History, Fiction, and Despicable Bullies

Sometimes I envy authors of fiction, who are free to create characters to illustrate whatever points they want to make.

My wife and I are reading a series of novels by C. J. Box about Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming. The stories take me down memory lane. Years ago, I drove most of the highways described in these novels. I see in my mind the high desert and the mountains in Box’s books. I feel the intense cold of winter storms he describes. I smell the sweet aromas of mountain meadows in spring. I hear elk bugling in the fall. I see pronghorn antelope running through sagebrush. And I remember listening to landowners curse the oppressive bullying they endured from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bureaucrats.

Authority over others too often brings out the primal beast in those who hold positional power. Particularly destructive are individuals who thrive on hassling people who cannot resist because of the power of the Federal Government that enables such bullies. Box’s depiction of a slimy, regional EPA director in the book we just finished elicits a visceral disdain for this despicable man. Particularly satisfying was reading how, in the end, he got exactly what he deserved. Unfortunately, in real life, administrators often get away with abusing people. I have witnessed it too often. Such cruelty in Christian organizations seems particularly egregious to me, because I have higher expectations for standards of ethics and morality in these organizations.

Power corrupts, and I learned the hard way that women can be as abusive as men when they gain positional power. Perhaps someday I will write stories about diminutive tyrants in the academic workplace who gleefully torment those who physically could squash them like bugs. They remind me of my experiences with frail little kids in public schools who ingratiated themselves to playground bullies. Because they knew their bully friends would protect them, these little tyrants enjoyed hassling others. As a kid, I found such behavior to be infuriating and disgusting. As an adult, I never changed my mind on the matter. I have a special disdain for bullies—both for the big brutes who exert their physical power and for the weak little people who flaunt their positional power. If I ever write a novel, such characters in my book will get what they deserve in the end. In that regard, fiction is more satisfying than real life.


Life and Legends of Daniel Boone

Following a discussion of the problems with distinguishing between fact and legend, a historian friend suggested I read Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992). My own research into the life of Dafnis Panagides has sensitized me to the obstacles of dealing with the fallible memories of people recounting past events (The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio, 2022—available soon).

Daniel Boone, the son of Quaker parents who were kind to tribal people who stopped at their home in Pennsylvania, liked native peoples and learned much from them. Bored with farming, he took every opportunity to roam the woods, hunting. Faragher points out that in Europe, hunting was limited mostly to nobility; so pioneers in the Americas had to learn hunting skills from local Indians. Boone love to hunt so much that, after he married and started his large family, he would leave his wife and children to take care of their property and be gone for months (once for two years!) on “long hunts” deep into Indian territory where he knew he should not have been—supposedly to make money by harvesting deer for their hides and beaver for their pelts. He ate some of the meat but left most carcasses to rot. Like many pioneers, he gave little thought to how he depleted populations of deer, elk, buffalo, and beaver, or how his actions affected Indian tribes.

As an aside on terminology, I vividly remember a lecture on American Indians a few years ago, delivered by a professor from the Midwest. After the lecture, during the question-and-answer session, a zealous young coed sitting in the front row stood and indignantly demanded to know why he said “Indian” and not “Native American.” This highly educated professor, a member of a tribal group, said, “We Indians do not self-identify with the term Native American.” I suppressed a laugh. In all my dealings with tribal peoples in the West, I never heard them call themselves Native Americans. Typically, they referred to themselves as Flathead or Blackfeet or Lakota, or other indigenous groups. Often they simply said, “Indians.” I suspect that P.C. driven, white academics derived the title “Native Americans,” and others jumped on the bandwagon. I realize that early European explorers ignorantly referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as Indians, but I am not uptight about using it—especially in light of the fact that indigenous peoples often refer to themselves as Indians. But I digress.

Faragher’s carefully researched biography of Boone is a treasure trove of information, but he is not a creative a storyteller. I grew frustrated with his grammatical errors and unclear sentence constructions. Perhaps quoting semi-literate sentences written by Boone—often with hilarious spelling of words—proved to be a negative influence on Faragher. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from reading this biography. I became even more aware of how ruthlessly European pioneers pushed indigenous people off their land. They often called Indians “savages,” but their atrocities were as savage as anything the Indians did to European settlers.

Daniel Boone excelled in understanding Indians he encountered, and he was more ethical in his behavior than most of the land speculators who flooded into Kentucky in the late 1700s. But he also sought to get rich by selling thousands of acres of land and was frequently sued by others over land disputes. An inept businessman, he squandered many opportunities and ended up in poverty. When he had money, he purchased slaves to help with his work. In some ways, he was a pathetic individual, not the pioneer hero of the television show I watched as a kid. He excelled at woodcraft, was brave in battle, and at times was a good leader; but he foolishly dragged his family into the wilderness, where they suffered many deprivations, and some died in altercations with Indians who sought to drive the settlers back east. Many times I stopped reading to shake my head and say, “What an idiot!”

In this biography, Boone emerges as a magnanimous individual who was also clueless. His name is well known, but I doubt that most people realize the man’s many weaknesses. Although I am disappointed by the quality of writing, I am glad I read this biography because of all I learned about Boone and his time period—especially the ways European settlers in their zeal to grab land for farming dispossessed native peoples. To be sure, there were sociopathic Indians who hideously tortured and slaughtered white settlers. But the way settlers too often viewed Indians as sub-human provided excuses for revolting treatment of the native peoples. I am not trying to romanticize or idealize tribal cultures. They also had many humanitarian shortfalls. But I do not blame them for growing to hate Europeans.

In the last part of his book, Faragher recounts how writers of cheap novels transformed Boone into an Indian hating warrior against the red savages. Sadly, the reading public in the 1800s too often believed the nonsensical legends that filled these books—although Boone’s descendants condemned the works. As Boone was transformed into an American hero after his death, people used him as a means of promoting whatever views they personally held. Finally, carefully researched books like Faragher’s have corrected this misuse of an American pioneer who died in 1820. https://www.amazon.com/Daniel-Boone-Legend-American-Pioneer/dp/0805030077

My book on Saint Barnabas does similar separating of fact from fiction regarding the legends that arose centuries after the death of Barnabas when Orthodox clergy used him to advance their own political agendas. https://www.michaelrcosby.com/barnabas

The Island at the Center of the World

The significance of early Dutch Settlers

In my early 20s, I spent a short time in Manhattan, Montana, a small community of Dutch farmers. I found these tall, intelligent, handsome people to be quite interesting. Committed Calvinists, many read every edition of the Reformed Journal cover to cover. Two Reformed churches—alike and yet different—stood a short distance from each other in the village, competing with each other for the soul of the community. Until a few years before my visit, these were Dutch Reformed churches, but the name was changed to Christian Reformed to indicate that non-Dutch were also welcome to their congregations. Not until recently, while reading a book by Russel Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, did I connect Manhattan, Montana, to Manhattan, New York.

I was simply unaware of the significance of early Dutch settlers in the history of the United States. Reading Shorto’s book was very educational. The blurb on the back cover of the book is quite enticing.

“When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed: 12,000 pages of its records—recently declared a national treasure—are now being translated. Drawing on this remarkable archive, Russell Shorto has created a gripping narrative—a story of global sweep centered on a wilderness called Manhattan—that transforms our understanding of early America.”

The book lives up to this advertisement. As my wife and I read the story aloud to each other, we often stopped to examine maps to fix in our minds the locations of the events described. We found the book to be carefully researched and well written—a great combination for history books. Few are so well crafted.

The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio

My wife and I read books aloud to each other and discuss them as we read. Recently, we read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery (2016). At one point as I was reading this fascinating account of a 67 year-old grandmother who in 1955 became the first woman to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, my wife said, “This book is really an interesting example of creative non-fiction. It is almost as interesting as your book on Dafnis Panagides.” That brought a smile to my face. The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio, my book on the life of Dafnis, will soon be ready to order. The print version is almost finished, but the eBook version is more challenging due to the photographs and textboxes in the book. Complicated formatting proves to be much more difficult than manuscripts that are simply text. But soon you can read the story. Soon! I will let you know.

Parables are like jokes: The punch line takes you by surprise

On my walk home from the Post Office today, I saw an acquaintance who is an emergency room doctor. I paused to ask, “Are you staying healthy?” He said, “Yes. Amazingly. I am around COVID patients all the time, but I have not been sick.” I said, “I think doctors must have very robust immune systems from being around sick people all the time.” He smiled and replied, “I’m like Westley. I just take a little iocaine powder at a time.”

I laughed—but only because I have seen The Princess Bride multiple times, and I immediately remembered that scene from the movie about the fictitious “colorless, odorless, and deadly poison from Australia.” Westley explains in the film that he spent two years building up a tolerance to iocaine powder, and he used his immunity to trick Vizzini in their battle of wits. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMz7JBRbmNo)

If I had not seen The Princess Bride, I would not have had that immediate response to the doctor’s humor. Humor only works if the other person knows enough to get the point. If you have to explain to someone why what you said is funny, the humor is gone. Without shared experience, most humor falls flat.

I never could teach a class without cracking jokes. I don’t plan humor for my lectures. Things just come to mind and out they come. Early in my teaching career, I found that international students were at a disadvantage. I would tell a joke, and the American students would be laughing; but the international students would just sit there looking confused. Humor often differs between cultures. As I grew older, however, I began to realize that clever allusions to movies or sayings that used to be common knowledge would confuse my young, American students. If I made reference to a well-known line in a popular movie that was more than a decade old, there was a good chance they had not seen it. Increasingly, I had to think about whether or not my students would get the punch line of some humorous comment I made. If they did not get the allusion, the impact was gone.

Many of Jesus’s parables are like jokes. Often they turn listener expectations upside down. Like jokes, they only work if the punch line takes us by surprise. But if we don’t know the cultural details that give a parable its punch, we simply do not feel the major point. And if someone has to explain the point, parables fall flat. Parables, like jokes, work best when there is a sense of immediacy with the stories. If they punch us in the gut, if we feel the impact, then we get the point. But our life experience differs so much from Jesus’s cultural context that we often do not feel the impact of his stories.

Consequently, when teaching Jesus’ parables, I needed to provide historical and cultural background information first. After my students understood more about Jesus’ cultural context, they began to feel the power of his parables. In future blog posts, I will comment on a few of Jesus’ parables to illustrate this point. For a much longer explanation of parable interpretation, see “Chapter 15: Jesus’ Parabolic Speech Forms: Turning Expectations Upside Down” in Interpreting Biblical Literature, pages 319–343.

“Go straight to Sheol”: Creative Exercises for Bible Study

Most students in my introductory Biblical Studies classes were not aware that ancient Hebrews had no developed belief in afterlife. On the same day that I found the sinner by casting lots, I used the poem in Jonah 2 to introduce students to Sheol.

Interestingly, Jonah does not jump into the sea but makes the sailors throw him overboard. Note that a big fish swallows him (1:17). There were no whales in the Mediterranean, and there was not even a word for whale in Hebrew. Also note that Jonah was in the fish for three days before he began to pray. This prophet was REALLY stubborn: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice’” (Jonah 2:1). Hebrew poetry often uses synonymous parallelism, where the second line of a poem restates the first line in different words. Being in the belly of the fish was like being in Sheol (also called “the Pit”: 2:6). But what was Sheol/the Pit?

Instead of merely explaining Sheol to students, I had them get into groups of three and look up a series of passages that mention Sheol. When they saw for themselves the descriptions of Sheol, they became much more engaged in discussing what they discovered. Here is the exercise I gave to them. Be aware that some group members may be confused at first because they have a Bible that translates Sheol as “the grave.”

What in the World is Sheol? (Interpreting Biblical Literature, p. 112)

Look up the verses listed below and read what they say about Sheol (also called “the Pit”).

  • Numbers 16:30;
  • Psalms 6:4–5; 30:9; 88:3–6, 10–12; 89:48; 94:17; 115:17;
  • Job 3:13, 17–19; 7:9–10; 10:20–21; 16:22;
  • Ecclesiastes 9:2–6, 10;
  • Isaiah 5:14; 14:9; 26:14;
  • Jonah  2:2, 6.

Group Questions to discuss:

  • Where is Sheol located?
  • What words are used to describe Sheol? (What is it like?)
  • Who goes to Sheol?
  • How does the concept of Sheol differ from beliefs about heaven and hell?

Some students become troubled to learn that ancient Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife but thought that everyone—both the good and the bad—went to Sheol when they died. Soon thereafter, I had students read other biblical passages that illustrate the Hebrew belief that people experienced God’s blessings during their life, not after death. Concepts of heaven and hell developed much later. The Sheol exercise introduces students to the fact that the beliefs of ancient Hebrews developed slowly. One does not find fully developed Christian theology in the Old Testament.

Be ready for pushback from students whose beliefs about biblical inspiration mandate that everything in the Bible must be totally consistent with comments made elsewhere in the Bible. But when my students actually read the Bible for class assignments, they saw for themselves such developments of belief. As odd as it may sound, studying the Bible in a systematic way can initially be disorienting for Christian students. Over the course of a semester, however, most became comfortable with the concept of the Bible being a collection of documents written over centuries to address different historical circumstances. Knowing more about historical and cultural context makes a huge difference in understanding what biblical passages meant for ancient audiences.

In two minds about travel

Okay, I admit I am of two minds. On the one hand, when traveling to new places, I like the freedom of choosing where I go and how long I stay there. On the other hand, I enjoy being with a group of interesting people and letting a knowledgeable tour guide decide the itinerary and take care of housing and transportation.

When my wife and I have our own adventures in other countries, invariably we get lost and frustrated. We sweat and fret and try not to get too frustrated when dealing with the difficulties that always arise with transportation, locating places to stay, finding places to eat, and in general navigating cultural differences—including language barriers. I hesitate to estimate how many times I have been frustrated at taking the wrong road, wandering aimlessly trying to find a café, or finding a museum and paying museum fees—not to mention remembering to drive on the left in Cyprus. But we have had some wonderful, memorable, serendipitous experiences amidst the messiness of navigating other cultures—things that simply could not happen if we were part of a tour group.

We have also had very positive experiences in countries such as Israel and Turkey while being part of a tour group: relaxing in a bus while an experienced driver took us to set destinations, not having to decide where we were going to spend the night or where we would eat (and negotiating prices), and having a guide explain where we were going and then leading us around each site. No worries. Just enjoy the trip. Of course, I have to conform to a schedule set up by someone else, which limits my freedom of how long I will roam around the sites we visit. I have griped about that more than once.

I have decided that, for the first exposure to another country, being part of a tour group has a lot of advantages. Then, if I want to return and explore the country at my own pace and go to places that are not on the main tour routes, I can return and do my own thing with more confidence and less initial frustration. I wish I were independently wealthy and could afford to travel more now that I am retired. I also wish this COVID pandemic would end so that making travel plans could be more predictable again. Soon! Let it be soon!

We got stuck in Boaz, a rundown town in Turkish occupied northern Cyprus. Not one of our pleasant memories. This collapsing structure in Boaz was once part of a nice beach community.
Walking around Famagusta in the Turkish occupied north of Cyprus, photographing St. Nicholas Cathedral and other ancient buildings, was a lovely experience. We took our time and walked on top of the fortification wall, etc.—a nice memory, except for the fact that I got dreadfully sick from our lunch on that outing. I will not divulge the details!

Cyprus: Island of Aphrodite and Barnabas: November 4–13, 2022

Join me for an adventure in the Eastern Mediterranean.

I have been recruited to lead a ten-day tour, and I would love to have you join me. Get out your hiking shoes, renew your passport, and prepare to fly to the beautiful island of Cyprus, legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Saint Barnabas, the founder of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. If you appreciate history, love to experience customs and cuisines of people in other countries, relish opportunities to take stunning photos, like to spend time in a warm climate in November, and can afford ten days on one of the jewels of the Mediterranean Sea, you should join this trip. For details click on the following link:


Rare sighting of Aphrodite ascending from the Mediterranean Sea in front of the rock named after her, and I was there to capture the moment.
Monastery Church of Apostle Barnabas in northern Cyprus—one of the many fascinating sites I will take tour members to see.

Casting Lots to find the Sinner: Creative Ideas for Bible Classes

In some Bible stories, people cast lots to determine a course of action. Variations of this approach to obtaining divine guidance were common in the ancient Near East. Not many people in American society today, however, roll dice to discover God’s will for such matters as knowing whom to marry. And I have never heard of a jury identifying guilt or innocence this way in a court of law. The short story of Jonah provides a great way to illustrate how the practice worked.

My textbook Interpreting Biblical Literature first introduces readers to the cultural practices of people in biblical times—marriage customs, etc. I begin the actual study of biblical books not by starting with Genesis but by reading the short story of Jonah to look for plot and character development. Jonah is such a quirky character that students enjoy discussing how he gets angry and pouts and demands that God kill all Assyrians in Nineveh. I had them find on a map the location of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, where God commanded Jonah to go. Jonah boards a boat bound for Tarshish, most likely the area now called Spain—as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could go (given the understanding of the world at that time). He really hated Assyrians! I explain in Interpreting Biblical Literature pp. 110–111 why Israelites were justified in hating Assyrians.

Then the storm strikes. Those on the boat fear for their lives, and the sailors set out to discover the person who was responsible for the gods causing the storm at sea.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. (Jonah 1: 7–10 NRSV)

Oh, great! This stupid Hebrew has upset the God who created the sea!

The sailors’ belief that the storm resulted from gods being upset with someone elicits interesting discussions. I would ask, “Do you believe that if a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast, it is caused by someone offending God?” “No,” they would always reply. Then I would impersonate someone on the Weather Channel explaining that a search was underway to find the person responsible for the severe weather approaching Atlanta or some other city.

To demonstrate how people in biblical times cast lots to find the guilty person, I would take a pair of dice from my pocket and explain that the dice answer simple “Yes” or “No” questions. I began by dividing the class into two groups and asking, “Is the guilty person in this half of the class?” I rolled the dice, looked at them and authoritatively declared, “Yes” or “No,” depending on which side of the class I wanted to make squirm. I did not know which person I would finally identify as the guilty party. I kept dividing the remaining students into smaller and smaller groups as I continued to roll the dice. I watched faces and playfully interacted with students during the this process of making further divisions and asking the dice, “Is it someone in this section?”

As I observed the responses of my students, I made comments like, “Ben, why are you looking so guilty? Do you have something to confess?” As I rolled the dice and narrowed the possibilities down to the last two students, I urged the guilty party to confess his or her sin. Finally, the lots led me to the sinner whose actions had caused the storm. Students enjoyed this demonstration of lots and asked questions about the process and the beliefs that lie behind it. Invariably, someone would ask if I would seek the will of God by rolling dice. “No,” I said. “I would never trust rolling dice to make an important decision.” But I added that one religious group in our area continues to use the same concept for deciding on who in their congregation will be their next pastor. They reason that the decision is too important to make on the basis of human vote. The selection has to be left up to God. So they put a note in one of the hymnbooks placed on a pew at the front of the church. Each nominated candidate chooses a book, and the one who selects the book with the note in it becomes the next pastor. “How would you assess this approach?” I asked. Discussions could be quite animated.

For more details, see “Jonah: A Fish Story about a Stubborn Prophet” (Interpreting Biblical Literature, pp. 108–115). Coming up next: Jonah wanted all Assyrians to go straight to Sheol.