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Archive for April, 2008

Israel’s first and short-lived king, Saul by name, is arguably the Hebrew Bible’s most tragic figure. He bears that peculiar curse that consists of great things happening to him. He does not invite them. In fact he seems bent on fleeing the tectonic movement of events that bring inexorable fame upon his large, fragile shoulders. (more…)

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We believe that faith unites a family. Sometimes it does, though more seldom than we imagine.

Aging Eli felt a deep foreboding when reports of his sons’ comportment as self-serving priests reached his dulling ears. He pleads with them to change their ways, but does not offer understanding on the basis of ‘family’. The language is of covenantal repercussions, of cutting off and being cut off. In a short time Eli’s sons would be dead. Their stolen meat would do them no good then and Eli would be forbidden the unrestrained grief a father feels over righteous sons. (more…)

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The eyes of my father’s generation still light up when the occasion arises to speak of Duke Elington, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Django Reinhardt. These are the artists who, with their bands, contribute to this remarkable entry in the mid-90’s CD-a-week collection offered to subscribers by London’s Sunday Times.

Frankly speaking, the first four tracks—by the Duke—are enough to make you think we’ve been in terminal cultural decline ever since the likes of ‘Sophisticated Lady’ went silent. This is smooth, sophisticated, textured jazz with an enormity of understatement that commends it to repeated listening. Bombast was out, smooth was in. I have never heard a trombone sound so alive as the one in Ellington’s band on this album.

This remarkable 1994 release brings the sounds back with varying degrees of remastered clarity. No matter, even with a bit of static between some tracks and these ears, the music is golden.

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In the mid-90s, it was possible to receive a CD each week from London’s Sunday Times Music Collection. The eclectic library of music that results now seems a treasure.

One of the finer anthologies and one of the few to record a single collection of artists on a themed CD was ‘Medieval Music’, all of it performed by London’s Hilliard Ensemble (www.hilliardensemble.demon.co.uk). Four-part a capella men’s singing in the style of what will strike the novice as close to Gregorian Chant is an acquired taste. But it can be acquired and there exists no better cluster of singers to help with the acquisition than the Ensemble. Rarely does one hear a more disciplined vocal music than this.

It’s ear candy for disciplined ears.

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One almost feels a wry heavenly smile hovering over the proceedings as the short story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz ambles towards its contented dénoument. The wily grandmother-to-be joins the submissive and diligent protagonist and the sturdy, good-hearted male rescuer to produce an unlikely ending that is full of YHWH’s blessing. Events bring the wish that YHWH might bless into the concrete reality of Bethlehem’s space and time. A child is born and an old lady gets her name back.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.

The wry smile must have come down and shaped itself upon the lips of Israelite generations, for the last words of this little story end with David’s name. Who could have guessed that an indigent Moabite should become the monarch’s ancestress?

One wonders what else can be accomplished when little men and women, unobserved by those who make and write history, act mercifully in time of need. Perhaps YHWH’s favorite among his repertoire of means is found in this scenario.

The text has a name for it. It is called blessing.

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The narrator of the book of Ruth is exact about his setting. He places his moving story in ‘the days when the judges were judging Israel’. What is more, he gives his merciful and strong hero a pedigree that links it to the Book of Judges. Boaz is of the family of a certain Elimelech.

Mere assonance and historical proximity remind one of Abimelech, born to Gideon and his concubine, a bloody-handed figure of ill repute. A very good man finds his place among the roster of bad men who populate the pages of the Book of Judges. Not all flowed crimson, not all was dark, not all turned violent and craven in the tribal confederacy of the conquest years, it would seem. (more…)

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it would be difficult to find in the Hebrew Bible a story of more brazen awfulness than that of the Levite traveler and his concubine on their ill-fated layover in Gibeah of Benjamin. The conduct of the ‘men of the city’ is miscreant. Their overnight host, so generous in his rescuing invitation that they pass the night in his home, responds with inexplicable calculation to the pressure that his townsmen bring to bear. Finally, the Levite himself responds to the outrage with one of his own. He cuts up the body of his concubine and sends the pieces to the tribes of the Israelite confederacy, demanding a reaction to the horror that has gone down in Benjamin:

‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘we are going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”‘

The wording of his complaint seems intended to provoke reflection on the Israelite project as well as to demand immediate retribution. His time frame, within which he claims for his experience a shattering uniqueness, is bookended on the early side by reference to ‘the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt’. (more…)

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Samson’s rage against the Philistines comes across as righteous, though there is hardly a white hat to be found in this entire story. Samson himself hardly wears one. Nor does anyone who figures in the rent-a-priest tale that follows hold up well under the lens of Deuteronomistic ideals.

The book of Judges is punctuated by a recurring assessment that ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’. On the one hand, this could be read as a technical description of decentralized self-rule. But it seems likely that there is more here than the evolution of Israelite political structures in the time before monarchy took hold. The phrase ‘what was right in their own eyes’ casts a dark light on the moral and spiritual chaos in which Israel found itself enveloped. (more…)

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The inimitable John Nelson, conductor of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, has a knack for giving little known musical pieces and as-yet uncelebrated artists their due. He has made good on this worthy capacity by conducting his consort in a debut recital CD of one of our moment’s finest contraltos.

Stephanie Blythe works her way sensuously through this Baroque repertoire with all the gravitas of an ancient mariner, yet as well with the supple litheness of youth. (more…)

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