Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Baby Bear will be your master: climate and ethnocentrism in the Greco-Roman world and Jubilees

Kids who grow up on dull children's programming like Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder don't know what they're missing out on.  Back in the day parents used to tell their children wonderful stories about trespassing little girls who stole strangers' food and nearly got themselves eaten by ursine homeowners.

In the ancient world there was a belief that physical environments shaped the people who lived within them.  The physical, social, cultural, and political characteristics of entire people groups could be explained based on the climate and terrain of their homelands.  Some writers in Greco-Roman antiquity argued that harsh and mountainous terrains created tough warriors, while flatter areas with nicer terrains created soft people who naturally ended up in servitude to others.  There's a particular strand of this tradition that I like to call the "Goldilocks climate."  Some writers argued that some regions were extremely cold and other regions were extremely hot, and that the peoples in these climates exhibited an extreme set of strengths and an extreme set of weaknesses.  Greece (for Greek writers) or Rome (for Roman writers) was in the center of the world and therefore had the perfect blend of hot and cold.  This meant the peoples of Greece or Rome exhibited the strengths of those in the extreme regions, but without the accompanying weaknesses.  This of course made them perfectly suitable for ruling the world.  Aristotle had this to say:
“The peoples of cold countries generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full of spirit, but deficient in skill and intelligence; and this is why they continue to remain comparatively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others.  The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves.  The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples.  It possesses both spirit and intelligence: the one quality makes it continue free; the other enables it to attain the highest political development, and to show a capacity for governing every other people – if only it could once achieve political unity.” (Politics, 1327b)    
The Roman Vitruvius continues in this tradition: 
“This is also the reason why the races that are bred in the north are of vast height and have fair complexions, straight red hair, gray eyes, and a great deal of blood, owing to the abundance of moisture and the coolness of the atmosphere.  On the contrary, those that are nearest to the southern half of the axis, and that lie directly under the sun’s course, are of lower stature, with a swarthy complexion, hair curling, black eyes, and but little blood on account of the force of the sun.  Hence, too this poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword, but great heat and fevers they can endure without timidity, because their frames are bred up in the raging heat.  Hence, men that are born in the north are rendered over-timid and weak by fever, but their wealth of blood enables them to stand up against the sword without timidity.  The pitch of the voice is likewise different . . . further it is owing to the rarity of the atmosphere that southern nations, with their keen intelligence due to the heat, are very free and swift in the devising of schemes, while northern nations, being enveloped in a dense atmosphere and chilled by moisture from the obstructing air, have but a sluggish intelligence. . . But although southern nations have the keenest wits, and are infinitely clever in forming schemes, yet the moment it comes to displaying valour, they succumb because all manliness of spirit is sucked out of them by the sun.  On the other hand, men born in cold countries are indeed readier to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity, but their wits are so slow that they will rush to the charge inconsiderately and inexpertly, thus defeating their own devices . . . the truly perfect territory, situated under the middle of the heaven, and having on each side the entire extent of the world and its countries, is that which is occupied by the Roman people.  In fact, the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects – in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour . . . hence it was the divine intelligence that set the city of the Roman people in a peerless and temperate country, in order that it might acquire the right to command the whole world.” (6.1.3-11; trans. M.H. Morgan; quoted in Benjamin Isaac, Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 83-84)

In both of these passages the homeland – whether Greece or Rome – is seen as the moderate climate that lays at the center of the world.  Because of the moderate climate the Greeks or Romans exhibit the best qualities of the extreme regions.  They are "just right."  According to both Aristotle and Vitruvius, this "just rightness" means that the Greeks or Romans are perfectly suited to be masters of the world.  Their understandings of climates thus become a foundation for and expression ethnocentrism and imperial ambitions. 

This background information makes an otherwise innocuous line from the book of Jubilees very meaningful.  Jubilees is a 2nd century BCE Jewish writing that retells events from Genesis and Exodus, offering various expansions and reinterpretations.  Near the end of the 8th chapter, in the midst of a discussion of the division of the earth between the three sons of Noah, we read this:

“[the land of Japheth] is cold, and the land of Ham is hot, but the land of Shem is not hot or cold because it is mixed with cold and heat.” (8:30)

ወባሕቱ ፡ ቍሩር ፡ ይእቲ ፡ ወምድረ ፡ ካም ፡ መርቄ ፡ ይእቲ ፡ ወምድረ ፡ ሴምሰ ፡ ኢመርቄ ፡ ወኢደደክ ፡ እስመ ፡ ቱስሕት ፡ ይእቲ ፡ በቍር ፡ ወበሞቅ ። (Does this look fun? Learn some Ge'ez!)

When read within the Greco-Roman context this verse becomes laden with meaning.  As James M. Scott notes, this "may have been understood in geopolitical terms." (Geography in Early Judaism and Christianity, 33).  Pointing to our Greco-Roman "Goldilocks" tradition he observes that like the Greek and Roman texts, the Hebrew author of Jubilees "expects the descendants of Shem [specifically Israel] to rule the world from their privileged position in the center of the earth." (see Jub. 22:11-14)

Jubilees 8:30 is an interesting example of the ways in which Palestinian Jewish authors were conversant with texts and traditions from the broader Greco-Roman world and were capable of adopting and adapting them for their own nationalistic purposes.  For my thesis research I am looking at some other ways that the author of Jubilees may have been creatively interacting with Hellenic culture, and I'll probably share snippets of my results down the road -- so if this sort of thing interests you, stay tuned!

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