Monday, January 15, 2018

Hosea 1-5: Adultery, Metaphor, and Raisin Cakes

The Prophet Hosea, detail of a working
sketch Raphael used in preparation for a fresco.

The Book of Hosea, we learn in the first verse of the first Chapter, is “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel.”  In the rest of the first chapter, God gives Hosea a series of instructions that seem kind of bitter and cynical in tone: he is supposed to find and marry an adulterous wife (Gomer daughter of Diblaim, in one of scripture’s less flattering walk-on roles), and he is to give his children strange and unpleasant names. I mean, how much therapy did Lo-Ruhamah need to get over being named “not loved”? We are not told.

In the second Chapter, Hosea is told to tell his brothers and sisters that they should rebuke their mother, because she is an adulteress. She has “conceived them in disgrace,” and she has claimed that all of her wealth, all of her food and drink and cloth and oil, were gifts from her lover instead of being provided by her husband. From Verse 9 to Verse 13, he – God, that is, speaking to Hosea – lists various punishments he is going to inflict on the wife, but then Verses 14 to 23 are surprisingly tender promises of reconciliation to come.

Now, the family tree implied by Hosea 2 would be awfully confusing, if the whole thing were not transparently a parable for God’s relationship with the people of Israel. That relationship, here as in the entire Bible hitherto, is a rocky one.  The Israelites are constantly haring off after Baal and assorted other regional deities, and God is constantly raging at their infidelity with threats, actual dire punishments, and occasional promises of wonderful glories to come. The brothers and sisters of Hosea 2 are the Israelites, and the mother is, I guess, also the Israelites. God is the jilted husband, and the illicit lover is the other gods the Israelites go running around with.

This is not the first blog post to wonder about the metaphorical nature of the Book of Hosea.  This scrap from the Dead Sea Scrolls, from the first century BCE, "refers to the relation of God, the husband, to Israel, the unfaithful wife. In the commentary, the unfaithful ones have been led astray by 'the man of the lie.'"
It’s a little unclear how this extended metaphor fits in with Hosea’s actual marriage, but in Chapter 3 he is instructed to make up with the no-good cheatin’ Gomer. He is told to, in a delightfully quirky passage, “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes” (1).  Raisin cakes must have been, what, sacramental food of a competing faith? Or just a luxury to turn one away from a proper ascetic habit of worship? Either way, the specificity of the phrase rings oddly today.  He seems to go out and buy her back with a bit of silver and barley, and tells her that they need to be faithful to each other... because, Israel and God need to stick together too.  So, this is a strange framing narrative, in which the narrator's troubled marriage is worked on, or possibly in which a prophet's metaphor escapes his preaching and encroaches on his actual life.  This would be an interesting idea for a Borges story. 

With the familiar theme of God's anger with his stiff-neck people established, Chapters 4 and 5 and, indeed, most of the rest of the Book of Hosea, are largely God’s invective against the faithless straying of the Israelites. There is passing attention to general bad behavior – “cursing, lying, and murder” – and occasional callbacks of the adultery metaphor, but mostly it is a general denunciation of the waywardness of the chosen people and a foretelling of the awful things that will happen to them. In this way, Hosea is quite in keeping with the prophetic literature we have seen in the half-dozen Books that precede it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book of Daniel: Supplemental

Did you feel like twelve chapters was not quite enough Book of Daniel for your taste?  Well, you might be in luck! 

When I was looking for images to go with my last post, I kept running across paintings of incidents I hadn't read about.  After a bit of research, I found out that this is because I happen to have a Protestant Bible.  If I had a Catholic or Orthodox Bible, there would be three additional episodes in Daniel.

One, the "Song of the Three Holy Children," is at the end of Chapter 3, and consists of prayers and songs from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three young men from the fiery furnace.

Another, "Bel and the Dragon," is Chapter 14 of the expanded Daniel.  It's the first detective story on record!  There is an idol, Bel, which is given rich offerings every night in a sealed chamber.  Every morning, the offerings are gone, so Bel must have eaten them, QED.  But Daniel scatters ash on the chamber floor one night, and in the morning there is a trail of footprints to the secret door where the priests haul out the loot.  Good story.

Then there's Chapter 13, which is the story of "Susanna and the Elders."  It might be the first courtroom drama on record!  Susanna, a nice woman bathing in her garden, is being spied on by some dirty old men.  They threaten to accuse her of consorting with a young man unless she, well, lets them screw her.  She won't do it, they follow through on their threat, and she is about to be executed for adultery when Daniel happens along and suggests that it might be a good idea to question the accusers separately about what they saw.  Since their accounts don't line up, it's clear that Susanna was falsely accused, and so the men are put to death instead of her.  It's a good tale, a victory for virtue and due process alike, and so naturally it has been a favorite subject of painters over the centuries.  Here's Artemisia Gentileschi's version.

Here's Carlo Francesco Nuvolone:

Paul Serusier:

Thomas Hart Benton:


Or, if you like, here's Alan Macdonald's 2009 The Elders Surprised by Susannah:

Anyway, Daniel stands out as a Book rich in stories -- richer, perhaps, than any since the accounts of King David, back in the day.  On strictly literary grounds, it's a shame that Susanna and Bel are missing from the Protestant Book of Daniel.  But, I suppose it's not just about the stories.  Right?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Daniel 7-12: Daniel the Prophet

After the famous stories of the first half of the Book of Daniel, the second half settles into more conventional prophecy. Daniel is, after all, a prophet. He has a dream in Chapter 7, a vision in Chapter 8, has a prayer answered by a mysterious man named Gabriel in Chapter 9, and then has a long apocalyptic vision of “End Times” in the final three chapters.

Like a lot of Biblical visions, Chapter 7’s deals with grotesque animals.

7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. 8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
Later on, Daniel asks “one of those standing there” what the vision was about – it’s unclear whether this takes place within the vision, or afterwards – and he is given a kind of key of what the various things in the vision stood for:
23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.
26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
This kind of vision is, I suppose, a little like the political cartoons that used to anchor editorial pages, where comic drawings were given little label that indicated which parties or issues they were supposed to represent. After a goat attacks a ram in the Chapter 8 vision, Gabriel explains that “the two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king” (20-21). This pattern of symbolic dream followed by interpretation is, when you think about it, kind of a singular way for prophecy to proceed. If Daniel was to be given a message about an impending conflict between Greek and Persian forces, for instance, why did it need to be dressed up in a dream about animals? Why not something a little more straightforward? Well, it’s a mystery of course.

The culminating vision of the last three chapters is pretty apocalyptic. The dead will rise from the earth, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). The smartest folks will “lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (3) This sounds kind of last-judgementish, so it’s reasonable to ask “When will this happen?”

Well, if you follow the thread from Daniel 10 on, you see that from the time of Cyrus of Persia in which Daniel said he was writing, there was to be four more Persian kings, who would then be supplanted by a particularly powerful king of uncertain nationality. When he dies, his domain would be split between Kings of the North and South, who will engage in various wars and intrigues for a few generations. Then another king will come along, a guy who worships a god of fortresses, and he’ll go to war with the King of the South and the King of the North both. The list of things that are going to happen – for it is a straight narrative prophecy this time, with no animal analogies or intermediaries – is quite specific. For instance
5“The king of the South will become strong, but one of his commanders will become even stronger than he and will rule his own kingdom with great power. 6After some years, they will become allies. The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be betrayed, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her.
Still, it’s specific enough that you could map it out, and the long and short of it is that there is something like 8 to 12 generations between Daniel and the End Times. Since the vision is dated to the third year of the reign of Cyrus of Persia, which is, hmm, 536 B.C., the dead will rise and the end times will come no later than… say, 100 B.C. So, that’s interesting.

Now, apparently many Biblical scholars think that Daniel was written a long time after the date claimed by its author. Along with other evidence putting the composition in the neighborhood of 170 B.C., the line of events described in Chapter 11 is highly accurate up to around 167 B.C. and thereafter diverges abruptly from the historical record. This has led people to speculate that somebody, whose name wasn’t necessarily “Daniel,” wrote the Book of Daniel in 167 B.C.

To even think that way, of course, you have to start with the concession that there might not have been a guy named Daniel in the Babylonian exile who had prophetic visions of the future. Personally, I don’t find that to be much of a leap. It would not be the first time I’ve been called cynical.

Another Way of Looking at Daniel

This terrific chart of the Book of Daniel, drawn in 1916, lays out the contents and gives you a sense of how Old Testament material is often back-interpreted from a Christian perspective.  In this "vision" of Daniel's prophecies, so to speak, Chapter 10 becomes a "Vision of Christ."  Personally, I don't see anything in Daniel 10 that even remotely invites this interpretation, and it seems quite odd to me.  Mr. Larkin, who drew the diagram, would probably have a rebuttal at the ready.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Daniel 6: In the Lion's Den

This entry was written in August 2014, but I was a bit slow in getting it to press.

Daniel 6 is the chapter with the famous story of David in the lions’ den, which I shall now summarize.

After Darius annexes Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom to the Persian Empire, he sets up 120 district officers (“satraps”) who report to three cabinet-level administrators.  Daniel, whom you might have expected to be swept out with the new broom, is one of the three, and he does a great job.  The satraps are jealous of him, and look for a way to knock him down a peg.

What they do is have Darius enact a 30-day law saying that no one can pray to any god except for himself.  Daniel ignores this law, as the satraps knew he would, and they go to his house and catch him in the act.  They run off to Darius, remind him of the law he made, and tattle on Daniel.   Seeing that this distresses Darius, they pointedly remind him that according to Persian/Mede jurisprudence, an emperor’s decree can’t be changed, not even by the emperor who made it.  [These satraps!  They are pretty stupid.  Court intrigue does not, cannot work if you antagonize the king while you’re doing it.  What good is removing Daniel going to do, if the king hates them afterwards for forcing his hand?  Dummies.]

Peter Paul Ruebens, 1615ish.
Darius has Daniel thrown into the lion’s den, but is very decent about it: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (16)  He can’t eat, he can’t sleep, and the next morning he runs to the den before sunrise.  To his relief, Daniel is perfectly uneaten, so he’s hauled out and restored to office.  Darius decrees that “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel,” (26) which is why the Persians have practiced Judaism from then down to the present day.  Wait, what?

Well anyway, everyone loves a happy ending, especially if there’s comeuppance, and so you have to cheer when the satraps who set Daniel up are thrown into the lion’s den, along with their wives and children, and “before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.” (24)

So, that’s a very familiar sort of story, in which a good person is put into danger by bad people but overcomes adversity, and the bad people are punished for the wrong they do.  You could make a case that it is only by telling ourselves these sorts of stories as often as we can that we preserve such civil order as we’ve got.  Also, captive lions got to eat.  I’m really trying not to be bothered by the comeuppance, here. 

The other aspect of the story that makes me think too much is the, well, the premise.  Here’s Daniel’s explanation of why he passed the night unbitten: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.  They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.  Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.” (22)  And we are, I believe, supposed to assume that Daniel is right about what happened.  He’s a prophet, after all. 

Because Daniel is innocent in God’s sight, he is saved from physical harm.  Same deal, I think, as with his three buddies in the fiery furnace.  And the obvious question is, how come these four get special treatment?  Are we supposed to believe that innocent people are always protected by God?  That if we keep ourselves innocent, that God will protect us?  Surely not, as the Bible can’t suppose that we were born yesterday.  Are we supposed to assume that Daniel and his friends have a level of righteousness greater than what we can aspire to, that affords them special protection?  Or, is this an instance of God making specific one-time interventions in human affairs to advance the interests of his chosen people, or in order to (as he so often talks about) publicize his own existence? 

So this is an interesting thing about a good story: if it is compelling enough in rewarding the good and punishing the evil, and has some tension, and some animals, we can effortlessly take in the story and the moral too, even when it in discord with our experience.  The moral of the story of the lion’s den is that if we do right and show courage, like Daniel, we will fall under the material protection of God.  And yet we do see people do right and show courage, don’t we?  And we see so few miracles.  The most innocent of the satraps’ wives and children must have felt some disappointment when the lions leapt.  But at least it was quick.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Daniel 1-5: Bible Stories

It’s not hard to see why young Jane Eyre (see sidebar quote) likes the book of Daniel. It has stories! Narrative tales! And although there are plenty of those in the early going, Genesis, Exodus, and on up through the tales of King David, it has been a long time now since the Bible was quite so accessible.

The Prophet Daniel

Daniel is one of four young Hebrew men in the Babylonian exile who are picked out for their brains and good looks and sent to school to train for the civil service. It’s only a three-year course, but seems to be the equivalent of a modern MPA. It was a simpler time. Either because of dietary restrictions or to preserve their independence, they refuse to eat the court food and go on a vegetarian diet instead; the text seems mildly surprised that this doesn’t kill ‘em. They can get away with being a little eccentric because they are the stars of their class, and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (1:20)

Nebuchadnezzar – the king – has a disturbing dream, and tells his magical staff that they must give him a proper interpretation or die. Now interpreting dreams is like shooting fish in a barrel, of course, but Nebuchadnezzar throws in a twist: he doesn’t say what the dream was. Everyone in the wisdom industry is sweating bullets, but God tells Daniel what the dream was and how to interpret it. After this coup, Daniel and his friends get a big promotion.

The Fiery Furnace

Did I mention that Daniel’s friends are named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Once you know that, you probably know what’s coming. I did, anyway, partly because it’s such a well-known story that it penetrated even my lack of religious consciousness, and partly because – you will not hear this next phrase uttered very often – I am quite fond of George Dyson's 1935 oratorio Nebuchadnezzar. What happens is, the king commissions a huge golden idol and requires all of the movers and shakers to worship it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego try to quietly avoid the issue, but there are tattletales about and Nebuchadnezzar pushes the point. If they won’t worship his idol, he says, he will throw them into the furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar living as a beast, as imagined by William Blake

Their response: O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. (3:16-17) That’s exactly the kind of response calculated to piss a king off, so after ordering the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual (a preparation you would expect to be as unnecessary as it is impossible) he tosses them in. They survive, walking around the furnace with a fourth person whom Nebuchadnezzar takes to be an angel.  (From images of the event online, many people clearly take the fourth guy to be Jesus Christ, which seems like it might be more theologically innovative then they realize.  But maybe not.)  The king is so impressed by all this that he writes Daniel 4 in (mostly) first person, telling how he lost his mind and lived as an animal for seven years, but then his sanity was restored and he became a committed… how to say it… worshiper of the God of Abraham, is perhaps the best way to put it. Which is kind of surprising.

Also surprising, when you think about it, is the confidence of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that God will save their physical selves, and also that they are right. Obviously, we ought not to expect that God will do the same for us, even if we are quite devout, as witness the sufferings of all the thousands and thousands of saints.

The Handwriting on the Wall

Anyway, Daniel 5 is the famous story of the writing on the wall. I’ve always been a little confused by this one; now, after reading the text, I am confused in a slightly more informed sort of way. In a nutshell: Nebuchadnezzar has a real Edgar Alan Poe moment and sees a hand writing “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres” on his wall. According to the footnotes, this might mean something along the lines of “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided,” but Daniel the interpreter says it means that God is angry with Nebuchadnezzar for still paying attention to idols, and so his time is up. Nebuchadnezzar, surprisingly, rewards Daniel richly for his interpretation, and is promptly killed and replaced with Darius the Mede.

In the Babylonian record, as I understand it, Nubuchadnezzar did not have any period of madness, and was followed by his son Amel-Marduk after his death. Six years and two additional kings later, Nabonidus would be the last King of Babylon. He spent an extended period away from the capital, and was replaced with Cyrus the Persian, so may have been blended in with the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar a little. Bottom line: although “seeing the writing on the wall” is a good way of saying “the jig is up,” and although the image of a king aghast at the nightmare image of a hand writing on his walls is a good ‘un, it is really hard to figure out what’s going on in this story.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ezekiel 40-48: The Vision of the Future Temple

Ezekiel 40 through 48 are our last nine chapters with the “son of man,” and make up one continuous narrative sequence. It’s a vision. In it, God plucks Ezekiel up from Babylon, carries him back to Israel, and shows him the plan for the temple, city, and country that he wants the Israelites to build, once they return. It’s a little bit like a return to the books of Moses, because we once again see god as architect and social engineer, explaining how he wants everything laid out.

When Ezekiel is first set down, he meets “a man whose appearance was like bronze” (3), which unfortunately made me visualize… well, I won’t say, why should I pass it on to you? Anyway, the bronze guy gives Ezekiel a detailed, measured tour of a new temple. This, with some digressions, takes up four full chapters, with passages like:

Now the upper rooms were narrower, for the galleries took more space from them than from the rooms on the lower and middle floors of the building. The rooms on the third floor had no pillars, as the courts had; so they were smaller in floor space than those on the lower and middle floors. There was an outer wall parallel to the rooms and the outer court; it extended in front of the rooms for fifty cubits. (42:5-7) 
And so on. It would be kind of fun to map out the temple from this verbal description, but then a lot of things would be fun, and I’m sure plenty of folks have beaten us to the punch anyway. Chapter 44 lays out the rules for the priests of the temple, including how they are supposed to dress, what their duties are, and whom they may marry. It also mentions that the east-facing gate of the temple sanctuary is to remain permanently closed. That’s the door God came in through, and nobody gets to use it but him. After a few digressions, Chapters 45 and 46 return to use of the temple, particularly the matter of sacrifices and how much of which animals and crops are to be sacrificed.

The digressions are interesting, too. One is an earnest plea for a well-regulated system of weights and measures, something we have seen intermittently throughout the Bible. Then, Ezekiel 46: 16-18 segregates the wealth of “the prince” – the prince, presumably representing a new or re-established line of kings, is mentioned repeatedly throughout this vision – from that of the people. The prince is not allowed to give gifts out of his own fortune, nor is he allowed to take from the possessions of the people. (If that sounds like a terrific tax holiday, keep in mind that the sacrifice system takes a great deal of wealth from everybody, and although the sacrifices are given to God, they are eaten by the priestly class.)

At the beginning of Chapter 45, then continuing from the middle of Chapter 47 to the conclusion, the geography of the new Israel is drawn out. Anticipating Thomas Jefferson by I do not know how many centuries, Ezekiel divides out the land is suspiciously tidy squares and rectangles. There’s a rectangle about 3 by 7 miles centered on the temple, and given over to the use of the priests. Next to that, there is a smaller square for the city, which I suppose must be Jerusalem (although the final line of the Book of Ezekiel is “And the name of the city from that time on will be: The Lord is There.” It would not surprise me if Jerusalem is a pun on this phrase; that’s how place names tend to work in the Old Testament.)

The prince is given a fat chunk of land around this core; that’s where his wealth is going to come from, and why he is not supposed to need to raise levies from the people. Around this, the territory of the twelve tribes is laid out in a rough five by two grid, and the boundaries of the country specified in surprising detail. It is all very exact and geometric, and this makes me wonder if it ever could have been put into practice in even its most general rudiments. I’m thinking probably not.

I’ve left out only the river from Chapter 47. The bronze man shows Ezekiel a little stream coming out from under the temple. They walk a few kilometers and it rapidly deepens into a substantial river. The bronze man tells him that this river will flow down to the Dead Sea and make the salt water fresh, that it will be abundant with many kinds of fish, and that fruit trees will grow abundantly on its banks. It’s quite a lovely vision of life-giving water in the desert, and I’m uncertain about what it is supposed to mean. Whether it is meant to represent a literal river, or some sort of metaphorical river, I am quite unsure.