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