Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revelation 10: We Do Not Know What the Thunder Said.

For evangelical Christians of all stripes, the book of Revelation isn't just a trippy snippet of apocalyptic fiction--it's a reliable timeline for how the world will end. So reliable, indeed, that it may dictate public policy.

Witness arch-conservative pastor John Hagee's Christians United for Israel--a group that boasts the support of numerous Republican Congressmen and former president George W. Bush. Hagee and many of his coreligionists believe that the end-times scenario played out in Revelation requires that the Jewish people must return to Israel en masse before the final battle between good and evil can get underway. Hoping to start the confrontation as quickly as possible--because who doesn't like a good God-Satan throwdown from time to time?--Hagee's organization looks to assure Israel's long-term security and provide a safe haven for the Jewish people's return.

However, Hagee's lobbying for Israel is based on a faith that his reading of Revelation is not only correct--it's iron-clad. He and the rest of the CUFI hordes believe that their understanding of the Bible's last book is so sure that they may raise literally millions of dollars--with the help of some of the most powerful men and women in the country--to hurry along Biblical history. (To his credit, John McCain eventually rejected the endorsement of Hagee and CUFI, though only after some calculation.)

But how sure of Revelation's message can we be? The poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence famously wrote, "When we read Revelation, we feel at once that there are meanings behind meanings." And even a first-time reader of the text quickly perceives that these meanings are anything but apparent.

But I write today not merely to suggest that simple interpretations of an obscure text like Revelation--like "The Jews must return to Israel"--are folly. I write to remind over-confident readers of a simpler truth: we don't even have all of Revelation. Some of its truths are intentionally withheld--perhaps by God himself.

Revelation is what many call "visionary" literature; in it, an author named John (not the disciple John or the Baptist John) claims to have been visited by a divine messenger who showed him a vivid preview of the end of the world.

But this preview is abstruse, partial, and deeply symbolic. In the first part of the vision, for instance, John sees seven lampstands, seven stars, and "one like the Son of Man" (1:13) standing among them. John has no idea what these symbols mean, and he is so terrified by this "one" that he "fell at his feet as though dead" (1:17).

To understand this first image, though, John needs help, and the "one like the Son of Man" is happy to oblige, saying, "As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw [...] and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." These seven churches, as it turns out, are small proto-parishes (in what is now Turkey) to whom John must write. And if that's an obvious meaning of the image, I'm Bryant Gumbel.

Now, it is worth noting that most readers--even sane ones--think that this "one" who helps John figure out the stars and lampstands is the risen Jesus, and there are plenty of textual clues to back them up. However, the text itself will not confirm: after all, this is only one "like" the "Son of Man," not the "Son of Man" himself. And insofar as the prophet Ezekiel is also referred to as "Son of Man," this mysterious figure could be, um, Ezekiel's crazy cousin Baba.

Kidding. But I want to stress this point: no reading of Revelation is iron-clad, and John's is a thoroughly mysterious vision from start to finish. Further, John will infrequently get the kind of interpretive help he receives in the first chapter.

But again, I'm not just trying to make the point that Revelation is difficult, though it is; I'm trying to tell you that we don't even have all of it. To prove my point, I fast-forward to Revelation 10, when John receives part of the vision aurally:

"And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven [...] And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down'" (10: 1-4)

Let's review: midway through the revelation, a mighty angel speaks, and seven thunders deliver a message so crucial that John wants to record it. However, a voice from on high (God?) commands John to "seal" this part of the message--to make sure that it is neither declared nor recorded.

This "sealing" is a devastating blow for those who claim to have full knowledge of Revelation, because it is textual evidence that part of the message is kept from us as readers. We do not know all of the revelation, so how can we claim to have complete knowledge of it?

The bottom line is that we can't. And we shouldn't. And Hagee shouldn't either. And CUFI is dumb. (Okay, that last one's just me, but I stand by the rest.)
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mark 9: Where is Hell?

Back from an extended hiatus for turkey and flu-like symptoms (in that order), I'm raring to dive into meaty material, and what could be meatier than hell? (Perhaps the National Cattlemen's Beef Association could pick that up as their new slogan.)

I begin with one of the Bible's earliest mentions of hell, in the ninth chapter of Mark. Today, hell is a robust and functional part of Christianity, especially conservative varieties. It is the lake of eternal fire where bad people go to suffer forever for cheating on their wives with Argentinian mistresses or soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom or paying off a paramour's family to save a political career or passing gay marriage bans while sleeping with male prostitutes or cheating on your cancer-stricken wife. (God bless you, Messrs. Sanford, Craig, Ensign, Haggard, and Edwards.)

But hell is undeniably a vexed concept in the Bible. Hebrew Biblical authors don't have truck with notions of hell. The best they can do is "Sheol," a dreary underworld much more similar to Homer and Virgil's Hades than Dante's Inferno.

Nor is the New Testament hell so simple a term as it might initially seem. It may be a place of punishment, an eschatological end-point about as desirable as a second screening of the new Twilight film. On the other hand , it may not be an actual "place" at all, but instead a clever rhetorical device grounded firmly in Hebrew Biblical ethical geography.

Jesus's hell-talk in Mark 9 goes like this: "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire" (43).

In this text, "hell" is actually the Greek "Gehenna," which my Oxford Bible glosses as "symbolizing the place of eternal punishment by fire." To an extent, I agree, though I also point out that Gehenna has not only a symbolic meaning but a literal one.

Gehenna, in Hebrew, is the Valley of ben-Hinnom, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. This valley is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, most prominently in Jeremiah 7:31, when God speaks, "And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind."

Topheth, as I mention in a previous column, is a place near Judah where child sacrifice was sanctioned as a form of religious worship. And God, as Jeremiah indicates, will not allow such pagan practices. Thus Topheth--and the Valley of ben-Hinnom--symbolizes not only "eternal punishment," but the worst excesses of extra-Biblical religious practice.

Thus, when Jesus condemns sinners to hell/Gehenna, I suppose it is possible that he is suggesting that God will re-establish a previously abhorrent religious practice in order to inflict a brand new means of punishment on the wicked.

But perhaps not. Because there's always the possibility that Jesus is just exaggerating here. God, as the Hebrew Bible firmly and repeatedly confirms, detests the rituals of Topheth, and it is unlikely that he would actually put sinners through a type of punishment that he so roundly rejects in Jeremiah.

And Jesus may refer to the flames of Gehenna not to establish a new afterlife destination--"hell" being a foreign concept to Hebrew Biblical thought--but instead to hyperbolically suggest that sinning is really bad. And that we should avoid it at all costs. In fact, that's exactly what he's doing in the previous verse of Mark: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea" (9:42).

And everyone understands this verse as a metaphor. Nowhere in the New Testament does a sinner actually get a big rock put around his neck and tossed into Lake Michigan. It's a figure of speech. So perhaps "Gehenna" is too.

But isn't it interesting that Jesus's "Gehenna" eventually gives us Dante's Inferno and the Pandemonium of Paradise Lost? And isn't it interesting that hell will become such an important part of Christian theology, despite the fact that it might be little more than a melodramatic idiom?

Maybe we just like our damnation fiery, not wet.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Job 2: Miserable comforters?

Do you know the story of Job?

As the Hebrew Bible tells us, Job is a "blameless and upright" (Job 1:8) man whom God and Satan decide to test. Or perhaps "test" isn't the right word. They make a wager about Job's piety. It's relatively simple: Satan--who is not for the moment "the Devil" of fiery tongue and leathery wing--argues that Job is so pious because God is so good to him--and because God gives him lots of nice stuff. Nice stuff, it should be noted, is sheep and camels and oxen and servants and kids ... and Job has them all.

Take away his nice stuff, Satan continues, and Job won't be so nice himself. In fact, he'll "curse [God] to [his] face" (1:11). Or so Satan bets. And God accepts. And Job is brought very low. His livestock are slaughtered, his servants are slain, and his children are killed. And then, in a second round of betting, once the antes are raised, Satan inflicts Job with a painful skin disease and leaves him sitting in an ash-pile scraping his wounds with a piece of pot.

That God allows such a sadistic bet is perhaps the text's greatest challenge--and "challenge" here is a remarkable understatement. Nonetheless, God appears to win: even after wholesale harassment, Job holds strong in his devotion. He cries out, "Shall we receive the good at the hands of God, and not receive the bad?" It's all very impressive.

But that's just the introduction to the book. The rest is made up of a poetic discourse between Job and three "friends" (2:11) on the nature of Job's affliction and on the vagaries of human suffering. Now, in this long movement, Job's friends come of looking like real shmucks. In chapter 16, Job calls them "miserable comforters," and we have reason to believe him. But I come here today not to deride the friends, but to praise them. And not for their speech, but for their silence.

In arguing with Job, the comforters--or "interlocutors" as they are sometimes called--take as their task the defense of divine justice. Though they try (with decreasing enthusiasm) to "comfort" Job, they also repeatedly claim that Job's intense suffering is deserved--that it is punishment for some sin, even if that sin remains unknown. Why? Because to imagine undeserved suffering is to impugn God's management of the world; to imagine a punishment unfairly levied on a good man is to raise the possibility that God has fallen asleep on the job. (Of course, the grand irony of the text is that Job's righteousness--not his sin--provokes divine calamity.)

And in their increasing vehemence, these "friends" go too far. Even if Job's afflictions were deserved--and they are not--the energy with which Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar claim the justice of his degradation amounts to little more than kicking a man when he's very, very down. Indeed, in the closing movements of the piece, God says as much, scolding the friends--"you have not spoken of me what is right" (42: 7)--and punishing them.

But an intense focus on the friends' speech ignores their important--and crucially sympathetic--silence at the outset. Immediately after Job's "punishments" are complete, the friends arrive: "Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" (Job 2: 11-13).

Before the torrents of windy words, the friends sit with Job in complete silence for seven days. It is very hard to understate the delicacy of this gesture. When one suffers so greatly as Job's--with loss of children, estrangement from wife, destruction of property--words are of little aid. Indeed, words can be like salt in the wound. The trite aphorisms of well-meaning well-wishers are twists of the knife to those who despair.

And the silent witness of the friends--again, for a full week--pays homage to the ineffability of mind-raking loss; it speaks the only message that might be of help to the destitute Job: We are here. You are not alone. Even now.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ezekiel 4: Eat Poop

As I've mentioned in previous posts, God occasionally has his prophets perform little object lessons for the Israelites to make His messages absolutely clear. Like when God forces Hosea to marry a prostitute to describe God's relationship with the people--who have been whoring after other deities. As is apparent, these little skits are everything but subtle.

But God makes one prophet in particular, Ezekiel, run these charades with some frequency, thus turning him into the Lord's very own kindergarten teacher for remedial-level Israelites. But unlike the cute lessons you learned in pre-school show-and-tell, Ezekiel's lessons are gross and degrading.

For instance, in 5:1-5, Ezekiel must shave off all his hair and then 1) burn some, 2) cut some with a sword, and 3) scatter some--to show that different Israelites will have different fates when divine calamity strikes. At another point, God has him lay on one side for 390 days to indicate the number of years--also 390--that the Israelites will suffer God's wrath (Ezekiel 4:4-5). And then there's the time when God makes Ezekiel tie himself up and lock himself in his house, to show that the people won't listen to prophets any more (3: 25-26).

But as absurd as some of these lessons are, God saves his most disgusting for Ezekiel 4:12.

This passage takes place during the 390 days (that's over a year, people!) when Ezekiel is lying on his side. (I hope that the prophet isn't a back-sleeper.) During that time, the Lord suggests--well, demands--that the prophet observe certain dietary restrictions:

"And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself" (4:9) Not so bad, right? Whole grains are good for heart health! Well, wait ... God continues, "You shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung" (4:9-12). Yup, that's right ... on human dung. For over a year, Ezekiel must eat food that has been prepared over burning feces.

All of which makes the absolutely real Ezekiel 4:9 organic bread pictured above sound a little yucky, right? And hilarious! Biblical literacy is important, food movement!

But why does God make Zeke expose himself to airborne e. coli like that? Well, the Lord continues, "Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them" (4:13). In other words, when God throws his people out of the holy land (as He shortly will), they will have to eat unclean food among unclean foreigners. (At some point during this time, God--perhaps seeing the cruelty of his ways--allows Ezekiel to cook his food over cow dung. Thank heaven for small mercies, right?)

But couldn't he let Ezekiel just say as much? Deliver a sermon on the temple steps where he cries, "If you continue in your ways, God will throw you out of Israel, and you'll have to eat poop!" Wouldn't that be sufficiently startling?

And isn't this months-long piece of performance art exquisite torture for poor Ezekiel, whose only mistake seems to be accepting God's call to prophecy?

The answer to both of these questions is undeniably "yes," but we have to realize that God is at wit's end by Ezekiel's age--and at a point where He must go to extremes in trying to reach out to the people of Jerusalem.

Ezekiel was likely written in the run-up to the Babylonian exile, during which time God is forced to sink to new lows in speaking to a people whose sins have brought them to the brink of disaster. Reverting to simple shock value, God--through Ezekiel--therefore treats his people as addled pre-teens, and He'll try anything to get their attention.

Of course, He'll fail. Or perhaps more correctly, the Israelites will fail to get the point--scatologically obvious though it is. For the disasters of 586 B.C.E.--with the invasion of the Babylonians and the destruction of the temple--are nearly upon them. And all of Ezekiel's poop-eating will be for naught.

Poor Ezekiel.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Psalm 139: Does God Really Know Everything?

Last night in my Bible class, we discussed Hebrew (read: Biblical) poetry--and poetry in general. We talked about the literary tools at the poet's disposal--idiom, rhyme, meter, hyperbole, alliteration, form, repetition--and the tools whose use we cannot detect in translation. Because most of us cannot understand the complexities of Hebrew verse in the original.

However, I strove to make the point that even though much of the semantic complexity of Hebrew poetry is lost in translation, we may still catch some of its genius, even in English. To support my point, I started with the literary device known as "hyperbole."

Hyperbole, as some of you may recall from eighth-grade English, is basically exaggeration. For instance, when Andrew Marvell writes, in "To His Coy Mistress," "An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; / Two hundred to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest," he is not suggesting that he will spend literal centuries discussing his lover's beauty. He is instead using a literary device to make the point that she is very pretty--so pretty that it would take a long time to fully describe her beauty. Cute, huh?

And translatable: for we could say the same thing in Hebrew--or French or Russian or Arabic--and still get the point. The same works in reverse: when Hebrew authors exaggerate, we may catch their point just as easily, even if we do not understand all the idioms they might use to communicate it.

Take, as an early example, a piece of verse from Genesis. In Genesis 4, Lamech, one of the descendants of Cain, kills a man. Then, he breaks into poetry, as weird Bible characters are sometimes wont to do: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. / If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (23-24). To understand the passage, we need to know that Lamech is referring back to an earlier moment in the chapter, when God curses those who would harm Lamech's ancestor Cain with seven-fold punishment. Now, Lamech doesn't know that God has multiplied Cain's curse by 11 with him, and God provides no confirmation. He just killed a ham, and now he's vaunting. He's using hyperbole. He's not speaking literally; he's exaggerating. (And I'm repeating myself.)

However, while this dithering about hyperbole may seem quaint, it actually carries with it some startling theological ramifications. For if we accept the possibility that Hebrew poets--like romantic British poets--might use hyperbole, we acknowledge that they are free to exaggerate when it suits their purpose ... perhaps even when they speak of God.

I provide just one small example, taken from the largest stash of Biblical poetry, the Psalms. I begin my exploration with Psalm 139. This haunting verse opens with the following:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? (1-7)

Beautiful? Yes. Theologically significant? Yes too. For Psalm 139 is often used as a proof text for God's omniscience--for the notion that God knows everything. In the fourth century, Church Father Saint Augustine suggests as much in his exposition of the psalm. Writing of the many paths a life might take, Augustine argues, "Before I went by them, before I walked in them, You saw them beforehand." For Augustine, God does not only have knowledge; he has pre-knowledge. Not only of the paths we travel, but those we avoid.

However, if we take the Psalmist as a poet--and not as theologian--we may characterize this type of language as hyperbolic: we may argue that the author is not trying to make a creedal point about the omniscience of God but using a literary tool to evoke the terrifying experience of a man standing before his Maker.

To go into the Divine court is to imagine that he might see you fully--to know your very thoughts and intents and feelings. To perceive what you ate for lunch yesterday and with whom you want to have sex today. Thus, in Psalm 139, perhaps the poet is not trying to create new dogma but only attempting to evoke the humility of a human standing in the kavod--or presence--of God.

This "poetic" reading is actually more credible given all the points in the Hebrew Bible when God does not seem omniscient. Take, as just one example, Genesis 11: the tale of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, the people of the earth decide to build a great structure--a city and a tower--so they will not be "scattered."

As the edifice is being built, "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower [...] And the Lord said, 'Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them'" (1: 5-6).

As my students frequently point out, this God does not seem "omniscient" at all, because all-knowing gods don't need to head out on recon runs to find out what humans are doing--they needn't "come down" to check out the job site like a suspicious foreman. They just know. In Genesis 11, on the other hand, God seems genuinely curious--and frightened once he's done his research. And he certainly doesn't seem to know (or pre-know) the Babel-ites paths.

Nonetheless, both Jews and Christians have a general sense that God is omniscient, that he does know all, all the time. I wonder if this sense isn't a prime example of what Emerson was talking about, in the "Divinity School Address," when he said of Jesus, "churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes." Religionists, Emerson argues, take the Bible's figures of speech too seriously. They take hyperbole and turn it into dogma.

But to do so is not only to build false churches (in Emerson's perspective). For in taking the trope of divine omniscience as literal truth, we may ignore the fascinating ignorance of God in moments like the trip to Babel--and close down our reading of the Bible. Which, as you all know, exactly what I'm not about.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2 Kings 21: The Jews' Judas

There is no question that the greatest tragedy in Hebrew Biblical history occurs in 586 B.C.E. In this year, Babylonian forces led by King Nebuchadnezzar mount a successful siege of the city of Jerusalem, rout the Judahite army, and ship most of the survivors off to Babylon.

Jerusalem, by this point in time, is the vital center of the last of the Israelite nation-state. Even though it is ruled by a weak king (Zedekiah), it remains the beating heart of ancient Judaism and a brick-and-mortar symbol of the continuing relationship between God and his chosen people. Its destruction throws into question the strength of that relationship.

Further, in the aftermath of the defeat a military detachment led by Nebuzaradan razes the Temple, disassembling the House of God and eviscerating the core of early Jewish religious practice.

How did this tragedy come upon us? How could God seemingly forget his people, throwing them to the Babylonian wolves? And whose fault is it? Can we lay blame? Can we assign specific guilt?

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is yes. The book of 2 Kings identifies one man who is guiltier than all the rest--though many are blameful--and that man's name is Manasseh. He's early Judaism's Judas, the one who messes it all up for the rest of us.

Now, on a grand scale, the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile are the people's fault. Anyone who has ever read the Bible's early histories knows that the Israelites--despite their reputation--are not particularly adept followers of God. They complain incessantly in the wilderness after the Exodus. They erect altars to other gods, no matter how many times Yahweh demonstrates his monstrous, miraculous power. And they forget the covenant--the breathing contract that connects people to deity. So they basically get a D+ in God-following.

And when they do so, God punishes them. Sometimes he does so in small ways, raining fire or sending famine or starting war. (And yes, these are the "small" ways.) But sometimes he punishes them in big ways, like when he takes down the Northern Kingdom of Israel earlier in 2 Kings: "The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria [...] because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed its covenant [...] they neither listened nor obeyed" (18:11-12).

The fall of Jerusalem, then, can be chalked up to similar disobedience; the people are bad, so God takes away their toys, er, nation-state.

However, having laid universal blame on the people of Israel for Judah's destruction, the authors of 2 Kings also point a finger at one person--a really nasty king named Manasseh. He makes his brief appearance in chapter 21.

"Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign" (21:1), reads the text, and we wonder why the Judahites allowed prepubescents to manage affairs of state. "He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord [...] he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done" (21:3). A sacred pole, Manasseh? I have only one thing to say ... when's the party?

Kidding ... a "sacred pole" is simply another pagan worship item, another way we know that Manasseh is lusting after other gods. Now we've seen this lusting before from other bad monarchs; the books of Kings are filled with it. But Manasseh really breaks the bank in verse 7: "The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, 'In this house [...] I will put my name forever." Translation? Manasseh puts a pagan shrine right smack dab in the middle of the Temple, the holiest building in all of Israel and the place where God resides. Bad move.

God lowers the boom in verse 13: "I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down." Now first, I note what a conscientious dish-washer God is--no pooling on his porcelain! I wonder if He's looking for a roommate.

But God continues, "I will cast off the remnant of my heritage, and give them into the hand of their enemies [...] because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger" (21:14). And that's it--the writing is one the wall and apocalypse is upon us.

Well, not quite upon us, because there's a gap between Manasseh's sin and Israel's punishment. The Babylonians will not arrive for another 60 years or so. But the damage is done--so done that when Manasseh's grandson Josiah takes over the throne as a real reformer, his good deeds are not good enough. Despite Josiah's efforts, "Still the Lord did not turn away from the fierceness of his wrath [...] because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him" (23:26).

So there you have it. You've been losing sleep wondering who caused the Babylonian Exile? It was Manasseh. And now you can doze soundly.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Conservative Bible Project: Not Just Dumb--Really Really Dumb

Another week, another sign that the end of the world is nearly upon us.

In the last couple weeks, a few good friends have brought to my attention the existence of a group calling themselves the "Conservative Bible Project." Members of the project have decided to produce a new version of the Bible--one that will be free of a liberal bias that project administrators claim has snuck into more recent translations of the text. (The New York Times's Paul Krugman was onto this story last week.)

The Conservative Bible Project has found a home at conservapedia.com, an online, open-source encyclopedia designed to provide members of the right with a haven from the liberal bias of wikipedia. Yup. Seriously. The liberal bias of wikipedia. Suck on that one for a while. ("Suck on that one for a while": a sentence that, for the record, you probably won't find on conservapedia.com.)

In any case, this project is so inane, so backward, so anti-intellectual, so dumb, and so asinine that you have to see it to believe it ... here. Go ahead. You know you want to. Just come back when you're done.

As the originators of the project argue, modern translations of the Bible are filled with "liberal" errors, additions, and mistranslations--many of which were promulgated by damn academics. These errors hide the Bible's true conservative message. Thus, project administrators are promoting a ten-step revision process that involves, among other things, "utilizing powerful conservative terms," "excluding later-inserted inauthentic passages," and, best of all, "expressing free-market parables." You heard right: Jesus as free-market capitalist.

It's all so ridiculous that I can't decide whether to laugh or cry. But let me cut through the chatter and tell you the three dumbest things about the "Conservative Bible Project."

First of all, the Conservative Bible is not a new translation, per se. Indeed, in their statement of purpose, the creators champion the work of "English language linguists." What is an "English language linguist," you ask, besides an embarrassing redundancy? Well, let me explain ...

The Conservative Bible Project members are not working with the text in Hebrew and Greek--the languages in which the Bible was originally written; instead, they're starting with the 1611 King James Version of the Bible--a fetish object for fundamentalist Christians. (The KJV is a beautiful, groundbreaking translation of the text, but scholars' research methods have come a long way in the 400 years since its publication, and we have much more accurate Bibles available today.) Then, they are changing words and dropping passages from new translations that do not conform with either the KJV or the aforementioned ten conservative guidelines.

So what do "English language linguists" do? They take texts and arbitrarily fuck with things they don't like ... not based on original-language research or cultural knowledge or archaeological advances, but on personal, political bias. (Sorry to be vulgar ... this stuff really pisses me off.)

Second, project administrators argue that their new Bible will root out "socialistic terminology [that] permeates English translations of the Bible." Such language, they continue, "improperly encourages the 'social justice' movement among Christians." Socialist translations of the Bible? I bet that damn Obama had something to do with it!

But this brief bullet point marks a maddening ignorance of the difference between "socialism" and "social justice." For political scholars, "socialism" basically marks a system of government with increased central (or federal) control. For religious scholars, "social justice" is very different: it's a desire to help the poor, to aid the oppressed, and to fight inequality. So when Jesus says that you should give your coat to the man who does not have a coat, he's advocating for social justice.

Social justice is the ethical core of all the major religious traditions, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism, and the Conservative Bible Project's efforts to expel it from the text aren't just dumb--they're a little bit evil.

Finally, a brief perusal of the early "revisions" of Genesis reveals this dilly of a change in 1:11: "And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its baramin, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so." I remember God making light, and day, and even fish of the sea. But does anyone else not remember God creating "baramin" in the beginning?

Well, without getting into stupid detail, "baramin" is a piece of terminology developed by young earth scientists--basically creationists with a pretty new name--to talk about the way God made the earth. (Creationism is the theory that the world was created not by a big bang that occurred billions of years ago, but by God, just as Genesis tells us.) So in inserting the phrase "baramin" into Genesis, project administrators are essentially making the creation story, well, more creationist. That's like stacking the deck when you've already got four aces. Or like changing The Origin of the Species to make it more Darwinian. Stupid.

So I close my post on the Conservative Bible Project hoping that you and I will never hear from them again, but knowing that we almost certainly will ... as for me, I'll get back to serious discussion of the Bible next week. Complete with unnecessary liberal content.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philippians 3: God and High School Football

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1801 referring to the "wall of separation between church and state" (in a letter posted here), he could never have foreseen that his argument would someday affect Georgia high school football. But in yet another sign that the apocalypse is near ...

Shortly after 9/11, the Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders began painting Bible verses on a big roll of paper through which football players smashed at the beginning of games. For nearly a decade, the practice raised no eyebrows in this majority Christian community of 7000.

However, as the L.A. Times reports, even a Liberty University student could see that the signs clearly violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibiting state sponsorship of religion. (LU was founded by uber-conservative evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell.) That student--also a parent of an LFO high schooler--recently contacted the school's superintendent, who then banned the practice.

Not surprisingly, her decision has enraged cultural conservatives who see the ban as an infringement on their religious liberties. I disagree, but rather than wade into the church-state muck, I'd like to make another argument against the LFO boosters' practice: it's bloody ridiculous, and kind of offensive!

First off, I can imagine a time not long ago when the very act of painting Bible verses on pieces of large paper--and then having a herd of ill-smelling post-adolescent boys tear through it--would have been understood as blasphemous to a fault. Is this really a good way to show Christian devotion?

Second, many of the verses were so bland that they were barely recognizable as Biblical prose. I mean, do you really need a boring verse from Ezra--"We will support you, so take courage and do it" (10:4)--to say "Go team"? I much prefer the following, from the vastly underappreciated 2000 cheer film Bring It On: "I said brrr, it's cold in here; there must be some Clovers in the atmosphere."

Other verses just didn't make sense. Take the Philippians quote shown on the sign above: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus" (3:14). God has called you in Christ Jesus to beat Allatoona High? Really?

Further, though I haven't been able to track down the team's win-loss record over the last eight years, most sources report that they've been mediocre at best. Hence, if Bible verses get you, say, a .500 record, couldn't the cheerleaders just as easily emblazon "CHANCE" on a big banner? Or "COIN TOSS"?

Personally, I'd put a quote from the American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson on my banner: "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation." But I obviously didn't play football.

(Full disclosure, though: the team was 4-1 through five games this year before the ban came into effect, so maybe God was biding his time before jumping on the LFO bandwagon.)

In any case, the L.A. Times goes on to quote a local hairdresser, who says that this whole kerfuffle isn't just about Christian expression--it's about religious expression more generally. "If they wanted to put a big Buddha doll up there, I'd say let 'em do it."

Really? Well, I first laugh envisioning a football team trying to plough through a big Buddha only to bounce painfully off his huge golden belly. Then I want to take the hairdresser up on her offer.

For the next LFO football game, why not use a scripture from another tradition? How about, just for fun, the opening lines of the Tao te Ching? "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." That'll show those jerks from Allatoona.
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Hoopoe: Funny Torah Laws

For Jews, the first five books of the Bible are called the Torah. And though we have no perfect English rendering for this deliciously untranslatable word, scholars usually settle upon "law." Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the fact that a good part of these five books is taken up by a very detailed legal corpus.

It is said that the Torah gives Jews 613 commands, or mitzvot. (And here's a handy web site that lists and thematically arranges all of them ... thanks jewfaq.com!) These 613 laws are more or less binding, depending on any individual Jew's placement within the religious spectrum of modern Judaism--from Reform to Orthodox. For the latter of these, scrupulous adherence to all 613 forms the core of a vibrant--if conservative--spiritual praxis.

Now, almost no one I know--observant Jews included--has been through all 613, because so few read the Torah from front to back any more. And even though I champion Biblical literacy in this space, those who try and fail to make it through Leviticus still have my sympathy.

However, the hardy few who bushwack their way through the legal backwater have a few delightful surprises waiting in store. And while a lot of ink gets spilled writing about outdated Torah laws, or unnecessarily harsh ones, I'd like to stick to a different type tonight--the hiarious ones. Because stuck among the ritual prescriptions, hygiene rules, and priestly codes of conduct are--and I say this with all respect to Jewish readers--some pretty funny strictures. Let me tell you just a few.

But before I begin, let me be the first to admit that the Bible's legal humor derives largely from the fact that our culture differs so completely from that of classical Hebraism. Few to none of these rules would have struck a 8th-century BCE resident of Judah as "funny." (Think of an ancient Hebron resident trying to wrap his mind around illegal internet file sharing.) But I don't live 2800 years ago in Israel, so I'll go ahead and snicker.

Most know that in the Torah, murder draws a death sentence (Exodus 21:12). But did you know that the same law holds true for oxen? True. Further, the Torah even dictates the mode of execution: "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox hall be stoned" (Ex. 21:28). Let me tell you--it's been way too long since I've been to a good ox-stoning, when the ox is really pissed.

Torah law also lays out correct punishment for careless hole-diggers. "If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal" (Ex. 21:33-34). I cannot tell you how many times I've forgotten to cover all my pits after a hard day of pit-digging! But then again, a dead donkey is just as good as a live donkey in a pinch ... especially if dinner's coming up soon. Just use coriander to mask the pungent donkey scent.

Speaking of food, kosher law is amusingly specific from time to time. Now, all my conservative and orthodox Jewish friends know the basics: no shellfish; only eat animals that chew cud and have cloven hooves (cows are just fine); no meat and dairy together (though scholars remind us that this last is really a Talmudic--not a Biblical--prescription).

But some of the exceptions are delightfully unexpected. For instance, we all know that observant Jews do not eat pork. But did you also know that the Torah also expressly forbids the consumption of "rock badger" (Lev. 11:5)? Do you what a "rock badger" is? Me neither ... but do not even think about throwing one on the Weber this weekend. Also specifically forbidden? Hoopoe (Lev. 11:9) and gecko (11:30). And there goes my favorite meal ... sauteed gecko served in a hoopoe bouillon with fried gecko legs on the side.

Later--on a much different note--the Torah goes into some length describing a detailed incest ban. My favorite part? "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt" (Lev. 18:14). I love the straight-forward, definitional earnestness of that last phrase. "Holy buckets! My aunt? Let me double check here ... father's brother's wife is ... oh man, I think they're right. Me and Uncle Carl are going to have to have a little talk soon."

There are a few others that make me smile more than I should, but it's late and I'm tired, so I'm off to bed. Besides, I've got to get up early for an ox-stoning.
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Monday, September 28, 2009

You MUST Eat the Bible: Texas Biblical Literacy Mandate Goes into Effect

Leave it to the Texas state legislature to screw up a good thing. In 2007, the Lone Star State passed a law--Texas HB 1287--mandating that public schools teach Biblical literacy when a minimum of 15 students request it. The law just went into effect this fall, but the AP reports that schools are struggling to interpret and implement it.

Why? Because legislators left the mandate unfunded--and provided no clear guidelines for how it should be put in place. Apparently, schools needn't offer full-scale Biblical literacy electives (thankfully); they may instead incorporate relevant material into existing curricula. In which classes? The law doesn't say, though we hope that "biology class" isn't an option. As 30 Rock's Kenneth says, "Science was my favorite subject. Especially the Old Testament." And just for fun, here's Kenneth on Jesus.

Of course, these are just the first of a slew of problems with publicly funded Bible literacy projects. Church-state and first-amendment issues are also at play, at least in part because bill author Warren Chisum argues that only Biblical literacy--and not, for instance, Quranic literacy--is necessary and constitutional: “The bill applies to the Bible as a text that has historical and literary value. It can’t go off into other religious philosophies because then it would be teaching religion, when the course is meant to teach literature. Koran is a religious philosophy, not of historical or literary value, which is what the Bible is being taught for.”

Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Chisum: Bible=literature. Qur'an=religious philosophy. (Notice the mild critique implied by the word "philosophy.") I'd also bet a prairie lasso that for Mr. Chisum, "Christian"="law-abiding, heterosexual child of God." But I'm just speculating. And no, I don't know what a "prairie lasso" is.

Nonetheless, it's a shame that such efforts are being bungled, because Biblical literacy is a worthwhile project. Perhaps even as a part of American adolescents' secondary education.

Now, realize that I support no state or federal legislative efforts to require--or chide or encourage or champion or privilege--Biblical literacy. We're too close to violations of the establishment clause. But I do believe that teens should know the Bible better, because it remains one of the most important religious, historical, cultural, and literary documents ever produced.

Here, I defer to Stephen Prothero, a former professor of mine who argues for the importance of Biblical literacy both in his excellent book Religious Literacy and in a 2007 LA Times op-ed.

From the latter: "In a religious literacy quiz I have administered to undergraduates for the last two years, students tell me that Moses was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is 'a nation of biblical illiterates.'"

True that. Now, I don't want to argue--with Texas Congressman Chisum--that knowing the Bible should happen in a vacuum. Indeed, if students know frighteningly little about the Bible, they know nothing about the Qur'an, they've never heard of the Vedas, and they think that "sutra" is just half of the name of a sex manual. And that's a bad thing.

However, I would argue that Biblical literacy is more important to young Americans than basic knowledge of some of these other texts--not because it's such an intrinsically greater book, but because the United States is an overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian nation. As a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey reports, over three-quarters of us self-identify as Christian, and a handful more are self-described Jews. Said differently, nearly four of five Americans identify with a religious tradition that thinks of the Bible as sacred text.

So perhaps it would be good if we all knew this text better, and from a younger age. Not because some legislative crazies from Texas say so. But because the Bible is a crucial part of the American religious landscape. Yee haw.
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Genesis 23: The Death of Sarah and the Genius of the Redactor

The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept some form of what has come to be known as the "documentary hypothesis." (I know, I know ... I'm starting with academic mumbo jumbo, but this is serious stuff, so man up!) Originated by a German named Wellhausen (I told you this post would get more exciting), this theory suggests that the Torah--the first five books of the Bible--is a composite product, the work of a number of authors.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, most of which are only available to readers of Hebrew, though a few remain accessible to readers of the Bible in translation. There are odd repetitions, as if our someone briefly hit the rewind button on the text for just a few seconds. There are different versions of the same story (most notably, the creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1-4). There are many different names for God. And there are noticeable and drastic differences in tone and style.

Now, I don't know if this whole theory seems scandalous to you--perhaps you're a more conservative reader of the Bible, or perhaps you just like your books written by just one person. But can I let you in on a little secret? The documentary hypothesis has been around in some form for nearly 200 years. So it's not exactly news.

But the whole "many authors" thing isn't even my favorite part of the documentary hypothesis, even though it tends to rile up the fundies. Because the theory also proposes that after a gaggle of logorrheic Hebrews finishes writing down all those kooky tales, an editor--we call him "the redactor," because he obviously needs a super-hero-y name--collects, organizes, and combines them all together into what will become the Torah.

Now, I just love the redactor, and not only because I like his sweet nickname. Further, I think I've found his coolest contribution to the Torah. It comes in Genesis 23.

Genesis 22 delivers one of the most harrowing accounts in all the Biblical narrative: the akedah, or binding of Isaac. This is the scene when God "tests" Abraham by requesting that he sacrifice (read: slaughter) his son and give him up as an offering. I always wonder if orthodoxy obscures some of the macabre viciousness of this tale, so I translate into plain speak: God tells Abraham to stab his only son with a big knife and then burn his body on a wood fire for no other reason than the fact that God requests it. And to make matters worse, Abraham makes his son carry the firewood to the scene of the only-barely-averted crime on his back. Please don't mistake the gruesomeness of this request; it presents devout Christians and Jews with a remarkably stark interpretive challenge.

Nonetheless, such challenges are not the subject of our meditations this evening. Instead, let's skip ahead to the passage immediately after; here it is: "Now after these things it was told Abraham, 'Milcah also has borne children, to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Betheul'" (22:20).

Now, my first thought is, I'm definitely naming my second son Jidlaph. But my second thought is this: a genealogy? Now? In the aftermath of one of the most disturbing family dramas ever written?
Has the redactor--whom I suspect had something to do with this bizarre ordering--absolutely no sense of dramatic development? This seems vaguely akin to splicing one of those old Taster's Choice commercials with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer right after the horse head scene from Godfather.

But maybe I speak too soon ... because this is the genealogy of Abraham's brother and his wife, Milcah. Unlike Abraham and his wife Sarah, Milcah and Nahor obviously have no problem at all having kids. In fact, while Sarah must wait for a divine miracle to deliver her first child Isaac, Milcah--surely an unwelcome guest at family reunions--is popping out babies like an ancient Canaanite Pez dispenser.

And this initially jarring juxtaposition begins to make sense, for while Nahor is giving Milcah an embarrassingly large brood, Abraham is off nearly killing Sarah's only son. Now, the text never tells us about Sarah's response to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In fact, she remains silent all through that devastating chapter 22. However, at the beginning of chapter 23, she dies, unobtrusively, and without a last word. "Sarah lived one-hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah's life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba" (23:1).

This, then, is the brilliance of the redactor, I think. For while our writers never describe the cause of Sarah's demise, the redactor--by this unexpected ordering of near-sacrifice, fertility, and death--allows us to propose the most obvious of reasons: Sarah dies of grief after learning of her husband's rash devotion to God, which almost leads to the loss of her only child.

We will most likely never know what parts of Genesis are whose work and where later editors play definitive roles. But this sublime weaving of very disparate narrative strands seems to me the work of a compiler willing to suggest what previous authors perhaps could not--that God, in testing Abraham, asks too much of him and his family.

And he does so without writing a single word. Now that's genius.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Genesis 12: Why Abram?

To my mind, there are two big questions that the book of Genesis leaves unanswered. (Okay, so there are about a million, but to say there are just two makes my analysis sound so precise.) The first: Why does God create the universe?

The first few chapters of Genesis go into some detail telling us how we get from "formless void" to light and land and crawling things and people, but the reasons behind this moment of world-making remain a mystery. Is God lonely? Bored? Is our universe just one entry in a huge cosmos-creating competition--like some soap-box derby for pimply, adolescent deities? (And if so, are we winning?)

The other big unanswered Genesis question involves God's relationship with his first business partner, Abram (later Abraham). Biblical scholars are all at a bit of a loss when it comes explaining why God chooses Abram for this role. The passage in which the selection scene plays out is characteristically sparse. However, I've begun to develop a theory; and my answer to this question--Why does God choose Abraham?--is a little mundane. But I think it might also be right.

But before we get to the reason, I suppose I should set the stage. Genesis introduces us to Abram in chapter 11 and describes his initial encounter with God in chapter 12. The opening verses of 12 go like this: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.' [...] So Abram went, as the Lord had told him" (12:1-4).

That's it. With only one abrupt word of introduction--"Now"--and with nothing in the way of pleasantries--"Good morning Abram. My name is God. Can I get you a hazelnut latte? And could I tell you about a little business opportunity?"--God says "go." And to our surprise, Abram sets off. With nary so much as a peep.Weird , eh? But why this man? And why "now"? And why does Abram agree? We have no idea.

Well, that's a lie, because we can speculate. Christians and Jews for centuries have suggested that it is Abram's unquestioning willingness--his lightning-fast trust in the deity--that recommends him for enlistment. But this is just speculation--and good guesses are still just guesses. Hence, lately I've been trying to reach for an answer to the question that relies a little more heavily on textual clues.

So here's a little fuller run-down of the situation: Beginning in this crucial moment, God and Abram enter into what comes to be known as a covenantal relationship. As part of this divine-human contract, God promises Abram two things: many many descendants and a place to live. This latter is the oft-mentioned "Promised Land," which will later become Israel.

However, at this point in the tale, we haven't yet arrived in Israel, and frankly, there is no Israel. There's just "Canaan," a narrow strip between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Not much, but an excellent place to build a few beachfront bungalows for you and your hundreds of thousands of great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

And here's where I can explain part of my answer to this question, "Why Abram?" To do so, I need to jump back to the end of the preceding chapter, which tells the story of a little move that Abram's family makes: "Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there" (11:31).

Did you catch that? Even before God calls Abram and commands him to head for Canaan, Abram's family has already tried to move there. Said differently, it's Abram's earthly father Terah--not his heavenly one--that initially tells Abram to head for the Promised Land. And even though circumstances stall their trip, it's a journey that's already begun.

So when God asks Abram to head Canaan-ward, Abram's kind of already halfway there. It's kind of like if Abram's family planned to move from Boston to New York City and got stuck in New Haven. They might hang around for a little while because the university is so good, but they're always going to think about finishing the trip and settling down in the Big Apple.

Which makes me wonder if God doesn't pick Abram because of his momentum. That is, when God says "Go," Abram's already going. Kinda boring, right? But maybe kinda true, too.
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Monday, August 31, 2009

Matthew 25: Of Sheep, Goats, and Liberal Lions (A Brief Reflection on Senator Kennedy's Passing)

Saturday morning, I checked in on Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral mass, televised on nearly a dozen channels in the New England area. Overall, I was unexpectedly moved at the very classy send-off—the heartfelt family tributes, the rush of Congressional colleagues, and President Obama’s somber, pitch-perfect eulogy.

Of course, there were some surreal moments. One of the local stations enlisted a priest to provide play-by-play, and his commentary was by turns unnecessary and hilarious. A brief excerpt:

Anchor: As the family walks in, I hear some ominous music that seems to be emanating from a bank of metal tubes in the rear. Father, is there any danger of those tubes falling to the ground and crushing the visitors below in a bloody melee?

Priest: No. And Matt, that's called a pipe organ.

Anchor: Fascinating stuff, Father. Fascinating.

The color commentary from the Vatican rep was odd, but one of the Bible readings struck me as similarly strange: for the gospel passage, the family—with Ted's involvement—had picked the closing movement of Matthew 25, a bleak, apocalyptic piece often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats. (The two others were from Romans 8 and the Catholic Book of Wisdom 3, if I recall correctly.)

Initially, this selection, with its odd-ball pastoral imagery and its promises of fiery punishment, made little sense to me. But after a little thought, I started to get the joke …

This passage from Matthew sketches out an end-times scenario in which the risen Christ will return in glory to establish the Kingdom of God. According to its unique narrative, Jesus’s first task will involve separating the faithful—envisioned as sheep—from the unrighteous—the goats.

The first half of Jesus’s tale of judgment makes perfect sense in the context of an ongoing celebration of Kennedy’s accomplishments. Christ’s characterization of the sheep runs as follows: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Briefly put, the blessed are those who practice social justice ... which is logical, given the fact that both the funeral service and the media coverage surrounding it correctly emphasized the senator’s lifelong devotion to such causes. Especially in the years following his failed presidential bid, the senator worked tirelessly for a bevy of noble projects: increased minimum wage, paid family leave, the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights, and—pertinent to contemporary debates—universal health care.

However, what of the goats? Why darken our collective doorstep with talk of the unelect—those scabrous beasts who ignore the plight of the downtrodden? For Jesus continues, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (25:41-42), etc. etc.

However, even this fits. I think the senator’s inclusion of the grimmer half of Matthew’s parable is a not-so-subtle finger-jab at those who would give up Kennedy's dream of a more just world. And the implication is clear: if you do not feed the hungry, if you do not care for the sick, and if you do not continue campaigning for, well, something so basic as universal health coverage, you—fellow senators—are goats. Thus the Bible message is not only for the Kennedys and those who got invitations to his wake--it's for Congress, and for all of us.

And so I smile at the pluck of the liberal lion from Massachusetts ... still twisting arms from beyond the grave.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mark 4: Jesus's Secret Teaching

For many modern believers, the Christian creed is both simple and universal. In fact, its availability and accessibility are often cited as its greatest strengths. All you need to do is believe in Jesus--in his resurrection and his forgiveness--to join in. And what could be easier than basic belief? (For many liberal theologians, it is much more complicated, but bear with me.)

However, Groucho Marx once remarked that he never wanted to be part of a club that would admit him as a member, and I wonder if similar things couldn't be said about such an omnivorous Christianity. I mean, which bar would you rather visit on a Saturday night--the one whose sleazy bouncers pass out cheap glossy postcards that scream "no cover; girls drink free"? Or the invite-only, super-swank Manhattan speakeasy with no sign and an ominous black front door?

Well, at least one of the gospels delivers a message that is very much like the second--all members-only intrigue and high-society class. That book is Mark, and in Mark, Jesus's message is dark, difficult, secret, and--unlike the modern Christian one--available only to an elite few.

Most Biblical scholars believe that Mark is the oldest gospel. According to our best estimates, it was written somewhere between 65 and 70 C.E., just a few decades after the death of Jesus. Because of its age, many argue that it presents us with the truest portrait of the Christian savior. But if Mark's is an accurate rendering, we may not like this dude very much.

Because Mark's Jesus is surly, temperamental, and given to fits of rage. Further, he often indicates that his teaching is most certainly not for everyone. Nowhere is he clearer on this point than in chapter four. In this passage, Jesus has just finished speaking a parable--a folksy illustration supposedly meant to elucidate the thornier parts of his message.

After the speech, his disciples--apparently finding the story a little opaque--pull him aside to question him about its function. Jesus's reply, however, is unexpectedly mean-spirited: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order that they may indeed look, but no perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand" (4:12).

Here, in a very raw Biblical moment, Jesus says that he has two teachings: one fake one for the masses and one real, "secret" one for the inner circle. Further, he suggests that his parables are specifically designed to distract the crowd from the truth, to preserve the inside for the insiders. Said differently, if you're hearing a parable, you won't be partying with the billionaire mayors and the German supermodels tonight--you'll be jostled on the sweaty dance floor by frat boys wearing tee-shirts that say, "If you like my guns, wait till you see my rocket."

But if this isn't all galling enough, we also discover that the crowd's confusion is very costly, for Christ goes on to nefariously argue that those distracted by the parables "may not turn again and be forgiven" (4:12) Thus, those who aren't in on the secret aren't only uncool; they're unredeemed.

Now, the Mark author--or some later editor--eventually backtracks later on in the chapter; just a few verses later, Jesus says, nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (4:22). But it's very difficult to reconcile this feint at full disclosure with the frightening elitism of the previous verse.

And I can't help but wonder if this isn't just lip service, and if the big black door hasn't already been shut.
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Friday, August 21, 2009

Mark 1: A Little Love for John the Baptizer

Though I begin this post committed to writing more on the New Testament, I’m still not quite ready to take on its megastar, Jesus. Hence, reading my last few entries might begin to feel like going to see a sweet concert with too many openers—you really want to see Bob Dylan, but first you have to watch Kenny Loggins and the mustachioed member of Hall and Oates.

Playing the role of Kenny Loggins tonight, then, is John “the baptizer,” the man assigned the thankless job of pumping up the crowd for Christ in the Gospel of Mark. However, every time I read Mark, I get the feeling that John isn’t the most eager opening act. He demands a bigger cheese tray backstage, grumbles through his 28-minute set, doesn’t play any of his hits, and wisecracks when the crowd’s attention wanders.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that if Mark’s “baptizer” had his way, he’d be headlining his own show … and dishing to the press after about how Jesus hasn’t been able to carry a tune since Blood on the Tracks.

But before we get to Mark’s first chapters, we need to note how this gospel doesn’t begin—with Jesus’s birth. In Mark, there’s no immaculate conception, no angel choirs, no manger, no swaddling clothes, no nothing. Actually, the gospel doesn’t only not begin with the nativity—Mark doesn’t even refer to it.

But I can go further still: fully half of the Bible’s gospels (Mark and John) make no mention of Jesus’s hay-bound delivery—a fact which makes contemporary Christianity’s focus on Christmas seem a little misplaced. We also know from ancient documents that other traditions about Jesus’s birth circulated through the ancient world.

For instance, Justin Martyr—another early Christian-ish writer—writes that Jesus was born in a cave. And the Persian author Archipodel champions the claim that Jesus fell to earth in a meteor and was subsequently adopted by a sentient car named Kit who helped him solve mysteries. (Guess which one of those is true.)

But I digress. Back to our baptizer.

It is likely a testament to John the Baptist’s substantial influence that he is the first to step on stage in Mark. And other gospels stress that John has a big following in the lead-up to the beginning of Jesus's ministry.

The Mark author introduces John by telling us a little about his message: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4) Catchy tune, right? But doesn’t it sound familiar? Indeed, to Christians the world over it does, because repentance and forgiveness will become common themes in the preaching of Jesus. And maybe it’s not going too far to say that Christ “borrows” some of John’s chord progressions when he starts his set.

But I don’t mean to start out so cynically, or with charges of divine plagiarism. John initially seems very ready to prepare the way for Jesus and accept his superiority: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (1:7). Now, this is the kind of respect we’ve been waiting for, right?

Well, not quite, because when Jesus strolls down to get baptized by John just a few verses later, John doesn’t seem to recognize him. We may expect the Baptist to acknowledge Jesus as divine, or to untie his sandals, or to say, “Hey, you’re that guy I was just talking about. Thong guy.” But he does none of these things. In fact, the text gives us no reason to believe that Jesus isn’t a faceless member of the crowd.

Perhaps to remedy this situation, the the author of the Gospel of John—written by a different, pseudonymous "John" at least four decades after Mark—makes it clear in his version of events that the baptizer verbally acknowledges Jesus as the “Lamb of God” when he comes to the river. But is the later evangelist’s clarification a response to the baptizer’s lack of enthusiasm in Mark?

Further, while the Mark author reports that the heavens open when Jesus is baptized, John never certifies the miracle. If this were a true torch-handing ceremony, wouldn’t we expect him to fall on his face and cry Jesus as his holy successor? On the contrary, even after God speaks, John says absolutely nothing. Not even “Holy shit.” And then the whole episode abruptly ends when the "Spirit" "immediately" drives Jesus out into the wilderness without another word from either party. What a truly odd juxtaposition.

We don’t hear much more about John in Mark. Jesus’s baptism seems to mark their only direct encounter, and it’s possible that the whole affair is underwhelming—or maybe even galling—for John.

All of which suggests that Mark’s John might be a little less than eager to pass the mike over to Jesus, because the man believes he can still rock. So today, let’s give John the baptizer his due. Play “Footloose” one more time.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Matthew 1: Jesus and the Birthers

As we dive head-first into the New Testament, let’s start at the very beginning—because as Maria Von Trapp reminds us, the beginning is a very good place to start. But check that: with this story, we can actually start before the beginning. Not just with Jesus’s birth, but with his genealogy. (Suck it, Maria.)

And if Michael Bay has taught us anything, beginnings should bang, and this one does, because I start the New Testament part of my blog with scandal. Scandal, I say! For we needn’t get any more than a few chapters in to discover that Jesus, like President Obama, has a bit of a birther problem.

However, if the uncertainty surrounding our president’s origins is an invention of the conservative fringe, the mystery hovering over Jesus’s forebears is very real. For there is legitimate confusion about the Savior’s stock, and remarkably, the Bible gives Jesus not one, but two distinct genealogies.

The first opens the first gospel, Matthew; its author begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). We can glean much from just this opening line: the Matthew author argues that Jesus is related to two of the three most important figures in Hebrew lore (the other being Moses).

We’ll return to this point momentarily, but for now, let’s get straight to the discrepancies. From Matthew, we get the following list of Jesus’s dads and grand-dads: Jesus’s father is Joseph (kind of); Joseph’s father is Jacob; Jacob’s father is Matthan; Matthan’s father is Eleazar; and Eleazar’s father is Eliud. Those are just the first five generations, but the list goes on to fill the entire chapter.

However, Matthew’s is not the only family tree sprouting in the gospels; a second comes in the third chapter of Luke, and the list it provides is completely different. For Luke, Jesus was the son “of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi” (3:23-24). Not even close! Basically, unless the gospel writers don’t want to tell us that Joseph is part of an extremely progressive, My-Two-Dads-style household, we’ve got conflicting stories here—at a very crucial part of the tale. (And the judge lives in the building! Just kidding--that joke dates me, doesn't it?)

Obviously, such huge disagreements can be unsettling to some believers. In The Age of Reason, founding father Thomas Paine cites Jesus’s two genealogies as evidence that the Bible cannot be not divinely inspired. After all, how could authors writing with God’s hand mess up such basic information as the lineage of the most important man ever born? Further, it’s also very difficult to believe that the Bible communicates one “literal” truth when these two passages deliver, um, two truths.

Now, I don’t wish to downplay the importance of such concerns. Anyone who believes that the Bible delivers actionable verities wrung straight from the mouth of God must wrestle long and hard with such passages. But for serious Biblical scholars, these different lists don’t tell us that the Bible is bunk; instead, they tell us some important things about the interests of the authors who created them.

As mentioned above, the Matthew author traces Jesus’s ancestry through David and Abraham, two giants of the Jewish faith. This makes sense, especially given the fact that he is very interested in establishing Jesus’s pedigree as the Jewish Messiah. Indeed, no other gospel author is so devoted to proving that Jesus fulfills Hebrew Biblical prophecy.

The author of Luke, on the other hand, goes even further back, and though he also includes David and Abraham, he identifies Jesus’s oldest forefather as the first man: Adam. Which suggests that he wants to characterize Jesus as not only (or not primarily) the Jewish Messiah; instead, Christ is humanity’s savior. According to Biblical myth, we too have Adam as a great-great-great-great grandfather, and thus Jesus is both everyone’s relative and a universal deliverer.

I’d also point out that while the author of Matthew starts old (with Abraham) and moves ahead in time to Jesus, the Luke author starts with Jesus and moves all the way back to Adam. This narrative difference is as fascinating as the factual inconsistencies, because it tells us about these two men as writers. To me, it indicates that perhaps the Luke author has a better sense of dramatic tension than his fellow evangelist—for him, Jesus’s earliest ancestor is (drumroll please, wait for it, feel the suspense growing) … Adam! Tada! And the crowd goes wild. And why shouldn’t they? For with a little thing like a family tree, the Luke author confirms that the Jesus story really begins in Genesis, at the creation of the world. Cool, huh?

But not cool enough to hide Jesus’s birther scandal, right?! So whip up your forged birth certificates, and start dialing up your favorite right-wing radio jockey. I’ll call Lou Dobbs.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

A Bridge Too Far: From Malachi to Matthew

Regular visitors may have noticed that thus far, this blog has focused entirely on the first “half” of the Bible—on Hebrew scripture, the Tanakh, the “Old” Testament. (I hope you’ve also noticed that I try to refrain from calling it the last of these names. For Jews, there is nothing “old” about their sacred texts; they are as fresh, life-giving, and “new” as they have always been.)

So it’s time for me to confess: I have yet to address the Christian Bible—or “New” Testament—because I have absolutely no idea how to get there from here. To build bridge sturdy enough to reach from Malachi (the last book in most Protestant Old Testaments) to Matthew seems difficult, if not completely impossible.

Let me tell you why I think it’s so hard. And how I plan to span the gap, despite the challenges involved. (And why there's a picture of Dumbledore there, teasing you.)

For me, transitioning seamlessly from the Tanakh to the New Testament is as tough as moving rationally from the Hebrew Bible to Harry Potter. (Though there's probably a blog out there somewhere that tries. Maybe it's called Gryffin-Torah. Or Harry Potter and the Challah of Prophecy. Or Hogwart's Yeshiva.)

Sorry ... to get to my point ... Why is that so? Well, after immersing ourselves in Jewish scripture, we can come away with a pretty clear idea of what those texts hope for: the restoration of Israel and the temple, continued adherence to Torah law, the establishment of more reliable systems of social justice, and perhaps the re-establishment of a lost intimacy with God. And most often, it is the Jewish people who are asked—and perhaps expected—to do these things themselves.

For Christians, Jesus is understood as fulfilling Hebrew Biblical expectations by himself. This eccentric, testy, paradoxical, not-quite-Jewish teacher who is killed by the Romans—and whose teachings are codified by the equally odd Paul—supposedly completes the Tanakh. But the way he “fulfills” Hebrew Biblical expectations is so thoroughly weird—with its mustard seeds and its turned cheeks and its Kingdoms of God—that it often feels like no fulfillment at all. In fact, Gospel authors so frequently repeat their claim that Jesus’s actions fulfill Jewish scripture that these assertions feel more like defense mechanisms than prophetic completion.

More bluntly, Jesus’s new direction feels like a tangent. Or perhaps more gently, the Christian savior is a virtuoso graduate student who gives his mentor’s research a completely different spin. And the “New” Testament can strike us as a brilliant, unexpected, heterodox mis-reading of the Hebrew Bible.

That’s the perspective I’ll take in this blog when trying to understand the relationship between Hebrew and Christian scripture. But please know that if I call the New Testament a “misreading” of Jewish sacred text, I don’t mean that term as a critique. The literary scholar Harold Bloom argues that the best interpreters can only misread their predecessors’ texts; for Bloom, all great interpretations of old texts are misreadings. (This all comes from his book The Anxiety of Influence, if you’re interested.)

Obviously, many Christians believe that the part of Jesus’s message that I've dubbed "misreaderly" feels that way for a reason: preachers for centuries and generations have suggested that Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy in utterly surprising ways. But the more I read Isaiah and Ecclesiastes and Exodus and Job, the more Jesus's message feels not surprising, but delightfully irrelevant. And I can’t help wonder why God would create a relatively unified expectations with one set of books (the Tanakh), and then subvert them with another set (the Christian scriptures).

But tradition demands that we try to reconcile the one with the other. Not because we are all good Christians--though some of us are--but because the Bible comes to us (and especially to Americans) as an intact corpus. As a whole. No matter how ragged the package, it is one book. And it has been one book for around sixteen centuries—which tells us that for literally billions of people, the leap from Malachi to Matthew is no leap at all. Moving ahead in my writings, I hope to explore the reasons why this is so—while at the same time remembering that for every devout Jew, there are only reasons why not. It’s a tough balancing act.

Nonetheless, today I open the floodgates and free myself to jump among scriptures and between “testaments.” In doing so, I will not build a bridge—that image is too neat, too causal. Instead, I will take a leap of faith. Not Christian faith or Jewish faith … let’s call it interpretive faith, or "misreaderly" faith. We will make the transition not because it makes sense, but because we must. And because we can. And because we want to. And that will be “reason” enough.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Psalm 103: The Dude Abides

One of the driving forces behind this blog, as its inscription suggests, is an abiding belief that "it's good to know the Bible better." Not just for devout Christians or Jews. Or hard-scrabble skeptics who want to stick it to the Man. But for everyone. Because the Bible's influence (unlike its shifty God) is omnipresent.

But I also believe that Biblical literacy isn't helpful only in "serious" situations. You don't need it only when talking with your hyper-religious friends. Or when listening to a Southern senator quote scripture as adultery brings his political career to an end. Or when following the persistent (and persistently bloody) struggles over the Holy Land.

It can even come in handy when watching The Big Lebowski. Seriously. Check it out.

I was watching Lebowski last weekend for something like the 22nd time, and as the film was coming to a close, I noticed a Bible quote plastered to the back wall of one of the sets, almost like an epitaph for the movie. The passage comes from the Psalms:

As for man, his days are as grass.
As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone. (Ps. 103:15)

These lines, set in gold-embossed lettering, hang on the paneling behind the undertaker from whom Walter and the Dude receive Donny's remains. And it turns out that the whole movie is a pretty decent interpretation of this brief text.

Now, at a basic level, the scripture makes sense at a death wake: this is just one of the Psalmist's frequent reminders that while God is eternal, we are most decidedly not. The Lord endures forever, but we all end up as piles of ash in Folgers cans unsuccessfully thrown out over the waters of the Pacific ... which we love so well.

And the moment of our death remains laughably beyond our understanding. Life, as the Dude might remind us, "is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta in's, lotta out's, lotta what-have-you's." And we're likely never to catch up in time to see who's out of the game next; as the Psalmist continues, "the place thereof shall know it no more" (Ps. 103:16).

For Lebowski, the wind takes the one we never expect--Donny, struck down by a heart attack after the "plot" ends. (And have you ever noticed that the only time Donny doesn't bowl a strike is right before he dies?) Goodnight, sweet prince.

But the movie's Psalms reference is also a hilarious stoner joke, because Lebowski is all about "grass." Says the Dude to Jeffrey Lebowski, "Mind if I do a J?" And the Coen brothers remind us, thankfully, that not all Bible references need be pious.

But, as is often the case with Biblical intertextuality, there's so much more here. There's a chance that the writing on the wall might recall for us another piece about grass, this time from Isaiah. First, the King James translation: "All flesh is grass" (40:6). Then, the blunter NRSV: "All people are grass [...] surely the people are grass" (6-7).

And we are returned to the blasted heath of Lebowski's late-millennium Los Angeles, where we see no grass, only concrete and pavement and wood floors and dusty desert prairies (and micturated-upon rugs). In L.A., only people are left to signify the natural world, and each of us is an all-too-fleeting sign of life in the sprawl.

In our hyper-urban, post-modern America, Isaiah's metaphor is condensed and distilled. We are not only like grass--we are grass. And with the distancing power of idiom gone, we are one step closer to the ephemeral, liable to be blown away by the divine winds at any moment.

So what are we to do? Flee in fear from the terrifying breath of God? Despair?

Or perhaps we should take the counsel of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: "Be happy and enjoy [yourselves] as long as [you] live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil" (3:12-13).

Or perhaps better, we could take Walter's similar advice: "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling."
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Judges 1: An Open Memo to the Israeli Settlers

A piece in last Thursday's Times noted the continued proliferation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, even as President Obama and his point man on Israel--George Mitchell--ramp up efforts at Mideast Peace. (A Monday news analysis continues the coverage.)

The first story quotes a settler--a devout one, obviously--petulantly defending the his group's rights to the land: “The Torah says the land of Israel is for the Jewish people. This is just the beginning. We will build 1,000 homes here. The Arabs cannot stay here, not because we hate them, but because this is not their place.”

I can't really quibble with his point. The Torah does suggest that 1) the land that is now Israel belongs to the Hebrews and 2) it is not the Arabs' (read: Canaanites') place. (Other scriptures argue otherwise, but let's keep this discussion Biblical.) However, it only takes a quick read through the opening chapters of Judges to discover that these two statements are only true, well, until they aren't.

Those of you who have never made it to the end of the Torah (the first five books of the bible) might not know that while it reputedly tells how the Israelites' get to the Promised Land, the story ends before the people arrive. It is the book of Joshua, one after the Torah, that gives us their successful invasion and occupation of the land.

Joshua reads like heroic legend--it's a heavily idealized version of events. The Israelite armies conquer with bloody ease. Opposing armies fall beneath their blades like grass before the reaper, and their entrance into Canaan feels divinely mandated, like it's supposed to. Even their route seems inspired by God--a perfect circle of destruction that delivers the Promised Land to the Chosen People.

(As a side note, when I heard of the Promised Land as a child, I always pictured it as uninhabited--as rolling, fertile, unpopulated plains filled with amiable wildlife. A lot like Nebraska, I guess. In fact, it's full of people--people who have to be slaughtered. Perhaps that's why kids only get the Jericho story.)

By contrast, the book of Judges lays out a different version of events--one that doesn't paper over pesky details. Because it turns out that the Israelites' occupation of Israel is neither so simple nor so complete as Joshua would have us believe. The Hebrew armies actually lose a few battles. And some of the Canaanite peoples (read: Arabs) just won't be rooted out.

Take a notable instance in Judges 1: "The Lord was with Judah [the tribe], and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron" (1:19).

Note a few things here. This moment is supposed to mark a triumphant entry into Promised Land--the place that God sets aside specifically for the Israelites. This is the time when the deity is supposed to cash the covenantal check, no questions asked. Furthermore, "The Lord was with Judah." In plenty of instances, the Bible makes no mention of the Lord's presence or absence, but here the text is specific--God is riding shotgun with the Judahites as they hit the plains.

And despite all this, they lose. With the creator of the universe on their side! With the maker of lightning and the bridger of depths. Because of rattle-trap metal boxes pulled by emaciated quadrupeds! (Sorry, horses ... I'm just trying to make a point here.) So this is just how far the Promise goes: Israel for the Israelites, unless the other side has bigger guns. Said differently, the people of Israel are never, even in these first hours and days, unproblematically in control of the Promised Land. It's always a tough row to hoe.

So I close with a special note to the West Bank settlers: as far as the Torah is concerned, Israel is indeed yours, not the Arabs'. But I'd watch out for guys with chariots if I were you.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Habakkuk 2: "Wait for it"

Well, this summer excursion through the Bible’s byways has turned into a regular minor-prophet-fest, hasn’t it? But I’m finding that these diminutive books are filled with hidden delights, and catastrophes. Today, then, I turn to Habakkuk, a prophet writing twenty or thirty years before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. A date I frequently return to in my musings—perhaps it deserves its own entry soon.

Habakkuk, like other Bible books (Job, especially), deals with the frustrating qualities of divine justice, and asks that thorniest of questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The answer it provides, unfortunately, is literally maddening.

Unlike Job—who is a good person to whom very bad things happen—Habakkuk is forced to watch violence enacted upon the righteous: “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” (1:3-4).

Little translation is necessary here: in Habakkuk’s world, justice has been “perverted,” because the wicked thrive while the righteous are “surrounded” by “strife and contention.” The prophet needs to know why.

Now, unlike us—who can only weep at the world’s evils—Habakkuk receives a response from God (one of the few perks associated with the drab job of prophecy). By way of reply, God asks Habakkuk to observe the raging Chaldeans—a Biblical name for Babylon—whom He will shortly use as an instrument of divine justice. More bluntly, God tells Habakkuk to look at the big-ass thugs he’s rounded up to punish the wicked.

Thankfully, Habakkuk is unconvinced—frankly, this feels a like mob justice, not God’s righteousness. He cannot but admit that the Chaldeans have powerful armies—indeed, they will sack Jerusalem in just a couple decades’ time. But two wrongs, as the truism goes, do not make a right, and Habakkuk hopefully (or is it desperately) holds his God to a higher standard: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing” (1:13).

God, a bit surprisingly, is actually silent on this point, and though Habakkuk may hope that God is “too pure to behold evil,” he cannot confirm it. So God must try another tack, while the Chaldeans remain off in the shadows, sharpening their knives and chomping at the bit.

God relents, and claims that He will eventually punish the wicked. But the operative word here is “eventually”. Says the Delay-er-in-Chief: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; / it will surely come, it will not delay.”

Really? “Wait for it”? That’s God’s answer to the evils of the world? Hold on … I’ll get to it … the check’s in the mail. An exasperating response to a crucial question, if you ask me.

Now, we can articulate God’s response in prettier terms: Divine justice works on a divine timeline; the scales of fairness are balanced in centuries, not in days; after millennia, the evils of the world will pale in comparison to the compassion of God. But what use are these to the mourning mother who loses an infant? To the family of a murder victim whose attacker goes unpunished? “Wait for it” will be scant comfort.

But here, once again, is where we find the Bible’s genius. For Habakkuk does not walk away singing, his head held high, his “good Jew” badge burnished and pinned to his lapel. He knows—as must we—that this version of divine justice will often look like moral bankruptcy.

So his acceptance of this “plan”—if we can call it that—is full of self-loathing: “I hear, and I tremble within; / my lips quiver at the sound. / Rottenness enters into my bones, / and my steps tremble beneath me. / I wait quietly for the day of calamity / to come upon the people who attack us” (3:16). Fully digested, God’s advice—“Wait for it”—leaves him shaking in his boots.
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