Monday, August 1, 2011

Stupid Religions of the World, Volume 2

               The Hebrews finally wrote their legends down around 500 BC, and produced a masterpiece of redaction.  It blends Canaanite traditions with Babylonian traditions (from the 6th century exile, ended by Cyrus the Great), and gives the people a national identity rooted in the oldest civilization they had ever heard of, Egypt.

               One of the most remarkable features of the beginning of Genesis is the way in which it relates the same ostensible events in two successive different (even contradictory) voices.  These are actually marked for the reader textually, as the work of a Being referred to as “God” (Elohim) and “Lord God” (YHWH Elohim).  Thus, in Genesis 1:27, “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He them; male and female created He them.”  And then slightly later (in Genesis 2:7), “The the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (and Lord God doesn’t get around to making woman until 2:22).

               And thus are the sacred stories of different groups of peoples officially harmonized.  A millennium or so later, the Christians will do the same sort of thing, albeit a bit more clumsily, with the four gospels.

               The point is to give the Hebrews (later, Israelites; even later, Jews) a history, an origin, a unity.  The first Universal Ancestor is Adam; the second is Noah.  The first Specific Ancestor – that is to say, the father not of everybody, but just of these people – is Abraham.  Abraham not only roots the Hebrews in the ancient (pre-Egyptian) peoples of the Near East, but his genealogy is a great text in and of itself. 

               If you trace the human race backward, obviously at Adam you run into a dead end.  Abraham is not so much a dead end as a cul-de-sac, with a father (but no named mother), and a marriage to his half-sib, Sarah.  Sarah says she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife, twice – and later on, Abraham explains that it isn’t really a lie, for “she is indeed my sister, but the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother” (20:12).   Gods and heroes are not uncommonly the products of incest, for that makes them the end of geneaology.  Zeus and Hera are siblings.

               Abraham’s family serves an important political purpose, the claim to the land.  There are a lot of peoples there.  Who deserves to be there?  Let’s examine the family of patriarch Abraham for the contenders. 

               First we have Ishmael, father of many of the local peoples.  He is himself the first-born, but illegitimate, son of Abraham, by his Egyptian concubine or handmaiden or slave or something, Hagar.  Not only is his mother not from around here, but let’s face it, Ishmael is a bastard.  Hardly a noble sort of parentage, entitling his descendants to much in the way of land rights. 

               Second, we have Moab and Ammon, the sons of Abraham’s nephew Lot, son of his brother Harran.  Unfortunately, Moab and Ammon are not really worthy either, as the products of the incestuous union of Lot’s unnamed daughters with their father (Genesis 19).  I mean, your half-sister is one thing, but your daughters?  Enough said.

               Third, we have Abraham’s younger son, the legitimate one, Isaac.  And just to reinforce the point, Isaac will marry his first-cousin-once-removed (Rebekah) and have twin sons, the younger of whom, like his father, will inherit everything.  That son is Jacob, who will change his name to Israel, and whose children – the children of Israel – are the ones presumably reading the book.

               Like any origin myth, it tells us Who we are, Where we come from, and Why we’re here. 

               And the answer is, We come from around these here parts, we are descended from the indigenous owners, and we are the legitimate occupants.  It’s Abraham’s, and his only honorable and legitimate heir was the father of Israel, and we are his children.

               Except that we also come from Egypt.  So we will explain that as well.  We start with Izzy’s son Joe (just to make sure that you’re still reading attentively!) and end with Moses.  Moses was given God’s law, which includes a special statute, that you should take a day off once in a while, particularly after working six days in a row. 

               But there is a theological and political dispute here as well, of course – something involving subaltern monotheists and hegemonic polytheists.  His very name, Moses, is weird.  Weird enough, apparently, that the Bible decided that it needs explaining.  Thus, Exodus 2:10 – Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and decides to call his name Moses, “Because I drew him out of the water,” which is what the Hebrew root (M-Sh-H) would suggest.

               There are reasons for regarding this as just another load of bulrushes, as Sigmund Freud pointed out in Moses and Monotheism (1939).  Not the least of which is that it presupposes that Pharaoh’s daughter would be a fluent speaker of Hebrew, and would give him a Hebrew name while nevertheless concealing his identity.  If we take the position that Pharaoh’s daughter more likely was Egyptian and spoke Egyptian, then we perhaps ought to seek a cognate for the name Mosheh/Moses in Egyptian.  And that is when we discover the fact that there is a cluster of New Kingdom pharaohs who names all contain that lexeme.

               In the 16th Dynasty there is a king called Dedu-mose.

               In the 17th Dynasty, there are two brothers, and successive kings, Ka-mose and Ah-mose. 

               And then in the 18th and 19th Dynasties, a succession of pharaohs named Thoth-mose (Thutmosis) and Ra-mose (Ramesses), and Amen-mose (Amenmesse).  The root seems to mean “child”, as is “child of Thoth” or “child of Ra” – or even, perhaps, “Hey, look at the child I just pulled out of the river” .   Somewhere smack in there in there also is the birth of Egyptian monotheism under Akhnaton.  Maybe that’s just a coincidence.

               The point of all this is that we know a heck of a lot more about Akhnaton than we do about Moses.  We don’t know when Moses lived, or even if he lived, but we do know that there exists a nice chunk of bricolage about him for later mythmakers to work with. 

               And yet, genomic researchers claim to have identified his Y chromosome. 

               (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)      Yes, this comes down to genomics as 21st-century snake oil.  It will sell bogus tribal affiliations to African Americans, bogus clan affiliations to Europeans, and bogus claims of descent from Moses.

               How do you get the Y-chromosome of someone whose ontological status is on a par with that of Achilles and Merlin?  You go after his brother, Aaron the high priest.  As the first article on this subject began, in the leading science journal in the world, “According to biblical accounts, the Jewish priesthood was established about 3,300 years ago with the appointment of the first Israelite high priest.”

Karl Skorecki, Sara Selig, Shraga Blazer, Robert Bradman, Neil Bradman, P. J. Warburton, Monica Ismajlowicz & Michael F. Hammer (1997) Y chromosomes of Jewish priests.  Nature, 385: 32.

First I have to confess that anyone with the chutzpah to start a paper in Nature, “According to biblical accounts” has got my attention and admiration.  Apparently the rules are that you can adopt the bible as scientifically reliable as long as the book you are referring to is not Genesis.  After all,  it isn’t as if Exodus doesn’t contain miracles too.  Remember manna from heaven? 

               Or better yet,  when the river turned to blood?  I just saw a TV show that explained that it might have been caused by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.  Those guys must have a different translation, because my bible doesn’t say anything about blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.  It doesn’t say, “And God turned the blue-green algae upon the Nile, and Lo, the Egyptians thought it had turned to blood.”  In fact, just where it could have said, And he did smite the Egyptians with cyanobacteria which these hapless morons thought was blood, it says rather “And he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood” (Exodus 7:20).

               It’s a miracle, get it?  Not a poorly-remembered history, as primitive 19th century scholarship often tried to render it.

               The point is, the geneticists find that Jews who self-identify as priests tend to have more similar Y-chromosome markers than Jews who say they are not priests (or Jews who don’t even know what the fuck you are talking about).  In itself, not very surprising, since Jews who claim to be priests tend to have similar surnames (Cohen, or a cognate – like Katz, a contraction for “true Cohen”).  And of course, people who have similar surnames tend to be more closely related to one another than they are to other people (a condition known as isonymy, with attendant implications for people who have only had surnames for maybe 300 years).

               And rather than understand the data within the facts of human biology, the authors put it into the context of biblical literalism.  And got it published in Nature. 

               But most importantly, you can find out if you’ve got The Lawgiver’s Y-chromosome for just $300.  And that’s where we begin to realize what genomics is really all about.  After all, Jesus didn’t know much about genomics (he was haploid to begin with), but he knew that if you have a conflict of interest between truth and profit, the truth will inevitably suffer (Matthew 6:24). 


  1. Your kinship chart needs some work. Actually, it needs a LOT of work.

    But perhaps you explained all that in Volume 1. Is Volume one available on the internet, or do I have to go to a Border's garage sale?

  2. Apparently no one got my LOT joke (or your LOT joke).

    Does anybody ever read these things besides me?