The Bible in and as History: Daniel

book_of_daniel_chapter_6-7_bible_illustrations_by_sweet_mediaSo, into the Lion’s Den!  The Book of Daniel forms another of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and how different it is from the previous books.

The text itself is considered by scholars to be a collection of stories assembled first from court tales, and than adjusted by Hebrew religious iconography.  We can narrow down pretty specifically when certain sections were penned to the middle of the 2nd Century BCE.

The Book’s first section is a set of stories featuring the character of Daniel.  Israel is ruled by Babylon, and the king, Nebuchadnezzar, has an assortment of Hebrew Noble youth brought to his court to be trained.  Four of these, led by Daniel, refuse the wine and meat set aside for them, least they be contaminated.  Proving themselves and maintaining their devotion to God, Daniel is granted visions and abilities.

He successfully interprets a dream of the King, winning his favour, a mirror somewhat of Joseph and a repeated connected theme; The Hebrew who by virtue and God’s gifts becomes the favourite of a foreign king.

What follows is series of stories; Daniel’s companions refuse to bow to the statue the Babylonian king has made and are thrown to a fire.  Looking in the King see’s not three, but four figures, one seeming godly.  Astonished, he removes the others from the furnace, decreeing that none should blasphemy against the Hebrew’s god.

The King goes mad and is only made sane and restored when he acknowledges heaven’s supremacy.  After dying the New King profanes some holy vessels from the Jewish temple and is beset by a strange vision.  Daniel criticizes him and he repents, only to die and be replaced by another King after rewarding Daniel.

The most famous passages regard the ‘Lions Den’.  Raised up by the Third king of Babylon he has served, Daniel makes the other advisors jealous so they conspire to have a law passed forbidding the worship of any god for 30 days.  Since Daniel cannot stop his worship, he breaks the law and is thrown to the Lions.  God ‘stops up their mouths’ and Daniel escapes unharmed.  Daniel’s accusers, along with their wives and children, are than cast into the fire.

There are then a succession of visions, some prophecies both vague and somewhat more specific.

Like many sections of the bible thus-far, Daniel is a book written in a particular historical context that has been used for purposes far outside that context.  The context is a crisis in 2nd century, as a Greek kings of the Seleucid Empire made traditional sacrifice and worship in the temple of Jerusalem impossible.  The Seleucid was one of the many successor states to the massive empire of Alexander the Great.  The Greek king defiled the temple and engaged in a Hellenization campaign, prohibiting Jewish texts and such.  violent resistance to this was able to re-purify the temple.  Indeed, it is how we can date the book accurately.  The prophecies describe some events up to about 167 B.C. very accurately, but prophecies wars between the Syrians and Egyptians that do not happen.

Daniel had an immense impact on Christianity and ‘Christendom’.  Much of it is essential a book about faith; Daniel is given special powers by God for following Gods rules.  He follows those rules even in the face of oppression, violence and attacks by others, and God brings him and his fellows through it.  It’s pretty obvious why this narrative appeals to Christian theologians.  Also, for the lay person, it’s just far more exciting than many of the previous prophets.  Rather than esoteric verses about four-winged beings or the rebirth of the temple, there are people being thrown in furnaces, Lions!  People being devoured!  A king going Mad!  Really you can imagine much of Daniel being performed as a play for entertainment as much as a holy book.  It has much purchase outside the Christian faith as well, appearing both in iconography and story-telling motifs in a variety of sources.  It’s the first book since I believe Job to have a story in it I was familiar with from my youth.

An important side note here; Daniel has sections of it that appear in the Apocrypha.  That is, there are ‘extra’ sections that were considered Canonical by the Christianity until the Protestant reformation.  All pre-reformation denominations(Roman Catholic, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) consider it cannon, but Protestants and Jews do not.  Indeed the reasons Protestants do not is because it is not part of the Hebrew text.  It’s important to remember that arguments about the text and texts are a long-standing part of it’s history.   The notion that the Hebrew text should be considered above the Greek is itself a theological discussion.

Alright, so the major prophets are done and I’m down to the minor prophets; Next up, Hosea!




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The Bible in and as History: Ezekiel

flemish_-_ezekiels_vision_of_the_sign_-tau-_ezekiel_ix_-2-7_-_walters_44616Well at long last I am back and at this again and finally overcoming the real slog that is the Book of Ezekiel.  More than two years ago I made a commitment here, and perhaps this year I’ll actually finish it, so without further adieu.

Ezekiel is the last of the ‘Major’ Prophets of the Old Testament.  It’s also, for want of a better phrase, the most ‘biblical’ in the sense I originally had coming into this project.  It has the language one most associates with say Scripture quoting preachers on TV.  There are reasons for this, and it’s historicity and place both within Jewish and Christian thought is pretty interesting.

It starts with a rather trippy opening, describing creatures ‘like men’ with four faces and four wings.  It, unlike some of the previous books, very sincerely paints itself as the recordings of a single person.  Besides using personal pronouns(I say, on the fourth day I witnessed, etc.)  it places each of its prophecies as occurring on a particular day.  This makes them more personal in a way, but also, strangely, less mystical.  Perhaps it’s the ‘Well on Tuesday the 8th, God talked to me’ aspect of it that makes you wonder if Ezekiel was quite all there.

The themes that follow in the first sets of prophecies are familiar to us by now; Ezekiel as a prophet was supposed to have lived during the Babylonian captivity between 593-571 BCE.  Scholars generally agree that the book follows the writings of this figure, but with additional edits over time.  The first sections of the prophecy are all about the iniquities of Jerusalem and the state of Israel.  Comparisons made in flowing, lyrical language describe Jerusalem as a harlot and a whore.  The author really seems enamored of this comparison.  We see here a continuation of prior themes; the state and people of Israel and Judah going astray, away from the ‘God of their fathers’.  Attempts by the priest-class, in exile, to reassert power.  The language warns of iniquity, that the prophet, informed by God, needs to bring the wickedness of men to their attention, least the prophet also be condemned.

It’s clear from the language that there are specific contexts being addressed here.  That is Ezekiel is making specific criticisms of practices in his age.  13:17 for example talks about women sewing pillows to their armholes.  That seems a really odd thing to be specifically calling out as evil.  Yet we find that this is most likely a reference to specific spiritual or magical practices of female prophets in and around the area Ezekiel is in.

One way in which Ezekiel’s language turns out to be useful for late philosophers is that it’s lyricism, it’s use of metaphor and simile, mean it can be adapted away from the specific context it was written in and into other forms.  Jerusalem can be any corrupt city and has been. Preachers have railed against Rome, Moscow, London, New York and probably every major city on earth using the language of Ezekiel.  Even less specific, references to rotted vines, to corruption, can be extracted and used against any adversary.

After the prophecies regarding Jerusalem, which are of the theme “The People abandon God, bad stuff happens, when the people return to God, good stuff happens”, are the prophecies regarding other nations.  This reads some-what, if I may use the analogy, like a teenagers list of grievances: “The Ammonites will get theirs!  and then the Egyptians!  and then Assyrians!”  Again, placed more specifically in the context of Ezekiel’ time.

Lastly is the second on the New Temple.  This section is often now referenced as the ‘Third Temple’ though of course at the time it was written the Second Temple didn’t yet exist.  It is exhaustive in its details and specifics, though with just enough ambiguity to have particular disagreements between scholars on some of the exact features of this future temple.

As I have said, Ezekial was an important book in both Judaism and Christianity.  It serves as a foundational element of the idea of the ‘Third Temple’ for the Jews.  For Christians its symbolism has made its way into many a Fire and Brimstone preachers sermon, but on a broader theological level serves to point towards both Jesus’ return(seen here as the rhetorical and metaphysical restoration of Jerusalem) and towards redemptive theology in general.

Alright, so Ezekiel is a bit of a slog.  It’s the third longest book as far as I can tell, second to Genesis and Psalms and matching Numbers.  Next come a string of the ‘minor’ prophets, which are much shorter and I should be able to get through relatively rapidly.  Than, finally, on to the New Testament to find out what all this talk about this Jesus guy is about.

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The Bible in and as History: Lamentations


Lamentation for the Destruction of Jerusalem

So we continue our look at the Bible with an examination of Lamentations, the book of tears.  That may seem a bit pretentious, but as we shall see, Lamentations is composed for mourning and reflection by groups of people.

Lamentations is a set of five poems, a literal ‘lament’ for the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and Judea ‘going into captivity’.  I have read that in their original Hebrew form, they are acrostics; that is that each line begins with a different corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Obviously I am reading them in King James’ English, but that is an important point for later.  These are poems, and meant to be sung and repeated.  Meant to be committed to oral memory.  Rather than ‘A is for apple’, ‘L is for Lament’.

The first poem is a lament for Jerusalem’s destruction.  The city is desolate and empty.  It is described as a woman whose children and lovers have abandon her.  A woman desolate and alone.  The iconography is pretty clear, meant to invoke the image at once of a grieving mother.  Later the poem takes the point of view of this woman, who grieves her rebelliousness against god as the cause of her misfortune.  It’s a theme we’ve seen as central to the biblical text in a number of places.  “Woe is to me, Jerusalem, for my people didn’t obey God, and this is why all has been inflicted upon me.  We deserve this because we rebelled against God.”

The second of the poems is perhaps a tad more forceful.  It decries the ‘fallen daughter of Jerusalem’.  Like the previous poem it has some female imagery, the city, the people as represented by a female abstract.  Given the patriarchal context of both the original authorship and the translating society of 17th Century England, I suspect this is done both to draw sympathy and establish a hierarchical structure in the mind of the reader.  God is the father and Judea falls as the disobedient daughter does.  Like the previous poem there is repetitious use of talk of what God has done.  This has an interesting political dimension and theocratic dimension we have touched on before.  It takes a common pre-modern idea; that success is a result of the strength of ones gods and turns it on it’s head.  Here, the fall of the city is not because of the weakness of Hebrew Armies, or the strength of the Babylonians or Egyptians or what have you.  It is not the enemy who defeats, it is God who does, in punishment for transgression.

The following three poems repeat the themes already outlined, though they take a different path.  They repeat the horrible things done to the people of Israel in the name of the lord, and the structure of accusing rebellion of the people as being the principal cause.  Indeed one makes it clear that ‘the whole world’ would think it impossible for ‘the adversary’ to triumph, but that God has made it so.  The context for these poems is obvious after the fall of Jerusalem, and the efforts of the clergy to sustain their power both during and after the exile.  Though interestingly enough, we also have retorts against the prophets and priesthood.  They too must share in the blame for the catastrophe.

As I mentioned before, these are poems, meant to be sung.  In Judaism they are sung on Tisha B’av, which honours the destruction of the first and second temple.  Their patterns are thus those of memory.  Like many religious songs they repeat their theme and draw the participant into a collective experience with others.  A center-point of community; it is not that I mourn, it is that WE lament, we experience anew the destruction of the temple, the destruction of the city, the despoiling of it’s youth and enslavement of it’s children.  We learn the lesson and repent as they must.

In Christianity they serve a similar purpose historically; being sung on the earliest part of the Holy Week celebrating Easter.  This of course makes sense in the context of that holiday; We unite in mourning, as we are united in mourning by the death of Christ, to be brought high as we are absolved, as Christ arises.  In both traditions the act of mourning, of lamenting, becomes a union of the community.

While Lamentations has a short and sweat interpretation, and indeed historical context.  Being around an obvious event and used by the people of the following religious traditions in particular ways, next we have a work not so clear cut; Follows the Mysticism of Ezekiel.



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The Bible in and as History: Jeremiah

806px-rembrandt_-_jeremiah_lamentingSo After a long hiatus I am back and hopefully for the sustained rush to the end of this project and the start of others.  I can say that while personal events have kept me from completing this project within it’s initial time-span, I have a greater deal of respect for people who have read the whole thing inside of a year.

I plan on doing some discussion of the entire ‘Old Testament’ when I hit it’s end, but already I see that plenty of these books end up sounding repetitious on first reading.

So the Book of Jeremiah.  Unlike some of the other books of the bible, whom we have to place in history by supposition or comparison with other texts with known dates, we can discern the time-period.  Jeremiah began his mission according to the text, during the Reign of King Josiah of Judah, around 627 BCE, until King Zedekiah, around 586 BCE.  This is a period that starts with Judah’s subjugation by the Egyptians, followed by the Babylonians defeating both the Assyrian s and the Egyptians to become Judah’s overlord.   Subjugated beneath the Babylonian Empire, Judah rebelled several times until it’s elite were exiled to Babylon and it became a province of the Babylonian empire.  This is a story we’ve heard before, and much of the text of the bible was composed during this period or at least formalized there-after.  We can surmise, given the specifics, at Jeremiah being a real person, a real prophet, who left behind actual words.  What within the text is actually his words though is harder to determine.  We know for certain that parts of the text were edited by various authors over the course of the following centuries and it’s unlikely it gained it’s final form until the 2nd century BCE, nearly four hundred years after the events in question happened.

There are two extant versions of the text itself; one of Greek, one of Hebrew.  The later is shorter, but both are contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There is some scholarly disagreement on the nature of these two versions, but what I’ve read seems to indicate that the Greek is probably derived at a later date from the Hebrew.  Like all the texts of the bible we are reminded that their transmission, in a time before the printing press, was by manual copying.  One must assume by priests, whose historical and vested interests would alter over time.  It’s not a question of whether the text is edited, but how much and by whom to what end.

Looking at the text we see an alignment with what has gone before.  Prominence is played onto the Covenant between God and the people of Judah.  The idea being that there is a contract between the people and God.  Like a traditional marriage, where-in the Husband is above the Wife, the people are beneath god and thus correction, judgement and punishment is inevitable because of the peoples betrayal of the covenant.  The deal was struck, one side broke the dead, Gods punishment is essentially just.

This is a running theme we see again and again in the Deuteronomic portions of the bible.  The  fate that befalls the nations of Israel and Judah being divine justice for the falling from the path.

Beyond descriptions of the events surrounding the prophets life, and the descriptions of the fate already befallen, we have actual prophecies.  These are less specific, though some might be taken as that, and more repetitions on a theme.  This bad thing will happen and than this bad thing, and these things will be the result of the broken covenant.  God will use the Babylonians as an instrument of his judgement but than he will bring low the Babylonians themselves and so forth.  The Prophecies both explain the present circumstances of the people, but also point them towards a triumphant future.

Obviously this text holds importance in both Jewish and Christian history.  Besides the actual historical elements, the text frames what will be the various struggles of the Jewish people even after the Captivity is over.  After the destruction of the second temple during the Roman era it would continue as explanation for the state of the Jewish people and part of the promise of the future.  It could also be held as prophecy fulfilled.  God promised Jeremiah that Babylon would be brought low, and look it was.  Jeremiah as a figure is thus referenced elsewhere.

To Christians Jeremiah is a prophet foretelling the coming of Jesus.  The idea that god would forge a new covenant fits into the Christian world-view, with the people of the word filling in for the people of Judah, and Jesus new covenant filling in for the obedience that the people in the ‘New Kingdom’ will show.  What was probably than a literal, somewhat political text initially, with a spiritual dimensions, gains express and complete spiritual dimensions by later peoples.  The ‘New Kingdom’ becomes not a literal kingdom but an imagine future Utopia.  Jeremiah is not the first, nor will he be the last of the Old Jewish prophets to be put to use by later theologians.

That’s it for Jeremiah.  Next it’s on to the fore-heads of ashes and weeping with Lamentations.



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Times maketh the Man

Glasses (commercial)Stepping outside in a dark evening to deposit the recycling into it’s proper receptacle, I was this evening struck by something. Something I had not thought deeply on before. How hard it was to see in the dark without my glasses.

Initially a silly stray thought it went to others. I am myopic. So are both my parents, and at least two of my grandparents. Given that one of my two paternal uncles is also Myopic, it’s entirely possible that this has run in my family for quite some time. My father also see’s ‘fuzzy’ without his glasses.  As likely did countless others going back generations.

This set me to thinking about those ancestors. As close as the earlier half of the 20th century glasses would be the purview of the wealthy, or at least the middle glass. Glasses were the mark of education, education the mark of wealth and privilege. My ancestors, mostly from a working class background in Scotland, might very well not have been able to afford them. Further back, in the Victorian era, and it’s entirely possibly they might not have even realized the need. If they did, there was probably nothing they could do about it. Further back, a dozen generations perhaps, and there was nothing that could be done. The fuzziness that surrounds lights and other things at night for me. That makes reading or sorting details at a distance difficult, would just be the way things are.

In the age before glasses that could be purchased for half a week’s salary. Before health plans and health insurance and deferred costs. In an era where working meant with your hands for most people, my ancestors didn’t have the opportunity to see as clearly as I do on a daily basis. I wonder how those men and women would look at their bespectacled descendant.

One more thought on the way history can be a history of objects, of common people, of culture and society, just as much as it can of great men, wars, politics and religion.

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The Bible in and as History: Isaiah

Isaiah, first and greatest of the later prophets.  A book full of theological and literary reference.  After a couple of books that were relatively short there is this behemoth, which turned out to be hard to form opinions about for me, though I seem the exception if my readings are corrects.

The text itself is rather long.  Ultimately it is a text of prophecy; the Prophet speaking to the people of Israel about the future.  The text has a central theme of Salvation after tribulation.  The land of Israel has been conquered and subjugated, and soon enough it will suffer further conquests and subjugation.  These are a consequence of Gods displeasure with the people, and it is through these trials that the nation will be purged of the wicked and the unrighteous.  After these tribulations, the enemies of the Hebrews will be brought low and, from a Center of Jerusalem, the Messiah will herald in an era of peace based on the rule of God.

There is a lot I could talk about in regards to this, but I’ll start with authorship and intent.  The Authorship of this, like many of the biblical works, is highly contested.  One view is that the Prophet is the Author of the earlier sections of the book, with the later sections being additions.  Another view splits the book into three sections, attributing the different sections to different authors or authorial groups.  The earliest portions of the text appear to occur surrounding the Assyrian Crisis.  In 701 BCE an Assyrian King laid siege to Jerusalem.  The ultimate outcome of this conflict varies due to conflicting evidence.  Jewish sources say he was defeated by strange mass-deaths of his soldiers, while Assyrian sources claim victory and tribute paid by Judah.  It’s hard to suss out which of these sources in the most accurate, as both exist in traditions not exactly steeped in historical accuracy.  The sources we have from the Jewish side are suspect as being quasi-religious justifications after the fact.  The Assyrian sources come in a tradition that ignores losses or defeats and is a near constant lauding of Assyrian victory.  Regardless the earliest part was written in a period where Israel had fallen and Judah was under constant threat from the Assyrians.

The Later portion has moved the focus from the Assyrians to the Babylonians, likely putting it’s authorship later, in the Babylonian captivity.  The theme remains the same however.  God as the author of a calamity, utilizing ‘Pagan’ peoples as his weapons, with the intent of purifying the realm.  This followed by a glorious rise and the humbling of ones enemies.

It works wonderfully as a political and transformative text. In essence extolling the reader to be one of those who will survive by virtue.  Reprimanding those who are not following the true and strait path.  Promising vengeance upon those who heap humiliations on you.

Beyond it’s initial authorship we have a long and powerful history of Isaiah as central to both Judaism and Christianity.  For the former, We have the establishment of an apocalyptic tradition.  While other, earlier works do speak of transformation, rebirth or renewal in terms of the Jewish state, this informs the idea of a series of god-mandated catastrophe’s, mitigated by the acts of the people, and than resulting in a new, improved, purged Jewish State.

It’s not hard to see how these themes, which seem to have been important within Judaism throughout the Roman occupation period, deeply influenced Christianity as well.  A History Jesus would almost certainly be familiar with these texts and his followers definitely were and definitely pulled from this text for their own theology.  My reading on the subject repeats that Isaiah is one of the books most quoted later on in the New Testament.  That Paul, and other authors, directly quote Isaiah extensively in their own works and also pull from the imagery of the text in building their own apocalyptic visions.  For a book whose theme to me reads as “Bad Stuff is coming, we deserve, be good and you’ll get out of it” it’s easy to see the resonance with Christian theology.  And this remains current throughout the development of various branches of Christian theology.

The Long breaks that are coming between these posts will hopefully shorten if I can discipline myself to them.  So hopefully within a week we have what comes next; More Prophets with Jeremiah.

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The Bible in and as History: Song of Solomon

So after a bit of a Hiatus I attempt to dive right back in and get to the end of the Old Testament.  When I began this I didn’t realize that it wouldn’t be the reading part that would prove the most difficult, but having things to say about the books in question.

The book of Songs, or the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, is a bit of an odd duck in the old testament.  At first glance(and well second through third to my eyes) it appears to be a ballad to a woman.  That is it appears to be the sort of thing a man writes to  his lover.  Or perhaps about his love.  In places it is a dialogue, going back and forth between two lovers.  In places a woman describes her lover.  In places a man describes his.  There are allusions and metaphors and places that one could easily take the whole thing to be a bit racy.

So how did this thing end up in the canon?  Well not necessarily easily it appears.  It was not accepted into the Jewish canon until the 2nd Century CE.  Eventually it’s supposed authorship by Solomon won out over it potentially less than holy content.  This was occasioned by interpreting the text as being about Gods love of Israel, rather than a romantic or sexual relationship.

Christianity adopted the book into the canon as well as a similar, if not identical metaphorical interpretation.  The text now being taken as a relationship between Jesus and the Church.  According to my reading, later iterations of the Church would develop further readings; The Medieval Catholic Church, for example, would draw metaphoric connections between ‘the Bride’ mentioned in the text and the Virgin Mary.  Because it’s meaning was taken as purely allegorical so early on, the text itself lends towards a variety of interpretations, all some-what meditations on a relationship.  It is, in a way, as if a love poem was taken as a central holy text divorced from the actual people to which it referred so it could be used to describe any relationships; God to Israel.  God to the Church.  The Mother of God to her Son, etc.

Others have drawn comparison between the work and love poetry from Ancient Greece and Egypt.  That it fits within the confines of a broader literary genre, and yet has the stamp of holy scripture is profoundly interesting to me.  It suggests a living text produced first through cultural artifiacts of a particular period of history and than interpreted over and over again through forgoing generations.  This is the formation of history.  One is perhaps reminded of the great Science Fiction novel ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ in which a shopping list is interpreted as holy writ by a future generation of monks.  We have no knowledge of the true author of Songs.  If there is indeed even a single author.  We can’t know there historical intent, whether it was indeed some religious allegory or a more mundane understanding of ‘earthly’ love.  What we can see is how the work itself persisted through the accidents and whorls of history.

A Short book, so a short entry, and next time another of the Major Prophets with Isaiah!

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Musings on 2014

The Passing of years is a very useful, and yet entirely arbitrary human construct.  It is true that our small planet completes an orbit around the sun every ‘year’, but choosing any point along that orbit to measure from is essentially arbitrary.  Some points, say the Solstices or the Equinox’s might be less arbitrary than others, but it’s all human construct.  January 1st is ‘our’ new year because of Ancient Roman Festivals involving the God of Doors, Janus.  Others celebrate a new-year on a particular Solstice, or in time with a lunar calender.

Regardless of it’s arbitrary nature, the passing of the year offers time for reflection both forward and back.  It is the marking of perhaps the largest ‘human’ marker of time.  We recall, as we age, the passing of the year and recurrence of annual traditions.  By perhaps four or five Children in places that practice it can recall that ‘Christmas is coming’.  Longer stretches of time, 5 years, a decade, seem more illusionary.  Assigned value and determination after the fact.  Larger units still exceed human lifespan.  I have seen the end of one century(and indeed one millennium) and the beginning of another.  I think it unlikely I shall see this centuries end, though with the pace of medical technologies, who knows.

So with that in mind, where, in the future, will 2014 stand in terms of history.  What events will historians look back on as significant, or telling.  So close as we are it’s hard to tell, but some proper guesses can be made.  Certainly the largest political events seem to be from our vantage point, the Crisis in the Ukraine and the emergence of the Islamic State in the middle east.  Both poised serious problems for diplomacy and altered previous Geo-political understandings.

The Ukrainian crisis was predicable in a general way if not specifically.  The friction in Eastern Europe between the poles of the EU and Russia have been growing for some time.  Putin has shored up his localized support through nationalism, a ‘reclaiming’ of Russia’s place in the world, or at least that is his press.  It’s not clear to me Putin ‘wanted’ the situation in Ukraine.  He would have been happy to allow the previous democratic government to cave to his demands and carry on.  He would probably have accepted some sort of compromise government after the fact, but as often happens, local events impel wider ones.  Once the Maiden had brought down the government, stability was not likely.  One persons Corrupt Autocrat, is anothers democratically elected president.  The current government in Ukraine has to deal with the economic situation that helped precipitate both protests and the previous governments flip-flopping on issues of EU integration, but also with political dissatisfaction from it’s Eastern provinces.  The annexation of Crimea was a turning point.  An end of an assumption of border ‘sanctity’ and the obvious end of the ‘post-cold war consensus’.  That consensus had been eroding ever since it was established really.  First from Russian Oligarchs and NATO Expansion, than Russian Nationalism and the assault on Russia’s perceived sphere of influence.  Ukraine could very well be the start of larger things geo-politically.  Dropping oil prices and sanctions obviously hurt Putin, but whether it will translate into something domestically in Russia is hard to say.  Political instability lay just beneath the surface there.

The rise of ISIS seems more a case of the shaking out of the political instability running through the middle east.  The ‘Arab Spring’ has resulted in many complex results, not all of them predictable, and many shaking out from events years earlier.  ISIS is surely the result of the American led Iraqi Invasion.  It is also the result of the failure of the Syrian opposition to complete the deposition of the Assad regime.  Also the failure of Iraqi governments to create broad, non-sectarian coalitions.  Ultimately however ISIS was not, and is not ‘inevitable’ at least in it’s particulars.  ‘Something’ was going to happen, and the rise of a more fundamentalist, more extreme regional entity certainly wasn’t entirely unpredictable.  The question now is what regional powers and their larger ‘Great Power’ backers do about it.  It alters calculus on a number of levels.  It puts pressure on Iran and the United States to real accord in their nuclear talks, if only so they can both focus on the more destabilizing element they both oppose.  It threatens to spread instability beyond Iraq and Syria into Jordan, Lebanon and further.  It complicates the future of the world action in the Region and the domestic politics of various states, not the least of which is the United States.

The Big geopolitical events; Wars, Revolutions, Elections and so forth, often get centered in terms of history, but much else has happened that is of importance.  On a technological front there are development in terms of the continued ubiquity of the ‘Smart-phone’, and the emergence of wearable computing.  It may be too easy to say for sure, but the spread of ‘watches’ as the model for wearable tech in the future seems to coincide with a failure of Google Glasses.

Space technology both on the private and public front experienced a serious degree of attention and improvement.  SpaceX continues to improve their launch technology with an eye towards the cost savings recoverable booster stages could bring, and a decrease in the cost of launching something into orbit puts alot of things into the realm of companies and private individuals that otherwise would not be.  There are already ‘satellite’ kits that basically let you send up a little tiny satellite into a decaying orbit that orbits for a couple of days and than decays for the cost of a few thousand dollars.  A toy within the grasp of the space enthused wealthy.  Cheaper launches will likely mean more countries and more individuals cluttering up Low-Earth Orbit with more satellites doing more things.  Also in space news there was the landing of a craft for the first time on an Asteroid, and the historical return to the moon by humanity when the Chinese probe landed.  Events like these are positive for space enthusiasts, but also might be the first marks of a more pronounced space-age.

Looking back, I see events good and bad, big and small.  I myself set out to read the entirety of the bible, and while I’m not done that task yet, and it will end up taking me well into this year, it’s a commitment I Intend to finish.  I aim in the new year to post more often, aiming for weekly on Mondays with supplements as I have something to say.  I may do a post soon with regards to predictions of tends I see now and how they might shape out over the year.  Such predictions are notable frugle, but it might be interesting to make them and see how I did this time next year.

In any case, lets do this ride around the sun more on time.

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The Bible in and as History: Ecclesiastes

To everything there is a season… thus goes the song by the Byrds, which quotes liberally from Ecclesiastes.  Here we have a bit of an odd duck in the bible.  Or at least a bit odd compared to what surrounds it.

Ecclesiastes is a bit of an autobiography, detailing the life and understanding of one ‘Koheleth’, styled ‘The Teacher’.  The content of the chapter is a tad difficult to summarize, but it consists of some poems, his investigations of life, his conclusions and than other poems.  I said this work was odd compared to other elements of the Old Testament up to this point, and here you can immediately see why.  All the Old testament to this point had been ‘third person’ in a way.  While there will be other texts that have a hint of first person(the later prophets), this one is no prophecy, but relating a tale in the wisdom tradition we have discussed before in previous posts.

This is also where Ecclesiastes differs from elements of the other text; the central ‘theme’ of the bible to this point is basically ‘obey God, through his writings and priests, and good things will happen, don’t and bad stuff will happen’.  While Job, for example, reconciles this philosophy with the world as lived, Ecclesiastes seems to construct a message of how to live in the world, without reference to that underlying theme.  There certainly is an element of it near the end, but the pulse of the book is mostly ‘Enjoy the little things, cause you can’t figure out what you should be doing in the grand scheme, so why bother trying’.  It has some vague similarities to other philosophies in this regard; Taoism most notably, but in a far more subdued way.

As with Job, and the other books within the bible that speak to the Wisdom tradition, the truth, or historicity of what is discussed in the work is less important than it’s ‘message’ and how that message was taken. While the Rabbinical tradition references the work as being that of Solomon in his later years, biblical scholarship seems to place it sometime after the Exile.  The text itself stands among many other examples where-in a king or religious figure relates the events of their life, and uses those events as stories to relay a theme or message.  This can be seen in many ancient traditions; The Greek philosophers, Persian historical and literary texts, and many others.  As outlined above, the message of this particular text seems one about living with today.  An appeal for religion moderation perhaps?  A concession to secular authorities?  Or perhaps a rejoinder against those who would devote themselves completely to religious contemplation away from the ‘regular’ facets of life such as home, family, work and friendship.

Ecclesiastes place in ancient times may be a bit obscure, it’s effects later are of a more literary nature.  Besides the song by the Byrds, there are frequent other usages of the text in quotable form.  This might be because of it’s structure, it’s use of the personal, but also because rather than reflecting the more general ‘narrow’ theme of the ‘Old Testament’, that of fear before a powerful and demanding god, it speaks to a more holistic tradition, and thus suggests themes more in touch with those of modern English novelists and artists.  I did observe that the ‘theme’ of Ecclesiastes is very much debated by theologians.  Is it optimistic? Pessimistic?  Does it speak to a counter-tradition from the Orthodox?  Acts as a refutation of that counter-tradition?  The translation of the text into English obviously employed some poetic measure, though perhaps the ambiguity here lets it be used in that many more ways than the more ‘straight-forward’ parts of the Bible.

I have obviously gotten a great deal behind on these posts, so I will be trying to ‘catch up’ as it were, though it seems unlikely I’ll complete them in my original time-line(by the end of the year).  I will endeavour to get done the Old Testament quickly enough that I’m into the first Gospels before, perhaps fittingly, Christmas, and than try and wrap up in a month or two.  Though I may also take the time to go through the Apocrypha.

Next Time: It’s time to sing with Song…


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Historical Memory

The Month of November in general is a time of historical memory in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.  Remembrance Day(or Veterans Day in the US, Armistice Day in several other places) was a day commemorating the end of the first World War, and the War Dead.  It’s historical creation emerged in the British Commonwealth in response to both the need to have some sort of memorial for the unprecedented scope of the War dead, and for political reasons.  Over time, the Historical memory surrounding the events creation, it’s purpose, and it’s scope has changed.

I had started to think about historical memory in various ways, and in so doing reflected on the ways that historical memory changes, and how it relates to continued modern expressions of ‘memory’.  Remembrance day is the most obvious, but it is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the berlin wall.  Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  It seems a fitting time to contemplate how historical memory is formed, how it is passed from generation to generation, how it mutates, and how it is used.

Growing up I was struck with the significant of Remembrance day.  It was a solemn occasion in public schools across southern Ontario, and both my Grandfathers were WWII Veterans, my one grandmother an English nurse and War-bride in the conflict.  My other grand-mother was a key contributor and member of the Royal Canadian Legion, and it provided an epicenter for her social life, right up until her death.  Yet while these things were known to me as a child, when we were given historical lectures and presentations, there were elements of them that were discordant, and as I grew, I think it was only in adulthood, my grandparents slowly departing one by one, that I came to understand the history of events, the way these events had occurred, and how they had shaped my Grandparents world, and in turn mine.

The war that started Remembrance Day was the Great War, about which, until University, I knew little, and which I suspect, very few people know much about.  The Great war has struggled out of memory, over-shadowed by the Second World War, with it’s ‘epic’ narrative and the Baby-boomers obsession with their parents victories and battles; the ‘Greatest’ Generation.  It was a war fought for deeply problematic reasons, mostly over conflict of Empire and Nationalism.  It doesn’t have a clear good-guy or bad-guy.  Suggesting the Germans, Austrio-Hungarians and so forth were the Villains of the conflict requires you to ignore the actual historical circumstances at the time.  It requires you to ignore, for example, the horrors visited upon the Russian peasantry, the Russian state existing in a nearly feudal state even as it joined the ‘Allies’ of that conflict.  Situations so dire they contributed quite directly to the overthrow of the Czar and the emergence of the Soviet Government.  You have to ignore the way nationalism was exploited in some instances for military gain, and violently suppressed in others.  For Germany the war was a disaster, but was it any less of one for Britain’s Arab Allies?  Claims of independence in their ears, only to discover their home-lands carved up between victorious powers?  It certainly wasn’t a victory for China, whose nascent republican government contributed thousands of men to dig trenches and engage in other menial tasks, but who found there reward was the further appropriation of land to imperial powers, the ascendent Japan not the least among them.  In so many ways, World War One serves as the pivot point of the next century of history, and so little of our present day history can be understood without it.  Yet our memory of it is so localized and limited.  To men in trenches.  Written words send home.  The War has been localized as the tragedy of young men at war, without consideration for why those young men were there in the first place, or what exactly they were doing.  Nor, save for a few examples such as the Christmas truce, of considerations of the young men for the other side who were in similar situations.  This is not universal.  There are states were the considerations on the horrors of war do revolves around such sentiments, but not so, I feel, in North America.

World War two sits so much higher in our memories and thoughts of war, so much so I think people often confuse their images and imaginings between the two.  In both Germany serves as the Bad-guy, in the later as the archetypal bad-guy.  It is even more taboo to consider the day to day realities of the German Soldier from the second World War, or why Nazi Germany served as a font for hopes and dreams for so many.  We select the elements of that history we care to remember, erasing that we don’t.  No thought for Japanese soldiers shot after surrendering to American troops.  None to the displaced Germans who were essentially ethnically cleansed out of various territories in the aftermath of the conflict.  It’s not only the ‘crimes’ of our side we forget, but even the contexts of the times.  How many recall of World War I the war resistors, such as the American Socialist Eugene Debs, winning a seat in Congress from a prison cell after he was convicted of ‘interfering’ with the draft by vocally opposing it.  Or the coordinated efforts to prevent strikes during the second world war, one that involved the collusion of various political organizations, many of which would be targeted afterward during the McCarthy era.

Historical memory is shaped by education, by inference, and most importantly by the stories we tell ourselves.  Margeret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History talks in depth about the various ways governments, people and other actors utilize history is ways both noble and horrible.  She talks about the way we construct narratives about our past, about the past of identities we have created and ignore contrasting information, or the potential for conflicting narratives.  How we strives often for easy heroes, and easy villains.  I think that is why World War One has become so lost, so out of focus.  We want a war that tells us an easy story.  That we fought for freedom and good against an adversary that fought for evil.  What aligns with the story is remembered, what doesn’t, is forgotten.

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