Tag Archives: Bible

Another monopoly on communications

If you were a member of the population’s majority (serfs and short-on-cash freemen), you were feeling left out. You couldn’t afford books and you couldn’t read them and you couldn’t understand the language they’re written in. You went to church but couldn’t understand what was being read out of the Bible.

Devout Christians wanted to connect with their Savior but it seemed like the only people who could talk to Jesus were the clergy, because they spoke Latin. The priests must have believed that they alone had access to G-d. That was a problem.*

Religion concerns itself with the afterlife: where do we go when we die? The Bible tells us we each are a soul with a body attached. Because we have weak, material, worldly bodies, we’re all prone to sin. In the Christian Church, sin is to disobey the Ten Commandments or to disobey the teaching of Christ. If you haven’t properly confessed and atoned for a sin you committed, the sin could keep you out of Heaven. The Church had a process whereby a Christian confessed sin and was told what he had to do (prayer and/or good works) to get his soul back on track.** But beginning in the thirteenth century, churches were selling indulgences—people gave money to the church to make sure they got into Heaven right away after they died.

So once again, a small handful of elites were in sole control of communication—this time it was communication between human beings and G-d. The illiterate shmos had little access to that communication. Not everyone in the clergy was happy about that. Just as we saw with the ancient Egyptian scribes when the alphabet hit, big things were about to shake loose.

* I’m a Presbyterian who enjoys going to other people’s churches now and then. I have to tell you, a Catholic mass in Latin (maybe it was here https://sites.google.com/site/unavocepittsburgh/latinmasspittsburgh) is an almost transcendental experience. I didn’t understand the particulars of what was said—anyone can figure out the obvious bits—but it was moving. I guess I’m saying my take on what’s coming up next is complicated.

**As usual, I’m simplifying this topic.

https://brewminate.com/forgiveness-for-sale-indulgences-in-the-medieval-church/
https://www.thoughtco.com/indulgences-their-role-in-the-reformation-1221776

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From their lips to God’s ears

My take on Saint Jerome in his study by one of my heroes, Albrecht Dürer. Who doesn’t have a human skull laying around in one’s study?

As we saw in ancient Egypt, there’s a down side to concentrating literacy exclusively into one thin slice of the population. The Egyptian scribes had protected their monopoly on hieroglyphics. Their world fell apart when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Was that about to happen again?

In mediæval Europe, literacy gave the clergy access to the Bible. They encouraged the idea that access to the Bible meant access to G-d, and that regular shmoes needed the clergy to talk to G-d on their behalf.* I don’t condemn the clergy entirely for doing this. Probably most were doing their best to keep a faithful interpretation of G-d’s Word (there were some wacky interpretations and heresies back then). Friends, that’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a great temptation to assign power to oneself. As we will see, the clergy would give in to that temptation.

*Saint Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew & Greek into Latin in the ad 300s. He worked directly from the original languages and so his translation was very accurate. St Jerome’s Bible, in ‘vulgate Latin,’ was the officially approved Church Bible. But by the Middle Ages, most people didn’t speak Latin anymore.

https://ourworldindata.org/literacy
https://www.quora.com/What-were-literacy-rates-in-Medieval-Europe-How-did-they-compare-to-literacy-rates-in-the-Roman-Empire
https://spartacus-educational.com/YALDeducation.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome

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The whole megillah in one sentence

A quiz from when I taught Sunday school. I always thought Vashti got a raw deal in this story.

Did somebody say ‘megillah?’ It means ‘the whole ball of wax’ or ‘the whole nine yards.’ Where did that word come from? Purim is the holiday that celebrates when Esther saved the Persian Jews from being massacred. It’s a long story that’s read in its entirety every Purim—and the Hebrew word for scroll is megillah.

And, because I’m the Sweetheart of Blogdom, I’ll give the whole Book of Esther my patented Western-Lit-in-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment. The set-up: Israel had been under the thumb of the Assyrian Empire, then the Babylonian Empire who marched most of the Jews to parts East. Next, the Persians ran the show and the Jews who lived in the Persian empire kept their heads down to avoid trouble. We’re in Susa, the capital city. Ready? Hang onto your tri-corner hats ‘cause here we go:

Five months into a 6-month drinking party King Ahasuerus hollers for Queen Vashti to make an appearance but Vashti says no thanks bub so the wise men tell King Ahasuerus she has to go or else none of the wives will obey their drunk husbands so Queen Vashti gets the pink slip and Ahasuerus holds a beauty contest to choose a new wife meanwhile the Jew Mordecai tells his beautiful cousin Esther the Miss Persia pageant could be her golden ticket so Esther enters and wins now she’s the queen and lives in the palace Mordecai warns Esther be careful some bad guys want to kill the king so Esther tells the cops and they catch the bad guys later the bigshot Haman is walking around Susa everybody bows to him except Mordecai who only bows to G-d so Haman gets mad and tells King Ahasuerus he wants to kill all the Jews because they won’t bow to him Ahasuerus says okay here’s my ring with the royal seal do whatever you want Mordecai gets wind of this plan and begs Esther to get the king to stop it Esther goes to the king even though he didn’t ask to see her which was a serious crime in those days but she figures if I die I die Ahasuerus doesn’t kill her so she invites Ahasuerus and Haman to dinner Haman builds a really tall gallows to hang Mordecai later that night the king reads the newspaper story about how Mordecai stopped the bad guys who tried to kill him he orders Haman to honor Mordecai with a big parade so Haman doesn’t get to hang him which really grinds Haman’s gears that evening at Esther’s dinner King Ahasuerus asks her what would you like darling anything at all even unto half my kingdom Esther says Haman wants to kill all the Jews I’m a Jew so…Ahasuerus has Haman hanged on the same gallows Haman had built for Mordecai the king gives his ring with the royal seal to Mordecai he sends out executive orders allowing the Jews to defend themselves they destroy their enemies Mordecai takes over the bigshot job Haman had.

https://www.thespruceeats.com/jewish-hamantaschen-cookies-recipe-1136141
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/purim
https://www.israel21c.org/making-some-noise-on-purim/

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All creatures

I spent some time fretting about the animals which were sacrificed to make parchment/vellum. I am a softy when it comes to animals. I won’t even squash bugs in my house—I toss ’em back outside. I care very much about animals’ suffering. The problem is, we live in a fallen world. Suffering and death are an unavoidable part of it. If I choose to eat a chicken salad sandwich, it means one of G-d’s creatures had to die violently. Even if I switch to a vegetarian diet, animals will still suffer and die.

The Heavenly Father put us in charge of the animals. The Bible tells us it’s right and proper that animals are a resource for us to use (Genesis 1:25/26). BUT, we have a responsibility to animals. All life should be respected. If we take good care of animals while they’re alive and then make their deaths as easy as can be managed, we’ll be serving G-d. If an animal must be slaughtered, we ought to use every last bit of it. This is not a frivolous thing to think about. Our humanity, our soul, demands that we think about this stuff and act on it.

How do you get bugs out of the house alive? I have a fool-proof method. You’ll need a tall drinking glass or a goblet (the kind of glass with a stem) and a postcard that’s big enough to cover the whole rim of the glass. When the bug is on a flat surface, put the glass upside-down over him. Try to catch him by surprise. Take your postcard and slowly, slowly slip it under the glass and the bug. When the postcard completely covers the rim of the glass, pick everything up as one unit. Hold the postcard tight to the rim of the glass with the bug trapped inside. Take it outdoors and put it on the ground. Take the postcard. Run back into the house and lock the door.


I once trapped and released a bat this way. I took him outdoors and coaxed him onto a tree branch. The little jerk peed in my glass.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgqKfGRT0PM

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The alefbet

There’s a silver lining to all this misery. Up until the Babylonian Captivity, the books of the Hebrew Bible had been memorized and recited orally. But when the Jews found themselves far from home and their Temple, in danger of losing everything that made Jews who they are, afraid that future generations would forget G-d and His covenant with His chosen people—they started writing the Bible. They wrote down everything from Adam and Eve up to just before the prophets, then they wrote down the prophets, too.

The Bible was written and copied in beautiful Hebrew letterforms that were adopted and adapted from the Phoenician alphabet. Their alefbet made the Bible far easier to read than other holy writing. Jews learned to read (they posted words on the doorways of their houses!). People who weren’t Jews learned how to read and the Word of G-d spread far beyond Israel. The idea that each of us has a purpose and is loved by G-d is central to the Bible and central to Western culture.

And since you’re here, reading this, now seems a good time to remind you: you have a purpose and you’re loved by G-d. Hold that news in your heart because it’s absolutely true.

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/news/when-was-the-hebrew-bible-written/
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/origins-written-bible/
https://jewishmuseum.org.uk/schools/asset/hebrew-alphabet/

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The Babylonian Captivity

The one kingdom split into two: Israel and Judah. 

And so, Israel/Judah came under the thumb of one empire after another. First the Assyrians came and wiped out Israel in the north, then the Babylonians marched everybody out of Judah in the south. By the time the Persians took over the Jews (as the Persians called them) were dispersed far from their homeland.

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Things go sideways for Israel

The divided kingdom

If you had me for a Sunday school teacher you’ve heard me drone on about the Babylonian Captivity. You can find my universally-acclaimed Major Prophets of the Old Testament cheat sheets here and here and here and here.

Tiny little Israel was different from all the other countries. Instead of worshiping a bunch of gods, Hebrews worshiped one G-d: the G-d of Abraham. So long as they were true to G-d, Israel enjoyed the independence of being a sovereign state. Unfortunately, the Hebrews were flawed people—just like the rest of us—and began turning from G-d. There was civil war and the one kingdom split into two: Judah and Israel. Oh, the prophets warned them what would happen, but nobody listened.*

* I typed G-d that way as a courtesy for Jewish readers. My audience is tiny enough—I can’t afford to turn anyone away.

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Guest blogger: Ilene Winn-Lederer

It would be madness to cover the Hebrew alphabet without asking my pal (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregular) Ilene Winn-Lederer to contribute some thoughts and a few examples of her fantastic calligraphy using Hebrew letterforms. Click on the links to view more of her work. Thanks, Ilene!



John: Since you will likely cover the technical origins of Hebrew from its Paleo-Aramaic roots to modern usage, here are my personal thoughts on my use of the language in my work.

First, I find the old and new forms of the alefbet fascinating for the following reasons:

I did not grow up in a religious home nor experience a formal Hebrew school education. Coming at the Hebrew culture/language from a mostly outsiders’ perspective, I did not speak it at all but learned to read it gradually through native speakers and informal classes through the years. Ironically, because my grandparents generation came to the US from Eastern Europe, Yiddish was my first language as a child. Anyway, I viewed Hebrew letters as simply beautiful art forms with great design potential. My mystical understanding of the alefbet also came from personal informal studies/classes.

Rimmonim means pomegranate

On that note, here are thoughts from my ‘Alchymy of Alphabets’ collection at my web gallery:
While there have been myriad renditions of the Hebrew alphabet throughout history on stone, carved in wood, crafted in metal, drawn in manuscripts, books, art and calligraphy, I’ve rarely seen any that explore these beautiful letterforms outside the box of their traditional appearance. In 2008, for my portfolio with PaperRoad Art Licensing LLC, I designed a group of illustrated English alphabets whose theme defined the shape of each letter. This year, I’ve decided to work that concept into the Hebrew alphabet. With identification in Hebrew and English, Abundance weaves some of the abundant flora of Israel into the letters that brought all into being.

Finally, here are links to prints available from that gallery: http://www.magiceyegallery.com/GalleryPage.aspx?id=11

Also, my Hebrew calligraphy appears on a collection of holiday greeting cards at: https://m.greetingcarduniverse.com/search/go?w=Ilene%20winn%20lederer&ts=m

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Tfel-ot-thgir (right-to-left)

Another interesting thing about the Phoenician alphabet: when you write in it, you write from right to left. The words you’re reading here are left-to-right. As the alphabet was adopted by cultures to the west of the Phoenician cities, it was written left-to-right, like our alphabet today. As the alphabet traveled east, it was written right-to-left, like Arabic and Hebrew are still written today.

Solomon built the Temple with cedar wood from Lebanon.

David, the mighty king of Israel, had Phoenician artisan advisors in his court. King Hiram of Tyre was good buds with David’s son, Solomon. It seems natural to assume that the Phoenicians brought the alphabet with them to Israel.

https://www.ancient.eu/King_David/
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jerusalem-from-canaanite-city-to-israelite-capital
https://phoenicia.org/temple.html
https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=david+hiram&version=NKJV
https://phoenicia.org/alphabet.html
http://ubdavid.org/bible/know-your-bible4/know4-5.html

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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9122891/Alphabet-Canaanite-miners-Ancient-Egypt-simple-letters-intricate-hieroglyphs.html
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/12/30/did-illiterate-egyptian-miners-invent-alphabet/95992202/
Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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