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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