Monthly Archives: April 2014

Z is for Zealots

z“These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4 NIV)

So out of the group of people who followed Jesus around on a day to day basis, there were two Simons. One got his name changed to Peter, or Rocky, and the other who was simply known as the Zealot. The word zealot implies a fanatical devotion to a particular cause, usually trying to imply a willingness to do harm to others for the sake of the cause you champion. With Simon they aren’t trying to say something about his passionate concern and care for following Jesus, instead they are referring to his membership in an organization known as the Zealots who were part of Jewish culture under the Roman occupation.

Zealots were a group who opposed  the Roman occupation of Israel through whatever means necessary. They fought against Roman rule and leadership of their nation and of the flagrant god flaunting that Roman coins and military pageantry embodied in trying to proclaim the cult of emperor worship. The Zealots attempted many times to make a stand against Rome, but very regularly participated in guerrilla resistance that often involved targeted assassinations of both Roman officials and Roman collaborators. The funny part about the little band of Jesus’s followers is that it included Simon, a Zealot known for killing Roman collaborators, and also Matthew, a tax collector who worked for the Romans. I’m sure the rest of the group didn’t like to leave them alone since they didn’t think Matthew would last very long. Jesus had a bit of a sense of humor, I’m sure in bringing them both along.

Zealots were essentially the Assassin’s Guild of their time and culture. There was an extremist group of the Zealots who were known as the Sicarri. They were so named because they carried curved short swords, called sicarii,  in case the opportunity to murder a Roman came up. The term also referred to the class of gladiator who wielded similar weapons, so it was an innocuous enough phrase to keep them from too much suspicion.

Secretive societies and mysterious resistance cells make for great drama in a game play setting. The popularity of the Assassin’s Creed video games speaks to that quite well. What secretive elements of society exist in the games you play and what motivates them to take a stand against the status quo? Are they freedom fighters on a holy mission or are they invested in the economic problems that arise from an occupying force? Where powerful conquerors come in, there will almost always be some kind of rebellion or resistance that takes a variety of forms. The Jewish Zealots during the Roman occupation are a very interesting place to find inspiration for just how they would stand up against an oppressing force and we got a brand new word to describe those who are so consumed with passion that they go to extremes.


Y is for YHWH

yRemember how I said names were important? Well today’s post is a name so important, people wouldn’t even right the entire thing down. The writers of the Old Testament tried to demonstrate a respect and fear of the God they served by not actually saying His name or even writing it down. They held this particular name in such high esteem that to write it would be to lower it. Today many people still practice a form of this discipline by only writing G-d when referring to the God of Israel. Many Christians don’t hold the name with the same sacredness as part of a more intimate friendship with God.

The particulars of the name of God get interesting because the name was never fully written out or even spoken. In the original Hebrew manuscripts that record the early Old Testament, vowels are not used. At all. So translation was already a challenge except for the oral tradition (much of which is sung) by the priests and the rabbis who could help to guide the translation effort. But then we get to this name of God that isn’t written down completely or even spoken. Whenever the reader got to the name, they would simply say “The Lord,” which is why many versions of the Bible today have a little quirk where that word is written with small caps to help denote that the big name was being used. The first time that this particular name comes up is when Moses hears the voice of God of a bush that burns, but is not consumed.

“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

‘This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.'”

(Exodus 3:13-15 NIV)

The phrase is translated as “I am who I am” and the particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet that denote this name are Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. It looks like this.

remember to read it from right to left.

Each of those letters are breath sounds and they form a back and forth rhythm that mirrors the breathing back and forth of air in the lungs. Yod, breath in, Heh, breath out, Vav, breath in, Heh, breath out. Given the fact that God breathes life into His creation and the same word in Hebrew is used for both breath and spirit, there is a wealth of symbolism behind this particular name of God. Because we lack the vowels for this name, it’s translated into two forms that are used extensively in the Christian tradition (since they allow themselves to use this name aloud). Jehovah, which in the Latin starts with an I, and the more recently accepted into common use, Yahweh, are both translations of the name that have found acceptance today.

Secretive names of a deity are not a new thing to roleplaying games at all. I played in a recent game where the secret name of the Raven Queen, something she had taken great efforts to wipe from the mortal world, was the driving force of the opposition in our first adventure. The rites and rituals that suround the very names of the holy is inspiring to me. If gods are simply elevated versions of our mortal selves, then they are somewhat lackluster, but if they are something much greater than all that, then even their name has to have some serious power behind it. What kind of means might a deity or their servitors take to protect that name, whether hiding it from knowledge or building in some kind of magical defense or taboo around it to keep it sacred? It’s an interesting direction to explore and takes something as simple as a name and makes it a driving, powerful force.


X is for Xerxes

xThere are a few historical figures who pop up in the stories of Scripture that warrant a second look. In the New Testament, the author, Luke, makes a very big deal about who is Caesar and who was governor of what province as Luke is primarily a historian and doctor by trade and is specifically rooting his tale in the historical reality of his time. In the Old Testament, after the defeat of Israel, first by the Assyrians who spread their people all over the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the people of Israel found themselves in captivity (as was the practice of the Babylonians and the Persians who followed them) in a foreign land. The best of the people were carried off to Babylon to be assimilated into the Babylonian (then Persian) empire and culture. So those many armies of the Persian empire who made up the huge army that faced down the Spartans in 300, Israel was one those conquered people who folded into the Persian war machine, but without the crazy war rhinos.

Xerxes’s story is found in the book of Esther, one of two books in the Old Testament specifically focused on a female lead character. Esther is a Jewish woman living in exile as an orphan. She’s cared for by her uncle and her story takes a dramatic turn when the king, Xerxes, becomes fed up with the many personal slights of his wife, the queen. He removes her from her role and throws a beauty pageant to choose his next wife who will become queen of Persia. Esther happens to win this pageant and goes from an occupied inhabitant of the Persian capital to its celebrated new queen.

That is where this story takes a turn for the awesome. Esther’s uncle hears about a conspiracy against the king and reports it through Esther. He is honored by the king for his service, which makes one of the king’s viziers jealous and that adviser decides to try and murder all of Esther’s people in retaliation. Little overkill, <sarcasm> but we’ve all been there, am I right?!? </sarcasm>

So this elaborate plot is put underway by the king’s vizier to single out Esther’s people (which no one realizes that she is Jewish at this point) and she is watching this all as it transpires. So she hatches her own elaborate plan and flips the machinations of the evil vizier on his head. She has him run out of town and the story ends with a delightful ending where the evil vizier is impaled on a pike. Grim, but fair.

Political intrigue and the behind the scenes machinations of court are not my personal cup of tea when playing games, but seeing an elaborate game of political chess come to fruition is very satisfying to watch. Setting the pieces in motion takes finesse and long term strategy that I lack patience for personally, but makes for a fascinating spider web of intrigue and mystery.

The book of Esther is read regularly at festivals within the Jewish community as a testimony to not only God’s protection, but of the courage of one person taking a stand and what one person can really do. It’s a short book and is maybe worth your time to witness one of history’s earliest femme fatales. It doesn’t take long and for someone who’s not so good at political intrigue it definitely inspires my imagination in regards to how you might navigate your way out of a difficult and potentially deadly political situation.