Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Department of Middle Eastern Studies


The God, The Bad, and The Ugly: Major Deities and Their Beloved Monsters

by Ryan S. Higgins, The Jewish Theological Seminary

Ancient Near Eastern texts teem with horrifying and grotesque beings that pose some significant threat to the cosmos, humanity, or its institutions. Adopting Noel Carroll’s definition, such beings are monsters: interstitial not only physiologically and ontologically, but also cosmically and morally. For heroes, monsters may be representatives of disorder, or agents of evil and misfortune. For some gods, monsters are not all bad. Baal contends with chaotic Yamm and lethal Mot in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, but each adversary is beloved of the high god, El. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the catastrophic Bull of Heaven in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic, but the goddess Ishtar laments its death. While the heroes of these and other texts are monster-slayers, the gods therein are monster-sympathizers. This paper will take a comparative and literary approach to beloved monsters in Ugaritic, Mesopotamian, and Hebrew Bible texts. It will suggest that in Ugarit and Mesopotamia, such monsters play a crucial role in advancing the goals of antipathic heroes while maintaining the integrity of sympathetic deities. It will then consider the beloved monster in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, where the phenomenon survives but is radically changed in the development of biblical monotheism. The paper will argue that the beloved monster in Ugarit and Mesopotamia keeps together a fragmented cosmos, and that the beloved monster in the Hebrew Bible betrays the cracks in a fragmented God.

Satan the Polemicist: The Performative Use of “Evil” Afro-Brazilian Entities in the Demonization of Competitors in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

by Joao Chaves, Baylor University

In the last few decades, Brazil became a prominent place for the study of religions in general and forms of Christianity in particular. The way in which faiths compete for the affections of Brazilians is complex and diversified in the country that is, according to many accounts, simultaneously the nation with the biggest number of Roman Catholics and the biggest number of Pentecostals in the world. This paper analyses the way in which one of the fastest-growing Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal denominations—the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG)—uses their exorcism practices in order to discredit their competitors. One of the functions of the exorcisms that are performed during UCKG’s services is precisely the demonization of Roman Catholics, Afro-Brazilian religions, and other Pentecostal churches. The way in which demon-possessed people in UCKG services accuse other religions of being evil functions as an imaginary boundary for insiders and a tool for the discrediting of alternative religious expressions for both insiders and outsiders. Therefore, the use of demons as polemicists against other religions and denominations is a key aspect of the church’s success. The paper is divided in three parts. First, I will tell the story of the UCKG in Brazil in broad strokes in order to familiarize the audience with the church. Second, I will focus on the way in which the particular form of exorcisms practiced by the UCKG functions as a tool for the demonization of alternative religious institutions with which the UCKG competes in the Brazilian religious market. In this section I will be drawing from my observations of dozens of exorcisms as well as some of the secondary literature on the relationship between Afro Brazilian religions and Brazilian Neo-Pentecostalism. Finally, I will conclude by arguing that the demonization of competitors through exorcism practices has become a central characteristic of the UCKG and it is already a part of Brazilian Neo-Pentecostalism in general.

Giants of Evil: Understanding Giant Lore from Mesopotamian and Greek Lore in the Qumran Book of the Giant

by Andrew Marshall JohnsonV, Yale Divinity School

Among all the exciting finds composing the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most fascinating is that of the Book of the Giants. From the fragments of the text, it is clear that the work elaborates upon the Enochic tradition associated with the monstrous offspring of the Watchers and human women. Whereas the Book of the Watchers focuses, as its names indicates, upon the Watchers, the Book of Giants turns its attention to their ungodly progeny. Among the named giants of the text, two have received the most attention: Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk from Mesopotamian lore and Humbaba, the wretched guardian of the Cedar Forrest. The fragmentary nature of the extant text obscures the exact purpose of their presence in the text.  What is more, Jewish literature does not provide the sole background for the work, which contains hints at a war between the giants and angels and even abuse from the giants upon earth and animals. This paper therefore argues that the ideas, myths, motifs, etc. in the Hellenistic world comingled from various cultures and civilizations allowing the Book of Giants to draw from both Greek and Mesopotamian lore. It further suggests that the purpose of these borrowings were polemic.  More specifically, this paper presents two polemics: Mesopotamian and Greek. So, while the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the famed hero as the noble adventurer, the Book of Giants depicts him as a grotesque and brutish giant doomed for judgment in the flood. Furthermore, Hesiod explains that the giants derived from the union of the recently castrated, blood-dripping Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). The giants warred against their father, Ouranos while Gaia, their mother, aided in their struggle against their father. However, in the Book of the Giants, the earth comes against the giants and accuse them of injustice. In this way, the Book of the Giants construes their neighbors and rival cultures as the monstrous, unnatural progeny of fallen angels.

The Failed Temptress: Deconstructing the Strange Woman in Genesis 39 From the wilderness of Peor to the palace of the Northern Kingdom, from Midian to Moab, the intersection of gender and foreignness is the locus of the Hebrew Bible’s particularly forceful argument for foreign women as manifestations of sexual, religious and social threat.  Building on Claudia Camp’s work on the foreign woman and on Gale

Yee’s work on women as symbols of evil, this paper will explore how foreign women came to be so closely connected with ideas of destruction and evil for the biblical authors.  Then it will examine the literary connections between the didactic metaphor of the strange woman, the paradigmatic “dangerous other”, in Proverbs 7 and the narrative of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39.  In light of the threat that lurks under this nexus of gender and foreignness, made explicit in the former text, encountering an Egyptian seductress should be devastating.  Finally, this paper will consider the ways that Potiphar’s wife is constructed and deconstructed as the emblem of those ideas.  While she is no heroine, this paper argues that she is a narrative necessity and, in fact, a kind of antitext to Proverbs 7.  Her failure to seduce Joseph means that she is ultimately a failure as a strange woman, effectively making her story the only time when this paradigmatic threat is overcome.

The Deed of Divorce of the Accursed Lilith

by Øyvind Bjøru, The University of Texas

In this paper I will examine a set of Aramaic Mesopotamian incantation bowls from the sixth and seventh centuries CE. I will explore how elements of Assyro-Babylonian demonology were recast in the mold of Jewish divorce contracts, and show that available legalistic language was employed as a stylistic and rhetorical tool to enforce order when confronting chaotic demonic forces.

There is an inherent tension between oppugning the demonic force directly, employing an emic approach that is mystic both in linguistic and artistic terms, and appealing to an audience in an etic discourse that uses well-known rhetorics, stylistics, and poetics.

I claim that this tension generates certain syntactic and text linguistic features that can be analyzed to show how the authors of the incantation texts articulated the evil they were protecting themselves and others against while revealing certain characteristics of the well-ordered world—free of demonic influence—they envisioned. 

I will carry out a linguistic (syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) and rhetorical (stylistic, discursive, speech act) analysis of the Aramaic incantation texts to shed light on these aspects of the world-view espoused by the communities that produced such texts.


Good Fences?: Belfast's Peace Walls and their Theological Infrastructure

by Sarah Williams, Emory University

As both literal and symbolic boundary markers, physical partitions structure spaces of political, social, and religious difference. Though difference need not lead to enmity, partitioned spaces often breed distrust and stereotyping of the other and deepen exclusive communal identities. Belfast’s peace walls, erected as physical barriers between Catholic and Protestant communities experiencing the highest levels of violence, serve such a dual purpose. They keep outsiders out, inhibiting interaction between Catholic and Protestant community members. This facilitates the perpetuation of stereotypes of a hostile, violent other and a sense of insecurity, particularly through the retelling and ritualization of politico-religious collective memories loaded with symbolic meaning. They also keep insiders in, producing insular communal solidarities that reinforce separation. Schools, businesses, social services, and other shared spaces have become entirely segregated in these communities, fortifying a metaphorical barrier that reflects the literal one.

In this paper I argue that particular theological narratives and practices construct a powerful infrastructure around Belfast’s peace walls that both reflects and reinforces physically divided space, deepening structures of sectarianism and stereotypical representations of the Protestant and Catholic other. To make this claim, I first examine social science literature related to political identity formation in Loyalist/Unionist and Republican/Nationalist communities that stand along the wall, noting the historical process that has created a rough mapping of religious affiliation onto these political identities. Next I look to historical and ethnographic material on use of religious ritual, scriptural narratives, and doctrine in Northern Ireland among both local congregations and national groups like the Orange Order and the Free Presbyterian Church. I then analyze how such theological ritual and narrative create a habitus that reflects and contributes to social and physical sectarian structures in Belfast. In particular, I look to literature on the use of Covenantalism, marching rituals, and weekly Catholic and Protestant liturgical practices to demonstrate how narrations of the other are theologically embedded in religious communities.


The Figure "Satan" as an Embodiment of the Voice of Exiled Judeans in Babylon: A Reconsideration of the Opponents Within the Visions of Zechariah

by Robert Kashow, Brown University

This paper concerns the first passage within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament where an author of a text uses the angelical being Satan to represent an evil entity or at least a voice of contention, namely, Zechariah 3 (Satan's accusations are "rebuked," thus I do not view his role in Zechariah 3 merely as neutral).  When it comes to the Satan episode in Zechariah 3 and opponents addressed in Zechariah’s visions in general, the majority of scholars view Zechariah’s Satan as an embodiment of the voice of Judeans within Judah resisting the restoration program set forth by those who returned from Babylon. This historical reconstruction seems to be the result of two forces: firstly, the effects of Paul Hanson’s work on the social-dynamics of Judah at the time—namely that there was a rift within early post-exilic Judahite community—and secondly, an assumption that the visions of Zechariah were written to Judeans within Judah. I will address both of these forces in tandem and argue, contrary to the history of scholarship on Zechariah, that the prophet uses the Satan figure to embody the voice of those exiled Judeans in Babylon who resisted returning to Judah. The approach I will take is primarily historical and exegetical, but it may also make use of anthropological theory, depending on the findings of my theoretical research.

Somalis as Samaritans: Kenyan Evangelical Christians and the reimaging of Christian-Muslim conflict in East Africa

by Ken Chitwood, University of Florida

Long an oasis of relative Christian-Muslim calm, Kenya is now seeing increased tension and open conflict between the two communities, mainly exacerbated by Al-Shabaab militants, the Kenyan government and military, and Christian mobs. In the media and popular sentiment, Al-Shabaab, Muslims, and Somalis in general are often vilified. This precedent reaches back to government agitprop during the “Shifta War” of the 1960s. Yet, among evangelical Christians, attitudes toward Somalis can prove more ambivalent. Drawing on interviews conducted with both Kenyan evangelical Christians and Somali Muslims in Kenya and the U.S. between October 2012 (immediately following the “Westgate Mall attack”) and June 2014, this paper seeks to examine the theological shift among Kenyan evangelicals wherein they have re-cast Somalis as Samaritans and in doing so have made their primary approach to this conflict one of proselytization, not open hostility. This shift is due to a confluence of factors including community context, economic pragmatism, and religious motivations. Even so, this posture of proselytization does not necessarily preclude peace-building; it may yet lead to increased tension and degradation of relationships between Christians and Muslims in East Africa. What this paper aims to elucidate is the basic outlook of Kenyan evangelicals toward Somalis, and Muslims in particular, and discuss these attitudes in the nexus of increased Christian-Muslim tension, economic utilitarianism, religious pluralism, and theological development among evangelicals in East Africa. The paper will reveal how in re-casting the Somali “villain” as Samaritan, Kenyan evangelicals are not only maintaining boundaries, but also looking for opportunities to foster new identities and establish a Christian cultural hegemony in East Africa for the sake of a longed-for peace.

Hero or Villain?: The Charaterization of Saul and the Levite in Israel's History according to the MT and Josephus

by Katherine E. Smith, Baylor University

Saul:  villain or hero? The answer depends on the perspective of the editor, who shapes the king's characterization in both the MT and Josephus' retelling. The paper will briefly examine the tradition-history of Saul in both the MT and Antiquities to show the following: 1) in the final form of the MT, Saul is resented as a villainous failure whose shortcomings highlight the need for David, while 2) Josephus presents Saul in a more heroic light, emphasizing Saul's leadership skills and military acumen and placing him on more equal footing with David. The paper will then argue that the unique perspectives of the MT editor(s) and Josephus concerning Saul shaped not only the Saul stories but their different uses of the story of the Levite and his concubine as well. In both accounts (Judg 19-21; Antiquities 5.2.8-9), the men of Gibeah violate the concubine, and the Levite cuts her into twelve pieces and sends them to the tribes of Israel, calling them to war, and in both accounts this story foreshadows Saul's summons to Israel by means of dismembered oxen (1 Sam 11; Antiquities 6.5.3). The MT and Josephus stories, however, are in different locations and have different details. The paper will argue that a final form reading of both MT and Josephus' account of the material in Judges-1 Samuel reveals two very different histories. In the MT, the Levite/concubine story represents the height of disorder and decline in the book of Judges and foreshadows the failure of Saul. In Josephus' account, the Levite/concubine story begins a series of accounts of military leaders, presented in a much more favorable light including the account of Saul as successful leader. Ultimately, the paper will show that the depiction of Saul - as villain or hero - helps shape the overall presentation of Israel's history.

Divine Opposition to the Aqedah as Early Jewish Theodicy

by Reed Carlson, Havard Divinity School

While the Hebrew Bible contains many manifestations of evil, both mortal and divine, none are nearly as developed as those of Second Temple and early Jewish literature. While it was once commonplace to interpret these innovations as the creations of “marginal” Jews demonizing a more powerful “other,” recently our sketch of Second Temple Judaism has become more complicated. It is now much harder to determine which groups were in and out of power both in Jerusalem and the diaspora—and precisely how the surviving texts represent them.  Without diminishing the role that personified evil plays in distinguishing the self and others, this essay highlights an underemphasized aspect of this literature: its theodical function. As ancient hearers of these texts came to understand themselves as participating in a reality animated by the emerging biblical corpus, renewed explanations to fundamental questions, such as the problem of evil, became necessary. To talk about evil in the biblical story is to set out the limits of how it has and can hurt God’s people. Personified evil, then, is not only a way of demonizing an earthly enemy but also a way of helpfully demonizing one’s own past and future. Blaming the trials and defeats of history on someone who will ultimately be defeated is one theodical method among many, though, as these texts demonstrate, this kind of answer always strains the limits of monotheism.  This essay demonstrates these interests at work through the widespread phenomenon of divine figures opposed to the Aqedah. This story is a prime example because in its reception, it came to be understood by many Jews, Christians, (and later Muslims) as encapsulating a core truth about God’s nature and role in history. Texts discussed include Jubilees, 4Q225, early Midrashim (primarily from Genesis Rabbah), the Synoptic Gospels, and the Babylonian Talmud.

Samson, the Danite: Reading the Bad Through the Good

by Adrianne Spunaugle, University of Michigan

Within the Hebrew Bible, the figure of Samson occupies a unique position as the only biblical hero to come from the tribe of Dan before its legendary move to the North. As suggested long ago by Yadin, this move was very likely connected to the re-identification of Dan as a member of “Israelite” society, from their former identity as a member of the “Sea Peoples”. The setting of this story in the Shephelah places it squarely within the boundary struggles between the Philistines and the peoples of the central hill country, catching the Danites in between. My argument is that the stories of Samson in Judges 13-16 originally concerned the struggles of the Danites against the Philistines before their inclusion into “Israelite” society. The figure of Samson was not initially a “hero” to the Judahites, but rather an outsider whose stories were later incorporated into the Judahite holy texts by a much later redactor. As such, Samson is an example of a villain or lawless man who was later transformed into a hero against a mutual enemy, the Philistines.

As a liminal hero from a people between two rival cultures (literally and metaphorically), Samson represents a villain (in the Judahite perspective) from a time when geographical boundaries and social identities were being formed. He is later transformed through an editorial process into the “hero for Israel” as the redactor seeks to incorporate these folk stories into his narrative concerning Israel’s struggles with its enemies. It may even be that the redactor did not realize that the tribe of Dan was not originally a member of the “family” of Israel, and therefore his mis-reading of the text generated what became the traditional reading.

This project will incorporate archaeological evidence with close readings of the biblical text and other “contemporary” texts to propose a plausible re-interpretation of this classical heroic epic.

The Construction of Evil in Children's Bibles

by John Gayle, University of Virginia

It’s very difficult to draw sin.  Hence, the illustrators of children’s bibles face daunting challenges as they attempt to portray this chief villain lurking behind many biblical pericopes. The accompanying author faces similar challenges in representing evil while excising and editing portions of the traditional Protestant Bible for presentation to a young audience. These colorful compendiums are produced under the auspices of teaching the next generation; however, this enterprise is fraught with flaws.  This paper argues that these recapitulations habituate children to particular understandings of evil which reinforce divisive cultural norms while obscuring more comprehensive and theological representations of evil in the Bible.  As for methodology, this paper will begin by analyzing portrayals of evil from germane passages common to four different contemporary children’s bibles in order to expose problematic features intrinsic to the whole genre (these children’s bibles boast cumulative sales approaching 10,000,000 copies).1 Here I seek to identify the conceptual lexicon that authors and illustrators employ as they collude in distinguishing protagonists from antagonists in their reconstructions. Secondly, I argue their construal of humanity as clearly divided into “good guys” (the righteous/faithful) and “bad guys” (the unrighteous/wicked) emphasizes evil as merely an external and behavioral phenomenon resulting from individual human choices. This characterization of sin spawns an unintentional theology of the übermensch and the bible is reduced to a breviary of moral exemplars who avoid and overcome evil. Lastly, I will demonstrate how these particular interpretations of evil risk entrenching contemporary boundaries by demonizing the “other,” and I will offer several correctives for the problems raised.

Death Challenges Even the King

by Natasha L. Mikles, University of Virginia

Death Challenges Even the King: the Buddhist Triumph over King Gesar’s Conquest of Hell Through a detailed translation and exploration of the nineteenth-century Tibetan text dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po (King Gesar’s Conquest of Hell), this paper considers how the narrative’s “villain”—the traditional Buddhist figure Yama, King of Death—acts to challenge, complicate, and undermine the moral character of the Tibetan epic hero King Gesar of Ling. The Tibetan epic Gesar of Ling is a living oral epic that tells the pursuits of the nomadic warrior-king Gesar of Ling, who destroys surrounding kings who threaten the safety of his homeland. King Gesar’s Conquest of Hell is a unique addition to the epic’s canon, developing comparatively recently in the nineteenth century and existing as first a literary episode prior to its induction into the oral canon. Many scholars also consider this episode unique for its role in buddhicizing the traditional Tibetan epic and presenting Gesar’s challenger not as a demonic king, but as King Yama and the realm of Buddhist hell itself. This paper explores how the inclusion of traditional Buddhist figures in the narrative roles of villains—villains who retain their power and best King Gesar, but ultimately provide him the key to destroying hell—challenges the valorization of King Gesar and undermines his role as an all-powerful, all-conquering hero. Through this, the narrative affirms the authority of the Buddhist establishment and re-brands King Gesar as a Buddhist savior who is himself subject to the Buddhist moral laws of cause and effect.

Wise Kari and the Devil's Fiddle - Revival and the Excommunication of Folk Music in Mid 18th Century Norway

by Lene Storhaug, University of Oslo

In the mid 19th century, heavy drinking and brawls characterized Hallingdal, a valley in one of the eastern counties of Norway. In fact, despite its rather small geographical extent, this valley had the highest rank of murders in Norway in the 1850’s. The religious leaders were highly concerned, and the Norwegian traditional fiddle, hardingfela, was appointed the root to the problem, as it was closely linked to dances.  In order to attack this problem, the laywoman Kari Heie (1825-1913) started a wave of religious revival. At 26, Kari received a vision, and she warned people around her about what would happen to those who sinned against God. It was the local musicians in particular whom Kari shunned. She started preaching to the masses, and received the name Wise Kari. This placed the local priests in a difficult dilemma. They did not approve of a laywoman preaching to their masses. Then again, more people stopped drinking and dancing, and started going to church, of which they approved.  The local fiddle-players suffered during this period, as it was said that the fiddle was the Devil’s instrument. A large portion of Norway’s material culture was destroyedwhen fiddles where burned, or broken. Only a few survived, some were buried, others ended up in America, because their owners chose to emigrate. This religious revival movement has been blamed for “killing” several generations of folk musicians.  In my discourse I will present the religious movement called The Heie-Movement, lead by a laywoman who became the first woman to speak in a Norwegian church.My analysis will focus on material culture becoming a part of a local discussion of good and evil. 

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