Happy 80th Birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

September 29, 2015
San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

San Pedro River—Part of the Colorado System

Thirty years ago, on September 30, 1935, a month before my fourth birthday, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) was dedicated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a dedicatory address. Although it was only 2,000 words in length, this speech celebrated the achievement involved in designing and building “the greatest dam in the world” and creating “the largest artificial lake in the world—115 miles long, holding enough water, for example, to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of ten feet.”

Scarcely a fourth of the way through this address, the President changed direction: “Beautiful and great as this structure is, it must also be considered in its relationship to the agricultural and industrial development and in its contribution to the health and comfort of the people of America who live in the Southwest.”

In the next paragraphs, Roosevelt speaks about “one of the greatest problems of law and of administration to be found in any Government,” which is “to divert and distribute the waters of an arid region, so that there shall be security of rights and efficiency of service” to all of the people who live along the full length of the river and it tributaries and depend upon this water for their livelihood and well being. The President declared that what had been achieved along the Colorado River was inspiring to the entire nation.

He illustrated his declarations by describing devastating floods that had recently swept down the wild river and the bone-dry conditions in California’s Imperial Valley that had resulted in $10,000,000 of crop losses the previous summer because of an unprecedented drought. These conditions, he said, would have been avoided had this dam and reservoir been in place.

Roosevelt applauded the role of the Federal Government throughout this project, including the expenditure of $108,000,000 to build the dam and power houses. He called attention to expenditures by states and municipalities to facilitate the distribution of water and power, including $220,000,000 raised for these purposes by municipalities in Southern California.

The President also celebrated the fact that “throughout our national history we have had a great program of public improvements, and in these past two years all that we have done has been to accelerate that program,” in order to give relief “to several million men and women whose earning capacity had been destroyed by the complexities and lack of thought of the economic system of the past generation.”

Then comes another shift of emphasis. Roosevelt declares that the size of this dam and its impact ought not turn us away from the value of small projects. “Can we say that the great brick high school, costing $2,000,000, is a useful expenditure but that a little wooden school house project, costing five or ten thousand dollars, is a wasteful extravagance? Is it fair to approve a huge city boulevard and, at the same time, disapprove the improvement of a muddy farm-to-market road?”

Roosevelt is clear that in addition to the benefit of these buildings and roads, a further value is that we also “add to the wealth and assets of the Nation. These efforts meet with the approval of the people of the Nation.” He devotes a fourth of his address to detailing the economic benefits to the nation because of these investments of public, especial federal, moneys.

One of the most challenging of his statements, especially in light of political ideology and rhetoric in 2015, is that by this “great national work…we have created the necessary purchasing power to throw in the clutch to start the wheels of what we call private industry” (italics added). If only more people in the political process understood and believed this basic principle of American life!

The unsettling fact of this 80-year celebration is that the well being of the Colorado River and the future possibilities of the life that it has supported for so many years are increasingly precarious. On September 30, 2015, the eve of the anniversary day, a brief “back story” article that I read on-line reported that the water of what was once “the largest artificial lake in the world” has receded so much that St. Thomas, Nevada, a town of 500 that has been covered over by Lake Mead since 1938, is now visible again.

In their book The West Without Water published in 2013, B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roan state that there is “a 50 percent chance that both Lake Mead and Lake Powell could reach ‘dead pool,’ rendering them useless for hydroelectric power or useful water storage as early as 2021” (p. 196).

Happy 80th birthday, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead! Let’s hope that you make it to 90.

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be

Arizona Windmill—Remembering the Way It Used to Be

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A Wisdom Reading of the Bible

September 1, 2015

Notes on How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

KugelHow are written documents to be understood? This question has been in my mind as far back as high school English classes when I grew impatient as teachers interpreted literature, especially poetry. They would draw out meanings that they quickly acknowledged had not been in the mind of the poets who wrote these cryptic bits of literature.

I squirmed in my seat, convinced in my own mind that what the poets intended their poetry to say was what they meant and any other imported meanings violated the integrity of poems under study. I don’t know where my commitment to the original intention came from, but it has operated with considerable strength in my various endeavors personal and professional, religious and secular.

One influence may have been ideas I learned at my church, which encouraged serious Bible study. One of the principles I learned there was that biblical texts should be studied much the same way as other ancient documents are studied. Always, readers should focus attention upon the social context when books were written and what the writers intended to say.

What I did not recognize at the time was that my teachers at church also used other practices that were similar to those in English classes, which was to discern meanings from biblical texts that the original authors had not intended.

Despite my having spent sixty years seriously trying to understand and use ancient texts, the tension between original intent and contemporary relevance is an even more challenging issue for me now than it was during my high school years. The ancient text I use most often is the Bible and here the question is: How are we to understand this ancient book as a faithful guide for people in a world far different from anything that writers of old could ever have imagined.

The tension has been increased by many of the disciplines of historical research and literary analysis that have been so prominent in western culture since the Renaissance. New understandings of antiquity and new commitments to historical and scientific principles make it increasingly difficult to determine the original form of ancient documents and the social context and original meanings of the texts, either in their original forms or in the edited versions that now are in our Bible.

During 2015, my reflections upon how to study the Bible have been challenged and enriched by a very long book published in 2007 by James L Kugel, a specialist in the Hebrew Bible who was the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003.

In the introduction to his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), Kugel describes himself as an Orthodox Jew “and as such, I am a believer in the divine inspiration of the Scripture and an inheritor of many of the traditions of ancient interpreters cited in this book, indeed, a keeper of the Jewish Sabbath, dietary laws, and all the other traditional practices of Orthodox Judaism” (45).

The book consists of front matter, 689 pages of text divided into thirty-six chapters, and end matter. In Chapter 1, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” Kugel gives a brief history of two modes of biblical interpretation: the ancient way that has been most fully expressed in the pattern developed by Rabbinic Judaism in the latter centuries BCE; and the pattern developed by biblical scholars, primarily in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s. He explains why he gives greater value to the traditional mode of understanding and encourages his readers to follow this example.

Most of the book consists of short chapters in which Kugel presents the biblical narrative beginning with “The Creation of the World—and of Adam and Eve,” and concluding with “Daniel the Interpreter.” For the most part, chapters consists of a brief summary of one portion of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic interpretation (which he refers to as the “Oral Torah”), the alternative understanding developed by modern biblical scholarship, and an affirmation of why the rabbinic interpretation is more useful to Jews and Christians.

After reading the first half of the book, I became impatient to find out how Kugel concludes his narrative. Skipping the second half, I read the concluding chapter and then wrote a preliminary account of the book. To read the resulting 25-page paper, click “A Wisdom Reading of the Bible.”