Thursday, September 18, 2014

Daniel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  The book of Daniel has inspired not just painters, but musicians throughout the ages.  To accompany this report, I will include paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, and songs by Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Bessie Jones.

The book of Daniel is split into two main parts.  The first half is a kind of Jewish novella which scholars believe reached its final form in the 2nd century B.C.E.  Rather than being a strictly historical narrative, the book is a literary work meant to show Jews living under foreign powers how they can maintain their identity in exile.  The second half falls into the genre of "apocalypse" literature.  In it, the prophet Daniel has visions about the end of the world, which are actually a complex historical commentary on political powers in the Middle East, stretching from the reign of Babylon to the Greek Empire of the second century, when the book was completed.

Part 1: The Daniel Novella (Ch. 1-6)

Contrary to the visions of a renewed state of Israel predicted by earlier prophets, the Jewish people continued to experience waves of conquest by foreign powers well after the Babylonian exile—the Medes, the Pesians, and the Greeks would rule their lands.  Living under foreign rule became a fact of life for Jews, even until the time of Christ, when the Romans ruled Israel.

The book of Daniel tells the story of a young, well-educated Jew named Daniel living in exile in Babylon.  It shows how, even in foreign lands, he maintains his faith, and even has a transformative effect on his Babylonian (and later Medean) rulers.  The first half of the book revolves around a series of “tests” to Daniel’s faith, which he passes with great courage and perseverance.

Daniel and his three friends are taken to the court of King Nebuchadnezzar and educated to serve as court officials.  Their first test happens when they are given non-kosher food to eat, which they refuse.  For their faithfulness, they are rewarded with good health.  Dietary restrictions, even to this day, are a way for Jews to maintain their identity.

The next test comes when king Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream, which none of the Babylonian seers can interpret.  Much like the story of Joseph, Daniel correctly interprets the king’s dream, and is rewarded and promoted.  This is actually quite amazing, because the dream, which predicts the rise of the Medean, Persian, and Greek empires, does not bode well for Babylon.  Despite the bad news, Daniel is respected for his honesty and wisdom.  Again, Daniel serves as a model Jew in exile—honest, courageous, and wise.

The next test involves Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  King Nebuchadnezzar builds a golden statue of himself, sort of reminiscent of the golden calf that the faithless Israelites built in Exodus at Mt. Sinai.  All the court officials are ordered to bow down and worship the statue of the emperor.  This sort of emperor-worship was not uncommon among ancient powers, including Persians and later Romans.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remain faithful to Yahweh, and refuse to worship the statue.  For this, they are thrown alive into a fiery furnace, which they miraculously survive with the help of an angel.  Again, the faithful Jews serve as a model for those in exile—do not forsake God, and He will protect you.  Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed that he promotes these three guys.

Celebrated jazz Musician Louis Armstrong recorded a song called "Shadrack" about the story of Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego...

Then Nebuchadnezzar has another troubling dream, which Daniel also interprets correctly.  Like the first dream (of a broken statue), this dream (of a felled tree) does not bode well for the king.  Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar will temporarily lose his mind and live in the wilderness like an animal, because he has exalted himself above Yahweh.  After seven years of madness, the king regains his senses, and actually gives praise to the God of Israel.  This episode shows the power of God, and also the transformative effect that a faithful Jew can have, even in exile.

In time, Nebuchadnezzar dies and is succeeded by a ruler named Belshazzar.  At a great feast, Belshazzar profanes sacred Jewish temple objects by drinking wine out of them.  During the banquet, a creepy disembodied hand appears and writes a scary message on the wall.  This is probably the origin of the expression “The writing’s on the wall.”  Belshazzar calls Daniel to decipher the mysterious text, which Daniel says means that Babylon will be defeated by the Medes and Persians (this, in fact, did happen).  That very night, Belshazzar dies.  Shortly thereafter, the Medes conquer Babylon.  For his faithfulness, Daniel survives this conquest, and becomes a court official for the new Medean emperor, Darius.

Country singer Johnny Cash recorded a song called "Belshazzar" about this story from Daniel...

And Rembrandt did a painting called "Belshazzar's Feast" in 1636...

The final, and most famous, test happens when some of Darius’ court officials become jealous of Daniel, and conspire against him.  They convince the emperor to pass a law which states that anyone who prays to any god but the emperor must be killed by lions.  Daniel, the faithful Jew, continues his daily prayers to Yahweh, despite the danger.  He is caught and thrown into a den of lions.  Emperor Darius, who likes Daniel, is actually upset by this, but cannot take back his royal decree.  Amazingly, as Daniel is being thrown to the lions, Darius says, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!”  Miraculously, the lions don’t eat Daniel.  He emerges from the lion’s den unscathed, much to the king’s relief.  Darius then issues a a decree actually urging people to worship Daniel’s God.  The faithful Daniel passes all his tests.

Gospel singer Bessie Jones recorded an amazing song called "Daniel in the Lion's Den"...

And Peter Paul Rubens did a painting called "Daniel in the Lion's Den" in 1615...

Part 2: Apocalyptic Visions (Ch. 7-12)

The apocalyptic visions which comprise the second half of Daniel rival Ezekiel’s in their psychedelic strangeness, horror, and creativity.  But Daniel’s visions are much more complex than Ezekiel’s in their meaning.

In these visions, past, present, and future are collapsed into a kind of ecstatic divine poem which uses memories and legends of the past, and apocalyptic visions of the future to comment on the present situation of persecuted Jews living under the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C.E.  This was indeed a turbulent time in the history  of the Jews.  The “apocryphal” books of Macabees describe a Jewish revolt against their Greek oppressors, and the author(s) of Daniel were probably living and writing in this time of turmoil, calamity, and revolt which must have felt like the end of the world.  The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (again) and Jews were forbidden from certain important religious practices.  The book of Daniel, like pretty much all biblical texts, emerged from a time of suffering and crisis.

Reading the visions of Daniel, I’m again reminded of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land.  After the cultural, social, and political desolation of World War I, Eliot wrote a poem which brilliantly collapsed past, present, and future into an ecstatic vision of the present.  Like the author(s) of Daniel, Eliot used cultural and religious memory and myth to craft a kind of metaphorical vision of the present—full of anguish, desolation…and a little hope.  I have to think that Eliot was inspired by Jewish prophets like Daniel.  I find the visions of Daniel to be astonishingly brilliant works of literature, full of power, grace, and poetry.

I feel like I’m not really going to be able to do this literature justice by trying to summarize it, so I’m not going to.  You’ll just have to read it yourself, preferably with a good commentary (I’ve been using the New Interpreter’s Study Bible).  

The Four Beasts from Daniel's Apocalypse

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Bible and Archaeology Part 1: The Patriarchs

For the past several months, I've been reading the Bible, and writing a "book report" for each book, which will ultimately culminate in a big book report on the whole thing.  Reading an ancient book like the Bible has naturally raised some questions in my mind, most notably--Did that stuff actually happen?  The Bible tells amazing stories of miracles, epic conquests, and calamaties in which God speaks directly to people and acts directly in the world.  It tells of a world of wonders that, frankly, doesn't correspond to my experience of reality. 

And so, to help answer my questions regarding the truthfulness, or historicity, of the Bible stories, I've just finished watching a fantastic four-part documentary series entitled "The Bible Unearthed" hosted by archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and historian Neil Asher Silberman.  The series has a corresponding book of the same name (which I'm currently reading) whose subtitle is "Archaeology's new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts." 

The documentary is divided into four parts, each corresponding to a stage of "history" as told by the Bible: 1.) The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) 2.) The Exodus (Moses and the Israelites' escape from Egypt) 3.) The Kings (David, Solomon, etc.) and 4.) The Book (the scribes, priests, and prophets who first wrote down the stories).  What the film (and the book) seek to do is compare/contrast the stories told in the Bible with what we currently know about the history of the Middle East, based on the latest archaeological discoveries--and new discoveries are constantly being made.  Archaeology, like any science, is an ongoing endeavor and (unlike a static text) a work-in-progress.  While acknowledging the incomplete nature of their task, Finkelstein and Silberman are able to shed some amazing light on the historicity of the Bible stories.

Before getting into specific Bible stories, it's important to know when the Bible stories were first assembled and compiled into something like the form we have today.  In the case of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), this compiling probably happened in the 6th and 7th centures B.C.E., roughly around the time of Israel's defeat and captivity by Babylon.  In another post, I wrote a report on Richard Elliot Friedman's excellent book "Who Wrote the Bible?" which lays our the general arguments for this dating.  You can read that report HERE.

Ironically, it was two great disasters, or calamites, in Israel's history that compelled priests and scribes to assemble scattered traditions and begin compiling them into a single book.  First, in 722 B.C.E., the powerful Assyrian empire conquered and defeated the larger northern kingdom of Israel.  This caused a torrent of refugees to flee south to the much smaller (and less developed) kingdom of Judah, and its capitol Jerusalem.  Suddenly, in a relatively short span of time, this tiny kingdom found its population growing--giving Judah an increasing sense of its importance as a nation.

A king named Josiah began religious and political reforms, which included assembling traditions of north and south into a unifiying national text, full of powerful stories that would give identity and purpose to this emerging nation.  Unfortunately, this glorious project was interrupted when Josiah was killed by Egyptians and the emerging nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon, Jerusalem destroyed, and its people carried away into exile.

King Josiah

It was in exile, in Babylon, that the project begun by Josiah, of creating a book of national/religious identity, would continue with new intensity.  Having lost their land, the book became everything.  Their identity, their history, their hopes and dreams were all placed on this Book.  Other ancient cultures actually referred to the Israelites as "the People of the Book."

With this understanding in mind, that the Bible (for our purposes, the Torah) was written in specific historical circumstances (before and after the exile), for a specific social purpose (to create a national identity) will help us make sense of its stories.  Knowing the context helps us understand texts, especially texts from cultures and times far removed from our own (like the Bible).  The biblical writers were not historians in the modern sense.  They were limited to their received oral traditions and the world in which they lived (and, depending on your level of faith, divine inspiration).  Not surpirsingly, then, as we read these stories, we will quite often find what Finkelstein and Silberman call "seventh century perceptions presented in ancient costume," meaning that the writers' vision of history was informed by their own times.  Sort of like how Italian Renaissance painters imagined that biblical characters dressed like Renaissance-era Italians.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's dive into the archaeology of the Bible, and what it teaches us.  We begin with the stories of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) from the book of Genesis.

The Patriarchs

Finkelstein and Silberman being with an investigation into some of the earliest stories of the Bible--the so-called Patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were like the ancestral "founding fathers" of the nation of Israel.  Is there archaeological evidence that these characters existed?  According the the genealogy of the Bible, Abraham and his sons lived around 2000 B.C.E.

There is no archaeological evidence of real persons named Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.  This, of course, doesn't mean they couldn't have existed.  After all, they were wandering nomads who were probably illiterate.  What traces would they have left?

What is problematic with the biblical accounts of the Patriarchs, what really calls into question their historicity, are historical anachronisms in the text.  That is, references in the stories to things or places which simply did not exist in 2000 B.C.E.  Genesis contains a few notable notable anachronisms:

1.) Domesticated camels.  There are numerous references in the stories of the patriarchs to camels being domesticated and used as beasts of burden.  However, archaeology has shown that camels were not domesticated until well after 1000 B.C.E.  Historical anachronism #1 = domesticated camels.

2.) The existence of the Philistines.  In Genesis chapter 26, Isaac encounters Abimelech, king of the Philistines.  We now know, through archaeology, that the Philistines (or "sea peoples") were not present in Canaan until after 1200 B.C.E.  In 2000 B.C.E., when the partiarches were supposedly wandering around Canaan, there were no Philistines.  Historical anachronism #2 = the Philistines.

3.) The Arameans.  In the stories of Jacob, a people group called the Arameans play a big role.  However, archaeological evidence places the Arameans in the region after 1100 B.C.E.  Historical anachronism #3 = the Arameans.

4.) Assyria.  The book of Genesis contains references to the Assyrian empire, which did not exist in 2000 B.C.E.  Historical anachronism #4 = Assyria.

Finkelstein and Silberman give lots more examples of historical anachronisms, like Arabian trade caravans that did not exist in 2000 B.C.E., plus lots of place names and cultures mentioned in the stories of the Patriarchs which came after the supposed adventures of Abraham, Isaaac, and Jacob.

So how do we make sense of historical anachronisms like the camels, Philistines, Arameans, trade routes, etc.?  Well, they make sense if we understand that the text was compiled around the 7th century B.C.E.  All of the anachronstic place names and things did exist in the 7th century.  The biblical writers did not have access to archaeology.  They had oral traditions and the real world around them. 

These stories make total sense when viewed in light of when/'where they were written--7th century Judah.  The characters and places in the stories of the patriarchs give a brilliant sort of "pious prehistory" to the emerging nation of Judah.  In a sense, the stories of the patriarchs serve as a kind of Judean nationalist propaganda.  But calling them propaganda doesn't do justice to their literary brilliance.  According to Finkelstein and Silberman, the stories of the patriarchs were most likely stitched together from separate traditions of north and south, woven into a kind of family/national history, which is exactly what king Josiah was trying to create after the fall of the northern Kingdom.

Does calling these stories "myth" or "legend" or "prehistory" strip them of their power?  I don't think so.  I think of myth as a truth deeper than mere facts.  I'll end with the words of Finkelstein and Silberman, who put it better than I can:

"The great genius of the seventh century creators of this national epic was the way in which they wove the earlier stories together without stripping them of their humanity or individual distinctiveness.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remain at the same time vivid spiritual portraits and the metaphorical ancestors of thye people of Israel.  And the twelve sons of Jacob were brought into the tradition as junior members of more complete genealogy.  In the artistry of the biblical narrative, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were indeed made into a single family.  It was the power of legend that united them--in a manner far more powerful and timeless than the fleeting adventures of a few historical individuals herding sheep in the highlands of Canaan could ever have done."

Stay tuned for The Bible and Archaeology Part 2: Did the Exodus Happen?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ezekiel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

“The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel.”  —Ezekiel 17: 1

The book of Ezekiel is the strangest, most psychedelic book of the Bible so far.  Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, it was written in reaction to the destruction of Judah by Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.  Ezekiel’s message is similar to Isaiah and Jeremiah (and, it seems, most of the prophets): the kingdom was destroyed because the people were sinful (mainly idolatry).  Ezekiel differs from the other prophets in the imaginative visions he has, and the bizarre performance art he does to illustrate his message.

While in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel sees a vision of divine glory: four heavenly beings arriving in a stormy wind surrounded by fire and lightning.  Each creature has four faces—human, lion, ox, and eagle.  These creatures move about on spherical wheels.  Above these man/lion/ox/eagles is a heavenly dome and a throne upon which sits a human-like form who is probably God.

Then God makes Ezekiel do some really bizarre things...

He must eat a scroll.

He must sit with the exiles in silence for seven days. (That’s actually not that weird.  It was a mourning custom.)

He must shut himself inside his house, bind himself with cords, and speak to no one for a long time.

He must make a miniature model of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem using a brick and some metal pieces.

He must lay on his side for over a year (390 days)!   While laying on his side, he is bound with cords and must continually speak against Israel.  Also, he has to eat food that is cooked over shit.

He must cut his hair and beard with a sword and divide the hair into three parts.  One part he must scatter around the city.  Another part he must scatter to the wind.  The third part he must burn.

After these bizarre antics, which are meant to illustrate how/why Judah was destroyed, Ezekiel pronounces God's wrath on his chosen people...

“My anger shall spend itself, and I will vent my fury on them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury on them.  Moreover I will make you a desolation and an object of mocking among the nations around you, in the sight of all that pass by.”  (5:13-14)

“I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste, throughout all their settlements…then they shall know that I am the Lord.” (6:14)

“Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you;
I will spend my anger against you.” (7:8)

The main “sin” of Israel is idolatry (i.e. worshipping other gods).  Ezekiel has a horrifying vision of six men in robes slaughtering “old men, young men and young women, little children and women” who had the audacity to practice different religions.  Other sins of Israel that Ezekiel cites are social injustice and human sacrifice. 

Then the divine man/lion/ox/eagles reappear and cruise around on their spherical wheels.  These creatures and their vehicles sound, to me, like aliens.  Ancient aliens.  Some artists have actually depicted Ezekiel’s visions as alien encounters.

And then, just like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel switches from “vengeance” mode to “comfort” mode.  He speaks of restoration of Israel after the exile.  God, through Ezekiel, says:

“Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.  Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.” 

And then Ezekiel gives a very beautiful metaphor of inner transformation:

“I will remove their heart of stone…and give them a heart of flesh.” 

Then Ezekiel does some more performance art:

Each morning, he packs his bags and carries his luggage around the city, as a sign of Israel’s exile.

Whenever he eats, he eats “with trembling and fearfulness” as a sign of famine and hunger.

Then Ezekiel harshly criticizes the people of Israel, using metaphors.  He compares them to a useless grape vine.  He compares them to a faithless bride.  He calls them a “whore.”  In a span of 20 verses (16:23-43) he uses the words “whore” or “whoring” 15 times.  He calls them a boiling pot of filth.  

And then God does something terrible.  As a sign of Israel’s destruction, God kills the prophet’s wife…

“The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down.  Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead.  Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet: do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners.  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died.  And on the next morning I did was I was commanded.” (24:15-18)

Ezekiel isn’t even allowed to mourn the death of his wife.  Instead, he is commanded to proclaim the Lord’s judgment and wrath on foreign nations.  God promises to punish and hurt the following nations: Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt, mainly because they had different religions and concepts of the divine.  God is particularly hard on Egypt, saying things like “I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut you off from human being and animal, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste.  Then they shall know that I am the Lord.”  God promises to make lots of places a “desolation”.

Ezekiel criticizes the leaders of Israel, calling them “false shepherds” who mis-lead the people: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

In contrast to the earlier, scary vengeful God, the prophet describes a compassionate God, a shepherd-like God: “For thus says the Lord God: I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  After all they have suffered, God promises a blessing on his people, and restoration.  As with Isaiah and Jeremiah, the picture of God that ultimately emerges from Ezekiel is a complex mixture of wrath and compassion.

To illustrate the ultimate renewal of Israel, Ezekiel is taken to a valley full of dry human bones.  God tells him to speak to the bones and tell them to rise.  In an amazing scene, sinews and flesh begin to grow on the bones, and living human beings emerge from the dry skeletons.  This is a vision of new life, of resurrection after desolation.

God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks and write on them “Judah” and “Ephraim” (another name for the northern kingdom of Israel).  Then God tells the prophet to bind these two sticks together as a sign that the formerly divided kingdom will be unified and made whole again.  

Ezekiel ends with a vision of a new Temple in Jerusalem, to replace the one which had been destroyed.  The temple is described in minute detail, almost like blueprints, which the prophet is told to give to Israel’s leaders so they can follow them.  Just as in the dedication of the first temple, Ezekiel is told that Temple worship will be re-established, the priests will once again minister in Jerusalem, and the land will once again be divided among the ancient tribes of Israel.  I must admit, the book ends quite beautifully, full of hope and promise after so much desolation.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lamentations: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

A “lamentation” is defined as “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”   This perfectly characterizes the biblical book of Lamentations.  It is a collection of five poems of mourning, written on the occasion of the destruction of Judah and its capital Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  It’s a short but powerful book, and perhaps my favorite in the Bible, for reasons both personal and literary.

During my second year of college, I had a total crisis of faith/nervous breakdown that forced me to leave my school in Seattle, and move back home with my parents.  As I struggled to emerge from a crippling depression, I read the Bible.  I wasn’t really reading it devotionally.  I can’t exactly explain why I read it every day.   I had lots of free time.  Maybe I was looking for something to hold onto.   Maybe it was curiosity.  What does it feel like, I wondered, to read the Bible after you’ve lost your faith?  Mostly, I was confused and/or horrified at the gnarly stories in the Old Testament.  But sometimes a book would strike a chord in me.  It would resonate at a human level, despite the fact that I’d lost my faith. 

 That is what the book of Lamentations did for me.  It caught me completely off guard.  I remember reading Lamentations alone in Craig Park in Brea, suffering like a sonofabitch, and crying.  I wasn’t crying for joy.  I was crying for the same reason that you cry when you encounter a piece of art that expresses how you feel better than you can.  That is what Lamentations did for me.  Using the religious language of my upbringing, it expressed how I felt—a depressed, faithless young man having lost himself.  I felt, in my own personal way, like the desolate city of Jerusalem.  The voices of the lonely, haunted, traumatized inhabitants in the poetry of Lamentations expressed an inner truth of my life at that point.  Allow me to quote a few passages to illustrate.  It’s okay to cry.  That’s what Lamentations is all about. 

“How lonely sits the city
That once was full of people…
Judah has gone into exile with suffering…
And finds no resting place…
O Lord, look at my affliction…
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…
For these things I weep…
Zion stretches out her hands,
But there is no one to comfort her…
To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you…
For vast as the sea is your ruin…
Who can heal you?

 I am one who has seen affliction…
He has driven and brought me
Into darkness without any light…
He has made me sit in darkness
Like the dead of long ago…

 He has made me desolate…
My soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
Is wormwood and gall…
My soul continually thinks of it
And is bowed down within me…


And then something amazing happens in the text.  In the midst of this cry of sorrow and defeat, there comes an ecstatic moment of hope that is made all the more astonishing given its context.  This is not cheap hope.  This is hope born of despair.  It’s the kind of crazy hope Fyodor Dostoyevsky sprinkles throughout his novels of suffering.  It’s a totally illogical ecstatic hope, and it breaks my heart and also makes me smile:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’
Says my soul,
‘Therefore I will hope in him.’”

Now, to be honest, when I read that, it wasn’t as if I suddenly re-gained my faith.  Even reading it today, I’m still pretty much an agnostic.  What amazes me about this passage is not God, but the poet.  How can a person who is in the depths of despair and grief, who has lost everything (even his identity) still hope?  I have no idea, but it is something humans are capable of.  It reminds me of a passage from Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, which expresses a similar theme as Lamentations.  I will call that theme “Ecstatic expressions of hope in utterly miserable circumstances.”  In Dostoyevsky’s novel, this monologue is given by a drunken man whose wife hates him, whose daughter is a prostitute, and whose life is complete shit.  After telling his sob story to Raskolnikov (the main character), the bartender asks the old drunk “Why should we pity you?”  And here’s what the man replies:

"Why am I to be pitied, you say ? Yes ! There's nothing  to pity me for ! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross,  not pitied ! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me, but pity me!  And then I will go of myself to be crucified, for it's not merry-making I seek, but tears and tribulation ! . . . Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: 'Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another?  Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?' And He will say, 'Come to me ! I have already forgiven thee once. ... I have forgiven thee once. . . . Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much. . . .' And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it ... I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now ! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. . . . And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. 'You too come forth/ He will say, 'Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame !' And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, 'Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also !' And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, 'Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?' And He will say, This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.' And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him . . . and we shall weep . . . and we shall understand all things ! Then we shall understand all ! . . . and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even . . . she will understand. . . . Lord, Thy kingdom come!"

The book of Lamentations also calls to mind perhaps the most famous poem of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which can be read as a kind of lamentation on the destruction of civilization after World War I.  At the end of the poem, a wounded king looks upon his devastated kingdom and says:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down...
These fragments I have shored against my ruins...
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
shantih    shantih    shantih

The last two lines are from the Hindu scripture Upanishad.  It loosely translates "The peace which passeth understanding."  

I also love the book of Lamentations because it ends on a note of uncertainty, and feels deeply truthful because of this.  The book ends with a plea for mercy from God, but with no indication that this plea will be answered.  The book, like the questions it poses, remains open-ended.

Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old--
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Like the book of Job, Lamentations dives deeply into the quagmire of human suffering, and raises more questions than it answers.  For this reason, I appreciate the little book of Lamentations.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jeremiah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

In my last book report, on Isaiah, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the book’s complexity.  It’s a collection of ancient Hebrew poetry, written by different authors in different socio-political contexts, spanning around 200 years.  I was afraid the same would be true of Jeremiah.  However, as I read through this book, I found its message startlingly simple.  The book was written during and after Israel’s defeat and exile by Babylon in 587 B.C.E.  It seeks to answer two fundamental questions: 1.) Why was Israel defeated? and 2.) Is there hope for the future?  

What’s amazing to me is not the complexity of Jeremiah’s message, but the creative and brutal ways in which he talks shit on Israel, the defeated nation.  As I explained in a previous post, I am deeply disturbed by Jeremiah’s interpretation of history, because it seems demonstrably false and cruel.  The real historical reason why Babylon defeated Israel in 587 B.C.E. was because Babylon was a much stronger nation.  Simple.  This fact doesn’t interest Jeremiah, however, who insists that it was because Israel had “sinned.”  The prophet spends pages and pages writing some of the most vitriolic poetry I’ve ever read to a defeated and traumatized nation, adding insult to injury.  Here are a few examples to illustrate (and there are dozens) Jeremiah’s message to defeated Israel (which basically amounts to “You brought this on yourself”):

“Have you not brought this upon yourself, 
by forsaking the Lord your God?” (2: 17)

“You have polluted the land
with your whoring and wickedness.” (3:3)

“Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom: how bitter it is!” (4:18)

“Shall I not bring retribution
on a nation such as this?” (5:9)

“I will cast you out of my sight.” (7: 15)

“I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people;
they did not turn from their ways.” (15:7)

“Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.  This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will…” (13:8)

"We are fucked!" -- Jeremiah

What is even more disturbing about Jeremiah’s poetry is that its general outlook and worldview has inspired some of the most hateful fundamentalist fanatics even in our own day.  Jerry Falwell comes to mind, who said that AIDS and 9/11 were the result of America’s “godlessness.”  This is also the logic of Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who basically blamed all national tragedies on “the gays” and on non-gays who tolerate their existence.  

Jeremiah is fiercely intolerant of other religions and lifestyles that don’t fit into his narrow definition of how things should be.  The main “sin” of Israel, according to Jeremiah, was that the people allowed other religious practices to exist in their nation.  If Jeremiah had his way, Israel would be a strict theocracy, like Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini.  Religious freedom would be non-existent.  This sort of fierce monotheism/religious intolerance has inspired some of the most unpleasant chapters in world history.  Jeremiah often compares Israel to an unfaithful wife/prostitute who has gone after other religions.  These passages also have disturbing misogynistic overtones. Jeremiah often compares God and Israel’s relationship to a failed marriage, with the blame placed squarely on the woman (Israel):

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?  Would not such a land be greatly polluted?  You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1)

Jeremiah is really repetitive about this whole “Israel as an idolatrous whore” thing.  Speaking to a deeply traumatized people whose land has been invaded and destroyed, Jeremiah’s shows the sensitivity of a grizzly bear.

While, from a 21st century perspective, we may rightly criticize Jeremiah’s perspective, it makes sense in the context of the history of Israel and their relationship with God.  The covenant between God and Israel given by Moses was supposedly what held them together as a nation.  If the people broke this covenant, they were cutting off an important part of their identity.  Also, this covenant (represented by the laws of Moses) was supposedly meant for their good.  Some of Jeremiah’s criticisms of Israel are justified, even by 21st century standards.  For example, the prophet denounces social injustice and oppression.  The prophet writes:

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages.”  (22:13)

It is also important to note that Jeremiah was not a detached observer/criticizer of Israel’s calamities.  He was a Jew, and suffered the same fate as his people.  However disturbing we may find his message, the prophet literally empathizes with his people.  Like most prophets, Jeremiah experiences persecution, loneliness, deprivation, and threats on his life.  Throughout the book, Jeremiah often does performance art pieces which are meant to symbolize the fate of Israel.  They are often humiliating and weird.  For example, he wanders around wearing an ox yoke, to show how Israel will be taken captive to Babylon, like yoked oxen.  

Jeremiah the performance artist.

Here are some passages indicating Jeremiah’s suffering/empathy for his people:

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.”  (4:19)

“For the hurt of my people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (8:21)

“Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!  I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me.”  (15:10)

For all his “doom and gloom” prophecies, Jeremiah is not totally despairing.  His ultimate message is that, while Israel will be defeated and taken to Babylon, they will eventually be restored and allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild.  This, in fact, did happen.  Here are some passages regarding the hope of Israel’s restoration:

“I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land.  I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (24: 6-7)

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11)

“For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord.” (30: 17)

The book of Jeremiah ends with a series of oracles predicting destruction for Israel’s neighbors: Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and finally even Babylon.  The tone and content of these oracles are particularly brutal and vindictive.  Here’s a passage in which God sounds like Thor or The Incredible Hulk:

“You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51: 20-23)

God smash!  The picture of God here is a God of wrath, war, and death.  A scary God.  Overall, the picture of God that emerges from the book of Jeremiah is a complex one.  He is scary and not shy about killing (or smashing) lots of people.  But God is also, at times, loving and compassionate.  I suppose, in this way, the God of Jeremiah is like an alcoholic, abusive husband—mean and scary one moment, kind and loving the next.  Wild mood swings punctuated by violence.

It’s also kind of astonishing, I think, that from one of the weakest nations of the ancient world (Israel), should emerge the idea of this powerful, transcendent God—an idea that still persists today.  While the local gods of the more powerful nations of Egypt and Babylon have faded into myth, the God of Israel is still worshipped by millions of people today.  This, to me, is fascinating.

Jeremiah is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, like many Bible characters.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Anti-Club Playlist 9/12/14

On Fridays, I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante (aka The Anti-Club) with my friend Phil, and sometimes other friends.  Here's what we played last night, with album art.  Click the song title to listen to it...

See you next Friday night at Mulberry St. (aka The Anti-Club)!