On the Worship of Umnam and Umnan

“Why were you in such a hurry to leave the last village?”

Roban looked at his daughter. She was also his apprentice in his trading business. He drove his wagon on a circuit amongst the towns and villages that extended hundreds of miles and weeks in time, buying and selling things that were available in one place but needed in another.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events and products of my imagination. Copyright © 2012, Henry E. Neufeld

He had convinced himself that, if his oldest child had been a boy, he would not have had to deal with so many questions. When he mentioned this conclusion to his wife, she broke into gales of laughter. But right now, whether it was sensible or not, he wished for a practical, down to earth, boy child. Yet he knew that nothing short of a real answer would satisfy his daughter.

“Because,” he said after a pause, “tonight is the heathen festival of their evil god Umnan.”

“Why do you call Umnan evil?”

“Because he is an evil god.” Roban tried to sound final, but he knew it wasn’t going to work.

“But Umnan sounds just like our god Umnam. There are lots of words that end in ‘n’ in these southern villages that end in ‘m’ back home.”

This made Roban think. Of course he’d noticed this before. It was essential in adjusting his speaking so he didn’t sound so foreign. Sounding foreign was bad for sales. He paused again, this time for a couple of minutes. He covered the pause by pretending to look over the oxen and the load, making sure all was well.

“It may sound like that,” he said finally, “but it isn’t really. Umnam is kind, just, and loving. He preserves us and defends us from the hostile spirits of nature. We sacrifice to him out of our love and thankfulness. Umnan is evil and nasty, and is out to get everyone in sight. He uses the hostile spirits of nature, the wind, storms, fire, and water. If his worshipers don’t sacrifice to him regularly, he will strike out and kill them.”

He hoped this would divert her, even though he hadn’t answered the question of why he was so determined to leave their village before the feast.

Temporarily, it seemed to work.

“Why?” she asked. This was normally his least favorite question. Right now, however, it offered a long diversion.

“Do you remember the story of the great flood?”

“Of course I do, daddy!” And that was very true. She tended not to forget things—anything, in fact—and she loved the ancient stories.

“Well, give me the outline.”

“Men were evil, so the gods sent a flood to destroy them. But Umnam saw that some of his people were obedient, and sent them warning by the prophet Urvam. They fled to their boats and rode out the flood. Many perished, but Umnam preserved the faithful and brought them to land again. When they reached land, they still had to face falling branches and unstable rock piles. But the sun came out again and a rainbow appeared, which was the sign that Umnam loved them and would preserve them forever.”

It was an admirable summary. Roban had hoped his daughter would tell the story in more detail, thus taking up more time and giving her an opportunity to forget her original question.

“Quite correct,” he said. “But the story of the great flood told in the south is quite different. Their story says that Umnan was angry with his people, and chose to destroy them with storm and flood. But a great hero, Urvan, learned that the flood was coming, and rode downstream on his horse ahead of the waters, warning his people to flee to their boats. Many were lost in the flood, but the survivors made it to shore. At the last moment the chief’s child was struck on the head by a falling branch, loosened by the wind. Thus the people learned that Umnan demands his price.”

He paused again. “You see how they pervert the truth with their demonic story?”

Several minutes of silence ensued. Roban found he approved, but at the same time it made him nervous, almost like the moments while one waited for a wild beast to strike. Of course, this was his daughter!

“But if you look at it differently,” his daughter said finally, “it could be the same story.”

“No, it couldn’t!” Roban came back instantly. “The two stories are not alike at all!”

And then it came. “I see,” said his daughter, deceptively calm. “But you still haven’t told me why you wanted to be out of the village before the feast.”

“Well, I’ll tell you. I didn’t want to, but I will. Every year at the feast, one child is chosen as a sacrifice to Umnan. That is evil! If you were in town, I guarantee they would choose you!”

The daughter truly did believe that was evil, but she still thought the stories were much too much the same.

I wonder whether Umnan actually wants a child sacrificed to him, she thought. Maybe a branch just fell, and that’s the way people interpreted it. But she was actually more cautious than her father gave her credit for, and she didn’t say it out loud.

(This is an exercise in taking a different point of view on a story. You should recognize similarities and dissimilarities with the biblical story of the flood, focusing on the lectionary passage Genesis 9:8-17. I’ll be discussing this in The Way Sunday School Class at First United Methodist Church, Pensacola, February 26, 2012. We ask members to bring various responses, art, poetry, stories, other thoughts.)


Creativity for the Fun of It

Through my company Energion Publications I publish a book by Nick May, titled Megabelt. (He has another book on the way, not with Energion, but I’ll provide news of that later.) Now Nick is a Christian young man, deeply involved in his local church. But he can get just a bit challenging to some people’s sensibilities in his writing.

Nick’s mother has struggled with some of the things he writes. She posted about this on her blog the other day. Here’s an extract:

He lives with passion. I admire him for that. He believes with all his heart in writing purely for the sake of aesthetic value, and simple, pure enjoyment of the art, and not necessarily with always Christian content. I had to struggle through this myself, and he has had to struggle too, because he is gutsy, and real and comes under fire for it. I wasn’t sure for a while, where I stood on the issue, because I always believe in glorifying God in whatever we do. Last night, I got a reality check.

Now I’m going to let you go to Hannah May’s blog Grace, Grace to find out about the reality check.

I appreciate Hannah’s writing, because I too have encountered many people who question the idea of literature and art for enjoyment. They want literature that has an explicitly Christian theme or specifically aims at providing a moral or a gospel message. Because of this they’ll challenge the idea of reading fantasy and science fiction, for example.

I, on the other hand, think that this anti-creative attitude, or more precisely restrictive attitude, is what is most limiting to Christianity and Christian thinking.

The entire world belongs to God. God is the creator of everything that is. Some people think we need to stay in some sort of spiritual realm, or in some set of ideas that is bounded by religion. That attitude, in my view tends to deny that other things, such as our love lives, our sexuality, our imaginations, our inventiveness, and our creativity are truly a part of God’s world. Except, of course, for those portions that fall into those artificial religious boundaries.

But even if I am relaxing on my front porch, not thinking religious thoughts at all, and not carrying a John 3:16 sign, I am living in God’s world. Whether an artist is drawing a picture of Jesus at the last supper, an abstract impression of the skyline of a city, or yes, even a study of the human body, that artist can’t help say something about God through that observation of creation.

And whether a writer intends a moral when writing a story or not, there is again a reflection of God’s universe in the writing, and one can hardly prevent the reader from learning. More importantly, one can permit the reader the experience of fun and joy through the reflection.

Whether we eat or drink, and whether we draw, write, or act, God’s glory is going to shine through somewhere, because the whole world, not just defined portions of it, belongs to God.


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The God-Talk Club and the She-Bears

[This is a work of fiction, from my God-Talk Club series. – added 11:42 central time]

Small talk was dying down and everyone had their drinks.  Mark had a question:

“I’ve been given an assignment,”1 he said to the group, and I’d like your thoughts.

“What is it?” asked Mandy.

“We’re supposed to write a 10 minute homily on 2 Kings 3:23-24.”

“Ten minutes?  That’s going to cramp your style.  You can’t tell them everything you’ve learned in your seminary classes.”  Mandy was laughing as she said it, and Mark took it in good humor.  He really did like to put his whole seminary training into each homily.

“Ten minutes,” echoed Jerry.  “You can’t really get to the meat of a scripture in that period of time.

“I didn’t know you Presbyterians had long sermons.  I thought you generally had about 20 minute homilies,” said Mandy.

“Not at my church.  It’s more like 30-40 minutes, and sometimes we get more in the pastor’s Sunday School class.”

“Oh, you learn something new every day,” said Mandy.  “But we should get back to Mark.  What are your questions?”

“Well,” said Mark and paused.  He felt like he knew what he’d hear from each person and was almost afraid to start.  “It’s such a violent story.  Elisha seems to get offended and so he slaughters a bunch of kids.  Where’s the moral in that?”

Justine, Mandy, and Jerry started talking at once, then started to apologize to each other.

Over the confusion, Bob Norman cut in.  “OK, I’ll bite.  What is this story of the she-bears?”

“You don’t know that one?” exclaimed Mac.  “That’s  a skeptical staple.  A Christian says ‘God is love’ and you say ‘But what about the she bears?’  I’m going to have to revoke your skeptic’s license.”

Bob was working on getting used to Mac.  He was a science teacher, an atheist, and quite convinced, but he had been raised in a conventionally religious home, one where he didn’t see church all that often.  Until he had gotten together with the God-Talk Club he hadn’t argued religion that much.  He just didn’t believe.

Mac, on the other hand, seemed to think that the purpose of skeptics was to argue with Christians.  She knew more about Christianity than most Christians.

“So what is the story?” asked Bob, looking at Mac.

“Well, this prophet named Elisha was walking along, and some children started taunting him about being bald.  So he cursed them and called some she bears to maul them.  The bears got 42 of them.”

Jerry cut in, “Well, not precisely.  How about we read the text as it’s written?”

Jerry pulled out his Bible and read:

(23) He went from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”  (24) And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD.  And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. — 2 Kings 2:23-24 (ESV)

“OK,” asked Bob, “so why are they telling this guy to go up?  And is this Elisha you’re talking about?”

“Well Elijah had just been taken up into heaven, so the boys were suggesting that Elisha do the same thing,” said Jerry.

“But I don’t believe that anyone can go up to heaven,” said Bob.

“Why don’t we discuss the story based on what the people who wrote it believed?” asked Mandy.  She barely cut off Jerry who had been about to argue the point.  He again thought about how hard it was for him to take Mandy seriously because of the way she behaved, yet she had these flashes of wisdom.

“Maybe the boys didn’t believe that Elijah had ascended either,” said Mark.  “They might have been suggesting that Elisha was lying.  Elisha was the only witness, after all.”

“That’s quite possible,” said Mandy.

“But it doesn’t help us much in understanding the story,” said Jerry.  Whatever their reasons they were taunting God’s prophet.”

“So Justine,” said Bob, turning to look her right in the eye.  “What would you do if some children in your congregation were taunting you?”

“Well, it would depend on what they were doing,” she answered.  “If they’re just joking, I’d laugh and go on.  If they’re threatening me, I’m going to deal with it.  Worst case, I might call the police.  I’ve had some teenagers who needed police intervention.  I don’t like it, but it happens.”

“But you wouldn’t curse them, or, in the absence of readily available she-bears, you wouldn’t release the dogs on them,” said Mac decisively, as though she thought she had just won a point.

“Precisely,” said Bob.

“But Justine isn’t a prophet,” said Jerry.

“So?  She’s a pastor.  Isn’t that close enough?” asked Bob.

“I hardly think so.  Elisha was the greatest prophet of his time.  It would be more like taunting the president,” said Jerry.

“But the secret service doesn’t shoot adults who taunt the president, much less children,” said Bob.

“Supposing a teenager–and these boys could be teenagers–was carrying a handgun and waved it at the president.  Then what would happen?” asked Jerry.

“It’s quite possible that the secret service might shoot the teenager.  But there’s no indication these children were carrying guns, or swords or spears,” said Bob again.

“But there’s nothing that says they didn’t either.  They might have been very threatening.”  Now Jerry looked like he was making a point.

“But wouldn’t that be adding something to the text?” asked Mark.

“Well, we’re adding to the text whether we assume they’re little children or teenagers, and whether we assume they had no weapons or lots of them.  It doesn’t give us those details,” said Jerry.

“So shouldn’t we deal with the text as it is?” asked Justine.  “It seems to say that taunting the prophet was enough provocation, and that God responded to Elijah’s curse by sending the she-bears.  I don’t particularly like it, but that’s what it says.”

“Well, actually, I don’t think so,” said Mandy.  Everyone started looking right at her.  “The text doesn’t tell us whether Elisha’s action was justified.  It just tell us that it happened.”

“So is it possible that Elisha might not be doing the right thing here?” asked Mark.

“I think so.  I think Elisha was tired and angry and so he cursed the children.”  Mandy had that “mother concludes and has made the point to the children” look she got from time to time.  The fact that she was sprawled carelessly sideways across an easy chair detracted from the effect.

“So why would God honor his angry request?” asked Jerry.

Mandy considered for a moment.  “Because he was God’s prophet.  What would happen if he cursed someone and nothing happened?  God has to go hunting for a new prophet!”

“I really don’t think that’s an appropriate way to speak about  a prophet.  Surely a prophet wouldn’t do wrong in a situation like this,” said Jerry.

“Elijah made mistakes.  Moses made mistakes.  David was a man after God’s own heart and he committed adultery and then murdered someone to cover it up.  What makes you think Bible characters always do right?” said Mandy.

“But in all those cases we have a clear indication that what they did was wrong.  Not here,” replied Jerry.

“Well, from my point of view that makes God look even worse.  He will kill forty-two children in order to keep his prophet respectable,” said Bob.  Mac nodded.

“But God can do anything he wants!  We don’t have the right to judge God’s actions,” said Jerry.

“So when you say, ‘God is love’ is that your considered judgment, or are you just repeating what God told you to say?” asked Mac.

“I know that God is love,” said Jerry.

“But how do you know?  Can you know that God is love without looking at God’s actions and deciding, ‘Those are loving actions?'” asked Mac.

“I think she’s got a point,” said Mandy.  “After all, we testify to God’s love and to the things God has done for us.  Have we not looked at God’s action and said, ‘That is love’?”

“But we wouldn’t even know what love was if God didn’t tell us!” said Jerry.

“Well, I agree with Jerry,” said Justine.  “God has the right to do what he wants.  So I think there must be something there that those children or teenagers did to deserve what happened to them.  If God did it, it must be right, and it says right there [she pointed to Jerry’s Bible] that God did it!”

“I’ve got to agree with Jerry as well.  It seems that you [he looked at Mandy] and Mark want to have the story in your Bible but you don’t want to accept what it really says.”  Bob looked at Jerry.  “Not that I agree with you about anything else!”

“I would never even think it,” said Jerry dryly.

“I have to disagree.  You’ve both decided what the story must mean.  There are many other statements about morality in the Bible.  I think that if we are told elsewhere that an action is wrong, we are not forced to conclude that a person who does that in a story is right.  That was complicated,” said Mandy, and grinned.

“But then you are saying that God did something wrong,” said Jerry, and Bob and Mac both nodded.

“I’m saying that God worked with people as they were.  You can’t always have ideal actions when you’re not dealing with ideal people.”

“There I agree with you, Mandy,” said Justine.  “I don’t really have a problem with this story, but God does work with us where we are.”

“I think I like Mandy’s explanation,” said Mark.  I wonder if I can say it in 10 minutes?  I’m inclined to give all the explanations and let people choose.”

And with that, the group began to break up.

1The real-world source of this question is not a professor at my imaginary seminary but David Ker at his Lingamish blog. I already responded in a real-world sense on my Participatory Bible Study blog.