Wealth and divison

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis, and on Thursdays I’ve been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

Today I’ve been reading about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving Egypt and heading back to thew location between Beth El (a city named after a Canaanite god) and Ai, where Abram had build an altar to his god, YHWH. Abram and Lot come into conflict because they both own so much livestock that their herders are fighting over pasture. In order to resolve the conflict, Abram suggests that they separate. Lot chooses to reside among the cities on the well-irrigated plain of Jordan and Abram chooses to live in the land of the Canaanites. It seems sad to me that the family group has been divided by a sense that there aren’t enough resources to share.

YHWH promises Abram that he will give the land of the Canaanites to him and that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth. He ends up settling at the oaks of Mamre – a place that I think could also be associated with a Canaanite god. Again, Abram builds an altar to YHWH in a location that may be sacred to a Canaanite god.

A dishonest patriarch

This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.

Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.

After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.

It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.

Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.

I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.

Sarai, Abram and Asherah

I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve generally been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.

What stood out to me today was a small detail which I probably wouldn’t have noticed at one time. Abram and Sarai and Abram’s nephew Lot have uprooted themselves for a second time at YHWH’s instruction. They head to Canaan and they stop at the terebinth (‘great tree’ or ‘large tree’) of Moreh at Shechem. What’s significant about the tree that the people telling and recording this story mention it?

My suspicion is that the tree is a sacred site to the Canaanite god Asherah, the kind of place that some people in Israel later believed needed to be destroyed. Abram’s attitude isn’t to desecrate the site. The text says that YHWH appeared to Abram here, so he built an altar there, next to what may have been a sacred oak.

altar at asherah

What does it mean for Abram to build an altar to YHWH? Does it mean that YHWH and Asherah are familiar? Does it mean that YHWH is encroaching?


Exile ⇄ Exodus

Each week I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. I’m now posting some of my reflections on Thursdays.

What I’ve been reading this week marks a shift in the story. At this point, I think Genesis becomes a family drama, following the story of Abram and Sarai’s mob. We’re introduced to them living in ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, which appears to have been located somewhere in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is the region that later became Babylon. The text describes Abram’s father, Terah, leading the family out of Mesopotamia and settling in Haran, which might be in the area we now call Turkey. After Terah dies in Haran, YHWH speaks to Abram, instructing him to relocate again, to a land where he will become a great nation.

I was talking with Beth about this part of the story yesterday, and we were reflecting on the fact that Genesis appears to have been developed (from earlier sources) when many of Abram and Sarai’s descendants were living back in Mesopotamia, after having been defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians and removed from the land. I wonder what it would have been like for them living in exile to read that their family started out here? I wonder what Abram and Sarai’s departure would have meant for them? Would it have given them hope that they could also leave Mesopotamia and repeat Abram and Sarai’s journey?

I think we can look at the whole of the Hebrew scripture follows a pattern of repeated exile and exodus, because it’s been shaped so much by the experience of exile in Babylon.

Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.


Babel and the confusion of empire

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading Genesis and posting some reflections here. This week I reassessed my schedule for blogging and made some changes to make it mire sustainable. I think I’m going to post about Genesis on Thursdays now, but I’ll see how I go.

Last time I started looking at the story of Babel. The story describes a group of people who don’t want to be scattered out across the earth like the rest of humanity. They settle in one place and build a great tower in order to make a name for themselves. I said that we might see this as an expression of free enterprise, or we might see it as a description of empire.

Something I didn’t mention last time was that it seems to me that this story describes a people who have a fear of the earth. They don’t want to be scattered across the earth, so they build a city. If you live in the city (especially right in the middle of a big city) it can be quite easy to loose touch with the earth. These people build a tower with it;s head in the heavens, as though they’re wanting to escape the earth and enter the realm of the heavens.

When the god YHWH finds out out this, however, he has to go down to have a look at what they’re doing. (It seems as though the text is suggesting that the people think they’re approaching heaven, but they actually have a very, very long way to go. YHWH confuses their languages so that they can’t work together, and they join the rest of humanity in scattering across the earth.

We might say that YHWH should have minded his own business and let humanity see what they can achieve. (I’ve been in groups where we’ve read the story and people have said that.) However, I think this story may be shaped by the fact that the Jewish people knew what it took to build these kinds of monuments – slave labour. They would have observed this during their exile in Babylon. It seems like the name ‘Babel’ which means, ‘confused’ might actually be pointing back to Babylon. This story might have been told as a way of taking back power from their Babylonian oppressors by making fun of them.

Babel: free enterprise or imperial oppression?

On Wednesdays I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and reflecting on the stories here. Last week I looked at some of the genealogy after the flood, focussing in on the interruption of Nimrod. Today I want to start looking at another interruption: Babel. Babel is one of the cities that’s mentioned as belonging to Nimrod. The general direction of movement in the genealogy is toward small, autonomous tribal groups with their own unique identities, but I think the Nimrod and Babel interruptions describe imperial assimilation. 

In this story, the world is described as still having only one language. It describes the people of Babel, who are afraid of being spread across the earth and separated. They decide to build a tower with it’s head in the heavens, so they can make a name for themselves and not be scattered. Shouldn’t this be celebrated? Isn’t this a story of humanity banding together to realise their potential?

We could take this at face value, or we could consider whether this might be a commentary on the operations of the Babylonian empire. When Babylon took over Judah, they removed the elites from the land, taking them to their own city. They were expected to assimilate, adopting the language, religion and diet of Babylon. Empires often operate in this way, expecting colonised and migrant peoples to assimilate, to speak one language and relocate to urban centres. In Australia there has been pressure on Aboriginal people to leave remote communities (or consolidate into a few large remote communities). It’s often been presumed that speaking English is more important than speaking traditional languages. There’s also been increasing presure on migrant peoples to assimilate.

Is the story of the resurrection a myth?

At Easter I published a post where I said that we should treat the story of Jesus as mythology. Some folks said they were interested in what I mean by that. I started wondering what I really mean by that.

Dominic Crossan says that myths are stories that try to explain everything, make us at ease, close all the gaps, show us that everything makes sense and everything is as it should be. Myths explain everything. Myths don’t leave space for more speculation or conversation.

Parables, on the other hand, challenge mythology. Parables, disrupt, question and transform. Historically Christians have often read the parables of Jesus as though they answered questions and summed up reality, but in their original context they often challenged people’s assumptions.

Given Crossan’s definitions, would you say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is mythology or parable?

Roleplaying the Bible: are you allowed to do that?

On Saturdays I’ve normally been posting something about gaming, normally Dungeons & Dragons. I was planning to post something today on the taboo of the Abrahamic god/s in D&D, but I’ve been a bit sick and exhausted for the last week. I thought I’d repost something I originally wrote in 2015 on a similar topic. (Hopefully I can look at the problems with including Abrahamic religion next week.)

* * *

Before I started playing Dungeons and Dragons this year, the only experience of roleplaying was a freeform roleplaying game run by Marcus Curnow in the lead to the G20 meetings in Melbourne in 2006. I was involved with a group of Christians who were planning a three-day vigil at the barricades. As part of the preparation Marcus led us through a roleplaying game where some of us were Jesus’ disciples, planning to blockade the Temple with Jesus, and others were priests and guards in the Temple seeking to uphold the status quo.
Earlier this year I came across Testament, which is a Biblical roleplaying setting designed to be compatible with the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. What I really like about Testament is that because it is not designed specifically by or for people of any particular faith, the setting hasn’t been censored or sanitised for fit with a particular theology. The setting presumes that the gods and monsters of the other civilisations surrounding Israel are real, just as the Biblical text often does. The setting also doesn’t limit the players to choosing or creating good characters, as games developed by Christians often seem to.
I haven’t yet had a go at running a Testament game (I’ve mostly been learning to run 5th Edition D&D anyway) but last week I had a go at running a very simple freeform Biblical role-play. To begin with I just gave each of my five participants a basic character description, which said a bit about their character’s background as well as nominating a faction their character was aligned with. I’m not sure that I would match every character up with a faction in future, but for this role-play I used five factions, which were:

Pharisees – believe in adapting the Torah and making it accessible for the people of the land, so that they will know how to follow it properly, through the synagogues. They believe the Kingdom of God will be brought about if all the people follow the Torah strictly. Happy to join in revolts against the Romans and their Jewish allies.

Zealots – are working to overthrow the Romans and their collaborators through violence. They will assassinate Jews who collaborate with the Romans. They want to retake Jerusalem through force.

Sadducees – do everything they can to work with the Romans, and are willing to cooperate with them so that their people and faith are not wiped out. They are willing to adapt their faith in order to get along with the Romans and maintain the Temple.

Essenes – the Essenes distance themselves from the rest of Israelite society and believe they will create a parallel society that obeys the Torah properly, and that this will bring about the Kingdom of God. Egalitarians – everyone in their communities is considered equal. They will engage in apocalyptic preaching rather than physical violence.

People of the Land (am ha-aretz) – resenting the Romans, but politically ambivalent

When I handed out the character descriptions I explained that two of them might be familiar characters, but that they might not be instantly recognisable. One was Yohanan (who Western Christians know as John the Baptist) and the other was the construction worker Yeshua (who Western Christians know as Jesus). I asked everyone to draw what they thought their character might look like, so that we could use the images as miniatures.
The scenario was based on the first few verses of Mark’s gospel (Jesus’ baptism and temptation) and I mostly used it as an opportunity to encourage the participants to wonder more about what might have been going on for the characters on the story. These are some of the questions and ideas that I think we were able to explore by roleplaying the story:

  • reasons that different characters might be going down to the Jordan River to be baptised by Yohanan
  • how the location might influence what the characters might be expecting – the Jordan River is where Joshua led the people of Israel into the land before driving out the original occupants
  • how people may have responded if they heard the voice of God naming a man called Yeshua (a variation of Joshua) as his son, in the same location where another Joshua lead the people into the land before driving out their enemies. Would everyone (including Yeshua) have expected that this would mean driving out the Romans?
  • how Yeshua would respond if God’s Spirit drove him out into the desert to be tempted, instead of back into Israel to fight the Romans. Would Yeshua be wondering if this was really God’s Spirit?

You can’t missionise people, then accuse them of cultural appropriation

This ANZAC Day it seemed like we hit peak outrage. There’s been a lot said about Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ‘Lest we forget’ Facebook post. But some senstive folks were also upset by the words of Kaurna elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power, who mentioned in her Welcome to Country, that this land was invaded. People were also upset that Power paraphrased the 23rd Psalm to say, ‘though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion’.

“We had to listen to a culturally misappropriated, bastardised version of the Psalm that included “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Invasion”,” the Grange resident said. – Craig Cook, ‘Speech of welcome by Aboriginal elder Katrina Ngaitlyala Power at Anzac dawn service referencing slavery condemned as too political’ The Adveriser April 25

I think it is ridiculous to say that this is cultural appropriation. In any case, I don’t think cultural appropriation is always a problem. But in this case, I don’t think anyone has any right to criticise Power for using the psalm in this way. Aboriginal people have this Psalm because European Christians gave it to them. In many cases Europeans forced their faith on Aboriginal people. We have no right now to accuse Aboriginal people for adapting texts and traditions that we gave to them, often at the expense of their own culture and religion.

I don’t think we have any right to be offended by Power’s refernces to invasion. If we are paying attention, we should be aware of this fact whenever we acknowledge country or are welcomed onto country.