Swaddling Cloths

Recently, I saw a video of a supposed Messianic Jewish rabbi talking about Luke 2:12. After declaring Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the angelic host tells the shepherds:

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

This rabbi goes on to say that the Mishnah teaches about “Levitical shepherds” who would take their birthing ewes to special caves and when their lambs were born, they would wrap the lamb in “swaddling cloths” to prevent them from injury so they could be presented as “spotless” for the sacrifice.

It is a nice little story, and it sounds so good that I found it quoted all over the internet. I decided to look into it; and SURPRISE, SURPRISE the entire thing is based on conjecture.

The entire idea evolved from a passage in Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (vol 1, p 186) which discusses the presence of sheep in December around Bethlehem and concludes that only flocks destined for the passover sacrifices could be kept close to the cities. His argument is indeed based on the Mishnah (Baba K 7:7, 80a); but nowhere in Edersheim or the underlying Mishnah passages is there a reference to swaddling the lambs.

In my research, I could not find a single reference in the rabbinical tradition to swaddling lambs, even those destined for the passover. There are LOTS of blogs and Christian websites reciting the statement as fact; but no one seems to be able to provide the source of this.

What seems to have happened is a confusion between the practice of swaddling infants and binding sacrificial animals, which was itself connected to the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:9). According to some sources, the binding of sacrificial animals was indeed to prevent them from harming themselves on their way to slaughter. This practice has been somehow mixed up with swaddling an infant to produce an image that has no connection to history.

So, what was the “swaddling cloths” all about?

The most obvious answers is that all babies get swaddled, especially in this culture. There is no reason to leap to the conclusion that this swaddling was meant as a sign to the shepherds and that they immediately recognized it and connected it to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God (especially since that image appears in John, not Luke).

There may also be a strand of Luke’s focus on the Gentiles here. In some of the Homeric Hymns about the birth of the Greek god Apollo, there are references to him being swaddled before being suckled.

And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of sore travail set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to bring forth; so she cast her arms about a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses raised a cry.

Straightway, great Phoebus, the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you.

Now Leto did not give Apollo, bearer of the golden blade, her breast; but Themis duly poured nectar and ambrosia with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all their ends were undone.

When I taught through Luke’s gospel several years ago, I highlighted some of the good evidence that Luke casts Jesus’s Virgin Birth as the reality of divine birth which is also seen twisted and broken in the pagan traditions of Greece. Luke calls his readers to see the TRUE Son of God in Jesus, of whom all other stories are only fractured shadows. He is savior of the world, not just Judaism.

If this is the case, then once again we see the subversive nature of the gospels, undermining Greek tradition to show true divinity.

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Herod and the Magi

Herod and the Magi

Herod the Great

It is important to understand that Herod was not just “a king.” He had been declared the “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate, a title which had been confirmed by Octavius Caesar when he became the First Man of Rome. Herod was an Idumean convert to Judaism who had ruled over the client kingdom of Judah since 37 BCE. During that time, he had built his kingdom into a trade powerhouse. It was deeply, deeply integrated into the Roman management of the eastern portion of their empire; and in many ways, he was the voice of Roman power at the time of Jesus’s birth.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of articles on Herod the Great, and I’m linking back to them if you want to read some background on Herod’s reign and its significance to Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s birth:

Herod the Great, Introduction

Herod and Rome

Herod’s Architectural Ambitions

Herod and the Jews

Herod – the End of His Life

And the Magi?

The Greek word ὁ μάγος (οἱ μάγοι, plural) was originally the name of one of the Median tribes which was integrated into Persian society. Magi first appears in the Behistun Inscription, which commemorated the coronation of Darius the Great in 522 BCE.

King Darius says: These are the men who were with me when I slew Gaumâta the Magus, who was called Smerdis; then these men helped me as my followers… (Column 5, line 68)

It is also used in the Avesta, the sacred literature of Zoroastrianism, the religion of pre-Islamic Persia.

Come hither to me, O Ye Best Ones, hither O Mazda, in your own person and visible, O Right and Good Thought, that I may be heard beyond the limits of the MAGI. (Yasna 33:7)

By the time of Herodotus, the name was associated with a group of interpreters of dreams and astrologers rather than an ethnic identity.

…The sun left his place in the heaven and was invisible, although the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was concerned and asked the Magi what the vision might signify. (Herodotus, The Histories, 7.37)

Herodotus uses the term as an ethnic identifier (1.101) as well as a type of religious leader (1.132), so it seems that he understood both meanings. Certainly Xenophon undersood them to be authorities in religious matters and writes about their role in determing means to appease the gods. Describing a royal process of Cyrus, he wrote:

There were led out at the head of the procession four abreast some exceptionally handsome bulls for Zeus and for the other gods as the magi directed; for the Persians think that they out much more scrupulously to be guided by those whose profession is with things divine than they are by those in other professions. (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.3.11)

So, who were the magi? There’s no reason to think that Matthew was not familiar with this term deriving from Persia. As such, he identifies these men as Persians, or more specifically Parthians, as they were known at the time. Specifically, they were divines and seers, who were trained in the vocation of divining the heavenly signs.

The Subversive Message of the Magi

And here is the real rub of the presence of the magi in Jerusalem, as Matthew describes it. Persian divines come looking for “he who is born the King of the Jews.”

Herod was not born the King of the Jews. His reign had been granted to him by Rome. He was a client of the world power. These Persian magi are looking for the one born king; and his birth is connected with the astrological signs.

You can take that for what it is worth, but there can be no mistake of Matthew’s message.

Jesus is the rightful king; and Herod is the usurper.

People want to focus on the gifts of the magi, and they are certainly significant; but that is not Matthew’s focus. He focuses instead on the divine declaration of Jesus’s kingship – in the stars to the Persian magi and in the face of the ruling caste.

What Have I Been Reading?

It has been a couple of years since I updated my reading list, so I thought I would jot down the titles of some of the books I have read this year (2017). I’m not much of a reader of modern history; but for some reason, this year I got into this groove of reading about the 19th century and early 20th century.

Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504
Laurence Bergreen

I’ve read a few histories of Columbus’ voyages. This was an insightful look into the significance of his later voyages which were more responsible for global change than the one everyone usually talks about.

The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy
Laura Amy Schlitz

Discoverer of Troy, and otherwise much of a wastrel. That was Heinrich Schliemann.

Victorian Britain
Patrick N. Allitt

This was an eye-opener. I was familiar with some of the history; but Prof. Allitt really got into the nitty-gritty of theis history.

The Heir Apparent: A life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince
Jane Ridley

Edward VII was a massive disappointment to his mother, choosing his wife’s Danish family over his own German family; and yet, when he became king, he surprised everyone with his skill and handling of the empire.

The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners
David Fromkin

One of those fascinating historical trivialities. The two men both lived life to the fullest, but they could not have been more different. 

Leonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson

Isaacson is one of the preeminent biographers at work today, and his history of Leonardo looks at both the man and the artist.

The Vanderbilts
Jerry E. Patterson

Rich, powerful and ultimately ruined. A great look into the world of the gilded age.

Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age
Greg King and Penny Wilson

Bringing the world of Victorian England and gilded America to an end, the sinking of the Lusitania was far more significant than just “the reason the US entered World War I.”

Washington: A Life
Ron Chernow

A great, balanced biography of Washington from his early life to the end. A fascinating work.

Washington’s Immortals
Patrick K. O’Donnell

This was one of those “wow!” books. I did not know anything about the Immortal 400, a group of elite troops that stalled the British while Washington’s Continental Army escaped New York. 

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
John Meacham

Oh, Andrew Jackson and your federalist presidency. 

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
Walter R. Borneman

It was interesting how the careers of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk intertwined to make what was essentially a solid block of federal presidencies.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Stephen Ambrose

A classic. Worth your time.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
Rinker Buck

This was my dark horse book. It was a modern adventure along a 19th century trail.

The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company: A History of Enterprise on the Merrimack River
Aurore Eaton

Manchester, New Hampshire, is what I consider my “hometown” so this was a piece of my own history. 

@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex
Shane Harris

YIKES! This book will scare you, especially when you read about technology that allows drones to fire missiles down your cellphone signal.

On Language: Chomsky’s Classic Works Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language
Noam Chomsky

Chomsky – confusing, philosophical and illuminating all at once.

The Gospels’ Voices

The Gospels’ Voices

One of the most peculiar characteristics of the Christian Scriptures is the quadruple testimony of the gospels. The presence of these four similar and yet very distinct books which seem to cover the same territory bring up a lot of questions. Among them:

  • Why are there four versions of the same story?
  • And why do they sometimes appear to have different versions of the same event? Why do things sometimes happen in different orders?
  • Do we need to read all four to get the complete story? Why isn’t there just one, combined gospel?

These are all good questions; and they should not just be pushed away. If we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we should not be afraid to ask good questions and expect there to be a reasonable (if not always immediately obvious) solution.

I have previously written about the genre of gospel. It is important to remember that the gospels are not primarily history, although they are firmly rooted in it. Gospels are also not biography, although they are biographical. Despite the efforts of some scholars to see the gospel genre in Roman literature, the analogies are overly simplified and best and sometimes just flat out incorrect. In reality, the term gospel (ὁ εὐαγγέλιον in Greek) appears in Greek literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey (Od.14.152), and the term gets used in a multitude of ways throughout pre-Christian history.

The genre of gospel is, as nearly as I can tell, a uniquely Christian but quite broad literary style. It has aspects of historical and biographical narrative, but contrary to what many commentators would say, I believe that the genre of gospel is primarily doctrinal and polemical. The gospels are written after the fact, recording and repeating the message of Jesus Christ. They function within the Christian theological framework, which itself has been transformed by the events the gospels report. There is a sort of feedback loop which informs the gospels’ style and presentation.

What I am about to write about the gospels goes against a lot of mainstream theology and commentary. I am willing to admit that right up front. But here are the doctrinal and polemical characteristics of the gospels that I believe illuminate how they are written and how we should read them:

  1. All four gospels begin with the presupposition that Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son. Contrary to modern interpretational views, the gospels present Jesus as divine in every way. He is both implicitly and explicitly stated to be one and the same with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The gospel writers come to the table with this matter already settled; and they are not trying to convince people of it. It is taken as fact. Each of the gospels expresses a robust christology, an unswerving devotion to Jesus as the sole, living expression of Yahweh.

    I can already hear the protests: then what do you do with John 20:31? Personally, I think it is a mistake to read John’s gospel as if it is an apologetic argument to the unbeliever, an attempt to convince them of Christ’s divinity. The gospel is written to the Church, to the second and third generations of believers. John is not calling to a belief that initiates one’s faith journey but rather belief as a continuing discipline for those already disciples.

  2.  The gospels are meant as a subversive literature. We are so used to Christianity being the dominant worldview of our Eurocentric society that we forget that the Church was once considered a dangerous problem that would destabilize the whole empire. In the Gospels, there are overt and not so overt attacks on the Roman way of life and government. The Kingdom of God stands in stark and direct conflict with the Kingdom of Man.

    The nature of this subversiveness is difficult for us to comprehend. Allegiance to God over money (Lk 6:13)? Let Caesar keep his money (Lk 20:26)? Don’t give those in power over you the pleasure of your rebellion (Mt 5:38-42)? All of these are meant to be rejections of the sovereignty of Caesar and Rome over the Kingdom of God. Jesus’s silence before his accusers (Mt 24:57-68) is a monolithic testament to his unwillingness to submit to the authority of man over God.

    Make no mistake about it. The gospels are meant as an attack on the world system – a rejection and condemnation of a world which ignores the revelation of God, even when it is incarnated in Christ (Jn 1:9-13). They are meant to be divisive and a paradox incomprehensible for those with mixed allegiances (Mt 19:16-30, Lk 12:41-53).

  3. The different perspectives speak to polemic message, not contradictions. The gospels vary because the message about Christ’s subversion of the world system varies. They come at the topic from different perspectives because they are each a systematic deconstruction of a different aspect of that system.

    Matthew is the gospel of the King in Exile. Jesus is shown as a Davidic king (Mt 1:1-17) and yet he is forced into Egypt by Herod and then lives in Galilee, the impure, Gentile tainted land most Jews disdained almost as much as they disdained Samaria. So, Jesus is a threat from the outside, only because his rightful place has been usurped; and he is coming to reclaim what is his own.

    Mark is the gospel of the One. Over and over in Mark, Jesus meets with people who are outside of the circle of acceptability and he invites them into his agenda. Whether it is a leper (Mk 1:40-45) or a cripple who is squeezed out of the crowd (Mk 2:1-11), a Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-24) or a Canaanite woman (Mk 7:24-30), an unclean woman (Mk 5:25-34) or the dead daughter of a synagogue leader (Mk 5:21-24, 38-42). Jesus is rejected by his own hometown (Mk 6:1-6) and religious leaders (Mk 8:11-13) because he welcomes too many unacceptable people into his circle but will not placate their own selfish desires. For Mark, all nations are invited to Jesus’s table; but they must become something new. They cannot hold onto their previous world and live in His.

    Luke is the gospel of the World Turned Upside Down. Everyone who SHOULD accept Jesus in Luke doesn’t; and everyone who SHOULDN’T accept him does. Women are wiser than priests (Lk 1:5-25) and shepherds and the elderly see what great teachers miss (Lk 2:8-52). Centurions are faithful (Lk 7:1-10) while even John the Baptist doubts (Lk 7:18-19). The greatest are the least and the least the greatest; and we are to leave those who disagree with us alone rather than lash out (Lk 9:43-56). Everything in Luke is a paradox. Even Luke’s recounting of Jesus’s Prayer contains a paradox that man’s own wickedness requires that God be fully righteous (Lk 11:1-13).

    John is the gospel of the Divine Revelation. John’s Gospel presents us with the transcendent Jesus, the undeniably divine Jesus which John saw in the Revelation. John visits leit motif of light, truth, wisdom, the world. He draws from proverbs and philosophy, all to frustrate human wisdom before Christ – the Word who both creates and destroys, is known and unknown. Of all the gospels, John records a wild conversation with Pontius Pilate in which Jesus confounds the Roman governor (Jn 18:33-38).

In each gospel, a different aspect of the world system is attacked, ruthlessly and beautifully, leaving the resurrected Christ as the sole authority for the believer.

When a critic protests that one gospel records a single blind person being healed while another records two or that the resurrection narratives cannot be reconciled into a single, coherent story, they are missing the entire point. They are focused on things that did not matter to the authors or the early church audiences. They are trying to shoehorn the Gospels into a modern literary category, something that only masks their true purpose.

We have been conditioned to read the gospels as gentle narratives, pastoral allegories and convenient resources for Sunday School flannelgraph teaching. They most definitely are not. We have been lulled into a passive view of the gospels; but the gospels are a full-on assault on the values of the world; and they must be read as such. They are not defenses of Jesus’s teachings. They are offensive, frontal attacks against that which would distract from Him as the way, the truth and the life. They are not passive. They are vigorous and uncompromising.

The Identity of Solomon’s Bride

The Identity of Solomon’s Bride

The Song of Songs (שׁיר השׁרים) is one of the great works of Hebrew dramatic poetry. In an ancient, pre-literate world, the great works of literature were not written for the page. They were to be presented publicly. Although these stagings were not as elaborate as modern plays and were presented for moral, polemic or cultic reasons, they nonetheless share a great deal with modern stagecraft.

Dramatis Personae

This dramatic poem is presented from the perspective of a character we call The Love (רעית) or more commonly, The Bride. This character is a strong female lead who presents the overwhelming majority of the lines of the play. She is also identified as The Shulammite (6:13), a curious word which does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew text. It appears to be a female form of the name Solomon.

The Bride sings to her groom, My Beloved (דוד). He is variously presented as a king, a shepherd, a husbandman and a lover. There is strong internal evidence to identify The Beloved with Solomon (3:7-11, 8:11).

To the voices of the Bride and her Beloved, the author has added a choir, called The Daughters of Jerusalem (1:5). They will often respond to the Bride’s songs, and elsewhere they are possibly identified with the royal wives and concubines of Solomon (6:8).

Who Is the Bride?

There are as many theories about the origin and chronology of the Song of Songs as there are readers of the Song. There are few indications as to who the Bride is or where she fits in Solomon’s life.

It is my opinion that the Bride is actually Solomon’s first wife, the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1).

Her appearance matches that of an Egyptian of the Third Intermediate Period, which was a period of domination of southern peoples darker even than the Egyptians of earlier periods. She describes herself as “very dark” (שׁחר), a curious word that is used to describe dark hair (Lev 13:31, 37; Song 5:11, Zech 6:2-6). She offers a comparison to “the tents of Kedar,” a reference to the black tents of the Arabian bedouin. Later, the Beloved will compare her to the mares of Pharaoh’s chariot (1:9).

There are also hints in her poetic representations that she is an older woman who has been pushed aside by younger women. She describes her role as “keeper of the vineyards but my own vineyard I have not kept.” (1:6)  Elsewhere, the vineyard is used to describe a sexual relationship (8:12) and this may be an indication of the Bride as an older wife who tends to the king’s harem.

The Bride uses the poetic language of the garden to represent the physical pleasures of marriage. When she and her Beloved were married she could sing, “Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16). But now, he has gone to his own garden, to a bed of spices (6:2). This sounds like a woman who has been put aside, as the daughter of Pharaoh was after twenty years of living in Solomon’s house (1 Ki 9:24).

One of the Bride’s refrains is a warning not to awake love (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). This may be an indication of an unrequited love she feels for her Beloved. It was once experienced, but now it is a memory. She also sings about pleasures “new as well as old” (7:13) which may give an indication that she has prepared something special for her husband, and it has been a long time since they have been together.

A Song of Restoration

It is my opinion that the Bride has been recalled to the bedchamber of the king. All of the clues point toward sense of renewal of the relationship which exists in the opening lines (1:4). Having long been separated from her Beloved, the Bride is now being recalled. After years of dreaming of his return to her bedchamber, there are hints of a chance encounter (beginning in 6:11).

Thus, the Song of Songs is a dramatic presentation of the enduring love of Solomon’s first wife. She tends to the needs of his growing, polygamist household. She longs for the love of their youth, before he became the great man. Where he had once regarded her as unique among all women (2:2), she had been veiled in the midst of his many companions (1:7). Somehow, he noticed her again, and she is recalled to that former love.

As she journeys on her return to her Beloved’s bedchamber, she recounts the love they once had. The portions of the book that have him speaking are recollections of what they once had. She wonders aloud if they can reclaim that love, or if he is too lost and the man she is seeking is no longer there.

The Daughters of Jerusalem, Solomon’s other wives and concubines, all rejoice in the restoration. She is loved by all around her, and when he recalls her, they dress her (1:11) and they sing for joy (1:4). Solomon even observes them singing for her (6:8-9).

The Final Moment of Love

In the last few verses of the book reflect the final restoration. As the Daughters of Jerusalem ask whether a woman should ever open herself to love (8:8-9), the Bride confesses, “I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who finds peace.” (8:10) She surrenders her defenses. Her vineyard is once more Solomons (8:11-12).

The great act of Solomon then is to take his Bride in his arms. He turns to speak to the audience, beginning with the metaphor for physical relations, “O you who dwell in gardens, with companions listening for your voice, let me hear it.” In other words, don’t give up on love.

And then the Bride takes his hand and steps behind the veil of their marriage bed and calls out to him, “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spice.” (8:14)

The curtain falls and the audience is left with the satisfying notion that the Bride’s Beloved steps behind the veil to once more make love to the wife of his youth.

 

Yahweh’s HESED to Abishag the Shunammite

Three weeks ago, I began a teaching series at Bedford Road on Solomon: The Tarnished Crown. Yesterday, I taught on Adonijah, the son of David who attempted to usurp the throne from Solomon.

There is never enough time to talk about all the people who pass through the biblical narrative. I would never finish a series if I looked at everyone’s life in-depth. That being said, there is one character that really only flits through the narrative of 1 Kings 1-2 who I think gets ignored.

As David lay shivering and dying, his advisors bring a young woman to him. She lies in the bed with him, serving as a human hot water bottle to keep him warm. Her name is Abishag, composed of two words – Avi, “my father,” and Shag, “the wanderer.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures, names mean something. The God of the Scriptures is revealed to be Yahweh – “the one who is.” The great leader of the Exodus is Moses – “drawn out.” When Solomon was born, the prophet Nathan called him Jedidiah – “the beloved of Yahweh.” What does Abishag’s name tell us?

“My Father Is a Wanderer”

Shag is not wandering in the sense of just meandering. It is often used to reference straying and getting lost. The Psalmist prays, “With my whole heart I will seek you; let me not wander (SHAG) from your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10)

This at least hints that Abishag’s father was not faithful to her mother, perhaps a wayward, drunkard husband or a soldier who used her and then went off to the arms of other women during other campaigns.

If this is true, then what does it say about Abishag’s role in David’s last days? A fatherless young woman seeking to make her way in a harsh world where women were often mistreated and regarded as little more than livestock? We can only imagine.

“The Shunammite”

Abishag was from Shunam, which appears only occasionally in the biblical narrative. But during the Philistine wars which found David serving the Philistines against Saul, the Philistines encamped there (1 Sam 28:4). The town was on the border of Israelite and Philistine lands. It was on the edge of the lands of Issachar, a frontier town if you will.

“A Young Woman, Very Beautiful”

The word “young woman (na-‘a-reh) is used to refer to a woman of marriageable age, usually a virgin (Gen 24, Deut 22). Because of the way the word is used, it is likely that she was not bethrothed to be married, which means Abishag was probably a teenager. Growing up in a home without a father as her protector (which means her mother may have had a less than savory occupation), it is likely that she was destined to spend her life either married off to someone she would not love so that her family could be provided for or plying her beauty as a prostitute.

What is more, Abishag is very beautiful (yepeh ‘ad-m’od). In fact, when David’s counselors search the kingdom, she is the most beautiful woman they can find. That she is both young and beautiful but unattached is again an indication of just how low her mother’s status must have been.

HESED Even Here?

With all that Abishag may have been destined to endure on her border town home, with her checkered parentage and great beauty, how extraordinary that she is lifted to the bedroom of King David? And how extraordinary that although she lies in the bed with him and serves him, David never sullies her sexually? This young, beautiful woman (and presumably her mother and family) were brought to Jerusalem and made part of the royal household.

Then, when Adonijah wanted to use her to rise to power, Solomon’s wisdom protects her. She is spared a marriage with a selfish, malevolent prince by Solomon’s decree.

We never know what happens to her after that. Historical precedence is probably that she remained in David’s house and was cared for as one of his widows, even though they never consummated a relationship. This was not uncommon in ancient kingdoms.

So, Abishag receives from both David and Solomon a grace she could have never hoped for. She deserved nothing from them; but they (whether they even knew it or not) became agents of Yahweh’s HESED toward her.

Parts of the United States Most People Don’t Even Know Exist

Parts of the United States Most People Don’t Even Know Exist

The United States has fifty states, right? We tend to think of the United States only in terms of these states. And if we’re being honest, a lot of Americans even forget about Alaska and Hawaii because they are not contiguous with the other forty-eight. But there is far more to the United States than just these fifty states.

Did you know that at one time Cuba and the Philippines were also part of the United States? Or that the US military fought a pretty bloody series of conflicts in the Philippies in the early 20th century?

How Do States Come into the USA?

The Northwest Ordinance is an important piece of US legislation, passed in 1787 by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States and then reinstituted in 1789 after the US Constitution was ratified. The Northwest Ordinance guaranteed that any US held territory could enter the union as a state on equal footing with the other states once it met the minimum requirements of statehood. Eventually, the implications of the Northwest Ordinance contributed to the causes of the US Civil War, and it took a while for the United States to sort out everything; but it has been the law of the land for the entirety of our nation’s existence and has been one of the fundamental instruments of guaranteeing that US territories are always treated equally.

Until the mid-19th century, the United States was uninterested in acquiring territory beyond North America. Even then, there were serious debates raised in Congress over the acquisition of land like the Louisiana and Alaska Purchases in 1803 and 1867, respectively. Still, as Americans moved into these newly acquired lands, they carved out states which were readily admitted to the Union under the Northwest Ordinance.

Unfortunately, during the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States government began to develop increasingly imperialistic tendencies, and the nation began to acquire territories far beyond the North American continent. Worse still, many of these lands were populated by people with different colors of skin who spoke languages other than English. This was the nadir of race relations, when xenophobia and rabid nationalism gave birth to segregation. It was also the time of ruthless commercialism, when large and powerful corporations dictated much of government policy with an aim at greater profits.

As the tentacles of US power spread over these territories which were either claimed for commercial reasons or given to the US through international treaties, the questions of how to administer them and whether they should be permitted statehood became serious concerns.  Essentially what happened was that the United States stopped adding states in 1912 once Arizona completed the statehood of the continental area.

Only two other states – Alaska and Hawaii – have been added in the last century; and these were added because of the enormous economic boon they provided to private business. The outlying territories, some of them just a short trip away from the continental holdings, were placed in a bewildering array of relationships with the nation. They were basically placed in a subservience to the federal government through a different interpretation of the “Territorial Clause” of the US Constitution:

The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State. (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2)

Since the jurisdiction of these territories is not placed in the hands of the populace of the territories but rather in the hands of Congress, appeals for statehood are often denied. Congress simply refuses to allow them into the union.

Still, the people born in these territories are United States citizens, and as such are supposed to enjoy all the privileges and rights of US Citizens. They pay federal taxes (although Puerto Ricans are generally exempt from federal income tax because of their status as a “free associated state”) and partake in federal programs.

Here then are the territories of the United States and a little of the story of why they are US territory.

1856: The Guano Islands

Because guano was a vital component of fertilizers, the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which stated:

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

Under this legislation, the US claimed over 100 islands, although they have rescinded most of the claims. The remaining islands are mostly small and uninhabited, but they remain US territory.

  • In the Pacific Ocean: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnson Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Midway Atoll
  • In the Caribbean Sea: Navassa Island, Bajo Nuevo Island, and Seranilla Bank

1898: The Spanish-American War

The United States acquired virtually all Spanish-held territories in the Pacific and Caribbean, including the Philippines and Cuba. Cuba almost immediately declared their independence in 1902. While the Philippines were granted their independence in the wake of World War II, many of these territories remained in US hands:

  • In the Pacific: Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands
  • In the Caribben Sea: The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Under the Treaty of Paris, the Spanish retained the Northern Mariana Islands while ceding Guam, which is the southern island of the same archipelago, to the US. Then they sold the Northern Mariana Islands to Germany. After World War I, the islands went to the League of Nations, who handed them over to the Japanese. During World War II, the Japanese then invaded Guam. After the war, all the Mariana Islands were given to the United States, but Guam remains separate from the rest of the chain. The Mariana Islands are a good example of a territory which could easily be a state. The total population of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands is over 200,000; and the people are considered US citizens.

While Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are considered organized territories, their governments operate wholly under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The Free Associated State (or as it is commonly called, Commonwealth) of Puerto Rico is technically an independent government even though it is US territory and populated by US citizens. The citizens cannot vote in federal elections and are not represented in Congress. The people of Puerto Rico have repeatedly called for statehood and been denied the right by the US Congress.

1899-1900: Pacific Islands

In 1899 and in the wake of the Spanish-American War, the United States simply annexed Wake Island as a telegraph station. Although one of the most remote places on earth (nearly 600 miles from the next island), the island became a major stopping point first in shipping and then in aviation. When commercial aviation stopped needing fields in the Pacitic, the United States Air Force took over operations and uses it for missile testing.

Also in 1899, the United States and Germany split the islands of Samoa between them. This was in the wake of armed conflict between vessels of the two nations’ navy during the Samoan Civil Wars. With a population of nearly 55,000 US citizens, American Samoa consists of five volcanic islands – Tutuila, Aunu’u, Ofu, Olosega, Ta’u – and two coral atolls – Swains Atoll and Rose Atoll.

In 1900, the United States annexed the archipelago of Hawaii and formed it into a territory. When the territory was organized into a state in 1959, the Palymra Atoll was excluded and became a territory. It has no permanent inhabitants, but since it remains an incorporated unorganized territory, Palymra is the southern most US territory.

1917: The Treaty of the Danish West Indies

The US Virgin Islands were originally administrated by Denmark, but the United States had been attempting to purchase at least two of the islands for their Caribbean naval base since the US Civil War. In 1916, the US finally purchased the three large islands – St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John –  for $25,000,000. The deal was finalized in 1917, only five days before the United States entered World War I.