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Notes on the Bible and Religion

A Column Appearing in the Newspapers of Coastal Bend Publishing

I welcome questions for possible comment in my column.
Online content may differ from what appears in newspaper editions.
Only the most recent column entries are available online.

 

11/17/2022

Thanksgiving on Another World

Here’s a fun fact: the first food consumed in space was in 1961, when the first human in space, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, sucked some beef liver puree from two plastic tubes. He followed that with a tube of chocolate sauce.  

As of 2022, nearly 600 persons have been in space. That’s a village of people. Twelve have walked on the moon, with an additional twelve achieving lunar orbit. As I write this, NASA’s Artemis program is preparing to launch a mission aiming at bringing us back to our closest cosmic world. As we head toward Thanksgiving, I’d like to share a couple of biblical notes on moon missions.

Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to orbit the moon. During its Christmas Eve 1968 broadcast to Earth, Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, Jr. and William Anders took turns reading from the creation account in Genesis 1:1-10. Borman’s portion ended with the reiteration that creation is good. Ending the broadcast he said, “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas–and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

The first astronauts orbiting the moon wished that God might bless everyone.

The founder of an atheist organization filed a lawsuit against the United States about that. Freedom of/from Religion was evidently the issue. The Supreme Court declined to review the case.

That lawsuit did, however, result in some lunar silence on the moon’s “Tranquility Base” a handful of months later. Tranquility Base was the name given to the landing site of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the lunar surface. 

After the lunar module “Eagle” had landed, there was to be a radio blackout for a few hours for rest. But first, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin had something to say. 

“I would like to take this opportunity,” he began, ‘to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

What was not revealed until some weeks later is that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, had brought along communion elements of a bread wafer and a small vial of wine. On the moon, he was taking Holy Communion—also known as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. And he asked all who were listening to give thanks.

It was a deliberate use of the word “thanks.”  Eucharist literally means “Thanksgiving.” Yet sensibility was keeping him rather quiet about what he was doing.

Even so, Aldrin recalled, “At the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge this enormous achievement than by giving thanks to God.”

And so, in silence and in the Sea of Tranquility, the first meal eaten on the moon was Holy Communion. Times have changed. What will Artemis astronauts say and do?

11/03/2022

Soul Time

There’s a phrase, “All hands on deck!” It is an old naval saying, calling all sailors to come topside of a ship. “Hands” here is an example of a literary device called synecdoche. The word “hand” represents the whole person.


I offer an explanation. On a large sailing ship many able persons’ hands were needed. Sails. Rigging. Tiller. Maybe even cannon. Hands were needed. That meant people!

Should a ship sink, and everyone on board perish, it might be said that there was “the loss of all souls.” Here, the sense is that a departed “soul” signifies the whole person. Another synecdoche.

The origins of the word “soul” are not entirely clear, but as a term designating the unseen and eternal part of a person as opposed to the visible body, it generally parallels the words ghost (Germanic origin), spirit (Latin origin), psyche (Greek origin; cf. Matthew 10:28), and nephesh (Hebrew origin).

This Hebrew word, nephesh, literally meant “throat.” We see this clearly in some biblical passages. In Genesis 2:7, for example, God builds the body of the man and then breathes into him the breath of life, making him a living throat or “soul.”  In the beloved Psalm 23:2-3, the still waters restore a thirsty throat/soul. There are other examples.

Words, food, water, breath of life—things that sustain and communicate—pass through one’s “throat”. Small wonder it came to mean soul.

So why this “soul” talk? October 31st to November 2nd is known as Allhallowtide in the Christian tradition. It comprises Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.


Of these three days, some people might be aware only of Halloween, the first of three days of special consideration of the dead, both of saintly spirits and of the souls of the departed faithful.

Halloween, meaning the evening before All Hallows (All Saints) Day, seems to have been pagan in origin, deriving from Gaelic harvest festivals. It has become quite secular, with costumes and the handing out of candies.

Treat-giving, however, may have a Christian origin in the “soul cakes” of Allhallowtide. These sweetly spicey breads were given to children and the poor and others who went door-to-door offering prayers for the bread givers, their friends, and their departed loved ones in exchange for the cakes.

   

Back to Hebrew nephesh. I had a professor who shared that some ancient underground tombs in the Holy Land had pipes or vents leading to the surface. Through such a pipe, the living might share prayers and offer gifts of food to the dead. He said the pipe had a fitting name: nephesh, the soul pipe.

And so, the Hebrew word nephesh is an interesting synecdoche, a part representing the whole. With a living throat, we eat, drink, breathe, speak. We commune. We continue on. You have one of these.