Dr. Chris Hays, professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern studies at Fuller, responded to my first lecture. Dr. Hays has written a book about death in the Bronze Age and OT--Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah--and in his response he made connections between Egyptian burial practices, Isaiah and some of the ideas of Ernest Becker.
Recall, according to Ernest Becker we engage in cultural heroics to "matter" in the face of death. Here is Becker on this point
[T]his is what a society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system . . . But each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism . . . It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.Given his interest in Egypt Dr. Hays flashed a picture similar to this up on the screen:
As we know, the pyramids were giant tombs. And in this they illustrate two aspects of Becker's theory. First, as noted in the quote above, we try to "build" things that last in the face of death. And secondly, the anxiety behind this effort is often the engine of cultural creation. The pyramids are shrines to death but they also represent amazing feats of art, mathematics and engineering. And as these monuments of death got bigger and more sophisticated human culture advanced. The pyramids are textbook cases of what psychologists call sublimation, where neurotic anxiety is directed into creative and valued outlets. Death anxiety isn't all bad.
But there is a dark side, as Ernest Becker went on to describe. Our attempts to matter and outlast death often cause us to become violent toward others, psychically or physically. And as Dr. Hays pointed out, we see this clearly with the Pharaohs and their tombs. As we know, slave labor was used to build these monuments of death.
What I find interesting in all this is how the existential dynamics described by Ernest Becker can be discerned in this ancient context. For example, a few years ago I was describing some of Becker's thoughts to a colleague in our College of Biblical studies. And this colleague dismissed the analysis, suggesting that existentialism is a modern school of philosophy and, thus, isn't applicable to biblical theology. I was a bit taken aback.
Death, I responded, wasn't an issue for the ancients?
It sure seemed to be an issue for the Egyptians.
Dr. Hays went on to connect these Egyptian burial practices to the book of Isaiah. Specifically, in Isaiah 22 the prophet rebukes Shebna, the governor/administrator of the royal palace for building a personal tomb:
Isaiah 22.15-17a (NLT)Some scholars have argued that Shebna was the leader of those who were wanting king Hezekiah to make an alliance with Egypt. If so, Shebna's behavior here makes a lot of sense. Specifically, Shebna is making an Egyptian-styled tomb for himself. And for this presumption Shebna is rebuked.
This is what the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, said to me: “Confront Shebna, the palace administrator, and give him this message:
“Who do you think you are, and what are you doing here, building a beautiful tomb for yourself— a monument high up in the rock? For the Lord is about to hurl you away, mighty man."
But why is building a tomb presumptuous? The problem, as described by Dr. Hays, is that Jewish tombs were shared. Tombs were communal.
Shebna's presumption was that he was building a tomb--a monument to outlast death--that was purely for himself. Just like the Pharaohs built tombs for themselves.
And that's the connection Dr. Hays made with the work of Ernest Becker.
Specifically, the sin in cultural heroics is the elevation of the self over others in a delusional attempt to outlast death. And we often attempt this self-glorification by climbing over the heads and backs of others, often violently so.
The sin of cultural heroics is the way in which we try to evade death through the glorification of the self and how that self-glorification breaks communion with others.