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The Moabites, ancient antagonists of Israel, have showed up in the last couple of posts about ancient magic, pestilence, and idols.  You are probably wondering if the Moabites, who controlled the territory on the East of the Sea of the Dead Sea (in what is now Jordan), had their own angry deity.  Oh boy did they ever!  The Moabite God was named Chemosh,  a name which seems to mean “destroyer,” “subduer,” or, more intriguingly, “fish god.”  

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The Mesha Stela (now in the Louvre)

Frustratingly though, we don’t know much about Chemosh.  The only good sources we have are the Hebrew Bible and the Mesha Stela which was erected in 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab.  The black basalt stela explains how the faithlessness of the Moabites caused Chemosh to become angry and turn away from his people which allowed the Israelites to take advantage of Moab (before King Mesha came along and put things back in good order).   The Bible tells this story from the Israelite perspective (Numbers 22 and 23) and then there is subsequent angry mention of Chemosh in the 2nd Book of Kings in the context of some of Solomon’s wives (Solomon allowed worship of Chemosh in order to keep his Moabite wives happy).

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The God of Israel, of course, made it big and went global.  Because of this, some of his early small-time adversaries are now portrayed as demons or dark gods.   Whereas the Chemosh of the Moabites was a serene and powerful old man who was perhaps not unlike Ptah (or Yweh!), the Chemosh portrayed by Christians is a hellish monster of darkness, cruelty, and disease (you can see him up there at the very top in an illustration which looks like it could have come from a Sunday School book from Palmer Methodist).  Also, I seem to recall that some of the Dungeons & Dragons books which I read while growing up featured a God named Chemosh who was the deity of plague!  So it goes for history’s losers, I guess.  Maybe Balaam needed to try harder (although, in fairness, the D&D plague-themed Chemosh does look pretty metal)!

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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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Happy April Fish Day!  Usually the internet is awash with heart-stopping pranks and false information on April 1st (and every other day, come to think of it…but April Fool’s Day is especially bad), however this year, I am hoping that the pandemic and the quarantine will cause people to tone down their practical jokes a little, especially since we have seen what false information can do!

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Joking aside, April Fool’s Day is certainly a very special day here at Ferrebeekeeper!  The blog started on this day in 2010.  This is the 10th anniversary of posts about snakes, crowns, underworld gods, art, mollusks, and Gothic things.  And we have sure had a lot of snake gods and dark squid!  Today’s post is post #1959. Pretty soon we will have to have another special anniversary when we get to #2000.

For that 2000th post I will really do things up with guests, pageantry, special events, and prizes!  The 10th year anniversary is a bit more solemn though.  When I started, everyone was a blogger: great herds of us roamed the internet, bloviating about everything.  Yet now I am one of the last of our kind.  I feel like a Peter Beagle novel or a CGI dragon voiced by Sean Connery…

I guess everyone else left because they weren’t getting famous or making money with their writing or something, but blogs are not about remuneration! A blog is an obeisance to Athena.  Like life, it is a search for meaning, truth, and fellowship.

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And writing certainly helps the writer struggle with truth and meaning (although it might not always help the poor reader, and for this I apologize).  Even among people who love ideas, thinking is hard.  If you had to remember a list of phrases or items you would write them down so that your brain could concentrate on understanding and contextualizing the thing which you were immediately working on.  Writing about ideas is like that but in a much larger and more open-ended way.  It helps you realize the quest which you didn’t realize you were on.  I will write more about this in the weeks to come, because thinking about my favorite things for a decade really has led me to some realizations about the subjects which I care about most…but we will get back to this in subsequent posts!

Additionally, my blog has also led me to fellowship.  Over the years, so many people have posted such lucid and fascinating comments and questions.  Forgive me if I didn’t respond correctly (or at all–for everyone asking to use images which I don’t own) but I appreciated every comment and I appreciate every reader.  It is crazy to think I have friends I know and yet don’t know in Augsburg, Australia, and Alabama.  From the streets of Brooklyn to the Drakensberg to the foothills of the Himalayas to Matsumoto there are people all over Earth who are curious about the same things I am!  What a gift it is to know that!  Likewise, thank you for the priceless gift of your precious time and attention.  Thank you all so much.

I don’t have a real post for today, but when we got to a thousand posts I posted a list of the ten most popular posts from among those thousand.  For this occasion I am going to selfishly post a list of my favorite posts from the last decade.  To be honest I don’t really love hierarchy or numbers, so this isn’t a listicle.  In no order, here is a glob of the posts I liked best (perhaps you will notice a hidden theme lurking in them like a hungry flounder hiding among the pebbles and sand dollars…or maybe not).

Anyway…Here is a list of my personal favorite posts

 

Thank you again for everything.  Please let me know if you have any complaints, suggestions or [shy blush] compliments for the things you like.  We will be back soon with the 2000 post jubilee and, of course, we will be back tomorrow talking about the affairs of the world.

Sincerely,

Wayne

 

 

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