Traditional Strengths

About a month ago Jordan Peterson returned to the public eye after a long period of dealing with his own personal and family medical issues. Controversy followed him in his earlier rise to prominence, and sure enough, controversy picked up where it left off with his first major interview in years with the Sunday Times. It appears that the published interview, and the unpublished edited transcript, show that the Times performed something of a hit piece. Given the mainstream media’s general dislike of Peterson (I also am critical of certain aspects of his message, and appreciative of others), some called into question why he would give the interview at all. One could easily assume that it came from weakness–a desire to correct the “embarrassment” of his departure from the public eye and subsequent issues with medication. Others questioned why he would, even with the best of motives, open himself up to the “jackals” of leftist media.

Peterson acknowledged the issues and explained some of his motivation on his website, writing,

So, what would a wise man do?

Learn my lesson, and avoid the press at all cost? But I don’t know how to distinguish that from turning my tail and hiding, and I think that would be worse for me, even in my currently compromised state, than continuing to engage as I have.

Only choose to make myself available to outlets that will produce positive coverage? First, how do I know which outlets are trustworthy. I could only talk to people with whom I have become friendly, such as David Rubin and Joe Rogan. But I don’t think it’s right to stay inside what risks becoming a mere echo chamber.

Was it a mistake for me to conduct the now-infamous Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman? Or the almost equally-viewed GQ interview with Helen Lewis? Both of those were markedly hostile. Were they failures, or successes? I don’t think it is unreasonable to note that they are markedly of our time, and perhaps indicate something important–whatever that might be–about our time. Both have garnered some 25 million views. There’s something of broad public interest about the tension that characterizes both conversations….

GQ, motivated by the success (?) of the Helen Lewis interview, plans to produce a profile on me in the near future. I have been asked to make myself available for an interview. Should I do it? I haven’t decided. If it goes badly, will I only have myself to blame? Should I therefore avoid it?

I hope to be judicious in my decisions about when and where to speak. I hope that I can stick to the truth when I do so, and believe that there is no better defense (and, indeed, no better offense) than that? Do I trust myself to tell the truth? Will my ego invariably get in the way? Has that already happened?

As the man says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I have no idea if Peterson should continue to give such interviews. But his “staying the course” I feel shows at least some strength. He gave such interviews before, which people interpreted in different ways. He can continue to give such interviews, with likely the same result–people will continue to disagree about him, perhaps even sharply so. But if he chooses the path of more mainstream interviews I will not condemn him. The temptation invariably will tend, however, towards seeing that choice as a weakness–as a love of attention, as an attempt to cover over his illness, etc. We love to break down narratives and deconstruct.

Within the Pseudepigrapha there exists a delightful story called “Joseph and Aseneth,” which details the marriage between the biblical Joseph and the daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45). Essentially, Aseneth has great beauty and is much desired throughout the land of Egypt, but refuses to consider marriage to the great Joseph. Joseph, for his part, wants nothing to do with someone devoted to idols. But Aseneth repents, forsakes her gods, and marries Joseph, all the while preventing a clash between Joseph’s brothers and the Pharoah’s eldest son.

What struck me in particular the means whereby the editor (someone named C. Burchard) of the text framed the story. First, we have the insinuation that the story is designed to cover over an embarrassment–“How could Joseph–the model of chastity, piety, and statesmanship, marry a foreign Hamitic girl, daughter of an idolatrous priest?”* Rather–should we not see the story in terms of the triumph of the whole biblical narrative? If we read the Old Testament from Christ backwards, we should expect to see marriages to foreigners as a foreshadowing of Christ “wooing” the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

Second, despite the clear statement that, “The book is an author’s work, not a folk tale which has no progenitor,” the editor seeks here and there for textual origins of the story. I apologize, for I have little stomach for the minutiae of scholars on such questions, though I admit the minutiae has its place at times. I feel, however, that often we make things too complicated. He sees the origin of the story’s framework in various kinds of Greek literature, writing, “More helpful is hellenistic romance [most agree that the story was originally written in Greek], especially the erotic variety as represented by the Great Five, “Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Calirrrhoe,’ Xenophon of Ephesus . . . [etc.]” I confess I have no idea who these authors are, but again–might we not be trying too hard for the sake of trying too hard? Isn’t there plenty of “origin” within the Old Testament itself, i.e., the Song of Songs, Hosea and Gomer, or the Book of Ruth for such romantic tales?

Though I lack all of the technical knowledge possessed by the editor, and therefore perhaps should not judge–yet–what bothers me is

  • The idea that tales such as “Joseph and Aseneth” present themselves to cover gaps, to explain away embarrassments, etc. rather than expand/magnify the existing tradition.
  • The idea that traditions are inherently weak, that they must constantly fill from the outside in

Essentially, the problem I encounter at times (though perhaps I judge the editor C. Burchard too harshly) involves focusing so much on the bark of one tree that no one sees the forest.^

Rachel Hallote’s Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World suffers from a similar problem. Her main thesis involves showing that the burial practices she uncovered show that the Israelites borrowed heavily from pagan practices in other peoples, and therefore failed to follow Mosaic law in their attitude towards the dead. Well, given the many denuniciations found in the prophets and elsewhere, the fact that Israel broke various commandments should not surprise us. We do not need an archaeologist to tell us this, though some of the burial details could illumine how they broke biblical law and whom they might have borrowed from. But, hearkening back to my earlier point, many scholars see themselves in the role of breaking down traditions by finding smoking guns in the historical record. When they do so, they sometimes miss the forest, as I think Rachel Hallote has in her book.

Hallote’s central point revolves around her observations that, while the Mosaic Law seems to mandate a definitive break between the living and dead, and that Israelite burial practices show a much more fluid relationship between them. Her main observations include:

  • Evidence of family members buried in agricultural fields, and not strictly formal graves. While at first glance this may seem disrespectful, Hallote and others speculate that the dead were to function as sentinels, in a sense, of fields laying fallow. Israel practiced this, as did other Middle Bronze Age cultures.
  • Iron and Bronze age burials of family members also took place under houses, indicating a continued relationship with the departed. The members buried under houses might be those still thought in need of care in some way, such as children or the elderly–not those in between, who might be buried in fields.
  • A strong suggestion that alternate forms of burial, such as placing a body under a stone mound, likely indicated that such a person was to receive no offerings, prayers, etc. It was a way of marking that person as ‘cursed’ in some way (i.e., Josh. 8:29, 10:27).

I see her chapter “The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel ” as central to her thesis. She cites various proscriptions about not participating in “sacrifices” to the dead, common among the Canaanites. She then goes on to point out that various Old Testament texts show that Israelites participated in such practices, such as Ps. 106:28. Certain particular archaeological finds certainly can illumine these texts for us. But she puts all of her eggs into the archaeology basket–everything similar from the Israelites and the Canaanites regarding their dead for her must mean an unbiblical syncretism. She cites a variety of passages from 1 Samuel to show that Israelites conducted yearly worship service families for their dead (1 Sm. 1:21, 2:19, 20:6, 20:29), which apparently the Canaanites also held. Yet no condemnation exists that I am aware of for such services (one of the references involves the soon to be crowned David and the family of Jesse).

Where Hallote sees embarrassment, I see strength. Some time ago my wife knew a lady that attended a particular church with a distinct fundamentalist leaning. Our friends’ skirts were inevitably the length of her shins. Obviously, skirts too short would be immodest. But at that time, long flowing skirts were very much in fashion. Thus, to avoid “worldliness” one had to wear modest skirts that out of fashion–to wear something modest but “fashionable” would not cut it. Should shin length skirts shoot up in popularity, her church would switch to those of a longer length. When one tacks so much to the world around them, “strength” is not the word most would use. Ideally one has such confidence in their way of life, that the world around them fades as a reference point. So in Deut. 26:13-14, Hallote sees evidence of Mosaic law making a concession to existing practices that Israelite leaders cannot control, rather than establishing a clear delineation between having a relationship with the dead and offering them sacrifices. She sees weakness where she should see strength.

So, not every Canaanite practice is “wrong,” just as not every fashion choice the “world” makes Christians need to avoid. A further distinction Hallote misses shows the limits of what archaeology can prove. To praise the dead is not worship. To remember the dead is not worship. To pray for them is not to worship them (i.e, 2 Macc. 12). To ask them to pray for us is not worshiping them. To offer sacrifices to them–that is worship, and that the Law and the Prophets condemns.

Archaeology deals with “facts,” with observational, physical data. So when Hallote observes practices that allow for a narrowly “physical” meaning, that is what she puts forth. So the Israelites used spices for the dead because of the smell of decomposition in the hot weather. Or, they buried people under trees to provide a kind of fertilization. To her credit, when such a narrow interpretation would lead into absurdity, she backs off (as in the above cited examples about burials in fields, for example). But why not apply that same symbolic understanding to all of what she sees? Surely, a trees at least have a great deal of rich layers of meaning attached to them. Surely death itself is a great mystery and only the barest minority of us deals with it in a strictly physical manner.

Archaeology can give wonderful insights into particular matters, and the strengths of Hallote’s work share in the strengths of that field. But trees can never show you the forest.


*After writing this, upon reflection and a re-read, I may have read the editor’s intro to the story (C. Burchard, found in Charlesworth’s collection of the Pseudepigrapha, p. 177 ff.) too critically. A week later I am not as confident in my interpretation above–the idea of the editor that the story meant to cover an embarrassment. I still think it likely given the tone and content of the intro, but I may be over-sensitive. If anyone else reads it for themselves and wants to offer a correction, my ears are open. Of course, this initial reading of the Burchard’s intro formed the basis of this haphazard post, so naturally I cannot question my initial reading too substantially.

**The story may be of Christian or Jewish origin. Either way, there is the fascinating renaming of Aseneth to “City of Refuge.” If the story is of Jewish origin, it shows that Marian typology, i.e., Mary as the “City of God” has its roots within Jewish tradition. If the story is of Christian origin, it shows us how to read back into stories “types of Mary” just as we can read back “types of Christ.”

^I find it perfectly natural that western scholars should seek to deconstruct traditions, for they would naturally view traditions as weak. Modern western civilization is built on a rejection of tradition. It is in our cultural DNA to assume that traditions are weak because we naturally assume a kind of unreality about them. Thus, it seems we must continually find underdogs to keep our culture moving at all.

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