Isaiah and the burning blood

Somewhere, back when the Bible was still a “closed book” to me, one I simply couldn’t crack, I recall reading a Kenneth Rexroth passage praising Isaiah as the greatest religious poem ever written.

Craggy Rexroth, long an influence on my own poetic voice and father of the Beat movement in poetry, actually said that?

It put the work on my radar, at the minimum.

Later, as the Bible began opening itself to me, as it were, I was deeply moved by the visions of peace and justice I found in Isaiah.

Quaker painter Elias Hicks returned repeatedly to a vision of a Peaceable Kingdom inspired by the book of Isaiah. He often included William Penn in the background, here along the banks of the Delaware River.

Along the way I became aware that the book is the product of at least three different prophets spanning more than 300 years — perhaps even a school of prophets.

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Prophets as oracles of God rather than fortune-tellers

Rather than prognosticating future fortunes or life-changing events, Biblical prophets are voices of the Holy One, often rebuking the people or their rulers or at least calling them to greater faithfulness to the Covenant. They usually stand apart from the priests, too, in their religious duties.

Many of the central figures in the evolving history of the Israelites are considered prophets. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, David, Elijah, and Elisha are among them.

Major later prophets have their own books — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel — as well as lesser ones collectively known as the Twelve. The Christian Bibles present these books as one grouping at the end of the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, arranges them in a more chronological order among the other books.

The books of the Prophets can be seen as an alternative history, one told from the perspective off ideas and ideals and through preaching/teaching rather than from the throne and its armies or its sumptuous monuments. They also represent a major turn in Jewish history as the kingdoms of Judah and Israel fall into corruption and decay within and military defeat and captivity and exile without. Through these prophets, principally, what happens in Babylon during the exile is a reformation fosters emerges on the return from Babylon is a reformation of their identity as Jews and their faith of Judaism. They emerge a changed people, and the major shift lays the foundation for Jewish survival after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In this turn in identity, they are no longer a nation, first and foremost, or a place or a temple, but a people obligated to ethical standards and individual responsibility in accord with the Covenant.

The major prophets are all male, at least in the surviving canon. This, alas, advances the obstacle of patriarchy and its assumptions and limitations. And, yes, the message is largely doom and gloom. But I was in the newspaper business, and many of our headlines ran along the same lines. Ahem.

Upholding community is no easy matter, then or now.

Prophet Elijah

No one sets out to be a prophet. Not an authentic one in the Jewish tradition. The role requires an utter surrender of self, and a crushing sense of being called to service despite oneself.

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The Wit of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus

As the preface to this book in the New Jerusalem explains, “Ben Sira (called ‘Eccelsiasticus’ in the Greek translation, the wise and perceptive scribe of Jerusalem, writes movingly of the chief loves of his life, the Law and the Temple liturgy.” Originally written in about 190/180 BC and translated into Greek by his grandson in 132 BC, the book is included in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) and Eastern Orthodox canon, but not the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles.

This is a rambling collection that feels to me more like a draft or even a set of notes not yet fully in focus. Its length is surpassed only by the Psalms.

The author’s grandson included a translator’s forward in the Greek version, which continues in the Vulgate, and I find this a candid counterpoint in any debate about Biblical authorship or proper readings.

Ben Sira is quite the scribe and reader.

The book is mostly advice on how to behave, much of it appearing as witticisms, and ends with a retelling of the history of the Jewish people.

Interspersed are insights into the nature of Wisdom, presumably as Sophia — “All wisdom comes from the Lord, she is with him forever.” Perhaps sitting at the left hand of God, opposite Christ?

The tedious run of maxims, alas, soon grates. “A thief is preferable to an inveterate liar, and both are heading for ruin,” for instance, easily raises a question of whether one is truly preferred over the other. Some are outrageously offensive: “Better a man’s spite than a woman’s kindness: women give rise to shame and reproach.” We’re really supposed to take this seriously? Beware of the preacher who insists this is God’s word! The rebuke of Solomon’s wonder, though, is refreshing: “You abandoned your body to women, you became the slave of your appetites. You stained your honor,” resulting in “the empire split in two.” This stands at odds with the usual praises. As for Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam? “The stupidest member of the nation, brainless Rehoboam, who drove the people to rebel.”

Rather than the Wisdom of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, I’d much prefer calling this book the Wit of Ben Sira. Maybe with comic book illustrations, in a coffee table edition.

The Book of Wisdom, infusing new concepts into Jewish thought

Included only in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) and Eastern Orthodox canon, this book introduces a much different line of theological comprehension.

As the New Jerusalem preface notes, the author “is a Hellenized Jew, thoroughly familiar with Greek culture, probably writing in Alexandria in about 50 BC.” Or perhaps a century earlier, according to other scholars.

“He is the first to express the hope of after-life in terms of immortality of the individual soul.”

That alone is remarkable, but, “Perhaps the single most important contribution of the book consists in its reflections on Wisdom, especially the personification of Wisdom as God’s agent in the world, yet sharing intimately in his nature.” She is even described in verse 9:4 as God’s consort — wife!

I’m assuming this is Sophia, in Greek, though her description also fits the Logos appearing in the opening of the Gospel of John, a concept that occupies an extensive place in ancient Greek philosophy.

Also prominent is her identification as “the holy spirit of instruction,” “a spirit friendly to humanity,” “the spirit of the Lord” — one that “will never enter the soul of a wrong-doer.”

These are all vital to my understanding of a radical Christianity, by the way.

Sophia wisdom tree.

Also known as the Wisdom of Solomon, this is another book where Solomon has no authorship or standing. This was composed much later, and is inclusive of thinking outside of the Judaic confines.

The New Jerusalem preface even contends, “The ground is prepared for the understanding of Jesus as the incarnate Wisdom of God.”

Or, in an alternative view, as the vessel for the Holy Spirit to manifest.

I appreciate the New Jerusalem’s casting the lines of the poem across the full page, rather than breaking them to fit into two columns.

Acknowledging the fertility cults

I once heard ancient Judaism described as a male fertility cult, an impression that is reinforced by the repeated paternal genealogies encountered in my straight-through Bible reading.

What also comes through is the repeated conflict with the female fertility cults, obliquely referenced in the hilltop worship or, to my surprise, the continuing proliferation of human sacrifice — especially by the kings of Judah and Israel, presumably at the instigation of their foreign-born wives.

What we don’t have is an active, supportive Jewish female fertility paradigm.

To repeat a quote by Daphne Merkin: “As a daughter in an Orthodox household, I had no text to call my own. In contrast to Jewish sons … Jewish daughters have at best an oblique connection to the sacred volumes of their heritage.”

The imbalance obviously has consequences.

The forbidden Asherah pole worship.


Baal worship, too.

In the Scriptures, there is a repeated pattern of bigamy in which one wife is the fertile one, being fruitful and multiplying, in the manner of Genesis 1, while the other one is the beloved “suitable helpmeet” of Genesis 2-3. Quite simply, it never really works. Just look at Leah and Rachel, for starters.

Why polygamy, anyway? Because so many males die in combat? Or the availability of desirable women the victors carry away into captivity?

Marriage is never clearly defined in these texts, either, even in contrast to a concubine or a slave. Is it essentially in context of the surrounding cultures and their practices? Think of dowries and the like.

Another question is just when does Jewish marriage become monogamous?

The questions have the Song of Songs and Ruth ringing even more powerfully in my perspective.

The erotic outburst of Song of Songs

The book is sometimes titled the Song of Solomon, but the male lover in this poem is monogamous, unlike any king with a harem. “My dove is my only one, perfect and mine,” the man proclaims in 6:9.

So get King Solomon out of this picture.

Also, the structure is not an allegory, despite attempts to sanitize the content. This is a dramatic dialog of erotic passion, sizzling and unrestrained, and while my New Jerusalem translation calls her the Beloved and him the Lover, that’s backward: she’s the more active, aggressive one here!

The voices of Poet and Chorus punctuate the intensity.

Ephraim-Moses-Lilien’s illustration captures the intense interplay of the Song of Songs.

I possess a slim volume wonderfully rendered by poet Marcia Falk, where their voices are effectively contrasted through the use of different typefaces. There’s no mistaking the leading role the female plays here. Falk’s Translator’s Study that follows the poetry itself digs deep under the surface of the text. But since hers is a slightly abridged version, I stuck with the New Jerusalem in this straight-through reading.

Song of Songs comes as a great relief after so much of the misogyny in other Biblical books. There’s no need to mention the Holy One here, since this is a tactile embodiment of loving with all of one’s mind, body, and soul. It’s a yearning for completion, a gift of creation itself. This song’s seductive woman taunts the misery of Ecclesiastes.

Theologian Michael Birkel has cited those who call the Song of Songs the “fifth Quaker gospel” because its imagery and sensual awareness so infuse the writings of seminal leaders of the Society of Friends. His Bible half-hours at New England Yearly Meeting in 2013 examined key passages, dispelling for me any notion of early Friends as colorless or stoic.

Despite ancient editorial attempts to insert Solomon into the poem, the intrusions ring false. She’s an outcast from the gitgo, not a princess.

Song of Songs circa 1904 by Frantisek Kupka captures the woman’s power in the illicit passion expressed in the text.

Grace Schulman’s analysis in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible calls this an “awakening … a poem that glorifies new love and the green earth.” It’s “unmistakably sexual, with emphasis on smell and touch … built on an alternating pattern of ecstasy in the daylight and loss at night.” As Schulman remarks, “Passion and danger are the terrifying polarities of the Song.”

Drawing on verse 8:6, Schulman summarizes the Song: “Although passion is fierce, love is as strong as death and will triumph despite fears, ambivalence, and life’s decay. Love, tenacious as death, simultaneously terrifies and endures. Seemingly opposed, love and death have, in fact, one name … the startling truth that love is only apparently transient, but actually eternal.”

She sees “the depiction of one leading character throughout” as a “unifying factor.” Here we have “an active woman is the chief suitor” who “boldly expresses her longing. … She is the braver, he the more timidly withdrawn. … She calls, beckons, cajoles, pursues.”

Like the Psalms and other Biblical poetry, these lines are meant to burst out into song — or chanting. (I’m particularly fond of the polyphonic settings by William Billings and a CD of four Renaissance composers performed by Stile Antico, but the possibilities are endless.)

Crucially, as Schulman concludes, “The more its authors sing of love, the more they whisper of God.”

The King James dilemma

Make that plural, I suppose. Dilemmas.

By this point in my parallel reading of essays in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, enough of the Jewish authors have remarked on the impact of the King James translation on their own experience of the Hebrew Bible, even once they had become fluent in the original.

Let me reiterate my decision to use less familiar translations in my straight-through reading, in part as an attempt to experience these texts for the first time.

The first KJV dilemma, of course, is mistranslation. Quite simply, many of the familiar passages simply aren’t true to the original. How do they get corrected? Something as simple as “hart,” or male deer (“buck”?), rather than doe in Psalm 42 presents a much different sense of the line.

As Leslie Fiedler admits of “reading and rereading and rereading [Job] ever since I was thirteen or fourteen — in the King James Version, in all of whose magnificent inaccuracy I will remember it, I suppose, until the day I die,” we gain a sense of the struggle.

That leads to the second dilemma. Many of the mistranslations have rung true in their own way and are solidly engrained in our linguistic and literary legacy. A rich harmony would be lost in the corrected translation.

The translators of the King James Version closely followed John Wycliffe’s earlier English rendering. They were spared his fate.

As John Hollander adds, “For a modern reader, the language of the KJV is inherently poetic primarily because of the relation between its high, condensed diction and the impenetrability of so much of its language, caused by semantic change since the early seventeenth century.” He remarks, “I suppose that a poetic childhood consists in misunderstanding a good bit of what one sees and hears …”

That points to a third dilemma arising in their very familiarity.

“In short,” Hollander says, “losing the mysterious poetry engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, it compensated many times over by re-entry into the original.”

And thus, we’re caught.

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Ecclesiastes as more than bitter reality

In my read-through I carried a Jewish friend’s quip that this was his favorite Biblical book, thanks to its acerbic honesty.

Coming on the heels of Proverbs, its sardonic tone was a dash of refreshing water. Of course, in retrospect, I see that I had overlooked the ironic edge of Proverbs, which would have bridged the two books.

Less noted was their difference in point-of-view. Proverbs is in third-person, objective. It’s about behavior in an abstracted setting. Ecclesiastes is first-person, confessional, filled with details of personal encounter.

Neither book ever really addresses an individual’s relationship with the Holy One, but rather the realities of everyday societal interactions.

Ecclesiastes essentially strips away any idea of doing the right thing in anticipation of divine reward. Rather, I see it as pointing to doing the right thing simply because it’s the moral obligation, apart from any recompense.

Solomon summoning demons.

Daphne Merkin’s essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible deepened this understanding. Citing the opening passage’s “raging futility” and the “strange sense of invigoration that sadness can bring,” she calls “this slim book … a depressive’s lament — perfect for a gray day,” and “potentially the most subversive” in the Hebrew canon.

Pointing to the author’s persona of Qoleleth (Greek) or Koleleth (Hebrew), presumably King Solomon, “the wealthiest of Jewish kings,” she has me looking back on this from an entirely different viewpoint. Quite simply, its very bitterness can be a condemnation of all of Solomon’s “greatness”! She calls the author’s position one of “an acquisition-happy malcontent … blessed with the dazzling ‘life style’ of a corporate raider but burdened with the wrong soul” … a “connoisseur of ennui.” (My, her descriptions leave me envious. Damn, she’s good.)

The author, she contends, is not Solomon but a wealthy bachelor, “the uncommitted male,” childless, alone, a political conservative, “an older man looking back on his life from a position of material success as well as spiritual disappointment.”

One of the dimensions of the book, then, boldly satirizes worldly ambitions.

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Proverbs shorn of sweetness

I skipped lightly through this book. Saw it mostly as quaint, practical advice to the sons. But what about the daughters? Especially when a strand of misogyny is detected? “What, son of my womb! What, son of my vows! Do not expend your energy on women …” (Proverbs 31:2-3), for example.

You know, a kind of Dear Abby or Ann Landers or the continuing slick advice of Job’s three “friends.”

Much of it, frankly, sounded like fortune cookies or Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack or a succession of bumper stickers.

OK, much was also far more political than I’d anticipated, and there is a brief flash of Sophia in chapter 8.

One of the more developed ideas, the last chapter’s definition of a good wife, has a dark underside I hadn’t previously considered. She’s valued for her economic productivity, not her love. Is that another of the “practical” reflections of the real world of the time?

While these aphorisms are attributed to King Solomon, or more likely reflect the witty repartee of his courtiers, the fact is his own sons failed to follow these instructions.

I found them ultimately cloying.

Ephraim-Moses-Lilien’s Dybbuk.

David Shapiro’s essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has me seeing my reading was rushed. It needs to be sipped slowly. “The book is to become part of our body. Reading is vascular or nothing.” Furthermore, “much of the pithiness of the Hebraic proverb is lost on the smooth unraveling of the English mistranslations.” As he insists, “Proverbs demands patience.”

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Halfway point!

In the Christian sequencing, the Psalms fall at the halfway point through the Old and New Testaments.

They would be even further along in the pages following the ordering of the Hebrew Bible.

Either way, there’s a lot more ahead.

Still, in looking for an overall structure and developing line of theological thought in my straight-through reading of the Bible, I was already perplexed by the lack of systematic development. Too many things seemed to be moving in contrary directions. Rather than clarifying a concept of the Holy One, for starters, I found the opposite happening. Yes, the war-god was giving way, but that was more a consequence of military defeats, flawed government, and Babylonian exile. The evolving comprehension remained, for me, lacking.

In the arrangement of the Biblical books I was tracking, I’d already come through the history of the development of the Jewish people — one that peters out before the fall of the second temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — and entered the books of Wisdom. I still had a few more Wisdom books to encounter and then the Prophets. The history, in other words, fizzles out before the biggest scene.

Epharim Moses Lilien’s Queen of the Sabbath. A day of rest each week remains a revolutionary concept.

The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, mixes history, Wisdom, and the Prophets in what may be a more organic or unified approach, especially when it applies Chronicles as its concluding recap.

Looking at the sections by length, the brevity of the New Testament comes as a shock — just about 15 percent of the total. Rather than a second act, it would seem more of an appendage or even an encore, of sorts.

One thing I hadn’t expected was the awareness of authorship, once I had encountered the commentary on J, the Jahwist or Yahwist. This perspective intensifies in learning of scholarship adding the Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources. This definitely wasn’t the “written by God,” as we children had been taught in Protestant Sunday school, or, as I was concluding, not even the “inspired by God” alternative. Rather, what was emerging were texts of experiences of Otherness. Even the Five Books of Moses, from this perspective, would be more accurately titled the Five Books about Moses.

Well, now it’s on to the rest of the story.