What is the significance of Ezekiel’s hairy ways?

As I have read through the Old Testament, I have had a tendency to notice verses relating to hair. This week’s hirsute verse comes from Ezekiel 5:1-6:

“And you, O son of man, take a sharp sword. Use it as a barber’s razor and pass it over your head and your beard. Then take balances for weighing and divide the hair. A third part you shall burn in the fire in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are completed. And a third part you shall take and strike with the sword after them. And you shall take from these a small number and bind them in the skirts of your robe. And of these again you shall take some and cast them into the midst of the fire and burn them in the fire. From there a fire will come out into all the house of Israel.”

I wished to know the significance of Ezekiel cutting his hair and beard. What was the meaning of the parting the hair into thirds, and using them in symbolic rituals? Do these rituals have any significance for the Israelites? Is there a significance to thirds or the number three in Judaism?

Ezekiel divvying up his hair.

Ezekiel was a priest, and instructed as such, he followed Levitical laws absolutely, especially in terms of hygiene. One of these laws governs the way a priest trims his hair and beard. Shaving his head and face likens Ezekiel to a pagan priest, making his bald status humiliating and degrading (Bible Study Tools). Ezekiel’s hair signifies the people of Israel, and by removing it, symbolizes the Protagonist’s utter desertion of His people (Sacred Texts). Using a sword lends a violent tint to the action, reminding the Israelites that the Protagonist’s judgement is to be violent and sharp as a sword. It also reminds the people that this weapon is capable of execution; as a people, the Israelites feared eradication by other nations, and Ezekiel’s removal of hair with a sword only drove this point home most compellingly.

Gimel -> justification of punishment

The next step Ezekiel takes with his depilatory results is to split the hairs into three distinct piles for there separate and symbolic rituals. The number three has significance in Judaism, particularly in the study of numbers or gematria. Gematria has  specific correlations from Hebrew lettering to numbers. The number three, in particular, symbolizes gimel; this word is derived from the Hebrew gemul, meaning “justified payment” or “giving reward as well as punishment”. In addition, this symbolizes the constant progression of the Jewish person (The Hebrew Letters). Ezekiel’s three piles of hair symbolize the rightful punishment of the Israelites by the Protagonist. In addition, the punishment of the Israelites forces them back to the path of the Protagonist, a progression forward from their idolatrous ways. The actions done with the hair is what will happen to the Israelites. This idea is perpetuated in further along in Ezekiel 5:12:

“A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the swords all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.”

This verse confirms the actions that Ezekiel takes with his hair. He first burns a pile in the middle of the city of Jerusalem, to show that it has been consumed by famine and pestilence during the siege. The second portion was to be struck with a sword; more literally, the Israelites were to die from warfare.The third remaining part was to be scattered on the wind. This literally meant that the Israelites were to disperse throughout the lands. They were to be constantly chased by the sword or violence, and the Israelites would live out their days in captivity. A small select bit of hair was to be plucked and kept from this pile, safely stored in the skirts of Ezekiel’s robe. This little dusting of hair represents the Jews that are to survive the Protagonist’s punishment (Ezekiel Commentary). This message of destruction bringing redemption is yet another example of the continuity of the message of Deuteronimistic history.

Ezekiel isn’t the only one who cuts his hair to save his people…

As I have learned from my research, Ezekiel’s bizarre actions concerning a pantomime of burnt, cut, and discarded hair truly relate to the divine punishment doled out by the Protagonist. Such simple imagery portrayed Ezekiel’s prophecy for the Israelites clearly enough to allow a small group (the saved hairs) to survive the divine judgement that was the continuation of Deuteronomistic history.

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Why does an offhand comment about baldness condemn forty-two youths to death?

Just as I was deciding to write on Elijah’s fiery exit from this earth in chapter two of Kings II, I noted at the end of said chapter that Elijah’s prophetic successor, Elisha, lashes out rather vengefully against some youths from Bethel in verses 23 through 25:

“He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”

 

What struck me first about these verses was the absolute calmness in which Elisha handled the situation. It takes a cool character to curse some mocking kids to be mauled to death by bears and then mosey on about his day as if nothing happened.  Why was their insult so terrible? What was significant about Elisha’s baldness that made the youths’ offense punishable by death? Why was the punishment death by bear mauling? Did the Protagonist really wipe out three and a half dozen children over Elisha’s battered ego?

Stained glass, yet still bald, Elisha.

I started with the prophet himself, Elisha. The previous prophet, Elijah, and his heir, Elisha, had been traveling through Israel, turning the people back to the Protagonist and away from idolatry. Immediately after the fiery whirlwind of chariots and angels that sweep his teacher into the heavens, Elisha must take up the mantle of prophet of Israel and continue on with the duty of mediator between the Protagonist and His people. Throughout Kings II, the Protagonist obviously favours Elisha as he fulfills his prophetic responsibilities by performing miracles and helping Israel win battles against Syria.

Apparently, Elisha is also bald. Baldness in the Bible is specifically mentioned in Leviticus 13:40-41, stating that a man is still clean after becoming bald (Belgravia Centre). Being a man of some notoriety now, Elisha was probably like most bald men—quite sensitive about his hairless head.  The chapter noting Elisha’s baldness does not state how he became bald. His lack of hair could be attributed to anything from male-pattern baldness to having been scorched off by the flames of Elijah’s ascension, or perhaps even shaved off to symbolize the beginning of his role as prophet, similarly to how Nazarenes shaved their heads to re-consecrate themselves after defilement in Numbers 6.

Upon further research, I found that baldness was considered a disgrace by non-Jewish cultures, a very obvious symbol of personal deterioration in either hygiene or spirituality that brought on the punishment of hair loss (Bible.org).  I inferred that the insult of “baldhead” was of a most malicious nature, and that the youths were implying that Elisha was beneath them. The case of Elisha was the exact opposite of what the youths implied; he was literally on a mission from the Protagonist as he traveled through Bethel, and then on to Mount Carmel and Samaria.

The other part of this insult was more harmful than mocking Elisha’s baldness. The youths suggest that Elisha “go up”, definitely a reference to what had happened earlier in the chapter to Elijah. The youths were suggesting that Elisha ascend, truly meaning that they wanted the prophet gone in the terrifying way of Elijah’s departing the world. These wounding words directly spat in the face of the Protagonist, proposing that Elisha should not carry on with the duties of his position. The youths of Bethel are purposely setting themselves against the Protagonist’s spokesperson (Professor Obvious). In essence, if one mocks the spokesman, one mocks the Protagonist.

The prophet swiftly addressed the two-part insult, rather calmly, as he cursed the “boys”. To remedy the upset feeling the word ‘boys’ evoked, I dug further into research to know if the translation had muddied the truest meaning of this verse. I found that I was correct; “boys” did not indicate the little children harmlessly mocking an older man that had initially come to mind. The original Hebrew phrase neurim qetannim actually translates to young lads or men, meaning that this group of youths was anywhere from twelve to thirty years old (Christian Thinktank). In addition, some basic logic helped me to realize how large of a group Elisha faced. The verse states that forty-two of the boys were killed. Forty-two of the group, as if that is an inconsequential number, makes me think that this gang the prophet was confronted by was a great deal larger and more hostile than the Bible verses seem to let on. In a tense situation between one man and a mob of angry youths, Elisha’s reaction of ferocity now seems to be the proportionate use of force. Violence only begets more violence in this chapter, as was righteously so, as Elisha was expected to continue on in the role of the Protagonist’s prophet.

 

Finally, I delved into the actual punishment provided by the curse: the two she-bears mauling the youths for their mockery. The bear, in many cultures, symbolizes ultimate power (Universe of Symbolism).  In fact, the Bible mentions bears quite a few times as reference to someone’s power. For example, David kills a bear with his bare hands in I Samuel 17:34-37; this verse is what convinces Saul to allow David to fight Goliath, and in turn, become the next hero of Israel (Bible Study Tools).  Female bears are specifically pointed out as well in II Samuel 17:8, Proverbs 17:12, and Hosea 13:8 (Bible Study Tools), as their fury when robbed of their offspring is unparalleled. A medieval rabbi, known as Radak, included in his biblical commentary that “a bear’s offspring is born with a thick amniotic sack and it takes much care, toil and difficulty to bring it in to this world; more so than any other animal. So much so, that when a bear loses a cub it experiences greater anguish and loss” (Mi Yodeda). Applying this quote to the story of Elisha, the Protagonist can be seen as a literal mother bear, and to threaten Elisha is to threaten the Protagonist’s plan for His people. The Protagonist’s rage is so great that the curse plays out in literal detail.

Levitical Extremism in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

cover of the book

For our allusion this week, I chose to cover the first book of the Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Known especially for its dark, feisty heroine, Lisbeth Salander, the book takes place in Sweden in the early 2000s. The plot focuses around Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who had recently been convicted of libel, as they investigate the 35 year old disappearance of a young girl from a prominent family, the Vangers. Her uncle believes that she has been murdered by a member of the Vanger family because she disappeared during a family party. However, the deeper the detective duo digs, they discover a darker secret connected to the Vanger family—a string of brutally gruesome murders.

  

 (Rooney Mara from the American film on the left versus Noomi Rapace

from the Swedish film on the right: Who is the better Lisbeth?)

Though Sweden was officially neutral during World War II, the Vanger family was connected to the Nazi party, and its anti-Semitic ideas leached into the younger generation, including Harriet’s father, Gottfried, and her brother, Martin. In addition, the Vanger family owns one of the wealthiest corporations in the country, for which both Gottfried and Martin travel to work. Gottfried sexually abused both of his children, introducing Martin to a taste for violence towards women. Both men then started to murder together, but in a most peculiar fashion. Every girl was brutally killed according to a verse found in the book Leviticus; in addition, every girl had a name of Jewish origin. Lisbeth and Mikael had found this information within Harriet’s journal, listing the names along with numbers. At first thought to be phone numbers, and next dates, the two struggled to put together what the possible significance of the list could be to Harriet. The information they worked with looked as such:

Magda—32016

Sara—32109

R.J. —30112

R.L.—32027

            Mari—32018  (213)

How were these two sleuths supposed to decipher such a code from the depressed, twisted mind of an abused young woman? Typically, the Swedish population lacks a belief in God, though many religions have a following in the country. The book addresses this by having every character in the book seemingly atheist, except for two women, Harriet Vanger and Mikael Blomkvist’s daughter Pernilla. Both of these women are religious, therefore quite familiar with the Bible’s contents. As every other character seems to lack an intimate knowledge of this holy book, these two characters are the key to solving the mysteries of the identities of the serial killers as well as the disappearance of Harriet. During a visit with her father, Pernilla notices the list of names and states that quotes on his wall are “gloomy and neurotic” (317).  Mikael is nonplussed until he finds a Bible to look up the verses. What he finds is staggering.

 

(Michael Nyqvist in the 2009 Swedish film v. Daniel Craig in the 2011 American film: Who does Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist better?)

The phrase, Magda—32016, translates to 3:20:16, or Leviticus (the third book of the Bible), chapter 20, verse 16 which states: “If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”

Sara—32109 translates to Leviticus 21:9, or: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”

R.J. —30112, in turn, translates to Leviticus 1:12, or: “And he shall cut it into pieces, with its head and its fat, and the priest shall lay them in order upon the wood that is on the fire upon the altar.”

R.L.—32027, is found to be Leviticus 20:27, which states: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.”

And finally, Mari—32018, is decoded as Leviticus 20:18, or: “If a man lies with a woman having her sickness [period], and uncovers her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood; both of them shall be cut off from among their people.”

Each of these phrases is connected to a murder that one of the Vanger men committed during Harriet’s teenage years. Lisbeth Salander is the one who tracks down each murder from the surrounding towns closest to the Vanger family residence. Each murder that occurred coincided with a business meeting at which Gottfried or Martin Vanger was present. The killers were never caught because the murders were never connected due to the lack of an obvious pattern, which our two investigators linked with Leviticus.

Lisbeth discovered that each girl was killed exactly in accordance to Leviticus. The first murder was of Rebecka Jacobsson, listed as R.J., in which she was killed by having her head placed on smouldering coals—Leviticus 1:12. Next was Mari Holmberg, a prostitute who was strangled with a sanitary napkin—Leviticus 20:18. Third was Rakel Lundel, listed as R.L., had a hobby of reading tarot cards and palms, which got her stoned as she was tied to her laundry-drying frame—Leviticus 20:27. After Rakel was Magda Lovisa, a farmer’s wife who “approached” animals daily, brutally tortured and killed in a horse stall—Leviticus 20:16. The fifth murder was Sara, the daughter of one pastor and the wife of another, was found strangled and her apartment set ablaze—Leviticus 21:9. The victims on Harriet’s list were the first of many, as Lisbeth discovers three other possible murders from around the same time, with each one dealing with a verse from Leviticus.

Each woman’s name was of Hebrew origin. Rebecka equated Rebecca. Mari is the Swedish spelling for Mary. Rakel, when Anglicized, become Rachel. Sara needs no explanation. Madga is paired with another one of the later cases, Lena, as both names are short for Magdalena, a name taken from Mary Magdalene. Another to mention is Lea, or Leah in the Bible. The final victim was named Liv, meaning to live, which can also be traced to the name Eva, or Eve. These names of Jewish heritage made these women targets to the serial killing pair of Vanger men. Their “crimes” that led to them being victims were obviously warped perceptions of the fanatically tainted biblical knowledge of the killers.

 

(photograph of Harriet Vanger from the American film adaptation)

Harriet knew her father and brother were murdering women across the country according to their extreme anti-Semitic and violent tendencies. Because she knew this, she was targeted with harsher abuse by her father, Gottfried. In an instance of desperate self-defence, Harriet killed her father and had to flee Sweden to avoid anyone suspecting her involvement with his death. This is why she disappeared so suddenly from the family gathering—she wasn’t missing, she relocated to avoid any criminal implications. The biblical samples of Leviticus within “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” are most obviously an allusion because the truth of Harriet’s disappearance would never have been revealed without having the familiarity of the book’s verses.

The Holocaust of Asherah

Upon reading Deuteronomy this week, I noticed two related words separated by a mere four chapters: “Asherah” and “Asherim”:

“You shall tear down their altars and dash

in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire.” (Deut 12:3)

“You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah

beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make.” (Deut 16:21)

Chopping Asherah into teeny little pieces.

I was curious as to the definitions of these words. What was an Asherim? What is an Asherah? Why were the Israelites forbidden from planting a tree next to the altar of the Protagonist? What is to be obliterated by fire? One of these key questions remained a “what”, while the other became a “who”.

 Starting with Asherah, I discovered that she was the most influential female deity worshiped in Canaan, Syria and Phoenicia (Questions.org) and was called a variety of names. She was considered the consort or wife of the supreme God though archaeological evidence has paired her with both Ba’al and El—also known as Elohim or Yahweh (Britannica). Mother goddess Asherah ruled over the moon, fertility, and all living things (Jewish Women’s Archive). All living things, eh? That sounds like the Protagonist has a rival or even an equal. The worship of Asherah continued in Canaan, even after the Protagonist’s decree against her, as noted in Judges 2:13:

“They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth [Asherah].”

Asherah figurine

I paused in my research and thought for a moment. Worshipping Ba’al is strictly forbidden by the Protagonist but He insists the Israelites worship Him. He is technically married to Asherah who is a powerful goddess that could rival Him—wouldn’t it make sense to worship Asherah as well? Apparently not, as the cult worship of Asherah started to die out after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem around 586 B.C.E., bringing about a stricter monotheism (Discovery News).

A possible reason to eliminate Asherah from this male-dominated society was to remove the Israelites from the cultural connotations associated with worshipping her. Asherah of Deuteronomy had evolved from an amalgam of other goddesses from the surrounding areas. One example was Hathor, or Balaat, Egyptian goddess of sex and love who was represented by a pillar or a tree. One method of worshipping Hathor involved a drunken orgy at the end of the year (Esoteric). This was a form of worship which had already been punished by the Protagonist in Exodus 32 as the Israelites worshipped Ba’al.  Mesopotamian Ishara was another; she was the goddess of love and divination, which we all know was also already forbidden by the Protagonist in Leviticus 19. Asherah became associated with these condemned practices, in essence condemning her worshippers in the eyes of the Protagonist.

Insulting nods to Asherah?

To address the “Asherim,” I did not have to research much further. Due to the fact that Asherah was associated with trees to represent fertility, her followers planted groves of trees or erected wooden pillars near her temple or altar. These sacred poles were near the Israelite “high places” as well as altars dedicated to Ba’al (Yahweh and Asherah). The Protagonist had already banned Ba’al, so to continue with the equal but seemingly pagan worship of Asherah would be to spit in His face against His commandments. The easiest way to destroy wood and therefore destroy the holiness of Asherah would be by holocaust; Asherah was set afire and drifted away on the winds of time like ash.

What’s the big deal about body hair and skin markings?

Reading through Leviticus was slightly tedious. All of these laws, demands, and rules for living under the covenant of God must have weighed heavily upon the Israelites. In Chapter 19, God very explicitly lays out his blueprint for the day-to-day lives of the Israelites. This chapter covers a variety of pragmatic matters from servant wages to keeping two kinds of cattle from breeding with each other. The verses of 27 and 28 caught my eye in particular:

“You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” (Lev: 27-28)

I recalled that this whole book’s purpose was for the Israelites to be holy as their Lord was holy—in other words, to be different because the Protagonist was different. So what was it about body hair or markings on the skin that the Protagonist wanted the Israelites to set themselves apart from? What culture was so displeasing to the Protagonist that the Israelites were to be completely different from them?

 

Let’s start with the beards and the hair. According to certain historians, the time period of Leviticus can be set between 1495 to1455 BCE (Bible World History). Coinciding with this was the Dynastic Period of Egypt, in which body hair was a big deal. The priests of Egypt saw body hair as unclean (History of Shaving), which would be an offense to the gods, so it was entirely shaved off. Even the pharaoh removed parts of hair, regulating his beard shape. The people of Egypt spent a great deal of time and effort policing their body hair (Art of Manliness). Now if I were the Protagonist who wanted to have my people, the Israelites, set apart, wouldn’t I want for them to stop using the cultural norms of another people, especially the people I had just rescued them from? By not marring the beard nor shaping the hair at the temples, the Israelites would be distinguishable from the Egyptians, their former enslavers. In addition, the Israelites’ less rigid depilation schedule freed up time to focus their attentions on all of the other rules of the covenant.

 

Hebrews = the Duck Dynasty of their generation.

Amunet’s tattoo placement

 

 

As for tattooing, this again could be tied to the Egyptians. Amunet, a mummified priestess of Hathor, was discovered with extensive tattooing around her lower abdomen and on her arms and legs (Tattoos of the Egyptian World). Hathor, the goddess of fertility and sexuality, is believed to have been honoured by the tattooing of Amunet. Though not widespread, the tattoos of the Egyptians seem to have been a form of ritualistic practice to celebrate the gods (Tattoo Temple). Tattooing was considered a mark of slavery or submission to a deity, so it is obvious that the Israelites were to avoid this form of dedication to a false idol (Jewish Virtual Library). The people of the Protagonist were to be dedicated only to Him and His covenant, not to the gods of a bygone era of their lives.

 

Mmm, mummy flesh.

Mummy tatts.

To continue the idea of marking the body, Leviticus states that the Israelites may not cut their bodies for the dead. The Amorites were a culture who often cut their flesh if a member of their household had died (Torah Insights on the Weekly Parsha). The Amorites, a Semitic tribe, were extremely well known for their military prowess, as they helped contribute to the downfall of the Sumerian empire’s Ur (Egypt Origins). They also worshiped a god other than the Protagonist (Who Were the Amorites). Obviously, the Protagonist isn’t going to allow his chosen people to align themselves with another culture’s religious practices or to seek out human glory over revering Him.

The Protagonist set the rules of the covenant before the Israelites in Leviticus to differentiate them from the surrounding cultures of the area. By following these rules, the Israelites would be holy as their Lord was holy, and then gain the benefits of being in a contract with the Protagonist: as a nation, they are promised a fruitful existence protected from their enemies.

Volcanic Exodus

Throughout Exodus, nature makes an astonishing impression upon the reader. An unburnable bush leads to plagues of flies, disease, locusts, and hail. A massive wind parts the sea. But what caught my attention were the pillars of fire and of cloud that the Israelites followed from Egypt. What were these pillars that Moses and his people used as guidance out of slavery?

“And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)

Cloud by day, fire by night.

As I thought about this force of nature that could guide people by smoky clouds in the day, and fire burning up the night sky to lead the way, another thought popped into my mind. The pillars were always before the Israelites, which could be construed as in front of the Israelites. They could be literally walking towards a pillar of cloud or of smoke, which could be stationary, not whirling through the desert like some supernatural force. The pillars could be natural! In that case, what could cause a natural, stationary column of smoke or fire? In my mind, I could only think of volcanoes.

In chapter nineteen of Exodus, the people of Israel are led to Mount Sinai:

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

What has thick smoky clouds, on fire, and a loud blast that scares the hell out of everyone in its immediate vicinity? That most definitely sounds like a volcano. The mountain then trembles greatly—is this the rumbling of an active volcano? Exodus seems to be pointing out that Moses and his people were at the base of a volcano, making camp.

Doesn’t this look like a peaceful place to pitch your tent and relax from traveling for so long and so far from slavery?

In my research, I discovered a few theories as to the placement of where Mount Sinai truly lies. Some claim the mountain is in Saudi Arabia (Scientist Defends Book of Exodus) while others lay out a series of arguments against that placement based on biblical quotes (Problems with Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia). However, no scholar seems to argue over the volcanic explanation. In further research, there are many active volcanoes in the west and northwest regions of Saudi Arabia (Volcanoes of Saudi Arabia). These volcanoes are along an ancient lava field that has recently reactivated (Christian Science Monitor). Around ten million years old, these volcanoes definitely could have been active during the time of Moses and his people fleeing Egypt. In conclusion, if scholars ever came to the agreement of the true location of Mt. Sinai, then a case could most definitely be made for the plausibility of a volcanic explanation to the traditional Exodus story.

The Blood Covenant of Abram

“He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.” (Gen 15:9-10)

Brutal Lego Sacrifice

As I sat bewildered at the fact that God demanded Abram cut every mammal in half but the birds, my mind sped to the symbolism of this action. Why cut the heifer, the female goat, and the ram in half but not the turtledove nor the pigeon? Did the action of cutting the animals in half symbolize something? And why choose these animals in particular? What did these animals represent? As I researched these questions and delved further into Genesis, answers rose to the surface.

In Jewish symbolism, the dove was a feminine symbol often associated with fertility and the spirit of God (Biblical Archaeology). I found this gem of information most interesting as the fifteenth chapter of Genesis is all about the covenant between God and Abram to populate the earth with Abram’s offspring. Considering the fact that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was entirely too old to bear children, the dove sacrifice represented God’s ability to make her fertile. To continue with the feminine aspects of this sacrificial ritual, two female animals were also slaughtered, the heifer and a goat. Perhaps these two animals embodied the feminine aspect of this ritual while literarily strengthening the message sent to early biblical readers.

In continuity with the animals, I dug deeper into Genesis, finding another verse that connected Abram’s offspring to this ritual:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Gen 22:13)

So if the ram represented Abraham’s son later in Genesis, then in my opinion, the ram in chapter fifteen foreshadows this later sacrifice to God. The ram in chapter fifteen was another symbol of Abram’s offspring, later to be born as Isaac. So I had the answers to part of my line of questioning; the animals themselves represented both the fertility of Abram’s wife and the promise of offspring. These animals were chosen to be the representatives of the promises that God was making to Abram.

I also wondered at the number three. The heifer was three years old. The goat was three years old. The ram was three years old. Three, what was so important about the number three? Did it have to do with the animals reaching adulthood? As I researched, I discovered gematria, or “numerological study…used for…gaining insight into interrelating concepts” (Hebrew Gematria). In simpler terms, gematria is the spiritual study of numbers to better understand the Torah. The number three in gematria represents completeness and stability (Judaism & Numbers). In this sacrificial ritual, the animals that were three years of age stood for Sarai’s fertility and the promise of offspring in the form of Isaac. The number of their years reinforced the promise that God was making—it made the promises quite serious.

Gematria

Finally, I came to rest at the halving of the animals. In the process of research, I discovered that blood covenants were fairly common in the time period of Abraham. I also found that the verb for “making” a covenant is KRT or to cut (Cutting Covenants and Cutting Animals). Later, the symbol of the covenant wouldn’t be halved animals, it would become circumcision. Literally, God cut a covenant with Abram. The cutting of the animals was simply the commonplace practice of signing a contract. This was culturally relevant to Abram, as he would have understood the significance of the blood promise made between himself and God.

“Let’s cut a covenant, shall we?” – Knife Wielding Rabbi

Abram’s covenant with God was a business deal as he would deal with any other person who was making promises to him, solidified by the blood ritual and the symbolism of each animal.

Original Word Count: 568

Pictures:

Fascination of A Nation: Old to New West

I will admit that, at first reading, I was not a fan of the play, True West. I sat through the first few video clips of the play, annoyed by Lee’s voice and frustrated at Austin’s rude treatment of his brother. Lee’s rolling inflections grated on my nerves while Austin snapped short replies that made me want to slap him away from his typewriter.

Yet as I went back over the actual text, looking for support for a blog idea, a few memories of my own crept into my mind. The sounds of Red Sovine and Johnny Cash on vinyl, my grandfather’s cowboy boots, and my lasso for Christmas hazily blurred around the lines of the play. I could not help but connect these memories to the Old West. Saloons, cowboys and “Injuns”, pistol duels and the hectic days of the gold rush surfaced from the depths of my mind. As Lee discussed his days in the desert, wandering wild across the heavy sands, trekking through the wilderness alone, I thought of the old western movies with Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers (Famous Cowboys, Western Movie Stars). Gunslingers, buffalo, and the railroad stampeded their way across the American Frontier from around the end of the Civil War to about 1890 (American Frontier). Within the play, the script written by Lee is a western full of these sorts of images, with a modern twist. The mention of cars running out of gas in what was seemingly an old Western made me think of what has become of the “Wild West”.

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I know that people are fascinated with the West; those untamed lives were something to tear apart and analyze, to admire and aspire to. Kids play with guns and hats, adults watch movies and read novels. Yet as the dusky twilight of the outlaws faded into the glittering lights of Hollywood, the obsession never dwindled. Far gone are the rough men who sauntered about dusty roads strewn with tumbleweeds, spurs ringing clearly at the noon hour for a shootout. Long ago, the beautiful girls with poor reputations sang and danced on stage for hundreds of tobacco-chewing, grit-encrusted cattle drivers and corrupt lawmen. Instead, a New West has emerged, one just as savage, just as jaded. The public still pursued the tales of the Wild West. The saloon girls evolved to troubled starlets. Paris Hilton was arrested for cocaine possession (People) while Lindsay Lohan was convicted of DUI and theft (Examiner). The hardened men softened their looks, but kept their edge in all sorts of crime from assault by Chris Brown (Fox News), alleged murder by O.J. Simpson (USA Today), and drug possession by Robert Downey, Jr. (NY Daily News). Hollywood has eclipsed the crazy days of the late nineteenth century. Extravagant spending, failures in “the industry”, and high crime rate plague Tinseltown. From TMZ to E! News, every single speck of gossip is swept into the minds of America’s public.

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From then to now, the out of control lives of the people “out west” are sensationalized in news, stories, films and songs. The books “True Grit” and “Old Yeller” as well as films like “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” portray life from the Old West. But exemplifying the change to the New West is country singer, Jewel, in the song, “The New Wild West”.

Decomposition Twice Over

I suppose I have always had a morbid fascination for what many would call the grotesque. I am still drawn to the things in life that could be dark or twisted: literature, the mind, even human nature. I enjoy finding the juxtaposition of light and dark, how they intertwine and often play off one another to reveal the truth of the matter. It was this interest of mine, forever hooked into my being, that has led me down the path of discovery. Coupled with my morbidity is that of an over-active imagination. A shadow in the doorway, a bump in the night, or the mere whisper of the wind through empty winter trees can conjure up literary puzzles that must be unravelled step by step to understand the true meaning of the plot. I am in love with Gothicism, of course, as the genre most fits my forte. As I read through Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, I could not help but imagine the decomposition of Homer Barron which reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar”.

To properly understand the link between these stories, one needs to consider the stages of decomposition. For the faint of heart, turn back now! The decomposition of the human body is not like that portrayed by Vincent Price in the third section of the horror film, Tales of Terror, released in 1962 (IMDB).

Decomposition can be defined as: “the continual process of gradual decay and disorganization of organic tissues and structures after death” which leaves the skeletal remains as well as possibly hair untouched (Enotes). The process which renders human beings into a pile of bones occurs in five stages. Immediately after death, the “fresh” stage begins its gruesome job of settling blood, stiffening muscles and breaking down cells. As lividity and rigor mortis set in, the body is filled with gases leading to the second stage of “bloat”. Those gases distort the body, forcing fluids from orifices, and causing the skin to darken and sprout strange patterns. “Active decay” steps in for its turn of the process. The body is scavenged by the nasties: bugs, animals, and weathering. The next to set in is “advanced decay”, in which the body has little mass, and starts seeping into the surroundings, such as soil, bedsheets, or coffin linings. The final stage is “dry”, and is more familiar to us as the skeleton. The body has rotted away into bones and connective tissue (Forensics4Fiction). A fascinatingly gruesome ending for a formerly living creature, if the author may say so herself, that the divinely constructed human body merely falls apart.

Now, in relation to the two stories which are very different, each features a decayed man. Homer Barron, the former lover of Emily Grierson in Faulkner’s tale, was discovered in her bed, dessicated and vile. He was described as having a “profound and fleshless grin” and “rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt…inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of…dust” (Flightline). The worst part of the matter was finding Emily’s grey hair on the pillow beside the corpse! She had slept beside a dead man for years, so far to the point that his body had melded to the bed! Can you imagine the strongest stench to gag a grown man? Imagine the putrid gelatin-like body as it withered into a husk of the former body. Miss Emily Grierson, mightily disturbed, had laid down every night at the side of such a horror. Tying such an outrageous plot to yet another appallingly unbelievable story may seem unlikely to some, but to my mind, has been incredibly easy.

I instantly remembered “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar”. Within this story, the narrator holds a man on the brink of death via hypnotism, a feat no one had yet achieved in the field. The man allowed his friend, the narrator, to put him into the trance. He was dying from an intense lung disease, in which his lungs had adhered to the ribs, decaying in his body, in essence, “entirely useless for all purposes of vitality” (ClassicLit). The story then continues to document what occurred while M. Valdemar was under the hypnotic spell. At first, Valdemar was cold, scarcely breathing and with imperceptible pulse. Upon being asked if he was asleep, he responded in the affirmative, and asked to be left in peace to die. His body was rigid, yet malleable. His voice was faint throughout the interview. As Valdemar insisted he was dying, a change came over his countenance. The skin paled, the mouth shrunk away from the teeth, revealing “the swollen and blackened tongue”, as the “death-bed horrors” occurred, causing a “general shrinking back from the region of the bed” (ClassicLit). All vitals in the man seemed to vanish, as if dead, yet upon prompting, he responded! “For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! –put me to sleep —or, quick! —waken me! —quick! — I say to you that I am dead!” (ClassicLit). How on earth in heaven or in hell, can a dead man respond?! The narrator, unsettled, thought it would be better to pull the man from underneath his hypnotic trance than to leave him between dying and asleep. As the narrator began to un-hypnotize M. Valdemar, the entire corpse disintegrated beneath his hands, in one of the most grotesque quotes in literature:

“…his whole frame at once —- within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled —- absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed….there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity”  (ClassicLit).

It is upon my understanding of the process of decay that I thought to link these two stories together. Though disgusting and off-putting, decomposition is a captivating mechanism of the human body, and necessary to comprehending the parallels between these two literary creations.

Poor Prufrock

Upon reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the same theme appeared over and over and over again. J. Alfred Prufrock is a sad, lonely, and self degrading character. But gloomy Prufrock is not just a sad sack.  As he narrates his short story, he lets the reader into his psyche, which speaks of fear of rejection, intense nervousness around people, and a general lack of social grace. 

Firstly, Prufrock is leading us through the seediest parts of town, where brothels, cheap restaurants, and arguments abound. He makes mention of the dim yellow smoke or fog that seems to pervade everything through out the day. Prufrock is in an environment seemingly created to get one down in the dumps and keep one there. He meanders through these streets to call on friends or acquaintances. Prufrock’s anxiety and depression seem to go hand in hand with his negative urban environment, causing him to stay stuck in his humdrum, melancholy state (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health).

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Prufrock moves on from the setting to discuss how there is always time “for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions / Before the taking of a toast and tea” (University of Virginia). The character is so dreadfully indecisive, and apparently seems to battle with himself constantly! Prufrock considers approaching a woman, but again loses his nerve, and escapes from the situation via the stairs. In addition to his habit of indecisiveness, poor Prufrock’s physical appearance is not the to the ladies’ liking. Prufrock makes note of his tasteful clothing and well kept appearance, only to be laughed at for his thin appendages and bald spot. A man in his middle age, it is obvious that Prufrock is more than uncomfortable with his effect on the ladies. He merely wants to be accepted, and though he strives to meet societal standards, he falls just short of where he needs to be J. Alfred Prufrock seems to suffer from social anxiety, as he feels criticized, and as if he will be humiliated by others. The man’s lack of social skills also seem to add to his nervous, distorted thinking (Web MD).

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To continue his theme of being uncomfortable in his own skin, J. Alfred fixates on the “eyes” of society. He feels incredibly judged and inspected by his fellow man, and states that while he is “pinned and wriggling on the wall” that he could not possibly think of proper conversation (Bartleby). Prufrock attempts to brainstorm a suitable topic for the discussion with the ladies in his company, yet decides he would rather exist as a crab, in essence a scavenger who lives deep beneath the other creatures in its habitat (National Geographic). Prufrock has denied himself even equality with his fellow man, feeling as if it would be better to be below, in the muck and lower society, where he can live unnoticed. Prufrock’s fancying himself as a person below his class realizes itself when he pictures his rejection by a woman as she turns away from his conversation. He cannot live up to her expectations, something he has come to grips with in the earlier stanza when the women mock his shortcomings. 

J. Alfred Prufrock’s lack of confidence is furthered by his lack of faith in the worthiness of his cause in appealing to women. He lists the things he attempts to achieve or to participate in, all in vain as the females of his society completely ignore him. He believes himself a minor character in the play of life, happy when someone pays the slightest of attention to him, yet as he ages, he learns that this fruitless quest to please everyone but himself has taken a great toll on him that he shall pay with his life in the end. He could not think of conversation, felt watched at all times by all sides, and was forced to be lacklustre in his oppressive settings. Poor, pathetic Prufrock is a victim of social anxiety and depression yet he does not seek out others to heal that rift between himself and society. He avoids the situations that make him feel uncomfortable, scorning any notion of goodness for himself yet he knows they can exist for others. This idea of pitiful Mr. Prufrock reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s song, “I am a Rock”, and it is very easy to imagine J. Alfred connecting with the lyrics as they evoke the same feelings he has described in the poem.