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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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Haggai 1-2: Of Bad Contractors and Half-and-Half

Raise your hand if you’ve ever read the book of Haggai. Those of you who’ve raised your hands … you’re lying. Now raise your hand if you’ve never even heard of Haggai? Those of you with your hands up now … thank you for your honesty.

I jest, of course, but let’s not lie, because only some of you are lame like me, spending summer afternoons reading Hebrew prophecy. And like the strawberry stripe in a box of Neopolitan ice cream, like George Harrison’s Beatles songs, and like our tenth president John Tyler—who served his entire term without a VP and was sometimes referred to as “His Accidency”—Haggai doesn’t get enough love.

But it should. Because Haggai is the most important book in the Bible, and perhaps the most important ancient text ever written.

Okay, it’s not. I completely wrote that last line to get you to click to the full article. Did it work? Do you feel duped, betrayed? I’m sorry. But while you’re here, do you want to hear a little bit about Haggai? Please?

Haggai—like Amos, Joel, and Habakkuk—is a minor prophet, called “minor” not because of the smallness of his ideas (or his endowment), but because he wrote concisely. (Just don’t call him short—he’s very sensitive about his height, and his endowment.)

Haggai wrote his brief prophecy—just two chapters long—in 520 B.C.E., 18 years after an imperial decree allowed Israelites to begin to return to the land after the Babylonian Exile. His main goal was to exhort his people and their leaders, the governor Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua, to finish rebuilding the Temple, destroyed in 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonians invaded.

Says Haggai, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house [the Temple] lies in ruins?” (1:4) The Israelites are like bad contractors who are going to finish grouting the new jacuzzi in their master suite before coming over to finish, um, God’s house! Bold move, eh?

And also a bad one, because Haggai believes that God had been punishing them for their sloth: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes” (1:4-6). And sometimes you play pinochle for hours and never win. And there’s never enough half-and-half in the fridge, though it seems you just bought half-and-half last weekend. We get it—the Israelites haven’t finished the Lord’s house, so he’s taking their stuff away. But why are they so slow to act?

Some scholars believe that the Temple remained unbuilt in 520 B.C.E.—nearly two decades after the return to Jerusalem—because the Israelites’ existence in the land was so tenuous. Life was difficult, money was short, droughts were frequent, and harvests were diminished. Perhaps.

But it seems as likely—and I am speculating here—that the cult of Yahweh suffered during the exile, which lasted nearly 50 years. All the men and women who lived in Israel before the Babylonian invasion were dead or ancient, and few remembered the glories of the old religion.

And those curmudgeons who were left were unimpressed by the new Temple foundations already built, and Haggai must pacify them: “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage …” (2:3)

So it seems probable that the prophet Haggai needs to encourage the Israelites not only because of their difficult situation, but because of their apathy. He needs to remind a younger generation not acquainted with a bygone faith that the Temple is not obsolete—that it is not only desirable to rebuild God’s house, but necessary.

And once you finish building the Temple, says Haggai, the Lord “will give prosperity,” and “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (2:9). And your half-and-half will never run dry and your coffee will always be smooth and creamy. Amen.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Obadiah 1: Damn that Edom

My summer tour of the Bible’s undiscovered countries brings me to a quaint little cottage: Obadiah. Obadiah is the littlest book in the Hebrew Bible—for all you trivia mavens and crossword buffs—weighing in at just 21 verses. (And he's just sooooo cute for his age.)

But in terms of its content, it’s also one of the more curious. Or perhaps “obsessive” is the better word, because Obadiah is totally—and maybe a little manically—devoted to calling for the destruction of Edom. Who or what is Edom? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s kind of an interesting story. (And no, it’s a mild but delicious Dutch cheese, smartass.)

Edom is one of the small enemy nations adjacent to ancient Israel. (And yes, it’s long gone, so you needn’t consult a world map—though it is funny to think of “Edom” taking one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council.) During the five-ish centuries of Hebrew monarchy, the Israelites would occasionally skirmish with the Edomites, winning their fair share of battles but losing a few as well.

Edom, however, was not alone in harassing Israel and Judah. During this time, national enemies were a dime a dozen—or a shekel per seven-fold, if you want—and the Hebrew armies went to war with the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, the Persians, and the Cylons. (Okay, that last one is from Battlestar Galactica, but the rest are real, I swear.) So why is the author of Obadiah so pissed at Edom?

Well, it comes down to a question of deceit and family honor. Because our author isn’t just yelling at Edom for starting another pesky battle, but for abetting an imperial invader. And ignoring blood ties to boot.

Historians are pretty sure that when the Babylonians sacked Judah and Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., the Edomites abetted—a crime made worse by the fact that, according to legend, they're related to the Israelites. So this isn’t just treachery—it’s internecine betrayal.

You see, while the Israelites trace their ancestry back to Isaac’s son Jacob, the Edomites trace theirs back to Jacob’s older brother Esau. You remember the story of Jacob and Esau, right? Two sons, sprung from the same womb, fight each other for their father’s favor? Dramatic fraternal rivalry? Delicious beef stew? (Seriously. Read Genesis.)

In any case, while Jacob and Esau, despite some early bumps, eventually bury the hatchet, the Edomites and the Israelites cannot … or perhaps they do—just in each other’s backs. That’s what Obadiah believes happened during the fall of Jerusalem; thus he berates Edom for the worst type of perfidy, “On the day that you stood aside, / on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, / and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, / you too were one of them. / But you should not have gloated over your brother / on the day of his misfortune; / you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah / on the day of their ruin” (11-12).

Despite the peoples’ long-standing enmity, the Obadiah author believes that the Edomites should have stood with their brothers (and sisters) the Israelites when “strangers” and “foreigners” marched on Jerusalem. He just cannot get over the fact that they didn’t.

After you’re done reading Obadiah, you can kind of see his point. And perhaps forgive him his obsession.
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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lamentations 5: The Lure of Despair

During the summer, though I’ve been remiss in regularly posting, I’ve been trying to spend some time working through the nooks and crannies of the Bible—those back corners that, rightly or wrongly, don't come up as frequently as I'd like in courses or lectionary and haftorah readings. (And yes, I too ask myself why I don’t just go to the beach like everyone else.)

So I’ve re-read Habakkuk, and the third letter of John, and, with no small joy (ironically), Lamentations. I’m not sure any Biblical book is so utterly bleak as Lamentations—not Job, nor Isaiah in its direst moments, nor a griping minor prophet like Amos. Because so far as I can tell, the author of Lamentations commits the gravest of sins: he despairs.

Lamentations is exactly what it sounds like—a collection of poems bewailing the fraught state of the world. Though it was likely written later, most scholars believe that the Lamentations author’s main purpose is to grieve the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Tradition held that Jeremiah—yes, that Jeremiah—wrote both the book that bears his name and Lamentations. And while this thesis long ago fell by the wayside in scholarly circles, it has a certain logical appeal: an aging Jeremiah, sequestered in a writer’s garret, watches the city he tried to save with his prophecy fall … and despairs. (Many suggest that this story accounts for Lamentations’s placement after Jeremiah in the Christian Bible.)

Why do I make such a big deal of this notion, despair? Well, the poet and professor Geoffrey Hill, in discussing the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins, makes a distinction between desolation and despair (and argues that the famously depressed Hopkins, even in his worst moods, only engages the former). Desolation, as Hill would say more beautifully than I ever could, is the dark night of the soul; every dark night, however, has a morning. (Wow, I should start writing pop songs.)

Despair, on the other hand, marks the end of hope. And utter hopelessness is sinful (and perhaps utterly sinful) because it marks a lack of faith in the divine covenant: the promise that God will ultimately redeem and lift up his people. Both Marlowe and Goethe play with the notion that Faust’s worst mistake is not selling his soul to the devil, but nearly believing that God cannot or will not win him back.

Now, all the prophets—and Jesus and Paul, for that matter—deal quite readily in desolation. All condemn sinners—be they early Israelites or early Christians—for falling away from the true path and predict terrible, graphic punishments as recompense. And every one knows the unimaginably powerful violence of divine wrath. But to a man, every one also has faith—no matter how briefly expressed—that God will ultimately relent in his anger and deliver on his beautiful promises of salvation.

This is why all the prophets work in a predictable cycle of condemnation, punishment, and consolation. But not, so far as I can tell, the author of Lamentations. For though he plays hope like a child with a toy, he ultimately sees fit to abandon it. (What a terrible metaphor.)

The book as a whole is full of apocalyptic terrors. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given that the fall of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem represented nothing less than the end of the world for early Israelites. A sampling, taken almost at random …

“How the Lord in his anger has humiliated daughter Zion! / He has thrown down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel” (2:1). And “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; / he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:1). And a favorite, vomitous image: “My bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people” (2:11).

Now, I don’t mean to say that the author of Lamentations never feints toward hope; he just always seems to pull back at the last moment: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him […] For the Lord will not reject forever” (3:25; 31). But will he? The brevity of this last line reeks of false confidence; there's more compensation here than consolation.

Thus while the author may posit hope, he does not seem able to sustain it as a real possibility. And I believe he finally rejects it. The book’s end is telling in its pathetic turn, in which the possibility of consolation is both raised and put down: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored, / renew our days as of old— / unless you have utterly rejected us, / and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:21-22).

And that’s it! Lamentations ends with this damning “unless"--with the hitherto unspeakable reality that God could hide his face from us forever if he so chooses. An alternate, more literal translation of this “unless” is the more definitive “instead,” which sits like a tombstone at text’s end.

Thus perhaps the epigraph to Dante’s Inferno is an apt epitaph for Lamentations: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
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Monday, July 6, 2009

Psalm 19: The Heavens and the Days and the Glory of God, for Juan

What a nice milestone in my blog history: a first request. My friend Juan asked that I write a blog entry on Psalm 19, and tonight I oblige.

Nearly a century ago, a German scholar named Hermann Gunkel--and with a name like Gunkel, how could he be from anywhere else?--pioneered modern literary analysis of the Psalms by suggesting that these long-form poems could best be organized and understood in terms of genre. (There he is on the right; eat your heart out, ladies!) Thus Gunkel proposed a handful of generic categories: praise psalms, psalms of lament, wisdom psalms ... you get the picture. Psalm 19, thus, is a praise psalm, a hymn devoted to singing the glory of God.

Now I know what you're thinking. Isn't, like, the whole Bible devoted to singing God's praises? (Well, no--and you obviously haven't been following my blog, jerk. But I get your point.) Because in Psalm 19, that there is singing is unsurprising. It's who's singing that's just so darn interesting.

The psalm opens, "The heavens are telling the glory of God, / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. / Day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge" (1-2). Get it? This isn't a group of hirsute rabbis singing. Or an ill-trained church choir. It is "heaven," "firmament," "day," and "night." In one respect, it is creation itself that sings God's praises.

Characterized thusly, Psalm 19 is an apt response to the opening chapters of Genesis. In the first chapter of the Bible, God creates the world with divine speech; his words generate the world. Thus, by merely saying "light," God makes light. This psalm, by extension, gives us creation echoing back divine speech in praise.

But perhaps "creation" isn't specific enough a term, for the psalmist singles out two particular elements of the known universe: the cosmos--or space--and days--or time. What a sublime notion--that the very building blocks comprising our experience of the universe actually speak to the majesty of God. That space and time respond to the divine utterance with an utterance of their own.

And the best part? We have no idea what they're saying. I'll let the psalmist explain: "There is no speech, nor are there words; / their voice is not heard; / yet their voice goes out through all the earth, / and their words to the end of the world" (3-4). Though the "voices" of space and time suffuse the material universe--singing the Lord's glories all the while--we cannot perceive them. For us, the "speech" of space and time is "no speech." But really, how could we represent the "speech" of space and time in anything but negative terms? How could we imagine talk about God as anything but ridiculous?

Clearly, the psalmist is in that liminal zone where words bend and break as they try to describe the indescribable--what can one write about the face of God, the song of time? But the psalmist knows as much. For there is a positive element to God--that which we can speak about--and a negative element--that which completely escapes letters, words, thoughts, speech. And in the opening verses of Psalm 19, our author brings us to the precipice where the break between positive and negative occurs and encourages us to listen.

Even though we will hear nothing at all.
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