Mid-afternoon in an apartment on Fifth Avenue where I’m attending an event to support the Israel Museum. Ancient goddesses and fertility figurines are protected within museum-quality, plexi-glass cases in the living room, while other antiquities – incense burners and little … Read More
Mid-afternoon in an apartment on Fifth Avenue where I’m attending an event to support the Israel Museum. Ancient goddesses and fertility figurines are protected within museum-quality, plexi-glass cases in the living room, while other antiquities – incense burners and little amphorae that once contained perfume – line the ledges of the windows. Looking out over Central Park, there is a bare-boned beauty in trees shorn of leaves. I’m balancing a plate of scones and chocolate-dipped strawberries in one hand, and a glass of Perrier in another, kissing hello people I recognize, making small talk with those I’ve just met. I am a world away both from the Middle-Eastern men and women who long ago claimed these artifacts as their own, and my own agrarian, devout Christian roots in southern Indiana.
When I was growing up, the Biblical characters – Abraham and Sarah and Noah and Lot’s wife – felt as familiar as my cousins, Goat and Chuckie and Denny Ray and Kimmy. I learned all about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, Sarah’s barrenness, Lot’s wife looking back on Sodom and Gemorrah (she shouldn’t have done that!) in my living room during family Bible studies and at church services every week. I believed the stories, and the people, to be historically accurate, completely true. But then I had to go digging around in the text and in the soil, and when you start removing the layers of dirt and unquestioning belief that have piled up over the years, you find things you hadn’t expected or wanted to find. It wasn’t until college when I studied in Israel for my junior year abroad that an ever-so-small part of me started to wonder if the Biblical text was infallible, the gospel truth, and if Jesus might not have been the Messiah. So when, at 20 years old, I went on an archaeology dig near Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, I’m sure I hoped that there was something buried that, when brought into the light of day, would resolve the niggling question of his identity once and for all. Before the sun rose, we ate a breakfast of tomato and cucumber salad, bread and cheese, and hard rolls smeared with chocolate spread. Then, it was up the hill to dig in the cordoned off grids and sift the soil until lunch. I thought that if I sifted through enough dirt, the Truth would come leaping up out of Mother earth’s soil and I would be certain that my beliefs were justified. Certitude made me happy – I didn’t necessarily like it in others, but I did like it for myself. But belief is never about certainty, and that was something that has taken me a long, long time to accept. I would prefer to think that I am not like those who expect Biblical archaeological finds to corroborate their religious views because, of course, despite the references to "Goliath" on a fragment of a red-slipped, hand-burnished ceramic bowl that was discovered on a dig in 2005 in Israel, this doesn’t prove that he is our Goliath or that the events attributed to him in the Bible actually occurred.
However, it would be disingenuous to say that the historicity of the Bible doesn’t matter to those who believe, as I once did, that the Bible is literally true, every jot and tittle. And I freely admit I do feel a childish, "I told you so!" when a "House of David" inscription dating from 850 B.C.E. is discovered in the ancient Israelite city of Dan, or when seals bearing the names Jezebel or Shlomit or other Biblical characters surface. Rooted in a specific time and place in history, the Biblical text goes into exacting detail as to who was on the throne, and who did what to whom. If these events did not occur, if these places did not exist, if these laws and customs and rituals are inaccurate, then it does call into question what is true and not true. The Judeo-Christian notion of God is based upon the premise that God acts within the confines of history, and that God has revealed Himself through the words of the Bible, as well as through the people that He has chosen to deliver His message to the world. So if the Bible – God’s words – is fallible, it matters. Whether you want it to or not, it does. On that grassy expanse outside of Nazareth, I began an excavation that has continued over the years. Any new tidbit that’s been unearthed about the Philistines or the Phoenicians fascinates me. While I won’t be joining an expedition in search of the Ark of the Covenant any time soon, I understand these quests for Biblical relics. Might the relics themselves still contain the power of the Divine? Anyway, that’s what Indiana Jones thought, and with our urge to touch the Western Wall or to pray at Rachel’s tomb, I would say we continue to hope that these objects will serve as a go-between between us and God. On a symbolic level, these quests might be viewed as a quest for pieces of ourselves: Where did we come from, and how did we come to be who we are? As the sun seems to slide down the sky, the illumination of Central Park’s lampposts meld with the red and yellow and orange lights from various buildings and cast a deflected, multi-colored glow onto the reservoir in the middle of the park. The little fertility goddesses are backlit, too, and they bring to mind a story about the matriarch, Rachel. In the book of Genesis, Rachel steals her father’s household idols and hides them under the saddle on her way from Mesopatamia to Israel. When her father searches for them, she pretends that she has her period and can’t get off the camel. Those household idols might very well have been similar to these little figurines overlooking Central Park that have found their way to New York City almost 4,000 years after someone on the other side of the world placed them in a household shrine as a physical embodiment of her own ephemeral beliefs. Rachel’s husband was Jacob whose name was changed to "Israel" after his middle-of -the-night wrestling match with God. The word Israel is said to mean "to struggle with God." Some goddess scholars claim that "Israel" is actually derived from "Ish Rachel," that is, "husband of Rachel," because Rachel was recognized as the goddess. Mystics have pointed out that the first letters of the names of all seven matriarchs and patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Ya’acov, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel – are contained within the Hebrew letters for "Israel." While I am mystical and a feminist, I am partial to the ‘struggle’ etymology. Life is a struggle. Your relationship with God is a struggle. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to believe when evidence seems to point otherwise. These goddesses and incense burners bring into the present – into our homes so vastly different than the homes from which they were borne – the things we never knew, or that we had forgotten. I can appreciate Rachel’s yearning to bring some pieces of her past, of her religious womb with her on her journey, for her future in this new land was uncertain. And even if uncertainty is exciting and offers infinite possibilities, certainty is comforting.