I remember well the day my son, Andrew – still at some single digit age at the time – stood in the gift shop at Turkey Run State Park pleading for a little bow and (suction cup tipped) arrow set. I began the old -When I was your age – recitation but stopped short. A lot went through my mind in a pause that lasted less than two seconds. I was suddenly nine years old again. It was a fine Saturday in the Fall of the year and, free from the demands of the school week, I had plenty of time on my hands. I wanted a bow and arrow. I wanted a bow and arrow bad! So, I went to the weeping willow tree in the backyard. I was extremely familiar with this tree and with the properties of its branches having been sent to it on several occasions to select a suitable switch to be employed in the process of my own socialization. I chose a nice pliant branch – back past the long whip-like leaf stem – and harvested about a yard of it. I also knew the location of a bail of twine and where dad kept his tools. In almost no time I had cut notches and bent the willow branch to a length of twine some inches shorter than the branch itself. Presto! A bow! Arrows? There was a fine weed patch where no one ever mowed behind the utility shed. I was as familiar with the weed patch as with the willow tree but for different reasons. It was a great place to catch grasshoppers to be used as bait for the chubs, bull heads, and sunfish in the local creeks. Among the other botanical selections, the weed patch featured horse weed (Giant Ragweed) the seven-foot-tall stalks of which dry to a semi-hard woodenness as summer passes and the nights grow cooler. The straight and easily broken off upper halves of the horse weed stalks were custom made for arrows. True, they were soft in the center so that after a few shots the notch got kind of deep – but there were plenty more. Also true, they lacked fletching – a problem for which I had no likely solution – unless I could shoot a bird with one of them – problematic since without fletching reliable aim is hard to come by. Well, who cared? The bow and arrow worked plenty good enough to hit all the imaginary lions, tigers and bears I stalked with it. Toward evening, when the call for supper came, I decided to fire off one last shot before surrendering the use of my wondrous creation for the day (I instinctively knew I would not be allowed to play with it in the house.) I suddenly remembered a little rhyme from somewhere – I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to earth I know not where. “Well”, I thought, “I’ll know in just a minute!” I notched the arrow, drew back as far as I could, took aim at a convenient cloud and let fly. Dad had been having a conversation with one of the neighbors and, having also heard the call for supper, was rounding the house, still engrossed in the conversation, the neighbor tagging along. I never knew what that conversation was about. I only knew – knew for certain – as I watched the arrow reach the apogee of its flight and begin its downward journey – knew beyond the slightest degree of doubt – exactly where it would fall to earth. It struck dad full in the chest with a sickening crunch produced by the splintering of the tip of the horse week. A few of those splinters pierced dad’s shirt and stuck a little in his skin. Dad, who, unlike me, had not seen it coming, was both dumbstruck and mystified – but not for long. He quickly surveyed the yard – occupied at the moment by only the three of us – dad, the neighbor, and the one holding a bow. It took dad remarkably little time to sort the whole matter out. Neighbor forgotten, he plucked and tossed the arrow and strode toward me like grim doom. My feet seemed to have grown roots deep into the earth. I could only stand and wait. Dad stood before me a second, searching for adequate words, surrendered the effort, snatched the bow from my hands, broke it over his knee and headed for the house. A few deep relieved breaths later, I followed. So, I said to Andrew – When I was your age – then I shut up and bought him the toy bow and arrow.
One more, following up on Epimenides and Akhenaten – this time a person named in the Bible and one whose relationship to the idea of monotheism was a bit looser – but that’s getting ahead. Cyrus the Great started out as Cyrus the only kind of big deal. He was king of a comparatively small region called Anshan. He clashed with another such territory (Ecbatana) held by one of the Median tribal chieftains and quickly doubled his holdings. To simplify a lot of political and military stuff – there was an alliance between Cyrus and the whole of the Medes. The Medes perceived they were getting the short end of the stick in this partnership and rebelled. Cyrus crushed the Medes and the Medo-Persian Empire becomes the Persian Empire with Cyrus now a Really Big Deal. Somewhere in the middle of the cooperative period, the Medo-Persian forces also conquered Babylon. This is reflected in the book of Daniel with Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall. In the end, Cyrus held all the Median territories and all the Babylonian territories and others. For instance. in acquiring Babylon – Cyrus also acquired Israel which Babylon had conquered earlier.
Despite the brutality of his rapid military expansion (Especially if you ask the Medes!) Cyrus the Great also goes down in history as Cyrus the Humane. Certainly the Jews fared much better under the Persians than under the Babylonians – barring that potential setback in the book of Esther – but that part comes well after the death of Cyrus who only held his vast empire for 9 years before passing on in 530 BC. Anyway – that humane thing:
The Babylonians had practiced cultural annihilation in the course of their conquests. For instance, with Israel – they had taken what they considered the best and brightest of the Jewish population and shipped them off to other portions of the empire where they might serve Babylonian interests. At the same time, they relocated a lot of non-Jews from other regions they had conquered to Israel and forced a lot of mixed marriages. The result was the Samaritans who populated Palestine at the time Israel returned – a return arranged by Cyrus – as predicted by Isaiah (44:28, 45:1) and as reported in the first chapter of the book of Ezra and II Chronicles 36:22-3. The famous Cylinder of Cyrus – discovered in the 19th Century uses language mirroring that of II Chronicles – only referring to lots of peoples and territories – not just the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive peoples from their homes and relocated them. Cyrus let them all go home and endorsed and sought the favor of all the various gods of their various tribes and territories in the process. (Cyrus figured all the territorial gods were really manifestations of one larger God) Cyrus even helped finance all these home-goings and provided a certain amount of legal protection for all the returning refugee groups since it was certain the people the Babylonians had settled in all those lands would not be glad to see the original inhabitants returning.
This was, indeed, humane. Of course, Cyrus was also self-interested. Cyrus knew what happened to the old Assyrian kingdoms. The Medes and Babylonians happened to them. And Cyrus knew that he, himself, leading the Persian Empire had happened to the Medes and Babylonians. And Cyrus was keeping a keen eye on what, he was sure, would be the next Big Dog – those Greeks off in the West. For what it’s worth, Cyrus was right. Alexander the Great would swallow up the empire built by Cyrus the Great. But it would take a while and lots of Greeks before the rise of Alexander would fail to get it done: partly because Cyrus established a lot of semi-independent Persian Vassal States, each with a fierce new interest in defending their own territory and ALL of them between him and the Greeks! All of this is also in the background of the book of Esther. The later Persian King, Ahasuerus, was totally consumed with worry over the steady advance of the Greeks. The big six-month party featured in Esther was an attempt to make sure of his alliances with all those vassal states – to make sure they’d rather fight (for the Persians) than switch (allegiance to the Greeks).
OK – again – why should you want to know all this? I find that those not disposed to take the historical accuracy and authenticity of the Bible seriously fall into two equal but opposite errors.
Having written about one Ancient Greek philosopher who felt the pull toward monotheism, let me add another strand to that string: Amenhotep IV. After 5 years as Pharaoh of Egypt, Amenhotep suddenly changed his name to Akhenaten – which means something like ‘Useful to or Successful for Aten’. The name change was the least of the changes the king had in mind! The new moniker was part of a religious (or political – depending on who you ask) conversion. The Egyptians had been polytheists for, well, as long as they had been Egyptians. But, different ones of the gods and goddesses they worshipped were more popular at different times and correspondingly, the cult of the most popular god-de-jour gained political power for the moment. On the one hand, the Akhenaten business boils down to this sort of political struggle. First, it should be noted that the Egyptian gods ‘Amun’ and ‘Aten’ were rival cults focusing on aspects of the so-called sun god - Ra. To oversimplify just a little, Aten represented the day-time sun and life while Amun represented the sun in the underworld and that place men went after this life. The rivalry between the two cults was old and, at the time Amenhotep IV came to the throne, the cult of Amun was way out in front. The Egypt that produced the grand tombs and the mummies had a greater interest in the underworld/afterlife than in present life ‘under the sun’. Duh! In fact, the priests of Amun owned more property than the Pharaoh and exercised almost as much – if not as much – political power. In the old game of church and state – the church was gaining the upper hand.
To that extent, Amenhotep’s religious conversion to the cult of Aten and corresponding name change is often seen as a calculated political move. But the surviving documents (more on that in a bit) and the changes in behavior from Amenhotep to Akhenaten suggest a sincere religious conversion – even if it had political ramifications. At least if it was all political, it was a GRAND political scheme. Akhenaten did not seek simply to elevate the cult of Aten over the cult of Amun or the cults of the many other Egyptian gods and goddesses. He declared that Aten was the only God – the God who made and sustained everything – not only the God of all nations but the God of this entire present world and any world to come as well. He outlawed the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt and closed the temples of all those other gods and goddesses. He ordered the destruction of statues, hieroglyphs, etc. dealing with the other gods and disbanded the various priesthoods. He moved the capital from Thebes (location of all those other temples) to a new city he had built – Akhetaten – later known as Armana. He is credited with creating the first known monotheistic state religion. Of course, it might all have been more impressive had it lasted longer – or if the world had remembered it at the time.
The truth is, Akhenaten and his doings and even his now famous wife (Nefertiti) quickly perished and were lost to history for over 3000 years. There is much argument – now that we know about him – as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. But the backlash against him in his own day was unequivocal. They murdered him (and Nefertiti), knocked down Armana and chiseled his name (and hers) off everything it was carved on anywhere else in Egypt. Akhenaten became – ‘he who is not to be named’. His son did become king after him – but only by repudiating his father’s legacy including changing the name he had been given at birth. Thus, Tutankhaten became Tutankhamun – if you stare at the two names for a moment the significance of the change will become clear. Either way – he is King Tut. But we didn’t know his paternal backstory until 19th Century archaeologists discovered the ruined city of his father in Tel Armana – the only place the record survived – abandoned, cursed, and buried under ages worth of sand.
Now, why should I tell you all this? I feel certain the question has occurred to you. I find the story interesting in itself but the timing even more interesting. You are already familiar with the story of a slightly earlier Pharaoh under whose administration Egypt suffered terrible plagues as Moses called for the release of the Israelites. In the day of Rameses the gods of Egypt and the nation that worshipped them suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the ONE TRUE GOD – the one who made everything and who ultimately rules over all nations. That stinging defeat would not have been forgotten just yet for as Akhenaten instituted his reforms, not that many miles distant, Joshua led a parade around the doomed walls of Jericho – another polytheistic people about to learn something about the ONE TRUE GOD.
As I said – there is argument as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. I posit only this. Egypt had this chance to move toward the God they might have accepted a bit earlier. God works among all peoples and nations. Again – as per Paul’s reference to Epimenides (previous post) Acts 17:22-28
Epimenides was a Greek philosopher – of sorts – more along the lines of a seer or prophet – from the 6th Century B.C. (Between the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and while the Greeks were a scattered assortment of City-States – before Alexander knit them into an empire). Epimenides grew up on the Island of Crete and, to the extent the somewhat legendary records from those days can be trusted, had his life changed by a local religious doctrine. The Cretans believed the gods were dead. They were not alone among the Greeks in this but were thought to be especially dogmatic about it. Ideas ranged from the stories of the gods being elaborated versions of the doings of human warrior hero/kings from the dim past to the gods being a pre-human race/civilization that perished – as all must. Either way, they were all dead. Even Zeus, the (to the Greeks) god of the gods, was dead and gone. The Cretans would have loved Nietzsche! And, they might have had some sympathy for Tolstoy too as, in true Brothers Karamazov fashion, the Cretans were not noted for the high morality of their lifestyle. After all, the gods are dead! When you are all on your own, you might as well do as you please!
Anyway, the Cretans designated a cave as the tomb of Zeus – a sort of monument to their ‘gods are dead’ philosophy. As a Cretan youth, Epimenides is said to have fallen asleep in that cave (The more legendary sources say he slept for 57 years!) and awoke with the gift of prophecy and the absolute conviction that at least one God – the God of all gods – was not dead. To the extent Epimenides thought this great God was Zeus – he certainly thought Zeus was greater and higher than heretofore understood – something that seemed to unite the western idea of individual personal godhood and the eastern idea of a universal divine consciousness in which we all participate.
As the years passed. Epimenides relocated to Athens where he became a respected figure – consulted for wisdom in more than one emergency. One such consultation concerned a long run of ill circumstances that had befallen Athens. Epimenides advised that a flock of sheep be released on the Areopogus (the plaza of temples, shrines, and altars to various gods) and when any sheep laid down, it should be sacrificed to the god/goddess nearest whose establishment it lay. The majority of the sheep confounded the proposal by leaving the plaza entirely and finding a nice meadow outside town to lay down in. There, Epimenides advised the Athenians to build an altar to the great high and unknown god. They did – and sacrificed the sheep. Their streak of bad luck ended.
In addition to such stories, some poetry written by Epimenides also survives. The most famous bit comes from his Quatrains.
They fashioned a tomb for thee o holy and high One The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies
But You are not dead: You live and abide forever For in You, we live and move and have our being
For what it’s worth, Philosophers/logicians have named the ‘paradox of self-reference’ the ‘Epimenides Paradox’. To catch the idea, try it this way. Epimenides says all Cretans are liars. But Epimenides is a Cretan and therefore, by inclusion a liar. Thus – what Epimenides says about the Cretans must be untrue and the Cretans are truthful. But, if the Cretans are truthful and Epimenides is a Cretan then he must also be truthful and what he says about the Cretans must be true. Thus, the Cretans are liars. But – Epimenides is a Cretan and hence a liar himself so……
Take the paradox of self-reference for what it’s worth and let me tell you why Epimenides is remembered at all. He is remembered because his writing made an impression on another young man some 600 years later. Ironically, that young man also found himself religiously at odds with his own people. His name was Paul and he quoted Epimenides at least twice as is recorded in Titus 1:12 and Acts 17:28. Paul regarded Epimenides’ altar to the unknown god – and by extension – the whole matter of Epimenides’ devotion to one great eternal God – as part of God’s dealing with the Athenians, far in the past from Paul’s point of reference, to prepare them for the arrival of Christ – helping the Athenians to move toward the One True God – even as if groping in the dark.
Here’s what I will say. History is a canvas and what often appears to us as random regions of unconnected color, will, when seen with perspective, reveal the Great Artist’s grand design.
I will tell you another true snake story – although unlike Carmel – this particular reptile, unless it had a name for itself, goes down in history as just another snake doe. In order to set the context I need to discuss my ancestry a little. My maternal grandfather was as hard working a man as you will ever now. He (with help from grandma) raised 11 kids dirt farming in Kentucky through the Great Depression. When my mother was still a little girl, they moved to Indiana and a better paying job with GM. Grandpa soon bought a small farm which he worked on the side and also assiduously collected junker cars from which he harvested parts, tires, batteries, gasoline and scrap. Grandpa gave away lots of money over the years but he wouldn’t SPEND a nickel unless it was an absolute necessity. His one leisure activity was fishing.
My dad was as courageous a man as you will ever meet. He had fears but he always faced them head on. The only irrational phobia he ever exhibited was of snakes. But dad’s fear of snakes never involved running away from them. If a snake insisted on pressing dad, it became a dead snake. If dad wanted a snake removed alive – he called on me as I have no fear of snakes and I would extract, say a useful black snake from where dad didn’t want it and re-home it under the corn crib where it could earn its keep eating rodents. There were only two instances in dad’s 82 years where these two threads of ‘snake handling’ crossed.
Oh, wait, I left out a detail. Remember my Grandfather liked to fish. At one lake he frequented he occasionally hooked a banded water snake which he would beat to death and toss into the trunk of his car. When it went into the trunk it was only a dead snake. When it came out of the trunk it was free high protein chicken feed. Except for the one time he forgot and left the snake in the trunk.
So, dad opened the trunk to discover the flat spare. He also discovered (so he thought) that a piece of the weather stripping had fallen off the edge of the trunk. He determined to put it back on if possible. But when he pulled the errant weather stripping from the dim recesses of the trunk into the bright sunlight, it was a snake – a not quite entirely dead snake. It managed a writhe in his hand and dangled a forked tongue from its ruined jaws.
In a very short time the snake was completely, entirely, absolutely dead on the shoulder of the Interstate. It took dad a little time pacing up and down the road to recover sufficiently to tend to the tires. Whether it was mere coincidence I cannot say but I noted that Dad’s next several vehicles were hatch backs – the clear rear windshield giving an unimpeded view of the well lit interior before he would need to open it.
As a final note – when dad returned the car, though dad did not ask for reimbursement, grandpa was outraged at the waste. New tires!? There were surely used tires or retreads available. The spare could have been plugged! He removed the new tires, sold them to a neighbor, and put on some more barnyard specials. As I said, dad never borrowed any of grandpa’s vehicles again.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church