Quote of the Day

“One of the best ways of meeting the  accusations of our enemies is to lead a life of strict integrity. It is not easy for the wicked to reply to this argument.” – Albert Barnes


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Not Much to Blog About This Week

So here are some more pictures of Canyon de Chelly, taken over Christmas holiday back in 2010. (Click to embiggen.)

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Final Thoughts (for now) about Oral Narratives

I’ve written so far about the conditions necessary for an oral narrative to be passed down unchanged. To be preserved at all, the people who tell the story must find some value in it for their present lives, regardless of what it meant to their ancestors. And to be passed down unchanged, it must be told for some purpose that would be hindered if the story is altered.

These conditions are difficult, but obviously not impossible, to meet. And, just as obviously, a narrative can potentially be perceived as worth being told by any society that encounters it. If a story were to emerge anywhere that, for whatever reason, resonates with people in most cultures, it could easily spread worldwide in a remarkably short amount of time; certainly much shorter than the 4,000 years calculated for an individual to become a universal genealogical ancestor. This might even happen if, after the story began to spread, it ceased for some reason to be told in its culture of origin. However, if a society that adopts a story uses it for a different purpose than did the society from which the story was learned, the likelihood of it remaining unchanged would be altered as well.

The conclusion that this all leads to is that, even if it were known that a particular traditional story were inspired by a historic event, the observed present distribution of the story could not be used to determine the location where that event had occurred, or to reconstruct the specific details of the event. That information would need to be obtained from a different source.


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Quote of the Day

“God the Creator gave man the gift of speech; the Devil perverted speech and inflicted the curse called lying; God in retaliation breathed the golden gift of artistic inspiration into man, and gave man the power to use lying in service of divine beauty, by crafting stories and tales and poems, so that lies were made into a wonder, and man is made into a creator like unto the Creator who made him.” – John C. Wright


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Best Recruiting Video Ever!

I’m very impressed that the creators did such a good job resurrecting the USS Enterprise (CV-6). The planes (Grumman F4F Wildcats) still have the insignia with the red dot, which sets the time depicted as spring 1942 – no later than the beginning of May. The only errors I spotted are first, that aircraft no. 15 shows up in just about every shot that has planes at all, and then some of the aircraft are sporting too many kill markings to have been earned during the Marshall/Gilbert Island and Marcus Island raids; the only combat actions Enterprise fighters participated in prior to Midway. (What? Yes, of course I was looking at the planes! Not everybody has a dirty mind.)


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More Thoughts About Oral Narratives

Back in February I explained why the ultimate origin of a traditional story isn’t an especially interesting or important question. However, I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what I was saying. I’m not at all claiming that a traditional story can’t be passed down essentially unchanged over long periods of time; I’m saying that it won’t be passed down unchanged, or at all for that matter, without there being a reason.

In societies without writing, like Mesopotamia at the time the Gulf Oasis would have last been above water, stories can’t sit unread in an archive waiting for some scholar to rediscover them at a later time. There’s no possibility of a story surviving unless it’s told. And people don’t just randomly talk into the air; storytellers have a purpose (or purposes) in mind. So a story that nobody has a reason to tell will disappear.

The willingness of the teller to make changes in a story depends critically on the purpose for which it is told. If a story is told purely for entertainment it doesn’t matter how it changes in the telling, as long as the audience finds the result entertaining (compare the fairy tales of Charles Perrault with their Disney descendants to see a great example of this). If the story is part of a magical ritual, or an invocation to a deity who might be offended if everything isn’t done perfectly, there is a very strong incentive to tell the story exactly the same way each time. It’s not enough just to say the story is sacred, however; it’s the purpose that matters. A sacred story used to instruct children in the proper way to behave might be capable of absorbing some changes, even while other parts of the story remain constant. The only way an oral story remains constant over time is if it has to in order to fulfill the purpose for which it is told.

(And, of course, all of the above only applies if we’re considering things from a human perspective. If an omnipotent God wants a story to be passed down unchanged, he is quite capable of causing that to happen.)


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Further wild speculation

After I wrote the blog post from two weeks ago, speculating that the “Ararat” of Genesis 8 might refer to Arrata in southwestern Iran, rather than Urartu in Anatolia, I stumbled over a very interesting article from 2014. The article is by Mohammed El Bastawesy, and it’s titled, “The Geomorphological and Hydrogeological Evidences for a Holocene Deluge in Arabia.”*

According to this article, during the late Pleistocene there was a massive lake occupying most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. At some point between 13,000 and 8,500 radiocarbon years ago the lake suddenly broke out of its basin – the article doesn’t explain why, but the entire region is geologically active. The water flowed north and east into what is now the Persian Gulf, which at the time, if you recall my earlier post about the Gulf Oasis, was dry and very likely habitable.

That makes three separate sources of flooding for the oasis: 1) Sea level rise, which is known to have happened but would not have happened suddenly without other conditions (such as breaking through a natural levee) that are not known to have been present. 2) River floods, which have not, to my knowledge, been conclusively shown to have occurred, but can nevertheless reasonably be assumed to have happened from time to time. 3) The emptying of this megalake, which is known to have happened and to have been sudden.

Before getting too excited, however, we need to remember that the very latest time period that all this could have happened is still a couple of millennia before anybody could possibly have written the story down. An oral narrative would only be passed down over that distance of time if each succeeding generation found it relevant to their own concerns. If not, after a few centuries the story would almost certainly be changed beyond recognition, if it survived at all. So, as I said earlier, this is wild speculation. But I think it’s interesting nonetheless.

*Published in Arabian Journal of Geosciences 8 (5): 2577-2586.


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Inequality in Ancient Israel

I read an interesting 2018 monograph* this morning by Avraham Faust about the archaeological evidence for social stratification in the Levant during the Iron Age. Faust looked at architecture, specifically houses, at dozens of archaeological sites. He divided the houses into four classes based on size, construction quality, and shared walls, and used the resulting categorization to create Lorenz curves for each site.

Interestingly, graphing the curves revealed significant social stratification for urban location – cities and large towns – but essentially none in rural villages. Faust attributes the difference to the presence of hired labor in urban areas. He also notes that this result implies that when the Biblical prophets denounced the exploitation of the poor, they were looking at what was happening in urban areas, not rural villages.

I would add in addition that this finding implies that in that society it was effectively impossible for individual households to accumulate large amounts of land. Archaeology obviously can’t reveal how closely Iron Age villages followed the laws about land and inheritance in the Torah, but we can use it to infer that whatever rules actually were followed led to farm land being distributed among a large number of households instead of just a few, and that the distribution at the level of the village was roughly equal. There were no large estates or landlords.

In contrast to my rant back in April about the misuse of Biblical archaeology, Faust’s monograph is an example of its proper application. He used archaeological methods to address an archaeological question about a culture in the past, not to try and prove or disprove anything in the Bible. The results do provide some insight into the way certain Biblical texts would have been understood by their original intended audience, however, and also give us a more precise picture of who the original intended audience of those particular passages was; that this message was aimed specifically at wealthy urban dwellers.

*Social Stratification in the Iron Age Levant. In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber and John H. Walton, pp. 482-491. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

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A Wild Speculation

It has occurred to me to wonder whether it’s possible that the Hebrew word ‘rrt given in Genesis as the resting place of the Ark should be read as “Arrata” instead of “Ararat.” Although the location of the legendary land of Aratta is uncertain, the road there from Sumeria, according to an account from the 21st century BC, went through Susa and Anshan. That would probably put it somewhere in the southern part of modern Iran. If that were the case, then the Mountains of ‘rrt, where the Ark was supposed to have landed, would be best understood as the mountains that separate Arrata from Sumeria. That is, the Zagros range.

I’ve been thinking about this in connection with a previous post here about the Persian Gulf Oasis. A major flood there, in the era when it was exposed above sea level, would easily cover a vast area. (The word ‘eres, translated as “earth” in Genesis 6 is also used i many other places in Genesis, and in the rest of the Bible. In most cases, it clearly does not refer to the entire planet. That’s something that should be kept in mind, since geology has definitively ruled out a planetary flood at any point during which humans, or anything that can be recognized as a human ancestor, existed.)

The hypothetical oasis and the region around it are now beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf. However, the rising sea could not have occurred fast enough to produced a catastrophic flood. But a river flood there could be just as devastating as a river flood in any other mostly flat region. And if the rising sea had, hypothetically, been held back by a natural levee of some sort, a sudden breakthrough would likely have utterly destroyed the entire area. Either way, debris and any boats could easily have wound up at the base of the Zagros Mountains. Thus my speculation about the name ‘rrt.

Now, granted, I am not a specialist in the Ancient Near East (my master’s thesis was The Archaeological Investigation of Gardening at the Historic Railroad Station of Kearsarge, California). I do know a little, however; enough to have adopted the position of a fairly strong maximalist, as that term is used in Biblical archaeology. In other words, I consider the Biblical text to be reliable history unless and until other evidence rules it out. The opposite, or minimalist, position holds that the Bible is not reliable except when corroborated by external evidence. (These positions should be understood as the ends of a continuum, not a dichotomy.)

And let’s be clear; all I’m offering at the moment is speculation. As far as I know, there is no evidence either for or against this scenario. However, it is likely that evidence to either support or refute this speculation can be found in the geology and archaeology of the Persian Gulf, if political conditions there are ever such that research can safely be done.


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More Trains!

Over this past 4th of July weekend, the Nevada State Railroad Museum had an event they called The Great Western Steam Up 2022. I don’t have a very good camera anymore, but I managed to get some acceptable shots anyway. The first two pictures are of Virginia & Truckee locomotive no. 21, the J.W. Bowker, and the third is Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge no. 18 .(As always, click to embiggen.)

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