Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

Standard
Harvey Milk, History, LGBT, LGBTQ History, Top Ten Tuesdays

Ten LGBT History Books for Harvey Milk Day

Today we remember an important figure in LGBT American History: Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk, known as the “Mayor of Castro Street,” was a gay rights activist and community leader. In 1977, Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board. He became the city’s first openly gay officer and one of the first openly gay individuals elected to office in the United States. In addition to gay rights, his campaign platform incorporated a variety of issues, including child care and affordable housing, as well as a civilian police review board. Harvey Milk was assassinated on November 27, 1978, by a conservative political rival who infamously claimed the “Twinkie defense” at trial, asserting that his junk-food diet had made him mentally unstable. The jury convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder and sentenced him to just six years in prison.

To honor Milk’s memory, I would like to share ten books on LGBT history that I think everyone should read. Someday, I hope to add my own book on Gay American Literature to this list, but that will have to wait until it successfully finds a publisher. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re looking for a researched, academic text on early twentieth century gay American literature. It’s ready for you!

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey: Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.

A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides: Why is bisexuality the object of such skepticism? Why do sexologists steer clear of it in their research? Why has bisexuality, in stark contrast to homosexuality, only recently emerged as a nascent political and cultural identity? Bisexuality has been rendered as mostly irrelevant to the history, theory, and politics of sexuality. With A History of Bisexuality, Steven Angelides explores the reasons why, and invites us to rethink our preconceptions about sexual identity. Retracing the evolution of sexology, and revisiting modern epistemological categories of sexuality in psychoanalysis, gay liberation, social constructionism, queer theory, biology, and human genetics, Angelides argues that bisexuality has historically functioned as the structural other to sexual identity itself, undermining assumptions about heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday: The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.

How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne J. Meyerowitz: From early twentieth-century sex experiments in Europe, to the saga of Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change surgery made headlines in 1952, to today’s growing transgender movement, Meyerowitz gives us the first serious history of transsexuality. She focuses on the stories of transsexual men and women themselves, as well as a large supporting cast of doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, judges, feminists, and gay liberationists, as they debated the big questions of medical ethics, nature versus nurture, self and society, and the scope of human rights.

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson: Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram: In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation’s imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture. 

Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and  Stuart Timmons: Drawing upon untouched archives of documents and photographs and over 200 new interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism sparked by the 1950s blacklist; from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s. Faderman and Timmons show how geography, economic opportunity, and a constant influx of new people created a city that was more compatible to gay life than any other in America. Combining broad historical scope with deftly wrought stories of real people, from the Hollywood sound stage to the barrio, Gay L.A. is American social history at its best.

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele: Activist-academic Meg-John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele illuminate the histories of queer thought and LGBTQ+ action in this groundbreaking non-fiction graphic novel.From identity politics and gender roles to privilege and exclusion, Queer explores how we came to view sex, gender and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II by Allan Bérubé: During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding anti-homosexual policies and procedures of the military. In Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation–not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs’ wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fought–one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.

Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich: Colonialism and Homosexuality is a thorough investigation of the connections of homosexuality and imperialism from the late 1800s – the era of ‘new imperialism’ – until the era of decolonization. Robert Aldrich reconstructs the context of a number of liaisons, including those of famous men such as Cecil Rhodes, E.M. Forster or Andre Gide, and the historical situations which produced both the Europeans and their non-Western lovers. Each of the case-studies is a micro-history of a particular colonial situation, a sexual encounter, and its wider implications for cultural and political life. Students both of colonial history, and of gender and queer studies, will find this an informative read.

Standard
2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Old Testament

1 Samuel 21-2 Samuel 15 #2018BibleRBR

“Saul and the Witch of En-Dor” by Gustave Dore

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Fourteen: 1 Samuel 21 – 2 Samuel 15

The second half of 1 Samuel and the first part of 2 Samuel recounts the decline of Saul’s reign and the establishment of David’s. Much of 1 Samuel is devoted to describing Saul chasing David and his few hundred followers throughout the kingdom, coming close to capturing him a few times but never quite succeeding. Each time, in fact, David is able to turn the tables and nearly kill Saul instead, much to that king’s chagrin. This section is most interesting in that it illustrates how two anointed kings, one of Israel and the other of Judah, take different approaches to dealing with a competing power who has been chosen by god (Saul disregarding god’s will, as usual, and David following it quite strictly). In addition, after the death of Saul and Jonathan, we are shown David’s goodness and his political savvy, as well as his fatal flaw.

The Witch of En-Dor: Even though the story of the Witch of En-Dor is rather brief, I’ll be honest and admit that I always remember it because her homeland shares a name with Endor of Star Wars, Episode VI (“Return of the Jedi”). It is a fascinating and important moment in Saul’s history, though. As king, Saul outlawed all witches, seers, etc., because they were aligned with the old, polytheistic gods and not the Abrahamic monotheistic god coming to prominence. In his desperation, though, after suffering serious losses to the Philistines and threats from those loyal to David, he tells his generals to find a seer who can consult a “familiar” and tell him his future. The witch brings Samuel from the dead, and the news is about as bad as can be. Not only is Saul doomed, but his sons are going to die, too. I find it rather odd that, at this point in the bible, when historically Saul is moving away from the old gods and in factthe later writers had already moved on definitively to monotheism, they would insert such a pagan anecdote.

Saul or Ahab?: The last part of 1 Samuel makes for great reading, especially for those familiar with the story ofMoby-Dick. Just as Ahab is consumed with a desire to get revenge on the white whale that maimed and humiliated the captain, so is Saul consumed with a desire to destroy David, his biggest threat. There’s a common theme of self-conscious leadership in these two stories that is beyond compelling and, in both cases, the results are rather tragic. In Ahab’s case, the tragedy is that he gives up his own life seeking vengeance upon a creature that committed an unconscious crime—it acted as an animal should; and in Saul’s case, his lust for power and neurotic self-doubt caused him to turn on perhaps his most loyal attendant. In the pursuit of David, Saul twice exposes himself to danger and is offered freedom by David, who could have killed him both times but chooses not to. When Saul learns his lesson and has finally decided to leave David alone, he falls to the Philistines, as do his sons.  

Absalom, Absalom!: For the most part, David is one of the godliest men of the Old Testament, especially for such a successful leader. He refuses to kill Saul, for example, even after being anointed by god, because Saul had also been anointed and to assassinate him would be to blaspheme against god’s wishes. Even the best of us are doomed to fall, though, and David’s weakness comes in the form of a beautiful woman named Bathsheba. One day, David catches Bathsheba bathing nude and decides he is going to have sex with her, even though she is married to Uriah, one of David’s loyal generals. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David panics. First, he twice tries to get Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife so that they can pretend it is his child. But Uriah is a committed soldier and refuses to go home and seek pleasure while his comrades are at war. So, in desperation, David orders Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and fight to the death. In this way, David breaks four of the ten commandments: he covets his neighbor’s wife, he lusts, he commits adultery, and he commits murder. God is nothappy with this situation and promises to punish David’s line. Ultimately, a few things happen: first, David and Bathsheba’s son dies. Then, David’s own son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar; then, David’s other son, Absalom, kills the half-brother for that crime. Finally, after years in self-exile, Absalom returns to his father’s good graces, via Joab, only to begin plotting to usurp the kingdom of Israel from David. What a mess!

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Dear Jonathan: When David hears that Saul and Jonathan have died, he cries, “how are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). He also remembers Jonathan by exclaiming, “thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:25-27). How romantic, and tragic. Later, when David learns that Jonathan’s crippled son still lives, he takes him in and offers him permanent protection, in honor of his father’s friendship.  

Israel: After David comes to power over all Israel, he decides to make the city of Jerusalem capital for the kingdom. This is clever from both a military and a political perspective. David, of Judah (in the south), needed to ensure that he could not be accused of favoritism by the northern Israelites, nor could he look like he was abandoning the southerners; so he chose a city right on the border between the two, which had been controlled by the Canaanites. The city was also heavily fortified, especially the high-walled area known as Zion, so taking it ensured a more secure strategic position. From Jerusalem, David would rule a kingdom of about 30,000 square miles, or approximately the size of the state of Maine. This was a golden age for the Israelites but, in fact, the kingdom was rather small and feeble comparatively. The Egyptian and Hittite empires that preceded it, for example, were much larger, as would be the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires to come later. Ultimately, the rise of an Israeli Empire was only possible by accident, because it just so happened that no secure Asian power existed at this time.

Common Kings: The selection of the first two kings of Israel is interesting. Saul was chosen from the most minor of the tribes at the time, an oddity; and David was the youngest son in his family, another strange choice. What are we to make of the fact that these two, specifically anointed by god, come from such common backgrounds? It is also interesting to remember that the rise of David is foretold earlier in the Old Testament: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab” (Numbers 24:17). David certainly does shine, and his reign is much longer than Saul’s. He is told by god, through Joab, that the sword would always be upon his family, and he does indeed crush the Moabites (despite the fact that his ancestor, Ruth, was one).

Standard
2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Classics, History, Mythology, Old Testament

Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Thirteen: Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20

Reading Ruth and 1 Samuel together is interesting because, in the first case, we have a book that is almost assuredly made-up some 700-years after the fact by post-exilic writers who were attempting to inject some sanity into the Israelites’ methods of rebuilding their culture and society; and in the second case, a return to an increasingly reliable history, at least in terms of the establishment of monarchy, the lineage of kings, and the tension between the priestly Yahvist sects (anti-monarchs) and the tribal order of kings. To be sure, certain elements of 1 Samuel are likely fiction, or strongly embellished histories, but the dichotomy between the pastoral idyll of Ruth and the history of Samuel is a fun trip to take.

Ruth: In the Hebrew bible, the Book of Ruth is found in a division called “The Writings,” which are treated as literature rather than history. In the Christian bible, however, Ruth is ordered with its chronology. The events take place during the time of Judges, so Ruth is placed right after the Book of Judges. It is likely kept apart from the preceding book because it acts as an important segue to the next four books of kings, and because it is meant to stick out to Christian readers. We learn that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the future King David, which means, of course, that she is also an ancestor to Jesus. It would be extremely important for this information to be highlighted by the early Christian priests, for their early Christian readers; so, even though the book is short, it earns its place as a segmented section. The story of Ruth is also probably made up. At the time it was written, about 700 years after the events and not too long after the return from exile, the Israelites were re-establishing their cultural and societal expectations. One of these was strict exclusion of intermarriage. Whoever wrote this book clearly objected to that policy and intended to demonstrate that not only was conversion to the faith possible, but potentially vital. Ruth, a Moabite woman, being written as the ancestor of David and Jesus, would be a powerful testament to the possibilities in conversion and inter-marriage, especially given how earlier parts of the bible treated Moabite women (as rather salacious seducers of Israelite men).

Samuel and Saul: God raises up Samuel as high priest and judge (a kind of king or ruler, as we learned in the last book) of the Israelites. He is born to Hannah, who had been barren until she promised god that if he would give her a son, she would devote him to god. Over the course of the early chapters of 1 Samuel, we learn that the Israelites and Philistines are still engaged in war, and that the Philistines far outmatched the Israelites in numbers and technology. They eventually manage to rout the Israelites and steal the Ark of the Covenant, in large part because the Israelites had again returned to polytheism and sinful living (adultery, lust, idolatry, etc.). This part of the bible also suggests that it is Samuel who manages to eventually defeat the Philistines permanently, but that cannot be accurate because, later, Saul and even David would still be at war with the Philistines (and they were the ones who would end Philistine rule forever); so, the priestly bias that has appeared in earlier books likely comes into play here, too, in the tension between the power of Samuel (priest and prophet) and Saul (the peoples’ king). Saul, indeed, is anointed king by Samuel, first, but is crowned a second time by the tribes. This dual crowning is likely another priestly invention that attempts to put two histories (one favoring priestly selection/anointing of rulers and the other favoring Benjaminite tribal tradition of selecting a king from among the people) into alignment.

Jonathan and David: I have always loved the story of Jonathan and David. Their “friendship,” as some call it, is rather unique in the bible, and in the old testament in particular. They are really soul mates, as is reiterated on multiple occasions in 1 Samuel: “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18). This love is spoken of again and again, and in their later parting, they weep and kiss each other. Some readers of certain persuasions have taken this to hint at a romantic relationship. A more accurate reading is probably a political one, where Saul’s heir-apparent to the throne, Jonathan, has allied himself with the handsome, accomplished, and charismatic general, David, with a view to the future. And perhaps it is both. It’s probably impossible to say for certain, either way, what the nature of their relationship was, but we can admit that it is rather special to them in biblical context.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Judah: At this point in time, Judah is a border territory under control of the Philistines. And yet, it suddenly makes a strong appearance in these two books, where it had been largely ignored to this point. Why? It’s interesting to compare it to Macedon, a border town in Greece that was largely under control of the Persians. At a certain point, Macedon was not only able to overthrow the Persians, but they took brief control over all of Greece. Judah, too, will do the same by overthrowing the Philistines and taking control of Israel. This is perhaps why writers began to insert certain levels of importance to this tribe, which had been, until then, rather plagued with misfortune (Bethlehem-judah has been mentioned a few times to this point, but always in rather dire circumstances).

Ark of the Covenant: The Israelites take the Ark of the Covenant into war, thinking it will save them because it is the physical embodiment of god’s power. But instead, they lose the battle and the Ark is stolen. This seems to suggest that god’s power is not meant to be wielded by the arms (or whims) of man. It’s also important to note that the Ephraimites, who had been carrying the Ark, never see it again. It will be tribe Judah that recovers it – no coincidence, given their other recent rises in fortune?

Which David Story?: There are two competing origin stories for David which are laid out basically side-by-side and without comment on the tension. The first is that David is selected by god (through Samuel) to be the next King of Israel. Samuel somehow manages to get David into King Saul’s favor, likely through an amenable/pro-Samuel courtier. David then becomes Saul’s harpist and arms-bearer. The other story is that David comes to Saul’s attention after slaying Goliath. David, the youngest in his family, was running supplies for his three elder brothers, who were in the army. When he sees Goliath stomping around, threatening everyone, and yet no one is willing to fight him, he takes the task upon himself. When he wins, Saul tries to find out who he is, which family he comes from, etc., and then he takes him into his court. Again, we seem to have one anti-monarch/pro-Yahvist perspective (Samuel, the prophet, selects the new king) and one pro-monarch perspective (Saul, the king, sees his own successor). 1 Chronicles 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19 both seem to suggest that what is really known about Goliath is that he was slain by some unnamed Bethlehemite. So, perhaps a later writer, wanting to elevate David even further and add an element of emotional romance to the story, conveniently reshapes the history into a useful fiction.  

Standard
2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Old Testament

Judges 3-Judges 21 #2018BibleRBR

“Samson Slays a Lion” by Gustave Doré

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Twelve: Judges 3-21

This week, we read through to the end of the Book of Judges (3-21), which means we leave off just before the Book of Ruth begins. Judges is where things get juicy again, thank goodness, as the last few books are frankly downright dull. All that changes, though, with the appearance of Samson. What a guy! Long hair, rippling muscles, and blessed by god him/herself to be the champion of Israel. Of course, it is not all easy wins, or fun and games. There are many “judges” (or leaders) that rise and fall throughout the time period represented in this book, and after Samson dies, Israel enters a period without leadership or kings at all. The Israelites also revert back to their old habits of embracing god when it is convenient and then reverting to paganism when they think they’ve worshipped mono-theistically long enough (memories are short, aren’t they?) Of course, god is always watching, and when the Israelites abandon him, he sends in another people to crush them.

Rise and Fall: The book of Judges tells the tales, sometimes very briefly and sometimes in great detail, of the twelve judges, or military leaders, of this period in Israel’s history. Much of the “rise and fall” of Israelite tribes over this period is connected (by the priestly writers who are here, many years later, editing and revising multiple historical tales into some kind of sensible timeline) to the Israelite’s turning away from, and re-acceptance of, the Abrahamic monotheistic god. It was not uncommon for the Israelite tribes, who were settling into their lands, to adopt some of the customs of the locals. There were also many minor and major skirmishes over these years. Later priests, who were both anti-pagan and anti-monarchy, took the opportunity to retell this period of their history from this perspective, essentially warning off their contemporaries from both polytheism and from adopting kingships and hereditary monarchies (which often came with polygamy, too).

Samson: The reason Judges is one of the most “fun” books in the Old Testament is because of the mighty Samson. It is likely that the story of Samson is adapted from mythological sun worship (solar myths) and, only later, in the priestly writings, is Samson given the title of “first Nazarite.” The Hebrew word for Samson is “Shimshon,” which is very close to “shemesh,” or “sun.” And Samson was born in Zorah, just two miles from “Beth-shemesh,” which means “house of the sun” and which was probably the center of sun worship in this region. His life and powers, too, follow the patterns of solar myths. He gets his power from his hair (sun rays) which, when removed (snuffed out) causes him to become weak. His nemesis, Delilah, also fits in, as “lilah” is the Hebrew word for “night.” In other words, following the cycle of the sun, night comes to extinguish the sun. When Samson is blinded, we might think of the stars being darkened in the sky. And when Samson’s hair begins to grow (the sun’s rays rising again), Samson’s power begins to return. It’s a really rather fascinating tale, even without the many other miraculous accomplishments, such as his slaying the lion, his killing a thousand men with an ass’s skull, or his escaping prison by pulling up and carrying the walls of a city over his shoulders. It’s also no coincidence that Samson is listed as the 12th and final judge – in the solar calendar, the 12th month is the last.  

The Women: We learn about three interesting and important women in this part of the bible: Deborah, Jael, and Delilah. The first, Deborah, was a rarity indeed. She was the leader, or “judge” of Tribe Ephraim, one of the most powerful Israelite tribes of that age. Indeed, Ephraim of this era is similar to what Sparta was for much of ancient Greek times, an unofficial military leader that is called on to head any unified campaign against common enemies. It is Deborah, with help from Barak, who leads a unified six tribes to war and defeats the Canaanites (King Jabin, specifically). Not long after, Jael, a woman, kills Sisera, another enemy king. In the first two cases, then, we see two women delivering Israel from danger. In the third, however, we get the opposite. The hero Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah. Despite all of Samson’s many conquests and heroic feats, it is Delilah who eventually brings him down by seducing him, learning his weakness (after much pestering), and sharing that information with her people.   

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Gideon: In addition to Samson, this part of the bible introduces us to Gideon, one of the most famous names in biblical history. Today, most Americans, certainly, are familiar with the Gideon Bible. In his time, Gideon was probably a king (though the writers indicated he rejected the title; that’s probably not really the case, however, and it is more likely that the priests, who were strictly anti-monarchy, re-wrote this bit of history to suit their contemporary politics). He was the smallest member of his family, which was the weakest clan in the tribe, and yet he was chosen by god to rise up and lead the people of Israel. He does so successfully and leaves a legacy of children, from many wives, behind. His story in many ways reflects that of King David’s, and in both cases the priests would have been troubled by their polygamy and their monarchies. Abimelech later kills all of Gideon’s descendants, except for Jotham, who went into hiding, likely alluding to the peoples’ distaste for the messy process of monarchical lineage.

Anarchy: Judges ends by describing, or summarizing, the rather lawless period recounted in this book: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25). In an ironic way, the priests who were compiling this book and who were so vehemently anti-monarchy are here indicating that, well, being entirely without rulers might also be kind of an issue. That said, when “god’s leadership” is required, the people are still encouraged to trust the word of the high priests, who continued to divine god’s will by referring to the Urim and Thummim, or the game of “yes/no” stones described earlier in the bible.  

So long, Reuben: It’s probably important to note that Judges 5 is the last mention of the tribe of Reuben. Historically, it seems, the tribe is now dead or has been entirely integrated into one of the larger tribes.

Standard
Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Reading Event, Religion

Joshua 5-Judges 2 #2018BibleRBR

“The Angel Appearing to Joshua” (Gustave Dore, Joshua 5:15)

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Eleven: Joshua 5 – Judges 2

The book of Joshua unfolds as a sequence of battles, one after the other, which demonstrates Joshua’s prowess as a military leader and ultimately result in the total settlement of Israel. The most prominent anecdotes include the sacking of Jericho and of Ai, as well as the alliance with the Gibeons and, finally, Joshua’s death. Judges, which is much less unified in its telling, will make it clear, however, that the Israelites were not as clearly successful and progressively advancing as the book of Joshua would suggest. Rather than a regular string of successes, the battles for Canaan were much longer, messier, and humbling than earlier described. The reason for this is probably that Joshua’s legacy is at stake in the first book: a legend is being crafted and perpetuated, and so, with rare exceptions, his total domination and superior command must be depicted without question. It seems Judges, however, is compiled from a great deal of ancient historical documents, without much effort to tell any single storyline, and thus might suggest more factual accounts of this period than the lore of Joshua does.  

Winning: Joshua 5-12 is essentially the recounting of a number of battles fought and won. Some of the most important and memorable battles come early, such as the sacking of Jericho. Over the course of 6 days, the Israelites circle the city of Jericho once and blow their trumpets. On the seventh day, they circle 7 times (the city must have been rather small) and blow their trumpets each time. After the last cycle, Joshua commands that the people shout with all their might along with the seventh trumpet-sounding. This “causes” the walls to fall down. Of course, what is more likely is that Joshua had some men chipping away at a part of the wall the entire time, while distracting the inhabitants of Jericho with the marching and trumpeting, even masking the sound. After Jericho comes the battle of Ai, which is significant because their first attack on it fails. This is blamed on Achan’s stealing gold, silver, and robes from Jericho, something explicitly forbidden. After stoning Achan and his family to death, they attack Ai once more (through some military trickery) and succeed, burning it to the ground and killing 12,000 people in the process. The next big event comes with the alliance to the Gibeons and Joshua’s slaughter of the 5 most powerful regional kings. During this period, Joshua causes the sun to stand still (10:12-14), an event for which there is still no explanation. The next couple of books recount more military successes.

Maps: After the many military successes, over the course of decades, Joshua reaches the ripe old age of 110. He knows he is going to die, so he spends his final days reminding the Israelites of their inheritances, which is to say the lands they shall settle based on tribe (with the Levites inheriting no land because they have been called to be priests). Essentially, we get a summary of Moses’s final words, right down to the reminders not to transgress against god or to revert to the old religions, nor to tolerate others’ gods/idols. Like Moses, he “gifts” the people their lands, tells them to be good, reminds them of their rich history from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob, down to Esau, Moses, and Aaron, and then dies.  The second half of this book, then, is essentially a combination of area map with tribal history; in other words, a synthesis of the old and the new.

Judges: Although we are not far into the Book of Judges, we can already see a difference between it and the previous books, especially its closest relative, Joshua. In this case, Judges is essentially a history of Israel immediately following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites. Instead of being told as a linear story, however, it is a miscellaneous collection of historical documents, most that pre-date the writing of the book by many generations, and the documents are not always related. Therefore, what is compiles is not a unified tale; it also raises questions about Joshua’s unfaltering military leadership (Judges 1 recounts the struggles of many disorganized tribes, fighting solitary to survive; there is no single leader and few alliances). Some historical facts to keep in mind: the Israelites are rising to power in Canaan in-between the Bronze Age (c 2500+) and the Iron Age (c 1400 BC). Their rise takes place just between the decline of the Egyptian empire and the rise of the Assyrians, which is why they had some time to establish themselves in Canaan. It’s also important to note that the Israelites, historically Egyptian, rely on earlier bronze weaponry rather than the more advanced iron, which they would encounter in battles with some tribes, such as the Ai. This is a likely reason why they struggled to win against many the Canaanite tribes, those who may have been in contact with other advanced cultures.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

The Judges: The so-called judges referred to in the title of this book were essentially minor rules of the various tribes. They were tasked with keeping the peace and pursuing justice. In the bible, of course, there is a direct connection between tribal and godly “judgment.” Each time the people defy god, they are delivered into the hands of their enemy. When they repent, god sends a “judge” (a new leader) to save them. Eventually, the period of judges develops into what will become a formal Kingdom of Israel. 

Jericho: Much like many other sacked cities in the bible, Joshua commands that no one shall ever rebuilt Jericho lest they suffer the consequences (and in 1 Kings 16:34, a king who defies this edict does indeed suffer. As promised, both his eldest and his youngest son are killed). The problem is, Jericho is in an ideal area. Ultimately, the city of Jericho was re-built about 300-years after it fell to the Israelites and lasted into New Testament times. It was then destroyed again by the Persians and the Arabs in the 7th Century (AD). It was rebuilt again by Crusaders about 400 years later and remains there to this day, in Palestine.  

The Bible and Science: The story of Joshua making the sun stand still had such an influence in early history that 2500 years later, opponents of Copernicus’s revelation that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the reverse, used it to “refute” him. What really happened? Some have suggested that the sun simply wasn’t shining as brightly that day, which gave the Israelites an advantage (and was remembered, instead, as a day of perpetual sunshine). Others suggest a random refraction of sunlight, similar to what happens for half of the year in very northern parts of the globe, such as Alaska; but how/why that would have happened is unknown. Apparently, no one has solved this particular mystery just yet.

Standard
Book Review, History, Non-Fiction, Politics

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is an interesting and frightening review of some of the most troubling moments in world history. What makes it especially disturbing is that Snyder connects each of these moments with a current event or situation, articulating the similarities in clear detail and noting why we should all be concerned about what is happening in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Ultimately, each lesson is a rule for how to resist tyranny, and these rules come together to create a kind of resistance ethos. The historical moments connected to current events make the problems clear, and Snyder’s lessons remind us that, in the end, power rests with the people, even when all seems lost.

The twenty “rules” laid out in this book are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Even a cursory look at this list gives one an idea of how to go about the process of resisting authoritarianism, as well as subtle reminders of when and how fascism has manifested itself in the past. Of these rules and reminders, all of which are crucial, a few stood out to me.

First, “do not obey in advance.” Snyder recounts an experiment that was conducted to determine how willing individuals would be in causing pain to others if an authority figured (like a doctor) deemed it safe and necessary. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. Snyder reminds us to trust our own instincts and morals, and to put them into deep consideration against the instructions of any authority figure. Just because someone says “temporary pain is necessary for” whatever, doesn’t make it true. Should we ever inflict pain or hardship on anyone else? Really?

Another remarkable moment for me, in reading this short guide, is the call-to-action for defending democratic institutions. “We need paper ballots,” Snyder writes, and he is right. After what Russia did in the most recent election cycles, including in France and the United States, we must rise up at the local and state levels and demand that our representatives ensure the integrity of our electoral process. That probably means eliminating electronic polling machines, at this point, and returning to the paper process. It might take longer, but isn’t the effort and patience worth it, if it means rebuilding confidence in our process?

Snyder also asks us to “be kind to our language,” by which he means, don’t succumb to hyperbole and double-speak. Read books. Learn history (real history), and avoid the twenty-four-hour news cycle that treats everything like “breaking news” and conditions us to be always on the lookout for the next tragedy or event. This particular presidential administration seems masterful in its use of “breaking news” as devices of distraction. I hope that what we are seeing out of the Parkland students’ reactions is the beginning of a new mode of thinking, one which encourages long-term engagement and attentiveness.

“Believe in truth” is a particularly powerful idea right now. A long-feared problem has manifested itself in these last few years, one which has been predicted for a half-century by luminaries such as Isaac Asimov and George Orwell: the destruction of truth and fact; the creation of an environment wherein everything is true and false at the same time, and where opinions are treated as equally valid to fact. This has caused quite the nightmare for those of us who do deal in truth, but I think is even more damaging to those who haven’t yet recognized what is happening. We have to vocally and vehemently re-assert our right to truth and speak up in support of it whenever possible. Truth does exist. Not all opinions are valid. At some point, this is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

Finally, taking personal action in the form of making friends, creating a private life where you surround yourself with like-minded people, and looking people in the eye, your neighbors and colleagues, is another important reminder. When tyranny rises, as it did in Nazi Germany and as it did during the “Red Scare” in the United States, it becomes only too easy for people to turn on their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. But we can make it harder by getting to know the people around us and building trust with them. There’s no easier prey for the state than a person with no friends or support. This also means, get active in one’s community and support the causes that one believes in. Chances are, when you are there for others, others may be more likely to show up for you, if and when you really need them.

These are just a few reactions to the twenty very important lessons Snyder details in his short but powerful book. I think fans of history and politics will enjoy this one for its blend of past and present, and the clear parallels Snyder draws between “then” and “now.” But I also think it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the survival of democracy and the rule of law over the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism that encroaches more and more each day.

Standard