Deuteronomy, Ruth, and the Long View of Wisdom (and Beatrix Kiddo)

Occasionally, one will hear the biblical book of Ecclesiastes described as anti-wisdom literature, the idea being that, though the book of Ecclesiastes shares much of its vocabulary and other generic conventions with the book of Proverbs, the overall message is largely at odds with Proverbs and the “wisdom psalms.”

As an example, here is Proverbs 10:2:

Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value,

but righteousness delivers from death.

Many proverbs share what could be called a moral economy, wherein one receives rewards for good works and some sort of punishment for misbehavior. By contrast, here is a proverb from Ecclesiastes 1:3:

What does anyone gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

It is a rhetorical question. The answer, based on the context of the passage, is “nothing,” for in 1:2 the author declares that “everything is meaningless,” “illusory,” or, at the very most “ephemeral”—the gains are temporary but do not last.

I was trying to explain the relationship between wisdom and anti-wisdom to my Hebrew class yesterday (we are working on Ecclesiastes after spending last week on Proverbs), when one of my students said, “Isn’t this backwards? Ecclesiastes seems to exhibit true wisdom while Proverbs doesn’t seem that wise to me.”

I explained that the distinction is generic—that is, Wisdom Literature is a name for a type of literature and not necessarily a description of the actual value of the text—but I got his point. After all, though both books purport to gain their “wisdom” or “anti-wisdom” through similar methods—observation of the natural world—their conclusions are at odds and Ecclesiastes seems to “say it how it [really] is” without sugarcoating.

I bring this up as a follow-up to my previous blog post wherein I go through Deuteronomy 24 as a text that, while ostensibly hopeful about moral and ethical behavior, does not seem to have its pulse on the real world, where someone can and has violated everyone of the principles over and over again and yet has been rewarded with the position of the most powerful person on the planet.

The post is kind of bleak and maybe even void of much hope, but I decided to leave it there for a while with no response as a model of what the Bible seems to encourage, though few Christians feel comfortable enacting. That is, I wanted to sit in a space of lamentation, questioning the justice of the way of the world.

Deuteronomy shares a lot in common with Proverbs. Deuteronomy is not Wisdom Literature, in that it does not gain its insight through observation of the natural world and doesn’t express its insight through proverbial couplets, but its vision of the moral economy is, for the most part, the same. Do the right thing and things will go well for you; do the wrong thing and they won’t.

I should be clear that the moral economy of the Bible as a whole does not challenge that of Deuteronomy or Proverbs, really. That is, the Bible without Deuteronomy or Proverbs in its canon would still maintain a similar moral vision wherein there are rewards and punishments for right and wrong behavior, respectively. However, the other books in the canon make Deuteronomy and Proverbs tolerable to read while actually living in the real world.

As an example of a “real world” enactment of Deuteronomy, let me give a quick reading of the book of Ruth. While Ruth is likely not a part of what is called “deuteronomistic history” it is difficult to read it without being reminded of Deuteronomy and thqdefaulthe historical books in its orbit. For instance, it opens describing the setting as the time when the Judges judged (Judges being a deuteronomical book), and Boaz is described with similar language as the Judges are described—particularly Jephthah (see Judges 11:1 and Ruth 2:1, where each man is described as a gibbor chayil, though that phrase is translated quite differently in different English versions of their respective books).

Consider also Deuteronomy 24-25, which describes rules on allowing widows and refugees to glean in fields as well as the procedure of “levirate marriage” which protects widows from destitution. Ruth, a widow from Moab—thus included in two groups of the most vulnerable—fulfills her rights of levirate marriage through gleaning the fields of Boaz, Boaz being a relative of her husband and her future groom.

Contemporary relevance concerning the book of Ruth, particularly as it fulfills Deuteronomy 24-25 and the blessings promised therein can be found in the way time is gapped in the very short book. For instance, more than 10 years pass in the first 5 verses alone. In this time, a man named Elimelek moves from Judah to Moab because of a famine, Elimelek dies in Moab, Ruth is married to Mahlon for 10 years and Mahlon then dies. Importantly for the story is that Ruth is married for 10 years without having children, which would be a devastating situation to find herself in at that time and place in history. She is widowed and has no male child to take care of her, which means that she can really only survive through the generosity of others.

She decides that her only recourse is to move back to Judah with her mother-in-law Naomi, who is also a widow and childless. However, in Judah Ruth has the opportunity to glean the grain fields for food (see Deut. 24:19-20). The story as told moves quickly from Ruth gleaning the fields to getting married to Boaz, but the text reminds us to slow down things in our mind’s narrative again. When she arrives in Judah, the barley harvest was just beginning (Ruth 1:22) but her betrothal doesn’t occur until the winnowing of the barley (3:3) around 5 months later. She does finally have a child and that happens quickly after her marriage, but one of the points of the book of Ruth (I would argue) is to show how the promises of Deuteronomy, as enacted by Ruth and Boaz, lead to fulfilled blessing of the nation of Israel and tribe of Judah through Ruth’s great-grandson David. In other words, the delay in fulfilled promises not only includes 10 years in Moab, but three more generations before the birth of the future King.

One can imagine that those blessings were far from the principals’ minds as the story was lurching through time. Ruth was likely motivated by survival and not the laws of Moses. Boaz, though  likely prodded by duty, perhaps followed the laws due to his empathy and, perhaps a little romantic love.

Which leads me to one of my favorite scenes in Ruth, which is Boaz working the legal conventions of the time in his favor. Though Boaz would like to marry Ruth, he is aware that there is another relative who has the legal right of first refusal, as it were. We do not know his name, and that is key to understanding the resolution of Ruth. It’s not that his name was never known, but just that it has been erased from history. Boaz calls out to the legal redeemer in 4:1:

Turn around and sit here Peloni Almoni.

The King James Version calls him “Such a one!” and the Jewish Publication Society calls him “So-and-so,” both of which are much better than the NIV and NRSV, which have “my friend.” When I teach Ruth in Introductory Hebrew, I describe the scene in Ruth 4:1 as similar to the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when the Bride reveals her name but it is bleeped out. Whatever the case, Peloni Almoni is not a real name, but a place holder for a real name.

The reason this is such a great scene is that Peloni Almoni‘s motivation for turning down the opportunity to marry Ruth the Moabite is that he is afraid it will ruin his own estate. How does Boaz provoke him to turn it down? By claiming that the purpose of the levirate marriage in question is to “maintain the name of the dead with his property” (Ruth 4:5). In other words, Peloni Almoni will acquire the property of Mahlon, including his wife, for the sake of Mahlon and not himself.

Peloni Almoni turns it down and likely didn’t put much thought into it once the transaction was complete. He goes back to his life as a property owner, thinking that he did the right thing for him and his family. Only centuries later do we find out that the decision had the opposite effect on his estate. We do not know his name. To us, he is Mr. ______, “Peloni Almoni.” Meanwhile, Mahlon’s name lives on. More importantly, Boaz, who performed the selfless act of providing Ruth with as much grain (literal seed) as she could carry to sustain her in her times of need and a lineage (figurative seed) that redeemed Israel in its time of need, has a name that continues to live on in the Bible and its readers.

As Christians living in dark times it is right to remember the arcs of these stories. Ruth’s and Boaz’s names live on because of their generosity (chesed). David’s name lives on because of Boaz and Ruth. And Jesus is also in the same lineage. But it’s perhaps equally important to remember that Ruth was barren for a decade. That David comes several decades later. That the fissure in the Kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, the abomination that causes desolation, etc. come between David and Jesus and that Jesus dies, and that though he already has instituted the glorious eschaton through his resurrection, has also not yet fully implemented it.

And so here we are. We need not list all the terrible things people suffer throughout the world. And I dare not equate the embarrassment of having a fraud as head of state while others suffer much worse fates (especially before any real damage is done). But I do not want to live as if there is no hope (for the economy, the environment, the immigrant, women, etc.). For we need hope. And perhaps this is an overlooked gift of the Bible. We can read Psalms 88 and 89, knowing that Psalm 150 is coming. But we must read Psalms 88 and 89, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Job, Jeremiah, because we do everyone a disservice when we neglect the real pain they express.

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Supreme Authority, Tremendous Authority, Amazing Authority

I teach Hebrew at a seminary that claims “trustworthiness and supreme authority [of the Bible] in all matters of faith and conduct.” The seminary is considered evangelical and its position on Scripture is one of the main factors in that consideration. Because the seminary is in Canada, one could argue that the “evangelical” label is more a description of hermeneutical method over ideology than it would be in my home country of the USA.

Though I’ve done most of my own research in the book of Job, its Hebrew is largely too difficult to teach during the first four semesters of Hebrew—the courses I’ve been tasked to teach. Instead, for intermediate Hebrew I have been teaching through a workbook that allows the class to read several passages in different genres. One passage from the workbook is Deuteronomy 24:14-22, which, when I picked the workbook, looked like a nice introduction to deuteronomistic legal texts, but while going through this year it has continued to stick with me.deuteronomy-chapter-24-25

What appears at first like a random assortment of laws is really a well constructed rhetoric, drawing the reader/listener in to make them feel good about their ethical behavior (don’t cheat people, because what kind of person does that) to being fair in the courts (don’t punish people for crimes they didn’t commit, even as a type of revenge, because that is not true justice) to being generous and charitable, because that is what God has been to you. In other words, “don’t be a criminal… oh good, you’re not a criminal, then be just and help maintain a just society… oh good, you’re just, then be righteous. Go above and beyond, for that is what being a God-follower really means.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the first two verses of the section (Deut 24:14, 15) as translated by the NIV:

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite (lit. “your sibling”) or a foreigner (ger) residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Such a blatant abuse of power, not paying someone for work they did (no mention of the quality or quantity of work) should obviously be considered a crime, but the command comes with a warning that the abused day-laborer, whether Israelite or foreigner (more on that word later), has the real power in the relationship. The day-laborer can cry out to the Lord and the Lord will judge the “capitalist.”

For further reference, see the following links:

At first read, the next passage seems like a jump to an incongruous law, but, as I stated above, the law progresses from not stiffing your employees from work they did to not punishing people for things they didn’t do. It shows the humane side of lex talionis. It’s not a part of God’s law to punish someone else for a crime they did not commit.

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. (Deut. 24:16 NIV)

For further reference:

Similarly, we read the next verse, again in the NIV:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deut. 24:17 NIV),

which assures justice for the most vulnerable in society. The stranger, sometimes translated alien or sojourner, has the following definition from the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament:

גר is a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war 2S 43 Is 164, famine Ru 11, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed.

In other words, we are talking about a refugee. What are the rights of the refugee? The word mishpat is normally rendered “justice”, but that doesn’t help us too much without an example of what that justice is. Fortunately, the author of Deuteronomy seems to have anticipated this question and given us something to hang our hat on in verse 18:refugee-boat

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:18 NIV)

For further reference:

One interesting thing about this particular verse is the way justice is to be done for the widow. The restriction on taking a widow’s garment in pawn was, presumably to protect the widow from shame. That is, the poor widow likely has few clothes to wear. If a wealthy person takes her garment in pledge, she will likely not have another garment to cover herself, thus causing people to think she is asking for sexual advances because of the way she dresses. It saves her from being taken advantage of by two different powerful men—the one who has taken her garment and the one who believes she “wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want it.”

For further reference:

The section ends with what seems like a command to be generous to the most vulnerable. The principle is familiar, but I was really struck by the Hebrew, the point of which most modern translations miss. The NIV’s is one of the most egregious, reading,

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, (Deut. 24:19 NIV)

The idea is not entirely wrong, but the radical nuance is watered down. The King James Version is, not surprisingly, the most literal, reading

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow (Deut. 24:19 KJV)

But even here, one misses the strong sense of possession conveyed by the idiom “be to the stranger” (sometimes called the “dative of possession”) after 21132_largethe repetition of second person pronominal suffixes in the rest of the verse. Let’s update the passage with the idiom in mind, highlighting the suffixes:

When you harvest your harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf, do not return to take it; it belongs to the refugee, the orphan, and the widow.

That is, your overlooking the surplus is no accident, but divine providence for the most vulnerable. Going back to glean your surplus is a violation of the divine order. Generosity is built into the laws of God so much that not being generous approaches theft.

For further reference:

The second half of the verse gives the explanation along with the entirety of verse 22. Here is 19b:

… so that the Lord your God might bless you in all the work of your hands.

After similar commands to leave ungleaned grapes and olives because they also are the property of the refugee, orphan, and widow, the passage explains further:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:22 NIV)

All is fine and dandy with the first couple sections, but this is where I struggle as an evangelical. I love the idea of the generous being blessed by God. I wish this were true, but I question that truth. As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe in the “trustworthiness and supreme authority” of the Bible. In fact, I’m contractually obligated to believe such a thing. But how trustworthy is this passage?

Consider the book of Job which seems to challenge the above passage. Job describes himself in similar ways as the book of Deuteronomy describes the righteous Israelite

Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, 12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. 13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. 14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.” (Job 29:11-16 NIV)

The narrator also describes Job as blameless and upright, he feared God and shunned evil and was the greatest of all people of the east (Job 1:1-3). And yet, Job loses all he has and seems to become like the most wretched in society. He is not blessed as we understand it. In other words, the Book of Job would seem to challenge the “trustworthiness” of Deuteronomy. Perhaps there is an ironic grace, here. Job saves the Bible as a whole from issues that the real world would seem to undermine. Doing justice and loving mercy do not always lead to blessings.

Let’s also consider the flip side: Implicit in the commands of Deuteronomy 24 is that if you do not behave in such a way, you should not expect blessings. You should, in fact, expect to be found guilty of sin (Dt. 24:19). And yet we are now presented with someone who has violated every one of the principles espoused in Deuteronomy 24:14-22 and has been rewarded (blessed?) with the most powerful position on the planet, guaranteeing him the spot as most famous person in the world, a position this man seems to consider the most blessed achievement of all.

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Trump as the Glue Joining Barbarism and Technology


The Wannsee Conference… is not regarded as the point at which the policy [of extermination] was confirmed rather than initiated. It remains an important juncture, however, the moment when barbarism and technology joined together in the most demonic alliance ever. If Hitler found ‘willing executioners’ among his own people, he also found them among his conquered subjects… The Holocaust was enacted in the fevered dreamscapes of Eastern Europe where… Holocaust was a state of mind before it was Nazi policy.

–Latvian-Canadian historian Modris Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak (Mariner Books, 1999).

The above quote has stuck with me ever since I read Eksteins’s book over a decade ago. Partly because I had visited the former Jewish ghetto in Vilnus, Lithuania and had frequented a square in Klaipeda at least partly famous for being the locus of a speech by Hitler. It came back to me today when someone suggested that the Trump candidacy, if he loses tomorrow, will have been a net good since at least the truth has come out—we now know the extent of the racism in the right wings of much of America.

I do not agree. Had the technology of Nazism not met the barbarism of anti-semitism already latent in parts of Poland and the Baltics, then would the lives of Jews and Roma been fine? Certainly not. But neither would millions of Jews and Roma had been exterminated because of the legitimating of the barbarism through the election of Hitler.

Is Trump Hitler? No, of course not (The reason such comparisons are useful is to make stark one’s reason not to make a direct comparison). The chances that Muslims, Latinos, and Blacks would be exterminated is minimal, thank goodness. But the nomination of someone who so regularly spews racist and xenophobic rhetoric legitimizes a hatred for the Other. Trump claims to be the voice of his people, which may be the case in some ways. But that voice would be better bottled up. The frustrations with immigrants (like Somalis in Minnesota—Trump’s most recent target of his rhetoric) doing things differently would be better off not expressed. Time may not heal all wounds, but it might keep them from becoming gangrenous.

For the conservative, there are certainly better, more benign choices than to hold one’s nose and vote for Trump. Four more years of left-of-center policies are four more years to create a constructive right-of-center policy. It may not be ideal for those who lean Republican, but neither is Trump, who has little regard for conservatism anyway. At best, he will fumble his way through a term, fighting with his own party and flaming out. At worst, well, I’d rather not entertain those thoughts. Such a task can be the opposite of constructive.

(See also  “Is Donald Trump a Sodomite?“)

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The Locals

Her voice was vaguely European, not specific to a nationality but housing a general air of condescension.

I had started across the street in need of a weather report and directions to a trailhead that I had very little information about other than what I happened upon on the internet a week back. I checked what wi-fi signals I could pick up and, lo and behold, the name of her particular coffee shop popped up on my screen. I needed a password so I walked across the street, under the “Wi-Fi Here” sign, and into the shop to get something that would grant me access to the information.

It was 4:30, which is a little late for a coffee, but I was not about to spend $4.50 for a vegan muffin. There were books, which seemed a particular kind of hodge podge—tiny homes, permaculture gardening, vegan cooking, how your dog is a mirror into your soul. I looked at a collection of Wendell Berry essays, but decided to get a coffee in the end when I realized I had read several of the essays already.

“How can I help you?”

“I’ll have an Americano.”

“Just hold on, let me help this woman.”

This other woman was buying a book called Street Vegan.

“Are you a true vegan?”

“No. . . I’m an omnivore but I’m interested,” the other woman answered.

I didn’t hear the rest of this conversation, but waited patiently with my phone in hand noting the disappointment on her face as she listened to this woman admitting to such a moral failure.

“How may I help you?” she eventually asked me.

“I’ll have an Americano.”


“Can I also get the password to your wi-fi?”

“Just wait.”

So I waited again until she finished brewing my Americano (black; the other option with coconut cream) and then I paid ($4.00!), all with my phone in my hand waiting for the password. Once we were all settled, she said, “Okay, the password is ————”

I started to type into my phone, but she interrupted me.

“Could you take your device outside?”

She waved to the outer room where the tables were looking as if to shoo away the poisonous waves coming from my phone. I wandered out to check the weather and then find more information on the trail. A grey-haired man worked on an airbook in the corner.

“Can I help you with anything?” the grey-haired man asked.


“Well, you’re looking at books and checking your phone. Perhaps I can answer any questions.”

“I’m camping at Ruckle Park and am checking the weather to see if we should stay for the rest of the week or go home early.”

“Ah. Sometimes people want to know the ferry schedule and they could just ask someone.”

“Right. I’m also checking my email while I have wi-fi. And am looking for a hike.”

“The best hike is down this road on the First Nations reserve.”

“Oh! I’m glad you said that, because that was the hike I was looking for! I just didn’t know where to find it on the map.”

The woman who sold me the coffee poked her head in the outer room and said, “See, human contact is always better than devices.”

“Yes, but I talked with two of the park rangers at Ruckle and they didn’t know about the hike so I thought it was a secret I stumbled across.”

“Well, you need to talk to the locals; they don’t always hire locals at the park,” the man said.

“How do I get there?”

“You drive down to the end of this road. You’ll pass all these billionaires’ third homes and then the road will end and you should see the trail head there. Great views of the islands.”

“Is it an actual old growth forest?” I asked, “That’s what I read on the website.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Okay, well I guess I’ll see for myself, anyway.”

I went back to my device because the locals couldn’t answer my emails for me. After a few minutes, when I was done I asked the man, “What was the name of the First Nations band?”

“I don’t know,” he said, not looking up from his work. “The trail is Reginald Hill.”


An arbutus tree hugging a Douglas Fir

This turned out not to be the case. I found the website that told me about the trail. One  end of the trail begins near the Reginald Hill trailhead, but I didn’t tell him. I also found out that the First Nations band is called the Tsawout nation. They do not live there anymore but have moved to Vancouver Island now. The trail is on the last bit of land they have left in the Gulf Islands, which they use for various celebrations and ceremonies. We hiked it the next day and it became one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done as a family, with very large trees, a haunting cedar grove, and beautiful beaches. We were grateful that the Tsawout nation allows people to hike on it despite their being displaced. They are no longer locals.

Four days later, while waiting for the ferry, I went back into the cafe for a cup of coffee. My wife wanted to see the place so we all went in but that proved too many people for the back room. Or so those in charge seemed to think. They sent the rest of the family into the front room while I waited to order. As the same European woman brewed my coffee, she asked, “Did you find the hike?”

A little surprised that she remembered me, I answered, “Yes!”

“The one on the coastline?”

“It was wonderful.”

She nodded knowingly and handed me my coffee. “Here you are darling.”

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You with the top hat, your nation requires your service

Sometimes I feel guilty for loving the olympics. The IOC’s corrupt, the host cities often go into hock in order to build the facilities and host the games, the same cities often exploit the most vulnerable residents in order to make room for the facilities and guests, and all the problems with nationalism.

But I get sucked in to the confluence of so many athletes of all different shapes and sizes competing at the highest of levels. I love the passion that comes from training so hard for four years for that one moment and the inherent drama that comes when eight people are peaking at the same time. I usually don’t care which country comes out on top, but it’s hard not to root for USA, where I’m from, and Canada, where I live. But occasionally, you’ll catch me cheering for Lithuania even against the US or Canada.

I seem to be in the minority when it comes to different countries performances in the games. Pretty much every website or newspaper has a medal count broken down by different nations and I’ve been increasingly impressed by the United Kingdom, or, as they like to call themselves, Team GB. Team Great Britain has been Great. Apparently, GB only historically excelled in sitting down sports—cycling, sailing, rowing, and equestrian events. But they’ve been earning medals in all events this year, including swimming, gymnastics, diving, track, as well as the sitting down sports.

The reason seems to be partly attributable to a talent identification program with the hashtag #discoveryourgold. Their greatest success story is Helen Glover who started rowing through the program in 2008 having never rowed before. She is now perhaps the greatest rower in the world and is undefeated in the last 4 years, breaking world records along the way and wiping out the competition Ledecky style, with her partner Heather Stanning.

From what I gather, one applies online giving some information about age, height, weight, dominant eye and hand, and then goes through a physical to determine what sport he or she would be best suited for and to determine whether he or she could potentially become world class in said sport.

I love this idea. Often, we start doing sports because we want to be like Mike or because it’s what we’re good at that’s nearby. That’s great for the vast majority of people. Most people are not world class in any sport. It’s best just to find a sport that teaches fitness, comaraderie, a healthy sense of competition, and a skill set that you can do into dressage20hatadulthood. But what if you’re leaving something world class on the table? What if you have what it takes to be the greatest rower of all time but you grew up in north Texas where no one rows?

But there’s danger in such a program, too. Rowing’s one thing. I swam competitively and training for crew seems like training for swimming without the speedo and shaving. If it turned out I was an okay swimmer but had the potential to be a world class rower, then send me to wherever people row well.

But what if the results come back and the talent ID program thinks I’ve got the right stuff to be a world class Olympian in something like dressage or race walking? I’m not sure how maxresdefaultI would respond. I like to tell people that I’ve never lost at the game Twister, but if Twister were an Olympic sport, would I want to train everyday for the bragging rights of becoming the best Twister player in the world? Even for Olympic glory and the stake of the pride of a nation?

  Could I turn down the chance to become among the best in the world at anything? Even if that something is as goofy as walking really fast or wearing a top hat and dancing with a horse to “Ice Ice Baby?” I don’t know if I’d have the courage to enter the program for fear of letting down my country in the end after all.

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In Which I Take the Controversial Position that Michael Phelps is the Greatest Olympian of All Time

First, a bit of background: Mike Pesca, host of the podcast “The Gist,” regular panelist on the sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” and bearer of a name that would suggest some sympathy for swimmers of all species, hinted this last week that Michael Phelps may not be the greatest olympian of all time because of the sheer number of possible swimming medals available. Because there are so many chances to earn medals, that gives Phelps more opportunities to win medals than athletes in other sports. This, as he indicated atone point, is objectively true. It’s also not an original argument; it’s one I’ve heard every four years for the last 8 years or so, often with the addendum that if there were a 100 meter backwards dash, then Usain Bolt would win that, too.

Mike Pesca from

What follows is my response to Mike Pesca’s Afterball on this week’s Hang Up and Listen where he reiterates his point about swimming and seems nonplussed (one of his favorite words) at people’s inability to grasp his point. He suggests that the people who argue for Phelps and the number of swimming medals inclusion in the Olympics don’t seem to be used to arguing about sports and don’t seem to appreciate Pesca’s demotion of the status of an American athlete in particular (because of patriotism?). Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to argue about all sports, so I try to buck the trend. I sent this letter to him two days ago and he responded right away. I don’t know if he fully buys my argument but I’ll reprint his response below for the sake of disclosure. Apologies for the humblebrag in the second paragraph.

One of these is the greatest. . . perhaps. . . for now. . . in my opinion.

Dear Mike,

First of all, I follow lots of sports, which is why my favorite podcast is Hang up and Listen. Second, I’m not super patriotic. I live in Canada, my kids were born in the UK, I haven’t lived in the US since 1998 and have no set plans to move back even though I mainly pay attention to American politics, the NBA, and the Texas Rangers. Which is to say, I guess I’m not your normal sparring partner when it comes to Michael Phelps and swimming.

Let me also say that I’m kind of with you when you give your reasons that swimming events at the Olympics pool are a bit diluted (pardon the pun). You make some good points when you argue that Phelps’ medal count does not necessarily make him the greatest Olympian. And this is coming from a swimmer. I was the scholar athlete of the year at my Texas high school and, much much more recently, British Columbia masters provencial champion in the 100m freestyle for my age group. But despite my decent success in the pool, I would never consider myself a top athlete. I’m just a fine swimmer.

That being said, I still think Phelps is the greatest Olympian so far and, ironically, it actually does have to do with the number of medals he’s won. This is despite the fact that you (and many others, you are definitely not the first) seem to think many swimming events are superfluous (or, at least, not different enough from other events to merit extra medals at the Olympics).

First, some quibbles: It seems to me that you are comparing swimming mainly to track and field and so (I’m guessing here) might open the possibility that Usain Bolt is a greater Olympian than Michael Phelps. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but I’ve heard other people put these words in their own mouths so I’m making assumptions based on them. That being said, no swimmer that I know of would protest added track and field events. I don’t see why adding backwards running would be a bad thing in the next Olympics. Who wouldn’t love to see Usain Bolt running backwards for 100 meters? 200 meters would be even better if he had to navigate the curve backwards. Would it seem ridiculous? To some, I’m sure. But running backwards actually does require a different skill set and the use of different muscles (like the different strokes does for swimming, and maybe even more so). It would be a true test of Bolt’s dominance and not a given that he would win such an event.

Secondly, you mentioned in Hang Up and Listen’s Afterball this week that there is quite a bit of overlap among 200 IM racers and 400 IM racers, implying, I guess, that one of those is unnecessary. As a point of argument, you note that 200 meter runners often medal in the 100 meter race or the 400 meter race, but rarely both. But doesn’t that open up the possibility that we really are just missing the 800 IM in swimming? If we have the 800 IM, I’m guessing that there would be some 800 IM winners on the 400 IM podium along with 200 IM winners, but few 800 IM swimmers that also make the podium for the 200 IM. Wouldn’t that fit with what you are saying better?

Thirdly, some scientists have argued that Bolt could win the long jump with little difficulty, though it might interfere with his training in the 100. I think it is a legitimate problem with choosing Bolt over Phelps as greatest Olympian of this century if he chooses only to race in three races when he clearly would be competitive at a fourth event. And, is it that unreasonable to think he couldn’t at least try to win the 400? In 2008, Phelps won the 100 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, and the 400 IM. Are they similar? Maybe, but they still require a combination of speed and stamina that one would like to see Bolt replicate on the track. (Note that Mark Spitz did not swim a 400 meter event in 1972 when he won 7 golds.) If Bolt added at least the 400 or the long jump, I think the case could be made that he is greater than Phelps. But Phelps, at least, attempted to earn all he could earn.

And that’s why I would pick Phelps over Bolt as the greatest Olympian. It’s not that the events in which he swam were not different enough. It’s that he did all he was capable of and didn’t hold back. And not only that, in one Olympiad, he never lost. In 8 events, with multiple heats, in 100, 200, and 400 meters, and with all the world gunning for him, he never faulted and never lost. Even Simone Biles, who I have no reason to think is not the greatest gymnast of all time, even she got bronze in an event she has dominated throughout the rest of the week. Phelps pushed himself to the limit 8 years ago and succeeded in a way that Bolt chose not to do and Biles was unable to do (at least this year).

Consider also that Bolt and Biles have not yet had the opportunity to win the same event four times over four Olympiads and I think Phelps has the belt. Whether the 200 IM should be an event in your eyes or not, it’s not as if he wasn’t swimming against the world’s best in that event all four times. Couple that feat of longevity with the feat of catching lightning in a bottle in 2008 and I don’t see the issue here. Phelps may not be as great an athlete as Bolt or Biles (whatever that means) but he is a greater Olympian (for now).


Drew Lewis

Pesca’s Response:

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The Madness of King Donald


Alexander Hamilton

I am obsessed with the soundtrack for the musical “Hamilton.” I know I’m not the only one and so I don’t think I could say anything new about it here. Briefly, though, for those of you unaware of it, “Hamilton” is a play, sung-through so that the soundtrack is essentially the unabridged soundtrack of the play itself. The subject is the youngest founding father of the United States Alexander Hamilton and what makes the show noteworthy is that much of the lyrics are rapped. It has thus earned comments about the ostensible absurdity of a “hip-hop musical” about the first treasury secretary of the United States. And yet it works, not despite of the musical styles employed, but because of them. As the author of the play Lin-Manuel Miranda notes, hip-hop allows for way more lyrics than any other musical style and so he can pack in more story and more allusions and more meaning in his play than can other playwrights.

What the style also allows is clever reimaginings of important scenes in American history, such as a cabinet debate between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over how to manage the nations debts after the War done in the style of an 8-Mile-like rap battle. This particular song was my first foray into the musical since it was played on the NPR podcast “Planet Money.” One of the highlights of this song are the way these two historical figures whose portraits grace American currency really go after each other with ad hominem attacks. For instance, Jefferson begins the debate and includes the verse:


But Hamilton forgets

His plan would have the government assume state’s debts

Now, place your bets as to who that benefits:

The very seat of government where Hamilton sits


Not true!


Ooh, if the shoe fits, wear it

If New York’s in debt—

Why should Virginia bear it?

Hamilton’s response ends thusly, hitting on Jefferson’s interest in growing hemp and James Madison’s frailty:

And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it

You think I’m frightened of you, man?

We almost died in a trench

While you were off getting high with the French

Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President

Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison

Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine

Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in

Sittin’ there useless as two shits

Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you

Where my shoe fits!

Despite how much I enjoy this scene, I became troubled by it over the last few days with news of the last Republican debate. I didn’t watch it, so I only know what people said about it and that was of course dominated by what two of the candidates had to say about the size of Donald Trump’s anatomy.

One reaction to the way Trump talks in general is a New Yorker cartoon of former presidents shaking their heads at Trump holding up his small hands. But are we lionizing the founding fathers a bit too much? Does not Lin-Manuel Miranda offer a better picture and one that looks more like Trump and Rubio than the whitewashed pictures that hang in portrait galleries and on our currency? After all, it wasn’t just Jefferson and Madison who fought with Hamilton, but also John Adams, who was in the same party as Hamilton. Hamilton sabotaged Adam’s candidacy with an incendiary 50 page pamphlet and Adams, in turn, sabotaged Hamilton’s legacy for centuries with his own savage responses. One of the few things Adams had in common with Jefferson, it seems, is a shared hatred of Alexander HamiltonCoverStory_Blitt_Presidents_Trump-690x942-1453499456

Until pretty much last year, when Miranda’s musical became the hottest ticket on Broadway, Hamilton was primarily known as the guy who Vice President Aaron Burr killed in a duel! As ridiculous as Republican politics seems right now, and as obsessed as each seems to be with guns, I’m pretty sure we’re miles away from one of them actually killing another one with a pistol!

How, then, do we reconcile our perception of what “presidential” is with how the most revered presidents actually acted? Well, first, I think we should be better historians and realize that our founding fathers were more accurately named “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. They squabbled and were imperfect. They were often nasty to each other (like some modern politicians). And their ideas were often very much at odds with each other to the point that the country each envisioned was often not the same country at all.

Second (and this is merely a theory based on my wanting desperately to find a way to disqualify Trump and Cruz from leading a modern nation-state), despite their hatred of each other Hamilton and Jefferson still recognized the importance of compromise. This is dramatized in “Hamilton” with a somewhat cynical number “The Room Where it Happens,” where Aaron Burr is aghast that Hamilton would allow for the capital of the United States to move to the Potomac river in Jefferson’s state of Virginia. Why would Hamilton agree to this? Because Jefferson and Madison let Hamilton form the financial and banking system in New York. The Capital for the capital, if you will.

The Room Where it Happens

The five competing theories of governing in “Hamilton” don’t have direct analogies in the current presidential race, but they illustrate what’s going on in a limited fashion. Hamilton (Federalist, abolitionist), Jefferson (agrarian, states-rights Democratic-Republican, slave-owner), Burr (idea-less opportunist; someone “you could have a beer with”), King George III (authoritarian). The fifth is George Washington, who plays the ideal that no one can live up to: Great leader with great temperament who has the modesty to give up his own power for the sake of the Republic.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if any of these fit in the current campaign. But it seems to me that Trump is a combination of Hamilton (“am I talkin’ too loud? / Sometimes I get over excited, shoot off at the mouth /”), Jefferson (populist and a hypocritical racist), and Burr (party-flipping opportunist). Any of these is arguably “Presidential.” But with Trump (and Cruz?) you also get a huge dose of King George’s authoritarianism.

I recently saw a hat parodying Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It reads “Make America Great Britain Again.” It was unclear what the hat wearer is trying to say, though. Is he an anglophile who actually wants America to join Great Britain again, now that the head of state is merely a figurehead? Or is he arguing that Trump’s rhetoric makes him sound like a wannabe crazy narcissistic monarch? In “Hamilton,” the crazy narcissistic monarch King George III sings, “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad / So don’t throw away this thing we had / Cuz when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”

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