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What if Cyrus Had Not Freed the Jews?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @ 11:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

Over twenty-five centuries ago, Cyrus II, founder and ruler of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews who had been transported forcibly to Babylon and facilitated the reconstruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Without the intervention of Cyrus, the Jewish People and Judaism as we know it (if that is not redundant) would not exist today. In short, no Cyrus, no Jews. So who was Cyrus, and why aren’t we celebrating his actions?

Cyrus was born into the royal family of the small state of Anshan, located in what is now southwest Iran. Not long after becoming king of Anshan around 559 BCE, Cyrus first conquered nearby Media (550 BCE) and then turned west to capture Lydia (546 BCE) in what is now western Turkey. Next, he shocked the world by toppling the previously dominant empire of Babylonia (539 BCE). Whether his victory after a multi-year siege of the capital Babylon was more the result of brilliant tactics, Babylonian palace treason or some other factor can be debated, but it is crystal clear that Cyrus emerged from Babylon triumphant. And with this victory, Cyrus became ruler of, among other lands, the territory bordering and east of the Mediterranean Sea to and surrounding the Jordan River. Learn more

The Battle for Jerusalem and the Origin of Fake News — 2700 Years Ago

Sunday, February 18, 2018 @ 11:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Sennacherib Prism,
Oriental Institute, U. of Chicago

 

How can you tell what is true and what is not in the Hebrew Bible (the “Tanakh”)? How can you separate fact from fiction and fable? In some instances, science can help. For instance, both geological and archaeological records confirm that the whole earth was not submerged in flood waters during the last six thousand years, and evolutionary biology demonstrates that all land animals and birds do not owe their existence to creatures that were on a vessel floating on those mythical waters. Similarly, we know that the Sun did not stop in the sky for twenty-four hours during a battle at Gibeon, for that would have meant that the Earth ceased to rotate during that period of time, which, in turn, would have caused cataclysmic consequences neither reported in the story nor elsewhere. (See Gen. 7:6-8; Josh. 10:12-14.)

From a modern perspective, then, it is reasonably easy to identify some biblical stories that are not factually accurate. They may well contain worthy moral or other lessons, but as factual recitations of actual occurrences, they fail.

At the same time, there are other stories in the Tanakh that seem quite plausible, even contemporary in their nature. How can we tell if they are historically true or historical fiction or simply imagined? One such story concerns the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (pronounced Seh-NACK-er ib) during the reign of the Judahite king Hezekiah about 2700 years ago.  Learn more

The Myth and Function of the Passover Plagues

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 @ 04:04 PM
posted by Roger Price

Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt.  Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.  Learn more

Sagan, Stars and Grains of Sand

Monday, February 23, 2015 @ 02:02 PM
posted by Roger Price

Pandora’s Cluster

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who could look at the stars and yawn? Certainly not astronomer Carl Sagan.  Sagan, a serious scientist, popularized a journey though the universe just over a third of a century ago with his award winning TV series, Cosmos. To impress upon his viewers how many stars existed, Sagan would enthusiastically assert that there were “billions and billions” of them, stressing and drawing out the first syllable each time.

As he acknowledged at the outset, however, the “size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding.” So, to try to make such an enormous quantity understandable, he said that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” (Watch here; see also, Sagan, Cosmos (Random House 1980) at 4, 196.) It was a wonderful reference.

We may sense that there are a lot of stars in the sky, but with the naked eye it is hard to pinpoint and count them, even or maybe especially on a clear night. Sand is somewhat different. We can take a fistful of it at a beach, survey the area, think about the coast lines of the various continents, and then factor in countless interior beaches. Sagan says that our hand will hold about 10,000 grains of sand. (Cosmos, at 196.) Without help, we may not be able to do the math or know the result of the equation, but we can understand that the beaches hold an enormous number of grains of sand.

What Sagan did not say is that his two subjects, stars and sand, were invoked long ago in the Hebrew Bible as metaphors for abundance. They appear first in the book of Genesis, each separately and once together. Learn more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai?

Thursday, December 18, 2014 @ 12:12 PM
posted by Roger Price

The Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish People. Initially, it asserts a pre-history and a purpose of the ancient Judahite kingdom to which contemporary Jews trace their emotional and often actual genetic origin, setting forth the kingdom’s legends and lore, its poetry and prose, its customs and commitments.

But the Torah is more than the purported history contained in it. When its contents were reduced to writing, text trumped tradition as the source of both political and religious authority in the Judahite world. (See generally, Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge 2004) at 91-117.)The result initiated nothing less than a textual revolution.

Moreover, in the words of Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter historian Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a “lineage of literacy” followed.  (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012) at 15.) Transmitted over millennia and eliciting commentary which itself then begot more commentary, the written Torah has bound and continues to bind the Jewish People together over space and across time as they read it, study it, participate in its interpretation and organic growth and act out its lessons. Here, the Torah has served, and continues to serve, as trans-national and trans-generational glue. Learn more