Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dinah and Shechem (Nablus)

Powerful book
The Bible is a very powerful and dynamic book with strong impact on the entire human race. It is not a peaceful and objective philosophical, religious study of matters of faith but pure fire just seeking for fuel to put into flames. (However, you can find also in the Web many comments on Genesis 34 that are considerably calmer then my text.)

So powerful that it was forbidden in the might Soviet Union.

The Land of Israel is a promise to the people of God but it is also a great challenge and even judgement vomiting evil doers out of it as the history of the Jewish people so dramatically demonstrates.

Jerusalem, the city of the Great King, the heart of Zionism from which the name of the national movement of modern day Jews is derived  is an epitome of all this.

God of Israel we encounter in the Bible is not something to be taken lightly or as self-evident. He is not a little idol sitting in the pocket of the Rabbis of Israel obeying their will. Nor is He something we Christians can control or boss around. But we all, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, can pray for His grace.

The story of the sons of Jacob at Shechem is a good example of the dynamic and challenging nature of the holy Scriptures rather far from the quiet ponds of religious meditation and goodwill to all people we so often associate with true religion. The ancient massacre in Shechem is true religion in action and recorded in the sacred history - the deeds of the people of God of Israel, the only real God there is.

The events at Shechem told in Genesis take place long before the arrival of the Philistines from the Aegean region to the coast of Gaza. The story is set to the range of ancient Hebron called el-Khalil Friend (of God in Arabic. Archaeologists call this Middle and Late Bronze Age - third millennium before the birth of Jesus Christ. Despite of its great age the narrative in Genesis is curiously relevant today.

Shechem is located between Mt Garizzim and Mt Ebal that are holy to the Jews and to the Samaritans.  The city was renamed Neapolis by the Greeks and Arab ear transformed that to Nablus (cf. Tripoli(s), Tarabulus al-Gharb). Today it is among the largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank with a population of 126.000.

The story is not so much about conquering the promised land - these events came later after the Egyptian bondage - but rather about how to treat the people who happen to be living in the area promised by God to Abraham and his seed.

Rape and marriage proposal by a non-Israeli dignitary
Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her. His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
Gen 34:1-4 NIV

Then Shechem’s father Hamor went out to talk with Jacob. Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were shocked and furious, because Shechem had done an outrageous thing in Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.
Gen 34:6-7 NIV

As you may know, a case of an Israeli Arab man allegedly raping an Israeli Jewish woman was in the front page news in Israel and the world during 2010.

An Arab man convicted in Israel of rape because he pretended he was a Jew when he had consensual sex with a Jewish woman has called the verdict racist. Sabbar Kashur, 30, was found guilty of "rape by deception" by the Israeli court and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
 (BBC news)

Thus, the sentiments we see in the Biblical story are very relevant today, as well. Technology and politics and society has changed but we human beings are the same.

Peace proposal to the sojourners in the Land
But Hamor said to them, “My son Shechem has his heart set on your daughter. Please give her to him as his wife. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves.
You can settle among us; the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it.
Gen 34:8-10 NIV

Doesn't this sound so modern and relevant, two people living in a region and trying to figure out the relations between them. Definitely in Israeli settlements such tones and voices are highly relevant underpinnings today, almost five thousand years later.

I find this political, social, racial and religious relevance of the holy Bible truly amazing.

Justified deceit in the name of religious habits
Because their sister Dinah had been defiled, Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke to Shechem and his father Hamor.
Gen 34:13 NIV

Raping a woman has been and continues to be a way to get her in marriage. Social values and the shame the woman brings to the family - never mind that she was innocent and the man forced himself on her despite of her screams - are very powerful motives in today's Near East and especially in the Arab Islamic culture.

In this situation the Biblical narrative simply tells that because of the evil deed the sons of Jacob behaved deceitfully. There is neither condemnation nor approval of such behaviour in the name of religion towards a trusting man. This is very human but also important to keep in mind as we are talking here about a sacred book at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. These stories do serve also as models of behaviour and guidance in similar situations.

It may be correct to say that such deceitful behaviour is considered "wise" by the people living in the Near East today - a smart way to act in a difficult and threatening situation. After all, Hamor is the son of the powerful ruler of the Shechem area. There must be thousand and one stories that illuminate similar wisdom in hard places in Oriental traditions and literature. Westerners with their ethics find this often rather baffling - a deceit is a deceit, is it not?

In this way, the deceitful snake in the Garden of Eden was most cunning (arum) among God's creatures and fooled even Eve.

והנחשׁ היה ערום מכל חית השׂדה
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’? ”
Gen 3:1 NIV

Peace agreement depending on circumcision 

Adult circumcision in ancient Egypt
image Catholica

They said to them, “We can’t do such a thing; we can’t give our sister to a man who is not circumcised. That would be a disgrace to us. We will enter into an agreement with you on one condition only: that you become like us by circumcising all your males.

Then we will give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves.
We’ll settle among you and become one people with you.
But if you will not agree to be circumcised, we’ll take our sister and go.”
Gen 34:14-17 NIV

Circumcision is here a significant sign of covenant for the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Hivvites are here invited to join the Abrahamic covenant in a very simple but powerful way. "We will settle among you and become one people with you" on this fundamentally religious foundation (to use modern terminology).

In today's Near East the meaning of circumcision is less pronounced as it is a tradition also among the Moslem population. The tradition may be more related to health and other issues and has no religious significance for the Muslim.

Agreement accepted - but with some rather material motives!
So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the gate of their city to speak to the men of their city.  “These men are friendly toward us,” they said. “Let them live in our land and trade in it; the land has plenty of room for them.

We can marry their daughters and they can marry ours. But the men will agree to live with us as one people only on the condition that our males be circumcised, as they themselves are. Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours?
So let us agree to their terms, and they will settle among us. ”
Gen 34:21-23 NIV

Material gain when people of Jacob living their nomadic lifestyle settle among the city dwellers, intermarry and bring their livestock near.

The massacre of Shechem
Three days later, while all of them were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.

The sons of Jacob came upon the dead bodies and looted the city where their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs in the city and out in the fields. They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses.
Gen 34:25-29 NIV

Here "Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi" indicates the tribes that massacred the male citizens of Shechem and the rest of the tribes participated in the looting.

In my opinion the storyteller underlines that the killing and looting was related to the defiling of Dinah and that this makes it somehow acceptable. This notion is very true to modern Near Eastern cultures, as well. Anything goes between families and even tribes when a woman has been raped.

Note that this story has no ethnic cleansing a la Kosovo and is not related to the conquest of the Promised Land that took place hundreds of years later. It belongs to the Patriarchal era and reflects the values and manners current in the Bronze Age Near East.

Reaction of Jacob the Patriarch of the Tribes of Israel
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me obnoxious to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.”
But they replied, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute? ”
Gen 34:30-31 NIV

Patriarch Jacob - who himself was cunning and cheated his old father Isaac to get the blessing instead of Esau - takes the massacre of Shechem seriously but the concern is not "crimes against humanity" type ethics or the (later) Ten Commandments "thou shall not murder (rzh)".

Rather, father Jacob is concerned with the security of his own tribe sojourning among the now more hostile local inhabitants, Canaanites and Perizzites.

However, on his death bed father Jacob gave the two violent brothers a rather questionable "blessing"

Simeon and Levi are brothers—
    their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
    let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
    and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
    and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
    and disperse them in Israel.

Gen 49:5-7 NIV

Well, the anti-Semites around the world can certainly use this very rough story to label the children of Abraham with all kinds of bad attributes and racial stamps.

But look who is talking.

I mean, what was so horrible in the (faked) Protocols of Zion - didn't the Nazis want exactly the same thing, to rule the world?

Or the massacre of the citizens and enslaving of the women and children of Shechem? How many stories we have in Islamic history even without looking at the conquest of Spain and the looting of France before Charlemagne stopped the horrible show?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

No pity! Off with her hand

Replica of a severed hand

“If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity."
Deut 25:11-12 NASB

Cut off her hand!

Show no pity!

Actualisation of Judges
Some of the many Israeli settlers are looking for the fullness of Biblical life in the Promised Land under the direction of the rabbis. In addition to peaceful activities for some this includes also the harassing of modern day Philistines in the style of Samson and for some even the destruction of Amalek according to the commandments in the Torah of the Most High as described in a recent book on the interpretation of Mosaic Laws.

Direct living by the Book represented in the controversial 2009 rabbinical text Torat Hamelech is adopting the ethics from the Iron Age without later modifications. It is a novelty in Judaism - a branch in the religion that has become possible with the birth of modern Israel and the reconquista of the Biblical heart-lands according to the commandment of God. Until that happened the books of Joshua and Judges were sacred history and theory during the long centuries in Diaspora with more symbolic than practical meaning. But now, suddenly, the Bible becomes actual also in its aspect of the Conquest of the Promised Land, human rights, activities of the settlers and army.

À la Samson burning of the "Philistine" wheat fields or cutting of ancient olive trees to uproot the hated Palestinians from the Promised Land is probably a matter of discussion among Israeli policy makers and army generals. However, the general atmosphere is lenient and understanding towards the perpetrators of Biblical deeds as the conquest of the entire Promised Land and Messianic hopes are in the rise. May the King of Israel arrive soon to the glorious rebuilt Jerusalem!

Interpretation of Mosaic law
Judaism is one of the most ancient of religions still alive today and there is a very long history of rabbinical interpretation of Mosaic laws. The teachings of the fathers were well known in Jesus time some 2000 years ago and there are several discussions on these interpretations in the New Testament. Oral law and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud similarly contain extensive discussions on the law in the Torah.

Fight not only against non-Jews or men
One would be wise not to forget that the fullness of living directly according to the Torah and skipping the softening interpretations of fathers also includes divine commands concerning the people of Israel deviating from the commandments. These Jews are no less enemies of the Chosen People as the Philistines and Amalek and must be dealt with harshly.

There is not only the genocidal "destroy Amalek" commandment in the Laws of Moses but also laws on the children of Israel that make the Shari'a laws of Islam look lenient. Unfortunately, many of these laws are aimed specifically against the women of Israel. We are afraid that some day - perhaps soon - also obedience to God's commands in this respect will again become a reality.

Rabbinical teaching is definitely called so that not every man takes directions from the Torah. Such advise is forthcoming in the case of killing of non-Jews who are trying to stop the fulfilling of God's commands. In such quarters of Torah obedient communities we may some day find a Jewish woman without her left or right hand.

Trial by order
Rabbinical softening and interpretation of the harsh Iron Age laws in the holy Bible is going on in many levels. People are not burned alive as commanded by God and stoning of adulterous women has ended among the people of Israel. The Sabbath laws and Kashrut laws are excellent examples of the rabbinical innovative ingenuity in translating Iron Age rulings to the atomic age so that God's will is obeyed.

To further emphasize the distance in time let us similarly strip the softening of criminal law by modern times and ethics. For example, only a few hundred years ago Europeans abandoned trial by order. It has been said that this was actually quite effective tool in delivering justice as the innocent was ready to take the dangerous test while the guilty one preferred to confess rather then to get painfully bodily harmed.

Why do the Europeans not reintroduce the ancient practice with roots in prehistoric societies and the laws of Hammurabi and Ur Nammu that predate Mosaic Laws by almost a millennium? Let the suspect prove his or her innocence by picking a piece of iron from boiling water by bare hand. If the person is not guilty the heat of the water will not harm the skin of the hand. Like the trial by order also the extracting of confession by torture was outlawed just a few hundred years ago. (Using reasonable force to extract a confession is still allowed in some countries today and illegal use of torture is widespread.)

Off with her hand
The law to cut off the hand of a woman trying to protect her husband in a fight is written in Deuteronomy which has over 2500 years old content. This particular fragment of civil law is of great historical interest as it dramatically sheds light on the sensitivity in ancient Israel towards sexual purity and the separation of men and women.

Would the God of Israel want literal adherence to this law today?

Amputation of the woman's hand could be done in a hospital under anaesthesia - unless, of course, this would be considered "pity" that is explicitly forbidden in this case.

Most religious Jews do accept the mountain of rulings by fathers, traditions, rabbinical modifications, clarifications and extensions and limitations of Mosaic law that is required by the changes of times. But there are people who prefer the pure word of the Bible as it is ... especially in situations where it suits their understanding of God's will towards them.

Burning wheat fields - Samson redivivus

Near Orif
Haaretz reported 28 May 2012

An Israeli settler shot and wounded a Palestinian man on Saturday in a clash that began when a group of settlers set fire to fields belonging to a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, officials said.

Residents said about 25 settlers, some of them carrying guns, set fire to wheat fields in the village of Orif, which is near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

Some villagers came out to extinguish the fire and clashed with the settlers, said Nablus official Kassan Daglas. Israeli soldiers then came to the scene and broke up the clashes.

The Palestinian was shot in the stomach, medical officials said, and taken to the hospital. Haaretz

Near Etam
The inspiration for the people of Ofir to set Palestinian farmer's fields into fire most likely comes from the Holy Bible. The book of Judges admiringly tells about the adventures of the mighty long-haired hero Samson teasing the sworn enemies of the tribes of Israel, the Philistines.

But it came to pass within a while after, in the time of wheat harvest, that Samson visited his wife with a kid; and he said, “I will go in to my wife into the chamber.” But her father would not suffer him to go in.

And her father said, “I verily thought that thou hadst utterly hated her. Therefore I gave her to thy companion. Is not her younger sister fairer than she? Take her, I pray thee, instead of her.”

And Samson said concerning them, “Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure.”

And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails.

And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burned up both the shocks and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives.

Then the Philistines said, “Who hath done this?” And they answered, “Samson, the son-in-law of the Timnite, because he had taken his wife and given her to his companion.” And the Philistines came up and burned her and her father with fire.

And Samson said unto them, “Though ye have done this, yet will I be avenged of you, and after that I will cease”;

and he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter. And he went down and dwelt in the top of the rock of Etam.
Judges 15:1-8 KJ21

Near Ekron
Professor Trude Dothan has directed intensive archaeological excavations at Tel Miqne, the Biblical Ekron. Much have been learned from these and other excavations about the culture of the Philistines (Egyptian peleset) living from Late Bronze Age on at the Philistine coast. Even the name Goliath has recently been found inscribed in a potsherd. Modern scholars think that the Philistines arrived from the direction of the Aegean Sea during the tumultuous last centuries of the 2nd millennium before Christ.

Since the Philistines were not Arabs, who are also mentioned in the Bible as dwellers in the desert, why are the people of Palestine so called?

The decisive person was the famous Greek historian and geographer Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) who came during his travels also to the great harbour of Gaza and asked "what is this country called". He was told that it is the country of the Philistines. From this came the Greco-Roman name Palaestina for the entire area which survives in the Ottoman name of the pashalik of Filastin and the British Mandate period name Palestine separate from Eastern Palestine or Transjordan. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem

To the Hebrews
Jews and Christians share faith in Messiah even they understand Him differently. This fundamental unity is finely expressed in the first sentences of the Letter to the Hebrews showing the glory of the Messiah before the two faiths separated into different and often hostile religions.

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed Heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds, who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
Hebrews 1:1-5 KJ21

The mentioning of Jewish people often brings mind to human suffering and it is really an essential element of the experience of the People of God among the nations and with the God of Israel.

In Jerusalem there is an island of peace that reminds that also Christians suffer and that Messiah does not guarantee happy easy life without sickness, persecution, difficulties and even death. On the contrary, Christian believers have many stories that resemble those of Jewish believers.

One monument to the hidden blessing in suffering is the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, whose founders, Horatio and Anna Spafford, tragically lost four children to the ice cold waves of the North Atlantic in the wreck of the Ville Du Havre on 23 November 1873.

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem

A view from the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem
Image wikimedia
The building was originally owned by Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini, who lived there with his harem of four wives. Soon after his fourth marriage, al-Husseini died. In 1895, the building was sold to a group of messianic Christians who arrived in Jerusalem in 1881 and set up a commune. Their leader was Horatio Spafford, a lawyer from Chicago and his wife, Anna. In 1896, the Americans were joined by two groups of Swedish settlers. This Christian utopian society became known as the American Colony.

In 1902, a Jaffa hotelier named Ustinov (grandfather of the British actor Peter Ustinov) was looking for a place to put up guests visiting Jerusalem and asked the Spaffords to accommodate them. Soon after, the building was turned into a hotel.

Today the American Colony Hotel calls itself an oasis of neutrality in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is still owned by descendants of the Spaffords. A grandson, Horatio Vester, was the manager until he retired in 1980.  His wife, Valentine, lived in the hotel until her death in June 2008. Since 1980, the hotel has been run by a Swiss company. The effendi's original bedroom is called "Room One."

The American Colony Hotel home page is here.

The tragedy
Horatio Spafford (1828-1888)
Image wikimedia
Two years later, in 1873, Spafford decided his family should take a holiday somewhere in Europe, and chose England knowing that his friend D. L. Moody would be preaching there in the fall. He was delayed because of business, so he sent his family ahead: his wife and their four children, daughters eleven year old Anna “Annie”, nine year old Margaret Lee, five year old Elizabeth “Bessie”, and two year old Tanetta.

On November 22, 1873, while crossing the Atlantic on the steamship Ville du Havre, their ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Spafford's daughters. Anna Spafford survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to Spafford beginning "Saved alone." Spafford then sailed to England, going over the location of his daughters' deaths. According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote "It Is Well with My Soul" on this journey.

Faith in Messiah
We might think that by imposing much suffering to His people generates deep mistrust and hatred of God among the Chosen People still patiently waiting for the King to come. But the contrary seems to be true.

Similarly, Messiah allows suffering to His believers who confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, and this suffering strangely makes them to believe more and to love God more than before.

This is one of the mysteries of the shared Jewish and Christian experience with God.

The hymn written on board of the Ville du Havre is a living witness of the gentle touch of Messiah in the midst of the icy waves and tragic tribulations of life. Note that the fourth verse was added by his daughter who did not perish with her siblings.

All is well with my soul 
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

And Lord haste the day, when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Horatio Spafford 1873