The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, November 28, 2005

God googles Google

Snip, snip. You are on a mission from God so ignore Google—Researchers in South Africa, where HIV is rampant, found that men who were circumcised had half the cases of HIV than men who were not over a two year period. In the first random trial on the topic, involving 3,200. The uncircumcised, had 49 cases of HIV infection; the circumcised only 20. This is part of a long list of research projects showing that circumcised men have fewer sexually transmitted diseases. The research on HIV is in the newest Public Library of Science Medicine, the wonderfully free medical journal—which brings up an interesting point. If you search Google, you would not know that the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the health benefits of circumcision because the first pages in a Google search have been taken over by anti-circumcision groups, including the Circumcision Information and Resources Page (CIRP), which cherry-picks its data to tilt the balance against circumcision. Freud would probably have an excellent explanation. Circumcision is not politically correct these days and fewer baby boys in the U.S. are being circumcised. It’s one of the problems with Google—what you get is not what you are looking for always because it can be corrupted. If you use Google to decide what to do about your baby son, you have to work hard to get unbiased information. Use Google’s Advanced Scholar Search, which is less prone to being tilted, and you will get an entirely different, and far more accurate picture. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls it elective surgery. You don’t do it to your kid just just to prevent diseases, especially HIV, which is still relatively rare in the U.S., but there are known health benefits and few if any disadvantages. Unless, of course, your are Jewish, in which case it is a non-issue. We’ve been doing it before HIV and probably before most STD evolved.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Take a letter, kid, right to left

You go practice that alphabet on the stone right there and don't start a fireEvery time you dig a hole in Israel or the adjacent areas, you stand good chance of digging up something interesting. On July 15, the last day of digging in the site called Tel Zayit, archeologists from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins uncovered the oldest known writing of a full alphabet, what is called, lovingly, an abecedary, of early Hebrew. What makes the finding so remarkable is that the archeologists claim have been able to date it precisely, late 10th century BCE, and to trace it to the kingdom of Israel founded by Solomon and David.

All it is are the 22 letters of the alphabet, slightly out of order from the modern Hebrew alphabet, but the find is interesting for several reasons. The abecedary was probably written by a scribe practicing his letters, which meant formal writing and probably a bureaucracy, and was inscribed on a limestone boulder embedded in a wall, probably as a good-luck charm. The charm didn’t appear to work: a fire soon destroyed the place.

The writing also shows that the ancient Israelites were literate 3,000 ago, according to Pittsburgh’s Ron E. Tappy. Biblical Hebrew is thought to derive from Phoenician and the inscription appears to many scholars to reflect that transition. The letters are clearly on their way to being the aleph, bet, gimmel of Hebrew, written from right to left. All western alphabets eventually derived from the same source.

The Zeitah Excavations at Tel Zayit are halfway between the Israeli city of Ashkelon and the West Bank city of Hebron, south of Tel Aviv. The ancient town was apparently part of a border settlement protecting the southern approaches to the capital at Jerusalem. The site reflects the Caananite culture, the foundation of the kingdom of Israel and may have been written about the time of David and his son, Solomon, who took over in 1037 BCE or shortly thereafter. Following Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel and Judah. The Tel Zayit find would have placed it in Judah.

The formal presentation of the find will be next week in Philadelphia. And, as with all archeological finds in the area, there also will be controversy. Not everyone is convinced it is what Tappy says it is, with the dating, as usual, the source of most of the contention. And people who want to believe in what's in the Bible (in this case, Kings 1) will claim it as proof and those who don't won't.

But wait. There is more. Would you believe a reference to Goliath? Israeli archeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, an ancient Philistine city and the biblical city of Gath, have found a small ceramic shard with the earliest Phoenician inscription ever found. It was written in “proto-Canaanite” letters and contains two non-Semitic names, one of which, is etymologically related to the name Goliath, and Gath was supposed to be the home of the giant slain by the young David. The archeologists from Bar-Ilan University don’t claim the Goliath on the shard is the Goliath of the Bible as it apparently was a common name. The shard is dated about 50 years after little David hurled his stone. Nice story anyhow.