Pres. Trump Should Not Have Cancelled His Masada Trip

Sarah E. Bond has a nice article in Forbes this week about Donald Trump’s decision to skip Masada during his visit to Israel and the West Bank. In it, my colleague discusses the reasons President Trump should have gone to visit the famed hilltop fortress. While it once served as an opulent southern hideaway for the tyrannical Herod the Great, well-removed from the established Judean capital of Jerusalem, Masada is best remembered for its role in the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-73 CE), and concepts of honor, loyalty, and the Jewish history of perseverance in the face of oppression.

But the president didn’t go.

Mr. Trump cancelled his visit to Masada after he was informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to land his helicopter on the over two-millennia-old archaeological ruins atop the mountain.

Thus, while there are many reasons the president should have visited Masada, there are also plenty of reasons the president should not have cancelled his visit–political reasons, symbolic reasons, and reasons that give us a glimpse into the mindset of our 45th president.

Masada Snake Path

Masada’s Snake Path can be seen below the cables of the Masada cable car, both of which lead to the Visitor Center at the foot of the mountain.

The first reason is simple: it’s Masada. From the Visitor Center, you either walk the Snake Path or take the cable car to the top. For two millennia, Christian and Jewish pilgrims, tourists, and soldiers have made the arduous journey up the mountain to visit this monument to perseverance. Tourists do it. Soldiers do it. Staff members do it. President Trump should do it like everyone else, including Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

However, when President Trump was told he couldn’t land his helicopter on the famed archaeological remains in order to avoid the heat and sweat of the journey, he cancelled the visit. The fact that Donald Trump cancelled says a lot about how he views himself as opposed to literally everyone else on earth, including other U.S. Presidents.

Second, if riding the cable car is too much work for President Trump, then he wouldn’t be able to see the site anyway. The top of the plateau is massive–over 1.6 million sq. ft., or 36.78 acres! Furthermore, many of the key components of Masada lie on the perimeter of the top of the mountain–with some even carved into the side of the mountain–and these are accessible only by lengthy, rather precarious staircases. Any tourist who has visited Masada knows this. Only those in relatively good shape and possessing strong legs and great balance are able to descend into Herod’s hanging palace. You simply cannot experience Herod’s resplendent extravagance if you’re not willing and able to put in the effort. Even via the cable car, visiting the mountaintop Masada fortress requires some sweat and getting dirty–two things the president loathes and typically lets others do for him.

Masada

The mountain of Masada from the east/Dead Sea. Photo by: gaspa, Creative Commons.

Third, the entire ordeal of President Trump’s cancellation of Masada tells us a lot about how he views the relationship between effort and reward. Like many other things in his life, President Trump wanted credit for the difficult journey, but insisted upon a means of getting there not available to everyone else. (And no, the Russians did not build the cableway; it was built by two Swiss companies.)

President Trump wanted credit for reaching the top of the mountain, but needed more help getting there than others who are required to work for their achievements. And when he couldn’t take the easy route, he quit.

Finally, it is quite telling that when the president was told he could not ascend Masada–a monument to resistance–via helicopter, he backed down. This tells us something. When faced with strong resistance, Donald Trump backs down, because taking on the resistance requires discipline, patience, and persistent focus and effort–all clubs the president has repeatedly demonstrated he does not carry in his bag.

President Trump did a great many other things on his trip to Israel. But sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that say the most about you. And our president has shown us repeatedly that while everyone else must work hard for what they achieve, he will take a shortcut whenever he can. And when he is told he must work like everyone else, he quits.

Masada

The top of Masada, looking south. Photo by: Godot13.

Masada is about perseverance, honor, resistance, and hard work. It’s about being willing to die for what you believe in. And in the end, perhaps it is best that President Trump didn’t visit Masada. This mountain has already experienced one paranoid, conspiracy-laden hegemon, who achieved his position with the help of a foreign power and by agreeing to use his government to pursue their interests. Perhaps it’s best we remember Masada for those who have made the effort and the sacrifice, and not for those who fled when they didn’t get their way.

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Holocaust

Each year on the 27th of Nisan (this year April 23-24, 2017), Jews around the world observe Yom HaShoah (יום השואה), or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on which we remember the approximately six million Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

We remember those who perished, as well those families who lost loved ones during this dark time in history.

But it is not only Jews who should remember this day; we should all constantly remember the evil that is possible in our nations when populist authoritarians seek to single out and target particular minority groups and blame them for what they believe to be the problems with our country.

When we say, “Never again,” this should not only be a rallying cry for Jews who must remain vigilant against those who, to this very day, seek their destruction, but it should also be a rallying cry for non-Jews, who must vow never again to stand idly by and hold the coats of those who would persecute Jews, or any minority group, in our midst.

It is good to remember. Today, let us remember those who died, and commit ourselves to taking the steps necessary to ensure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.

yad-vashem-jerusalem-israel_main

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem

 

On ISIS, Sex Slavery, Rape Culture, and Religious Fundamentalism

I recently read a disgusting story involving ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Da’esh and the plight of female sex slaves traded between its members. I relayed the following story to my class and asked them for their initial thoughts on slavery, but specifically on sex slavery and the exchange of female sexual slaves between men.


The story stated that a wealthy ISIS operative owned a female slave. (This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) This ISIS operative then sold two of his daughters in marriage to another ISIS operative to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To one of the daughters he sold in marriage he also gave his female slave as a gift to the daughter to be her slave. However, when that daughter could not bear children for her new husband, she gave her husband that same female slave to have sex with him and bear children for him. The female slave bore him two children, but his wife claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of her husband’s sons by the wife’s sister (his other wife) also had sex with the female slave.


This was the plight of one woman–a sex slave–as told in the story.

I placed the above story on a powerpoint as I read it to my class. I then asked my class for their reactions to this story.

“Barbaric!” said one student.

“Horrible!” said another.

“Who would do that?” asked yet another.

One exasperated student chimed in, “How is this legal? How is this not banned by Islam?”

“Well, this is the problem with Islam!”, replied another male student. “They have slavery and they don’t respect women.”

Most students were disgusted. One student was near tears. “How could they treat women like this?” she muttered. “Those poor women. They never had a chance.”

Another determined student bellowed from the back of the room: “This is why we need to defeat them. ISIS. We can’t let this happen!

And before I could respond, he continued: “And this is why we have to keep them from coming here to the United States. Any religion that allows THIS in its so-called “holy book” should not be allowed in this country!”

And there it was. I stood silently, looking down at the ground.

After a deliberate, silent pause, I looked up, looked around the class, and then said, “Note that I didn’t include any names in this story. Let me replace the words ‘ISIS operative’ and ‘female slave’ with some actual names and I want to ask you the same question.”

I clicked on my laptop and the following story appeared in place of the earlier one.


The story stated that a wealthy MAN NAMED LABAN owned a female slave NAMED BILHAH (Gen. 29:29).(This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) LABAN then sold two of his daughters (LEAH AND RACHEL) in marriage to another MAN NAMED JACOB to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To RACHEL he also gave his female slave, BILHAH, as a gift to RACHEL to be her slave (Gen. 30:3). However, when RACHEL could not bear children for JACOB, she gave JACOB BILHAH to have sex with him and bear children for him (Gen. 30:4). BILHAH bore him two children, DAN AND NAPHTALI, but RACHEL claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of JACOB‘s sons, REUBEN, by RACHEL‘s sister (LEAH) also had sex with BILHAH (Gen. 35:22).


“Now how do you feel about this account of sexual slavery?” I asked the class.

The students stared at the screen, some with wide eyes and open jaws.

Our boisterous student protested from the back of the classroom: “That’s not the same! That’s a long time ago. That’s a completely different context.”

“Actually,” I replied calmly, “It’s the exact same story, just with the names changed.”

“Yeah, but…” one student chimed in, “…this is different. This is from the Bible. This is different.”

“You’re right!”, I responded, “This is the birth of ancient Israel.”

I continued, “Isn’t it fascinating that the twelve tribes of Israel are the result of a polygamous marriage–a man married to two women at once, in fact, two sisters, which is explicitly banned in Lev. 18:18: (“And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”)–and two sex slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah.”

I reiterated: “The twelve tribes of Israel are the product of one man, two wives, and two sex slaves.”

“OK,” one student interrupted, “…but this was God’s plan. God was OK with this. God didn’t punish this. This was part of his plan.”

I retorted, “First of all, you’re right. Gen. 25:6 says that Abraham had sex slaves (concubines).”

I continued: “In Exod. 21:10, God says you can have multiple wives: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” So does Deut. 21:15-16: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn.”

“In Deut. 22:28-29, God says that if you rape a woman, you are not put in prison, but God says you must pay a fine to her father, and you must marry her and never divorce her: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”

“In Num 31:17-18, God says you can slaughter a city in battle, but spare the virgin women and force them to be your wife: Num. 31:17: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

“In fact, this one was so popular, the Bible talks about it a second time in Deut. 21:11-14: “Suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

“So yes,” I continued, “The Bible says that God commanded and/or allowed all these various forms of marriage.”

“Second,” I continued, “That’s exactly what ISIS would say. ‘This is God-ordained. God is OK with this’.”

Some students smiled, recognizing the crux of the lesson I was giving that day. Others sat silently, slowly absorbing the logical paradox and the cognitive dissonance they never before recognized. They saw that what they condemn today in Islam as practiced by ISIS is the very same practice that produced ancient Israel, at least according to the Bible.

Some students refused to see it. Others saw it, but couldn’t believe it. Others understood completely.

And this was the first lesson for the day: that what many condemn as atrocious in other religions, they embrace blindly in their own religion. Sexually abhorrent behavior is condemned when other religions practice it, but is often accepted as normal when it takes place in one’s own religion. We condemn the text of the other religion’s holy Scripture, until of course we realize that the passage is actually from our holy book.


I illustrated a second problem: Fundamentalists of one faith tend to assume that all adherents to other faiths are also literal fundamentalists, and because their Scripture says it, they all practice it to the letter today. This is not the case.

We know this is not the case because very few Christians and Jews are strict literal fundamentalists today. To be sure, there are many Christians and a few Jews who follow a strict, literal fundamentalist view of Scripture (or at least believe themselves to be doing so). But most Christians today do not. Most Christians understand that many biblical commands–many from God’s own mouth like endorsements of slavery and commands of genocide–are simply relics of the past–commands and acts done by a less civilized society thousands of years ago that are simply dismissed by today’s Christians.

Most Jews–specifically Reform Judaism–do not adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of Scripture. They are the first to say, “We know what the Bible says, and we understand that Jews in the past may have practice this, but we have matured as a society and we simply do not do that any more.” And Reform Judaism has a long, beautiful tradition of updating the biblical rules and establishing new moral regulations as society had progressed and become more civilized that do away with much of the abhorrent behavior described (and often commanded by God) in the Bible.

And yet some conservative Christians are strict literalists. They interpret the Bible literally, and believe that every word of both the Old and New Testaments to be the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God. And it is most often these Christians that project their hermeneutic–their way of reading Scripture–onto Muslims, and falsely assume that all Muslims interpret the Qur’an in the same way. They believe that since all Christians should read that Bible fundamentally, all Muslims do read the Qur’an fundamentally.

This is simply not the case.

The fact is most Muslims do not interpret the Qur’an in a strict literalist manner. A majority of Muslims around the world have also updated and adapted their Islamic moral teachings to do away with the most horrific and problematic teachings of the Qur’an–in the very same way that most Jews and Christians have done with their Scriptures.

And yet, there are certain sects of Islam–in our present case, Wahhabi Islamic Militant Jihadists, who comprise the core of ISIS–who want to see the world interpret the Qur’an in the same strict literalist manner that they do. And they want their fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture to be the civil law of the land, governing all peoples, whether they are Muslim or not.

Ironically in America, this is the same desire of strict literalist Christians, who want to legislate their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible over all Americans, whether they are Christian or not, and turn civil law into the Christian equivalent of Shari’a law.

Christian fundamentalists see all Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists because they don’t know any other way of reading Scripture. And as a nation we cannot allow fundamentalists of any religion to govern our country and turn the United States into ground zero of a religious war.


There was one additional point from the above sex slave exercise that I shared with the class: the reason that sexual misconduct against women is largely dismissed, excused, and tolerated today in this country is that it is interwoven into our predominant religious beliefs. Sexual slavery is part of the Bible. Bigamy. Polygamy. Rape. The taking of prisoners of war (the pleasing virgin ones) as wives. This is part of the Bible. Not only that, this is part of the Bible often commanded and authorized by God.

The rape culture that exists today in the U.S. that terrifies women, and which many men fail to recognize, is the result of a problematic theology that has either accepted, openly or tacitly, or has largely dismissed the problem of the sexual mistreatment of women because of the very unwillingness of many Christians to critique these same practices in the very Scripture that they claim to be their moral authority.

Or put another way, because Christian fundamentalists in America are unwilling to acknowledge that there are horrific, amoral teachings and practices against women in the Bible, they resist addressing, or often even acknowledging, the culture of misogyny that exists in America today. For if they acknowledged the poor treatment of women in America today, they would at some point in the discussion have to question the teachings and practices involving women in the Bible, and fundamentalists are simply never going to do that.

So we get what we get: the belief that if the Bible is OK with the very rape culture it details in verse after verse, and the misogyny, and the suppression of women’s voices, and their authority, and their freedom of expression–and if God inspired his Holy Word–then it can’t be all that bad today. Right?

And this is the problem.

 

Do we need religion to have a moral code?

Do we need religion to have a moral code?

George Herbert Mead collegiate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Dr. Webb Keane, and Dr. Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, discussed the issue with Charity Nebbe, November 1, 2016 on Iowa Public Radio.

Listen now.

Robert Cargill to lecture at UCLA on The Cities that Built the Bible

Cover of The Cities that Built the Bible by Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.I’ll be lecturing at UCLA on Thursday evening, April 14, 2016 on my new book, THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE (HarperOne).

The lecture is sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, and co-sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and UCLA Dept. of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures.

Information on the lecture is here:

TITLE: “Cities that Built the Bible”
LECTURER: Robert R. Cargill, University of Iowa
DATE: Thursday, April 14, 2016
LOCATION: Royce Hall, RM 314, UCLA Campus
TIME: 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
DESCRIPTION: The Cities That Built the Bible is a magnificent tour through fourteen cities: the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, Ugarit, Nineveh, Babylon, Megiddo, Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Qumran, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Rome. Along the way, Cargill includes photos of artifacts, dig sites, ruins, and relics, taking readers on a far-reaching journey from the Grotto of the Nativity to the battlegrounds of Megiddo, from the towering Acropolis of Athens to the caves near Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

RSVP: Email: csr@humnet.ucla.edu
UCLA Center for the Study of Religion
376B Humanities Building | Los Angeles, CA 90095-1511
Phone: 310-206-8799

Robert R. Cargill to speak at UCLA on THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE, April 14, 2016.

 

Dr. Bruce Wells on “Sex Crimes in the Laws of the Hebrew Bible” – ASOR Podcast

cast_outListen to the excellent Friends of ASOR Podcast interview with Dr. Bruce Wells, Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who recently authored the article, “Sex Crimes in the Laws of the Hebrew Bible” in Near Eastern Archaeology.

 

Robert Cargill to discuss the origins of the Bible on Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa” April 5

Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio.

Talk of Iowa with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio.

I’ll be interviewed by Charity Nebbe (@CharityNebbe) on Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa” tomorrow, April 5, 2016 at 10am. We’ll be talking about my new book, THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE, and discussing (among other things) the origins of the Bible we have today.

Visit the Talk of Iowa webpage to tune in and live stream the conversation.

And pick of a copy of THE CITIES THAT BUILT THE BIBLE anywhere books are sold.

 

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