Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Esther: The Myth Behind the Legend

[Esther in the herem of the king, by E.M. Lillien]

Shortly Jews everywhere will be celebrating the farcical, ferocious festival of Purim.

Built entirely around that acute and absurdist meditation on antisemitism, the Book of Esther, we Jews have serious fun, ridiculing authority, laughing at a sacred text, hiding our identity behind costumes and masks, even as we reveal another side of ourselves through our riotous behavior and the very personas we choose to disguise ourselves.

Scholars have long been aware that the author of Esther did some pointed borrowing from mythology in telling his story. Esther and Mordecai, the "Persian" names of the Jewish heroine and hero, are seemingly derived from the Ancient Near Eastern deities, Ishtar and Marduk (alternatively, in the case of Mordecai, the Sages think it may be derived from mor dror, "dripping myrrh" [Megillah 10b], see below for how that factors in).

But there is more. Esther's Hebrew name is Hadassah, "myrtle," a tree used medicinally in the ancient world for its contraceptive effect, offering a possible parallel to Mordecai's name, which the Rabbis connected to myrrh, another popular contraceptive substance.

In fact, the Book of Esther reminds the mytholically minded of the myth of Myrrha, the woman miserably married off in an incestuous-rape relationship to her father the king, where she suffers drunken sexual assaults until the gods take pity on her, transubstantiating her into the myrrh tree. The tree's oil, which drips from the branches like tears, was also a prime contraceptive substance (Notice the six-month treatment of the virgins with myrrh prior to their night with the king in Esther 2:12).

Joseph Prouser points out parallels between the myth and the book of Esther:

1) Incest - What was Esther and Mordecai's relationship? The Rabbis suspected it was more than "Uncle" and "ward" (B.T. Megillah 13a-13b)

2) Transgressive marriage - in Esther, both she and the king are forbidden to each other by both Jewish law and Persian royal taboos.

3) A drunkard king (Esther 1:10)

4) Rape (Esther 7:8)

5) Death and salvation through a tree (Esther 7:9-10)[translated as "stake," or "gallow," in Hebrew execution device is consistently called an eitz, "tree," in the four places it is mentioned].[1]

All of which suggests that the story of Esther may have as much basis in myth, the deliberate Judaic reworking of pagan mythology, as it does in any historical event.

Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Prouser, Joseph, "As the Practice of Women," Conservative Judaism, Winter 2001.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blood Sacrifices, Jesus, and Jews

Got into another conversation about Jewish perspectives on Christian theological claims about Israelite religion. We quickly found ourselves on the "blood" theme, a beloved one in Christian discourse.

Now Jews take blood seriously - we even speak of circumcision, Brit Milah, as a "covenant of blood." But some forms of Christianity will insist God only forgives human sin only if we participate in a “blood sacrifice.” This sounds strange to Jews, yet Christians like to point to this verse to back up this claim.

It is the blood, as life, that effects expiation (Lev. 17:11, JPS)

Let’s start with the context of this verse (verses 10-14) which is that Israelites should not eat blood when they eat animal flesh. Spilling the blood and not eating the blood of the animal you consume is an expiation for killing a living thing for food or sacrifice (bird, deer, lamb, cow) that God has created. This practice is akin to the scene in the movie Avatar where the Nabi hunter addresses the prey she's just killed and acknowledges a life has been taken and offers a ritual confession as expiation. Read it yourself:

10 And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eats any blood, I will set My face against that person that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.

11 For the life of the meat is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood is in the living thing makes atonement.

12 Therefore I said unto the children of Israel: No person of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood.

13 And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that hunts down any beast or fowl that may be eaten, he shall pour out the blood its, and cover it with dust.

14 For as to the life of all meat, its blood is its life; therefore I said unto the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any meat; for the life of all meat is its blood; whosoever eats it shall be cut off.

But setting that context aside, Christian polemics go on to argue that the death of Jesus was the perfect "blood sacrifice" that God made on our behalf. Here’s what Jews bring to this discussion:

In the Hebrew Bible, God condemns human sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5).
Even in the Book of Leviticus itself, blood is not necessary for the forgiveness of sins, despite what Christians may tell Jews. Even while the sacrificial system existed, a contrite poor person need only bring an offering of flour (Lev. 5:11). This teaches us that it was not the blood that was critical, it was the contrite spirit shown when someone would acknowledge his or her sin in public through any sort of sacrifice.

Throughout the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible it is clear that blood is not necessary for God’s forgiveness of sins (Numbers 14:20; Lev. 5:11-13; Ezek. 18:21-28; Amos 5:21-22; Hosea 6:6, 14:2; Ps. 51:18-21; Jer. 7:22; Isa 1:11-18; Micah 6:6-8). If fact, it becomes quite clear from these verses that no sacrifices of any sort are required for God to forgive us, save the sacrifice of our own pride by admitting we’ve done wrong. Therefore…

Since the end of the sacrificial system, people’s prayers and sincere repentance are sufficient to be forgiven (see citations above).

Judaism teaches that God is demanding, but does not demand you drench your every sin in blood and death. Jewish theology assumes that God is aware He designed us to be morally vulnerable, so He knows we will make mistakes. Judaism teaches that God accommodates that reality by demanding that we repent when we do wrong. There is no blanket condemnation that requires blood and death to account for sin. When we do, God forgives us. Judaism teaches God wants better living from us, not death (SEE Ezekiel 18:23-28).

Friday, February 05, 2010

Armilius: The Jewish Lord Voldemort

[Emblem of the The Holy Roman Empire: a double-crowned two-headed eagle]

Since everybody is talking Harry Potter, I too will ride the wave. In that vein, Judaism has its own tradition of a “Dark Lord,” Armilius or Armilus ben Belial. He is the eschatological nemesis of the Messiah(s). The name itself may be derived from Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome (which, as in the Christian tradition, embodies ungodly forces – with a Jewish twist, as you will see below), while Belial is a demonic figure who enjoys greatest prominence in the traditions of the Dead Sea Scroll sect.

The tradition of Armilus is early medieval in origin, first surfacing textually during the 7-8th Century (Sefer Zerubbabel, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Isa. 11:4). While there are several variations, the core myth is that Armilius is a king who will attack Jerusalem in the wars of the last days (see Zechariah 9-14 for the essential elements of this apocalyptic version of the End of Days), killing the Messiah, son of Joseph. In turn the Messiah, son of David will counterattack and slay Armilus, either with the breath of his mouth (an allusion to Isa. 9) or by fire raining from heaven (Sefer Zerubbabel; BhM 1:56; 2:51; 3:141; 4:124-26).

Sefer Zerubbabel reports he will be the offspring of sexual congress between ha-Satan and a beautiful Roman statue (a riff on the Virgin Mary?). Thus Armilus is a semi-human monstrosity with green skin, gold hair, and two heads (Dan. 11:27) who thinks himself God (Dan. 11:36).

Amilus narratives can be read as a counter-narrative (or parody) of Christian eschatological beliefs. This conflation of Imperial Rome with Christendom may seem confusing to the casual reader, but in the Jewish mythic imagination, Pagan and Christian Rome are a continuous phenomenon, their imperial oppressions being virtually indistinguishable (from a Jewish perspective).

Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: