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September 3, 2014 / 8 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘desert’

The Redemption

Friday, April 6th, 2012

In the land of Midyan there lived a pagan priest, Yisro, who was greatly respected by his people. He worshiped idols of stone and wood and so did his countrymen.

But Yisro was not a fool. Indeed he was a clever and analytical thinker, and he soon came to the conclusion that his worship of these idols was futile and foolish. They were not really gods, he saw, and so he called his people together and said:

“My people, I have a very important message to tell you, and I would like you to listen very carefully. I have grown old and I can no longer worship and lead you in the worship of all these gods.

“I call upon you, therefore, to please choose some other man to be your priest. Choose a younger and stronger man, and allow me to retire in my remaining years.”

People Angry

But the people understood Yisro’s real reason for wishing to step down as their priest, and they grew angry.

“Cursed be the man who befriends Yisro and who helps him do his work and who shepherds his flocks!”

Thus was Yisro ostracized, and his life became difficult. However, since he had seven daughters, he called then in and said:

“Since we have no one who is willing to help us any longer, you must become shepherds and take care of our flocks.”

But the people of Midyan would not even allow this, and they made it a point to drive away the daughters of Yisro when they appeared at the well to take water for their flocks.

It was at just such a moment that Moshe, the son of Amram, who had been raised in Pharoh’s palace, suddenly appeared on the scene. He saw the shepherds chasing away the young girls, and he felt sorry for them. He came forward and drove away the bullies, thus allowing the girls to draw water for their flocks.

And the Almighty looked down and saw what Moshe had done.

“Because Moshe did such a thing,” He said, “and because he had pity on strange girls, he shall now be called the servant of the Lord, and the people of the world shall know that My servants are good to all and that their mercies are on all the creatures of the Lord.”

The Sin

And the daughters of Yisro rushed home to their father and excitedly told him about the incident.

“Father,” they exclaimed, “an Egyptian saved us from the shepherds who tried to drive us away from the well.”

Moshe stood outside the home and heard the words of the daughters of Yisro. He did not, however, come forward to correct their mistake.

Because of this, the Almighty said: “Because Moshe did not object to being called an Egyptian, because he did not call out and say that he was a Hebrew, therefore will he not be privileged to enter the Land of the Hebrews, and his bones will not be buried there.”

Thrown Into Prison

When Yisro heard his daughters’ words, he asked them:

“If this man did such a good thing for you, why did you not invite him in to eat? Go, get him.”

And so Moshe was brought into the house of Yisro, and they spoke.

“I am a Hebrew and I come from Egypt,” said Moshe, who then told Yisro all that had befallen him.

Yisro listened carefully to all that Moshe told him and thought to himself:

“Can this be? Can a man who has comfort and wealth give it all up for principle and ideals? I cannot believe such a thing. Surely, there was some evil action that he did. I will have him thrown into prison until the Egyptians send for him.”

And so, Moshe was seized and thrown into a deep and dark pit. There he remained for years and would have surely died of hunger if not for Tzipporah, the daughter of Yisro, who would come secretly every day and feed him. Yisro knew nothing of this, and put Moshe out of his mind.

Redemption

One day Tzipporah approached Yisro. “Father,” she said, “Ten years ago, you placed the man Moshe in the pit. You ordered all to refrain from feeding or giving him drink. Why do you not send one of the servants now to see if he still lives?”

Yisro looked at his daughter in astonishment and said:

“You speak foolishly, daughter, How is it possible for a man who had not eaten for 10 years to live?”

His daughter persisted, however, and Yisro went to the pit where he had placed Moshe. Looking down into the dark hole, he was astonished to see Moshe, standing and praying to G-d for deliverance. He was dirty and haggard, but he was alive.

“It is a miracle!” cried Yisro. “He is still alive after all these years without food and water.”

Israel’s First Massive Solar Farms Receive Licenses

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Israel’s scorching-hot desert will soon be home to massive solar energy farms, bringing Israel closer to its goal of reliance on renewable energy.

The Public Utility Authority on Monday issued nine licenses to establish Israel’s first large-scale solar energy farms.

The largest license was granted to Solar Energy at Kibbutz Gevim in the northwestern Negev, followed by licenses for a group of companies related to Gush Katif evacuees in Moshav Ohad, Zmorot Solar park, Arava Power Company at Kibbutz Ketura in the souther Arava Desert, and Gilat Energy at Gilat, a moshav between Beersheba and Ofakim.

The Arava Power company hopes to have its $150 million, 150,000 panel, 40 megawatt solar field up and running by 2014 on 600 dunams of barren kibbutz-owned land formerly home to a mango grove.

The power from the photovoltaic fields of Kibbutz Ketura alone will be enough to run one third of Eilat, one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations and one of its biggest energy gluttons, being situated at Israel’s southern-most point, at the bottom of the burning Negev desert.  The switch to solar is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60,000 of carbon dioxide, 160 tons of sulfurous oxide, and 126 tons of nitrous oxide per year.

The Desert of Death

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Due to my appearances in the Arabic media, from time to time I receive email messages from Arabs or Muslims who are not Arabs, with information that may interest me, in their opinion. Some of these are requests for me to get involved in a specific matter, either personal or public. I answer them all, and I keep contact with some of them. I have gotten more than a few insights about the Arab and Muslim world from these people, who reveal to me the most sensitive, hidden, secret, inscrutable aspects of the societies that surround us. There are also a few women among them, who send me their hair-raising stories about their lives and their familial and social settings into which they were born and in which they must live.

This week it was a man from Eritrea who lives in Europe, a Muslim refugee from the hell-on-Earth which is the African Horn, who now lives in tranquility and safety. He sent me an email message that shocked me, and I would like to share this with my readers.

Everyone knows that Israel has served for years as a haven for refugee workers from Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries. A few of the infiltrators into Israel came from the embattled areas of Darfur, and until now Israel has absorbed about forty thousand African infiltrators under this category, who have no connection with Darfur. They come to Israel to find work and a normal life, because of the unemployment, the corruption and poverty in their homelands.

The infiltrators arrive to Israel by way of Egypt and the Sinai Desert, and it’s Bedouin of Sinai who bring them to the border between Israel and Egypt. These smugglers get thousands of dollars per person in exchange for this service, an astronomical sum for those destitute and desperate Africans. Some of them, who cannot pay the smuggler’s fee, remain as prisoners of the Bedouin, and are tortured and humiliated until their families send the required sum. The lot of the women is even worse, because they often fall victim to the sexual passions of the Bedouins who rape them. In many cases the Egyptian soldiers who are stationed at the border shoot Africans who try to infiltrate into Israel, apparently because they cannot pay the Egyptian soldier the “passage money”, that he demands from them, since the Bedouin have robbed the little that was in their pockets.

The bitter reality of Sinai has caused thousands of Eritreans to disappeared into the expanses of this desert. Recently, the reason for these “disappearances” has become known. Some of them are killed because they could not pay the Bedouins the great sums that were demanded, and some were murdered in order to “harvest” organs: kidneys, corneas, hearts and even livers. A few honorable and creditable media outlets – CNN, BBC – reported on this phenomenon including photographs of bodies of Africans who were discarded in the desert after internal organs and eyes were removed from them.

CNN reported that Egyptian doctors from Cairo and Ismailiya are implicated in the removal of organs: they were found to be in contact with the bedouin tribes, specifically Sawarka and Tiaha. They come to the tribal area in which Eritreans are held, with vehicles equipped with a refrigerator, choose among the Eritreans those who look healthy and strong, put them to sleep, remove from them the required organs and their bodies are discarded as food for the birds of prey and carrion eaters. In exchange for this, the doctors pay the Bedouins great sums of cash.

An Egyptian television station brought Bedouin witnesses who said that sometimes the doctor doesn’t even bother to put the victim to sleep for the “operation”. One body that was photographed showed evidence of asphyxiation by a rope – probably because “anesthetization” by asphyxiation is less expensive than anesthetization by administering an anesthetic drug. One of the witnesses said that in some of the cases, blood was taken from the Africans, to be used for blood transfusions.

Would the Real (And Kosher) Sukkah Installation Please Stand Up?

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

About half a year ago, my friend Miriam asked if I knew of any artists or architects whose repertoires included sukkahs. My thoughts immediately turned to the gorgeous sukkah my grandfather designed and built every year and to the retractable roof in the dining room at the Bostoner Rebbe’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Pinchas. But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of any artist who had developed an interesting aesthetic approach to the sukkah, which is the only Jewish experience (save mikvah perhaps) that completely surrounds us.

 

Although I remembered potentially playful fodder for aesthetic sukkahs from the Mishnah and the Talmud – with the pillars from a bed holding up the sch’ach, on the deck of a boat, on a wagon or on the back of a camel – I couldn’t think of a single artist, Jewish or otherwise, who had taken the legal questions of the Mishnah as a design challenge.

 

Log

 

I asked myself if artists had decided the sukkah, which commemorates the clouds of glory that protected the Israelites in the wilderness and thus symbolizes impermanence and vulnerability, was an object that one couldn’t beautify without making it too permanent – even though noi sukkah, decorating the sukkah, is one of the rabbinic commandments of the day.

 

Then I read about Sukkah City. The international contest, sponsored by the non-profit Reboot and author Joshua Foer, called upon contestants to “re-imagine” the “ancient phenomenon” of the sukkah and to “develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site.” The 12 finalists exhibited their designs Sept. 19 and 20 in Union Square Park.

 

The Sukkah City website has a rotating header that reveals that the sukkah: must admit more shade than sunshine, must have a roof that doesn’t obscure views of the stars, needs at least an incomplete third wall, must be 10 handbreadths tall, must not be made of utensils or “anything conventionally functional” when it’s not part of the sukkah and must have a roof made of something that grew in the ground but is currently detached from the earth.

 

In Tension

 

 

But however halachic the Sukkah City website’s conditions are, many of the finalists opted to take artistic liberties, to say the least.

 

“Repetition Meets Difference,” by German artist Matthias Karch, is not the sort of sukkah one could ever actually use, and it is not immediately clear that it would satisfy the Mishnaic requirements for walls. Karch modeled the structure on an invention by German-Jewish architect Konrad Wachsmann and the structure is made of a mixture of wood from American walnut and maple trees and olive trees from Israel.

 

Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan’s “Fractured Bubble” looks a bit like a cross between a haystack and Carrot Top’s hairdo. Though the marsh grass is affixed to plywood and bound in twine in a manner that evokes the lulav, the structure itself, which contains sch’ach which comes from marsh grass harvested from Corona Park in Queens, might require a creative interpretation of the notion of the diagonal wall – dofen akumah­ – to actually validate it as a kosher sukkah.

 

Fractured Bubble

 

 

SO-IL’s design, “In Tension,” could double as a sukkah and a screened-in tent to repel mosquitoes. The structure gets extra points for its portability – one person can carry it – which would certainly be useful for a desert wanderer, but the minimal foliage on the roof precludes the requirement to have more shade than sun.

 

“LOG,” by Kyle May and Scott Abrahams, takes the exact opposite approach. Lugging this sukkah through the desert would be like traveling with a suitcase full of rocks. As the name suggests, the sch’ach covering “LOG” is a large log from a cedar tree. The walls of the structure are glass – no stone throwing from this sukkah.

 

Repetition Meets Difference

 

Other finalists interpreted the sukkah in even more theoretical ways. Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello’s “Sukkah of the Signs” responds to the artists’ interpretation of the commandment to eat and sleep in the sukkah for a week as a political statement. Rael and Fratello built their submission out of cardboard signs they purchased from homeless people and they see it as a project that relates to homelessness. (Interestingly, there is no specific requirement on Sukkot, as there is on Passover, to invite the needy to a holiday meal.)

 

“P.YGROS.C” (Passive Hygroscopic Curls), by THEVERYMANY, is sort of the Shabbat-clock of sukkahs. As it gets more humid outside, parts of the wooden structure move and create curly shapes. It’s hard to imagine that such a natural process would be a violation of the spirit of the holiday, but a sukkah that is perpetually in motion could either be an ingenious response to the nomadic experience in the Sinai desert or dangerously close to a violation of the laws of the holiday.

 

It will always be an uncomfortable aspect of Jewish art criticism to require functionality – that is adherence to halakhic requirements – of ritual objects, particularly because many artistic projects are intentionally resistant to being practically usable. But many of the Sukkah City submissions try to align themselves with halacha.

 

Sukkah of the Signs

 

Volkan Alkanoglu’s egg-shaped “Star Cocoon” purports to exhibit the Talmudic minimal requirement of two-and-a-half walls. But the requirement – which can be seen in the typography of the Hebrew word sukkah – is classically formulated with respect to a rectangular sukkah. If the structure is rounded, as “Star Cocoon,” who is to say that it actually has two-and-a-half walls?

 

Looking through the submissions that didn’t make it to the final round one is struck that most of the artists focused their attention on architecture and only considered halacha as an afterthought – “Adam’s House on Union Square” by Alexander Gorlin and Daniel Schuetz is one of several exceptions. That artists are so publically engaging a holiday like Sukkot is undoubtedly great for Jewish art and for Judaism.

 

But one wonders if artists who also take the halachic side of their projects seriously couldn’t be impressed upon to tackle this Jewish aesthetic design challenge.

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Crossword Puzzle – Prime Numbers

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

Across

1. 1

6. 2

11. Cheat

14. Dramatic or situational

15. Boat for an Eskimo

16. Fib

17. Primitive

18. Actress Jessica

19. Get a wrinkle

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20. Norse prose

21. Famous Italian Mount

22. Extinct Russian

23. 3

25. Setting for this puzzle

28. Car part

31. It is charged

32. 4

33. 5, 7

38. Mine output

39. Curie of note

40. Williams who could really hit

42. 6

45. Like one in exile

47. Santa ___

48. 8

49. Puts forward

52. Noah’s Ark, e.g.

53. 9

54. 10, 12

56. Major European river

60. Consumed

61. One to respect

63. 11

64. What you might call a dog

65. Gazes at

66. See 68-Across

67. Ambulance letters

68. With 66-Across, The referrals to the “Primes” in this puzzle

69. Almost

 

Down

1. Have a meal

2. Israeli desert city

3. Not occupied

4. Like many of the claims made against Israel

5. Color

6. ___-vitamins

7. Known Sultanate

8. Holiest of “hills”

9. Old witch

10. Get by

11. Doughnut feature

12. 3.5?

13. Equal

21. Second first name

22. Hyperbolic function for tangent

24. Letters to make “mors” more loving

26. Shoe fitting

27. Eden ___

28. The arrogant have a large one

29. Cheers cheer

30. Joy

33. Uh huh

34. Anger

35. Tiny or The Tool Man

36. Big bad bomb

37. Gambling game

39. Test for a doc. to be

41. Hamlet’s homeland (Abbrv.)

43. Tribal leader

44. ___ ledodi

45. One hit wonder band from the 80′s

46. Actual

48. Turf type

49. Important part of Succos?

50. Does as told

51. Major Jewish meal

52. Pop

53. Talking pig of note

55. Not his

57. Fancy auto

58. Drones or killers

59. Anything ___?

61. Tolkien creature

62. Romanian currency

63. Governing party in S. Africa

 

(Answers, next week)

Moses’ Spies in Art

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Growing up, I used to enjoy reading S. Weissman’s Little Midrash Says (published 1986) and carefully studying Siegmund Forst’s illustrations of the weekly Torah portion. At the time, I had no idea how many of Forst’s drawings were derived from earlier traditions of biblical illustration (many of them Christian), but I was particularly struck by the moral readability of the narratives. It was always a cinch to figure out who was a good character and who was evil; you could read it on their faces. The heroes were always smiling widely and the villains looked ugly and angry at the world.

 

Unsurprisingly, this technique of revealing characters’ true colors (or their perceived characteristics) in their faces, which seems to be more of a Hellenistic than a Jewish approach, dates much further back than the 1980s. Medieval anti-Semitic illuminated manuscripts often depicted Jews with hooked noses, hunched backs and ugly faces and there are indications that ancient theatrical masks similarly exaggerated characters’ features. It makes sense to apply artistic license in instances like these, just as many movies today cast the hero in white and the villain in dark clothes.

 

Moses’ 12 spies, who surface in this week’s Torah portion of Sh’lach as the Israelites’ scouts to the Holy Land, can be viewed, if not as evil, then at the very least as having questionable motives (with the exception of Caleb and Joshua). Their denouncement of Canaan as “a land that consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) and their subsequent campaign to convince the Israelites to pine for their time in Egypt led to a punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert.

 


Richard McBee. “Return of the Spies.” Relief sculpture. 24″ x 30″. 1984.

 

Artists have pasted the spies’ evil designs on their faces. In a late 15th-century Flemish book of hours, attributed to the so-called Master of the Prayer Book of Maximilian, the two spies, who wear pointed hats, carry a very large cluster of grapes on a rod, per Numbers 13:23. Like the verse says, it takes two spies to carry the branch and the attached cluster of grapes, though the artist neglects to depict the other fruits mentioned in the verse: pomegranates and figs.

 

Rather than depicting the grape cluster (no doubt evoking the spies’ intoxication with their fear of the Canaanite giants) tied to the pole, the Flemish master shows the rod slid between two branches of the cluster, held in place by gravity. The cluster is about half as tall as the spies and slightly wider than they. The spy in front wears a goofy expression while the second spy, whose face is covered by his hat (hinting at his blindness), is even more the dunce.

 

At the spies’ feet, and climbing up the branches around them, are several snails. Although it is possible that the artist has misinterpreted Numbers 13:33, where the spies speculate that they appeared like “grasshoppers” to the Canaanite giants, it is hard to imagine the artist confusing grasshoppers and snails, given the appearance of the word “chagav” in other contexts like 2 Chronicles 7:13, where it clearly refers to some kind of locust.

 

In “Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art,” Michael Camille cites a paper by Lilian Randall, titled “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” [Speculum, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1962), pp. 358-367], which argues that snails have been viewed by scholars in a variety of ways. The 19th-century critic Champfleury saw them as “agricultural pests,” while a Flemish historian of caricature saw snails safe inside their shells as “a satire on the powerful who in their fortified castles laughed at the threat of the poor whom they exploited.” Randall goes one step further and identifies snails with the cowardice of the Lombards, a Germanic people, whom Camille notes, “not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe’s bankers.” Not only are Moses’ spies evil on account of their immature facial expressions and dunce caps; they are also surrounded by symbols of cowardice.

 


Detail of Nicolas Poussin’s “Autumn, or The Bunch of Grapes of the Promised Land.” 

1600-1664. 117 x 160 cm. Louvre.

 

In the 16th-century Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer’s woodcut “The Spies Bring Back the Cluster of Grapes from the Land of Canaan,” the spies look particular ugly and fierce, as they do in Jost Amman’s woodcut by the same name. Stimmer’s work has the notable distinction of featuring other spies, carrying backpacks, in the background.

 

All of the dozens of medieval prints and illuminations I studied show the spies carrying just the grapes, with the exception of the c. 1450 colored pen drawing, “Spies return from Canaan carrying a large bunch of grapes,” by the anonymous illustrator of Speculum humanae salvationis, in which the spies carry another food which resembles an acorn but is probably a fig.

 

Many works (like Michiel van der Borch’s 1332 “The Spies return with the grapes”) show poorly formed grapes, and many of the clusters look more like bunches of bananas. Several of the figures are visibly weighed down by the grapes, as in a 1478 woodcut, “The Spies Returning from Canaan,” perhaps a reference to Christian identification of the grapes on the rod with Jesus. If that is what Christian artists truly had in mind, it makes sense that they would have depicted the Jewish pole bearers in a negative light and often with walking sticks, evoking the Wandering Jew. (Though it is worth noting later artists like Poussin used the scene to depict a secular theme – autumn – rather than a sacred one. Richard McBee has written brilliantly on this image in “Poussin’s Bible,” The Jewish Press, April 30, 2008.)

 

One of the earliest possible depictions of the scene is a frieze in the west façade at the Gothic Cathedral of St. Etienne (c. 1270-1280, France), which shows spies in a vineyard, perhaps Moses’ spies, as two appear to carry a basket of grapes between them. But the scene has often been confused or mislabeled, as in a gothic stained glass “redemption window” from an early 13th-century church (with 20th century restoration) in Canterbury, Kent, which shows two spies with grapes mistitled “Joshua’s Spies in Canaan (the Grapes of Eschol).”

 

 


John Bradford. “Return of the Spies.”

 

 

Contemporary depictions of the spies, of which works by Archie Rand, John Bradford and Richard McBee are foremost – although there is a miniature rendition of the spies in the bottom right corner of Chagall’s tapestry “The Entry into Jerusalem,” 1963-1964 – show a very different scene.

 

Rand’s work, which has one of the spies say (via cartoon bubble), “We got to the land you sent us to. And yea, it’s really flowing with milk and honey – you can see from the fruit,” is compositionally similar (if flipped 180 degrees) to Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow.” The Canaan Rand’s figures emerge from is rendered with bold strokes and a colorful palette, as the spies head down toward a more dreary place. Their sin seems to stem from inability to explain a world of dramatic aesthetics to denizens of the desert doldrums.

 

Bradford’s spies, like Moses and the rest of the Israelites, are nearly indistinguishable from the landscape and it is difficult to identify where walking sticks end and trees begin. If their sin was speaking ill of the land of Canaan, they were spreading lies about themselves as well, so embedded are they in the landscape.

 


Archie Rand. “The Return of the Spies.” 1992. Exhibited at Arthur Roger Gallery, fall 1992. Photograph by: Larry Qualls.

 

But if Rand and Bradford focus more on the landscape that surrounds the figures, as Poussin does but in sharp contrast to the medieval depictions which portrayed the figures alone, McBee focuses on the spies making their pitch to the Israelites. One can see sheer terror on the faces of the spies’ audience members, who fear for their lives and their families’ safety. Where many of his predecessors focused on the spies’ psychology and immorality, McBee is far more interested in the bystanders who receive their dark message. In so doing, McBee has broadened the scope from the Classical (and individualized) heroes and villains to the larger mass of people, which of course, includes us all as well.


 


 


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Moses’ Spies in Art

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Growing up, I used to enjoy reading S. Weissman’s Little Midrash Says (published 1986) and carefully studying Siegmund Forst’s illustrations of the weekly Torah portion. At the time, I had no idea how many of Forst’s drawings were derived from earlier traditions of biblical illustration (many of them Christian), but I was particularly struck by the moral readability of the narratives. It was always a cinch to figure out who was a good character and who was evil; you could read it on their faces. The heroes were always smiling widely and the villains looked ugly and angry at the world.

 

Unsurprisingly, this technique of revealing characters’ true colors (or their perceived characteristics) in their faces, which seems to be more of a Hellenistic than a Jewish approach, dates much further back than the 1980s. Medieval anti-Semitic illuminated manuscripts often depicted Jews with hooked noses, hunched backs and ugly faces and there are indications that ancient theatrical masks similarly exaggerated characters’ features. It makes sense to apply artistic license in instances like these, just as many movies today cast the hero in white and the villain in dark clothes.

 

Moses’ 12 spies, who surface in this week’s Torah portion of Sh’lach as the Israelites’ scouts to the Holy Land, can be viewed, if not as evil, then at the very least as having questionable motives (with the exception of Caleb and Joshua). Their denouncement of Canaan as “a land that consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) and their subsequent campaign to convince the Israelites to pine for their time in Egypt led to a punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert.

 

Richard McBee. “Return of the Spies.” Relief sculpture. 24″ x 30″. 1984.

 

Artists have pasted the spies’ evil designs on their faces. In a late 15th-century Flemish book of hours, attributed to the so-called Master of the Prayer Book of Maximilian, the two spies, who wear pointed hats, carry a very large cluster of grapes on a rod, per Numbers 13:23. Like the verse says, it takes two spies to carry the branch and the attached cluster of grapes, though the artist neglects to depict the other fruits mentioned in the verse: pomegranates and figs.

 

Rather than depicting the grape cluster (no doubt evoking the spies’ intoxication with their fear of the Canaanite giants) tied to the pole, the Flemish master shows the rod slid between two branches of the cluster, held in place by gravity. The cluster is about half as tall as the spies and slightly wider than they. The spy in front wears a goofy expression while the second spy, whose face is covered by his hat (hinting at his blindness), is even more the dunce.

 

At the spies’ feet, and climbing up the branches around them, are several snails. Although it is possible that the artist has misinterpreted Numbers 13:33, where the spies speculate that they appeared like “grasshoppers” to the Canaanite giants, it is hard to imagine the artist confusing grasshoppers and snails, given the appearance of the word “chagav” in other contexts like 2 Chronicles 7:13, where it clearly refers to some kind of locust.

 

In “Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art,” Michael Camille cites a paper by Lilian Randall, titled “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” [Speculum, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1962), pp. 358-367], which argues that snails have been viewed by scholars in a variety of ways. The 19th-century critic Champfleury saw them as “agricultural pests,” while a Flemish historian of caricature saw snails safe inside their shells as “a satire on the powerful who in their fortified castles laughed at the threat of the poor whom they exploited.” Randall goes one step further and identifies snails with the cowardice of the Lombards, a Germanic people, whom Camille notes, “not only bore the stigma of being turncoats but who, along with the Jews, were Europe’s bankers.” Not only are Moses’ spies evil on account of their immature facial expressions and dunce caps; they are also surrounded by symbols of cowardice.

 

Detail of Nicolas Poussin’s “Autumn, or The Bunch of Grapes of the Promised Land.” 

1600-1664. 117 x 160 cm. Louvre.

 

In the 16th-century Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer’s woodcut “The Spies Bring Back the Cluster of Grapes from the Land of Canaan,” the spies look particular ugly and fierce, as they do in Jost Amman’s woodcut by the same name. Stimmer’s work has the notable distinction of featuring other spies, carrying backpacks, in the background.

 

All of the dozens of medieval prints and illuminations I studied show the spies carrying just the grapes, with the exception of the c. 1450 colored pen drawing, “Spies return from Canaan carrying a large bunch of grapes,” by the anonymous illustrator of Speculum humanae salvationis, in which the spies carry another food which resembles an acorn but is probably a fig.

 

Many works (like Michiel van der Borch’s 1332 “The Spies return with the grapes”) show poorly formed grapes, and many of the clusters look more like bunches of bananas. Several of the figures are visibly weighed down by the grapes, as in a 1478 woodcut, “The Spies Returning from Canaan,” perhaps a reference to Christian identification of the grapes on the rod with Jesus. If that is what Christian artists truly had in mind, it makes sense that they would have depicted the Jewish pole bearers in a negative light and often with walking sticks, evoking the Wandering Jew. (Though it is worth noting later artists like Poussin used the scene to depict a secular theme – autumn – rather than a sacred one. Richard McBee has written brilliantly on this image in “Poussin’s Bible,” The Jewish Press, April 30, 2008.)

 

One of the earliest possible depictions of the scene is a frieze in the west fa?ade at the Gothic Cathedral of St. Etienne (c. 1270-1280, France), which shows spies in a vineyard, perhaps Moses’ spies, as two appear to carry a basket of grapes between them. But the scene has often been confused or mislabeled, as in a gothic stained glass “redemption window” from an early 13th-century church (with 20th century restoration) in Canterbury, Kent, which shows two spies with grapes mistitled “Joshua’s Spies in Canaan (the Grapes of Eschol).”

 

 

John Bradford. “Return of the Spies.”

 

 

Contemporary depictions of the spies, of which works by Archie Rand, John Bradford and Richard McBee are foremost – although there is a miniature rendition of the spies in the bottom right corner of Chagall’s tapestry “The Entry into Jerusalem,” 1963-1964 – show a very different scene.

 

Rand’s work, which has one of the spies say (via cartoon bubble), “We got to the land you sent us to. And yea, it’s really flowing with milk and honey – you can see from the fruit,” is compositionally similar (if flipped 180 degrees) to Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow.” The Canaan Rand’s figures emerge from is rendered with bold strokes and a colorful palette, as the spies head down toward a more dreary place. Their sin seems to stem from inability to explain a world of dramatic aesthetics to denizens of the desert doldrums.

 

Bradford’s spies, like Moses and the rest of the Israelites, are nearly indistinguishable from the landscape and it is difficult to identify where walking sticks end and trees begin. If their sin was speaking ill of the land of Canaan, they were spreading lies about themselves as well, so embedded are they in the landscape.

 

Archie Rand. “The Return of the Spies.” 1992. Exhibited at Arthur Roger Gallery, fall 1992. Photograph by: Larry Qualls.

 

But if Rand and Bradford focus more on the landscape that surrounds the figures, as Poussin does but in sharp contrast to the medieval depictions which portrayed the figures alone, McBee focuses on the spies making their pitch to the Israelites. One can see sheer terror on the faces of the spies’ audience members, who fear for their lives and their families’ safety. Where many of his predecessors focused on the spies’ psychology and immorality, McBee is far more interested in the bystanders who receive their dark message. In so doing, McBee has broadened the scope from the Classical (and individualized) heroes and villains to the larger mass of people, which of course, includes us all as well.

 

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/moses-spies-in-art/2010/06/02/

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