Cinematic Religion

I realized I was pretty tough yesterday on the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Despite the datedness of the film by 2023 standards, it was a very big film at its release and had an effect on my thoughts about religion.

It is an epic religious drama Paramount film that was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille. It was made for big screens, shot in VistaVision with color by Technicolor.

It is not based on the Bible, though it uses passages from it, especially the Book of Exodus. The screenplay used versions of the story found in the novels Prince of Egypt Pillar of Fire and On Eagle’s Wings. It is a dramatized version of the story of Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince who ultimately delivers the enslaved Hebrews.

Charlton Heston is Moses, Yul Brynner is the Pharoh Rameses, and there are plenty of other Hollywood stars playing these Middle Eastern figures.

This is actually Cecil B. DeMille remaking his silent film of the same name as a big-budget sound film. They filmed in Egypt and the Sinai. It had one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, and thousands of players and crew.

At the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made. It paid off grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release, making it the most successful film of 1956 and the second-highest-grossing film of the decade. According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the eighth most successful film of all time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.

In 1957, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but only won Best Visual Effects.

I have still vivid memory of the scene where Moses’ staff becomes a cobra. I also recall my childhood confusion when Ramses’ priests are able to do the same “magic trick.” Of course, Moses’ snake satisfyingly devours the two others.

The most well-known scene in the film is when Moses parts the Red Sea. In its time, that was an awesome special effect. I have a much more powerful memory of that scene. My family was driving home from the Jersey Shore one summer night when I was very young and the film was playing at the Amboys drive-in which was close to the Garden State Parkway. You could always see the giant screen from your car. (Probably that caused a few accidents over the years.) As we passed, Moses parted the sea. Very impressive.

The Ten Commandments is broadcast at Passover in the United States on the ABC Television Network. Watching it again this year, I had many of the same feelings as when I saw it as a boy. So much cruelty by Ramses and by God. So many people die. These Bible stories made me doubt that this God was a good one. Certainly not a kind one.

As a child, I wondered how much of this story was true. Did God really allow Moses to turn the Nile River into blood? Enraged at the plagues, Rameses orders that all first-born male Hebrews will die. That seems believable. But God’s “cloud of death” instead kills all the first-born of Egypt, including the child of Rameses and Nefretiri. That, I doubted. Did the Red Sea part so the Hebrews could cross and escape Ramses soldiers? And did God drown all the soldiers who followed them across? So much death.

Paramount Pictures poster – Link

The Pomegranate


The pomegranate is a very odd fruit. Its juice has become popular and is often attributed with almost magical powers.

The name “pomegranate” derives from Latin pomum (‘apple’) and granatus (‘seeded’). The pomegranate’s botanical name, Punica Granatum, means “seeded fruit growing from a shrub or small tree.”

Jewish scholars believe that the pomegranate was the original “forbidden fruit” of the Garden of Eden. It has been a symbol in many religions and cultures since Biblical times. Moses promised his followers that they would find the fruit in the Promised Land.

I has been a cultivated fruit since ancient times, but it was native to the region that is today’s Iran to northern India. In the 18th century, Spanish sailors introduced it to the southern United States and it is now cultivated widely in California and Arizona for juice production.

I remember my mother bring one home from the store when I was a child. It was strange. The skin is leathery. Inside are hundreds of edible seeds encased in a gelatinous sack of sweet, juicy pulp. The seeds and surrounding pulp (called arils) is colored from white to deep crimson. Unlike many fruits, we eat the seeds, though the juice is what is most prized these days.

As symbolic objects pomegranates sometimes have cultural or religious significance, as a symbol of life and fertility because of the many seeds. It is also a symbol of power (imperial orb) and blood and even death.

They meant fertility, beauty and eternal life in Greek and Persian mythology. The Ancient Greeks also saw it as a symbol of fertility and associated it with Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Athena.

In the Bible, it is only mentioned in the Old Testament. Pomegranates play a role as a symbol of righteousness in Judaism. It was believed that they contain 613 seeds, which correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. At Rosh Hashanah, some Jews eat this fruit one seed at a time, for each is a wish that may be fulfilled.

In Buddhism, pomegranates, peaches and lemons are considered three blessed kinds of fruit.

The Koran also mentions a pomegranate as a symbol of  the good things created by God, and is sometimes referred to as the “apple of paradise.”

In the Middle Ages, the resemblance between a pomegranate and an imperial orb made it a symbol of power, probably a relic of Ancient Germanic representations.

Albrecht Dürer’s- Portrait of Maximilian I with a pomegranate

Pomegranates have been seen as an aphrodisiac and are an ingredient of many love potions.

In modern Turkey today, families might throw a pomegranate on the floor and “crack” it on the New Year’s Eve to have a plentiful new year.

pomegranate seeds

The ancient Persians recognized the beneficial effect of pomegranates. Theophrast and Pliny recounted the different varieties and their medicinal properties. Modern day science has shown that pomegranates contain antioxidants, large quantities of flavonoids that have important functions for cell regulation. Pomegranates also contain potassium, vitamin A, C, E, calcium and iron.

The pomegranate plant is evergreen and so is associated with immortality and the soul. of the soul. In time, the many seeds in a single fruit have come to stand for prosperity.

A Cashless Society Isn’t the End of the World. Is It?


At most media outlets, even this little blog, digital traffic is tracked and analyzed. The folks who do that at public radio’s Marketplace noticed that a nine-year-old story about what the Bible has to say about a cashless society had made its way into their top ten views.  That made them curious.

As with many stories that they and I analyze, most traffic was coming from search engines. Next, you look at what search queries people used to find your page. In their case, it was unsurprisingly “cashless bible society” and “what does the Bible say about a cashless society?” – two topics also trending on Google in July. But why now?

It turned out that an additional search query was for “Dave Ramsey cashless society” which references that radio host and financial adviser. And that led them to a Snopes article about whether Ramsey actually warned about the evils of a cashless society. It turns out that he did not though that appeared on Facebook and social media.

But in that viral way, the idea of a cashless society giving the government power to block transactions and track accounts made it into major news outlets along with the fact that during the pandemic many businesses were going cashless.

And the Bible reference? Most commonly it was to the Book of Revelation Chapter 13, Verses 7 and 16 which talks about a second beast. It’s a beast that rises out of the earth and causes “all both small and great, both rich and poor, but free and slave to be marked on the right hand or the forehead so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark. That is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” The next verse goes on to explain that this number (the fairly well-known name/number of the beast) is 666.

According to Reverend Father Felix Just, director of biblical education at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality, “The Bible says absolutely nothing about predicting a cashless society, as some people claim. And in fact, if it did, the closest passage to anything that you could call a “cashless society” is not from the Book of Revelation, but it’s from Isaiah, Chapter 55. And there it actually seems to think of the cashless society as a good thing. The first verse says, ‘All you who are thirsty, come to the water, you who have no money, come receive grain and eat. Come without paying and without cost. Drink wine and milk. Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages what fails to satisfy.’ And so on. This is a text which is basically saying that in God’s view, maybe there shouldn’t be any such thing as cash. But that’s a good thing, in the sense that everybody would be able to feed themselves or feed one another for free because everybody shares everything in the messianic age in the ideals of God.”

But the modern interpretation seems to be that a cashless society would be a bad thing and that it is connected to a one-world government. For these people, the “mark” will be a tattoo or some microchip implant or maybe just credit cards, or government identification like Social Security numbers.

I’m not too worried about the End of Days, which has been predicted so many times and those dates have passed us by so many times. As the Marketplace story said, going cashless isn’t the end of the world.

The Answer to Life Is 137


When Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he wrote that “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.”  He was joking, but I wonder if the answer really might be 137.

Take a look at one thing about 137 in mathematics: Using two radii to divide a circle according to the golden ratio yields sectors of approximately 137° (the golden angle) and 222°.

In physics, 137 is the approximate denominator of the fine-structure constant. Being a dimensionless physical constant, it is approximately 1/137 and has the same numerical value in all systems of units.

Physicists have postulated for more than a hundred years that 137 might be at the center of a grand unified theory, relating theories of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and, especially, gravity. It’s the DNA of an atom.

As the inverse of the fine-structure constant, it is related to the probability that an electron will emit or absorb a photon (Feynman’s conjecture).

Some physicists has suggested that if the number that unified the relationship between all these concepts turned out to be 1 or 3 or a multiple of pi, that would make more “sense.” But why 137?

Leon Lederman thought that because the number 137 “shows up naked all over the place,” that means that scientists on any planet in the universe using whatever units they have for charge or speed, and whatever their version of Planck’s constant may be, will all come up with 137, because it is a pure number.

But it shows up frequently outside of math and physics.

In mysticism, the Hebrew word קבלה (Kabbalah) has a Gematria (numerical value) of 137.  It describes the “corresponding loops” which clasped together enjoin the two sections of the Tabernacle’s ceiling. These loops divided the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies – the physical dimension and the spiritual dimension – and at the boundary line of the physical world, the number 137 emerges.

Moses’ Tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God, was 13.7 meters long. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has taken the best measurement of the age of the Universe to date. and ”scientists now have the best estimate yet on the age of the Universe: 13.7 billion years.”

Some people have connected the science, math and mysticism. 137 refers to electrons and the odds of an electron absorbing a single photon. In simple Kabbalah language, 137 is about Vessel and Light. It is about the physical body of man (Vessel) and our ability to ignite the Light in the soul.

One of the important physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, wrote about the number 137:

“It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the ‘hand of God’ wrote that number, and ‘we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.”

According to the Bible, Abraham died at age 175, but when he was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice, he was 137. According to the Torah, Moses’ father lived to 137, and so did Ishmael and Levi.

Physicist Leon M. Lederman numbered his home near Fermilab 137.  He tried to unite the Ancient Greeks’ earliest scientific observations, Einstein, and the Higgs boson, which is nicknamed the God Particle.

“One hundred thirty-seven is the inverse of something called the fine-structure constant. …The most remarkable thing about this remarkable number is that it is dimension-free. …Werner Heisenberg once proclaimed that all the quandaries of quantum mechanics would shrivel up when 137 was finally explained.” 
― Leon M. Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, died in a hospital room numbered 137, a coincidence that disturbed him.

Physicist Pauli and psychoanalyst Carl Jung were both obsessed with the power of certain numbers, including 137. They were fascinated by the atom’s fine-structure constant and its Kabbalistic significance. They formed an unlikely friendship and began a mystical quest that led them through medieval alchemy, dream interpretation, and the Chinese Book of Changes.

They were two people who believed 137 was at the intersection of modern science with the occult, and that it was a mystical number with a meaning beyond physics.

In 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession by Arthur I. Miller, it is reported that Pauli once said that if the Lord allowed him to ask anything he wanted, his first question would be “Why 1/137?”

Is there a primal number at the root of the universe
that everything in the world hinges on?

Death and the Bible

William Blake's  “Ancient of Days”
William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”

Poet Billy Collins has quipped that majoring in English means majoring in death. It is the big theme in literature. I was an English major.

None of us likes death and we don’t like to think about it, but we can’t help but think about it.

I had a course in the Bible as literature in college. The course didn’t convince me that the Bible is literature or convince me about anything religious. I found the book poorly written. It did not hold my interest.

The Bible has a lot about death.  Our beliefs about the dead will have an impact on how we live and how we approach death – with fear or peace.

Type in death and Bible and you’ll get plenty of hits and references to passages from the Bible, views on death and what happens in the end-times.

As a child, I was very curious about what happens when a person dies.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7.

The body turns to the “dust” it was in the beginning, and the spirit goes back to God. The spirit of every person who dies – righteous or wicked – returns to God at death.

And our body?   “The body without the spirit is dead.” James 2:26.

I was curiously fearful of ghosts and spirits as a child.  I was pretty sure that sometimes that spirit sometimes doesn’t return to God at death – or at least not right away.  The Bible has no mention of that “spirit” having any life, wisdom, or feeling after a person dies.  It doesn’t wander around the Earth.

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7.

A soul?   A combination of two things: body plus breath. If the body and breath are not combined, no soul.

Can that soul die?   “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel 18:20.  We are souls, and souls die. Man is mortal.

I wanted to believe that good people go to heaven when they die.  Then, some nun or priest told me that we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die.  “All that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth.” John 5:28, 29. We go to graves to await the resurrection day. That made me frightened. And sad.

There would be no purpose in a resurrection if people were taken to heaven at death.

I was also afraid that the dead were watching me. I imagined my grandparents were up there watching me – especially when I was doing something wrong. More fear.

My mother claimed at times in her life to have heard voices of those who had died. But the Bible says that the dead know nothing and they cannot communicate with the living.

“The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.” “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10.

So much sadness, so much longing, so much death.





To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days. ~Arabic proverb

Yesterday, I wrote about the Lenten Moon and a bit about the origin of the term “Lent” for this period in the Christian calendar.  In doing some research, I found it interesting how many references to the number 40 come up in the Bible and other places.

In fact, forty has many associations with other religions too, but many of us are familiar with the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 24:18).

Elijah also spent 40 days walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

A new film opening this month, Noah, reminds us that it was said that there were forty days and nights when God sent rain in the great flood (Genesis 7:4).

There were forty years that the Hebrew people wandered in the desert while traveling to the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33) and Jonah’s 40 day prophecy of judgment and warning to the city of Nineveh to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4).

Jesus retreated into the wilderness, where and fasted for forty days (Matthew 4:1–2, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–2).  Since, presumably, the Apostles fasted as they mourned the death of Jesus, Christians have traditionally fasted during the annual commemoration of his burial.

I had not heard before that it was a traditional belief that Jesus lay for forty hours in the tomb. (Biblical reference to ‘three days in the tomb’ is understood as spanning three days, from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, rather than three 24 hour periods of time). This belief led to 40 hours of total fast that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church.

There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices that are supposed to be done with greater vigor during Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving towards neighbors.

Most modern observers choose to give up an action of theirs that is considered to be a vice or frivolity. For example, someone giving up smoking cigarettes would donate the money spent doing that to charitable purposes or organizations.

It doesn’t need to be all connections to religion. “The Rule of Three” is that a topic which is broken down into three sections, each of these is broken down into three sub-sections and each of these three sub-sections is broken down into a further three sections (three generations using the “rule of three”) gives you a total of 40 sections (1+3+9+27).

Negative forty is the unique temperature at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales correspond; that is, −40°F = −40°C. It is referred to as either “minus forty” or “forty below”.

The Tessarakonteres, or 40, was the largest ship of antiquity, constructed by Ptolemy IV.

Forty is the only integer whose English name has its letters in alphabetical order.

The number of weeks for an average term of pregnancy, counting from the woman’s last menstrual period, is 40.

The customary number of hours in a regular workweek in some Western countries is (or was) 40. It was chosen because dividing the day into thirds gave you 8 hours to work, 8 to sleep and 8 for your own purposes.

Turning 40 years old has had a long Western tradition of being a turning point for becoming “old.”

Finally, the planet Venus forms a pentagram in the night sky every eight years, with it returning to its original point every 40 years with a 40 day regression. Some scholars believe that this ancient information was the basis for the number 40 becoming sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.