25 April, 2008
We live at the end of the world. Within a number of decades, everything we know and love will be gone.
We have the benefit of being able to look back in time. There are traces of events that happened over 13 billion years ago visible to us every day. When you look at a TV screen of static, you are looking at random noise. Some of that noise (maybe 1%) is caused by long wavelength light that has been travelling since almost the beginning of time. Stars in the night sky shine down at us and we see light that emerged from a distant sun in bygone days. Walking along a beach you may come across the remains of an ancient ammonite, or brachiopod. In museums we have carved stone tablets from thousands of years ago. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient manuscripts that we can buy in bookstores.
By looking at all these things from the past we can construct a history. We can imagine what it must have been like to attend the great festivals of Athens, or fight in the armies of Rome. We can piece together what life may have been like for ancient Israelites as their religion blossomed over the centuries. We can ponder the experiences of Elizabethan playwrights and debate the causes of innumerable wars. Although we can not visit the past it has left a mass of information that we can use. It is an incomplete history that we have, and it is necessarily so. But we keep looking, and gradually our picture of our place in the world becomes a little clearer. We light a candle in the dark.
But then to the future. Unknown and unknowable. We can’t search for evidence from the future and so it remains mysterious, a blank page upon which we can write any future we desire, or any future we fear. Of course we can also do this with the past. We can say that once there was a race of lizard-like humanoid hunter gatherers 150 million years ago, and who could say that we were wrong? Sure there’s no evidence for this, but there are a lot of blank places in history to squeeze random ideas in to. But there are also lots of places where you can’t do that. You could say there was a race of lizard-like humanoids who roamed the American South West in the 1960’s but we have there a place where a lack of evidence really is evidence of a lack of any such thing.
The future also has some aspects we can be confident of. I can be pretty sure that if I bang my head off of a wall it will hurt. We can be sure of where Mars will be in a few decades time. Some things we can predict, including our own demise. No one living centuries ago who predicted that they would one day die was wrong. So if we can predict some things well, can’t we predict other things well too? The world will end for us all soon enough, we will not escape death forever. And yet if we are to die, who is to say that the end is not nigh for everyone? Who wants to think about just their own death, when we can contemplate the destruction of everything and everyone.
Since the development of enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on the planet it’s been pretty easy to imagine a nightmare ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario. An asteroid impact could wipe out humanity and all major forms of life. Not likely today perhaps, but possible, and a near certainty in the long run. Religious groups of all sorts have often claimed to know the date of the end of the world. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have famously predicted that the end would be nigh in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and on and on. Their excuses for being wrong each time are interesting, and follow the same logic as many other groups whose predictions fail to come to pass.
Nonetheless, eventually, though it may be millions of years from now, humans will no longer walk upon the Earth. So when imagining the future if we stick with the bleak view, the view that extends our own mortality to the whole of humanity, things can be depressing indeed. What way to escape the end of the world? One way is to leave this world behind, not as the Gnostics would have us do by throwing off our physical bodies, but by travelling to the heavens and bringing our humanity with us. The colonisation of other worlds is something that will be incredibly challenging. Other than perhaps Mars, we don’t yet have the technology to do such a thing right now. But unless we want humanity to die in the cradle in which it was born, someday, we will have to go to the stars. The Pleroma awaits us.
10 April, 2008
Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.
Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.
The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.
In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.
But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.
Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.
But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.