Sunday, October 31, 2010

I spit on Robert Graves: a review of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess


Jewish date:  23 Marḥeshwan 5771 (Parashath Toledhoth).

Today’s holidays:  Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), St. Bob Crane (Night of a Thousand Screams) (Church of the SubGenius), Reformation Day (Christianity), Hallowmass/Festival of Liberty (Ritual of the Elements) (Thelema), Samhain (Neopaganism).

Worthy causes of the day:  “Call on ABC News to drop Andrew Breitbart”, “Tell ABC News: Don't give Andrew Breitbart a platform to spread his lies.”, “Jewish Rights on the Temple Mount - Petition Spot”, “Unite Deserving Dads and Their Children! - The Petition Site”, “Stop Iceland's Cruel Whale Slaughter - Take Action Today @ The Rainforest Site”, “Stop the Yellowstone Bison Slaughter - Take Action Today @ The Animal Rescue Site”, and “Take Action: The Senate Must Act!”.

I would like to apologize for having not posted anything for about three weeks.  This is has been due to two factors:  1) I have had a respiratory infection, which is not conducive to getting much of anything done.  2) I have been working on a review of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which is a decidedly nontrivial book.  Having reached a stage where the review is more or less presentable, I present it without further adieu:

The White GoddessImage via Wikipedia
I spit on Robert Graves:  a review of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess

I have been told that I tend to give negative reviews.  Fair enough.  This is Divine Misconceptions, the blog which concentrates on religious fallacies and misinformation.  Thus I often read or watch material containing religious fallacies and misinformation—material I know full well has something wrong with it—and report on it, thus leading to negative reviews.  Despite the overtly negative title of this review, I will nevertheless endeavor to start by telling what is right with Robert Graves and his The White Goddess.

Graves clearly knows a lot.  He references religious and legendary texts from places stretching all the way from Ireland to India and from religions as different as Judaism and Hinduism.  He knows details of the lives and properties of plants which one would only expect botanists to know these days.  He knows multiple languages.  He knows something of geography and history.  And since he is a poet, he really knows his poetry.  And not only does he know a lot, he is brilliant enough to tie all this information together in a single framework.

If Graves is brilliant, why does he merit the negative title of this review?  His knowledge and his brain-power are not in question.  Rather it is what he does with them.  His methodology, detailed in chapter XIX, is wholly irrational.  He works for the most part through insight (“analepsis”), not by consciously thinking things through.  Now, one might object that the mark of rationality is not how one gets one’s ideas.  What really matters is whether one can back up one’s claims with solid facts.  And this is where Graves goes horribly wrong:  he lacks self-criticism and intellectual honesty.  Rather that using facts as a test of his framework and to guide its revision, he bends the facts to fit his framework.

For example:  Graves places a lot of emphasis on Welsh poetry.  In chapter II he analyses “Cad Goddeu” (“The Battle of the Trees”).  After presenting the original poem (in translation), he claims that it is actually composed of multiple poems and proceeds to reconstruct what he believes is the original “The Battle of the Trees”.  He does not simply carve up the poem into sections which may have been plausibly stitched together; he chooses various lines of the poem which he believes poetically make sense together, not necessarily even lines next to each other—and which he can use to support his ideas in further analysis.  There is a technical term for this, one which should be familiar to almost everyone:  cheating.  Rather than deal with his source material as it is, Graves cheats his way from cover to cover in order support his favored framework with little in the way of self-criticism.

Graves’s framework is unusual, to say the least.  He believes that in the distant past, at least in Europe, human society was matriarchal.  Every year, a queen would take a new husband, a sacred king who was ritually lamed.  This king would rule for a year, he would be sacrificially killed, and a new king would replace him.  In parallel with this form of government goes a religious story of a (male) god and a (female) goddess.  The god is in love with the goddess, and he fights for her with another god who is his other self.  The god dies, and he is reborn as the son of the goddess.  Graves alleges that in time the sacred kings were able to extend their reign and even usurp their wives by offering substitute victims, eventually leading to patriarchy.  In parallel with changes in government go changes in religious stories.  These ideas reportedly originated with the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in his The Golden Bough (the next step back planned in my reading from The Hebrew Goddess)—and to be sure, they seem to be completely forgotten by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists these days.  (E.g., they do not appear either explicitly or implicitly in Biblical Archaeology Review, even to disparage or refute them.)

Graves, being a poet and not an anthropologist, delves into poetry, religious stories, and legends and uses them as the basis for creating his own version of Frazer’s ideas.  Graves sees the texts he works on—and even the alphabets they are written in—as codes.  He sees his source material as coded history and dealing with the “poetic theme” of the story of the god and the goddess.  He uncovers purported traces of a matriarchal past and the continued, hidden survival of goddess-centered religion until a few centuries ago.  And he believes the old Welsh poets not only knew these secrets, but they hid them in their work such that only other poets could find them.  

I know practically nothing about Welsh poetry, but I do know quite a lot about Judaism.  In his efforts to support his ideas Graves bends the facts and dissembles to a degree that any student of Judaism should recognize that he is making clearly false claims.  A list of 74 items, some containing multiple, related errors, it is included below as an appendix.  The errors listed therein range from implausible syncretism to reading texts implausibly to demonstrating a poor knowledge of Hebrew—and this list is not exhaustive.  A truly exhaustive list would exhaust the patience of this and probably any other reviewer, but the material presented in this list should be more than enough to demonstrate Graves’s scholarly incompetence.  He cannot be bothered to get his facts straight, he rewrites material to suit his pet hypothesis, and he makes unrealistic assumptions.  Rather than exegesis, the process of teasing information out of a text, he performs eisegesis:  reading what he wants into texts, whether or not it is actually there.  This does not automatically mean that the hypothesis of an ancient matriarchy is necessarily wrong (or right); it means that Graves is the wrong person to make a case for it.

Graves’s irrationality is also reflected in his ideas of what religion is supposed to be.  Graves asks, “Then is Christianity a suitable religion for the poet?  And if not, is there any alternative?” (p. 422).  Someone thinking sensibly and traditionally about religion would note that whether one is a poet is irrelevant, as a religion which is true for one person is true for another.  Furthermore, it is only sensible to believe what is actually true.  Thus the question should be whether Christianity is true or not.  Graves, however, treats the question in terms of whether or not Christianity fits his ideals for being a poet.  Truth, as in what is actually correct about the reality we inhabit, does not fit into his reasoning at all.  Graves treats all religion as codes and symbols, so presumably his Goddess and the story he weaves around Her should also be treated in terms of codes and symbols.  Indeed, Graves never treats the Goddess, Whom he wants people to worship, as a real entity—and this is a problem.  In a traditional religion deities are considered real entities Who make real demands and Who are ignored or rejected at one’s peril.  Graves’s Goddess is only a symbol, an ideal, and to reject Her is easy because ideals are only opinions, which by definition one may accept or reject at will.  One might argue that a society based on Graves’s matriarchal ideals might be a better society, but if one starts with a different set of assumptions of how a society should be, Graves’s ideas may not seem so great.

Graves’s ideals themselves are arguably dangerous for society.  His Goddess story is a reflection of that early phase of love when it is most exciting.  Most of us know the thrill of such love, being irresistibly attracted to someone, almost as if one were addicted to them.  But this kind of love is also dangerous; those feeling it are more easily manipulated, biased or blinded by their own emotions.  The God in love with the Goddess is manipulated by Her so He ends up lamed.  He also fights for Her, itself an activity fraught with the danger of injury or death.  Furthermore, this phase of love is liable to end painfully.  Graves’s God is killed by the Goddess at the end of His year.  Though this is (thankfully) not the usual ending for even bad relationships in the real world, many of us also have the experience of heartbreak, an emotional nightmare which can be almost physically painful.  And notice that the Goddess never settles down with a God, but rather repeats the same cycle every single year.  A more mature, longer-lasting form of love is not part of Graves’s system.  Taken to its logical conclusion, the Gravesian ideal is pathological serial monogamy:  nothing long-term, no stability, emotions running high all the time, always having to be ready to move in with someone or move out, and women treating men abusively.  Try to imagine raising children under such conditions.  This may work for a masochistic adrenaline addict who hates children, but the rest of us may have trouble seeing the appeal of such a system.

Theological rating:  F.

Postscript:  Those who know well ancient Greek religion, Roman religion, Welsh poetry, or any other subject dealt with by Graves, please feel to comment on how good or bad a job he does with the subject.

Acknowledgement:  My brother Barry invented the title I Spit on Robert Graves for a fictional movie, and I would like to thank him for letting me use it.

Appendix:  Errors made concerning the Hebrew Bible and Judaism in The White Goddess:
  1. Graves persistently uses “Jehovah” to refer to the God of Israel (p. 59).  Anyone working within Jewish tradition never does, as this is an erroneous vocalization of the Tetragrammaton (the name “YHWH”).  Graves thinks Jews used his own ideas of a Secret Name as the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, even though his ideas are in violation of Hebrew pointing rules (pp. 286-287).  Graves also implausibly misunderstands the masorah note “qere’ ’Adhonay” as a title meaning “Lord Q’re” (p. 339).
  2. Graves claims the crow is sacred to YHWH, while in reality the Hebrew Bible mentions no birds sacred to YHWH at all (p. 118).
  3. Graves implausibly identifies YHWH with Cronos/Saturn, Bran, Ninib, Dionysus Sabazius, Dionysis Liber, Adonis, Elath-Iahu, Bel, Set, Apollo, Zeus-Jupiter, and Ormazd (pp. 118, 264, 335, 336, 337, 414, 437, 472).  Graves also gives YHWH the title “Lord of the Sabbath” (p. 335), a title never applied to Him in the Hebrew Bible, but applied to Jesus unambiguously in the New Testament (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 6:5).
  4. Graves thinks YHWH is a thunder-god and his tree the oak (p. 176).  This might be going too far with Psalms 68:5, which poetically depicts YHWH as riding on the clouds.  Graves also claims YHWH originally lives “in a mountain to the far north” (p. 440), has a birthday (p. 469), and is male (p. 475).
  5. Graves thinks that whales are “the first living thing created by Jehovah” (p. 293).  Taking the first creation story literally, the correct answer is actually grass and trees (Genesis 1:9), and if one wants to be picky over whether plants count as “living things”, the first animals created are all aquatic and flying animals (Genesis 1:21).
  6. Graves thinks that ’Adham (Adam) and Ḥawwah (Eve) eat from “the forbidden tree of intelligence” (p. 253).  Genesis 2:17 mentions the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as forbidden.  No tree of intelligence is mentioned at all.  Graves also thinks that that the fruit was given to ’Adham and Ḥawwah by the snake (p. 467), while in the original text they get the fruit without the snake’s help.
  7. Graves rewrites the second creation story of Genesis to fit his framework.  In this version, YHWH is totally absent, and Ḥawwah is the goddess who throws ’Adham out of the garden to till the soil.  ’Adham is recast as a sacred king and the Snake as his rival, while the creation of Ḥawwah from a rib is chalked up as a later addition (p. 257).
  8. Graves refers to ’Adham as “the red man”, even though his color is left unidentified in the Hebrew Bible.  Graves notes in a bungled way that ’adham (“human”) and ’adhom (“red”) have the same root and assumes the two must go together.  He also thinks that ’Adham is the same as ’Edhom (Edom)/‘Esaw (Esau), as ’Edhom is also of the same root and that Yosef started off as part of ’Edhom but switched allegiances (p. 162).
  9. Graves claims that “according to Genesis, III, 24, Cherubs were stationed at the East Gate of Eden.  ּThey were armed with ‘the whirling sword of Jehovah’—the one with which (according to Isaiah, XXVII) he killed the Dragon… to prevent anyone from entering” (pp. 415-416).  The original text of the Hebrew Bible does not mention ‘Edhen (Eden) having a gate, nor is the spinning sword mentioned to be that of YHWH, nor is Liwyathan (Leviathan) a dragon, and it is not clear that either sword is anything but metaphorical or allegorical or identified with any other sword.
  10. Graves mentions a “Biblical conception of the necessary supremacy of man over woman” (p. 406), which may be taking the curse in Genesis 3:16 as if it were an obligation.
  11. Graves refers to the fully human, never-worshipped Tuval Qayin (Tubal Cain) (Genesis 4:22) as “the Kenite Goat-god” (p. 401).
  12. Graves identifies Noaḥ (Noah) with Gilgamesh (p. 467).  If one is really going to identify someone from the Hebrew Bible with someone from Babylonian religious stories, one should at least try to make the identification plausible.  More plausible is Utapishtim, who builds a boat on divine command and survives a flood in it.
  13. Graves thinks that ’Avraham (Abraham) is a tribe from Armenia (p. 161).  (Hint:  Mesopotamia is to the south of Armenia.  Think modern-day Iraq.)
  14. Graves believes that Sarah is a laughing Aphrodite-like sea goddess(!) worshipped by the tribes of ’Avraham and Yiṣḥaq (Isaac) (pp. 160-161, 277).  Sarah being taken by Pharaoh is alleged to refer to “the sacred marriage by which the ancestors of the Hebrews joined the great confederacy of the Peoples of the Sea, whose strongest base was Pharos”, and Graves also believes that Jews have lived in Lower Egypt ever since (p. 277).
  15. Graves claims that Malkiṣedheq (Melkizedek) has neither father nor mother (p. 162) with no apparent reason, even an irrational one, for doing so.  Graves also thinks that Malkiṣedheq claims to rule “by the will of the God” (p. 373).  Neither allegation is supported by the original text.
  16. Graves misinterprets the Cave of Makhpelah (Machpelah) as an oracular cave and Be’er Laḥay Ro‘i (Beer-Lahai-Roi) as an oracular shrine.  He does not quite understand that Judaism has no notion of oracular places, and his translation of the latter’s name as “the Well of the Antelope’s Jawbone” is forced, especially in “antelope” part.  He misinterprets the mourning party of Ya’aqov (Jacob) passing through ’Avel Miṣrayim (Abel-Mizraim) Genesis 50:11 for actually burying him there, thus inventing a spurious contradiction.  Graves somehow infers from this a shift in the location of Sarah’s shrine (as if she actually had one).  It is through much of this sort of bending and folding of the texts into ridiculous shapes that Graves speculates that the purchase of the Cave of Makhpelah refers to “a seizure of the oracular shrine of Hebron by Saul’s Benjaminites from the Calebites” (p. 160-162).
  17. Graves imagines that the Edomites were originally priests and kings to the Jews and warps the theft of ‘Esaw’s blessing by Ya‘aqov (Jacob) into an initiation ceremony in which Rivqah (Rebecca) is a priestess, Yiṣḥaq gives Ya‘aqov a secret formula and a cooked baby goat, and “mock-slaughter and resurrection of the initiate” (pp. 219).  To support this imagined usurpation Graves reads into Hosea 12:4 Ya‘aqov “draining” his brother ‘Esaw of his “royal virtue”.  Graves also thinks that Ya‘aqov’s real name is “Jah-aceb, ‘the heel-god’” (pp. 325, 327), which is implausible.  (Hint:  Yahh is a personal name of the God of Israel, not a generic term for “god”; and Graves has the grammar backwards.)
  18. Graves claims “In Genesis, XXXII Jacob wrestles all night with an angel at Peniel and is lamed by him so that the sinew in the hollow of his thigh is shrunken” (p. 324).  Actually, in the original story, while Ya‘aqov is injured, what happens to the sinew in the hollow of his thigh is not mentioned.  Graves claims based on this a prohibition “on eating the flesh around the thigh-bone” (p. 334), when the text only supports a prohibition on eating the sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:33).  Graves baselessly claims that Raḥel (Rachel) is a “Dove-priestess” so that Ya’aqov, recast as a sacred king, can be claimed to have experienced symbolic death and rebirth with the new name “Ish-Rachel” (man/husband of Raḥel); this formation is decent Hebrew, but an implausible etymology for the name Yisra’el (Israel) (pp. 161, 325).
  19. Pereṣ (Perez) and Zaraḥ (Zarah) are misidentified by Graves as Edomite when they are actually sons of Yehudhah.  Qayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel) are misidentified as being twins.  All four are misidentified as being Hercules, despite the lack of any real resemblance (p. 127).
  20. Graves believes that there are tribes named “Jacob, Joseph, Jerah, Joshua, and Jachin” mentioned in Genesis, while there are no tribes mentioned therein.  Only Yosef (Joseph) eventually actually becomes the name of a tribe (p. 150).
  21. Graves implausibly misinterprets Moriyyah (Moriah) as meaning “the god of the sea” (p. 118).  (Hint:  mor does not mean “sea”; Yahh is a personal name of the God of Israel, not a generic term for “god”; and Graves has the grammar backwards.)
  22. Graves claims that YHWH speaks to Mosheh from an acacia (p. 266).  Exodus 3:4 fails to identify the species of bush, completely invalidating any reasoning one might make based on the assumption than it is an acacia.
  23. Graves misinterprets Miryam (Miriam) as equivalent to “the Holy Spirit”, a purely Christian and thus relatively late idea, thus not what could possibly have been intended (p. 161).
  24. Graves, while correctly noting that the name of the festival of Pesaḥ (Passover) comes from the root P-S-Ḥ, mistranslates the root as “to dance with a limp”, completely forgetting the correct “to pass over” (p. 327).
  25. Graves, using the common inaccurate terminology “The Ten Commandments”, makes the original error of thinking there are only eight items.  “Thou shalt worship me alone” is a paraphrase suggesting trying to emphasize monolatry rather monotheism.  “Thou shalt kill” is a mistranslation which is untenable because there are times killing is permissible or even obligatory.  “Thou shalt not bewitch” totally bungles the prohibition on coveting by turning it inside-out.  Graves deletes the prohibition on idolatry (p. 471).  This is consistent with his inability accept that there were Jews in the First Temple Period or before opposed to idolatry, despite all the obvious textual evidence to the contrary.  He uses his baseless assumption to illogically infer that the term Neḥushtan in 2 Kings 18:4 must really be a parody of a Greek term, even though it makes perfect sense in Hebrew (it means “coppery one” and refers to a copper snake) and there is no reason to believe that the Jews at that time knew any Greek (pp. 138-139).
  26. Graves assumes the quail incidents in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 must be one and the same, thus leading to an artificial contradiction in outcomes.  The interpretation of the place name Qivroth hatTa’awah (Kibroth-Hattaavah) as “the grave of lust” is untenable; the correct translation is “the graves of desire”, of which it should be noted that not all desires are sexual (p. 328).
  27. Graves is somehow under the impression that the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple faced west-southwest towards Heliopolis (the lamps actually ran north to south) and that Mosheh was a priest of the Sun-god (which was never reported in the Hebrew Bible) (p. 268).
  28. Graves claims the High Priest’s breastplate was made by “Egyptian craftsmen”, when was actually made by Beṣal’el and company (Exodus 39:10).  Graves’s claim that the king of Tyre also wore a breastplate in honor of Hercules Melkart is an exaggeration of Ezekiel 28:13 way beyond anything actually written in the text.  It should be no surprise that Graves gives unwaveringly certain identifications of the stones on the breastplate and fits them all into his scheme of months and sacred alphabets, with Dinah assigned to the extra month.  For some reason Graves thinks Dinah is the twin of Dan, even though Dan is the son of Bilhah and Dinah is the daughter of Le’ah (Genesis 35:23, 35:25) (p. 269-271).
  29. Graves claims use of a bundle of palm, willow, and quince on Sukkoth (Tabernacles), while universally palm, willow, myrtle, and a citron are used.  He also claims the Jews “presumably” borrowed the practice from the worshippers of Astarte, but brings no reason to believe this (p. 59).  Later on Graves gets the bundle right, but insists the citron was not the original fruit (pp. 261-262).  Graves also takes the citron/quince and myrtle as being “a reminder of his [YHWH’s] annual death and translation to Elysium” (p. 340), even though nowhere in Jewish literature of any era is there any mention of YHWH ever dying or being translated to Elysium. 
  30. Graves also believes that “promiscuous love-making” was practiced by “the peasantry” on Sukkoth (p. 336), completely ignoring Jewish sexual mores.
  31. Graves reads a lapwing into Leviticus 11:19, when in reality it is not mentioned there at all (p. 53).  In the same list of prohibited flying vertebrates, he claims there is also mentioned the barnacle-goose, which in reality is not mentioned there at all (p. 54).
  32. Graves speaks of a “sparrow” sacrifice in Leviticus 14:4, when the Hebrew text specifies “birds” and sparrows are never mentioned anywhere as sacrificial animals.  He believes this sacrifice was originally offered to a goddess on the basis that the ritual involved burning cedar and hyssop (p. 339).
  33. Graves claims the clan of Kalev (Caleb) is Edomite, when he (an individual) actually is from Yehudhah (Judah) (pp. 61, 162).
  34. Graves claims “The goat-Dionysus, or Pan, was a powerful deity in Palestine”.  Note that neither Dionysus nor Pan is mentioned in any way in the Hebrew Bible.  ְGraves is unaware of this basic fact and shoves Him in anyway in the mysterious goat sacrifice “to ‘Aza’zel (Azazel)” (Leviticus 16:8 and 16:10), the location Ba‘al Gadh (Baal Gad, apparently confusing Gadh (Gad) with gedhi (“baby goat”)), and the prohibition of cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21) (pp. 218).
  35. Graves thinks that the red cow sacrifice (Numbers 19) was originally offered to a goddess, apparently on the basis that the ritual involved burning cedar and hyssop (Numbers 19:6) (p. 339).
  36. Graves illogically thinks that the prohibition of making a baldness above the eyes in Deuteronomy 14:1 indicates that hair was originally sacrificed to YHWH (p. 340).
  37. Graves thinks that the Essenes were Pharisees.  (They were not.)  He also claims that the Essenes believed that Mosheh (Moses) was a demi-god, distinguishing between an historical and “celestial” Mosheh.  Graves also claims that Mosheh in the Torah was a sort of Hercules—the resemblance escaping me completely—who became a hero and judge after death, despite the Torah not mentioning anything of what happened to Mosheh after he died and was buried (p. 149).
  38. Graves confuses Raḥav, a prostitute, with Rahav, prince of the sea (p. 161).  This may be due to both being mistransliterated as “Rahab”.
  39. Graves somehow thinks the Song of Devorah (Judges 5) indicates that Shechem once belonged to ‘Amaleq (Amalek), despite the city not being mentioned therein.  He also somehow thinks that Gidh‘on “presumably” marries “a priestess of the Lion-Goddess Anatha” (pp. 370-371).
  40. Graves thinks that Devorah is a goddess (p. 424).
  41. Graves identifies Shimshon (Samson), along with many other characters from religious texts and legends, as just another Hercules (p. 126).
  42. Graves believes, without reason, that Shimshon is from Tyre and gets a haircut every year (p. 339).
  43. Graves thinks that Shimshon is a “Sun-hero” or “Sun-god” (pp. 140, 315), even though the Hebrew Bible makes no such connection.  Graves claims his (His?) his name means “Of the Sun”, which is implausible in Hebrew (p. 316).  He also claims that Shimshon was shackled to a “corn-mill”, which seems to be a reference to Judges 16:21, where what sort of grinding tool Shimshon used in prison is not specified (p. 140).
  44. Graves forces the story of Dawidh and Mikhal (Michal) into his paradigm by claiming that Mikhal was a goddess(!) and that Dawidh became king by marrying her (Her?) priestess.  He also argues that Hebron can be termed the center of the Earth, despite the fact that its qualifying position of where Europe, Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea meet is really shared by all of Israel (p. 159).
  45. Graves misinterprets 1 Samuel 26:20 as having Sha’ul (Saul) taunted for hunting Dawidh “who is as insignificant as a flea but as easily caught as a mountain partridge” (p. 328), while the original text has Dawidh begging Shau’l for his life, comparing the chase to a partridge in the mountains pursuing a flea.
  46. Graves misinterprets 2 Samuel 12:11, 2 Samuel 3:3, and 2 Samuel 13:7 to mean than ’Avshalom (Absalom) could not possibly be Dawidh’s son but was really Talmay ben ‘Ammihudh (Talmai, son of Ammihud); this is in flagrant contradiction to these verses’ simple meaning, which indicate that ’Avshalom was the grandson of Talmay ben ‘Ammihudh.  ּGraves further misinterprets ’Avshalom’s public rape of his father’s concubines in Yerushalayim (2 Samuel 16:20-22), meant to show he was now king, for him marrying “the royal harem of heiresses at Hebron” (pp. 331-332).
  47. Graves misinterprets a necromancer (ba‘alath ’ov) as an oracular cave (p. 107).
  48. Graves mislabels 1 Kings 5:9-13 as the nonexistent 1 Kings 4:33 and takes it as a sign that Shelomoh (Solomon) “knew all the mystic lore of the tree-alphabet” (p. 339).
  49. Graves implausibly confuses the name ’Aḥ’av (Ahab) with ḥaghav (locust) (p. 118).
  50. Graves incredibly conflates the one-time contest between ’Eliyyahu and the priests of Ba‘al (Baal) (1 Kings 18) with the yearly Pesaḥ/Passover sacrifice (p. 327).
  51. Graves claims that 42 children who teased ’Elisha‘ for being bald were devoured by she-bears (p. 287), while 2 Kings 2:24 only mentions the bears splitting the children open but not eating them.
  52. Graves claims that children were sacrificed to “Jehovah Melkarth”(!) in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, even though the Hebrew Bible never claims that YHWH was ever identified with Melqart.  Nor is it clear from the Hebrew Bible to which god babies were sacrificed (p. 128).
  53. Graves gravely misunderstands the imagery in Ezekiel 1 and implausibly conflates the Keruvim (Cherubs) and the ’Ofannim (wheels), leading him to spend the next few pages reasoning—if what Graves does can be called “reasoning”—based on this false identification, which somehow reaches identifying Keruvim with swastikas/fire-wheels (p. 416).  Graves also thinks the Keruvim serve “the Sun of Righteousness”, who is not mentioned in the text at all (p. 413).
  54. Graves somehow sees the Trinity in Ezekiel 1 (p. 468).  It must be noted this bizarre, unsupportable claim appears in a section filled with mystical reasoning so dense that it is difficult to make any sense at all of what Graves is claiming.
  55. Graves seems to think that Melkarth is mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel (p. 416).
  56. Graves blames Yeḥezqe’l (Ezekiel) with tampering with an alphabet which there is no real reason to believe he was ever aware of (pp. 464-465).
  57. Graves thinks that Isaiah 14:13, Ezekiel 1:4, Psalms 48:2, and Job 37:29 indicate the existence of “a Palestinian North Wind cult” (p. 437).  That last verse does not exist, and the rest do not mention anyone worshipping the north wind, no matter where a certain mountain was placed.
  58. Graves writes “The she-monster Tiamat… was used by the author of The Book of Jonah to symbolize the power of the wicked city, mother of harlots, that swallowed and then spewed up the Jews” (p. 480), not withstanding that Tiamat is not mentioned at all in Jonah.
  59. Graves asserts that Song of Songs (AKA Canticles) celebrates a sacred marriage between “Salmaah the King of the Year and the Flower Queen” (p. 261).  “Salmaah” seems to be a botched rendering of Shelomoh, and “Flower Queen” may be a Gravesian interpretation of Song of Songs 2:1.  Actually, while Song of Songs clearly depicts a romantic relationship, recasting it as a sacred marriage is a stretch.  The Shulamith is a shepherdess, not a queen (Song of Songs 1:6).
  60. Graves believes that the Song of Songs deals with incest (p. 449), which appears to be due to an overly literal interpretation of Song of Songs 4:9, 4:10, 4:12, 5:1, and 5:2.  Song of Songs 8:2 shows these verses are not meant to be taken literally.
  61. Graves asserts that 1 Chronicles 14:15 is about oracular trees, rewriting it after the fact to suit his symbolism (p. 440).
  62. Graves claims the Book of Tobit is “Perso-Egypto-Greek” when in fact it is part of the (Jewish) Apocrypha (p. 129).  Graves stretches the story of Tobit by recasting Tobit as “Zeus” and Asmodeus as “Set”, even though Tobit is human and does not qualify as a god at all (p. 130).
  63. Graves thinks that Ḥanukkah has its origins before the Maccabean rebellion, and he does not understand that the practices of increasing the number of lights each day and decreasing the number of lights each day go back equally far.  Neither does he understand that the menorah is lit in homes, not just in synagogue (p. 469-470).
  64. Graves claims the (Jewish) Apocryphal Book of Judith is a Canaanite version of the story of Shimshon, which requires some dishonesty to imagine.  Judith is recast as a queen and the enemy general Holofernes as the sacred king she dutifully murders since his year is up (p. 317).
  65. ֶGraves is unaware that there is no book referred to as “Joseph” in the New Testament (p. 163).  OK, that is not really Judaic, but it was too mind-bogglingly obvious not to mention.  But what should one really expect of one who cites the nonexistent Talmudhic tractate Haggada (p. 414)?
  66. Graves is unaware that the Zohar is a fairly recent book, going back only to the 1200s (p. 268).  (I now wish I had not packed up my Qabbalah books in preparation for moving to Israel, but one may find much on the origins of the Zohar in the works of Gershom Scholem.)
  67. Graves is clear unaware of what alphabets the Essenes were using; he invents one that never existed (p. 150).
  68. Graves believes that the Jews got the alphabet from the Greeks.  In reality, the Jews got it from the Phoenicians or their Semitic neighbors, and the Greeks got it from the Phoenicians (p. 150).  Contrary to what he claims, the names of many letters are known to have perfectly good Semitic meanings, namely:  ’alef (“ox”), beth (“house”), gimel (“camel”), daleth (“door”), waw (“hook”), zayin (“weapon”), yodh (“hand”), kaf (“palm (of a hand)”), lamedh (“goad”), mem (“water”), nun (“fish”), ‘ayin (“eye”), pe’ (“mouth”), quf (“monkey”), resh (“head”), shin (“tooth”), and taw (“mark”) (p. 235).
  69. Graves misidentifies She’ol (Sheol) as “the Hebrew Hecate”, when it is really a term for the grave or the afterlife.  He also seems to think Gavri’el ran errands for She’ol (p. 151).
  70. Graves believes that the Torah was not compiled until the Babylonian Exile (pp. 149-150, 155, 262).  This is impossible because the Samaritans have a version of the Torah which is not greatly different from the Jewish versions.  The Samaritans originated in the late First Temple Period, but were decisively excluded from the Jewish people at the start of the Second Temple Period.  A late compilation of the Torah would require that the Jews imposed it upon a group they refused to admit among themselves.  The Torah must therefore be of earlier origin.  
  71. Graves’s interpretation of Yeraḥmi’el (“Jerahmeel”) as “beloved of the moon” is implausible.  Yeraḥ may mean “moon”, but there is nothing meaning “beloved” in that name; more plausible is “’El [= YHWH] will have mercy upon me” (p. 155).
  72. Graves assumes, without evidence, that the Essenes had a patron angel (p. 156), even though the concept of a patron angel for a specific group of Jews is foreign to Judaism.
  73. Graves thinks Jews hold swineherds in “horror” (p. 220), as if the prohibition of eating pork were an obsession rather than a simple prohibition.
  74. Graves claims there is a “Hebrew canon of trees of the week” (p. 263).  There is no such thing.
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Monday, October 11, 2010

When is killing justified among the Soldiers of the One?


Jewish date:  3 Marḥeshwan 5771 (Parashath Lekh-Lekha).

Today’s holidays:  Monday of the Twenty-Eighth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St Sid Vicious/St. Nenslo/St. Lt. Colombo (Church of the SubGenius).

Note:  I have finally finished reading The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  I still have such a negative view of it that I intend to title the review “I Spit on Robert Graves”.  However, Graves is not trivially wrong, but rather wrong in a truly ingenious manner.  It will thus take some time to write the review, so please be patient.

Topic 1:  In the interest of catching up, the latest episode of Caprica, “Unvanquished”.

This episode is mostly dedicated to making Sister Clarice (you know, the woman from the monotheistic Soldiers of the One with moral issues) into a psychopath.  The episode begins with a simulation of a bombing of a sports game.  This simulation is presented by Clarice to her superiors as her idea of what they should be doing:  killing people and letting those who are worthy be reborn virtually (incorrectly called “apotheosis”).  Fortunately, Clarice’s superiors do not approve of this plan—after all, murder for the most part is considered an abomination—one of them going so far as to call Clarice’s virtual heaven a “blasphemy”.  She is given no approval to go ahead.  Quite the opposite; despite their being much more tolerant than Clarice, the Blessed Mother of the group is approached, and she reluctantly gives approval to have Clarice killed, they consider her that dangerous.  Lest anyone think they are overreacting, Clarice’s followers murder one of her rivals, and Clarice starts talking to the Blessed Mother to promote her plans.  This episode may be viewed as reflecting Muslim internal politics.

Topic 2:  The daily dose of anti-Semitism (yes, this was coming sooner or later):  “"Squeezing Out Christians and Muslims" - Irish Times Blames Israel” and “MSM, Stone Throwers Collude and Collide In Silwan”.  The former deals with the claim that Jews are to blame for Christian woes in Israel, which can only be accomplished by completely ignoring Muslim persecution of Christians.  The later dissects a recent incident in which photographers collaborated with Muslim stone-throwers to create a photo-op.

Also:  this video makes for dim prospects for peace.

Also:  “The Other Existential Threat” by Daniel Gordis gives an interesting perspective on Iran trying to acquire nuclear weapons.  The jist is that is what is wrong with the situation is not so much that Iran would necessarily use them to wipe out Israel, but rather that Jews would be returned to depending upon the whims of others for their mere survival.  Being dependent on the mercy others just to live was the state Jewry was in before there was a State of Israel.  If anyone needs to be reminded of how well that worked out, see appendix 2 of my “No honesty allowed: a review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”.  The list of anti-Semitic incidents listed there is extensive, and it would have been much longer had I done more research or extended it past the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: ““Letz sharpen clawz”:


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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Who is stupid enough to worship a grilled cheese sandwich?

The title card for the musical comedy series G...Image via Wikipedia

Jewish date:  2 Marḥeshwan 5771 (Parashath Lekh-Lekha).

Today’s holidays:  Navratri (Hinduism), Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Madeline Murray O’Hair (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Tell the DOJ: Investigate the Chamber of Commerce's campaign spending”.

Today’s topic:  The latest episode of Glee, “Grilled Cheezus”.

I have been busy getting ready to move to Israel, but this episode has been weighing on my mind.  (And it is a miracle I watched it as all.  The episode before it, “Britney/Brittany”, was unbelievably morally incompetently written.)  “Grilled Cheesus” is a train-wreck theologically.  There is a lot of talk about religion and spirituality, including the issue of freedom of religion in public schools, but most of it was on a petty level.

There are three main religion-related plots in this episode.  In the first plot, a football-playing teenager named Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich and is surprised to see what he interprets as the image of Jesus on it.  He eats the half of the sandwich without the Jesus image on it, but he prays to the other half of the sandwich (“Grilled Cheesus”) to win a football game.  Now, being inspired by an unusual event is one thing, but Finn actually prays to the half-sandwich, as if it were Jesus himself.  This is a flagrant act of idolatry of a very shallow sort.  After all, it just a half-sandwich, not a god.  Nevertheless, his team still wins the game.

Finn prays to the half-sandwich a second time, this time asking that he be allowed to touch his girlfriend Rachel’s breasts.  (He does not seem to be a deep person by any means.)  Soon afterwards Rachel comes to talk with him, noting that she is aiming for a long-term relationship, including eventual marriage, and she wants their children to be raised Jewish.  She appears totally assimilated and disconnected from Judaism, and wanting to raise Jewish children even while committing the blatant transgression of intermarriage is severely inconsistent—and her reasons for this lapse of logic are not explained.  Finn agrees, even though this is grossly inconsistent with his own belief in Jesus, as shallow as it is.  After all, truth is not something one can compromise on.  Nevertheless, his agreement pleases Rachel, and she allows him to grope her breasts.

Finn prays yet again to the half-sandwich, this time asking to become quarterback, which he claims will better let him spread the message of Jesus.  (I cannot make this up.)  Soon afterwards, the current quarterback is injured, and Finn is chosen to take his place.  This disturbs Finn greatly, and he believes that he is responsible.  He is then counseled by a teacher that he is not really responsible.  However, any real discussion of the nature of prayer and how any god which exists responds to them is omitted.  Finn gets to sing the song “Losing My Religion”, and he reluctantly eats the half-sandwich.  Yes, he eventually reaches the truth that the half-sandwich is not a deity, but not particularly well, and this journey is one he should have had enough active brain cells to know not to take in the first place.

The second main religious plot centers on Kurt, stereotypical homosexual teenager.  Kurt dislikes church because much of Christianity is opposed to homosexuality.  In other words, “I do not like the message.  Therefore the message is wrong.”  This is a blatantly childish and illogical sentiment, as reality does not bend to accommodate how we want it to be.  Kurt’s father gets sick and is hospitalized.  Many of Kurt’s fellow glee club members want to pray for Kurt’s father, putting them at odds with Kurt, who is offended.  (Quick side note:  Kurt’s irrationality also extends to medicine, as he has someone perform acupuncture on his father.)  Eventually Kurt is mollified enough to let his fellow glee club member to take him to church.  He does not become a believer, but learns not to be offended by others seeking supernatural aid.  Tolerance is a good message, but Kurt still gets an F in theology.  (Not to mention song choice.  He twists “I Want to Hold Your Hand” out of its original context, and it comes out somewhat creepy.)

The third main religious plot centers on the song choices of the glee club, prompted by Finn’s declaration of having gotten religion.  They want to sing religious songs, which Will Schuester wants to moderate down to just “spiritual”.  Evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester is opposed, ostensibly because it would be a violation of separation of church and state.  Frankly, I am not clear it would be.  For teachers to demand that students subscribe to particular religious views or engage in particular religious activity in public school would definitely be a violation.  However, separation of church and state is not a ban on religion in public schools, and students are free to initiate and participate in their own religious activities. Thus if they chose to sing blatantly religious songs at glee club, they might well be able to get away with it.  Sue reveals to Will that she lost her faith long ago when her big sister became ill (apparently referring to her suffering from Down syndrome) and her prayers that she be healed went unanswered.  This is a naïve view of prayer.  Prayer is fundamentally talking to a deity.  Now, what sort of deity worth anything would be shallow enough to just pay attention to prayer, weighing it above and beyond all other behavior He/She demands?  And why should Sue’s prayer be weighed so heavily above and beyond any other factor?  And why should Sue’s sister be exempt from illness, which we all are subject to?  Why should not getting what one wants from a god mean that the god does not exist?  Later in the episode, Sue’s sister Janey tells Sue that she does believe in God and that He does not make mistakes—a position which she does not explain.  Nevertheless, it is enough for Sue to soften her position, and she does object to the glee club’s ultimate choice of a song, “(What If God Was) One of Us”.

In short, this episode handles religious belief with next to no depth.  This is disappointing since most humans have enough brain cells to do better than this.


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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Freedom of religion is not freedom from offense


Jewish date:  27 Tishri 5771 (Parashath Noaḥ).

Today’s holidays:  Tuesday of the Twenty-Seventh Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Pope Benedict IX (Church of the SubGenius).

Topic 1:  “Are war crimes caused by bad apples or bad barrels?”.  This article deals with the causes of war crimes, specifically whether there is specifically something wrong with the people who commit them (such as psychopathy) or whether the situation of being in a war leads to war crimes.  People often like to trace problems to a single cause (e.g., “Money is the root of all evil”), but guess what:  there is evidence that war crimes are caused by “bad apples” and “bad barrels”.  Humans are frightfully complex beings; there is no reason to assume our behavior is necessarily simple.  This should be kept in mind with dealing with the causes of evil in general:  people do things we consider wrong for all sorts of reasons, ranging from immediate gratification to greed to indifference to curiosity to zeal to jealousy to the noblest intentions.  (That last one is due to not everyone agreeing on what is evil.  What one person considers wickedness, another person may consider completely righteous.)
Jim DeMint headshotImage of Jim DeMint via Wikipedia

Topic 2:  “DeMint: Sexually Active Unmarried Women And Gay Teachers Should Be Barred From 
Classrooms”.  I heard about this one indirectly due to Josh.  Let me quote the start of the article:
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) says that even though "no one" came to his defense in 2004 after he said that gay people and unwed mothers should be banned from teaching, "everyone" quietly told him that he shouldn't back down from his position.
He also implied that not banning gay people and women who have sex before marriage from teaching would be an attack on Christians, and defended his position on banning gay teachers because he holds the same position on women who have sex outside of marriage.
"[When I said those things,] no one came to my defense," he said, the Spartanberg Herald-Journal reported. "But everyone would come to me and whisper that I shouldn't back down. They don't want government purging their rights and their freedom to religion."
Exactly what legal right or aspect of freedom of religion would be violated by being taught by a homosexual or a woman who has non-marital sex?  I freely acknowledge that Christianity (at least certain branches) is fond of neither.  And I can easily understand that a Christian (at least of the DeMintian variety) might consider such a teacher a poor role model for his/her students and thus be offended.  But permitting such people to teach is not an attack on Christianity per se; not all Christians are so opposed to homosexuals or fornicators as DeMint.  Furthermore, while there is a constitutional right in the United States to practice one’s religion, there is no right to impose one’s religion on others.  In fact, since belief in one religion frequently requires belief that something certain other people believe or do is offensive, freedom of religion effectively requires that people be allowed to do things which offend other people.  And freedom of speech, also a constitutional right, includes being able to say and do things which other people do not approve of.  So DeMint does not approve of homosexuals and fornicators teaching others?  That is his prerogative.  But freedom of religion is not a case for a ban on homosexuals and fornicators from teaching.

Topic 3:  Update on yesterday’s post “It was not just the Temple Mount which the Muslims stole”:  “India less tense after court verdict on holy site”.  The court divided the land between the Hindus and the Muslims.  The Muslims get ⅓ of the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque site, while the Hindus get ⅔ of the site, including the place where the mosque—and previously a Hindu temple—once stood.  I call this a triumph against Islamic supremacism.  Now we get to wait to see what happens next.


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Monday, October 4, 2010

It was not just the Temple Mount which the Muslims stole


Jewish date:  26 Tishri 5771 (Parashath Noaḥ).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Francis of Assisi (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Buster Keaton (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Stop 'Corn Sugar' Now!”.

The Tishri holidays are over, and I am trying to do something worthwhile waiting to hear back from someone in order to be able to move to Israel.

Topic 1:  “Atheists, Jews top religious knowledge survey” and “Survey: Americans don't know much about religion”.  That a lot of Americans know very little about religion is unsurprising; that is why this blog exists in the first place.  That some groups (Jews, Mormons) tend to know more than average is also unsurprising, since some groups do value knowledge.  That atheists and agnostics should tend to have better than average knowledge of religion is indeed paradoxical, but there is more to belief than just knowing basic facts.  The question I want answered is how knowledge and belief are interacting.

Rear View of the Babri Mosque.Image of the Babri Mosque via Wikipedia
Topic 2:  “India's top court gives green light for mosque verdict” and “India braces for ruling on contested holy site”.  If you thought that the Temple Mount was the only site Muslims were fighting over with members of a different religion, think again.  These articles report on a coming legal fight over Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, which Hindus claim as the birthplace of Rama, one of the avatars of the god Vishnu.  After the Muslim conquest of India, the Muslims demolished the Hindu temple there built the Babri Mosque in 1528.  Naturally, the Hindus were not pleased at the desecration.  In 1949 idols of Rama showed up at the mosque, Hindus demanded to pray at the site, the Muslims refused, and a legal fight began.  The lawsuit apparently did not resolve quickly enough, because a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Mosque in 1992.  While the Hindus currently have control of the site, a new legal battle is in the works.  Yes, there is a lot of politics involved in the case.  But politics has to work on feelings that people actually have, and Hindus, having been persecuted under Muslim rule (no surprise there), have had every reason to want to tear down every mosque built on one of their holy sites.  If the courts rule in favor of the Muslims, I expect Hindu politicians in India to use it as reason to rally Hindus against Muslims.

Also:  Further incidents of stealing houses of worship from other religions and converting them into mosques are listed in the Wikipedia article “Conversion of non-Muslim places of worship into mosques”.    Such behavior is not the way of a religion of peace, and, yes, the Muslims have made a lot of enemies.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor, something relevant to this week’s parashah (Torah portion): “Bill Cosby Noah”:

Peace (the genuine kind).

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