Thursday, September 29, 2005

What Should We Talk About?

There's a biblioblogging session coming up in Philadelphia at the AAR-SBL meeting, as a session of the Computer Assisted Research Group. Two papers will be given, by Jim Davila and Rick Brennan. Then follows 80 minutes of panel discussion by 5 (or is it 6?) panel members, of which I am one.

What should we talk about?

We'll introduce ourselves, I imagine, and say a few words about our blogs. We will no doubt say some things about what Rick and Jim have said. What else should we talk about? Open (source) studies? Blogging and the nature of public scholarly discourse? Peer review? Blogging and conformity? How to kill time while waiting for Blogger to upload your post? What's better, news or opinion or baby pictures? Why are there so few female bibliobloggers? What's the point of it all? Who's your favorite team?

One thing I hope we don't talk about is the term "biblioblogger." There the term is, and we're stuck with it. And I hope we don't discuss "what is a biblioblogger," or the forgery scandal, or minimalism, or the historical Jesus, or what our desks look like, or which character from the Simpsons we are, or such worthy-but-irrelevant topics.

If each of us talks for 5-10 minutes about ourselves, that'll kill a lot of time. That could be good or bad.

I don't know. Got any ideas? Suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Fat Yanks

It's interesting to read in tandem the blogs of Mark Goodacre and Michael Pahl. Mark has moved from Birmingham, UK to Durham, NC, while Michael has moved from (somewhere in) Canada to Birmingham, UK. These passages particularly struck me. First from Michael:

Food portions are smaller, which partly explains why people are smaller. There's no 'Super-Size Me' here--a trip to Burger King at the Bullring gave us regular-size drinks that were equivalent to smalls in North America, and just enough fries instead of far too many. The American obesity epidemic is one cultural export which is 'largely' absent here (couldn't resist that!).
And from Mark:
After our first weekend living in America, I feel a little like Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me, though I'm happy to say that our diet has been more interesting and varied than his in that film; I just find that I eat so much more here, and less of the right things, and need to find ways of curbing this.
Here's my question: Is this true just of fast-food restaurants in Europe, or in general? Or is it a UK thing? I spent a week in Holland and Belgium last year, and I don't recall ever noticing that the portions served were smaller. In fact, at the Vismarkt in Groningen, I got a serving of (excellent) fish n'chips so large that I couldn't finish it. But, while abroad, I never ate at any American-style fast food restaurants. (Interestingly, I noticed a lot more Burger Kings in Holland than "Maison McD.")

Here's a shot of moi in Groningen last year:

Friday, September 23, 2005

Weekend Reading

Hi, everybody. No, I'm fine, I've just got writer's blogk. In lieu of my own brilliance, here's a funny piece from the New Yorker. An excerpt:

“Today,” the Lord God said, “let’s do land.” And lo, there was land.

“Well, it’s really not just land,” noted Vishnu. “You’ve got mountains and valleys and—is that lava?”

“It’s not a single statement,” said the Lord God. “I want it to say, ‘Yes, this is land, but it’s not afraid to ooze.’ ”

“It’s really a backdrop, a sort of blank canvas,” put in Apollo. “It’s, like, minimalism, only with scale.”

“But—brown?” Buddha asked.

“Brown with infinite variations,” said the Lord God. “Taupe, ochre, burnt umber—they’re called earth tones.”

“I wasn’t criticizing,” said Buddha. “I was just noticing.”

Read it all.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

NTCS Again Available

As Christian Brady noted in an earlier comment, the website for the Newsletter for Targum and Cognate Studies is now available once again, thanks to his efforts.

For those who are interested, my Psalms Targum translation is also once again available. Many thanks to Chris for hosting these pages on his personal site.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Redolent Metaphor

Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses the expression "to stink in the nostrils" as a metaphor for hatred, revulsion, or disapproval. After two cups of coffee, he had still not tracked down an "authoritative model" for it.

Did this expression emerge into common use during the 17th century, and stay in the phrasal vocabulary of the English language to this day, without any authoritative model at all?

I was able to find at least one source before the 17th century: One of the Marprelate tracts (1589) ("for feare of smelling in the nostrels of her Maiestie & the State") and possibly a century earlier in the Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry : compiled for the instruction of his daughters : translated from the original French into English in the reign of Henry VI, 1484:

  • the synne of lechery stinkithe afore God and his aungeles
  • the unlefull synne of lecherye, the whiche stinkithe and crompithe vnto heuene

—although there are no "nostrils" in that text.

But neither one of these texts is authoritative in the way that Liberman would like. I could have sworn that this expression was Biblical, but as Liberman shows, there is no exact model in the early English translations (although Hebrew be'ash, hib'ish "to stink, cause to stink" = to incur dislike, is well known).

Unless the metaphor is a natural evolution from Biblical models, I'm also stumped for an "authoritative model," unless the French original of the Book of the Knight points to a continental source. Is there any classical or medieval scholar out there who can trace this back into French or Latin literature?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In David's Palace

Back by popular demand: another excerpt from "David and Abishag." This one goes out to Dr. Joe Cathey, with best wishes for his continued good health.

The scene: Gur the harpist has an appointment in Jerusalem, in the palace of David.

No day dawned in Jerusalem without the the renewal of the sounds of hammers, saws, cranes, wheels, pulleys, and shouting workmen. Jerusalem, the ancestral citadel of the Yebusi kings, was being made over into the capital of the House of David.

Dominating the hill south of the old Yebusi tower was the royal palace, built in the Tyrian style with massive blocks of limestone, hugely piled, course upon course, with a few great square entrances. The severe, gigantesque impression of the exterior was softened, in some of the living quarters, by occasional facings and moldings carved out of cedar. Nevertheless the edifice as a whole still looked — and was, in parts — raw and unfinished.

Gur sighed as he entered the west entrance of the palace compound. The new palace (still "new" after 25 years) was undeniably imposing, but David and his minions had absolutely no sense of style. Those inner walls, now — could not some plaster be laid over the naked stone and some pictures and designs painted on them? Cedar was all very well, but even the few rooms that were completely paneled in wood seemed austere and dark. But that was the Phoenicians for you — swift, elegant little ships on the sea, but great clumsy buildings on land.

And David was not so very different from his Tyrian allies. Not that he, or any Israelite, would be caught dead in a ship: no, indeed. But David was no more a city dweller than they were — he was a soldier, and a farmer, and would rather live in a campaign tent, or at least a country villa, than in a house made of ashlars and cedar wood. His palace, and the other royal buildings going up in Jerusalem, owed more to David's image of what belonged to royalty than to his personal inclinations.

Even so, there was still something of the farmhouse about the palace of David — donkeys, sheep, and camels were often quartered in the lower rooms next to their keepers instead of in a stable; and sometimes horses were found tied to pillars in the entrance portico. Roosters were likely to walk out from behind a chair at any time, even in the throne room. The scent of manure mingled with the odor of cooking food and unwashed bodies.

However, a palace was a palace, and had advantages, thought Gur, as he sat in an anteroom and let a slave wash his feet. In Egypt the slave would have a bowl to dip his feet in, some sweet-smelling stuff to rub on them, and a cloth to dry them off. Here the slave just poured water from a jar over his feet and let the water run over the flagstones, then he handed Gur a fistful of hay to clean and dry them off himself. And instead of giving him house sandals, the slave clapped his road shoes together, making the dust fly, and then handed them back. Still, Gur thought, I'll take these cool stone walls and country servants over Yawab's camp tent with no walls at all any day.

He was then ushered into a dining room at the upper levels, one with a balcony facing west to catch the breeze, if there was one. The appointments were no more lavish than elsewhere, but here all was neat and clean, and the table was laid with wine, snow-cooled water, figs, dates, and pomegranates, while fresh fish roasted on a grill nearby. A harp and stool were set out ready for him.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Texas vs. Ohio State

Tonight is the Texas-Ohio State football game. I graduated from Texas, as did my father before me. My daughter is a senior at Ohio State.

Does this cause family tension? Absolutely not. We are not the kind of family to let petty sports events cause interpersonal problems. Also, Elizabeth just doesn't really care who wins.

But do I care who wins? My attitude can best be summed up by recalling that a Baptist church in Fayettevile, Arkansas, years ago, put up a message on its marquee prior to the annual Texas-Arkansas bloodletting: FOOTBALL IS ONLY A GAME. ONLY SPIRITUAL THINGS ARE ETERNAL. NEVERTHELESS, BEAT TEXAS.

Change that last sentiment to BEAT OHIO STATE and you've captured my viewpoint exactly. I am of the opinion that sporting events are entirely too important in today's society, and football in particular is too often violent and crass, encouraging inappropriate displays of partisan bitterness.

Nevertheless, Hook 'em, Horns! Whoo-hoo! Crush the Buckeyes!!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Looting and Proverbs 6:30

Here and there on the web, one may occasionally find a discussion of looting in New Orleans together with a citation of Proverbs 6:30: "Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy himself when he is hungry." The proverb nicely captures a widespread moral intuition (which I fully share) that "looting" by the hungry or thirsty is not morally culpable, or is less culpable than looting out of sheer greed.

There is, however, a minority report on this verse (in various commentaries) that takes it as a question: "Do not men despise a thief, even if he steals to satisfy himself when he is hungry?" I think this is an unlikely reading of the Hebrew, and no widely used English translations that I've seen have followed this understanding. Still, the fact that it has been made means that the majority report contains at least a modicum of interpretation. (Note also the LXX version: "It is not surprising if a thief is caught, when he steals," etc. The translator apparently departed altogether from the text in the beginning of the verse.)

Three other points about the verse: (1) It appears to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The writer is describing what in fact people do, not necessarily how they should behave. Otherwise he would have written al tavuzu, "do not despise," instead of lo yavuzu, "they do not despise." (2) The real point of the paragraph in which the verse is embedded (Prov. 6:20-35) is: Don't commit adultery. Thievery is mentioned, by way of contrast, as an offense that can be forgiven in some circumstances, and compensation can be made (v. 31), but adultery is never forgotten or forgiven. (3) This larger context makes an implicit appeal to the habits of a "village culture" where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's business, even their most intimate misdeeds. The weight of the exhortation lies not on culpability as such, but on avoiding shame, dishonor, and reproach.

I guess my point is this: It's hard to simply lift verses out of the Bible and use them as ethical prooftexts or simple moral guidance for a situation. They don't come away cleanly, ready for re-use elsewhere; even the plainest of them are stuck to their literary and cultural contexts in persistent and unexpected ways. This is true even of this verse of Proverbs, which in isolation seems to say pretty much what we agree with in any case. I'm not saying the Bible is not a source of moral understanding, just that the raw text needs to be cooked up with some historical and critical understanding before it is ready to be used.

For a rational-theological approach to the question, Thomas Aquinas deals with "Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?" here.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Some Book Reviews

I've discovered a number of book reviews I've written for Catholic Biblical Quarterly available at

For those who are interested, here are some of them:

Diggers at the Well: Proceedings of a Third International Symposium on the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Ben Sira. Edited by T. Muraoka and J.F. Elwolde.

The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation. Edited by Peter W. Flint.

The Dead Sea Scrolls at Fifty: Proceedings of the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature Qumran Section Meetings.Kugler, Robert A. and Eileen M. Schuller, eds.

The Scrolls and the Scriptures: Qumran Fifty Years After. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter.

Die Qumran-Essener. Die Texte vom Toten Meer. Band 1, Die Texte der Hohlen 1-3 und 5-11. Band 2, Die Texte der Hohle 4, by Johann Maier (Uni-Taschenbicher 1862-63; Munich/Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, 1995).

The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, John J Collins.

In the near future, I'll add the links to the area at the right.

Friday, September 02, 2005

High Water Blues: Remembering 1927

This blog makes the apt comparison between the Katrina disaster and the Mississippi Flood of 1927.

The flood (caused by river flooding, not hurricane-related effects) made a strong impression on African Americans, especially in music. Most notably, Charlie Patton wrote "High Water Everywhere":

Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere
Boy, you can't never stay here
I would go down to Rosedale,
but, they tell me there's water there

And Memphis Minnie wrote "When the Levee Breaks," memorably re-recorded by Led Zeppelin in the '70's:

Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote "Rising High Water Blues":

People, since it's raining, it has been for nights and days
People, since it's raining, has been for nights and days
Thousands people stands on the hill, looking down were they used to stay

Children stand there screaming: mama, we ain't got no home
Oh, mama we ain't got no home
Papa says to the children, "Backwater left us all alone"

Backwater rising, come in my windows and door
The backwater rising, come in my windows and door
I leave with a prayer in my heart, backwater won't rise no more

And Barbecue Bob Hicks wrote "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues":

Lord, Lord, Lord, I’m so blue, my house was washed away
and I’m cryin’ how long ‘fore another pay day?
That’s why I’m cryin’ Mississippi heavy water blues.

Most recently, Randy Newman wrote and recorded "Louisiana 1927":

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

You can donate for disaster relief at the Red Cross site.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

After Katrina

The disaster on the Gulf Coast continues to defy almost all comment. To our prayers and to our checkbooks; there doesn't seem to be much else to do.

I've heard (through channels) from my Cook relatives in Hattiesburg, MS; all are well and holding on, despite the lack of water, power, or phone.

No doubt many of my readers have friends or relatives in New Orleans and vicinity. Information about Tulane University can be found here; the latest post says that there are no known casualties among staff, faculty, or students. Further information can be found at the SBL website. Our special thoughts and prayers go out to Chris Brady, blogger and Tulane faculty member, and longtime friend of "Ralph." Chris and his family are safe.

The least important casualty of Katrina is my "Psalms Targum in English" (link at right), which is hosted on the Tulane server. No doubt it will re-appear in due course, but it's of little consequence.

"Behold, God is great, and we know him not" (Job 36:26).

UPDATE (9/2): Chris has left a comment below; good to hear from you, CB.

Evan's narrative of evacuation here is must reading.