Monday, August 18, 2014

Daniel 1-5: Bible Stories

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

The Prophet Daniel

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

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

The Fiery Furnace

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

Nebuchadnezzar living as a beast, as imagined by William Blake

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

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

The Handwriting on the Wall

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ezekiel 40-48: The Vision of the Future Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 04, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #5: Ezekiel 25:17

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

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

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

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

For Context:

A Prophecy Against Philistia

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25-32: Bad News for the Neighbors

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #4: Ezekiel 23:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ezekiel 19-24: Prophecy by Analogy, Prophecy by Doom

Ezekiel, from a triptych by Duccio, c. 1310.
As I continue to make my way through Ezekiel, some of the excitement I felt during its cinematic opening passages has really worn off.  Here in the center Chapters, there is no longer much in the way of narrative pulse.  Each Chapter sits more or less unto itself, and shows Ezekiel in what I called last week "doing prophecy," which is to say communicating the messages that he says God has given him.

Prophecy by Analogy is exemplified in Ezekiel 19, which has two stories about "your mother."  In the first, "your mother" is a lioness whose sons, although they are great lions, are eventually captured and taken to Egypt and Babylon.  In the two, "your mother" is a vine that was once very verdant, until the weather changed and withered it.  These stories are introduced as a lament concerning the princes of Israel.

Prophecy by Doom is a reasonable name for Chapters in which the prophet's message is a rebuke coupled with a threat.  I have often heard the Old Testament, or at least the books of prophecy, dismissed as nothing but a relentless threat of imminent woe, and I'd always assumed it was just so much stereotyping.  But no, there is a ton of Doom Prophecy, and it is certainly not entertaining reading.  Ezekiel 20 is a representative example, as Ezekiel, speaking for God, complains through several paragraphs about how the people of Israel worship idols, and don't keep the sabbath, and so he's really going to punish them now.  In isolation -- and perhaps to Ezekiel's listeners -- it might be sobering and disturbing, but in the context of the Bible it is further rehashing of very familiar themes, with an angry, ranting edge that does not always seem entirely stable.  There are of course those who emphasize the fear of God -- the god-fearing -- and, if we are to trust the prophets, they have a much greater weight of scripture on their side than those who celebrate the love, mercy, wisdom, or justice of God.

Chapters 21 and 22 follow in the Prophecy by Doom line, and like most of the Book of Ezekiel they are mostly warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem.  So, in its way, is Ezekiel 23, but here we are back in the mode of Prophecy by Analogy.  Chapter 23 reprises a metaphor from Chapter 16, which casts Jerusalem and the Israelites as a depraved and sluttish prostitute.  It is a bit much.  The Jerusalem-prostitute (her name is Oholibah) sees pictures of Babylonian men, and gets so hot and bothered that she sends messengers asking them to come to her, to the bed of love (17) and do the obvious thing.  There she lusted after her lovers, we learn, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. (20)  I believe the Judean leadership is being criticized here for too accommodating a foreign policy; Ezekiel is clearly not one to hesitate over "going negative" with political rhetoric.

There is another analogy in Chapter 24, which claims to be a prophecy from the first day of the final siege of Jerusalem.  It involves cooking a meat stew.  The more interesting part of the Chapter for me is the second half, in which God announces to Ezekiel that he (God) is going to kill his (Ezekiel's) wife, but that he must not grieve or mourn.  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died, Ezekiel reports. (18)  Then the people asked me, "Won't you tell us what these things have to do with us?" (19)  Ezekiel tells them that just as God has handed him a terrible loss and will not countenance grieving, God is about to give all of them a terrible loss -- the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple -- and he will not countenance any mourning out of them, either.

So, this is not cheerful stuff.  There is one passage, the end of Chapter 20, that strikes me as quite funny.  It has classic comic timing, and a punchline that subverts a stern and solemn lead-up with an ingenuous (but not unreasonable) question that kind of undermines the mood.  But is it supposed to be funny?  I certainly doubt it.  But here, you be the judge:
45 The word of the Lord came to me: 46 “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland. 47 Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. 48 Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched.’”

49 Then I said, “Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #3: Ezekiel 16:44

This week's Inspirational Thursday is a great demonstration of an obvious point: a lot of Bible verses aren't going to mean much out of context.

44 “‘Everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb about you: “Like mother, like daughter.”
– Ezekiel 16:44
Aw, so sweet!  If a bit of a non sequitor!  Can't you just see it on a Mother's Day card?  It shares a paragraph with Ezekiel 16:45:
45 You are a true daughter of your mother, who despised her husband and her children; and you are a true sister of your sisters, who despised their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite.
Ooh, less sweet!  "You" is not the reader, though.  In Ezekiel 16, "you" is the people of Judah, in a long and deeply unflattering metaphor in which they are compared to children who grow up to be extremely disappointing to their parents.

This is of course not a widely illustrated Verse.  It is kind of fun, although not especially surprising, to find that the saying "like mother, like daughter" was an old saw even back in Biblical times.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ezekiel 14-18: Doing Prophecy

Our first two installments of Ezekiel were kicked off  by strong narrative passages where the first-person author talked about his experience of receiving visions from God.  At this point in the Book, however, Ezekiel has moved on to actual prophecy, in the sense of delivering messages from God.  These messages don't necessarily involve predictions or revelations about what is going to happen in the future; I'm calling them "prophecy" because their delivery is the function of the prophet, Ezekiel.

There are six discrete messages in this section (which I should make clear is arbitrarily defined by how far I read tonight before I got tired.  Chapters 14 to 18 don't necessarily have a logical unity).

Ezekiel 14:1-11 -- Message: God says that anyone who worships idols may not consult with his prophets, and his prophets may not deliver his messages to them.

Ezekiel 14:12-23 -- Message: God says that the presence of good individual men within a community -- his examples are Noah, Daniel, and Job -- will not save that community from his judgement or vengeance.  An individual's righteousness will save only himself.  Or perhaps herself; it's not specified.

Ezekiel 15 -- Message: In this very short Chapter, God compares the people of Jerusalem to the wood of a vine.  To wit, both are pretty useless.

Ezekiel 16 -- Message: In this very long Chapter, God compares the people of Jerusalem to a child that is lovingly brought up by a doting parent, himself, but who then becomes wayward and wildly promiscuous.  You will bear the consequences of your lewdness and your detestable practices, declares the Lord. (58)  The people will be punished for breaking the covenant, God says, but the covenant will be made again.

Ezekiel 17 -- Message: Son of man, says God to Ezekiel ("son of man" is what God always calls Ezekiel), set forth an allegory and tell the house of Israel a parable. (2)  The parable is a puzzling one involving eagles and vines, and would not make a lick of sense if the second half of the chapter didn't explain it.  It turns out it's kind of a political cartoon, criticizing the last king of Judah, the one put in place after Babylon claimed the first wave of exiles, for trying to set up an alliance with Egypt. 

Ezekiel 18 -- Message: God wants you people to stop saying that in Israel "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." (2)  That sounds very cryptic, but it's explained in detail and is actually quite interesting.  What people have apparently been saying is that in Israel people are always paying -- probably through God's judgement on the nation as a whole -- for the mistakes of the previous generations.  And no, says God, it doesn't work like that.  The children of a good man are not immune from punishment, and the children of a bad man will not be punished for that man's misdeeds: everyone is judged and punished only for their own behavior, virtue, and righteousness as an individual.

It's a very clear and definitive statement of how God's justice works.  Having said that, it is very puzzling to read it two-thirds of the way into the Bible, after dozens and dozens of instances where whole communities are explicitly punished for sins of individuals, and where communities are punished for things done or at least begun in the times of their parents or grandparents.  The Second Commandment, to take a high-profile example, goes like this:

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Is Ezekiel 18 supposed to be understood as a change of policy, then?  As in, ~henceforth~ everyone will be judged on an individual basis?  Because otherwise, it seems to fit very uncomfortably with God's conception of justice in the rest of the Old Testament to this point.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #2: Ezekiel 13:20

With the second installment of my project to make inspirational images from random Bible verses, the random number generator threw me a bit of a curveball:

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds.”
– Ezekiel 13:20
It is from the coda to Ezekiel 13, which is for the most part God's inveighing against false prophets; towards the end, he also condemns market-stall magic and the period equivalent of the telephone psychics.

Not surprisingly, it is not a widely illustrated Bible verse.  I found one online artist riffing on it, but not at all in the "inspirational image" genre.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ezekiel 8-13: Visions of Jerusalem

Raphael's Ezekiel's Vision, from the early 1500s.  This iconic painting looks nothing
even remotely like the visions of God described in the first 13 books of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 8, like Ezekiel 1, has a well defined beginning:
In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign LORD came upon me there.
I am curious about the chronology here, but I think the “sixth year” might be the sixth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin (cf. 1:2, if you are really into this sort of thing). That would make it about a year and two months since Ezekiel's original visions. That means he would have almost exactly enough time to complete the penitential program of lying on his right side and his left side that I talked about last week (I actually come up exactly one day short when I tried the math, but apparently no one is 100% sure how the calendar of the age worked, so we shan’t be too picky.) Although there’s no narrative of Ezekiel spending the 14 months of his ritual, I think we are supposed to assume that he carried it out between Chapters 7 and 8.

So what happens now is a kind of dream sequence. At least, I think it’s a dream sequence. God comes to Ezekiel again, looking much as he did before, and lifts Ezekiel by his hair up between earth and heaven to Jerusalem. He carries him around the temple and shows him Israelites worshipping idols and the sun. Then God summons six soldiers and a secretary. The secretary is sent to go through the city and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it. (9:4) Then the soldiers are sent out to kill everybody without the mark, regardless of age and sex, without showing pity and compassion. (9:5-6)

After this, the “cherubim” – not angels after all, I guess, unless angels and cherubim mean the same thing – reappear. Chapter 10 describes them in detail, with their four faces and four wings and hands hidden underneath. They are covered with eyes, and they ride in a peculiar fashion on some gyroscope-sounding contraptions, which are also covered with eyes. (Sidebar: These may be what people call “Ezekiel’s wheel,” as no other candidate for the phrase has come up yet, but they aren’t really wheels and there are four of them.) Then, still within the vision (if it is a vision), God calls on Ezekiel to prophesy against Jerusalem’s leaders. There is a confusing metaphor involving meat in a cooking pot, the upshot of which is that the Israelites are going to face destruction now, but that remnants of them will be brought back to Jerusalem in the future.

The vision ends, and in Chapter 12 Ezekiel is told to make a similar prophecy to the exiles he is living among. He is supposed to dig through the wall to make his point (5), which is puzzling. The city wall? Of Babylon? Would that be possible? Wouldn’t he get in trouble for trying?

Chapter 13, finally, is a warning against false prophets, and has the inherent problem of warning against false prophets. In essence, Ezekiel is told to say “Don’t believe those other people when they say God talks to them, because God told me he doesn’t, really.” It makes perfect sense as long as you accept that God is talking to Ezekiel, and not the others. He also inveighs here against women who make magic charms and make veils of various lengths for their heads. (18) This last is a cultural reference that is completely lost on me (really this is probably true of almost every sentence of the Bible, if we are honest) as is a very curious sentence back at 8:17, where God is complaining of the idolatry in Jerusalem and exclaims Look at them putting the branch to their nose! The veils of peculiar lengths and the sniffing of branches are apparently out-of-bounds mystical practices; the details probably aren’t important, but they are kind of wistfully intriguing.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #1: Ezekiel 5:17

Inspirational Thursday

If you've been looking at this project in the last few years, you'll know I'm both fascinated and troubled by the use of quotations from the Bible in inspirational images.  I don't think it's hard to understand why.  To come up with a batch of upbeat phrases that people will want to have on their wall or their screen saver, you have to cherry-pick.  You might argue that you select the most important or most meaningful passages that way, but you certainly don't get anything like a representative look at the parts of the Bible I've read thus far, in which joy and inspiration must be sought in snatches among a great volume of desolation, horror, and retribution.

Why is that important?  That's important because there are probably more people whose idea of what is in the Bible comes from their encounters with inspirational Biblical images than there are people whose idea of what is in the Bible comes from reading the Bible.  Obviously I don't have stats on that, and indeed how could I?  But think about it.  The ubiquity of inspirational Bible images promotes a pop theology of personal empowerment and affirmation.  That may be cool, or it may not be.  But either way, it ain't supported by scripture.

Now I've played with subverting the visual vocabulary of the inspirational Bible image to make my point, but that was really just cherry-picking too.  After all, I was deliberately seeking out passages that would seem bizarre or comical in that setting.

That brings us to Inspirational Thursday: After I prepare my notes on a section of scripture for Monday publication, I will:

  • Use a random number generator to find a verse within that section.
  • Find or create an image that seems to represent the mood and theme of the verse, whether positive, negative, or neutral.
  • Overlay the text on the image, with chapter-and-verse citation.
Some of these might be genuinely inspirational, and that would be great.  Some might be a little disturbing, and that is arguably pretty interesting.  I'm afraid that for my debut effort, the random number generator made it hard for the image to be anything but disturbing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Ezekiel 1-7: "I saw visions of God"

You hear people talk sometimes about “The Bible as Literature.” Now obviously there’s something to this, in that as a massively old and influential set of texts it’s immensely important in the literary tradition.  But let’s face it: it just isn’t really “literary” in the ordinary sense of the word.  It reads like a very old and capriciously edited scrapbook, which is of course what it is.  Despite the occasional appearance of a solid plotline – David and Bathsheba, say – the storytelling has not been particularly artful or moving.  And although people talk about “the poetry of the King James version,” and that translations powerful imprint on the history of the language, I frankly doubt things are much better over there in point of powerful reading.  I for one have always felt like the haths and thines and sayeths add another layer of distance between a modern reader and the ancient texts. 

I say all this just to emphasize what a great opening line the Book of Ezekiel has. 
1 In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
Isn’t that awesome?  The book opens right there in media res, you know exactly where and when the action is happening, you’ve got some information about the person telling the story, and you are definitely, definitely interested in reading the next sentence.  Now that’s literature! 

In Ezekiel 1, the eponymous prophet describes in great detail his vision of God and his attendants -- what I assume we would have to call “angels” although he does not use that word.

Here’s how here, if I'm not mistaken, most people generally think of angels:

Here’s the best rendering I can find of what Ezekiel describes.

by Australian artist Johnathan Edward Guthmann

And here’s what God looks like in Ezekiel’s vision: a man sitting on a sapphire throne, with an upper body that looks like glowing metal and a lower body of fire, complaining about the Israelites.  Seriously.  In his instructions to Ezekiel, God repeats and repeats and REPEATS that the Israelites are a rebellious, obstinate, and generally obnoxious people. 

Ezekiel’s job is to do what he can to talk some sense into them.  At first, he balks at his new responsibilities.  Ezekiel, a very believable narrator, goes to the people he is supposed to bring his message to, And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days—overwhelmed. (3:15)  At the end of the week, God comes back to give him a pep talk.  “If you pass on my warnings and they screw up,” says God – I paraphrase broadly – “it’s their fault.  But if you DON’T pass on my warnings and they screw up, it’s your fault.”  This gets Ezekiel’s attention.

God’s specific instructions to Ezekiel are incredibly demanding.  He is to lie down on his right side for 390 days, representing 390 years of a sinful house of Israel; after which he has to lie on his left side for 40 days to represent 40 years of a sinful house of Judah.  Through all of this, he will be allowed about half a pound of food per day.  In the original instructions he must cook the food using human shit as fuel.  He is able to haggle on this point, however, and talks God into letting him use cow manure instead.  Despite this concession, it doesn't seem like Ezekiel is going to have much fun as a prophet.

Ezekiel is also instructed to shave his head and burn some of his hair, cast some of it to the wind, and slash at some of it with a sword.  This, along with the starvation diet, is prophetic of the coming destruction of Jerusalem.  That's is a little confusing in Biblical sequence, since we saw the destruction of Jerusalem at the end of Jeremiah and lamented its destruction in Lamentations, but here at the beginning of Ezekiel we have slipped backwards in time a few years.  Ezekiel is living among the first waves of exiles from Jerusalem, but the city has not yet fallen.  His starvation diet symbolizes the starvation that will grip the city under siege, a few years in the future, and the business with his hair symbolizes the various fates that the Israelites will face as their kingdom is destroyed. 
In Ezekiel 6, God makes it clear that destruction isn’t just of the city folk of Jerusalem; the mountains and rural areas are also in for it, especially the “high places” where people have worshipped idols and performed unauthorized sacrifices.   Ezekiel 7 is given the title “The End Has Come” in the NIV, and it recalls Jeremiah’s predictions of the fall of Judah – except that, again, the style of the text seems a little more engaging, a little more literary.  Here’s the gist, right here:
15 Outside is the sword;
inside are plague and famine.
Those in the country
will die by the sword;
those in the city
will be devoured
by famine and plague.

16 The fugitives who escape
will flee to the mountains.
Like doves of the valleys,
they will all moan,
each for their own sins.
As I skim ahead, it looks from the section headings that this will not be an especially cheerful book.  We’ll find out more next week!

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Book of Lamentations

If you have an old enough Bible, Lamentations might be called "The Lamentations
of Jeremiah."  Apparently nobody takes Jeremiah's authorship of the
Lamentations seriously anymore, although as soon as I say that I realize that
there are probably plenty of folks who do.
The Book of Lamentations is entirely true to its title.  Five Chapters long, it consists almost entirely of lamentations.  It is written in first person, with the narrator mourning the fall of Jerusalem specifically and a wide range of ills and terrors generally.  Why is there all this suffering?  The answer is quite plainly stated: Because God is punishing the people.

Some sample lamentation:
He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
    and has broken my bones.
He has besieged me and surrounded me
    with bitterness and hardship.
He has made me dwell in darkness
    like those long dead.
19 “I called to my allies
    but they betrayed me.
My priests and my elders
    perished in the city
while they searched for food
to keep themselves alive. (1)
The tone of the lamentations are not angry or bitter.  “Resigned” is pretty much the mood, and the idea is clearly that all the ills and terrors are justified. 

The second half of Chapter 3 interrupts the lamenting briefly to sound a note of hopefulness.  Here, with a little bit of context, is the moment when the mood changes:
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.

The hopeful note is not sustained for long, however, and by Chapter 4 we are back in a cataloging of bleak and sometimes macabre misfortunes.  Anyone expecting a triumphal ending will be disappointed, as the piece ends in something of a minor key.  The narrator does not doubt God in the end, but does doubt God’s kindness:
19 You, Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
    Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
    renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
    and are angry with us beyond measure.
With its bleak subject matter and focus on God-as-punisher, Lamentations is not a book of the Bible that I would expect many people to find either especially inspiring or especially interesting.  Although it is read aloud annually in Jewish tradition, sketchy available data from online Bible websites suggest that it is among the least-consulted pieces of scripture.  (although having said that, I was charmed to see it listed on one Bible blogger’s “Top Ten Books of theBible” list).

For me, the most interesting thing about Lamentations comes in the footnotes.  Each of the first four chapters is “an acrostic poem, the verses of which begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew Alphabet.”  Why?  Well, who knows?  No attempt is made to replicate the effect in the NIV translation.  I thought about using the format for this post, but then I decided that would be way too hard.