The Bible: a Book Report

The following is the result of a six-month project in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarized them in my own words, sometimes adding a bit of context and commentary.  I have also included biblical artwork by famous artists.  Enjoy!

Genesis

At the beginning of time, God made everything.  It took him six days.  He made the stars and the planets first, including earth.  Then he made plants, sea creatures, land animals, and finally humans.  On the seventh day, God took a rest.

"Creation of the World" by William Blake

The first two humans were called Adam and Eve, and they lived in a nice garden called Eden, which was located at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in Mesopotamia, which historians call the “Cradle of Civilization” and modern-day residents call “Iraq.”

In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived happily and naked, and had all they needed to survive.  They could eat anything they wanted, except they could’t eat from this one tree called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”  But a crafty talking snake convinced them to eat from this tree, and suddenly they became all self-conscious and guilt-ridden.  When God found out what happened, he cursed the snake and expelled Adam and Eve from the garden.  They had lost their paradise.

"Adam and Eve Leaving the Garden of Eden" by Lucien Saul

Adam and Eve had two sons named Cain and Abel.  Abel was a shepherd who bred livestock, and Cain was a farmer who raised plants.  For some reason, God preferred the sacrifices of Abel to Cain and this made Cain so jealous that he murdered Abel.  As punishment, God drove Cain away from his family.  Adam and Eve then had another son named Seth, who was a pretty decent guy.

As the generations of humans went on, people became selfish and violent, and God was seriously bummed that he’d created this whole mess.  There was, however, one guy whom God thought was basically good (or at least obedient).  His name was Noah.  God’s solution to the whole “corruption of mankind” thing was to flood the whole world, killing everything except a tiny remnant of humans and animals that could fit on a big boat (built by Noah and his sons).  So that’s what happened.  God basically genocided everything except Noah and his boat full of life.  Presumably the sea creatures survived the flood unscathed, as they could live in water.  They got lucky.

"The Deluge" by Leon Comerre

When the flood subsided, Noah’s boat settled on a mountain and everybody got out.  God promised that this global genocide was just a one-time thing.  Noah got really drunk and passed out naked.  He probably needed to unwind after an ordeal like that.  

So Noah and his family went on living and procreating (albeit with a much more limited gene pool), and slowly the world was re-populated.  For a while, everybody on earth spoke the same language, and stuck together.  They built a city with a tall tower in the middle.  This upset God, and He made everyone speak different languages so they couldn’t communicate, and they were scattered over the earth.

"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel

One of the descendants of Noah was a man named Abram.  God really took a shine to Abram, and promised him that he would be the father of a great nation.  Abram and his wife Sarai traveled around quite a bit, on their way to Canaan, which was the land God had promised them.  They spent some time in Egypt, where they sort of tricked the Pharaoh out of a good deal of money and possessions.  Then they arrived in Canaan.  

Unfortunately, they picked a really bad time to settle in Canaan because there was a massive war going on between nine different kings.  It was like Game of Thrones.  Abram and Sarai managed to survive the war unscathed.  After the war, when things had settled down a bit, God told Abram to circumcise himself and all the men in his tribe.  This was such a big deal that, when Abram circumcised himself, God changed his name to Abraham.

Meanwhile, Abraham’s nephew Lot was having some troubles in his town, a little place called Sodom.  God thought the citizens of Sodom were bad people, and he was planning on burning them all up with fire.  Abraham bargained with God for a while, trying to prevent this genocide.  God promised to save Lot and his family, but Sodom was going down, in flames.

God sent a couple angels to Lot’s house in Sodom, to help his family escape.  The people of Sodom wanted to rape these angels.  Lot’s solution was to let them rape his virgin daughters instead.  But the angels made all the would-be rapists blind, and Lot and his family escaped.  God burned up those cities with fire, presumably because they were full of inhospitable rapists.  As the fire was raining down, Lot’s wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt.

"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" by John Martin

After escaping to the mountains, Lot’s daughters wanted to keep the family line going and decided to get their dad drunk and have sex with him.  So that’s what they did.  Lot disappears from the story after that.

Meanwhile, Abraham’s wife Sarah (her name had been changed too) gave birth to a son named Isaac, which was amazing because she was really old.  Unfortunately, when Isaac was a little boy, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, as a kind of loyalty test.  So Abraham took his son to the top of a mountain, bound Isaac, and was about to murder his only son and heir.  At the last minute, God provided a ram to sacrifice instead, and God was happy with Abraham’s loyalty.  Shortly thereafter, Sarah died.

"Abraham and Isaac" by Rembrandt van Rijn

When Isaac became “of age” his father decided it was time to get him a wife.  He sent his servant to get him a wife from his relatives, and so Isaac married his second cousin, Rebekah.  Rebekah gave birth to twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  Jacob was a conniving scoundrel.  He stole his brother’s birthright (inheritance), and his father’s blessing.   God renewed his promise to both Isaac and Jacob, that they would be the fathers of a great nation.

Jacob married sisters named Rachel and Leah, who were also his cousins.  Because he was so conniving, he became very wealthy.  In addition to his two wives, he also had concubines.  One night, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man (who may have been God), and his name was changed from Jacob to Israel.  Israel became the father of the twelve tribes of nation of Israel (which were named after his twelve sons).  This would not happen until centuries later, however.

"Jacob Wrestling With the Angel of God" by Jack Baumgartner

Jacob had a daughter named Dinah, and she was raped by a prince named Shechem.  Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi took revenge on Shechem’s people by circumcising them, murdering them, and looting their city.  This caused Israel’s neighbors to hate his family, so the whole Israel family moved.

Israel’s favorite son was named Joseph, and he made him a multi-colored coat, which made his brothers green with envy.  It didn’t help that Joseph had dreams of his brothers bowing down and serving him.  His brothers became so jealous that they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

Joseph was such a good guy, however, that he became well-respected in Egypt, until a sex scandal landed him in prison.  In prison, however, he earned a reputation as an accurate interpreter of dreams.  The Pharaoh of Egypt was having troubling dreams, and he sent for Joseph to interpret them.  Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams, and Joseph was named a ruler of Egypt.

I couldn't resist.

Years later, when there was a famine, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to buy grain.  At first they did not recognize their brother (thinking he was dead).  After fucking with them for a while, Joseph revealed himself, and there was a lovely family reunion.  Israel and his sons all moved to Egypt, where they were given land, and prospered for a while.  But hard times were coming for the sons of Israel.  

Exodus

The descendants of Israel lived and multiplied and prospered in Egypt.  After a while, the Israelites grew so numerous that the Pharaoh began to fear them.  He thought they might rise up and rebel.  So Pharoah’s solution to avoid potential rebellion was to enslave and oppress the Israelites, a strategy which, historically, tends to backfire.  But the Israelites continued living and fucking and multiplying.  Pharaoh finally decreed that all Israelite male babies born had to be killed.  For someone trying to avoid rebellion, Pharaoh was not doing a very good job.

Israelite slaves in Egypt.

In the midst of all this death and oppression, an Israelite boy was born whose mother refused to let him be killed.  Instead, she put him a floating basket in the Nile river.  The daughter of Pharaoh found him and took him as her son.  She named him Moses.

As Moses grew older and saw the oppression of his people, his conscience was stirred.  One day, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, and Moses got so mad that he killed the Egyptian.  Word of this reached Pharaoh, who ordered Moses’ death, but Moses fled to the land of Midian.

In Midian, Moses became a shepherd and married a woman named Zipporah, whose father Jethro was the priest of their tribe.  While watching his sheep one day, Moses came upon a burning bush and heard the voice of God.  The Lord of the Universe spoke from this bush, telling Moses that he had seen Israel’s suffering (by this time, Israel had been in bondage for over 400 years), and planned on liberating them.  Moses, God said, was to be the leader of this liberation.

"Moses and the Burning Bush" by Marc Chagall

Moses was skeptical at first, so God gave him some magic powers, to prove to the Egyptians that God was on his side.  One power was the ability to transform his walking stick into a snake.  Another one was the ability to make his hand look like it had leprosy, and then to “cure” it.  Moses was still afraid, because he was shy about public speaking.  God became a little angry at this point,  thinking the magic powers should have given him enough confidence.  But Moses was so shy and cowardly that God appointed his brother, Aaron, to do the public speaking bits.

So Moses, Aaron, and their families went to Egypt and Aaron told the Pharaoh that he needed to free all the Israelite slaves.  Moses silently did magic tricks as Aaron spoke.  Pharaoh was not willing to give up his free labor force, so he refused.  He was so angry that these two Israelite peasants even asked for freedom that Pharaoh actually increased the labor quotas.

Realizing that magic tricks were not enough to convince the most powerful man in the world to free a million slaves, God decided to bring out the “big guns” and “take the gloves off” so to speak.  God turned the Nile River, Egypt’s main water source, into blood.   Then God unleashed a series of devastating plagues upon Egypt, a “shock and awe” campaign meant to bring the nation to its knees.  He filled the land with frogs.  He covered the land with various insects: gnats and locusts, which ate up all the crops.  He killed all the livestock.  He gave everyone horrible boils.  He rained fiery hail on Egypt.  He covered the land with darkness for three days straight.  But still, Pharaoh would not let Israel go free.  So God sent one final plague.  He killed all the first born of Egypt, including Pharoah’s son.  That did the trick.  With his son dead, and his country devastated, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go.

"Lamentations Over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt" by Charles Sprague Pearce

After celebrating with the first Passover feast, Moses led a million formers slaves out of Egypt, along with lots of gold and silver, to boot.  By this point, all the Egyptians were so afraid of the Israelites, that they gave them a bunch of free shit, as long as they left.

Having been slaves for over 400 years, the Israelites didn’t have a good sense of geography, so God showed them where to go with a big moving cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night.  Shortly after the Exodus of the Israelites, Pharaoh changed his mind, and pursued them with lots of men and chariots, but Moses had another trick up his sleeve.  He raised his staff, and God parted the waters of the Red Sea, so the Israelites could pass through it, but the pursuing Egyptians were drowned.  This is a very dramatic scene in the Charlton Heston film The Ten Commandments.  With their pursuers drowned, the Israelites all sang a song, gloating about the power of their God over other gods, and about how other nations could fuck off.

Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments"

After wandering for a while in the wilderness, the Israelites became very thirsty and hungry and complained to Moses.  So God provided them with water from a rock, and with magical bread from heaven, and loads of dead quails (good eating).  The Israelites fought a battle with king Amalek, and won, because God was on their side.

Moses was feeling mighty burdened with the responsibility of leading a million people, so his father-in-law suggested that he appoint underlings to do some of the day-to-day administrative tasks, and this freed him up a bit.

At this point, the story of Exodus gets a little boring.  They arrive at a big mountain, and Moses goes up to the top and God gives him a really long list of rules and laws that the Israelites have to obey if they want his protection.  These rules and laws contain the famous “Ten Commandments” but they also contain lots of weird stuff.  For example, there are rules regarding how to treat slaves.  One wold think that, after having been enslaved for 400 years, the Israelites would not be interested in owning slaves, but apparently they were.  There are pages and pages of rules, some of which are very strange.  Lots of them have to do with animals—don’t steal animals, don’t fuck them, etc.

And then God gives Moses these elaborate blueprints for a tabernacle (a sort of portable shrine) and other things for worship purposes.  These blueprints go on for pages and pages, dictating everything from how to make the curtains to which kinds of metal to use for the curtain rings.  God is a VERY particular interior decorator.

After receiving all these rules and interior decorating commands, God inscribes everything on stone tablets, just to make sure Moses gets it right.  God forbid the tabernacle curtain rings should be silver, and not gold.  Moses descends the mountain to rejoin his people with these brand new tablets of the law, literally written by the finger of God.  He is excited, but probably also exhausted (and maybe a bit confused about God’s obsession with interior decorating.)

"Moses With the Ten Commandments" by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Anyway, Moses descends the mountain and finds all the people worshipping this golden calf!  WTF?!  Moses thought.  He got so angry that he shattered the stone tablets, ground up the golden calf, poured the gold dust into cups of water, and made the people drink it.  Moses was pissed.  And so was God.  God wanted to go ahead and genocide them.  But Moses argued with God, and God changed his mind about genocide.  Phew, thought Moses.  Oh, and Moses also ordered 3,000 Israelites killed.

After this debacle, the Israelites continued their journey toward their Promised Homeland.  God gave Moses new tablets, and the people followed God’s blueprints to build the elaborate tabernacle.  When the tabernacle was finished, God showed himself to Israel by descending upon it in a glorious cloud.  Then they knew that things were cool between them and God.  For now…

Leviticus

The book of Leviticus is mainly a book of laws regarding animal sacrifices, dietary restrictions, menstruation, dermatology, bodily emissions, sexual behavior, and what must be done if these laws are broken (mostly, it’s animal sacrifices).  

God loves animal sacrifices, particularly their odor.  The priests of Israel (Aaron and his sons) are tasked with conducting the huge amount of animal sacrifices God requires, and they must follow very careful instructions for each kind of animal sacrifice.  For example, when sacrificing pigeons or turtledoves, they must wring the bird’s head off, tear off its crop, and partially tear its wings before burning it on an altar.

When sacrificing a bull, the priests must slay it, sprinkle its blood around the altar, skin it, cut it into pieces, carefully arrange the pieces, and wash the hind legs and entrails, before burning it on the altar.

"Priestly Duties" by Johann Christoph Weigel

These burnt sacrifices are described as “a soothing aroma for the Lord.”  God apparently gets quite anxious, and it takes constant methodical slaughtering and burning of animals to calm Him down.

The priests were constantly slaughtering animals as atonement for even the slightest sins of Israel.  Even accidental sins counted.  This system was actually a pretty good deal for the priests, because they were allowed to eat portions of most sacrifices.  The priests were always well-fed.  In fact, given the enormous among of slaughtering and sacrificing they did, I imagine they were quite obese.

The laws of Leviticus are very specific about which animals are not to be eaten (i.e. “unclean”).  These unclean animals include: camels, rock badgers, rabbits, pigs, shellfish, eagles, vultures, buzzards, ostriches, owls, bats, moles, mice, lizards, geckos, crocodiles, and chameleons.  Israelites were not even supposed to touch these animals.

Rock Badger

The laws of Leviticus are particularly hard on women.  Both menstruation and childbirth make a woman “unclean” and require sacrifices for atonement, as if the mere fact of being a woman was somehow sinful and unclean.  This is also evident in the fact that, after the birth of a girl, a woman was unclean for twice as long as when she gave birth to a boy.  When a woman was menstruating, she was considered “unclean” for seven days and no one was allowed to touch her, or even to touch anything she touched, lest they become unclean.

There are literally pages of laws dealing with skin diseases, especially leprosy.  If someone had a skin disease, they had to go live alone outside the community.  Wherever they went, they had to cry out “Unclean!  Unclean!” so people would know to avoid them.  If they got better, they could re-enter the community, but not before (you guessed it!) more animal sacrifices.

Bodily emissions also make people unclean.  If a man ejaculates in any context, he becomes unclean and must purify himself and offer animal sacrifices.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the book of Leviticus.  It was what they called a goat upon whom the priests magically placed the sins of the people, and then sent out into the wilderness.

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

Regarding human sexuality, incest is forbidden, along with male (but not female) homosexuality, and bestiality.

There are many laws dealing with human relationships.  Children must revere their parents.  People are commanded to provide food for the poor.  They are not to exploit or oppress one another, though slavery is permitted.  Vengeance and hatred are forbidden.  Leviticus states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Hospitality is required toward strangers.  If you kill someone, you must be killed, eye for an eye.

Blasphemy is definitely forbidden, and punishable by stoning.  So is idolatry.  The Israelites were fiercely monotheistic, and not tolerant of other religions.

"The Blasphemer" by William Blake

Tattoos are forbidden, as well as trimming one’s beard and sideburns.  Wearing clothes made from two kinds of fabric is forbidden.

If the people obey these commands, they will have peace and prosperity, and will be able to conquer the land promised to them.  If they disobey these commands, God will severely punish his people with sickness, wild beasts, pestilence, cannibalism, and utter destruction.  If, however, the people return to God after falling away, he will forgive them.

All of these laws were given to Moses on the mountain, along with the other laws stated in Exodus.  I can't imagine how all these laws fit onto two stone tablets.  God must have had very tiny handwriting.


"The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant" by Peter Paul Rubens
Numbers

In the wilderness around Mt. Sinai, God told Moses to take a census of the people of Israel, so he did.  He also organized them into tribal camps, each tribe named after a different son of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Gad, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, and Levi.

Moses was specifically asked to count the number of males of fighting age, of warriors, because God was turning them into a massive invading army, so they could conquer the “Promised Land” of Canaan (which was inhabited by other people who weren’t keen on moving).  The Canaanites would have to be killed, and their cities destroyed, with God’s blessing.  Organized for war, the Israelites set out toward their future homeland.

One tribe was exempted from military service—Levi, the tribe of priests who were constantly getting free stuff from the other tribes, and got to retire at age 50.  Based on the massive perks they got, one might wonder if priests wrote these books.

So the Israelites set out for Canaan, and immediately started complaining to Moses that they were sick of eating the same food everyday—the manna from heaven.  They wanted meat.  God got really pissed and started burning the Israelites with fire, but Moses interceded and God stopped burning them.  God was like, “Alright, Israel, you want meat, I’ll give you meat, I’ll give you meat “until it comes our of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”  So God rained down millions of quails infected with plague, and lots of people got sick and died.

"A Plague Inflicted on Israel While Eating the Quails" by Gerard Hoet

Then Moses’ brother and sister (Aaron and Miriam) started complaining about Moses’s wife, so God punished Miriam with leprosy, and she had to live alone outside the camp for a while.  God did not punish Aaron.  Sexism?

When Israel neared Canaan, God told Moses to send out spies to see what the land was like, and if there were any weaknesses.  Two spies, Joshua and Caleb, gave a good report, basically saying, “This land is awesome.  We can totally conquer it.”  But the other spies were less confident, so the people started complaining again.  They were afraid, and actually wanted to go back to Egypt, and they tried to stone Josuha and Caleb.  

How did God react to this?  He got pissed, and intended to smite his people with pestilence and wipe them out.  Again, Moses reasoned with God, basically saying, “Look, God, I know you’re angry.  But if you kill these people who you went to all that trouble to liberate, the other nations will think you are weak.”  God, who was very concerned with his reputation, decided not to kill his people.  Instead, God said that none of the people he liberated would enter the promised land.  Instead, he said, “Your corpses shall fall in the wilderness.”  The nation of Israel would have to wait 40 years, until an entire generation had died out, before entering the promised land.  That way, God got his revenge on his people, kept his promise to them,  AND kept his reputation as a God with whom you did not want to fuck.  Meanwhile, an entire generation of former slaves would have to wander in exile and die.

As one might imagine, this did not go over well with the Israelites.  Some of them were like, fuck this, let’s just go ahead and invade Canaan anyway.  So they attacked the Amalekites…and got their asses kicked.  Israel needed God to win wars.  They were just going to have to wait until he was less angry, and they were more dead.

While they were wandering and waiting, God thought it was a good time to give some more laws, and do some fashion design.  He commanded all the men to wear tassels on their shirts.  What could the men do?  If God wanted tassels, they had to wear tassels.

At this point, some of the Israelites got fed up with Moses and God and all these plagues and fire and tassels.  They rebelled and tried to form their own group.  God responded to this by opening up the ground and swallowing all the rebels, killing them.  This made more people mad, and they complained, and that made God mad, and so He sent another plague, killing over 14,000 people.  Whether they liked it or not, Israel was stuck with this God.  

The Israelites came to a place called Meribah and ran out of water again, and complained again.  God allowed water to come out of a rock, but there was a cost.  Moses himself would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  

"Moses Draws Water from the Rock" by Francois Perrier

Israel continued wandering, and got attacked by the king of Arad, and God helped them win, and utterly destroy their cities.

Again, Israel ran out of food and water, and complained, so God killed a bunch of them with fiery serpents.  God was always thinking of new and creative ways to kill his chosen people.

Israel went on to defeat more peoples, the Amorites and the people of Bashan.  As per God’s orders, they killed everyone in the land, leaving no survivors.  it was total genocide.

The king of Moab heard about Israel’s genocidal slaughterfests, and he was terrified for his people.  Israel was dangerous, and their God was super powerful and not shy about genocide.  So the king of Moab sent for a famous prophet named Balaam, hoping this prophet could bless Moab and get them some divine protection.  But God spoke to Balaam and told him not to curse Israel, so Balaam agreed.  God was a little mad at Balaam for even considering cursing Israel so, while Balaam was traveling, God blocked his way with an angel, and Balaam’s donkey got spooked and fell on him.  God allowed the donkey to speak to Balaam, and express his anger.

"Balaam and the Angel" by Michel Wolgemut

Then Balaam went to the king of Moab and, instead of cursing Israel, actually blessed them, and offered some dire predictions for the inhabitants of Canaan:

“Behold, a people [Israel] rises like a lioness,
And as a lion it lifts itself;
It shall not lie down until it devours the prey,
And drinks the blood of the slain.”

The king of Moab was, needless to say, quite unhappy with Balaam and his prophecies.

But, instead of killing the Moabites, the Israelites had sex with them and even started worshipping their gods.  Bad decision, Israelites.  God sent another plague, killing 24,000 people.

Some time passed, God gave more laws, Israel wandered more, slaughtered the Midianites and took their virgins as booty, Moses took another census, etc.  Finally, Israel arrived at the border of the Promised Land, and God told them to prepare to inflict some serious genocide.

Deuteronomy

Not much happens in the book of Deuteronomy, plot-wise, until the very end when (spoiler alert!) Moses dies.  The book is basically a re-telling of the adventures of Israel, as was told in Exodus and Numbers.  Most of the book is written in first person, from the perspective of Moses as he re-counts Israel’s history so far—reminding them of their laws, and encouraging them to stay faithful to God.  If they obey God’s laws, they will take possession of the Promised Land.  If they disobey God’s laws, they will suffer and wander in exile and die.  The book continually emphasizes the covenant (or contingent agreement) between Israel and God.  If they obey, they will prosper.  If they disobey, they will suffer.

Deuteronomy also offers a bit of commentary on the events of Exodus and Numbers, and complicates the admittedly scary picture of God we find there.  God is described as both “a jealous God” and “a compassionate God.”  God is described as, astonishingly, a God of love.  The reason Israel has suffered so much is “Because he loved your fathers, therefore he chose their descendants after them.”  The reason he has smited them so much was to discipline them, as a father disciplines a son.  Deuteronomy is very repetitive, almost like a song or poem whose main theme is “Obey: prosper…Disobey: suffer.”

"Moses Receiving the Law and Reading the Law to the Israelites" anonymous, circa 840

God explains why he is about to let Israel wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan: they are wicked, and have worshipped other gods.  When Israel conquers Canaan, they are to kill everyone, and destroy all their idols and altars.  God is not into religious tolerance.

The God of Deuteronomy is a God of both justice and mercy.  God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.”  Israel is also commanded to be both just and merciful.  Laws concerning poverty are actually quite radical.  Every seven years, all debts are to be forgiven.  Consequently, “there shall be no poor among you,” because “you shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and the poor in your land.”

Moses shares some new laws with Israel, to fit their new circumstances.  If (and when) they have a king, he is not to take multiple wives or hoard wealth, so that “his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen.”  In short, Israel’s kings must be humble, and not too wealthy.  Regarding warfare, Israel is to utterly destroy everyone in Canaan.

There are lots of really weird laws too.  Cross-dressing is forbidden, as is castration.  If two men are fighting, and the wife of one man grabs the other guy’s balls, her hand must be cut off.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses writes a song, blessing all the tribes of Israel.  Then he ascends a mountain and is allowed to view (but not enter) the Promised Land before he dies, at age 120.  Before his death, Moses names Joshua as his successor.  It is Joshua who will lead Israel on their conquest of Canaan.


"Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar" by James Tissot
Joshua

After Moses’ death, the Lord spoke to Joshua (Moses’ successor) and promised him that if Israel kept God’s commandments, He would help them conquer Canaan.

Joshua sent spies across the Jordan river, to check out the city of Jericho and see if it had any weaknesses.  The spies were sheltered by a prostitute named Rahab, who also helped them escape.  Consequently, the spies promised that when Israel destroyed Jericho, her family would be spared.  So the spies returned to Joshua and said, “Jericho is terrified of us.  We can totally take them out.”

So God parted the Jordan river, and the nation of Israel passed into Canaan, and built an altar with the laws written on it.  Joshua then circumcised the new generation of Israelites.  When their penises were healed, they prepared to invade Jericho.

On the eve of the invasion, an angel carrying a sword appeared to Joshua, saying that he commanded the armies of the Lord.

God gave Joshua very specific instructions on how to conquer Jericho.  They had to march around the city every day for seven days.  On the seventh day, the priests blew their trumpets and all the people shouted and the walls of the city came crashing down.  Then the Israeli warriors entered the city and “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both men and women, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”  Total genocide.  Rahab and her family were spared, however.  After taking some gold and treasure, Israel burned the city to the ground.

"The Walls of Jericho Fallen Down" by Gustave Dore

God was very specific about the things which could be looted from destroyed cities.  A few Israelites took some things they were not allowed to take, so Israel lost its next battle.  When Joshua learned about these looters, he had them stoned and burned.  That satisfied God, and Israel could go on conquering.

The next city they conquered was called Ai.  Israel used a clever two-front ambush strategy (it was God’s idea) to defeat Ai, and killed everyone except the king of Ai, whom they brought alive to Joshua, who hanged him, and then built an altar to the Lord.

"Josuha Burns the Town of Ai" by Gustave Dore

A few cities of Canaan heard about Israel’s conquests, and thought of a clever way to avoid being destroyed.  They dressed as poor wandering beggars and told Joshua they were from far away, and asked for a peace treaty, which Joshua signed.  Joshua soon learned about their deception, and he made them all slaves, instead of killing them.

A coalition of five armies then attacked Israel, and Israel defeated them all.  God helped in this victory by raining down giant rocks from the sky on the five king’s armies.  God also allowed the sun to stand still in the sky, so the battle lasted a bit longer than normal.  After the five armies were defeated, the kings of the armies went and hid in a cave.  Joshua found them, dragged them out and commanded the leaders of Israel to put their feet on the necks of these kings.  Then Joshua hanged the five kings, and threw their bodies back in the cave.

"Destruction of the Army of the Amorites" by Gustave Dore

Under the command of Josuha, and with the Lord’s blessing, Israel went on to defeat 31 kings in Canaan, killing everyone and utterly destroying their cities, leaving no survivors.  It was genocide.  It was ethnic cleansing.  It was fucking brutal.

Then Joshua divided up the newly-conquered land among the twelve tribes of Israel.  He also established six “cities of refuge” which were special cities where those accused of manslaughter could flee to, and not be killed.  Though the Levites (priests) did not get an official territory, they did get 48 cities, scattered throughout Canaan.  There was a brief disagreement when a few tribes set up an altar apart from the main altar, but they worked it out.

The book ends with Joshua, as an old man, giving a speech to Israel, whose main theme is “Continue to obey God’s laws, and you will be able to remain in this promised land and prosper.  Disobey God’s laws, and other nations will invade and defeat you.”  Then Joshua died, at the ripe old age of 110.

Judges

The book of Judges is about what happened to Israel after they had taken possession of the Promised Land.  Basically, they fell into this pattern of serving other gods, getting conquered, and then being delivered by a “Judge,” a kind of holy hero.

When Israel began serving the local Canaanite god Baal, God allowed them to be conquered by Mesopotamia (a kingdom to the north), and Israel became their servants for eight years.  Then God raised up the first judge, Othniel, the younger brother of Caleb, and he delivered Israel from the Mesopotamians.

Israel was obedient for forty years, but then they began to disobey God, so they were conquered by Moab, and became servants for eighteen years.  Then God raised up the second judge, Ehud, who was left-handed.  Ehud visited the king of Moab (who was very fat) and said, “I have a message from God for you,” and then he plunged his sword deep into the fat belly of the king of Moab, spilling guts and shit everywhere.  Then Ehud led Israel, and they defeated Moab, and had peace for eighty years.

"Ehud Kills Eglon (King of Moab)" by Ford Madox Brown

The Philistines then conquered Israel, and God raised up the next judge, Shamgar, who single-handedly killed six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad, and delivered his people.

Israel again began to disobey God, so they were conquered by a Canaanite king called Jabin.  At this time, there was a female judge/prophetess in Israel named Deborah.  She was very wise, and people would visit her for counsel.  Deborah and a guy named Barak led an attack on Jabin’s forces, and defeated them.  The commander of Jabin’s army was a guy named Sisera.  He fled the battle and took refuge in the tent of a woman named Jael.  While Sisera was sleeping, Jael drove a tent peg into his temple, killing him.  Thus, Israel was delivered from Jabin, king of Canaan.  After their victory, Deborah and Barak sang a song.

"Jael Killing Sisera" by Felice Ficherelli

The land of Israel had peace for forty years, but then (surprise, surprise) Israel began to disobey God, and the Midianites began to oppress them by destroying their crops and livestock.  The Israelites were so destitute and desperate that they started living in caves.  So God raised up the next judge, whose name was Gideon.  Gideon was an unlikely hero, from a small tribe, and the youngest of his family.  One day, while he was working, an angel visited him, saying, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.”  This caught Gideon off guard.  He was not a valiant warrior.  God gave Gideon a few signs that He was for real, and told Gideon to destroy the altar to Baal in his town, so Gideon did.  This pissed off the people of the town, who wanted to kill Gideon.  But Gideon’s father stood up for his son, basically saying, “If Baal is really God, can’t he fend for himself?”  Then Gideon raised a small force of 300 warriors, and they attacked the Midianites, and won!

"Battle of Gideon Against the Midianites" by Nicolas Poussin

The Israelites were so happy with Gideon that they wanted to make him king, but he refused, saying, “The Lord shall rule over you.”  Instead, Gideon asked for a bunch of earrings, which he melted down and made an idol, which made no sense.  Israel had peace for forty years.  

After Gideon’s death, his son Abimelech conspired to make himself king of Israel.  He killed all his brothers, and basically proclaimed himself king, but his reign only lasted three years.  He was killed suddenly when a woman dropped a millstone on his head.  Good riddance.

After Abimelech’s death, there was intermittent peace in Israel, occasionally interrupted by war against the Philistines.  One significant judge during this time was Jephthah, who was the son of a prostitute, and consequently people looked down on him.  However, he was such a valiant warrior that he delivered Israel from their oppressors.  Before one battle, Jephthah made a tragic vow to the Lord.  He said, “If You will let me win this battle, then, when I get home, I will sacrifice whatever comes out of the house to greet me.”  He won the battle, returned home, and it was his only daughter who came out to greet him.  He wept, she wept, and then he sacrificed her.

"Jepththah's Sacrifice" (artist unknown)

After that, there was a brief civil war in Israel, followed by intermittent periods of war and peace.

Years later, when the Philistines were again oppressing Israel, an angel appeared to a barren woman and said that she was going to give birth to a very special child, who was to be dedicated to the Lord.  The boy’s name was Samson.  He never cut his hair, and he never drank alcohol.  He grew up to be super strong.  One time, Samson killed a lion with his bare hands, for example.

Samson tended to be attracted to Philistine women, which made his life complicated.  His wives were always tricking him into revealing secrets, and then passing those secrets along to Philistine leaders.  Meanwhile, Samson was wreaking havoc on the land of the Philistines, burning their crops, killing their warriors.  Once, he killed a thousand men with just a ram’s jaw bone.  Samson was badass.

Once, a Philistine woman named Delilah tricked him, and cut his hair while he was sleeping.  Consequently, Samson lost his strength (his hair being the source of his strength), and the Philistines captured him and gouged his eyes out and put him in prison.  But Samson’s hair slowly grew back, and he got his revenge by destroying a Philistine temple, killing 3,000 people.  Samson, the last judge of Israel, went out with a bang.

"Samson Destroys the Temple" by Marc Chagall

The book of Judges ends with a civil war between several tribes of Israel, and the tribe of Benjamin.  The war was sparked when some Benjamites raped and killed the concubine of a priest.  The priest was so outraged, that he cut up the woman’s body into twelve pieces, and sent the pieces to each tribe, as a witness against Benjamin.  So there was a massive, and bloody civil war, and the tribe of Benjamin was mostly destroyed, except for a few survivors.  

Judges ends with this quote: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  This suggests that, given the volatile place Israel had become, perhaps they needed a king to provide a sense of unity.
Ruth

In the days when Judges ruled Israel, before there was a king, there was a famine in the land.  An Israelite man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons moved to Moab, a neighboring kingdom, hoping to survive the famine.

The two sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.  Then Elimelech and his sons died, and Naomi was left with only her two daughters-in-law.  By this time, the famine in Israel had ended, so Naomi returned home.  Ruth was kind and compassionate, and decided to accompany her mother-in-law.    She could see that Naomi was grieving, and that she had little chance of financial or social security.  So Naomi and Ruth lived together in Bethlehem.

There was a law in Israel that said that poor people and immigrants were allowed to pick up the leftover food from other people’s fields.  So Ruth went to this guy Boaz’s field and picked some food.  Boaz had compassion on Ruth and gave her extra food.

After a brief courtship, Boaz and Ruth got married.  Because Israel was an essentially patriarchal society, this marriage allowed for financial and social security for both Ruth and Naomi.  Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed, who became the grandfather of Israel’s most famous king, David.

The book of Ruth seems to be emphasizing the fact that even Israel’s greatest kings had a mixed ancestry.  The tone of the book is much more gentle, compassionate, and inclusive than the bloody battles of Joshua and Judges.  Ruth is a brief story of peace amidst a very turbulent history.

"Ruth and Boaz" by David Wilkie Winfield

1 Samuel

Toward the end of era of the Judges of Israel, there lived a man named Elkanah.  He had two wives named Peninnah and Hannah.  Peninnah had sons but Hannah was barren (unable to conceive), and this made her very sad.

Once, while Elkanah and his family were offering their yearly sacrifices, Hannah prayed for a son.  The priest Eli blessed her, and soon after she had a son named Samuel.  Hannah sang a song and dedicated Samuel to God, to become a priest.  The boy Samuel lived with the priest Eli and his two sons.  One day, God called Samuel and told him that he would be a great prophet and priest of Israel, and that Eli and his sons would no longer be priests.

Meanwhile, Israel’s neighbors, the Philistines, attacked them, and stole the Ark of the Covenant.  They put the Ark in the temple of their god, Dagon.  This angered the Lord, so he made the Dagon statue fall down before the Ark, and broke off his hands and head.  Wherever the Philistines took the Ark, a great plague would break out, so finally they returned the Ark to Israel.  Israel went on to defeat the Philistines in battle.  Meanwhile, Samuel became famous as a great prophet and priest of Israel.

The elders of Israel told Samuel that they wanted a king, like the other surrounding nations.  Samuel warned them that a king would oppress and tax them, but the people were insistent, so Samuel (and God) said, “Alright, you can have a king.”  Samuel (and God’s) first choice for a king was a guy named Saul, who was very tall and handsome.  Samuel anointed Saul and proclaimed him king, though they both had reservations about the whole thing.  For example, at the anointing ceremony, Saul hid in his luggage, he was so afraid.  But, finally, he was anointed.

"Saul Hiding Among the Stuff" by James Smetham (1866)

At first, Saul turned out to be a great king.  He led Israel to victory against the Ammonites and the Philistines.  But then Saul started making mistakes.  Once, he took over the role of the priests and offered a sacrifice, which angered Samuel.  Another time, during battle, he ordered his men not to eat until they were victorious, which made them unnecessarily tired.  God also got mad when he took some extra booty from one military campaign, and spared the life of the king.  It eventually became clear that Saul was a flawed king.  So Samuel gave up on him, and went in search of a better king, and found one in David, a young shepherd.  Samuel anointed David, but it would be a while before he became king.  

Once, when the Israelites were (again) fighting the Philistines, the young David became a hero by killing the strongest of the Philistines, Goliath ( a gigantic man), with only a sling and some stones.  Then David cut Goliath's head off.

"David and Goliath" by Titian (1544)

Saul welcomed David into his house, and gave him his daughter Michal as a wife.  Also, David and Saul’s son Jonathan became best friends.  Saul began to develop anxiety and depression, and David’s harp playing and singing comforted him.

But Saul soon became jealous of David, because the people seemed to love him more.  Saul tried to kill David with his spear, but David escaped, with Jonathan’s help.  Thus began a great chase throughout Isreal—Saul in pursuit of David, trying to kill him.  Saul was on a rampage.  He even went so far as to kill a whole city of priests and their families, whom he suspected of helping David.  It became increasingly clear that Saul was spiraling into despair and madness, as David was gaining favor with God and the people of Israel.

"Saul Attacking David" by Guercino (1646)

A critical moment came when David was hiding in a cave, and Saul came into that same cave to take a piss.  David could have killed his enemy in the darkness of that cave.  Instead, he slyly cut a piece of Saul’s robe off.  Then, outside the cave, David showed himself, and told Saul that he just spared his life.  Saul was so moved by this that he decided to stop pursuing David, and even referred to him as “My son David.”  Saul wept, and finally acknowledged that David would make a better king.

Then the prophet Samuel died.

When David and his men were traveling through the land, they came upon the flocks of a man named Nabal, and helped the shepherds with their sheep.  David then asked Nabal for some food for him and his men.  But Nabal, being greedy, did not send anything.  So David and his men went to kill Nabal and his house.  But Abigal, Nabal’s wife, interceded, giving them food.  Nabal soon died, and David took Abigal as his third wife (his other wives were Michal and Ahinoam).

Apparently, Saul’s forgiveness of David was short-lived, because Saul once again began pursuing David.  Again, David spared Saul’s life when he had the chance to kill him in his sleep, and again Saul asked for forgiveness.

David spent some time living in the land of the Philistines, because he was tired of constantly running away from Saul, whose temperament was unstable.  The Philistines were again arming themselves for war against Israel.  Saul consulted a “Spirit Medium” who conjured the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, and Saul spoke with Samuel’s spirit.  Samuel basically re-stated what he’d said during his life: that Saul’s kingdom would not last, and David would become king.  This made Saul more depressed and afraid.

"Ghost of Samuel Appearing to Saul" by William Blake (1800)

While living among the Philistines, some people came and raided David’s city and took his wives captive.  David took his men and killed all those men, and rescued his wives.  Saul, meanwhile, was defeated by the Philistines.  Jonathan and Saul’s other sons were killed.  Saul was shot by arrows, and fell on his own sword, so that his enemies would not have the honor of killing him.

"King Saul Falls on His Sword" from the Worms Bible (c. 1148)

The book ends with a funeral for the Saul, the slain king.

2 Samuel

When David learned of Saul’s death, he wept bitterly and wrote a dirge (a song written on the occasion of someone’s death).  Then David became king over the tribe of Judah.  Israel was divided, however, because Saul’s son Ish-bosheth was king over the northern tribes.  Eventually, a Civil War broke out in Israel, between the northern forces of Ish-bosheth and the southern forces of David.  

The war dragged on, and many Israelites died.  Eventually, David began to gain the upper hand.  Abner, the commander of the northern forces, decided to join David.  However, this truce was short lived because Joab, the commander of David’s forces, murdered Abner, as vengeance for killing his son.  David then mourned the death of his former enemy.

When word reached Ish-bosheth’s men than their commander had been killed, they realized they were going to be defeated, so they conspired against their king, and murdered Ish-bosheth.  The two murderers brought Ish-bosheth’s head to king David, expecting some kind of reward.  Instead, David was repulsed, and had the two murderers killed.

Then the elders of all the tribes got together, and decided to make David king over all of Israel.  David captured the city of Jerusalem, and made it the center of his kingdom.  Now that he was king, David took lots of wives and concubines, and had many many children.  He was a sex machine.

"David" by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1504)

As King, David had many military successes against the neighbors of Israel.  He defeated their perennial enemy the Philistines again, as well as the Moabites and others.  David had the ark of the covenant brought to Jerusalem, and he was so excited about this that he started dancing.  David’s wife Michal thought David had made a fool of himself, and told David how she felt.  In response, God made Michal childless.

With his kingdom established, and the ark in Jerusalem, David began making plans to build a permanent temple.  God made a covenant with King David, saying, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before me forever.”  This was a variation on the covenants God had made to Abraham and Moses.  David was happy.

But his happiness was short-lived.  Once, when the Israelite forces were off fighting, David looked down form the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful woman bathing, and was very attracted to her.  He had her brought to his palace and, even though she was already married to a guy named Uriah, he had sex with her and she became pregnant.  David then stealthily had Uriah killed, and married Bathsheba, the woman.  

"David and Bathsheba" by Bernardino Mei (17th Century)

God thought this was evil, and he punished David by killing Bathsheba’s baby.  That’s right.  God killed a baby.  But then Bathsheba had another son named Solomon, who would eventually become David’s heir, and a great king.

After the Bathsheba incident, things began to get really weird and fucked up for David’s Kingdom.  One of David’s sons named Ammon had the hots for his sister Tamar, and he raped her.  This pissed off Tamar’s brother Absolom, who killed Ammon, and then fled.  Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Absolom began conspiring against David, and began planning a coup d’etat.  When David heard about this, he fled, and Absolom and his men took control of Jerusalem.  Absolom had sex with David’s concubines.

Then there was another civil war, between the forces of Absolom and the forces of David.  There was a great battle, which David’s forces won.  Absolom was slain in the battle.  When David heard that his son was slain, he grieved deeply, saying, “O my son Absolom, my son, my son Absolom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absolom, my son!”  One unique quality of David was his ability to have compassion upon those who were his enemies.

"David Mourns Absolom" by Marc Chagall

David re-gained control of Israel, but the land was traumatized by inner turmoil.  Another rebellion rose up, led by a man named Sheba, but this was put down by Joab, David’s general.

Then there was a famine in Israel for three years.  David asked God, “Why the famine?”  And God said it was because, back when Saul was king, he had unjustly killed a bunch of Gibeonites.  So David sent the Gibeonites seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged.   This human sacrifice satisfied God, and the famine ended.


After winning more battles against the Philistines, David wrote a couple songs about his deliverance.  David was fond of song-writing.  Near the end of his life, David decided to take a census of Israel.  For some reason, this made God so mad that he sent a plague on Israel.  The book ends with David building an altar, and God taking away the plague.

1 Kings

When King David was old and frail, he had trouble keeping warm, so his servants brought him a virgin named Abishag to nurse him and keep him warm.  Apparently, none of his several wives was up to the task.

With David nearing death, his son Adonijah conspired to seize control of the kingdom, but David heard of this plot, and had his son Solomon anointed king instead.  David told Solomon to follow God’s laws, and things would go well.  David certainly knew the price of transgression.  Ironically, out of David’s greatest sin (the Bashsheba affair) came Solomon, the next chosen king.

Then King David died.

Solomon’s first act as king was a “purge” of his (and his father’s) political enemies.  He sent his assassin Behaiah to kill Adonijah, Joab, and Shimei—all “traitors.”  In this way, Solomon was like Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin, who was also fond of executing his political enemies.

Solomon then consolidated his power by entering into a political marriage with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Thus, Solomon’s rule was firmly established.

One night, in a dream, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask what you wish, and I will give it to you.”  In this way, God was like the fabled Genie of Aladdin.  Solomon asked for “an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil.”  Basically, he asked for wisdom.  God was so pleased that Solomon didn’t ask for the usual things (wealth and power) that He gave Solomon all three—wisdom, wealth, and power.  Indeed, Solomon’s rule would represent the high-point of Israel’s monarchy.

Shortly after this, Solomon demonstrated his wisdom by resolving a dispute between two prostitutes over a baby.  Solomon’s solution was to order the baby cut in half, and give each half to each prostitute.  The real mother protested, saying, “Give the baby to the other one, only spare his life.”  Then Solomon knew who the real mother was, and gave her the baby.  On the surface, this seems like a bizarre display of royal wisdom, but I think the whole episode is an elaborate metaphor about the danger of dividing the Kingdom of Israel (an event which would happen after Solomon’s death, and eventually lead to the collapse of the nation of Israel).

"The Judgment of Solomon" by Raphael (1519)

Solomon appointed 12 deputies to serve as administrators over the 12 tribes.  Then, he decided to undertake some massive building projects.  He conscripted tens of thousands of laborers and artisans to build the fist ever Temple in Jerusalem, which was very ornate and beautiful.  Then Solomon spent 13 years building his own massive palace.  Notice that Solomon spent almost twice as long on his own house than on the house of the Lord.  Just sayin’.

Solomon used forced immigrant labor for many of his building projects.  In this way, Solomon behaved exactly as the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of the Exodus, who had made the Israelites forced laborers.  Ironic.

Then the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Temple, which would (hopefully) be its permanent home.  There was a massive dedication ceremony in which 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were sacrificed. It was industrial-scale sacrifice.  God renewed his covenant with Solomon, saying that if Israel followed God’s laws, they would prosper.  But if they disobeyed, the Temple wold become “a heap of ruins.”  (Foreshadowing alert: the Temple will eventually be destroyed).

Solomom amassed more and more wealth, and gained an international reputation as a very wise, powerful, and wealthy king.  People came from far and wide to hear his wisdom, like the Queen of Sheba. But it was not to last.  Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines, some of whom were from foreign nations and, naturally, worshipped other gods, like Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech.  Solomon tolerated the worship of these other gods, and this made God angry and jealous, and probably kind of sad.

"The Idolatry of Solomon" by Franz Francken II (1622)

So God told Solomon, “I will surely tear the Kingdom from you and give it to your servant…I will tear it out of the hand of your son.”  Indeed, the Kingdom would be split during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  Even before Solomon died, a rebellion was beginning, led by the son of one of Solomon’s servants, a man named Jeroboam.

After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam became king.  But Rehoboam acted too harshly toward his subjects, and the ten tribes of the north made Jeroboam their king, leaving Rehoboam king over the southern kingdom of Judah only.  Thus, the nation of Israel was split in two, not to be reunited for centuries.  This was the beginning of the slow decline of the kingdom which God had promised to Solomon.  Jeroboam, though powerful, worshipped other gods, and God punished him.  Rehoboam was no better, and he suffered defeat against Egypt.

When Jeroboam died, his son Abijam took control of the northern kingdom, and he was no better than his father.  The main sin of both the northern kingdom (called Israel) and the southern kingdom (called Judah) was idolatry.  With very few exceptions, the kings and their subjects worshipped other gods, and provoked God’s anger.  There was also intermittent civil war between Israel and Judah.

Once, there was an evil (i.e. idolatrous) king in Israel named Ahab.  Because of Ahab’s sins, God inflicted the land with drought and famine.  There was also, in those days, a prophet named Elijah.  The role of the prophets, thoughout Israel’s history, was to call out the sins of the kings and their subjects, and to try to lead the people back to God.  

During the drought, God provided Elijah with food and water from unexpected sources (birds, a kindly widow, a small brook).  Early in his career, Elijah raised a dead boy back to life, introducing the theme of resurrection/redemption that he would (with God’s help) try to bring about in the troubled nation of Israel.

"Elijah in the Wilderness" by Washington Allston (1818)

Elijah went to speak to king Ahab, and Ahab greeted him by saying, “Is this you, you troubler of Israel?”  Indeed, the prophets were often seen as troublemakers by those in power.  Elijah said that Ahab was the real troublemaker because of all his idolatry.  Elijah planned a great stand-off on Mount Carmel between the prophets of Baal and Elijah the prophet of God.  An altar was built, and Elijah basically said, “Whichever God consumes the sacrifice with fire, that is the REAL God.”  The prophets of Baal went first, dancing and performing ritual sacrifices, but there was no fire.  Then Elijah, the lone prophet prayed to God, and the whole altar was consumed with fire from heaven!  God had spoken!  The people were, temporarily, turned back to their God.  Elijah killed the 450 prophets of Baal.

But Ahab’s wife Jezebel called for Elijah’s life, so he fled to Mt. Horeb, which was where Moses received the ten commandments all those years ago.  Elijah began to feel very alone, a common condition for prophets, who are often the bearers of harsh news.  God decided to give Elijah a sign, to show him he was not alone.  And here, I think, is one of the more beautiful scenes in the whole Bible:

God told Elijah to stand on the mountain.  First, there was a great and mighty wind, but God was not in the wind.  Then, there was a great earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  Then, there was a great fire, but God was not in the fire.  Finally, there was a gentle wind, and God was in the gentle wind.

"Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb" by Daniele da Volterra (1550)

Then God told Elijah that indeed he was not alone.  In fact, there were 7,000 people in Israel who still worshipped God.  Also, shortly after this, Elijah got an apprentice named Elisha.

Meanwhile, Ahab was fighting wars with the neighboring kingdom of Aram.  Also, there was an incident in which Ahab stole the vineyard of his neighbor (it was Jezebel’s idea).  So God, through Elijah, told Ahab that both he and Jezebel would die, and that dogs would lick up their blood.  Indeed, this is exactly what happened during the next military campaign against Aram.  

1 Kings ends with the deaths of Ahab (King of the northern Kingdom of Israel), and Jehosaphat (King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah).  Both their sons inherited their fathers’ thrones, and they both continued the practice of idolatry, which will not bode well for them in 2 Kings…

2 Kings

When Ahaziah (son of Ahab) was ruling Israel, he took a bad fall, and was about to die.  So he sent his messengers to plead with a god named Baal-zebub (probably the origin of the satanic name Beelzebub) for his life.  But the prophet Elijah heard about this, and stopped the messengers, and sent them back to the king.  This pissed off Ahaziah, and he sent soldiers to capture/kill Elijah.  But Elijah, being a prophet of God, called down fire from heaven, which burned them all up.  So Ahaziah died childless, and his relative Jehoram became king of Israel.

Then Elijah blessed his apprentice Elisha, and he was taken up alive into heaven, on a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire.  I believe Elijah is one of three Bible characters taken alive into heaven, the other two being Enoch and Jesus.

"Elijah Taken Up Into Heaven" by Lucas Cranach (1534)

Elisha had a rocky start as a prophet.  He purified a contaminated well of water, so far so good.  But then, when some kids made fun of his baldness, he caused two bears to come and rip apart the kids.  Not cool, Elisha.  Not cool.

"The Children Destroyed by Bears" by Gustav Dore (1866)

The kings of Israel and Judah briefly united forces against Moab, their common enemy, and defeated them.  Then Israel and Judah went back to being enemies.

Meanwhile, Elisha performed a series of miracles which bear a striking resemblance to some of the miracles of Christ.  Or rather, since Elisha preceded Christ, I should say that the miracles of Christ bear a striking resemblance to miracles of Elisha in 2 Kings.

First, he magically provided a poor widow with an endless supply of cooking oil.  Then, he raised a boy from the dead.  He miraculously provided a bunch of people with food.  He healed a man with leprosy.  And not just any man.  It was the general of Aram, Israel’s enemy.  Even the way Elisha healed this man (Namaan) was like a baptism.  Namaan had to bathe in the Jordan river.  Then Elisha miraculously made a lost axe-head float.

"The Cleansing of Naaman by Elisha" from the Blblia Sacra Germanaica (15th century)

Not only did he have miraculous powers, Elisha also had divine insight and foreknowledge, which he used to help Israel avoid attacks from Aram, their enemy.  When the king of Aram heard about Elisha, he sent a bunch of soldiers to kill him, which was a rather ungrateful thing to do after Elisha miraculously healed the Aramean general Namaan.

The soldiers of Aram surrounded Elisha’s house, and Elisha’s servant started freaking out.  Elisha, however, remained cool as a cucumber.  He prayed, “Open his eyes that he may see.”  The servant’s eyes were opened, and he saw an invisible heavenly army of horses and chariots of fire.  They had divine protection.  Elisha prayed that the Arameans would be struck blind, so they were.  Elisha then led the blind army of Aram to Samaria, the capitol of Israel.  Then their eyes were opened, and they were in the enemy capital.  But, instead of fighting, the two armies shared a meal, and left each other in peace.

"Elisha Blinds Arameans" by Chris Koelle 

This peace was short-lived, however, because soon after, the king of Aram laid siege to Samaria (Capitol of Israel), and cut off their food supply.  The people were so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism.  For example, a woman boiled her son.  So God scared away the Aramean army, and the Israelites were able to plunder their camp, and eat.

Once again, the king of Aram became ill, and he sent his son Hazael to Elisha, hoping he might help him live.  Elisha looked intently into Hazael’s eyes and wept.  When Hazael asked why, Elisha said, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the sons of Israel; their strongholds you will set on fire, and their young men you will kill with the sword, and their little ones you will dash in pieces, and their women with child you will rip up.”  Sometimes having divine foreknowledge was not such a pleasant gift to possess.  Usually, it was a lonely burden.  Then the king of Aram died, and Hazael became king.

Meanwhile, the kings of Israel and Judah continued to disobey God by worshipping other gods.  So Elisha anointed a guy named Jehu to be king over Israel, and to be the instrument of divine vengeance against the houses of Israel and Judah.  Jehu drove furiously in his chariot, and assassinated the kings of both Israel and Judah.  Then he assassinated the seventy sons of the dead king Ahab, who did not obey God.  Jehu wiped out the whole line of Ahab, as God had promised in 1 Kings.  He also ordered Ahab's widow, Jezebel, be thrown from a high window, trampled by horses, and eaten by dogs.  Jehu gathered together everyone in the land who worshipped Baal, and slaughtered them all.  Then God blessed Jehu with a dynasty of kings over Israel.

"Jezebel Trampled by Horses and Eaten by Dogs" from the Van Soudenbach Bible

Because of all the inner and outer conflict that had taken place in Israel, the nation began to diminish in size and strength.

Then Elisha died.  But even his grave was holy, because once when some Moabites threw a dead guy in Elisha's grave, the dead guy came back to life.  

There was another civil war between Israel and Judah, which Israel won, and looted the temple in Jerusalem.  Then there was a series of kings in both Israel and Judah.  Some of them inherited the thrones of their fathers.  Others became king through conspiracy and murder.  Each king was judged by the extent to which he followed God’s laws and shunned idolatry.  By this standard, most kings failed.  The kings of Judah tended to be slightly more obedient.  Meanwhile, as a result of their disobedience, foreign and domestic troubles plagued both kingdoms.

And then a major event happened in Israel’s history.  The northern kingdom of Israel was invaded and defeated by the powerful Assyrian Empire.  The inhabitants of Israel were carried off into exile, and the cities were inhabited by Assyrians.  Israel was no more.  Only the much smaller nation of Judah remained.

"Israeli Captives Being Led to Assyria" (Assyrian, 7th Century BCE)

Meanwhile, in Judah, a new king came to power who was good.  His name was Hezekiah.  The Bible says this of him: “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him.  For he clung to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”  Because he was so obedient to God, Hezekiah enjoyed divine protection.  When the Assyrian Empire invaded Judah, God delivered them, and they were safe (for a while).

Unfortunately, Hezekiah’s son was not so obedient, nor was his son.  The prophet Isaiah predicted that, because of the sins of Hezekiah’s sons, Judah would ultimately fall.  But before that happened, there was one more good king in Judah, and his name was Josiah.  

During the reign of Josiah, a priest discovered a scroll in the temple, and it turned out the be the book of the law (the Torah, or some version of it).  This book had been lost for many years, and when Josiah read it, he was both happy and sad.  Happy, that the book had been found.  Sad, because Judah had strayed so far from its commandments.  So King Josiah instituted massive reforms in Judah.  He had the law read to the whole city of Jerusalem.  He ordered all idols be destroyed, and all priests of “false gods” be killed.  He also re-instituted the feast of Passover.  Because of Josiah’s reforms, the land had peace.  But, alas, it was not to last.  Josiah’s sons went right back to the old idolatry.

"The Scribe Shaphan Reading the Book of the Law to King Josiah" by Leonaert Bramer (1622)


Then another major event happened in Israel’s history.  The great Empire of Babylon invaded Judah, besieged Jerusalem, and carried most of the people off into exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem was burned and looted.  The Kingdom of Judah was no more.  The Jews were a defeated and scattered people.

"Flight of the Prisoners" by James Tissot (1896)

1 Chronicles

The books of Chronicles (1 and 2) are a re-telling of the events of the books of Samuel and Kings, from the perspective of the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon around the 6th century B.C.E.  No new events happen, plot-wise.  Rather, the intent seems to be to show continuity between Israel’s history and their current state of affairs.

To this end, 1 Chronicles is heavy on genealogies, to show that the Israel in exile is still connected historically and spiritually to the nation that existed before.  The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are genealogies, which makes for some pretty monotonous reading.  

Hebrew Genealogical Record 

The genealogies begin with Adam, showing his descendants down to Abraham, to the descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel, to King David, to the current leaders and priests living in exile.  After all these genealogies, the chronicler writes, “So all Israel was enrolled by genealogies…and Judah was carried away into exile to Babylon for their unfaithfulness.”

Special attention is given to the families of the priests, and their duties.  Presumably, it was the priests who gave the people in exile a sense of spiritual and cultural identity after they’d lost their actual land and political power.

And then, the stories of the books of Samuel and Kings are recounted, beginning with Saul, then David and his successors.  However, because 1 Chronicles was written in a different time and under different circumstances than those books, the writers emphasize some different things.

Much importance is placed on the so-called “Mighty Men of David.”  These were powerful warriors  who helped the king defeat his enemies, and they were from all over Israel, north and south.  Also, the armies of David came from all the tribes.   Specific family names are listed.  Again, this emphasis on historic unity would have resonated with the community in exile, who had lived through all the regional divisions which led to Israel’s fall.  The armies of David represented the dream of a unified Israel.

David's Mighty Men (Badasses) by James Tissot

King David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and built a tent for it.  Then a priest named Asaph wrote a song whose themes of hope, memory, and the promises of God would definitely have resonated with a people living in exile.  Despite their circumstances, Israel was still God’s chosen people.

Then God renewed his covenant with David, saying his kingdom would last forever (an admittedly confusing idea for people whose kingdom had been destroyed).  This promise, I think, is also meant as a future hope of a renewed kingdom.  

As recorded in Samuel and Kings, David defeated many enemies and strengthened Israel, unifying the tribes into one nation.

It is in the book of 1 Chronicles that the character named “Satan” appears for the first time in the Bible.  Not much is said about him, or where he came from except that he prompted King David to take a census of Israel, and that this was somehow seen as evil by God.  So God sent a pestilence, which was only stopped when David built a new altar to the Lord.  On the site of this new altar, David planned to built the first great Temple, a task that would fall to his son Solomon.

The names and duties of the priests of the Temple are described in minute detail.  Indeed, Chronicles seems to have been written by and for priests and their worship communities.  For the Jews in exile, even though their temple had been destroyed, they still held onto their faith through worship, observance of laws, memory, and the telling of stories.

I think it is in the books of Chronicles that the real purpose of the Bible (or, at least the Hebrew Scriptures) begins to emerge.  It is not simply a book of history, nor is it a book of mythology.  It is a complex mixture of history, laws, songs, stories, and traditions whose purpose is to give hope and meaning to a community of people living in difficult and confusing circumstances.  In this case, the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.



"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." --Psalm 137
Painting by James Tissot

2 Chronicles

I must admit, I had a rough time with the book of 2 Chronicles, mainly for two reasons: 1.) It’s really long, which I wouldn’t necessarily mind except for the fact that 2.) It’s basically a re-telling of the stories of 1 and 2 Kings.  It’s like you’re reading a novel…Chapter 2 is action-packed, Chapter 3 is full of intrigue, but then in Chapter 4 the author repeats the events of Chapter 2.  WTF?  It really messes with the flow of the story.

And so I found myself reading not just the text of 2 Chronicles, but also some commentaries, in an attempt to figure out why the Bible would be so obviously repetitive.  But reading commentaries is a deep well, and it’s easy to get stuck there.  As with anything that people have been studying for a long time, there are many conflicting views.  For example, in my book report on 1 Chronicles, I took the view that both books of Chronicles were written in the 6th century B.C.E., from the perspective of the Jews in exile in Babylon.  Well, today I read another view that these books were written in the 4th century B.C.E., from the perspective of Jews who had been allowed to return to Israel, under Persian rule.  Which is it?  Today, I tend to think it was the 4th century.  I’m really not sure though.

I have been using the Cambridge Annonated Study Bible, which is (kind of) helpful in clearing up some confusing parts.

Why does this matter?  Who cares if the text was written in the 6th century B.C.E. or the 4th century B.C.E.?  Well, it matters if you want to know the proper context of what was happening historically when the book was written.  As a professor of English with a Masters degree in literature, I was taught, and try to teach the vital importance of context when trying to understand a text, sacred or not.

So where does that leave me, with this book report project?  Confused and overwhelmed, to be honest.  For now, I guess, I’ll continue as I was before, with my summaries of the books.  However, when I feel it is important to bring up questions of context, as I am doing here, I will not hesitate to do so, with the understanding that such questions are thorny and hotly debated.

In presenting my report in 2 Chronicles, I will take the view that it was written in the 4th century B.C.E., after the Jews had returned form exile in Babylon, and were in the process of re-establishing themselves as a religious and cultural community.  Whether you believe the book was written in the 6th or 4th century B.C.E., the fact remains that the authors are describing events that happened centuries prior to the writing (like King Solomon’s monarchy), and this is problematic from a historian’s perspective.  Thankfully, the Bible (in my view) is not primarily a book of history.  It is, I believe, primarily a book of religious devotion that occasionally intersects with history.

Before I get to the summary part, I’d like to share another insight I had about why 2 Chronicles is so repetitive, as I was taking a walk.  An important motif in the Bible (both Old and New Testament) is repeating the same story from different perspectives.  We see this clearly in the four gospels about Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).  Why are there four gospels, and not one?  Why do they repeat many of the same stories in different ways?  Why does the book of Deuteronomy repeat the stories of Exodus and Numbers?  Why does Chronicles repeat the stories of Kings?  I think it has to do with audience and context.  The Bible was written to many different audiences living in different times and places.  I think the repeating of the stories speaks to this idea that it is not just the text itself, but the audience, who help create meaning.  It’s a two-way street, so to speak.  That, I think, is why a book like 2 Chronicles repeats familiar stories in a new way.  The stories are being told to a new audience under new circumstances.  My mom is fond of quoting the verse that the Bible is “living and active.”  I never quite knew what that meant until today.  I think it means that the neither the text, nor the stories it relates, are static.  Instead, when we read them, we participate in the meaning-making process.  Even the Bible writers seemed to understand this.  

The Four Gospel Writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)

Okay, now to the text of 2 Chronicles.  Because this book is a re-telling of stories already told in Kings, I have decided to focus on the elements of the story that are either omitted or changed in the Chronicles account.  I am doing this with the help of my handy dandy Cambridge Annotated Study Bible.  It would be very helpful if someone were to line up the two accounts side-by-side, so the differences were more apparent.  I’m sure some scholar has done that at some point.  Anyway, here goes…

2 Chronicles begins with the ascension of King Solomon to the throne of Israel.  Unlike in the Kings account, in which this is described as a family struggle for the throne between Solomon and his brother Adonijah, 2 Chronicles describes a peaceful and seamless transfer of power.  

The account in 2 Chronicles of Solomon’s dedication of the temple in Jerusalem is twice as long as the account in Kings.  Interestingly, the Temple is built on Mount Moriah (in Jerusalem), which is the same site where God called Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac way back in Genesis.  The implication, I think, is that this site is a place of great devotion and faith in God.  The extensive focus on the Temple, and the rites of worship reflect the 4th century B.C.E. preoccupation with re-establishing temple worship, after the return from exile.  During the dedication, specific names of priestly families are given.  Also, when the temple is being dedicated, a song is sung, whose theme is: “For He (God) is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”  God is not described as jealous or full of vengeance.  Rather, He is a God of love.  Ironically, Israel’s painful experience of exile had transformed and softened their view of God, to an extent.

During King Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple, God is also presented as a God of forgiveness.  Prayer in the Temple will bring restoration, even to a defeated people like Israel.  Solomon prays, “When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy but turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house, may you hear from heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you have to them and to their ancestors.”  God is described, not as distant or unknowable, but very near, and relatable.  Indeed, God is meant to somehow “dwell” within the Temple in Jerusalem. “Only you (God) know the human heart,” Solomon prays.  When Solomon finishes his prayer of dedication, “the glory of the Lord filled the temple,” and all the people pray, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”  

God appears to Solomon and again presents a softer view of himself, as a God of healing.  When Israel is suffering, if they humble themselves and pray, God will “heal their land.”  However, if Israel is disobedient, God will not hesitate to scatter his people again.  So, the picture of God is sort of like a fatherly figure: both disciplining, and also loving his son Israel.

"The Ancient City of Jerusalem with Solomon's Temple" by Charles O'Donnell (1871) -- not to scale

An important omission from 2 Chronicles is the part in Kings where Solomon marries 700 wives,  has 300 concubines, begins to worship foreign gods, and basically curses his family dynasty.  The picture of Solomon in Chronicles is pretty much flawless, as opposed to the more complex picture in Kings.  Perhaps the writers couldn’t stomach the fact that the same guy who built and dedicated the Temple, could also be a fallible human being.

The writers of Chronicles clearly side with the kings of Judah, who (sometimes) keep the commandments of the Lord, as opposed to the northern kings of Israel, who worship false gods.  This is shown in a battle between Judah and Israel, when the Judean king Abijah defeats the much larger northern army of Jeroboam.  Abijah shouts to them, “we have kept the charge of the Lord, but you have abandoned them.”

However, not all is well, even in the more faithful land of Judah.  King Asa, who is generally well-regarded for expelling most idol-worship from Israel, makes a fatal error by entering into an alliance with Aram, instead of relying on God.  As punishment, Asa gets diseased feet.  

Perhaps the most important omissions from 2 Chronicles  are the roles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who are so central to the stories in the books of Kings.  Omitted is the demonstration at Mount Carmel of the fire from heaven.  The only mention of Elijah is a letter he sends to the Judean king Jehoram, warning him of a coming plague.  That’s it.  The reason for this glaring omission, I think, is that the spiritual heroes of Chronicles are not so much the prophets, but rather the good kings (like Solomon) and the Levitical priests, who were especially important in re-instituting temple worship at the time of the writing of these books.

One interesting element included in both Kings and Chronicles is role of female leaders.  For a brief period, Judah has a queen, instead of a king. Her name is Athalia.  Unfortunately, she is evil and is killed by her own people.  Then, under the reign of King Hezekiah, there is a female prophet named Huldah, and she is well-respected.  The king heeds her advice.

"Huldah Prophet of Jerusalem" by Dina Cormick (1989)

2 Chronicles continues the same pattern presented in 1 and 2 Kings.  The Kings who follow God’s laws and do not allow any foreign gods to be worshipped enjoy success and prosperity.  The kings who allow the worship of other gods get defeated by foreign nations, and often die in unpleasant ways.  Many kings are a mixed bag, some are outright evil, and some are heroic reformers, like Hezekiah and Josiah. The outcome of history is thus contingent upon the people's obedience to their God.  This is, needless to say, an enormous burden of responsibility.  

Near the end of 2 Chronicles, Judah is defeated by Babylon (under King Nebuchadnezzar) and taken away into captivity, just as is described in 2 Kings.  However, there is a powerful explanation given as to why this happens in Chronicles: “The Lord, the God of their ancestors sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.”  Soon, in our journey through the Bible, we will come to a series of books written by prophets during the reign of these various kings of Israel and Judah.  The prophets often lead lonely, persecuted lives.

"The Destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar" by William Brassey Hole

One of the main reasons I think 2 Chronicles was written after the return from Babylon in the 4th century B.C.E. is because the book itself describes the return from captivity, under the reign of the Persian emperor Cyrus.  This event is spoken of in the past tense, strongly suggesting a post-exile date for the book.  Some people, however, consider the part about Cyrus to be a later addition, and argue for a 6th century B.C.E. date.  These are the kinds of things Bible scholars argue about.
Ezra

While the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon, the Persian Empire grew in strength and took power over Babylon.  The king of Persia, Cyrus, made a decree that some of the Israelites living in exile be allowed to return to their homeland, and rebuild Jerusalem and their Temple.  Cyrus even gave them money and provisions to do so.

So a group of Israelites returned to Jerusalem and the first thing they did was offer a sacrifice.  Then they began to rebuild the temple.  When the foundations were laid, the priests led a dedication ceremony and gave thanks, saying, “For He (God) is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever."  Present at this ceremony were some old men who remembered the first temple, and these men wept.  This dedication was so emotional “that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people.”

"Rebuilding the Temple" by Gustave Dore

As the Jews were busy rebuilding the Temple, some of their neighbors tried to frighten and hinder them from completing the work.  The neighbors even went so far as to write a letter to the new Persian emperor, Ataxerxes, complaining about the Jews, and saying that they were a potentially rebellious people, citing Israel’s rocky history in the the region.  Fearing unrest, Ataxerxes made the Israelites stop building.

Some time passed, and new prophets arose in Israel named Haggai and Zechariah, who encouraged the people to resume building the Temple, even without permission.  So they did.  Again, Israel’s neighbors complained, this time to the local Persian governor Tattenai.  The governor spoke with the elders of Israel, and then wrote a letter to the emperor Darius, explaining the situation.  The Israelites encouraged Darius to check the royal archives for a decree made by Cyrus, years ago.  Darius found Cyrus’s decree, and he not only allowed the Temple to be re-built, he provided provisions and legal protection.  So, under the reign of Darius, Israel finally completed the second Temple in Jerusalem, and had a big Passover celebration.

Some time passed, and the new governor, Ataxerxes II, allowed an Israelite scribe named Ezra to lead a new group of Jews form Babylon to Jerusalem.  Then the narrative changes to first person, continuing the story from Ezra’s point of view.  Ezra led a new generation back to Israel.  Upon arriving there, Ezra found a troubling situation: Jews had inter-married with other ethnic groups or, in the words of Ezra, “the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the land.” This inter-racial marriage caused Ezra such distress that he tore his clothes, pulled out his hair and beard, led a massive prayer of repentance, and pretty much forced all the men who had married foreign women to divorce them and leave them, along with their children.

Racism aside, Ezra was an important figure in post-exile Israel, describing their situation in this way: “Now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the Lord our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.”  Some scholars, like Richard Elliot Friedman, argue that it was Ezra the scribe/leader who first assembled the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) in it’s current form.  To read my book report on Friedman's book Who Wrote the Bible? (in which he argues for this view) click HERE.


"Ezra" by Michelangelo Buonarroti (from the Sistine Chapel)

Nehemiah

During the rule of the Persian Empire, when the Jews were being allowed to re-settle in Jerusalem, after many years in exile, there lived a man named Nehemiah.  He was a Jew who served as the cupbearer to the emperor of Persia (modern-day Iran), Ataxerxes.

While Nehemiah was living in Susa, the capitol of Persia, his brother and some friends returned from Jerusalem to visit him.  Nehemiah asked them how things were going in Jerusalem, with the resettlement.  His brother told him the people were really struggling, that the wall surrounding Jerusalem was broken, and the gates burned.  This made Nehemiah very sad and depressed.  He spent many days fasting and praying for his suffering people.

Emperor Ataxerxes noticed that Nehemiah was depressed, so he asked him why he was so down.  Nehemiah replied, “Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my father’s tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed with fire?”  Ataxerxes said, “What would you request?”

Nehemiah asked that he be allowed to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild its walls and gates.  He also asked for wood.  The emperor consented, and Nehemiah headed home to Jerusalem, with a bunch of building materials.

While he was traveling, some foreign leaders heard about Nehemiah’s plan, and determined to make things difficult for the Jews.

Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and inspected the walls and gates, finding them just as his brother had said—badly broken and in need of rebuilding.  So he organized the people of Jerusalem and they began to rebuild the gates and walls of the city.  It was a big project involving many people, with Nehemiah as the leader.

"Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem" (artist unknown)

While they were building, other local people groups (the Horonites, the Ammonites, and the Arabs) mocked them, and made fun of their wall.  But Nehemiah encouraged the people, and the building continued.  When they could see that the building project might actually be completed, the Horonites, Ammonites, and the Arabs conspired to attack the Jews, to prevent them from completing the task.

Again, Nehemiah encouraged his people, telling them to trust in God.  He also armed them, and stationed guards around the wall, to protect the workers.  The builders also carried swords while they worked.  Nehemiah said to the armed builders and guards: “Do not be afraid of them: remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, and your houses.”  Armed and organized, the Jews continued building.

As if things weren’t tough enough, a famine struck the land, and the wealthy people began to exploit the poor people by foreclosing on their mortgages and lending them money at high interest rates.  Nehemiah put a stop to that.   He gave a speech, basically saying, “Look, rich people, we’re trying to rebuild a nation here, and your greed isn’t helping.  Treat your brothers fairly.”  So they did.  Nehemiah set the example, by not taking a salary.

And so, despite threats from neighboring people, famine, and rich peoples’ greed, the wall was completed.  The scribe Ezra then read the book of the Laws of Moses to all the people, standing atop the newly-built wall.  Some translators were needed, because not everyone spoke Hebrew anymore (they’d been exiled to foreign nations).  When the people heard the law, they got really sad, and started weeping.  The laws of Leviticus are not the most uplifting things to read.  Again Nehemiah, the perpetual optimist, encouraged the people, basically saying, “Come on, guys!  Cheer up!  This is a day of joy and celebration!”  So the people were joyful and celebrated.

Then the people worshipped God and confessed their sins, and the priests composed a beautiful poem, which retold the history of Israel, from Abraham all the way to the present day, all the trials and tribulations the people had suffered, and the ultimate goodness of God, despite everything.  The poem contains this lovely (and arguably new) vision of God:

“Thou art a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger,
And abounding in lovingkindness.”

Under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, the priests and elders of Israel signed a new covenant with God, pledging obedience to His laws.  They also agreed to exclude all foreigners from Israel, particularly Horonites, Ammonites, and Arabs.

"Nehemiah Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem and Enemies are Attacking" from the Alba Bible (1430)

Esther

In the days of the Persian emperor Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes--yes, that Xerxes), when the Jews were scattered among the nations and even Israel was a Persian province, the emperor held a week-long banquet/party for all his nobles, in the capital city of Susa.  On the last day of the banquet, when Xerxes was quite drunk, he sent for his wife Vashti, to show off her beauty in front of all the people.  Vashti refused, and Xerxes got pissed.  He issued an edict forbidding Vashti from ever coming before him again.  He also ordered that all women in the empire obey their husbands as their masters.  It was a patriarchal society.

"Bow down to me, bitches."  -- Xerxes

Then Xerxes sent for virgins to be brought to him from all over the empire.  He was seeking both to increase his harem, and to find a replacement for queen Vashti.  One of the virgins brought to Xerxes’ harem was a beautiful young woman named Esther, who was a Jew.  Xerxes liked Esther more than all the other virgins, and he decided to make her queen.  She kept her ethnicity a secret.

"Esther" by Francois-Leon Benouville (1844)

Esther had an uncle named Mordecai, who had raised her after her parents died.  One time, Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate Xerxes and told Esther, who told the emperor, and his life was saved.  This will become important later in the story.

Meanwhile, Xerxes appointed a man name Haman to the position of Prime Minister.  Whenever Haman went anywhere, people had to bow down to him, but Mordecai refused.  This pissed Haman off.  When he found out that Mordecai was a Jew, he decided to exterminate all the Jews scattered across the empire.  Haman was like Hitler, or Himmler.  Haman persuaded Xerxes that the Jews were a threat to the empire, and devised a plan to exterminate them all (men, women, children) on the same day.  Letters were sent out to all the Persian provinces ordering this mass genocide.

"Mordecai Refuses to Bow to Haman" by Seth Haak

When Mordecai learned about this plan, he tore his clothes, put ashes on his head, and went out into the city, wailing and weeping.  Indeed, there was weeping, wailing, fasting, and praying among all the Jews of the provinces, when they heard of their coming annihilation.  Mordecai told Esther about this plan, and encouraged her to intercede for her people before the emperor, to save them.  Esther was afraid, because anyone who went before the great Xerxes uninvited could be killed.  Mordecai wrote a letter to Esther, saying: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

Here it is important to note that the book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions “God.”  Instead, God is perceived to be working “behind the scenes of history,” so to speak.  In making Esther (a Jew) queen of Persia at a time of genocide, it seems that God is beginning to work, not through fire and plagues and overt miracles, but through the subtle guiding of human events.  This subtle God is a fundamentally different sort of God than the one we find in the Torah.  This shows that the very idea of who God was and how he worked evolved as the Bible progressed, and as history progressed. 

Okay, back to the story.  Esther, the hero of this story, told Mordecai to assemble all the Jews living in the capitol and have them fast and pray for her.  She decided to risk her life by going before Xerxes unannounced.  “I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law,” she said, “and if I perish, I perish.”

"Esther Before Ahasuerus (Xerxes)" by Jacopo Tintoretto (1547)

So Esther went before the emperor, and he spared her life and asked what was troubling her.  She asked that a special banquet be organized, and invited Haman.  At first, Haman was thrilled that he was invited to this special, exclusive banquet with the great Xerxes and his queen.  But, when Haman saw Mordecai, he became angry again, and had a gallows built to hang Mordecai on, after the banquet.

That very evening, Xerxes could not sleep, so he decided to do some late night reading of the royal archives.  He found the account of when Mordecai had prevented his assassination, so he decided to honor Mordecai.  He called for Haman, and told him to place royal robes on Mordecai (whom he hated) and parade him through the streets of the capitol, proclaiming, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the King desires to honor.”  This had to be particularly humiliating for Haman.  Instead of hanging him, Haman had to publicly honor his enemy.  Then Haman went to the banquet.

"Mordecai is Led Through the City by Haman" (c. 1430)

At the banquet, Esther revealed that she was a Jew, and that Haman’s plan of mass extermination would be the end of her people.  Xerxes became furious at his prime minister, and ordered him to be hanged on the gallows he had made for Mordecai.  Then Xerxes promoted Mordecai to Haman’s position.

And here’s where the story becomes troubling, from an ethical point of view.  Instead of simply nullifying Haman’s genocide order, Mordecai reversed it, giving Jews throughout the provinces the legal right to kill their enemies.

An so, at the appointed day of the genocide, the Jews went ahead and killed those who were planning to kill them, including women and children.  75,000 people were killed by the Jews.  This is the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim.

Xerxes, pissed at Haman.

Job

Once upon a time there lived a man named Job, who was a good man, and prosperous.  He had seven sons and three daughters and they lived happily. 

Meanwhile, on another, spiritual plane of reality, some sons of God and a being called Satan came before the Lord.  God said to Satan, “Check out my servant Job.  He’s a really good guy.”  Satan replied, “Of course he’s a good guy.  You have totally blessed him.  I wonder what would happen if you took away all his stuff.”  So God was like, “Alright, Satan.  Go ahead and take away his stuff.  Make him suffer, and we’ll see how he responds.”  It was like a fucked-up bet between God and Satan, with Job as their innocent victim.

"Then went Satan from the presence of the Lord."

So Satan went ahead and caused all of Job’s livestock (his whole fortune) to be stolen and/or killed.  Then Satan killed all of Job’s children.  How did Job respond?  He fell to the ground and, amazingly, worshipped God, saying:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So far, so good.  God was winning the bet.  But Job’s suffering wasn’t over.

Satan and the sons of God again came before the Lord, and God was like, “See, Satan!  Told you.  Job is legit.”  Satan replied, “What if you made him, like, physically suffer?  Not just emotionally or economically, but in his flesh and bones?  Then I bet Job would deny you, God.”  So God was like, “Alright, Satan.  Go ahead and give him physical suffering, only don’t kill him.”  Satan said, “Will do.”

So Satan gave Job horrible boils all over his body, and he was in constant, chronic, severe pain.  Job’s wife, seeing his suffering, was like, “Fuck God.”  But Job, still, amazingly, kept his faith.

Some of Job’s friends came to visit him, to console him in his grief and pain.  When they saw his condition, they wept and sat with him in silence for a long time.  They could tell he was going through some heavy, heavy shit.

"Let the day perish on which I was born." 

Finally, Job spoke, expressing his grief and pain and depression.  He spoke in poetry.  He wished he’d never been born.  He wished he could die.  He was almost suicidal.

Then Job’s friend Eliphaz spoke, basically arguing that innocent people don’t suffer, implying that Job’s suffering was caused by his sinfulness.  Job vehemently rejected this simplistic explanation.

Job’s friend Bildad continued Eliphaz’s faulty reasoning, saying that Job was somehow at fault for his suffering.  Again, Job didn’t buy this explanation, pointing out that both the innocent and the guilty suffer, seemingly indiscriminately.  Job also expressed his frustration that he couldn’t speak directly with God, and get a clear answer to his burning question: “Why is this happening to me?”

Job’s friend Zohar then got a bit angry with Job, calling him haughty and proud for not accepting the simple sin/punishment theory of human suffering.  To be fair to Job’s friends, the sin/punishment model was the predominant theory of the day.  Job’s refusal to accept this theory really fucked with his friends’ worldview.

"The just upright man is laughed to scorn."

Job was like, “Look at the world, guys!  Does the simple sin/punishment model fit the reality you experience and witness?  No, it doesn’t.  Innocent people, like me, suffer everywhere, all the time.  Life is a hot mess of incomprehensible pain.  Your theory is bullshit.”

At this point, Eliphaz became quite angry with Job.  He was like, “Damn you, Job, and your complex philosophy!  We’ve got a simple and clear-cut explanation for why people suffer.  People are basically evil, and should accept suffering as punishment for sin.”

Job replied, “You guys are the worst comforters ever!  Here I am, suffering like a sonofabitch, for no reason, and you guys are trying to pile guilt upon my pain.  You guys suck.”

Then Bildad got defensive.  “Are you calling us stupid, Job?” he asked, “Because that’s what it sounds like.  We are not stupid.  You’re stupid if you don’t accept our simple, out-dated, and insensitive theory.”

Job was like, “Dude, that’s fucked.  You guys are only adding to my grief and pain, and also making me feel lonely.  I need compassion, not condemnation.”

"With dreams upon my bed thou scarest me and afrightest me with visions."

Despite his suffering and his friends’ bone-headed “comfort,” Job amazingly maintained his faith in God, and expressed (in poetry) his hope that someday he would meet God and things would make sense. 

But his block-headed friends were relentless.  They weren’t willing to give up, or even modify, their sin/punishment theory.  Zohar kept going on and on about how the wicked suffer, the world is just, things make sense, etc.  Total bullshit.

Job was like, “Really?!  Really?!  Cus I’ve seen plenty of wicked people totally prospering and and doing very well for themselves.  Maybe, at some future time, justice will come, but this world is full of baffling, incomprehensible injustice.  The wicked prosper, and the innocent suffer.  Ever seen children in poverty and hunger?  How does that fit into your theory?”

Then a young man named Elihu, who thus far had listened in silence, spoke up.  He said he was afraid to speak his mind in front of these, his elders.  But when he realized that Job’s friend’s were wrong in their assessment, he decided to say his piece.  Elihu suggested that, while Job’s suffering may be undeserved, he may learn and grow from it.  Suffering may be a path to new understanding.  Elihu stressed the point that God is transcendent and, in many ways, incomprehensible to humans.  He suggested that Job look to nature as evidence of God’s power and glory, and find solace in all that crazy beauty. 

"I am young and ye are very old wherefore I was afraid to speak."

And then suddenly, out of like nowhere, God showed up in the form of a whirlwind, and spoke to Job!  God gave a long monologue, in which he basically said that He is of a higher plane of existence than Job, and so it’s natural that Job won’t be able to understand some things.  God spent a lot of time talking about how complex and amazing and wonderful the universe is—things like stars, mountains, weather, plants, and animals.  For example, God described, in great detail, how cool whales are.  God also said that Job’s friends, with the exception of young Elihu, were full of shit.

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind."

This satisfied Job, who concluded that, while he may never understand the deep and troubling mystery of human suffering, he can take solace (even amidst bewilderment and pain) in the deep complexity and beauty of the world.

Then God restored Job’s fortunes, and blessed him with lots of children, and a very full life, after his traumatic ordeal. Satan doesn’t show up at the end of the story, but it’s implied that God won the bet.

"So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning."

Psalms

The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew worship music and poetry, written by different authors, in different time periods, and for different reasons.  Many of the Psalms are ascribed to King David, who in the books of Samuel and Kings is often described as a musician.  Each psalm is unique, but there are certain recurring themes that run throughout: hope, misery, pleas for help, faith, the goodness of God, vengeance on enemies, deliverance for the nation of Israel, praise, thanksgiving, war, and peace.  

"King David Playing the Harp" from the Westminster Psalter (1250)

The Psalms are sort of like the soundtrack to Israel’s history, expressing the community and individual’s response to events and their meaning.  One unique thing about the Psalms is that they reflect a personal, individual relationship with God, as opposed to one strictly mediated by priests.  When I read the Psalms, one main theme seems to be most prominent, and that is, “Help, God!”.  For the very beginning of their existence, the Israelites suffered tremendously, and the Psalms offered people a kind of personal, and communal outlet for their anguish, and their tenacious hope.  I have decided to include a selection of quotes on this theme, divided into two sections: “Help me out, God” (personally) and “Help us out, God” (as a community)—a kind of ancient Hebrew mixtape.  As usual, I have put the Psalm quotes into my own words…

On the theme of: “Help me out, God”…

“Be gracious to me, God, for I am suffering;
Heal me, O Lord, for I am tired in my bones.
And my soul is disheartened.
How long will this last?”

--Psalm 6:2-3

“My God, my God, why have you neglected me?
I cry out, but deliverance seems really far away.
I cry out during the day, 
but you don’t answer;
I cry out at night, 
and I can’t sleep.”

--Psalm 22:1-2

“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become so disturbed?
Hope in God, for I will again praise Him
Even his presence is comforting.”

--Psalm 42: 5

“My heart is in anguish within me,
And I’m scared of dying.
Fear and trembling and horror 
have overwhelmed me.
I prayed…
“Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would wander far away,
I would live in the wilderness.
I would find a place of refuge
From this shit-storm.”

--Psalm 55: 4-8

“Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
My soul takes refuge in you;
In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
Until destruction passes by.”

--Psalm 57: 1

“Save me, O God,
I feel like I’m drowning.
I feel like I’m slipping down a mountain, with no foothold
I feel like I’m drowning in a flood
I have cried so long 
that I’m tired, 
and my throat is parched
and my eyes are all red.
I’m waiting for God.”

--Psalm 69: 1-3

“O God! 
Some violent men are actually trying to kill me!
They don’t care about you.
Listen, I know you are merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and full of grace and truth.
So help me out, here!
Give me strength!
Give me a sign, here!
Let those assholes see it, and be ashamed,
Because you, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me.”

--Psalm 86: 14-17

“Listen up, God!
Listen to my cry for help!
Don’t be silent when I’m suffering so much.
Listen to me,
Give me an answer.
I’ve taken up chain-smoking,
I’ve got weary bones,
My heart is withering, like grass.
I’ve lost my appetite.
When I’m alone, I literally cry out.
I’m losing weight, to an unhealthy degree.
I’m like a lonely pelican.
I’m like an owl in a waste land.
I can’t sleep.
I’m like a lonely bird on a housetop.

People are persecuting me,
They are making fun of me.
Food doesn’t taste good any more,
Tears fall in my beer,
It’s because you are a wrathful God
It’s because you don’t care about me.
I spend my days in misery;
And I wither away like grass.”

--Psalm 102: 1-11

“I am afflicted and needy,
And my heart is wounded within me.
I feel like a lonely ghost
I feel like an insignificant insect.
I’ve stopped eating.  
I am literally wasting away.”

--Psalm 110: 22-25

“I feel like dying,
I feel like hell;
I feel distress and sorrow.
I prayed: ‘Please, God, 
I beg you, save my life.’”

--Psalm 116: 3-4

“Too long have I lived 
among war-mongers.
I am for peace.
They are for war.”

--Psalm 120: 7

“Out of the depths I have cried to you, God.
Please listen.
I know I fucked up.
Who doesn’t fuck up?
But you are a God of forgiveness.”

--Psalm 130: 1-4

“Rescue me, God, from evil men;
Preserve me from violent men,
Who devise evil things in their hearts;
They continually stir up wars.
They are liars.
Save me, God, from bad men,
Preserve me from violent men,
Who keep making things hard for me.”

--Psalm 140: 1-5

“I cry out to God,
I tell him my troubles.
When I feel overwhelmed,
He understands.
When I was really lonely and scared,
I cried out to you, God
I said, ‘You are my refuge,
You give me hope.
Listen to my cry,
For I am very low;
Save me from my persecutors,
For they are too strong for me.
Bring my soul out of prison.”

--Psalm 142

“Listen to my prayer, God,
Just listen, and don’t judge, okay?
Humans are flawed creatures, you understand.
I am overwhelmed.
I am appalled.”

--Psalm 143: 1-4

On the theme of “Help us out, God”…

“God will give strength to oppressed people,
He’ll help them during tough times.”

--Psalm 9:9

“God, you listen to humble people;
You strengthen their heart, 
You listen closely to people
like orphans
and those who are oppressed,
So cruel dickheads can’t scare or hurt them anymore.”

--Psalm 10: 17-18

“Where the fuck are you, God?
If you are sleeping, wake the fuck up!
Are you hiding or something?
Because we are living in oppression
And are really hurting down here
Wake up!  Help us!  Save us!
We need some grace down here.”

--Psalm 44: 23-26

“God is our refuge and strength,
He helps us when we are in trouble.
We won’t be afraid, 
even when the whole world is screwed up,
And the sea level is rising,
its waters roaring and foaming,
and once-tall mountains are covered.”

--Psalm 46: 1-3

“God, you have rejected us.
You have broken us;
You have been angry; 
Please restore us.
The world is really messed up.
Heal it.
You make your people see hard things,
You make us drink the wine of astonishment.”

--Psalm 60: 3

“God, why have you rejected us forever?
Why are you so pissed at us?
Remember your people?
Remember when you said we were yours?
Remember when you saved us?
Zion, your holy place, is in ruins.
If you get a chance,
come see what it’s like
to live in these ruins.

--Psalm 74: 1-3

“Well, God, we’ve been conquered.
Invaders have totally fucked up your temple,
And destroyed Jerusalem.
(Thanks for nothing).”

--Psalm 79:1

“How long will you answer our prayers with anger?
We are crying all the time,
Our enemies laugh at us
Please restore us.
Please look upon us with favor,
like you used to do.
Please save us.”

--Psalm 80: 4-7

“Be gracious to us, God, be gracious to us;
People are treating us cruelly. 
Rich, powerful, apathetic people.”

--Psalm 123: 3-4

“While living in exile in Babylon,
We sat by the river
And we wept,
When we remembered the home we lost.
We hung our harps on weeping willows.
Our conquerors made us sing songs
of home, as a kind of cruel joke.
How can we sing songs about you, God,
When we have lost everything?”

--Psalm 137: 1-6

The Jamaican ska band The Melodians did an awesome version of Psalm 137, aka "Rivers of Babylon"


Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings (aka, proverbs), which are traditionally attributed to King Solomon.  For this report, I began by trying to paraphrase each chapter.  However, because the proverbs get quite repetitive, I ended up cutting out repetition as I went along, and instead emphasizing what I felt were the most unique ideas of each chapter. This is why, in my report, some "chapters" (particularly toward the end) are very short. 

"King Solomon" by Gustave Dore

I.

These are the proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, the king of Israel.  The purpose of these proverbs is to teach wisdom, justice, and equality.  To gain this wisdom, you must first fear God.  Fools don’t like to learn.  My son, listen to your father’s advice.  It will give you wisdom.  My son, don’t follow the ways of sinners.  If they say, let’s go hurt some innocent people, and steal, don’t follow them.  They only hurt themselves.  That’s how it goes with greed—eventually it takes away from those who seek to gain.  Wisdom is like a woman who cries out in cities, “How long will you act like fools?  Listen to me, and you will avoid calamity.  Be a good learner, or things will go bad for you.  Listen to me, and things will go well.”

2.

My son, listen to me, try with all your heart to understand, seek wisdom more than riches, and you will find God, who is the source of all wisdom, and your life will be better.  You will avoid the pitfalls of sinners.  You will avoid the wiles of strangers, who will make you falter and eventually die.  Be a good man, live a righteous life, so you may have a full life.  Because wicked men will suffer and die.

3.

My son, remember the law and the commandments, and keep them.  They will bring you long life and peace.  Remember to be merciful and truthful.  Trust in God, and follow His commandments.  Be humble.  Don’t consider yourself wise—trust in God.  It will bring you good health.  Remember to give back to God, the first part of your income, and you will actually be more prosperous.  Don’t get mad when God punishes you for doing wrong.  God corrects people he loves.  Wisdom brings happiness, way more than material wealth.  The wise man will live long and prosper.  He will find peace.  Wisdom is like a tree of life.  With wisdom, God created the universe.  My son, be wise, and you will find life and safety.  You will sleep well, and not be afraid.  God will give you confidence.  Be good to people, and generous.  Don’t hurt your neighbors.  Don’t be envious of those with a lot of power, because people like that tend to oppress people.  God gives his grace to humble people.  Wise people will be vindicated, fools will live in shame.

4.

Listen up, my children.  I’m teaching you things my father taught me.  This wisdom is tried and true.  Avoid violence.  The way of the just is a shining light.  The way of the wicked is darkness.  Find wisdom, find life.  Don’t speak falsely.  Be a straight-shooter.

5.

Son, listen up. Just as wisdom may be compared to a woman speaking virtue, foolishness may also be compared to a prostitute speaking lies.  Often, the lies sound good, but they lead to injury and death.  My children, don’t listen to that prostitute.  She will be your total ruin.  Wisdom may be compared to your virtuous young wife.  Enjoy her.  Enjoy her breasts.  She is ravishingly beautiful, and she loves you as much as you love her.  With such a beautiful, loving wife, why would you consider going to a prostitute?  Enjoy real love, not fake substitutes.

6.

My son, don’t cheat your neighbor.  Don’t cheat your friends.  If you borrow money, pay it back right away.  Don’t be lazy.  Consider the ant, who works so diligently.  Laziness will lead to poverty.  Don’t speak falsely.  There are seven things that God really hates: arrogance, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises evil things, feet that run to mischief, a false witness who speaks lies, and a gossiper who sows discord among friends and family.  Listen to my words, my son.  They are like a lamp to light your way.  Don’t sleep with your friend’s wife.  Don’t steal.  Don’t live in jealousy.

7.

My son, listen to this wisdom.  Avoid the prostitute of folly, as enticing as she seems.  That is the way of death, and many men have fallen.  

8.

Instead, listen to the voice of wisdom.  She cries out in the city, “Listen up, fools!  Listen to words of truth and goodness.  It’s actually not that complicated.  Be humble, instead of arrogant.  The humble king is the good king.  Wisdom is ancient, existing before the creation of the universe.  It is eternal.  Those who find wisdom find life.  Those who do not, find death.”

9.

People who are wise take criticism well.  Foolish people don’t.  Wisdom is sacred.

10.

A wise son makes his father happy.  A foolish son makes his mother suffer.  If you gain by doing evil, you gain nothing.  If you gain by doing good, you do well.  Wise people are not lazy.  They work hard.  The wise man gains blessing.  The foolish man incites violence.  A good man is remembered with fondness.  A bad man is remembered with scorn.  The wise man speaks, and his words bring life.  The fool speaks, and his words bring violence and harm.  Hate begets hate.  Love begets love.  

11.

Deal fairly with everyone.  Don’t be a hypocrite.  When you act with wisdom, the whole community benefits.  Conversely, when you act with malice, the whole community suffers.  People who lack wisdom do not care about their neighbors.  When you do good, it is good for your soul.   Conversely, when you do bad, it troubles you.  Do not be deceitful.  Goodness is life.  Evil is death.  Be liberal and generous with what you have.  Don’t place too much confidence in material wealth.  It is fleeting.

12.

Love knowledge.  Be a good man, and God will favor you.  Take good care of animals.  Work for yourself, and work hard.  Fools tend to think highly of themselves; they are wrong.  Truth and goodness are intimately linked.  So too are lies and evil.  Good words can heal.  Evil words can harm.

13.

Some people are materially rich, but spiritually poor.  Conversely,  some people are materially poor, but spiritually rich.  If you gain by lying, you gain nothing.  Hope deferred makes the heart sick.  When you get what you desire, it’s a tree of life.  Wisdom is a fountain of life.  If you hang out with fools, you will become a fool.

14.

Wise people build things.  Fools tear them down.  Flee from fools.  Wise people are self-aware.  They understand pain, even in laughter.  Fools believe everything they hear.  Wise people do their research.  If you have mercy on poor people, you will be happy.  Fools speak; wise people act.  Be slow to anger, and you will have greater understanding.  If you oppress the poor, you offend God.  If you want to honor God, have mercy on the poor.

15.

When someone speaks to you in anger, respond with gentleness.  God sees everything, both the good and the evil.  God sees even into the hearts of people.  A small, humble meal made with love is better than a rich feast made without love.  It is good to listen to the counsel of others.  The right words spoken at the right time can do immense good.  

16.

We may consider ourselves good, but God knows the truth.  When you act wisely, you will make peace even with your enemies.  People make plans, but God leads us.  Be just in all your dealings.  Wisdom is better than gold and silver.  Pride comes before a fall.  It is much better to be humble. 

17.

If you mock the poor, you mock God.  If you laugh at other’s misfortune, you will experience misfortune.  Grandchildren are the crown of grandparents.  Forgiveness is an essential part of love and friendship.  If you seek to justify evil, or if you condemn good—you offend God.  A friend loves at all times.  A cheerful heart is good medicine.  A broken heart is like illness.  Fools are into bribery.

18.

Let desire be your guide into wisdom.  Before you make up your mind on something, listen to the full story.  Language has the power to kill or to give life.  Some friends are closer to us than brothers.

19.

Kindness is important.

20.

Be careful about drinking too much—it can make you say stupid things and become violent.

21.

God prefers justice to animal sacrifices.  If you cover your ears to the cries of the poor, don’t expect people to help you when you are in need.  Sometimes giving someone a secret gift goes a long way.

22.

It’s better to have a good name than great riches.  Rich and poor, God made them both.

23.

It’s okay to beat children, to correct them.  (I have a problem with this one, for obvious reasons).  

24.

Don’t gloat when your enemy falls.

25.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food.  If his is thirsty, give him water.  

26.

It’s okay to whip fools. (I also have a problem with this one).  

27.

People can make each other better, like iron sharpens iron.

28.

Evil people can become paranoid.  Good people have peace.  Don’t cause good people to go astray.  If you try to hide your sins, it won’t work.  It’s better to be honest.  Don’t harden your heart.  Get-rich-quick schemes are usually a bad idea.  Don’t rob your family.

29.

Avoid flattery.  A good leader listens to the poor.  Don’t be too hasty to speak.  Think about your words.  Don’t hang out with thieves.

30.

Here are some words by a guy named Agur: “I am a fool.  But I found wisdom in God’s words.  I learned to avoid vanity and lies, and to be content with a simple life.  There are still many things I don’t understand, however.  I learned a lot from watching different animals, and how they behave.”

31.

Here are some words by a king named Lemuel that he learned from his mother: “Don’t drink alcohol.  It will impair your judgement.  Judge righteously, and do not neglect the poor and the needy.  Try to find a virtuous wife, who is wise and strong, compassionate and  kind.  Her children will love her, and bless her.”

Ecclesiastes

These are the words of the Teacher, the son of David, the king in Jerusalem:

1.

Futile!  Everything is futile!  What does a person gain from all his work?  Nothing.  Generations come and go, but the earth keeps spinning and not giving a shit about what we do.  Everything causes weariness.  Everything's been done.  There is nothing new.

I sought to find wisdom.  It's a futile task, like chasing after the wind.  You can't change anything.  I became the wisest man in the world, and it only brought me confusion and pain.

2.

I thought, what the hell, life is short, I'll just try to have a good time.  I built myself huge houses, gardens, vineyards.  I even had slaves.  I was the richest man in the country.  I had non-stop entertainment.  I had lovers galore.  I lived in absolute luxury.  Guess what?  It was futile.

Wisdom may be better than folly, but the same fate awaits the wise man and the fool...death.  So I hated life.  I hated all my stuff.  It doesn't last.  I found only despair.

3.

In life, there is a time for everything: birth and death, planting and harvesting, killing and healing, tearing down and building up, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, throwing stones and gathering stones, hugging and not hugging, searching and losing, keeping and throwing away, tearing apart and binding together, silence and speech, love and hate, war and peace. 

There is a time for everything.  But eternity?  Who can grasp that?  Yet still we try.  It is perhaps best to seek joy and do good.  But life is baffling, with all its injustice.  We are, after all, animals, doomed to die like all living things.  Yet still we try to be happy.

4.

I carefully researched all the cases of oppression in the world.  I saw the tears of the oppressed who had no one to comfort them.  So I thought, "What good is life?  It's better to be dead.  Why struggle like this?"

But then I saw friendship and love between human beings.  I saw that it's good for people to work together, to sleep together, to keep each other warm, to help each other.  Even if, in the end, it's all futile.

5.

When you speak to God, let your words be few and honest.

Wealth doesn't bring happiness.  It is fleeting.  Hoarding wealth is especially harmful.

It's best to eat, drink, and be happy with the few years of life you are given.

6.

Life is ultimately futile.

7.

Do not flee from suffering and mourning.  They are better teachers than happiness and pleasure.  Don't say, "I miss the good old days."  They never existed.

In this wold of injustice, it is good to seek wisdom, as hard as that is.  I am still seeking.

8.

Basically, you can't understand God.

9.

I guess all you can do is live your life.  Eat, drink, and be merry.  Find love.  Whatever you choose to do, do it with all your heart. 

10.

And try not to act like a fool.

11.

Sunlight is good.  Live your life.

12.

In this world of danger, remember God. I have tried to speak as truthfully as I can, and here's my conclusion: fear God, and keep his commandments. 

"Vanitas" by Pieter Claesz (1625)

Song of Solomon

"The Song of Solomon" by He Qi
The Song of Solomon is totally unique in the Bible.  It doesn't mention the law or God.  Instead, it's an unabashed celebration of sexual love, in the form of a poem.  It's ancient erotica, and it's part of the Bible!  Here's my paraphrase...
1.

Kiss me on the mouth,
your love is better than wine,
Your body oils and perfumes smell good
The ladies love you.

Let’s hurry up and make love.
in the king’s bedroom,
We will have a great time!

I am black and beautiful.
Don’t be prejudiced,
I am proud of my beautiful black skin.

You are so beautiful, baby.
You’re like a fucking stallion.
Your cheeks are like Christmas ornaments,
Your jewelry is awesome.

When the king was chilling on the couch,
I got really wet.
My lover is like perfume between my tits.

You are beautiful, my love
Your eyes are like doves,
Let’s lay down on my green couch.

2.

“My lover is like a flower,” he said.
“My lover is like a big wood tree,” she said.
We tasted each others’ fruit,
the sweet sweet love-fruit.
I am faint with love.
Embrace me, baby,
Let’s fuck like gazelles.

Here comes my love,
leaping over hills and mountains,
like a hot young stag,
He’s so athletic.

He stands and looks through my window,
and calls to me saying,
“Let’s go, babe.
It’s Springtime…
Time for birds and flowers
and…yeah…
You know what time it is.
Your voice is sweet,
Your face is lovely.

We are like frisky foxes
in a blooming vineyard.
We belong to each other.
Pasture your flock among my lilies.
Let’s fuck all night.

3.

Laying in bed at night,
I longed for my lover,
the one whom my soul loves,
but I couldn’t find him.
I called out to him, 
but he wasn’t there.

I searched all over the city
for him, my lover,
I asked some police men,
“Have you seen my lover?”
They didn’t reply.

Then I found him!
I held him tightly,
and would not let him go.
“Let’s go back to my place,” 
I said.

What’s that I see, coming this way,
smelling so good.
It’s the king, and all his mighty men,
wearing those sexy war outfits.
Solomon is looking especially hot,
driving in his silver chariot,
it’s interior is upholstered with love.
Check him out, ladies!

4.

You are so beautiful, my love.
Your eyes are like doves.
Your hair sleek and sexy,
You’ve got great teeth,
Your lips are ruby red,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like pomegranates.
Your neck looks nice.
Your breasts are like two fawns.
You are beautiful, my love,
You are perfect.

You have ravished my heart,
with just a glance.
Ooh, your love is sweet,
and you smell amazing.
Give me some sugar, baby,
some sweet nectar from those lips,
gimme some of that milk and honey.

Your virginity is like a secret garden,
a sealed channel, containing 
sweet fruit within, a fountain of water.
Make way, baby,
I’m gonna enter that garden
and eat my fill.

5.

I enter that secret garden,
filled with sweet honey
and milk and wine.
I will eat and drink
and be drunk with love.

I had a wet dream.
My lover knocked at my door.
“Open up, baby, open up,”
I am dripping wet.

I was already naked, ready to rock.
He thrust his hand into my opening,
My dripping hands opened him up…

And then, he was gone!

I called to him,
I searched the city again.
I asked some police men
if they had seen my lover.
This time they beat me up.

If you find my lover, 
please let me know.

He is so handsome,
his wavy, dark locks 
drive me crazy.
Don’t get me started on his eyes,
his cheeks, his lips,
his smoking’ body,
his sweet voice.

He is my lover and he is my friend.

6.

Where has your lover gone,
O lovely lady?
He has gone to the garden.
You are so beautiful, my love.
Your eyes are overwhelming.

7.

You look great in sandals,
You’ve got sexy thighs,
like they were sculpted by 
a great master.
I like your belly button,
your belly,
your breasts like fawns.
You are absolutely delectable!

You are like a palm tree,
and your breasts are like coconuts.
I want to climb that tree,
and grab some coconuts,
and drink deeply.

Kissing you is like tasting a great wine,
it tastes so amazing.

Come on, baby,
let’s go out to the fields,
let’s run through the vineyards
and have some grapes,
and then make love.

8.

I’m not afraid to kiss you in public
(But I prefer the things we do in private)
Come drink of my pomegranates.
Come embrace me!

For love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,
 neither can floods drown it.
You can’t buy true love.

In your eyes I find peace.

"Song of Solomon" by Marc Chagall


Isaiah

The book of Isaiah is a collection of Hebrew poems written roughly between 740-537 B.C.E.  These poems are written in direct response to the various historical events of this turbulent time period.  Therefore, to understand Isaiah, we must first understand the context in which its parts were written.  The perspective of the poems is that of a prophet who is commenting on, criticizing, and making predictions about the state of affairs of Israel.  The prophet/poet claims to speak for God, as a kind of divine social critic and religious reformer.

"The Prophecy of Isaiah" by Marc Chagall

Although the book appears as the work of a single author, scholars today generally believe it had two (or perhaps three) authors, which are described as 1.) First Isaiah (who wrote in Jerusalem around 740-700 B.C.E.), 2.) Second Isaiah (who wrote from exile in Babylon around 540 B.C.E.), and 3.) Third Isaiah (who wrote from Jerusalem around 537 B.C.E. after Jews had been allowed to return to their homeland).  Thus, the book of Isaiah, spans the crucial time period in which the nation of Israel was conquered, the captives taken away to Babylon, and finally allowed to return home and rebuild their shattered nation.  The overall theme/progression is that of destruction, exile, and restoration.  For the purposes of this report, I will divide Isaiah into these three sections…

I. First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), written between 740-700 B.C.E. in Jerusalem…

Opening Oracles and the Call of the Prophet… (Chapters 1-6)

The book begins with a series of poems which criticize the nation of Israel (and the capitol city of Jerusalem) for breaking God’s covenant.  The people have rebelled against God by tolerating corruption and allowing social injustice to exist.  The city has become “sick” and devastation is foreseen.  The only hope for restoration is to put away corruption, idolatry, and social injustice.  The prophet foresees a future time of universal peace, and an end to war.  The poet describes his call to be a prophet, which resembles the call of Moses.  God asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Here I am, send me!”  The prophet is embarrassed about his foul mouth and lack of eloquence.  So one of God’s angels literally burns the prophets lips with a fiery coal, purifying them.  Then the prophet is prepared to speak to the people.

Oracles from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War (735-732 B.C.E.)…(Chapters 7-8)

In 735 B.C.E., the country of Aram (also called Syria) and the northern Kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) organized a coalition against the powerful Assyrian Empire.  These two nations attacked the Southern Kingdom of Judah, to force it to join their coalition.  King Ahaz of Judah instead sought to ally himself with Assyria.  The prophet Isaiah counseled Ahaz against this alliance, urging him simply to rely on God for protection.  This is a recurring pattern in First Isaiah—counseling the kings of Judah against foreign alliances, and encouraging trust in God.  While this makes theological sense, it makes for rather ballsy foreign policy, especially because Judah was surrounded by much more powerful nations.  

Isaiah tells King Ahaz that the Lord will give him a sign of protection.  A young woman (likely Isaiah’s wife) will give birth to a child, and his name will be called Immanuel (which means, ‘God With Us’).  By the time the child is a toddler, God will send Assyria to attack and destroy Aram and the northern Kingdom of Israel.  New testament writers quoted this passage in reference to the birth of Jesus; however, in its original context, it referred to the Syro-Ephraimite War.  

Isaiah’s wife has another child, which is also a sign for Ahaz.  This one’s name is Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (which means “Swift the Spoil, Prompt the Plundering”).  This child is a sign that God will send Assyria to destroy Judah’s enemies Aram and Northern Israel.  Isaiah again warns Ahaz against entering into an alliance with Assyria.  Ahaz is not convinced.

The Righteous Reign of the Coming King (probably Hezekiah)…(Chapter 9)

Despite their dire situation, Isaiah predicts the rise of a king of Judah who will bring peace, prosperity, and justice to the land.  Christians have interpreted this as being in reference to Jesus.  Again, in it’s original context, it probably referred to King Hezekiah, who ruled from 715-687 B.C.E. and brought about great reforms in Judah.  Hezekiah was actually a very good king.

The Fall of the Northern Kingdom (722 B.C.E.)…(Chapters 9-10)

In 722 B.C.E., the northern Kingdom of Israel was attacked and defeated by the powerful Assyrian Empire, one of the great world powers of its day.  The prophet laments the devastation, and gives some explanation of why the north was destroyed.  The people were prideful and did not trust in God.  Their prophets spoke lies, and the leaders did not seek to alleviate social injustice.  Isaiah warns the southern kingdom of Judah that they will share the same fate of the north if they do not follow God, and uphold social justice.  For Isaiah, following God and upholding social justice are inextricably linked.

Assyrian stone carving (c. 700 B.C.E.)

An Oracle Against Assyria…(Ch. 10)

Isaiah speaks the words of God in the first person, saying that, although Assyria has destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern city of Jerusalem will not fall.  Indeed, the Assyrians did not destroy Judah.  Instead, the prophet declares, God will punish Assyria for its arrogance in thinking it could take the holy city of Jerusalem, the place of God’s temple.

The Peaceful Kingdom…(Ch. 11-12)

The prophet then envisions a time of peace and justice, in which a king from David’s dynasty will rule with righteousness.  The hallmark of a good king is how he treats the poor and marginalized, and this king will do well.  This passage is often seen by Christians as predicting Jesus the Messiah.  However, again, in its original context, it probably refers to the good king Hezekiah.  Isaiah predicts a return from exile for those from the north who were taken captive by Assyria.  Peace between north and south is also predicted, as is renewed military might.

Oracles Against Various Foreign Nations…(Ch. 13-23)

Then Isaiah gives a series of poetic proclamations against foreign nations who are enemies of Israel.  The tone of many of these oracles is quite apocalyptic, using language of total destruction and judgement.  This language makes sense given the volatile context in which they were written.  The northern kingdom had fallen, and the tiny nation of Judah stood alone and vulnerable, surrounded by vastly more powerful empires.  The only hope of the people is their God.

The first oracle, against Babylon, is brutal.  The prophet promises total destruction for this great empire, and horrors inflicted upon its people: “Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.”  In other words, Babylon is fucked.  The problem with big, global empires is that they tend to oppress people.  Such is the nature of empire.  God says that tyrants and emperors who oppress people (like the king of Babylon) will be humbled and cut down to size.  

The same fate is seen for Assyria.  God says, “I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him under foot.”  To the maritime kingdom of Philistia, Israel’s long-time enemies, the prophet says, “Melt in fear, O Philistia, all of you!”  Meanwhile, Jerusalem will remain as a refuge for the needy and oppressed.

Isaiah is much more compassionate toward the nation of Moab.  Destruction is promised for Moab, but Isaiah writes, “My heart cries out for Moab” and “I drench you with my tears.”  Though Moab will be destroyed, its survivors will take refuge in Jerusalem, under the reign of a good king who seeks justice for the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah predicts destruction of Damascus, the capitol of Syria (also called Aram), for their idolatry and oppression of Judah, particularly during the Syro-Ephraimite War.  God is seen as a powerful being who transcends all nations.  Isaiah writes, “The nations roar like the roaring of many waters, but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away.”

Next is an oracle against Ethopia (also called Nubia), which will suffer defeat and ultimately bring gifts to Jerusalem.   Egypt will also fall, due to internal strife.  Indeed, Egypt in the 8th century was beset by internal strife, until the rise of the Ethiopian ruler Piankhi, who established a new dynasty in 715 B.C.E.  Amazingly, the prophet predicts a future time when not just Jews, but Egyptians and Assyrians, will worship the God of Israel.

For a three-year stretch, during the time of a revolt against Assyria (which included Philistia, Egypt, and Ethiopia), God told Isaiah to roam around Jerusalem naked, as a sign against the rebels, who would ultimately be defeated by Assyria around 711 B.C.E.  For much of First Isaiah, Assyria is seen as the agent of God’s judgment on foreign nations.  However, Assyria herself would not escape this judgement eventually.

While Isaiah gives yet another oracle against Babylon, foreseeing her destruction, he describes how difficult and painful it is to be a prophet: “My mind reels, horror has appalled me; the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.”  It was not a pleasant occupation to be a prophet.  It was a job filled with suffering.

Continuing this theme of suffering, the prophet then foresees the destruction of Jerusalem itself, something unimaginably devastating for him.  Isaiah writes, “Therefore I said: Look away from me, let me weep bitter tears; do not try to comfort me for the destruction of my beloved people.”  In 701 B.C.E., Assyria invaded Judah and its capitol Jerusalem.  Isaiah laments the possibility that God’s chosen city could be conquered.

The last oracles against foreign nations are about the Phoenician port cities of Tyre and Sidon, which were invaded and conquered by Assyria in 701 B.C.E.

"Isaiah" by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

Isaiah’s Vision of Apocalypse…(Ch. 24-27)  

Following Isaiah’s proclamation of judgment on foreign nations is a series of oracles dealing with global apocalypse.  Some scholars do not believe these were written by First Isaiah, because they reflect a kind of literature that did not emerge until the late 6th century B.C.E.  These texts were probably written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 B.C.E., and the fall of the southern Kingdom of Judah, an event that profoundly affected the Israelites and their sense of religious and cultural identity.  Isaiah’s visions of apocalypse may be seen as a kind of microcosm for the whole pattern of the book of Isaiah, which is: destruction, exile, restoration.  For this section, I would like to quote some excerpts, to show this pattern…

Destruction…

Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate…
The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, 
violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer from their guilt…
The city of chaos is broken down…
the gladness of the earth is banished…
Desolation is left in the city, 
the gates are battered into ruins…
I pine away, I pine away.
Woe is me!
For the treacherous deal treacherously,
the treacherous deal very treacherously.
Terror, and the pit, and the snare
are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is torn asunder,
the earth is violently shaken…
it falls, and will not rise again.

Exile…

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat…
O Lord our God,
other lords besides you have ruled over us,
but we acknowledge your name alone…
We have won no victories on the earth…
hide yourself for a little while
until the wrath is past…

Restoration…

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken…
On that day: a pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day
so than no one can harm it…
let it make peace with me,
let it make peace with me…
On that day…you will be gathered one by one,
O people of Israel.
And on that day a great trumpet will be blown,
and those who were lost in the land of Assyria
and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt
will come and worship the Lord
on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.

Oracles from the Reign of King Hezekiah (705-701 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 28-33)

Isaiah laments the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, and also criticizes the prophets and leaders of the southern Kingdom in Jerusalem, who are trusting in their alliances with foreign nations, instead of trusting in God to save them from Assyria.  The prophet comments on the siege of Jerusalem by Assyria in 701 B.C.E., but ultimately promises hope and salvation for the holy city.  King Hezekiah is criticized for seeking alliance with Egypt.  As before, however, the prophet sees restoration after destruction.

More Oracles of Destruction and Restoration (probably written by Second Isaiah)…(Ch. 34-35)…

Inserted among oracles dealing with the Assyrian threat is a brief poem probably written by Second Isaiah, because it deals with exiles returning from Babylon, an event which would not happen for another 150 years.  God pronounces judgment upon Israel’s enemies, total apocalyptic destruction.  Again, like a recurring motif, the people of Israel are described as experiencing restoration.  Here are some lovely passages on this theme…

"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing…
And sorrow and signing shall flee away.”

Narratives of King Hezekiah and Isaiah (705-701 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 36-39)

The poetry of Isaiah is then interrupted by a prose narrative which is probably taken from 2 Kings.  While King Hezekiah was ruling Judah (around 701 B.C.E.), the Assyrian empire came to Jerusalem and threatened to destroy it.  Hezekiah consulted Isaiah about what to do.  Isaiah said, again, to trust in God, and that Assyria would not take Jerusalem.  According to the Bible narrative, an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians, and sent them packing.  According to Assyrian records, King Hezekiah agreed to pay Assyria tribute, and become a subordinate state.

After the Assyrians left, King Hezekiah became sick, and again consulted Isaiah, who said that God would heal him.  When he was healed, Hezekiah wrote a poem of thanks.

Meanwhile, some representative from Babylon came to visit Jerusalem, seeking a partner in an alliance against Assyria.  Hezekiah proudly showed these Babylonians all his treasury and weapons and stuff.  Isaiah was like, “You fool!  Now Babylon is going to come and conquer us!” 

And that is what happened in 587 B.C.E.  The southern kingdom of Judah was conquered.  Jerusalem was destroyed, and the survivors were taken away into exile.

Israelites Taken Captive by Babylon (stone carving)

Second Isaiah (Written from Babylon during the exile around 540 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 40-55)

Unlike First Isaiah, which begins with harsh words of judgment upon Israel, Second Isaiah begins with words of comfort.  The Israelites have lost their homeland and have been carried away to Babylon, a troubling crisis of faith.  Second Isaiah speaks consoling words to a wounded and confused people, like this famous passage:

“He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like wages,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Despite all that Israel has suffered, the prophet insists that God has not abandoned his people, that he will redeem them.  The people are encouraged to not be afraid:

“I have chosen you and not cast you off;
do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

To the poor exiles, thirsting in the wilderness, God will provide water and new life:

“When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.”

The Servant Songs (Ch. 42-53)

Scattered throughout Second Isaiah are several poems which have come to be called “The Servant Songs.”  In them, God describes his “Servant” who will bring justice to the nations of the world, and a new era of peace.  Later Christian writers interpreted these servant songs as referring to Jesus Christ.  However, in their original context, they often refer explicitly to the nation of Israel, as in this passage from Ch, 44:

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel who I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do nor fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun (Israel) whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground.”

When seen in this light, the Servant Songs continue the main theme of Second Isaiah, which is comfort and restoration.  A greater purpose lies beyond their suffering in exile.  After their suffering, God will use them to actually bless the nations of the world.  This theme of Israel’s suffering leading to widespread healing and restoration is poignantly expressed in the famous song of the “Suffering Servant” in Ch. 53:

“He (Israel) was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.”

In Ch. 54, Israel’s suffering in exile will lead to a new era of peace and love:

“For a brief moment I abandoned you (Israel),
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love
I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer…
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, says the Lord.”

Cyrus the Liberator 

Second Isaiah says that God will use Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, to liberate the Israelites.  The prophet writes, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city, and set my exiles free.”  Judgment and destruction is given against Babylon, with Cyrus as the instrument of this.  Indeed, in 539 B.C.E., Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, and let the Israelite exiles return to their homeland.  God is envisioned as a universal, transcendent being, who orders events, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.  Foreign gods and “idols” are condemned and seen as powerless and nonexistent.  This radial concept of monotheism would prove a powerful one in the centuries to come.

Cyrus the Great of Persia

Third Isaiah…(Written from Jerusalem after the return from exile between 535-520 B.C.E.)…(Ch. 56-66)

The last section of Isaiah, written from Jerusalem after the return from exile, is not quite as optimistic as Second Isaiah.  Yes, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, but their homecoming was bittersweet, and nothing like the glorious return Second Isaiah envisioned.  They had returned to a ruined land and upon them fell the daunting task of re-building a shattered and scattered nation.  Third Isaiah contains very harsh passages of disillusionment and judgment, but also contains hopeful and beautiful passages.  The prophet remains convinced that Jerusalem will be re-built and a new nation will emerge from the ruins.  If First Isaiah is a book of judgment, and Second Isaiah is a book of mercy, Third Isaiah is a balanced mix of judgment and mercy.  The author might have been a disciple of Second Isaiah or, as some scholars argue, Second Isaiah himself, albeit an older and more world-weary prophet.

Universal Acceptance…(Ch. 56)

Third Isaiah begins with a beautiful vision of an inclusive community.  Formerly excluded foreigners will be accepted as part of the new community of Israel.  The prophet writes, “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Judgment on Israel’s Rulers…(Ch. 57)

The prophet condemns leaders of the post-exile community in Jerusalem, calling them “blind” and “without understanding.”  He also condemns those who stayed behind in Jerusalem during the exile, or fled to Egypt, citing their idolatry and non-Jewish religious practices.  He encourages a return to true worship, keeping the covenant, and observing the Sabbath.

Hope for the Future…(Ch. 58-64)

Despite Israel’s mistakes and shortcomings, the prophet insists that God will heal them.  “Peace, peace,” he writes, “to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.”  The way to gain the Lord’s favor is humility and a focus on social justice.  Throughout all of Isaiah, social justice is seen as a necessary part of peace.  Religious rituals (like fasting) are not enough.  Direct action on behalf of the oppressed is required:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet ultimately proclaims a message of liberation and restoration:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…”

A New Kingdom…(Ch. 66)

The book of Isaiah ends with an apocalyptic vision, not of destruction and death, but restoration and new life.  The writer of the book of Revelation quoted from Isaiah, to describe the “new creation” at the end of the world.  For Third Isaiah, however, such a vision is not some distant, otherworldly thing, but very much of this world.  It is meant to give hope to real Jews living in a real Jerusalem around 530 B.C.E…

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make,
shall remain before me, say the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name 
remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.”

Rebuilding Jerusalem



Jeremiah

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.

Lamentations

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…

Lamentations.

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.  

Ezekiel

“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.



Daniel

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

Hosea

The book of Hosea tells the story of a prophet (named Hosea) who lived and prophesied from the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam (786-746 B.C.E.)  The main theme of Hosea’s prophecy is to criticize and condemn Israel for their idolatry, which mainly has to do with their political alliances with Egypt and Assyria.  From a political perspective, these alliances were understandable foreign policy, meant to ensure the nation’s survival.  But from Hosea’s religious perspective, these alliances meant a lack of trust in God, and a breaking of Israel’s covenant with God.  Thus, destruction and desolation are foreseen.

Hosea does not let the “idolatrous” leaders of Israel give their side of the story, which would probably have gone something like, “Dude, Hosea, we are making these alliances for purely political reasons, so we won’t be destroyed.”  Hosea isn’t really interested in the real complexities of ancient middle eastern geo-politics.  He is interested in fidelity to divine law.  This is probably why Hosea is an eccentric prophet, and not an actual leader.

As with Ezekiel and other prophets, Hosea is told to do some allegorical performance art, which is meant to reinforce his message.  Unfortunately, Hosea’s performance art doesn’t just affect him.  He is told by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer, whom he actually buys, like a slave, which should give you a sense of the cultural misogyny which dominated Hosea’s world.  Men could buy women.

Hosea and Gomer by Barry Moser

This marriage is meant to illustrate God’s (i.e. Hosea’s) relationship with faithless Israel (i.e. Gomer).  Unfortunately, again, Hosea never gives Gomer’s side of the story.  Was she really a prostitute?  What circumstances drove her into this profession?  What were her real economic options in a world where men could buy women?  Instead, Hosea repeatedly employs disturbingly misogynist language to refer to both his wife and his country.  He uses the words whore, whoring, and whoredom (creative!) to refer to Gomer and Israel.

Not only is poor Gomer forced into this “allegorical” street theater, her children are as well.  Hosea and Gomer’s children are also meant to symbolically represent God’s broken relationship with Isreal.  They name their daughter Lo Ruhamah (which means “No Mercy”) and their son Lo Ammi (which means “Not my people”).  Nice.  I’m sure these kids suffered mercilessly at the hand of bullies.

While, from a 21st century perspective, we may be rightly disturbed by the scary, misogynist God we find in Hosea, and the seemingly cruel street theater He makes His prophet undertake, it must also be understood that Hosea saw his purpose as a redemptive one.  Amidst all the judgment and misogynistic epithets, Hosea ultimately presents a message of restoration for Israel and Gomer.  “Come, let us return to the Lord,” he says, “for it is He who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and He will bind us up.”

Ultimately, Hosea’s vision of God is similar to one we find throughout the prophets.  Yahweh is a God of both judgment and mercy.  A God who wounds and heals.  A God of justice and compassion.   I would be very interested to hear a modern feminist’s take on the book of Hosea.  A prostitute woman with no voice or agency is “saved” by a religious man.  I can only imagine the field day that feminists like Bell Hooks, Betty Friedan, or Adrienne Rich would have deconstructing this book.  As a feminist myself (i.e. one who believes in equality between men and women), I am disturbed by the language Hosea uses, and the conspicuous lack of a female voice in the text.

"Hosea and Gomer" by Cody F. Miller

Interestingly, one of my favorite bands, Pedro the Lion, did a song about the book of Hosea called "Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives."  Check it out...



Joel

The book of Joel is one of the shortest in the Bible.  At only three chapters, it still manages to pack an apocalyptic wallop.  Scholars disagree about when exactly the book was written, but clues in the text (like references to Greeks and Sabeans) point to the fifth century B.C.E., when Israel and Judah were again unified and had re-built Jerusalem, its walls, and temple.

The main event of the book of Joel is a locust infestation that devastates the crops of Israel.  Locusts are scary big grasshoppers that can be absolutely devastating for farmers.  In the book of Exodus, you’ll remember, locusts were one of the great plagues inflicted on Egypt.

Locust

For an agricultural society like 5th century Israel, a locust infestation disrupted their food supply, economy, and even religious practices (since agricultural products like wine and grain were used in religious services).

Joel describes this locust infestation with terrifying imagery:

“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”

Locust swarm.

The prophet compares the swarm of locusts to an invading army bent on destruction:

“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes…”

Like the prophets before him (and, in fact, like many ancient agricultural societies), Joel interprets the locusts as divine judgment, and encourages the people to repent and turn to God:

“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

Following the familiar prophetic sequence of sin—punishment—restoration, God promises to heal Israel’s land after the devastating locust infestation:

“Then the Lord became jealous for his land, 
and had pity on his people.
In response to his people the Lord said:
I am sending you grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied…”

God speaks even to the soil and the animals, showing that he is not only concerned with humans, but with the whole of nature:

“Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field.
for the pastures of the wilderness are green…”

In spite of his seemingly ordinary agricultural premise, Joel (like Daniel) ends with some pretty crazy apocalyptic visions.  He says that God’s spirit will be poured out on all peoples, not just Israel:

“Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions…”

In the New Testament book of Acts, the apostle Peter quotes Joel in reference to Pentecost, the famous outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire.  I find it kind of funny that, in its original context, the “Pentecost prophecy” had to do with a locust infestation/crop failure.

Pentecost

Joel’s apocalyptic visions then take a dark turn…

“I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Like the prophets before him, Joel pronounces judgment on foreign nations, and restoration for Israel, in a kind of utopian/xenophobic dream of the future:

“In that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
the hills shall flow with milk,
and the stream beds of Judah
shall flow with water…
Egypt shall become a desolation
and Edom a desolate wilderness…”

Sweet berry wine.

The little book of Joel reminds us that, for all the apocalyptic/spiritual imagery of the prophets, their writings are always rooted and grounded in the real goings-on of a specific people group, the Israelites, living in specific historical circumstances.  Something as seemingly mundane as a crop failure provides the occasion for an inspired meditation on calamity and restoration.

In this way, the ancient Israelites were not so different from many ancient cultures, who saw history and natural phenomenon as connected to the gods, or God.  As a 21st century reader, I can’t help but think about how differently I see history and natural phenomena.  For me, an earthquake or a hurricane or a crop failure has very explainable reasons.  But for pre-scientific ancient peoples like the Israelites, such events needed explanation, and God was usually the “go-to” explanation for the unexplainable.  This raises the question: what relevance does a book like Joel have for 21st century readers?  Is it simply a quaint example of how one ancient people group (incorrectly) interpreted a bug infestation?  Or is it something more?  I suppose it has meaning because its included in the Bible, which is still a holy book for millions of people.  But why?  And of what relevance is Joel?  I don’t know.



Amos
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 
—Desmond Tutu

There is a common misconception that the only role of the prophets in the Bible is to predict the future.  Growing up, I viewed the Old Testament prophets’ role as mainly predicting the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  While the prophets do often predict the future, they have another, more practical, role—they are social critics, pointing out the problems and injustices of their day, and telling people to act with more justice and mercy.

"The Book of Amos" by Nahum HaLevi

This is particularly true with the book of Amos, a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who trekked north to Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. to lay a verbal smackdown on the rich and powerful, for their oppression of the poor.  Amos calls out the upper classes on their greed and hypocrisy, and promises a coming judgment by God.  Amos writes:

“Thus says the Lord:
for three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

In other words, there is serious labor exploitation going on.  Amos condemns Israel’s upper classes, saying their luxury will be short-lived:

“I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house;
and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,
says the Lord.”

The prophet compares the wealthy to fat cows, saying they shall be carried away with nose hooks, like real cows:

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria (the capitol of Isreal)…
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks.”

Fat cat (or cow).

Amos has no patience for rich people who observe religious ritual while ignoring the practical needs of the poor:

“I hate, I despise your [religious] festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt 
offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, 
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

"Poverty" by Pablo Picasso

Of what use, Amos wonders, is religious ritual when there is real unmet human need and oppression going on?  To paraphrase a famous journalist, Amos’s task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable…

“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.”

Amos’ prescription is quite simple:

“Seek good and not evil,
that you may live…
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.”

Like social critics in all ages, Amos is persecuted and criticized by the wealthy and powerful.  The high priest Amaziah conspires against Amos to the king, Jeroboam.  But Amos is undeterred in his message.  He speaks truth to power.

While the book of Amos ends on a hopeful note of future restoration after judgment, most scholars believe these hopeful passages to be later additions, sort of like tacking a Hollywood “happy ending” onto a Greek tragedy.  If you remove 9: 11-15, the supposed later additions, the book is much more powerful, I think.

I ended my last book report, on Joel, with the question: Of what relevance is this text to modern readers?  I think the book of Amos does indeed speak to us, and to every generation, prompting us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I participating in oppression?  For Americans, this question has extreme relevance and urgency.  I’m currently teaching an English class with the theme of “Globalization.”  Last week, we watched a powerful film called “The Yes Men” which points out disturbing ways in which we, as Americans, benefit from a global economy which tends to exploit developing countries for labor and resources.

Sweat shop.

Or, to bring things closer to home, in another of my classes, we are reading Gustavo Arellano’s book Orange County: a Personal History, which deals with discrimination that Mexican-Americans continue to face right here in Orange County.  A particularly vulnerable part of our population in the United States are undocumented immigrants.  People fleeing poverty and violence to take refuge in “the land of the free” often experience exploitation, discrimination, harassment, and constant fear of deportation.  It’s astonishing how many Americans, even today, demonize these fellow human beings.  For Christians, a good question to ask is: In what ways am I on the side of the oppressor, and how can I make a change, so that I am on the side of the oppressed?

Fellow human beings.
Obadiah

The book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament.  It is only one chapter long, 21 verses.  It was written during/after the Babylonian siege of the Kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C.E.  The prophet Obadiah speaks harsh words of judgment against Judah's neighbor Edom, because they conspired with Babylon, and looted Judah.  Obadiah sees this as a family betrayal, because the nation of Edom was thought to be descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (or Israel).  Thus, Esau/Edom has betrayed his brother Jacob/Israel.  The prophet uses poetic repetition to list the offenses of Edom against Israel, which include helping the enemy, looting, and even tracking down Judeah fugitives/refugees:

But you should have not gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune,
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted 
on the day of distress
You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah's disaster
on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
on the day of his calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossings
to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
on the day of distress."

Obadiah's vision of the relationship between neighboring nations is that of a family.  Mistreating a neighboring nation is like mistreating a brother.  This is, I think, a pretty timeless message, especially considering the ongoing unrest between nations in the middle east.  Obadiah ends his prophecy with a hopeful vision of a restored Jerusalem/Zion; however this restoration comes at the expense of Edom:

"But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of
those who dispossessed them.
The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;
for the Lord has spoken."

One would hope that Obadiah's vision would be one of forgiveness of Edom; however, it is one of vengeance.  This is disturbing but understandable, given the fact that Edom had wronged their neighbor Israel.  This was one in a long series of conflicts between Israel and her neighbors, a conflict that continues today, sadly.  Reading a book like Obadiah, I'm left with a couple lingering questions regarding the relationship between the Bible and conflict between Israel and her neighbors today: to what extent does the Bible legitimize and exacerbate today's conflicts?  On a more hopeful note: Does the Bible see a way beyond these seemingly endless conflicts?


"The Prophets Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea" by John Singer Sargent

Jonah

The short book of Jonah (only four chapters) is one of the most memorable and action-packed in the Bible.  It is unique among the prophets in that it focuses on the prophet’s actions more than his message.  The book reads like a short story instead of a poem.  Here’s my summary:

Once there lived a Hebrew prophet named Jonah.  God told him to go to Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria (Israel’s enemy) and tell the people to repent, so they would be saved from a genocide God had planned for them.  Without a word, Jonah fled from his mission.  He didn’t want to go to Nineveh.  They were his enemies.  So he boarded a ship heading away from Assyria in a futile attempt to flee from God.  

While at sea, a great storm threatened to destroy the ship.  The sailors threw their cargo overboard, hoping the keep the boat afloat.  They prayed to their different gods, but the storm didn’t relent.  The panic-stricken sailors found Jonah sound asleep in his cabin.

The Tempest

“Dude, how are you sleeping right now?!” they asked, “Wake up and pray to your god so we won’t die!”

The sailors drew straws to see whose fault the storm was.  They were superstitious.  Jonah drew the short straw.

“Who are you?” the sailors asked.

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah said, “I worship the God who created the land and the sea.”

The sailors became afraid.  Though they likely believed in different gods, they’d heard of this Yahweh God, and knew that Jonah must have pissed him off something fierce.  Meanwhile, the storm raged on.

“What should we do?” the sailors asked Jonah.

“Throw me into the sea!” Jonah said.

“Dude, we’re not murderers!” the sailors said, and continued trying to guide the ship toward safe harbor.  When they realized it was hopeless, they prayed to Jonah’s god, “Forgive us for killing this guy,” and they threw Jonah into the sea!

Jonah inside the whale, praying.

Instead of drowning, however, Jonah was swallowed up by a whale.  While inside the belly of the whale, he sang a song of thanks to God.  After three days, the whale barfed up Jonah onto dry land.  It was a miracle.

The whale barfs up Jonah.

For a second time, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.  This time, the reluctant prophet obeyed.  He went to the capitol of Assyria and said eight words, “Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Miraculously, that did the trick.  The people of Nineveh, who had a well-established religion of their own, believed this foreign enemy, prayed to his god, and even fasted.  So God changed his mind about genociding Nineveh.

Instead of being happy, however, Jonah was angry.  He didn’t want the Assyrians spared.  They were his enemy.  He hated them.  This was the real reason he fled in the first place.  He wanted God to destroy them, not show them mercy.

So God used an allegory to teach Jonah the fault in this way of thinking.  When he left the city, Jonah sat down to take a rest.  God caused bush to bloom and give him shade from the heat.  Then God caused the bush to wither, and Jonah became uncomfortably hot.  He got sunstroke, and wanted to die.

God said to Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the bush?”

“Yes, angry enough to die,” Jonah said boldly.

“You are more concerned about a bush than about the 120,000 human beings (and countless animals) you just helped save from destruction?  That’s not cool,” God said.

The End

The “moral” of the story seems to be that God cares about all people, not just Israel.  This is a welcome message for readers like me, who are disturbed by the previous book of Obadiah, which preaches judgment against Israel’s neighbor Edom.  The book of Jonah seems to completely reverse this way of thinking.  The Bible is full of paradoxical gems like this.

That being said, I have a couple problems with the book of Jonah, in terms of ideology:

1.) Religious intolerance.  While the Assyrians are indeed saved, they are only saved by praying to Yahweh.  Their religion is seen as useless.  This seems a rather ethnocentric point of view.  I’m sure the Assyrians had stories which told of the power of their gods, and weakness of foreign gods.

2.) God was going to kill the Assyrians!  Let’s not forget that the genocide which the Assyrians are spared from is a genocide planned by God.  This is an ongoing issue I have with the Bible, which is the brutal vengeance of God.


The ancient city of Nineveh is now called Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, which has seen much fighting in recent months between ISIL, Kurds, and other groups.  One result of this fighting has been the destruction of priceless ancient cultural sites, which is something that should be a topic of greater conversation regarding war in the Middle East, aka the Cradle of Civilization.  By bombing ancient sites, it's like we're saying "Fuck you" to history and culture.

Mosul (aka Nineveh) today.

Micah

The book of the prophet Micah (like most of the prophetic books in the Bible) was written during a time of great political and social turmoil for the nation of Israel.  Micah's writings span the years 742-686 B.C.E.--the last years of the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to Assyria in 722) and the first years of the existence of the southern kingdom of Judah alone.  Micah was from the small southern village of Moresheth, which may account for his sensitivity to the suffering of the poor and marginalized.

Reading these prophetic books, I am startled by the similarity of their messages.  Like prophets before and after him, Micah hammers home the pattern of sin--punishment--restoration of Israel.  The suffering of the people is attributed to their idolatry and social injustice.  Their restoration comes from re-establishing obedience to God in the form of a covenant, sort of like a marriage.  Rather than re-summarizing this all-too-familiar pattern, I would like, instead, to focus on a few passages in Micah that stood out to me, for various reasons.

In chapter 4, in a passage describing the restoration that will come with obedience, Micah repeats a passage from Isaiah:

"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore."

As I mentioned in my report on Isaiah, this verse is inscribed on the United Nations building in New York.  To me, it is one of the most moving and hopeful expressions of peace--weapons of war are recycled into farming implements.  It reminds me of the movie Star Trek: First Contact, in which a scientist re-purposes a nuclear warhead into a spaceship for exploring the stars, and ends up inauguraing a new era of peace.  This message was particularly relevant to Micah's audience, who lived under constant threat of attack from Assyria.

United Nations Building (New York)
Another significant passage comes in chapter 6.  The prophet asks God what the people must do to be saved and restored.  Should they make animal sacrifices, the most important religious ritual of ancient Israel?  The answer comes in verse 8:

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?"

To me, this is one of the most eloquent expressions of what it means to be a spiritual human being.  These are the qualities of true religion: justice, kindness, and humility.

The last passage I want to point out comes in chapter 5:

"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days...
and he shall be the one of peace."

This verse is quoted in the gospel of Matthew (2:6) as referring to Jesus, and his birthplace of Bethlehem (which was also the birthplace of King David).  Like most "messianic" prophecies quoted in the New Testament, this one had an immediate meaning in its original context--it had to do witih salvation from the Assyrian empire, which was massive, terrifying, and ended up destroying Israel  (see relief below).  But this passage rasises an issue that perlexed and disturbed me when I first began to study the Bible academically.  Growing up, I was told that the Old Testament prophecies "fulfilled" in Jesus were "proof" of the Bible's divine inspiration.  After studying these texts for myself, however, I've found the situation to be more complex.

Impalement of Judeans by Assyrians (8th century B.C.E.)

These so-called "messianic" prophecies pretty much always had an immediate meaning in their original context that had nothing to do with some figure in the distant future.  If this is the case, were the New Testament writers wrong?  Were they lying?  Were they uneducated or stupid?  Were they quoting passages that they knew were ripped out of context, but which their less-educated audience wouldn't pick up on?  Was it all a ruse?

I don't claim to have the answers here, but I think what these "messianic" prophecies suggest is that the theology of the Bible evolves as it progresses, usually to fit the circumstances and spritual needs of the people for whom it was written.  In this way, perhaps, the New Testament writers weren't lying.  Rather, they were participating in a tradition of re-imaginging ancient texts to suit contemporary needs and views.  This is a difficult concept for biblical literalists or fundamentalists--the notion that the Bible's theology changes as it progresses--but it is the only way I can make sense of these messianic prophecies, and many other biblical concepts.

If you doubt that the theology of the Bible changes, just take the concepts of Satan and hell.  The name "Satan" doesn't appear in the Bible until the book of 1 Chronicles, and then only briefly.  The Old Testament concept of the afterlife is nebulous at best.  The notion of an eternal, resurrected soul doesn't appear until the book of Daniel, which most scholars believe reached its final form in the 2nd century B.C.E.  The concepts of Satan, hell, and the afterlife, were influenced by late Persian and Greek ideas.  And yet, by the time we get to the New Testament, Satan and hell are assumed to have always existed.  You will find no mention of either in the Torah (the first five book of the Bible).

Given this fact, that the Bible's theology changes as it progresses and interacts with different cultures, we must then ask ourselves: How much of its message is culture-bound and how much is universal?  That's a tricky question that serious students of the Bible must carefully ponder.  For the Israelites of the 7th century, questions of spirituality were not abstractions to leisurely ponder.  Rather, such questions were intimately connected to their very real trials and tribulations.  In the case of Micah, that had to do with the threat of total destruction by Assyria.  This may explain the tone of panic, loss, and desperate hope.

The Assyrians are coming!
Nahum

The biblical book of Nahum is a book of seemingly unintentional irony.  It was written shortly after the destruction of Assyria by Babylon in 612 B.C.E.  If you recall, Assyria was the powerful empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.  Written from the southern kingdom of Judah, Nahum’s book is an unapologetic gloat over the destruction of Israel’s enemy.  The book is ironic, however, because 25 years after it was written, Judah would be destroyed by the same enemy (Babylon).

The picture of God presented by Nahum is, at times, quite disturbing.  He is the jealous, nationalistic warrior God of wrath and vengeance.  The book opens with these lines:

“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.”

Here we are a far cry from Jesus, who urged his followers to “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek.”  Nahum’s God has no love for his enemies, and describes their destruction in brutal, self-satisfied detail.  Here are a few excerpts…

“I will make your grave, for you are worthless…
It is decreed that the city be exiled,
its slave women led away,
moaning like doves
and beating their breasts…
Plunder the silver,
plunder the gold!
There is no end of treasure!…
Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
all faces grow pale!…
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies…
I am against you,
says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let the nations look on your nakedness
and kingdoms on your shame.
I will throw filth at you
and treat you with contempt,
and make you a spectacle.”

Technically, it was not God who brought this devastation on Assyria.  It was Babylon.  But God takes the credit.  Assyria is described as a “cruel” and “wicked” oppressor of God’s chosen people.  This is why they were destroyed.  This is, of course, a religious view of history.  Historians today would say that Assyria was defeated because Babylon was the more powerful empire, and because they allied with the Medeans.

How, then, are we to understand a book like Nahum, with its jealous, wrathful, nationalistic God?  Maybe it is to be understood ironically, as a kind of cautionary tale, whose message is something like:  Don’t gloat over your enemy’s destruction, because you reap what you sow and you might be destroyed too.  I don’t get the sense that Nahum intended this interpretation, but from the hindsight of history, we can see it this way.  However you interpret it, the book of Nahum is, without a doubt, disturbing.


"The Fall of Nineveh (Capitol of Assyria)" by John Martin (1827)

Habakkuk

After reading the very disturbing book of Nahum, in which the prophet gloats over the destruction of Assyria, I was pleasantly surprised to read the next book, Habakkuk, which is much more humane and relatable.  The short book of Habakkuk is a dialogue between the prophet and God in which the prophet boldly questions God’s justice in the midst of tragedy.  The book was probably written around the first wave of the Babylonian conquest of Judah (597 B.C.E.)., in which the king of Judah and several nobles were deported to Babylon.  God’s chosen kingdom was falling, and the prophet, quite understandably, had some poignant questions for God.  The book begins with these questions:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

These questions are universal and timeless, relevant in every generation (including our own).  Where is God in the midst of suffering and tragedy?  Why does God not just intervene and save the innocent?  I have asked these questions, as I’m sure most human beings have who have experienced suffering and tragedy.  God’s reply is that he is in control of things.  It is he who has roused Babylon:

“For I am rousing the Chaldeans (another name for Babylon),
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.”

Habakkuk is not satisfied with this answer, and neither am I.  If God is in control of nations who commit atrocities against innocent people, what sort of God is that?  How can such a God be called good?  Habakkuk courageously continues his questions of God’s reasoning:

“Why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?”

In other words: why do you allow injustice, God?!  That is the burning question that still causes people to lose their faith in God.  Was God in control of the Nazis who committed the holocaust?  God’s answer to this is not totally satisfying, but maybe it’s all we humans get.  God tells Habakkuk to wait with hope for a future restoration:

“For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end (of suffering?) and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry (delay), wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.”

God doesn’t answer the question why; he merely tells the prophet to hold onto hope, and wait.  God also encourages the prophet with the insight that the wicked reap what they sow.  Though the wealthy and powerful may oppress for a time, the righteous will endure their suffering through faith and hope:

“Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.”

Habakkuk is granted a vision of a future time of peace, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”  The prophet ends his book with a beautiful song, which (the text tells us) is meant to be played with stringed instruments.  The song expresses the prophet’s pain and confusion:

“I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.”

But the song ends on a note of hope, despite the prophet’s pain and bewilderment.  As gay rights martyr Harvey Milk said, “Without hope, life is not worth living.  You gotta give them hope.”  Though the land is desolate and the situation bleak, the prophet still holds onto hope.  Here’s how his song ends:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.”


Zephaniah

The book of Zephaniah indicates at the beginning that it was spoken/written during the reign of king Josiah of the southern kingdom of Judah.  If you recall, Josiah is portrayed in the books of Kings and Chronicles as a good king who instituted religious and political reforms that reestablished obedience to the laws of Moses, temple worship, and a purging of other gods.  Josiah is presented in these “historical” books as a shining example of a king who “walked in the ways of the Lord.”  However, in reading the book of Zephaniah, one does not get this impression.  No mention is made of Josiah’s reforms.  Instead, the prophet denounces Judah and its rulers for idolatry, oppression, and general wickedness:

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
and the name of the idolatrous priests…
And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice
I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
and all who dress themselves in foreign attire…
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and I will punish the people…”

"The Prophet Zephaniah" by John Singer Sargent (19th century)

The prophet uses the language of Genesis, of the flood story, to describe how he will utterly destroy not just his faithless people, but everyone on earth.  This is in direct contradiction to the covenant promise God made with Noah, that the Lord would never again do this:

“I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea
I will make the wicked stumble.
I will cut off humanity
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.”

Perhaps these prophecies were spoken before Josiah’s reforms.  Perhaps his message is that Judah can still be saved, and this is the sentiment with which the book ends:

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”

But this restoration, according to the prophet, must be preceded by an inevitable disaster and judgment.  In this way, Zephaniah’s message is similar to most of the prophets, with its familiar pattern of sin—punishment—restoration.  The book of Zephaniah, like many prophetic books, contains some rather disturbing/vengeful depictiions of God’s wrath against foreign nations:

The word of the Lord is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left…

Moab shall become like Sodom
and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
and a waste forever.

You also, O Ethopians,
shall be killed by my sword.

And he will stretch out his band against the north,
and destroy Assyria;
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.”

As with prior prophets, God’s wrath is seen as an act of nationalism.  The nations will be destroyed so Israel can inherit the land.  Modern readers like me will probably be disturbed by God’s dealings with foreigners.  The common religious person's response I’ve heard to these passages is “Well, those people were wicked.  They deserved judgment.”  But I don’t think anyone today could get behind the destruction of a whole nation, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.  Today, we call this genocide.  Perhaps these oracles of judgment reflect more of the prophet’s own xenophobic view of foreigners, rather than God’s.  If, however, Zephaniah’s depictions of God do indeed reflect God as he is, this is a scary, nationalistic, violent God—very difficult to worship, especially if you are not Israeli.


"Wrath of God" by Raymond Thompson (1998)


Haggai

Many of the final books of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), the so-called “minor prophets,” are very short, and Haggai is no exception.  It’s only two chapters long.  Unlike most of the prophets, Haggai is written in prose, instead of poetry.  Also, Haggai is very specific about dates.  His prophecy begins “In the second year of Darius (of Persia), in the sixth month, on the fist day of the month.”  By our calendar, that is August 29, 520 B.C.E.

Under King Darius of Persia, some Jews had been allowed to return to Israel and begin rebuilding their lives and community there, under a Persian-appointed governor named Zerubbabel, and a high priest named Joshua.  In the early years of the returned community, life was hard.  Jerusalem, including the temple, had been pretty much destroyed.

During this time of struggle, a lot of people were looking to their own self-interest, rebuilding their own houses and individual lives.  They were struggling with a nation in ruins, and not faring well as individuals.  Haggai acknowledges this: “Consider how you have fared.  You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”  In other words, life was hard.

Haggai’s solution is to bring the people together as a community, and the most powerful symbol of community in ancient Israel was the temple.  So, Haggai encourages the people to re-build the temple.  Unlike with other prophets, the people actually listen to the prophet, and commence building the temple.

This re-building of the temple gives the people hope for the future, and God promises blessing.  I find the book of Haggai to contain a profound truth about human survival in times of struggle: as individuals, we can’t make it.  We need community.  We need other people.  If our philosophy is “every man for himself,” the situation seems bleak, lonely, and hopeless.  But if people work together, even struggle together, there are relationships formed, and shared purpose, and hope for not just survival, but flourishing.



Zechariah

The Prophet Zechariah by Michelangelo (1512) from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of the prophet Haggai.  He prophesied between 520-518 B.C.E. from Jerusalem, when Israel was a vassal state of the Persian Empire under Emperor Darius “the Great.”  Under Darius, many Jews living in exile in Babylon and Persia were allowed to return to their homeland.  Darius’ imperial policy allowed for localized control of provinces, and a certain respect for different cultures and religions.  Thus, for example, the Jews were allowed to re-build their temple and continue their worship practices.  This was good politics for Darius, and was seen as a divine blessing by the Jews.  Into this period of rebuilding stepped the prophet Zechariah, whose visions and messages were deeply tied to the social, political, and religious concerns of the Jews in early 6th century B.C.E Jerusalem.

Relief of Darius the Great from the ancient city of Persepolis

The first half of Zechariah is a series of visions similar to the visions experienced by Ezekiel and Daniel, which are meant to give symbolic commentary on the spiritual life of the Jewish community.  During most of the visions, Zechariah is accompanied by an angel, who offers (often cryptic) explanations. The first vision is is of four horsemen.  The angel says they are messengers from God to patrol the whole earth, and are heralds of a new era of peace for Jerusalem.

"The Four Horsemen" by Gustave Dore 

The second vision is of four horns and four blacksmiths.  These are meant to symbolize the great nation who defeated and scattered Israel, specifically Babylon.

The third vision is of a man with a measuring line, measuring Jerusalem.  The angel explains that this means that the holy city will be re-built and re-populated.  It is a hopeful vision.

The fourth vision is of the high priest Josuha and Satan (which means “the accuser”).  This is only the third time Satan is mentioned in the Bible so far.  Unlike the demon we picture today, this Satan is a member of a heavenly court, like a divine lawyer.  Joshua the priest is dressed in flithy clothes.  An angel takes off his dirty clothes and places clean, priestly garments on him.  Josuha is now prepared to be a spiritual leader of the new community of returned exiles.

The fifth vision is of a lamp stand with a bowl on top of it, and seven more lamps on the bowl (quite a balancing act!)  This is a reference to the temple, which had lamp stands and bowls as an important part of its architecture.  It is meant to indicate that God will again dwell in the temple when it is rebuilt.

The Golden Lampstand Makes a Menorah.

The sixth vision is of a flying scroll.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that the laws of Moses will again take effect.  The spiritual life of the community will resume as it had existed before.

The seventh vision is of a woman (probably a Babylonian diety) in a basket.  This idol is silenced and carried away back to Babylon.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that idolatry will not exist in the new Jerusalem.  People will only worship Yahweh.

The Woman in the Basket

The eighth and final vision is of the four horsemen, this time riding four chariots.  These are meant to emphasize that God has power over the whole world, even the powerful Persian empire.

After the visions, the prophet reminds the people of the true meaning of all this religion stuff: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

"Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor..."

The second half of Zechariah contains a series of oracles, another common prophetic device.  Oracles are pronouncements to the people about how to act, and about what they can expect in the future.  The word “oracle” can also be translated “burden,” which I find a fitting description of the prophet’s mission.  Prophets often experienced suffering and solitude on account of the “burden” of their messages, which were often a mix of comfort and tragedy.

The first oracle begins with a hopeful message that God will return to dwell in Jerusalem, and that it will be re-populated and prosper again.  Even children will play in the streets.  The people are encouraged to take courage and not be afraid, and to begin the process of rebuilding.  God will bless them.  The people will be joyful.  Foreigners will come from all around to Jerusalem, the holy city, and will seek the Lord.

The second oracle is less hopeful for foreign nations.  Like many prophets before him, Zechariah gives pretty intense judgements against those who oppressed Israel, places like Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Aram, Philistia, etc.  Things will not bode well for these “foreigners.”  In these cases, I feel like the nationalism of the writer creeps into an otherwise lovely text.

After judgment is rendered on foreign nations, a king will take the throne of Israel once again, who will inaugurate an era of peace.  New Testament writers interpreted some of these passages to refer to Jesus.  Zechariah contains this famous passage of the humble king entering Jerusalem on a donkey:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey…
and he shall command peace to the nations…”

Gospel writers Matthew and John quoted this passage in reference to Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, just before he was crucified.  The fact that Jesus was crucified and that He did not inaugurate an era of peace on earth (at least not politically), seemed to indicate to many Jews that Jesus was not, in fact, the messiah.  Christians interpreted things differently, of course.

"Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him" by Pietro Lorenzetti (1320)

If I was grading the book of Zechariah, as I grade hundreds of college English essays, I would probably make one comment between chapters 10 and 11: “Create a smoother transition.”  There is a radically abrupt shift in tone and content between these two chapters.  Chapter 10 ends on a note of hope and peace.  Chapter 11 begins with terrifying imagery of fire, destruction, lions, and slaughter: “Thus says the Lord my God: Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter…For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord.”  If I was grading Zechariah, I would also make these comments: “Feels off topic” and “I’m unclear about your thesis.”  Chapter 11 is a confusing anomaly, and I don’t understand it.

The prophecy of Zechariah ends with a full-blown end-of-days apocalypse.  There will be a massive world war in Jerusalem (why does Jerusalem always suffer so much?).  Foreign nations will siege Jerusalem, plunder houses and rape women.  But then God himself will fight for his people and will win, and reign over the whole world.  I’m fairly certain that the writer of the New Testament book of Revelation was inspired by the book of Zechariah.

As I near the end of the “prophetic” books of the Bible, I must say I’m impressed by their literary intensity and creativity.  They contain psychedelic imagery, poetry, verbal smack downs, cryptic oracles, and full-blown end-of-days apocalyptic scenes.  Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), these ancient writings are gems of world literature, and well worth reading.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Sharlene Linskog-Osorio

Malachi

The book of Malachi is the last book of the prophets in both the Jewish and Christian Bibles.  In the Jewish Bible, it is followed by the books known as the Writings (which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and other books).  In the Christian Bible, it is followed by the New Testament, particularly the gospels.  This was done by early Christian compilers to emphasize their theological perspective, which was that the Jewish prophets predicted Jesus Christ.  This interpretation was (and is) not shared by Jews.  In most cases, I tend to share the Jewish interpretation of so-called Messianic prophecies.  It makes a lot more sense to understand these passages in their original (Jewish) contexts.


Malachi was probably written in the 6th century B.C.E., during the post-exile Persian period, because the book assumes the existence of a re-built temple in Jerusalem.  Unlike most prophets, who wrote in poetry, Malachi wrote in prose, and his style is argumentative.  The book can be read as an extended argument between God and the struggling community of Israel.  Considering the scarcity of food and the ongoing struggle to survive and re-build their lives, the Jews question God’s love, justice, and wonder why He isn’t better looking out for them, his chosen and beloved people.

To the charge that God doesn’t love Israel, God points to their neighbor Edom, who was recently destroyed: “ But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ Is not Esau (another name for Edom) Jacob’s (another name for Israel) brother?  Yet I have loved Jacob and hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.” (1: 2-3)  God’s argument is basically, “I show my love for you by hating and destroying your enemy.”  This is indeed a disturbing and not altogether pleasant expression of love, but there it is.

Malachi

To the charge that God is not looking out for his chosen people, God responds that the fault lies with the priests, who haven’t been offering “pure” animal sacrifices.  This reflects a very ancient way of thinking, shared by thousands of the oldest cultures around the world—the idea that, to gain the favor of the gods (or God), you must sacrifice animals.  In the case of the Jewish priests, God is angry because they have been offering blind and lame animals, which is against the purity laws of Leviticus.  The probable reason for this was the economic hardship of the people, and the scarcity of healthy livestock.  God’s solution is to offer healthy animals, even if it means people go hungry.

Animal sacrifices were important to ancient cultures like Israel.

Another cause of the peoples’ suffering, according to Malachi, is that they’ve been allowing inter-racial marriage: “for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign land.” (2:11)  This passage could be interpreted metaphorically, referring to the marriage-like covenant between Israel and God.  But, if we take the metaphorical route, we must also interpret 2:16 metaphorically: “For I hate divorce.”  This passage is often cited by Christians who take a hard line against divorce.  But its interpretation is not altogether clear in its original context.  Taken literally, it refers to inter-racial marriage.  Taken metaphorically, it refers to the specific covenant between God and Israel.

The prophet continues his argument, asking, “Where is the God of justice?”  As God’s chosen community, Israel had experienced considerable injustice.  God’s responds that the people must wait.  He says, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple.”  This passage is quoted in the New Testament gospel of Mark as referring the John the Baptist, who heralded the coming of Jesus (kind of like the Silver Surfer).  This is, of course, a later Christian interpretation which would have offered no comfort to the 6th century B.C.E. community, who would all be long dead before John the Baptist or Jesus arrived, five centuries later.  It would be like telling victims of poverty and injustice today: “Do not despair—help will come in 500 years, after you are all dead.”  No, in its original context, these passages referred to religious reformers of the time.

A scantily clad John the Baptist

The people are then criticized by God for not giving enough money to the temple and its priests.  Over time, the priestly class would assume great power and wealth.  Actually, by the time we get to Jesus, the priestly class had become so wealthy and corrupt and defensive of the status quo that they would become a main target of Jesus’ criticisms.  If there is any connection between Malachi and Jesus, I think it lies here perhaps.

The book ends with a vision of a time when the wicked will be punished, and the righteous saved.  Malachi encourages the people to obey the laws of Moses, and wait for a religious reformer like Elijah who will turn the people back to God.  Gospel writer Matthew interpreted this passage as, again, referring to John the Baptist.  However, again, I don’t buy this interpretation, for previously stated reasons.

Thus ends the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Scriptures.

The New Testament


Matthew

The book of Matthew is a biography of Jesus which scholars believe was written between 75-100 C.E.  Like much of the Bible, the gospel of Matthew was written in a time of great crisis for the Jews to whom it was addressed.  In 70 C.E., the Roman empire invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and the survivors lived under oppressive Roman rule.

"Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez (1867)

The Jews for whom Matthew was written were followers of a relatively recent Jewish prophet called Jesus, who had been executed by the Romans, a crime reserved for enemies of the state.  Thus, the new sect of “Christians” lived in a precarious position.  They were mainly poor and marginalized, and followed a prophet whom the state deemed seditious.  Matthew’s biography of Jesus seeks to give hope and understanding to this community, who were mainly observant Jews.

The Birth and Childhood of Jesus

Matthew begins his biography with a genealogy stretching all the way back to Abraham, to show that Jesus was both biologically and spiritually connected to the nation of Israel.  His ancestors include kings like David, as well as important women from the Hebrew scriptures like Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth.

Jesus was miraculously conceived in the womb of an unmarried Jewish peasant named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph.  To spare Mary the disgrace of becoming pregnant out of wedlock (a crime under Jewish law), Joseph decides to quietly divorce her.  But Joseph was visited by an angel in a dream, telling him to marry Mary, because her son would be very important.

"Madonna and Child With the Book" by Raphael (1503)

Regarding Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God With Us.’” In its original context, this verse had to do with a threat by Assyria against 7th century Israel.  The Hebrew word for “virgin” actually meant “young woman.”  But the Greek translation of the scriptures used by Matthew contained a different word, which meant “virgin.”  The point is that, throughout the gospels, when writers say that Old Testament passages are “fulfilled” by Jesus, they are usually re-interpreting a verse that had a different meaning in its original context.  

"Adoration of the Magi" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1632)

After Jesus was born, some ancient astrologers who had followed a star, came to visit Jesus and pay their respects to this special child.  These “magi” were likely Zoroastrian.  The villainous King Herod (basically a Roman puppet) tried to use these astrologers to find and kill Jesus, but this didn’t work.  Then Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, fled to Egypt, seeking refuge.  Apparently, Herod was so paranoid about this special baby that he sent soldiers to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem.  This horrific act, which recalled the Pharaoh’s massacre of Jewish babies in Exodus, became known as “The Massacre of the Innocents.”

"Massacre of the Innocents" by Nicolas Poussin (1629)

After things had cooled down a bit, Jesus’ family moved back to Israel and settled in a tiny village called Nazareth.  According to scholar Reza Aslan, Nazareth was populated mostly by illiterate day laborers and subsistence farmers.  The point is that Jesus grew up in poverty.

Jesus’ Ministry Begins

Then the story moves forward many years, and introduces a prophet named John the Baptist, who is a kind of herald of Jesus.  Many people came to see John in the wilderness, and to be baptized by him in the Jordan river.  John is poor, and the people he attracts are generally the poor and marginalized.  This will be Jesus’ main audience as well.  His message is simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This notion of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” will be an important idea in the message and ministry of Jesus.  What it means is that a new kingdom is coming that will be an alternative reality to the empire of Rome, with all its oppression and injustice.  In the kingdom of God, embodied by the new community Jesus creates, there will be equality and social justice, i.e. a total reversal of the way things are.  John is particularly harsh against the religious leaders of his day, whom he sees as apathetic and complicit with the status quo.  What John, and Jesus, envision is nothing less than revolutionary.

"St. John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci (1516)

Jesus is baptized by John, and his ministry begins.  After he is baptized, Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan for forty days, and successfully resists these temptations.  This episode recalls Israel’s forty-year wandering in the book of Exodus.

"The Temptation of Christ" by Ary Sheffer (1854)

With his disciples in tow, Jesus travels around, speaking in synagogues and to large crowds of people.  He also heals people miraculously.  Chapters 5-7 are known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” because they are spoken from a mountaintop, and they recall the story of Moses receiving the laws of God in Mt. Sinai.  Jesus’ sermon may be seen as a re-imagining of the laws of Moses, to fit the circumstances of his day and age.

The Sermon on the Mount

In today’s modern America, with its multitude of churches and Christians, it’s easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary Jesus’ ideas really were.  I think that, if American Christians really acted out the ideas given in the Sermon on the Mount, there would be a huge revolution in which the wealthy and powerful would lose their wealth and power.

Jesus begins with a series of blessings on those people who have gotten a really bad deal under the Roman empire.  He blesses the poor, the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  He commands that his followers not merely tolerate, but actually love, their enemies.  The study notes to my Bible contain this explanation, in which Jesus is seen as Gandhi-like (or Gandhi seen as Jesus-like): “Jesus offers examples of such resistance that aim to confound the more powerful, restore dignity and initiative to the oppressed, and publicly shame or disarm the oppressor.”

"The Sermon on the Mount" by Carl Bloch

Jesus is anti-materialistic.  He says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  He tells his followers to be okay with material poverty, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  Jesus says that his followers are not allowed to be judgmental.  He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

Perhaps Jesus’ most revolutionary idea is the so-called “Golden Rule, “ which he says is the ultimate point of all Jewish scripture.  He says, “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Miracles and Healing

After delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus miraculously heals a bunch of people: the servant of a Roman centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others.  Jesus is non-discriminatory in his healing.  He heals even those who were marginalized in society, like lepers and women, showing the kind of counter-cultural, inclusive community called “The Kingdom of God.”  

"Jesus Heals a Leper" (artist unknown)

Through his miracles and teaching, Jesus gathers more and more followers.  Once, when he and some disciples are in a boat, there is a big storm, and Jesus stills it.  He has power over disease, natural forces, and demons, which he often casts out from people.

"Christ on the Sea of Galilee" by Eugene Delacroix (1854)

The Twelve Apostles

Though Jesus gathers many followers, he has a special inner circle of twelve dudes, which is reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The apostles' names are Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (a different one), Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas.  Jesus commissions them to preach the “good news” of God’s Kingdom, in direct defiance to the present social order.  Because of the revolutionary nature of this kingdom, Jesus says his disciples will experience persecution, even death.  He encourages them to follow the way of the cross, which is to identify with those who threatened the Roman empire.  Crucifixion was, after all, a punishment for enemies of the state.

Icon of the Twelve Apostles (artist unknown)

To illustrate the kind of persecution his followers will face, Jesus points to John the Baptist, who was recently imprisoned and was awaiting execution for sedition.  Jesus praises John, and speaks against those who do no accept his message.  Jesus was, and continues to be, a polarizing figure in society.  After speaking of persecution, Jesus comforts his disciples with these words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  After what they’ve suffered under Roman rule, Jesus’ followers will find peace and rest in the alternative community that Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God.”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus’ message is not just against the imperial power of Rome, but also against the religious leaders of his day.  This is illustrated by a series of conflicts with the Pharisees, a popular sect of Judaism at the time.  These clashes between Jesus and Jewish religious leaders have been used, historically, by Christians to justify anti-semitism.  This, I believe, is a totally unjustifiable reading, because Jesus and his disciples were Jews as well.  What Jesus and the Pharisees disagree about is not Judaism itself (or Jews), but rather interpretations of certain laws and religious practices.  Jesus was never anti-semitic.  He lived and died an observant Jew.


Jesus first clashes with the Pharisees have to do with proper observance of the Sabbath, a holy day of rest and devotion for Jews.  The Pharisees take issue with the fact that Jesus disciples pick some grain, and that Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath.  This was because no “work” was to be done on this day.  Jesus replies that human need and acts of mercy override strict observance.  More bitter debates follow, in which the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being Satanic.  Jesus replies with some harsh words, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and saying that they will be judged.  Jesus, while usually amazingly composed, is not above occasional shit-talking.

Parables

Then Jesus teaches his followers using a series of parables, which are little stories with a metaphorical/spiritual meaning.  The first parable is about a farmer who plants some seeds.  The seeds fall on different kinds of soil: rocky, thorny, good soil, etc.  The seeds represent Jesus’ message, and the soils represent his diverse audience.  Many will reject his teachings, but some will accept them.

"The Sower" by Vincent VanGogh

Jesus gives several parables which are meant to show what the “kingdom of heaven” is like.  Again, this kingdom is not simply an otherworldly spiritual realm—it is the present alternative community that Jesus is creating.  This community is like a field full of wheat and weeds—justice and injustice coexist for a while, but justice will ultimately prevail.  The community is like a mustard seed—from small origins grow great things.  It is like a treasure, a pearl which, once found, cannot be forsaken.  It is like a net which catches the good and the bad, but the good will prevail.

Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, and no one believes he is a prophet.  He is rejected in his home town.  We also learn that Jesus has brothers and sisters, including a guy called James, who probably wrote the New Testament book of James.

Jesus vs. Herod

Two stories are then related which contrast the corrupt and destructive ruling elite with the compassionate community of Jesus.  The son of King Herod throws an extravagant banquet for his rich nobles.  At the request of his sister-in-law (whom Herod is sleeping with), the king has John the Baptist beheaded, and the head presented to his sister-in-law on a platter.  This whole banquet scene is a grotesque display of the corrupt, incestuous power of the elite.

"The Head of John the Baptist" by Jean Benner (1899)

This is then contrasted with a scene of Jesus ministering to 5,000 peasants in the wilderness.  They are hungry, and Jesus miraculously provides food for everyone.  In contrast to Herod’s selfish banquet, Jesus’ selflessness, compassion, and general concern for the poor and marginalized are shown by this miracle.

"Jesus Feeds the 5000" by Laura James

Then Jesus goes up to a mountain alone to pray, sort of like Moses or Elijah.  Mountaintops are often used in the Bible as places for meeting God.  Meanwhile, his disciples take a boat out to sea, and another storm arises, and they are afraid.  Jesus suddenly appears, walking on the water.  Peter gets so excited that he steps out of the boat and tries to meet Jesus on the water.  Unfortunately, he becomes afraid, and begins to sink and drown.  Jesus saves him.

"Jesus Walks on the Water" by Ivan Alvazovsky (1888)

Religious Questions

Jesus has another in a series of arguments with the Pharisees and another Jewish sect called the Sadducees.  Jesus is upset with them because they seem to value religious rituals and traditions over basic human values like compassion and love.  Again, Jesus’ beef is not with Judaism (he was a Jew) but with certain interpretations of Judaism.  The context in which Matthew was written was a time of great debate (following the destruction of the Temple) over what it meant to be a Jew.  

This debate probably underlies the next section, which is disturbing.  While Jesus is traveling through Tyre and Sidon, a gentile woman asks him to heal her daughter.  Jesus’s first response is “No” because the woman is not a Jew.  Even Jesus (or, more likely, the writer of Matthew) could be prejudiced.  But the woman pleads with Jesus, and he ultimately agrees to heal the girl.  This passage, as with some of the more racist passages of the Old Testament, must be understood in the context of the writers of these texts.  

I think this is how we might also make sense of some of the more “judgmental” aspects of Jesus teachings, like when he says people will burn in hell. I don’t know what to make of these seemingly incongruous passages, like “The son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping an gnashing of teeth.”  (13:41-42).  Most Christians I’ve met don’t have a problem with the concept of hell, but for me it is a deeply troubling moral quandary that doesn’t fit with the otherwise compassionate and forgiving Jesus I find in the gospels.

Jesus Foresees His Fate

Jesus then gives his first prediction regarding his ultimate fate.  He will suffer at the hands of the authorities, be killed, and then resurrected—to show his ultimate triumph.  Jesus tells his disciples that they, too, must follow the way of the cross—of suffering, persecution, and possibly death.  Indeed, to follow Jesus means to oppose the status quo—to embrace poverty, a commitment to justice, and to nonviolently resist exploitive systems.

Then Jesus takes Peter, John, and his brother James to a mountaintop, where he is “transfigured” into a heavenly being.  Moses and Elijah also appear.  God speaks, calling Jesus his “beloved son.”

"Transfiguration" by Titian (1560)

More Radical Teachings

In the Roman world of Jesus, as in modern America, wealth and social status were the highest ideals.  Jesus’ disciples ask him who is great in the “kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus says that child-like humility will determine greatness in his alternative community.  This, of course, totally subverts the present economic and social system.  Jesus says that this alternative community is based on mutual egalitarian accountability, and constant forgiveness of one another.  

A rich young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”  Jesus says that the man must sell all his possessions and give them to the poor.  The man walks away sad.  He can’t part with his stuff.  Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In other words, material wealth prevents people from participating in Jesus’ alternative community.  By this standard, most Americans are excluded, as we are the wealthiest country in the world.  It seems, here, that capitalism and Christianity are inherently incompatible.  If you are a beneficiary of wealth inequality and third-world labor exploitation (which most of us are), you cannot be a Christian.

"Christ and the Rich Young Man" by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Jesus says that the test of greatness in his alternative community is service to others and self-sacrifice.  Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the son of man (Jesus) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and Stirs Some Shit Up

Then Jesus enters Jerusalem in an almost mocking commentary of imperial power.  Instead of entering the city on a war horse or chariot, he enters riding on a lowly donkey, a common beast of burden.  Nonetheless, he has become so popular that large crowds gather to greet him.

"The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem" by Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama

Upon reaching Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is enter the temple and violently overturns the tables of people making a profit from religion—selling sacrificial doves and exchanging money.  The only time in the Bible Jesus gets violent is when people are using religion to make money.  I wonder what Jesus would have to say about televangelists and mega-churches.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" by El Greco (1600)

Jesus' actions obviously upset priests and religious leaders who make their living off the Temple.  Jesus debates and refutes them through more parables, teachings, and Socratic-style questioning—he makes people re-think their industry of religion.  In contrast to the elaborate (and expensive) traditions and rituals of Temple worship, Jesus boils things down to two basic commandments that encompass all the laws and the prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives a long tirade against religious leaders.  His message is basically, “Stop being hypocritical.  Focus your lives on justice and mercy.  Don’t hide behind laws and traditions.”  Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus Speaks About His Second Coming

Then Jesus gives an apocalyptic description of his second coming, which will signal the end of the present world order, and the reign of God’s kingdom.  Th early Christians awaited this day with great expectation.  However, two times in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes predictions about this which don’t come true.  In 16:26, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  The fact that 2000 years later, Jesus has still not returned in power and glory suggests, to me, that these passages do not come from Jesus, but from Matthew, the sometimes prejudiced author.  Also, the imperial manner in which this second coming is described does not gel with the humble, egalitarian community Jesus spends most of the gospels describing.

Jesus says that the basis upon which people will be judged at the end of the world will be the extent to which they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the homeless and poor, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners.  Jesus says that he himself is embodied in these poor, marginalized, homeless, hungry, and imprisoned people.

Jesus is Betrayed and Arrested

Judas, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, conspires with the religious and political elite to betray and arrest Jesus for money.  But before this happens, Jesus shares a Passover meal with the apostles.  Jesus says that the bread and the wine represent his sacrifice for humanity.  This is the origin of communion.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci

Then Jesus goes to a garden and prays.  He is deeply troubled.  He knows that the religious and political elite have conspired against him.  He knows he is going to die.  He prays that his suffering might be averted, but ultimately accepts his fate.

"Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane" by Paul Gauguin

Shortly thereafter, Judas arrives with armed soldiers to arrest Jesus.  One of Jesus' disciples draws a sword and strikes a soldier.  Jesus tells him to put his sword away.  Jesus is all about nonviolent resistance.  He is Gandhi-like.

The soldiers and religious elite take Jesus to the high priest, who is basically a Roman puppet, like the king.  The high priest condemns Jesus to death for blasphemy, which is kind of ironic.  It’s like condemning God to death for blasphemy.  Meanwhile, Jesus' apostles, his best friends, abandon and deny him.  Even Peter denies Jesus.  They are scared for their lives.  Jesus is now alone in his suffering.

Judas, recognizing that he has betrayed an innocent man, commits suicide.

Jesus is Condemned and Executed

Jesus is then brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.  Pilate questions Jesus about his politics.  Jesus is defiantly silent.  The religious and political leaders gather a mob who demand Jesus’ execution.

"Christ Before Pilate" by Nicholas Maes

The Roman soldiers strip Jesus and humiliate him by dressing him up like a mock-king.  They give him a robe and a crown of thorns.  They spit on him and beat him.  They are brutal, as those with unchecked power tend to be.  Under Roman rule, there is no justice for poor revolutionaries like Jesus, even if they are nonviolent.

Then Jesus is crucified, which was a common form of Roman execution.  It was a punishment for political criminals.  As a joke, the soldiers nail a sign to the cross, which reads “The King of the Jews.”  Ironic.  Jesus is crucified with two other peasant rebels.

"Christ Crucifed" by Diego Velasquez

While Jesus is dying, people mock him.  Where are all his followers and supporters?  Probably afraid that they will share his fate.  The Romans publicly crucified people, as a kind of deterrent against rebellion.  It worked pretty well.

As Jesus is dying, he calls out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” quoting a Psalm of lament form the Hebrew scriptures.  Then Jesus dies.  His death is accompanied by earthquakes, resurrected dead bodies, and the veil of the temple is split in two, suggesting a new access to God, unmediated by the corrupt religious elite.

After his death, some women care for his body, and bury it in a rock tomb.

Jesus’ Resurrection

A few days after Jesus is buried, these women go to see the tomb, to pay their respects.  An angel is there, who rolls back the stone and tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus appears and says, “Boo!”  JK, Jesus says, “Greetings!” and he tells them to have the apostles meet him in Galilee.

In Galilee, Jesus appears to his apostles and commissions them to go out and change the world.

"After Jesus and Mary" by Trevor Southey

Mark

The gospel of Mark is the earliest, shortest, and most action-packed of all the gospels.  it jumps right into the action, and the narrative moves along at a brisk pace until the end.  Marks says nothing about the virgin birth, or anything about Jesus’ infancy or childhood.  Rather, Mark begins with John the Baptist preaching by the Jordan river, and baptizing people, one of whom is a man from the tiny village of Nazareth named Jesus.  When John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open, a dove descends, and the voice of God booms, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well-pleased.”

"Baptism of Christ" by Giotto di Bondone (1304-06)

Then Jesus goes into the wilderness alone, where he is temped by Satan.  Meanwhile, John the Baptist is arrested.  Jesus follows in his baptizer’s footsteps, and becomes a wandering preacher.  Jesus calls his first disciples—a motley crew that includes unlikely figures from the margins of society—fishermen, tax collectors, etc.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus does a LOT of healing and exorcisms.  He heals all kinds of diseases common in first century Palestine—leprosy, paralysis, blindness, deafness, etc.  Jesus is a very popular healer and exorcist, and gains quite a following.

"Christ Healing the Blind Man" by El Greco (1570)

Jesus often clashes with a group of observant Jews called the Pharisees, who get a pretty bad rap in the gospels.  They did their best to follow the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism.  Jesus (an observant Jew himself) often criticizes them for following religious laws at the expense of human charity.

As in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches people in parables, which are like little allegorical stories meant to illustrate some spiritual truth.  These parables are a bit esoteric, and require explanations.  Interestingly, Jesus only explains them to his disciples.  Everyone else is left to make sense of them on their own.  Throughout Mark, Jesus seems reluctant to let people know who he really is.  Often, after healing someone, he instructs them not to tell anyone.  This, of course, doesn’t work, and Jesus’ fame continues to spread.  I’m not sure why Jesus is reluctant to reveal his identity.  Perhaps this is related to Gnostic Christianity, which claimed to possess “secret knowledge” about Jesus.

Jesus also performs a number of miracles.  He feeds 5,000 people with just a little bread and fish.  He stills a mighty storm.  He walks on water.  His fame continues to spread—people are intrigued by his miracles, hearings, exorcisms, and cryptic teachings.

"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Rembrandt van Rijn (1630)

Jesus has some lovely interactions with people as he wanders around Palestine.  One time, a man approaches Jesus and asks him to heal his son, who is both sick and demon-possessed.  Jesus says, “All things are possible to him who believes.”  The father replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  I love the honesty of his response.  Faced with the living Jesus, the man still has doubts.  Then Jesus heals the man’s son.

In another instance, a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  (This scene is also in Matthew)  Jesus first tells the man to follow the laws of Moses.  The rich young man says he does this.  Jesus replies, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  The young man walks away sad.  He cannot part with his wealth.  Jesus tells his disciples: “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter to kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  

Continuing this sentiment about the necessity of poverty and humility, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

To further hammer home the problem that money creates for those who wish to follow him, Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and violently overturns the tables of those who are attempting to sell things and turn a profit from people’s religious devotion.

"Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple" by Luca Giordano (1675)

Now that Jesus has entered Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power in the region, he knows he will be killed.  He is too radical.  But before he is killed, he will say some more lovely things.  When some religious leaders ask him which commandment is the most important in the laws of Moses, Jesus quotes a passage which basically says, “Love God and love people.”  Pretty simple.  Jesus’ message is one of simple love.

Eventually, Jesus is arrested by the temple guard of the “chief priests,” and placed on a kind of religious trial.  It’s important to note that Jesus’ accusers are not the Pharisees, but the “chief priests,” who lived in affluence and were complicit with Roman exploitation of Jews in Palestine.  Jesus “beef” is not with ordinary Jews (he was a Jew) but with the corrupt religious and political establishment.  Unfortunately, many Christians throughout the ages have used Jesus’ clash with Jewish leaders as a basis for anti-semitism.  This is a poor reading of scripture, and it does not “gel” with Jesus' message of love.

"Christ Before Pilate" by Tintoretto (1567)

Anyway, Jesus is declared a “blasphemer” by the high priests and taken before the local Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  At this time, Palestine was a part of the Roman empire.  Jesus is beaten, mocked, and ultimately crucified.  In Mark’s gospel, the only words Jesus speaks while dying on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Then Jesus dies, like a common Roman criminal.

"Crucifixion" by Jan Provoost (15th century)

This, of course, is not the end of the story.  Jesus is buried, and three days later he rises from the dead, defeating death!  What a badass.  The last verses of Mark, in which Jesus appears to his followers and  commissions them to go out and preach, are a later addition, not included in the earliest manuscripts of Mark.

"The Resurrection of Christ" by Peter Paul Rubens (1611)

Luke

Luke begins by addressing his friend Theophilus, telling him that he has composed his story from eyewitness accounts, though he himself is not an eyewitness.  The story begins in the days of King Herod, in Judea, with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist.  The beginning of Luke’s gospel almost exactly mirrors the birth of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament.  John’s father and mother are too old for childbirth, but an angel appears and says they will have a baby nonetheless.  The baby John is said to be a kind of herald, or forerunner, of Jesus, sort of like how the Silver Surfer is a herald of Galactus.  However, instead of destroying the world like Galactus, Jesus will save it.

Then the story jumps to the tiny town of Nazareth, where another angel appears to a peasant named Mary, saying she will give birth to a great king of Israel.  Just as Samuel in the Old Testament came before and annointed King David, so John the Baptist will come before and baptize king Jesus.  Mary then visits John’s mother Elizabeth (who is her relative).  The fetus of John “jumps” in Elizabeth’s womb,  because he is near Jesus.  Even as unborn babies, there is a special connection between John and Jesus.

"Jesus Saves" by Howard Finster

Then Mary bursts into a song of ecstatic poetry, which is called “The Magnificat,” which is about the power of God and how He has heard the cry of the poor and his chosen people Israel, and will do mighty things.  Then John is born, and his father bursts into more ecstatic poetry, about how the salvation of God is about to come to Israel.  I like how, in Luke, people suddenly burst into song and poetry, sort of like a modern musical.  Actually, sort of like the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

Then the story moves from the ecstatic spiritual realm back to the real world of first century Palestine, which was part of the Roman empire, and kind of a shitty place to live, especially if you were poor, like Jesus and his family.  Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome, calls for a census of his empire, probably just to boost his ego about how many people he rules (and for tax purposes).  Joseph and Mary must travel to Bethlehem, the home of Joseph’s ancestors for the census.  Significantly, this was also David’s home town.

Jesus is born in a lowly animal shelter because there is no room in the inn in Bethlehem (I guess there’s only one inn).  This is significant because the future king of Israel comes from humble and lowly origins, also like David.  After Jesus is born, more angels appear and (surprise surprise) burst into more ecstatic song before an audience of random shepherds.  The shepherds go visit the baby king Jesus to pay their respects.

Jesus and his parents are Jewish, so they follow Jewish birth rituals, which involve circumcising the baby Jesus’ penis, and then presenting him at the temple in Jerusalem, along with a sacrifice of two birds.  When they arrive in Jerusalem, two prophets (Simeon and Anna) see Jesus and burst into ecstatic poetry.  Jesus has this effect on people.

Then Jesus and his family settle back into grueling peasant life in Nazareth.  Every year, however, they return to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  One year, when Jesus is 12, the family loses him in Jerusalem, and eventually find him in the temple, having discussions with religious scholars.  Jesus is a child prodigy.

Then the story jumps forward about 18 years, and we encounter John the Baptist, now a grown man and a full-on prophet, preaching in the wilderness, baptizing people in the Jordan river, and occasionally bursting into ecstatic poetry.  John’s message is basically, “Don’t exploit each other.”  Guess who shows up at one of John’s wilderness revivals?  You guessed it—his old baby buddy Jesus!  John baptizes Jesus, and fulfills his main mission in life.  Shortly thereafter, John is arrested and executed by King Herod, who isn’t too keen on John’s whole “Don’t exploit people” message.  Herod is a king.  His business is exploitation.  Jesus, whom John baptizes, is going to be a different kind of king.  But what kind?

Then Luke gives a genealogy of Jesus, which differs from Matthew’s genealogy, but that’s not really the point.  This is a theological, as opposed to literal, genealogy, which shows how Jesus’ spiritual ancestors include such important Jewish figures as David, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, all the way back to Adam, the first human, whose father was God, like Jesus.

After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days, where he is tempted by the devil.  

"American Devils Are Friendly" by Howard Finster

Then he emerges from the wilderness, and begins his public ministry.  Is he now a king?  If so, he is very different from other kings.  Instead of exploiting people, he heals them.  He is interested in those who are marginalized, poor, and oppressed.  His teachings reinforce the idea that his “kingdom” is unlike the current kingdoms of the world.  He says some pretty radical things, like this:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.
Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven;
for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep…

Unlike the political powers of his day (Rome and their puppet kings in Palestine), who were rich and derived their power from the blood, sweat, and tears of the powerless, Jesus preaches a message of radical love and compassion for everyone…

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.
Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other side also;
and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.

Give to everyone who asks of you, 
and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.
And just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way.
Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.
And do not judge and you will not be judged;
and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned;
pardon, and you will be pardoned.

"Words of Jesus Only" by Howard Finster

Jesus’s miracles also demonstrate the kind of king he is.  Instead of exploiting people, he serves and provides for them.  This is shown in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus “kingdom” is so radical that his disciples are often confused.  One time, they start arguing among themselves about who is the “greatest” in Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus silences them with this stunner: “he who is least among you, this is the one who is great.”  In other words, Jesus’ idea of greatness involves service and humility, not traditional power.

Because his teachings are so subversive of current political and social realities, people often have questions for Jesus.  One time, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus’ response may shock some evangelical Christians today, who would expect Jesus to say, “Pray this prayer, confess your sins, accept me into your heart, and believe in my death and resurrection.”  Jesus does not say this.  What he says is that the man must follow the spirit of the law of Moses, which is basically to love God and love his neighbor.  The lawyer responds with, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus then tells the parable of the good Samaritan, whose message is basically, “Everyone is your neighbor, even your supposed enemies.  Love everyone.”  Active love, according to Jesus, is how people are saved.

Jesus spends a lot of time arguing with various religious leaders, mainly criticizing their hypocrisy, and how they emphasize traditions and laws over basic human charity and compassion.  Jesus gets most pissed at religious leaders.  He also gets pissed at political leaders, calling King Herod a “fox” (meant as an insult, not a compliment).

Jesus is anti-materialistic.  He tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to charity.”  He says that people should trust in the basic provisions of nature for survival, like every other living thing (birds, plants, etc.).  As in the other gospels, Jesus teaches in parables, which are little allegorical stories meant to reveal some spiritual truth.  Luke’s gospel contains the parable of “The Prodigal Son,” which is about grace and forgiveness.

"Things Must Be Better Just Over Jordan" by Howard Finster

Because Jesus often speaks of “The Kingdom of God,” people sometimes ask him what he means by this.  Is it some future kingdom?  Does it exist here and now?  And how is that possible, since Jesus is a poor peasant?  Jesus speaks of the “kingdom” as both a present and future reality, collapsing temporal distinctions.  This kingdom exists right alongside, above, or within the current corrupt kingdoms of this world.  Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke repeats the story of the “Rich Young Ruler” from Mark.  This ruler, like the aforementioned lawyer, asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus does NOT respond, “Believe these certain things.”  Jesus DOES respond, “Do these certain things.”  Specifically, Jesus  tells him to follow Jewish law, and to “Sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor.”  When the man walks away sad, Jesus says that it’s nearly impossible for rich people to be saved.  This is not a message that is emphasized in the affluent churches of Orange County, where I live.

Continuing his subversion of traditional ideas of kingship, Jesus enters Jerusalem, the capitol of Judea, riding on a donkey, a lowly beast of burden.  His followers welcome him with palm branches.  It’s as if he is mocking the pretentious of other kings, who like to enter cities with big fanfare.  Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is enter the temple and violently overturn the tables of people who are selling things.  Jesus is against material wealth, and especially against people using religion as their source of income.  This is one of the worst things a person can do.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus tells more parables, argues more with religious leaders, and continues to stir up controversy.  He celebrates Passover with his disciples, prays, and then is betrayed by his disciple Judas, who sells him out to the authorities.  While under arrest for blasphemy and spreading subversive ideas, Jesus the “king” is mocked and beaten.  Soldiers dress him in mock royal robes.  The Roman governor asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus says he is.  It is a moment of tragic irony and poignancy.  How can this poor, bleeding peasant, dressed in mock robes, be a king?  And what sort of king is he?

"Last Supper" by Howard Finster

Jesus is crucified by Roman soldiers, and a mocking sign is placed atop the cross, which reads, “This is the King of the Jews.”  Its a cruel joke.  How can a dying criminal be a king?  Even to the moment of his death, Jesus subverts ideas of kingship and power.  As he is dying, Jesus says to his killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  His final gesture is one of compassion, even for his supposed “enemies.”

In Jesus’ day, people expected kings to have political, military, and economic power.  With “king” Jesus, the dying peasant, all that is turned on its head and (in a poetic way) defeated.  In Luke’s story, Jesus’ death is not the end.  Jesus rises from the dead, symbolically emphasizing the idea that the most powerful empire in the world cannot kill the truth of what Jesus represented, the idea that would live on long after his death—the idea that the road to truth lies not in power but in humility, that there is another way to live in this world of violence and injustice—the way of active love, compassion, and creative resistance to the exploitive powers of this world.

John

The gospel of John is the last of the four gospels in the New Testament, and it was also probably the latest.  Scholars generally date it between 85-95 C.E., which was 50-60 years after Jesus’ death.  The first nearly complete manuscript we have is Papyrus-66, which dates from around 200 C.E.  John’s gospel differs in significant ways from the other three.  Perhaps most notable is John’s portrayal of Jesus as God.  This is significant because it shows that the further away we get from Jesus in time, the more he is deified.  It is also important to note that most scholars today do not believe the apostle John wrote this gospel.  Like the other gospels, it was later attributed to him, to give the text authority.  

Instead of a birth narrative, Jesus is described as the divine “word” (or logos in Greek) of God through which the universe was created.  Jesus, the divine logos, was “made flesh” or incarnated into a human being.  In John’s gospel, Jesus gives long, esoteric speeches in which he sounds like a Greek philosopher.  John’s Jesus seems to be an amalgam of Greek and Jewish ideas circulating at the time of its composition.  

After Jesus is divinely “incarnated,” his first human interaction is with John (the Baptist, not the apostle).  When this John sees Jesus, he says, “Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  This sets up an important theme, which will culminate in Jesus’ execution on the Jewish holiday of Passover, in which Jesus is viewed as a “sacrificial lamb.”  That fact that it is a human, not a lamb, being sacrificed would probably disturb traditional Jewish sensibilities.

This leads me to a regrettable feature of John’s gospel—the demonization of “The Jews.”  In the other three gospels, Jesus main disagreement is with specific Jewish sects and leaders (Pharisees, Sadducees, the high priest).  John’s gospel, however, frequently uses the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who reject Jesus.  John seems to be making a distinction between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews,” a distinction that is historically suspect because Jesus and his followers were Jews themselves.  Unfotunately, by 85-95 C.E., there was a clear split between Christians and Jews.  In John’s gospel, we wee the first stirrings of the terrible anti-semitism that would infect the Christian church for centuries.

John’s gospel contains many other unique elements which distinguish it from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, the chronological narrative of Jesus’ life is different.  One example is the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.”  This is the episode in which Jesus enters the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and violently overturns the money-changers’ tables.  In the other gospels, this scene happens near the end of Jesus’ life, shortly before his arrest and crucifixion.  In John, Jesus “cleanses the temple” at the beginning of his ministry, right after his first miracle (turning water into wine).   Which version is correct?  Here is evidence that the gospels are not telling literal history, because they disagree on the chronology of this important event.

John contains the famous John 3:16 verse, which does not occur in any of the other, earlier gospels, and is often re-printed out of context on tracts and used for evangelizing purposes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  I would like to point out two interesting features of this verse.  First, salvation is tied to belief, as opposed to behavior, which seems to be a unique feature of John.  In the other gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about ethics and right behavior (i.e. the Sermon on the Mount).  But, in John, Jesus spends much more time talking about right belief than right action.  This raises a question which the gospels (taken as a whole) do not agree on: Is salvation primarily about believing the right things, or doing the right things?  Another interesting feature of John 3:16 is the implication that human beings are not inherently eternal.  Rather, “eternal life” is something given by Jesus.  Presumably, those who don’t believe in Jesus just die like everyone else.  This is another question to ponder: What does Jesus mean by “eternal life”?

While generally critical of “The Jews,” John’s gospel shows Jesus to be inclusive of those traditionally ostracized by “The Jews” like Samaritans and Greek-speaking gentiles.  This is shown in an incident at a well in Samaria, in which Jesus gives esoteric “living water” to a Samaritan woman.  This inclusiveness of others is also suggested by Jesus bizarre statement: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man (Jesus) and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day ; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Scholar Adele Reinhartz comments on this strange passage: “The literal meaning is not only repellent but offensive because Jews do not ingest the blood of an animal along with its flesh.  The passage may allude to the practice of theophagy (God-eating) associated with Greco-Roman mystery cults such as the cults of Demeter and Dionysus.  If so, this may be one indication that the gospel’s intended audience included non-Jews.”

Because these sayings are so obviously offensive to Jewish sensibilities, even as metaphor, many of Jesus’ disciples actually leave him at this point.  Probably the most disturbing element of John’s gospel, from a Jewish perspective, is the fact that Jesus self-identifies as God.  This is blasphemy to Jewish monotheism.  There is only one God.  The complex doctrine of the Trinity would not be worked out for a couple hundred years.  

After saying lots of things against “The Jews” and lots of other abstract and confusing theology, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, riding on a donkey, as in the other gospels.  While all the gospels share the basic concluding story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, they disagree on some interesting details.  Here are a few:

After Judas betrays Jesus and arrives with soldiers, police, and priests to arrest him, Jesus asks, “Who are you looking for?”  They reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Jesus replies, “I am.”  At this statement (Jesus self-identifying as God, the great “I am”) the soldiers, police, and priests step back and fall to the ground.  This amazing moment is unique to John, with its powerfully divine portrayal of Jesus.

Another difference between John and the other gospels are the words Jesus says while dying on the cross.  In Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus’ only words from the cross are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  In John, however, Jesus actually has a conversation with his mother and the disciple John.  Jesus also says “I am thirsty” and “It is finished.”  These sayings do not occur in Mark, which is the earlier gospel.

What emerges with a careful reading of the gospels is the clear realization that the gospels are not literal history.  Rather, they are re-constructions written decades after the fact for specific communities with specific beliefs and prejudices.  There may be little relation, for example, between the Jesus of John’s gospel and the actual, historical Jesus.  Everything I’ve read so far suggests that John’s Jesus is the farthest removed from the Jesus of history.

Another significant difference between the earliest gospel of Mark and the latest gospel of John are the post-resurrection appearances.  If we acknowledge that the post-resurrection appearances in Mark 16 are later additions which are not found in the earliest manuscripts, the difference becomes pronounced.  In John, Jesus does all kinds of things post-resurrection.  He walks through walls, visits his disciples in different locations, even stopping so have breakfast with them.  

It seems clear, by comparing early with later accounts, that stories about Jesus evolved as time went on, and different communities developed different ideas about Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again, we get a portrayal of Jesus who is furthest removed in both time and reality from the Jesus of history.  To get at the historical Jesus, we must look to the earliest accounts like Mark and the Q source.  What is the Q source, you ask?  Stay tuned for my book report on professor Burton Mack’s fascinating book The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins!  Coming soon…


"Christ Cleansing the Temple" by Luca Giordano
Acts

The book of The Acts of the Apostles is like a sequel to the gospel of Luke.  Scholars generally believe it was written by the same anonymous person (or persons), who was traditionally believed to be a guy named Luke (who was not himself a disciple or eyewitness to Jesus, as Luke admits at the beginning of his gospel).  While Luke tells the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Acts tells the story of what happened afterward.  Acts gives an account of how Christianity went from a splinter Jewish sect in Israel to a major world religion that spread throughout the Roman empire.  The main “heroes” of Acts are Peter and Paul, but mostly Paul.  It is Paul who tirelessly travels around the ancient Mediterranean, preaching about Jesus, establishing churches, and encountering fierce opposition, mostly from “the Jews.”

Which brings me to a central, inescapable problem of the book of Acts.  In this book, “the Jews” who don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah (for totally understandable reasons like the fact that he’d been killed and then disappeared) are definitely the villains.  It is “the Jews” in various cities (but especially Jerusalem) who oppose Paul and actually seek to kill him.  If one were to read this book with no historical context, or as literal history, one could easily develop some rather anti-semitic, intolerant religious views.  Unfortunately, this is indeed what has happened, historically.  The greatest persecutions of Jewish people throughout history have come from Christians, and the source of this historic anti-semitism is the New Testament itself (or, rather, a literal, uncritical reading of the New Testament).  To avoid adopting an anti-semitic attitude, one must read the New Testament carefully, critically, and with unflinching acknowledgment of the horrible persecutions these writings have inspired over the past two millennia.

This is why, for my book report on Acts, and the rest of the New Testament, I’m using a brand new study Bible called The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  This new publication by Oxford University Press has the text of the New Testament, accompanied by annotations and essays by Jewish scholars and historians.  It’s fantastic and enlightening.


Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples.  They are all a bit rattled and confused, after having seen him brutally beaten and murdered just a few days prior.  The disciples believed Jesus to be the Messiah (or, “anointed one”) who according to Jewish tradition, would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, as in the days of the great king David.  This is evident because the first thing the disciples ask Jesus is, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus says, basically, “I’m not going to tell you.”  Instead, Jesus tells them that they must spread his message throughout the world.  He doesn’t specify what that message is.  And then he flies back up to heaven.

"Jesus Ascending to Heaven" by John Singleton Copley (1775)

The disciples watch this with further confusion.  What are they supposed to tell people?  What are they supposed to do?  A couple angels appear and try to clear things up.  The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Then the angels leave.

If I were a disciple, I would be like, “So, just so I’m clear on the meaning of all this.  Jesus was the Messiah (king of Israel), but instead of actually establishing the Kingdom of Israel, he went back to heaven, and he’s going to come again, later, a second time, at an unspecified time, to establish the kingdom?  But that doesn’t make sense!  If he really was the Messiah, why didn’t he just do his Messiah thing on his first trip to earth?  Why the two trips?  That’s very inefficient.”  

Some of the disciples had nick-names—James the Just, Doubting Thomas, Peter the Rock.  If I was a disciple, I would probably be called Jesse the Confused.  I mean, if Jesus really wanted people to believe in and follow him, why did he go back to heaven?  Why didn’t he just stay here and be a divine king, and keep doing miracles, so people wouldn’t have to just, like, believe with no proof in an invisible man-god-king up in heaven?  If I was a disciple, I would have said to Jesus before he ascended, “Wait!  This is bad PR, man.  If you want people to believe in you, STAY HERE and tell them yourself.  Why are you leaving us, who will probably be mocked, persecuted, and killed for your message!?

But I was not a disciple, so I didn’t get to ask these questions.  It was probably easier for the disciples to believe because they lived in a pre-modern ancient world where people believed in all manner of divine, miraculous things.  They didn’t understand gravity, or electricity, or cells, or germs, or atoms, or how the solar system works, or the fact that the earth is only a tiny speck in an unfathomably vast ocean of stars and planets.  They had to rely on gods to help them make sense of these things.  Thankfully, we don’t.

After Jesus flies back to heaven, the disciples return to Jerusalem, and they choose a new disciple to replace Judas, who had betrayed Jesus.  Acts tells the terrible fate of Judas.  He was standing in a field and his intestines burst out!  In Matthew, Judas hangs himself.  Either way, Judas paid for his betrayal.  So the disciples choose a guy named Matthias to replace Judas as the new 12th apostle.

This painting, called "The Suicide of Judas" combines both traditions--that he hung himself, and that his intestines were blown out.  Also, Satan is shown stealing his baby-soul!  Satan kind of reminds me of Salacious Crumb, the little side-kick of Jabba the Hut from Star Wars.

A bit later, during a Jewish harvest festival called Shavout (or Pentecost), the apostles are hanging out when suddenly the Holy Spirit comes down upon them with strong wind and "tongues of fire."  It's sort of like that scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open the Ark and peoples' faces start melting off.  Except, instead of peoples' faces melting off, the disciples start miraculously speaking in different languages that they'd never before learned.  This is where the expression "speaking in tongues" comes from.

Pentecost and the "Tongues of Fire"

As you might expect, a crowd gathers around this bizarre display, and it turns out that the disciples are speaking about God and Jesus in the listeners' native languages.  It's like a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel, when the languages were confused.  The apostles are apparently being equipped by the Spirit to tell about Jesus in foreign lands and languages.  Some of the onlookers think that the disciples are drunk, but Peter is like, "We're not drunk.  We're filled with the Holy Spirit!" Then Peter explains to them that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, that he'd been resurrected, and that people should "repent" and be baptized in Jesus' name.  So, some of them are baptized.  These are the first "converts."  

As time goes on, more people are converted, and believe in Jesus.  The followers of Jesus create a community and basically live like communists.  Acts says, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need...Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common...There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold."  That's right, the first Christians were commies!  If they were "filled with the Holy Spirit" I guess that means God and Jesus are also commies!


After their encounter with the Holy Spirit, the disciples get special powers.  They can heal people's diseases and cast out demons, just like Jesus did.  As the Jesus movement grows in Jerusalem, these early Christians come into conflict with Jewish leaders who find the teachings about Jesus to be blasphemous and deeply offensive.  Heated arguments ensue, and both sides get pretty nasty.  Peter keeps insisting that "the Jews" killed Jesus, even though it was really the Romans.  There's a deepening division between the Jewish leaders like the Pharisees and the early Christians, who are also Jews.  Peter is arrested by the temple police a couple times, but escapes prison and keeps on preaching.

The community of Christians continues to grow and spread, and more leaders emerge.  One early leader is a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian (at that time, this was totally common) named Stephen, who actually becomes the first Christian "martyr."  He gets into a disagreement and is stoned to death for blasphemy by "the Jews."  One of these Jewish "bad guys" is a Pharisee named Saul, who seeks out Christian "blasphemers" and punishes them.  Because of the persecution they face in Jerusalem, many Christians flee to other cities and areas.  Ironically, the persecution helps spread Christianity.

"The Stoning of Saint Stephen" by Rembrandt Van Rijn

On their travels, these early Christians encounter some interesting characters, like a magician named Simon Magus, who thinks he can buy the Holy Spirit.  Silly Simon Magus, you can't buy God!  Some disciples, like Philip, go to Africa and make converts in Ethiopia.  In fact, some of the earliest surviving Christian communities are in Ethiopia.

Philip Baptizes an Ethiopian man

Meanwhile, Saul is still persecuting Christians like crazy.  He's a real zealot.  But then something amazing happens.  While traveling to Damascus (in Syria) to lay the smack down on some Christians, a great light shines on him and the voice of Jesus booms at him, "Enough with the persecution!  I'm gonna blind you!"  So Saul is blinded (temporarily) and his friends help him to Damascus, where he becomes a follower of Jesus and re-gains his sight.  Saul the "bad guy" is about to become Paul the "good guy"!  Stay tuned for the amazing adventures of Paul, early Christian superstar!

"The Conversion of Saul" by Caravaggio
As Christianity continues to spread, an important issue arises.  All of the earliest followers of Jesus are Jews, and they wonder: Should gentiles (non-Jews) be allowed to become Christians?  Jews had to be circumcised and to follow dietary and other laws.  Should these laws be required of gentile converts to Christianity?  This question sparks a debate among early Christian leaders like Peter, James, and Paul.  Ultimately, it is decided that gentiles need not become Jews to follow Jesus.  This is a decisive moment in church history, as it indicates a fundamental split between Christianity and Judaism--a split which deepens and widens as time goes on.

This decision is especially significant for Paul, who begins traveling all around the Mediterranean, baptizing both Jews and gentiles, converting them to Christianity.  On his first "missionary journey," Paul travels to the island of Cyprus, then throughout various cities in Asia Minor, where he preaches first to Jews, then then to polytheistic gentiles, who believe in various Greco-Roman gods like Zeus and Hermes.  His new message is met with varying degrees of acceptance and rejection.


Paul's first missionary journey.

Paul's second missionary journey is even more ambitious in scope.  He makes it all the way to Greece, and other areas of the vast Roman empire, where he and his travel companions continue to experience varying levels of acceptance and rejection.  Paul is imprisoned a few times for his strange new teachings and behavior.  However, like Peter, he tends to escape.  In Athens, the famous center of Greek culture and learning, Paul debates with Greek philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools.  Some believe Paul's message, others do not, but the message continues to spread farther and wider.  

Paul's second missionary journey.

The last part of the book of Acts follows Paul's final journey from Jerusalem to Rome, a journey of both literal and symbolic significance, as it was Paul who did the most to transition a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a full-blown world religion that spanned the breadth of the Roman empire.  It is also significant that Paul makes this journey in chains.  He is arrested in Jerusalem for blasphemy, and is sent to various Roman governors before finally being sent before the emperor himself.  

Paul's final voyage to Rome.

On his way to Rome, Paul survives a shipwreck and other obstacles.  Ultimately, he arrives in Rome and the book ends.  Some Christian traditions suggest that Paul died in Rome for his message.  Certainly, by the end of Paul's life, as more and more Christians were converted, the churches Paul helped plant would experience waves of state persecution for their strange new beliefs and practices.

Romans

The book of Romans is a totally new genre in the Bible.  It’s not narrative (like the gospels).  It’s not poetry (like the Psalms or the prophets).  It’s not law codes (like Leviticus).  The book of Romans is a letter, a written correspondence from Paul (the famous missionary of Acts) to a group of Christians in the city of Rome, the capitol of the Roman empire, the seat of imperial power.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is not your typical letter.  That is, he doesn’t spend much time discussing the goings-on of his daily life.  Instead, Paul’s letter to the Romans is mainly comprised of theology.  I recently watched a lecture in which New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains how Paul, though his letters, basically invented Christian theology.  In fact, Paul’s letters are really the first place in the Bible where we get prolonged investigations into abstract theological questions.  Other books of the Bible tell stories about God, or about right behavior, or songs of praise, but Paul stands alone as an intellectual, philosophical theologian.

A bit of context on Paul will help us understand why this is so.  Paul was from the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia (modern-day Turkey).  Tarsus had a famous university in which students studied Greco-Roman learning.  Paul was undoubtedly exposed to Greco-Roman culture and philosophy in his home town, which may (in part) explain his generally philosophical outlook and writing style.  At some point in his life, Paul (being a Jew) traveled down to Jerusalem and studied Torah under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel.  So, Paul was an intellectual who understood both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, religion, and philosophy.  In other words, he was the perfect guy to take the very Jewish message of Jesus to the wider Greco-Roman world.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a fascinating blend of Greek-style logic, Roman rhetoric, and Jewish faith traditions.

Growing up in an evangelical church, I was mainly exposed to the book of Romans through various oft-quoted verses.  A popular evangelical tactic (which I used on missions trips) is to take potential converts to Christianity through a series of verses in Romans, sometimes called the “Roman Road.”  You start with Romans 3:23, which says we are all sinful, to Romans 6:23, which says sin leads to death, back to Romans 5:8, which says Jesus died for our sins, to Romans 10:9, which says if you believe in Jesus you will be saved.  It’s a concise, if cherry-picked and decontextualzed, explanation of “the gospel.”  Based on this simplistic “Romans Road” reading of the book of Romans, one might get the impression that individual, personal salvation was the main point of Paul’s letter.  In fact, it is not.

When you read Paul’s letter to the Romans as a whole (not just cherry-picked verses), you discover that Paul’s main interest seems to be creating amiable relations between the gentile Christian community in Rome, and the larger (non-Christian) Jewish community.  His direct audience is gentile Christians (a word which Paul actually never uses, but which I will use for clarity).  Paul spends a lot of time explaining to these non-Jews (who nonetheless followed a Jewish messiah) how the very Jewish message of Jesus relates to them, and how this should affect how they treat Jews.  Understanding the Jewishness of Jesus the messiah should, according to Paul, lead to respectful relations with the Jewish community in Rome.  In other words, Paul is less interested in individual, personal salvation than he is in communities of faith, and specifically inter-faith relations between Jews and gentiles.

Paul was, after all, a Jew.  He never uses the word “Christian” and he is not interested in establishing a new religion.  Rather, based on his belief in Jesus the Messiah, he sees a new way forward for the people of God.  Paul sees the God of the Jews as opening his blessing, through Jesus, to non-Jews as well.  

If this all sounds a bit complicated and esoteric, it kind of is.  Paul’s letters are not easy to read or interpret.  They are dense with theological ideas, some of which are very complex.  I will do my best in part 2 to summarize Paul’s overall message, keeping in mind the fact that the smartest New Testament scholars in the world disagree widely on how to interpret Paul’s writings.  Paul’s ideas are profound and important, but they are not simple.  Stay tuned!


Paul of Tarsus
Paul begins his letter with a formal introduction of himself as a servant and apostle of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, the son of God.  This was an implicit challenge to the divinity claims of the Roman Emperor (Claudius or Nero, depending on when you date Romans).  Paul’s goal is to “bring about the obedience of faith” to gentiles, which includes his audience, who were gentile followers of Jesus living in Rome.  The Greek word he uses for “faith” (pistis) is probably better translated “faithfulness” which implies trust and right behavior.  Paul does not once use the word “Christian”.  For him, the main distinction is not between Christians and Jews, but between gentiles and Jews.  Apparently, at the time there was some confusion among gentile followers of Jesus regarding how they should understand and relate to the Jewish community.  Paul’s argument throughout is that gentiles who follow Jesus have no basis for feeling superior to their Jewish neighbors, and therefore no basis for judgment.  I suppose the occasion for this argument must have been a feeling among gentile converts that they were “better” or “more righteous” than their Jewish neighbors.

Paul destroys any such basis for cultural or moral superiority.  He begins with a diatribe against gentile immorality in Rome—particularly idolatry and sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately, Paul singles out homosexuality as a key indicator of Roman gentile immorality.  The verses 1:26-27 are commonly used by contemporary conservative Christians as “proof” that homosexuality is wrong and sinful.  Two problems arise from this interpretation: 1.) Paul is probably not referring to same-sex relationships as we understand them today, and 2.) The whole point of Paul’s diatribe is stated right after in chapter 2: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself.”  The point of Paul’s diatribe is that no one has the right to judge others—everyone is morally compromised, including Paul’s audience.  Paul writes, “You that teach others, will you not teach yourself?”  The two things Paul is attacking are moral superiority and hypocrisy.

Having argued against these things, Paul goes on to examine cultural and religious differences between Jews and gentiles, focusing specifically on circumcision.  Here, again, it is implied that Paul’s gentile audience held some judgmental/ignorant attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors.  Paul’s main argument here is that, while gentile followers of Jesus need not follow Jewish cultural practices, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these cultural religious practices.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  In chapter 5, Paul writes, “What is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.  For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  Paul discusses the Jew’s “founding father” Abraham, and shows how his example of faithfulness to God is instructive for both Jews and gentiles.  Paul’s purpose seems twofold: 1.) to explain how gentiles, through Jesus, are brought into the (formerly only Jewish) people of God, and 2.) to show that this inclusion is not grounds for boasting, but rather gratitude and humility.  In ch. 3, Paul writes, “Then what becomes of boasting?  It is excluded.”

In addition to explaining the “good news” of Jesus Christ (that the kingdom of God is open to everyone), Paul seems to be mainly interested in inter-faith relations—showing that Jews and gentiles are not as separate as they thought.  Paul’s focus on the figure of Abraham is significant, as it was Abraham who became the ancestor of three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and (later) Islam.  Understanding our shared heritage, Paul suggests, will lead to love, not hate, unity, not division.

Paul believes that Jesus offers salvation from sin and death to everyone, and this transcends cultural and religious divisions.  He spends some time explaining how this works.  Humanity became sinful through the sin of the first man, Adam (who, if you believe in evolution, probably never existed), but people may find new life and righteousness through Jesus.  Something happened when Jesus died and rose from the dead that offered a way to free humanity from its sinful inclinations.

This transformation is not, however, complete in this life.  Paul confesses, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  Paul holds a kind of dualistic view of “spirit” and “flesh” that was also held by some Greek philosophers and Gnostics.  The flesh is seen as evil and sinful, while the spirit is purer and redeemable.  Paul refers to his “member” in connect to the weakness of his flesh, suggesting that this struggle is mainly sexual.  This is unfortunate, as it has led some Christians to have a negative/hateful view of the body and sexuality.  Much contemporary psychology would take issue with Paul’s disparaging of the body and sexuality.  Paul seems determined to punish himself and suffer through this perceived conflict between flesh and spirit.  Suffice it to say that, with regards to sexuality, Paul has some issues and hang-ups.

Paul then returns to the issue of gentile-Jewish relations.  He says that gentile followers of Jesus are like a wild olive branch that has been grafted onto the tree of God, and that this is not grounds for pride, but rather awe.  With regards to Jews who do not accept Jesus as the messiah, Paul has ambivalent feelings.  While he clearly wants them to share his faith in Jesus, he believes they are not rejected by God, and even says in chapter 11 that “all Israel will be saved.”  Paul’s main point is this: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (gentile); the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Beginning in chapter 12, Paul switches from theological reflection to practical application.  In view of God’s inclusiveness, he writes, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  Paul’s exhortations are very similar to those of Jesus, as given in the sermon on the mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  Paul urges his audience to respect Jewish temple authorities.  The main application of his message is love.  He quotes the Torah, and Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Paul ends his letter with personal greetings to specific individuals who are members of the church in Rome.  He tells them to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and then gives a blessing.

Scholars generally believe that Paul's letter to the Romans was written around 55 C.E.  Paul's letters are the earliest writings of the New Testament.  The earliest manuscript fragments we have of Romans, however is Papyrus-46, which dates from between 175-225 C.E.  Here's a Fragment from Papyrus-46:



1 Corinthians

Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece is a mixture of theology and practical/moral instruction.  As with his letter to the Romans, his main concern seems to be quelling disagreement and factionalism within the church community.  After a formal introduction, Paul chastises the church community for internal divisions, based on believers associating themselves with particular early church leaders.  Some claimed to be followers of Paul, others of Peter, others of Christ, others of Apollos.  Paul says that they should not divide themselves in this way, but be united in Christ.

I am of Paul!  I am of Peter!

Paul explains how the gospel message of Jesus should not create hierarchical structures, but rather it should be a basically egalitarian community.  The church is not made up of Roman or Greek elite, but rather ordinary people: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  The message of Jesus should not be a cause for social or intellectual pride.  It is, rather, a message for regular, humble folks.  Paul describes the church as a community of servants working together, making up a holy building, or temple.

Paul chastises the church in Corinth for sexual immorality, and other offenses.  He says that those who are sexually immoral should be driven out.  He says that the church should resolve grievances between members internally, rather than bringing suit to secular authorities.  He gives a “vice list” of kinds of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”: fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.”  The word he uses for “sodomite” is arsenokoitai, which is a word of uncertain meaning combining “male” and “bed.”  The original word has nothing to do with the ancient city of Sodom.  It is a bad translation.  It’s implied that, prior to following Christ, the members of the church in Corinth did these practices, and some of them continue to do them, and they should stop.

Ancient Greek erotica.

It is important to understand that Paul, like pretty much all the early Christians, expected that Jesus’ second coming was imminent, and this belief informs the urgency of his message.

Paul gives instructions for married and unmarried believers, saying that monogamous (as opposed to polygamous) marriage is the only acceptable form.  Paul sees marriage as basically a way for people to avoid sexual immorality.  However, Paul was single and celibate, and he sees this as the ideal state for people.  Given the impending apocalypse, he encourages single people not to marry, so they can devote themselves fully to the Lord.  He writes: “I think that, in view of the impending crisis (i.e. the apocalypse) it is well for you to remain as you are (i.e. single and celibate).”

Next Paul addresses dietary questions.  Corinth was a city filled with Greco-Roman culture and religion.  There were temples to gods like Aphrodite.  Often times, citizens ate meals comprised of food that had been sacrificed to “pagan” gods.  Even meat sold in the marketplace had sometimes been sacrificed to Greek or Roman gods.  Was it okay for Christians to each such food?  Paul says it’s okay because “pagan” gods don’t really exist, so food is food.  The believers, however, must be careful not to eat such food when it might cause other Christians to become upset or judgmental.  As always, Paul’s emphasis is unity.  Throughout the letter, however, Paul repeatedly tells the church in Corinth to avoid idolatry, which was widespread in that city at that time.

Ruins of ancient temple in Corinth (to Aphrodite)

Then Paul addresses the issue of whether or not apostles such as himself should be supported (materially and financially) by the churches.  Paul says that apostles have this right, but he personally chooses not to exercise it, so as not to offend anyone, or bring hardship to churches.  When it comes to the gospel, Paul works for free.  He makes his living as a tentmaker, as the book of Acts attests.

Then Paul gives instruction on gender roles, and his views are problematic for contemporary people like me who believe in total gender equality.  Paul writes: “For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.  For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.  Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”  

"For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man." --St. Paul

Paul then gives instruction on the practice that came to be called “communion” or “eucharist”—an important Christian practice throughout the ages.  This is where Christians drink wine and eat bread that are somehow, symbolically, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  This practice is tied to the Jewish festival of Passover, a meal in which Jews eat food that reminds them of their escape from slavery in Egypt.  For Christians, communion symbolizes their escape from slavery to sin and death.

Eucharist by Juan de Juanes (16th century)

Paul discusses various spiritual gifts, which individual members of the church are given by the Holy Spirit.  These gifts include things like healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, etc.  These gifts are not given based on merit, intelligence, or social standing.  Paul describes the church as a “body” in which each member is equally important.  This view inverted the typical Greco-Roman system of social classes.  The church community is meant to be egalitarian.  Central to Paul’s vision of the church, or “body of Christ” is love.

In chapter 13, Paul gives his famous “love poem,” which is often read at weddings.  This is kind of ironic, because Paul was single, celibate, and skeptical about the value of marriage.  The kind of love he is talking about is not romantic love, but agape, a kind of divine, transcendent love that is supposed to characterize the church community.  The poem is very beautiful, so I will quote the whole thing:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love, 
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, 
and understand all mysteries and knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I have nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things, 
endures all things.

Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part,
and we prophecy only in part;
but when the complete comes,
the partial will come to an end.

When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known.

And now faith, hope, and love abide,
these three;
and the greatest of these is love.”

In chapter 15, Paul gives perhaps the earliest Christian “creed” about the significance of Jesus Christ: “For I handed on you as if of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers at time tome, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

For Paul, as for the other apostles, the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of Christian hope.  Jesus’ resurrection is seen as a type which prefigures the believers’ own resurrection, during the impending apocalypse.  Believers will be raised again with spiritual bodies.  Christ’s death and resurrection signify for believers that death has been defeated.

In this Russian icon, Christ's resurrection is shown as also bringing about the resurrection of believers.

Paul ends his letter with greetings and instructions for individual members of the church.  He says, “let all that you do be done in love.”  He says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  And, to emphasize his belief that Christ’s return and the apocalypse are imminent, he says, “Our Lord, come!”  

I don’t get the sense that Paul imagined that over 2,000 years later, Christians would still be waiting for Christ’s return.  For someone who claimed to have such insight into the mystery of Christ, Paul really miscalculated the “imminence” of Jesus’ return in glory.  But Paul was not alone in this mistaken belief.  The gospel writers also believed this, and put these words into Jesus’ mouth. In Matthew 16:26, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  If Paul and Jesus were wrong about this, what else might they have been wrong about?


"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo (this is what Paul and the early Christians were expecting to happen at any moment)

2 Corinthians

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth (which he founded) has the following themes: consolation amidst suffering, power shown through weakness, criticism of false apostles, and an urge to be generous.  Unlike 1 Corinthians, which has a more instructive and contemplative tone, 2 Corinthians has an emotional, sometimes angry, and chastising tone.  This makes sense because it is a letter, not a theological treatise.  It is a personal correspondence written to a particular community to address particular circumstances.  

Paul begins his letter by introducing the theme of consolation amidst suffering.  It’s clear throughout that Paul has endured some extreme difficulties, yet endured through his faith.  He writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”

"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1627)

Then Paul contrasts his ministry with supposed false apostles who have appeared in Corinth.  Paul’s message is characterized by “frankness” and “sincerity” as opposed to “earthly wisdom.”  Unlike false apostles who are called “peddlers of God’s word” (those who personally profit from their ministry), Paul is a person of sincerity who does not work for payment.  Unlike the false apostles who show false credentials, Paul says that the believers in Corinth themselves are his credentials, written “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

It is implied that the false apostles are encouraging the believers in Corinth to follow the laws and traditions of Judaism.  While this is acceptable for Jewish Christians, it is not required of gentiles.  Paul says some rather disparaging things about the Torah, which he calls “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets.”  Indeed, Paul sees the new covenant through Jesus as superseding the old law: “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation (the Torah), much more does the ministry of justification (the gospel of Jesus) abound in glory!  Indeed what once had glory (the Torah) has lost its glory because of the greater glory (the gospel of Jesus), for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!”  Paul says that for non-Christian Jews, the law of Moses is “veil” which “lies over their minds.”  In contrast to the “old” law of Moses, Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”

"Moses With the Ten Commandments" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1659)

Paul presents himself as a frank, sincere apostle who endures despite great suffering: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” and elsewhere that he has persevered “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”  These afflictions are meant, I believe, to establish Paul’s credibility as a true apostle.

Paul urges the believers not to associate with unbelievers, but to provide for other believers in need.  He sends his associate Titus to take up a collection for poor Christians in Jerusalem.  This may have struck the Corinthians as odd because earlier Paul says that he doesn’t collect money for himself.  Paul says that the money to be collected is not for him, but for God and the church.  He calls the collection “a voluntary gift” and not “an extortion.”

Then Paul continues his self-defense against false apostles in Corinth who had apparently been criticizing him, saying “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”  Paul says that the gospel is not about human ability, but about God.  He says “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  He ironically criticizes these false teachers as “super-apostles” whose boasting makes them “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.”  

"Paul Preaching" by Raphael

Paul establishes his authority not through power, but through weakness.  This is an essential part of the gospel—the power of God shown through human weakness.  He writes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”  When it comes to the gospel of Jesus, true apostles are not powerful, well-spoken, or comfortable.  Rather they suffer a lot, and are thus characterized by sincerity and humility.  Paul is very open about his personal weaknesses: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a message of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Paul concludes his letter with his usual greetings and a thinly veiled threat to the Corinthians to get their shit together: “So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not tearing down.”  He ends with a few imperative commands: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.”  Unlike 1 Corinthians, which has a more instructive and contemplative tone, 2 Corinthains has an emotional, sometimes angry, and chastising tone.  



“St. Paul Preaching to the Jews in the Synagogue at Damascus,” from Scenes from the Life of St. Paul (mosaic), Byzantine School, 12th century. Duomo, Monreale, Sicily, Italy.
Galatians

Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (a Roman province in modern-day Turkey) focuses on one central question: Do gentile converts to Christianity need to follow the Jewish law (or Torah)?  That is, do they need to be circumcised, follow dietary restrictions, and other Jewish laws?  Paul’s answer is an emphatic NO!  Paul harshly criticizes Galatian converts for adopting these Jewish practices.  He calls them “you foolish Galatians!”

Galatia was a Roman province in modern-day Turkey.

Paul’s critique of the value of the Torah is striking, especially because he was a Jew.  He writes, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law (Torah) but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”  Pretty straightforward.

But Paul doesn’t stop there.  He says “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’”  Paul thinks it is impossible to follow the law completely, and he equates observance of the law with prison: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law as our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”

Torah (Jewish scriptures/law)

Paul has rather harsh things to say against those who teach gentile Galatians to follow the law and circumcise themselves.  He wishes they wouldn’t just stop at the foreskin, but that they “would castrate themselves” (5:12).  Elsewhere, Paul equates observance of the Torah with pagan rituals (4:9), and suggests that the law didn’t even come directly from God, but through mediators (angels and Moses).  Therefore, it is less pure than the new covenant through Jesus.  As in other letters, Paul establishes his authority as an apostle by referring to his own biography, specifically the vision he had of the resurrected Jesus.  For Paul, the message of Jesus came directly from God, unlike the law.

"The Conversion of St. Paul" by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie (1767)

One of the most famous passages in Galatians is 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Despite his harsh rhetoric against the Torah, Paul’s goal seems to be to create unity, not division, by stressing that prior religious/cultural/social distinctions are erased by Jesus.

Despite these intentions, however, Paul’s letter to the Galatians would be used by later Christians to create division.  Scholar Shaye J.D. Cohen writes, “Later Christians learned from this letter that Judaism, that is, the observance of the commandments of the Torah and the refusal to believe in Jesus as the son of God, had and has no value.  In the sixteenth century this letter gave Protestant reformers the rhetoric of ‘faith vs. works’ that they would turn against both Judaism and Roman Catholicism.”  

From the Wikipedia page "Martin Luther and antisemitism": 

In 1543, protestant reformer Martin Luther published On the Jews and their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth."  They are full of the "devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine."  The synagogue was a "defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut ..."  He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them".  To read more about Luther's vicious anti-semitism, click HERE.

This historical (and damaging) misinterpretation of Paul suggests that, when reading these letters, we need to read carefully, critically, and with an eye toward context.  Scholars today realize that Paul’s letter was addressed to gentiles, not Jews, and that nowhere in his letters does he encourage Jews to abandon the Torah. Needless to say, Paul’s interpretation of Judaism is complicated.

Title page of Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies (Wittenberg, 1543)

Ephesians

For this report, I will also include some photographs from archeological ruins in Ephesus, which in the first century was a Greek city, but part of the Roman empire.  Today, the ruins of Ephesus are near the town of Selcuk, Turkey.  The Roman empire no longer exists.  


This map shows where Ephesus was in relation to modern-day Turkey.

Traditionally, the letter to the Ephesians was believed to have been written by Paul.  It was considered one of the “captivity letters” which Paul wrote from one of his many imprisonments.  Today, most scholars question Paul’s authorship, based on literary and thematic grounds.  Some scholars, like Luke Timothy Johnson, believe the letter does reflect Paul’s concerns (even if he did not directly write it).  Some believe that Ephesians, rather than being written exclusively to the church in Ephesus, was meant to be a kind of circular letter, read to numerous (mainly gentile) churches in Asia Minor.

The Temple of Artemis, one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was located at Ephesus.

The main themes of the letter are: the mystery of God’s will revealed in Christ, the unity that this message creates between formerly divided Jews and gentiles, and the new social order/community life that is the result of this newfound unity.  As with other of Paul’s epistles, the main theme is unity among a community.  This is ironic, however, because the Christian church rarely, if ever, has been characterized by unity.  Nonetheless, for the author of Ephesians, unity is the ultimate goal and result of Christian communities.

For this report, I would like to focus on three metaphors the author uses to characterize the ideal Christian community:

1.) Adopted kids.  The author says that, through Christ, formerly excluded gentiles have become adopted into God’s family.  What was once only a family of Jews now includes everyone.

2.) A holy temple.  The Jewish temple in Jerusalem made clear divisions between Jews and gentiles.  Paul says that, through Christ, the dividing wall of the temple has been broken down and gentiles are allowed inside.  The author of Ephesians says that this new new inclusive community is a new temple.  This statement probably took on added force and urgency after the Romans destroyed the actual temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

3.) A body.  This new, united community of Jews and gentiles makes up “the body of Christ.”  Each person (or body part) has a unique and important function.

Here is an old Roman theater in Ephesus (which is in modern-day Turkey)

While the overall message and tone of Ephesians is one of unity and love, there are three problematic issues worthy of discussion:

1.) The author’s view of women.  In chapter 5, the author writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”  Despite the generally egalitarian nature of the Christian community, there is still gender inequality, which leads me to the next problem…

2.) The author’s view of slavery.  One would hope that Paul (or whoever wrote the letter) would, as an ambassador of Christ, be opposed to slavery and condemn it.  But this is not what the letter does.  Rather, here’s what it says: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”  The author of Ephesians accepts slavery as a fact of life which can (astonishingly) exist within the Christian community.

3.) The anti-semitism which Ephesians (and other Pauline letters) would inspire.  In Paul’s day, Judaism was a much more dominant religion than Christianity.  Within a few centuries, however, this situation would flip—Christianity would become the dominant religion, and Judaism the (often persecuted) minority.  What the writer of Ephesians could not have foreseen is that later Christians would use these writings to argue that Jews who did not accept Christ were somehow deficient.  This is especially ironic because, for the writer of Ephesians, Jews hold primary status as rightful children of God, and gentiles are the adopted kids.  Over the centuries, however, the adopted kids would relentlessly bully the rightful kids.  This is not necessarily a fault of Paul’s, but of historic (mis)interpretation of the New Testament.  

Christians today must be very careful not to make the same mistakes of their forbears—turning the loving community of Christ into a persecuting force.  Historically, Christians have used Ephesians and other New Testament writings to suppress the rights of women, to justify slavery, and to promote antisemitism.  In contrast to these things, it seems to me that Christians ought to be, according to Ephesians, “rooted and grounded in love.”

Here is a "Terrace House" from the Roman period of Ephesus, showing how the wealthy lived.

Philippians

Can you find Philippi on this map of ancient Greece?

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was written some time in the 50s C.E.  This is another of the “captivity letters” which Paul says he wrote from prison.  The town of Philippi was named after Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) and was located in the Roman province of Macedonia (northern Greece today).  Because the letter was presumably written from captivity, one of its major themes is perseverance despite obstacles and suffering.  Paul urges the Philippians to follow his example, to beware of “opponents”, and to strive for humility and unity, based on the example of Jesus (and Paul himself).

Philip II of Macedon, founder of Philippi

Throughout the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to right thinking and behavior, so that they will fare well on “the day of Jesus.”  What he means by this is the end of the world apocalypse when Jesus will return as king and judge of the world.  It is evident from Philippians and other letters that Paul firmly believed that this apocalypse was imminent and would happen in his lifetime.  This did not, of course, happen.  I presume that Christians today are still waiting for this apocalypse.

Christian Apocalypse

As elsewhere, Paul privileges “spirit” over “flesh.”  He writes: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  Paul views his physical, bodily existence as a kind of necessary evil, but clearly prefers to exist as spirit (i.e. physically dead).

Spirit vs. Flesh

Throughout the letter, Paul warns his audience against “opponents” who threaten his message about Jesus.  In chapter 3, Paul identifies (at least some of) these opponents.  He writes: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.”  As in other letters, Paul’s bitterest foes are Jewish Christians who encourage converts to follow Jewish rituals (like circumcision) and to observe the Torah.  Paul calls these people “dogs”—a harsh insult.  As with other letters by Paul, this would inspire later Christian antisemitism.

Circumcision

Perhaps the most moving and poetic element of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the so-called “Christ Hymn”:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Crucifixion

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus glorified with God.

Paul encourages the Philippians to follow the example of Jesus by being humble and self-sacrificing: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  As with other letters, Paul ends with “shout outs” to various individuals in Philippi.  He also thanks the (relatively poor) church in Philippi for their financial and material support, a statement which contradicts his claim in other epistles that he takes no payment for his ministry.

Artifacts from ancient Philippi

Colossians

Colossae was located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey)

The letter to the church in Colossae presents itself as having been written by Paul, though most scholars today believe it to be non-authentic, and written by second or third generation Christian writers.  The reasons for this are literary (the use of non-Pauline language), theological (the author’s view of Christ and the apocalypse differ from Paul), and practical (the letter concerns itself with household/social relations which Paul does not consider).  Scholar Peter Zaas writes that the so-called “household codes” of Colossians “are likely the products of second or third generation New Testament writers, aware that the second coming of Jesus is not likely to occur in the near future, and needing to provide guidelines on how his followers should live.”  Colossians, like other later (non-Pauline) letters presents a kind of “domesticated” Christianity.

Not much remains of the ancient city of Colossae, and it has never been excavated.  WTF?!

The author of Colossians challenges intellectual/theological opponents who follow Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas that do not square with the author’s view of orthodox belief and practice.  One irony of Colossians is that the author uses Greek rhetoric and Jewish ideas to argue against people using Greek rhetoric and Jewish ideas.  Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson alerted me to the value of understanding  Greek rhetoric (format and argument) when reading New Testament letters, which were all written in Greek and reflect Greek rhetorical conventions.  Many of the letters begin with a familiar pattern characteristic of Greek letter-writing: Salutation, followed by Thanksgiving (sending of good wishes).

After these formal niceties, the author of Colossians gets into his main arguments.  First, the author presents a theological understanding of Christ which echoes the beginning of John’s gospel.  This is a later “high” view of Jesus, which focuses mostly on his divinity, and very little on his human life and teachings.  For the author of Colossians, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” through whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created…and in him all things hold together.”  This is a “cosmic” Jesus.  Gone is the human rabble-rouser from rural Palestine.  This Jesus is God!  

Here are some ruins of an ancient theater in Colossae (It is not well-preserved).

In addition to being the force of all creation, Jesus is also (for the writer of Colossians) the conduit of God’s redemption of humanity from sin and death: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  It is interesting to note that for the author of Colossians, as for Paul, the main significance of Jesus is his cosmic death and resurrection, not his extensive teachings and parables, as recounted in the gospels.

In light of this cosmic redemption, Christians are to be transformed into a new creation, and united in love.  After presenting this “correct” view of Jesus and the gospel, the author goes on to argue against intellectual and theological opponents: 

1.) Those who want to follow traditions of Judaism.  As we have seen, this conflict with Judaism is a recurrent theme throughout the New Testament.  This makes total sense because Jesus and pretty much all of his earliest followers were observant Jews.  It is only when Paul begins taking his essentially Jewish faith to the gentile world that tensions arise.  As time went on, for various complex reasons, Paul’s ultimately non-Jewish version of the gospel would prevail, and Jewish Christians (like Peter, James, and John) would become the minority.  The author of Colossians dismisses Jewish practices as “a shadow of what is to come” and “simply human commands and teachings.”

2.) The other opponents addressed in Colossians are church members interested in exploring new philosophical and religious ideas.  The author writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not to Christ.”  In this verse, I detect a mindset that is still somewhat prevalent in modern evangelical Christianity—a suspicion of non-Christian intellectual pursuits as somehow dangerous.  This way of thinking is, to a curious academic like me, problematic.  This suspicion of “human” philosophy is ironic because the author, in describing the division between the “shadow” of the Torah and the “substance” of Christ is actually using the language/ideas of the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Plato.

"The Miracle of St. Michael at Colossae" (15th century Russian icon).  Click HERE to learn more!

As with other New Testament letters, Colossians promotes gender inequality: “Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”  Equally problematic is Colossians ideas regarding slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly fearing the Lord.”  The New Testament here, and elsewhere, does not condemn slavery.

This afternoon, I went with my parents to visit some relatives in Los Angeles, and on the way we discussed Colossians.  After sharing my book report in progress, we discussed this question: “What is the main idea, or thesis, of Colossians?”  As a teacher of college academic writing, I would normally look for a thesis of some kind.  But I couldn’t detect a thesis in Colossians, and I think this is because it is a letter, not an academic paper.  Nowhere in the New Testament (or the Old Testament for that matter) do we find systematic theology.  We find stories, letters, poetry, wisdom writings, but nothing like what later Christians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther would write concerning systematic theology.  For some people, who want easy coherence, this fact may prove frustrating.  But for me, it is endlessly interesting, and I think it's why there are so many variations of Christianity today (thousands of denominations).  If we read the Bible without familiar creeds or preconceived ideas of “the gospel” we find a world of endless fascination, and endless debate regarding meaning.  I like this.

First page of Colossians from a 12th century Greek manuscript.

1 Thessalonians

Thessalonica (today called Thessaloniki) is the second largest city in Greece.

Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica (the capital of the Roman province Macedonia) is believed to be authentic (written by Paul) and the oldest book of the New Testament (written about 50 C.E.).  The ordering of New Testament books in modern bibles is theological, not chronological.  Paul’s letters are the earliest writings we have, and the gospels are some of the latest.  Thus, if we want to read the New Testament chronologically (the order in which books were written), we should start with 1 Thessalonians.

The city of Thessaloniki has some amazing historical landmarks, like this 4th century Arch of Galerius.

Paul founded the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.  He probably wrote this letter from Corinth to address questions he’d received from the church via his fellow missionary Timothy.  The letter is somewhat obsessed with what Paul (and the Thessalonians) believed to be the imminent return of the cosmic Christ, and the apocalyptic judgment of the world.  Throughout all his authentic letters, Paul clearly believed that this event was going to happen in his lifetime.  It didn’t.


Paul has received word from Timothy that, since he last visited the church in Thessalonica, some believers had died.  The church members were distraught because they didn’t  know what would happen to these people who have died before the second coming.  Paul encourages them with this explanation to what will happen to these people:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  For this we declare to you, by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

"Resurrection of the Flesh" by Luca Signorelli (c. 1500(

Basically, when Christ returns, those who have died will be resurrected and join the living believers and everyone will be joined with Christ in a kind of spiritual union.  It is interesting that Paul says nothing of what happens to these dead believers in the interim period between their death and Christ’s return.  In Paul’s day, this was a relatively small number of people.  But today, nearly 2,000 years later, this number is probably in the billions.  Where do these dead Christians go before Jesus returns?  The contemporary Christian answer is that their souls go to heaven, but Paul does not say this here.  For Paul, such questions are probably of minor concern, considering Christ’s imminent return.  Those few dead believers are presumably just kind of sleeping for a short while.

This passage inspired the Christian idea of “the Rapture” and also inspired much bad popular fiction and movies like Left Behind, which has, astonishingly, been made twice, most recently starring Nicolas Cage.  Here’s what the critics are saying about the latest “Left Behind” film, from Rotten Tomatoes (it currently has a rating of 2%)…


“Left behind is biblical in its silliness.”

—New York Magazine

“Score one for Satan.”

—Toronto Star

“Outlandishly inept in every way, ‘Left Behind’ is easily one of the worst movies of 2014.”

—Quad City Times

“Unfortunately, even after the rapture starts, Left Behind never picks up steam.”

—IGN Movies

“…may be one of the most inept films to ever see a wide theatrical release.”

—Austin Chronicle

“I can’t wait for Nic Cage to explain THIS one to God on Judgment Day.”

—Mixed Reviews

While they await the imminent apocalypse, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to behave correctly—abstaining from sexual immorality, treating one another kindly, and doing good deeds.  Paul also encourages the believers to live quiet, unobtrusive lives, and to “work with your hands,” meaning to be self-sufficient.  Paul supported his missionary activities through manual labor.  He was a tentmaker, according to Acts.

As with many of the New Testament books, Thessalonians contains some verses that have inspired Christian antisemitism over the ages: “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the gentiles so that they may be saved.  Thus they have been constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.”

Regarding these verses, scholar David Fox Sandmel writes: “This passage (2:14-16) reflects Paul’s perspective on the tension between Jews who did not accept Jesus as messiah and the early followers of Jesus, whether Jews or gentiles.  These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogue; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them…This passage has implications for the emergence of anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition.”

It’s amazing how Paul, in the same letter, can say such harsh things against “the Jews” and also say this: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (3:12).  This apparent contradiction is worthy of discussion, especially for those interested in inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Jews today.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492)

2 Thessalonians

Scholars disagree about the authenticity of Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica.  Some believe, based on similarity of language and ideas, that the letter was indeed written by Paul shortly after he wrote 1 Thessalonians (which is generally thought to be authentic).  Others note marked differences in the author’s view of the “end times’ and suggest a later date by a different author writing in Paul’s name.  Either way, the brief letter of 2 Thessalonians presents some powerful imagery and ideas regarding the apocalyptic return of Christ and the end of the present world—a central idea of Paul and early Christians.

"The Last Judgment" by Raphael Coxcie (16th century)

In chapter 1, the author presents a vision of Jesus which is striking in how it differs from the humble, compassionate figure we find in the gospels.  This is the “cosmic” Jesus—the inflictor of judgment and vengeance.  The author describes a time “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  

Here, also, is the idea of “eternal destruction” which Christians have understood as “hell.”  It seems to me that here we find the “dark side” of the gospel.  Jesus came to heal and save, sure, but Jesus will also judge and punish non-believers for all eternity.  This is a morally troubling Jesus.

Medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch created some really surreal paintings of hell.

In chapter 2, the author expands upon the end-of-the-world scenario which Paul laid out in 1 Thessalonians.  In 1 Thessalonians, the second coming is a clear, singular event.  In 2 Thessalonians, perhaps because believers were still waiting for this event to happen, the author adds some caveats—things that must happen before Jesus returns.  Since Paul’s day, Christians have endlessly speculated and predicted the second coming.

Here’s what the author says must happen before Jesus returns as cosmic judge—an unnamed “lawless one” must be revealed who “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”  Christians have speculated as to the identity of this “lawless one.”  Perhaps he was the Roman emperor Nero, who did declare himself a god.  Interestingly, this “lawless one” is distinct from Satan, because the author writes: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan.”

Roman emperor Nero turning Christians into human torches in a 19th century painting by Henryk Siemiradski.

The author explains that the “lawless one” has not yet come because something is restraining him: “And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes.”  Who, or what, is restraining the “lawless one”?  The author does not say.  Some speculated that this restraining force was also the Roman empire, with its emphasis on law and order and the Pax Romana—the so-called “peace of Rome.”

In seems to me that, like many theological innovations of the Bible, this complex end-of-the-world scenario was developed to address a very simple concern—Jesus had not returned yet.  Paul and early Christians were expecting his imminent arrival, and it hadn’t come.  Thus, the “lawless one” and the restraining force are introduced.  By the time we get to the book of Revelation, this end-of-the-world scenario will become even more drawn-out and complex.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (from the Book of Revelation)...coming soon!

1 Timothy

The fist letter of Paul to his friend Timothy is the first of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” because it concerns itself mainly with correct leadership and organization of churches.  Many scholars today doubt that Paul wrote these letters because they differ in theme, tone, and style from the more clearly authentic letters (like 1 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, etc.).  In the authentic letters of Paul, he focuses a lot on the imminent return of Jesus, and is less concerned with long term church organization.  By contrast, the “pastoral letters” acknowledge that Christ’s return may not be so imminent, and instead focus on proper church leadership and organization in this world.  As such, these letters are less radical in tone, and represent a more “domesticated” Christianity which seems to basically support the status quo of society (with a few notable exceptions).

In chapter 2, the author gives a kind of tacit blessing on the socio-political status quo by urging Christians to pray for kings and those in positions of authority: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  Likewise, the author gives his tacit approval of the status quo of slavery: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.”

Slavery was widespread in ancient Rome, as shown in this bas relief sculpture.

The author also gives his blessing on the status quo of gender inequality, and the subordination of women to men.  In one of the most troubling passages of the New Testament, the author writes: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing.”

1 Timothy does not seem to support gender equality.

Next, the author lays out some basic instructions for church leadership, organized as a kind of hierarchy.  At the top are bishops.  Below them are deacons, who perform administrative and teaching roles.  There is also reference to a “council of elders” who make decisions on church issues.  Put into contemporary business lingo, the bishop is the CEO, the deacons are the vice presidents, and the elders are the board of directors.  This organizational structure would develop over the centuries into the baroque hierarchy of the Roman catholic church.

Bishops

I must admit that, overall, I find 1 Timothy to be a bit depressing.  In contrast to the radical, counter-cultural Jesus of the gospels, this book presents a picture of Christianity that is not only okay with the establishment in its organization, gender roles, and social relations, but actually mirrors the establishment in its organization, gender roles, and social relations.

That being said, there are some lovely moments in 1 Timothy.  The author spends most of chapter 5 describing how it is one of the main functions of the church to care for elderly widows.  There is, throughout the letter, a general attitude of respect for the elderly, which I like.  The author writes: “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father.”  This is nice.

Caring for elderly widows was an important function of the early church.

I also like how, in chapter 1, the author includes “slave traders” on a list of the “unholy.”  But, right before “slave traders” are “sodomites,” so I’m not sure what to make of that.

I guess my point is that it is problematic to read 1 Timothy out of context and apply it directly to one’s life.  It has some lovely sentiments, but it also represents a kind of hierarchical, patriarchal, iron age ethic that is hard to apply to the 21st century.  I suppose if you are cool with subordination of women, slavery, and a generally male-dominated society, you’ll have no problem with 1 Timothy.  But I’m not cool with these things, so I find this letter to be problematic.

2 Timothy

Paul’s second letter to his friend Timothy is also the second of the so-called “Pastoral Letters,” because they concern themselves with correct church leadership, teaching, and practice.  Scholars today generally believe that Paul did not write this letter.  Rather, it was written by a later Christian in his name, to give the text authority.  Scholar Tal Ilan describes this phenomenon in the ancient world: “Their attribution to Paul—a common practice in ancient writing in which ‘writings falsely ascribed’ or ‘pseudepigrapha’ are attributed to known authors—is intended to give them apostolic authority.”

Orthodox Icon of St. Timothy

Two main themes emerge from the second letter to Timothy (an early missionary, leader, and companion of Paul): endurance amidst persecution, and the importance of correct doctrine.  Throughout the letter, the author encourages Timothy to stand firm in his faith and to “join me in suffering for the gospel.”  He writes, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” and “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  The author urges Timothy to view Paul himself as an example of one who endured despite persecution: “What persecutions I endured!  yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”

So, who is doing all this persecuting?  Is it the Roman government?  Is it Jewish religious opponents?  Pagan philosophers?  It seems, throughout the letter, that the main persecuting is happening within the church itself, which leads me to the next major theme of 2 Timothy: the importance of correct doctrine.

If, like me, you grew up going to church, it is easy to get the impression that the “gospel message” of Jesus is singular—something that everyone basically agrees upon.  However, in the early centuries of Christianity, there was widespread disagreement about the meaning and message of Jesus.  Scholar Bart Ehrman has written extensively on this turbulent period in early church history, before there were any official creeds, church councils, or even an agreed-upon list of books in the New Testament.  Ehrman’s books Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures chronicle the theological “losers” in these early ideological battles over the meaning and message of Jesus.  Indeed, many of the early “church fathers” like Irenaeus of Lyons and Eusebius of Caesarea spent much ink and effort arguing against (and, ironically, persecuting) those whom they perceived as “heretics.”


In 2 Timothy, it appears as though the author is writing to combat and correct what he sees as false teachings (and teachers) in some churches of his day.  Actually, the author spends more time calling out specific false teachers than explaining in a clear way what correct teaching is.  He calls out two guys from Asia named Phygelus and Hermogenes who have “turned away from me.”  He calls out two other dudes named Hymenaeus and Philetus as having “swerved from the truth.”  He even calls out “Alexander the coppersmith” who did him “great harm.”  The author of 2 Timothy appears to be using the pen-name of Paul to condemn people with whom he disagrees.  What is most frustrating, however, is the fact that the author doesn’t give a clear explanation of what the right teaching is!  

As a reader, I am left wondering: what is the gospel that the author is so keen on defending?  Only one place does he give a very brief explanation.  In 2:8 he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”  Is this the whole gospel?  Is this all that one must believe?  For all its rage against false teachers, 2 Timothy is frustratingly scant on correct teaching.  It’s almost as if correct teaching is some secret, inside knowledge that the author isn’t keen on explaining in detail.  Come on, man!  Give us the goods!  I suppose it was this frustration, and the challenge of “heretics” that compelled the church to establish “creeds.”  If you read these books without preconceived “creeds” in mind, they are super ambiguous.


The First Council of Nicea (325 C.E.)--an early attempt at Christian consensus on correct belief.

Titus

Paul’s letter to his friend Titus is the third and final of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” because it concerns itself with proper church organization, leadership, belief, and practice.  As with the other two pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy), scholars today generally doubt that it was written by Paul, mainly for literary and theological reasons.  The letter is relatively short and seems mainly interested in two issues: qualifications of church leaders (elders and bishops), and a criticism of false teachings.

First, qualifications of leaders.  In chapter 1, the author gives a list of qualities that elders and bishops must have.  Mainly, these qualities relate to a good moral character, but one in particular caught my eye: An elder must be “married only once.”  Today, in the Roman catholic church, leaders must be single and celibate.  But it was not this way in the New Testament.  In Titus and elsewhere, church leaders could marry.  The requirement that church leaders be celibate didn’t come about until the Middle Ages.

Catholic clergy are not allowed to marry.  This is called Clerical Celibacy.

The letter to Titus also concerns itself with criticizing false beliefs and practices.  Rather than engaging in reasoned argument, however, the author engages in some ad hominem attacks and name-calling.  As elsewhere in the New Testament, the author is particularly hard on Jews, whom he calls “rebelious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision: they must be silenced.”  Elsewhere, the writer urges Titus (and the church) to pay no attention to “Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.”  It is unclear exactly which specific beliefs the author is condemning, but he may be referring to Rabinnic midrash (commentary on the Torah).

Jewish Midrash (commentary on Torah)

The writer also includes an ethnic slur against people from the island of Crete: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”  It is almost refreshing to realize that the writers of the New Testament were not above name-calling and personal attacks.  It shows that these books were indeed written by flawed humans.

As in 1 and 2 Timothy, the writer of Titus is concerned with maintaining fairly status quo social and household structures.  Wives are instructed to be “good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands.”  Slaves are instructed “to be submissive to their masters.”  And the church as a whole is instructed “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient.”  This vision of the church is not radical.  It is domesticated and tame.  Throughout the letter, the writer urges Christians to good works and self-control.  In other words, to be good Roman citizens.

In my reports on 1 and 2 Timothy, I was frustrated because the author seemed to spend more time talking trash on ideological opponents than explaining correct belief.  The writer of Titus certainly does his share of trash-talking, but near the end we find some verses that sound like official doctrine: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth (baptism) and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  The saying is true.”  Though it requires some elaboration, this short statement seems to be a fairly cogent explanation of “the gospel.”

Baptism was a part of Christian practice from a very early date (unlike Clerical Celibacy) .

Philemon

Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon is believed to be authentic (written by Paul).  It is also Paul’s shortest letter (355 words in Greek), and his most controversial, as it takes as its subject the status of a runaway slave.  The general attitude toward slavery in the New Testament is complicated.  Nowhere does the New Testament condemn slavery.  In fact, letters like 2 Timothy and Titus actually tell slaves to obey their masters.  However, in books like 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that, in Christ, “there is neither slave nor free.”  The picture that emerges is a kind of two-fold status for Christian slaves.  In the church community, slaves had a kind of equality with everyone else.  But, in the larger social world, they remained slaves.  Put another way, they were “spiritually” free, but physically still enslaved.  I should also mention that in the Roman empire of the first century (the social context of the New Testament), slavery was widespread and accepted as a fact of life.

Roman mosaic of slaves from 2nd century C.E.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  Paul was writing from prison (probably in Ephesus) to Philemon (probability in Colossae).  The person Paul sends to deliver his letter is Onesimus, Philemon’s slave.  Paul does not explicitly say that Philemon has run away, but the letter suggests something to that effect.  It is also possible that Philemon actually sent Onesimus to visit Paul in prison, and Paul is just sending him back.  Either way, Paul writes affectionately of Onesimus, calling him “my child,” and his exhortation to Philemon is “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  Paul promises to repay Philemon for any lost income he suffered during Onesimus’ absence.  Though Paul does not explicitly tell Philemon to free Onesimus, it seems he is strongly encouraging it.  At the very least, Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as a “brother” in Christ.

Papyrus 87, the oldest fragment from the Book of Philemon, dates from 3rd century C.E.

Thus, I think the letter to Philemon is a good representation of how early Christians viewed slavery.  They did not necessarily condemn it (they were not abolitionists), but they called for a changed relationship between master and slave, based on the equalizing nature of their new identity in Christ.  It is interesting how later Christians have interpreted Philemon as both justifying and condemning slavery.  Scholar Barbara Geller writes: “In the antebellum United States, both proslavery advocates and abolitionists appropriated the letter to support their views of slavery.  Some of the former argued that Paul had indeed returned the slave Onesimus to Philemon, and that Philemon himself was both a Christian and a slaveholder.  Conversely, some abolitionists argued that Paul, as a Jew, could not possibly have returned a fugitive slave to his owner.  They cited Deuteronomy 23:15 with its injunction that “slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them,” as well as other texts from the Hebrew Bible which set limits on the duration of enslavement.”  The point here is that the Bible has been used throughout history to support wildly different views and practices.

Slavery existed in the United States of America from its founding until 1864.

Hebrews

In modern times, the book of Hebrews has sparked controversy, as it seems to be the most anti-Jewish book in the New Testament.  While the author doesn’t stoop to name-calling or ethnic slurs, the whole crux of his/her argument is that a basic feature of Judaism (temple sacrifice) has been replaced by Jesus.  The author speaks of a “new covenant” that has replaced the old one (which involved sacrificing animals).  Throughout the ages, Christians have used Hebrews to argue for the “superiority” of Christianity over Judaism.  I would like to offer a different, and hopefully less divisive, reading.

The author’s main argument is that Jesus is a new kind of high priest who actually sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of humanity, thus abolishing the Jewish sacrificial system.  What I would like to stress is that all Jews abandoned the sacrificial system in 70 C.E. when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.  After this tragic event, temple sacrifice was no longer possible, and so Jews had to evolve their practices to fit these new circumstances.  One option was Christianity, a decidedly Jewish movement that eventually included gentiles.  Another option was Rabbinic Judaism, in which Jewish leaders like Yohanan ben Zakkai established a religious school in Yavheh, in which temple sacrifice was replaced by prayer, giving to charity, and Torah study.  From this group emerged modern Judaism as we know it today.  The Jewish “new testament” was the Mishnah, and later the Talmud.

First page of the Talmud.

Seen in this light, the book of Hebrews may be read not so much as anti-Jewish, but rather as reflecting another strain of Judaism in the first century.  All Jews had to change after the destruction of the temple, and some (like the early Christians) saw Jesus as providing a new way forward.  Other Jews took different, and equally significant, paths.  When the author of Hebrews argues that the ministry of the priests has been replaced by Jesus, he is making a very similar move to the rabbis in Yavneh.  The main difference is who is replacing the priests.  For Christians, it was Jesus.  For Jews, it was the rabbis.  Different reactions to similar realities.

I would also like to stress that the author of Hebrews is steeped in Jewish faith and tradition.  In chapter 11 he/her gives a kind of all star list of “Heroes of the Faith.”  Guess what?  They are all Jews.  The writer commends the faith of such famous Jewish figures as Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and finally Jesus.  For these Jews, faith was all about believing in the saving grace of God, and acting on that belief, even when things seemed uncertain and hopeless.  The writer of Hebrews says some really beautiful things about what it feels like to have faith in this world of uncertainty and suffering, and I would like to end with this passage, which speaks to the historic Jewish experience of exile, wandering, and the hope of finding a new home:

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.  They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

The Mishnah can be seen as a Jewish New Testament, after the destruction of the Temple.

James

The letter of James is an oft-overlooked gem in the Bible.  As we have seen, the voice of Paul dominates the New Testament.  However, the small book of James offers a different and unique perspective.  Many scholars believe the book was written by (or at least originated from) the apostle James, the brother of Jesus.  Wait, you say.  Jesus had a brother?  Yes indeed.  The gospels attest that he had brothers and sisters.  And it appears that his brother James (along with Peter and John) became a leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem following the death of Jesus.  This was a community of Jews, led by apostles who had known Jesus.  Thus, the book of James gives us a glimpse into the thinking and teachings of the original followers of Jesus.  For those interested in understanding the teachings and significance of the historical Jesus, the book of James turns out to be hugely insightful.

James was the brother of Jesus.  He was also called James the Just.

In contrast to James, the apostle Paul (whose writings dominate the New Testament) had never even met the human Jesus of Nazareth.  The entirety of Paul’s theology comes from a single, subjective visionary experience he had of Jesus while traveling to Damascus.  By contrast, James had known Jesus his whole life, had been with him throughout his whole ministry.  And so, as it turns out, if we want to know about Jesus from a person who actually knew him, we must look to the small, often-overlooked letter of James.

In contrast to Paul, for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus were the most important things about him, the letter of James never once mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Instead, for James, the most important thing is ethical behavior.  Echoing the words of Jesus in the gospels, James is harshly critical of the wealthy and those who exploit the poor:

“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ’Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court?” (2:2-6)

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.  You have laid up treasure for the last days.  Listen!  The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” (5:1-6)

James has love for the poor, and criticism for the rich (Just like Jesus!)

For James, as for Jesus, how one treats the poor and needy is of paramount importance.  In contrast to Paul, who believes people are saved by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, James sees works and good deeds as essential for human salvation:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Reading the book of James causes us to seriously re-evaluate the mission and message of Jesus and the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem.  Growing up, I often heard conservative Christians speak disparagingly of those who saw Jesus as mainly a “good moral teacher” and not necessarily the resurrected Son of God.  As it turns out, in the book of James, the book most directly connected to the historical Jesus, that is exactly what we find--no mention of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a great emphasis on moral teaching.  What matters most for James is right action, and not so much right belief.  The message of James may be summed up by the “golden rule” of Jesus and the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Some traditions suggest that James the brother of Jesus had dreadlocks.  Like HERE.

1 Peter

The letter of 1 Peter is written to Christian communities in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century who are experiencing persecution.  Tradition holds that Peter wrote this letter from prison in Rome during the persecutions of the emperor Nero in the 60s C.E.  Nero had no love for Christians.  He was said to have used them as human torches to illuminate his garden, and as fodder for animals and gladiators at Roman “sporting” events.  Though the addressees of Peter’s letter in Asia Minor were probably not experiencing this level of persecution, the letter is definitely written in the context of Christian suffering.  The letter uses the words “suffer” or “suffering” 18 times.

Tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome under emperor Nero.

Although there wasn’t empire-wide official persecution of Christians until the 3rd century, followers of this new religion were still subject to localized persecution and were viewed with hostility and suspicion by their pagan neighbors.  Because Christians refused to participate in ceremonies of emperor worship or pagan rituals, they were often viewed by their Roman neighbors as unpatriotic, anti-social, and even atheistic (because they didn’t believe in the pantheon of Roman gods).  Roman writings from this era stereotype Christians as immoral, secretive, and suspicious.  To give a modern example, Christians in this era were viewed something like Muslims were viewed in post-9/11 America.  This hatred was given added fury when emperor Nero blamed the Christians for a fire that burned much of Rome.


So how does the author of 1 Peter comfort these Christian communities living in such a difficult social climate?  He encourages them to be steadfast in their faith and to continue living humble, moral lives.  For the the author of 1 Peter, the way to counter negative stereotypes is not fighting back, but rather living a good life, characterized by love.  Let your life speak.  Christians are encouraged not to “repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” 

The author also reminds his audience of the richness and beauty of their religious heritage, and their real identity, not as marginalized communities, but rather as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  The writer is saying, in essence: Although most people despise you as powerless and insignificant, you are God’s beloved, the most important people on earth.  To make this point, the author draws direct parallels between the people of Israel and this new community of Christians.  He quotes extensively form the Hebrew scriptures, and creatively weaves quotes with his own words and ideas, in the style of Jewish midrash (commentary on Torah):

“Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles…
conduct yourselves honorably among the gentiles.”

The author of 1 Peter even refers to Rome as “Babylon,” recalling the historic Jewish experience of being defeated and forcibly exiled to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.  It’s important to remember that Peter, and the earliest apostles, were Jews first and foremost, and continued to see themselves in light of this tradition.  Drawing upon the richness of Jewish tradition, and adding the new element of Jesus (the messiah who suffered too), the author weaves together a powerful message of hope and solidarity amidst persecution.

Finally, the author reminds his audience that, according to their faith, this present unjust age is only temporary.  Ultimately, Jesus will return to set things right.  This belief in the imminent return of Jesus as righteous judge informs much of the New Testament, especially the apocalyptic book of Revelation.  Stay tuned!

The Roman emperor Nero persecuted Christians (and had a weird neck beard).

2 Peter

The second letter of Peter claims to have been written by the apostle Peter, but scholars today generally believe it was written by a second century Christian writing in Peter’s name, to give the letter authority.  This was a fairly common practice at the time, as we saw with Paul’s “Pastoral Letters” (which were probably not written by Paul).  Invoking the apostle Peter gave the author some extra “firepower” against his opponents, which seems to be the main theme of the letter (trash talking opponents).

The apostle Peter probably did not write the letter of 2 Peter.

I found 2 Peter to be quite harsh in tone and not a very edifying read.  As in some earlier epistles, the author engages in some serious name-calling against his ideological opponents.  Instead of engaging in reasoned argument, 2 Peter commits two logical fallacies: ad hominem (attacking the opponent, rather than the argument), and appeal to authority (Peter).  First, ad hominem.  In chapter 2, the author calls his opponents “irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born be caught and killed.”  The author is somewhat vague about exactly which points of doctrine he disagrees with.  Instead, he accuses them of sexual immorality (a common low-blow tactic), and believing in “cleverly devised myths.”  The second logical fallacy the author of 2 Peter commits is appeal to authority.  Instead of reasoned argument, he throws down his (probably false) credentials.  Because the author is (supposedly) an eyewitness and an apostle, he says “we have the prophetic message more clearly confirmed.”  If, as many scholars today contend, Peter did not actually write 2 Peter, this part of his argument falls apart.

What is perhaps most disturbing about 2 Peter is the way the author deals with his ideological opponents.  Basically, he says they are going to hell.  He writes, “for them the deepest darkness has been reserved” and “Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”  The letter is full of references to the destruction of the the author’s ideological opponents.  Interestingly, the word the author uses for "hell" is Tartaros, which is the place that the Greek god Zeus cast the Titans to when he defeated them.

The Fall of the Titans.

The only clear-cut, actual belief that the author of 2 Peter engages with in an intelligent way is this: some Christians were starting to doubt that Jesus was coming again, in power and glory.  The author writes that “scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging in their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’”  If I was a Christian living in the second century who believed, as both Jesus and Paul attested, that Christ would return within “this generation,” and then all that generation died, I would probably start to doubt that particular point of doctrine.  Peter’s response to this crisis is quite clever, and would form the standard Christian answer for the long delay of Christ’s return.  He says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years.”  It’s a clever argument, but it also represents a fundamental shift from earlier Christian belief.  Remember, for example, when Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16:26: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  That didn't happen.

I must admit, I don’t care for 2 Peter.  It seems like a mean-spirited forgery that engages in the very worst tendencies of Christians throughout the ages—saying that people who don’t agree with you are bad people who are going to hell.  This tactic seems to betray the fundamental Christian virtue of love, even for one’s “enemies.”

This is Papyrus 72, the oldest source of 2 Peter.  It dates from the 3rd to 4th century C.E.

1 John

The first letter of John is traditionally ascribed to the author of the gospel of John, though nowhere does the letter name John.  This connection has to more to do with a shared theme and outlook than with actual authorship.  Scholars today speak of a “Johannine Community” that may have produced this body of literature.  

"Anti-Christ and the Devil" by Luca Signorelli (1501)

The first letter of John is mainly about love.  In just five chapters, the author uses the word “love” 44 times.  The sort of love he is talking about is not necessarily romantic love, but rather the love that binds together a community.  It is a Christ-like, self-sacrificing love that is deeply concerned with the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.  Here are some verses from 1 John about love:

“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another.” (3:11)

“Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (3:18)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (4:7)

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (4:16)

“Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.” (4:21)

This love that is supposed to characterize the Christian community has its origins in God.  Jesus, the son of God, is the agent of God’s love, who sacrificed himself for the world: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  This self-sacrificing love of Christ is a model for Christians: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” and elsewhere; “whoever says ‘I abide in him’ ought to walk just as he walked.”

Fresco in the Osogovo Monastery in Macedonia.  The inscription reads "All kings and nations bow before the Anti-Christ."

Although the first letter of John is mostly about love, it is also (like many of the New Testament letters) about harshly criticizing those who do not share the author’s beliefs.  The letters of John are the only books in the Bible to use the word “antichrist.”  When using this term, the author is not speaking of some future enemy, but of current ideological opponents, specifically those who don’t believe Jesus is the messiah: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.”  

The author sees the world in terms of a strict dualism of good and evil, light and darkness, God and the devil.  Those who disagree with the author are on the side of darkness, evil, and the devil.  Those who agree with the author are on the side of light, goodness, and God.  The author writes, “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us,” and elsewhere “Everyone who does what is right is righteous…everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  The author sees humanity as divided between the “children of God” and the “children of the devil.”

1 John is a complicated book.  On the one hand, it is about love for people within the Christian community.  On the other hand, it sees those outside this community as evil, dark, children of the devil.  This dualistic view of the world seems overly simplistic, and even potentially dangerous in a modern, diverse, pluralistic, secular, democratic society like ours.  Religious folks who see the world in this dualistic way tend to be insular, judgmental, and closed-minded about different faith traditions.

Acclaimed Scandinavian director Lars Von Trier recently made a film called Anti-Christ.

2 John

The second letter of John is super short—only 13 verses.  It shares a similar outlook with the first letter of John—an emphasis on mutual love within the Christian community, and a warning against “false teachers.”  As in 1 John, the author does not identify himself as John, but rather as “the elder,” suggesting a wise church leader.

The letter is written “to the elect lady and her children.”  It is possible that, rather than being specific people, the phrase “elect lady” is a personification of the church as a woman, and its members as her children.  There was a common Jewish practice of identifying the city of Jerusalem as a woman, and the author may be doing a similar thing here.

Whereas in 1 John, the author emphasized the idea of “love,” 2 John emphasizes this as well as “truth.”  He uses the word “truth” five times in the first four verses: “The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever.  Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s son, in truth and love.  I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father.”

After this exhortation to “walk in the truth” (i.e. believe correct doctrine) the author warns against false teachers in the community: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  The specific belief that the author warns against (that Jesus had not come in the flesh) probably refers to a common early belief known as Docetism, which stated that Jesus was not fully human.  This belief was later declared “heresy.”

The author of 2 John warns the church community to reject these false teachers and to shun them socially: “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.”  This is an interesting move.  Instead of engaging their ideological opponents in rigorous argument, Christians are encouraged to simply view those who don’t agree with them as “antichrists” and not engage.  This, to me, seems to be a problematic and not altogether healthy way to engage with disagreement.

What 2 John sheds light on is the fact that, before there was official “orthodox” Christianity, there were many different beliefs about Jesus competing for acceptance.  Docetism was just one of many theological “losers” in this early struggle for “orthodoxy” or “correct belief.”

Beware of people wearing these hats.

3 John

The third letter of John is the shortest document in the New Testament, at 219 words in the original Greek.  It is a private letter, addressed specifically to a man named Gaius, and was probably written near the end of the first century C.E.  It shares themes and concerns with 1 and 2 John—love within the community and an emphasis on “the truth.”  It is unique in the New Testament, in that it never mentions Jesus Christ.  Verse 7, which is usually translated "for the sake of Christ" literally means "for the sake of the the name."

Because it is a personal letter, and mentions specific individuals, 3 John gives a fascinating glimpse into the interpersonal dynamics of the community it emerged from.  Gaius and another guy named Demetrius are commended for their excellent behavior and beliefs, while a man named Diotrephes is criticized for his ego (he “likes to put himself first”) and for denying the authority of the author (he “does not acknowledge our authority”).  The author says that, when he returns to the community, “I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”

It is almost refreshing to read that this community faced the same kind of interpersonal power struggles and conflicts that characterize pretty much all human communities.  The author, who is clearly concerned with the health of the community, ends with a lovely closing statement: “Peace to you.  The friends send you their greetings.  Greet the friends there, each by name.”  In the midst of interpersonal conflict, the author advocates peace and communication.

Title page of the Third Letter of John (12th century Byzantine manuscript)

Jude

The Hebrew word for Jude is “Yehudah.”  It literally means “Jewish man” or “Judean.”  It can also be translated “Judas.”  Who was the author of the letter of Jude?  He identifies himself as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.”  Jude is the only New Testament letter writer to include his brother’s name as part of his credentials.  For this reason, some scholars think that this James is the brother of Jesus, the well-known leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus’ death.  If this is true, then the author of Jude (or Judas) is Jesus’ brother as well!  Mark 6:3 lists Judas, along with James, as one of Jesus’ brothers.  This means that (maybe) two of the books of the New Testament (the letters of James and Jude) were written by (or at least inspired by) Jesus brothers!

St. Jude (the other brother of Jesus?) painting by Myrna Migala

The short letter of Jude is interesting in other ways as well.  It makes references to stories about famous biblical figures (like Moses and Enoch) that are not in the Bible.  For example, in verse 9, the author refers to a story about the devil and the angel Michael fighting over Moses’ corpse (not a story in the Bible).  Also, in verses 14-15, Jude makes reference to a prophecy by the biblical figure Enoch, about the final judgment of the world.  This prophecy is actually taken from the non-biblical (but very popular at the time) book of 1 Enoch.  Also, in verse 6, the author refers to a story about the fall of the angels from heaven, an event nowhere narrated in the Bible, but popular in first century Jewish legend.

The devil and the angel Michael fight over Moses' body.

Jude, like other early Christian texts, is somewhat obsessed with the imminent apocalypse, when Christ will return to judge the world, and separate the righteous form the sinners.  Of specific target for Jude are people whose beliefs and practices are different from his own.  He calls these people “intruders” for whom “the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.”  Like the author of the letters of John, Jude sees the world in a dualistic way—evenly divided between those destined for heaven, and those destined for hell.  

The Last Judgment (separation of righteous and sinners)

To me, this dualism is a rather simplistic understanding of human beings, who tend to resist such easy categories.  Every human being I’ve ever met (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or whatever) is a complex mixture of good and bad.  In fact, categories like “good” and “bad” are problematic from a psychological or sociological perspective.  As someone who has received a great deal of psychotherapy, I tend to view people as super complicated products of their environment, traumas, emotions, families, friends, cultures, and ideologies.  I would not presume to divide humanity evenly into two categories, as Jude and other New Testament writers do.  This, to me, is an ancient and outdated worldview that does not correspond to the reality I experience.

Revelation

I have decided to divide my report on the book of Revelation into two sections: 1.) summary and 2.) interpretation.  This is because, before getting into what the text means, I feel it is important to explain what the text says—it’s overall story and imagery.  It’s a bizarre and wild ride.  Here we go, part 1—summary.

"St. John the Evangelist at Patmos" by Verhaecht Tobias Congnet Gilles (1598)

John’s Vision and Message to the Churches

A man named John, a follower of Jesus, was alone on the island of Patmos when he had a vision of things to come.  He heard a voice, telling him to write down what he saw.  First, he saw a man wearing a robe and golden sash.  His hair was white, and his eyes like fire.  He had a booming voice, and when he spoke a sword came out of his mouth.  He stood in the midst of seven golden lampstands, and held seven stars in his hand.  He told John to write letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

"John's Vision of the Seven Candlesticks (Lamp-stands) by John Henry Fuseli (1796)

To the church in Ephesus, he said, “You are doing a good job overall, but you have sinned a little too.  If you repent and hold fast, you will get to eat from the tree of life.”

To the church in Smyrna, he wrote, “I know you guys are poor, but you are spiritually rich.  Unfortunately, you are going to suffer some more.  Hang on.”

To the church in Pergamum, he wrote, “You live in a place where Satan has power.  Hold onto your faith, and don’t listen to false teachers.”

To the church in Thyatira, he wrote, “You are doing a pretty good job, but beware of false teachers and their pagan practices.  If you hold on, you’ll get to conquer and rule over the nations of the world.”

To the church in Sardis, he wrote, “You are not doing a good job.  Get your shit together, and you’ll get a reward.”

To the church in Philadelphia, he wrote, “I will make you conquerors over those who follow Satan.  You’ll have a prime place in the new world to come.”

To the church in Laodicea, he wrote, “You guys are total slackers!  Shape up, or you’ll be punished.”


The Seven Seals

Then John saw a door in heaven open and he was allowed to enter through the door.  He saw a heavenly being seated on a throne with a rainbow around it.  Around this throne were 24 other thrones with elders sitting on them, dressed in white robes, wearing crowns.  Coming from the main throne was thunder, lightning, and fire.  Around this throne were four strange creatures with six wings each and eyes all over.  One creature looked like a lion, another an ox, another a human, and the last an eagle.  The 24 elders and the four creatures all worshipped the one on the main throne (who, I think, was God).

"The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns Before the Divine Throne" by William Blake (1805)

Then man on the main throne held a scroll with seven seals.  An angel asked, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  No one was found to do it, so John started crying.  But one of the elders said, “Look, there is a lamb who has been slaughtered.  He can open the seals.”  So the elders and thousands of angels sang a song of praise to the lamb.

"The Slain Lamb" from a 14th century Latin manuscript.

The lamb opened the first four seals (which must have been hard, as lambs don’t have opposable thumbs) and four horsemen came forth, one after the other—white, red, black, and pale horses.  These four horsemen were given power over one fourth of the earth, to kill people with the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Victor Vasnetsov (1887)

The lamb opened the fifth seal, and the souls of those who had died for their faith cried out from beneath an altar in heaven, “How long before we are avenged?”  They each got a white robe and were told to wait a little longer.

When the lamb opened the sixth seal, there was a massive earthquake, the sun was darkened, the moon became like blood, stars fell from heaven, and the sky vanished like a scroll rolling up.  Everyone on the earth, from kings to peasants, hid in caves and wanted to die, they were so afraid.

Then John saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back great winds of destruction.  Another angel said, “hold back destruction until we hold back those who will be saved.”  John looked and he saw 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel standing below the throne in heaven, wearing white robes, singing praises to God.  These were the saved remnant of humanity, spared from the great suffering to come upon the earth.  Things were about to get really gnarly.

When the lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for half an hour.  Seven angels came forth with seven trumpets, and another angel took fire from the altar of God and threw it to earth and there was thunder, lightning, and another earthquake.

"The Seventh Seal" is a great film by Ingmar Bergman

The Seven Trumpets

The first angel blew his trumpet and hail, fire, and blood fell from heaven and burned up a third of the earth’s trees and grass.

The second angel blew his trumpet and a great burning mountain fell into the sea and turned a third of the oceans to blood, and killed a third of all sea creatures, and destroyed a third of the ships.


The third angel blew his trumpet and a great burning star fell from heaven and burned up a third of the rivers and streams of the world, making their water poison.

The fourth angel blew his trumpet and a third of the sun, moon, and stars were darkened, so the length of daylight was shortened by a third.  At this point, an eagle flew by and said, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth!”  Things were going to get worse.

The fifth angel blew his trumpet and a star fell from heaven and opened “the bottomless pit” (hell?) and smoke rose from the pit and the sky was darkened.  Out of the pit flew great locust monsters and they began to torture everyone who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.  These locust monsters had scorpion tails to sting people.  They had human faces, long hair, teeth like lions, and scales like iron.  The king of the locust monsters was named Abaddon (in Hebrew) and Apollyon (in Greek).

Terrifying locust/scorpion/lion/horse monsters.

The sixth angel blew his trumpet and a massive cavalry army descended upon the earth.  The horses of this cavalry had lion’s heads and serpent’s tails.  Out of their mouths came fire and smoke and sulfur.  They were allowed to kill one third of humanity.  The remaining humans did not repent of their sins.  They were in for more suffering.

Before the seventh angel blew his trumpet, this happened—a mighty angel came down from heaven wrapped in a cloud, surround by a rainbow.  He had a face like the sun and legs like pillars of fire.  His carried a little scroll.  Instead of opening it, he told John to eat it.  So John ate it.

The pillar-legged angel gives John a scroll to eat.

The angel told John to measure the Temple of God.  Then two mysterious prophets (or “witnesses”) spoke against the people of the earth, and they had the power of plagues.  Then a beast came up out of the bottomless pit and killed them.  The people were happy, because these prophets were a nuisance.  But then the prophets came back to life and went back to heaven, and an earthquake killed 7,000 people.

Two dead witnesses.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet and loud voices in heaven sang: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his messiah and he will reign forever and ever.”  The 24 elders in heaven sang, and God’s temple in heaven was opened and John could see the Ark of the Covenant inside.  Meanwhile, on earth, there were more disasters: lightning, thunder, another earthquake, and hail.

The Pregnant Woman and the Dragon

Then John saw another crazy scene in heaven—a pregnant woman crying out in labor.  She was wearing the sun and a crown of stars.  A red dragon came forth with seven heads and ten horns.  With his tail, he swept down a third of the stars.  The dragon was waiting to devour the pregnant woman’s son, but as soon as the baby was born, he was taken up to God and protected.  The woman fled into the wilderness, where she was also protected.

"The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun" by William Blake

Meanwhile, a massive war broke out in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels.  Michael won, and the dragon (who is called Satan) was cast down to earth along with his angels.  There was more singing in heaven.

"Michael the Archangel" by Guido Reni (1636)

Down on earth, the dragon pursued the woman, but she sprouted eagle wings and flew away.  The dragon spat out water to wash her away, but the earth swallowed up the water, and she got away.  So the dragon decided to fight against the followers of Jesus on earth.

The Two Beasts

The dragon (or beast) rose out of the ocean.  On each of his seven heads were blasphemous names.  He had bear-like feet and a lion’s mouth.  One of his heads was wounded, but had healed.  Almost everyone on earth followed this sea-beast and worshipped him.  The beast spouted blasphemy, and made war on the followers of Jesus.  He slaughtered lots of people.

"The Beast from the Sea" (Medieval French Tapestry)

Meanwhile, another beast rose out of the earth.  He had two horns like a lamb, and a voice like a dragon.  His got the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast, and even to make idols of it that could actually speak.  This beast marked all of his followers on the hand or the forehead.  The number of this earth-beast was 666.

The Lamb and the Reaper

Then John saw a lamb on Mt. Zion (in Jerusalem) and he had 144,000 followers who were also marked on the forehead.  These people were all virgins.  A series of three angels flew by, each with a different message.  The first told people to fear God.  The second said, “Babylon has fallen!”  The third said that everyone with the mark of the beast would suffer God’s wrath.

Don't fear the reaper.

Then John saw a man in heaven with a giant sickle.  An angel with another sickle joined him, and together they reaped all the grapes of the earth.  These grapes were pressed in a giant wine press and blood flowed out for miles.  This was called the wine press of the wrath of God.  

The Seven Bowls

After some more singing in heaven, John saw seven angels with seven golden bowls of the wrath of God, which each angel, in turn, poured on the earth.  These seven bowls caused the following plagues: 1.) boils on people, 2.) turning the sea into blood and killing all sea creatures, 3.) turning rivers and streams into blood, 4.) the sun scorching people, 5.) the kingdom of the beast plunged into darkness, 6.) the river Euphrates drying up in preparation for a great battle at a place called Armageddon, 7.) huge hailstones falling on people.  After these seven bowls, the earth was seriously fucked up.

"The Giving of the Seven Bowls of Wrath" by Matthias Gerung (1531)

The Whore of Babylon

Then an angel showed John a “great whore” with whom kings of earth had sex.  The whore was riding the earth-beast, wearing expensive clothes and jewelry.  The angel explained that this imagery was largely symbolic.  The great whore represented Babylon (which actually represented Rome), prepared to make war on the forces of good.  Another angel corroborated this elaborate symbolism, and sang a song about the fall of Babylon.  Meanwhile, multitudes in heaven were singing songs of victory to God.

"The Whore of Babylon" illustration from the Luther Bible (1534)

Last Battles

Then John saw a white horse with a rider named “Faithful and True” and “The Word of God” leading the armies of heaven against the great beast.  It was a massive battle, and the beast was captured, along with his cohorts, and they were thrown into a lake of fire.  Scavengers birds ate the dead of the battlefield.  The beast/dragon/Satan was cast into a pit for a thousand years.  Jesus and his followers ruled the earth for this millennium.

When Satan and his cohorts returned from the pit, there was one last battle outside Jerusalem.  God (of course) won this battle.  Then came the last judgment, when the followers of Satan were sent to burn in the lake of fire, and the followers of Jesus were glorified to eternal life.

"The Messiah Casts the Fallen Angels Down from Heaven" by Gustave Dore

The New Jerusalem

The visions of John end, not with people rising to heaven, but with heaven descending to earth.  The ruined world passes away and is replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth.”  A new Jerusalem descends from heaven, and God and his people live there together forever.  It is a beautiful city of gold and precious stones inhabited by glorified humans, heavenly beings, Jesus, and God.  There is no temple because God himself lives among the people.  A river of life flows through the city, and there is a new tree of life beside the river.  This new city lasts forever.

John of Patmos Watches the Descent of the New Jerusalem from God (14th century tapestry)


John ends by telling his audience that all these things are about to happen soon, and to remain faithful to God as they wait for this imminent apocalypse.

Now I would like to discuss interpretations of this book, the last in the Blble.  Throughout the ages, Christians have seen in Revelation a vision of their own conflicts and concerns.  Perhaps the most popular recent example of this was the best-selling series of novels called Left Behind, which offered a conservative, evangelical interpretation.  Even in this “conservative” interpretation, the authors did not take the book literally.  The “beast” was not a dragon, but a man.  And the monsters were often seen as people, nations, or even military weapons.

For my interpretation, I will not be engaging in such speculations.  Rather, I will take a historical-critical approach, trying to understand what the book may have meant in its original context.  I am using as my main source a book by scholar Elaine Pagels called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  Here we go.


Revelation as Anti-Roman Literature

Scholars today generally date the book of Revelation to around the year 90 C.E.  It’s author, John, was probably not the author of the gospel of John (their literary styles are very different).  The John of Revelation was a Jewish Christian living in exile on an island off the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).  The likely reason he was in exile from his homeland Judea was because, a few decades earlier, there had been a brutal war between Jewish nationalists and the mighty Roman empire.  Ultimately, in the year 70 C.E., Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed it, including the holy temple, the center of Jewish worship.

After this national tragedy, many Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and John was likely one of these.  Because of these recent socio-political events, John clearly hated Rome.  Pagels writes, “Horrified by the slaughter of so many of his people by Rome, John put his own cry of anguish into the mouths of the souls he said he saw in heaven, pleading for justice.”

Arch of Titus in Rome, showing spoils of the sack of Jerusalem.

John, like other Jewish Christians of his day, believed that Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, would return soon and set things right.  Writing at the end of the first century, many Christians probably wondered when this second coming would happen: “Now two generations had come and gone—and John, along with Jesus’ other followers, must have wondered how the prophecy had failed.  For when John traveled through Asia Minor, he could see evidence everywhere that the kingdom that had actually ‘come with power’ was not God’s—it was Rome’s.”

The might of the Roman empire could be seen throughout John’s world in the myriad temples to Greco-Roman gods, and the massive statues of emperors and generals.  John’s letters to churches in Asia minor reflect this reality.  For example, in his letter to the church in Pergamum, he refers to “Satan’s Throne.”  This was likely a reference to the great temple of Zeus in that city.  John sees the world of his day as dominated by an evil empire of Satan, represented by Rome.  He encourages the Christian communities to hold fast to their faith in the Jewish Messiah, and not to capitulate or compromise with this evil empire.

The Great Altar of Pergamum is reconstructed here at a Museum in Berlin.

Drawing from Jewish prophetic literature (like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), John presents an alternative vision of the future in which the forces of good and the followers of Jesus would triumph over Satan and Rome.  If you recall, this was one function of Hebrew prophets—to speak to the suffering community of Israel, living in exile in Babylon, and to tell them that God would one day set things right.  Ultimately, John’s prophecy shares this hopeful outlook.

References to Rome (which John refers to as Babylon) permeate the book of Revelation.  Perhaps most tellingly is the number assigned to the “beast” of the earth—666.  In Hebrew numerology, which assigns numbers to letters, this number can spell out emperor Nero’s imperial name.  Thus, the beast is Rome, Satan’s kingdom on earth.



Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature

Understanding the historical context of Revelation yields valuable insights, but there is another context that is perhaps equally important—it’s literary context.  The book of Revelation falls into a genre of literature circulating in the fist century known as “Apocalyptic Literature.”  Perhaps the earliest example of this genre is the biblical book of Daniel—in which the prophet is given a divine vision of the future that is also meant to give hope to those living in a present crisis.  Daniel was written in the context of Greek persecution of Jews in the 2nd century C.E., and it saw a future glory for Israel that transcended their present troubles.

Four Beasts from the Apocalyptic Visions of Daniel.

Though often dealing with the end of the world, apocalyptic literature is more accurately defined by historian Elliot Wolfson as “the revelation of divine mysteries through…visions, dreams, and other paranormal states of consciousness.”  In 1945, a major discovery was made in Nag Hammadi, Egypt of a collection of ancient writings that included about twenty examples of “apocalyptic literature” not included in the Bible.  These texts are helpful from a literary standpoint, to show how John’s revelation fits into this genre.  I would like to briefly discuss a few of these other “revelations.”

The Revelation of Peter describes a vision the apostle Peter had while standing in the temple in Jerusalem, when people were about to stone him to death.  Jesus gave him a vision of light, to help him overcome his present suffering.

Fragment from the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Revelation of Ezra, written by the Jewish prophet Salathiel is told form the point of view of the ancient Jewish leader Ezra, who lived to see the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C.E.  Salathiel was actually writing around the same time as John of Revelation, and he too refers to Rome as Babylon.  His point, like John’s, is to comfort Jews who’d experienced the destruction of the second temple—by writing a vision of hope.

The Revealtion of Zostrianos, written about 50 years after John’s revelation, tells the story of a young man named Zostrianos who had a visionary experience in the desert that helped him overcome a crisis of faith.

The Secret Revelation of John is set shortly after the death of Jesus.  The disciple is grieving and, in the midst of his grief, he is comforted by a vision of the heavenly Jesus.


Thus, a main feature or purpose of these apocalyptic writings was to give comfort to suffering individuals and/or communities of faith.  In the first century C.E. in a climate of suffering and loss, these kinds of writings proved hugely important for communities of Christians, Jews, and Jewish Christians like John.

Thus ends my book report on the Bible.  Thanks for reading!

2 comments:

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