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.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Ezekiel 33-39: Justice, Sheep and Shepherds, Bright Futures, and... Reanimated Skeletons

In the first twenty verses of Ezekiel 33, God lays out a theory of justice to the “son of man.” First, through a “watchman” metaphor, he says that a person who allows someone else to do wrong out of ignorance is themselves culpable of the wrongdoing. Secondly, he indicates that righteousness is not entirely cumulative. If you’ve done a lot of bad stuff, in other words, you can still get credit for cleaning up your act. If you’ve been very good, on the other hand, you can’t coast; you have to keep up the good work to stay in God’s good graces. Finally, God judges everyone individually, “according to his own ways.” (20)

At Verse 21, Ezekiel 33 changes course and talks about what will happen to the Judeans remaining in Jerusalem. Because they violated dietary laws, worshipped idols, shed blood, and slept with their neighbors’ wives, they are out of favor. “As surely as I live, those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague.” (28) Now it must be said that when God talks like this, it doesn’t really sound like everyone is being judged individually, according to his own ways. But perhaps it’s a kind of shorthand, or generalization: “those left in the ruins who are unrighteous, which is an awful lot of them, will fall by the sword,” etc.

Ezekiel 34 is a long analogy involving shepherds and sheep, which eventually gives up and admits that it is about the ruling class and the general citizenry. God holds “shepherds” accountable for the well-being of the “sheep,” and will treat them accordingly. Moreover, big powerful sheep are not to bully small, weaker sheep. And from Verse 25 to the end of the Chapter, God indicates that he is going to set up a lovely agricultural paradise for the House of Israel to live in again.

In Chapter 35, Ezekiel is told to prophecy doom against Edom (again, I think) for opportunistic occupation of the territory of the Israelites after their kingdoms had been uprooted by larger neighbors. In Chapter 36, he speaks to the mountains of Israel, assuring them that the Israelites will return to their land to rebuild, saved from their uncleanliness.

Then we get to Ezekiel 37, which is seriously strange. God takes the prophet to a valley that is littered with human bones. There is a rattling noise, and the bones reassemble into skeletons, attach together, and are covered with skin. Then God has Ezekiel speak some words, and the skeletons come to life and stand up, a great host of the risen.
13Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’ ”

Whether this is just an analogy for the return from exile, or something much more supernatural, I’m at a loss to say. Then, in the second half of the chapter, Ezekiel is to bind together sticks representing Judah and Israel to indicate that this split of the chosen people is no longer relevant. There will never be two kingdoms again, but only a single king. Oddly, the text specifies (twice) that from now on, all the Israelites will be ruled by King David, who has been dead for many, many generations. Again, I’m not sure if this is meant to be read as literal and supernatural, or as some sort of metaphor.

Chapters 38 and 39 are prophecies against a warlord named Gog of Magog. God, through Ezekiel, declares that he will cause Gog to try to invade the land of the Israelites while they are away, but then cause them to be crushed utterly for doing so. The mass grave of the dead invaders will make a barrier to travelers. Indeed, it will take seven months to get all of Gog’s dead buried, and the folks living around will be able to use the wood of their weapons as cooking fuel for seven years. Birds and wild animals are promised a great feast of blood and human flesh. This is all very bad news for the Magog troops, of course, but at the end we see that here, too, the ultimate message is the forgiveness and rehabilitation of the Israelites:
25“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name. 26They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me when they lived in safety in their land with no one to make them afraid. 27When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of many nations. 28Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. 29I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the people of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #5: Ezekiel 25:17

It is absurd that, out of the 197 Verses I read for Monday, the random number generator would give me Ezekiel 25:17 to work with on Inspirational Thursday.  But there you have it.

Here, again, is the Quentin Tarentino Version (QTV) translation of Ezekiel 25:17.

But as I mentioned on Monday, that isn't really Ezekiel 25:17.  That's three lines Tarentino paraphrased from a kung-fu movie, followed by a kind of garbled Ezekiel 25:17.  Well, the character of Jules in Pulp Fiction may be one $&*@#% articulate assassin, but you can't expect him to be a stickler for Bible study.

Here's Zeke 25:17 for real: I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them. It is a very clear example of what I was complaining about on Monday, actually -- that it is discouraging to have God, who is supposed to be setting a high moral tone, portrayed as glorying in revenge and punishment.

For Context:

A Prophecy Against Philistia

15 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, 16 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. 17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’”
Here we see that the verse is not, as so many people assume, about Brett's theft of a glowing suitcase from Mr. Wallace, but rather about God's destruction of the city and kingdom of Philistia, a neighbor and sometimes rival of Judea.

It's hard to know how to upstage Samuel L. Jackson with my inspirational image, but the isolated text is definitely about vengeance and the accompanying picture shouldn't be too upbeat.  Let's see what I can find.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25-32: Bad News for the Neighbors

Starting at Ezekiel 25, we return to a theme that we have seen with our earlier prophets: the Israelites are doomed, but all of the peoples are around them are too. (see eg. Isaiah 17-24)  Ezekiel delivers the bad news to the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Philistines (25); to Tyre, (26-28); to Sidon (28); and to Egypt (29-32). The section on Tyre includes a “lament” (27) with an interesting section describing all of the merchandise that flowed through that port, and where it came from, which amounts to a little economic geography of the contemporary Levant. Cool! Chapter 31 is an allegory that, in the NIV, is incorrectly titled “Pharoah as a Felled Cedar of Lebanon.” The Felled Cedar of Lebanon actually represents Assyria, in a story meant to unnerve Pharoah. (Read Verses 3 and 18 if you don’t believe me.) It’s kind of surprising to find this kind of editorial mistake in a text as thoroughly-studied as the Bible, for crying out loud, but maybe the scatteredness of the “Lebanese cedar, Assyrian state, Egyptian king” passage threw the NIV committee off their game.

Anyway. With prophecy, it is always reasonable to ask “did it come true.” With the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians (?), and Sidonites (??), the answer is of course “maybe! Who knows?” There don’t seem to be many folks around these days who describe themselves as Moabites, for instance. Egyptians are of another stripe altogether, however, and although of course the nation has had its ups and downs over the millennia, there has always been an Egypt. The extravagant capacity of the Nile Valley to produce food has made it a global center of population since before the first harvest. And this makes many of the specifics about Egypt (e.g. “Egypt will become a desolate wasteland” (29:9)) essentially wrong. (If you are into forensic climatology, and who isn’t really, there is a counterargument that could be made here based on the historical aridification of the Sahara.  But, the rightness of that argument is pretty thin relative to the entire prophecy’s wrongness.)

The most famous quotation from Ezekiel in many circles. Not, however, an actual quotation from
Ezekiel.  The verse in question, with the King James language, reads "And I will execute
great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the
LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them." Ezekiel 25:16, the preceding verse, goes
"Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines,
and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast."  Tarantino
got the first three sentences from a kung-fu movie, which should surprise no one.
 I haven’t mentioned this before, but there is a catchphrase that shows up again and again in Ezekiel, and I wince every time I see it. It shows up after almost every prophecy of doom. Here it is in reference to what’s coming for the Philistines: “Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them.” (17) Why the wince? Well, it’s just such a sulking, childish thing to say. It boils down to “Ha, THAT will show them!” When a fellow adult human talks like that, you’re embarrassed for them, both for their vindictiveness and for their failure to understand human psychology. So, it’s pretty uncomfortable having that language placed in God’s mouth. I understand that God is said to surpass human understanding, and it’s even a logical proposition, but I also recognize petty ignorance when I see it, and so do you.

Honestly, I’m feeling a little bit let down by Ezekiel. He got off to such a great start! And now he’s just another pessimistic political commentator with a conservative agenda and a passion for bringing bad news. One suspects that, then as now, such folks are a shekel a dozen.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #4: Ezekiel 23:48

Here's the verse that the good folks at pointed us towards this week:

“So I will put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not imitate you.”
– Ezekiel 23:48
Taken in isolation, and assuming that "I" is God, this sounds something like a good old-fashioned call to "family values," as they are defined by the more priggish families.  It has a whiff of slut-shaming about it.  That's how it seems to me, anyway.

Let's look at it again in local context:
42 “The noise of a carefree crowd was around her; drunkards were brought from the desert along with men from the rabble, and they put bracelets on the wrists of the woman and her sister and beautiful crowns on their heads. 43 Then I said about the one worn out by adultery, ‘Now let them use her as a prostitute, for that is all she is.’ 44 And they slept with her. As men sleep with a prostitute, so they slept with those lewd women, Oholah and Oholibah. 45 But righteous judges will sentence them to the punishment of women who commit adultery and shed blood, because they are adulterous and blood is on their hands.

46 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Bring a mob against them and give them over to terror and plunder. 47 The mob will stone them and cut them down with their swords; they will kill their sons and daughters and burn down their houses.

48 “So I will put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not imitate you. 49 You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.”

Now this is of course deeply unpleasant stuff, and an example of why, as I mentioned on Monday, an informed response to Old Testament prophecy would have to be more along the lines of the fear of a angry and jealous God, as opposed to an embracing of the love and mercy of God.  For the Sovereign Lord who proposes to give people "over to terror and plunder" is frankly not coming across as very loving, or very merciful.

Except, local context hasn't really clarified our verse of the week either, because Ezekiel 23 is actually a long political cartoon in which "those lewd women, Oholah and Oholibah," represent Samaria and Jerusalem in the time before the Babylonian exile.  God isn't condemning two women to terror and plunder, but two countries.  And the approximate meaning of Verse 48, finally, is that God plans for the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem to show that lewdness in a nation is not to be tolerated, and that the countries of the world will take note of this example and clean up their act.

These subtleties don't really come across in my inspirational image.