Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Book of the Dead

When the Alliance forces stopped their drive into Iraq in March 1991, the 3rd Armored Division—the unit I was attached to—was about 350 miles southeast of Baghdad. While in the years to come there would be much criticism of the U.S. government's decision to cease attacking and advancing into Iraq, at the time there was hardly a person on the ground who was not baffled by it. After four days of fighting, frontline Iraqi formations were scattered, on the run, and surrendering; elite Republican Guard units were falling back on the capital and attempting to intercept an Iranian drive on the religious city of Karbala; and Saddam Hussein, the latter-day Hitler of the Middle East, was still very much in power.

Before the four-day ground war had erupted, the Alliance army—made up mainly of Americans, Brits, French, Egyptians, small contingents of Arabs from the various minor Gulf states, and even Syrians—had massed along the Iraqi border in Saudi Arabia, dodging sporadic Scud attacks and letting waves of bombers blow the hell out of Iraqi soldiers and cities.

My unit, the 404th Civil Affairs Company, a reserve unit from Trenton, New Jersey, landed in Saudi Arabia on February 5, 1991. In the weeks prior to our departure from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, analysts had predicted 50,000 dead and wounded Americans in the first two weeks of fighting with Iraq, which was expected to utilize chemical, biological, and maybe even tactical nuclear weapons. A lot of the people in our unit—and presumably other units as well—were scared as hell at the prospect of flying into that kind of a situation, and many had tried everything they could to avoid being sent overseas with the rest of the company. In retrospect, of course, because of the actual low casualty rates, the ignominy of evading duty with one's unit is both easier to forget and all the more foolish.

When the transport aircraft we were riding in began its descent toward Dahran Air Base in Saudi Arabia, I expected a scene like I had read about in accounts of the Vietnam War sieges of Dien Bien Phu or Khe San—rockets pounding into the tarmac, soldiers burrowed in holes in the ground until mortar rounds or artillery shells hit and churned them out, commanders desperately trying to counter waves of sappers as they came over the wire … When we landed, we were greeted by some of the people from our unit who had flown in the week before as an advance party, and warned to watch out for the small clusters of wily-looking regular Army soldiers who lurked about the air base, looking for the chance to steal equipment from incoming troops.

After a brief stay in El Khobar Towers (made famous by a car bombing several years after Desert Storm), the 404th issued me a truck and sent me and about half of the other people in the unit out in small detachments to several of the combat units massing on the Iraqi frontier; as Civil Affairs soldiers, our job was to interact with civilians and refugees who ended up in the path of the army. Coincidentally, the soldiers who remained behind in Dahran were all longstanding members of 404th; those who were sent out into the war were members of a small unit from Connecticut that had been merged with the company to round out its strength; individuals like myself who had been called back to military service for the war; and a handful of 404th veterans who deeply resented being sent out with the other sacrificial lambs.

After a drive north up the Saudi coast past Jubail, our mini-convoy of two trucks headed inland, northwest, along Trans-Arabian Pipeline Road, referred to in speech as Tapline Road. Our destination was King Khalid Military City (KKMC), a major Saudi military base whose location is so secret that it is not supposed to appear on maps and even we were not given its location, just directions on how to get to it. After arriving in the neighborhood of KKMC, we were to find the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division, for which we would provide Civil Affairs support. Our trip inland was attended by rain, fog, and frost on our windshields in the morning, conditions not hinted at by the reports of journalists stationed on the Gulf Coast.

We rendezvoused in the desert with the 2nd Brigade after several days of driving to and around KKMC, arriving at a chaotic mustering area in the dark, vehicles shambling around in every direction, navigating only in the dim green light of night observation goggles, headlights being banned for security reasons. It was under these conditions that the first sergeant of the company we camped near was killed, run over as he slept by a sort of military 18-wheeler called a Hemmit. This incident was viewed as an inauspicious omen, and demoralized many of the troops who heard about it, especially those in the dead man's company.

Shortly thereafter we began to advance on the Iraqi border. While the combat elements of the brigade led the way with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery pieces, my truck fell into formation with the massive trains of support vehicles that followed in their wake. The trucks, Humvees, personnel carriers, and other support vehicles traveled in six columns, each separated by 50 meters; these columns stretched nearly two kilometers in length, each vehicle 50 meters behind the last. So, each vehicle was separated by 50 meters from the ones to its front, back, left, and right (unless it was on an outside column, in which case it did not have anything on one side, or at the very front or very rear of a column). This great formation, a block of vehicles 250 meters wide and almost 2,000 meters long, roared across the desert toward the heart of Iraq, a shaft pushing along a tempered steel head.

At night, the columns would come to a halt, gingerly tighten up the interval between vehicles to just a few feet, and block off the alleys in between the columns by parking trucks at their ends. It was in these spaces that we camped at night.

I made friends with some of the other soldiers in the unit, among them Specialist Todd Blair and Captain Christine Maruffo. One of the ways we entertained ourselves at night was by telling stories or by reading to each other. My choice for reading material was a book by H.P. Lovecraft that I had brought with me, and Blair's choice was P. J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell.

Coincidentally, many of Lovecraft's stories, written in the 1920s and '30s, took place in or referred to events in Mesopotamia, Iraq, the area we were entering. His dark, nightmarish stories, perfect for reading by the glow of a chem-light while crammed into a Humvee, deal with primordial gods and races who prey upon a largely unsuspecting humanity. One of his subjects is a book called the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, a tome that appears in or is mentioned in a great number of his stories.

After days of driving through endless expanses of flat, featureless, rocky desert, we came upon a huge earthen berm, erected by Hussein's troops as a defensive barrier against invasion from the west. Great holes appeared in the earthwork every half mile or so, breached by American combat engineers, and the vehicles of our column drove through one-by-one, reassembling on the other side. A large placard identified the unit that had excavated the breach that we drove through: the 82nd Engineer Battalion, the same unit my grandfather had been a member of when it plowed through northern France toward Germany in 1944, after the breakout from Normandy. That unit had been stationed in Bamberg, West Germany, when I lived there as a child, and I used to walk past a similar sign identifying its headquarters when I wandered around the U.S. Army post in the afternoons after school.

For four days after we entered Iraq through its western wall, we followed the combat forces as they finished off and routed the Iraqi army. At night, we could watch the lights of B-52s stream eastward across the sky like flocks of shooting stars to drop payloads of bombs on cites, troops, or minefields, and near dawn we could see them returning to their bases in Saudi Arabia; the horizon a kilometer or two ahead of us would be lit by cannon and rifle fire and the muffled sounds of combat. In the morning, we would advance onto the battlefields, past smoldering tanks, collapsed bunkers, overrun fortifications. Small packs of dogs trotted everywhere, emboldened by the taste of human flesh.

After four days, a "100-hour war," the Alliance ceased its drive against the Iraqi forces, a decision that, while it has ultimately baffled many, first mystified the soldiers on the ground.

Once the actual fighting had ended, our work as Civil Affairs soldiers began. Initially, we set up camp at the furthest extent of U.S. advancement into Iraq, on a stretch of road called Highway 8, and began to provide aid for refugees coming down the road from the northwest, from the direction of Baghdad, headed southeast toward Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. We distributed food, directed people into medical tents, told people how Saddam Hussein had been defeated, how they had nothing to fear any more, how the superiority of our arms had determined the future for Iraq. We also searched vehicles headed into our zone of control (very few people were actually on foot), clearing people out of buses, cars, and trucks, and confiscating any weapons we found. While people in the United States were debating whether to arm Saddam Hussein's enemies, we were taking from them the few weapons they had.

At one point, a delegation of Bedouins came to us because they wanted to be supplied with weapons; brigade and division commanders bumped such civilian delegations on to the Civil Affairs people, as it was our  job to deal with civilian concerns. Our commander explained that the people who made this decision were in Safwan, a village on the Kuwaiti border 80 miles to the southeast. Some of the soldiers snickered at their mode of transportation, a dump truck, and others at their store-bought robes.

A few days later, the Bedouins showed up again, having been rebuffed in Safwan and sent back to us. They were almost out of gas, had left their families alone for a long time, wanted to know what we could do for them. Nothing, of course; not our problem. But we smiled, were friendly, quite unlike the way they thought soldiers were supposed to behave.

That more than anything baffled the people we dealt with. When they saw soldiers and guns, they expected to be shot at. We never shot at anyone, and probably no Iraqi civilian was shot at by an American during the entire operation. We smiled, shook their hands, gave them food, won their hearts and minds, took their guns, and sent them on their way.

After a few weeks of disarming people, my two-truck Civil Affairs team headed southeast, toward Safwan, where so many of the refugees had been heading. For many of them, their escape from Iraq ended there; many non-Shiites were afraid to go across the Shaat al-Arab into Iran, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were refusing entry to most refugees. A series of refugee camps were thus set up in and around the little town.

During our stay in Safwan, we oversaw food distribution for the local people. One of the three main clans who controlled the village would assist us, while the other townspeople would line up to receive their rations. Nearly every day, shoving, wailing, reentering lines, stealing, and every other predictable antic culminated in a full-blown food riot, with incendiaries being flung over the walls of the school we were operating from, and troops rushing from corner to corner of the compound, battling hand-to-hand with rifle butts the clusters of people who began to grow into a mob. Finally, we would abandon the remains of the food, pile into our trucks, and drive out through the mob as they rushed to pillage the last of the supplies. This routine was repeated on a daily basis.

These rioters were, as noted, Iraqi villagers, not refugees. Indeed, there was very little unrest in the refugee camps, where the people seemed, uncannily, to be very well behaved. As it turned out, however, the circumstances of their best behavior were not all that uncanny, as another Civil Affairs soldier explained to me ...

Apparently, the commander of the 3rd Armored Division had ordered that a large book, a big blank tome found in a school or other official building, be made available to the refugees. Those who wanted to go to America when the G.I.s pulled out just needed to sign their names in it and then behave themselves until it was time to go.

Over the next few months, as U.S. forces pulled out of the area, very few, maybe none, of the people who signed that book were ever taken out of Iraq by the United States. And what of the book? Was it taken back, like some gruesome relic, a stack of paper permeated with the souls of thousands? Not too damned likely; it is hard to imagine anyone who would want evidence like that ever turning up against them, a book full of pointing, accusing fingers. Was it burned? I hope so. Because if it was left behind, of course, it probably ended up in the hands of the Iraqi secret police, followed soon thereafter by the people they represented. The people whose hearts and minds we won, who we professed our friendship to. The people who could not escape into liberated Kuwait, who could not enter a U.S-defended Saudi Arabia. Sometimes I wonder where they are today,  so many years after they signed their names in that book … God only knows. I hope when the Republican Guards swept back into southern Iraq that those people swore allegiance to Saddam Hussein, spat on the American flag, cursed Uncle Sam. It does not hurt a single American if they did, and it very well might have helped some of them.

Despite the months of invective against him in the months leading up to Desert Storm, and the years following the 1991 operations, Saddam Hussein remained in power another 12 years. Reasons given for why he was not ousted at the time were as diverse as they were meaningless—fear of a power vacuum that will be filled by even "worse" powers, an inability to remove him because of the limitations of the U.N. mandate that called for the Alliance to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, fears that the tables would have been turned on the Alliance forces if they had made it as far as Baghdad. Sane minds are forced to reject other notions that creep into them, dismal, lingering fears that those who rule countries have a greater affinity with their counterparts even in enemy states than they do with the masses of their own nations, more sympathy for those who command opposing forces than for the troops who fill their own armies. 

And if little regard was ultimately to be given for the American soldiers who fought in the sands of the Middle East then and in the decades that followed, what was given to the masses of refugees who were led to believe that those soldiers were their friends, that the United States would, inexplicably, save them? What became of the people who signed their names in that book in a village in southern Iraq? I have no idea whether or not there is any truth to the myth that angels enter into a Book of Life that sits near the gates of Heaven the names of those who have been blessed. For a certainty, however, I know that for a short time a Book of the Dead could be found in the desert outside a village near the gates of Hell, and into it were entered the names of the damned. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Improved Republican Presidential Candidate Code Names

During the September 17 Republican Presidential Debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, each of the 11 candidates was given the opportunity to say what their Secret Service code names would be. None of them were quite right and some were absolutely wrong, so we decided to come up with some more appropriate selections here. 

Jeb Bush: "Eveready." Oh yeah, we are really feeling this allusion to high-energy batteries. In light of some of his recent comments, Jeb really comes off as much more of a "Momma's Boy."

Ben Carson: "One Nation." Yeah, well, this doesn't really sound like a name for a person, especially one who seems to be perpetually doing a Tommy Chong impression ... Oh, there we go! "Tommy Chong" it is.

Chris Christie: "True Heart." Wait, did he mean to say "Enlarged Heart"? That would work better, but we are nonetheless going to go with "Deep Dish."

Ted Cruz: "Cohiba." Nope. That is appealingly phallic but he was already, and will increasingly become, "Grandpa Munster." 

Carly Fiorina: "Secretariat." OMG, and right after one of her opponents said she had a face like a horse? Really? Maybe we will just let her have this one, unless she wants to switch over to "Mrs. Ed" ...

Mike Huckabee: "Duck Hunter." Does this guy actually hunt ducks? Mostly we just see him doing things like visiting homophobes in jail and encouraging them to break the laws of the land. "Civil Disobedience" it is.

John Kasich: "Unit One." Uh huh. But what if the bad guys know that's already your Ohio code name? "You-Nit-Wit" is probably a little more accurate. 

Marco Rubio: "Gator." Cute, Marco, but no, alligators don't bring their own beverages when they visit California and you will henceforth be known as "Water Bottle."

Donald Trump: "Humble." Humor doesn't work when it is this blatant ... We are going to go with the much more clever "McDuck," which plays off the name Donald, the candidate's modified DA haircut, and the prolific references to his great wealth. 

Scott Walker: "Harley." Very butch. And is someone paying him for this motorcycle company endorsement? With Walker's abiding respect for education and teachers, however, we are thinking "Professor" might be a more appropriate nickname for him.

Rand Paul: "Justice Never Sleeps." Hahaha, really? Not sure what the hell he was thinking with this ... You're number 11 right now, but maybe the sun will come out tomorrow, "Annie." 

So what would your code names for the Republican Presidential Candidates be? Let us know what you think of these and feel free to post yours here! 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Of Christians and Cosplayers

By Michael O. Varhola

Every Memorial Day Weekend I attend a big fan convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center and Hilton Americas hotel in Houston called Comicpalooza that is noted for its many costumed attendees (like those shown in the picture at right taken during the event by my friend Chris Van Deelen). And, each year, I hear stories from attendees about unpleasant interactions they have had with members of the annual Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, an event that for some years has been held at the same time and place.

Perhaps because I make an effort to not pay attention to other people, largely out of respect for their privacy and as part of an effort to preserve my own, I have never really picked up on more than a few disapproving glances from the Methodists — until this year.

On the last day of Comicpalooza, I needed to start getting my out-of-town people transported to the airport and went down to the lobby of the hotel to figure out which entrance they would be departing from. I saw an older woman with a clipboard standing near the revolving door and, thinking she might be with my convention's transportation team, walked up to her.

"Excuse me," I said. "Are you with Comicpalooza?"

Suffice it to say, I was struck when she snarled back at me:

"Do I look like I'm with Comicpalooza?" It was only then that I saw the bus she was guiding passengers toward was one carrying members of the Methodist conference.

"We're all just people," I replied in as even a tone as I could before walking away, "so there is no way for me to tell without asking."

Based on this experience, it certainly would have been easy for me to launch into a rant about the hypocrisy of Christians in general or Methodists in particular. It bears mentioning that an exceptionally unpleasant person I have known my entire life and who has had a significant negative impact on it, is by all accounts a devout Methodist, so I have no affinity for this particular sect.

As easy as it might be to do that, however, for a number of reasons I do not think it would be right.

To start with, while I was momentarily stung by her harsh words, I was not me that was harmed by this unpleasant woman, whatever her intent might have been. What she did harm, however, and, indeed, even invalidate her relationship with, was her own church. I have known so many people over the years who have been driven away from organized religion by people just like this who cruelly abused their positions as parents, relatives, or other authority figures. It is impossible to calculate the damage they inflict on the organizations they so shoddily serve by their inclinations to mistreat others. I am secure in my faith and cannot have it easily shaken, but I have to wonder how many young people over the years might have ultimately rejected Christianity because of the example this woman set.

"They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him," Titus 1:16 says. "They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for doing anything good."

In all fairness I also have to mention that I had numerous minor positive interactions with individual Methodists over the course of the weekend. These ranged from pleasantries exchanged in elevators to having a fun conversation with an attendee who happened to be using the hotel hot tub at the same time some of my friends and I were. Not taking those into consideration would hardly be fair to the people who were naturally kind, or even those who were merely neutral in their demeanor and intent on minding their own business. 

All this serves to remind me of the fundamental fact that people are people and that one can find good and bad pretty uniformly no matter where they look. While perhaps counter-intuitive, it is indeed true that labels people assign themselves and organizations they belong to play so much less of a role in who they are and how they act, for better or worse, than many might imagine. And so the important thing here is not to see the tiny things that make us all a little different, as this wretched woman did, but the big ones that make us all the same in so many ways. Tolerance, compassion, and forbearance are what is called for.

So God bless the Texas Methodists. I sincerely hope they had a good and productive conference. There is plenty of room for all of us, in this world overall and at the places we share for our respective events, and I look forward to seeing them all again next year.

Well. Most of them anyway. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Gods of the Bible

By Michael O. Varhola

It may come as a surprise to many people that dozens of pagan and gentile gods appear in the Bible, along with numerous supernatural beings, such as demons, angels, and Nephilim, and so we decided to make an examination of them here. Indeed, God himself has such varying characteristics throughout the Bible that it is valid to ask if the same being is actually being discussed at each point he appears. Most of the following entities were worshiped by the indigenous peoples of the Holy Land which, because they are the most reviled by the People of the Book, are also the most well known. We have also included hotlinks back to an online edition of the New International Version of the Bible for those who wish to read the verses in question and have included our favorite passage pertinent to each entry. Comments are welcome! 

Ares: While he is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the Greek god of war is implicitly present in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:19, Acts 17:22, Acts 17:34), in the episode where Saint Paul addresses the people of Athens from the place known to them as the Areopagus (shown above right). This "Hill of Ares" took its name from a mythological event in which the namesake god was tried  and acquitted  for murdering one of Poseidon's children, and the term also applied to a legislative assembly that met at the spot. Acts 17:22-23: "Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: 'People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship  and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.'"

Artemis: Artemis was worshiped as a mother goddess by the Hellenized residents of Ephesus — where her great temple became one of the Seven Wonders of the World — and turns up five times in as many verses in the New Testament, all in the book of Acts I (Acts 19:24, Acts 19:27, Acts 19:28, Acts 19:34, Acts 19:35). The Christian church in Ephesus is one of the seven mentioned in the Book of Revelation and, according to tradition, this city of Asia Minor is where Mary, mother of Jesus, retired to after her travails. Acts 19:35: "The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: 'Fellow Ephesians, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?'"

Asherah: This mother goddess is the wife of Baal and carries a variety of titles, among them "Queen of Heaven." She is almost always referenced in terms of Jewish apostasy and often in conjunction with the term "Asherah poles," a type votive item associated with the goddess, and is mentioned 40 times in 40 verses (Exodus 34:13, Deuteronomy 7:5, Deuteronomy 12:3, Deuteronomy 16:21, Judges 3:7, Judges 6:25, Judges 6:26, Judges 6:28, Judges 6:30, 1 Kings 14:15, ). A representative and particularly evocative example can be found in Second Kings 17:16: "They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal."

Ashtoreth (Astarte): A Middle Eastern goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war who was worshipped by the Greeks in the guise of Aphrodite. She appears nine times in nine verses, all in the Old Testament (Judges 2:13, Judges 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:3, 1 Samuel 7:4, 1 Samuel 12:10, 1 Samuel 31:10, 1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:13). Second Kings 23:13: "The king also desecrated the high places that were east of Jerusalem on the south of the Hill of Corruption — the ones Solomon king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the vile god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the people of Ammon."

Athena: The classical Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare does not explicitly appear in the Bible but does so implicitly as the namesake for the city of Athens, which was named after and dedicated to her. The most famous structure in Athens, in fact, the Parthenon, takes its name directly from Athena Parthenos, the virginal aspect of the deity. This seat of philosophy and learning is mentioned five times, all in the New Testament (Acts 17:15, Acts 17:16, Acts 17:22, Acts 18:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:1).

Atum (Atum-Re, Re-Atum): This Egyptian sun god is implictly present in Ezekiel 30:17, in one of the characteristic Biblical passages about the bad things that are going to happen to other people: "The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity." Also known as Awanu, "the Place of Pillars," and translated from Greek as "city of the sun," Heliopolis was the principle seat of worship for Atum, "the evening sun." He was one of the most important and frequently-mentioned deities from earliest times, as evidenced by his prominence in various sacred texts. He is believed to have created himself and is portrayed as both a creator and a destroyer who will precipitate the end of the world and, as a result of these characteristics, was sometimes known as "the complete one."

Baal: A name that translates simply as "lord" or "master" and is widely applied variously to both the Caananite storm god and to the predominant deity of any particular place; this title is sometimes even used as a synonym for all the local pagan deities in an area (e.g., "the Baals"). This is the first proper name/honorific given to a foreign god in the Bible and, because of its sometimes generic but nonetheless reviled nature, it is referred to in some context in a staggering 134 verses, all but one of them in the Old Testament (so it will take us awhile to get all the pertinent links posted). We will devote two quotes to him here, one each from the Old and New Testaments. The first clear reference to Baal as a deity appears in Numbers 25:3: "So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them." The final reference appears in Romans 11:4: "And what was God’s answer to him? 'I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.'"

Baal-Zebub: This Semitic deity was revered in the Philistine city of Ekron in the era of the Old Testament and is apparently the same being referred to variously by the same name or as Beelzebul or Beelzebub in the New Testament, where he is identified as the "Prince of Demons." He is mentioned four times in the Book of Second Kings (2 Kings 1:2, 2 Kings 1:3, 2 Kings 1:6, 2 Kings 1:16). 2 Kings 1:2: "Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, 'Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.'" Meaning "Lord of Flies" or "Lord of Dung," this name may simply have been a perjorative modification of "Baal" (q.v.) rather than an actual reflection on the nature of Philistine religion.

Bast (Baast, Bastet, Ubasti): This Egyptian goddess is implictly referred to in Ezekiel 30:17: "The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity." Bubastis, the "House of Bast," was named for and dedicated to the cat-headed goddess Bast, who in her earliest incarnations was associated with a wild lioness but who ultimately came to be associated with the domesticated cat (an animal critical in agricultural Egypt, where rodents could ravage grain stores). In keeping with the cat's role as an enemy of vermin that might menace people in their homes, Bast is said to have battled and defeated the evil serpent Apep (often known by the Greek name Apophis).

Chemosh: Worship of "the vile god of Moab," who reportedly became angry with his people and allowed them to be enslaved by the Israelites, was introduced in Jerusalem by Solomon. He is mentioned eight times in eight verses, all in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:29, Judges 11:24, 1 Kings 11:7, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:13, Jeremiah 48:7, Jeremiah 48:13, Jeremiah 48:46). First Kings 11:7: "On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites."

Dagon: A major god of the once-seafaring Phillistines, Dagon is generally represented as a muscular, bearded man with the lower body of a great fish. He is referred to as a deity 10 times in seven verses (Judges 16:23, 1 Samuel 5:2, 1 Samuel 5:3, 1 Samuel 5:4, 1 Samuel 5:5, 1 Samuel 5:7, 1 Chronicles 10:10), and twice more in two verses as part of place names that may have been named for him (Joshua 15:41, Joshua 19:27), all in the Old Testament. Judges 16:23: "Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, 'Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.'"

"foreign gods": Unnamed foreign gods are referred to early in the Bible, not long after the first reference to similarly unnamed "household gods," in Genesis 35:2: "So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, 'Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.'"

"gods of Egypt": References to Egypt appear beginning in the the book of Genesis, but its as-yet unnamed deities are not mentioned until Exodus 12:12: "'On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.'"

Hadad: Hadad was an ancient Semitic war, fertility, and storm god who was associated with the Edomites among others and equated with the the Egyptian deity Set, the Greek Zeus, and the Roman Jupiter. He was sometimes referred to simply as Baal, or "Lord," and many of the occurrences in the Bible of this name are likely to have been references to Hadad. The name Hadad appears 63 times in the Bible, all in the Old Testament as an honorific in proper names (e.g., Hadadezer, "Hadad is my help"); generally these are the names of kings and in a few are of places but none are explicitly used as the name of the deity. 1 Kings 20:16: "They set out at noon while Ben-Hadad and the 32 kings allied with him were in their tents getting drunk."

Hermes: Hermes was, amongst other things, the god of messengers and the roadways to the ancient Greeks. He is mentioned once in the New Testament of the Bible, in Acts 14:12, when the Apostle Paul is mistaken for the deity Hermes during a visit to the Asia Minor city of Lystra in A.D. 48. Acts 14:12: "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker." The entirey of this episode, one of the most amusing in the New Testament, can be read in Acts 14:8-20. (The name Hermes turns up once more in the Bible, in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, but as the name of a mortal member of the church to whom the letter is addressed.)

"household gods": The first reference in the Bible gods other than the God of the Israelites is to the unnamed "household gods" worshiped by Rachel's father in Genesis 31:19: "When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods." These probably would have been hearth goddesses, minor tribal deities, and/or the spirits of ancestors, which watched over and protected the home and its inhabitants.

Leviathan: Not a deity in the sense that most modern people would understand it, Leviathan was an ancient elemental monster who appears in the pre-Biblical epics of Baal and Gilgamesh. It appears in the Bible mostly as a device for showing God's power over immense forces and is mentioned seven times in six verses, all in the Old Testament and half in the Book of Job [Job 3:8, Job 41:1, Job 41:12, Psalm 74:14, Psalm 104:26, Isaiah 27:1]. Psalm 74:14: "It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert."

Marduk: This deity was chief of the Mesopotamian pantheon and patron of the city of Babylon during the era of the Old Testament and was associated with water, vegetation, judgment, magic, and the planet Jupiter. He is mentioned explicitly just once, in the Book of Jeremiah, but is alluded to four other times — presumably as an honorific — in the composite names of two kings, Marduk-Baladan and Awel-Marduk (2 Kings 20:12, 2 Kings 25:27, Isaiah 39:1, Jeremiah 52:31).Jeremiah 50:2: “Announce and proclaim among the nations, lift up a banner and proclaim it; keep nothing back, but say, ‘Babylon will be captured; Bel will be put to shame, Marduk filled with terror. Her images will be put to shame and her idols filled with terror.’"

Molek (Molech, Milcom): "The detestable god of the people of Ammon" (Second Kings 23:13). Molek has the distinction of being one of the few divine beings who appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, a total of 16 times in as many verses [Leviticus 18:21, Leviticus 20:2, Leviticus 20:3, Leviticus 20:4, Leviticus 20:5, 1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 11:7, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:10, 2 Kings 23:13, Isaiah 57:9, Jeremiah 32:35, Jeremiah 49:1, Jeremiah 49:3, Zephaniah 1:5, Acts 7:43]. Leviticus 18:21: "'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.'" Acts 7:43: "You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon."

Nehushtan: This was the brass or bronze serpent that Moses raised up on a pole in order to protect the Israelites from the venomous snakes that an irritated God sent to bite them (Numbers 21:4-9). As what appears to be a generalized slip into apostasy, the Israelites had begun to worship this relic by the time of King Hezekiah, and he responded accordingly, as indicated in 2 Kings 18:4: "He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)" This idol appears to have acquired the label "the Nehushtan" during or after the time of Hezekiah and the actual name by which it was venerated is unknown.

Queen of Heaven: This celestial goddess was at one point especially popular with the people of Judah, who made sacrifice to her and baked cakes bearing her image, and is cited four times in four verses in the Book of Jeremiah (7:18, 44:17-19). She is variously identified as the goddess Asherah (q.v.) or Astarte (q.v.). Jeremiah 44:17: "We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm."

Rimmon: A major deity worshiped in Syria, and whose temple is believed to have been in Damascus, who may have been known as Baal in other places. He is mentioned as a deity just once in the Bible, although his name turns up at least 10 times in place names that may have been dedicated to him. 2 Kings 5:18: "But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also — when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”

Tammuz: A Sumerian god of fertility and vegetation who, as the length of days grew shorter after the Summer Solstice, was mourned by his followers as his influence over the world waned. He was adopted by the Greeks as Adonis and is believed by some to have been worshiped at the sport where the Church of the Nativity would eventually be established. He is mentioned just once in the Bible, in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel 8:14: "Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz."

Zeus: This chief god of the classic Greek pantheon is mentioned twice in the Bible, both times in the New Testament, as part of an episode in which two Apostles are so eloquent that they are mistaken for pagan gods during a visit to the Asia Minor city of Lystra in A.D. 48. Acts 14:12-13: "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reading the Koran

By Michael O. Varhola

For many years I have been intending to read the Koran and have increasingly come to believe that doing so is critical to anyone who wants to better understand current world events and the growing ideological divides that shape them. I am not completely unfamiliar with this central religious text of Islam, of course, and have absorbed some knowledge of it over the years from any number of sources.

Muslims believe that the Koran, literally "the recitation," is a revelation from God passed on to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of about 23 years, beginning on December 22 A.D. 609 and concluding in A.D 632. They regard the Koran as the most important miracle of Muhammad, proof of his prophethood, and the culmination of a series of divine messages that started with those given to Adam. They further believe that it is the only book of revelation that has been protected by God from distortion or corruption.

The Koran is organized into 114 suras, or chapters, which are further divided into ayahs, or verses. According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes and, shortly after his death, recorded the things that had been revealed to him. Interestingly, the Koran assumes familiarity with elements of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, summarizing some, dwelling at length on others and, presenting alternative accounts and interpretations in others. At some points it also offers detailed accounts of specific historical events and often emphasizes their moral significance. 

During prayers the Koran is recited only in Arabic and according to purists it can only be read in this language. Suffice it to say this presents to me as ethnic chauvinism that parallels the belief once held by many that the Bible could only be read in Latin, and there are millions of devout Muslims worldwide who study the Koran in their native languages.

Apropos of that, I am reading the Koran on a website devoted to providing translated versions of it in multiple languages. There are six such English versions  “Sahih International,” “Muhsin Khan,” “Pickthall,” “Yusuf Ali,” “Shakir,” and “Dr. Ghali”  all with different sources and varying characteristics. After some consideration I decided to go with the version translated by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an author, scholar, and early 20th century English convert to Islam, a primary reason being that I was most comfortable with his verbiage (e.g., he uses the term “Day of Judgment,” as opposed to the more alien “Day of Recompense” or “Day of Doom” used in some of the other translations).

My intent is to approach my reading with respect and piety and with as few preconceived notions as possible (although I am expecting, as with my reading of the Bible, to discover things that can in no way be correlated with the religion that has grown out of the text). I do not believe reading the Koran will in any way be spiritually harmful and, contrary to that, expect to derive some benefit from it. As someone who is already a devout person of faith, however, I do not suspect that I will end up converting to Islam as a result of reading it. 

As I read each sura I will post a brief commentary on it here. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

I was raised in the Midwest, Minnesota to be precise, in a Lutheran household.  Going to church every Sunday, attending Sunday school, and singing in whatever Choir was appropriate for my age at a given time was simply part of life. I will not go so far to say that faith or religion in general was of foremost importance to me in my youth, but it was a significant part of my life and did play a role in the person I grew to become.

As often is the case, once I left home my life grew too busy and my overwhelming schedule of working and going to college simultaneously led to my rarely attending services of any kind.  For more than a decade, I was pretty much un-churched other than the occasional ritualistic holiday service attendance.  I married and started a career, neither my job nor my husband at the time found religion to be important so it was actually quite easy to forget its former importance to me.

By the time my daughters were two and three, I began to feel that it was my responsibility to “expose” them to religion because I felt that by not doing so I was choosing for them.  So while living on a military compound in Mannheim Germany in the 80’s, I began to attend generic Protestant services each Sunday, and joined both the choir and a group called Protestant Women of the Chapel.

During that time, our entire family was a regular fixture at Sunday services as well as numerous other church sponsored activities.  This period was a fairly lonely time for me since my husband seemed to always be at work or at a work related activity and I found solace in my new church friends.  Beyond that, for the first time in my life, I saw something in these people, a light, a joy, a positive sense of direction and hope for the future that I had been missing. Many of these people had suffered great loss in their lives and yet they remained at peace and I wanted that peace, that joy, that sense of knowing what the future would bring.

As it turned out, my sense of well-being would be short lived.  My marriage ended abruptly while I was still in Germany and I ultimately collected up a few suitcases of belongings and my two daughters and headed home to Minnesota with no idea what I would be doing or what the future would bring. As they say, timing is everything and since my father had recently passed away, my Mother was overjoyed to have her daughter and grand-daughters close by.  There was never any question but that we would all attend church each and every Sunday together, and so we did.

For awhile, I considered staying in that small town of my childhood dreaming that my girls would benefit from growing up there, but career opportunities were limited and I actually missed city life.  So after six months, we rented a moving van, collected the furniture items we had acquired during our brief stay and moved back to the DC area.

This was during the administration of George H. W. Bush and employment opportunities were not good even in the DC area, but I was able to get a job which led to a better job and so on.  We tried attending a local Lutheran church nearby, but the pastor seemed really creepy and we never returned. By year three I was working at a state university near my home and enjoying life.  My daily commute took me by a small but attractive Lutheran church and eventually one Sunday I got the girls and I all dressed up and off we went to church.  Perhaps if things had gone differently, I might never have gone back, but these people seemed genuinely interested in us and even came by to visit us in our home. 

Once again I became a regular Sunday church goer and my girls really liked Sunday school.  Over time we all embraced our church family, all singing in the choirs, attending youth events, and vacation bible school and bible camp. Eventually I was asked to become an elder and proudly accepted thinking that perhaps I was finally one of those people that others saw joy and hope within.

There were probably always little red flags that suggested something other than a desire to feel closer to God and serve him in some of the church members.  There seemed to be a profound emphasis on material things and affluence amongst some prominent members that made me uncomfortable but I chose to ignore. I think that by the time I retired in 2008, I was seriously considering looking for a new church home.  In 2009 we moved all the way to Texas and during the first few months I attended services at a few Lutheran churches and at one nondenominational church and none of them felt quite right.  After learning that one of the most prominent members of the one I favored the most was actually a convicted white collar criminal who had destroyed the lives of thousands of people, I stopped looking.

Probably the most profound disappointment of my life as a Christian came in the spring of 2012 when I spent a month back in the DC area with my daughters.  Because I was going to be in the area over Easter, I thought it would be fun to sing with my old church choir.  Sadly, I got a terrible cold and was unable to sing, but did attend several services. 

I was deeply disappointed in what my old church had become.  I had been a part of a huge fundraising effort to build a proper sanctuary for what had once been a quaint little church and had myself contributed more than $12,000 toward that end. I noted with great disappointment the nearly empty sanctuary on both Palm Sunday and Easter, days that the church used to be filled to overflowing. At first I wasn’t quite sure what was behind this poor attendance, but it soon became abundantly clear to me that the overall atmosphere was not one of peace, love, understanding or even mutual respect among the congregation.  In particular, during the children’s talk the lay minister asked the children about who they would invite to their birthday party.  When he specifically asked them if they would invite the President, and got a loud no from at least one very young child, which resulted in laughter by some of the adults and a comment from the woman seated next to me that it was great, I began to understand.

Over the next several days, I spent a lot of time wondering what had happened within that church and numerous others that condoned overt disrespect towards an elected official. I wondered if these same people who found this amusing because they held differing political views from the current President would think it equally funny when children showed disrespect to a teacher, a principal, or to a police officer.  After all, a message was being clearly conveyed to very young children that they need not show respect and it that it was even OK to say mean things and hate. I often hear Christian friends claim that allowing prayer in school will solve many of today's problems, but how can that be true when they are being exposed to hate and intolerance in their churches?

As I see it, religion has lost its way, lost sight of the love for fellow mankind that Jesus preached.  People now judge others, try to control the lives of others, discriminate against others, commit acts of violence against others and say mean hateful things to others, all in the name of religion.  I can only think that Jesus is heartbrokenly disappointed on what many religious institutions do in his name and the name of his Father.  I am a spiritual person, I believe in doing good when I can and certainly in doing no harm to others.  I also believe that people are free to do what they choose when it does not harm others, even if I don’t agree with their actions.

I now accept that I will never again be a member of any religious institution and I am comfortable with that decision.  Perhaps if there is a day of Rapture as many believe, I will be left behind, but so will many of the most prominent members and leaders of religious institutions, because they have long ago lost sight of the teachings of Jesus.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Can Blood Be Too Thick

All the time we see on TV friends and family members of criminals, politicians, and other public figures who are guilty of misconduct standing by their loved ones.  Most recently I recall the wife of General Jeffery Sinclair asking that he not be reduced in rank because it would be a hardship for his family to live on the retirement pay of a Lieutenant Colonel.  Really, I bet a lot of Lieutenant Colonels find that pretty hard to stomach.  Even more important is the given fact that during his career, Sinclair most certainly ended the careers of subordinates for far less egregious misconduct than he himself received a mere slap on the wrist for without giving a moment’s consideration to their families.
The family members of George Zimmerman come to mind as well. Not only were they strong supporters of his right to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager, they showed total indifference to the feelings of Treyvon Martin’s family, displaying a “he got what he deserved” attitude.
Looking at these two examples, I have to wonder if perhaps friends and families can and often do go too far in their support.  Personally I suspect that in the case of General Sinclair, the good ole’ boy network of Army General Officers chose to look the other way until they no longer could, as they always do when it comes to one of their own. 

 I once supervised a young soldier who had served in a clerical position in the Office of the Vice Chief of Staff, Army.  He candidly told me that misconduct by the Army’s most senior leaders was fairly common place and included numerous instances of adultery, misappropriation, and even shoplifting.  He was responsible for typing up the letters of reprimand, i.e. wrist slaps that never kept these officers from being further promoted because they were maintained in an area of their personnel file that no one would ever see. Mind you, he never told me the names of these personnel, but having been a Military Police Officer and seen some cases myself, I found no reason to doubt what he said. So the question I pose is how long do friends and family members have to ignore the bad behavior of a person before it causes real harm and/or escalates to more serious criminal behavior?
I was inspired to write this piece as a follow-up to an earlier blog Bad People Do Bad Things, Count on It. I had known the subject of that blog (let’s call him “Sam”) for nearly five years and had personally witnessed him behave inappropriately on a number of occasions.  Beyond that, I had heard of other things from mutual acquaintances that Sam had done before I ever knew him.  Even I was guilty of looking the other way and making excuses for him on some level.  When you have an adult man (pushing 70) who doesn’t make any attempt to control his use of profanity in public no matter how many young children are present, chases waitresses into the kitchens of restaurants, and actually salutes the breasts of the well endowed daughter of a friend, and the only response he gets from his wife is to giggle and say “Oh Sam,” you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that he probably doesn’t actually see his behavior as at all inappropriate.
I wrote the initial blog as an outlet for frustration due to his actually getting away with unethical and illegal conduct, but I admit that I secretly hoped that either he or a member of his family would see the piece and know who I was talking about.  I don’t know what kind of response I expected from any of them if any of them read it, but fantasized about Sam stomping around the room blustering about slander and law suits and even contacting a lawyer only to learn that not only had he not been named in the blog, but neither was the school or the community so he had no case. Of course beyond that, I hadn’t written anything that was not 100% true, he really did those things.  In any case, as recently as this week it became obvious that someone in his family had read the blog and knew who it was about.  I know this because his adult children had “unfriended” me, my husband, and both my daughters on Facebook.  Really, like I want anything to do with people of this caliber.  I am laughing picturing the family meeting with the wife blubbering about their reputations and Sam trying to figure out how to get revenge. Sadly, what I cannot imagine happening is either of those children asking him “did you do those things?”  Obviously the “rotten” apples didn’t fall far from that tree.
Life has many lessons and one of many things that I take away from this experience is that some families stick together no matter what; beyond that, they justify the bad behavior of each other.  We did not raise our daughters to never question the behavior of their parents or to accept everything we do as the best and only way.  You can bet that had my husband done what Sam did and someone wrote about it identifying him only by his conduct, I would never, ever have told my daughters about it and asked them to support him.  Their first question would have been, “did Dad actually do those things?”
No one is perfect and good all of the time, but I firmly believe that especially as parents, we lead by example.  What we teach our children when they are young and the examples we set for them are what makes them who they are as adults.  Here, and in everything, the adult children of Sam are behaving the only way they can, circling the wagons and justifying his bad behavior…and their own children are watching.  That alone in all of this makes me sad.