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from the ass's mouth

For me, it started with a harlot. A couple of them, actually — Old Testament sisters who made some enemies:

“Bring up a host against them, and make them an object of terror... . And the host shall stone them and dispatch them with their swords ... slay their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses. Thus will I put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning....”

Whew! This is the prophet Ezekial quoting “the Lord,” which he does a lot. Ezekial’s Lord has a thing about harlots. The word is used more by Ezekial than anyone else in the Bible, though an earlier prophet suffering a bad marriage, Hosea, comes in a close second. If you can stand to read the stuff — and, fair warning, it’s a distinctly unpleasant experience — you realize pretty quickly that these are a bunch of guys with, well, an ax to grind.

This is because a biblical harlot wasn’t just somebody who slept around or took money for her favors. She was a political threat. Why else would “the Lord” exhort an entire host — an army in today’s vernacular — to instigate upon her what we now refer to as ethnic cleansing or terrorism or genocide?

These thoughts slipped casually across my mental landscape as I contemplated newly-minted copies of the Ten Commandments posted in public school classrooms across the nation. “OK,” I thought, “They won. But what was the fight really about?”

The guerilla’s truth

Since history is written by the winners, I decided it was unlikely that I’d find anything like the truth in history books. After all, the Bible itself is a history of sorts, and just a couple of minutes spent reading that acerbic tome is all you'll need to grasp that nobody’s going to ante up with what actually happened.

Instead I began looking at words.

These are vastly underrated entities, each harboring a rich chronicle of past usage to which we remain mostly oblivious as we converse and read and stare at some screen. But when you take a step back from any given word, its layers are easily revealed, thanks to hard-working etymologists engaged in the archeology of language.

And when you know how a word was once used — which, by the way, mostly means how a word was spoken, since writing is a comparatively late development in the language game — you can find out a great deal about the people who used it that way: What they believed, what they valued. Even, sometimes, what happened to them and how it happened.

Of course, etymologists are a timid bunch, hesitant to make connections that sometimes are, frankly, damn obvious. Funded by history’s winners, they may be uncomfortable with the guerilla’s truth many etymons hide so blatantly in plain sight. They have their theoretical disagreements about the evolution of human language, too, which can gum up the informal efforts of folks like me. But by limiting timescales and linguistic reach, these sticking points can be avoided.

Not just a rascal

So, like I said, I started with ‘harlot.’

The somewhat shortsighted fellows who put together the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology don’t venture further back than the 13th century, when ‘harlot’ meant vagabond, rascal, low fellow.

But, fortunately, others do: at the root of ‘harlot’ is ‘har’ — or perhaps we should say Har, for she was a Great Goddess of Babylonian times who referred to herself as the compassionate prostitute. Also known as Ishtar, she was the Light of the World, the Mighty One, Righteous Judge, Opener of the Womb, Bestower of Strength, Forgiver of Sins, as well as a flurry of other titles later stolen by Biblical writers to describe their unequivocally male god.

That the Goddess Har controlled both life and death is clear even in biblical Hebrew: ‘har’ means mountain and is at the root of ‘harah,’ which means to conceive, be with child (and the pregnant belly becomes a mountain); ‘harag,’ in contrast, means to kill, destroy, ruin, and ‘ha’rel’ means altar.

Interestingly, the Bible explicitly mentions ‘temple harlots,’ signaling that their power had not yet waned. These were hardly run-of-the-mill street hookers. Indeed, in the heyday of temple harlots, it’s unlikely there were street hookers at all (suggesting, perhaps, that the oldest profession is probably that of the soldier-mercenary, but this is another story). So who were the temple harlots, anyway, and what did they do to incur the wrath of Jehovah’s boys?

Depending on the time and place, temple harlots did all kinds of things. They were healers. They were queens. They embodied a combination of beauty, mother-love, mystical enlightenment, comfort, and sexual pleasure for which words like the Hindu ‘karuna’ and the Greek ‘kharisma’ (leading to ‘charity’ and, of course, ‘charisma’) were created.

Today we might regard temple harlots as shamans, able to travel between our material world and the spirit world to heal and help the troubled in many different ways. The Old Testament expresses profound ambivalence about these capabilities: For instance, ‘ra’ meant evil, wickedness — which, of course, the writers of the Old Testament believed harlots embodied. But from this same root come sources of life and joy. ‘Ranan’ meant to sing, rejoice. ‘Ra`anan’ signified green, fresh, flourishing. Then there’s ‘rapha,’ rich with shamanic implication, meaning not only “heal” and “cure” but also “dead,” “deceased,” “spirits,” and “ghosts.”

Temple harlots were powerful indeed, never accountable to any man, remaining all their lives neither married to nor possessed by any male.

Desert from the ashes?

Nor was the the power of temple harlots recently acquired. They had been at it a very, very long time. For many thousands of years, I’d surmise, judging by the hints available in the words used by their sworn enemies, the biblical Hebrews.

Let’s start with caves. For reasons that aren’t terribly hard to envision, human beings have been making metaphorical connections between caves and wombs for as far back as language reaches. Caves were additionally regarded as sanctuaries: the Sanskrit word for sanctuary — ‘garbha-grha’ — also meant womb. One of the earliest Hindu Goddesses was called Mother of Caverns and was worshipped in caves.

These ideas are embedded in biblical Hebrew. ‘Chowr,’ meaning cave or hole, echoes the ancient Sanskrit. ‘Chavvah’ was the biblical Hebrew name of Eve, which meant “life” and “living” as well as “living-place” — that is, village or town. And the closely related ‘chavach’ meant a crevice or thicket hiding place.

Thickets and their larger cousins, groves, were also long-time gathering places for ancient goddess-oriented religions. Indeed, the early Semites worshipped Asherah, Mother Goddess of the Ashe’rim (grove). These people incurred the wrath of later biblical writers, who repeatedly recount attacks on Asherah’s sacred groves, which were cut down or burned in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah, and Micah (and then I lost count).

Given the biblical Hebrews’ compulsive deforestation campaign, it’s little wonder that their homeland devolved during this period from a relatively rich farming and grazing environment to the barren desert we see today.

A jealous god

It’s not really hard to infer what motivated the kind of hatred that drove this ethnic cleansing and its accompanying scorched-earth policies, for human beings are driven mostly by basic, straightforward impulses. Quite simply, the temple harlots and the communities they served had something the biblical Hebrews wanted.

In this regard, biblical writers don’t bother much with pretense as they celebrate a prodigiously circular logic: Their god is continually promising them somebody else’s land in return for their obedience — and, conveniently, that obedience is itself justification for the crimes they commit in its name.

There also seems to be something else the biblical Hebrews’ male god wanted: The ability to bear offspring. Thus biblical writers claim for him his creation of Adam, which is to say, mankind. But the Hebrews’ words belied the tall tale they were forced to tell: ‘Adam’ meant "red" while ‘dam’ meant “blood,” the kind of blood that covers a newborn child when it emerges from its mother’s womb.

In fact, biblical Hebrew virtually bubbled with words that conveyed the power of giving birth. ‘Barak’ meant to bless. Significantly, the English word ‘bless’ means “to bathe in blood,” and biblical Hebrew echoes still with the same sentiments: ‘Bara’ meant “to create, shape, form;” it also meant “to be fat” and concerned both birth and miracles. Nor was this regarded as unclean, as many biblical writers portray childbirth. The biblical Hebrew root word ‘bar’ meant cleanness, pureness.

Nevertheless, Jehovah, this quintessential male god, was keenly jealous of those who could create children. So jealous that he punished the women who did what he could not: In Jehovah’s twisted world, women who gave birth had to pay him off. If Leviticus is any hint, one might conclude that the biblical Hebrews invented the first protection racket:

“…If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days…. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed… she shall bring to the priest… a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child….”

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to discover this truth, too, hidden in the words used by biblical Hebrew writers: ‘Qanah’ meant “to create,” “to acquire knowledge, wisdom” — and ‘qana’ meant “to envy,” “to provoke jealous anger, cause jealousy.”

“The word that God puts in my mouth,
that must I speak”

Communicating through prophets, kings, and asses alike, the biblical Hebrew writers’ god was forced to choose words that could not hide his real motivation: Envy. Roiling, raging envy at women because they held, continue to hold, a power he could not touch.

Thus one of the biblical Hebrew writers’ favorite words for harlot or whore or temple prostitute — ‘qadeshah’ — is intimately related to ‘qadash,’ which meant “to consecrate, sanctify, be holy.” And a ‘qadosh’ was a saint or holy one. All of these words were about things ‘qadmoniy’ — that is, ancient, former, eastern.

The god of the biblical Hebrews — and the Christians who followed — may want us to believe that bringing new life into this world is not a sacred act, that it is unclean and that those who can accomplish it are unclean as well as inferior beings. But the words that same god must use to make this perverse claim speak a deeper truth. To see it, all you have to do is look.

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