This was an academic conference like no other.
Barely an hour after landing in Houston, following 19 hours of travel from Tel Aviv, I found myself sitting in the courtside front row of Toyota Center, home to the NBA Houston Rockets. The fourteen biblicists, archaeologists, and Egyptologists flown in were special guests at this January night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Three feet in distance and a foot in height were all that stood between me and scoring sensation Kevin Durant. It was a pinch-me, Willy Wonka moment. But it was hardly the last.
The next morning we arrived at the conference site, the well-kept 40 acre estate of a prominent Houston attorney. The eye is drawn to a magnificent Gothic library, housing over 100,000 volumes devoted to the Bible and religion. Adjacent is the attorney’s private chapel where the conference proceedings would be held: a full scale replica of a sixth century Greek Orthodox church, replete with masonry, vaults, two-foot thick walls, frescoes of biblical scenes, and pews for nearly 300 people.
But between the two edifices you see narrow gauge train tracks, the type you see at the zoo, or at an amusement park. Walk a little further into the estate (we were encouraged to) and you come across a full size replica of a 1940’s retro-style station house. Dummies in period dress wait for the train. And then there’s the train: Thomas the Tank engine, hooked to cars for forty passengers. A certain whiff redirects your attention to the llama corral, and the enormous lemur enclosure. Where am I? The NBA? Oxford? Byzantium? Neverland?
This is the estate of Mark Lanier, “one of the decade’s most influential lawyers,” according to the National Law Journal. Google his name and you learn that Lanier (or “Mark” as he insists his guests and employees call him) conducts a devotional weekly bible class to 600 people at his local mega-church. He and his wife routinely open the estate to the public for a wide range of religiously educational and charitable causes.
Were you to become extremely wealthy, as Lanier has, you’d need to decide what to do with your money. But, no less, you’d have to decide what to do with your image. Everyone knows who you are; everyone knows you have money. Do you hide? Show off? Seek the company of others like yourself? Pretend you don’t have it?
From what I could see, Lanier adopts a strategy that could be described as biblical. He does what Abraham does. Abraham returns to Canaan from Egypt in Genesis 13 a vastly richer man, than when he left. He realizes that wealth is influence and uses that influence, “proclaiming God’s reputation” (Gen 13:2). Lanier makes it clear that his estate, wealth, image and powers of persuasion through his bible classes are all marshaled toward doing God’s work in the world, and thanking Him for the resources to do so.
Watch the podcasts of his classes, and you see that he is engaged with the Bible. But you also see that he’s engaged with critical scholarship of the Bible (remember that Gothic library), and thus his interest in sponsoring our conference, “A Consultation on the Historicity and Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition.”
Some of the papers took an interesting approach to the issue, noting the ways in which the text of the Book of Exodus seems to be familiar with Egyptian inscriptions nearly unique to the pharaohs of the nineteenth dynasty, when many scholars think the Exodus occurred. Consider the phrase that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” That phrase is used in the Bible exclusively with regard to the Exodus. Nothing else God ever does is described as having been achieved by his “mighty hand” or “outstretched arm.” In nineteenth dynasty Egyptian inscriptions, the phrase is ubiquitous: everything the pharaohs do is with their “mighty hand” or their “outstretched arm.” Exodus appropriates Egyptian royal propaganda to describe God’s victory over Pharaoh himself.
Yet quite beyond the academic papers, the weekend conference in the heart of the Bible belt offered me an opportunity as an orthodox Jew to appreciate the variety and profundity of religious experience. Fifty guests attended the dinner at the Lanier mansion Friday night. Mark’s staff had written me in advance, asking if I would recite the blessing on the wine and bread. The guests gathered in a circle in the massive rotunda at the center of the house, and on a little table I set out the challah rolls, Kiddush cup and wine I had brought from Israel. My sense was that this was a first for many present, and I offered explanations of what we were doing based on biblical verses, with which they were all familiar.
I felt compelled also to share a personal reflection. At another conference earlier in the year, I explained, I had been speaking with Egyptologist James Hoffmeier, who was convening the weekend Exodus Consultation, and with a mutual colleague of ours, also an orthodox Jew. Jim was urging him to attend here in Houston. Our colleague sighed, “yes, but with shabbos and no synagogue, and the meals — it’s very hard.” Jim countered, I explained to the guests, with the only argument that could compel me to give up family and community for a Shabbat. “Chaim,” he said, “you don’t understand. If there’s no Exodus, there’s no Shabbos.” The academic paper over which I had labored for months had received appropriate applause earlier in the day. But my Kiddush and Hamotzi performance that night received an outpouring of tearful thanks.
Following Hamotzi, Mark Lanier announced that we would now say grace, and I rendered the appropriate chin-tuck. When we had first done this, earlier in the day, I had felt like I was enacting the instructions on an airline safety card. But by now I was getting into the humility and concentration of the act. Mark’s formulations were ecumenical, allowing each guest present to respond “amen” and to construe the Lord in his or her own way.
I was struck by the spontaneity of his prayer. But even more so, I was struck by its repeated use of the word us and our: “We thank you Lord for the comfort you give us, for the gift of your blessing and bounty in our lives, for allowing us the blessing of each other’s company.” It was so easy to answer amen to a prayer that addressed the particular lives of those present, and the immediate moment in which we found ourselves. And then I thought about the age-old blessing I had just uttered over the challah, and how absent are words like “us” and “we”: Blessed art Thou oh Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings bread out of the earth. And for the first time in my life I realized just how much that prayer de-emphasizes individual experience of God, and emphasizes the eternal rule of the Creator.
At dinner I spoke with a young man in his twenties about his professional aspirations. “Just this week, I felt the hand of providence,” he told me.”I got an interview for a position that will allow me to combine my twin passions: coaching football and teaching Bible.” I had to digest that one. “Bible” and “football” sounded quite incompatible to me, like “milk” and “meat.” My oldest son is an IDF officer and I’ve seen religious boys mesh physical toughness with spiritual goals, but in the service of a noble ideal: the protection of one’s country. What could be the spiritual significance of pursuing a concussion? “We train for the whole man; strength of body contributes to strength of the soul,” he explained. Once a month I sit with each of my men, and we review what’s happening in the four realms of their lives: academically, socially, spiritually, and in the perfection of their game. And then I ask them how I can pray for them.”
Over the weekend speakers referred to Jews as “our older brothers in faith,” and of Judaism as “the trunk upon which we are but a grafted branch,” and I realized that these conceptions allow them to participate in Jewish ritual and liturgy in a way that has no symmetry in the other direction. This explained the heartfelt response to my Kiddush, and I saw the phenomenon at work again over Shabbat lunch. The conference presenters had gone out to a local restaurant, while the three of us who were Sabbath observant remained in the guest house of the Lanier estate, to enjoy kosher deli. One of the other scholars, a Presbyterian minister and renowned expert in Mesopotamian culture, had missed the shuttle to the restaurant, and became our “shabbat guest.” With the meal over, we prepared to say birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) by reciting Shir Ha-Ma’alot, psalm 131. To my amazement, our Presbyterian colleague joyfully sang along, fully familiar with the tune, and without text in front of him. “I learned it at Shabbat tables while a grad student at Hebrew Union College,” he explained. “Turns out it’s a great tune for us to use to teach that psalm!”
On Saturday night, the program featured a public lecture on the question of the location of Mount Sinai and the wilderness route of the Israelites through the Sinai Desert. An overflow crowd of 400 people attended. It occurred to me there nowhere on the planet would a crowd of Jews that size attend a lecture on that topic. At the reception following the talk, I learned how to make 400 strangers feel comfortable with each other: issue each a hand-written name tag. The conference speakers wore distinctive tags, and I was engaged all evening. One woman approached me, and called to her husband, “Honey, I’ve found the rabbi from Israel, he’s right here.” She then turned to me. “Can we get a picture with you?”
The Haggadah teaches:
Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon gathered at a seder in Bnei Brak, expounding all night about the Exodus, until their students entered saying, ‘our masters, the time has come to recite the morning Shema.’
On Saturday evening, the invited scholars convened in the den of the gothic style library to exchange comments on the papers that had been presented. As we sat, four Jews and a dozen Christians, examining the evidence for the Exodus, those sages of old came to mind. “My,” I thought. “How different is this night from all other nights.”