Tag Archives | Judaism

Noah (2014)

In 2010, a group of Turkish and Chinese evangelicals found Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The liberal NPR once aired a program titled Walking the Bible based on Bruce Feiler’s book. In the program Feiler climbs the same Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark since Bible literalists believe that an actual Ark came to rest on top of this mountain. What these literalists fail to acknowledge is that the Ark story is basically an adaptation of an earlier tradition present in the region. The Hebrew Bible did not exist in a vacuum; it was influenced by the culture and traditions of the Ancient Near East. The flood story of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 6-9 is simply an Israelite version of the Mesopotamian Epic of Atrahasis and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh

However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000 — third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah. In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoiter the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god — the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views.[Lecture 1 - The Parts of the Whole]

Thus even though the stories look similar, the rationale for the flood in the Hebrew Bible was written to spread a different theology. In the new movie, Noah gets dreams of the flood and after consuming some hallucinogens at his grandfather Methuselah’s place, finds the answer: build an ark. He builds the ark and along with his family — wife  Naameh, sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, Shem’s wife  Ila — and his nemesis Tubal-cain, take off as the floods hit the earth. Oh, before that there are some scenes involving rocks which also shape shift like Optimus Prime who protect Noah and help him escape.

While the animals lie sedated, there is lot of drama on board the ark. There is Tubal-cain tempting Ham to murder his father because Noah did not get a woman for Ham. Then there is Ila, who springs a surprise on Noah, when he thought that she was barren. Finally there is the psychopathic Noah, who eagerly waits the birth of his grandchildren so that he can murder them. Finally, all ends well. Tubal-cain is murdered by Ham. Ila delivers twin girls and as Noah goes to murder them, he has a change of heart and unlike Abraham who was willing to kill his son, he spares his grandchildren. The flood stops as well and the human race is saved.

While the director claims that he has stayed true to the Bible, the Christian conservatives have found numerous issues with the film based on the Hebrew Bible. According to a creationist, “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” One of the issues is that Noah has a problem with carnivores. It is Tubal-cain, who argues to the contrary that God had given dominion over the entire planet to humans.  The suggestion that the movie is pro-environment, pro-vegetarian had many in knots. But then in Genesis 1, God had commanded humans to eat plants and it was only after the flood that they were permitted to eat meat. As Prof. James Tabor suggests, if only people read the Bible.

For example, the film never mentions God and referrers to him as the Creator.

I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.[Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles]

What is not depicted in the film is that some of the animals who hitched a ride on the ark did not have a good life. After he got on land, “then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.”

For the Turkish, Chinese and American evangelists, this movie may have been offensive, but for people interested in the history of how the Hebrew Bible was written, this is good time to watch or read the transcript of this lecture which talks about the contradictions within the Bible as well as within the flood story. Did the Creator ask Noah to bring two pairs of each living being or seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds? In some  places the flood was for 40 days and few lines later, it was for 150 days. All of this, for a historian, leads to the documentary hypothesis, with multiple authors and revisions.

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Briefly Noted: Solomon and Sheba (1959)

The Hebrew Bible does not have a lenient view on idolatry. The Genesis, besides talking about the origins of the world and the existence of evil, also wonders how could idolatry exist in a world created by a good god. The authors of the Bible lived in a region where the worship of little household idols and local fertility deities were common and it is believed that this rant against idolatry was an attempt at distinguishing themselves from the local customs and traditions. When God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, one of the justifications is that the current inhabitants were polluting it with idolatry. The primary book of the Priestly school talks about ritual purity and moral purity and the three heinous sins on the moral side were idolatry, homicide and sexual transgressions. Since idolatry defiles the land, the offenders are to be stoned. All this is put to test during the Queen of Sheba’s tempestuous visit to Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.

According to myth, the Queen of Sheba, on hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, visits him. He too has heard about her and her cloven feet. Solomon talks to her about his God Yahweh and she converts. In the movie, the narrative is completely different. The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) are allies who after failing in an effort to capture Israel come up with another plan. The Queen will travel to Jerusalem and influence Solomon (Yul Brynner). She will introduce pagan rituals which involve idols to Egypt and thus cause a rift between Solomon and his people. Once that is done it would be easy to conquer Israel.

It was a solid plan with one major loophole. The pagan fell in love with the monotheist. The monotheist too fell in love with the pagan and was willing to do anything to please her including giving permission for an an orgy festival. This, as expected, turns the clergy against Solomon. God too turns against Solomon and hits the temple and the Sheban idol with lightning.   Meanwhile the Egyptians, who were waiting for an opportune moment, attack and Solomon’s army has to retreat. Hearing the news, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple and affirms the supremacy of the one and only God. Solomon too asks for forgiveness. Everything goes well as Solomon defeats Egypt and returns right in time to Jerusalem to save Queen of Sheba from death by stoning. God forgives the Queen, but mandates that she return back to her country. Sheba returns, carrying Solomon’s baby.

The movie ends at that point, but according to an Ethiopian legend, the son of Sheba and Solomon returns to Jerusalem to meet his father. But on his return, he takes the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark has stayed in Ethiopia ever since.

Reference:

  1. Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) by Prof. Christine Hayes, at Yale
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Dead Sea Scrolls Online

In my article Secrets of the cellars (Pragati,Aug 2011), I wished if only the Mathilakam records were scanned and put online. That may never happen, but there is a model on how it can be done. Two thousand years after they were written, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were kept safe and accessible only to a a few scholars, went online. NPR has an article with photographs which explains how this was done using a $250K camera developed in California and Google’s help.

The appearance of five of the most important Dead Sea scrolls on the Internet is part of a broader attempt by the custodians of the celebrated manuscripts — who were once criticized for allowing them to be monopolized by small circles of scholars — to make them available to anyone with a computer. The scrolls include the biblical Book of Isaiah, the manuscript known as the Temple Scroll, and three others. Surfers can search high-resolution images of the scrolls for specific passages, zoom in and out, and translate verses into English[2,000-Year-Old Dead Sea Scrolls Go Online]

View and read the DSS here.

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How Curious George escaped Hitler

Curious George is a popular story book for children written by  Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey. George is a monkey and lives with “The Man with The Yellow Hat” in a big city. In the first book, published in 1939, he was not called George, but Fifi. In 1940 Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France and the authors of George being Jews had to think of their survival.

The Reys took the manuscript and cycled from Paris for three days. Eventually they reached Orleans and by taking a few trains they went across Spain and Portugal. From Lisbon they took a ship to South America and reached Rio de Janeiro. Two months later they boarded a ship for United States and reached New York City.

George found fame in America and later he became an animated series on PBS.  Without the help of Curious George in keeping few enquiring monkeys busy,  the posting frequency on this blog would have been much less.

(Pictures from a Curious George exhibit)

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The Unknown Synagogues of Kochi


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Entrance to Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi, Kerala (Photo by author)

When tourist brochures in Kerala mention the Jewish synagogue, they all refer to the one in Jew Town, Kochi. It turns out that there are other synagogues — the Kadavumbhagam and Thekkumbhagam — which are older and perfectly neglected. (H/T Yashwant)

The structure which is believed to have been constructed around 1200 AD, was rebuilt in 1700 AD as a replica of the first temple in Jerusalem with its 10 windows symbolising the Ten Commandments.

“We try to keep the Synagogue in proper order using as much funds as our pockets permit since the government does not seem to be interested in protecting this heritage site,” says Josephai, one of the last remaining members of the congregation of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue. Though the usage of the holy structure as a shop might sound outrageous to some, it seems to be the only reason that keeps the Synagogue standing.

Right around the corner of Kadavumbagam Synagogue lies the Thekkumbhagam Synagogue, which is inruins owing to disuse and neglect.[Monuments, a picture of neglect]

Jay A. Waronker has a brief history of the Lost Synagogues

The first synagogue built in the Cochin region predated the resettlement of the Kerala Jews en bloc in the sixteenth century as a result of Portuguese aggression. Dating from 1344 and attributed to Joseph Azar, it was located in a village called Kochangadi (near Mattancherry), now a part of the city of Kochi. It was most likely built when the Jews abandoned an area in or around Cranganore after the Perriyar River flooded. This synagogue in Kochangadi was apparently razed by the army of Tipu Sultan during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the 1780s. The building was never rebuilt, and the Jewish community is thought to have moved to nearby Kochi no later than 1795. They carried with them the inscription stone verifying the fourteenth century date of construction and placed it in the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Mattancherry. Today it can be found inset in the east wall of the courtyard of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry.[Lost Kerala Synagogues]

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