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.