Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jeremiah 21 – 25: Good Figs, Bad Figs, and the End of Judah

In today’s Chapters, we move forward in historical context. At the ends of Kings and Chronicles we saw the crash of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar’s war machine and the subsequent exile of the Israelites – which, we later figured out, really meant “the Israelite elite and artisan classes" – in Babylon. In Ezra and Nehemiah, we saw that when the exiles returned, they seemed to bring a new and more restrictive set of social and religious norms with them to impose on the folks who got left behind.

So, in Jeremiah 21 we jump right into Judah’s endgame. Zedakiah, the very last king of that disintegrating city-state, sends a couple of priests to Jeremiah to ask him if he can talk God into intervening on the Israelites’ behalf, like he used to back in the day. God’s answer is inconsistent.   First, there is a resounding no: I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath. (5) The Israelites are told to surrender, or they will be killed. (9) And yet “moreover,” Jeremiah is supposed to tell the King that he has to do a better job of administering justice, or God will be angry. (11-14) Having the conditional warning come after the absolute statement rings oddly, as does the demand for changes of an administrative nature as Nebuchadnezzar’s thousands sweep down out of the east.

Jeremiah 22 is much the same, but in the reverse order. After an admonition to reform the justice system, Jeremiah (presumably speaking for God) goes into some detail about how Jerusalem is going to be sacked and how people will be talking about it in the past tense, once everybody goes into exile. In particular, he predicts grim fates for a couple of kings of Judah. One, Shallum son of Josiah, is a bit mysterious as he doesn’t appear in Kings or Chronicles, or at least in my notes thereon (although there is a much earlier king of Israel by that name who held the throne for one month before getting assassinated). The other, Johoiakim, comes two kings before Zedakiah in Chronicles, but things are pretty muddled at that point in the succession. It might not have been clear towards the end exactly who was boss.

False prophets are castigated at length in Jeremiah 23. They are dismissed as either reporting their dreams or simply making stuff up. Special attention is paid to the phrase “oracle of the Lord,” which is apparently a giveaway – there is no such thing as an “oracle of the Lord,” if I’m reading this right. (33-40) Although again, I’m not sure how the Israelite in the street is supposed to distinguish between Jeremiah and the fakers.

Oh, the chapter begins with a Biblical prophesy about someone from the royal family of David who will come back to rule over all of Israel: This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness. (6) This might sound a little exciting to the Christian ear, but from the context we see that Jeremiah is talking about the restoration of Israel and Judah after the Babylonian exile. If that prophecy correctly points forward to someone, it’s Nehemiah or Ezra.


Jeremiah 24 is a very interesting little metaphor. After everyone – or, as is actually spelled out here, after the officials, the craftsmen and the artisans were taken into exile, God shows Jeremiah two baskets of figs. One basket has yummy figs, the other rotten figs. The people who are going into exile, says God, are the good figs. Everyone who gets left behind, or who seeks shelter in Egypt, is one of the rotten figs. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, says God, a reproach and a byword, an object of ridicule and cursing, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and to their fathers. (9-10) So… if you were not in the ruling or artisan class, you were pretty much doomed. Clearly God – or at least Jeremiah – is of Nehemiah and Ezra’s party.

In Jeremiah 25, God gives Jeremiah a cup of wine of his wrath. Jeremiah is assigned to go to all the kings of all the kingdoms in the world, and tell them to drink the wine, after which they will be killed. If they say that they don’t want to drink it, he is to say that they have to. And, Jeremiah reports that he did so, which would seem to suggest that he is either speaking very figuratively, that there has been some sort of problem with the translation, or that he was stark raving bonkers. Of all the things that the Bible has asked me to believe so far, the notion that a priest from Judah went around cajoling all of the leaders of the known world to drink a lethal divine beverage is perhaps the oddest. I can’t imagine that we are expected to take it literally, but… there it is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jeremiah 18-20: Jeremiah Himself

The figure of Jeremiah himself is prominent in these three Chapters.  Jeremiah 18 begins with a specific message from God to the prophet, to the effect that he should go down to the potter’s shop and receive a message there.  As Jeremiah watches the potter work clay, sometimes abandoning a false start and reshaping something different out of the same clay, he says that it is the same with God and his people: God made the Chosen People, and he can scrap them and start over at any time, if he decides to.

There is more curious tension in Jeremiah 18, of the kind I mentioned last week, between whether the doom predicted by the prophet is foreordained or avoidable.  Is Jeremiah warning the Israelites, or just letting them know they are toast?  God/Jeremiah usually speaks as if it is the latter, but the issue is confused in 18:7-8.
If at any time I  announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
So, this sounds like it renders much of which we’ve been reading in Jeremiah somewhat more flexible.  But then when God tells Jeremiah to go deliver his message, he adds But they will replay, ‘It’s no use.  We will continue with our own plans, each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart. (12)  Which brings things back to sounding kind of preordained. 

Jeremiah 18: 13-17 is God’s message of intended punishment for his neglect.  Then, in Verses 18-23, Jeremiah complains of a whisper campaign against himself, and implores God to repay his community with famine and slaughter.

Chapter 19 also begins with a trip to the potter’s shop.  This time, Jeremiah is told to buy a pot, which he will eventually break metaphorically during a, well, a Jeremiad I suppose, to make a point about God’s ability to shatter Jerusalem at will.  It’s a rare moment when we are given a glimpse of a prophet in action.

There is a brief narrative line in Chapter 20, as the high priest hears about Jeremiah’s preaching and, apparently finding it objectionable, has him beaten up and put in the stocks overnight.  When he is let out, Jeremiah tells the priest that he will be carried away to Babylon and die there, along with all his friends.  Which may actually have been true, but you can kind of see why Jeremiah wasn’t winning any popularity contests.

In fact, he complains to God from 20:7 to the end of the Chaper, 20:18, about his lot as a prophet.  He is mocked, insulted, and reproached all day long, he says, and regrets that he was ever born.  He curses the day he was born, the man who told his father he had been born, and the fact that he was not stillborn.  It is not easy being a prophet, apparently.  Jeremiah is not a happy man.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Jeremiah 10 – 17: Those destined for death, to death.

Well, it’s no great secret this far in that the God of the Old Testament is not, despite occasional references to mercy and compassion, a particularly merciful or compassionate entity. This week's reading does nothing to reverse this impression.  In the tenth through seventeenth Chapters of Jeremiah, the way is cluttered with anger, threat, and revenge. God is great, and pissed.

Jeremiah 10: The first sixteen Verses of Chapter 10 have Jeremiah transmitting God’s mockery of physical idols made by craftsman. Verses 17 – 22 are a warning of imminent destruction. Verses 23 – 25 are a plea from Jeremiah that God does not punish him personally, but rather “pour out [his] wrath” on foreigners and backsliders.

Jeremiah 11: God announces, through Jeremiah, that his Covenant with the Israelites has been broken by the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah and Israel:
16 The LORD called you a thriving olive tree
with fruit beautiful in form.
But with the roar of a mighty storm
he will set it on fire,
and its branches will be broken.
17 The LORD Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the people of both Israel and Judah have done evil and aroused my anger by burning incense to Baal.
In the remaining five Verses, Jeremiah talks about a plot to silence or kill him, and how God is going to punish the plotters.

Jeremiah 12: For eleven chapters, Jeremiah has been talking about the disasters that are going to befall all Israelites, how the cities and countryside will be laid waste and the people enslaved or slaughtered. In that context, the portion of Jeremiah 12 called “Jeremiah’s Complaint” is kind of odd.
1 You are always righteous, LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.
Out of context, this is a very reasonable question: in the presence of a just God, why does evil prosper? Or, in the presence of a jealous God, why do the wayward prosper? It strikes an odd note here, however, because Jeremiah has been at pains to explain that these people are quite doomed and bringing everyone else with them. It seems to suggest a certain lack of conviction that he should be bringing the point up.

Speaking of odd notes:  Is the nature of Jeremiah’s complaint concerned with justice for the mistreated, or reward for the faithful? No. Jeremiah is much more interested in punishment than reward:
3 Yet you know me, LORD;
you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!
The remainder of the Chapter is a response from God, who elaborates the extent to which He is sickened with the Israelites, and the extent to which He intends to punish them. In an interesting coda (14-17) He suggests that among the nations that are going to be carving up the Israelites’ territory, he will more or less adopt any that convert to worshipping him.

Chapter 13: This Chapter begins with metaphors (involving a linen belt and a wineskin) to illustrate the familiar idea that God no longer feels obligated to protect the Israelites due to their faithlessness. The second half of the Chapter is more announcement of dire punishment coming, slavery and exile in particular.

Chapter 14: The heading “Drought, Famine, Sword” by and large sums up Jeremiah 14, but there are some interesting details. Jeremiah tells us that:
11 Then the LORD said to me, “Do not pray for the well-being of this people. 12 Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”
Now, one hates to come out and say these things, but this passage is not consistent with the idea of a God of infinite mercy. Just at the definitional level, it isn’t. You can’t have both this passage and a God of infinite mercy. Unless some words are redefined or reinterpreted, the idea and the text are incompatible. This is disturbing stuff, and it is sometimes hard for me to understand why more people aren’t disturbed by it.

Anyway, Jeremiah responds by pointing out that there are false prophets running around saying that everything is fine, and that this confuses the people into misbehavior. God’s response is simply that those guys, unlike Jeremiah, are not authorized and are not delivering his message. How the Israelite on the street is supposed to tell the difference is not addressed.

Chapter 15: This chapter is a continuation of Chapter 14. Here’s a taste of the rhetoric which, again, is not really consistent with generally accepted definitions of “mercy”:
1 Then the LORD said to me: “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! 2 And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says:“‘Those destined for death, to death;
those for the sword, to the sword;
those for starvation, to starvation;
those for captivity, to captivity.’3 “I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares the LORD, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy. 4 I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem.
Verses 11 – 21 are a little cryptic, but seem to be a conversation between God and Jeremiah, with God reassuring Jeremiah personally that because he has been virtuous, he will be spared.

Chapter 16: In a series of stansas, God says not to marry or have children, not to attend funerals, and not to attend feasts. There is no point in human relationships, since everybody is due for the big punishment that is coming. In Verses 14 – 15, there is a brief segue into a theme that was much more common back in the book of Isaiah: the notion that at some point in the future, after the era of punishment, some surviving Israelites will be brought back to the Promised Land and given another go. But then we go right back to the punishment theme, which continues into…

Chapter 17: As elsewhere in Jeremiah, it can be hard to keep track of who is speaking in this Chapter – whether “I” is Jeremiah, or God, or some hypothetical third party. But I think it is Jeremiah who again shows his unhandsome attitude toward the salvation of others in Verses 17 -18:
17 Do not be a terror to me;
you are my refuge in the day of disaster.
18 Let my persecutors be put to shame,
but keep me from shame;
let them be terrified,
but keep me from terror.
Bring on them the day of disaster;
destroy them with double destruction.
And then, at the end of today’s reading – although, keep in mind that the locations that I choose to wrap up for the day may not have any organizational relevance – there is a long passage (19-27) that seems to contradict almost everything else in today’s reading. It homes in on something that we haven’t heard about for an awfully long time, the importance of the Sabbath. If the Israelites will reform on this point, God says (says Jeremiah), they can be spared the coming destruction.

There is an illogic here, and I don’t see a ready way out of it. The Israelites are doomed and damned, mostly for their worship of false Gods, and there is no hope of a reprieve. It doesn’t matter that they were misled; the punishment is foreordained. Except, if they very carefully keep Sabbath, they will be spared. Again, the contradiction is right there at the fundamental level. I have been told many times that there are no contradictions in the Bible.  This is said so often, and with such a level of confidence, that I didn’t really expect to see any, except perhaps here and there on a superficial level. At this point, though, consistency is no longer a reasonable assumption. Short of an escape clause along the lines of “The Prophets are fallible, and should not be expected to speak literal truth,” we have reached a point that the internal contradictions are too straightforward to get around.

And since I have begun admitting misgivings, I’ll throw out another one here: God prohibits the worship of false gods, and the breaking of this prohibition is always what angers him most. We have seen this innumerable times. But why? If God is universal and singular, and all other gods are just wood and clay, why get so worked up about a lack of faith? The options are obvious enough: get in touch and reestablish your preeminence, visibly reward the righteous, nip straying in the bud, or just laugh the whole thing off. Why is this particular phenomenon one that calls for periodic mass-punishment on such a grand scale? It’s not easy to tell whether it is OK to ask questions of the Old Testament God, but that would be mine if I had the chance.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Twelve Passages from the Book of Jeremiah

Inspirational Christian images are very, very common.  You have almost certainly seen them all your life, with or without noticing.  They consist of a short biblical verse printed over a photograph that may be thematically linked to the quotation, or may just be a sunset, a rainbow, or some similar attractive scene.

In addition to their substantial brick-and-mortar presence, these images are also widely displayed, offered, and sold (!) here online.  I run into them constantly when I am working on MRtB, and over time I have come to find them a little troubling.  So I thought I would make a little game.

What follows are:

Six typical inspirational religious images based on quotes from the first half of Jeremiah, found randomly on the internet.

Six additional images, also based on quotes from the first half of Jeremiah, that I assembled myself (I used one a few posts back).
And the three questions, if you are playing the game, are: "Can you tell the difference? How? and What, if any, are the implications?"













Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jeremiah 3 - 9: Reading Jeremiah in 2011

Reader, it is as I feared: the Book of Jeremiah does not take very long to get into its groove, and that groove is much the same groove as had the Book of Isaiah. Which is to say, of course, that the Israelites have been very, very bad, and that therefore God is going to punish them plentifully.

There is a modest diversity in the nature of the Israelite badness. The top of the list continues to be the worshipping of false gods. Now, for many Books something has struck me as a little strange about this constant condemnation of religious waywardness, and I’ve finally figured out what it is. Let’s see if I can explain.

In a more usual sort of book for our time and place, by which I suppose I mean a novel or a history, an authorial hand would generally make sure that we saw the worshiping of false gods, or at least  evidence of the worshiping of false gods, before moving us on to the consequences and reaction. Or, perhaps the order of these would be reversed, and the author might move from consequence to cause. But what a modern author does not ever do is show only consequence and reaction, without giving us any glimpses of a cause. So, as a reader trained inevitably to the story-telling modalities of my era, it creates some cognitive dissonance to read hundreds of pages about God punishing the Israelites for their constant worshipping of false gods, without ever hearing much about how many people were actually rushing off to the Azeroth poles, and when, and why.

This introduces a strange tension into the experience of Bible-reading. On one hand, it is easy enough to say “well, if God is always complaining about the Israelites’ waywardness, the Israelites must have always been wayward.” This doesn’t require mental gymnastics; we infer causes from consequences all the time. At the same time, however, we – and be “we” I mean we the novel-readers – have been teethed on a literature that invites or even demands that we made moral judgment of its characters. And if a novelist gave us a character that was always in an angry, punitive froth about something, but gave us no other evidence that this thing was happening, it would be understood as an invitation to understand the character as potentially unhinged, dangerous, disturbing. One knows that the Bible was not written with any such ideas in mind, nor was it intended to be read in this fashion, but because it is difficult to switch off a lifetime’s worth of context, the intellectual tension remains.

But I have digressed, as usual. In addition to the worship of false gods, Jeremiah accuses the Israelites of dishonesty, hypocrisy, sexual misbehavior, taking God for granted, and unkindness to the vulnerable. The punishments are equally varied, many involving a conquering army from the north but others involving environmental disasters, poisonous snakes, and so on. Unlikely words are occasionally put in the mouths of people who will suffer the punishments:
I hope you will forgive me this bit of genre parody. 
8:14 Why are we sitting here?
Gather together!
Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there!
And again and again, if we give Jeremiah credence, we are faced with the incredibly demanding discipline and baffling moral logic of God:
20 Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD;
open your ears to the words of his mouth.
Teach your daughters how to wail;
teach one another a lament.
21 Death has climbed in through our windows
and has entered our fortresses;
it has removed the children from the streets
and the young men from the public squares.

22 Say, “This is what the LORD declares:“‘Dead bodies will lie
like dung on the open field,
like cut grain behind the reaper,
with no one to gather them.’”

23 This is what the LORD says:“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the LORD.
There is a certain grim beauty to it – as I mentioned last time, Jeremiah seems to me a poetic notch or two up from what we have seen before – but the words “justice,” “righteousness,” and “kindness” ring very oddly after an announcement that dead bodies will lie like dung on the open field. It’s very problematic. If when confronted by these passages one wants to take the Bible seriously, and yet not regard God as a vengeful horror, the only retreat is to “God’s ways are not man’s ways” and the notion that there is no frame of reference for a human to really conceive of an infinite and infinitely righteous God. Which then begs the question, why have I been asked so often, and in so many different ways, to read this book?  Is there a virtue in trying to understand that which is incomprehensible?  And if so, how will I know if I'm making progress?


Chapter Three is an extended metaphor of religious infidelity, and is an admirable and perhaps even witty piece of rhetoric. It has the memorable line Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to [her sister Judah], she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. After that, the predictions of punishment become a bit more generalized. It becomes hard to tell, sometimes, who “I” is – Jeremiah, God speaking through Jeremiah, or some random sinner being quoted. After a while, the text frankly starts to seem a bit repetitious to me. Indeed, in at least one instance it really IS repetitious, literally. Check out this passage:
13 “From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the LORD.
That’s Jeremiah 6:13-15, but then it’s Jeremiah 8:10-12 too. See, I really am paying attention! I was also paying attention to Jeremiah 8:8, which reads:
8 “‘How can you say, “We are wise,
for we have the law of the LORD,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
I very much doubt that Jeremiah conceived himself as a post-modernist paradoxically undermining the authority of Scripture even as he created Scripture, but he conjures much the same effect in this odd little Verse. To stretch the concept only a little, Jeremiah implies that you can’t trust the Bible, because it has been corrupted by human hands. You can only trust… Jeremiah, perhaps? Except, he’s in the Bible. It’s quite a conundrum.

See you next time!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jeremiah 1-2: First New Book in a Year and a Half!

OK, here we go. Jeremiah is the second-longest book of the Bible by a nose – Psalms is the longest – so we’ll hope that I can make brisker progress with it than I did with Isaiah, the fifth longest. After Jeremiah, I’ll catch breath with little Lamentations before heading on to Ezekiel, itself the third longest book in the Bible.

As an aside to anyone who has been following along, obviously all previous goals, projected finishing dates, and so on are completely off the table at this point. Maybe I can get a rhythm going again, is as much as I can promise at this point.

Jeremiah Begins

Jeremiah 1 actually starts with some contextualization, which is nice. It tells us that what follows from 1:4 on is going to be The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. It also tells us when Jeremiah lived: from the thirteenth year of King Josiah of Judah through the reigns of Kings Johoiakim and Zedekiah.

Looking back to our notes from Kings and Chronicles, we see that this puts Jeremiah at the very end of independent Judah, which had managed to stay quasi-independent after the collapse of its larger sister kingdom, Israel. As Judah gets squeezed between the relative superpowers of Egypt and Assyria, there is a religious revival under King Josiah when, we were told, the laws of Moses were rediscovered in the temple, and reimplemented. After Josiah gets killed in an reckless-sounding attack on an Egyptian column, Judah slides rapidly towards its sack and pillage and the taking of the Israelites into exile. From this general background, I think we can anticipate a mood of pessimism.

The rest of the first chapter is a nice bit of narrative – the first we’ve really seen since way back in Job – with Jeremiah telling the story of how God came to him as a child and taught him to be a prophet. God speaks directly, in quoted passages, but also in imagistic puns – Jeremiah sees an almond tree, which means that God is watching, because “almond tree” and “watching” sound the same in Hebrew. (Obviously, I got that from the footnote.)


I had an emotional reaction to the first line of Jeremiah 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…   It's because I've seen this fragmentary quotation used on billboards, punctuated as a complete sentence and attributed “-God,” by the anti-abortion crowd. We are supposed to assume from the phrase that God, somewhere in the Bible, has made a definitive statement (directly addressed to us, no less) of when embryonic life should be protected under Federal statute. But here’s the full verse:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
Before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
This is God telling Jeremiah about his own personal destiny. Now, if our devious billboard designer wanted to justify distorting the passage for political scree he or she could obviously say “But the context doesn’t matter, its says right there that God recognizes individuals in utero.” To which the equally obvious and equally tedious counterargument is, “it says right there that God recognized Jeremiah in utero and also that he is unique and different, implying that God doesn’t make this distinction for the rank and file. Both interpretations are perfectly obvious to the person who wants to make hay with them, and both are totally without merit. Neither God nor Jeremiah says anything here about the moment at which life should be designated as beginning under law. He’s saying, “Jeremiah, you are a special person with a special mission.”

Of course, it’s Jeremiah telling us that God told him this. It is, I think, reasonable to keep such a thing in mind when evaluating a prophet.

Jeremiah 2

Since Jeremiah is roughly contemporary with Isaiah, we would expect them to be singing from the same proverbial choirbook, and indeed it is so. Once the prophesy begins in Chapter 2, it focuses on the familiar theme that the Israelites’ decline into poverty and defeat is their punishment at the hands of God for their having strayed from religious orthodoxy.

The more I think about it – and one is forced to think about it a lot, in the Old Testament – the more it seems like this is a understandable mood for the late-Judah Israelites. Whether or not you believe that the premise of divine retribution is true, it must have felt true to the last holdouts in their little kingdom clustered around Jerusalem as they waited to see which of the neighboring powers were going to sack them. “We used to be regional contenders,” they must have thought, “and now we’ve been laid low. What went wrong?”

If you look for the answer to such a question in the theological realm, there are several answers available. “Their gods must be better than our gods” seems to have been a common response across many cultures in such a predicament, or even “Our god must have died” or “We haven’t been living right, so our god isn’t backing us up against their gods.” Since the Israelites don’t have full recourse to the idea of other gods – the Old Testament, despite its strong undercurrent of hegemonic polytheism, certainly has several definitive statements of absolute monotheism – none of these answers are available to them (or at least not to a religious leader like Jeremiah). Therefore if bad things are happening, it must be because God wants them to happen.  If God wants bad things to happen, we must have done something to piss him off.  What could that be? Religious unorthodoxy is a conspicuous candidate, particularly so perhaps if you are – like Jeremiah – a priest.

Whether Jeremiah will join Isaiah in the ecstatic promise of future glory years remains to be seen. He doesn’t in Chapter 2. But very much like Isaiah, he rails first against Israelites who have worshiped other gods, and secondarily against those who have emigrated to Egypt or the Euphrates Valley. He also, moreso than I think we’ve seen in previous books, points a finger at Israelites who are simply indifferent to religion.
Why do my people say, “We are free to roam;
We will come to you no more;?
32 Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
This passage is a nice example of what, at least in the first few chapters, is a palpably different writing style in Jeremiah. So far, there have been none of the jagged mood swings that characterized Isaiah (and Psalms, for that matter). Instead of the repetitious rhythms of Isaiah, which felt sometimes like someone reading God’s plan for retribution off of PowerPoint slides, Jeremiah is so far much more fluid and integrated. It is adorned in metaphor like a bride in her wedding ornaments! Elsewhere in Chapter 2, the straying Israelites are compared to animals in heat, disgraced thieves, poorly cross-pollinated vines, and prostitutes. And this line has special literary relevance for modern English readers:
22Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abudance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign Lord.
Out out, damn spot!

See you in Chapter 3!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Isaiah 61-66: Ultimate Isaiah

So, as I was saying, the Book of Isaiah is an unsettling document to the lay reader. By “to the lay reader” I of course mean “to me.” Still, the whiplash transitions throughout the Book between prophecies of paradisiacal futures to come and prophecies of relentless destruction of Israel, Israel’s enemies, or both, are pretty extreme. I’ve also noted that, for a major prophet, Isaiah doesn’t seem to have been much of a hand at predicting the future. Other disturbing details have cropped up in the Book as well; virgin birth seems to be more common than you’d expect, and at least some of Isaiah’s preaching is done, per God’s instruction, in the buff. The Bible is full of surprises.

Isaiah 61 is Isaiah at his gentlest. It speaks of the coming “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” a time of peace, prosperity, and plenty for everybody who has had a tough life up to now. It speaks of “the oil of gladness” and “double portions” and the rebuilding of ruined cities. But we are still in the brutal mindset of the Old Testament age, of course, and even in this idyllic vision there are undercurrents. Part of the blessing, for instance, is that people won’t have to work so hard because Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. The Israelites will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. (5-6) To our minds this may seem a little cynical, but to Isaiah a natural part of plenty is being in the position to boss, rather than to be bossed.

Chapter 62 keeps up this positive theme, and stipulates that the name of Jerusalem will be changed to Hephzibah, and that its lands will be called Beulah rather than Zion. “Beulah” doesn’t really seem to have taken off; “Hephzibah” I’ve never even heard of.

Isaiah 63 is of two parts. Verses 1 – 6 are a short vignette of a figure – God, one supposes – who comes from “trodding the winepress” so that his clothes are soaked and red; what he has really been up to is the bloody business of trampling the nations.

Verses 7 through 19 are a prayer that starts by reciting “the kindnesses of the Lord” to the Israelites, but then interestingly modulates into a tone of complaint that God is perhaps not as kind as he used to be. “Why, O Lord,” the prayer asks, “do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” (17) This is a very fair question, and addresses a puzzling Old Testament commonplace: God is so often said to cause people to defy him, and then to punish them mightily for defiance.

Isaiah 64 continues this prayer. (Here, again, the division of Isaiah seems very arbitrary. One so wishes to correct the editing so that 63:1-6 stands alone and 63:7-19 are not separate from 64, but I suppose that there would be brisk institutional resistance to any such rationalizing scheme.) In it “the people” (as portrayed by Isaiah?) continue to ask rather poignant questions of God. Why, when He has claimed an ability and responsibility to actively intervene on behalf of His people, do things always go badly? Why aren’t there miraculous interventions any more, like there used to be. Or, why does divine action seem to consist always in punishment, never in reward? If God is all-powerful, and the Israelites are his people, why is Zion a wasteland, Jerusalem a slum, and the Temple burned down?

Isaiah 65 is God’s answer, and in Verses 1 – 16 that answer is “incorrect ceremonial practice.” People that make sacrifices of the wrong kind, in the wrong places, who don’t keep kosher, and so on, are in for a world of hurt. This kind of misbehavior is as always blurred with religious infidelity, the outright worship of other gods instead of or in addition to God.

11 “But as for you who forsake the LORD
and forget my holy mountain,
who spread a table for Fortune
and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,12 I will destine you for the sword,
and all of you will fall in the slaughter;
for I called but you did not answer,
I spoke but you did not listen.
You did evil in my sightand chose what displeases me.”

Then, is Verses 17-25, God says – or is made to say, by Isaiah – that He is going to start over with a new universe. He will make a new heavens, a new Earth, and a new, better, Jerusalem. There will be no sorrow and no sickness, and lifespans will be much increased. The existing heavens and Earth “will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” It’s a remarkable passage, and rather alarming in its casual promise of obliteration of our entire reality. On the face of it, is seems isolated from anything that has come before, and from anything I’ve ever heard of Jewish or Christian theology.

Isaiah 66 is the final chapter of the Book. It does not really wrap things up, so far as I can tell, but seems a fitting reprise to all of Isaiah in its puzzling muddledness. It contains within it celebration at the coming greatness of Jerusalem, but it’s right there alongside angry imagery like this:
15 See, the LORD is coming with fire,
and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For with fire and with his sword
the LORD will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the LORD.
For whom does the bell toll?
“These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.
3 But whoever sacrifices a bull
is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
and chose what displeases me.”
Well, this is frankly puzzling, because Isaiah and indeed the entire Old Testament to this point has been all about following instructions, and sacrificing bulls and lambs and making grain offerings is very much something you ARE supposed to do. In fact, a few verses later, there is a reference to the grain offerings that are going to happen when the Israelites triumph over all of the other kingdoms of the world.

Isaiah, ladies and gentlemen.

COMING SOON in Michael Reads the Bible: Jeremiah!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Isaiah 53-60: The Penultimate Isaiah Post!

Sometimes the chapter divisions in the Bible really throw you for a loop.  I closed last time at the end of Isaiah 52 by mentioning

three verses about a servant who will act wisely, who will be exalted, who will be physically disfigured, but who will be very influential to many nations and many important people.
Now, we're running out of Isaiah at this point, and I knew there was supposed to be stuff in this Book that is thought (by Christians, anyway) to predict the coming of Christ, and frankly those three Verses had seemed a little thin on the ground.  But it turns out that Chapter 53, after a puzzling first verse, continues this description of a servant of God that is to come, and you can really see where people make the connection with Christ:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
It continues on in this vein, and you can really see here perhaps more than at any other point hitherto some content in the Old Testament that really feels ~Christian~ in nature.  Or rather, I can.  I shouldn't put words in your mouth.  I imagine there are many people to whom it felt pretty Christian all along, and many others -- Jews, say -- to whom Isaiah 53 doesn't introduce any special new Christian resonance.  And mind you, it's not a perfect fit, as there is nothing here about this servant being God, or the son of God, or both; he is merely identified as a servant.  Moreover, he is identified as something of a despised outcast, rather than as a successful, charismatic religious leader, the way I picture Christ to have been.  But then, I may be unduly influenced by my memories of Jesus Christ Superstar in that regard.

And Then...

...suddenly it's over, and the Book of Isaiah is off on another topic, because like almost everything since the Chronicles of the kings Isaiah isn't so much a cohesive body of material as a seemingly haphazard collection of short essays on a handful of recurring topics.  In this case, Isaiah 54 returns to the theme of the imminent greatness of the Israelites, with lots of odd metaphors involving the many children of barren women, and the confident expansion of one's tent, and city walls with foundations of sapphires.  Chapter 55 continues in an upbeat vein, with an invitation to everyone to come and, essentially, join God's Awesome spiritual party.

Chapter 55 is also remarkable for suggesting two memorable aspects of the nature of God.  First, He doesn't think like us:
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts.... 9 As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
cf. the common idea that God's creation of humanity in our image, in our likeness (from the first day of class, back in July 2006!) means that we do, in some sense, think alike, or at least have some sort of common cognitive frame of reference.  Does God think kind of like me, only a whole lot smarter?  Isaiah says no.  Then there is also this interesting passage in which speech seems coupled with intention and action.  Speech-act theorists, I suggest you sit up and take note! [rimshot]
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Isaiah 56 is for the most part a discussion of how you don't have to be descended from the Jewish patriarchs to participate in the worship of God, nor to be a family man: foreigners and eunuchs too, if they follow the practices of the law, will enjoy God's favor.  But then there is a transition at Isaiah 56:9 to an angry denunciation of an Israel populated by idol worshipers and adulterers.  And there's no doubt about it; the constant abrupt shifts between descriptions of God's love for and promises of blessings for Israel and his wrath toward and brutal punishments of Israel are among the most prominent and also, frankly, the most disturbing elements of the Bible to this point, 555 pages in.  But in this case, at least, the effect is magnified by the odd system of organization; if Isaiah 56:9-12 were numbered as the first four Verses of Isaiah 57 -- which it really is, textually -- at least the sudden shift of mood wouldn't seem quite as arbitrary.

Isaiah 58 is a warning against worshiping in form but without the proper spirit of devotion.  Specifically, it warns of fulfilling the obligations of fasting, but without a spirit of sacrifice toward others, particularly the needy.

Isaiah 59 is in large part a catalog of how awful and unworthy people are of God's affection, and then a brief discussion of a "Redeemer" that will come to punish the wrongdoers.  If this is the same "servant" we were talking about back in Chapter 53, he no longer sounds like Christ; this redeemer is a fearful military figure who will repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes (18), a powerful force in the material world who will come like a pent-up flood. (19)

And finally, in Isaiah 60, we return to what I have been calling Isaiah's "Israel-triumphant mode," a time when Israel will very rapidly be made a mighty, powerful, and prosperous nation, with peace within its borders and enemies weak and shattered.  As always, this vision seems a radical contrast from that of the Israel that was being so mightily punished for its wickedness just three chapters back.  Then, too, the two chapters in-between have not necessarily had much to do with either vision.  So, although it has not been as much of a line-to-line hodgepodge as Psalms or Proverbs were, Isaiah has certainly been more of an omnibus than a coherent line of narrative, or argument, or anything else.  Maybe I'm just too linear in my own thinking to be receptive to Isaiah?  This might be true.

NEXT: Ultimate Isaiah, or, Bring on the Jeremiads!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Isaiah 47-52: The Antepunultimate Isaiah Post!

Isaiah, Duccio Di Buoninsegna, c. 1310

Isaiah 47: More prophesy from Isaiah, of course, this time an extended metaphor predicting the fall of Babylon. The mighty empire to the east is characterized as a young woman who dabbles in the supernatural, and Isaiah gives her what-for for 15 verses to let her know that, though she’s had a good run up to now, she’s due for big trouble ahead.

Two points of detail, though. At the beginning of the – shall we call it a rant? – the anthropomorphized Babylon is described as a “Virgin Daughter,” yet by the midpoint she is being threatened with widowhood and the death of her children. Well, I have learned not to look for consistency in Isaiah. More interesting, perhaps, is a footnote to the effect that the word “Babylonians” might actually refer to the Chaldeans. Apparently we’re not sure. But somebody was doomed, that’s for sure.

Isaiah 48: Isaiah the Prophet speaks on behalf of God about how stubborn the Israelites are for not listening to prophets, and about how his prophets are always right. God has refined the Israelites, he says, through affliction.

In the second part of the passage, there are odd things going on with the quotation marks, and I’m unsure what is the Book of Isaiah reporting on events, Isaiah talking, Isaiah reporting what God is saying, and what is God quoting things he said in the past. The upshot seems to be that God is going to destroy the Babylonians (or Chaldeans), and also that the Israelites should flee from the Babylonians. If this is confusing, there is also some tension between the notion that God has intentionally refined the Israelites through affliction in order to demonstrate his might and glory, as has just been announced in verse 10, and a long passage (verses 17-19) that the Israelites would have had an awesome deal, if they’d just followed instructions.

The chapter ends with a stand-alone verse, the awesome and familiar quote “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked” (22).

Isaiah 49: A longish chapter in full-bore Israel-triumphant mode, prophesying that Israel will become a nation of enormous prosperity, an example and inspiration to other peoples, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (7) The dominance of Israel shown here gets a little over-the-top, as the kings and queens of the Gentiles prostrate themselves before Israelites to lick the dust at their feet (23) and the enemies of Israel are forced to drink their own blood and drink their own wine. (26) Well, it’s the Bible! It’s a violent book!

Isaiah 50: This short chapter begins with a couple of odd metaphors about suffering. The gist is, if I’m reading this right, that God is capable of saving you from any mishap, but may choose not to do so if you are proud or sinful; ergo, if you are in trouble it’s your own damn fault. From Verses 4 to 9, Isaiah the Prophet talks about how awesome he is for continuing to pass on the messages that God gives him every morning, despite that people don’t always believe him and often make fun of him for it. In Verses 10 and 11, he closes with another metaphor to the effect that anybody who makes decisions based on anything except the will of God – as expressed by Isaiah the Prophet, naturally – will suffer eternal torment.

Isaiah 51: Another chapter in full Israel-triumphant mode, promising imminent and everlasting peace, prosperity, and political dominance for Israel. Never again, Isaiah says that God says, will the Israelites drink from the goblet of my wrath…. I will put it into the hands of your tormentors. (22-23) Again – because I think this is a really important point in evaluating Isaiah’s cred as a prophet -- The Lord will surely comfort Zion… he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. No more troubles for the Israelites, says Isaiah. Sometime in the late 700s B.C.

Isaiah 52: A puzzling chapter, in which Isaiah predicts the triumph of Israel, then suddenly encourages the people to Depart, depart, go out from there! (11), without really making clear why it’s important to leave or where everybody’s going.

The chapter closes with three verses about a servant who will act wisely, who will be exalted, who will be physically disfigured, but who will be very influential to many nations and many important people. I’m guessing that much will be made of this passage down the road.

NEXT -- the Penultimate Isaiah Post

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Isaiah 42-46: O, Hai Blog

Right, so where were we?

The book of Isaiah continues with the teachings of this great prophet of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Unfortunately, he continues to impress this naïve reader as at best a ranting enthusiast, at worst a genuine lunatic. The effect is only heightened by dipping back in after an inexplicable half-year absence, right into the thick of things.

Isaiah 42

Verses 1-4 introduce the Servant of the Lord, a soft-spoken messianic figure, but verses 5-9 go off on a different tangent altogether, reminding the Israelites that they are supposed to be a good example for all of humankind, and reaffirming (as is so often reaffirmed) that idol worship is a big no-no. Verses 10-13 are a Psalm, encouraging various communities to raise their voices in songs of praise and joy, because God will assure their military success. Verses 14-17 represent God’s intention both to lavish destruction on the Earth and to lead people to enlightenment, as long as they don’t worship idols. Verses 18 to 25 assert that things go bad for Israel because it’s God’s punishment for sin. In short, in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way, Chapter 42 brings us right back in where we left off. Say what you like about Isaiah, he knew how to stay on-message.

Isaiah 43

Verses 1 through 21 are about God’s love for the Israelites, who are precious and honored in [His] sight. (4)  Fear not, God is given to say, for I have redeemed you (1).

Verses 22 through 28 are about God’s anger at the Israelites, who do not properly conduct the rituals he laid out for them. Even He, who has infinite love for them, will therefore condemn them to destruction and humiliation.

Isaiah knew how to stay on-message, but he doesn’t seem to have had much of a feel for irony.

Isaiah 44

Verses 1 through 5 are a continuation of Chapter 43, and now the message is not to worry about the destruction and humiliation, because God intends to bless later generations; Verse 5 speaks vaguely again of a possible Messianic figure.

Verses 6 through 23 take aim at idols, and for the first time that I remember employs an interesting rational argument. (Generally, up to this point, there have been three takes on idols: (1) those other gods are nowhere NEAR as powerful as God; (2) obviously idols are fake, because God is the only God; and (3) it’s a bad idea to mess with idols, because God says not to.) Here, Isaiah goes into great detail about where an idol comes from, carved out of a block of wood or a stone. He points out that, from a wood carving, the chips will probably be used as kindling, and asks why the rest of the block of wood should be more special than the kindling part. It’s fairly clever, and drives home the message that worshiping human idols is just silly superstition.

The remainder of the Chapter is God reaffirming his greatness and power in all things. This, too, has been a very common theme throughout Isaiah.

Isaiah 45

This entire Chapter is Isaiah transmitting, if that’s the right word, a speech from God. It strikes several time on familiar key themes: God is very powerful, God made the Earth, there are no other Gods, idols are very bad. This Chapter is in what you might call the Israel-triumphant mode, with various nationalities foreseen as subject to the Israelites; the Israel-punished mode is pretty much absent for a good page and a half.

Individuals who carve idols or who shoot their mouth off to God are in trouble, though. Do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? (11) God asks. It’s a rhetorical question, but the drift is clearly that one ought not ask such things.

Does the clay say to the potter,
“What are you making?”
Does your work say,
“He has not hands”?
It’s a stern metaphor, and it is perhaps unfair to point out that although the answer is certainly no – clay is nothing if not humble – there is also no mandate for clay to follow a rigorous legal, religious, and ethical code lain down by its potter.

By the by, Both Chapters 45 and 44 make specific references to God using “Cyrus” as an instrument of his will, and in Chapter 46 God says that he will bring from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose (46). This Cyrus fellow is, if I am not mistaken, an emperor of the Persians, who was at the time a very powerful actor in the human community. Isaiah’s explicit references to a known contemporary figure, whom he sees as a puppet carrying out the will of God in real time, certainly makes one look again to those passages which, ever so vaguely, seem to prophesy a messianic figure sometime in the future. Maybe those passages, too, were just referring to Cyrus.

Chapter 46

Primarily another anti-idol Chapter, Isaiah points out another problem with idol worship: what do idols actually DO, anyway? They just sit there! They can’t even talk back when you talk to them! So, here we have another and, I must say, really rather reasonable demonstration that idols are just so much empty superstition.

This Chapter remains in Israel-triumphant mode, and its final words are “I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.”

NEXT TIME:  I will try not to let a half-year go by.