Lies and Honor in the Bible

51m+mD9K9oL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_You might wonder that the heroes of the bible were great liars. The reason is because in their world, lies and deceptions were seldom moral failures. In shame-based cultures lying can be very honorable, and not considered to be “really lying” at all. On the negative side, it denies enemies or outsiders the respect to which they have no right as rivals. On the positive side, it maintains harmony among friends; it’s shameful to tell the truth if it dishonors or hurts the feelings of a friend. On the other hand, to be called a liar, in any case, is a great public dishonor, because it implies that one really is lying.

Truth has more to do with appearances than reality in these cultures. Contrast the psychological relationship between the selves for American individualists and Mediterranean collectivists. (Individualist cultures tend to be guilt-based; collectivist cultures tend to be shame-based.)

Individualist

Publicly defined self = Privately defined self
(In-group defined self in the background)

Collectivist

Publicly defined self = In-group defined self
(Privately defined self in the background)

In individualist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the privately defined self, while the in-group defined self recedes into the background. To speak one way while thinking another is hypocrisy. But in collectivist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the in-group defined self, while the privately defined self recedes into the background. To speak one way if it’s not what people expect or want to hear is dishonorable.

This is a lesson I learned the hard way while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho. One day I had to leave my village and travel to the capital. A fellow villager asked me to run some errands for him and pick up a large amount of goods from various places in the city. I told him, quite truthfully, that I would probably not have time to visit many of those places — and that, in any case, my backpacks would be stuffed to a breaking point. That was the wrong thing to say. Though I had given an honest answer, I had seriously insulted him. He was belligerent and hostile for weeks afterwards.

I later learned that I should have told the villager I would run the errands for him, even if I knew in advance that I could not or would not do this. I should have given him the face he deserved as a friend and member of the community. Only after returning from the capital should I have accounted for any failure to do as requested. The situation between me and this villager was exactly the same as between the two sons and their father in Jesus’ well-known parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-30). I had behaved like the first son instead of the second. The first son said “no” to his father — an outrageous insult, regardless of his subsequent attempt to rectify that disgrace. I said “no” to a fellow villager — likewise an insult, regardless of how honest and sincere my motives were. Even if I had ended up picking up the things he wanted, the damage had been done, and a lot more would have been needed to effect a reconciliation. As it was, it took weeks to bring about such a reconciliation.

This may sound crazy to western ears, but even we as individualists have socially required forms of lying, as in cases of thanking someone for an unappreciated gift or saying that someone’s new hairdo looks nice even if it looks ghastly. In these cases the publicly defined self coincides with the in-group defined self, not the privately defined self. (A lie is told so as not to hurt people’s feelings.) Yet for the most part, individualists are raised to believe that lying is a bad thing. This is simply not true for collectivists, for whom lying is commonplace and honorable. The key to remember is that lying in order to (a) preserve harmony among friends, or (b) deceive or degrade enemies, are both equally honorable and in many cases expected of people in collectivist cultures.

John Pilch has identified seven kinds of lies and deceptions employed in the service of honor, and offers biblical examples of these strategies (see his Cultural Dictionary of the Bible). Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) have excellent commentary on the example of Jesus in #4, and Philip Esler (Sex, Wives, and Warriors) nails the case of Judith in #2. I add many more examples myself.

1. Concealment of Failure

Some lies conceal failure to live up to high ideals or expectations. The scenario in Jesus’ parable of the two sons, as discussed above, is most instructive. Anthropologists have presented the riddle to modern Lebanese villagers:

“A man had two sons. He went to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same. He answered, ‘I will,’ but did not go.” (Mt 21:28-30)

The Lebanese villagers unanimously agreed that the second son (who told his father he was going to work in the field, though he did not actually do so) was the good son. He gave his father a respectful answer and told him what he wanted to hear. The first son (who refused to go, but later went anyway) was viewed as acting shamefully. His public refusal of the father’s order was an outrageous insult and a challenge to parental authority. The villagers would not abide such blatant dishonor by a son to a father.

Again, appearances are more important than reality. The first son dishonored his father, regardless of his subsequent attempt to rectify that disgrace. The second son lied in order to conceal his failure, thereby honoring his father and giving him face. To Americans, the first son is preferable. To Mediterraneans, the second son is better…even though he lied.

Jesus, however, puts a twist on this. He does not ask, in verse 31, which is the “better son”. He asks which of the two “did the will of his father”. Obviously everyone (including Mediterranean natives) would agree with Jesus that the first son did the will of the father. But that’s not usually the important question. For Jesus, it becomes the important question according to his reversal-of-values theology, where the last are first and the first are last. He makes an allegory between the first son and tax collectors/prostitutes, and the second son and religious authorities, and (most importantly) the father and God (verse 31b). In effect, he says that despite appearances, tax collectors and prostitutes do God’s will and will thus inherit the kingdom ahead of religious authorities, who appear to do God’s will but do not.

2. On Behalf of Kin, Friends, Guests, Patrons, or Nation

Rahab lied to the king’s men about the whereabouts of Joshua’s spies, in order to protect her guests (Josh 2:3-6). Her lie was also for gain (see 5, below), however, since she was hoping that Joshua’s invading armies would spare her and her family (2:12-13).

Paul said that his lies made God’s truthfulness abound all the more (Rom 3:7). He was rather blasé in admitting that he lied like “everyone” (3:4), perhaps because lying on behalf of his Lord offered him the greatest honor of all.

The apostle is also famous for his deceptive missionary strategies in winning converts to Christ. He is candid about his willingness to become “all things to all men” in order to save them (I Cor 9:19-23). He endorsed chameleon evangelism, “to the Jew becoming a Jew, to the Gentile a lawless pagan”, for the good of their souls, as he saw it.

The book of Judith is a part of the biblical apocrypha, dealing with lies told on behalf of one’s nation. It tells of a widow who is upset with her fellow Israelites for not trusting God to deliver them from their Assyrian conquerors. So she goes to the camp of the Assyrian general Holofernes, seducing him and feeding him false information. He’s smitten by her and allows her access to his tent one night, and when he falls asleep, she decapitates him and takes his head back to the Israelites. The Assyrians lose their leader, and Israel is saved.

Judith’s string of lies is endless: She tells the Assyrian scouts that she is fleeing from the Hebrews (10:12), that she has trustworthy information for Holofernes and that she will show him the road to capturing the highlands (10:13). She offers a wish of long-life to Nebuchadnezzar (11:7). She says that death is about to fall on her own people (11:11) and the reason she offers is the imaginative fantasy that the Israelites have been eating food dedicated to God (11:12-15). She says that she fled from the Bethulians when she heard of this blasphemy (11:16). She says that she will tell Holofernes when God has revealed the time he should march against the Israelites (11:18). She forecasts that she will enthrone him at the center of Jerusalem and that he will lead the Israelites like sheep (11:19).

All of these lies and deceits resound to Judith’s honor. She is esteemed a hero for using them to defeat Holofernes. She’s no less a hero than David, who used his sling against Goliath. David with his sling and Judith with her lies got the enemy in a comprising position, and then decapitated them, saving Israel.

3. Avoiding Quarrels or Trouble

In cultures where honor is the core value, quarrels can easily escalate to violence and result in someone’s death. People seldom want quarrels to reach this point, so deceptions and lies are often used to avoid quarrels or any trouble at all. Abraham and Sarah lied about their marriage while traveling about as aliens in Egypt. Fearing the natives would kill him and steal his wife (Gen 12:11-12), Abraham told Sarah, “Say you are my sister so that it may go well with me” (12:13). Later they told the same lie to King Abimelech of Gerar: Abraham said, “She is my sister”, and Sarah said, “He is my brother” (20:2,5).

Peter’s infamous lie is another good example. After Jesus’ arrest, he denied knowing the Nazarene three times (Mk 14:68,70,71). Peter’s triple bald-faced lie was told in order to avoid a gruesome fate, that of Jesus. (Note that Peter’s lie also concealed an earlier failure (see 1, above). During the last supper Jesus had indicated that all of his followers would desert him in his time of need, but Peter denied this, promising, “I will never fall away…even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mk 14:29,31). But during Jesus’ arrest in the garden, Peter fled along with everyone else. Peter thus protected his honor, by lying in order to conceal his failure as a disciple.

Note that Abraham and Sarah’s lie is considered honorable in the Bible, while Peter’s lie is not, for obvious reasons. The gospels are confessional pieces about Jesus the risen Lord, and so a disciple of Jesus who lies to deny him can only be construed as acting dishonorably.

4. Sheer Concealment (Habitual)

In collectivist cultures, unrelenting community curiosity and village gossip generates habitual deception. The strategy of deception is honed and practiced, and it soon becomes part of everyone’s daily life (“out of habit”), simply because one never knows what nosy people may do with the truth.

Concealing one’s whereabouts is an example of such habitual deception. Jesus lied about his travel plans in order to minimize a potential risk to his life. (This was also a lie to avoid trouble (see 3, above).) Here’s the full passage:

Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them… “Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but in secret.

The background is lethal: the Judeans were looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus (7:1). But his relatives urged him to go to the festival anyway, because (so they said) his mighty works would enhance his honor-rating (7:3-4). In reality they probably figured that his death would rid them of a perpetual disgrace to family honor, for in fact — and this is key — “his brothers did not believe in him” (7:5). A prophet was always without honor in his hometown and in the eyes of his family (see Jn 4:44). Jesus declared, “I am not going to this festival” (7:8) and remained in Galilee (7:9); but as soon as his relatives left, he did in fact go to the festival, “not publicly but secretly” (7:10). It is because his brothers “did not believe in him” that they are properly regarded as enemies or rivals of Jesus, and thus by honor-shame standards they deserve to be lied to.

Jesus actually made a habit of concealing his whereabouts, whether or not there was an explicit threat to his life. (See Mk 7:24, for instance.)

5. For Gain

In the well-known Genesis story, Jacob deprived his older brother Esau of his birthright and blessing. Their father Isaac had become near blind (Gen 27:1), and Jacob exploited this by pretending to be Esau. When Isaac asked him, “Are you really my son Esau?”, Jacob said, “Yes, I am” (27:24). Isaac later admitted to Esau that he was fooled — that his brother “deceitfully robbed him of his inheritance” (27:35) — to which Esau replied, “Indeed, he has taken away not only my birthright but my blessing as well!” (27:36) The story concludes with Esau “hating Jacob for the blessing with which their father had blessed him” and planning to kill his brother for his lies and treachery (27:41). It is ironic that Jacob remains the hero of the story for today’s Jews and Christians, because, from a western perspective, he was a liar and a thief. But from a Mediterranean perspective, Jacob was not “really a liar”. He was a shrewd and cunning rogue who knew how to acquire honor beyond his wildest dreams. Such coyote-figures made the best heroes.

David was another coyote-figure, who lived by his wits while others sought to destroy him before he became king. On the run from Saul’s men, he came to the priest of Nob and lied, saying that he was on an urgent mission from the king (I Sam 21:1-2). Spinning a completely fictitious tale, he obtained the Bread of the Presence (which only priests were allowed to touch or eat) for him and his men (21:3-6). And note that centuries later, Jesus appealed to David’s deception in order to justify plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk 2:23-28). By saying, in effect, “What’s good enough for David is good enough for me,” Jesus indicated that he would follow David’s lead in performing deceptions and sacrilegious deeds as if they were holy.

6. False Imputation (Slander; Insults)

Sometimes it is necessary to attack the honor of another in order to save one’s honor. “The best defense is an offense”. The offense takes the form of a lie of false imputation: slander and/or insults. These are lies of degradation more than deception, though they can be both. The story of Naboth’s vineyard is illustrative. Naboth’s vineyard (I Kings 21:1) was the basis for his wealth and honor, and he was duty-bound not to relinquish it to anyone. The king’s offer to purchase or make an exchange for it (21:2) was improper and shameful, but the king was evidently hoping that Naboth would be swayed. When Naboth refused to yield (21:3), the king was shamed, and, having been caught acting shamefully, he wanted to die (21:4). The king’s wife, Jezebel, then came to the rescue. With lies of false imputation — claiming that Naboth “cursed God and the king” — she ruined Naboth’s honor (21:8-13a), engineered his death by stoning (21:13b-14), and obtained his vineyard for the king (21:15-16). Not only did the king obtain what he wanted, but the acquisition of the vineyard increased his honor as well. (Note that Jezebel’s lie was also on behalf of her king (see 2, above), as well as for gain (see 5, above).)

In John’s gospel, a group of Judeans made a claim to honor (Jn 8:39a) and Jesus challenged their claim (8:39b-41a). The Judeans then made a further claim to honor (8:41b), to which Jesus responded with a vicious insult: “You are children of the devil, and you murder and lie like the father of lies” (8:44). That the Judeans were offspring of the devil certainly wasn’t true, and it’s doubtful that they were all murderers. But lies and insults are legitimately offensive ways of protecting one’s honor. So point counterpoint, in order to save what remained of their own honor, the Judeans accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon (8:48), though Jesus was well known as a Galilean. Volleying back and forth lies of degradation can easily escalate to violence and get people killed, and it’s no surprise that the Judeans finally picked up rocks to stone Jesus (8:59).

7. Pure Mischief

Satan is the lord of lies, “the deceiver of the entire world” (Rev 12:9). As the serpent, he engineered humanity’s fall from paradise out of sheer mischief (Gen 3:1-15). It is thus honorable for God to counter Satan’s mischief with His very own. Indeed, it is God who lied to Adam, saying that to eat the forbidden fruit would result in immediate death (Gen 2:17). The serpent exposed God’s lie by telling Eve this was not true (Gen 3:4). This raises the question of whether God or Satan is more deceitful, which is typical between foes and rivals in the honor-shame milieu.

The Old and New Testaments make clear that God’s enemies are fair game for His lies. Witness I Kings 22:19-23, where God sends “a lying spirit into the mouths of many prophets” in order to bring about King Ahab’s disaster; and II Thess 2:11-12, where God sends His enemies “powerful delusions, leading them to believe lies”, precisely “so that they will be condemned”.

Conclusion

Social-science critics like Pilch, Malina, Rohrbaugh, and Esler might give the impression that collectivists lie and deceive more than individualists. I’d put it rather differently. Western individualists lie and deceive as habitually as collectivists. Anyone who doubts the ubiquity of human deception should read Why We Lie by David Livingstone Smith, who shows that deception is genetically hard-wired in the human species. What our social science experts do show is that deception is far more socially acceptable in some cultures than others. I often wonder if individualists are pretentious about truth and honesty when they esteem it too highly.

In any case, the bible doesn’t provide a template for western honesty. When parents teach that “all lies are bad”, their wisdom would be laughed to scorn by the most righteous heroes of the bible.

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Ellen Page and Ted Cruz

ellen-page-ted-cruzI love Ellen Page and despise Ted Cruz, but neither came off very well in their recent exchange. Page generally has the right ideas but is prone to false equivalences. Cruz’s idea of religious liberty ignores the way liberty discriminates when unchecked.

On the example of florists and wedding-cakes, Page is right. When it comes to commerce, business owners should have the right to refuse services which offend them only if the principle is applied with equity. If bakers are in the service of wedding cakes, then it has to be wedding cakes for everyone. If they refuse to supply specific decorations on the cakes (for example pornography), fine, but that principle has to be applied to couples of all orientations. When you’re in business, you are subject to discrimination laws — and what your business provides doesn’t imply endorsement of what the customers are doing on their side anyway. Common sense, if you ask me.

The issue of having “the right to be married in the church of one’s choice” is different altogether, and on this point Page is wrong and Ted Cruz is right. Pastors, rabbis, and clergy-people are under no obligation to conduct a marriage that goes against their creed. Nor should they be. That’s more than just religious freedom; that’s a pastor’s First Amendment right. If you want to get married, find either a church that will marry you, or a legal representative. The Supreme Court has guaranteed your right with the latter.

Retrospective: Miami Vice

Back in the ’80s, I followed Miami Vice religiously. My parents and I tuned in every Friday night, and my best friend and I obsessed the stories Monday mornings at school. It showed me the potentials of TV, and even film, more than anything else in my coming-of-age years. ’80s movies were embarrassingly bad, and what Miami Vice did on TV was usually leagues ahead of the film industry. It brought a dark edge to the small screen, music-driven sequences and amazing art direction. If by some standards of today’s golden age of TV it shows its age, in other ways it holds up very well. As Sam Hawken says:

“These days it’s nothing to have a cop show where the heroes are deeply flawed individuals caught up in morally compromised situations that often end badly. Before Miami Vice, though, this never happened. And cop shows never displayed any surfeit of style, which Miami Vice completely has. If you were to update the fashions from the ’80s to the 2010s and up the resolution to 1080p, Miami Vice would still look good compared to other programs on television. I might even argue that the datedness of the clothes and the clunky retro feel of an analog age make the show even cooler now than it was then.”

The show was predictable in one way only — its brooding nihilism, which got darker each season. You could count on things going to hell, and good people suffering terribly, and bad guys often winning. But inside that governor plots could go anywhere.

The show’s 30th anniversary prompted me to do a marathon of the five seasons and write up this retrospective. Out of the 111 episodes, here are my 20 picks ranked in descending order.

red tape

1. Red Tape. Season 3, Episode 19. In some ways I see Red Tape as the proper climax of Miami Vice. After three seasons of nihilistic injustices, one of our heroes snaps and goes rogue. This is what Mirror Image tried at the end of season four, but Crockett’s amnesia was absurd; he should have become a criminal by conscious choice. Red Tape does everything right. Tubbs is fed up with cops selling each other out and walking into bomb traps every other warrant, and so throws his badge in Castillo’s face. He then joins the underground scum, and while it’s all an act to catch the baddies, I remember being fooled by Tubbs’ fury. We never find out exactly what happened: Did Castillo exploit Tubbs’ anger and put him undercover from the start? Or did Tubbs initiate the operation as a rogue (as it appears), to which Castillo later gave his blessing? This is a perfect episode in every way. It ends on the tragedy and hopelessness that defines Miami Vice, but with Crockett and Tubbs resigned to getting by on whatever small victories they can salvage.

little miss

2. Little Miss Dangerous. Season 2, Episode 15. This was my first Miami Vice episode (talk about being spoiled), and was it ever a milestone. I was so stunned by it that I just sat in bed afterwards, staring at my TV as if it had personally affronted me. Reviewer Sam Hawken nails it: “The story is pitch black and all hope and happiness is sucked into its gravitational pull and crushed. It’s brilliantly written and slickly directed, and it’s the most nihilistic episode I can think of. Its message is that trying to help others is a pointless and futile gesture, and that the world is a horrible place in which innocence is crushed.” Remember, this was the ’80s, when cop shows were optimistic and the good guys always won. Miami Vice inverted that formula from the get-go, but Little Miss Dangerous dismantled it entirely. To this day I can’t think of better use of music over a TV sequence than Public Image Limited’s “Order of Death”, as Tubbs lies handcuffed to the bed screaming, while Jackie works her crayon ritual, disrobes and blows her brains out.

evan

3. Evan. Season 1, Episode 21. Many consider this the best Miami Vice episode of all time, and you can certainly make a case for it. It opens and shuts on Peter Gabriel classics, has a strong gun-running plot, and the direction is flawless. Those aren’t even the best parts. The story is about personal conflict, between Crockett and an old academy friend (Evan, who now works for the AFT) who both refused to stick up for a third friend who came out gay and ended up killing himself. Evan was the raging homophobe, and Crockett the silent one who didn’t know how to cope. He still doesn’t, and as a result almost destroys his friendship with Tubbs. Evan remains forceful after all these years — even in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the subject matter resonates in spades — and the emotional scene between Crockett and Tubbs outside the gas station (see right image) is one of their best ever.

deathlady1

4. Death and the Lady. Season 4, Episode 3. The masterpiece of season four is about a critically acclaimed erotic film that is actually snuff. It explores the sex industry in a way not seen since Little Miss Dangerous — with backroom whores, peep shows, porno filmsand exploits Crockett’s self-righteousness in a way not seen since Forgive Us Our Debts. His moral outrages had a curious effect on me, often making me swing against the grain of the story. His judgmental attitude towards artistic violence still leaves a foul taste in my mouth. That’s not a criticism of the episode; Crockett is a naturally annoying character and brings out the worst of liberal sanctimony. Gina is the reasonable one when she suggests that Glantz’s erotic performance art isn’t half-bad. Snuff goes too far, obviously, and the final scene is priceless: Glantz gets away with his crime, and Crockett slaps him up the stairs, asking if that titillates him, excites him and turns him on.

savage

5. The Savage. Season 3, Episode 15. I remember watching this episode and thinking Miami Vice was in a golden age. The stories were consistently good around this time, and The Savage put the spotlight on Castillo who is my favorite character. I should note the problem with the Vietnamese guest star who plays Castillo’s old acquaintance from the war. His English is terrible, and there are scenes where you can’t understand a goddamn thing he’s saying — and he says things that are very important. Watching the DVD today with subtitles makes me wonder how I ever made sense of the plot back in the ’80s (probably only by watching my VHS tapes over and over again). In any case, the story is a ripper. It’s about a political assassin who always kills a string of prostitutes over the course of six evenings before taking out his target. He first did it in Vietnam back in ’72. Castillo is determined to catch him this time in Miami, and puts the vice team on 12-hour shifts, canceling their days off, in order to catch the psychopath.

payback

6. Payback. Season 2, Episode 19. This classic involves mystery, backstabbing, and the brutal toll taken on undercover cops. It’s carried on the suspense of who is framing Crockett and why, and the clues unravel at the right moments. It’s also a poster-child for the show’s unorthodox narrative style, as it ends with nothing resolved on Fuentes’ side of the story. But the drug dealer isn’t what Payback is about. The dirty cop is, and the awful things he has been driven to by the stress of his job. That turns out to be a commentary on Crockett’s own hell. In this story he is manipulated left and right, put through the ringer by internal affairs, and barely escapes being killed by Fuentes’ thugs when his cover is blown. It was back in a season when he still had hope, but I sometimes think of Payback as the starting point of Crockett’s real disillusionment.

smugglers

7. Smuggler’s Blues. Season 1, Episode 15. So much is packed in this episode and yet it never feels rushed. It starts with explosions in Miami, then follows our duo overseas to a drug deal in Cartagena, where Tubbs gets thrown in jail, and he and Crockett barely escape the country under a hail of gunfire. Back in Miami, more double-crosses await: Trudy has been kidnapped, and Tubbs is dealt the shittiest hand at the bridge rendezvous. If he throws over the suitcase, Trudy is dead; and if he doesn’t, she’s dead. So he throws himself over too, to buy a few extra moments. Even after all these years, these scenes make me sweat. Smuggler’s Blues is pure classic, with not a moment of screen time wasted. It’s no surprise that elements from it were recycled in the (disappointing) 2006 movie remake. It marks the point where Miami Vice started getting really good, in the last third of season one. No episode prior to this one places on my list.

victimsofcircum

8. Victims of Circumstance. Season 5, Episode 16. This penultimate is to season five as Evan is to season one. In the tragedy of Evan, Crockett could find a glimmer of light in a shitty world. Now he’s burned out, and the world is confirmed as an undiluted hellhole where the innocent get shat on without exception. Victims is blistering, bloody, and nihilistic to the core; the vice cops have become little more than referees in the criminal underground instead of law enforcers. The plot of a Nazi war criminal pays dividends in such a context, as Holocaust witnesses are gunned down in restaurants and nursing homes, with plenty of collateral. The scenes of Hans Kozak going crazy in his bedroom and waving a knife at the door are among the most creepy of the series (especially with the haunting “Severance” by Dead Can Dance playing over it). Villains, for a change, don’t get to gloat in the end; everyone goes down under fire, saints and scum alike. For Crockett and Tubbs, by now, it’s just another day in Miami.

honor among thieves

9. Honor Among Thieves. Season 4, Episode 16. Weird plots intersect in this demented gem. It’s a good example of the heights season four was attaining around the abysmal soap-opera episodes of Crockett’s wife. A serial killer is snuffing teenage girls, cutting open their bodies and filling them with pure-grade cocaine; then dressing up the corpses as dolls. The purity of the cocaine indicates that an elite drug lord must be involved, which happens to be the network of criminals Crockett and Tubbs are deeply undercover with. Castillo cannot investigate the cocaine-doll killer too closely without compromising Crockett and Tubbs — though it turns out he doesn’t really have to. The drug lords, appalled at the way their reputations are being tarnished by association with the serial killings, decide to take the law into their own hands and hunt down the killer themselves. Crockett and Tubbs assist them (doing their own police work as vigilantes), and after a shocking twist participate in a rogue trial by which the drug lords dispense “justice” to the killer. This episode is woefully underrated.

shadow

10. Shadow in the Dark. Season 3, Episode 6. I wouldn’t see Manhunter until years later, so in my mind the Hannibal Lecter story derives from Miami Vice rather than the other way around. Shadow is about a psycho who breaks into upper-class homes and enacts bizarre rituals. He approaches the homes prayerfully, and in the kitchens pours flour on himself before eating raw meat from the frig. At first, he leaves the sleeping families alone, but with each home his rituals take him closer to the bedrooms. Crockett becomes a Will Graham (as in the current Hannibal series), obsessing the killer and trying to think like him to predict his next move, and goes crazy himself in the process. If you’ve never seen Manhunter (or the current season of Hannibal), this episode comes across as brilliantly conceived, and it’s as dark as Vice gets. I watched it many times in the ’80s, and I’m destined to forever think of it as the true inspiration for Harris’ “Red Dragon”.

buses

11. Out Where the Buses Don’t Run. Season 2, Episode 3. If I were ranking by critical approval, this would place at #1. It appears on various lists of the “greatest TV episodes of all time”, and got Emmy Award nominations. But it does have a problem which tends to be passed over: the cartoonish depiction of mental illness. Weldon is basically a circus freak, making faces and falsettos, and the psycho melodrama hasn’t aged well. But his baggage still drives a powerful story: years ago Weldon secretly killed a drug lord (Tony Arcaro) who escaped justice; unable to cope with murdering someone, he has created an alternate reality in his mind where Arcaro is still at large in Miami, and he leads Crockett and Tubbs on wild goose chases. The final act earns its legendary status, the sequence set to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”. The reveal of what lies buried in the walls of an abandoned house retains power on repeat viewings. Out Where the Buses Don’t Run is considered a masterpiece for good reason, though it sits outside my top ten for the mishandling of Weldon’s breakdown.

line of fire

12. Line of Fire. Season 5, Episode 6. In the manure swamp of season five, Line of Fire proved the show still had fire. I missed it when it first aired, since I quit watching Miami Vice after the Crockett-amnesia fiasco. I recall my best friend raving about this story of a punk rocker who blasted Ministry songs at full volume, and whom government officials were trying to kill to prevent him testifying in court. It moves like a juggernaut. Crockett and Tubbs get recruited to protect the kid against the numerous hit men, hiding him first in a hotel room and then on Crockett’s boat out in the glades when the location is leaked. And just when it seems that goodness will barely prevail (the shoot-out scenes are amazing by even Vice’s standards), comes the furious twist that one of the officials who hired Crockett and Tubbs is actually in on the conspiracy, and shoots the kid in the end anyway. It was the reputation of this episode that brought me back into the Miami Vice fold.

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13. Sons and Lovers. Season 2, Episode 22. I don’t like most of the Calderone episodes, which makes me unpopular with Vice fans. It’s not that Tubbs’ backstory isn’t compelling, because it obviously is. But Brother’s Keeper and Hit List are weighed down by the stylistic deficiencies of season one; like all episodes before Smuggler’s Blues, they haven’t aged well. And the less said about The Afternoon Plane the better; that one has the opposite problem, being an exceptional dud in the otherwise superb season three. But in-between these came the smash Sons and Lovers. It contains the most distressing scene of the series, where Angelina and her baby (which is Tubbs’ baby too) are strapped down in a hostage situation and blown sky-high by Angelina’s sadistic brother. I still find this a very upsetting episode to watch. It’s solid drama and well scripted.

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14. Forgive Us Our Debts. Season 3, Episode 11. My parents and I were poleaxed by this episode, and we argued about it at the dinner-table for days. Until the last few minutes it plays like a boilerplate Hollywood screed against the death penalty. Hackman is a dangerous killer, but he didn’t commit the crime for which he was found guilty (shooting Crockett’s old partner in front of his family); so it becomes a predictable last-minute race against the clock to produce evidence that will exonerate him. Which the righteous Sonny Crockett does, busting his tail against every impossible odd. Except it turns out that Hackman really did kill Crockett’s friend, which he smugly reveals to Crockett as he comes out of prison a free man. No one saw that twist coming back in the day, and everyone who wasn’t already became pro-capital punishment on the spot. That’s what happens when you cross liberalism with nihilism.

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15. The Cell Within. Season 5, Episode 13. Season five is controversial enough, but this episode is widely despised, even by the hard-core apologists. Granted the ludicrous premise, it works as a Lynchian psycho-horror piece. Tubbs pays a house call to Jake Manning, an ex-convict who has seemingly reformed and written a book on rehabilitation. It turns out his idea of that consists of abducting people and confining them in his home which he has turned into an elaborate prison. He torments and executes these “criminals” around sermons of retributive justice, which Tubbs is forced to watch. Martin Scorsese loved this episode so much that he paid homage to it in Cape Fear (in the opening shot, one of the books in Max Cady’s reading pile is The Cell Within by Jake Manning). So I’m in good company against the haters.

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16. Baseballs of Death. Season 4, Episode 14. This episode fights for the honor of best music. It doesn’t win — it’s impossible to beat Little Miss Dangerous and Out Where the Buses Don’t Run in this category — but it does earn the bronze medal. Whenever I hear Shriekback’s “Running on the Rocks”, I relive Crockett’s speedboat chase that ends in a massive CBU explosion. (Baseballs of death are CBUs, or cluster bombs, made illegal in many countries because of the danger they pose to civilians, not to mention friendlies.) Ernesto Guerrero is one of Vice’s most terrifying villains: a fascist killer who disdains 99.99% of the world’s population, and thinks he has some kind of genetic immunity from the law. I’d expect this from a Pinochet official, but there’s something else, something subterranean about this guy that freezes my testicles.

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17. The Home Invaders. Season 1, Episode 19. Tubbs is out of the picture (on vacation in New York), but no matter, this is a Castillo episode and does he shine. The vice team gets called in to solve a string of robberies in upper-class neighborhoods, and Castillo puts the homicide lieutenant to shame for sloppy detective work. He solves the case almost single-handedly and in a completely non-contrived way. What makes this episode stand out is the terrifying nature of home invasions. In a show where drug deals and prostitution scandals are the usual fare, it’s jarring to have crime brought literally home for a change. Shades of A Clockwork Orange, and the home invaders even torture children — off-screen granted, but still an example of the way Miami Vice went places no one else dared.

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18. Viking Bikers from Hell. Season 3, Episode 22. Reactions to this one range from open scorn to closet admiration. Well, forget the closet, I’m an open admirer. Keep in mind that John Milius wrote it, and if you consider his Conan the Barbarian (1982) a masterpiece as I do, then chances are you’ll love Viking Bikers. The conceit of a motorbike gang with antiquated codes of honor and revenge — and whose leader craves the paradise of Valhalla — locks into the tone of Miami Vice, especially the increased nihilism of season three. The show writers usually avoided epilogues in favor of abrupt endings, but this one has a wonderful epilogue after so much violence, in the hospital as Tubbs recovers from being shot. The sun is coming up, and he and Crockett exchange subdued lines about the world’s ugly purposelessness, and how they as cops aren’t much better than those they take down. This should have been the finale for season three, no question.

19. Definitely Miami. Season 2, Episode 12. The second season is known for style over substance, and Definitely Miami is the purest example of this approach. Two plots run in parallel. In one, a crime lord wants to turn state’s evidence, but he will only do so if he’s allowed to see his sister face-to-face; she is hiding in witness protection and doesn’t want this, because she fears he will kill her at first opportunity. In the second, Crockett’s atrocious judgment of women lands him in trouble with a drug dealer played with relish by Ted Nugent. If neither story is profound, they work wonderfully in tandem especially at their climaxes. The sister ends up stabbing her brother — in front of an entire police force — while Crockett is out in the desert dodging bullets with a briefcase. It’s a wild ride, the aesthetic is perfect, and you can almost feel the 100-degree heat.

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20. Down for the Count. Season 3, Episodes 12 & 13. I’m not a fan of the double-episodes. Brother’s Keeper, The Prodigal Son, and Freefall are massively overrated. Season three lands the exception. Zito’s death is powerful, and it’s appropriate that it comes in the middle of the series’ run (they are episodes 56 and 57 out of 111). I remember the funeral scene at the start of part 2 choking me up, and Corey Hart’s “Blind Faith” still resounds to Jan Hammer’s credit; his ear for music was genius. The tragedy is worked around a complex gang plot in which people die left and right, and Crockett and Tubbs have to constantly switch gears. It hits an insane peak in the second half when a Las Vegas crime lord arrives in Miami, determined to teach the other crime lord the meaning of turf. In this mess of a three-way war between the cops and two rival gangs, Switek just wants revenge for Zito.

Honorable Mentions

The following episodes either (a) came very close to making my cut, or (b) would have certainly made my cut back in the ’80s but for whatever reasons haven’t aged well. I don’t attempt to rank them; I just list them in chronological order.

Rites of Passage. Season 1, Episode 16. Tubbs and Valerie had great chemistry together, and I still love this story. It’s very sad. Valerie’s younger sister runs away from home, becomes an upper-class prostitute, gets killed… and Valerie goes vigilante.

Bushido. Season 2, Episode 8. This one has depreciated beyond my expectation. Or maybe I just thought I loved it back in the ’80s, being a Castillo episode. Today it just doesn’t seem impressive.

Yankee Dollar. Season 2, Episode 13. Of all the Miami Vice episodes, this one straddles the divide between greatness and mediocrity with exact balance. The script is smart and keeps you guessing who is betraying whom, and even ends at one point with Crockett and Tubbs on opposite ends of a buying deal selling to each other, while the drug dealer casually reveals he knew their game all along. The opening scene is also a favorite of mine (the death of Crockett’s girlfriend to the song of “Par Avion”). In other ways, the reach of this episode exceeds its grasp.

El Viejo. Season 3, Episode 1. I really resent omitting this one from my list, and came close to bumping Down for the Count. But Zito’s departure had to take precedence. It’s an excellent story about a Texas ranger who comes to Miami to avenge his partner killed in a drug deal.

Stone’s War. Season 3, Episode 2. Back in the day I would have put this in my top five. The script is top-notch and the suspense never lets up. The problem is that it feels less like Miami Vice and more like an Oliver Stone screed — damning Reagan for his support of the Contras in Nicaragu. That’s a political message I can warm to, but it doesn’t do much for me anymore in the context of Miami Vice.

Walk-Alone. Season 3, Episode 4. Another intense story that used to be a favorite. But it’s ultimately just a prison break. For all the violence Tubbs is subjected to, it comes across today as strangely boring.

The Rising Sun of Death. Season 4, Episode 9. I remember loving this and was confident that it would make my cut. I mean seriously, how can you go wrong with yakuza crime families and ritual suicides? (Not to mention Trudy looking smoking hot as an exotic dancer.) But today the story feels somehow less than the sum of its part — which is too bad since Castillo has a big role.

Too Much Too Late. Season 5, Episode 111. Like Rites of Passage the story explores family pain and tragedy with the Pam Grier character (Valerie). This was one of the four “missing episodes” from season five. The other three were just silly, but this one was actually censored for portraying a 12-year old girl who gets raped and then kills her mother for allowing it to happen in order to feed her junkie habits.

Did Jephthah Sacrifice or Dedicate His Daughter?

jephthah sacrificeThe account in Judges 11:29-40 reads as follows:

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be yours, O Lord, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he smote them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a very great slaughter. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

Scholars and theologians have debated for a long time whether or not Jephthah really sacrificed his daughter. I think it’s plain that he did, and until the Middle Ages, every commentator on record (even Josephus, Antiquities, 5.7.10) thought so. But since the 13th century, both Jewish and Christian apologists have claimed that Jephthah dedicated her to God rather than sacrificed her — that is, sent her away to the tabernacle where she became a lifelong Nazirite.

After all, these apologists claim, his daughter did not bewail the fact that she was about to die; she bewailed her virginity and that she had never known a man. But it’s one and the same thing. In Israelite culture a woman’s view of her worth was often based on producing children. That’s why Sarah (Gen 16:2), Rachel (Gen 30:1), and Hannah (I Sam 1:6,10-11) are so desperate over the question of their barrenness. Rachel even says that she would prefer death over barrenness. Jephthah’s daughter agonizes over her virginity precisely because she is going to die without having left the world any children — a “worthless woman”, in effect.

There are other problems with the “dedication” view. The most glaring one is the fact that Jephthah’s daughter isn’t even eligible to serve at the tabernacle. The Torah forbids tabernacle service to anyone of illegitimate birth, and to that person’s descendents down to the tenth generation (Deut 23:2). Jephthah was the son of a harlot (Judges 11:1), so neither he nor his daughter could enter the assembly of the Lord. If he really wanted to dedicate his daughter in some way like this, he would have had to redeem her with a ransom price of 30 shekels (Lev 27:2,4), because she could not serve there.

Jephthah sacrificed his daughter exactly as the text implies. The question then becomes whether or not God approved the sacrifice.

Was the human sacrifice approved or condemned by God?

Neither, I’m afraid.

Atheists and skeptics enjoy pointing out that because “the spirit of the Lord” was upon Jephthah, his vow and sacrifice of his daughter were indeed divinely approved. This allows them to revel in the fact that God is a bloodthirsty deity who approves human sacrifice. Christian apologists are held in check by this charge, which is why they argue so strenuously against the plain meaning of the text.

In fact, the text does not say that the spirit of the Lord inspired Jephthah’s vow. The spirit of the Lord is what caused him to marshal an army and advance quickly on the Ammonites. Only after this did he make his vow. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of “the spirit of the Lord coming on people” to do certain things, and yet these people go on to do bad things. One example is Samson, who under the spirit of God killed a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:6) and 1000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:14-15). But he also fornicated with a prostitute (Judges 16:1) and had an affair with Delilah (Judges 16:4-20). Balaam, Gideon, Saul, and David are other examples. David is an especially righteous figure, but God didn’t approve him killing a man and stealing his wife.

These figures were understood to be righteous down into New Testament times. The epistle of Hebrews lists Jephthah as a clear hero of the faith — right alongside Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, and Samuel (Heb 11:32-34). He is not discredited for sacrificing his daughter, any more than David is for committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing Uriah; any more than Samson is for his perfidies.

And there’s the rub. Jephthah is a clear biblical hero. He’s not a Cain, or a Jezebel, or a Herod, or a Judas. If God didn’t approve his human sacrifice, he didn’t find it repugnant enough to blackball him. Skeptics have a point when they brandish Jephthah’s sacrifice as something very ugly, and apologists have understandable reasons for pretending the event didn’t happen. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter isn’t approved, but nor is it judged to be unspeakable. Jephthah — no less than Abraham — remained forever in the bosom of the Lord.

The Most Horrifying Moments in the Bible

Listverse ranks The Top 10 Horrifying Moments in the Bible. It’s an excellent list, but I would switch out four entries and re-rank some of the remaining six. So here’s my official list of the Bible’s most horrifying parts. Some are also very powerful. I don’t intend the list as a negative take-down, even where it suggests that God’s will should be questioned if not rejected.

Lake_of_Fire1. The Lake of Fire. (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 14, 15) I can’t argue with Listverse’s top slot: God saves the worst for last. The end of the road is the unrestrained culmination of his wrath and hellfire: “God makes his final judgment for or against everyone who has ever lived. Some go to heaven, now called the New Jerusalem, with streets paved in solid gold, twelve gates made of single pearls, twelve precious-stone foundations for the 1,400-mile high, 200-foot thick walls. The rest are thrown into the lake of fire with the unholy trinity — Satan, Antichrist, and the false prophet — and burn for eternity.” The threat of hell is so cliche that it almost has no punch these days. But stop and think about burning in a lake of fire (the image on the right may help) without the reprieve of sleep or a coma, for literally billions of years. Horrors don’t get any worse.

noahs-flood-judgment2. Noah’s Flood. (Genesis 6:9-8:22) Listverse puts this at #4, but for me it’s a close second to the lake of fire: “This is the only time throughout history, according to the Bible, that God makes good on his threat to destroy the world. He sees that all men are evil all the time, taking to themselves such women as they please, without sanctity in marriage, without law, given to malice, sadism, hatred, and violence.” So he gives the world a righteous enema, and spares a single family who can preserve the animal creation and repopulate the world afterwards. Try to imagine a flood that buries the world’s highest mountains. That kind of an apocalypse is as terrifying, if not as searingly painful, as the one of fire and brimstone.

job3. The Torments of Job. (Job 1-2, 38-42) Listverse puts this at #10. It should be way higher. I could even make a case for it at the top slot. Better yet, I’ll let Listverse make the case for me: “The entire Book of Job is one of the most uncomfortable lessons the Bible teaches, namely that God is in charge, what he says goes, and there is absolutely nothing any one of us can do about it, that we have precisely zero right to question him. God created everything in existence, including Job, and does not have to abide by the rules since he created the rules. God never gives an explanation for why he would allow bad things to happen to good people. The only ‘answer’ is quite scary: the reason you woke alive this morning and are still breathing is because of God’s beneficent mercy, a mercy he can take away at a whim.” Job is actually my favorite book of the Bible, but its message isn’t comforting.

Golgotha4. The Passion of Christ. (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Listverse ranks it at #2, and there’s no question it belongs in the top five: “Jesus was beaten until he was an unrecognizable bloody mess, crucified naked and then left to die. He died from a combination of cardio and pulmonary edema, dehydration, exsanguination, and shock. And he didn’t even do anything wrong.” Jesus’ death meant many things in early Christian thought — martyrdom, atonement sacrifice, sin-scapegoat, and ransom payment — which poses troubling questions about the nature of God. It implies that divine forgiveness can’t be free, that there must be give-and-take in the spiritual economy, and that Jesus’ pleading for humanity can only be effective after he is tortured and killed in a most agonizing way.

jephtha_daughter5. Jephthah Sacrifices His Daughter. (Judges 11:29-40) I’m not sure why this didn’t make Listverse’s cut. Apologists have argued against the plain meaning of the text, by claiming that Jephthah actually didn’t sacrifice his daughter: he dedicated her in lifelong service to the tabernacle. That theory is bogus. Jephthah indeed sacrificed his daughter, and he was a biblical hero. He wasn’t a Cain, or a Jezebel, or a Herod, or a Judas. If God didn’t approve his human sacrifice, He didn’t find it repugnant enough to blackball him. Jephthah — no less than Abraham — remained forever in the bosom of the Lord. Atheists and skeptics have a point when they brandish Jephthah’s sacrifice as something very ugly, just as apologists have understandable reasons for pretending the event didn’t happen.

dash their heads against rocks6. “Smash their children’s heads against rocks, O Lord!” (Psalms 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140). At this entry I put the 14 imprecatory psalms. The verb “imprecate” means “to pray evil against”, or basically to call down calamity on people. Nowhere else in the Bible can you find this. There is plenty of nasty prophecy, but none of the prophets ever expressed desire for woe and destruction, only that such would come true if Israel didn’t shape up. The imprecatory psalms actually pray for God to harm and destroy people. To me, the most disturbing one is Pslam 137:9, which states, “Blessed be he who takes your infants and dashes them against rocks!”

scorchedbythesunfourthvial7. The Seven Trumpets and Bowls. (Revelation 8:7-11:21, 16:2-21) Listverse singles out the fifth trumpet, which is admittedly a nasty horror show: horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails pour out of the earth, and they torture and kill people for five months; then some angels kill a third of the earth’s population, which today would be two billion people. I include all seven trumpets/bowls together under a single entry, but if I had to single one out for special mention, it would be the fourth, which is basically global warming times a thousand. Humanoid locusts I could perhaps fend off with a weapon. The scorching sun of the fourth bowl would melt air conditioners.

sodom8. The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 19:1-29) Listverse puts this at #7, which is about right. Whenever someone wished to speak of God’s bringing destruction upon the earth, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah was very commonly cited as a model: “This is the prototype of the ‘fire and brimstone’ aspect of the Bible. We speak of this event solely in terms of the horror its witnesses must have experienced. Some analyses have theorized that the description of the actual catastrophe is a pristine account of a nuclear explosion. The Bible is clear that not a single person made it out alive except Lot’s family, saved by two angels.” On top of that, God killed Lot’s wife for daring to look back at the two filthy cities as she was fleeing.

rape of tamar9. The Rape of Tamar. (II Sam 13:1-19) This is the sequel to II Sam 10-12, where David murdered a man and stole his wife. As a result, God’s wrath proceeds to steamroll over David’s entire family, and his daughter Tamar is the collateral damage. She is raped by her half-brother Amnon; she actively resists, struggles, and protests (II Sam 13:12-14) to no avail, and when Amnon is through with her, he discards her and contemptuously tells her to get lost (II Sam 13:15). This is worse than the rape itself: “Brother, this evil in sending me away is greater than what you just did to me” (II Sam 13:16). She is begging Amnon to marry her, since the only option left to a raped woman is to marry her rapist. No one respectable would have anything to do with a woman so dishonored. Women like Tamar pay huge prices for the sins of men.

Bears-attack-boys10. Elisha and the Two Bears. (II Kings 2:23-24) This horror tale is under-appreciated. A crowd of children are bullying the prophet Elisha by making fun of his bald head. Elisha curses the little buggers in the name of God, who then unleashes a couple of she-bears on them. Forty-two kids are mauled and torn apart. See kids, don’t mouth off to the Lord’s prophets. There have been apologetic attempts to soften the story, by suggesting these weren’t really children, or that their insults cut deeper than jokes about a bald head, which are of course exceedingly lame.