Jul 292018

Today is one of the possible dates (in the Gregorian calendar) of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE by the neo-Babylonian army under the command of Nebuchadnezzar II. The date is set in the Jewish calendar as Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/tisha-bav/ but we have to be a little careful about ascribing this date (in the Gregorian calendar) as the actual historical date of the event. As with all dates in the Jewish calendar, the day begins and ends at sundown, and it moves about the Gregorian calendar. Whether today is the actual anniversary of the destruction of the Temple depends on the answers to two key questions: (1) Did the destruction actually take place on Tisha B’Av? (2) Did the destruction happen in 587 BCE? There is no dispute among historians that the destruction occurred, and was followed by a mass deportation of the residents of Judah to Babylon, known as the Exile or the Babylonian Captivity. The precise details are what are under dispute. The year could have been 587 or 586; scholars disagree on this point. Knowing the exact year is important for placing Tisha B’Av on the right date in the Gregorian calendar because it changes from year to year. They also disagree on whether the destruction occurred on Tisha B’Av or whether this has become a fixed tradition not rooted in fact. Let’s leave those disagreements aside for now, and claim today as the anniversary. I want to talk about the Exile anyway. Spoiler alert: If your faith leads you to believe in a literal interpretation of history in the Hebrew Bible, you are not going to like what I have to say.

How you determine the timing and significance of the destruction of the Temple depends on what sources you want to believe. The oldest Biblical sources that we have concerning the history of Judah are the books of Samuel and Kings, compiled by what are generally known as the Deuteronomists: historians writing at the time of king Josiah of Judah (c. 649–609 BCE). Like all historians they had their own axes to grind. As I have said numerous times, history is not about documenting facts, it is about ascribing meaning to facts. Mere recording of historical facts is chronicling or archiving, not history. History is something deeper, and there is good reason to argue that the Deuteronomists were the world’s first true historians. The Deuteronomists were intent on “purifying” the religion of Judah (that is, getting rid of supposedly “foreign” influences), as their first step in setting up Judah as a fully independent nation, free from the imperial demands of Egypt, Assyrian, and Babylon. They chose Josiah as their model king based on their interpretation of historical records. He was supposed to be a direct descendant of David, the archetypical king, chosen by God, to govern his chosen people, and Solomon, his son, had built the first temple in Jerusalem. Josiah (by the Deuteronomists’ estimation) was destined to return Judah to the glory days of David and Solomon, when the combined tribes of Israel were pre-eminent (and Jerusalem was the center of the universe). Since those days, Israel and Judah had suffered numerous defeats from neighbor states, and the Deuteronomists argued that this was because they had fallen away from the true worship of Yahweh, their national god (sometimes mistakenly translated as Jehovah). In many circles, Josiah was considered to be the foretold Messiah (anointed warrior/king), the second coming of David who would vanquish all before him because Yahweh was on his side. Josiah in Hebrew – Yoshiyahu (יֹאשִׁיָהוּ) – means “healed by Yahweh” or “supported by Yahweh.” This plan went belly up when Josiah was defeated and killed by Egyptian forces at the battle of Megiddo (Armageddon in Hebrew) in 609 BCE. Judah became a vassal state of Egypt, then of Babylon when Babylon vied for supremacy in the Levant with Egypt.  Things get a bit complicated at this point, but the essentials are fairly straightforward. Judah rebelled against Babylon’s vassalage on three occasions: 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE. Each time, Judah was defeated and some of Jerusalem’s elite were exiled to Babylon, with the middle defeat in 587 (or 586) being the worst and most significant historically.

The destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the priests, could have marked the end of the religion of Judah. But it didn’t. If anything, it strengthened and solidified it for a very important reason: the Temple had been destroyed and the people were separated from their Holy Land. If they clung on to the old religion it would die because it was inextricably linked to Jerusalem and the Temple (most notably a long tradition of animal sacrifices). To survive, they had to create a new religion to hold themselves together as a people. This is the subject of a book of mine which has been journeying around presses for many years. Consequently, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the general outline of my hypothesis is in line with the thinking of a number of Biblical scholars and archeologists – certainly not all, by any means. It will not sit well with orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians.

Empires have been able to subjugate peoples for generations by displacing them from their home territories. The Assyrians did it in antiquity and Stalin did it in the 20th century. If your cultural identity is rooted to a specific geography and specific buildings within that geography, then your culture can be destroyed if you are torn away from that geography. If your cultural identity is rooted in something portable, then you can survive being transported anywhere. Many ancient cultures had gods that were fixed in particular places, and at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by, Yahweh, god of Judah, had his home in the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests forced into exile in Babylon devised a new idea. God was not rooted anywhere geographic: he was located in THE WORD. God’s home was the sacred texts that embodied his words. They could be copied if need be, and they could be transported to wherever the Judean people found themselves. Thus, the people were freed from a specific temple in a specific place. Their cultural identity could be preserved. In other words, I am saying that Judaism was born in Babylon among the priests and people of the Exile. You may understand now why my book on the subject is not having an easy job finding a publisher. It will, but there are still hurdles to clear.

For today’s recipe I am breaking with historical chronology a little. One of the ways that Judeans during the Exile avoided assimilation with Babylonians was enforcing strict food laws that made it all but impossible to eat with Babylonians or use their ingredients. Three great commandments – not part of the 10 Commandments, of course – were 1. Don’t marry a foreigner. 2. Don’t dine with a foreigner. 3. Don’t eat foreign food. These commandments were laid down during the Exile, and have endured to this day. Judeans in Exile probably ate the dishes from home as much as they could. Their traditional meats were from locally herded cows, sheep, and goats. They did not herd pigs. But the Babylonians did. They relished them, in fact. So, they were supremely taboo. These days there is much more interchange of food ideas between Iraq, successor state to Babylon, and Israel. Laffat betinjan –  لفّة بيتنجان – a fried eggplant sandwich from Iraq is popular in Israel, where it is called sabich. Eggplant has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory, and it must be domesticated. There are no wild edible versions. Because there are no Greek or Latin names for the vegetable, and all the words in European languages are derived from Arabic, it is believed that eggplants were introduced into the Mediterranean region by Arabs in the Middle Ages. In other words, Judeans and Babylonians were not eating eggplants during the Exile. No matter. Iraqis and Israelis are enjoying fried eggplant sandwiches these days.

With this dish you have a lot of choices, so let me start with frying the eggplant, and then talk about possibilities. The main concern with frying eggplant is to do all you can to prevent the slices from absorbing too much oil.

Betinjan Maqli  بيتنجان مقلي Fried Eggplant


1 large eggplant (about 1½ lb)
flour for coating
oil for frying


Cut off the stem of the eggplant, and peel it lengthwise. Cut the eggplant into 2 parts crosswise, and then cut each part into ¼ in-thick slices lengthwise.

Place the eggplant pieces in salted warm water and place a plate or other flat heavy kitchen object to make sure they stay completely submerged. Let me soak for 30 minutes.

Drain the eggplant pieces, and coat them well with flour on all sides.

Heat ½ in of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and fry the eggplant pieces in batches until golden brown on both sides. Turn once only.

Drain the eggplant pieces on a wire rack.

These fried eggplant pieces can be arranged on a platter with sliced tomatoes, grated garlic, and chopped parsley, and you can also provide cayenne pepper, lemon juice and Greek yoghurt. This will serve as a side dish on its own, or you can assemble sandwiches in pita bread, or other flatbread, according to your tastes. Iraqis often use khubuz. You don’t have to limit your ingredients for the sandwiches either. Israelis often add boiled egg slices, for example.

Dec 292017

Today is the feast of king David in a few Western Christian traditions. The theology is a bit murky here, but celebrating David within the Christmas season makes sense if you follow the logic of the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Jesus was the Messiah (anointed one) in 1st century Christian tradition which means that he had to be descended from David, and born in David’s birthplace, Bethlehem. One puzzle that the patristic fathers had to solve was whether people born before Jesus was born could become saints, that is, ascend to Paradise. After all, they could not confess him as Lord and Savior, because they were dead. If you make that confession a criterion you are stuck having to do what Dante did in the Inferno, assigning them to limbo for eternity – neither heaven nor hell. Limbo is sort of like earth without all the pain and death stuff. Plato and Aristotle are there too, according to Dante. Patristic fathers solved the puzzle by asserting that Jesus went down to hell on his death and before his resurrection and saved all the souls there. Case closed. This is the stuff that theologians come up with when they accept the Biblical narrative as it stands, but then use Aristotelian logic to sort out the problems. David presents us with just as many historical problems, starting with the fact that he may not have existed, and the splendid kingdom that he, and his son Solomon, ruled over almost certainly did not.

David is described in the Hebrew Bible as the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. In the biblical narrative, David is a young shepherd who first gains fame as a musician and later by killing Goliath. He becomes a favorite of king Saul, first king over the united tribes of Israel, and a close friend of Saul’s son Jonathan. Worried that David is trying to take his throne, Saul turns on David. After Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David is anointed as king. David conquers Jerusalem, taking the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and establishing the kingdom founded by Saul.

As king, David arranges the death of Uriah the Hittite to cover his adultery with Bathsheba. According to the same biblical text, God denies David the opportunity to build the temple and his son, Absalom, tries to overthrow him. David flees Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion, but after Absalom’s death in battle, he returns to the city to rule Israel. Before his peaceful death, after a lifetime of troubles with his sons, he chooses his youngest son Solomon as his successor. He is mentioned in the prophetic literature as an ideal king and an ancestor of a future Messiah, and many psalms are ascribed to him.

Historians of the Ancient Near East agree that if David existed at all it was around 1000 BCE, but that there is little that can be said about him as a historical figure outside the Biblical narratives. There is no direct evidence outside of the Bible concerning David, but the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone erected by a king of Damascus in the late 9th/early 8th centuries BCE to commemorate his victory over two enemy kings, contains the phrase ביתדוד (bytdwd), which most scholars quite reasonably translate as “House of David” (beyth dawid). Ancient Near East historians, following archeology, generally doubt that the united monarchy as described in the Bible existed, but, instead, is a construct of 6th century priests – the Deuteronomists.

One Biblical history of Israel and Judah is called Deuteronomic history by many modern Biblical scholars because it has the hallmarks of one continuous narrative making a strategic political/theological point. These books are called Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, and I & II Kings in the Protestant canon, and flow from Moses and the exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, into the period when the 12 tribes were individual nations with their own territories and rulers, forming a loose confederation that was united occasionally under Judges (שופטים šōp̄əṭîm/shoftim). The Judges united the tribes for as long as necessary, and then went back to being regular guys. Saul changed that when he confronted a number of enemies, especially the Philistines, and instead of going back to normal life, became king of the tribes. David eventually overthrew him and established a dynasty in the kingdom of Judah that is described in detail in II Kings. The final king in that line was supposed to be Josiah, whom the Deuteronomists believed was the new Messiah (anointed king) in the line of David, who would overthrow the oppression of Judah by Egypt and Babylon and establish a glorious kingdom to rival David’s and Solomon’s. Unfortunately, Josiah was killed in the battle on the plain of Megiddo the Hebrew of which gives us the English word Armageddon. From that point on the propaganda had to be rethought.

We will probably never know what sources the Deuteronomists used; most of them may have been oral. The Tel Dan Stele that mentions the House of David is likely referring to a dynasty of the kingdom of Judah which traced its ancestry to a founder named David. Anthropology can step in here. We’re pretty good with kinship and genealogy. Both the temple priests and the Deuteronomists (as well as Luke and Matthew) used genealogy as the skeleton on which to hang their histories. As all anthropologists know well, the person who is at the head of a specific genealogy gives his character to all the people who follow in his line. Jacob was a cunning, but Godly, man who wrestled with an angel (or God) and almost won. His name was changed to Is – ra – el which in Hebrew sounds like “the man who contends with God.” His sons became the sons (tribes) of Israel, and they too were all cunning and contended with God. The founder is the spirit of the nation.  Judah’s putative dynastic founder was David who came from one of Israel’s youngest sons, and was, himself, the youngest son, as was his successor Solomon.  There’s a key point here. Typically, the eldest son inherits, but throughout the Torah and into Deuteronomistic history, it’s the youngest who inherits.  Why?  The simple answer is that at one time, the supposed Davidic era, Judah was nothing but an insignificant hill country backwater. But its (related neighbor), Israel, was rich and powerful.  However, Israel was eventually destroyed by Assyria, and much of the population was deported and lost to history (the lost tribes of Israel). Judah (the poor young relative) survived, by paying tribute to Assyria rather than fighting. The youngest survived by being smart.

What I’m getting at is that genealogical history is designed to fit the propaganda narrative, not the historical facts. If David existed at all he would have been a tribal leader, in Hebrew a nagid (leader or prince), rather than a melek (king). In fact, David is often referred to as a nagid. Legends undoubtedly accrued to him and were embellished and amplified through oral tradition, until we end up with the propaganda hero whom Josiah is meant to emulate. Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians will take me to task over my interpretation. Let them. You can believe what you want to believe. The Deuteronomists did. It all has to do with how you see your identity. I’m not going to debate such issues: it’s a waste of time – mine and theirs. Cooking is more productive.

For David I’ve chosen a dish that may well have been common in 10th century Judah. It’s certainly very common throughout the Middle East and North Africa now.  That is, mulukhiyah, (or mloukhiya, molokhia, molokhiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya (Arabic: ملوخية‎, Hebrew: מלוחיה), the leaves of Corchorus olitorius, commonly used as a vegetable in soups or stews that give their name to the whole dish. It is popular in Middle East, East African and North African countries. Mulukhiyyah is rather bitter, and when boiled, the resulting liquid is a thick, highly mucilaginous broth. Traditionally mulukhiyyah is cooked with chicken or at least chicken stock for flavor and is served with white rice, accompanied with lemon or lime.

The Standard Molokhia dish in the Levant is prepared by cooking a meat of some sort in a separate pot by boiling. Later onions and garlic are cooked to a simmer, then water and chicken stock cubes are added to form a broth. After boiling, the cooked chicken or meat and Molokhia leaves are added and further cooked another 15 minutes. Palestinians will serve Molokhia on a bed of rice topped with vermicelli noodles, and lemon juice and flat bread on the side. Palestinian Bedu ( بَدَوِي ) have an old tradition of cooking a different version of the dish. A whole chicken is cut open, the intestines removed, and the innards stuffed with herbs, spices and raw rice then sewn shut with thick thread. The chicken is then boiled to create the broth for the Molokhia soup which, after preparation, is served as five separate components: The Molokhia soup, Arabic flat bread, the chicken (stuffed with flavored rice), additional plain rice and a small bowl with a mixture of lemon juice and sliced chile. The soup is mixed with rice and lemon juice according to taste, while the chicken is eaten on a separate plate.

I’d wager that you are not going to find mulukhiyah in your local supermarket, but you might be able to get it frozen online. You can also get seeds online to grow it yourself, but that won’t be much help for cooking any time soon.  Here’s a good recipe anyway, in case you luck out. Some Middle Eastern cooks are assessed locally according to their ability to make a good mulukhiya. The key is to make sure not to overcook the mulukhiya. If you do, the leaves will sink to the bottom and the soup/stew will be heavy.



1 kg mulukhiya
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
½ tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
5 cardamom pods
6 boneless chicken breasts
olive oil
20 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp dried coriander
1 tbsp. lemon juice


If you have frozen mulukhiya, let it thaw thoroughly. If you have fresh leaves, parboil them in a large pot of fresh water.

In a separate pot, place the onion, chicken, and bay leaf. Cover with chicken stock and add the cardamom pods tied up in a muslin or cheesecloth bag. Add salt to taste. Bring to the boil and simmer until the chicken is just tender (25 to 30 minutes).

Remove the cardamom pods and bay leaf and discard. Remove the chicken breasts with a slotted spoon. Cut them into strips and then fry them in batches in olive oil in a clean skillet until they take on a little color.

Meanwhile use a slotted spoon to take the onion out of the soup, mash it and return it to the soup along with the fried chicken strips.  Add the thawed, or parboiled, mulukhiya and simmer for about 5 minutes. Do not overcook them. They must remain floating at or near the top.

Mix together the crushed garlic and the dried coriander and fry it in the olive oil left from frying the chicken until it is barely golden. Add to the boiling mulukhiya and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice.

Serve hot in deep bowls with flatbread.

Yield: 8-10 servings