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Archive for December, 2010

The end of the image-filled, enigmatic, apocalyptic biblical book of Revelation is replete with urgency.

The text interconnects two matters in order to create this impression. On the one hand, Jesus promises to ‘come’ soon. On the other, by invitation and by direct speech the imagined beneficiaries of his promised arrival agree that his schedule is the appropriate one.

At some length the passage reads as follows:

‘See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’

And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:7–20 NRSV)

Christian readers have for centuries been required to wrestle with the twin realities of Jesus’ promises to come soon and the evident sense of delay as twenty centuries have come and gone. Such hermeneutical and indeed existential challenge ought not to be glibly evaded.

Yet what strikes one in this passage today is not that difficult conundrum but rather the mutuality of the coming that is addressed. Jesus promises to come to those who live in the distressed earth whose fate has been addressed in the chapters of this book. Yet John’s visionary text also invites ‘those who are thirsty’ to come to the waters of life that have been introduced early in the chapter.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations …

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift
.

The encounter that comes into view is not so much a unilateral arrival as a meeting in Jerusalem Descended.

And then, more obviously, the text has its protagonists virtually cry out in invitation to the one who has promised to come quickly that he should indeed come quickly, as promised!

If the bride is by already developed imagery the bride of this coming one, it is perhaps more surprising that the Spirit—in the Johannine literature necessarily the Spirit of Jesus and of God himself—should also audibly agree with Jesus’ promise.

With such details, the text almost viscerally anticipates Jesus’ presence on the scene. More, it longs for him to appear, to participate, to do his comforting work and to receive a grateful people’s praise.

Unfortunate eschatologies that imagine a whisking away of God’s chosen to another place so that this world might burn have lost their way with the text, opting instead for supra-biblical systems with their own coherence but little organic connection with the book from which they claim to derive.

Instead, Revelation has—with ample biblical precedent—all things becoming new, Jerusalem Descending, a world become what it must be but has failed ingloriously to become.

Those who have suffered most the deep rift between purpose and promise, on the one hand, and fractured, pained reality on the other, are best poised to lean with anticipation into this imagined future and whisper or shout ‘Come!’ with hoarse throats burned dry by the heat of unholy fire. It is they who lap thirstily the waters of life, finding the relief in its coolness to form the words ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ on refreshed lips before dipping their faces to gulp again.

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Whether the intended audience of the biblical Proverbs is comprised of the sons and daughters of the court or whether these collected dicta are for the instruction of sons and daughters in the home, the sayings of the wise display a certain concern with the dignity of leaders. Royalty, for the sages, is no laughing matter. The nation’s fate depends to some considerable degree upon justice and mercy working their way into the conscience and conduct of those who hold the levers of power in their hand.

A democratic age squirms at the thought. The wise contemplate the matter with serene realism.

The mother of a certain Lemuel reflects this concern. No tea-totaler, it would seem, she is nevertheless clear-eyed about the damaging effects of strong drink as well as sanguine about its pain-killing qualities.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. (Proverbs 31:4–7 NRSV)

Lemuel’s mother knows that behavior located within the gray zones of the ethical map can be tolerated when the hapless engage in it. But when the influential meddle in such stuff, bad things happen. If no man is an island, women and men born to influence cannot imagine themselves to be even a peninsula.

Too much is at stake.

The prudent mother of Lemuel cannot bear to imagine that the relatively modest pleasure of strong drink should end up perverting the rights of the oppress because the addled brain of an inebriated prince can no longer recall what he’s been taught about justice and its carcinogenic alternatives.

No Bible-thumping here, no jeremiads, no screaming in the street. Just the real-world discernment that those who lead give up certain prerogatives for a quite simple reason: too much is at stake.

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The abstract of this article reads as follows:

Many references to Solomon in the Bible seem to be the outcome of inner-biblical exegesis applied to earlier texts. This study highlights the particular forms of exegesis that were used and their proximity to later midrashic explanation. But submitting earlier narratives to midrashic techniques, the books of Writings reveal their relatively late date. However, the use of these techniques does not automatically discredit the historical kernel of a particular reference; rather, it lends an interpretive ‘spin’, enlarging the character of Solomon to legendary proportions.

Building upon the work of Fishbane and Zakovitch on inner-biblical exegesis, the author focuses upon ‘how various types of inner-biblical interpretation were marshaled to develop the character of a single biblical figure, King Solomon’. Throughout his study, Gottlieb keeps an eyes on how inner-biblical exegesis can be employed to date the material in which they manifest themselves.

The ease with which Chronicles can be compared and contrasted with Kings as an exercise in rewritten history serves as motivation for Gottlieb’s choice of Chronicles as his first reviewed text. He finds numerous plays on the name שׁלמה in work from the Persian period that serve to develop the reputation of the king and his projects as peaceful and pertinent to ‘a king without blemish’.

The author next considers additional texts exemplary of the ‘late’ anthology of the Writings. Psalm 72 for example, identified by Gunkel as a ‘royal psalm’, yields further word-plays on שׁלמה and a Solomonic allusion via שׁבא. It is alleged that מלך and בן־מלך are not strict parallels but rather references to David and Solomon, respectively, in the manner of later Midrashic treatment of Hebrew parallelism in the Bible. Presumably, Gottlieb intends the psalm’s title, לשׁלמה, to be a late addition based upon these identifications of Solomonic allusion in the psalms when he refers to ‘reading Solomon back’ into the psalm.

Psalm 127, also headed as לשׁלמה, receives similar treatment as an exercise in modulating the poem’s ‘general proverbs and universal truths’ in the direction of ascription to Solomonic particularities.

The Proverbs’ identification with the king is seen as an additional example of late midrashic rewriting. More extensively, the Song of Songs in Gottlieb’s view places Solomon as a foil for the poems’ young, rustic lover in a way that criticizes the king: ‘From a paragon of a king, he has become a parody’.

Likewise, Ezra-Nehemiah lists among its returnees a group of בני עבדי שׁלֹמה, individuals unknown in the book of Kings, and a number of other allusions to Solomon. Gottlieb evidently understands such references—not in his view absent historical basis—as presented in a way that reflects the by this time elevated status of Solomon.

In sum, such examples of inner-biblical exegesis are ‘proto-midrashic’ in form and function. Gottlieb is undecided regarding whether such exegesis—which in some cases may merely represent ‘literary flourishes’—have anything to say about the historicity of the material itself. ‘(I)nner-biblical interpretation found within the Writings and based on proto-midrashic techniques might point to a continuum between biblical Wisdom and subsequent rabbinic midrash literature’.

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The Bible’s ‘apocalyptic literature’ is no easy read.

Composed in periods of deepest affliction, ‘apocalyptic’ gives vent to the assurance that the Lord has not lost control of history and will finally vindicate those suffering human beings who have maintained their loyalty to him at great cost. It is black-and-white in its moral clarity, a dualism that manifests itself in clear definitions of who is on the Lord’s side and who is not.

Our age has little taste for apocalyptic, although a patient and self-critical evaluation of our besetting myopias ought to caution us against dismissing it on the grounds of aesthetic trend-lines and personal preference.

The book of Revelation is perhaps the most well-known example of this strain of biblical expression. Sadly, its character has been much warped in the public eye by popular treatments that border on the paranoid.

Babylon figures as a kind of great world system that in its arrogance defies the Creator and claims the blood of his servants. The reader who identifies with faithful, afflicted suffers is assured that Babylon’s downfall will come suddenly:

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: ‘Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power!
In one hour your doom has come!’ (Revelation 18:9–10 NIV)

With dark, smokey imagery the book of Revelation describes the collapse of Empire Babylon and the grief and wonder that fall upon those who have been complicit in her rapacious economy. When Babylon falls, the whole world staggers under the weight of her loss.

When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:
‘Woe! Woe, O great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’ (Revelation 18:18–19 NIV)

Yet Babylon’s downfall is, within the conceptual frame of apocalyptic literature, good news for those little ones who have been tormented by her.

Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.
Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. The light of a lamp will never shine in you again.
The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.’
In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth. (Revelation 18:20–24 NIV)

Ease and privilege with almost predictable effectiveness dull our ears to biblical apocalyptic.

We find it impossible to believe in a World Empire that enriches those who control its levers at the cost of those who will not pledge the allegiance it demands. We consider ourselves too sophisticated for such simplistic, conspiratorial reductions of complex reality.

We do not find the blood of prophets and saints to be worth so much fuss.

We hold tight to our membership cards, with their precise, regularly updated data. Without remembering exactly when we did so, we have chosen sides. We rather like our Babylon.

We belong.

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The biblical psalms speak candidly about the fact that we praise out of partial knowledge.

One cannot know YHWH exhaustively, we are taught. Paradoxically, praise seems most dynamically forthcoming precisely when the psalmist comes to the limits of his own capacity to know YHWH. It is not that praise inhabits the unfathomable vacuum of mystery. One does not hurl oneself into the great void, there to praise. Rather, one knows YHWH truly by means of observing his ways in creation, redemption, and instruction, then in time becomes aware that his virtues surpass both knowing and articulation.

One starts with what one knows of YHWH and praises in that space.

Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. (Psalms 145:3–4 NIV)

The one-hundred-forty-fifth psalm—as many others—juxtaposes YHWH’s inscrutability, on the one hand, and the straight-forward declaration that the normal passing of legacy from one generation to another will include the summons to know YHWH’s acts, on the other.

There is no mindless contradiction in this. On the contrary, YHWH engages the minds of individuals, communities, and generations. Yet those who know YHWH best remind themselves how little of him they know.

Praise is sufficient comportment for those who know YHWH. Yet is it never exhaustive.

‘True religion’, to borrow a phrase from the New Testament while speaking of the Old, does not suppose that the High and Holy is not know-able. There lies mindless spirituality capable of enervating, boring, and entrancing in about equal parts.

Nor does it suppose that it knows him exhaustively. There lies protean idolatry.

The psalms urge us toward praise that is sufficient to what we can know of a self-disclosing God. It praises his works and expectantly hopes for more.

Yet it raises open hands towards his heaven rather than crafting images of him with controlling, grasping fingers.

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The biblical prophets Isaiah and Micah avail us of the familiar motif of many Jewish nations eagerly flowing up to Jerusalem to learn how to live by virtue of the instruction meted out there by ‘Jacob’s God’. The two offer strikingly similar variants on this theme.

The post-exilic prophet Zechariah plays upon a related note. Deploying his prophetic burden in the context of the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Jerusalem and its environs after the furnace of the Exile has finally been unlocked, Zechariah seems often to be required to lift the spirits of dispirited returnees. Back in Babylon, the drama of return and restoration had fired their ambitions. The mud and dust of Zion’s ruins pressed hard against such dramatic vision. More than once the partisans of Return must have wondered what they were thinking and whether the Jewish community back in the Empire’s stultifying if predictable center might have been for them a far better lot than this.

Indeed, some might have felt themselves to have become the laughingstock of multiple audiences. Against such headwinds of communal depression, Zechariah’s prophetic imagination contemplates a far different—indeed, an enviable—identity for the practitioners of restoration.

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.” Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:20–23 NRSV)

Readers who find in the biblical literature a pregnant capacity for bearing life and meaning beyond the immediate context of its inscription will read Zechariah’s vision in line with the Zion-centric and nation-blessing images of Isaiah and Micah. Yet Zechariah paints from a palette that contains colors beyond those employed by his prophetic compeers. They saw Jacob’s God offering life-orienting instruction to many peoples and nations, even calming their mutually destructive madness via his irreproachable judgments. Zechariah adds the detail of the favor enjoyed by those who have been the very daughters and sons of the Hebrew deity.

In the moment of YHWH’s exaltation as Lord of lord and King of kings, the Jew—bound to him by covenant through centuries of privilege and depravation—becomes the agent, even the personal representative of this God to the nations who have become hungry seekers of his blessing.

One might surmise that Zechariah was dreaming, a species of religious fantasizer whom Jews, Judaism, and their Christian cousins have come in time to resent and even to fear.

Yet millennia hence, on Christmas Day, it is not difficult for a Christian reader of this Hebrew prophet to look about him at a global celebration of Bethlehem’s child and marvel at the precision of Zechariah’s foresight.

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Careful students of the world come to understand that truth is not always obvious. A superficial scanning of things and circumstances will produce a superficial understanding of them. There runs the herd. A herd provides lots of company, but it is usually mindless.

Although the proverbial anthology insists that the community is the best custodian of understanding—or, more accurately, that there is no wisdom without respectful attention paid to the community and its accrued wisdom—the Proverbs also commend a certain independence of mind. A recent comment on this blog came from a man whose personal motto (digitized, as we do these days), is ‘think hard, think well’.

He might have been summarizing one of the key commitments of biblical wisdom.

Such careful observers—call them independent if we must—know that one must look much deeper than appearances in order to mine the world for its well-hidden nuggets of understanding. Wisdom often turns the table on the casual observer, particularly when he is sure he knows what he thinks he knows. If the voice of the sage does not always address such a person roughly—’You fool!’—it at least offers him an exhortation: ‘Look again!’

Four are among the tiniest on earth, Yet they are the wisest of the wise: Ants are a folk without power, Yet they prepare food for themselves in summer; The badger is a folk without strength, Yet it makes its home in the rock; The locusts have no king, Yet they all march forth in formation; You can catch the lizard in your hand, Yet it is found in royal palaces. (Proverbs 30:24–28 JPS)

The key to this numbered proverb lies in the paradoxical description of its four little creatures. On the one hand, they are very small and, therefore, unlikely sources of understanding. On the other, these critters are presented as ‘the wisest of the wise’ or ‘exceptionally wise’. One might well live out one’s life without looking to such tiny creatures for qualities of character that often elude human beings.

That would be a wasted opportunity to learn. And to live.

Ants, badgers, locusts, lizards. These pull off feats of foresight, security, organization, and access that would be the envy of any thoughtful human being, to say nothing of his community.

Yet because they are small they pass unnoticed, unobserved, and so their lesson is lost.

Unless, by good fortune, one falls under the instruction of the sages, who remind us often and patiently not to be too sure that we know nor too confident that we can anticipate from what corner, person, or thing wisdom will next make itself available.

And then, by strenuously practiced discipline, to look again. More carefully, this time.

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