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.