Archive for the ‘The Middle East’ Category

Russian Icon of Isaiah, 17th C.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been (all ten of you who read this), two weeks ago I broke my leg and had surgery, and was in the hospital for 6 days.

Since coming home I’ve had a lot of opportunity to read our next work, the Book of Isaiah. I’ve read it three times, and read lots of commentary online. It’s hard going, because I’m trying not to have a flip response to it,  e.g., “Well, that was weird,”.

I’m also trying not to be content to just summarize it. There are real summaries available by actual scholars who can read the ancient Hebrew and who have deeper contextual understanding of where and how this book was written.

They can describe differences in rhetoric between proto-Isaiah and deutero-Isaiah (and trito-Isaiah, of course: most reputable scholars agree that three authors wrote the thing). I can’t do that. I’m trying to learn a little bit about that, of course, but I’m also trying to relate to it as a general reader. And it’s tough. (more…)


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Oh, hi. It’s been what, five months?

ark of the covenant

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Joseph Jacques Tissot

Reading continues apace, although the blogging is way, way, way behind. This is partly for the usual reasons: work, family, long-distance running, laziness. It’s also because I’ve now embarked on the part of the list that contains holy scriptures, stories taken as dictated by the divine in at least three different faith traditions.

So, I’m trying to engage respectfully with scripture wherever possible. I’m trying to rein in my deeply-ingrained tendency to snark on everything, and make an attempt to learn about the people who believe these stories– and the people who may have written them. As I’ve said before, I come from a Roman Catholic background, and was involved in religious education until I was about 13 years old. Since then, I’ve been more or less unchurched (although I consider myself Quaker-curious).  I’ve had to think a lot, in my recent readings, about holiness.

Getting to grips with the concept of holiness is a tough one for most Western people under 40 or so. We’ve been relentlessly marketed at since our infancy, so we’re cynical and untrusting, and furthermore, we’ve been trained to think that “cool” is best. The problem is that “cool” is not enthused or awed or really even moved by anything, unless it’s, like, a totally sweet Vietnamese place near your girlfriend’s work, or the director’s cut of Blade Runner or an original pressing of Blue Monday or something like that. “Holy” is the thing that Burt Ward’s Robin always said in to Adam West’s Batman: “Holy costume party, Batman!” “Holy haberdashery, Batman!” It’s said, like everything else that smacks of sentiment or passion or sincerity, with a smirk.

I think one of the benefits of my religious upbringing was that it taught me to seek out and recognize the sacred and the holy. It is something I have been trying to do every day, although not in a Christianist or Biblically-focused way, per se. For me, holiness is about something being in a higher state than it can be. In humans, for instance, it means putting others first, rather than reverting to the usual animal tribalism.  It can also refer to places or times when one feels connected to everything, as if one is more than a disjointed collection of thoughts and urges.

So the rough-looking teenage boys helping the old woman at the grocery checkout to see her coins properly yesterday were holy. The light on the hills in the morning is holy, and I am sanctified when I see and feel it. The sound of my husband snoring is holy (okay, that’s a stretch, but I’m trying to be less bent out of shape by it).

It’s a little rusty, this holiness detector, but I’m working on making it function properly.

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The winter solstice is upon us, and Christmas is hard on its heels. So I’m skipping ahead in the list a bit to look at the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. Luke.

If you live in an English-speaking country and have watched any television at Christmas since 1965, you are most likely familiar with chapter 2, verses 8-14, which were popularized here:

Luke’s is the only one of the canonical gospels– the gospels that made the final cut of the Bible– to go into great detail about the nativity. Most of our images of Christ at Christmas, including the manger, the stable, and the shepherds surprised by angels, come from his version of the story.

Mark cuts right to Jesus being baptized by John. Matthew goes at it like a lawyer (or a tax collector, I guess), listing Christ’s forebears and mentioning, in passing, the Magi following the Star of Bethlehem: he’s building evidence to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity. Finally, John is prophetic, starting his account with the thunderous declaration that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” (I dig John; I feel my hair stirring in some divine wind when I read him.)

Only Luke gives us Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find lodging in Bethlehem, and Elizabeth’s child (John the Baptist) leaping for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary. Only Luke gives us the baby:

bronzino adoration
Adoration of the Shepherds, Angelo Bronzino (Florentine, 16th C.)

I am not interested in trying to prove whether or not the story given in Luke is “true”. I’m not a religious scholar or a biblical scholar. I’m just some lady, some bookworm with a blog.

I was raised Catholic, and even though I don’t practice anymore, I can understand that people of faith consider the Bible to be both sacred and literally true. Hopefully they will understand that I, as a de-churched Christian, feel differently.

Anyway: what do we know about Luke’s gospel?


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Coin from a Queen of the Sassanid Empire, 630 AD

Coin from a Queen of the Sassanid Empire, 630 AD

Here’s a really fantastic animated map from some folks at Maps of War that takes you through more than 53,000 years of the history of the Middle East and Mediterranean Basin in 90 seconds. It’s a simple, graphic, illuminating depiction of how often that region has changed hands. There were two empires I’d never heard of (Sassanid and Seljuk, being the last pre-Islamic Persian empire and the Medieval Sunni Muslim empire, respectively), and I had not quite grasped the extent of the Macedonian or Mongol empires. Whoa.

In the modern era, it’s pretty horrible to see how Westerners just sort of carved the place up for their own purposes (and still are).

Since this region is so important to the first two sections of the reading list, I thought it was relevant. Found via StumbleUpon.

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