Sacrifice -or- The Gods Order Hamburgers


Table Burn

Above a shop window on Elmwood Avenue hangs a large picture of Muhatma Gandhi with his version of the Seven Deadly Sins: “Wealth without work. Pleasure without conscience. Science without humanity. Knowledge without character. Politics without principle. Commerce without morality. Worship without sacrifice.” Now before we all run off to the tattoo parlor, let’s take a moment to ponder the last one, “worship without sacrifice.” It sounds a little strange – sacrifice seems kind of…un-Gandhi-ish…but perhaps in our unspoken agreement to make him an honorary Christian, we can forget that while he deeply respected Jesus, Muhatma Gandhi was happily a Hindu.

As a teacher I find that sacrifice is a real blind spot as we modern Americans, with our mix of enlightenment and entitlement, enter into a study of religion. We might even lazily use animal/human sacrifice as a line of distinction between primitive and perfected religions – the only religion that still sacrifices animals in modern America is Santeria, which many of us have never even heard of. “The gods demand sacrifice!” shouts a Mayan-inspired priest in The Road to El Dorado, and those early agricultural religions are filled with it – the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas and Mayans, even the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Vikings. From the very dawn of agriculture and Civilization, there was a Sumerian belief that the gods needed hamburgers, and had created mortals for the sole purpose of preparing them. That may sound idiotic. But every modern religion of Salvation begins with sacrifice, and they all retain it in some revised form.

“Sacrifice” literally means to make something sacred, and “Sacred” literally means pertaining to the realm of spirits and/or gods. So sacrifice means to transfer something from the physical realm to the spiritual realm, and this is usually accomplished by destroying it or by communally consuming it. The Christian Bible is divided into two Testaments, “Testament” coming from a Greek word meaning a promise you make while holding your testicles to demonstrate your willingness to sacrifice them if your words are proven false. I’m not making this up. Greek translators used the word “Testament” as an approximation of the Hebrew word for “Covenant,” which means an agreement sealed by cutting and sharing an animal.

In the first book of the Bible, Abel sacrifices a lamb, then Cain sacrifices Abel, and Noah who saved all those endangered animals lands the ark and sacrifices a bunch of them. Abraham’s treaty with God is formalized by the cutting of several animals, and we witness countless other sacrificial contracts carved throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is not until Abraham offers a giant cheeseburger that God grants his wish of a son, and then God considers eating the son too. We might think that this was the first call for child sacrifice but the Bible does not say so, and Abraham’s unquestioning compliance implies that it was nothing out of the ordinary. The Law set forth in the Torah contains numerous classifications of sacrifice, some of which are eaten by the defendant, the priest and God, and some of which are entirely burned to be eaten by God alone. The book of Leviticus specifies that all animal sacrifice must be conducted in the Jerusalem Temple, and so after its destruction in 70 CE animal sacrifice was replaced with an equivalent monetary offering that is still practiced in Judaism. But the Pesach/Passover Seder still requires the meat of a lamb, which must be ritualistically slaughtered by a Kosher butcher.

In Christianity, the “New Covenant” is a contractual renegotiation sealed with the blood of the Christ, often symbolized as a sacrificial lamb. And he is ritually eaten in reenactments of his last supper – depending on which Christian tradition one belongs to, portions of the Christ might be eaten once a year or several times a day. Jesus himself said that anyone who wants to follow him must be willing to take up the cross and submit themselves as a sacrifice, and we can see various responses to this call in traditions of Christian martyrdom and monasticism, even in the rallying call for the Crusades. Or we might just throw two bucks into a passing plate on a Sunday morning and call it even (many Christians today believe that God is on a strict heart-healthy diet of love, songs and prayers).

A tiny minority of Muslims believe in sacrificing one’s life to harm others. This stems from a strained interpretation of certain Qur’anic passages, but the Qur’an is manifestly clear on requiring every Muslim to make the Hajj pilgrimage and slaughter an animal there to be shared among the needy in Mecca (in modern times, these animals are butchered and packed to be shipped to charities around the world). In contrast to other sacrificial traditions, the Qur’an states that God does not eat a portion of the sacrificial meat.

In an ancient Veda of Hinduism, the world was created through the sacrifice and dismemberment of the original man – a supposition the Hindus share with their estranged cousins the Babylonians and Vikings. And who can forget the image of the indigo goddess Kali in her skirt of severed arms and necklace of human skulls, arousing dead Shiva back to life by gymnastic lap-dance? She wasn’t just made up for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hinduism still retains the tradition of leaving plates of food in front of devotional figurines called Murtis. Even Buddhism, which has no gods, demands a sacrifice – the sacrifice of the eternal Self which in Hinduism would play chutes-and-ladders in eons of reincarnations. Siddhartha became the Buddha by giving up Siddhartha.

In the religion of American Nationalism we readily call war casualties a “sacrifice” for our culture, and apply the concept of “martyrdom” to murdered reformers. In modern times, many men and women will choose to “sacrifice” their prime reproductive years on the altar of career advancement, while others will “sacrifice” their career goals to raise children. Our forms of child sacrifice (signing our sons up for junior varsity football, sending our virgin daughters to college) and animal sacrifice (the Thanksgiving turkey that dies for our founding fathers’ sins, the cattle and pigs we barbecue on Independence Day) are more abstract but still recognizable.

Some of us in modern times may think of sacrifice as primitive and wasteful, and yet we can still see it, though abstracted, in modern traditions. When I think of organized religion’s current crisis – many people feeling like religion has no real connection to their life – I have to wonder if it has something to do with modern religions’ denial of their sacrificial roots. Free-market competition between American Christian denominations seems to have turned “salvation” into some sort of door- prize freebee, and so it’s no surprise if “salvation” doesn’t seem that valuable. Maybe “worship without sacrifice” is not such a great thing after all.


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It’s been a while since I posted something here.  A lot of this last year has been occupied with relocating from Western North Carolina to Buffalo NY, near where I grew up, and now I’ve resumed teaching college courses on comparative religion.  Having stumbled into a sort of “sabbatical” semester, I decided to fill in some blanks in my knowledge by researching/writing about Greek mythology and ancient sacrificial traditions.




“A Bacchic [Dionysian] priest called out to the people to celebrate a feast, handmaid or slave, to go on holiday, each girl, like mistress, cover her breasts with furs, twist the grape leaf and myrtle in flying hair, each carry in her hands the magic vine-grown thyrsus…Matrons, young wives with babies at their breasts, answered his call, left spindle, loom and basket – housework undone… Wherever you go, the crowd is there, the shrieks of girls, the shouts of boys, tympanum [drums] roaring and the cry of flutes.” (Ovid) Marija Gimbutas writes, “Dionysus was a bull-god, god of annual renewal, imbued with all the urgency of nature. Brimming with virility, he was the god most favoured by women.” Camille Paglia puts is more bluntly: “Dionysus is nature’s raw sex and violence. He is drugs, drink, dance – the dance of death.”

The standard account of Dionysus’ birth is a trashy episode in the Olympian soap opera: a young Theban princess named “Semele was loved by Zeus because of her beauty, but since he had his intercourse with her secretly and without speech she thought that the god despised her; consequently [on jealous Hera’s advice] she made the request of him that he come to her embraces in the same manner as in his approaches to Hera. Accordingly, Zeus visited her in a way befitting a god, accompanied by thundering and lightning, revealing himself to her as he embraced her; but Semele, who was pregnant and unable to endure the majesty of the divine presence, brought forth the babe untimely and was herself slain by the fire.” (Siculus) Zeus then salvaged the zygote from her charred remains and “hid it away deep in a strange pit of his own thigh” (whatever that means) where the fetus completed its gestation.

While most mythographers agree about Semele being Dionysus’ mother, Diodorus Siculus preserves an older tradition in which Dionysus was born of Zeus and the grain goddess Demeter. Newborn baby Dionysus, with a mischievous grin and the horns of a bull, playfully mounted his father’s throne, but Hera unleashed the brawling Titans on him. Dionysus shape-shifted into the likeness of Zeus, Kronos, a lion, a horse, a snake and finally a bull when “the sons of Gaia tore to pieces the god, who was a son of Zeus and Demeter, and boiled him, but his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time.” (Siculus) Here the dismembered and reassembled body of Dionysus parallels “the vine, which has been stripped of its fruit and pruned at the yearly seasons, is restored by the earth to the high level of fruitfulness which it had before.” (Siculus)

Like other resurrected gods, Dionysus had two festivals – one on the Winter Solstice and the other in early spring. The springtime Dionysus carnival was celebrated with “Passion Play” reenactments of his death, in which a live bull was torn to pieces and communally eaten amid a clamor of flutes and cymbals, presumably with much wine, after which celebrants would run feverishly into the woods to indulge in lewd pursuits. In Euripides’ play The Bacchae, a traumatized eyewitness describes a frenzy of “young wives and the old and girls as yet unyoked. First they let down their hair upon their shoulders and pulled up their slipping fawnskins… Some, holding in their arms a fawn or the wild cubs of a wolf, gave them white milk to suck, all the young mothers with breasts still bursting full, their babes left behind. [Then] they attacked our cattle that were grazing on fresh grass, with not an axe in hand. You might have seen one of them holding up in her two hands a milk-fed bellowing calf, while others pulled together, tearing heifers apart. Then ribs or a cloven hoof you might have seen hurled high and low – and things hanging besmeared with blood, dripping beneath the pine-boughs. Violent bulls, whose angered horns before were quick to charge, were tripped and brought down bodily to the ground, overcome by innumerable girlish hands.” (Euripides)

Camille Paglia writes, “The violent principle of Dionysian cult is sparagmos, which in Greek means ‘a rending, tearing, mangling’ and secondly ‘a convulsion, spasm.’ The body of the god, or a human or animal substitute, is torn to pieces, which are eaten or scattered like seed. Omophagy, ritual eating of raw flesh, is the assimilation and internalization of godhead… Dionysian sparagmos was an ecstasy of sexual excitation and superhuman strength. Try disjointing a grocery chicken with your bare hands! – much less a living goat or heifer. The scattering of sparagmos inseminated the earth. Hence swallowing the god’s parts was an act of physical love.” Sir James Frazer proposes that with time, as the god became more associated with a human form, the sacrifice was reinterpreted as a sacrifice to feed the god, but “in rending and devouring a live bull at his festival the worshipers of Dionysus believed themselves to be killing the god, eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.”

The second day of the frenzied festival was known as the Day of Cups. As the name suggests, this was a drinking party, but it was more than just drunken revel: the “spirits” people imbibed were believed to be the spirit of the god himself, as Euripides writes: “This god, poured out, propitiates the gods, so men get all their happiness through him…his intoxication is, like any madness, full of prophecy. For when this deity in plenitude enters the body, then his revelers rave, revealing in their words what is to come.” (Euripides) “After everyone had drunk, the wife of the magistrate was married to Dionysus in the Bukoleion or Ox-stall, attended by women who had taken vows of chastity in the service of Dionysus. Thither the image of Dionysus, possibly in bovine form, or an actor wearing horns and a hide, was brought on a boat-like structure on wheels to complete the nuptial rites.” (Marija Gimbutas)

Dionysus was the blurring of boundaries – he was at once human, animal and god, dressed in drag he was male and female, intoxicated he was asleep and awake, alive and dead, in ritual he was generative sex and destructive violence. Dionysus was sex in the mud at a rock festival, but of course without the convenience fees, VIP corrals, wristbands and cheerful reminders that smokers are not welcome to relax (how did rock concerts become so much like airports and internment camps?). Dionysus was the primeval chaos, the murky primordial stew that advanced civilizations with administrative gods had tried so hard to segregate and classify. And yet these same civilizations, including our own, always carry the myth of that golden age when gender hierarchy, interspecies conflict, divine alienation and human mortality did not yet exist. The Greeks did too, and once a year they would leave their stately colonnaded temples behind, drop acid in the woods, watch the tree-bark slither, have a deep conversation with a mossy rock and then get frisky like the woodland critters. And in this chaotic paradise, participants threw off conventions and constraints, tearing through boundaries of human/god/animal, life/death, male/female, slave/free – Dionysus was pandemonium but also paradise. “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!”

Ironically we can see traces of Dionysus in both Christianity (consuming the body and blood of a resurrected god-man) and medieval Witchcraft (rumors of women on psychedelic drugs getting freaky with a horned, goat-footed devil-man). Dionysus was even begrudgingly inducted into the Roman Catholic roster of Saints, inspiring the popular name Dennis. This may explain why your Denny’s breakfast tasted like it was mangled by filthy intoxicated women.

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Kingdom Come: Jesus and the Environment

Bathroom Sink Cross

Last week, Interfaith Action and the United Religions Initiative in Hendersonville NC presented an interfaith panel discussion about religion and environmentalism.  There was a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan Priestess, and I spoke about Christianity.  The main question was – what do our faith traditions tell us about how people are meant to live in relation to the rest of the community of life on earth?  Writing about Christianity and environmentalism proved to be too daunting and depressing, so I wrote about Jesus instead.




In Genesis 1:28, God writes humanity a blank check from the bank of creation “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Is this how Christians are meant to live in relation to the environment? What would Jesus do? As far as we know, Jesus was not fruitful, he didn’t increase a number of little Jesus Juniors, he didn’t own land, he didn’t build a plantation, and though he may have called himself a “Good Shepherd,” he doesn’t have any sheep during his ministry, so if he was a literal shepherd he must have been a bad one. More likely it was a metaphor. Jesus called farmers, fishermen and herders to quit their day-jobs and become a small tribe of nomadic foragers.

Jesus never says that God wants us to “rule the earth and subdue it” – actually he says the exact opposite: “Our father…your will be done on earth.” Instead of God telling humanity to tear the world apart and put it back together for our own comfort and convenience, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that humanity would give that dominion back. Instead of looking at nature and saying “What a mess, how can we make this better?” We’re supposed to ask “What was God’s intention here, and how can we cooperate? How can we fit in?”

Well that’s a really tough one, since Jesus our teacher hasn’t left any instructions for two thousand years. And his proteges, the disciples, could never understand him. But if we listen carefully, we find that Jesus did recommend teachers we can still listen to: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:24-31)

Jesus wasn’t telling us to rule the birds, he was telling us to learn from them. He wasn’t telling us to have lawns three quarters of an inch high in suburbia, he was telling us that we can learn from the plants. And most important, he wasn’t telling us to destroy this planet in a desperate grab for food, water and clothing – he was saying that when we look at God’s creation and agree that it’s good, and look for how humanity can fit in, we’ll have these things! And we don’t have to wait until after death – he says that when we cooperate with creation, we’ll have what we need to survive.

Of course many of us here don’t speak Raven – it’s not that hard actually, the word “caw” is like Shalom or Aloha, it means “hello, let’s eat, goodbye, whatever.” But if we really can’t learn from the birds and plants, Jesus recommended other teachers: In Mark 10:14 he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children will surprise you with their clarity of vision – this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we spend billions of dollars and hours teaching them shades of gray, teaching them that the world is more complicated than it looks. That they need to work hard, get stuff, pay bills, drive a car. I know my children would be much happier if their teachers were deer and bears and their classroom was a forest. Well that’s what education was, until people started this mutiny for world-dominion. Maybe someday instead of giving our children sit-still pills to crush their instinct for an eight-hour school-day, maybe someday we’ll give them God’s Kingdom instead, and let them teach us that the world is simple when we cooperate – it’s impossible we try to dominate.

Nature hates a makeover – reshaping this world is like the struggle to get a squirming toddler into church-clothes on Sunday morning, and yet we feel it’s our sacred responsibility to drag this world kicking and screaming into one of our utopian fantasies. Christian doctrine says not to get involved, to be “in the world but not of the world,” whatever that means. But when a crime is committed in plain sight, there’s no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

John 3:16, maybe the most famous passage in the New Testament – mostly because of a belief that if you write this magic spell on a sign and hold it at a sporting event, it’s guaranteed your team will crush their enemies. I’m not going to recite the whole verse, but those first six words: “For God so loved the world.” Maybe it’s time we stopped destroying God’s world, maybe it’s time we stopped hating God’s world and waiting for a divine evacuation, maybe it’s time we forgive God’s world for being so savage and primitive and childish and “earthy.” God so loved the world – it is not a sin for Christians to love it too.

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Zechariah and John the Baptizer in the Bible and Qur’an

Zechariah and John in the Bible and Qur’an

All four of the Canonical Gospels contain accounts of John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke attests that John and Jesus were cousins, and begins with a story of John’s conception: his father Zechariah was a high priest performing an incense offering in the Jerusalem Temple when an angel appeared. The messenger surprises the elderly Zechariah with the news that his aging wife Elizabeth will give birth (we are not told whether or not Zechariah has prayed for this). Zechariah is suspicious of this news, and he is struck dumb as a punishment for his disbelief: “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:20) Zechariah then cannot speak until the baby is delivered. A close reading of Zechariah’s story in the Qur’an reveals some interesting differences: he will pray for a son, and his silence will be a sign of God’s answer.


Sura 19:1 Sufficient, Guide, Blessed, Knowing, Truthful God.
19:2 A mention of the mercy of your Lord to His servant Zechariah –
19:3 When he called upon his Lord, crying in secret.
19:4 He said: “My Lord, my bones are weakened, and my head flares with gray hair, and I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to You, my Lord.
19:5 And I fear for my kinsfolk after me, and my wife is barren, so grant me from Yourself an heir
19:6 Who will continue my work and continue the Children of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, acceptable to You.”
19:7 [An Angel called to him:] “Zechariah! We give you good news of a boy, whose name is John. We have never before made anyone his equal.”
19:8 He said: “My Lord, how shall I have a son, and my wife is barren, and I have reached extreme old age?”
19:9 He said: “So it will be. Your Lord says: ‘It is easy to Me, and indeed I created you before, when you were nothing.’”
19:10 He said: “My Lord, give me a sign.” He said: “Your sign is that you will not speak to people three nights, though you are in sound health.”
19:11 So he went forth to his people from the sanctuary and signaled to them: “Glorify God morning and evening.”
19:12 We said: “John, hold on to the Book with all your strength,” and We granted him wisdom when a child,
19:13 And kind-heartedness from Us and purity. And he was dutiful,
19:14 And kindly to his parents, and he was not insolent or disobedient.
19:15 And peace on him the day he was born and the day he died, and the day he is raised to life.


The most fascinating aspect of the Qur’anic report of John the Baptizer is that it’s not about John at all. He’s a secondary character in a story about Zechariah, whose prayer for a son is answered. The Qur’an gives no account of John’s adulthood, his baptisms or his interactions with Jesus. We are told only that he was “honorable and chaste, a prophet from among the good ones” (Sura 3:38) and that he was obedient to his father: “Surely they used to compete with one another in good deeds, and called upon Us, hoping and fearing, they were humble before Us.” (Sura 21:90) This competition in good deeds can be found in the Talmud: “What message did the Torah bring to Israel? Take upon yourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, vie one with the other in the fear of God and practise loving deeds towards one another.” This vying does not mean that one will win and the other will lose, but that both will benefit from some friendly competition.


“The Book” that John is told to take hold of in Sura 19:12 could refer to the Torah, or to the ‘Mother of Books,’ God’s own book of wisdom. Zechariah, in his old age, wishes that God would replace him with another Temple priest, someone to continue the sacred traditions of Judaism. Those of us familiar with John in the Gospels know that the limb falls far from the tree, he goes shouting at people in the wasteland, far from the Temple and its sacrificial altars (he was a voice crying out, “In the wilderness [implied: not the Temple], prepare the way of the Lord.”). And without continuing the lineage of high priests, he gets incarcerated and decapitated for subversion. But in the Qur’an we are told only that John was a worthy successor to his father, and therefore an answer to Zechariah’s prayer. The announcement that “We have never before made anyone his equal” (Sura 19:7) recalls Jesus’ assessment of John, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:26, 28)


LUKE 3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”


Though the Qur’an contains no scenes of John preaching, it has numerous parallels with his sermon. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) John’s teaching of the fruit-bearing tree as a symbol of generosity would later be expanded by Jesus, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit… The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45) The symbol of the trees is further expanded in the Qur’an:


Sura 14:24 God sets forth a parable of a good word as a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are high,
14:25 Yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord. God sets forth parables for men that they may be mindful.
14:26 And the parable of an evil word is as an evil tree pulled up from the earth’s surface; it has no stability.
14:27 God confirms those who believe with the sure word in this world’s life and in the Hereafter; and God leaves the wrongdoers in error.
The good tree here is not only spared from punishment, it is also blessed with abundance “in every season” – a year-round blossoming and harvest will come from it.


“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) John warns that in God’s judgment, no one will be granted special leniency because of descent from Abraham. The Qur’an likewise affirms that no one will be granted favor or spared judgment for the sake of Abraham: “Do you see the one who turns away? …Has he not been informed of what is in the scriptures of Moses and Abraham who fulfilled their duty? No soul shall bear the burden of another: a man will have only what he has earned.” (Sura 53:33-34, 36-39) Rather, “those who are closest to Abraham are those who follow his ways.” (Sura 3:67) Abraham himself is not remembered for uncritical acceptance of received tradition – he turned away from his homeland and family practices. Abraham is best remembered for treating kings like nobodies, treating nobodies like kings, and a willingness to give up what he loved most in the world when God asked him to.


The image of God replacing the descendants of Abraham with rocks is extreme, but we can hear an echo of it in the Qur’anic warning: “You who believe, should any one of you turn back from his religion, then God will replace you with a people whom He loves and who love Him, humble toward believers, mighty against disbelievers, striving hard in God’s way and not fearing anyone’s reproach.” (Sura 5:54) But we should not consider this a rejection of the rituals and traditions of Judaism – Zechariah, being a Temple priest, is the most explicitly “Jewish” of the Qur’anic messengers, and his adherence to the Torah is rewarded with the gift of a son. In the twenty-first Surah, called “The Prophets,” a list of messengers including Abraham and David, Zechariah, John, Mary and Jesus concludes with “Surely this your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so serve Me… Whoever does good deeds and is a believer, there is no rejection of his effort, and We keep a record of it.” (Sura 21:92, 94)

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Work (A Sermon)


Graduating from college I was genuinely excited to enter the workforce. Many liberal arts students study a little of this and a little of that, feeling around to find their interests (and here I’m talking about academic classes as well as sextra-curricular activities). But I’d arrived on campus, day one, knowing exactly what I wanted to do and then put in four straight years of near-monastic devotion, long nights at the desk, working toward my dream career: to be Snodgrass, for a living – I was going to be a celebrity. A brand, a monopoly, dispensing precious nuggets from my personal stash of Snodgrass. Many would imitate, attempting to synthesize generic equivalents (“I can’t believe it’s not Snodgrass!”), but only I would control access to the real thing.

“When I grow up I’m gonna be Snodgrass.” Of course now I realize that, for a kid without rich parents and industry connections, I might as well have said “When I grow up I’m gonna be Gandalf.” Which would actually have sounded a little less ridiculous, because at least someone did get to be Gandalf for a living.

I spent my first two years out of college working at a bookstore, which, being a writer… I might as well have been a trained nutritionist pushing a snow-cone cart. Five years and seven jobs later I was cleaning public bathrooms in New York City, and felt that I was moving up – at the end of scrubbing toilets I would feel like there was less crap in the world. Dispensing spy-thrillers and sex-memoirs had made me feel like I was spreading more crap around. And my father would find me in Yonkers, in Milwaukee, in Virginia and say “Join the middle class – it is your destiny.” But I refused to have a job that came with homework, because I was still secretly spending my nights writing. Besides, entry into the middle class would have cost me my single greatest financial asset: the ability to defer my student loan payments. Academic debt is our modern form of indentured servitude, meaning you’ll be in dentures before it’s paid off.

Surveys and statistics suggest that your average Millennial will hold fifteen to twenty-five different jobs in a fifty-year period. But I don’t believe that any kid out there is really walking around saying “When I grow up I’m gonna be a projectionist, rock-wall builder, sales clerk, canvasser, do some daycare and construction work, wash windows and public bathrooms, become an adjunct professor.” If a third-grader said that on career day, they’d medicate him – until he really did think he was Gandalf.

John Steinbeck said, “the [American] poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We’re all superstars – just some of us haven’t attained liftoff yet. The energetic young job-hopper is a frog prince, leaping from pad to pad until a kiss of success magically transforms him into a corporate king. Or they can move into their parents’ attic where alcohol and mood pills turn them into Sleeping Beauty – “Wake me up when the prince gets here and I become tabloid royalty.” “Um, sorry – the prince is raising six kids with Angelina Jolie, your love-life will be a series of seven financial dwarfs.” “Will Gandalf be leading any of these dwarfs to treasure?” “No, Gandalf is just a side-effect of the medication.”

There’s a scene in Disney’s Cinderella… I hate the Cinderella story – Sarah says “Daddy will you put on Cinderella?” “Aw, sorry I can’t find that disc right now – how about Pocahontas? Or Mulan?” I didn’t name my daughter after Sarah Connor so she could learn that singing songs through oppression and exploitation might just turn you into a millionaire. Anyway there’s a scene where the Fairy Godmother is getting Cinderella ready for the ball and she says “I know what we need…a pumpkin!” Cinderella is confused, but it eventually makes a…Disney sort of sense. Well right now we need a pumpkin in this sermon, and our pumpkin is a brief recap of the Agricultural Revolution and quick review of Max Weber’s thrilling page-turner, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It might get confusing, but then by a series of mysterious incantations I plan to transform this pumpkin into a vehicle that will transport us to… Well we’ll see when we get there, but have faith in the pumpkin.


About three million years ago there was a new kid in town with simian good looks and limitless potential. What’s got two thumbs and a sense of cause and effect? The human being. Of course we didn’t just jump into the middle class, we didn’t get jobs at all until about ten thousand years ago. You could call it a long adolescence, the human species spent about three million years wandering from site to site, trying this and that, migratory foragers saying “eh, this looks good enough. For now.” And if someone said “Son, why don’t you get a haircut? Mow the lawn? Take over the world?” He’d say, “Nyeh, sounds good pops, but I just found this bone. Gonna gnaw on it for a while. Just saw a dog doing it, he looked happy enough.”

Looking at how these primitive people acquired their food, anthropologists have designated them “Hunter/Gatherers.” This label is misleading in two significant ways: first of all it gives the impression that gaining enough calories for survival was a full-time job. But observers of primitive cultures have seen that this is not the case – acquiring daily food could be done in under an hour as long as everyone was helping. A second misconception stems from the sequence of the term “Hunter/Gatherer”: actually it was gathering that brought in the majority, 60-80% of the calories. “Bringing home the bacon” is a lot dicier in the wild than bringing home the rutabaga. It would have made far more sense to call these cultures “Gatherer/Hunters,” but most of the gathering was done by women, and most early anthropology books were written by men.

Hunting satisfies a natural male instinct to sit around together and not say anything for a long time, often followed by an opportunity to satisfy that urge to say “Did you see that? Did you see that? Did you see that?” Gathering, on the other hand, allows you to have long conversations that would scare off rabbits, but rutabaga won’t go scampering off when they hear you coming. It’s always ‘bring your baby to work day,’ also the female of the human species has a more detailed sense of color and smell (really important when you’ve got to distinguish an edible berry from poison).

When it’s time to dress the kids I’ll go stalking through a room, zoom in on something, sniff at it and my brain will say: “Shirt: clean.” And from all the way across the house I’ll hear Elizabeth saying “Don’t put her in that shirt again, it’s filthy – and she can’t wear it with those shorts anyway.” And I’ll try to reason with her: “Shirt clean,” but it’s no use, she goes into a long speech about teachers calling child protective services and I think, “Yes, our education system needs more male teachers who smoke, so they won’t notice how you dress your kids or how they smell by Wednesday.” But I don’t say that, instead I repeat the two-word mantra of every married man who wishes to have a sex-life: “You’re right.” And she is right, because for millions of years she and women like her have been honing their sense of color and smell.

After about three million years of the freewheeling gatherer-hunter lifestyle, some tribe in the Ancient Near East settled by a river and experimented with a new way of life, cultivating certain edible plants and animals, exterminating the dangerous or extraneous ones. This is called the “Agricultural Revolution,” and when learning about it we hear a lot about the tools that were developed: the hoe and plow and so forth. But the rise of Agriculture produced other inventions, far more significant: a leisure class, and a working class.

For the first time, people had to be taught that some were made to stuff themselves and others were made to suffer – literally “made to suffer,” as we can see in ancient Babylonian creation stories, where humans originate as clay drones to farm the land and feed their heavenly (and earthly) superiors. And if the little people went on strike, the gods would retaliate with a series of natural disasters, plagues, famines and wash away the leftovers with a great flood. The moral of the story, the meaning of life was “Put up, shut up, pay up.” Another invention was the full-time job, since farming was full-time work and so was bullying unambitious teenagers to do it.

Babylon eventually fell – but not because it was a failure. Babylon was toppled by its own success: too much food, producing too many people, putting a greater demand on natural resources until the land was exhausted and the culture collapsed. But that flood story survived, the Greeks used it to terrorize their peasants into “Put up, shut up, pay up.” And when Greece exhausted itself, the Romans took it, and just when it seemed the Roman Empire would fall, they switched mascots and became the Holy Roman Empire, using that same basic narrative except with Jesus Christ on a pale horse slaughtering every peasant who didn’t pay their tithes and taxes. And in case it took him a few thousand years to show up, they invented Purgatory, where deadbeats would be held hostage until their relatives scraped together enough shekels to pay the ransom. As Indulgence Salesman John Tetzel said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

While inquisitors extracted confessions and ministers gave long torturous sermons about the doctrine of the Trinity, the Trinitarian economy for European peasants was “Put up, shut up, pay up.” A young German monk named Martin Luther would eventually lead the protest against this extortion racket of Jesus running a debtor’s prison, and so began the Protestant Reformation. In an effort to cut the Catholic priesthood down to size, Luther coined the expression we know as “the Calling.” This was a religious belief that each and every person (not just the priesthood) was called by God to do some job on earth, and because all “Callings” were equal in God’s eyes, one should not waste energy jockeying for position in a job market.

A generation later, John Calvin took this a step further with his doctrine of predestination. His primary aim was to prove that paying priests to perform hocus pocus rituals was not going to improve one’s chance of salvation – Calvin proposed that God had already chosen the elect for heaven. And one of the signs of this selection was that the person would be spared from scarcity and anxiety on earth – so the more wealth you possessed, the more certain you were of salvation. Calvin’s thesis was purely theological, and yet he unintentionally spread a belief that wealth was an indication of holiness. Of course worldly wealth wasn’t meant to be enjoyed, it should be saved and wisely invested so that God could multiply it into greater wealth, greater security, a surer sign of salvation.

The most extreme fanatical Calvinists were chased out of Europe (just like many of us today would happily invite our fanatical fundamentalists to go colonize Mars). So they brought their gloomy fatalism, ridiculous hats and air of superiority to New England where the grim weather suited their joyless disposition. “Methinks Plymouth Rock doth sound too festive, let us seek a name both ugly to the ear and difficult for the tongue…Massachusetts.”

Now we’re getting somewhere – Calvinist Puritans arrived on the shores of the American continent, where they could apply these Protestant doctrines to everyday community life. And while the theological underpinnings faded with time, the economic byproducts remained. From Luther and Calvin’s perspective, this would be “throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.” But the earthly afterthoughts of their theological speculations became the Protestant Work Ethic: a belief that every person is called to some career, the spiritually undeserving will be poor, God’s favorites will be rich (and vice versa: the rich are God’s favorites). Luther and Calvin would have been horrified to find that they’d accidentally spawned a Dharma system in which God’s grace was expressed in economic castes, complete with slaves imported to become the untouchables.


Though most of us in this room are not closet Presbyterians, many of us here have been shaped by the Protestant Work Ethic – choose your career and stick with it, every job is important, work hard and you’ll be fine, a penny saved is a penny earned. And we all know about the American caste system – upper class, lower class, this country even tried a hundred-year experiment with something called a “middle class” (write that down – it’ll be a vocabulary word on your grandchildrens’ history exam: “Middle class”). And then there are the bums. And everybody is where they are because that’s what they deserve – if everybody worked hard, everybody would succeed. And People Magazine would have 318 million faces on the cover each week. And we’d all ride in pumpkin coaches powered by enchanted mice.

And, though most of us in this room are not closet Presbyterians, many of us here are being led to fear the disintegration of traditional work values. But which traditions are collapsing?  Where did they come from, and how old are they, really? The Protestant Work Ethic is breaking down. We’re told to fear any deviation from the self-appointed “Greatest Generation,” the post World War 2 economy. Because they really knew the value of work – oh, except that only white men were allowed in the game, and their children wanted to flush all that so-called success down the toilet. I don’t see anybody here panicking about the collapse of Babylonian theocracy or Medieval feudalism (unless some of us are closet Evangelicals).

Time Magazine is shocked by this generation of job-hoppers, working in spurts at different locations – actually the strange thing is to imagine that someone would do the same task on the same assembly line for 35 years without going insane. And by ‘assembly line’ I don’t just mean industrial – I also mean food and data processing. And if a person said “I feel like a cog in a machine,” the machine would say “Puny human, you’re not part of me – my cogs are from Asia, they’re smarter than you, you’re just my personal assistant. Now clean out my inbox and get me a data-ccino. And laugh like I said something funny, I think the vacuum-cleaner’s looking.”

If we want to worry about losing “the way things have always been,” we should be thinking about the 99.7% of humanity’s time on earth when we were free-range migratory foragers. Living one day at a time, lacking the ambition to take over the world – who knows? Maybe it was a lack of ambition that kept us alive for so long. Because even those of us who might believe the “Greatest Generation” had the right idea about work…know deep in our hearts that it was not sustainable.

The other night I was walking past Hendersonville Middle School and it had turned “HMS” into a three word motto: “Honorable, Motivated, Successful.” And I wondered… What does “Successful” mean to a middle-school student today? Obviously “Success” doesn’t mean being a homeless pregnant forager, like our neolithic ancestors. And “Success” probably doesn’t mean fighting in a World War and then canning green beans for thirty-five years like it did in the “Greatest Generation.” No, if history teaches us anything, it’s that things are always changing – not only technologically but more important, ideologically – how do we measure “Success?” In terms of possessions? Salvation? Security? Happiness? I suppose I’d have to attend a middle-school graduation to find out, but since I hope never to sit through such a ridiculous thing I’ll close with what I imagine a middle-school graduation speech would sound like.

A wise man once said… Actually, I don’t think he was a man, anyway he didn’t exist… Anyway, Gandalf once said, “You will have to do without pocket handkerchiefs, and a great many other things, before we reach our journey’s end, Bilbo Baggins. You were born to the rolling hills and little rivers of the Shire, but home is now behind you, the world is ahead.”

I gave this sermon this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Black Mountain NC (there was also an amateur video, which maybe somehow I’ll figure out how to post).  Even after many, many hours of writing and rewriting, this is still a work in progress, but there were numerous requests that a transcript be posted, so here it is.

My deep thanks to the members of this Unitarian Fellowship for inviting me so many times to preach – I’d be a writer whether anybody listened or not, but knowing that there are people who want to listen to my writing makes it a LOT easier to explain to my relatives that I’m not crazy.



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Hosea and Whoredom (Excerpt from LIBEL: SEX & SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE)

Book Cover j. John Snodgrass Libel Sex and Sexuality in the BibleThe following is an excerpt from my new book, LIBEL: SEX AND SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE, available through and



Three thousand years from now, an archaeologist in scuba-gear will break through a layer of concrete, a cloud of greenish powder will fog the water and when it clears… Paydirt! A twenty-first century landfill, brimming with informative artifacts. And, picking through sporks and irreparable i-products he’ll find a pamphlet, which will be painstakingly preserved for intensive study. It’s a folded flier about keeping women at home, bashing gays and torching abortion clinics so life can be pure and prosperous like it was in the “Good Old Days.” The writing in the pamphlet will be strident and vitriolic (and the grammar will be terrible). And the anthropologist will say “Aha! So this is what everybody believed at the start of the twenty-first century!”


When crops were planted and harvested, the Canaanite custom was to gather on hilltops celebrating fertility and abundance. One of the biggest and wildest parties of the year was the autumn vintage festival, celebrating the crop of new wine. Women jangled tambourines and sang love songs, animals were slaughtered on horned altars and fistfulls of rare barbecue were passed around, olive oil was splashed across a seven-foot stone phallus, a goddess of hand-crafted wood posed provocatively toward the sky, fortune tellers cast lots, a tree was decked with twinkling ornaments, and everyone’s eyes were shining from alcohol… The Israelites happily joined in these harvest parties for centuries. But not everyone was laughing. While the Israelites celebrate a vintage, Hosea and his disciples crash the party to harass the merry-makers…

HOSEA 4:11 Wine and new wine take away the understanding.
12 My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
13 They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
14 I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes…
18 When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.

The “whoredom” and “adultery” here look at first like metaphors for being “unfaithful” to the God of Israel. But soon we discover that this is Biblical literalism, an eyewitness account of the orgiastic “festival days of the Baals, when she [Israel] offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the LORD.” (2:13) We’re not told whether the “ring and jewelry” are accessories or the whole costume, but it’s a wild time. We could call it a rain dance, but the “rain” in question was believed to be the storm-god Baal ejaculating to impregnate an earth-goddess, and so the “dance” had to stimulate the horned and horny Baal to fertilize the land.

On Babylonian holidays, kings and priestesses would publicly reenact the cosmological copulations of the gods, “Under his reign may there be plants, may there be grain…May the watered garden produce honey and wine…The king goes with lifted head…to the holy lap of Inanna.” The sexual sacraments of Babylon seem to have been practiced also in Canaan, where profane priests, priestesses and amorous acolytes – I suppose we could call them “Priestitutes” – performed racy rituals to arouse their obscene deities.

When the usual raunchy rain-dances failed to produce a downpour of Baal’s sexual energy, it was assumed that the storm-god had grown bored of one-man-one-woman exhibitions, and might be aroused by some other combination. Thus we have a list of prohibited pairings in Leviticus 18, including incest, sex during menstruation, threesomes, homosexuality and bestiality. One line in particular we hear a lot in modern America, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Leviticus 18:22) and others we don’t hear enough of here in the South, “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” (Leviticus 18:6) The list ends with the command: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves,” (Leviticus 18:24) reminding us that these were not just theoretical scenarios. When the rain didn’t fall, people were coupling in all combinations to awaken the storm-god Baal. These prohibitions pertained specifically to what must not be done on the altar during a church service – the famous ban on same-sex pairings is not talking about two guys filing their income tax together or sharing insurance benefits. What’s forbidden is ritual sexual exhibition, homosexual and heterosexual alike.


In addition to professional Priestitutes, sacramental sex also seems to have been a Canaanite religious initiation rite, like bat mitzvah, confirmation or adult baptism. “Your daughters play the whore, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.” (Hosea 4:11) Herodotus reported a Babylonian custom, in which all women must at some point in their lives (presumably before marriage) “sit in the sacred precinct of [fertility goddess Ishtar] with a garland round their heads made of string. There is constant coming and going, and there are roped-off passages running through the crowds of women in every direction, through which the strangers walk and take their pick. When once a woman has taken her seat there, she may not go home again until one of the strangers throws a piece of silver into her lap and lies with her, outside the temple…Those women who have attained to great beauty and height depart quickly enough, but those who are ugly abide there a great while, being unable to fulfill the law. Some, indeed, stay there as much as three or four years.” Those poor unfortunate ugly women, stuck for four straight years of free food and girl-talk… Oh, come to think of it, these must have been the happiest years of their lives!

Religiously speaking, we can see this custom as a form of sacrifice, an offering of flesh, after which the silver coins would be given for the upkeep of the temple. In the book of Deuteronomy, God strictly condemns this practice: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 23:17-18) Why on earth would anyone have done such a thing? We need to keep in mind that at around the same time the Hebrews arrived from Egypt, Canaan was devastated by plagues that carried off as much as four fifths of the population. Many of the survivors had been sterilized by sickness, causing an epidemic of what the Bible calls “barrenness,” which the early patriarchs discovered in their wives after marriage. And so it seems that “sacred prostitution” functioned as a test of fertility, that a man of Canaan would not agree to marry someone unless she were already pregnant. This may also explain some early reports of infant sacrifice, that the child of “sacred prostitution” might then by consecrated to the gods (as the monetary wages of this prostitution were offered as sacrifice).

The book of Genesis contains a narrative account of this “Sacred Prostitution” in which a teenaged widow named Tamar snuck out of her father’s house and disguised herself as a maiden, she “put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim.” (Genesis 38:14) Enaim, meaning “twin wells” seems to be an outdoor Canaanite sanctuary. The veil was likely worn to preserve the maiden’s anonymity during this display, because Canaan was a bunch of small villages, unlike the big city of Babylon. “When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the road side, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you,’ for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me? …Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.” (Genesis 38:15-16, 18) When Tamar’s pregnancy begins to show, Judah demands that she be burned to death for participating in sacred prostitution. Then she pulls out his signet and cord, the ancient equivalent of a driver’s license and credit card, and the shepherd sheepishly admits he was in the wrong.


Biblical prophets were known to enact their messages with publicity stunts, like Isaiah prophesying “naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered” for three years as a sign of the nation’s coming humiliation. (Isaiah 20:24) Jeremiah was commanded to wear a “yoke of straps and bars” on his neck. (Jeremiah 27:2) And Ezekiel was forced to eat “barley-cake, baking it in their sight [by burning] human dung.” (Ezekiel 4:12) When I was back there in seminary school, the name “Hosea” was an easy memory device for in case the Old Testament 101 final exam included the question, “Which prophet married a prostitute?” The book of Hosea begins with God commanding Hosea to “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” (Hosea 1:2)

The second chapter of Hosea is the story of a jealous husband terrorizing his adulterous wife. Placed between the two reports of Hosea’s marriage(s) in chapters one and three, it is sometimes read as a description of Hosea’s own abusive home-life. But here again, the idea that Hosea’s marriage(s) necessitated his messages seems backward: It was this metaphor of Israel as God’s unfaithful wife that inspired Hosea to illustrate his speech by marrying one or more prostitutes. This speech is not a glorification of domestic violence but a desperate plea for fidelity, beginning with “Plead with your mother, plead” (2:2) and ending with “I will now allure her…and speak tenderly to her.” (2:14)

HOSEA 2:2 Plead with your mother, plead–
for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband–
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts,
3 or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst.
4 Upon her children also I will have no pity,
because they are children of whoredom.
5 For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, “I will go after my lovers;
they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.”…
11 I will put an end to all her mirth,
her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths,
and all her appointed festivals.
12 I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
of which she said, “These are my pay, which my lovers have given me.”
I will make them a forest, and the wild animals shall devour them.
13 I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the LORD.
14 Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.

“The LORD, whose name is Jealous,” (Exodus 34:14) really puts the “Lock” in “Wedlock.” God’s response to these fertility festivals is that He will sabotage Israel’s agriculture and drag the people back into the wilderness (what, and nobody cheered?). It’s passages like this that cause ministers to ignore Hosea – violent images of jealousy and domestic abuse. I was teaching a course about women in the Bible, and a lady minister asked what text I’d be using so that she might plan her sermon to coincide with the lesson. When I said “Hosea,” her face soured as if an intoxicated lemon had puked into her coffee cup. Needless to say, we agreed to cover separate topics that Sunday.

When I read this section of Hosea, the image that comes to mind is not a husband beating his wife, but a lover forcing a loved one into detox from a dangerous addiction. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s easier to understand the motivation. Wait a minute…was Israel a sex-addict? No more than we all are. When a woman is out whoring for crack, it won’t do much good to say “She’s a sex addict.” The sex is a symptom of the crack addiction, so that’s where you’ve got to start the rehabilitation. Look at the purpose of these sexual sacraments: successful farming. Ever since the Garden of Eden story, God has been hostile toward humans hijacking creation for grain-farming. The first time we hear of bread in the Bible is when God punishes Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field [grain]. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3:17-19) Then in the next generation, God rejects Cain’s sacrifice of “the fruit of the ground,” (Genesis 4:3) again meaning grain.

Israel had fallen into captivity in Egypt by getting hooked on grain (which is different from saying “hooked on food” – we might think of grain as the primary staple in the human diet, but ask a dietician and they’ll tell you carbohydrates are a tiny fraction of a natural diet). “They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled.” (Ezekiel 23:3) God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt’s stockpiled stash and quarantined them – “quarantine” literally means “forty” – to break that addiction. But no sooner did the Hebrews enter the Promised Land than they fell in with farmers and got hooked again. Cultivated grain in the Old Testament is like an addictive drug, like cocaine or heroin, giving its users the illusion that they can subsist without God and reproduce without limit. Food surplus is the oldest aphrodisiac, it makes women frisky (which is fantastic. But there are side effects, you know, babies who require more food). What God threatens through Hosea is not to thrash an unfaithful wife, but to drag the people back into desert rehab. The purpose here is not to sadistically humiliate, but to sternly rehabilitate.

“And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” (Hosea 2:19-20) God promises through Hosea that once the people of Israel have cleaned themselves up, they will be provided for in abundance again. But a close look at this promise reveals an unexpected element, not what’s there but what’s missing. Throughout the book of Hosea and the entire Old Testament, we see that Israel’s three primary crops are grain/bread, grapes/wine and olives/oil. However in God’s promise of future restoration, cultivated grain is notably absent:

HOSEA 14:4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
8 O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress; your faithfulness comes from me.

The scroll of Hosea ends with an uncharacteristic flourish of tenderness inspired by, of all things, love-songs. In the imagery of God as a tree sheltering the lily Israel, we can clearly see the influence of the Song of Songs, in which a girl describes her love for a young shepherd: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys… As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” (Song of Songs 2:1-3)


The most common question church-goers ask about Hosea is: “Hosea…he was Isaiah’s gardener, right? Hoe-sea?” The second most commonly asked question is just… “Who-sea?” And yet Hosea is the source of our most reliable information about religious customs in Biblical Israel. The Torah’s ritual instructions describe an ideal, but Hosea gives an eyewitness report of the reality.

The scroll named after him contains very little information about the man himself, but the fact that such a scroll existed tells us a lot. He clearly had disciples, students who followed him around collecting his sayings, and eventually wrote them down. That these disciples were willing to drop everything and follow him suggests that Hosea was charismatic, and also tells us that he was saying something really different. This is important, because when we read a Biblical book we can lazily suppose that the beliefs in it were “normal” for their place and time. But if Hosea had been “normal” he could have made a profitable and respectable living as a priest or “prophet,” which he clearly did not do. Hosea must have been a minority of one – and if a few people intensely loved him, it’s pretty safe to assume that more than a few people must have intensely hated him (and a lot of people must have thought he was nuts).

Three thousand years from today, anthropologists might be studying a twenty-first century pamphlet about keeping women at home, bashing gays and torching abortion clinics so life can be prosperous like it was in the “Good Old Days.” And they might conclude that it speaks for all of us. We won’t be around, you and I, to say “Hang on a minute there, that’s what a few cranks believed, and yeah they were real noisy about it, but just because this pamphlet survived doesn’t mean it speaks for all of us.” It would be nice to think that the anthropologists might read between the lines and see the freedoms that these fundamentalists were so angry about.

Note – this excerpt is about half of the essay, which contains further information and documentation.  If you’ve enjoyed this section, the full essay and several others can be found in LIBEL: SEX AND SEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE.

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Mothers of Moses in the Bible and Qur’an

Mothers of Moses

There’s an expression, ‘Behind every great man there is a great woman,’ and no-one aught to know it better than Moses. He grows grow up to be the most willful and powerful man in the Hebrew Bible, he will challenge Pharaoh and even argue with God, but before he can even crawl, Moses’ life must be saved by five great women. The book of Exodus begins with Pharaoh’s decree to kill every boy born to the Hebrews, subverted by two Hebrew midwives. (Exodus 2:15-22) Moses’s mother Jochebed hides her baby in a box on the riverbank, and his older sister keeps watch over it. (Exodus 2:1-4) Then Pharaoh’s daughter finds the child and spares his life. (Exodus 2:5-10) In all this adventure Moses is just a bundle of contraband to be smuggled, intercepted and confiscated.

The Biblical story of baby Moses being saved by these five women is mostly told in dialogue: Pharaoh interrogating the midwives and Miriam negotiating with Pharaoh’s daughter. It’s perplexing to find that the only woman whose voice we do not hear in this narrative is the mother herself. Of all these women, she takes the greatest risk and has the most to lose, but we never get a sense of what she’s thinking and feeling. This presents a fantastic opportunity for Rabbinic legends to supply us with a glimpse of her inner struggle, but the Midrash focuses instead on Moses’ father debating with Miriam about whether or not Hebrews should bother to have children at all, or even get married (Miriam prevails, and Hebrew marriage continues). In the Qur’an, she is the central figure, and the whole story of Moses’ birth is a series of interactions between the mother and God.


28:7 And We revealed to Moses’ mother, saying: ‘Let him nurse, then when you fear for him, cast him into the river and fear not, nor grieve. Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.’
28:8 So Pharaoh’s people took him up, though he would prove an enemy and a grief for them. Surely Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were wrongdoers.
28:9 And Pharaoh’s wife said: ‘Here is a joy for me and you – do not kill him, maybe he will be useful to us, or we may adopt him as a son.’ They did not perceive.
28:10 And the heart of Moses’ mother was heavy with loss. She would have revealed the secret had We not strengthened her heart, so that she might be of the believers.
28:11 And she said to his sister: ‘Follow him up.’ So she watched him from a distance, while they were not aware.
28:12 And We did not allow him to nurse, so his sister approached and said: ‘Shall I point out to you the people of a house who will bring him up for you, and they will wish him well?’
28:13 So We gave him back to his mother that she would be comforted and not grieved, and that she might know that the promise of God is true.


Her story unfolds in three acts: God promises to rescue the baby, but in order for this to happen she must put her faith to the test, abandoning her helpless child to the waters. When the child is found by enemies she nearly reveals his identity, but God gives her the strength to see the test through to the end. Then God prevents the baby from nursing from Egyptian women, so that a Hebrew must be found and Moses is returned to his mother again, now under the protection of both God and Pharaoh (though Pharaoh does not yet know of God’s plan to drown him. Nobody’s making a sitcom about God and Pharaoh raising a child together, it wouldn’t have many episodes).

In the Bible it is Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts Moses, and then it is Pharaoh’s successor who Moses will challenge to let the Hebrews go. The Qur’an offers a simpler scenario in which there is only one Pharaoh whose wife requests that they adopt the child. Her suggestion, “maybe he will be useful to us, or we may adopt him as a son,” (Sura 28:9) reprises the words used by Potiphar’s wife when they acquired Joseph in Sura 12:21. As the adoption of Joseph signaled the Hebrews’ entry into Egypt, the adoption of Moses signals their exodus, where God adopts a “mixed multitude” and leads them to freedom. The explanation for how Moses is returned to his mother for nursing comes from the Babylonian Talmud, “Moses had already been taken around to ever so many Egyptian women to nurse him, but he rejected them all, for the Holy One said: Shall the mouth that will speak to Me suck anything unclean?” The Rabbis told this story to protect Moses from any charge of having indirectly broken kosher laws, but the emphasis in the Qur’an is on verifying God’s promise, “Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.” (Sura 28:7)

The Qur’an magnifies not only Moses’ biological mother, but also his adoptive mother, who is presented as a model of faith and bravery: “God sets forth an example for those who believe – the wife of Pharaoh, when she said: ‘My Lord, build for me a house with You in the Garden and deliver me from Pharaoh and his work, and deliver me from these iniquitous people.’” (Sura 66:11) In the Bible we never find out what becomes of her, leaving us to infer that she suffered the same wrath God poured out on the other Egyptians*. In the Qur’an, she puts her trust in God and is rescued from the punishment. Whereas the Bible in its final form will carefully account for the Israelite lineage of every Exodus refugee, the Qur’an reports the rescue of certain Egyptian converts. As in the Qur’anic stories of Noah and Abraham, God chooses survivors based on their submission, regardless of ethnicity.

Talmud and Midrash quotes from:
Bialik, H. N. and Y. H. Ravnitzky, ed. The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Ginzberg, Louis Legends of the Bible

*There is a Rabbinic Legend that “At the time of the child’s abandonment, God sent scorching heat to plague the Egyptians, and they all suffered with leprosy and smarting boils. Thermutis, the daughter of Pharaoh, sought relief from the burning pain in a bath in the waters of the Nile. But physical discomfort was not her only reason for leaving her father’s palace. She was determined to cleanse herself as well of the iniquity of the idol worship that prevailed there… For rescuing Moses and for her other pious deeds, she was permitted to enter Paradise alive.”

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