29 November 2006

Persia and Monotheism

I posted a week and a half ago about Josiah and how the exile finally established monotheism as the dominant theology of the Jews. Since then, I've been on a mission. I've been obsessed with trying to find the historical moment in time when it all clicked for the Jewish people--where Yahweh was no longer a God superior to the gods of Judah's neighbor kingdoms, but when he became the ONLY God for them.

This is what I absolutely love about being a believing Christian, by the way. I love how the Bible has answers to more questions than we could ever imagine even asking. All we have to do is seek...and find.

So here were some questions that I asked:

What if there were one point in the Bible at which I could say--there, they get it! The Jews are finally monotheists and they aren't going back!

What is there were one person or prophet--a proto-Messiah--who could be identified as the lynchpin of monotheism? Who could he be?

In my first post on the topic, I mentioned how the history of Israel from Exodus to Exile had been one of henotheism (the belief that only one out of many gods is worthy of worship), albeit with a consistent fringe movement--my dad loves the Adventist-standard word, "remnant,"--of believers who worshipped only Yahweh and none other, according to the 1st Commandment.

Nowhere was this henotheism more evident than in the Temple itself. The reforms of Josiah, staged about 20 years before the Fall of Jerusalem, clearly point out the different gods worshipped in the Temple at this time. There was the Most Holy Place, of course, for the worship of Yahweh (the Ark of the Covenant was long gone, looted by Pharaoh Shishak just five years after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 14.25-26)). There was also an Asherah pole as well as dormitories to house male prostitutes who served Asherah there.

I searched for answers to my questions throughout the Old Testament, focusing on exilic and post-exilic prophets. Ezekiel didn't work. He prophesied during the captivity, and while he foresaw a united Judah created out of dry bones, he bewailed creeping idolatry--a polytheistic problem for sure.

The post-exilic prophets which close the Old Testament, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Haggai ministers to a new people. The context of his book shows that idol worship has not crept back into the culture, but he issues warnings just in case.

Zechariah is triumphal. The Second Temple is almost complete. This temple will serve as a beacon to all nations. Consider Zechariah 1:16, "Therefore, this is what the Lord says: 'I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem." This is a prophet to a culture that is redeemed. There is a concern for sinfulness, as there is in Malachi, but there is little mention of the threat of henotheism.

Did I miss something? The act of the Nation of Judah returning to God may not seem exceptional (they did it again and again), but did the fact that they stayed with Him--as they continue to do today--get overlooked in the Old Testament?

The answer is hidden within one of the greatest books of the Old Testament: the book of Isaiah, which is actually a collection of prophecies by two different prophets. Much as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were once stuck together in the Hebrew Bible, the Second Isaiah's prophecies follow upon those of the First Isaiah, who wrote during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (727-698 BC).

Consider the demarcation between the First Isaiah's writings and those of the Second Isaiah in chapter 40 of the book. The last verse of Chapter 39 states,

"The word of the Lord you have spoken is good," Hezekiah replied. For he thought, "There will be peace and security in my lifetime."

Hezekiah, who has just hosted emissaries from Babylon, has been warned that later generations will pay the price for his arrogance.

Chapter 40 begins,
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins."

This isn't spoken to Hezekiah at all. The words are for a people stuck in exile, waiting for the "hard service" of their penitence in Babylon to end. I might add, they are words spoken to a people who are on the verge of total change.

So if there is another prophet who prophesied to post-exilic Judah, could he provide hints as to the kind of change that was made?


The exact point at which God becomes the only God for the Jews is found in Isaiah 45:18.
For this is what the Lord says--
he who created the heavens,
he is God;
he who fashioned and made the earth,
he founded it;
he did not create it to be empty,
but formed it to be inhabited---
he says: "I am the Lord,
and there is no other."

Compare this with previous statements about God/gods.

Elijah said on Mount Carmel, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ball is God, follow him." Elijah's is a battle for supremacy.

The First Commandment says, "You shall have no other gods before me."

Second Isaiah shows distinct evolution from these two claims. His God is not in a battle with any other god--"there is no other." It is impossible to have another God since they don't exist. In fact,
Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood,
who pray to gods that cannot save" Isaiah 45.21

How could this happen? Moreover, how could this happen to a people in exile--apart from their own country, subject to worshippers of Marduk and Ishtar, with no temple, no priesthood and few, isolated prophets? How could a people addicted to idolatry turn themselves into monotheists under such circumstances?

It took a messiah.

Isaiah 45 is the lynchpin of the Bible. Located near the middle of the Bible, it returns the People of God from the brink of annihilation, and sets up a culture into which Jesus will be born and grow to save His people from their sins.

Before the Messiah, however, Judah needed a messiah.

The chapter begins,
This is what the Lord says to his messiah,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor...
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chose,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me. (Isaiah 45.1, 4)

It seems strange for God to provide a messiah who does not acknowledge him. Cyrus the Great (pictured right) had many good qualities that led him to conquer the empires of Persia (ruled by his grandfather Astyages), Lydia (modern Turkey) and Babylon. He did not worship Yahweh, yet he was a messiah for the Jewish people.

Why? I think it is because he was a monotheist.
The Greek traveler, Herodotus, described the beliefs of the Persians in the 5th Century (100 years after Judah's return from exile).
  • the Persians have no images of the Gods, no temples nor altars, and consider their use a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the Gods to have the same nature as men, as imagined by the Greeks.
A clue to the source of Cyrus's belief is an understanding of the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet who wrote around the time of the Exodus. He said that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. In opposition to God was the power of capital-E Evil, known as "The Lie" or Angra Mainyu.

Scholars who have researched Cyrus have not found any records that confirm his Zoroastrianism, but we know that it was the dominant faith of his home kingdom of Persia. By all accounts he was tolerant of all gods, and he was magnanimous toward those he conquered. Consider this engraving, now in the British Museum:
  • I am Cyrus, King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babylon... When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the ruler's palace with jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the grat god, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I daily endeavored to worship him... I returned to the sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries which have long lain in ruins, as well as the images which used to live in them... I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their homes.
These are the words of no religious fanatic, but someone experienced in the diplomacy and the art of statesmanship.

Are they the words of a messiah? I believe they could be. The answers to Judah's abrupt turn towards monotheism during exile may lie not in Babylon but in Persia. Rather than being forged in an atmosphere of persecution, Judah's monotheism developed under an empire that itself embraced monotheism.

When Alexander would conquer Palestine 200 years later, he continued tolerance toward Judaism, as would the Ptolemies who would rule for the next 160 years. It wasn't until 168 BC, after Palestine had been conquered by the Seleucid Empire, would Judaism face an enemy in the form of the zealous paganism of Antiochus Epiphanes who erected an altar to Jupiter in the middle of the Temple. This time the Jews would stand firmly with God, as they have every since.

Of course this opens up more questions. How I wish I could learn more about Cyrus, his conquests and beliefs! Also, how does an understanding of Persia's Zoroastrianism inform us of other Biblical stories during this period such as those of Daniel and Esther? Finally, I know that Zoroaster founded a group of wise men known as Magi--does he have any connection to the Christmas story found in Matthew? It will take more blog entries to answer these questions.
(A key source for this essay was the book In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek (Knopf, 2003).

27 November 2006

Book Review: Malinche

Thanksgiving was supposed to be my chance to catch up on, well, about EVERYTHING: sleep, grading, lesson planning, writing, and--most importantly--reading.

I was unsuccessful on most counts, but I wanted to pass along a short review of the book Malinche by Laura Esquivel.

La Malinche is a legendary character in Mexico. Known as the native who served Hernan Cortes as a translator in his unbelievable conquest of the Aztec Empire, she has long been reviled as a traitor to her Native race. Esquivel tries to redeem her by walking many miles in her shoes. We meet the girl sold into slavery at the age of five; the young slave given over to Cortes upon his landing, where her aptitude for languages serves her well; to the concubine who shares with us her amazement at the glories of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and her despair when it is totally wracked by the conquering Spaniards.

The book focuses on the spiritual development of Malinche--known in the book as Malinalli. Initially she, like Montezuma, believes that Cortes is a reincarnation of the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. (Montezuma famously handed over his entire empire to Cortes without a fight because of this misconception.) Only as she is exposed to the gore of conquest and Cortes's insatiable desire for conquest--particularly when she sees the incredible floating city of Tenochtitlan reduced to nothing--does she see him as a mere, vulnerable man.

I think Esquivel has chosen the best path, considering the kind of character she is dealing with--it's like trying to explain other famous traitors like Judas or Brutus. She tries to draw us into Aztec mythology and comparisons between Quetzalcoatl and the Christ of Malinalli's new religion. But the book tends to bog down in these parts. The most gripping part of the book for me was Malinalli's journey through Tenochtitlan: the descriptions of the marketplace, the artifacts, and the other fine aspects of that incredible floating city.
Malinche is a good weekend read. Ultimately, it failed to introduce me to any redeeming characteristics of its primary character, but I would recommend it for the way it let me see through her eyes at cultures and conquests of long ago.

24 November 2006

Thanksgiving Giving

Compared to most American Thanksgivings this week, ours was a relaxed affair. We had celebrated early (see Lion King post below for the details), so we just invited my mom and dad over for a nice lunch.

Today (Friday) was a most beautiful fall day: temperatures in the high 60s and a clear blue sky. I decided to take out the new digital camera and take some pictures of the boys. Jenny and Ellie went to the clinic, leaving us to play at the park and have fun to our hearts' content.

I just love this first picture of Jo-Jo on the slide. The blue of the slide matches the blue of the sky, and the angle makes it looks like he might just slide right out of your computer screen into your lap! One thing I was worried about with my digital camera was capturing these kinds of action shots, but so far, so good, I must say.

Owen has inherited two good genes: the athletic gene from his Mama, and the piano-playing gene from me. The guy is just perfect. Here he demonstrates his prowess on the monkey bars.
The backdrop of the picture reminds me of one of the few things I don't like about Tennessee: its ugly falls and winters. No leaves are left on the trees. The blue of the sky--even the winter clouds are flat, flat, flat. There is a kind of two-dimensional quality that happens to things here between November and March, and it's just the season.
I'm reminded that there are places in the world that are beautiful this time of year--Arizona springs to mind, as does California. Oh, well.

23 November 2006

Jenny's Birthday

Jenny celebrated her 38th Year of Beauty on November 15th. Things were so busy around here, we had to arrange for a Birthday Breakfast!

Jenny has been working so much that she doesn't get home until 8:30 on weeknights (her partner had to take a medical leave, which means that Jenny has put in some six-day, 72-hour workweeks). I was gone last weekend for a Model United Nations conference with my high school students, so we wouldn't get a weekend slot.

On the morning of her birthday, I baked biscuits. The kids and I put a candle in one of the biscuits and sang "Happy Birthday." Her present was a digital camera. We've been soldiering on with 35mm cameras for all too long. Now we'll be able to upload pictures for blogs and things like that.

The picture I'm posting is of Jenny with her favorite boys. The reason that they're grinning so deviously is that I am behind the camera yelling things like, "She's my bride! I want to snuggle with her, not you two!" In Owen and Jonah, she has two handsome men who can adore her with charm equal to her beauty!

Upgrade Pains

Two upgrades in the last week haven't gone well for me.

I've been having trouble with BloggerBeta. It takes several tries to get logged in, and I'm not sure that the improvements are all that significant other than the fact that Google now apparently has another way to snoop on my life.

I downloaded Internet Explorer 7 onto my computer at work, and I really like it. It makes it possible to feature several different "tabs" on the same page. That way, instead of clicking tabs along the "START" bar at the bottom of the screen, all the tabs are on the same browser. It is also possible to hide the menu bar at the top so that it only pops up when the curser is there (kind of like it's possible to program the menu bar at the bottom of Windows to go away). This makes full-page viewing really cool.

I didn't have any trouble with the IE7 browser at work, but when I downloaded it onto my desktop at home, I was unable to get onto the Internet anymore. I eventually had to delete IE7. Once it was gone, I got on the Internet without any trouble. I think it conflicts with my DSL, and I've heard some other people complaining about this problem.

Needless to say, I need to wait for more of the kinks to be worked out before upgrading some of these programs!

18 November 2006

Babylon and Monotheism (1)

I've been studying fin de siecle events in the Kingdom of Judah over the past few weeks. This has been a part of the Bible that I usually passed over for a number of reasons: it's more interesting to skip from Solomon to Daniel than to trace Judah's descent as a nations; Israel had better prophets (Elijah, Elisha and Amos); and it's flat-out depressing.

A couple of weeks ago, I entered into a study of Josiah the Great. Ruling just a generation before the destruction of Jerusalem, Josiah was a final breath of grace before generations of suffering. Josiah was a revolutionary: one who implemented monotheistic reforms throughout the kingdom, starting in his own backyard.

I once saw monotheism as a belief that unified Israel in its history from the days of Abraham through to the time of Christ (and even on to today). I think a careful study of the Old Testament shows, however, that monotheism was an exception rather than the rule. Certainly, the writers of the Old Testament hold Yahweh-centered views of history, yet time and time again, the worship of idols comes up. How many times does the Bible say, "After the days of X the people lost their love of God and slipped into idolatry."

Considering how rare Yahweh worship was in Israel, it might be more accurate to state, "During the days of X, Israel lost their devotion to Baal/Ashtorah and slipped into Yahweh worship." The Bible clearly proves that voices for God existed throughout Israel's history--indirectly, it also states that those voices were distinct for their loneliness.

A good way to understand this is to look at the extraordionary rule of Josiah (640-609 BC). The 23rd chapter of 2 Kings describes some of the activities he took in his reforms. They included (a) tearing down the Ashterah pole inside Solomon's temple (around which orgiastic dances where held on feast days); (b) tearing down the dormitories for male prostitutes located in the courts of the temple. This doesn't sound like an idolatry hiccup--in fact it makes me wonder if Solomon's Temple had ever been used in Yahweh worship after its famous dedication.

For example, not the story of Josiah as told in 2 Chronicles 35. In the Book of the Law found in the Temple, Josiah learns of the Passover ceremony, and he orders Israel to follow it. The writer of Chronicles remarks upon how remarkable that celebration was:
The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the
prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a
Passover as did Josiah (verse 18)

None of the kings of Israel? That means that David hadn't celebrated Passover, neither had Solomon or Asa. (This may be inaccurate, because the writer of 2 Chronicles uses Chapter 30 to celebrate Hezekiah's own renewal of Passover.) So what had these kings been doing? How had the people of Judah worshipped? It seems evident that the worship of God was very, very different prior to Josiah and immediately after his extraordinary reign.

So how did it change? How did the monotheistic worship of Yahweh move from the fringes of Judahite society into the hallmark of Judaism?

I'll need another post to fully answer that question.

06 November 2006

Lion King

What a great weekend this was. My sister, Julie, flew up from their home in Savannah, Georgia. On Sabbath we had a pre-Thanksgiving get-together with the Dittes side of the family. All my aunts and uncles were accounted for, as well as three of six cousins (I was missing Norman, Aaron, and freshman-in-academy Rachael, for the record).

On Sunday, we celebrated the other reason for Julie's trip to TN: the Lion King touring Broadway show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.

I have strong opinions about the Lion King movie, and I must admit that the musical wasn't high on my list of Broadway plays--I'm waiting to see Wicked and The Producers, among others. In many ways The Lion King ruined a string of classic Disney animated movies that had stretched from The Little Mermaid, through Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. One reason was the death of lyricist Alan Mencken. Another was that Disney invested in specatcle more than story: big-time rock star, Elton John, as composer, and gee-whiz graphics. But there wasn't a sould to the story. Once you got away from the cute songs and the Hamlet-based script, there was nothing timeless or magical like B&B. I left the theater after Lion King thinking, "that was cool." Conversely Beauty & the Beast had me thinking, "I could live in that world," just like a little kid.

The Lion King was coming, and my mom--who instilled her love of Broadway musicals into me as a kid--was determined to have the kids see it. Julie was coming, too. This production had puppets! Whew-hoo-de-doo.

So what happened? I loved it. There are about six new songs that bridge together the parts of the story that grown-up JD relates to. The character of Mustafa, something of a cypher in the movie, is brought out with the new song, "They Live in You," relating his hopes for Simba. It was the first song to really connect on a spiritual level, and it set up the incredible response that Simba sings with Raffiki, prior to the climax.

Jenny and Ellie's favorite addition came in the song, "Shadowlands," sung by adult Nala (Simba's love interest) as she leaves Pride Rock. Wonderful characterization. It really worked.

With that said, some of the parts I didn't like were holdovers from the cartoon. If you thought that "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was one of the cheesiest moments on film in the 1990s (like I did), you'll want to cover your eyes (and those of your kids) as Simba and Nala sing it (see picture, right) with a PG-13 backdrop of ballet dancers in suggestive poses.

I guess the kids had been a big worry before we went there. The guy on Channel 4 recommended taking kids no younger than five, and we had Jonah (3) and Julie's two sons, (ages 4 and 2). I was so worried that Jonah would get bored, throw a fit, and cause us to waste a $70+ ticket. As it turned out, however, Jo-Jo made it through. (Julie's baby fell asleep during the first song and didn't wake up again.) The costumes are wonderful, and the unique ways that the actors/puppeteers bring out the characters are truly creative. I especially enjoyed the work done by the puppeteer controlling Zazu. (Right, during the song "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" with young Nala and Simba.)

In the end, it was a great weekend with great people. We finished with a trip to the Old Spaghetti Factory--a tradition Julie and I have enjoyed since we were kids and our big summer events were Reds games in Cincinnati.

Guess Who's Blogging Now?


02 November 2006

First Stab at Video

I was cruising around on YouTube, and I found this video by U2 & Green Day: "The Saints Are Coming."

I hadn't really caught the gist of it when they played it in New Orleans on Monday Night Football. The video really brings out the outrage of Katrina, with its clever faux news footage that fantasizes that New Orleans (and not Iraq) would have become the primary focus of our nation's defense.

I would love to figure out how to embed YouTube videos into my blog. For now I'll just settle for the link.