An emphasis on mutual fidelity in daily practice

In this straight-through reading of the Bible, I set out looking for the big picture.

As we might say, God is in the details — but there’s a host of them in these pages. Or, more accurately, in these scrolls, filled with a plethora of issues, events, and people.

Pardon the pun, then, if we consider the Lord of Hosts, meaning a vast array of so much. (Ahem.) (Or amen.)

Arriving at the end of Hebrew Bible (there are, as I’ve remarked, differences between that collection and those of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, on one hand, and the Protestant, on the other), I am struck by an awareness of one crucial variance in the sequencing.

That comes with, where the Jewish approach places the utopian Chronicles as the grand finale. It’s a grand reprise, a reminder of what’s come before, rather than simply an alternative telling of Kings right before it.

Abraham by Ephraim Moses Lilien

 

Since my straight-through reading followed Christian sequence, where Chronicles comes as right after Kings, the Old Testament simply petered out. There was no overarching structure. Perhaps this is intentional, to emphasize what will follow with Jesus and his followers.

Not so in the Hebrew Bible ordering.

As Herbert Tarr contends in his essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, “It’s fitting for the Jewish Bible to conclude with the Book of Chronicles … Not only does it review the history of Genesis through Kings, but it reiterates the central contractual theme that runs throughout the Jewish Bible and foreshadows the Talmud, which focuses on the law and its application. For it was the people of Israel and their Bible — not classical Rome, a Johnny-come-lately to the ancient world — that gave mankind the concept of law as well as monotheism.”

He then sees Pauline Christianity remiss in dismissing the legal contract of the Jews and instead proclaiming a new covenant. “Christians regard the Jewish Bible as a small library of individual books,” he observes. “Not so: the entire Jewish Bible is essentially one extended lawbook that delineates the Covenant into which God and Israel entered voluntarily. If Israel is the Chosen People, she is also — this is equally important — the choosing people. Without Israel’s concurrence, there would have been no deal — and no Bible.”

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The Twelve: how many can you name?  

At this point, Christian Bibles continue with twelve short books focused on seemingly minor prophets — a rather puzzling occurrence, since these fall after the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, as well as the earlier struggles of Elijah and Elisha. It’s as if prophecy were running out of steam.

The Hebrew canon, in contrast, unites them in a single scroll known as the Twelve — Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi. (So how many can you name?)

Each of them has something valuable to add, though they often seem to be summed up in a single quotation or two. And in trying to make sense of the historical events they address, I do get whiplash.

In my overview, considering them as together seems to make sense — kind of like looking at a team, right?

Here goes, then:

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Hosea: The male God imagery culminates, along with the misogyny, even if the Jews as a people or we Christians, in succession, are cast as the whoring wife.

How far are we, individually and collectively, to go in extending such forgiveness?

Joel: Chapter 3 is a great proclamation of the Holy Spirit, a contrast to the New Testament contention that casts it as the “third person of Trinity.”

Amos: Of the prophets, I’d say he’s the most bitter, the darkest. At least the dour voice of Ecclesiastes never claims to be an oracle, unlike Amos, who nevertheless also raises a call for justice.

Obediah: I like the line, “Your proud heart has misled you,” but have to ask just what this adds to the understanding.

Jonah: Usually lost in the emphasis on the fish story is the profound personal struggle of being true to a prophet calling. He tries running away, to Spain in the opposite direction, but is thrown back with an order to command his hated enemies to repentance. And then, to his bitter horror, they do and are saved. In this sweep, what came through most for me is the black comedy. Forget the big fish, by the way — it’s too much of a distraction.

Micah: Another plea to just do what’s right.

Nahum: What do we make of Nineveh in Biblical times? After the Babylonian captivity? Here we focus on the fall of the city and its empire.

Habakkuk: Now we’re back to Babylon and its oppression.

Zepaniah: Backward even more in the chronology, to the time of King Josiah. Destruction followed by hope.

Haggai: Back from the exile, here’s encouragement to rebuild. A sense of commonwealth, too.

Zachariah: Again, shortly after the return from exile. This text is shot through with psychedelic visions, plus expectations of Messiah.

Malachi: Means simply “my messenger.” A call for faithfulness.

I was surprised that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible had essays on only seven of these prophets, although Jonah got two commentators. Even so, the responses were lengthy, often reflections on the authors’ own childhoods and struggles with Jewish identity.

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Daniel as psychodrama

This is a book I love to teach with the older kids in Quaker Meeting. Not that I take a conventional approach.

How, for instance, does anyone in the story determine that Daniel is ten times smarter by sticking to a vegetarian diet or that the fire becomes seven times hotter? Like they had IQ tests or thermometers back then?

The text is full of sly humor, for one thing. The kids can’t help but laugh when the tormenters instead of the heroes fall into the blazing furnace. They brighten, too, when they recognize the peer pressure to worship the statue, one that measures the height of a surviving industrial smokestack in our town.

Yes, kids know what it is to be pressured, as well as often being unjustly tormented.

So far, none of them have asked if these things actually happened. Rather, they get swept up in the underlying psychological drama — the truth of the heartfelt desires for ultimate justice.

Once again, we also have the power of dreams. And what dreams!

In the big sweep, we have the angel Gabriel making his first appearance. Apparently, he has wings: he swoops in full flight (9:11).

Also, we have visions of resurrection, first mentioned in Ezekiel.

Plus, who can’t love the story of Susanna when she gets her ultimate justice?

 

In my straight-through reading, now with an awareness of the presence of eunuchs in the Bible, I stop cold at verses 1:3-5: “From the Israelites, the king [Nebuchadnezzar] Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring a certain number of boys or noble or royal descent; they had to be without any physical defect, of good appearance, versed in every branch of wisdom, well-informed, discerning, suitable for service in the royal court.” After three years of preparation, “they would enter the royal court.”

I hear an alarm sound. Was Daniel, along with his three loyal companions, made a eunuch? Or did the king have other designs on them? The Bible tells of no descendants from him. Once again, the conventional assumptions of macho masculinity for Jewish heroes is challenged. As performance artist Peterson Toscano contends, the sexual identities run across a spectrum rather than solid black or white.

(Only a few books back, we had Jeremiah being rescued by a court eunuch, 38:7-13.)

 

Such is the importance of Daniel that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has two essays, rather than only one.

In the first, Lynne Sharon Schwartz revisits her memories of being a child reader enchanted with the retelling in Bible Tales.

As “a child in a world of adults” and “a dreamer in post-World War II Brooklyn,” she identified with being an exile in a strange land and having overlords at home, at school, and on the street. Reading the Bible Tales lines, “The king was kind to the captive Jews, and very few of them were made to work as slaves,” to which Schwartz responded, “School was a form of slavery. What I was exiled from, I know now, was my future, which would be totally different. … But how long the waiting seemed …”

She admits the “sense of joy and validation I felt, of pure aesthetic rightness at Daniel’s words, is indescribable. … Not ‘Here I am” but ‘Here am I.’ The transposition makes all the difference.”

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Ezekiel’s visual wonder

It’s one of those books I pretty much skipped over in the past, but in my straight-through reading I was moved by the psychedelic imagery and hallucinogenic imagination.

So the Prophet puts his hope in the exiles rather than the remnant in Judah? Got that?

Here, he expresses repeated experiences of being moved by the spirit of Yahweh, “which entered me and put me on my feet and spoke to me.” Again, I tally these as evidence of a growing awareness of the Holy Spirit before the New Testament accounts. He also rejects a later Protestant “assurance of salvation” in verse 18:24, where he also suggests an eternal death for the unrighteous — and, by implication, eternal life for the righteous?

His rage against politics and kings and queens (“politicians” will fit just fine as a synonym here) eventually leads up to a denunciation of what later became “divine right.”

And then we have the resurrection of the dry bones.

Divine visions … why not!

So what do I make of all of his all of his dimensions for the rebuilt Temple, as well as the spring within it, like a source of energy? His expressions of hope in the future include descriptions of a single shepherd leading the people — an image that returns full-force in the New Testament.

 

In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Elie Wiesel notes, “His book is the only one — of the Prophets — that almost fell victim to censorship. Indeed, for a while the Book of Ezekiel was in danger of not being published.”

Wiesel ponders the possible reasons before concluding that Ezekiel alone describes his visions. Other Prophets had visions, “but why did he have to reveal them to others? … Why did he have to boast about it?”

More to the point, “God was kind enough to show him the chariot and its mystical creatures. But nowhere is it mentioned that God told him to tell others what he had seen. And yet Ezekiel did not hesitate to reveal everything he had seen. That was his mistake.”

Does Wiesel wish to keep the expression of this religion entirely verbal, except for the visual details of the Temple? Ezekiel, he contends, “did not understand that there are experiences that cannot be communicated by words. He did not understand the importance of silence — the occasional necessity for silence.”

Suppose Ezekiel had tried to render these as paintings? I feel certain they would have faced even stronger censure.

So the image of bones has generated divided opinions in the Talmud, where rabbis have attempted to make sense of the image. Do they die again and, if so, will it be painless? That sort of thing.

As for me? I love the fact that visual imagery can never quite be nailed down in words. Let’s leave ourselves to view its endless wonders.

Baruch in Jeremiah’s shadow

Attributed to Jeremiah’s secretary (apparently, even a prophet under fire could have an income sufficient to hire help), this is a short, strange book of four quite different pieces, including one on Wisdom and a letter supposedly by Jeremiah.

The book is included in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Orthodox canon but not those of the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles.

Reminds me of those leftovers a writer just can’t quite trash. Stuff you want to find a new home for, somewhere.

Baruch taking dictation from Jeremiah, who is channeling a message from above.

 

Lamentations as a place of no consolation

These five poems, composed soon after the fall of Jerusalem, blame God as well as the people for the disasters befalling them. The lines are full of deep sorrow, and often intimate. As for repentance? We can ask as well, Why turn to this God?

In the end the poet pleads for God to return and restore their relationship.

The Babylonian army was fierce and mighty.

 

Babylonians and their siege of Jerusalem.

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In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Stephen Mitchell places three rabbis in a northern California backyard on an early afternoon in late spring. As they heatedly debate the merits and weaknesses of Lamentations, their argument ranges widely across time and geography. Is the love of Jerusalem idolatrous? Can these poems weep for all cities that have been captured and destroyed or even, provisionally, for the Earth itself? Is it a reflection of a universal homesickness for our original home? Are these poems any good, anyway?

In their animated considerations, one rabbi turns to the opening verses, which he translates as “How solitary she sits,” referring to Jerusalem. Other translations use “deserted” or use “city” in place of the female pronoun. The “she,” though, moves directly into a “widow” and a “princess” who is now forced to labor.

The three men ponder ways women seem to be more open to their feelings and bodies than men are, and then turn to the word “solitary,” which one sees as a necessary stage in order to break free and penetrate “to the place where there is no consolation. Any kind of comfort would distract her. It would take away her pain, but like the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, she would never arrive home.”

Can sorrow be shared? Or is it ultimately a solitary place where one waits for the I AM to enter?

Jeremiah, reporter and reformer

Raising the prophet’s very name points to the word jeremiad, a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint — even a dire warning of upcoming devastation.

Encountering him in my straight-through reading, though, I felt something quite different.

First, I was struck by the freshness of a first-person telling. God didn’t write this, though Jeremiah seeks to be faithful to what he’s inspired to bring to light.

What I found was more contemporary and engaging than I’d expected — a clear-eyed, pragmatic truth-teller reporting on the condition of current events, cutting through the advertising and celebrity illusions. This wasn’t the pessimistic voice of woe, the archconservative, but the opposite, the one cutting through any nostalgia for the good old days or social convention. (Oh, how refreshing the lines like, “Look, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen.”) There’s something comforting in cutting through the dross (no pun intended), even if everything’s headed to hell in a handbasket.

Of course, Jeremiah’s not just a reporter, with a duty to the facts alone, but a visionary who must flee for his very life along the way.

Jeremiah, deep in thought

As Stanley Kunitz observes in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Jeremiah “is intimate rather than heroic in scale. He is a man of conscience, decent and brave, unconcessive in his passion for social and political reform, vehement in his exposure of corruption and the breakdown of religion, and altogether reckless in the consequences of his zeal.”

Kunitz calls him “one of the most clearly defined characters in the Old Testament” and finds the narrative “invites an exploration of the subtext to see what it reveals.”

Moreover, “In contrast to Isaiah and Ezekiel, whose spiritual transcendence is overwhelming, Jeremiah appears as an accessible human figure, mostly like us, with a touch of the God-intoxicated seer.”

Kunitz notes, “Jeremiah’s book lifts a corner of the veil that covers some of the unspeakable origins of religion, including the ritual eating of children.”

Thus, the prophet’s outrage at the worship of “the ‘Queen of Heaven,’ called Anath, the ancient Semitic deity whose consort was Yahweh, ‘Lord of Heaven.'”

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In Jeremiah, especially, I perceive an additional identity of a prophet, one of the relentless reformer — one who still holds a vision of cleansing and renewal, even with all of the destruction ahead.

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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