The Nonbiblical History of Ancient Israel

ancient-isrealThe Oxford Research Encyclopedia’s article History of Ancient Israel offers a good survey of what we know about Israel from sources other than the bible. Here’s my summary:

The Origins of Israel

The name Israel first appears on a stone slab (stela) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1208 BC) where he boasts of his victories in the middle east:

Canaan is plundered, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is captured. Yenoam is made non-existent; Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru has become a widow because of Egypt.

The name Israel here carries a written sign to indicate that it refers to an ethnic group (rather than a geographical indication), and therefore seems to refer to Israel before state, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges.

Some historians believe that a single monarchy emerged in the 10th century and date the city gates and casemate wall structures at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer as evincing the planning of a single S0lomonic state in the 10th century (see 1st Kings 9:15). Other scholars believe that these buildings should be dated to the 9th century and ascribed to the Omride dynasty, that this period marks the effective start of Israel as a nation, and that Jerusalem could not possibly have been large or strong enough to support the kind of empire that the Torah ascribes to David and Solomon.

By the time Israel appears again in non-biblical sources in Aramaic, Moabite, and Akkadian, it refers to the northern kingdom of Israel (which later became Samaria). According to the Torah, this kingdom was established after the death of Solomon and lasted for about two hundred years until it was conquered and completely eliminated as a political entity by the Assyrians in 720 BC.

Evaluating the Evidence

The God of Israel, Yahweh, is definitely not an indigenous Canaanite deity. We now know a lot about the religion of Bronze Age Canaan from the Ugaritic texts of ancient Syria. Deities known from the Torah like El and Baal are prominent the Canaanite pantheon, but Yahweh or any deity like him is absent. A number of early Israelite texts clearly indicate that Yahweh came from well south of Judea (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4–5; Psalm 68:8; and Hebrews 3:3, 7). These claims are supported in one of the 9th or early 8th century inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud (in the Sinai Peninsula) that refers to “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” If Yahweh came from outside Judea, some of his devotees must have done so too, and it was their religion, adapted to accommodate the Canaanite religion of the region, which eventually prevailed.

During the first Iron Age (1300 – 1100 BC), Israelite society in the highlands became increasingly complex, interdependent, and more hierarchical. A specific catalyst probably occurred to make the change to a monarchy. This makes the account of Saul’s rise to prominence in response to a threat from Ammon (1st Samuel 11) plausible. The resulting unification of formerly disparate tribes in the highlands would have attracted the attention of the Philistines to the west. Previously, they had been untroubled by their neighbors to the east, but now inevitably they had to take steps to counter the rise of this new threat.

Recent archaeological finds in Jerusalem like the massive Middle Bronze Age (2100 BC – 1550 BC) towers defending the Gihon Spring, the stepped stone structure, and other public buildings nearby, all indicate that it was more than just a remote village at that time. The liturgical traditions of the Jerusalem temple, especially as known from the Psalms, show that the religion was shared in many respects with the north, using terminology that it is hard to believe was invented in the south alone. We never once find a reference to the God of Judah alongside the familiar God of Israel. These conservative religious traditions testify to a sense of profound cultural unity that transcended the political establishments.

Every king who is ever mentioned in a non-biblical source always has the correct name and period in the biblical lists. This cannot be explained as the result of random memory. The lists are accurate at least from start of the divided monarchy, since the reference to an invasion by Pharaoh Shishak in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign (1st Kings 14:25–28) is corroborated by Shishak’s own account in the temple at Karnak in ancient Thebes. It is certain that some form of written records were kept from earliest times, making it most unlikely that the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon just a few years before could have been wholly fictional.

Personal names and other details suggest that at least some of the stories in Joshua, Judges, and the first half of 1st Samuel may rest on elements of historical memory.  The time of the early monarchy, when disparate groups of Israelites were first given a sense of strong political and religious unity, would likely be when these sacred memories were collected.

As mentioned, some archaeologists ascribe a number of fortifications that were traditionally ascribed to Solomon to the Omrides. If correct, this raises the possibility that there never was no unified monarchy under David and Solomon. The main second Iron Age (1000 – 600 BC) fort at Jezreel certainly date to the time of the Omrides (and incidentally, confirm the details of the narrative of Jehu’s coup in 2nd Kings 9–10). A distinctive form of pottery found there is very close to what was found in Megiddo Stratum VA/IVB, which was previously ascribed to the time of Solomon. If they are contemporary, then the Megiddo material, and similar material at Hazor and Gezer, is contemporary with the Jezreel finds. On the other hand, some archaeologists claim that this type of pot was in use for many centuries, so that not every layer that contains it need be dated to the same decade or two. That is, the pottery may be early at Megiddo and simply still in use centuries later Jezreel.

The Period of the Dual Monarchies

The period sometimes called the dual monarchies lasted for about two hundred years. Judah survived for about another 150 years on its own after the demise of Israel, until its end came at the hand of the Babylonians in 587 BC. This is known to us primarily from the biblical books of Kings. The final form of these books cannot be older than the middle of the 6th century, the date of the last recorded event (2nd Kings 25:27–30). The author had his own reasons for the composition, and they do not coincide with those of a modern historian.  Non biblical sources are no better for historical purposes. The authors of written materials, whether Moabite, Aramean, Assyrian, or Babylonian, have religious and propagandistic motivations just as the author of Kings did. Material evidence, on the other hand, requires careful dating.

Judah’s greater isolation from the major powers of the ancient Near East meant that it was less troubled by external pressures than Israel, at least to start with. Initially, Egypt to the south remembered something of its now lost status as the hegemonic power throughout the middle east in the late Bronze Age (1650 – 1200 BC), and the Philistines to the west were still influential.

With the rise of the Omrides in Israel in the 9th century, the Arameans became the dominant power in the region and exerted considerable pressure, sometimes conquering parts of the north. This gave way to closer relations between the Arameans and the Israelites when they were both threatened by the far mightier Assyrians, whose need to control the major trade routes to the Mediterranean coast and to Egypt brought them into direct conflict with Israel, through whose territory parts of those routes lay.

Cooperation with the Arameans initially allowed Israel to successfully resist Shalmaneser III (858–824 BC), including the victory of Ahab of Israel at the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. Aram became the dominant regional power. It is likely that the Aramaens were behind Jehu’s overthrow. The discovery of an Aramaic inscription recounts the Aramean king’s defeat of the kings of the Omride dynasty of Israel, mirroring the events described in 2nd Kings 10:21–28, though in the Torah, it is the Israelite Jehu who is responsible for the deaths, not the king of Aram. In time, Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 BC) succeeded where Shalmaneser had failed. Israel was reduced in size and became a tributary state of Assyria, until further rebellion led to its end as an independent state and its incorporation into greater Assyria.

Judah’s situation, in contrast, was initially more favorable, though economically less advanced. When the Assyrians threatened Israel, Judah became a vassal state, while retaining independence in other respects. Twenty years after the final fall of Samaria, Hezekiah, the Judean king, led a major rebellion of small western states against Sennacherib (705–681 BC), leading to reprisals in 701 BC. Hezekiah was humiliated and forced to pay much greater tribute and much of his country was decimated, but Jerusalem was not destroyed and Hezekiah and his successors were permitted to remain on the throne.Why Hezekiah was allowed to remain on the throne remains a mystery, 2nd Kings 18–19 attributing it to a miracle. During the following century, Judah was able to recover by remaining loyal to the Assyrians.

When the Babylonians finally defeated the already weakened Assyrians in 612 BC, they inherited their empire. Judah’s position remained more or less unchanged even though under a new imperial power. However, as documented in both the Babylonian Chronicle and 2nd Kings, Judah rebelled and was further reduced in 597 BC and, ten years later, annihilated, with the temple and palace in Jerusalem destroyed, the Davidic king exiled, and the country becoming a mere province of the Babylonian Empire.

The Babylonian Exile

The period known as the Babylonian exile only lasted about fifty years, but its impact on the history of ancient Israel was immeasurable. After the Babylonian conquest, there was no longer any independent Israelite or Judean state. Israel had disappeared 150 years earlier, after which the name was in some circumstances adopted by Judah. With the fall of Judah, the territory became a province of the Babylonian empire, which lasted until 520 BC. The territory of Judah was greatly reduced, the southern part becoming part of Idumaea.

The descendants Judaean people (who became the Jews) were no longer confined to Judah. Before the exile, some Judaeans had already moved elsewhere–for example the community in Upper Egypt at Elephantine–but they were no longer recognized as Judeans. During the exile, a diaspora with strong links back to Judah developed, initially in Babylon but later in Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east, such as Galilee. Most of the leaders of the Judean community came from Babylon, but over the centuries, major cultural developments such as the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, occurred elsewhere, while pilgrim festivals, like Passover, gave a sense of unity in which shared religion transcended geographic boundaries.

Under pressure to maintain cultural identity, the Judeans developed strong social markers to replace the solidarity that had preciously been based on shared law, religious institutions like the temple, and loyalty to the king and his court. These factors became far more prominent; circumcision, sabbath observance, and concern for purity, especially through the observance of food laws, are the most obvious examples. The role of sacred writings and later scripture also became more important during this period.

The Babylonians policy that allowed exiled communities to be settled together rather than dispersed among the host population, in contrast the practice in Assyria, which led to total assimilation over time of the “ten lost tribes”, allowed the Judean identity to survive. This is known from the book of Ezekiel, but is confirmed by Akkadian tablets from al-Yahudu (meaning “the city of Judah”) and Nashar. They include many personal names, about eighty of which are Yahwistic (about 15 percent of the total). This helps explain how the Judeans maintained social cohesion and developed new forms of leadership. Without a king, and with sovereignty in the hands of foreigners, priestly authority grew, and lay authority reverted to extended family leaders (i.e. “elders”).

In Judah itself, the center of gravity moved north from Jerusalem to the old tribal territory of Benjamin, centered on Mizpah, as the destruction was less severe there than in the rest of Judah. Centers like Jerusalem were destroyed, and no more than a handful continued to live there. Over time this had an inevitable effect on the demographic spread in Benjamin itself, but life certainly continued, and there is evidence, such as the book of Lamentations, to indicate that this did not necessarily exclude all cultural activity.

Scholars who think that the name “Israel” was first used for the northern kingdom believe that this is the period when the name, with it all the religious and social baggage, was adopted by the people of Judah, who had never previously considered themselves part of Israel. The intermediary role of Benjamin features prominently in this story. The direct evidence for this theory is thin, and is not believed by those who favour the existence of an earlier unified Israel that split after the death of Solomon.

The Persian Period

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Persian was welcomed into Babylon by the elite who were disaffected with the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus inherited the Babylonian Empire, and he and some of his Achaemenid successors added to it, so that at one point the empire stretched from India to Egypt. Despite revolts at the start of the reign of Darius I (522 – 520 BC), the disastrous attempt to take Greece, revolts in the middle east in the 5th century BC, and the in-and-out status of Egypt, the empire was relatively stable until its sudden collapse in face of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334–331 BC. Whether in Judah or elsewhere, the large majority of Judeans/Jews lived within the same empire.

There is no consecutive account of this period; nothing like the books of Kings. Much of the Hebrew Bible came to its final form during these centuries. The books that relate directly to the period (Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah 56–66, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) record particular individual events like the building of the temple and the first year of Nehemiah’s governorship. Following Nehemiah’s work, the sources dry up completely. Josephus provides information about one or two incidents, but their dates are controversial.

The archaeology of Judah during this period was heavily damaged by later Hellenistic and Roman building. Very few written sources relate to Judah in this period—mainly a few seals and coins. In neighboring regions, such as Idumaea to the south, there are more, though there are no historical narrative texts, and there are few even for the heart of the old Babylonian empire itself. Old Persian occurs in only a few monumental inscriptions, and the bureaucracy was administered from Elam (in what is now south western Iran).

Judah was a very minor province within the Satrapy Beyond the River, and had its own governors from the start of the Achaemenid period. In every case for which we have evidence they were Jewish. Judah was therefore able to administer its internal affairs as it preferred. The satrap could intervene if wider imperial concerns were threatened. By the time the province of Judah emerged from the dark 4th century, its inhabitants could legitimately be called  Jews.

Key milestones of the period include the several returns of exiles from Babylon, welcomed at first but leading to severe tensions later on as understanding about the fundamentals of the Judean religion differed between the two groups, the rebuilding of the temple, the restoration of Judean self confidence under Nehemiah, and the increasing importance of biblical law as the basis for ordering society, as describe in the book of Ezra. All the major leaders of reform and restoration are said to have come from Babylon, depicting the development of Judaism as being one of exile-and-restoration or death-and-resurrection. Social identity was no longer based on narrowly political considerations but on a religion that had begun to transcend geographical (though not ethnic) boundaries.

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How Much Warming Can Earth Take?

I came across this graph of the historical temperature. In the distant past, during the Eocene, which is when mammals first began to evolve, the earth was actually as much as 25 degree Fahrenheit (14 Celsius) warmer than it was today. Even if the temperature models are correct, this is 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9 Celcius) warmer than the temperature they predict in 2100.


This makes the claim that we are crossing a tipping point to catastrophic warming that will make the earth uninhabitable seem pretty questionable. If the models are correct and we shift the earth’s temperature by 8 degrees Fahrenheit in only 100 years, it will be the relatively short time (a mere moment, in geological time) that causes grief, not the resulting temperature. In the past, changes of this magnitude have occurred over tens of thousands of years, giving the biome time to adapt gradually.

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Canaanite Mythology and the Bible

The Oxford Research Encyclopedia’s article Ugaritic and Biblical Literature describes how the Ugaritic (Canaanite) religion influenced the Torah (i.e. the old testament). Here’s my summary:


The head of the Ugaritic pantheon, El, appears in the Bible. His name (and its variant Elohim) is usually replaced in English translations by God (or gods), but in a few passages it serves as a proper name. For example, psalm 82 begins:

Elohim (God) has taken his place in the Assembly of El, and in the midst of the elohim (gods) he holds judgment.

Like El, the god of Israel presided over the assembly of the gods, as is also seen in 1st Kings 22:19 and Job 1–2.

In Exodus 6:2–3 a distinction is made between earlier and later names of the god of Israel:
Elohim (God) said to Moses: “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadday, but I was not known to them by my name, Yahweh.”

The title El Shadday, often mistranslated God Almighty, actually means El of the Mountain. In the Ugaritic texts, El lived on the cosmic mountain that was the source of all fresh water, and this biblical epithet reflects that mythology.

Other titles of El in the Ugaritic texts are also echoed in the Bible. In Genesis 21:33, Yahweh is called El, the Eternal One, which is similar to El’s title the Father of Time. The phrase the Mighty One of Jacob in Genesis 49:24 is probably a mistranslation of  the Bull of Jacob, and in the Ugaritic texts, El is identified as the Bull. The phrase Yahweh, the Merciful and Gracious in Exodus 34:6, is a variant of El the Kind and Compassionate.

Jerusalem had been a center of El worship, as Genesis 14:18–24 illustrates. There Melchizedek was a priest of El Most High (El Elyon):

Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem, brought forth bread and wine. He was the priest of El Most High.

“Blessed be Abram by the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth,” he said. “and blessed be the most high God, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Like the mountain of El in the Ugaritic texts, Mount Zion was, especially in apocalyptic vision, the source of fresh water. This is mentioned in Ezekiel 47:1–12, Joel 3:17–18,  Revelation 22:1–2, and Zecharia 14:8:

On that day, living waters will go out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea, half of them to the western sea, both in summer and in winter


Many of Yahweh’s characteristics resemble Baal’s or were derived from them. Baal is called Rider on the Clouds, and Yahweh in Psalm 68:4 is called the one that rides upon the heavens.

Yahweh is described in Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters. The God of glory thunders. The Lord is upon many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; it is full of majesty.The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes them skip like a calf. Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire.The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness. The Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the hinds calve, and discovers the forests. In his temple, everyone speaks of his glory.The Lord sits upon the flood. The Lord sits as King for ever. The Lord will give strength to his people. The Lord will bless his people with peace.

According to Smith, this is remarkably similar to the description of Baal in the Ugaritic legends. Like Baal, Yahweh was a victorious warrior who had shown his mastery over the sea. Like Baal, Yahweh had a temple built of cedar.

When Yahweh revealed himself on Mount Sinai in  Exodus 19:16–18:

There was thunder and lightning, and thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of an  exceedingly loud trumpet. Mount Sinai was completely wreathed in a smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. The smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked terribly.

The same imagery is used to describe Baal:

Baal opened a break in the clouds, sounded his holy voice, and thunder came from his lips. The earth’s high places shook.
Like Baal, Yahweh was storm god, as revealed in Judges 5:4–5:

When the Lord went out from Seir and marched across the fields of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens dropped, and water fell from the clouds. The mountains melted before the Lord. Even Sinai shook before the Lord God of Israel.

Just as elements associated with both El and Baal appear in the figure of Yahweh, so too Zion became identified not only with El’s mountain, but also with Saphon, Baal’s mountain just north of the city of Ugarit, as can be seen is Psalm 48:2-3:

Beautifully situated, the joy of the whole earth, mount Zion is in the recesses of Saphon, the city of the great king.

baal-hammonThe popularity of the worship of Baal in Israel is illustrated both by repeated attacks on it by biblical writers and by the use of Baal as an element in personal names. Among others, Saul and David gave their children names containing Baal (for example, Baalyada, meaning “Baal knows”). Like the name El, which may also mean “god,” Baal can also mean “lord,” so this word does not always refer to the god.


Anat is the least well attested of the Ugaritic deities in the bible, occurring only in the place names Beth-anath and Anathoth and in the personal name Shamgar Ben-Anath (Judges 3:31 and 5:6).


In the Bible, most scholars detect the goddess Asherah in 2 Kings 21:7 and 23:4, 6–7. In biblical Hebrew the word asherah is also a common noun, meaning a sacred tree or pole used in the goddess’s worship. The asherah is implicitly associated with Yahweh. The Bible prohibits this form of worship of Yahweh: “You shall not set up an asherah of any wood next to the altar of Yahweh” (Deut. 16:21). Because of its disapproval of Asherah, the Bible sometimes associates her name with the god considered to be the divine epitome of idolatry, Baal himself (1 Kings 18:19).


Astarte also occurs in the Bible, but, as in existing Ugaritic sources, little light is shed on her personality. She is called “the goddess” or “the abomination of the Sidonians” (see 1st Kings 11:5).


The deity Mot (Death) is only occasionally mentioned in the Bible. As in the Ugaritic texts, his appetite is proverbial and his presence life threatening (Jeremiah 9:21). His home in the underworld is a palace fitted with gates (Job 38:17). In Isaiah 25:8, it is said that at the eschatological victory banquet Yahweh “will swallow up Death forever”. This is a reversal of the scene where Baal goes down into Death’s mouth to be crushed like a kid in his jaws.

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Who is “The Son of Man”?

Chapter 7 of the book of Daniel that speaks of a powerful being who is given power over the earth by Yahweh himself:

Four great beasts came up from the sea… [The] fourth beast [was] dreadful, terrible, and exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth with which it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that  came before it, and it had ten horns… [and] among them another little horn… and in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

The thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days sat. His garments were white as snow, and the hair of his head like lambs wool. His throne was like the fiery flame, and its wheels like burning fire. A fiery stream issued forth before him. A thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. Judgment was set, and the books were opened.

The beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame… One like the Son of man came amid the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him before him. He was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

Early Christians took this figure, the Son of Man, to be Jesus. The book of Matthew puts the exact words of Daniel in the mouth of Jesus himself:

“I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God,” the high priest … said to [Jesus]

So you have said,” Jesus replied. “Nevertheless I say unto you that soon you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest rent his clothes.

“He has spoken blasphemy,” he said. “What further need have we of witnesses, now we have heard his blasphemy?”

Clearly either the author of Matthew or Jesus himself was aware of the divine nature of the Son of Man in the book of Daniel, and made claim of Jesus’s divinity (if not explicitly claiming that he was Christ) by declaring him to be the Son of Man. Jesus claims the title “The Son of Man” throughout this book.

Where did the story of the Son of Man in Daniel originate? Is it, as Christians assert, a prophecy of Christ? Is simply a Hebrew myth? Perhaps neither. The article What’s Ugaritic Got to Do with Anything? shows an incredible parallel between the Son of Man in Daniel and legends of the Semitic god Baal found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit.

Ugarit / Baal Cycle Daniel 7
El, the aged high God, is the ultimate sovereign in the council. The Ancient of Days, seated on the fiery, wheeled throne, is the God of Israel is (see Ezekiel 1). Like the Ugaritic god El, he is white haired and aged.
El bestows kingship upon the god Baal, the Cloud-Rider, after Baal defeats the god Yamm in battle. Yahweh-El, the Ancient of Days, bestows kingship upon the Son of Man who rides the clouds after the beast from the sea (yamma) is destroyed.
Baal is king of the gods and El’s vizier. His rule is everlasting. The Son of Man is given everlasting dominion over the nations. He rules at the right hand of God.

the_prophets_of_baal_are_slaughteredAs noted in my post “Was Yahwe the Only God of Judah?“, mentions of gods other than Yahweh were removed from the old testament during the Babylonian exile. Ironically, early Christians (or possibly, Jesus himself) claimed for Jesus the identity of the ancient Semitic god Baal who, by their time, had been declared a demon, and whose former glorious position as ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remained only as a sanitized story in the book of Daniel.

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Review of “The Magnificent Seven” (2016)

magnificent-7* * * * A

This remake of the classic Yul Brenner western, famously based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”, did not disappoint. Densel Washington is excellent in the lead role of Chisolm, a law man who gathers 6 other men to defend a town from the evil robber baron Bartholamew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). He and his men are hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a woman whose husband was murdered by Bogue himself.

This is very much a traditional western, albeit with a “diversity” cast. Chris “Star-Lord” Pratt is excellent as gambler Josh Faraday, as is Ethan Hawke as tormented confederate sharp shooter Goodnight Robicheaux. The seven are filled out by actors Vincent “Fisk” D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and native actor Martin Sensmeier. If you like westerns, I highly recommend you watch this one.

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Review of “Star Trek: Beyond”

star-trek-beyond* * C

I spent part of New Year’s Eve watching the latest film in the rebooted Star Trek alternate universe (AU). It was quite good, with the main cast reprising their roles and Idris Elba under a ton of makeup playing the baddie. Simon Pegg (Scotty) cowrote the script for the film, with J J Abrams was once again producing. This was the worst of the three films, in my opinion, but only by a slim margin.

Not much about this film blew me away, which was surprising since it made many other’s top ten lists. There was no great message to be found, the edgy characters from the first film were muted, and Elba played a fairly stock bad guy. There is a big twist ending, but I didn’t find it that great. The cast did little more than play their parts, and new character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) was a very weak love interest. Standing out among the actors was Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy.

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Poe’s “Mesmeric Revelation”

astral_-bodyEdgar Allen Poe wrote many great horror stories, plenty of which are still effective today. One which does not fair so well is the “Mesmeric Revelation”. This is the story of a conversation between a mesmerist (what we would today call a hypnotist) and a dying man. The dying man’s revelation is full of out-of-date cosmology. For example, he refers to the luminiferous ether, a substance which people believed filled outer space. His philosophy of relativism is equally terrible.

I’ve taken in upon myself to try to bring the story up to date by modernizing the language, bringing the pseudoscience into the twenty-first century, and slightly altering the philosophy to make it less jarring to those who, like me, find relativism to be morally bankrupt, and no basis for an ultimate form of existence. If you have any thoughts on the result, please let me know in the comments.

Whatever doubt may still envelop the mechanism of hypnotism,its startling effects are now almost universally admitted. Those who doubt these are mere doubters by profession—an unprofitable and disreputable group. There would be no more absolute waste of time to attempt to prove, at the present day, the following truths.

A man, by mere exercise of will, can so impress his fellow as to cast him into an abnormal condition that very closely resembles death, or at least more nearly than it does any other normal condition within our understanding. While in this state, the person so impressed employs only with effort, and then feebly, the external organs of the senses, yet perceives, with keenly refined perception, and through channels supposed unknown, matters beyond the scope of the physical organs. Moreover, his intellectual faculties are wonderfully enhanced and invigorated, his sympathy with the person who has hypnotized him is profound, and, finally, his susceptibility to hypnosis increases with its frequency, while, in the same proportion, the peculiar phenomena elicited last longer and are more pronounced.

It would be more work than necessary to demonstrate the laws of hypnotism and its general features. I will not inflict upon my readers so needless a demonstration, today. My purpose at present is very different indeed. I am impelled, even in the teeth of a world of prejudice, to detail without comment the very remarkable substance of a conversation, occurring between a man under hypnosis and myself.

I had been long in the habit of hypnotizing the person in question, Mr. Vankirk, and the usual acute susceptibility and exaltation of the hynotic perception had occurred. For many months he had been laboring under confirmed tuberculosis, the more distressing effects of which had been relieved by my manipulations. And on the night of last Wednesday, for the fifteenth time, I was summoned to his bedside.
Vankirk was suffering with acute pain in the area of the heart, and breathing with great difficulty, having all the ordinary symptoms of asthma. In spasms such as these, he had usually found relief from the application of mustard to the nerve centers, but tonight this had been attempted in vain. As I entered his room he greeted me with a cheerful smile, and although evidently in much bodily pain, appeared to be, mentally, quite at ease.

“I sent for you to-night,” he said, “not so much to administer to my bodily ailments as to satisfy me concerning certain psychic impressions which, of late, have given me much anxiety and surprise. I need not tell you how skeptical I have previously been on the topic of the soul’s immortality. I cannot deny that there has always existed, as if in that very soul which I have been denying, a vague half-sentiment of its own existence. But this half-sentiment at no time amounted to conviction. It had nothing to do with reason. All my attempts at logical inquiry resulted, indeed, in leaving me more sceptical than before. I had been advised to study Victor Cousin. I studied his works as well as those of his European and American echoes. ‘Charles Elwood’ by Orestes Brownson, for example, was placed in my hands. I read it with profound attention. I found it logical throughout, but the portions which were not merely logical were unhappily the initial arguments of the disbelieving hero of the book. From his summation, it seemed evident to me that the reasoner had not even succeeded in convincing himself. In his conclusion, he had plainly forgotten his earlier argument. If man is to be intellectually convinced of his own immortality, it will never be by the mere abstractions which have so long been fashion of the moralists of England, France, and Germany. Abstractions may amuse and exercise the mind, but they take no hold on it. Here upon earth, at least, philosophy, I am persuaded, will always fail to have us to look upon qualities as things. The will may assent, but the intellect, never. I repeat, then, that I only half felt, and never intellectually believed in the soul. But lately, there has been a deepening of the feeling, until it has come so nearly to resemble fact to me that I find it difficult to distinguish between the two. I am able to trace this effect to the influence of hypnosis. I cannot explain what I mean other than by the hypothesis that the hypnotic enhancement enables me to perceive a train of thought that, while under hypnosis, convinces me, but which, in full accordance with hypnotic phenomena, does not extend, except through its effect, into my normal state. While under hypnosis, the reasoning and its conclusion—the cause and its effect—are present together. In my natural state, the cause vanishes, and the only effect only, and perhaps only partially, remains. This leads me to think that some good results might be achieved if you asked me a series of well-directed questions while I’m hypnotized. You have often observed the profound self awareness exhibited by the hypnotized man—the extensive knowledge he displays upon all points relating to the hypnotic condition itself. From this self awareness, you may be able to deduce hints for the proper conduct of a catechism.”

I consented of course to perform this experiment. A few passes threw Mr. Vankirk into a hypnotic trance. His breathing immediately became more easy, and he seemed to suffer no physical uneasiness. The following conversation then ensued.

“Are you asleep?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, then, “no. I would rather sleep more soundly.”

After a few more passes, I asked “Do you sleep now?”


“What do you think the outcome of your present illness will be?” I asked.

After a long hesitation and speaking as if with effort, he replied “I will die.”

“Does the idea of death distress you?” I asked.

“No—no!” he replied, very quickly.

“Are you pleased with the prospect?” I asked.

“If I were awake, I would wish to die, but now, it is of no matter,” he replied.

“The hypnotic condition is so near death as to content me.”

“I wish you would explain yourself, Mr. Vankirk,” I said.

“I am willing to do so, but it requires more effort than I feel able to make,” he said. “You do not question me properly.”

“What then shall I ask?” I asked.

“You must begin at the beginning,” he said.

“The beginning! but where is the beginning?” I muttered.

“You know that the beginning is God,” he said, in a low, fluctuating tone, with every sign of the most profound veneration.

“What then is God?” I asked.

After hesitating for many minutes, he replied “I cannot tell.”

“Is God a spirit?” I asked.

“While I was conscious, I knew what you meant by ‘spirit,’” he replied, “but now it seems only a word—like truth, or beauty—a quality, I mean.”

“Is God immaterial?” I asked.

“There is no immateriality—it is a mere word,” he replied. “That which is not matter, is not at all—unless qualities are things.”

“Is God, then, material?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, startling me very much.

“What then is he?” I asked.

After a long pause, he muttered “I see—but it is a thing difficult to tell.” After another long pause, he continued “He is not spirit, for he exists. Nor is he matter, as you understand it. But there are gradations of matter of which man knows nothing. The courser presses on the finer, the finer pervades the courser. The earth’s core, for example, generates the electromagnetic field, while the electromagnetic field permeates the earth. These gradations of matter increase in rarity or fineness, until we arrive at matter without particles—indivisible—and here the laws of physics are modified. The ultimate, or unparticled matter, not only permeates all things but impels all things—and thus is all things in itself. This matter is God. What men attempt to embody in the word ‘thought’ is this matter in motion.”

“Metaphysicians maintain that all action is reducible to motion and thought, and that the latter is the origin of the former,” I said.

“Yes, and I now see the confusion that led to the idea. Motion is the action of mind—not of thinking. The unparticled matter, or God, at rest, is as nearly as we can conceive it what men call mind. And the power of self-movement, equivalent in effect to human volition, is, in the unparticled matter, the result of its unity and omniprevalence; how I do not know, and now clearly see that I shall never know. But the unparticled matter, set in motion by a law, or quality, existing within itself, is thinking.”

“Can you give me no more precise idea of what you term the unparticled matter?” I asked.

“The matters of which man is aware escape the senses in gradation. We have, for example, metal, a piece of wood, a drop of water, the atmosphere, a gas, plasma, electricity, and light. We call all these things matter, and embrace all matter with one general definition. But despite this, there can be no two ideas more essentially distinct than that which we attach to a metal, and that which we attach to light. When it comes to light, we feel an almost irresistible inclination to class it with spirit, or with empty space. The only consideration which restrains us is our conception of its particle nature. Even here, we have to seek aid from our notion of a photon as something possessing in infinite minuteness, solidity, palpability, weight. Destroy the idea of light as particles and we should no longer be able to regard it as an entity, or at least as matter. For want of a better word we might term it spirit. Take a step beyond light—conceive of a kind of matter as more rarefied than light as light is more rarefied than metal, and we arrive at a unique kind of matter—an unparticled matter. For although we may admit that despite the minuteness of atoms themselves, they are composed of yet smaller particles, the idea that there are an infinitude of smaller particles that make them up is an absurdity. There will be a point—a scale at which all particles are as vast as the universe is to us—where all matter is one, and all forces are unified. Here, the nature of matter inevitably equates to what we conceive of spirit. It is clear, however, that it is as fully matter as before. The truth is, it is impossible to conceive of spirit, since it is impossible to imagine what is not. When we flatter ourselves that we have conceived it, we have merely a confused understanding of infinitely rarefied matter.”

“There seems to me an insurmountable objection to the idea that all matter is one and that at that level, it is the mind of God, and that is the fact that nothing can travel faster than light,” I said. “In a mind that spans the universe, a thought impulse would take thousands of millennia to go from one side to the other. Such a mind would be unable to comprehend us as, to it, the entire existence of the human race would be less than an instant.”

“Your objection is answered with an ease proportional to its apparent unanswerability,” he replied. “Quantum theory has long predicted the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where a change in one of two particles separated by potentially vast distances is reflected in the other instantaneously. Recent experiments have confirmed this effect is real. Moreover, string theory holds that there are higher dimensions, such that points that, in the three spatial dimensions that we perceive, are separated by vast distances, can be brought close in higher dimensions beyond our ability to observe.”

“But isn’t this—the identification of mere matter with God—irreverent?” I asked, and then had to repeat the question before Vankirk fully comprehended my meaning.

“Can you tell me why matter should be given less reverenced than mind?” he asked in reply. “But you forget that the matter of which I speak is, in all respects, the very ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ of philosophy, so far as regards its high capacities, and is, moreover, the ‘matter’ of these schools of thought at the same time. God, with all the powers attributed to spirit, is but the perfection of matter.”

“You assert, then, that the unparticled matter, in motion, is thought?” I asked.

“In general, motion is the universal thought of the universal mind,” he replied.

“This thought creates. All created things are but the thoughts of God.”

“You say, ‘in general,’” I said.

“Yes. The universal mind is God. For new individualities, matter is necessary,” he said.

“But you now speak of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ as metaphysicians do,” I said.

“Yes—to avoid confusion,” he said. “When I say ‘mind,’ I mean the unparticled or ultimate matter; by ‘matter,’ I imply everything else.”

“You were saying that ‘for new individualities matter is necessary,'” I said.

“Yes; for mind, existing incorporeal, is merely God,” he said. “To create individual, thinking beings, it was necessary to incarnate portions of the divine mind. Thus man is individualized. Divested of corporate investiture, he would be God. The motion of the incarnated portions of the unparticled matter is the thought of man, and the motion of the whole is that of God.”

“You say that divested of the body, man will be God?” I asked.

“I could not have said that,” Vankirk replied after a long pause. “It is an absurdity.”

“You did say that ‘divested of corporate investiture man would be God,’” I said, after referring to my notes.

“And this is true,” he said. “Man thus divested would be God—would be unindividualized. But he can never be so divested—at least never will be—or we must imagine an action of God returning upon itself—a purposeless and futile action. Man is a creature. Creatures are thoughts of God. It is the nature of thought to be irrevocable.”

“I do not comprehend,” I said. “You say that man will never cast off the body?”

“I say that he will never be bodiless,” he replied.

“Explain,” I said.

“There are two bodies—the rudimentary and the complete,” he said. “They are like the two conditions of the worm and the butterfly. What we call ‘death’ is merely the painful metamorphosis. Our present incarnation is progressive, preparatory, temporary. Our future is perfected, ultimate, immortal. The ultimate life is the full design.”

“But of the worm’s metamorphosis we are fully aware,” I said.

“We, certainly—but not the worm,” said Vankirk. “The matter of which our rudimentary bodies are composed is within the understanding of the organs of that body. More distinctly, our rudimentary organs are adapted to the matter which forms the rudimentary body, but not to that of which the ultimate is composed. The ultimate body thus escapes our rudimentary senses, and we perceive only the shell which falls away, in decaying, from the inner form, but not that inner form itself. The inner form, as well as the shell, is appreciable by those who have already acquired the ultimate life.”

“You have often said that the hypnotic state very nearly resembles death,” I said.

“How is this?”

“When I say that it resembles death, I mean that it resembles the ultimate life,” he replied. “For when I am entranced, the senses of my rudimentary life are suspended, and I perceive external things directly, without organs, through the means that I shall employ in the ultimate, unorganized life.

“Unorganized?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “Organs are contrivances by which the individual is brought into sensible relation with particular classes and forms of matter, to the exclusion of other classes and forms. The organs of man are adapted to his rudimentary condition, and to that only. His ultimate condition, being unorganized, is of unlimited comprehension in all points but one—the nature of the volition of God—that is to say, the motion of the unparticled matter. You can get a clear idea of the ultimate body by conceiving it to be entirely brain. It is not, but this idea will bring you close to an understanding of what it is. A luminous body emits vibrations into space. The vibrations generate similar ones within the retina. These communicate similar ones to the optic nerve. The nerve conveys similar ones to the brain. The brains waves are mirrored in the unparticled matter which permeates it. The motion of this latter is thought, of which perception is the first undulation. This is the mode by which the mind of rudimentary life communicates with the external world. The external world is, to rudimentary life, limited, due to the idiosyncrasies of its organs. But in the ultimate, unorganized life, the external world reaches the whole body, which is a substance similar to the brain, as I have said, with no intervention. The whole body vibrates in unison with space itself, setting the unparticled matter which permeates it in motion. It is due to the absence of idiosyncratic organs that we must attribute the nearly unlimited perception of the ultimate life. To rudimentary beings, organs are the cages necessary to confine them until they become fully fledged.”

“You speak of rudimentary ‘beings.’” I said. “Are there rudimentary thinking beings other than man?”

“The vast conglomeration of matter into nebulae, planets, suns, and other bodies which are neither nebulae, suns, nor planets, exists for the sole purpose of supplying nourishment for the idiosyncrasy of the organs of an infinity of rudimentary beings,” he replied. “If it weren’t for the necessity of the rudimentary, prior to the ultimate life, there would have been no bodies such as these. Each of these is tenanted by a distinct variety of organic, rudimentary, thinking creatures. Their organs vary with the features of the place tenanted. At death, or metamorphosis, these creatures, enjoying the ultimate life—immortality—and cognizant of all secrets but the one, are one with all things and pass everywhere by mere volition—dwelling not upon planets, among the stars, which to us seem the only tangible things, for the accommodation of which we blindly deem space created—but throughout space itself—that infinity of whose true vastness swallows up the star-shadows—blotting them out as non-entities from the perception of the angels.”

“You say that ‘only because of their necessity for rudimentary life’ were there stars,” I said. “But why are they necessary?”

“In inorganic life, as well as in the inorganic matter generally, there is nothing to impede the action of one simple unique law—the Divine Volition,” he replied. “To create resistance, organic life and matter, complex, substantial, and law-encumbered, were contrived.”

“But again,” I said, “why did resistance have been created?”

“The result of spiritual law is perfection, rightness, and happiness,” he replied.

“The result of material law is imperfection, wrong, and pain. Through the obsticles afforded by the number, complexity, and substantiality of the laws of organic life and matter, violation of the law is rendered, to a certain extent, practical. Thus pain, which in inorganic life is impossible, is possible in the organic.”

“But what good is pain?” I asked.

“All growth comes from opposition,” he replied. “A sufficient analysis will show that lasting pleasure, in all cases, is the result of effort. Unearned pleasure is always fleeting. To be happy requires that one learn the hard lessons that give an understanding of what true happiness is. To never to suffer is never to have been blessed. In the ultimate life, pain cannot be experienced, hence the necessity for the organic. The pain of the primitive life of Earth is the sole basis of the bliss of the ultimate life in Heaven.”

“There is one of your expressions which I still find impossible to comprehend,” I said, “’the truly substantive vastness of infinity.'”

“This is probably because you have an insufficiently generic conception of the term ‘substance’,” he said. “We must not regard it as a quality, but as a concept—it is the perception, in thinking beings, of the adaptation of matter to their organization. There are many things on the Earth that would be nothing to the inhabitants of other world, and many things visible and tangible on those worlds to we could not be brought to appreciate as existing at all. But to inorganic beings—to angels—the whole of unparticled matter is substance. That is to say, the whole of what we term ‘space’ is to them the truly substantial. The stars, in the meantime, due to what we consider their materiality, escape the angelic senses, just as unparticled matter, through what we consider its immateriality, eludes the organic.”

As Vankirk pronounced these last words, in feeble tones, I observed on his countenance a singular expression, which somewhat alarmed me, and induced me to awaken him at once. No sooner had I done this, than, with a bright smile illuminating all his features, he fell back upon his pillow and expired. I noticed that in less than a minute afterward his corpse had all the stern rigidity of stone. His brow was as cold as ice. Ordinarily, this should have occurred long after death. Had he, actually, during the latter portion of his discourse, been addressing me from beyond death?

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