Tag Archives: bible

Two Short Plays About Religion, Featured on Thinktwice Podcast

Matt Boyle invited me to bring two short plays in to be read and recorded for a podcast.  I immediately knew I wanted to use a short script I wrote 10 years ago, while in Seminary…

“Love Gerald” While they await the bus on the first day of fourth grade, Sherry tells Rachel about the new religious movement she has joined over the summer. (starring Maggie Boyle and my daughter Sarah)

and I wrote a new one…

“The Zeus is Hungry”.   Enraged by the abduction of her daughter, the Greek grain-goddess Demeter causes crop-failure throughout the land. The storm god Zeus shows up and commands her to reactivate food growth, so that he can be celebrated at a harvest festival. (starring Amy Feder and my brother A. Peter Snodgrass)

The plays about each about 10 minutes, followed by interviews (first with the performers, and then Matt asking me some questions about religion).

Recordings can be heard at http://www.thinktwiceradio.com/matt-boyle/matt-boyle.html

Thank you Matt, Richard, Maggie, Sarah, Amy and Peter.


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Creation, the Western New York Version (an Iroquois Creation Story)




The Middle East must be nice this time of year. I mean, yeah, random bullets flying and nuclear tinkering and all, but I imagine the weather is really good. And when I’m out walking and it feels like the wind is going to rip my face off, maybe a desert climate with the occasional gunshot wouldn’t be that bad. As a matter of fact, in this Western New York winter I can’t even think about getting shot without thinking about how warm the bullet would be. A little ball of molten led or whatever, hot metal lodging in my skin…ah, heat… And I don’t personally want to die in a nuclear inferno, but when I’m out shoveling the sidewalk and the wind screeches in my ears, the idea of melting takes on a certain charm. Maybe this morning Middle-Eastern forecasters are saying “The weather is warm and sunny, scattered drizzles of hot bullets and a chance of atomic firestorm.” I don’t know – I can’t listen to Middle-Eastern weather-forecasts at home, because if I did I’d wake up the next morning and my wife would be gone, off to live in a dry, sunny desert wearing five layers of black. She hates the winter.

As a new year begins I can’t help thinking about the Middle East because I was raised on Middle-Eastern creation stories – in the Bible, creation begins at the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would be in modern-day Iraq. And the people were naked and not ashamed, which clearly means it wasn’t snowing – if I was standing naked in ten-below-zero and the only woman on earth was squinting at me, trying to figure out what a “man” was I’d be plenty embarrassed. If the Biblical creation had taken place in Western New York the whole story would have been different – the people would have been wearing coats, pulling the wings off bisons (and that, children, is how the buffalo lost its wings) and asking, “Did Hell freeze over? Does that mean the Bills have won the Superbowl?” And God would be asking “Why did I make pizza grow on trees? For goodness sake, eat this fruit before you get scurvy!”

This is only conjecture – I don’t know that that story would have been like if it had taken place here.

But there is a creation story that takes place here, the story told and retold by the original inhabitants of Western New York, the Iroquois. When we hear the Iroquois creation story, we say “A woman fell from the sky with a handful of seeds, that’s just mythology.” Right – the talking snake is biology, and God cursing all babies for a piece of fruit stolen by Eve is theology but the woman falling from the sky is mythology.

The Iroquois creation story is not about decrees and crime and punishment. It begins with cooperation – a woman is falling from the sky and birds come around to help. A turtle offers her a place to stand and a muskrat dives down to bring her some dirt. And she falls in love with this place. Which, maybe the turtle didn’t expect – according to Iroquois legend it’s still down there below us. But it’s also a reminder – we’re not just standing on lifeless dirt, we are held up by the goodness of a creature. Guests on the back of a turtle. My children would love that, they would really understand it, and it would add a touch of charming wonder to their lives. I wish I could believe that I was living on the back of a friendly turtle. But then I would have to re-think my whole attitude toward automobiles and disposable diapers – “sorry, mister Turtle, but we’ve gotta put a little more salt on your shell so my tires can get a grip” – if I was a turtle’s guest I wouldn’t want to disrespect it like that.

In honor of this hospitable creature, the Iroquois actually refer to all of North America as “Turtle Island.” Which I think sounds a little funny. But then I have to wonder – what would a United Nations meeting be like if our country was announced as “Turtle Island”? It would make us sound friendlier. Like we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. “And now, a few words from the president of Turtle Island.” I like it. And we may have to change our national name in a few years anyway, nobody wants to hear the words “America” and “United States” these days – maybe we can call ourselves “Turtle Island” again.

The woman who fell from the sky receives a warm Western New York welcome. One minute she’s falling from the sky, the next she’s surrounded by new friends and they’re helping her find a home and move in. I remember when we moved to Buffalo, people were so excited – “You want to live here? Let me help you! So you won’t leave!” And the sky-woman doesn’t just sit around, and she didn’t come empty-handed – she’s brought gifts, seeds and creativity. She decorates the new land, she brings new life. The animals welcomed a vulnerable stranger, a refugee from another world, and she turns out to be a goddess, enhancing their lives in ways they never could have imagined before.

And as her last act she creates creatures, twin sons, who will continue the work of creation. She dies in childbirth. I don’t know how my children would feel about that part of the story. I was reading a childrens’ book adaptation of the story and they took that out, instead they had her ascend to the sky from whence she came. And I thought it ruined the whole thing, not because I have anything against this goddess, but because it meant skipping over my favorite part of the story. When she’s dying and asks her newborn sons to bury her, and she tells them that corn will rise up through the ground from her body.

It’s my favorite part of the story because she chooses to stay. Here in Western New York, not to go back to the sky-world, but to continue to be a part of human life here. She doesn’t abandon her sons and wander off to paradise, she wants to keep feeding them, and all the children that will come after. She could have cursed them – one of her sons tore his way out of her body and killed her, she could have cursed all human life for all time. But she doesn’t. She forgives, and she becomes the food, the sacred bread of life. And the Iroquois would remember this story as they grew and harvested and ate their corn. The woman who was killed by her own child still wanted to feed him. That’s very powerful, and it’s very real. If one of my children killed me, I bet my dying words would be “don’t forget, there’s a can of chicken soup in the pantry, go warm it up, you look thin.”

After she dies, we see another form of creativity in the story. Male creativity. Twin sons, always competing with each other – a friendly one who makes little gentle animals, and a mean one who makes bigger, dangerous animals. That’s how guys do creativity – we can’t just sprout life out of our bodies, we need other guys to compete with. The mean twin makes winter, and the friendly twin rises to the challenge, creates spring. I sort of wish he would make spring right now – I feel like we’re stuck in a time of winter and meanness. But spring will come again, the friendly twin is always more powerful.

In the story, the mean twin one day announces that he should be ruler of all the land, and challenges his brother to a contest to see who can move a mountain. And he strains and struggles and huffs and puffs and blusters and tweets with all his might, but the mountain will not come at his command. Then he turns to his brother, the friendly twin, to see if he can do better. His brother says, “see for yourself” and when the mean twin turns around he hits his nose on the mountain, it’s come right there. Bumping his head on the mountain, it reveals his true face, twisted and distorted. And he pleads with his brother, afraid of being sent away from the beloved land, and they make a deal that he will provide humor and medicine. The one who wanted to be king instead becomes the first clown. And he keeps his word. It turns out, he’s not evil, he just needs to feel important, useful – the world needs some unpleasantness, even some meanness, but it cannot be the ruling force in a healthy world.

The friendly twin created man and woman from dust, saying “You shall enjoy yourselves upon the earth in order to multiply from generation to generation. And here are vegetables and herbs to sustain life from the fruits of the earth, which shall grow forever.” I like teaching this part to my college students, because they’re so accustomed to commandments that start with “Thou Shalt Not.” But here the creator gives three commandments: Thou shalt enjoy thyself. Thou thalt make babies. And thou shalt eat thy vegetables. I’m very good at two of these. Making babies, it turns out, is a breeze. Raising four of them is hard – maybe I was too good at following that commandment. And eating vegetables, I’m good at that too. But enjoying myself, that’s hard. My religious upbringing taught me that there’s something bad, something shameful, something wrong with being human. And even though now I get to make up my own mind about religion, I still can’t seem to escape a Middle-Eastern crime-and-punishment, shame-and-damnation view of human life. Why should Middle-Eastern stories be so pessimistic? The weather’s great! Maybe a warm dry desert climate is good for preserving ancient grudges and being a fundamentalist, because you don’t have these seasonal changes. Winter reminding us of how much we all need each other – in a blizzard, our need for warmth and relationships is more important than our alienation, our shared fragile humanity matters more than our differences.

The Native creation story from this area reminds me of what I love best about Western New York. A warm welcome for the stranger, even if the stranger is like no one you’ve ever met before. Cooperation and inginuity. Even some competition, which can be productive even if the other guy is a total jerk. …I don’t believe that as strongly as I used to, but in my milder moments I can still agree in principle. And this Native Story contains a deep love of this place, this land – I know if I died and someone offered me a choice between going off to the sky-world and staying here I’d want to stay in Western New York, and keep looking for ways to help my children.

Some of you out there might think that sounds naive – Western New York isn’t really like that. We don’t love this place, we’re stuck here, and we don’t welcome outsiders and we don’t cooperate. Well, if you think that, please, don’t say it in front of my wife because then she’ll pack up the children and move to Arizona and I’ll have to go too. And I don’t want to live in a desert. So do me a favor – if you think that Western New York is not a paradise where we welcome and cooperate, then make it a place like that. Because I want my children to love this land, and to appreciate this special place (even in winter!), as much as the Iroquois do. I was raised with a cultural belief that the holiest land in the world is off in some desert on the other side of the planet, but I have come to believe, personally, that the holy land is right here. That’s a Native American teaching I can believe in.

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IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

Almost two hundred years after America’s revolutionary war against the British Empire, there was an independence movement by another English colony (which, ironically, had also once belonged to Indians). But as India looked at its options, with a keen eye on the success of its elder cousin America, one of the freedom-movement leaders urged caution. Muhatma Gandhi warned: “That you cannot serve God and [wealth] is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism… I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure.”

Gandhi – he’s so cute. Close your eyes, see his face – he’s adorable, like a muppet. But it turns out India didn’t just love him for his looks. He also thought things and said things and wrote things. I guess when I was young I thought he won independence by flashing that endearing smile. That’s not just because I wasn’t paying attention in school. It turns out his face is welcome in our culture but his voice is not. He was dangerous. Even in this little fragment. He starts by quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Though Gandhi was a Hindu and not a Christian, he really admired Jesus the non-violent protestor against Roman impirial domination. But Gandhi does not say that Jesus is the god of America – instead, he refers to a “monster-god of materialism.” As if we all worship some capitalist Cookie-Monster. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa there, Geronimo, a Hindu accusing us of having ‘monster-gods’!? Who worships the six-armed dominatrix and the elephant-headed belly-dancer? You’re the one with blue gods that eat cookies!”

But let’s hold onto this for a moment, because I think the monster-god of materialism spawned a robber-baron-messiah and sixty million American Christians dumped old gentle Jesus to worship him (now, strictly from a business perspective, as a contractor assigned to destroy the world, Jesus has been chronically late – maybe the new Platinum Christ can get the demolition done faster. With the full thrust of his earth-shaking tweets). We’ve had our doubts about Jesus – bearded Palestinian, you say you’re from Nazareth but you were born in Bethlehem and then traveled to Egypt and back? Show me the birth certificate. What a strange thing to celebrate Christmas 2016 when the USA has just changed its motto to: “There’s no room at the inn.”

Gandhi warns that no nation can have America’s material wealth without groaning under the heel of this monster-god (and India, like many other “developing” nations, has since learned that American-style wealth for a few must come with American-style pitiless poverty for the many).

Maybe this is going too far, letting a Hindu from India describe America’s god, so let’s turn to another famous Indian…American Indian…man, that’s so confusing. One native author notes, at least Columbus wasn’t sailing around looking for Turkey. Anyway, the legendary Chief Seattle observed, “Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot love his red children or he would protect them… Your God seems to us to be partial…your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God.” Is the white man’s god an angry judge? I guess we can’t necessarily count on a Native American to be unbiased on the subject, so let’s just pick an American at random. And to prove how random, we’ll choose an American whose last name means “unknown.” Malcolm X. He said, “This is who she means when she says ‘In God We Trust’ – that blue-eyed god, that blonde-haired god, that pale-skinned god who blessed them to kidnap you and me and bring us here and make us slaves.”


In 1967, Robert Bellah, wrote a groundbreaking study proposing that “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Is Americanism a religion? I don’t know. As a Religious Studies teacher I always start and end the semester by telling my students I don’t know what “religion” is – I can’t really define it, I just know it when I smell it (and most of them smell old. Although ironically it’s the earliest religions, the primal tribal ones, that still smell fresh. Anyway…). Does Americanism have the stuff that other religions have? If you stripped out all the Christian stuff, the Christmas decorations and Easter goodies and trick-or-treat, which are all actually pagan traditions… Does Americanism have temples, myths, rituals, scriptures, hymns, holidays?

Aside from Christianity America still has plenty of holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. Some that center around bonding the community through animal sacrifice – the 4th of July pig and Thanksgiving Turkey who die for our sins. Once every four years we celebrate Inauguration Day – the root word “Augur” meaning to divine the future by conjuring spirits, generally by touching something that belonged to a dead person. You may have noticed – in American Civil Religion, in court-houses and presidential inaugurations, people put their hand on the Bible but that’s got nothing to do with reading it or knowing what’s inside. The Bible is strictly there as a fetish, an idol, a devotional object, touched to make a connection with the dead.

The Bible is not the sacred scripture of Americanism (some people want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but American Law only prosecutes three of them). But we do have ancient cryptic writings, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Starr Report. We have hymns, the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Friends in Low Places.” Goodness knows Americanism has a debatable creation-story and loads of mythology – George Washington is so mythical that I don’t even know if he technically existed. Americanism has martyrs, Lincoln, King, Kennedy and scores of fallen soldiers who die for our sins (or get stuck in long lines at the Veterans’ Hospital for our sins).

American Civil Religion has Temples, the Greek Temples of Zeus-Abraham-Lincoln and Apollo-Thomas-Jefferson in the Capital, the Egyptian Obelisk Washington Monument. America has a totem animal – Benjamin Franklin suggested the generous turkey, but the idea was shot down in favor of the predatory Eagle, which was promptly hunted to near-extinction.

The great Robert Bellah did a much better job of explaining this than I just did – he had years of research, I just said a bunch of stuff that popped into my head. But his point, that Americanism is a religion on its own, distinct from Chrsitianity, with its own myths, totems and rituals, remains a fascinating avenue of thought (and yes, I admit I’ve done some drunk driving on that intellectual avenue). But if Americanism is a relgion apart from Christianity…then who is the god of American Civil Religion?


Should there be prayer in public schools? A contentious issue in America today. And yet when I hear about it, I can’t help thinking, “but there’s already prayer in schools – the pledge of allegiance, which requires American children to worship a totem.” My children break three of the Ten Commandments every morning while saying the pledge to the flag – worshiping other gods, worshiping an idol, and taking the Lord’s name in vain. If they mindlessly recite the pledge without knowing what it means? Then they’re also bearring false witness. And if they knew that I object to children saying the pledge? They’d be dishonoring their father too – half of the Ten Commandments broken before ten in the morning! What a start for the day. I’m surprrised they haven’t murdered someone by noon.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first drafted by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It did not mention “God” but still it was controversial because it allowed girls, blacks and immigrants to say “my flag” (this was later fixed) and “liberty and justice for all” – Bellamy’s Socialism rearing its ugly head at the end, and stangely enough this still remains. Then, ironically, it was Cold-War anti-Communism that got god into the pledge. In 1954, president Eisenhower declared, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Eisenhower explains that the words “under god” were inserted to “strengthen…spiritual weapons” – religion was added to weaponize the pledge of allegiance (later it was Eisenhower who warned against the spiritual influence of the Military Industrial Complex…but he did not foresee the Spiritual Industrial Complex with its creeping militaristic influence). “One Nation Under God” was a weapon against the heahten Communists with their dangerous, heretical “Do Unto Others” and “Give to the Poor” mentality. The pledge still affirms with a sneaky stridency that only “One Nation” is “Under God.”

But what god is this? Perhaps the answer is on our dollar bill, right between the Egyptian Pyarmid and the Roman Eagle (notably absent is the Christian cross). The Yankee dollar used to be a check representing ownership of a certain amount of America’s hoarde of gold. But then the dollar was switched from the gold-standard to the god-standard, its value now is determined only by how much China believes that god loves America. When China believes god loves America best, the dollar is up, when China believes that god is cooling on America the dollar goes down. Not only is the dollar-value totally mythological, but we don’t even get to determine the value of the myth. Still we desperately trust god to love America best, because without that the almightly dollar would be powerless.

In what God do we trust? Who is this god who holds our nation together? At last we must turn to the scriptures, the sacred documents. The Constitution is silent about god, but the Declaration of Independence contains four fascinating references, first to “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that support human independence. Then to the “Creator” who endows all men with certain inalienable rights. The third is a nod to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the last declares “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

We may hear the word “God” and affix all manner of colorful, kid-friendly ornamentation like “love” and “father” and “salvation” but none of these attributes are in the Declaration. In this document, god is the “Creator,” Provider, Protector and “Supreme Judge.” Bellah points out the irony that god in the Declaration is more like the legalistic Torah-God of Judaism than the loving savior-god of Christianity. This is the austere disciplinarian who endows “all men” with equality and rights, except for women, slaves, natives, etc – when the Declaration was penned, “all men” was only about one fifth of the population. This could be called the “One Fifth Compromise” – in which four fifths of Americans would not exist in the eyes of America’s god. And this has not dramatically changed.

George Michael, who passed away on Christmas day, once wrote a song called “Hand to Mouth” about Amerians driven to desperation by poverty, and one of them declares, “I believe in the gods of america. I believe in the land of the free. But no one told me that the gods believe in nothing. So with empty hands I pray. And from day to hopeless day, they still don’t see me.”

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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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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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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 createspace.com and amazon.com.



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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