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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Biblical Limericks: That Leaves a Bad Taste in the Mouth

Rab-shakeh had bad news to transmit
and in the common tongue he spoke it:
Assyria’s coming,
soon you’ll be succumbing;
you’ll drink your own piss and eat your shit.

II Kings 18: 26 – 27 (KJV) 

Psalm 91 – A Charm against The Demon Resheph

Our weekly bible study group met this afternoon to read and wrestle with Psalm 91.  We may have come out of it with our hips out of joint, but the wrestling itself is good spiritual exercise.

And this is a psalm to wrestle with (or to wrestle against).  It is a strange one – and it gets stranger the more closely we examine it.  It is very far removed from our modern / post-modern scientific rationalism.  It was written in a time when demons and creatures of the night ruled the darkness – when illness was an entity to be feared. Psalm 91 seems to be a charm against these principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness[i]; it is a “liturgy against disease produced by the attacks of evil spirits (McCullough, 493).”[ii] This psalm is described by the rabbinical writers as a “song against evil occurrences” or “the song against plagues.”[iii] And is still read in some Jewish traditions during the stops of funeral processions as a way of warding off harmful spirits. 

Though he isn’t mentioned specifically, it seems to be the Canaanite chthonic god, Resheph, “lord of battle and diseases, which he spreads through his bow and arrows" (Xella, 701)[iv] that Psalm 91 has in mind. The faithful of God is promised protection against the “terror of the night and the arrows that fly by day,” the poisoned pestilential arrows of the demonic deity Resheph.

Resheph appears elsewhere in the bible – though as a personification of those natural forces, as a diminished deity now in forced subservience to Yahweh. 

In Deuteronomy 32: 23 - 24 Yahweh says: I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust. (KJV) Resheph (here translated as “burning heat”) is one of the arrows of disaster fired by Yahweh.

In Psalm 78:48 - He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts. (KJV) Resheph here is the flaming “thunderbolts.”

In the bible Resheph is often seen company with other demonic forces such as Qeteb “the destroyer” (he is there in Deuteronomy 32 as “bitter destruction”) and Deber “the pestilence” (he is the “plague that prowls in the dark” of Psalm 91: 6).  The prophet Habakkuk sees Yahweh going off to war with Deber going before him and Resheph following after - Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet. Habakkuk 3:5 (KJV)

Plague, pestilence, burning arrows of fever and death.  These were the terrors of the night – the plague prowling in the gloom and the scourge stalking at noon.  These demonic forces caused a thousand to fall on one side, and ten thousand at the other side of Yahweh’s faithful.

But the faithful himself would not need to worry.  He would live to see the bloated rotting bodies of his enemies (91: 8) but no plague would approach his tent because he knew and acknowledged the name of God, and trusted Yahweh to be his stronghold.

I've written on Psalm 91 before:
By the Speaking of this Charm
Can We Find that Secret Place of the Most High?

[i] Ephesians 6:12
[ii] McCullough, W. Stewart, “Psalms: Exegesis” in Psalms; Proverbs vol. IV of the Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1955. 
[iii] Talmud, Shevu’oth 15b
[iv] Xella, Paolo, “Resheph” in The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1999.

Biblical Limericks: There Once Was a Gal from Magdala

There once was a gal from Magdala
whose life was anything but gala,
she had seven demons
till Jesus brought reason,
casting them from her amygdala.

Luke 8: 2, Mark 16:9 

What I’m Reading: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo would be better called by its French title – Notre-Dame de Paris.  While Quasimodo, the hunchback, is an important character, he is not the central character.   The cathedral  stands at the center of the story; everything happens in or around it.  The characters of the story live and die in its shadow.

I first read Notre-Dame de Paris for an assignment in high school.  My teacher discouraged me from it saying that it was too large a book (500 pages) and too complex.  But I read it, and loved it despite her.  And I have read it several times again since then.  Yes, the characters are drawn large.  And yes, the plot relies on some wildly implausible coincidences.  But Hugo tells the story so well that we don’t mind.

There is an almost Manichaean emphasis on the contrast between dark and light in this book.  The darkened soul of the priest, Claude Frollo, seeks illumination in his alchemical texts.  The bright and beautiful young man, Captain Phoebus (whose name comes from the Greek god of the sun), is utterly unenlightened and doesn’t care. Esmeralda is the embodiment of beauty and grace.  Quasimodo is the incarnation of every grotesque human deformity.    And fate (another important theme of the novel) brings them together in the eponymous cathedral. 

Notre-Dame de Paris isn’t as ‘political’ as his other famous work Les Miserable, but the same pathos is evident here.  Hugo shows us a detailed portrait of the life and customs and of fifteenth-century Paris.  In fact, his research delayed the publication of the book.  Several of the characters are based upon real people he discovered during his research including, perhaps, Quasimodo.

If you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (particularly the Disney version…shudder…) you should forget what you’ve seen and read the book.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


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