Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Epic Response to Kalpar's Epic Post Concerning the Epic of Gilgamesh. Epic.

Stupid title aside, and at the risk of the blog sounding like a mutual masturbation party, I really enjoyed reading Kalpar's post on the Epic of Gilgamesh. I found that he nailed a lot of the reasons why Ancient literature is so fascinating and why it does need to be studied: namely that in attempting to understand it and interpret it, we peel back layers of storytelling that inform us of the situation and the culture surrounding the authors.

The part that most caught my eye was near the end of that post, concerning the connection between the Torah and the Epic of Giggles. As some of you may know, while Kalpar and I were at university together, I spent my 4 years picking up a degree in theology; oddly enough I found a direct use for that degree right out of college and currently teach religion at one of the local high schools in the area, specializing in Scriptural studies. In teaching my students one of the things I try to focus on near the start of our studies of the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament is learning how to peel back the layers of ancient literature to get to the lessons and meaning of the story buried underneath. One point that Kalpar made (and the point that will be the premise of much of the rest of this post) was that Giggles' view of cities (that they are the center of civilization, etc.) is a notably different one from the view of urban life found in the Old Testament. A bit more context might help to explain why two civilizations who grew up very near to each other would have such radically different views of the way people should live. 

For those of you who have little to no knowledge of the Scriptures, let me go all middle-ages-monk up in here and illuminate things a little for you. Much of what we now call the Old Testament was not written as a historical record or by some ancient Hebrew journalist recording the events as the occurred exactly as they occurred. Much of the Old Testament was written down during a period of time in Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile. Long story short, Babylon was the major power in the Middle Eastern region during the 6th century BC. Babylon is essentially running a protection racket against Judah and when Judah's king decides not to pay, Babylon comes in, sacks Jerusalem, burns down the Temple of Solomon, and hauls off most of the population to exile in Babylon. The message was a common one in the ancient world, (see the Roman attack on Jerusalem about 600 years later) and which meant that the Babylonians (and by proxy their gods) were stronger than the Jews.

Again, it is at this point in their history, between 587 and 537 BC that the Jews are setting these stories down. However, to some extent they have an agenda in mind; their aim is to remind themselves and future generations that their God is the only god and from a theological standpoint, they lost to the Babylonians because they had not been upholding their end of the Covenant of Sinai.Therefore, in the minds of the Jews the emphasis needed to be placed on putting a total dependence back on God if they had any hope of getting themselves out of the Exile. As these stories were set down, they are filtered through this need to ensure that Judah recognizes its reliance on God and this is where we get the disdain for cities and urban, settled living.

Now, to a large extent the Sumerians and Babylonians who carried Giggles' story were right to say that cites bring about civilization. After all, for a society to grow, have an economy, research technologies and advance it requires settled living based on agriculture and some form of barter and trade. This provides enough additional resources to allow some members of society to do things which don't focus on the basic needs of survival and then the civilization can grow and advance. However, this creates two problems for the Jewish authors of the OT. First, where cities cause wealth and prosperity and advancement, they also cause crime, poverty, anonymity and a class structure and hierarchy which is very difficult to break. For the ancient Hebrews, a lot of these things were situations which risked violating, if not directly doing so, the Covenant with God. In slightly more modern language, it created a culture of sin. Much of the latter parts of the Old Testament, especially the prophetic books deal with the problems caused by that settled, urban living. The second problem it causes is a sense of self-reliance. It would seem odd to a modern western individual, that a sense of self reliance would be contrary to what any good God would want for his creation; however, bear in mind that the Jews see the Exile as a result of too much self-reliance and that the remedy for the Exile is total reliance on God to bail them out. We see time and time again in the Scripture that when the Jews are wandering around and are more nomadic, they do have to rely more-so on divine providence than if they were living in settled communities with a system of government/priests/etc. In these nomadic cases, things tend to go better for them. However, when they settle down and start causing the problems mentioned previously, then things start to deteriorate. 

I would like to qualify a few of the things I have said. One, no one is advocating a return to a nomadic lifestyle. Organized, urban living is here to stay, and for the benefits mentioned above, it should be. Secondly, no one is advocating a lack of self-reliance or self-support. That also, at least in modern western society, is necessary for individual growth and the growth of society at large. The point I am making is that the Jews have their own agenda in writing these stories down, and hopefully in the course of reading this you have some greater understanding as to why. And I would also like to point out, that to some extent the Jews of the 500s BC still have a point in 2013. There are problems (e.g. poverty, crime, set class structures, etc) with an urban-based society that continue to exist today and still stem from the same root causes. One of the challenges the Jews were failing to live up to was the challenge to address these problems and take care of people who were suffering under those burdens; I would argue that we are certainly still struggling with that as well. Furthermore, an over-emphasis on self-reliance and the self-made-man can blind one to the real sense that we are all co-dependent on people we can't even see or imagine. Some greater sensitivity to how tugging the web in one point affects all the other strands as well would not be amiss in our interconnected age. 

I want to conclude with an apology in both senses of the word. First, I apologize for the length of the post (understanding Scripture is something I am passionate about) and if at any point I may have seems disrespectful of anyone's belief structure. God knows I am not looking to start shit with a post on a blog on the internet. Second, I wish to apologize, in the sense of giving an account or explanation for, my reason for posting this. I do think that theistic or atheistic, the Scriptures we carry today still have a great deal of meaning and challenge presented to us. We have solved very few of the problems the Bible presents us with, and often we have multiplied the problems. If we know how to read that book and understand it and let it speak to us on its own terms and not necessarily on ours, then I think a lot of good can come from those pages. 

Defender of the Faith
- Carvan

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