivers. One day, an old man came to the country and asked for a night's lodging, which a couple gave him in their cottage. When he departed the next day, he said he would return in nine days. He gave his host a small fish in a vessel and said he would reward the host if he did not eat the fish but returned it then. The wife thought the fish must be exceptionally good to eat, but the husband said he had promised the old man to keep it and made the woman swear not to eat it. After two days of thinking about it, though, the wife yielded to temptation and threw the fish on the hot coals. Immediately, she was struck dead by lightning, and it began to rain. The rivers started overflowing the country. On the ninth day, the old man returned and told his host that all living things would be drowned, but since he had kept his oath, he would be saved. The old man told the host to take a wife, gather his kinfolk, and build a boat on which to save them, animals, and seeds of trees and herbs. The man did all this. It rained a year, and the waters covered everything. After a year, the waters sank, and the people and animals disembarked. They now had to labor to gain a living, and sickness and death came also. They multiplied slowly so that many thousands of years passed before people were again as numerous as they were before the flood. [Frazer, pp. 177-178]

The last version that I will share is this one:
Hailibu, a kind and generous hunter, saved a white snake from a crane which attacked it. Next day, he met the same snake with a retinue of other snakes. The snake told him that she was the Dragon King's daughter, and the Dragon King wished to reward him. She advised Hailibu to ask for the precious stone that the Dragon King keeps in his mouth. With that stone, she told him, he could understand the language of animals, but he would turn to stone if he ever divulged its secret to anyone else. Hailibu went to the Dragon King, turned down his many other treasures, and was given the stone. Years later, Hailibu heard some birds saying that the next day the mountains would erupt and flood the land. He went back home to warn his neighbors, but they didn't believe him. To convince them, he told them how he had learned of the coming flood and told them the full story of the precious stone. When he finished his story, he turned to stone. The villagers, seeing this happen, fled. It rained all the next night, and the mountains erupted, belching forth a great flood of water. When the people returned, they found the stone which Hailibu had turned into and placed it at the top of the mountain. For generations, they have offered sacrifices to the stone in honor of Hailibu's sacrifice. [Elder & Wong, pp. 75-77]

Many thanks to Mark Isaac for compiling so many flood stories. For more flood stories from around the world, take a look at his website at Flood Stories from All Over the World. It makes for fascinating reading.

Check back next week for another Biblical reflection and, until then, have a great week!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Philistines

The Philistines are mentioned in several books of the Bible as being the nemesis of the Israelites. There were huge battles and casualties listed in the thousands but I was mystified... who were the Philistines?
So I looked up "Philistine" in my online dictionary because I'm lazy and I didn't want to lug the unabridged (and hence, huge) dictionary up the stairs. One of the definitions was this: "A person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them."
Really? The Israelites were fighting wars against people who are just lacking in taste? That doesn't seem to me to be much of a reason to fight a war. 
I also found out that the Philistines were an ancient people who lived in Philistia. Really? That's not too informative. I also found out that the Philistines no longer exist. Apparently, they are extinct so there are no books telling the dramatic tales of the Philistines from the Philistine perspective.
I found a good deal of information about the Philistines from this website. So, here are some details about the Philistines. They may have come from Crete in the Aegean Sea. They were considered to be sea people. They had enormous sea battles with the Egyptians. In fact, the Philistines were also known to have been very warlike. They were aggressive, like the Klingons in Star Trek, who went into battle announcing, "Today is a good day to die."
The Philistines seemed invincible because they were able to produce swords and all sorts of weapons in great quantities. They were technologically ahead of the Israelites. The Philistines, when not fighting with the Israelites, helped out the Israelites by sharpening their farm tools. Apparently, the Israelites didn't know how to do that.
I also found out that the Philistines were very musical and they celebrated many occurrences of their lives with song.They also celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol. They were culturally more advanced than the Israelites. They were, however, pagans.  So the definition of Philistine as uncultured boor is inaccurate.
But God did not favor the Philistines because they were pagans...
And they are all gone...
without leaving behind any of their folk tales...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Bible's Superman!

Samson was very strong, but he had one weakness. If he had his hair cut, he would lose his strength. He was very much like Achilles, who was very strong and who also had a weakness (his heel). Then there was Superman. He too was very strong, until he was exposed to Kryptonite. Samson was to be a Nazirite. A Nazirite is not a priest but is someone who makes a special vow, under certain conditions. He is not to consume grapes in any form, including wine, touch a corpse, or cut his hair.

Samson was so strong that he could tear apart an attacking lion with his bare hands. He could be tied up with the strongest rope and escape by breaking the rope as if it were thread.

Unfortunately, Samson was also very naive, especially when it came to women. He was attracted to women who wanted to take advantage of him and use him, probably because of his enormous strength. He had disastrous relations with two women. The first was identified only as a Philistine woman. She was not named. Samson decided to marry her, over the objections of his parents. He probably should have listened to his parents. This lady was not a good match for Samson. She kept trying to get information out of Samson but failed. However, I am not certain that the marriage ever happened.

Well, Samson's second time around in the area of romance turned out to be an even bigger disaster. He fell in love with Delilah. Unfortunately, Delilah was bribed by the Philistines to find out Samson's secret: what would take away his super powers? Samson thought that Delilah was just teasing him when she kept asking him for the secret. Maybe he thought that her goal was something X rated and between the two of them. Who knows? Anyway, Delilah tied Samson up with ropes, which he broke. She braided his hair and tied the braids together, but he was able to remove those without difficulty. But, eventually, Delilah sweet talked Samson into telling her his secret. She had servants shave Samson's head while he was asleep. He became weak immediately and lost his status as a Nazirite because his vow was considered broken, even if it had not been broken voluntarily.

The Philistines wanted revenge because Samson had killed many Philistines. In fact, he struck down 1,000 men with a donkey's jawbone. That was his weapon of choice because he was strong enough to make that jawbone into a deadly weapon.  Anyway, the Philistines did get their revenge. They put Samson into prison and forced him to grind grain. And they put out Samson's eyes, so he was blind.

Samson's fate was tragic but, eventually, his hair grew back and he regained his strength but not his eyesight. He managed to get out of prison to go to the Philistines' temple. There, he leaned on the pillars until they broke, causing the entire building to be structurally unsound. The building then collapsed, killing everyone inside it, including Samson.

After Delilah got her servant to shave Samson's head, she is never mentioned again.

Here is a picture of Delilah cutting Samson's hair: Samson gets an unwanted haircut

The story of Samson and Delilah is very dramatic. In fact, Camille Saint Saens wrote an opera based on this tale. One of the more unusual things about this opera is that the leading lady is a mezzo soprano, not a soprano, although the strong Samson is played by a tenor. Because I am a mezzo soprano, I like the idea of a mezzo soprano leading lady.

More tales later!