Saturday, July 13, 2013

Edward Snowden - Hero or Traitor?

Edward Snowden, the infamous NSA surveillance contract employee who blew the whistle on the United States’ spying activity of its own citizens and on persons and governments throughout the world is, at the time of this writing, holed up at the Moscow airport. The question concerning Snowden is this - Is he a modern day hero or just another in a long list of traitors against the American government and its people? While I have my own opinion on that matter the majority jury of public opinion is still out on that particular question.

However, one thing is very clear about the outcome of Mr. Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s activities, they have raised anti-Americanism to new levels not seen since George W. Bush invaded Iraq ten years ago. At home and abroad the trust level for the American government among its own people and from citizens and officials across Europe is at an all-time low. Mr. Obama, once hailed by Europeans as the next political savior, is now being burned in effigy and the U.S. is once again being viewed by most of the world as an overbearing superpower bully accountable to nobody except its own standard of what is deemed right or wrong in its behavior toward other nations, both enemy and ally alike. What Obama publicly spent the first four years of his administration trying to attempt, and nearly succeeding, in bridging the trustworthiness gap virtually destroyed by eight years of the Bush administration, he has, in just under two years completely eliminated. With news of his possible poor and reckless decision over Libyan Ambassador Stevens’ death, the ransacking of reporter's private emails and now this news of wanton spying on allies in Europe and common citizens in the U.S. his credibility has all but been thrown off the White House balcony and it hasn’t landed in the sweet smelling Rose Garden.

The President was already taking a lot of flack from U.S. politicians and citizens for his proposed increase in the use of drones over American soil, many of the protests coming from members of his own party, now with the Snowden revelations many are wondering how long it will be before the rats start jumping what they perceive as a sinking Obama ship-of-state? Snowden’s whistle-blowing has weakened Mr. Obama’s already malnourished foreign policies, especially in those Latin American countries the U.S. has been wooing for the last several decades. Anti-Americanism is on the increase in countries like Brazil and these latest spy tales from Snowden will likely not cause them to dissipate but increase even more. The same mistrust can be said to be coming out of France, Germany, Poland, Spain and particularly from America’s two greatest perceived foes China and Russia.

Some in Washington believe that in our day of the 48-hour news cycle the revelations of Edward Snowden will eventually be downplayed and forgotten like yesterday’s heat spell. They may be correct in that assessment. The Snowden story, just two weeks after the revelations is already being overshadowed by the Zimmerman/Martin trial in Florida and the soon to be born new king or queen of England. The populous is easily distracted, but, the sentiment against the U.S. never fully goes away, it only waxes and wanes. I suppose that is the price paid for being the only bonafide militaristic superpower left on the planet.

Oh yes, before I forget, my opinion of Snowden and his whistle blowing of the NSA:

He is a hero for showing how this current U.S. administration (and likely past one’s as well) acted unconstitutionally by spying on its own citizens using questionable, if not illegal, methods to do so. He is also a traitor in that his first stop in his flight from America was communist China where he was interrogated by Chinese officials and who knows what he may have told them. Now he sits in Russia and you can bet their own agents have spent time behind closed doors with him as well. He may be a hero but because of his traitorous actions after the whistle-blowing he needs to be apprehended by American law enforcement and returned to the United States and put on trial for espionage.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Origins of Hell

Where does this idea of a hell come from? What are the origins of the teaching of a place of eternal torment that has come down to modern humanity from antiquity?

Those questions are strongly related to ideological, historical roots or beginnings. 
Before I continue I must make it clear that I personally don’t believe in a literal heaven, hell or transitional stages in-between. However, this does not necessitate that we believe them to be “literal places” to make the inquiry to the question relevant to our lives. What we do find is, from an historical context, the evolution of hell is clearly defined and more closely relates to a "state of being," a "frame of mind," a "whatsoever a man thinketh in his heart" kind of thing.

The intention of this piece is not to convince anyone to believe or disbelieve in a hell. However, to be able to intelligently discuss a thing it is vital to know something of that things inception. Even the Bible, which most people in the Occident use as a basis for their own particular belief in hell, was not created in a vacuum. The authors and characters of the Holy Writ all brought to the table their concept of hell that was prevalent in their day.

When one looks at hell's beginnings and how it evolved from generation to generation it is quite fascinating. What is more interesting is that those interested can go back to a time when hell wasn't even a factor in the course of human events. In what follows some may be shocked to find that the very founding father of the Jewish faith, Abraham, did not know of, believe in, or would have conceived of such a place of torment as an eternal hell.

The idea of hell has its beginning in the annals of time and over the centuries it has evolved into this magnificent foreboding dwelling place that literally millions of people have come to accept and fear today.

Provided for your intellectual and spiritual quest is an outline of hell's origins followed by some interesting and, hopefully, helpful reference material for those who wish to really study the subject in greater detail for themselves.

[NOTE: All dates used in the outline are BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era)]

Pre-Biblical/Pre-History - ? - 1800 BCE From the first days of humanity to Abraham

In this period of human history the concept of The "Myth of Eternal Return - The Miracle of Continuous Rising was born. It was fostered by humanity's daily witness of the rising and falling of the Sun
 and the waning and waxing of the Moon
. From those men developed measurements of monthly and yearly cycles. By observation it was determined that humanity was ruled by a cycle of 
organic birth, death and rebirth

Over time, when men allowed themselves to organize into groups leaders were created and from that the concept of the need for sacrifice to appease the gods. The Sacrifice of God-Kings ritual was instituted and from this the ideology of The Eternal Journey of the River of Life was formulated. Men began to have a sense of something existing beyond the physical life, at least for their kings. It would be some time before this eternal existence would be seen as something all humans shared in. By the time of the first civilizations in Sumer and Egypt the 
Sumerian God-King annual and seasonal sacrifices
 were instituted and shortly after that the Egyptian Pharaoh God-King entombments
 began. It was during this early period in human civilized life that archeological evidence has pointed to the idea that all men, from Pharaoh to common slave had a part in an afterlife. However, except for the God-Kings that life after death was still quite vague. The rudimentary concept of an afterlife can be seen in the ritual known as The Feeding of the Entombed Dead. An example of this is found in Deuteronomy (Devarim) 26:1.

The Early Biblical Period - The Tribe, 1800 - 1250 BCE - Abraham to Joshua
 saw the rise of the Family Tomb or Cave [Genesis (Bereshit) 25:8; 35:29; 49:29-31,33; Numbers (B'Midbar) 27:13].
 In this early Biblical period throughout the middle and near east death meant one thing; the entrance into the ancestral realm of the family tomb so that upon departing from this world he (or she) would be "gathered to his people."

In the Pre-Exilic Period or the time of nation-building in Israel, 1250 - 586 BCE from Joshua to the Babylonian Exile
 new and different ideas about the afterlife began to slowly develop. These changes did not take place immediately but in successive increments over the next 700 years or so and were brought about by many factors, mostly the result of the incorporation of ideas and practices of those outside the tribes of Israel. It is during this period that The Tribe has been replaced by The Nation causing a paradigm shift in the political-social-religious consciousness of that nation. This shift greatly affected the views of death and what takes place in the afterlife.

It is during this long period of history that the concept of Sheol is born [Genesis (Bereshit) 42:38]- Isaiah (Yeshayahu) 5:15; 14:11; Psalm (Tehillim) 141:7]. 
Sheol was borrowed from the Mesopotamian - ARALU - a place of the dead - located beneath the earth. Job's description of Sheol found in Job (Eyov) 10:21-22 is identical to the Babylonian kur-nu-gr-a (land of no return). Job lived in that part of Mesopotamia known as the city of Uz located in current day Iraq.

The Post-Exilic Period - To Scatter & Re-Gather, 587 - 200 BCE extends from the Babylonian Exile to the Maccabean Revolt against the intrusion of Greco-Syrian invasion and influence in Israel. 
The loss of the two southern kingdoms of Judah and Benjamin (Y'huda, Benyamin) to Babylonian captivity put a sword through the heart of the Jewish Nation that it hasn't fully recovered from to this very day. The nation was no more, its central focus, the Temple of Solomon, was rubble. A new shift in the thinking among the people and the prophets began to take place. With this shift Sheol slowly takes on new responsibilities in successive stages.

Sheol's new role is The Realm of Retribution. It has evolved into more than just the grave below the ground. It has developed into a place of chastisement for Israel's enemies [Isaiah (Yeshayahu) 14:9, 15; Ezekiel (Chizkiyahu) 32:18
2] and eventually the place where individual responsiblity and retribution are worked out after physical death [Jeremiah (Yirmeyahu) 31:20-30; Ezekiel (Chizkiyahu) 18:4,20].

During the Post Biblical and Pre-Christian Period, roughly 200 BCE to 2 CE 
the Greek influence throughout the middle and near east was inclusive. There was no one in the West and Middle East that escaped this Hellenistic intrusion. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are the Hellenized Jewish writings of this period. It is these writings, along with the teachings of the later Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees that have impacted, greater than any other factor, the newly developing concepts of hell that would be fully entrenched by 30 CE (the time of Jesus and his disciples).
 It is from this period that the idea developed that Sheol was divided into two distinct sections - 
A side for the wicked dead called Gehenna (Gehinnom); and a side for the righteous dead called Gan Eden - Garden of Eden (a.k.a. Abraham's Bosom).
 Gehenna and Sheol were used interchangebly in the early apocryphal period, however by the end of this period Sheol had all but disappeared. Traditions about Gehenna evolved and eventually took on mythical proportions in later Rabbinic and Kabbalistic writings. Over time it developed into a place of torment, filled with ravenous wolves, unquenchable flame and thirst, maggots, cancor worms and a continuous darkness of sleepless agony. By the historical time of the man named Jesus this was the predominant view held by most religious Jews.

The one difference that has developed since then between the Jewish, Christian and Moslem concept of hell is this:

In Jewish tradition, while hell is an eternal state, it is not the eternal habitation for the individual. The predominate view held in pre-Rabbinic and Rabbinic Judaism is that Gehenna, or hell, is not just punitive in nature but its primary purpose is to serve as a place of purgation, atonement, and purification. According to the Talmud in Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 53:2, "after going down to Gehenna and receiving the punishment due him, the sinner is forgiven from all his iniquities, and like an arrow from the bow is flung from Gehenna." Then according to Exodus Rabbah 7:4 the soul having been sufficiently purified is able to enter the beautiful realm of Gan Eden. These were the common views held by most religious Jews and Christian Jews until approximately 135 CE. There was always division between the two groups, but at that time a great division occurred aided by the final Roman destruction of the Simon Bar Kochba revolt. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity went their very separate and divergent ways.

With the massive influx of non-Jewish thought coming into the Christian Church by the 4th century CE, Messianic Jewish thought and influence died out and was completely replaced by St. Augustine's theology as reflected in his famous (some may call it infamous) eschatological work entitled "City of God." His concept of hell as an eternal place of suffering, as well as, all his other themes have influenced Western Christian thought to this very day. This idea of hell finally reached its zenith in the 13th century CE when the famous poet Dante, in his literary masterpiece "Divine Comedy" mapped out in a very picturesque graphic display the images of hell. What few realize is just how great these two works of antiquity have colored their concept of hell.

To sum up:

Hell as it has come to be known today evolved slowly over the last 10,000 years. It originally was nothing more than a burial place or family tomb for a nomadic tribal peoples that was totally devoid of any concepts of judgment, retribution and was amoral in its view. It then developed into a place for the nation's dead, evolving later as a place of retribution for the nation's enemies. This eventually led to a place of retribution for all individuals. Eventually for the Jews it became the place of retribution, purgation, atonement and purification. A place to leave for the joys of Gan Eden.
 For the Christian and Moslem it became a place for the unbelieving throng and infidel to be tortured for all eternity with unimaginable torments.


The following is a list of references (some were quoted from in the above text) that I hope you will find helpful in your own study of this intriguing subject.

The Tenach - Written Scripture, 
The Talmud & Midrash - The Oral Scripture, 
The Jewish New Testament - Translated by David H. Stern, 
Jewish Views of the Afterlife - by Simcha Paull Raphael, 
Dante's Divine Comedy, 
City of God - by St. Augustine
, Oriental Mythology, The Masks of God - by Joseph Campbell, 
The Language of Judaism - by Simon Glustrom
, The Book of Jewish Wisdom, The Talmud of the Well Considered Life - Jacob Neuser & Naom M.M. Neuser

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