Was Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel Worth It

Check out my latest article in the Nashville Free Press: The Pope’s Visit to Israel – Was It Worth It?

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Around the World Pic: Cyrus (my cat) Next to Another Picture of Himself

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For those of you who don’t know him, this is my cat, Cyrus. He’s much bigger and fluffier now. He’s standing on an open Bible next to a picture of himself up on my computer screen. The other thick-ass book behind the computer is the completed works of Aristotle (highly recommended) and then a Hebrew dictionary in the background. This is my kitchen table in my apartment in Israel. I sometimes miss this funky place, even if it was freezing, the ceiling leaked and I got robbed.

Do you have a cat or dog? What’s his/her name? Any pictures you want to share?

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Around the World Pic: New Years ’08, Rockin’ Out in J-ru

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Oh, aren’t celebrations wonderful. I’m the one at the front looking backwards all confused. This is New Years ’08 – that’s right, the year before last. After all, it is January, the month of Janus, the god of doors, the god of beginnings and ends, and the god who looks forwards and backwards, and so it’s a good month for such a picture.

I was in Israel at a club, but first my friends and I had a nice dinner. I had a steak that I didn’t even touch (just wasn’t hungry), but then I took it home (yes, I carried it around for the rest of my New Year’s festivities) and used it for breakfast two mornings in a row to make steak and eggs. Delicious!

And just for the record, in Israel the secular New Years is not a holiday so we all had school the next day. But we didn’t let that stop us from having a great night….as this picture may or may not indicate.

Do you remember where you were for New Years ’08?

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Fun with the Bible: Verifying Isaiah with Archaeology and How the World Could Be Without Judaism, Christianity and Islam

There is a verse in the book of Isaiah, chapter 22, verse 10, that reads, “You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall.” This is in the midst of a denunciation of Hezekiah, king of Judea in the latter half of the eighth century BCE by Isaiah.

For you see, in the eighth century BCE, the Assyrians were marching across the known world (Mesapotamia, or the Middle East, if you will) and conquering the hell out of everyone. In Judea, King Hezekiah decided to build (by reinforcing) a great and mighty wall around the city of Jerusalem to protect it from the Assyrians. In the northern kingdom of Isreal, by the way, the Assyrians conquered the Israelites and dispersed the tribes. Hence the ten lost tribes of Israel. In any case, Hezekiah was not going to let that happen to Judea and so he built this wall.

On a separate note, modern archaeologists digging in the old city of Jerusalem uncovered the wall that Hezekiah had build around the city and at one point in the wall, they actually found the foundations of a house jutting out. Before that discovery, religious folks and scholars were unsure about the particular meaning of this verse and what it referred to – or that it referred to something so real and tangible. However, after this discovery scholars knew that King Hezekiah had indeed built this wall and that a contemporary of his had chastized him for disregarding the homes of the common people in order to build the wall.

Now, personally, I think Hezekiah made the right decision, but the point I want to make is not that. Much of the Bible, as many of you know I believe, did not happen – at least not the way it is written. However, that does not preclude the fact that much of it is still true. In some cases, archaeology like this can perfectly verify the words of the Bible.

However, I’d like you to consider something else. The Assyrians had a policy of moving the conquered people away from their land and moving foreign people in. Moreover, they would force these conquered people to marry and assimilate with people elsewhere, thereby destroying all tribal identities and creating only people who saw themselves as subjects of the Assyrian empire. This is precisely what happened with the ten northern tribes from the kingdom of Israel and why they are now lost, and had Hezekiah not built this wall and chosen to do it as he did then the tribe of Judah would no longer be here because the Assyrians would have conquered them and done the same thing.

To whatever degree you think God has a hand in things, consider that without this man building this wall, there would have been no Judea and therefore no Jews. Thus, there would be NO Christianity and I’d be willing to bet, no Islam. Many people might cynically say, No religions, that’s a great thing, but let’s not be so naive as to imagine that nothing else – no other beliefs – would have risen in place of these systems that now dominate humanity. And no matter what, human nature would have overridden the peaceful inclinations that those religions had. Don’t forget, at their core Islam and Christianity are both religions of peace, for whatever violence has plagued their histories.

So, no wall from Hezekiah and the world as we know it would be a very different place. Consider that when you consider the impact of small things on the world at large.

What do you think about these verses?

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Quran Read-A-Long: We Learn about the first Halal Laws in the Cow 168-176

Making the Dietary Laws as Serious as Possible

I think that the opening line here begs a question: how do we know what things of the earth are lawful and good to be eaten? That is, what’s Halal? As we read on and see that verses 168b-171 all relate to not following Satan and only obeying God, and that they are sandwiched in by lines 168a and 172, both about eating the good food given by God. We come to think (at least I did) that the food being spoken of is not your typical french fries and hambuger (or humus and falafel if you prefer – yum!), but rather, the spiritual nourishment and guidance provided by God, particularly through the right words of the Quran.

But then suddenly, we’re right back into the food again. So my question becomes, are these interim lines an intentional blurring of concepts here so that we come to equate eating what is right and following God’s law with being a good person and following God spiritually? It would certainly serve to make the commands weightier, and this seems to be further echoed by the verses that proceed the list of taboo foods as well.

The Specific Foods

The actual list of forbidden foods is fascinating, I think, because each is paralleled in the Torah, which is to say the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut (that’s why many in Israel who are not fanatical about what they eat but just don’t want to eat anything really wrong will eat at both kosher and halal restaurants since it’s effectively the same).

No blood, which is forbidden in the Torah because it was considered the lifeforce of the animal and that part was reserved explicitly for God. Somehow I think that Islam’s commandment was based on something less religiously primitive. No carrion birds for Jews or Muslims either, and of course nothing that was sacrificed in the name of any other God.

No pig, which is interesting, and many theories have been derived for why. After noticing that it was forbidden in both religions, one scholar concluded that the pig is a terrible animal to raise in the desert climate of the Middle East because it needs to be kept cool, and without adequate water will resort to filthy means of doing so (rolling in its own feces). Thus, that law insured that people would not waste time keeping and tending to pigs. Just a theory though. There are numerous theories for laws that don’t seem to have a scientific basis – all interesting – but all just that: theories. We don’t really know why it is that such things were forbidden, though the consistency in God’s commandments in the Torah and Quran is noteworthy.

Please feel free to comment on and add anything that I missed or said. What are your thoughts upon reading these verses? Do you keep halal (is that the phrase – it’s keep kosher)? What do you think the correlation between the texts and religions is here?

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The Cow 168-176

168. O men, eat only the things of the earth that are lawful and good. Do not walk in the footsteps of Satan, your acknowledged enemy. 169. He will ask you to indulge in evil, indecency, and to speak lies of God you cannot even conceive. 170. When it is said to them: “Follow what God has revealed,” they reply: “No, we shall follow only what our fathers had practiced,” – even though their fathers had no wisdom or guidance! 171. The semblance of the infidels is that of a man who shouts to one that cannot hear more than a call and a cry. They are deaf, dumb and blund, and they fail to understand. 172. O believers, eat what is good of the food We have given you, and be grateful to God if indeed you are obedient to Him. 173. Forbidden to you are carrion and blood, and the flesh of the swine, and that which has been consecrated (or killed) in the name of any other than God. If one is obliged by necessity to eat it without intending to transgress, or reverting to it, he is not guilty of sin; for God is forgiving and kind. 174. Those who conceal any part of the Scriptures that God has revealed, and thus make a little profit thereby, take nothing but fire as food; and God will not turn to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor nourish them for growth; and their doom will be painful. 175. They are those who bartered away good guidance for error, and pardon for punishment: How great is their striving for the Fire! 176. That is because God has revealed the Book containing the truth; but those who are at variance about it have gone astray in their contrariness.

The Book of Deuteronomy is Found and King Josiah Reforms Israel

Boy is this topic endless and fascinating but I’m just going to give you a teaser and to really enjoy and appreciate its depth you’re going to have to do a little legwork on your own. But WAIT! If you don’t want to do legwork there’s still fun to be had with the Bible, so read on. For those of you with a little more time and interest, read on and then read on.

He Found What!?

In 2 Kings 22:8 is says, “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.'”

Now, there are a couple of books mentioned throughout the Bible, most of which we don’t have anymore and can only drool at the vast wealth of information and resources that are now gone but once existed within them. For instance, the book of Kings constantly refers to the Annals of the Kings of Judah and the Annals of the Kings of Israel, what were obviously two large and lengthy indexes maintained through the reigns of each king of both states. If only we still had these books….

In any case, 2 Kings 22:8 has long troubled rabbis and scholars because the question is always, which book. For traditional Judaism it’s easy to think that this simply refers to the entire Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) because the people were not doing what they were supposed to and the finding of this book was followed by an incredibly repentant King Josiah and a huge series of reform that reflects things in the Bible.

But There’s More to This

For scholars, however, it’s not so simple. By the time of King Josiah the Torah did not exist in the form that we have it. Four separate texts that currently comprise the Torah existed but no straight-up Torah. So what was this book. Well, based on when the book of Deuteronomy was written (or at least the bulk of its meat) and based on the particulars of King Josiah’s reforms, scholars have concluded that the book found was the book of Deuteronomy!

What do I mean when I said, based on the particulars of the reforms. Well, some of the laws presented in the book of Deuteronomy differ from the way they are given in the Leviticus-Numbers section that provides the bulk of the laws. Moreover, the book of Deuteronomy has certain interests that challenge the status-quo of what had been, like its obsession with destroying all high-places (any place around the country where people may have worshiped) in favor of a centralized location (the Temple in Jerusalem).

By further probing the texts we find more and more similarities between Josiah’s actions and the book of Deuteronomy that are actually different elsewhere in the Torah.

Summary

In this brief explanation these reasons may hardly have convinced you that the book of Deuteronomy was what the High Priest found and Josiah sought to implement the reforms of, but I challenge you to do some investigation of your own.

First, read 2 Kings 22-23 (at least everything about Josiah). Also, read the corresponding section in Chronicles 34-35 because it also talks thoroughly about what Josiah did (and curiously adds details absent from the book of Kings). Then go to Deuteronomy and read the laws and concerns expressed therein and notice the fascinating ways in which they line up. This next step is obviously a crazy undertaking but read from Exodus 19-Numbers 10 and notice different holiday celebrations, concerns of the text and more.

I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts about this so please ask below. If you have any trouble with the text let me know and I’ll be happy to work it out with you.

What do you think about all this?

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Religion in the News: Monks Brawl at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Where Jesus was Supposedly Crucified

As many of you know, I used to live in Jerusalem. I did my masters at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One of my favorite places to visit in the city, and one of my absolute favorite to bring visitors, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was such a fascinating place with so many cubbies to explore and so much history on top of myth. Truly, it was a special place whether or not you believe that Jesus was crucified, laid and entombed there.

However, as history would have it, six different Christian denominations have control over various parts of the Church and since a treaty in the latter half of the 19th century, not a single element of the status quo of the church is allowed to be changed, for fear of a resumption of the often violent disputes that used to erupt there. Though squabbling is still common amongst the monks of the controlling denominations, there are only rarely outbreaks of violence.

As it happens, one of those outbreaks was earlier this week. Armenian monks trying to celebrate a festival commemorating the discovery of the cross Jesus was supposedly crucified on and Greek Orthodox monks who wouldn’t leave a certain space for fear of losing control over it, got into a violent scuffle where fists and anything moveable were thrown.

Now people, this is a little ridiculous. Is that what Jesus would want? Personally, I’ve always felt that Jesus would want everyone to leave him alone and stop bringing him into their disputes but in the meantime I’m pretty sure that Jesus would actually prefer that nobody fight over such stupid things. And this is freaking stupid.

Get a grip people. Set a frickin’ example.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an amazing place and things like that just ruin the atmosphere.

Have you ever been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Tell us about your experience.

Want to read another post on the Church that includes pictures and more detailed history? Click HERE.

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