My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Out with the Old?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s been a long time since I have posted — back in December, to be precise. This is because the last couple of months have been consumed with completing my doctoral degree, which culminated in the defense of my dissertation on Feb 28. Still riding the crest of that tide, I’m looking forward to posting here more regularly.

That said, I was reading my regional newspaper the other day, and came across an article that included advice from a few career counselors in response to disillusioned job seekers. One of these wanted to know why she had had interviews for seven months, but no job offers. One of the dispensed nuggets of advice was the following: “When writing your thank-you notes, make sure to send them by email. Handwritten ones can make you appear old-fashioned.”

Inherent in this nugget of advice, of course, was the bald and unquestioned implication that being old-fashioned  is automatically bad. I am not a career counselor, so I cannot claim that this advice is wrong. I do, however, remember the days when email was only a few years old and had not yet caught on as a ubiquitous form of communication. In those days, one was warned always to send handwritten thank-yous to an interviewer, and never emailed ones, because a handwritten note would show that you were professional enough to make an effort with a time-honored tradition. Nonetheless, the rapid pace of modern changes of convention is not my main point. I am more piqued by the counselor’s unquestioned acceptance that “old-fashioned” equals negative; this is proclaimed as a truism, taken for granted.

What strikes me particularly (and this won’t be surprising, given my newly-minted occupation as a biblical scholar) is how different our culture is from the ancient world in how it considers the worth of old ways and old things. In the culture of the Bible — to use just one example of an ancient culture here — old ways, old things, and old people carried a cargo of deep respect, and were emulated by younger newcomers seeking to make their own meaningful contribution. A prophet or psalmist, for example, could innovate with a creative idea, but expressed such innovation through deference to older convention, and often with reference to older things. There are too many examples of this in the Bible to do more than scratch the surface here, but one of my favorites involves the use of ascending numbers. This was an ancient literary convention. Here are a few examples:

“There are 3 things that will not be satisfied, 4 that will not say ‘Enough’: Sheol, a barren womb, earth that is never satisfied with water, and fire that never says ‘Enough’ ” (Proverbs 30:15-16).

“There are 3 things that are too wonderful for me, 4 that I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of the snake upon a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman” (Proverbs 30:18-19).

“Under 3 things the earth quakes, and under 4 it cannot bear up: under a servant when he becomes king, a fool when he is satisfied with food, an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she supplants her mistress” (Proverbs 30:21-23).

“Yet gleanings will remain in it like the shaking of an olive tree, 2 or 3 olives on the topmost bough, 4 or 5 on the branches of a fruitful tree, declares Yahweh the God of Israel” (Isaiah 17:6).

“Thus says Yahweh, For 3 transgressions of Damascus, and for 4, I will not revoke it [punishment], because they threshed Gilead with sharp iron” (Amos 1:3).

It’s worth noting that in Amos, the “for 3 transgressions and for 4” continues in a litany of divine charges against various oppressors. To use a different example, the books of Samuel make several references to God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus, but these references are made in the new context of the people at war with the Philistines and other groups; reference to “the olden days” is valuable. We see such references to the Exodus again in the context of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, in which Second Isaiah (for example), an exilic-era prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55, reminds the people of how God parted the Red Sea, led them through, and extinguished the pursuing oppressors.

I could go on, but I’m beginning to get tired. The point is clear. There’s a real difference between how our culture perceives “old-fashioned” things, and how the Bible (and other ancient cultures) perceived them. Now this is not to say that “the olden days” represent some golden era where everything was easier and good and everybody was kind and thoughtful, and so on. My recent reading of Mark Twain’s Autobiography was enough to cure me of any such notion, as the great humorist himself goes on at length about what is deficient and distasteful about hypocrisy, politicians, political parties, and the electorate in his day. Excerpt that passage and you could have in front of you an editorial in any newspaper during our modern election cycles. So this is not to say that everything old equals good. But it is to say that by the same token, not everything old equals bad, and not everything new equals good.

And then there are the words of that immortal realist/cynic (depending on your point of view), Ecclesiastes: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place it rises there again. Going to the South, then turning to the North, the wind goes swirling, swirling, and on its swirling courses the wind returns. All the streams go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams go, there they keep on going” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7).

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

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

When Home is 93 Billion Light Years Around

In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.

There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.

But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.

To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.

In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).

People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.

With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?

I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.

Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.

This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”

A Hijacked God

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ

The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//

I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?

We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”

If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.

I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.

A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.

But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.

© 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