Sunday, August 26, 2007

"The Lord is in this place. How dreadful is this place."

A weekend trip to San Diego so my wife could see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Natural History Museum, the Mustangs at the Automotive counterpart in Balboa Park, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla at a fundraising dinner and outdoor symphony filled the past couple of days. The four hours it took each way made me grumble again about the overpopulation of our coast. The weather, ten-to-fifteen degrees cooler, made me wonder why I live in heat and smog. The food, however, made me appreciate my wife's cooking even more, despite the fact it's that lack and the fact we don't have a kitchen that spurred this very excursion south 120 miles.

Here's my factoid: David slew Goliath and a scribal error gave the "giant" a height of nine-and-a-half rather than six-and-a-half feet. Still WWF size in those days when, as the sandal found at Qumran shows, the equivalent of a lady's five today. The exhibit, quite informative, reminded me of J.F. Powers in the lavish abbey where he taught, now the sponsor of the largest new project of the scriptural illumination for our new millennium. St. John's illuminated bible pages, perhaps nearly three feet each, were shown as samples of a work in progress; I believe one page, credited to Donald Jackson's calligraphy, is likely the same man who spoke at our high school when I was a senior and he was the city of L.A.'s official scribe.

Quite a jolt to see tiny coins of the Jewish revolt, Nero, various Herods, an Antoninus, a John Hyrcanus, and assorted Roman rulers and collaborating satraps. Or, a few dried date pits. Not to mention a hair net and a comb with microscopic lice eggs and blood still preserved.

I stood behind a stocky girl-- tattooed "Kwuiipa" (Uh, Guapa translated into the Pacific realm?) between flames up her nearly bare brown fleshy shoulders-- for a considerable time as her beau nuzzled her ears continually. They were in the long line for a half hour as we crept towards the shards of scroll fragments past the quite nuanced but definitely "humanistic" take on the abuses and uses of religion that introduced the timeline of events that began with the Venus of Willendorf to end around the 1700s, oddly. I wanted the curators to clarify when chapters and then verses were added to scriptural texts. Although mentioned, the dates were not given. Erasmus did place chapter & verse in his edition around 1520, a very humanist text!

Speaking of chronology, a testy seventy-ish visitor after handing in his audio headset sounded a bit aggravated about BCE & CE. This had been footnoted on the commentary as an optional number to key in to find out why these terms were used, but neither he nor I evidently had remembered to do so. I wondered if all museums use this terminology, or if it had not been a primarily Israeli-sponsored exhibit (and Jordan helped, as noted carefully in the museum credits with three fragments shown), would they have reverted to Anno Domini? The kind docent-- and I credit all the Balboa Park staff with unfailing patience and polite manners-- explained deftly why the terms were employed. "Sounds like you're changing history," the plaintiff mumbled as he stalked off, but the silverhaired, spectacled docent-- the same age and style as his counterpart but perhaps more skilled in what we call "critical thinking," called him back! The man half-turned, and the docent reminded him that "even many Christian scholars" had adapted the BCE/CE usage. The first man smirked, undoubtably skeptical at such liberal revisionism. The naysayer probably forgot too the small reminder in the great mass of simplified complexity that rendered this intense debate into few thousand words for us great unwashed that very little of what has been found at Qumran had any impact on what most people believe on the CE side of the great divide. And CE won, not the post-hejira or the time since the Birthday of the World 5760-odd years ago. Time split in two with the Incarnation, even if, as the docent noted, it was four years off!

Unwashed and perhaps never knowing about the crucifixion of a minor rabblerouser from Nazareth a generation before, those at Qumran may have exposed themselves to the mikvah in vain hopes of renewed purity. I wished these new discoveries had been mentioned in the presentation, but Neil Folberg's splendid photos of the desert and a eight-foot blow-up shot (not his) of a large date palm grove at the mikveh stage of our tour took precedence. Instead, as this article about "the Essene hypothesis" I read last year (see URL below) hazarded, the Essenes buried their waste, keeping over a century of occupation nasty germs alive under the soil. Essenes relied on runoff water stored in a cistern from three months yearly rain; no other water source existed. They recruited presumably healthy members at twenty or so. But by forty, they had but a 6% chance of making it to middle age, or elderly age back then, compared to a 50-50 chance up the road in Jericho. Why? Because they could not stay unwashed.

The Essenes, obsessed by cleanliness, had to reenter the mikveh each time they returned from defecating. At the latrine, while Bedouins leave their stools to dry up and break up on the dessicating desert surface, the Essenes by burying their waste ironically kept microbes alive from their dung. If they had cuts on their feet, out of those tiny sandals, they'd take the dirt from this waste dump back to breed. They left the latrine to wash and took the bugs with them rather than eradicating the tapeworms. Each time a man entered the water, it'd stir up the germs again. This swirling sump led to infections, and the life of those desert scholars, or perhaps fanatics, if monks are such today, shortened dramatically, hastening their return back to the God they sought so desperately in a Mideast retreat from the falling empires, imperial shock, and mystical awe that we too know so well with each NYT front page today.

Blog title today thanks to those Anglican folk-rockers who titled that one-minute busker plainchant recorded in some Muswell Hill-adjacent C of E echolarium by this Psalmic phrase that came to mind when I viewed this terribly awe-full image from Neil Folberg, In a Desert Land, 1998. Santa Katerina (the Sinai site of the monastery) in snowstorm.

Total immersion, in water up to nine months stagnant, many times a day. Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, throat. To quote from Prof. Tabor, leader of the dig: "As a group the men of Qumran were very unhealthy, but I think this would have been likely to have actually fed the Essenes' religious enthusiasm," said Tabor. "They would have seen their infirmities as punishment from God for their lack of purity and then have tried even harder to purify themselves further."

Does the tetragrammaton, the unnameable YHWH have a twisted sense of humor or what? Talk about "Purity & Danger." What would Mary Douglas say? (I got halfway through that eponymous book from 1969 before losing it in remodelling, but I found it again last week! I tried to explain her thesis about the (il)logic of Leviticus to my wife at dinner; a scrap unearthed we both noticed on display indeed proscribes wool with linen. No mix & match. Everything in its place. Exogamy verboten. And, for the most committed, no endogamy either, far off in the land where the devil took Jesus to the high mount to offer him all the kingdoms of the world, the desert's stark allure. Where prophets, madmen, shepherds, tourists, mystics all meditate.)

Essene Hypothesis:

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