Canaanite Reconstructionism

Apparently there are Canaanite Reconstructionists! Yes, among the small number of neopagans in Israel, there are some Israelis who are trying to ‘revive’ Ugaritic and Canaanite religion. They honour or worship Asherah, Anat, or Ba’al – goddesses and gods worshiped by ancient Hebrews.

I recently discovered this in a chapter from a 2017 book by Shai Feraro, “Canaanite Reconstructionism Among Contemporary Israeli Pagans” (in Kathryn Rountree, ed., Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, Palgrave Macmillan).

The chapter mentions Emily, a former Orthodox Jew, but now a devotee of the goddess Asherah. Emily points out that Asherah is a native deity of the land of Israel, unlike Yahweh, who is just a foreign invader:

She [Emily] quoted a verse from Deuteronomy (33:2) which states that: “Jehovah came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them,” in order to suggest that he was a Midianite deity that “immigrated” into the land of Canaan. She said: “He is not mine, he is not for me, he ruined my … his people destroyed my Goddess.”

She’s most likely right about Yahweh originally being foreign to the Hebrews. Most recently the Midianite origins of Yahweh have been defended in Thomas Römer’s book, The Invention of God (Harvard University Press, 2015).

There are still only a small number of Israeli neopagans who currently incorporate Canaanite religion into their practices. But Shai Feraro notes that Canaanite Reconstructionism has begun to grow in just the last 6 or 7 years. “As the local Israeli [neopagan] community matures and gains confidence, it seems that the tendency to focus on ‘home-grown’ local deities is growing.”

Foetal Dystocia resulting from Watcher-Human Sex: Eric Ondina’s Art

In a piece entitled “Fall of the Watchers”, artist Eric Ondina has managed to capture an aspect of the myth of sex between Watcher angels and human women that usually gets glossed over in renditions of the story.

Eric Ondina, “Fall of the Watchers”

The Book of Watchers tersely summarises that the Watchers “took” the women, “went into” them, and “defiled themselves with” them (7.1ab). The twenty named Watchers are contrasted with the anonymous and unnamed women who they “choose for themselves”. The Watchers act, and the unnamed women are acted upon. Their identities are suppressed, irrelevant to their function within the plot. Their reactions here are limited to their childbearing function: they “became pregnant” and “bore to them gigantic offspring” (7.2).

But what did giving birth to “gigantic offspring” do to these women? The text falls silent, in contrast to the cries of anguish which would have accompanied such extreme foetal dystocia. The birth canal is only important in the story insofar as it satisfies the Watchers’ desires – for sexual intercourse and for children.

But in Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers”, the effect on the Women is brought to the fore in the artist’s portrayal of an evidently painful, bulging womb. But this pain is combined with a comical characterisation of the women as obsessed with the jewellery that the Watchers gave to them. The combination of extreme discomfort and vain satisfaction is, of course, absurd. And this absurdity provides a visual critique of the tendency in the Watcher myth to belittle or even blame women for the actions of the Watchers.

Ondina himself comments:

I have extracted multiple motifs from this story and melded them into a dynamic composition. The piece is painted in oil on a hand molded, cresting, reinforced plaster slab, which is bordered by a deep cradle frame. It was my intention to make a painting which mirrors this mini-epic in scale, drama and abject gruesomeness. With this in mind I decided to invoke the compositional and painting techniques found in the dynamic baroque of the 17th century while emulating the decisive moment found in 18th century Romanticism. There is also a clear reference to the Northern European Renaissance in the detail, cathedral-esque shape of the substrate, insider humor, and violence. These fuse into a style I have developed in this series which is both contemporary and historically reinforced. While my painting seeks to provide a portal into the past, I seek to do so through a modern lens, injecting subtle to sardonic satire into my subjects. This is readily apparent along the bottom of the painting; in the lower right hand corner an oblivious woman pampers herself with gold and makeup, her stomach bursting at the seams as her hulking half-angel broodling slithers out. She is a sarcastic embodiment of how our contemporary sensitivities are want to perceive this story. The Abrahamic religions are not renowned for their justice towards women, and The Book of Enoch once again exemplifies this ancient trend. Women are the seductresses and the baby factories, the intermediaries and cause of the sinfulness pressed upon the world; because of their erotic allure, mankind suffered nightmarish consequences. My painted jezebel is a mocking testimony to this ancient fear-mongering.

In portraying this extreme foetal dystocia in this manner, Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers” has drawn attention to an aspect of the Watcher myth that has escaped many commentators, as well as critiquing that very failure to take account of the effects on women implied by the Watcher myth.

Ben Dov – Haaretz article on influence of Mesopotamian Texts and Images on the Watcher Myth

Since my last post on Jonathan Ben-Dov’s theory that Mesopotamian texts and images influenced the composition of the Watcher myth, Jim Davila noted Ben-Dov’s Haaretz article on the same topic, “Turning to the angels to save Jewish mythology” (18 October 2013).

I’ve found that the article is available in full at this url.

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.

Aramaic writings thus preserved a historical memory of Mesopotamian kings in two ways. While the more direct channel was expressed in the legends of the Book of Daniel, the second, more oblique, channel came by means of the myth of the Watchers, transmitted mainly in the book of Enoch. Here, the ancient angels were portrayed as mythological giants, judging by their artistic representation on the rock reliefs.

In particular, Ben-Dov finds that the type of images found at the site of Brisa, in Lebanon, may have influenced some of the elements of the Watcher tradition:

Yet another confirmation of the connection with Lebanon is an additional, common motif in the literature of the watchers, one that until now was not completely understood. These books often describe dreams, all of which include a scene of a forest, usually of cedars, which is either cut down or destroyed by flood or fire. Such scenes appear repeatedly: In the Book of Giants ‏(also an Aramaic text from Qumran, with its own surprising transmission history‏), in Daniel 4 and in an Aramaic midrash (apocryphon) on Genesis from Qumran. The ancient authors repeatedly invoke the forest scene, always in a dream account. Particular attention should be given in this regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s stone engravings and reliefs from the site of Brisa in the northern Lebanon valley. Although the reliefs were discovered as early as the mid-19th century, they were not properly documented until recently. This turned out to be most unfortunate, since in subsequent years the reliefs were repeatedly damaged.

When they were photographed and published in 1906, the ensuing assyriological research dealt mainly with the text of the rock inscriptions from Brisa rather than with the reliefs. Recently, Catalonian scholar Rocio Da Riva returned to Lebanon and discovered that the reliefs had suffered heavy damage from shooting, so that almost nothing remains of them today. Nonetheless, she was able to improve on the reading of the inscriptions.

These are large monuments, each one approximately 2.5 meters in height. On one relief, Nebuchadnezzar is described fighting a lion, and opposite it, on the opposite cliff of the riverbed, Nebuchadnezzar is seen standing in solemn pose, next to a large tree with multiple branches. The tree is erect and bare, as though created to fulfill its role in the eyes of Babylonian kings: to provide wooden beams for the temples in Mesopotamia. The tree bears no fruit, nor does it offer shade. The cuneiform inscriptions were not understood already in Antiquity, while it was the image alone that remained to work its effect on the collective memory.

The figure of the giant standing next to the tree threatening to cut it down comprises a frequent scene in generations of literature on the Watchers, such as Daniel 4:10-11 and in the Book of Giants. While the Aramaic source of the latter was preserved only partially, translations of it survived until the medieval period in various sundry versions, from Hebrew to Turkish. In the Hebrew version preserved in Midrash Bereisheet Rabati ‏(Provence, 11th century‏), we read the dreams of two giants. Quite surprisingly, the content of the dreams in this midrash gives a very reliable description of one of the Brisa inscriptions. The text is as follows: “ These two sons of Shemhazai, Hiwwa and Hiyya by name, dreamed dreams. The one saw a great stone which covered the earth, and the earth was marked all over with lines upon lines of writing. An angel came, and with a knife obliterated all the lines, leaving but four letters upon the stone. The other son saw a large pleasure grove planted with all sorts of trees. But angels approached bearing axes, and they felled the trees, sparing a single one with three of its branches.

In the first dream, the rock is covered with many rows of writing, as the angel descends with a knife in hand to erase them. The second dream draws a scene in a forest, with the angel descending with an ax to cut down its trees, until only one remains.

In the Brisa relief, the middle of the figure had already been destroyed in 1906, and therefore there is no way of knowing whether or not the king carried an ax ‏(the text in fact reports that Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees with his “pure” hands, rather than an ax‏). There is no certainty as to whether the Aramaic text describes this particular inscription or similar inscriptions in Lebanon, but the resemblance is nonetheless quite strking.

Two things become clear, in any case: first, that the Aramaic authors cite the stone engravings and convey them in the form of a dream, for that is their way of giving epistemological validity to the mysterious reliefs. And second, the reliefs were interpreted as a message of divine punishment, represented by the erasure of the writing and the chopping down of trees. The relief in which the king is fighting a lion ‏(which also appears at another site in Lebanon, outside of Brisa‏), is also echoed in the Watchers tradition: both in a description of the violence of the watchers against wild animals (1 Enoch 7: 5, cp. Habukkuk 2: 17‏), and in Daniel 4:12-13, where the king is expelled from the shelter of the tree and sent to confront wild animals.

Read the full article here.

Is the Watcher/Fallen Angel Myth a reinterpretation of Mesopotamian inscriptions?

Jonathan Ben-Dov (University of Haifa) has developed a very interesting theory about the origin of the early Jewish tradition of the Fallen Angels and Giants. He presented it at Boston College on November 20, 2013, in a paper entitled “Iconography and Myth: From Nebuchadnezzar to the Fallen Angels”.

Ben-Dov’s theory is that the Watcher tradition derives, at least in part, from an attempt to interpret the gigantic iconography of great Mesopotamian kings on Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid monuments and reliefs. This was carried out in the third or second century BCE, long after the inscriptions were made, by which time they were not properly understood.

In his presentation, Ben-Dov examines many of the elements shared, on the one hand, by Mesopotamian inscriptions and monuments and, on the other hand, by Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, Jubilees, etc.

ben-dov-nebuchadnezzar

In one part of his presentation, Ben-Dov discusses this interesting passage from Jubilees, which provides an example of a later generation (mis)interpreting an ancient inscription as referring to the Watchers:

And he [Kainam] found a writing which former (generations) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven. And he wrote it down and said nothing regarding it; for he was afraid to speak to Noah about it lest he should be angry with him on account of it. (Jubilees 8.3-4)

Ben-Dov also discusses inscriptions left by Nebuchadnezzar in Lebanon, studied recently by Rocío Da Riva.

Ben-Dov’s theory is well worth consideration, as identifying one of the concrete contributing causes of the Watcher tradition. I don’t know, due to the nature of the evidence, whether his theory could ever be conclusively established, but I do think it is at least plausible that the reliefs and inscriptions contributed to the construction of the Watcher myth. Have a watch of his lecture here.

Note also Brian Doak’s discussion of depictions of gigantic figures in ancient Near Eastern iconography in his The Last of the Rephaim, pp. 14-16.

Update (10 January 2016): Jim Davila notes that Ben-Dov’s theory was also set out in an article in Haaretz on October 18, 2013, “Turning to the Angels to Save Jewish Mythology” (subscription required).

The assured results of Son of Man scholarship

“Virtually certain”:

“Personally I think it is highly likely that the tradition of Jesus referring to himself as the ‘son of man’ does indeed go back to Jesus himself…. The probability in this case is so high that it can be regarded as virtually certain.”

– James D.G. Dunn, “The Son of Man in Mark”, p. 24

“A probability bordering on certainty”:

“Alle Worte vom kommenden Menschensohn stammen mit einer an Sicherheit grenzenden Wahrscheinlichkeit nicht vom historischen Jesus”

“No saying about the coming Son of Man, with a probability bordering on certainty, comes from the historical Jesus.”

– Philipp Vielhauer, “Gottesreich und Menschensohn in der Verkündigung Jesu”, p. 71

triumph_of_christ

The Nephilim were descended from Pre-Adamites with no Souls: A New (Scientific) Theory from Geologist Gregg Davidson

neanderthal-human-sex
For those who consider the Bible to be the flawless word of God, the Primeval History in Genesis 1-11 provides some tough challenges. Where did Cain get a wife from? Who was Cain scared of when he went to settle in the east? Why do the races look different if all share a common ancestor in Adam (and in Noah, who lived not much longer than 4000 years ago)? And who were the sons of God in Gen 6:1-4: divine beings, angels, or merely humans, and – if human – were they descended from Seth or from the cursed lineage of Cain? Famously, Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676) answered these questions by claiming that, before Adam had been created, there were other human beings alive on earth. For La Peyrère, these other humans were all Gentiles; Adam was not the first human being, but he was the first Jew.

A recent article by geologist Gregg Davidson, “Genetics, the Nephilim, and the Historicity of Adam“, also attempts to address some of these issues. Its aim is to account for the conflict between the Bible’s claim that Adam and Eve were the first humans created by God and the scientific consensus that the human species is descended from other animals. The article was published in the self-claimed “academic journal” of the American Scientific Affiliation, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (vol. 67 no. 1, March 2015: 24-34). Gregg Davidson’s theory follows La Peyrère’s in claiming that there were hominids before the creation of Adam and Eve. But Davidson also claims that God distinguished Adam and Eve from all the other hominids due to the fact that he endowed them with souls. It appears that the other hominids were soul-less. And how did the Nephilim get created? When there was cross-breeding between the en-souled humans and the soul-less hominids, this resulted in the creation of the Nephilim, a group that Gen 6:4 describes as the result of breeding between the “sons of God/gods” and the “daughters of men”.

In the proposed model, God chose an individual hominid pair to endow with souls, separating them spiritually, relationally, and cognitively from their otherwise biologically equivalent contemporaries. After being removed from Eden, limited (and forbidden) interbreeding took place between Adam and Eve’s progeny and still-extant hominids, including more distantly related hominid species such as Neanderthals, resulting in offspring with unique characteristics referred to as Nephilim. Such unions can potentially account for a present human population that derived from a genuine first human couple, while also carrying genetic evidence of contributions from a much larger hominid population. This model simultaneously offers a plausible explanation for Cain’s fear at the time of his banishment, and the enigmatic identity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.

The article by Gregg Davidson displays much of the typical anxiety about the boundaries of the human which we find in many historical and contemporary discussions of those liminal creatures, the Nephilim. Davidson insists, in one particularly consternated passage, that while the lower animals might be “soulish”, only humans have actual souls:

The higher animals are often spoken of today as soulish creatures, meaning that they possess some degree of decision-making capacity and conscience experience that goes beyond simple instinct. Soulish characteristics may include loyalty, affection, pleasure, excitement, curiosity, sadness, or a measure of self-awareness. The reason we have such a word in our theological vocabulary is that we assume the behavior of the higher animals resembles that of a soul-bearing human, though lacking the spiritual identity that makes them subject to eternal reward or punishment after death. A soul-bearing creature – what we think of today as a human – has mental and relational capacities that go well beyond soulishness, such as a cognitive understanding of justice and mercy, the ability to create and appreciate art, the desire to understand why things are the way they are, the ability to ponder and communicate abstract ideas, the desire to know truth, and the sense that there is a realm or existence that is beyond the physical. When the Bible speaks of creation in the image of God, it is not a physical appearance, but possession of such characteristics that allow human beings to be God’s relational representatives on this earth. As creatures lacking a soul, hominids living at the time of Adam and Eve may well have had behaviors that were much more soulish than those of the most advanced primates of today, but still only soul-ish.

Soulish, but not soul-bearing. Got the difference?

But what is most interesting – for avid Remnant of Giants readers – is Davidson’s proposed explanation for the creation of the Nephilim. They resulted from the divinely prohibited interbreeding of humans and Neanderthals. Or, failing that, Davidson adds, there was inter-breeding between humans and some other soul-less hominids. This, incidentally, explains why they were Giants!

… if the timing of Genesis 6 coincides with the period of overlap between humans and Neanderthals, the heavier musculature of the Neanderthals could certainly have resulted in offspring with enhanced strength or unique physical characteristics that made it natural to refer to them by a special name. (If farther back in time, then a similar argument can be made for an earlier variety of hominid.)

The genetic basis is simple (not to mention highly improbable):

Though this model equates the “sons of God” with hominids and the “daughters of men” with humans, it works equally well if these are reversed. Such a scenario perhaps fits better with the tendency for males to bring females back to their tribe. To preserve the ancestry of all living humans back to mitochondrial Eve, this simply requires that the progeny of all female-hominid/male-human unions eventually failed to produce daughters.

So if one simply accepts a literal understanding of Genesis 1-3, and Paul’s belief in an historical Adam, the existence of souls in humans, and the non-existence of souls in non-human animals, then Davidson has provided a logically possible way also to accept the findings of modern genetic science.

The model preserves an understanding of a first sin (whether original or ancestral) as described both in Genesis and in the writings of Paul, and also potentially resolves the biblical conundrums of who Cain was afraid of in Genesis 3 [sic], and the enigmatic identity of the “sons of God” and the Nephilim in Genesis 6.

It’s a fantastic theory. Literally.

It seems that La Peyrère’s Pre-adamite theory has experienced something of a comeback in 2015. Pre-adamites also featured – although conceived somewhat differently – in the book authored earlier in 2015 by John H. Walton and N.T. Wright, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015). What many other people see as the clear conflict between Bible and modern science has prompted some highly creative harmonizations.

Are there cats in the Bible? Maybe, yes

nativity-scene-with-cat

It’s often said that there are no cats in the Bible – referring to the animal which became the domestic house cat (Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus).

But is that true?

There’s a good case to be made that the biblical Lilith was a cat.

It’s true that later rabbinic tradition understood Lilith to be a demon. In one rabbinic tradition, for example, Lilith is an incubus demon, collecting the sperm ejaculated from men’s nocturnal emissions, and using it to create demonic babies (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b). And in one medieval tradition, Lilith becomes the first wife of Adam, before Adam left her for a more submissive woman, who didn’t demand that she always must be on top (The Alphabet of ben Sirach).

But in the Bible, the lilith (לִילִית) appears only in one verse, where she simply appears alongside the mention of ordinary animals. The lilith is quite probably, therefore, simply another animal. In Isaiah 34.14, the lilith is named alongside three other four-footed animals which commonly occupy ruins or the wilderness, probably (depending on the translation), the wildcat, the hyena, and the goat.

The cat was, after all, widely known and partially domesticated by the late first millennium BCE, all the way from eastern Asia through to Africa and Europe. People back then knew that cats were extremely useful in getting rid of rodents and their accompanying disease. So it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if there were one mention of a cat in the Old Testament.

Consider too, that the cat is most active at night, which might explain the apparent connection of ‘lilith’ to the Hebrew for night (לילה). The etymology is not found in other Semitic languages, but there was a wide variety of Semitic terms used for “cat”. Then there’s the old folk wisdom that you don’t let a cat near a sleeping child’s cradle or they snuff out their breath, which might have developed into the later legend about Lilith as a demon who kills infant children. Lastly, the medieval Spanish Jewish representation of Lilith is “El Broosha”, who is … a big black cat.

So, maybe there is one mention of a cat in the Bible. And maybe baby Jesus and the young John the Baptist used to play with their pet cat, as in the painting by Federico Barocci:

Federico Barocci, 'The Madonna of the Cat' (ca. 1575)
Federico Barocci, ‘The Madonna of the Cat’ (ca. 1575)