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.”