6/21/15

The Jawbone of an Ass - Timshel

We've been watching season 1 of Hell on Wheels. Episode 9 was pretty good. It was titled 'Timshel.'

Now, if you have read 'East of Eden', you will recognize that. You'll remember the conversation about it, between Sam and Lee. It is described as the best midrash on the matter, better even than those produced through the most exacting rabbinical argument - at least for we mere lay people.

The discussion is about Cain killing Abel, in Genesis, and the meaning of the word 'timshel.' It is, I think, one of the best arguments making the case for free will, and against predestination, as one will find.

During the fight scene at the river, which is linked from YouTube below, the music played is 'Timshel', by Mumford and Sons. You may have also heard it as 'As brothers we will stand.' It's a brutal scene, where 'brother' is pitted against 'brother' in the figurative sense - one human against another ... and as Black Moon kills his brother Pawnee Killer near the end of the scene, in the literal sense.



But what stimulated a bit of discussion was the part where Bohannon, out of ammunition and with no other weaponry to hand, grabs the jawbone of some animal and bloodily dispatches a Cheyenne Dog Soldier.

Choice. Free will. 'Timshel', the segment from 'East of Eden', and the nature of the song by Mumford and Sons would indicate the analogy here is Cain's killing of Abel, and the choices, the exercise of free will, made both in launching the fight, and the choice to stand to.

Timshel. "Thou mayest ..." which, as Steinbeck points out in his character Lee's explanation, offers the choice: "Thou mayest not..."leaving 'timshel' to be perhaps the most important word in the world."

As we were discussing it, I mentioned Cain killing Abel with the jawbone of an ass. Leece took exception, remarking that no one knows how Cain killed Abel, and in any case, it was Samson who wielded the jawbone of an ass with considerable homicidal efficiency. "But everyone knows he used the jawbone of an ass!" I argued. "How? How does 'everyone' know that?" Leece asked.

"Well, it's in the bible!" I exclaimed. And almost instantly realized that if she said it wasn't, I was almost certainly whistling a heathenishly ignorant Dixie.

She's right, of course. The bible makes no mention of how Cain killed Abel.

But biblical art; classical art; is full of examples of Cain killing Abel, and in many of those works of art, he is shown wielding the jawbone of an ass.

In Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol 35 1972, we find an article by A.A. Barb which takes note of these works of art and their depiction of the weapon as the jawbone of some animal, and which further states:"...from at least the 9th century AD, Irish and Anglo-Saxon literary tradition maintained that the jawbone was that of an ass. It has been established that both the literary tradition, and artistic representation of the jawbone as a weapon,originated in early medieval Hiberno-Saxon Insular art and spread thence to the continent, but so far there has been no satisfactory answer of where the idea for this curious weapon originated ...". Barb goes on to discuss what other forms of weaponry might have been used by Cain.

"It's interesting how culture can color our perceptions of what the bible says, even when it doesn't say anything," Leece remarked, as she polished off the last of her sopapilla.

Ain't it, though. Would that a fundamentalist or two were listening ... particular those of a political bent.

Speaking of choice of weaponry ... in the video, we see some fine representations of the Winchester Model of 1866. We see no mention in Genesis of these, either.