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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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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar).  The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem.  They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe.  Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between).  They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money.  Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.

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Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts.  In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them.  When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence.  He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order.  On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested.  They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies.  Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins).  One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet.  Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name.  Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well.  Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.

Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber.   During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314).  Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him.  Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism.  As a result, Baphomet has become popular.  You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category.   The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity.  Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.

  Bap

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