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Daniel, who wears lightly the burden of his imperial name Belteshazzar, inhabits a moment when a tyrant’s rage takes life without so much as a footnote.

Circumstances have placed the young Jewish exile in the most strategic of the pagan court’s hallways. He makes friends among the pagans, those friends face insufferable demands, needy friends reach out to Daniel. So does life roll in the space of this low-profile, precocious Jew, far from home but awake to his moment.

Kings dream, sometimes, and then require absurd explanations from hapless sages who couldn’t possibly know the king’s drunken ravings on his bed. The situation shapes itself as lose-lose.

The doomed Arioch is sent off to murder the king’s under-appreciated wise men, who were not sufficiently clairvoyant in their fateful hour to save their own skin. Daniel steps forward, an innocent lamb among the weathered machinists of the royal apparatus.

Daniel to Arioch:

Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.

Desperate times require desperate measures.

Daniel is ushered in before the king, who without small talk requests the young man bona fides. Time’s awastin’ and the king’s maniacal fury is about to cost him his counselors.

Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?”

The narrative pivots on an otherwise insignificant Aramaic word for ‘being’ or ‘existence’: איתי. The finest moments so often turn on the smallest of truths.

Are you able …‘ the king demands, ‘… to make know to my my dream?’ The italicized words represent the language’s ordinary way of asking such a question, deploying איתי as roughly akin the first two words ‘Are you …’.

Before reply asked, Daniel dares first to mark out the field of play:

Daniel answered the king and said, ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked.’

There are clearer ways to insinuate that the king is a fool, but Daniel’s deference has served him well thus far and this is no moment for going rogue in the king’s face.

But Daniel has knowledge that the palace sages lack.

But there is (איתי) a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these …

The careful listener picks up the repetition of the little Hebrew word, the second of three occurrences in this lean narrative.

Daniel has now crawled far out on his limb. If this ‘God in heaven’ is not, these words will be among his last. If this ‘God in heaven’ is but does not reveal mysteries, as Daniel claims, his doom is just as near. And if this deity is and reveals, but has chosen to remain silent up in this heavens, Daniel’s end is just as sure.

We read this narrative centuries hence because Daniel knew of what he spoke. Babylonian and Persian kingdoms are largely forgotten, while Daniel’s heirs live on.

But the young Jewish exile has not finished speaking, nor has his narrator yet released his grip on the subtlety that makes exquisite sense of an almost clownish encounter.

But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that is in me (איתי)  more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.

Daniel’s crucial role, narrowly in the survival of a king’s hapless advisors and broadly in the improbable survival of his exiled Jewish people, owes little or nothing to innate qualities or ability. There is (איתי), Daniel claims, no special knowledge, no unique insight in me.

Rather there is a God in heaven—believe it or not—who reveals mysteries. The universe, we are told, is not a closed, predictable system, wherein kings simply get what they want because they are kings. On the contrary, history’s landscape is pock-marked with the evidence of a God who has spoken and acted when least expected. And, declares Daniel with shaking knees, does so still.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

defiance: Jeremiah 12

Among literatures ancient and modern, the Bible’s astounding realism is sui generis.

The biblical literature manages to defy all religious restraint in order to press into YHWH’s reality. It will settle for no less.

The prophet Jeremiah is remarkable, if otherwise unexceptional in this respect.

Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jeremiah 12:1 ESV)

He dares to ask, privately and then in an excruciating way, publicly: Why are things not as they ought to be? As they have been promised to be? As you, YHWH, have led us to believe that they will be?

Only the artificial wisdom of sophomores at life reads these as easy questions. In fact, they are not.

That the biblical literature invites us to observe its protagonists pressing these questions against a God who has claimed to be both good and great is something close to astonishing.

The answers—YHWH’s answers—will be no less simple than complex reality requires. Yet, in time, those answers will come.

Somewhere, tonight, a battered soul believes it may not be quite right to ask: ‘Why does life hurt like hell? Why do the wicked prosper? Why am I here tonight, aching and alone?’

From the biblical angle of view, it would be a shame not to ask.

Answers, in time, will come. YHWH, good and great, promises no less. Keep faith.

symmetry: Jeremiah 2

The design of life is shot through with extraordinary ironies. ‘Poetic justice’ is one tried and true expression that attempts to define this.

One of the odd symmetries of reality is that we become what we chase after. It is the logic in the deep structure of creation that generates what theologians eventually come to call ‘sanctification’ and ‘depravity’. A thousand saintly techniques crumble before one truth: when we pursue what is holy, we become more holy. The encyclopedia of sin and idolatry is equally predictable from this angle of view: we become tragically like the idols that we waste our lives pursuing.

It is an arrangement of twinned promise and threat. Yet none of it is theatrical or false. This is simply how things are.

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel.Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? (Jeremiah 2:4–5 ESV)

The Hebrew prophet plays here upon one of the Hebrew Bible’s most potent negatives: הבל,  ‘worthless’, ‘vanity’, utter moral weightlessness. It is a commonplace—though a pungent one—for the prophets to label all manner of glorious idols with this pejorative claim. But it is a deep insight into the dynamics of being human to recognize that we become what we treasure.

If an idol is inert, so do we lose the efficacy of will, the gigantic capacity to decide who we will become. If an idol is glitzy, so do we become flecked with cheap reflections that conceal the emptiness within. If an idol is elevated above its peers, so do we fall prey to the hubris of the unique and the special.

But if, the prophet would have us know—since despair is not his engage—, if we pursue the Ineffable, the Most High, the Holy One of Israel, we become better than we were. By grace and imitation, not by technique or exertion.

Things become simple.

 

identity crisis: Isaiah 54

Against all the protestations of shame, your past does not define you.

What you have been is not coterminous with who you are. Or will be.

This, at least, is YHWH’s promise to his despondent exiles in Babylon.

‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1 ESV)

If there is a greater shame than childlessness in the Bible’s Old Testament, it is difficult to say what that should be. Perhaps only having borne children and lost them could compete with never having children at all, this one of culture’s deep reaches into the Bible’s sacred literature.

In the turn-tables book of Isaiah, YHWH is having none of it.

She who has not split the air with the shrieks of childbirth will find recompense in shouts of joy, late coming.

All of human experience argues that only what has been shall ever be. Again, YHWH is having none of this curiously persuasive logic. He is the Creator of new things, things unspoken, things unimagined, deepest longings too savage and powerful for words. He meets them, satisfies them, creates them, endorses them, then liberates his own to become them.

The Bible’s ‘religion’ is no tame creed.

It is wild, counterintuitive, impossible, then real. Life with YHWH knows no bounds save those that loving providence establishes.

As the barren woman restored in a moment to fecundity finds children streaming to her that she did not bear, so YHWH’s future comes in spades from angles never contemplated. Yet her children are hers, his gift, stomped down, compressed, overflowing.

She forgets to miss the biological progeny of her dashed dream, so occupied with this tumbling, laughing harvest of children unforeseen. They laugh loudly. Only her delight is louder.

A conversation with the Wheaton College Chinese Students Fellowship

16 September 2016

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3 ESV)

  • You must believe that knowledge is a good thing
  • You must understand that ‘knowledge’ that denigrates another person is not true ‘knowledge’. It is folly masquerading as knowledge.
  • You must acknowledge that the opportunity to dedicate a portion of your life to acquiring knowledge at Wheaton College is a precious and unusual gift.
  • You will carry around the ‘burden’ of knowing more in your area of expertise than most of the people with whom you’ll interact … as well as the ‘burden’ of an inquisitive spirit.
  • You should internalize the fact that knowledge is ‘merely on the way’ to deeper knowledge.
  • You will learn to translate your knowledge for the benefit of those who lack the vocabulary and the abstract concepts that have become natural to you.
  • You must embrace the fact that there are many kinds of intelligence: emotional, intuitive, abstract, concrete, etc. You must not exalt your own strength of knowing over others.
  • You will become more and more contextually aware.
  • You must recall that knowledge proceeds from love and thrives best when encased in love.

 

This exceptionally planned and executed visual introduction to the Colombia surpasses any other coffee-table book about a nation or region that I’ve seen.

51ebrfdjyzl-_sx362_bo1204203200_-2Its 333 pages and high-quality paper stock make it an admirably heavy work, a full five pounds in the lifting.

Best of all, its exquisitely photographed images communicate the beauty and stunningly regionalized diversity of this South American nation. The prose does not pander to the reader, but introduces him or her to just enough context to form a helpful setting to the photography, which dominates.

A well-written (in Spanish) ‘Prologue’ and ‘Presentation’ give way to a presentation of one of the signature characteristics of the country: ‘Territorio de Contrastes’ (A Territory of Contrasts). The rest of the work leads the reader across the major regions of this vast country: ‘Altiplano Cundiboyacense y Santanderes’, ‘Region Caribe’, ‘Antioquia y Región Cafeteria’, ‘Pacífico’, ‘Sur Andino’, ‘Alto Magdalena’, ‘Orinoquía’, and finally ‘Amazonía’. Continue Reading »

Stephen Kinzer’s rambling walk through the saga of modern Turkey will delight the ordinary reader with an interest in this ‘bridge nation’, while occasionally distressing the historian.

The dedication of this revised version (‘To the People of Turkey’) signals that Kinzer writes 51aed7hll-_sx331_bo1204203200_from the heart and with affection rather than from the discipline and precision one expects of the historian. This is not a criticism of Kinzer’s formidable work but rather an attempt to define its genre. Those who come to Kinzer’s writing—as this reviewer did—through his superb treatment of the Nicaraguan conflicts (The Blood of Brothers) will anticipate the bent of Kinzer’s method.

Kinzer, the erstwhile Istanbul Bureau Chief of the New York Times, does not hold back his own views and even prescriptions for the nation that has become his subject. The book’s earliest pages telegraph this. Published in 2008, the book’s introduction observes that ‘(A) new regime has emerged in Turkey that is likely to govern for years to come. This is good, because this regime draws its strength from the people’s will, but it is also disturbing.’ The first chapter’s opening line introduces us to a personal preference: ‘My favorite word in Turkish is istiklal.’ Continue Reading »