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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