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Even the denial of a true idea creates a space which vibrates with possibility.

James Hamilton-Paterson

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Friday, January second, 2009

Genesis I - VIII

The last time I read Genesis must be about ten years ago now, around the time I read the books of Samuel. This time around I am a bit surprised by how much is happening in so little space -- my memory is of quite a bit more filler material like patrilineages -- and by how familiar I am with the material. (This familiarity is a very good thing as I'm reading the text in Spanish -- knowing the story is most helpful for understanding the words.) I am finding it much easier to read attentively when the words are foreign to my ears.

My method has been to read verse by verse and chapter by chapter: read the line for its sense, then look up any words I'm unfamiliar with, then go back and read it over until I really understand it. At the end of the chapter, go back and reread until I've got the whole thing well in hand. I'm figuring I'll keep with this for another week or two, probably til the end of Genesis, and then start on some Spanish text I'm more interested in for itself. Cien Años de Soledad? That might be a good pick -- I'm pretty familiar with it in translation and I don't remember the grammatical constructions being difficult.

Every time I look at the Garden of Eden story I have a similar reaction, which is to feel outraged, initially, at the way Adam and Eve are treated, angry at Jehovah; and then to remember this is a parable created by humans to describe and justify their position in the world; and to go off on a tangent trying to figure out what made them want to view the world this way.* (Also, "Damn! If only they would have eaten from the other tree first!")

* (Step 4 in this dialectic is, Remember that this worldview is my own cultural heritage, and feel disatisfied.)

posted afternoon of January second, 2009: Respond
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Saturday, January third, 2009

Holm Oak

Genesis 12: 5 Abram Tomó a Sarai su mujer, a Lot su sobrino y todos los bienes que Habían acumulado y a las personas que Habían adquirido en Harán; y partieron hacia la tierra de Canaán. Después llegaron a la tierra de Canaán, 6 y Abram Atravesó aquella tierra hasta la encina de Moré, en las inmediaciones de Siquem. Los cananeos estaban entonces en la tierra.
Interesting -- the KJV translation has "the plain of Moreh" at the text I've emphasized; RSV has "the oak of Moreh". But this Spanish translation is calling it "encina", which means "holm oak", more specific than either of these. Blue Letter Bible's concordance doesn't show "holm oak" occurring in any English translation. Now I'm wondering what the source term is -- is encina a common tree in Spain as oak is in England, and the reference is just to a generic tree?

I remember in The Stone Raft there were a couple of references to "holm oak", which I skipped over without really getting. I think Joana Carda's stick was described as being witch-hazel rather than "even" holm oak; I took this vaguely to be a way of minimizing how strong of a wood it was. Possibly a reference to this passage was intended here, though if the tree is common in Spain and Portugal, probably not.

A bit wrong -- "Holm oak" appears four times in The Stone Raft; the one I was thinking of is on p. 106:

Joana Carda responded with silence, after all, there is no law to prohibit guests from taking even a branch of holm oak into their room, much less a thin little stick, not even two meters long...
At the beginning of the book there is a suggestion that Joana's branch was elm, or possibly wych-elm.

posted morning of January third, 2009: 2 responses
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Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


Excellent news today -- R. Crumb has announced the completion of his new book, which is a retelling of Genesis. I can't imagine anything better than R. Crumb's take on Genesis, unless maybe it were R. Crumb's take on Samuel -- since he has not done that yet this will surely suffice.

Speaking of the Old Testament, this Passover Haggadah is just hilarious.

Crumb has been working on this for a long time: he talks about it in this four-year-old Time interview, which has a sample page:

A couple of other sketches from the book are available at and at Yale University Press.

Crumb tells the NY Times, "It's lurid. Full of all kinds of crazy, weird things that will really surprise people."

posted evening of March 31st, 2009: 2 responses
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Sunday, January third, 2010

The Journey down to Bethlehem

Saramago's telling of the trek Joseph and Mary must make from Nazareth down to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary's pregnancy, is utterly gripping and fascinating. I had never thought much about this aspect of the Christmas story; Google Maps gives the distance they had to travel as either 155 km (taking the westward route) or 166 km (taking the eastward route) -- perhaps 2000 years ago, on donkey and foot rather than in a car, it would have been shorter to go due south, not sure what the geography is like there. This is a long way to be forced to travel in service of paying taxes to an occupying power! The four canonical gospels do not spend much time on it, I wonder if there is another biblical source for this.

I'm moderately surprised to find this book (so far, at any rate) not strongly hostile to religion; prayer in particular is being treated as a vital source of comfort to the impoverished Nazarenes. There is a lot of hostility towards the villagers' patriarchal misogyny apparent, and this misogyny is encoded in much of the prayer; but it isn't seeming to me like this translates directly to an anti-religion stance.

A little bit of beauty from the third night of the trek, as the travellers take refuge in a caravansary in Ramah:

That night there was no conversation, no prayers or stories around the fire, as if the proximity of Jerusalem demanded respectful silence, each man searching his heart and asking, Who is this person who resembles me yet whom I fail to recognize. This is not what they actually said, for people do not start talking to themselves like that, nor was this even in their conscious thoughts, but there can be no doubt that as we sit staring into the flames of a camp fire, our silence can be expressed only with words like these, which say everything. From where he sat, Joseph could see Mary in profile against the light of the fire. Its reddish reflection softly lit one side of her face, tracing her features in chiaroscuro, and he began to realize, with surprise, that Mary was an attractive woman, if one could say this of a person with such a childlike expression. Of course her body was swollen now, yet he could see the agile, graceful figure she would soon regain once their child was born. Without warning, as if his flesh was rebelling after all these months of enforced chastity, a wave of desire surged through his blood and left him dizzy.

posted morning of January third, 2010: Respond
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Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Christ in the Desert

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

-- Luke 4 (NIV, 2010)

After he had walked he knew not how many hours, thirst and weariness were defeating him. He thought to himself that his destination could not be so far away now. He felt he was lost. The only thing that he could do was to let himself fall onto the sand. He sat in a lotus position, his little paper sack between his legs. As always in such difficult emotional times he commenced to pick his nose. He looked about himself: it was as if he were in the dead center of a circle composed of the horizon on all sides, a circle as if it had been traced by some celestial hand, perfect, round, endless. The silence, the solitude were of such divine purity, they moved him, they were tangible. He removed his sandals. He wanted to take communion with the land.

He sat there, listening, for a long time.

Evening’s flame lit the horizon. Red. Impressive. Overwhelming. It made him think of dusk, of Golgotha. His surroundings swam before his eyes into a great ring of fire. “The fiery ring of a lion-tamer,” he said. He sensed suddenly, and with divine clarity, that the lion-tamer was God; he, the lion, tamed. That his master was ordering him to jump. Yes; to jump. Highest glory to the Eternal Father!

He jumped.

He closed his eyes and jumped.

-- The art of resurrection ch. 4

The art of resurrection is reminding me a bit of reading The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (and I ought to track down Saramago's take on the temptation in the desert passage...) in the degree of sympathy each author expresses for his imperfect messiah.

Update: ...And also SFAM is getting in on the Messianic action.

posted evening of November 22nd, 2010: Respond
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Monday, December 27th, 2010

et ibant omnes ut profiterentur singuli in suam civitatem

Teresa's Christmas post is very much worth checking out: Luke 2, 1-14 in a plethora of different translations. Read about Mary's revelation in Dutch, Portuguese, Lowland Scots, Greek, Slavonic, various Englishes...

posted afternoon of December 27th, 2010: 1 response
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Saturday, February 12th, 2011

East of Eden

It might seem peculiar to go to Saramago seeking reverence -- he is rather famously atheistic, maybe even intemperately so; he was notoriously denounced by the Catholic church heirarchy after publication of his final novel, Caín, when he said humanity would be better off without the Holy Bible. (And who am I, no Christian myself, to be seeking or discussing reverence? We'll leave that question by the side for now.) But: I found The Gospel According to Jesus Christ to be a superlatively reverent book, that quality was one of my favorite things about the book; and I am hoping as I start Caín that it will share that quality.

Things are looking a little dodgy starting with the epigraph -- Saramago quotes chapter 11, verse 4 of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews, and attributes it to the Libro de los disparates, roughly the "Book of Nonsense". I agree with Rafael Rodríguez Hernández that this is a lousy opening: it seems to me like Saramago ought to treat his source text with more respect...

Be that as it may, I'm enjoying the first few chapters. Eve and Adam are coming through nicely as characters, Saramago seems really to be interested in their humanity and their hardships. It looks like it will be a fun game to figure out which of Saramago's details are canonical and which are not -- for instance he has only a single Cherub guarding the gates of Eden, whom he identifies as Azael*; tradition assigns this role to two angels, Metatron and Melchisadec. But I will probably spend less time on this kind of thing as I get deeper into the story. Eve's flirtation with and implicit seduction of Azael is very strongly non-canonical/blasphemous, but it is rendered so lovingly that I am going to go along with it -- it is one of the high points of the first few chapters.

*Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels identifies Azael as "one of 2 fallen angels (Aza is the other) who cohabited with Naamah, Lamech's daughter, and sired the sedim, Assyrian guardian spirits." Cool! I knew vaguely (based on Genesis 6:1-2) that there was angel-human cohabitation in the Abrahamic tradition but did not have any specifics.

posted afternoon of February 12th, 2011: Respond
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Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Founding Macondo: Jacob's Dream

Some text! Let's look at two longish quotes.

10And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13And, behold, the lord stood above it, and said, I am the lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; 14And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

16And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the lord is in this place; and I knew it not. 17And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. 18And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 19And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

-- Genesis 28 (kjv)

—Está bien, Prudencio —le dijo—. Nos iremos de este pueblo, lo más lejos que podamos, y no regresaremos jamás. Ahora vete tranquilo.

Fue así como emprendieron la travesía de la sierra. Varios amigos de José Arcadio Buendía, jóvenes como él, embullados con la aventura, desmantelaron sus casas y cargaron con sus mujeres y sus hijos hacia la tierra que nadie les había prometido. ... Una noche, después de varios meses de andar perdidos por entre los pantanos, lejos ya de los últimos indígenas que encontraron en el camino, acamparon a la orilla de un río pedregoso cuyas aguas parecían un torrente de vidrio helado. Años después, durante la segunda guerra civil, el coronel Aureliano Buendía trató de hacer aquella misma ruta para tomarse a Riohacha por sorpresa, y a los seis días de viaje comprendió que era una locura. Sin embargo, la noche en que acamparon junto al río, las huestes de su padre tenían un aspecto de náufragos sin escapatoria, pero su número había aumentado durante la travesía y todos estaban dispuestos (y lo consiguieron)* a morirse de viejos. José Arcadio Buendía soñó esa noche que en aquel lugar se levantaba una ciudad ruidosa con casas de paredes de espejo. Preguntó qué ciudad era aquella, y le contestaron con un nombre que nunca había oído, que no tenía significado alguno, pero que tuvo en el sueño una resonancia sobrenatural: Macondo.

—It's OK, Prudencio —he said—. We'll leave this town, we'll go as far away as we can, we'll never come back. You can rest easy.

And this was how they began their crossing of the mountain. Several friends of José Arcadio Buendía, young men like him, with a taste for adventure, packed up their households and set out with their wives and their kids for the land which no-one had promised them. ... One night, after months of wandering through the marshes with no bearings, far beyond the last Indians they had met in their travels, they camped on the gravely bank of a river whose waters had the aspect of a torrent of frozen glass. Years later, during the second civil war, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would attempt to take the same route, in order to attack Riohacha by surprise; after six days of travel he saw that it was madness. On the night when they camped by the river, his father's army looked like a band of castaways with no prospect of salvation -- but nevertheless their numbers had increased during the crossing; and everyone there was meaning to die of old age. (They succeeded in this goal.) José Arcadio Buendía dreamt that night that on this spot a city was being erected, an obstreperous city, a city with walls of mirrors. He asked what city this was, and the reply was a name which he had never heard, which had no significance whatever, but which in the dream, took on a supernatural resonance: Macondo.

Cien años de soledad, Chapter 2

And a reward, for reading all that text: Here is Alison Kraus singing about (another) Jacob's Dream.

* I am not sure what this means. Gregory Rabassa renders it literally in his translation, "and they succeeded"; but it does not mean anything in English. I am leaving it out of my translation. My best guess is that it means some of the travellers *did* die of exhaustion; but no mention of this is made elsewhere, and it seems like it would be a strange thing to throw in with no specifics. ... Got it! (Maybe) -- I think I am misreading this. I wanted "todos estaban dispuestos a morirse de viejos" to mean, "they were ready to drop dead of exhaustion" so I ignored the meaning of the words; viejos is old age, not exhaustion. So estaban dispuestos means "they were ready/prepared" in the sense of what they were planning to do, not what they were about to do -- they meant to die of old age, not to die on the journey. "(and they succeeded)" -- i.e. they did die of old age, years later, not on the journey. I think Rabassa's translation is very unclear. I modified my translation above.

Update: Some further thinking about Jacob (and Macondo) here.

posted evening of March 24th, 2011: Respond
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Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Jacob's Travels: Bad Faith in Genesis

So after some further reading and reflection, I'm not so convinced that José Arcadio Buendía's dream at Macondo is intended as a reference to Jacob's dream at Beth-el... There doesn't really seem to be enough parallels between the two stories to give the reference any weight or any explanatory power. I got the idea from a footnote in the edition of Cien Años de Soledad that I'm reading (ed. Jacques Joset, 2003). Overall the footnotes in this edition seem pretty weak -- or that is to say, there are just unnecessarily many of them. The footnote references Michael Palencia-Roth's book Gabriel García Márquez: La línea, el círculo y las metamorfosis del mito -- who knows, maybe a convincing case for the reference is made there.

I am glad to have seen the note though, since it led me to reread the story of Jacob (Genesis 27 - 35, roughly), a story which I had by and large forgotten, in the kjv translation and in Crumb's illustrated version, and because I found Blake's painting of Jacob's Ladder -- highly productive weekend research! Reading about Jacob's travels back and forth across what would one day be the Holy Land, I felt distressed -- and remembered feeling this same distress in years past -- by the sheer universality of bad faith in the characters' dealings with one another; a bad faith that seems to me to be most pronounced among those who are identified as blessed by God. Just to take a few of the most brazen, least sympathetic instances --

  • (This happens in an earlier chapter, but very much setting the tone for the stories to come) Isaac tells the Philistines, when he and Rebekah are staying with them, that Rebekah is his sister rather than his wife, apparently in the expectation that they will rape her but will not molest him. When this deception is exposed, Abimelech shows himself to be just and honorable, forbidding his subjects from troubling either Isaac or his wife. What is this doing in the Hebrew people's national mythology?
  • Jacob, at his mother Rebekah's urging, deceives Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for his brother Esau. (This scene strikes me as pretty comical -- why should the lord's blessing be such a limited resource? Is a blessing bestowed under false pretenses even theologically binding?)
  • Rebekah deceives Isaac into thinking she is concerned about the lack of non-Caananite brides for Jacob locally, so that Isaac will send Jacob away and he'll be safe from Esau's vengeance.
  • Laban deceives Jacob by sending in Leah in place of Rachel on their wedding night. (And again I am befuddled -- what is Rachel's take on this? Leah years later accuses Rachel of stealing her husband, but that does not seem to be consistent with the rest of the narrative.)
  • Jacob and Laban deceive one another many times over in the matters of what Jacob will be paid and how Laban's flocks will be managed.
Etc. -- it just goes on and on. These characters seem to have no uplifting or redeeming qualities aside from their association with the Creator. What the deceptions all seem to have in common is their being inspired by fear and/or greed; I have to wonder what is the function of a national mythology showing its protagonists as being motivated primarily by fear and greed. (And note -- sure lots of national mythologies have deceitful trickster gods in them; but my untutored impression is that when e.g. Anansi deceives someone, it is done in good humor and with a sort of Koanic effect. I don't see that kind of thing operating here.)

posted afternoon of March 27th, 2011: 1 response
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Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Non misi eos

All joking aside, the final word on the recent prophecies of tribulation comes (by way of the Slacktivist) from my ranine namesake, prophet Jeremiah:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

Update: mediæ, relieved that the world has not ended, is linking some articles on mediæval references to rapture and tribulation. First in the series is Francis Gumerlock's 2002 essay on The History of Brother Dolcino (pdf), an early instance of pretribulationism.

posted evening of May 21st, 2011: Respond
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