Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Here Be Dragons

Today's sermon based on the story of the twelve spies in Numbers 13:1-14:35

The Wandering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 20, 2008

Hic sunt dracones “Here be dragons” is a phrase from the world of cartography. The phrase supposedly was written on old maps to designate uncharted territory. Although this phrase has been popularized, it was rarely used.

The only historical map that contains the phrase is The Lenox Globe that dates to 1510. It is the second or third oldest known globe. It is the only known historical map that contains the Latin phrase, “hic sunt dracones” or “here be dragons.” The phrase appears on the EasternCoast of Asia. It may not be about dragons. It may also be in reference to the Dagroians, a ghoulish people which Marco Polo described as feasting upon the dead. In either case, it is a pretty scary place. (reference)

The Borgia Map of the world around 1430 has a dragon figure across Asia with a Latin inscription that is rendered in English: "Here also are men having large horns four feet long, and there are even serpents of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole."

This phrase “Here be dragons” has come to represent the dangers of the unknown. “Here be dragons” can elicit the challenge within oneself to venture out into the danger on a hero’s quest. Or it can make a person think twice and say, “There is no place like home.”

The Lewis and Clark Caverns are near Whitehall, Montana. I have probably been through the caverns ten times since I was a child. It is a great place to take visitors from out of state. You can take a tour of these caverns deep into the mountain. Near the beginning of the tour after you descend a number of steps you come to this first landing. In the middle of the landing is a huge rock.

It is called “Decision Rock.” This is the point in the tour when the tour guide becomes solemn and serious. Every time I went on the tour the guide would say something like, “This is your last chance to turn back. I can take anyone back who doesn’t want to go ahead. But after we go ahead there is no turning back.” Hence, decision rock. The cave pilgrims need to make a choice. Forge ahead or return to the entrance. I never saw anyone turn back, although the guides would say that on occasion, some folks do. After all, there be dragons or at least tight squeezes.

Our heroes in our biblical story have reached decision rock. After their dramatic escape from Egypt, they go to Mount Sinai. That is the place where Moses is given the Ten Commandments. According to the saga, these commandments had a lot of footnotes. The second half of Exodus and all of Leviticus are the extra laws that go along with the Big Ten. Finally, when we reach the Book of Numbers, the narrative picks up.

They haven’t been in the wilderness for very long. After a few weeks, they arrive at the edge of the Land of Canaan and YHWH tells Moses to send out spies. Moses picks one man from each of the twelve tribes to check out the land. After a forty day reconnaissance mission, they come back with a report. There are two reports. A majority report and a minority report. The majority report is given by ten of the spies. They don’t like the looks of things. They tell the people that there are big and strong, like the Hittites and the Jebusites.

According to the minority report, filed by Caleb and Joshua, the land is lush and filled with grapes, figs, and pomegranates. It is a land of milk and honey. There are people there but we can take them. The Lord is with us!

But, then the other ten spies exaggerate their report a bit. Not only do the Jebusites, and the Amalekites and so forth live there, also in the land of Canaan are the dreaded Nephilim. We first heard of the Nephilim in the early chapters of Genesis. These Nephilim were mythical figures, offspring of gods and women. This is what is written about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4:

“When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

According to Genesis, the sons of gods knowing the attractive human women in the biblical way, was the last straw. YHWH decides to wipe out all living things except Noah and two of every kind of animal with a big flood. So, how then, do we still have Nephilim after the flood? Either the Nephilim survive the flood, or the spies are lying, or there is a hole in the plot. At any rate, the threat of the Nephilim is the argument that wins the day. A little fear-mongering often does wonders.

The congregation votes with the majority report. No way are they going to go into the Land of Canaan. There be dragons. There be Nephilim. So they decide to elect a new captain and go back to Egypt. It was better in Egypt. Better to be slaves.

Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb plead with the people to trust YHWH. But it is no use. The congregation threatens to stone them.

Then YHWH gets angry. YHWH tells Moses that he has had enough of their whining and whimpering. He is going to wipe them all out and start over with Moses. But Moses, like Abraham before him, pleads with YHWH not to act rashly. He gives an interesting argument.

“But Moses said to YHWH…. "Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16“It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.”

Moses tells YHWH that it won’t look good on his resume. "Everyone will laugh at you YHWH. You will be considered a failure." So YHWH reconsiders. He decides instead on an interesting solution. The people will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day the spies were in Canaan. They will wander until everyone over the age of 20 dies. Except for Caleb and Joshua none of the wicked congregation will go into the Promised Land. That is why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

How do we enter this story? How does it become something other than a bizarre fable on one hand or something that literally happened on the other? The theme of this saga repeats itself throughout the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. One of the main problems that YHWH has with his people is that they don’t trust him.

Yet YHWH does not always come across as trustworthy. Remember YHWH was the one who told Abraham to sacrifice his son, then at the last minute, said, “Just kidding.” Literary critic Harold Bloom, has written a book I recommend, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. In an interview about the book, Harold Bloom speaks about YHWH and what the name means. The name comes from the story when Moses is told to go down to Egypt and speak to Pharoah. Moses asks, “They will laugh at me. Who shall I say sent me?” Yahweh responds: “Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you.” Bloom says that phrase means “I will be who I will be” which really means, “I will be present when I choose to be present.” Harold Bloom goes on to say:

“… that necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000 years for the absence of this personage than the presence.”

What do we make of YHWH? Here is what Bloom says about him:

You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news…. There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years [of] wandering through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier and the poor things get crazier and crazier…. Yahweh is not a theological God. Theology is Greek, as the word itself indicates. Yahweh is a human, all-too-human, much, much-too-human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

I don’t think we can enter these stories unless we allow ourselves to read them in the way that Bloom reads them. YHWH is not the immovable mover. He is not the god of the philosophers. We cannot, unless we ignore the text itself, think of YHWH as unchanging, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. That is later theology put on the Bible. YHWH as Bloom writes, is irascible, difficult, and unpredictable. It doesn’t take long to read the Bible before you have issues with YHWH.

So what kind of people conceive of a god like YHWH? If the gods we tell stories about are windows into the way we see the world, what does YHWH show us about the world? How did these authors of the Bible experience their world?

The real world must have seemed to them to be irascible, difficult, and unpredictable--like the god they told stories about. Wars happen. Floods happen. Crops don’t grow. Good people suffer and the wicked seem to prosper. People die in the wilderness never reaching their promise. And yet life goes on. Another generation is born. People find time in the midst of their worries to dance, sing and tell stories about their troubles. These ancient people found meaning by telling stories about their experience of life. They did so by personifying life through a god who was as unpredictable, violent, and crazy as life itself.

And yet, they said, trust anyway. Rather than fight life, trust it. What other options do we have? We can trust or we can live in fear. We can despair. We can feel sorry for ourselves. We can be bitter.

As I read the stories in the Torah, I am reminded of the stories in the gospels, particularly, the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is also unpredictable and irascible. The disciples never understand him. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells them not to be afraid. Trust. But what is to trust? The guy is insane. He goes off and gets himself crucified.

One of the most challenging aspects of living is our fear of what could happen. Here be dragons. The Nephilim will devour us. We might get crucified. Other people won’t like what we decide to do. We are not strong enough. Disaster will befall us. The crazy promise of the Bible is not that those things won’t happen. They might.

The message that the authors of the Torah and the Gospels leave us is “don’t fight it and don’t run from it. Live through it.” Neither YHWH nor Jesus will keep us safe. Both of them are just the opposite. They are not safe. They are risky. C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia depicted Christ as the lion, Aslan. Aslan, according to the books, is not a tame lion. I think that means that Life is not tame either.

Jesus and YHWH are cut from the same cloth. They are persistent. Jesus and YHWH are parables for Life. They are the invitation to seize the opportunity. They are the invitation to live with integrity. If we are going to live with some degree of inner peace and joy, we have to take life for what it is and not complain about what it is not.

Our heroes, our traveling tribes, made a choice at decision rock. They retreated and lost an opportunity. They acted on fear rather than on trust. They spent the next forty years moaning and complaining until they died.

No, they didn’t face the Nephilim. But, they didn’t enjoy the milk and honey either.

Here be dragons. Let us venture forth!


  1. You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news…. There's a kind of scamp in there.

    The author doesn't seem to know much about Judaism. I'm not Satmar, I'm not Orthodox, God forbid, yet I still like God most of the time. I find God quite fascinating. I don't need some God who is all love, roses, and hugs. That's too fake for me. I need a God who understands what it is to try and fail and try again, a God who understands what it's like to get angry, make stupid threats and then have to come back with another plan. That kind of God can relate to me and my life.

    Anyway, by the end of Tanakh, God has been written out of Jewish scriptures. It's up to us now. Torah is only our foundational document, Talmud teaches us how to live our lives as Jews. And Talmud reminds us of the passage in Deuteronomy: It is not in heaven. It is up to us now to be God to each other here on earth. God has given us that task. We're not little children anymore who need God to be a pillar of fire and a cloud, our security blankets.

    And the majority were right about many things. That is a land that devours its inhabitants. The people did well in being wary of entering. And that story has never changed.

  2. This was wonderful- thank you. I just read two great sermons by bloggers.

    The other, should you care to see it, is at Faith in Community, the blog of Diane, a Lutheran pastor.

    Thank you.

  3. Yael--thanks for that. Jack Miles, God: A Biography is an excellent read and points out what your wrote:

    "Anyway, by the end of Tanakh, God has been written out of Jewish scriptures. It's up to us now."

    Fran--thanks for that and for the link to that great sermon by Diane!