Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Bible Unearthed Review

           I have often challenged myself to read the Bible with the inevitable consequence that after a few pages, the storied work returns to the bookshelf to gather dust.  My interest, however, has been rekindled by a new book The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and Neil Asher Silberman, contributing editor to Archaeology magazine among other positions.
            The authors reinterpret the stories of the Old Testament in light of the most recent archaeological evidence and reveal which stories were true, which were false, and which were exaggerations.  They also provide an understanding of why this text from the unlikeliest of times and places could have persisted and changed history.
            The main thrust of their work is that the core of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, was written in the seventh century BCE near the time that King Josiah reined, hundreds or even thousands of years after the described events.  The authors point out anachronisms in the text such as in the story of Joseph.  In Genesis chapter 37, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery to a passing camel caravan.  However, camels were not domesticated as pack animals until after 1000 BCE.  
            There is, in fact, no archaeological evidence for the stories of the Old Testament until the time of King David.  This portion without evidence includes the stories of Abraham, his son Isaac, his son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons.  There is no evidence for the Israelite’s captivity in Egypt, their escape from bondage, or their forty years of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. 
            These stories were the threads of legends of the various groups of the area.  And the books that describe these events were an effort in the seventh century BCE by priests and scholars loyal to King Josiah to consolidate central power by creating a common history for the scattered people of the region and create a sense of unity amongst them. 
            The authors assert that there is no evidence for the existence of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, which would later fracture under Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  Rather, the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel existed as separate entities until the destruction of Israel by the Assyrian empire as described in 2 Kings Chapter 17 around 722 BCE. 
            After Israel’s fall, the kingdom of Judah flourishes due to its status as last-man-standing in the region, and as is usually the case, writes history to suit its own ends.  The goal of the Old Testament authors is to create a sense of unity amongst the people of the area and encourage loyalty to the central government in Jerusalem.  The priesthood begins by weaving local myths and legends into a common history interwoven with a personal relationship with one god.  Chapter 22 of 2 Kings describes how the lost book of law was “found” in the temple.  In reality, this book of law, an early version of Deuteronomy, was written at that time and introduced to the people of Judah. 
            The kingdom of Israel had been for centuries the more prosperous, populated, and economically advanced kingdom of the two.  In a fashion that would make our own political operatives proud, the writers of the Old Testament waged a propaganda campaign for the purpose of discrediting the northern kingdom by discrediting their kings.  The northern kingdom’s leaders were painted as idolaters and wicked.  Judah was the hero of the narrative as being more true to God.
The Old Testament is punctuated throughout with episodes in which God’s chosen people commit idolatry and worship other gods.  Archaeological evidence provides us with an understanding of their lapses.  The people described in the Old Testament were polytheists throughout their history.  Monotheism was not the norm, not even at the time of King David or Solomon.  Not until the seventh century did monotheism begin to gain the upper hand.  Noticeably, the only place to worship this singular god was in the temple in Jerusalem, which enhanced the centralization of power in Jerusalem’s priesthood.   
The greatest contribution of The Bible Unearthed is the understanding it imparts to its readers of how and why these stories were written.  The authors build from the archaeological evidence a picture of the political climate of the time, which created a need for a politically and theologically unifying religious text to knit the people of the region together under Jerusalem’s king and priesthood. 
The book demonstrates how easily it has always been to obfuscate the truth and create mythology.  Our own American history is already shot through with mythology after only two hundred years.  The story of George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree is apocryphal.  The world of ancient Israel was little different from our own in this respect.  They suffered from a dearth of the divine and a plenitude of political propaganda.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A is A

            Like many conservative/libertarians, I went through an Ayn Rand phase.  Apart from being presumptive, this piece may also be futile since adherents to Rand’s philosophy are not so much adherents, but worshipers.  I know this from personal experience since I gulped gallons of the Objectivist Kool Aid myself, bought three t shirts, and a coffee mug.  Yes, I literally have in my possession three Atlas Shrugged t shirts and an Atlas Shrugged mug.

Notice the "Atlas Will Shrug" Mug
            I haven’t completely dismissed her ideas as espoused in Atlas Shrugged or the Fountain Head.  There is a lot to be said for fighting the notion that the less fortunate are automatically entitled to the rewards of other’s hard work.  We are struggling with an entitlement culture as I write this.  It’s important to note that our entitlement culture extends far beyond just the “welfare” classes.  Rand’s ideas are noteworthy but are ultimately almost as abstract and utopian as the communist ideals.  

            Her philosophy is based on the primacy of logic and reason above all else.  It is an elegant theory, a perfect counterweight to communism.  One would expect that given her experience in Russia’s communist revolution, that the horrors she saw there would drive her to be the yin to the collectivists’ yang.

Man’s logic and reason create all that is necessary for life and advances our quality of life.  Man’s intellect makes all this possible, and no one can make a claim to another man’s creative intellect, even on humanitarian grounds.  Others may reap the rewards of another’s intellect, but only by the voluntary exchange of something of value.  The individual is the primary focal point, not the collective.      

              But as my wife said, “People just don’t work that way.”  My wife is an old soul and intuitively sensed that Rand’s theory didn’t mesh with our messy reality.
            Scientific studies show infants demonstrate empathy for others before they even learn to speak.  This suggests that we, as a species, are born with an innate sense of empathy.  We are born hard wired to empathize and sympathize with others. 

            I can imagine how this might be interpreted in an evolutionary biology framework.  Scientists have argued at what level or levels does survival of the fittest take place?  Is it the fittest gene, cell, individual, group, species, or all of the above?  Our species may not have evolved to be the fittest individual but the fittest group.  Survival rates for an individual would have been zero for most of our evolutionary history.  A loner would make easy prey for animal or enemy. 

            Grok the Neanderthal may not have been the fittest or smartest of his clan.  But he was still a needed for hunting and fending off rival clans.  If he was a slacker on the hunt, I imagine that he would take home a smaller share of wooly mammoth than other group members as punishment.  But unless food resources were scarce, he would not be allowed starve.  He was still useful for the survival of the group.

Our species did not evolve to be loners, let alone the heroic loners of Rand’s novels.  We evolved in groups, attuned to the emotional states of one another in order to assure group harmony and success.  This is reflected in the following thought experiment.

If two people are performing an identical task, and one produces more than the other due to a superior work ethic or intelligence, our innate sense of fairness dictates that the out performer deserves greater compensation.  But if $5 would save someone’s life and a billionaire refuses to give up an amount of funds insignificant to him, most would consider his refusal immoral. 

We don’t suffer the lazy for long.  But we also expect those who have an abundance of resources to share with the less fortunate, at least to the extent that their standard of living is not affected.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  During the millennia in which we evolved, great disparity of wealth did not exist.  We are still struggling with the idea that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet live only a few thousand miles from Haitians dying from a lack of clean water. 

One of Rand’s central tenets was an adherence to Aristotle’s Law of Identity:    Everything in existence has a particular nature.  That particular nature gives the object its identity, and an object cannot have two identities.  A is A.  It is what it is. 

Humans are what we evolved to be.  A is A.  We are neither purely collectivist nor individualist.  We are a motley mixture of both intellect and emotion with an innate sense of justice that rewards exceptional individual ability and values charity.  And a quick perusal of our history will confirm that we have always been so. 

Reward for individual effort is the engine that drives human progress.  But individuals pursuing their own interests do not ensure the success the group, or in our age, the nation.  Numerous civilizations have collapsed as individuals pursued their own goals with blinders on, steaming their societies along like a rudderless ship to unfortunate ends.  (Warning, book recommendation follows.  Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed).

My wife sensed what Ayn Rand could not see.  Perhaps it was because she was born in a South Bronx housing project but has gone on to receive her Masters degree.

She will testify that she didn’t succeed alone as a Rand heroine would.  Her success is due to her exceptionality, luck, and some helping hands, including some from the government.  We’ll never know exactly which factor figured most prominently in her avoiding the traps that ensnared many of the young women in her neighborhood.  There is no elegant or simple explanation.  But that is the human condition.  A is A.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thoughts From, Of, and About a Simple Life

            This is an attempt to jump start my blog.  The original experiment, I am confident, succeeded.  That is, Crossfit and the Paleo diet will whip you into shape in no time.  I am not currently Crossfit, Paleo, or any combination of the above.  I have a four month old daughter, so I am simply in survival mode.  That goes double for the little monster’s mother. 
Our hungry little monster.
            I recently caught my reflection in the mirror, which served as a stark reminder that I was not in great shape at the moment.  It’s always my intention to return to my little home gym, but I also thought that I should revisit this blog as well as the weights.  After all, the gray matter deserves a work out as well.  My synapses fire double time when not obsessed with work on questions and ideas from all subjects.  So a blog on diet and exercise is limiting.  So for starters, what would a more broadly interpreted paleo lifestyle look like?     

            The thrust of the paleo diet is that we are still essentially identical to our cave man ancestors, who evolved prior to the agricultural revolution.  Therefore, we should eat what they ate to the extent possible: nuts, berries, vegetables that resemble more or less the wild plants they ate, fish, and meat.  The more organic and natural you can obtain these items, the better for your health.  Therefore, grass fed beef sans antibiotics is superior to the typical feed lot beef.  If you can get wild game, even better. 

            The agricultural revolution introduced domesticated grains into the diet: wheat, barley, rice and others, which we had not evolved to eat.  Anthropologists saw a decrease in the size and stature of humans in the post-agricultural revolution era.  Grains provide energy but little nutrients as compared to spinach or broccoli. 

            So we currently eat foods that we did not evolve to eat, to the great detriment of our health.  An extension of this theory calls into question our entire hamster-on-a-treadmill lifestyle.  Our bodies did not evolve to spend hours behind a desk followed by hours in front of the television or computer.  More importantly, neither did our psyche. 

            Technology has made more available to us the essentials of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  But what’s next?  What are we working for after we achieve the essentials?  The latest flat screen TV, designer label fashion, or luxury car?  Your average cave man’s rat race was a matter of survival, of gathering food and finding shelter.  What joy he had was derived from his interaction with others in his group.  What is our rat race about?  And to what degree can we opt out?

            Obviously, if I thought I had all the answers, I would start my own religion.  But there are some guides. 

The Pew Research Center released a study on happiness in 2006.  It showed that happiness was related to income.  But the percentage of people stating that they were very happy has been fairly stable since the early 1970s.  But real income has risen in those forty years.  Why hasn’t the number of happy people gone up?  Researchers have found that it’s not what we have that makes us happy, but what we have relative to others. 

We work as hard, have more, but are no more satisfied.  Our lifestyles are consumed by goals we never meant to have for things that didn’t exist in the wildest imagination of our prehistoric ancestors. 

Warren Buffet said something that sums up our lifestyles.  I am paraphrasing here: Greed doesn’t run the world.  Envy does.

The search for a way out begins.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fran and Frustration

I have been somewhat frustrated by my progress in my workout goal.  In particular, I have tried to stick to a program of 3 days working out, 1 day off, 2 on, 1 off.  I have been stymied.  I just can't seem to recover enough.  All the more frustrating since the official Crossfit program is 3 on, 1 off, all the time.  So I reviewed my workout log, which goes back to January 08.  I looked at the workouts that I did when I considered myself in my prime.  My schedule was very haphazard back then.  3 on, 3 off, 5 on, 1 off, 2 on, 2 off, etc.  But I looked at an average for a month and found that I was consistently working out an average of 20-21 days per month, ie. the equivalent of a 2 on-1 off program.  I have been somewhat relieved to find that I was getting decent results working out 67% of the time.  So I'm going to implement a consistent 2-1 rotation.  We'll see how it goes.  Oh yeah, this all underscores the importance of keeping a record of your workouts.

Today was dedicated to Fran, a Crossfit legend.  The giants amongst Crossfit giants do this workout under 2:30.  I guess that makes me a pygmy.  My time was 10:09.  My best ever was 6:55 on 7/31/08. 
21-15-9 reps of
95 lbs Thruster
Kipping Pullups

Another important lesson for today:  strength plays a huge part in doing these workouts quickly and successfully.  I wasn't slowed down by lack of cardio, but by a lack of shoulder strength and leg power to drive out of the bottom of the front squat.  I'll try to do Fran again as I near the end of my goal to see how much I can improve.  At this point, 15 workouts down, 42 to go.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I'm feeling a little beat down, but charged ahead anyway.
21-15-9 reps of
135 lbs. Squat Clean
Ring Dips

My time 19:24. 
Not even close to a PR (14:40 on 12/18/08). 
Still, 14 workouts down, 43 to go.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nancy - Thirteen Down, Forty Four to Go

Today I did Nancy.  (My wife scowls.)  As previously noted, many Crossfit workouts are named after girls.  I should name one after my wife, Lisa.  I'll have to think on this awhile to come up with a workout that matches her personality. 

Anyway, Nancy:  5 rounds for time of
Run 400 meters
15 Overhead Squats, 95 lbs.
My time:  22:02.  I was hoping for better.  In fact, I had imagined a sub 15 min workout.  But the squats were much harder than I anticipated after running 400 m. 
After Nancy, I got to use my new rope.  (Cue Angelic chorus.)  I felt like an eight year old on Christmas morning.  The rope is hanging 15 feet up.  I did 5 ascents in 4 minutes.  Rope climbing is deceptively difficult.  It also exhausts your entire body unless you're actually strong enough to climb without using your legs.  I'm not that strong.

I had hoped to do a hero WOD yesterday in honor of 9/11.  But my body just wasn't up to it.  I did a shortened Murph as best I could.  Run 1 mile, 6 rounds of 10 pullups, 20 pushups, 30 squats, run 1 mile. 

At this point, I've done thirteen named workouts.  There are 57 on the list.  Forty four to go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Helton and Stephen

Another day, and sadly another hero workout appeared on the Crossfit main site. U.S. Air Force Security Forces 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton was from Monroe, GA, which is a town just an hour and a half away from me. Five more hero workouts have appeared since I took on this goal about a month ago. It's tough to have moving goal posts. I fully expected that more heroes would be added to the list. I didn't expect them to come at a rate of one per week. But all I can do is keep chugging through the list of workouts remembering how fortunate I am to be able to attempt them.

With that in mind, today I did the hero WOD "Stephen."
For time: 30-25-20-15-5 reps of
Situps on Glute Ham Developer
Back Extensions
Knees to Elbows
Stiff legged deadlift 95 lbs.
My time: 25:59.

Third Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry member Corporal Stephen Bouzane, 26, was killed by an IED strike June 20th, 2007 in the Panjwaii district in Afghanistan. He is survived by his parents Fred and Moureen Bouzane and his sister Kelly.