Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our "Weird" Preoccupation with Choice

    Two weeks ago, I argued that conception of moral responsibility in the Iliad is very different from our own. In Homer’s world, the Gods, Fate, and irresistible passion often determine the heroes’ behavior—but that doesn’t let them off of the hook.  They’re still responsible, they still deserve blame, and if you want to disembowel them (and taunt them while you’re doing it), knock yourself out.
    You can see this seemingly weird notion of responsibility in Agamemnon as well.   By most accounts, Agamemnon had to sacrifice of Iphigenia—he had no choice.  Zeus had determined that the ships would sail and destroy Troy, and you can’t buck the will of Zeus.  Yet Clytemnestra (certainly) and the chorus (arguably) still blame Agamemnon for killing his daughter.  Some commentators have gone so far as to call this attitude logically inconsistent.  The critic Albin Lesky writes:
    If one makes a clear logical distinction, of course, one will say: "A man who acts under necessity is not acting voluntarily." But to insist upon logical consistency would mean that we should have to reject considerable parts of Aeschylus' tragedies.... Is not the campaign against Troy a just punishment inflicted on behalf of the highest god, Zeus, who protects the rights of hospitality? Thus, Agamemnon acts on behalf of the god who wills this punishment. And yet the price for this punishment is a terrible guilt, for which the king has to atone with his death. Here there is no logical consistency. (my italics)

    Now as a philosopher I know something about logical consistency, and there is nothing inconsistent about holding people morally responsible for acts that they were compelled to perform.  Short dialogue to make this point:
    Lesky: Hey Clytemnestra, why’d you kill Agamemnon—he had to sacrifice Iphigenia to fulfill the will of Zeus.  He had no choice!

    Clytemnestra: I don’t care if he had a choice or not.  He did kill her.  So he deserves to die.  Period.

    Is Clytemnestra contradicting herself here?  Of course not.  There’s no inconsistency, she just doesn’t place the same conditions on guilt and responsibility that Lesky does (and that we do in the contemporary West).   

    A better word to describe this view of guilt and moral responsibility at guilt is "counterintuitive."  It just seems unfair to blame and kill people for an action that they did not choose to commit of their own free will.  It might be logically consistent, but it still seems primitive, backwards, weird.

    But what if we’re the weird ones?  What if our conception of responsibility as dependent on choice and control is the exception rather than the rule?   Research in cross-cultural psychology suggests this might be the case.  If you have some time, check out this article, “The Weirdest People in the World,” by Joe Henrich and colleagues in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  The "weird" in the title refers both to "peculiar" but also to "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic" societies.  The article documents a number of ways that the values and perceptions of people in WEIRD societies (like the U.S.) differ from the rest of the world.  Many of our core values and beliefs—the ones we think of as “self-evident”—are simply not shared by other cultures.   Not only that, most societies both today and throughout history have not been WEIRD.  We’re in the minority.  We’re the weird ones!

   One of these cross-cultural differences concerns the way people regard choice and control. People in WEIRD societies (1) place much more value on individual choice and personal autonomy, and (2) perceive themselves as making more autonomous choices (in identical scenarios), than people in other societies.  In America (a prime example of a WEIRD culture), we think “yes my environment may influence or predispose me to do certain things, but ultimately it’s up to me what I do.  My free will is in charge.  By contrast, people in non-WEIRD societies are more prone to regard themselves and their behavior within the context of their group, their relationships and social environment.  They are less likely to attribute their actions to their individual will.

   Bringing this back to Agamemnon—you can see how in a non-WEIRD society, the question of whether Agamemnon had a choice just wouldn’t matter as much for determining guilt and responsibility.  In fact, the issue never really comes up throughout the play.  The chorus, in their condemnation of Clytemnestra, doesn’t mention it.  We might think the justice of Clytemnestra’s act of revenge is deeply connected to the question of choice—but they don’t.  This isn’t illogical or irrational.  It isn’t even weird.


Henrich, J. et al.  “The weirdest people in the world?   Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010) 33: 61-8

Lesky, A. "Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus," Journal of Hellenic Studies 86 (1966): 78-85, 82-83.

—Tamler Sommers

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death, Disease, and the Divine in the Ancient World

As we lay the Iliad to rest (at least for the moment), what can we say about death, disease, and dying in the poem? The Iliad opens with a devastating plague, a poison rain of arrows loosened by the god Apollo in revenge for the mistreatment of his priest Chryses at the hands of Agamemnon. For nine days, Greek men, mules, and dogs die and are burnt on huge funeral pyres by grim survivors. So to whom can our Achaeans turn for relief? Not, seemingly, to their regimental healers and fellow warriors, Machaon and Podalirius, but rather to Calchas, a seer, an interpreter of the whims of the gods. As we know, the revelations of Calchas lead directly to the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, and unleash the misery, resentment, and rage that will animate our heroes and inspire Homer’s art. Such notions of epidemic disease as divine punishment crop up across the ancient world. For Hesiod in his Works and Days, Zeus allows disease, famine, and misery to stalk the world cutting down the cruel and violent. For the authors of the Hebrew bible, God sends disease as punishment for covenant breaking, or, in the case of Job, as a test of the covenant itself. As we will see with the writings of Hippocrates of Cos in the 5th century BCE, pre-Socratic philosophers will challenge a view of the world that invokes divine causation for natural events. Instead they will argue that explanations about the world should be explanations of the world: all phenomena no matter how difficult or terrifying have natural explanations, explanations able to be uncovered through painstaking observation and philosophical inquiry.

Most of the death and dying described by the Iliad is not the outcome of disease, of course, but rather the result of bloody combat with bronze weapons, barbed arrows, and crushing stones. Injuries are described graphically and gruesomely. Limbs and organs are literally butchered to become meat for birds and dogs, while the armor that defines and embodies the glory of our warriors "clangs" and "clatters" to the ground like so much metal. Those wounds that are survived are attended to by fellow soldiers or, as in the case of the more senior Greeks, by the iatroi (healers). Machaon, for instance, will carefully pluck the arrow from king Menelaus, suck out the poisoned blood, and apply healing ointments. The actions of the healer here are "natural" (not supernatural); no gods are invoked or required. Nonetheless, Machaon is divinely inspired. His father, Asclepius, was the partly divine son of Apollo—known by the Greeks as Apollo ‘the healer’ in large part because he was able to divert plague (and indeed, he does, eventually, take away the plague from the Greeks in Book One of the Iliad). But Machaon is also inspired by the natural world. It was after all, from the centaur (half-man, half-horse) Chiron that Asclepius ultimately learnt the intricacies of the healing craft. So can we make any general conclusions about the relationship between death, disease, and the divine in the Iliad?
Let’s think back to our poem’s wonderful opening line: “Sing, goddess, Achilles' rage.” The bard, like the healer, invokes the divine to practice his art, and yet the art is ultimately his, and ultimately of this world. Like Homer, Machaon draws his knowledge both from divine but also from the earth and her creatures. Like Homer, Machaon’s knowledge of nature serves human society. Indeed, in time, medicine, like art, will become a defining part of society—of what it means to be civilized, peaceful, and free as human beings. 
Helen Valier

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What is Concealed, Revealed Will Kill You.

    What does the Iliad do best?  Make and unmake a human being.  Warriors have their natures altered by the gods or by emotions, and then become forces beyond human boundaries.  Warriors have their names turned into cut throats and slashed bellies, and then finally turned into shadows disappearing underground.  Images of light and dark often convey creation and decreation in the Iliad.  But this play of what is seen and what is hidden does not always appear readily available to those who stake their lives in battle.  Will a hero be able to read human nature or the nature of the gods? If not, it may cost his life.  How the world appears and disappears in the Iliad is a major theme in the poem; and at the same time, the ability to read what is there and not there often becomes the difference between shining above one’s enemy or winging down to darkness.

     The beginning of Book 5 emphasizes the making of Diomedes as the premier hero on the battle-field: “Pallas Athena, now gave to Diomedes / Tydeus’ son, the strength and courage / That would make him shine / Among the Greek and win him glory” (5.1-4).  His transformation signals his aristeia, his account of glory. Diomedes with a touch of Pallas Athena and a hero for a father not only shines like the Dog Star, but on the battlefield appears above any side, any cause: “As for Diomedes, you could not tell / Which side he belonged to, Greek or Trojan, / as he boiled across the plain” (5.96-98). The simile that follows transforms Diomedes into a raging river that obliterates “many fine human works” (5.104).  Along with this external power, Diomedes can now tell “god from man.”  Athena has removes a “mist” from his eyes, and now a fuller existence appears before him.  Athena states the key knowledge, “now you can tell god from man” (5.146).  For Diomedes to achieve unique glory, he needs a fighting power above all others, he needs a literal and metaphorical transformation, and he needs a perception and reason beyond what normal humans can see and know.  Is this to ensure that Diomedes does not fight the gods?  Or knows which gods to fight?  He will wound Aphrodite and Ares.  He will give Apollo due distance.  Diomedes will survive.  What happens when a hero cannot find the gods?
    When Patroclus appears in battle wearing Achilles’ armor he inspires dread, “The Trojans, when they saw Patroclus / Gleaming in his armor, fell apart, / Convinced that Achilles had come out at last” (16.285-287).  This hero has been made the greatest of all warriors by the armor he wears and the misperception of the enemy; but this creation will not last.  Patroclus will die because of what he cannot see, the god hidden, “did you feel it, Patroclus?—out of the mist, / Your death coming to meet you” (16.827-828).  Achilles’ friend will not see Apollo, but will feel the divine force shatter him as it strikes his back.  Patroclus shines in Achilles’ armor, but his fate remains hidden until the moment he is stunned and then killed.  He has power above others, but does not have the perception or knowledge to protect his life.  Up ahead in Greek tragedy, a situation like Patroclus’ will be called ironic and tragic; right now, it’s the paradox of shining but not seeing that results in death.  The mist Athena removes from Diomedes eyes, covers Patroclus so that his fate fulfills itself; and with his death, the deaths of Achilles and Hector become sealed.
    What of Hector?  What is concealed and revealed for him? 
    The Trojan hero may gain renown, may shine in battle-glory, but what he does not know, does not see will kill him.  “Unhappy man,” Zeus muses, “you have no thought of death, Yet death is close” (17.199-200). When he puts on Achilles’ armor, Hector becomes a “gleaming image;” however, as with Partoclus, he will not see things accurately and believe a brother stands shoulder to shoulder with him against an enraged Achilles, only realizing too late that Apollo has left him and Athena deceived him—“Death is closing in / And there’s no escape” (22.328-329). As with Patroclus the play between light and dark, what is revealed and concealed becomes a matter of life and death.  At times, these stakes are quite clear and a hero wants to clearly see even though they sense the darkness of death all around them.  What if a hero calls out to the gods for light?  
    As the fight over Patroclus’ body continues, Menelaos rages against disappearing in darkness, when he cries out: “If only one of our men could get a message through, / Fast, to Achilles.  I don’t think he’s heard / The bad news, that his best friend is dead. / But I can’t see any Greek who could do that job. / They’re all lost in dark mist, their horses too. / Father Zeus, deliver the Greeks from the dark. / Make the sky clear.  Allow us to see with our eyes.  / Destroy us in light, since destroy us you will” (17.659-662).  The obliteration of death, the flight downward to Hades compels Menelaos to ask for clear sight, to ask to see death distinctly around him.  If he is to be unmade, he wants all revealed.  Menelaos asks for the knife’s edge between what is hidden and what is seen.  Zeus grants this request.  Menelaos will survive, despite his foreboding. 
    For Patroclus and Hector, the revealing sight arrives too late.  For Achilles, it has been clear from early on what the revealing of his glory will mean.  The high stakes of revealing and concealing for Achilles do not focus on his death, but instead, on how this warrior who so often appears above the human can become viewed as essentially and necessarily human.  In my lecture this Monday, it is the very human nature of Achilles that must be revealed if the poem is to matter to anyone.  It is not Achilles’ death we wait for, it is where he will become limited, where he will give in to the necessity of human ethics, human law.  We want Achilles made a man.
    As in the quote from Heraclitus “nature loves to hide,” the nature of the Iliad is accustomed to sending warrior after warrior down into darkness, unmaking who and what they are; and yet, the poem also lifts heroes into the light, so they can dazzle humans and gods and be revealed as those who are worthy for song.  The tensions between the two, between disappearing as a shade into the underworld, and appearing as a star that blinds all who approach, makes the Iliad a long meditation on the reality and illusion of existence as we perceive the world around us as it makes and unmakes our lives.

—John Harvey

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Iliad as a Poem of Protest

In my lecture the other day I tried to suggest that the Iliad might be read as a protest poem.  A protest poem is a poem that questions conventional values and ideals, particularly those associated with authoritative bodies—the government, for instance.  During the Civil Rights Movement in this country, protest poems like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” helped clarify the longing for change and unite those who were clamoring for it.  Here’s Bob Dylan, American bard:

In arguing that the Iliad is a protest poem, I was thinking of all those moments, small and great, throughout this text where Homer seems to be calling attention to the horror of war and questioning the honor system which, in part, makes war possible—the increasing brutality of the battle scenes, those necrologies mourning the loss of warriors, statements by the women of the poem that reveal the devastation caused by war on non-combatants, the similes in which even images of home and of the natural world seem defiled by war.  And at the center of this text we have the greatest warrior, Achilles, questioning the worth of fighting, weighing whether his life is worth those spoils of war that will be his if he returns to battle.  It’s going too far to say that the Iliad is an anti-war poem in the way that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an anti-war poem, and yet this epic does recognize that war is a source of devastation and suffering.

But I also wanted to suggest that in the Iliad, Homer is protesting something more universal than the devastation and suffering wrought by war.  He’s protesting this bleak vision of human existence, embodied in Glaucus’ recognition that

Human generations are like leaves in their seasons.
The wind blows them to the ground, but the tree
Sprouts new ones when spring comes again.
…Their generations come and go.   (Iliad 6.149-151)

And he’s protesting this related vision of the inevitable obliteration of all human endeavor by the gods, embodied in the wall built by the Greeks that Poseidon washes away.  Homer protests this vision of the “human situation” by making poetry.  The kleos aphthiton, the undying glory, of these warriors is remembered and recorded.  And so it cannot blow away, like “leaves in their seasons;” it is not washed away, like the wall which “could not endure for long.”
—Kim Meyer

Saturday, September 11, 2010

To Speak of Fire

Philosophers from Ionia (Asia Minor) such as Heraclitus, Thales and Anaximander in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE sought to understand the coherence and continuity of existence, sought to understand what moves through the “all” and also makes everything we see, hear, touch and taste.  For Heraclitus, that meant here was a reason common to all; and as well, a movement and a measure constituting all, and that was fire.  Here are a couple of fragments which have survived:
This world-order [the same of all] did none of the gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.

Thunderbolt steers all things. 
        [translated by Kirk, Raven and Schofield]

Reading these words immediately makes me think of the world called forth by the poet’s invocation at the beginning of the Iliad—a world constituted, coherent and continuous through rage.  Such an elemental force in human nature suits well the breath and words necessary for an epic poem.  Achilles’ rage moves through other characters, moves up to the gods, moves against a river and finally, moves into death much as Heraclitus’ fire offers an energy and an account of the world and how it works.
    Then Achilles began to close ground quickly.

    A marauding lion has been hunted down
    By an entire village determined to kill him.
    At first he ignores them and goes his way,
    But then one of the young men wounds him
    With a spearcast, and he gathers himself,
    Crouching with mouth open, foam
    Flecking his teeth, and, growling deep in his chest,
    He lashes his flanks and ribs with his tail,
    Working himself into a frenzy.  Eyes glaring,
    He charges, carried forward by sheer passion,
    And no one can tell if he will kill or be killed.

    Thus were Achilles’ mood and temper
    As he closed in on great Aeneas.
            [translated by Stanley Lombardo]

Here the metaphor transforms Achilles into a lion in order to reveal the natural force this warrior brings to battle.  Follow these metaphors carefully for they are constructing an argument about what is natural, what is a force that compels and moves the world.  Certainly in this example and elsewhere in the Iliad, we can answer—rage. 

Within this quote there resides another powerful emotion, another powerful experience of existence: passion.  If Heraclitus serves as a philosophical example of seeking an understanding of what creates the world, and if the Iliad brings a mythic answer, then Sappho in her lyrical poetry offers an intimate voice telling us of its life with passion.
He seems to me equal to gods that man
    whoever he is who opposite you
    wits and listens close
        to your sweet speaking

    and lovely laughing-oh it
    puts the heart in my chest on wings
    for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
        is left in me

    no: tongue breaks and thin
    fire is racing under skin
    and in eyes no sight and drumming
        fills ears
                [translated by Anne Carson]

Here the 7th century BCE poet from the isle of Lesbos tells how passion, how desire for another alters and transforms the body of the one who gazes with longing.  The experience of desire is not lived in the object, but under the skin of the one who watches.  Passion reasons and overwhelms, figures rationally and irrationally and becomes a force that can feel like death.  In fragment 130 Sappho will call this desire an “unmanageable creature” who “steals in.”  The experience of passion calls forth a narrative “sweet-bitter” which can “melt” our limbs. 

As with Heraclitus’ fire, as with Achilles’ rage, passion constitutes, coheres and continues the world inside and outside the human body.  We can learn from these ancient Greek voices speaking to us in fragments and poems about the experience of becoming human and how it involves detecting what makes us tick, what pushes us forward, and despite all, keeps us going.
—John Harvey

Friday, September 10, 2010

Women in the Iliad

Professor Armstrong spoke on Friday about the Iliad as a poem of war, which of course it is.  And it’s a poem of war that at times questions and critiques war, even while acknowledging its inevitability and necessity. Homer offers this critique, in part, through the voices of the women in the poem.  With the warriors, we see the honor that fighting can bring to individual men; but with the women, we come to know the devastating consequences of that fighting on their families and communities.

If warriors risk a brutal death and shame (and in a culture centered on honor, this is no small thing), women and children and the elderly suffer palpably and pitifully.  They are made slaves to enemies and carted off to distant lands, children separated from parents, wives from husbands.  They bear the vicious loss of loved ones.  Or they themselves are slaughtered.  In that moving scene between Hector and Andromache and Astyanax, Andromache shows us what is at stake for her in this war, and what she has already endured during the destruction of her home city of Thebes years before.  Then, she lost her father and her seven brothers to Achilles.  Her mother was taken prisoner with all of her possessions, then ransomed for a fortune.  Now, Andromache and Hector both acknowledge that when Hector dies, fighting to defend his father’s honor and his own, she, too, will be led away in tears to work another woman’s loom in far-off Greece.  And, as Andromache laments later when she hears that Hector, too, has been killed by Achilles, their son will be left an orphan, shunned, that is, assuming he lives through “this unbearable war.” 

Here’s another poem, this time a contemporary one, that speaks to this critique of war offered through the women who are sheared down by it.

—Kim Meyer

The Last Hours of Laódikê, Sister of Hektor

                                                            Nicholas Christopher

Cold missiles and a rain
of embers accompany the men
who slide like shadows into the city
faces mud-smeared
stones for teeth no eyes

who slit the throats of everyone
they encounter until breaking down
my door they drag me into the darkness
that floods the corridor
and lock me in an icy chamber

where a torch of thorns sputters
and a man more bone than flesh
is playing music old
as time itself on a flute
and a girl clutching her knees

burns with fever before I apply
a square of moonlight to her brow
before she whispers her name
my name
both of us falling now

the room falling too and the city
and no one to hear our cries
just the dead waiting in a bottomless canyon
and the sound relentless
of the gods grinding this world to dust

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Asenath, Tamar, and the Problem of Exogamy in Genesis

As Professor Mikics said, we don’t know a lot about Asenath. But what little we do know is very surprising within the general structure of Genesis: she is not only an Egyptian—a pagan outsider—but also the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On (Genesis 41:45). Joseph’s children Ephraim and Menasseh are half-Egyptian, and Jacob’s formal blessing upon them brings them into the fold of Israel. They are the eponymous ancestors of 2 of the 13 tribes of Israel, and together make up the House of Joseph.

This is a huge deviation from a general pattern in Genesis. The genealogical drift of the text is always towards endogamy, or marrying within a very particular kinship structure. You may have noticed how odd it is from the get-go that Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah, who is his father Terah’s daughter by a different mother (Genesis 20:12). Isaac marries his own first cousin’s daughter Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, son of Nahor. Nahor himself had married his niece Milcah, daughter of his brother Haran. Jacob marries the daughters of his uncle, Laban, who is his mother Rebekah’s brother. Not only are Leah and Rachel Jacob’s first cousins through his mother (and sister-wives), but they are also his father’s father’s brother’s son’s son’s daughters. Talk about all in the family!

The exceptions to this pattern are very telling. Every time someone marries outside the kinship group, the genealogy tends to cleave off into another people that is not considered part of this burgeoning family-tribe-nation. Abraham’s relations with Hagar the Egyptian yield the Ishmaelites, often seen as the progenitors of the Northern Arabs. After Sarah's death, Abraham begets a number of sons with Keturah, whose nationality is not known, though their sons represent Eastern Arabian tribes like the Midianites.

Esau marries Canaanite women, and his progeny become the Edomites, traditional enemies of the Hebrews in the southeastern region of Palestine (Genesis 36).  But his brother Jacob is explicitly told by their father to marry one of his first cousins in Aram, and later Jacob becomes Israel, the eponymous ancestor of the nation that fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that he will become the father of a mighty nation (goy gadol).  When Esau learns of Isaac's instructions to Jacob, he marries Ishmael's daughter, but it doesn't seem to make a difference (Genesis 28:6-9).

While the marriage of first cousins, uncles with nieces, and brothers with half-sisters would constitute an illegal level of consanguinity in the US, there is a clear sense that outright father-daughter incest is implicitly wrong and another thing that will set you apart from the Chosen People. Lot, you will recall, is tricked into coupling with his daughters, who produce the eponymous ancestors of the Ammonites and Moabites, neighboring peoples outside the national identity of Israel.

This brings us to Judah, who marries a Canaanite woman, daughter of a certain Shua (Genesis 38:2). You will recall Judah’s sons Er and Onan are married to Tamar, and both die because God is angry with them. Tamar then cleverly engineers her impregnation by Judah, something we all find puzzling to say the least. But looking at the logic of this kinship strategy, we suddenly have to ask: to what people does Tamar belong? If she is a Canaanite, this still makes little sense, because her union with Judah would still fall outside the group, like Esau’s with his Hittite and Hivite wives. But if she is rather within the kinship group somehow, we could see that by mating directly with Judah, she is preserving the endogamous genealogy that the text seems to insist upon constantly.

Judah and Tamar, School of Rembrandt (1650-60)

This might appear a very desirable outcome for someone wishing to preserve the genealogical purity of the Royal House of David, which ruled in Jerusalem in later years and claimed its descent from Judah. It is not surprising, then, to find that part of the Jewish tradition makes of Tamar either a staunch member of the tribe, daughter of Shem, a priest (Genesis Rabbah 85:10) or at least a proselyte (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 10). One apocryphal text explains her motivation by claiming “because she would not separate herself from the sons of Israel she took thought and said:‘It is better for me to die for sinning with my father-in-law than to be joined to Gentiles’ ” (Ps.-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 9.5). This interpretation suggests Judah recognizes she is more in the right than he because she has kept the purity of his lineage, while he acting on his own judgment has both married a Canaanite and consorted (seemingly) with a pagan temple prostitute. Tamar behaves outrageously for a righteous cause. Well, that certainly is one way to make sense of this story, but it is far from definite.

This brings us back to Joseph and Asenath. The exogamy of Joseph in Egypt seems to signify a real turning point in the Israelites’ standing in the world as it was then known. Jacob’s blessing formally adopts these two half-Egyptian sons as a means of completing the tribal structure of the nation of Israel as it would later be known. Now the nation is complete…and ready for the long series of catastrophes and triumphs that fill the subsequent texts of the Hebrew Bible.

There were people in antiquity who wondered about this inter-faith marriage, however.  An apocryphal text known as Joseph and Asenath recounts how the Egyptian woman renounced idolatry, converted to the God of Joseph, and became a new creation through the eating of a mystical honeycomb (Joseph and Asenath, chapter 16).

We will see later this term how genealogy is important in Vergil’s Aeneid, and how you might compare its structuring function in both texts.

—Richard Armstrong

Further Note for Da Vinci Coders:

Genealogy is clearly an organizing principle of Genesis. There are exactly ten generations from Adam to Noah, and ten from Noah to Abraham, for example. Why ten and not seven, that all-important number from chapter 1? I’m not sure. But later genealogists clearly preferred seven. In the Gospel of Matthew, 14 (or 2 x 7) generations link Abraham to David, and 14 (2 x 7 again) stretch from King David to the Babylonian Captivity (i.e., the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah). Then another 13 stretch from the Babylonian Captivity to Jesus. So what does it mean to be approaching the last of 6 x 7 generations?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Joseph Superstar

Joseph has a distinguished career in later religious and literary texts. The great German writer Thomas Mann wrote a four-volume novel based on the Joseph story, Joseph and his Brothers. And then there's the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Hmm, that's not how I pictured it, somehow.

Like his mother Rachel, Joseph is remarkably good-looking. In one Jewish midrash, the Egyptian women throw precious stones at him to get his attention as he passes by in his chariot. When Islam adapts the Joseph story, equal care is taken to emphasize his complete hotness. In Sura 12 of the Qur'an, the women of Potiphar's house are said to be so impressed by Joseph's handsomeness that "they cut their hands." What does this mean, you may wonder. Well, one interpretation is that they are slicing vegetables for a meal, but they are so distracted by the young Israelite's stunning beauty that they look at him instead of the knives in their hands! 

It's true that Joseph has very little interest in women, a point made effectively when he resists Potiphar's wife. In contrast to his father and grandfather, Jacob and Isaac, he never falls in love. He marries an Egyptian woman, Asenath; we're told nothing about her, or about their relationship. The is one part of the Genesis story where women characters, who were so active and memorable earlier on, seem to disappear (with the remarkable exception of Tamar--and what an exception!)

—David Mikics

Pharaoh as Elvis? See it for yourself, with Donny Osmond as Joseph.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Akedah and Polemics in Genesis

The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of many memorable moments in Genesis, and one of the most upsetting. It is also seen as foundational by all three of the "Abrahamic Religions" that share this tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In antiquity, its religious significance for the Jews was quite specific. Mount Moriah, where the action takes place, was identified with Mount Zion and the Temple Mount, the great center of worship for the one God.  Since worship took the form of a constant performance of ritual sacrifice, the connection was clear:  in this place, God instructed Abraham on the manner in which his worship was to be conducted and on the location of its performance.

For Christians, the meaning of filicide was different.  Abraham becomes a great symbol of faith, a loving father who nonetheless puts God before the life of his own son.  The pathos of this act is tellingly conveyed in this rather Disney-fied Christian animated version:

The Christian view is that God himself later sacrifices His Son, doing the very thing for us which he did not require ultimately of Abraham.  This verse from the Gospel of John is usually put in juxtaposition with the Akedah: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16, King James Version).

In Islam, Abraham (known as Ibrahim) is similarly seen as having shown great obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son, though this version of the story involves Ishmael, progenitor of the Arabs, not Isaac. Ibrahim and Ishmael are credited with establishing the first house of worship at the Kaaba in Mecca, so again we see how the story links to specific ritual practices.  Every year during the festival of Eid al-Adha, Muslims ritually slaughter a sheep or goat in remembrance of Ibrahim's obedience to God.

And yet anyone reading this text with fresh eyes cannot help but ask: Why on earth would God ask such a sadistic thing of Abraham, especially knowing how long he has waited for this promised child? One way to view this is, as we have been suggesting, to see Genesis as a deliberately polemical text, one that subtly and not-so-subtly provides a critique of religious cults and practices from other peoples.

In Hebrew and other Classical sources, the practice of child sacrifice is alleged of the Phoenicians and their colonial descendants, the Carthaginians (more on them later this term).  Archaeological evidence seems to corroborate this: there are sanctuaries where the burnt remains of children have been found. A debate rages to this day as to whether child sacrifice was a reality in these religions; some want to see the bodies as the result of an epidemic or other childhood fatality. Some Pro-Life proponents want to see the fetal remains as the result of abortions, in order to draw from the Biblical condemnation of such practices a clear stance against abortion itself.

Clearly the idea that a religion required regular child sacrifice is appalling to this day. In fact, even among polytheists in antiquity, it was a common smear to claim your enemies engaged in human sacrifice, so it is difficult to know the facts.

We do not have to settle that historical question, however, to see why this helps us to shore up a polemical reading of the Akedah. Perhaps child sacrifice was a reality among the Canaanites and other polytheists surrounding the people of Israel; but even if it was not, it certainly was effective to claim that it was.  It is a way to declare the religion of another people fanatical and pernicious.

But if child sacrifice is imagined as the ultimate act of fanatical devotion (one frankly, I confess, I could not perform!), then it is a hard act to top.  So in my reading, the Akedah shows this Hebrew God establishing an important point.  His follower Abraham is—to our surprise and dismay—perfectly willing to perform this fanatical act when commanded.  But this Hebrew God then, having made His point, simply declares: I am not that kind of God! An important ritual distinction is made—to our relief—and the outline of correct worship is then made: kill animals, not people, in My honor, and this will set you apart from others.

It is very telling that later in the Hebrew Bible, we find the prophets reporting God's anger that His chosen people should be practicing these abhorrent rituals (Jeremiah 7:30-32), "which I commanded not, neither came it into My mind." The Akedah gives God plausible deniability on the matter of human sacrifice.

—Richard Armstrong

If you are a fan of early cinema, you might enjoy this lugubrious depiction of child sacrifice from Giovanni Pastrone's classic film Cabiria (1914).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rachel and the Household Gods

And Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel cushion and sat on them. And Laban rummaged through the whole tent and found nothing. And she said to her father, "Let my lord not be incensed that I am unable to rise before you, for the way of women is upon me."
Genesis 31:34
 These "household gods"—as Alter translates—are, in Hebrew, teraphim.

A very old interpretation (the Tanhuma Yelammedenu) suggests that Rachel stole the teraphim in order to "eradicate idolatry from her father's home." What do you think? (Alter clearly disagrees!)

What might the teraphim have looked like? The Tanhuma has a picturesque vision of them:
And how were they constructed? First they would take a firstborn male child, kill him, and sprinkle him with salt and spices. Then they would write a demon's name upon a gold tablet and place it beneath the child's tongue while performing certain magical rites. After this, they inserted the corpse into a recess in the wall and bowed down before it. Then, they would bow down before it, and it would speak to them in a whisper.

(Tr. Samuel Berman) 

More likely, the teraphim were much less gruesome: "household gods," familiar deities made of stone or clay. Such deities--perhaps a foot or so high--have been found through much of the territory of ancient Israel. Here's a picture (from the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem).
We will see such household gods again later this term when we read the Aeneid, since the Romans had them as well.

—David Mikics