Saturday, July 24, 2010

Isaiah 35-41: Biblical Reruns

Chapter 35: This Chapter seems to carry on from Isaiah 34, which was largely about the destruction of Moab in a “day of vengeance” (8). But Isaiah is back on his Utopian theme here, describing an abundant landscape, a healing of the sick, lame, and blind, and the building of a holy highway, a safe and convenient road that only righteous people will be able to travel on.


Chapter 36: Up to this point, the Book of Isaiah has been rather loosely structured, one prophecy following another with very little context. Suddenly, in Chapter 36, a narrative breaks out! It’s the story of how the Assyrian king Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem and… hey, waitaminute! We’ve read this story before! Back in 2 Kings, when we were reading about King Hezekiah! In fact, Isaiah 36 is essentially identical to 2 Kings 18:17-37, with only a couple of words changed.

Chapter 37: Isaiah 37 is the same as 2 Kings 19. What we're talking about, incidentally, is the story of how an Assyrian commander offers the population of Jerusalem a choice between assimilation and extinction, but God intervenes by slaying 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their sleep.

Chapter 38: The first three verses of Isaiah 38, about King Hezekiah’s illness and Isaiah’s prophecy first of his death, then of his recovery – which is typical Isaiah, prophesying both ways – are identical to the first three verses of 2 Kings 20. Then, Isaiah 38:4-8 is essentially a paraphrase (or vice versa, I suppose) or 2 Kings 20:3-11. Then we’re back into original material, with a long passage of thanks and humility said to have been written by Hezekiah after his illness.

Chapter 39: Isaiah 39 is the same as 2 Kings 20:12-19. It is a darkly funny story, really, in which the King of Babylon sends an envoy to Hezekiah, having heard he hadn’t been feeling well. Hezekiah, pleased by the attention, gives the envoys a tour of all the riches and treasures of his kingdom. Afterwards, Isaiah asks Hezekiah what he showed the representatives of the powerful, expansive neighboring empire, and Hezekiah, perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed, says “There is nothing among my treasures I did not show them” (4). Then Isaiah makes a prophecy to the effect that – I paraphrase here – “We’re screwed. Babylon is going to conquer us and haul us and all our loot back to their capital.” This is a prophecy that turns out to be correct, but it would probably not have been a difficult prophecy for a savvy thinker of the time to have come up with, having heard or Hezekiah’s indiscretion.

New material!

Chapter 40: A Psalm-like meditation on the greatness of God and the insignificance of humans, nations, and the material world in comparison with Him.

Chapter 41: A sort of pep talk, delivered first-person in the voice of God, indicating that He will protect Israel and reduce all of its enemies to ashes. Also, a challenge to other gods and their priests and idols to try to show their worth and power by predicting the future.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Isaiah 25-34: More From Isaiah

I know very little about the long, long process in which decisions were made about what material is in the Bible and what material is not in the Bible. But as I read, I am always thinking about what an odd, fragmentary, and disorganized collection of documents it is. The stereotypical evangelist who encourages people to regard the capital-B Bible as a small-b bible, a coherent and comprehensible guide to theology, metaphysics, and/or right behavior, would be in serious trouble if the flock actually tried to engage with the whole of this massive and massively opaque text. Well, either that, or I’m way behind the curve in terms of my reading aptitude.

Take the case of Isaiah. He is regarded, I gather, as one of the great prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and he is given a huge amount of Biblical real estate -- about 5% of the Christian Bible, in fact. But now that we are well into his section, we see that it consists of little more than an elaborate precedent for the preacher of fire and brimstone. He has three basic messages: 1 – Israel is doomed, 2 – Israel (or the remnants of Israel) is going to have a utopian golden age, and 3 – all of the other nations of the Earth are doomed (although there are exceptions here, too). God will inflict endless punishments on Israel because his goodness, mercy, and might are not being worshiped in the proper fashion.

The prophet Isaiah is, in short, incoherent. He is also tedious and repetitive, which I suppose doesn’t disqualify him from a book of religious texts, but it’s hardly a recommendation. He seems at times a little crazy, especially when he says that God told him to run around naked. And, to cap it off, his prophecies are short-term affairs – he is explicitly interested in and making predictions about the current events of the day, “the day” being nearly 3000 years ago. So why is this guy in my Bible, which was printed in 1983? What am I supposed to get from him that will enhance my understanding of God or make me a better person? When State Senators from conservative states announce their literal belief of every word in the Bible, are they saying that they believe there is a meaningful literal truth, or even a meaningful abstracted truth, to be found in the swirling, rash thunderings of Jerusalem’s naked prophet? I am honestly baffled about this, and would be very interested to learn what it is people are seeing in here that I am not.

But enough of my frustration. Here’s the rundown:

Chapter 25: Isaiah praises God for his military power and mercy for the poor. He predicts a wonderful utopian age for all peoples – except for those of Moab, who will be trampled under him as straw is trampled down in the manure. (10)

Chapter 26: A song of praise that will be sung when the utopian age comes. It would not be out of place is Psalms. It includes this odd passage: But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. (19) Taken at face value, Isaiah seems to be prophesying zombies here.

Chapter 27: An especially difficult chapter. It begins with a prophecy of God killing a sea monster. Then there is an unattributed quotation – another song? – followed by what seems to be a prediction of Israelite world domination after God humbles all of the enemy nations. But it is not entirely clear.

Chapter 28: A prediction of God’s destruction of the people of Ephraim, who are all a bunch of drunks. Abuse of people who don’t respect prophets. A complicated agricultural metaphor, the point of which escapes me.

Chapter 29: Prediction of doom for Jerusalem. More abuse of people who don’t understand prophets. The assertion that once Jerusalem is good and humbled, the good Israelites who have proper respect for God and understanding of prophets will be very well off.

Chapter 30: Not unlike Chapter 29, with some interesting particular points. First of all, there is some added abuse for Israelites who “go down to Egypt.” Isaiah is living at a time when the Israelite kingdoms are being squeezed between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent empires, and no doubt emigration to Egypt seemed like a smart, safe choice to people with the resources or marketable skills to make it a viable choice. Isaiah and other Israelites staying behind would obviously resent the outward flow of wealth and talent.

Isaiah 30:9-14 is a memorable example of Isaiah’s complaints about how people don’t listen to prophets:
9 These are rebellious people, deceitful children,
children unwilling to listen to the LORD's instruction.

10 They say to the seers,
"See no more visions!"
and to the prophets,
"Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
prophesy illusions.

11 Leave this way,
get off this path,
and stop confronting us
with the Holy One of Israel!"

12 Therefore, this is what the Holy One of Israel says:
"Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,

13 this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.

14 It will break in pieces like pottery,
shattered so mercilessly
that among its pieces not a fragment will be found
for taking coals from a hearth
or scooping water out of a cistern."

That this can be read as a self-serving thing for Isaiah to say is perhaps too obvious to bear mentioning.

Finally, the chapter ends with a description of something that sounds kind of like the traditional notion of “Hell” – the first allusion to this concept I remember seeing here in the Good Book:
33 Topheth has long been prepared;
it has been made ready for the king.
Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,
with an abundance of fire and wood;
the breath of the LORD,
like a stream of burning sulfur,
sets it ablaze.
Of course, it’s typical to think of Hell – if this is indeed supposed to be Hell – as tended by “The Devil,” not by the breath of the Lord. Perhaps this will become clearer as we go.

Chapter 31: More invective against emigration:
1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD.
Chapter 32: A long series of tautologies: the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed (3) and the fool speaks folly (6) and so on. A culturally-specific style of rhetoric, perhaps? Then, the women of Jerusalem are enjoined to begin mourning now for a devastation that will occur within the year, which is described in a long torrent of bleak imagery.

Chapter 33: Another Chapter that would be unobtrusive in Psalms. Praise of God’s power, predictions of woe for the unrighteous, promises of safety and prosperity for the righteous, and vague metaphors implying the eventual triumph of Jerusalem.

Chapter 34: An announcement that God is angry with all of the nations, followed by a specific prediction of doom for Edom. Eleven verses of imagery describing just how very desolate Edom is going to be, once God is done with it.

NEXT: More Isaiah!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Isaiah 17-24: Bad News for [Your Kingdom Here]!!

Isaiah 17

Predictions -- an "oracle," actually, although that word seems oddly Greek-mythological to be popping up here -- of the doom of Damascus. Chockablock with vague details and metaphors.

Isaiah 18

Apparently, threats of agricultural failure to the people along the rivers of Cush,

which sends envoys by sea
in papyrus boats over the water.
Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers.
Isaiah 19

Predictions of civil war and external conquest of Egypt, in which all classes of society will suffer. In that day the Egyptians will be like women (10), which is to say fearful and cringing. Shortly after this, the Egyptians will convert to worship of God, and God will respond by striking them with a plague and then healing them (He works, I have been told, in mysterious ways). Egypt, Assyria, and Israel will all live in peace, all worshiping together.

Isaiah 20

In the shorter term future, Assyria will lay a beating on Egypt and Cush and lead their captives away with buttocks bared. This particular prophecy, incidentally, was made during a period when Isaiah, the great Old Testament prophet, was going around naked because God had told him to (2). Does this enhance his credibility? You make the call!

Isaiah 21

Mostly rambling and, frankly, not-especially-coherent prophecies of colorful bad doings in Babylon, Edom, and Arabia. It ends, however, with a highly specific prophecy that Kedar will be destroyed as a major power within one year. Hmm. I don't know whether that one came true or not. I'm pretty sure Kedar isn't a major power now.

Isaiah 22

Another prophecy packed with strange and vague analogies and details, but the upshot is that Jerusalem will be doomed because of a combination of poor leadership, outdated defenses, and of course the wrath of God. God, in this prophecy, is disappointed by the lack of a proper mood of despair in the populace, and has formulated the city's downfall accordingly.
12 The Lord, the LORD Almighty,
called you on that day
to weep and to wail,
to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.
13 But see, there is joy and revelry,
slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
eating of meat and drinking of wine!
"Let us eat and drink," you say,
"for tomorrow we die!"
Isaiah 23

God will crush the prosperous merchant town of Tyre to punish pride. After seventy years go by, though, she will return to her hire as prostitute (17) -- the general vibe in the Old Testament is never exactly pro-business -- except from then on all of the profits will be set aside for God and his followers.

Isaiah 24

OK, no doubt you are comfortably pitying those hapless MiddleEasterners of millenia back whom these prophecies all seem to menace. But don't get too comfortable.
1 See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth
and devastate it;
he will ruin its face
and scatter its inhabitants-
2 it will be the same
for priest as for people,
for master as for servant,
for mistress as for maid,
for seller as for buyer,
for borrower as for lender,
for debtor as for creditor.
3 The earth will be completely laid waste
and totally plundered.
The LORD has spoken this word.
Details follow, but "completely laid waste" pretty much covers it.
17 Terror and pit and snare await you,
O people of the earth.
18 Whoever flees at the sound of terror
will fall into a pit;
whoever climbs out of the pit
will be caught in a snare.
The floodgates of the heavens are opened,
the foundations of the earth shake.
And as this happens,
23 The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed;
for the LORD Almighty will reign
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and before its elders, gloriously.
Although who will be left to reign over and whether anyone will be around to appreciate all the glory is and open question.

Whether Isaiah was wearing any clothes while making this particular prophecy is not specified.

Next: I don't know, but I'm guessing that doom is involved.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Isaiah 11-16: There Goes the Neighborhood

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom.  It's pretty unlikely that Hicks, a Quaker, would have bought into the more bellicose aspects of today's section of Isaiah, but this painting certainly epitomizes the whole 'wolf will live with the lamb' business.
Isaiah 11-12 offer more of what is I guess the roots of the messianic tradition in Judaism and Christianity. It begins by saying, famously I think, that "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse," and describes a figure of great wisdom who shall usher in an era of peace and glory, striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and slaying the wicked with the breath of his lips (11:4). Under this guy's leadership, everyone will get along; the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat (11:6), and the cow will feed with the bear. (11:7) All of the rivalries within the Israelite kingdoms will vanish, and everyone will live together in peace.

Well, everyone who's anyone, that is. While the Israelites are enjoying their love-fest,
14 They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
So it's not really a vision of universal peace so much as one of God trying for the umpteenth time to get his chosen people to get their ducks in a row and to lay off of the Azeroth worship. Isaiah 12 is basically a suggested song of thanks and praise, ready for use when the big day comes.

Bad News for the Neighbors

Throughout the first dozen chapters of Isaiah we've seen a real duality of predictions concerning Israel. In some cases, Isaiah is predicting some serious suffering for the Israelites, in other cases he's predicting an eventual, if possibly rather far off, happy ending.

Beginning with Chapter 13, Isaiah turns his attention from the Israelites themselves to their neighbors and enemies. In these cases, the predictions are pretty much always grim, grim, grim. The twenty-two verses of Chapter 13 itself spell out the future for Babylon, and man, it doesn't look good.
9 See, the day of the LORD is coming
—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.

15 Whoever is captured will be thrust through;
all who are caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.

19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the glory of the Babylonians' pride,
will be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 She will never be inhabited
or lived in through all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there,
no shepherd will rest his flocks there.
21 But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.
22 Hyenas will howl in her strongholds,
jackals in her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.
All of this is to be regarded as a good thing. In Isaiah 14, Verses 4 through 23 are -- explicitly -- as a long and, it must be said, rather smug taunt to be hurled at the King of Babylon when all of the dire events list above transpire. No, really. Look it up if you don't believe me. (The Bible has all sorts of weird stuff in it. How could I ever have come up with something like that?)

The rest of Chapter 14 is a prophecy of doom for Assyria...
I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.
...followed by a prophecy of doom against the Phillistines...
Wail, O gate! Howl, O city!
Melt away, all you Philistines!
A cloud of smoke comes from the north,
and there is not a straggler in its ranks.
And Isaiah 15 & 16 are prophecies of doom against Moab....
1 An oracle concerning Moab:
Ar in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
Kir in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
2 Dibon goes up to its temple,
to its high places to weep;
Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba.
Every head is shaved
and every beard cut off.
3 In the streets they wear sackcloth;
on the roofs and in the public squares
they all wail,
prostrate with weeping.

5 My heart cries out over Moab;
her fugitives flee as far as Zoar,
as far as Eglath Shelishiyah.
They go up the way to Luhith,
weeping as they go;
on the road to Horonaim
they lament their destruction.
...and I note, looking ahead, that other kingdoms are lined up for prophecies of doom as the reading continues.

Biblical Prophecies in Long-Term Perspective

It's tough not to read these ancient prophecies of the future of the Middle East and not think about contemporary events in the region. And as you can see from the magazines at your supermarket's check-out line, any can can mangle the prophecies and the events together in such a way that, say, Isaiah 13 must be about the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Well. I strongly recommend against getting too excited about this kind of interpretation. For one thing, the details don't line up with known historical events in anything but the most tenuous fashion, and that seems important when you are evaluating prophecy. Secondly, there is every appearance that Isaiah himself was expecting all that he predicted to happen pretty much right away -- indeed, he specifies that the fall of the Moabites will happen within three years of his vision (16:14), not 3000 years.

But let's say you want to grant Isaiah a great deal of poetic licence about the details of his prophecies, and suppose too that he simply didn't understand the depth of time involved in the visions that God sent him. In that case, the problem is just that in any place that is continuously inhabited for thousands of years, there will be some dark days and some golden years. Sure, Babylon fell. It has fallen lots of times, up to and including the suffering of today's Baghdad. Every very old city has fallen from time to time. Take "Babylon" out of the prophecy and replace it with "Paris" or "Rome" or "Japan" or "Cuba," and Isaiah's vision works just as well.

In other words, if your prophecies survive long enough, it's easy to be a successful prophet. I, Michael5000, predict that the city that you are currently living in will be struck by great sorrow and destruction sometime in the next 3000 years. And I'm right! I double-dog guarantee it. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news. (If it makes you feel any better, there will also be an era of peace and prosperity.)

NEXT: More prophecies of doom!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Isaiah 8-10: Prophecies of Punishments

Isaiah's fiery sermonizing in these three chapters is very much akin to what we have seen so far in his Book: dire predictions of the doom that awaits Judah at the hands of the Assyrians.

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Isaiah goes to someone called "the prophetess" -- her identity is not further explained -- and she conceived and gave birth to a son. He announces that before the child learns to speak, Israel will be destroyed by the Assyrian Empire as punishment for its centuries of failure to toe the line. So, I was a little fast off the blocks last week with the idea that Isaiah 7:14-15 was a flawed prophecy of the coming of Christ; it turns out that this is a different virgin birth. Apparently they are a little more common than I realized.

Isaiah is a demanding preacher, asking of his listeners two things that are not easily reconciled: to turn to God as their protector and to be in awe of the might and wrath of God as he destroys their society.

13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
14 and he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
Or again:
17 I will wait for the LORD,
who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.
To put it simply: "God is going to inflict terrible punishments on you; turn to God for comfort and protection." It is a hard message.

Isaiah 9: A Happy Ending! Someday.

Isaiah 9 returns, at first, to a theme we saw earlier where a time of permanent peace and prosperity is promised for unspecified future times. Slaves will be freed and all of the military gear will be destroyed. Why? Here's why:
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Is this a prediction of the coming of Christ? Handel apparently thought so, and nailed one of the great choral settings of all time in the Messiah. Having been burned last week, though, I am a little suspicious about predictions involving infants. It's worth mentioning, as well, that the government was in fact never on the shoulders of the notariously antiauthoritarian Jesus Christ, so except for the self-fulfilling aspects the prophecy does not actually fit the facts. But I suppose I'm getting ahead of the story, here.

In any event, the prophecy of the child to come is only two verses of interlude, after which we return to God's fury at the Israelites:
12 his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised.
13 But the people have not returned to him who struck them,
nor have they sought the LORD Almighty.
19 By the wrath of the LORD Almighty
the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
no one will spare his brother.
Isaiah 10: Being Assyrian Won't Help

The Assyrians, say God, are the rod of my anger, and as we've discussed his plan is to use their military expansion to show the Israelites what's what. And indeed, they swoop in and crush Israel proper on more or less the timeline anticipated by Isaiah. Judah is a different matter, and staggers along in an increasingly decrepit state for several more generations before it is eventually destroyed.

Does this mean that the Assyrians have found favor in God's eyes? Why no, it does not.
12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.
So God's intent, then, is to use the Assyrians and then dispose of them as well, destroying their army with disease and their sacred artwork with fire. When that happens, a tiny remnant of the Israelites will be able to escape from Assyrian slavery and return to their homeland. Isaiah 10:20-34 goes into great detail about the return of the Israelites from captivity, just as we have already seen in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah would happen a few generations after the fall of Judah. It is suggested, although not stated, that this return to the Promised Land is the utopian future promised by passages like the first verses of Isaiah 9. But that clearly can't be right, because you and I live after the end of the Babylonian exile and we are still waiting for our universal peace and prosperity. At least, I think we are.

NEXT: 56 more Chapters of Isaiah! But not all at once!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Isaiah 5 – 7: Prophecies and Problems

Isaiah 5: Wine and Woe

Isaiah 5 begins with the “Song of the Vineyard,” which starts out nicely as a poem about how My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside (1) and how he put a lot of work into the planting and the farm buildings and such. But the grapes turn out sour, so of course he destroys the farm and its buildings and renders it a wasteland where nothing can grow. This is not a variation on the “sour grapes” fable, but rather an analogy. Isaiah spells it out: the vineyard is Judah, and because the Israelites have turned out so badly, God is going to tear down his farm.

The remainder of the chapter is an extensive list of people to whom woe will come. These include:

  • Partiers -- Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine (11)

  • Skeptics -- to those who who say “Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it….” (19)

  • Barflies and Bartenders -- Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks… (22)

  • Perjurers -- who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.” (23)

  • Wiseasses -- Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (21)
I’m a little nervous about that last one.

There is also a strong note of hostility to the wealthy in Isaiah. The list of ne’er-do-wells begins, in fact, with
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.”
So if you had been inclined to dismiss Isaiah’s prophecies, keep in mind that not only did Judah in fact fall to foreign nations (as he predicts in 5:26-30), but he even seems to have anticipated the current crisis in the luxury housing market.

Isaiah 6: Whence Isaiah?

The Book of Isaiah didn't really have an introduction; it just began with Isaiah laying down some prophecy and woe. In Isaiah 6 we back up a little, and Isaiah tells us how he got his job. Apparently a few years back, he had a powerful vision of God and an entourage in the temple. During this experience, an angel – well, a “seraph” – put a hot coal in his mouth, and told him that this atoned for his sins. Then God charged him with the following mission:

9 He said, "Go and tell this people:
" 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed."
He is supposed to do this until Judah and Israel are destroyed, at which point a better Israel will emerge from the metaphorical or literal ashes of the first.

Now, I understand the idea here. God has a long-term plan that needs to be carried out, and things need to happen according to plan so that all will turn out for the best, or at least the way God wants it to turn out. The interesting thing, though, is that to judge from the preceding five chapters, Isaiah is doing the exact opposite of what God told him to do. He’s actually warning the people, trying to get them to mend their ways! He wants them to perceive and understand! So, I’m either missing the joke or God and Isaiah are not working from the same playbook. Indeed, Isaiah’s actions taken at face value suggest that he’s trying to protect Israel from God. That’s some serious hubris!

Isaiah 7: Two Prophesies About Israel

Isaiah has often predicted that Judah would eventually be swallowed up by its larger neighbors, which is in fact what happened. In Chapter 7, Judah is threatened by two an alliance of Aram and Ephraim, and the king – Ahaz, at this point – is pretty nervous about the situation. Isaiah goes to him and tells him that God says not to worry, Aram and Ephraim are small potatoes. It’s Egypt and Assyria that Judah needs to be concerned about; they will eventually crush Judah, but not quite yet. (It’s worth mentioning here that the growing power of Egypt and Assyria, and the likelihood of eventual annexation, must have pretty obvious to any local leader in the eastern Mediterranean in the time of Isaiah. Not to knock his gift for prophecy or anything.) He also predicts that the agricultural land of the Israelites will eventually become uncultivated wilderness. (This is in part true, and a far less obvious outcome at the time.)

Isaiah gets annoyed at Ahaz over what seems like a minor point of order, and in what seems like frustration issues another, stranger prophesy:
the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
Huh! That is very interesting in two ways to a guy from a Christian background. First, it is highly interesting that we seem to have stumbled rather randomly on an explicit prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ. Secondly, it’s not a very good prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ. The timing is way off. Jesus won’t arrive until far too late to be a sign to Ahaz, or for that matter until centuries after the Assyrians haul the Israelites into Babylonian exile.

So, does Isaiah’s prophecy establish a direct link between Old and New Testament? Or – if we are to be strict and literal – does Isaiah’s prophecy necessarily require for its fulfillment a virgin birth sometime in the decade or so directly preceding the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile? Mysteries!

NEXT: More similar mysteries, it looks like.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Isaiah 2-4: Judgement, Utopia, and Haughty Women

Michelangelo's Isaiah, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Isaiah in the Last Days

So! Isaiah 2 continues as a further transcript of the speeches of, who else? Isaiah! And in Verses 1 through 5, he makes good his reputation as a prophet by doing some good old-fashioned prophesying. Specifically, he speaks about the "last days," and it is a happy vision of the entire world turning to the Lord's temple in Jerusalem for binding arbitration of all disputes. These end times will apparently be pretty peaceful, and it is in Verse 4 that we get the famous quote they will beat their swords into plowshares. All the countries of the world will voluntarily demilitarize. It is a nice vision, but I feel obliged to bring up an inherent issue of "last days" prophecies -- they can not be disproven. No longer how continuously the prophecy goes wrong, as long as there's anyone around to read the prophecy, it's easy enough to say "well, obviously it just isn't the last days yet."

And hold on, anyway, because Verses 6 through 22 are much darker. They speak of how the Lord is truly pissed off about superstitions, divination, paganism, idols, and unorthodoxy in general, and has a day in store for all the proud and lofty (12) when the arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled. (17) When that day comes, says Isaiah, it will be best to throw away all you have and go hide in a cave.

Now, there's no indication of a timetable here, and the bit about the day of punishment comes after the bit about world peace, but I guess since the peace comes in the "last days," the punishment must by definition come before. Which brings up another problem with prophecy: he can be hard to tell if it has been fulfilled or not. The Earthquake of Lisbon, for instance, basically fulfills everything that Isaiah describes in Chapter 2. So, can we assume that (a) he was right and (b) we are over that hurdle now? Tough to say.

Isaiah 3 and 4

Next, Isaiah makes grim prophecies about the future of Judah and Jerusalem: See now, the Lord... is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support.... (3:1) He details all manner of nasty things that will happen to the city and its inhabitants, and of course history has proved him right on this score many times over, although perhaps not as quickly as the "about to" would have implied. He enumerates many specifics, and makes clear that the badness will happen because of God's anger: The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and the leaders of his people: "It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty. (3:14-15) That the punishment is itself a crushing and grinding of the faces of the people is kind of inexplicable, but that's the Old Testament for you.

Now, Isaiah is not what you would be likely to call a feminist. Here he is complaining about outrageous female behavior among the Israelites:

The Lord says,
"The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
flirting with their eyes,
tripping along with mincing steps,
with ornaments jingling on their ankles."

For this bad behavior, they are going to be punished with sores and all sorts of other bad business. Here's the run-down:
24 Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
instead of beauty, branding.
25 Your men will fall by the sword,
your warriors in battle.
26 The gates of Zion will lament and mourn;
destitute, she will sit on the ground.
4:1 In that day seven women
will take hold of one man
and say, "We will eat our own food
and provide our own clothes;
only let us be called by your name.
Take away our disgrace!"
And then -- rather suddenly it seems to me -- everything will be great. Isaiah 4 promises happiness, bounty, and peace for the survivors of the above troubles. There will be shelter from the heat of the day and from rainstorms, and the living will be good, just as soon as God has cleansed Jerusalem with a spirit of judgement and a spirit of fire and been able to wash away the filth of the women of Zion. (4:5) So! Something to look forward to, here in the prophecies of Isaiah!

NEXT: There are, I believe, 60 or 66 Chapters of Isaiah, and from the looks of things so far we're in for a real rollercoaster of doom and utopia. Onward!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Isaiah 1: Meet Isaiah!

So, I got transferred to a new job a few months ago, and between that and other items relating to home improvement and a million other things of no interest I have seriously lost traction with the Bible. Which is a real shame, as I had a lot of momentum going at the end of last year.

Truth be told, I have read the first chunk of the Book of Isaiah three times in the last few months. This time, I'm going to actually write something down. Whether this will kick off a stunning reemergence of Michael Reads the Bible as the best Bible blog that no one has ever heard of remains to be seen. But it can't hurt to move the ball forward a chapter.

The Book kicks off immediately with a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem experienced by Isaiah. It is a pessimistic but rather familiar vision, condemning the Israelites for their chronic waywardness and promising punishment a-plenty if they don't shape up. But it was a little hard for me to focus on this at first because, well, who is Isaiah, and why is he having visions? There's no introductory material, so I had to look back in my notes. I found that way back in 2 Chronicles 29-32 we read about Hezekiah, a king of Judah who rediscovered the Laws of Moses after what appeared to be a period of religious decline and reinstated real, by-the-Book Judaism. Well, Isaiah was the High Priest while all of this was going on. That gives us a context, and suddenly it makes sense that Isaiah would be having visions about the undesireability of religious backsliding.

Isaiah's complaints are many and mostly pretty vague: he rails against corruption, evil, evil deeds, poor treatment of widows and orphans, and forsaking of the Lord. But the most focused point of attack is against religious unorthodoxy:

"The multitude of your sacrifices -- what are they to me?" says the Lord.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats."
So wait a minute! Does this mean that God is telling Isaiah that he wants the Israelites (we've gone back in time to back before the Babylonian exile, so we're not talking about "Jews" anymore, but "Israelites" again -- well, I guess technically we're talking about "Judeans," but let's not get finicky.) to give up animal sacrifice? Because that would actually be a radical reversal from the Laws of Moses, which are in large part all about animal sacrifice. And the answer is no, God isn't angry about sacrifice in general, just that sacrifice is being done wrong.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -- I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
The Israelites have, it seems, gone all new age! They have a bunch of unsanctioned festivals and are ignoring the offical ones, they are sacrificing the wrong way at the wrong places and times, and they've made up a bunch of crazy new stuff that you won't find in Moses. You will be ashamed, thunders Isaiah, because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted. (1:29) And if they don't straighten up and fly right, says Isaiah, God will punish them mightily.

Back in 2 Chronicles, was read that after Hezekiah restored the Temple they weren't able to celebrate Passover the first year because nobody remembered how. Nobody understood the laws of ritual purity and cleanliness that are so central to the Laws of Moses, and a whole new generation of priests needed to be trained. Isaiah's initial rant lines up perfectly with this state of affairs. Whether Isaiah the priest and Hezekiah the king shared a common religious inspiration or at least a common agenda, or whether one of them had the other over a political barrel of some sort, is impossible to say. But, it seems like the religious and political leadership were very much on-message in this period of Judea's history.

NEXT: Hopefully relatively soon, we'll advance deeper into the Book of Isaiah. It's a long one, but hopefully we'll get this blog back into a rhythm! And by the end of the Book, I hope to be able to spell "Isaiah" without having to stop and check every time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Song of Songs

Well, I had been looking forward to the Song of Solomon -- or what my translation turns out to call the "Song of Songs" -- for obvious reasons. It is, after all, what a learned friend of mine recently referred to as "sexy time in the Bible." Yet, although it's never really my intent in this project to out-and-out critique the Bible -- it's not like I'm reviewing Avatar here -- I have to say that the Song of Songs is really something of a disappointment.

First of all, it is not nearly as sexy as its reputation. It's a poetic dialogue between the "Lover," the "Beloved," and a chorus of "Friends," and the presence of the Friends puts a fairly demure cap on any steaminess. There are a few vague gestures towards getting a little tipsy and getting out of town for the night, but the bulk of the dialogue consists of our lovers crafting various metaphors for each other or each other's body parts. Breasts are like twin baby gazelles, or towers, or clusters of fruit. Hair is like a flock of goats, or black as a raven, or like a royal tapestry, or like the fetters of a king. These are easy kinds of lists to make, and frankly a lot of the metaphors don't really transition well into the 21st Century:

Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate.
Your neck is like the tower of David, built with elegance;
On it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors.
There are good bits too, for instance:
Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love. (2:5)
But really, anybody can get bits of a love letter right if they approach it in the right spirit, and while these come-ons are of historic interest simply because they are so very old, they are hardly remarkable examples of the genre.

Secondly, why is this in my Bible? I mean, I've come to accept that the Bible is not (as billed) any kind of organized handbook of how to live a religious or virtuous or meaningful life. To this point, it has pretty much been a scrapbook of ancient Hebrew civilization. But even in this context, this mash note from Solomon to, well, whom? one of his more than a thousand wives? seems like a particularly egregious inclusion. It does not, I believe, mention God. It does not suggest any general principles for how one ought to conduct a meaningful relationship. The best excuse I can think of for its presence would be to institutionalize some notion that physical love is OK in God's book -- literally. But if that was the idea, it would have been nice to had it back in the Pentateuch with the shalts and the shalt nots.

Next Week: Isaiah!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ecclesiastes 7-12: More Radical Departures

The second half of Ecclesiastes is not unlike the first half, which is to say it continues laying out a philosophy of religion seemingly different than anything seen up to this point in the Bible. The Teacher continues to expound his surprising revelation that all earthly things, including wisdom and knowledge, are meaningless. His conclusion continues to be that one should, as they say, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow ye may die. That saying, now that I mention it, might even be the King James translation of a passage from Ecclesiastes. I’ll have to look that up.

[UPDATE: According to the wiki, "The expression, 'Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' derives from verses from the biblical books of Isaiah 22:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:32, both in a negative context illustrating a life without faith. So Ecclesiastes is apparently in conflict not just with earlier portions of the Bible, but with later portions as well.]

Twice in the back half of Ecclesiastes, there’s something new: lists of what I can only call “proverbs.” These are short, ostensibly wise declarations and admonitions from the guy who says that wisdom is meaningless. Chapter 7, and Chapters 10 and 11, are packed with these, and they are a bit of an odd lot. Some of them are unlikely to get much argument:
Extortion turns a wise man into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Some do not carry the expected punch line:
A feast is made for laughter,
and wine makes life merry,
but money is the answer for everything.
Some are kind of gnomic:
If the ax is dull
and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed
but skill will bring success.

If a snake bites before it is charmed,
there is no profit for the charmer.
And some are not only downers, but seem somewhat in tension with the whole “eat, drink, and be merry” line:
...the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure
. (7:1-4)
It is a little hard to pin the Teacher down to specifics. Wisdom, he has established abundantly, is meaningless. But now we’re faced with:
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
and benefits those who see the sun.

Wisdom is a shelter
as money is a shelter,
but the advantage of knowledge is this:
that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.
And the emphasis of the Book seems to shift toward a philosophy of moderation in all things:
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?

Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?

....There is not a righteous man on earth
who does what is right and never sins.
(7:16-18; 20)
Counseling moderation is so safe and expected in our own cultural milieu as to be almost banal, but it’s really something of a radical departure here in the Old Testament, where God has generally demanded a very strict hard line of obedience and righteousness.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Here’s another radical departure: the Teacher (who identifies himself as the author of this Book, you remember) acknowledges that good things happen to bad people and vice versa:
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. (8:14)
That’s pretty obvious, but it also in opposition to hundreds of pages of Old Testament text that claim the opposite – that God punishes the evil and rewards the righteous, right here on Earth. In this life. The only one we have. But mind you, in taking away the idea that God punishes and rewards in the earthly sphere, the Teacher does not gesture toward any idea of an afterlife. Quite the contrary:
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten.

Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.
So what’s to be done about it? Carpe diem!
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (9:7-10).
The Book ends, at Chapter 12, with an exhortation to both “remember your Creator” and to enjoy yourself during your youth, before you start to get old and sick and your friends and family do the same and everything gets all grim. It’s actually a fairly moving passage, if not exactly uplifting.

The Epilogue

It’s followed by a coda (12:9-14) to the effect that the Teacher was wise, and he said true things, and now people should consider all the best thinking done and lay off the books:
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
I don’t know how influential this specific passage was, but it certainly seems like the kind of idea that informed a lot of thinking in the Early and Middle Medieval period, not to mention the people in our own day who pretend to consider nothing true except the truth of the Bible.

The final words of Ecclesiastes are especially interesting.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
This “conclusion of the matter” doesn’t really have much to do with the central ideas and themes of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, since the Teacher has nullified any means of reward or punishment – the good often fail, remember, and the wicked often prosper, and then everyone dies alike – it is almost ironic now for the idea of divine judgment to be brought up. Are we to understand that it is our duty to fear God and keep his Commandments, and that we are to do this simply because it is our duty, knowing that doing so brings us no benefit and failing to do so brings us no harm? It’s not an impossible interpretation, but it is a pretty extreme departure from the rest of Old Testament theology, which is all based on covenant and contract.

It seems more likely to me, from this simple reading of the text, that the coda was added to Ecclesiastes at a later date by someone not entirely comfortable with the Book’s contents. There has been much here, after all, that strays from what I’ll call the Old Testament mainstream conception of God and right behavior. It is easy to imagine a conservative priest who was, for whatever reason, obligated despite his personal preferences to include Ecclesiastes in a collection of holy texts. Trying to make the best of the situation, he writes a short epilogue in which he tries to put some spin on the document that will render it less dangerous. It’s not about eat, drink, and be merry, he insists – I picture sweat on his brow – but about fearing God and keeping his commandments! And, in hopes of avoiding similar situations in the future, he attempts to declare the library of human wisdom closed to new additions. Except it must not have worked, because I’ve still got 419 pages to go.

Next Time: The Song of Songs! I’ve been led to believe it’s about sex!

This Week’s Reading: Ecclesiastes 7-12.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ecclesiastes 1-6: Nothing Matters and What if it Did

We're talking today about Ecclesiastes. That's not to be confused with Ecclesiasticus, which is considered a Book of the Bible by Catholics and Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. Ecclesiasticus apparently has kind of ambiguous standing in Judaism. But we won't be looking at it here, for the simple reason that it ain't in the copy of the Bible I'm using. OK? Good.


Ecclesiastes is credited to the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem, (1:1), which means it’s ostensibly by either Solomon or one of his brothers. If it’s by Solomon, it’s very unlike everything else we’ve seen or learned about him. If it’s by one of Solomon’s brothers, than there’s some sibling rivalry going on, because Ecclesiastes affirms that wisdom – Solomon’s big stock in trade, you remember – is “meaningless,” nothing more than “chasing after the wind.”

But then, Ecclesiastes describes just about everything as meaningless chasing after the wind. The opening chapter could have been written by an embittered Philosophy sophomore with seasonal affective disorder:

Meaningless! Meaningless! …Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless! (2)

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. (8)

Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago…. (10)

There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. (11)
This inability to find significance in anything leads the Teacher on a path not unlike that of the Buddha’s when confronted by a similar sort of insight. He tries wallowing in pleasure and drunkenness, but that doesn’t prove very satisfying. He becomes an overachiever, undertaking great feats of architecture and agriculture, but is unable to convince himself that his undertakings have any real cosmic relevance. Then he embraces wisdom and learning, but when he realizes that idiots and scholars share the same ultimate fate – i.e., death – that, too, begins to seem pointless. So, after the long, long list of Psalms – songs of praise and experience – and of Proverbs – detailed lists of how one ought to behave in pretty much every situation – the Bible makes a radical change of tone and seems to declare that nothing much matters at all.

From this near-nihilism, the Teacher derives a single key concept: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. (2:24) The reasoning seems to be this: if you refuse to apply yourself, you’ll be impoverished and miserable, and obviously you don’t want that. But if you work really hard to accumulate wealth, power, privilege, and prestige, on the other hand, you are devoting your effort into things that are ultimately meaningless – they will fade with time, and you can’t take them with you.
The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

Turn, Turn, Turn

I can’t say that Ecclesiastes is ignored – it’s full of oft-quoted quotes, it’s a go-to Book for weddings and funerals, and the first eight Verses of Chapter 3 comprise a classic rock song by the Byrds. Yet, there is an antimaterialism here that I definitely have never associated with Christianity or Judaism. Certainly the famous Protestant Work Ethic was never informed by Ecclesiastes 6:3:
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity… I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Indeed, Chapter 5 lays into the meaninglessness of wealth with logic that would seem familiar to a Buddhist. People cause themselves no end of grief through their desire to accumulate, and to compete with people on the next rung of the social ladder. Who loves money never has money enough (10), the Teacher observes, and asks what benefits are [goods] to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? (11)
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much,
But the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
I have to say that, as an overeducated and not especially ambitious dude, I’m rather drawn to the live-in-the-moment, enjoy-your-time-‘cause-it’s-all-you’ve got tone of this Book. It is, for lack of a better word, a rather kicked-back philosophy of religion. But again, having said this, Ecclesiastes doesn't quite true up with some basic ideas of modern Christianity. Check this out:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (19-21)
They read that at Christian funerals, don’t they? At least the bit about dust? Well, there’s the context for you: people are no different than animals – they live, and then they die, and they’re dead, and if there’s any such thing as an afterlife we certainly didn’t get the memo on it. The only thing to do about this state of affairs, says Ecclesiastes, is to live in the moment. This may not be especially comforting at a funeral, and it may or may not be good advice in general. What stands out to me, though, is that it is in radical opposition to everything I learned in Sunday school.

This Bible – it’s a weird book. I’m glad I’m taking the time to read it.

Next Time: The Second Half of Ecclesiastes

Today’s Text: Ecclesiastes 1-6.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Happy New Bible Year!

The story thus far: After creating the world, God focused on a small tribe of people, the Israelites; much of the book of Genesis concerns the adventures of their early leaders. The next four books concern their activities and their laws under the great leader Moses. In Joshua and Judges, they conquer a modest parcel in the Eastern Mediterranean. The books of Samuel tell of the rise of King David, and the books of Kings and Chronicles tell, in separate narratives, of his many successors in two separate kingdoms until the eventual collapse of both states.

Last year, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we read of the return from Babylonian exile of some fairly radicalized Israelites, who impose a strict program of cultural renewal back in the homeland. We read a story about a Jewish queen in Babylon in Esther, and then hit three non-narrative books: Job, a long, abstruse, and not entirely coherent theological conversation; Psalms, a very long series of hymns with moods ranging from ecstatic joy to fierce paranoia; and Proverbs, a minimally structured set of pieces of wisdom -- a sort of biblical self-help text.

So it is here -- in the "Books of Wisdom," the collected non-narrative papers ascribed to David, Solomon, and other First Temple leaders -- that we resume our reading. Ecclesiastes is on deck.

But First....

Reader Elaine lobbied hard for a compare-and-contrast of Psalm 139 and Margaret Wise Brown's charming children's classic "The Runaway Bunny," so after having a copy of the latter out from the library all holiday season, I finally mustered the 45 seconds it takes to read. It's a short dialogue between a restless baby bunny and his mother; the younger rabbit makes up various magical ways he could escape parental control, and mom comes up with responses to the effect that she would always follow and keep tabs on him. The general mood is more nurturing than totalitarian, although with a different set of illustrations a mischievous culture jammer with parent issues could have some fun subverting the text.

Psalm 139 is a prayer from a human to God marveling about the size and scope and all-knowingness of the deity. It is indeed similar to "Bunny" in that the Psalmist lists possible modes of escape -- flying, burrowing, crossing the sea, hiding in the dark -- and confesses that God is going to see right through all of these ruses. There is also an explicit maternal link in Verse 13, which reads: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

Are they the same story? Your answer to that will correspond to how closely you associate divine omniscience with maternal love. If you think those two things are broadly analogous, as many modern liberal Christians do, then the two narratives are all but identical. But I suspect that King David, to whom the Psalm is ascribed, would be horrified by the comparison. For the Old Testament writers, God is less about comfort and safety and more about pure, awe-inspiring power. There is plenty of talk about God's love in the Old Testament, but it is anything but unconditional. God's love, unlike Mother Bunny's, comes with strict rules, explicit contracts, and death sentences for entire populations.

At the end of "Bunny," the baby bunny realizes that he can't get away from mom -- or, perhaps, that she passes his test of her devotion -- and figures he might as well not bother running away. "Shucks," he says, invoking a mild oath that once, I've heard, was actually used in real life. Then his mom gives him a carrot. At the end of Psalm 139, David invites God's scrutiny and guidance -- but not without a quick burst of his characteristic angry paranoia. If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! (19) Personally, I find Ma Bunny's carrot a little more compelling than King David's stick, but then I think that David and I would find a lot about which we'd have to agree to disagree.

Next Time: The Bible is for the Byrds