A Human Identity

Whenever I tell anyone that my work involves the study of the Old Testament within its context of ancient Israel and the Near East, this is the question that often follows: “Oh, are you Jewish?” Or, the occasional bewildered variation: “But you’re not Jewish, are you?” When I inevitably answer “no” to these questions, the follow-up is usually: “That’s so interesting — then what made you want to do that?” My answer  typically goes somewhere along these lines: “I’ve always loved history, particularly ancient history, and I’ve always been very interested in religion. As a Christian, I was already exposed to the Old Testament, so the combination of the ancient history and religion was a natural thing for me.”

I often wondered about the source of the query as to whether I am Jewish, and of the follow-up question to figure out why I am so interested. The assumption seems to be that if I’m so interested in the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, I am probably Jewish. I think that the source of these questions speaks to the matter of individual and cultural identity, and what causes us as humans to claim certain identities for ourselves; how we view the identities of others; how we define what constitutes “my” identity, and the identities of those who are “not-me.” This does not necessarily mean that we look with fear or condescension on the identities of “not-me,” but simply that we are aware of the distinction, whether that awareness is accepting, non-accepting, or neutral.

The identities at hand are cultural and religious identities. These are often, but not always, linked. In the modern world we see much more frequent breakage of that link than was the norm in the ancient world. In that world, your culture contained your religion, as it did for your neighbors, and that was that. If you were Egyptian you worshiped the Egyptian gods and practiced the appropriate prayers and rituals; if you were Sumerian, the Sumerian ones; if Babylonian or Assyrian, then those respective pantheons (though these often contained similar or the same deities and rituals going by different names). The same rule was true for the collection of small countries and peoples often termed “Canaanites.”

This is not to say that people did not move from one place to another, or that cosmopolitan centers did not contain foreigners passing through or sojourning. But for the most part, if you were born in a certain place, your religion was the religion of that place. Conversion did not begin to happen on a grand scale until the growth of the Christian religion; this caused problems for many families in the Greek-speaking world when one of their members left the family identity by converting to another religion.

But what determines identity for us humans? Not just religious identity, but any identity? What makes us decide to stay within an identity and consciously operate within it, defining ourselves within it, taking pride in it? Or to cross over into another identity? How much of our former identity do we keep? If one is of Italian heritage, one is likely to have been raised Catholic, but one can choose either to commit to or change that identity. If one lives in Asia, there is a good possibility one may be Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian; if southeast Asia, Buddhist but also Hindu or Muslim. And so on. A person can decide to leave any of these identities and adopt another one, and sometimes not only a religious change but a change of culture as well. Or that person can choose to adopt wholeheartedly and thrive in the identity to which (s)he was born, accepting this as a given fact. In America, which has a culture that is formed from the co-existence of many subcultures with immigrant heritage, these lines can be especially permeable.

Still, the lines do exist. People may cross over cultural or religious identities, but the concept of one’s identity — as distinct from some other identity — will likely always exist. People can contain more than one cultural or religious identity within themselves, of course, especially in a country like the United States. But if one’s sense of identity becomes too dominant, then conflict with others and even war on a national scale can occur, as history and experience consistently show us. But without a sense of identity, we feel rudderless, a lack of belonging, and a longing to belong to some smaller subgroup within humanity. What would happen if we all only identified ourselves as human, as individual members of a vast human family? Would that ever happen, or is our desire for the existence of a smaller group to which to belong, a smaller and more well-defined identity than simply “human,” too strong?

I think that such a desire is too powerful ever to leave the human psyche. We crave some level of distinctiveness, something that makes us “us.” But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing only when one’s sense of identity becomes so fundamental that one becomes inclined to fight, scorn, or avoid others simply because they have a different identity from one’s own. “I am a [insert any kind of identity here] and therefore am above you.” The ideal state of being for all our desire for our own identity, for all our desire to belong to a smaller group within the category “human,” should be that we own our identities and thrive within them while dwelling alongside those who claim a different identity. Dwelling with respect, love, and regard for fellow humanity.

The Old Testament contains a story of a woman who left her old identity and adopted a new. Her choice was that the people to whom her late husband belonged — the Israelites — were more important to her than the Moabite culture that was native to herself. So after her Israelite husband died, the woman Ruth returned to her husband’s people with her beloved mother-in-law Naomi and chose an Israelite man named Boaz. When Naomi had initially urged Ruth to return to her own people the Moabites and to their gods, Ruth had pledged to her this famous vow: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s name seems to derive from the Hebrew word for (female) “friend.” This story also marks her as a direct ancestor of King David. Although the book of Ruth contains far more complicated elements than I’ve mentioned here, one of its primary elements speaks to the importance of friendship and love over all else.

Our identities are often, and often should be, very important to us. But I think we only better ourselves as people if we choose to give pride of place to love — love for all those who, just by existing, share with us our most basic identity: human.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Gods in High Places

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington is 6,288 feet high — small compared to many other mountains, but the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States. Quite apart from its height, however, is the fact that its summit hosts some of the most extreme and erratic weather on Earth due to its particular position at the crossroads of several storm tracks. Until it was surpassed recently in Australia, the mountain held the world record for the strongest wind: 231 mph. Other than the primary summit building designed specifically to withstand its winds, all structures are chained to the mountain itself.

Significantly, Mt Washington was once known as Agiocochook: “Home of the Great Spirit.” This is no accident, since humans have been associating mountains with deities since the dawn of religious awareness. Mt Sinai (alternatively Mt Horeb, the name preferred by Deuteronomistic writings) is of course the most famous of these in biblically-based religions. We see major events taking place on other mountains in the Bible too, however, such as Elijah’s famous confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also known in the Bible as Mt Zion. While it is not terribly high, it is the highest point in Jerusalem and affords a commanding view, and was thus the obvious choice for Yahweh’s Temple.

Mt Sinai hosted the most famous theophany in the Bible, during which Moses received the Ten Commandments and (in the words of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) the instructions to build the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ worship center until the construction of the Temple. In addition, the Bible is not bashful about mentioning the many “high places” (Hebrew bamot) scattered throughout the land. Although Deuteronomy in particular condemns these bamot as the worship sites of other Canaanite gods to be avoided by followers of Yahweh, their very names indicate that while they may not all have occupied mountaintops, they certainly occupied elevated land. People of all persuasions have it in common to gravitate to high ground to seek the divine.

In the Canaanite culture that included the northern coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), ancient and largely intact myths — such as the text scholars call “The Baal Cycle” — record the role of Mt Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Zaphon means North both in Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew. Here dwelt not only Baal but many others, including his sister the fiery Anat, who braved confrontation with the frightful sea god Yamm, their half-brother, after he had initially defeated Baal in battle; Astarte who like Venus was the Evening Star; Asherah who was initially the consort of El, the High God, the Father God. El (which is simply a word meaning “God” both in Ugaritic and in biblical Hebrew) was the elder God and the head of the divine council, depicted in Ugaritic texts as an old man with long white hair and beard — and a sometimes formidable appetite for banquets, goddesses, and strong drink. In the Bible, Yahweh shared many characteristics of El — though not the propensity for carousing. Notably in Daniel 7, Yahweh appears as the Ancient of Days (Aramaic ‘atiq yomin) with the same flowing white hair and beard.

In ancient Greece, which for various reasons is more familiar to modern Western minds, the mountain of the gods was Mt Olympus, where gods such as Zeus, Hella, Aphrodite, Eros, Aries, Athena, Hermes, and numerous others regularly feasted, fought, and observed the affairs of humans.

My husband’s mother hails from Maui, and several years ago in homage to that family connection — and this had nothing to do with the paradise that is Maui itself, of course — we decided to visit that island on vacation. The central landmark of Maui is the 10,000 ft dormant volcano Haleakala, which in Hawai’ian means “House of the Sun” and which dominates the island. The ancient spiritual connection with this mountain is obvious. One is immediately drawn to it after landing on the island, and the volcanic craters at the summit host innumerable visitors each year — all of whom leave changed for the experience. The goddess of the Hawai’ian volcanoes is Pele (PAY-lay). Is it any surprise that these volcanic mountains are the dwelling-place of a deity?

We also went to Aruba years ago, and at one point stood atop a high cliff overlooking the rough side of the ocean at the north of the island. We were buffeted by constant wind, but returned twice. It was a mystical, beautiful, haunting yet welcoming kind of place. Austere landscape strewn with cacti, rocks, and sand, empty of the many visitors enjoying the calmer southeastern side of the island, it was a place where you felt you could almost hear the divine in the wind. Indeed nearly all you could hear was the wind, and the pounding Atlantic surf nearby, which no swimmer could dare brave. We saw a wild donkey there — not too far away, just a glimpse, wandering amongst the cacti. It might sound surprising — but in that place, it was not at all hard to imagine that wild donkey as some local spirit, connected to that land, mystical or magical in nature, ephemeral. No experience has duplicated that place. And lest I neglect to mention… A Catholic chapel inhabited that place. Our Lady of Alto Vista (High View in Spanish), originally built in the 1800s. Clearly we were not the only ones to have felt an uncanny sense of the divine there.

I could go on. Mt Cadillac the highest point in Acadia National Park, Maine — at the gusty top of which we stood at 10pm one clear August night, staring up at Mars hovering just next to one of the star-studded arms of the Milky Way. That, too, was an experience that has not been duplicated. The low mountains in Scotland, to which mossy Nordic grass and mists cling. But I don’t need to go on. Humans are drawn to high places as places to encounter — or at least to feel, to sense — the divine. What is this awareness we have? A gravitation toward places physically larger than ourselves as a natural way to reach something cosmically larger than ourselves?

In this space age, where we see awe-inspiring photos from Hubble on an almost daily basis, we are keenly aware that Earth’s mountains are not the largest places to which we can go to seek the divine. But for most of us, they are still the closest we can get. And so we go to them, and we keep going.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Fall-Guy for the Weather?

Today where I live, the weather could hardly be more pleasant. The air is warm but not humid, and an agreeable breeze keeps the warmth from turning into heat. It is hard not to think of ancient Near Eastern weather gods on a day like today. More on this in a moment.

In the modern Western world, many of us will actually thank God (most likely, a God in a monotheistic religion) for such an unusually perfect day. Others will simply admire it and be glad at the felicitous combination of atmospheric forces that produced these conditions. There is nothing wrong per se in being grateful to God for fantastic weather. But then that does generate a quandary of its own. Do we believe that God specifically creates the weather for each day everywhere? If so, what are we saying about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, overabundance of rain?

Most compassionate people in our society (myself included), after hurricane Katrina and the indiscriminate suffering it inflicted, reject the notion that God purposefully generates weather. In the aftermath of Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin threw a match into a powder keg with the statement that the hurricane could have been God’s punishment for the city’s sins. [The topic of “retribution theology” is one unto itself, and will be the subject of its own blog post eventually]. Mayor Nagin was not the only person to hold such a view, but most people — quite sensibly — pointed to the federal government as the primary cause of the scale of that city’s suffering. The existence of such fierce weather and the devastation it can wreak raised the question among many people of faith: what do we think about such things?

Ancient societies had their own answers, which we would largely (and I think rightly) reject today. In Greece, you could either thank or blame Zeus for your weather; in Rome, Jupiter, Zeus’ equivalent. In the ancient Near East, depending on where and when one lived, the fall-guy for the weather was either Baal, Hadad, Enlil, or — in ancient Israel — Yahweh. Who, judging by certain storm-god imagery attributed to him in the Bible, absorbed in popular culture some of the weather-god language formerly assigned to Baal. It is also worth noting here that at least one biblical author disagreed with thinking of Yahweh as a storm god similar to Baal: the writer of 1 Kings 19, who described Elijah hiding in a cave sulking on Mt Horeb. Elijah witnesses first a powerful wind breaking the rocks apart, then an earthquake, then a fire; but the writer states clearly that Yahweh was not present in these forces. Elijah then hears a gentle whisper, and Elijah comes out to talk with God, for it was in the whisper that Yahweh could be found. Legendary biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross observed that this passage (among other things) likely represents a protest against the sometimes-identification of Yahweh with Baal.

In ancient societies, many people believed that if the weather was good, the gods were pleased with the city/country. If the weather was bad, the gods were either displeased or were having a battle amongst themselves — in Greece the gods seem to have been especially cranky. We find another sort of answer in Job, however. In the concluding chapters of that book, we hear Job railing at God for an often patently unjust universe, accusing God of being derelict in his duties to maintain the balance of justice (duties commonly expected of deities in the ancient Near East). With audacity that we can only admire, Job demands an answer. He gets one, but not any that he expected.

God’s response to Job, basically, is that Job as a human doesn’t know squat about the universe. In a response that must have sent Job diving for cover under the nearest palm tree, God delivers a litany of the things Job can’t even begin to understand: the stars, the oceans, the wind, the animals in the great deep, the way justice works, the universe in general…. basically, everything. Here, I believe, is our connection with the weather. God states that he has tamed, with a ring through the nose, the great beasts that symbolized Chaos: Leviathan and Behemoth. Under the purview of God, these Chaos creatures now play and skip like frolicking and perhaps not always well-behaved animals; they do not, as they did in primordial times, rule the cosmos with freakish destruction.

The implication may be that God has to a large degree tamed and controlled Chaos; but God has not killed it. Chaos is restrained, but it is a restrained power. In modern times, when we see a hurricane swirling in grandeur on a satellite image, we cannot help feeling a shiver of admiration, of pure respect at a force of nature so untouchable in its raw power. We are fascinated and attracted by it. It is chaos, it is formed by our Earth’s complicated and wonderful atmosphere and all the raw forces that move that atmosphere.

I would think that the same holds true for gorgeous, perfect days such as the one I am now experiencing where I live. It is a product of the unpredictable movement of atmospheric components. Does this mean God had nothing to do with it, even indirectly? Since I believe God created all the components of the Universe, my answer to that is probably no. And I will still thank God for this delectable day, in the same way that I thank God for any other blessing I detect in my life.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010