Thursday, October 31, 2013

Psalms 26-31


We have six psalms today, all attributed to David. Five of them refer to the temple.

In psalm 26 the psalmist asks for vindication. He feels that he deserves YHWH's help because he is innocent and blameless and loves the temple.

Psalm 27 expresses trust in YHWH. The psalmist declares that he has nothing to fear even though he is the target of malicious lies.

Psalm 28 is a prayer for help. "Do not drag me away with the wicked," says the psalmist, perhaps indicating that he lives among people upon whom he expects judgment to fall, like Lot living in Sodom. This psalm ends with an expression of thanksgiving for God's help.

Psalm 29 describes the power of God's voice using the imagery of a storm. The Babylonian god Baal, whose worship was an ongoing problem in Israel, was the god of the storm. Perhaps this psalm deliberately borrows imagery from Baal worship to assert YHWH's superiority.

The heading of Psalm 30 says that it is a song for the dedication of the temple. Its content, however, is a prayer of thanksgiving for recovery from illness.

Psalm 31 asks for deliverance from enemies. It ends with an expression of thanksgiving. Verse 5 ("Into your hands I commit my spirit...") will be familiar to anyone who has read Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion.

Next: Psalms 32-35

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalms 21-25


Today's five psalms are all ascribed to David.

Psalm 21 is a royal psalm, possibly a liturgy with different verses spoken by king, a priest or prophet, and the people.  It praises YHWH for his goodness to the king, especially in granting victory over the king's enemies. Verses 8-12 are somewhat confusing as they seem to conflate God and the king.

According to Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22 was quoted by Jesus on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is a deeply personal lament and probably rings true with anyone who has felt abandoned by God.

Verses 3-5 express the psalmist's cause for hope: God is powerful and has helped his ancestors.

In verses 6-8, the psalmist calls himself a "worm." This is not a confession of sin or moral failing. It is a statement of the psalmist's abject condition.

Verses 9-10 are Job-like, almost an accusation: "You made me trust you."

Verse 11-18 asks God to be near because the psalmist is surrounded by enemies and suffering physically. Whether the physical complaints are actual or metaphorical is an open question.

Verses 19-21 are a prayer for relief, or deliverance, or...I hesitate to use the word "salvation" because it is easily misunderstood, but the psalmist wants to be made safe.

In verses 22-26 the psalmist, apparently now reassured that he will be safe, makes a public declaration of what YHWH has done and  promises to share with the needy.

Verses 27-29 envisions the results of the psalmist's proclamation: universal worship of YHWH including generations past and generations yet to be born.

Not that you asked, but I like Psalm 22, for many reasons I resonate with it today. That's the deal with the psalms. It is often possible to find yourself in them.

Many people find themselves in Psalm 23.

True story: Some years ago I was called to the bedside of a dying woman. She had been unresponsive for some days. Her family had gathered expecting the crisis to come at any moment. I did a brief service of commendation and then the family sort of scattered around the house. At one point I was talking with the dying woman's daughter across the hospital bed. She said, "When I was a girl mom made sure I memorized the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Twenty-third Psalm."

The dying woman opened her eyes and spoke for the first time in days. "Do you still remember it?" she asked.

The daughter and I recited the psalm together, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want...."

The woman didn't speak again and died a couple of days later.

Anyway, a lot of people resonate with Psalm 23's intimate images of God's care and providence.

There are a couple of interesting shifts in the psalm. Verses 1-3 speak of God in the third person. Beginning at verse 4 God is addressed in the second person. In verse 5 the imagery shifts from a pastoral scene of sheep and shepherd to a victory banquet.

The final verse of this short psalm talks about dwelling "in the house of the Lord forever." This is probably a reference, possibly metaphorical, to life-long residence in the Temple. It was almost certainly not a reference to an eternal afterlife, though it is often read that way.

Psalm 24 begins by declaring that the earth and everything in it belong to YHWH. It seems to be a liturgy for entering the temple. Those who are morally right are worthy to enter. The end of the psalm is about YHWH entering the city of Jerusalem, perhaps it was used when the ark was brought through the city gates.

Finally Psalm 25 is an alphabetical acrostic (though it skips the Hebrew letters vav and qof). It is an expression of trust and a prayer for protection. The New Interpreters Study Bible notes point out that it has a chiastic structure focusing on verse 11.

This blogpost is already too long to explain that last sentence.

Next: Psalms 26-31

Monday, October 28, 2013

Psalms 17-20


The four psalms prescribed for this day's reading are all attributed to David.

Psalm 17 is a prayer for vindication against human persecutors. The psalmist may have been praying in the night (vv. 3, 15) Verse 8 includes two idioms which, if you think about them, are odd.

Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings....

Do eyes have apples? Does God have wings?

The "apple of the eye" expression translates a Hebrew phrase that is more literally "the little person of your eye." Maybe this is a reference to the tiny reflection of one's self that can be seen in another person's eye. Whatever it is, it seems to ask God to keep a close watch over the one praying.

Whether God's wings are supposed to be literal or metaphorical I just don't know.

At 50 verses, Psalm 18 is the longest we've encountered so far. It is a psalm of thanksgiving for victory in battle. The ascription in the heading suggests just such a circumstance in the life of David.

The psalmist believes that God fought on his side. God is described in fearsome terms (v. 8):

Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.

I remember once seeing the first verse of Psalm 19 painted on a satellite dish antenna beside a church.

The heavens are telling the glory of God

I wondered at the time what the church used that antenna for. The first part of this psalm (vv. 1-6) praises God for creation. The second part (vv. 7-13) praises God for the Torah. I've heard preachers use the last verse (v.14) as a prelude to their sermon:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 20 is a prayer of blessing pronounced over a king riding out to war.

Give victory to the king, O Lord;
answer us when we call.
And just because he sings about the apple of his eye, here's a little Stevie Wonder...

Next: Psalms 21-25

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psalms 9-16


I can see that there will be certain challenges in blogging through the Psalms. The reading plan for day 165 prescribed Psalms 1-8, a manageable portion of Scripture for reading. Those eight short psalms were not connected thematically. Neither are the seven-or-eight psalms assigned for today.

That's right, seven or eight. Psalms 9 and 10 were most likely a single composition. The Septuagint and Jerome's Vulgate both treated them as one Psalm. There is an alphabetical acrostic pattern that spans the two psalms in Hebrew. (Alphabetical acrostics occur in other psalms as well). In the case of Psalms 9-10 the pattern is imperfect. Some letters are omitted. I'm not sure if this represents the circumstances of their composition or a corruption in the text.

All of the psalms in today's reading have ancient headings ascribing their authorship to David. All of them, that is, except Psalm 10 which has no heading, another bit of evidence suggesting that 9 and 10 are actually a single work. Together they make up a prayer for God's help against enemies.

The ascription of any  of the Psalms to David is at least debatable, probably improbable, and possibly impossible. Those psalms that are related to specific incidents in the life of David do suggest the kind of circumstances in which these prayers and songs might be useful.

Psalm 11 is a song of trust. Psalms 12 and 13 are prayers for deliverance.

Psalm 14 can probably be categorized as wisdom literature. It begins:

"Fools say in their heart, 'There is no God.'"

In spite of the way that fundamentalists sometimes quote this verse, it is not a denunciation of philosophical atheism. That concept did not exist in ancient Israel. Psalm 14 is, rather, a condemnation of godless behavior. Of those who act as if God were not a factor.

Psalm 15 may be a liturgy for entering the temple. Interestingly it is not ritual cleanness that gains one admission to the temple, but moral rightness.

Psalm 16 is a statement of faith in YHWH. The psalmist lives among people who worship other gods. I'm sure that scholars have suggested dates for the composition of this psalm. Shooting from the hip I'd say that it fits any number of times in the history of Israel from settlement to exile.

That's the thing about the psalms. They were composed at specific times, for particular purposes, and to address unique circumstances but they can easily be generalized to the situations in which readers find themselves.

Anyway, the challenge of blogging the psalms is going to be dealing with the sheer volume of thematic matter contained in relatively few words.

Next: Psalms 17-20

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Psalms 1-8


I don't think it is an overstatement to say that the book of Psalms is the beating heart of ancient Israel's faith. The book is a collection of prayers, songs, poems, and liturgies. It expresses the full gamut of human response to God from lament to praise, from anger and alienation to trust and elation.

I have often wondered, and sometimes asked, how people who treat the Bible as the more-or-less direct words of God deal with the Psalms. There are a few oracles among the psalms but mostly the words of this book are addressed to God. I've never heard a satisfying answer to that question.

 The book of Psalms is made up of 150 individual psalms, all of which follow the conventions of Hebrew poetry. There are five subsections called "Books." The first "Book" is made up of Psalms 1-41. Many of the Psalms have ancient headings that contain musical instructions, authorial attributions, imagined circumstances for their composition, etc.These headings are not part of the psalms proper,

Scholars categorize the psalms in various ways, depending on their content, probable use, or other characteristics. I'll mention those as we go along but, for the purposes of this Year of Blogging Biblically, I'm more interested in the message of the individual psalms than in classifying them.

Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. It contrasts the righteous who "delight in YHWH's torah" (v.2) with the wicked. Torah is usually translated "law" but the concept is broader than that. Torah is God's good instruction for his people. The righteous flourish. The wicked cannot withstand judgment (v. 5). This probably isn't about a final judgment. Rather it means that the wicked fold under pressure.

Psalm 2 may have been composed for a king's coronation. The kings of other nations, it declares, should fear YHWH's anointed. In Christian use this psalm is used in reference to the Christ. The Gospels quote v. 7 at Jesus' baptism.

The heading for Psalm 3 attributes it to king David "when he fled from his son Absalom." It is a prayer requesting deliverance from enemies and expressing trust. Psalm 3 is the first of the psalms to include the word selah. No one is quite sure what selah means but it is usually taken to be a musical instruction. Whatever it means, Mike Farris rocks with it.

Psalms 4-8 also have headings attributing their composition to David. Psalms 4 and 5 are the words of an individual asking YHWH's help against enemies. Psalm 6 is a prayer for recovery from illness. Psalm 7, perhaps, the prayer of an innocent who has been falsely accused.

Psalm 8 praises God the Creator. It asks the same question (v. 4) that Job asked of YHWH: "What are humans that you pay them any mind?" In Job it meant that God was a meddlesome micromanager. Here, God made humans "just a little lower than the angels" (v. 5) and put all the animals under them.

There is more to consider, such as: strange words like Shiggaion (Psalm 7 heading, a lament?) and Gittith (Psalm 8 heading, a tune?), foreign concepts like Sheol (Psalm 6:5, the "pit," the shadowy realm of the dead from which no one returns), vivid images ("Their throats are like open graves" (Pslam 5:9), and ancient cosmology (Psalm 8:1-6).

But let this suffice for now.

Next: Psalms 9-16

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Job Wrapup

If you haven't noticed, I love the book of Job. It is a difficult, rewarding book that raises hard questions and refuses easy answers. It depicts Israel's God as remote, sovereign, and frankly, kind of a jerk.

It sits uneasily beside the Deuteronomist's simple moral calculus: those who serve God prosper; the wicked are punished. 

Job reminds us that good is not always rewarded. Righteous people also suffer. The Prosperity Gospel is a lie. 

Job asks us "What is the value of righteousness? Why be good? Why worship God if not for the promise of reward?" 

The character of Elihu, seemingly added at a late stage in the book's development, may have been intended to offer a new, better perspective on Job's dilemma. He doesn't really solve the problem of theodicy but serves more as a bridge between the assertion of divine justice made by Eliphaz and Co. and YHWH's bald assertion of sovereignty. If Elihu adds any new element to the discussion it is Job 35:4-8 where he says that God is not harmed by human sin but one's neighbors are. This may be the most compelling reason offered for righteous behavior. It is not to benefit God or myself but my neighbor. 

An old theology prof of mine used to say "The primary symbol of God, for the Christian, is the neighbor."

In the end, the value of The book of Job is not that it gives pat answers but that it makes us think. The Bible is used so often as a conversation-stopping authority, a book of final, unassailable answers. The presence of Job in the canon refutes all such uses.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Job 40:1-42:17


After asserting his power over creation and the wild beasts, YHWH pauses, challenging Job to speak (40:1-2). Job declines. (40:3-5). So YHWH continues provlaiming his superiority over Job (40:6-14)  

Then YHWH goes on to describe he great land monster Behemoth. Some commentators equate the beast with hippopotamus and, honestly, it kind of sounds like a hippo eccept that hippos don't have bronze bones and tails like cedars. That "tail" might be a euphemism for genitalia. Young Earth Creationists (YECs) claim that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth. Behemoth was a dinosaur, they claim. That would account for the tail, I suppose, but contradicts well-established scientific facts. Personally I think Behemoth is a strictly mythical beast and the author of Job knew as much. This section of the poem is separated from the passage dealing with real animals in chapter 39 by that brief dialogue in 40:1-5 and YHWH's assertion of power in 40:6-14. 

Chapter 41 describes another mythical beast, the fire-breathing sea monster Leviathan. Some YECs claim that Leviathan was also a dinosaur and that some dinosaurs did breathe fire. Uhmmmm...yeah. 

The point of the Behemoth and Leviathan passages is that the Creator God, YHWH, is mightier than even the most fearsome, if mythical, creatures of earth and sea.  

In 42:1-6, Job responds to YHWH. He admits his human limitations. He is not as powerful as YHWH. He is unable to fully comprehend God. "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes," he says. 

Or does he?

The word "myself" is not in the Hebrew text. Then phrase "I repent in dust and ashes" could also mean "I repent of dust and ashes" (i.e. Job repents of repentance). Some commentators seem to think that Job is being sarcastic. 

Me? I think that a recognition of personal inadequacy and repentance are appropriate responses to a theophany. This doesn't mean that Job has admitted culpability, only that he recognizes his creaturely status. 

How about you? How do you read Job's response to God?

In the closing verses of this book we find a prose epilogue in which Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get their comeuppance. (Where is Elihu?) Job's fotunes are restored. He gets twice as many livestock as he had before. He has 7 more sons and three more daughters. Curiously we learn the girls names but not the boys. Also curiously the girls receive a share of the inheritance with their brothers. Job lives to the age of 140. 

I have always felt that this ending to Job is a bit too pat. It undermines what has come before. It's like that old joke about playing a country record backwards. 

I snagged the illustration from Exploring Our Matrix where, by coincidence, Dr. james McGrath also posted about Job on the day I wrote thispost. I think I'll put up one more post regarding Job before moving on to the Psalms. 

Next: Psalms 1-8

Monday, October 21, 2013

Job 38:1-39:30


A few years ago, in a song called Miracles, the Insane Clown Posse famously asked "F***in' magnets, how do they work?" Musical merit aside, the ICP were quickly and roundly criticized by scientifically savvy individuals who pointed out that there is nothing miraculous about magnets. The principals of magnetism are well understood.

While I am no fan of the Insane Clown Posse I will say this in their defense: I don't think that's what they meant.

However, the concept of God has often been used to explain things that are not otherwise understood. This is sometimes called the "God of the Gaps." God fills the gaps in human knowledge. Don't know how magnets work? It's a miracle. It's God.

The problem with the God of the Gaps is that the gaps are getting smaller all the time. And as the gaps narrow, the God of the Gaps shrinks with them. The concept of God loses its explanatory power. Eventually the God of the Gaps must diminish into insignificance and, perhaps, vanish altogether.

I don't believe in the God of the Gaps. God is not a necessary construct. But I recognize that I, as a human creature, am limited. I am bounded by time and space. I am weak in the face of disease, powerless in the face of death. Some measure of suffering is my lot.

At the same time I am moved by a sense of mystery, of wonder, and of awe when I observe the workings of the world: the spinning planets, the blade of grass pressing up through a crack in the sidewalk, the grandeur of a mountain, the beauty of a wildflower.

 I recently held a living hummingbird in my hand. I can only describe the moment as holy.

I am overwhelmed sometimes by a sense of alienation and at other times by gratitude. These are universal human experiences and, not surprisingly, they are themes in the Hebrew Bible: exodus and homecoming, blessing and suffering, praise and lament. I think that this is why those ancient and alien texts still have the power to speak to the human heart. It's not because they have explanatory power. Human beings have split atoms, traveled to the moon, and decoded DNA. We don't need a God to fill the gaps. The Scriptures resonate with our souls because they describe our experience of creaturely life in this world.

In chapter 38, YHWH finally comes to speak with Job from a whirlwind. He never addresses the question of Job's suffering. Instead YHWH confronts Job--sometimes aggressively, sometimes sarcastically--with Job's human limitations.

The rhetorical questions YHWH poses to Job are supposed to be unanswerable. They are much more easily answered in this age of science than in Old Testament times.

YHWH describes his power in creation. YHWH laid the earth's foundation and set the sea's limits. YHWH made the morning light, has plumbed the ocean's depths, knows from whence light originates, and where the storms are stored.YHWH set the constellations in the sky.

Is Job's YHWH a God of the Gaps? Or is this an expression of the awe and wonder that the observation of nature inspires?

The observation of nature is a characteristic of ancient Israel's wisdom literature. In chapter 39 YHWH describes animals, wild and strong: the mountain goat, deer, bear, wild donkey, wild ox, the ostrich, horse, and predator birds. These cannot be tamed (Okay, the horse can be tamed, but it is still powerful). YHWH provides for them.

The verses about the ostrich (39:13-18) are odd on several counts. They make up the only passage in this section that does not begin with a rhetorical question. They speak of God in the third person, even though God is the one speaking. Perhaps this passage was an independent unit dropped into the text by a late-stage redactor. These verses also include a false, folkloric description of ostriches abandoning their young.

That's not my hummingbird and not my hand in the photograph. I found the picture here.

Next: Job 40-42

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Job 35:1-37:24


Have you noticed that I have called God "God" (i.e. not YHWH) for most of the book of Job? That is because most of the book of Job calls God "God." The name YHWH is used in the prose prologue (chapters 1-2), the epilogue (chapter 42), and to indicate the speaker in God's speech (chapters 38-41). Otherwise it occurs only at 12:9.

But where were we? Oh yes, we were in the middle of Elihu's speech.

In chapter 35, Elihu raises the question of "disinterested piety," that is, would a person do God's will without the promise of reward? What does one gain by not sinning? Sin, Elihu asserts, does not affect God. This question takes us back to the original bet between God and the Satan. Satan bet that Job, robbed of everything except his life, would turn on God. So far that has not happened. Job has demanded an answer from God but he has not rejected God.

As I write this I'm thinking about this Sunday's sermon which will probably be about Jacob's wrestling match with God (Genesis 32:22-31). The history of Israel, from its namesake Patriarch on, is a story of struggle with God. Though the book of Job is subversive of what I have called "deuteronomistic orthodoxy" it sits comfortably in the Hebrew scriptures. Like Jacob, like Israel, Job contends with God.

Chapter 36 has Elihu reasserting God's just nature. God punishes the guilty and rescues the afflicted. God is beyond human understanding. Again, Elihu is a bridge between the speeches of Job's companions and God's speech.

In chapter 37 Elihu describes God's power displayed in the forces of nature, foreshadowing the whirlwind in which God appears in our next chapter.

My sense is that Elihu's speech was, in fact, added by a later redactor of Job who wanted to balance the orthodox view of God's justice from the speeches of Job's companions with the radical statement of God's sovereignty in the next chapters. Does Elihu (or the redactor) succeed? I rather think not, but, as always, your mileage may vary.

Next: Job 38-39

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Job 32:1-34:37


Elihu comes out of nowhere. He has not been mentioned before in the book of Job. After he speaks (for 6 chapters) he is not mentioned again. The narrative flows as well, better even, if Elihu's chapters are omitted. It seems likely that chapters 32-37 were added to the text by a later hand, a redactor who, like Elihu in the narrative, didn't like Job's self-justification or his companions' failure to refute him. Elihu quotes from earlier speeches, reiterates the companions' points and anticipates God's speech.

Elihu gets his own prose introduction (32:1-5). The reason he has not spoken before? He is younger than Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar and so has been listening respectfully. Now he can no longer keep silent. He, too, by his own declaration, is wise. He will speak the truth without flattery.

Does Elihu offer a better refutation of Job than did his elders? We shall see.

In chapter 33 Elihu addresses Job. (He is the only character in this story who addresses Job by name). He insists that God does speak to people through dreams and by visiting them with disease. God will also, through the ministry of some intercessor angel, restore the repentant (33:23-25).

In chapter 34 Elihu addresses Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, as well as Job. God, he says, is just, powerful, and sovereign. God can do as he pleases. Job has spoken from ignorance.

By anticipating God's speech, Elihu introduces a new element: sovereignty. But, by insisting upon God's justice in the face of Job's unjust suffering, he only reiterates the arguments of his elders. He has three more chapters to prove himself.

Next: Job 35-37

Friday, October 18, 2013

Job 29:1-31:40


The interlude, or whatever it was, of chapter 28 declared that wisdom is hidden like gold in a mine. It concluded with an aphorism found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) "The fear of the Lord is wisdom."

In chapters 29-31 Job makes his last extended speech. He will have another line or two after God has his say, but this is Job's last real discourse. It divides neatly into three parts and the chapter divisions seem to fall in the right spots.

In chapter 29 Job longs for the good old days when he enjoyed good health and the respect of his fellow citizens. He recounts the good things that he did on behalf of the needy and oppressed.

In chapter 30 Job laments his current condition: he is sick and despised. God has treated him cruelly.

In chapter 31 Job uses a series of if-then statements to once again assert his innocence. Once again he calls up God to answer him.

These three chapters are eloquent and filled with vivid metaphors. Read them for yourself!

Next: Job 32-34

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Job 24:1-28:28 (25:1-28:28)


To this point, the book of Job has proceeded in an orderly way. The speakers have taken turns. After Job opened the conversation (chapter 3) the order was: Eliphaz (chapters 4-5), Job (chapters 6-7), Bildad (chapter 8), Job (chapters 9-10) , Zophar (chapter 11), Job (chapters 12-14). This cycle repeated itself (chapters 15-21) and a third iteration seems to have begun with Eliphaz (chapter 22). Today the orderly continuity is interrupted. Bildad's third speech is cut short. Zophar doesn't get a third turn. Job says things that are uncharacteristic. The bottom line: some scholars think that, at some point in the process of transmission and redaction, the book of Job fell into disarray at chapter 25.

In the 6 short verses of chapter 25, Bildad states that God is great and people are no darn good. 

In chapter 26, Job begins with the, by now, customary insults. He then speaks of God's greatness in creation. (Some scholars think this part of the speech actually belongs with Bildad's previous lines). Job's words reflect a different creation myth than the familiar ones from Genesis. Rahab (verse 12, cf. Job 9:13, Psalm 87:4, 89:10, Isaiah 30:7, 51:9) refers to a mythical sea monster and not the harlot with a heart of gold from Joshua 2.

In chapter 27 Job defends his virtue once more. Beginning at verse 7 Job describes the punishment of the wicked, a passage that some scholars think may actually be Zophar's third speech.

Chapter 28 is a poem about the hiddenness of wisdom. The chapter heading in the NIV calls this an "interlude." It does seem somewhat out of place. I suppose it might be Job's reply to Zophar's hypothetical third speech.

Frankly, I don't know.

Next: Job 29-31

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Job 21:1-23:17 (21:1-24:25)


The question of Theodicy (from two Greek roots meaning God and justice) or the problem of evil can be stated thus:

     1. God is good.
     2. God is all powerful.
     3. God exists.

All three of these statements cannot be true.

In his book Why Religon Matters, Huston Smith says that, in any human community of sufficient size, whether that is your workplace or the local Presbyterian church, you will meet four kinds of people. There are:

     Atheists who say, "There is no God."
     Polytheists who say, "There are many gods."
     Monotheists who say, "There is one God."
     And Mystics who say, "There is only God."

Theodicy is a monotheist's dilemma. Evil is not a problem for atheists, polytheists, or mystics. But for those who say there is only one God, that one God must be responsible for all things: good and evil, weal and woe.

The post-holocaust Jewish theology I've read tends to assert that God is good but not all-powerful. This, I think, is the position of Rabbi Maurice Harris whose book, Leviticus: You Have No Idea I reviewed recently.

At any rate, the book of Job is a conversation among monotheists. Job's "comforters" take it upon themselves to defend God's goodness. Job, they insist, must have done something to deserve his punishment. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, all three, adhere to an idea that I would call "deuteronomistic orthodoxy." It is the dominant theology of the Old Testament and found especially in the deutoronomistic history: God punishes wickedness and rewards righteousness.In chapter 15, Eliphaz, sounding very much like a Calvinist, asserted that all humans are "impure." In chapter 11 Zophar argued that God had already forgiven "some" of Job's sin, suggesting that Job (and perhaps all people) deserve worse from God. These arguments sound a little smug coming from people who are not weeping for dead children and scraping their sores with a potsherd. They also make God sound capricious if not monstrous.

Throughout the book, Job holds God responsible for his suffering. He knows that the righteous suffer and that the wicked are not always punished. Many Christians, recognizing this same truth, defer God's punishments and rewards to a life after death. The idea can certainly be found in the New Testament and, as I understand it, was born in intertestamental Judaism. As best I can tell, the book of Job doesn't have much idea of an afterlife.

The book of Job will resolve, or perhaps leave unresolved, the question of theodicy by an appeal to God's ineffability. It will also leave us pondering whether, apart from the threat of punishment or promise of reward, one can, or even should, pursue righteousness.

Job (along with Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and some of the Psalms) fits the genre of "Wisdom Literature." It invites us to ponder big questions. Whether Job's answers are more satisfying than the deuteronomistic orthodoxy it rejects, readers will have to decide for themselves. Perhaps the great value of this sublime, subversive book is that it challenges us to think through the questions.

Now to address, briefly, today's passage. In chapter 21 Job says the wicked prosper. He holds God answerable.

Chapter 22 has Eliphaz stating bluntly that Job is a sinner. He even lists the sins that he imagines Job has committed. Job needs to repent in order to be restored.

In chapter 23 Job answers that he is afraid, terrified, of God but wants the opportunity to defend himself before God. He continues in chapter 24, asking when God will judge those who genuinely do wrong.

Next: Job 24-28 (25-28)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Job 17:1-20:29 (18:1-20:29)


In chapter 18, Bildad the Shuhite takes his second turn speaking. He describes, at some length, the woes that befall the wicked (implying Job's wickedness?).

Job replies in chapter 19. There is no justice, he says (v. 19). He asks his companions to "have pity" because "God has struck me" (v. 21). This chapter includes what is probably the best-known passage from Job.

"O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
     they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
     and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
     and after my skin has thus been destroyed,
     then in my flesh I shall see my God.... (Job 19:22-26, NRSV)

Questions of interpretation abound in this passage. Who is the redeemer? From whom or what does Job want to be redeemed? Is verse 26 a reference to the resurrection?

It is perhaps natural for Christians to take the word "Redeemer" as a reference to Christ. Especially when it is capitalized (as in the NRSV). This is how the passage is used in Handel's Messiah. This is how it is interpreted in a familiar hymn by Samuel Medley.

The term "redeemer" (go'el in Hebrew) refers to a relative who might perform any number of duties. For example, the go'el redeemed a person from slavery, married his brother's widow to raise children for the deceased, bought back property that had gone out of the family, and avenged murder. Some interpreters suggest that Job's go'el is God himself. Some think it is another heavenly being. Others think that it is a human agent.

Some say that the go'el will take revenge against God on Job's behalf. I rather think, based on verses 28-29, that Job is calling for revenge against his three companions, the "comforters" who persecute him.

If you say, 'How we will persecute him! '
and, 'The root of the matter is found in him';
 be afraid of the sword,
for wrath brings the punishment of the sword,
so that you may know there is a judgment. (Job 19:28-29)

As for the question of the resurrection, I find that commentators with a doctrinal bent tend to see a clear reference to the resurrection in this passage, while those with an academic bias do not.

I would argue that there is a certain legitimacy to interpreting Job's words messianically and with reference to the resurrection. At the same time it is probably best not to insist that this is the only possible interpretation and, in fact, the author of Job probably had neither a messiah nor the resurrection in mind. That is, a doctrinal interpretation diverges from the author's intent.

In chapter 20 Zophar the Naamathite speaks again. Like many a participant in religious debate, Zophar was probably thinking of what he would say rather than listening to his opponent. He doesn't reply to Job. Instead he argues that the wicked may prosper, but only for a moment. Punishment will soon catch up with them.

 I found the sheet music at
Next: Job 21-23 (21-24)

Job 14:1-16:22 (15:1-17:16)


Once again the Blue Letter Bible one-year canonical reading plan breaks in the middle of a speech so I am going on to the end of Job 17 which is also the end of Job's reply to Eliphaz. I will continue to use the Blue Letter Bible plans daily portions as the title for these posts but will note the actual passage I deal with in parentheses.

Chapter 15 takes us back to the top of the batting order as Eliphaz the Temanite addresses Job. Eliphaz insists that Job is not wise. In fact he's full of hot air (15:2)/ Eliphaz appeals to the common wisdom of past ages and asserts that all humans, in fact all things "not-God," are impure. The unjust are punished.

Against Eliphaz's theological assertion, Job insists that he is pure. God has abused him without cause. Still, Job seems to hope for vindication (16:19-20). His speech (16:18) invokes the story of Abel whose blood cried to God from the ground (Genesis 4:11). In chapter 17 Job laments his condition and his mortality.

Next: Job 17-20 (18-20)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Job 11:1-13:28


The blue letter Bible reading plan that I'm using for this project breaks the Bible into 365 conveniently bite-sized chunks. Unfortunately in the book of Job that sometimes breaks up individual speeches in awkward places. So today I'm actually going to read through the end of chapter 14 which concludes a speech of Job. 

This section begins as Zophar takes his first turn arguing with Job. After deriding Job for speaking foolishly, Zophar argues that God (who has so brutally mistreated our hero) has actually been kind: "God has forgotten some of your sin" (11:6). 

Zophar charges humanity in general (and Job in particular) with ignorance of God's ways. "The witless will become wise," he says, when pigs fly. Well, that's the jist of it (11:12). But, Zophar concludes, if Job will submit to God (as if he hasn't) Job will prosper again. 

The tone of the debate becomes increasingly insolent. Job replies that he is as wise as his three companions. He used to call on God and God answered. Now Job is a laughingstock. He wants to speak directly with God. 

In a poignant question (one that could be put to many of God's defenders today) Job asks "Would you lie for God?" (13:7). 

Job also persists in putting his hope in God. "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. I will defend my ways to his face." This is what Job asks, relief from his suffering and a chance to defend himself before God.

In chapter 14 Job renews his request for relief and states emphatically that death is final. 

In an earlier blogpost I pondered what a church based on the book of Ruth would look like. It might be interesting to do the same thought experiment with Job. Two things about the Church of Job come immediately to mind. 1) Council meetings would be lively. 2) Joel Osteen would not be the pastor.

Next: Job 14-16. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Job 8:1-10:22


I have heard a lot of stupid, well-meaning but stupid things said to people in grief.

"She's in a better place."
"It was God's will."
"God wanted another angel."

People who say such things probably mean well. They want to offer some comfort to the mourner. Maybe they want to relieve their own discomfort at a friend's grief. It would be better, of course, to say nothing than to echo empty theological platitudes. It would be better simply to be present, to listen, to share one's grief. But well-meaning people say stupid things to those who mourn. I've heard a lot of them.

I have never heard anything as nakedly cruel as what Bildad the Shuhite says to Job, "Your children sinned. God delivered them into the power of their transgression" (Job 8:4). Really. That's what he says. "God killed your kids because they were sinners."

Bildad cites the conventional wisdom of past ages: Forget God and wither like a plant without soil or water. But God does not reject a blameless person (implying that Job, in his current suffering is not blameless, though we know better). Return to God and you will prosper once more.

Job answers that God clearly has the upper hand here. God is mightier than mortals. God is invisible and remote. Job cannot argue with God even though Job is innocent. God has turned against Job and Job has no recourse.

Job's wish for "someone to arbitrate" (NIV, "an umpire," NRSV) is sometimes taken as a prophecy of Christ's incarnation. This isn't a terrible Christian interpretation, but it pretty clearly is not what the author of Job had in mind.

In chapter 10, Job laments his life again. If he's a sinner, God punishes him. If he's righteous God punishes him. (10:14-15). "Life," as a friend of mine says frequently, "is a bitch. Then you die." (10:18-22).

Another midrash on Job, Archibald MacLeish's play J.B. hails from the day of the gray flannel suit but still has its pleasures. Among them God and Satan as circus employees.

Next: Job 11-13

Friday, October 11, 2013

Job 5:1-7:21


Even those who defend the historicity of the book of Job do so weakly, tentatively.  Set in the age of the Patriarchesm a time that I have called "mythic history," in the otherwise unknown land of Uz, if there is a nugget of historical fact behind this story it is probably unrecoverable. But this is not a grave concern. It is best, I think, to read the book for what it is, a theological/philosophical poem about God's ineffable sovereignty, the problem of human suffering, and the possibility of faithfulness.

After Eliphaz finishes his defense of God's righteousness, Job speaks again. He holds God responsible for his tragic situation (as any good monotheist must) but he does not reject God. If God killed me now, he says, and released me from this torture I would die with the consolation that at least I did not deny God. (Job 6:8-10).

Job compares his friends to a dry wadi. They are unreliable. They promise what they do not deliver. They ignore his valid complaints.

Chapter 7 is addressed directly to God. Job will pray several times in this book. His friends speak only to him. Job insists that he will complain to God. God denies him even the comfort of sleep.

Verse 17 ff.asks the same question as Psalm 8:4. "What are human beings that you (God) pay them any mind?" The Psalmist's answer is comforting. "You have made us a little lower than the angels." Job's answer is quite different, "You meddle, micromanage, and punish. You won't leave us alone."

Science fiction author Robert Heinlein was no great friend to religion and he had some particularly sharp skewers for Christian fundamentalism in Job: A Comedy of Justice. I don't know if he'd have appreciated me calling the book a midrash, but I think it is. It is also an entertaining read.

Next: Job 8-10

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Job 1-4


Job is, in my opinion, the most sublime and subversive book of the Bible.

The dominant theology of the Hebrew Bible holds that God rewards the righteous and punishes the unjust. Israel prospers when it is aligned with YHWH's will. Catastrophe happens when Israel is disobedient. The book of Job, which tells the story of a righteous man who suffers unjustly at God's hand, undermines this notion.

Job is an extended philosophical conversation in poetic form framed by a prose story. This book raises more questions than it answers: Why be righteous? Why serve YHWH? Why do the righteous suffer? Is God just?

Job is a story of theodicy and theophany. Its title character is a wealthy man with many flocks and a large family. He is upright in all his dealings and faithful to YHWH his God.

One day in the courts of heaven YHWH brags about his boy Job. The Satan happens to be present. This is not the devil of later tradition. The Satan stands rightfully in God's presence. He challenges YHWH's boast. Job, the Satan suggests, would not be so loyal if he weren't so richly rewarded. It's game on. YHWH bets on his boy's faithfulness and allows the Satan to take everything away from Job--family, possessions, everything--except his health. In short order Job's possessions are lost and his children killed.

Don't miss the point: Job suffers horrible loss, and will suffer illness as well, because YHWH has made a bet with the Satan.

Still, Job will not curse God. Even in grief he remains faithful:

"YHWH gave." he says, " YHWH took away. Blessed be the name of YHWH."

So YHWH and the Satan up the ante. YHWH allows the Satan to take away Job's health. The only limit is that the Satan must not kill Job. Soon, Job is sitting in a ash heap, scraping his festering sores with a potsherd. His wife encourages him to "Curse God and die." There is a tradition that claims she is taunting him shrewishly, increasing his burden. I tend to think that her words convey sympathy and distress over Job's plight. Why not curse the God who has done this to Job? If it means death, then death is preferable to the agony that Job is suffering. But Job will not curse God.

"Will we take the good from God and not the bad?"

Then Job's three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to sit with him. They sit in silence for a week. This is the kindness of companionship. I believe that the three are true friends. When they get around to speaking, I think they mean well. They will mouth the pious, false platitudes of Deuteronomistic theology. They will, in short, blame the victim.

But it is Job who speaks first. In his first poetic speech, Job wishes he had never been born. Stillbirth would have been preferable to this suffering.

Eliphaz is the first to respond. Today's passage ends in the middle of the speech in which he repeats the conventional wisdom. God is righteous therefore those upon whom God inflicts suffering deserve it. Accept God's punishment and you will prosper again.

The Coen brothers' movie A Serious Man is an interesting midrash on the book of Job. Like the book of Job itself, this movie won't be to everyone's taste. I found it fascinating and thoughtful.

Next Job 5-7

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Esther 6:1-10:3


The book of Esther, which tells the story of a heroic Jewish woman in the Persian empire, was probably written for Jews living in diaspora in the Persian empire. Its purpose: to encourage those Jews to remain...

I want to say "faithful" here but I don't think that's quite right. Faithfulness implies keeping Jewish traditions, eating kosher, circumcision, prayer. The Jewish characters in this book are shown doing none of those things. The only religious practice specifically mentioned is fasting. Unlike Daniel, Esther shows no scruples about eating what is set before her. Mordecai will not bow down to Haman but the reason for this is never made explicit. Other Jews apparently did bow to Haman and no judgment is rendered against them in the text. Mordecai's argument with Haman seems almost personal.

So perhaps the purpose of Esther is to encourage its Jewish readers to remain Jewish, whatever that means. To remain unassimilated while living among Gentiles.

That is assuming there is a higher purpose than telling a darn good story.

At night king Ahaseurus is troubled by the thought that he has forgotten something. A search of the royal archives shows that he hasn't done anything to honor Mordecai who saved his life. What to do?

Haman, our villian, arrives early to see the king about having Mordecai impaled. Before Haman can make his request, the king asks his advice. "What should I do for someone I wish to honor?" Haman thinks the king means him. Royal robes, a royal horse, a trip around the open square led by a prince shouting "This is what the king does for someone he wishes to honor" sounds appealing. When he suggests it, the king agrees.

In a great comic reversal, Haman ends up shouting praises to Mordecai while leading the horse upon which Mordecai sits in splendid garb.

At her second banquet with Ahasuerus and Haman, Esther reveals herself as Jewish. She denounces Haman who has tricked the king into ordering a pogrom against the Jews in Persia. The king storms out. Haman pleads with Esther for his life. The king returns to find Haman seemingly assaulting his queen. He orders Haman to be impaled on the 75 foot tall pole he erected to kill Mordecai. Mordecai is given all of the authority that formerly belonged to Haman.

There remains the problem of the massacre of the Jews which Ahasuerus ordered. It seems that the king's edict cannot be changed. But a second edict is issued which permits the Jews to defend against their enemies. I'm not sure why they need permission to defend themselves, but they get it.

This is where the story goes off the rails for me. It's one thing to humiliate Haman. It's another thing to massacre 75,000 enemies. At least the Jews don't take plunder, which was also permitted to them. This suggests that they were fighting for survival, not for wealth.

The annual Jewish holiday Purim celebrates the survival of the Jews. Esther herself is said to have ordered its observance. It seems that at the time of this books writing there was a discrepancy in the date of the celebration. The Jews in the country celebrated a day before the city Jews. This difference is given a "historical" basis in Esther when a second day of fighting takes place in Susa, but not in the provinces.

The three short verses that comprise chapter 10 of Esther laud Mordecai the Jew. Strangely Esther is not mentioned in this epilogue. Perhaps this is another commentary on the status of women in the culture that produced the Hebrew Bible.

The Talmud instructs Jewish men to drink freely on Purim until they can no longer distinguish between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai." Except for the emphasis on drinking, Purim fits the general pattern of Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat."

Next: Job 1-4

Monday, October 7, 2013

Esther 1:1-5:14


I know that some people treat the book of Esther as a straightforward account of historical events. The evidence against such a reading is significant. The book bears a closer resemblance to what we call historical fiction. It is a fictional story set in the historical past. Some have suggested that it is close in form to a Greek comedy. Others have pointed out that Esther is related to other biblical accounts of Jews in foreign courts like Daniel and the Joseph saga from Genesis.

Whatever its genre, Esther tells a wonderful story with moments of drama, comedy, suspense, and horror. It is a curiosity among biblical literature. It is one of two books named for a woman (the other being Ruth). It is the only book of the Bible that does not explicitly mention God. Some commentators find God at work throughout the book, always hidden, implicit, and behind the scenes. Fasting is the only religious practice mentioned. Prayer is notably absent from Esther, unless you read it in the Septuagint. The ancient Greek translation includes several additions including lengthy prayers by some of the main characters.

The action takes place in the city of Susa, capitol of the Persian empire, and particularly in the court of King Ahasuerus. The name "Ahaseurus" means simply "chief leader." The meaning is similar to the Greek Xerxes, and it is often assumed that the king refered to is Xerxes I of Persia.  The book of Ezra (4:6) does refer to Xerxes as Ahasuerus. The NIV "helpfully" "translates" Ahaseurus as "Xerxes" throughout the book of Esther. But the identification is by no means clear. The Septuagint assumed Ahasuerus to be Xerxes's successor Artaxerxes.

King Ahaseurus, whoever he was, is portrayed as being rather weak, foolish, and easily misled. Not good qualities for the most powerful man in the world.

Ahasuerus's queen, Vashti, earns the king's displeasure when she refuses to present herself wearing her crown before a crowd of his drunken male guests. Commentators love to point out that an ancient rabbinic text suggested that Vashti was to appear wearing only her crown. Regardless, Vashti is deposed and an edict is made declaring that all men are the rulers in their own houses.

There are a lot of feasts, a lot of drinking, and a lot of edicts in this story.

Also among the main characters of this story is Mordecai "the Jew" a citizen of Susa. nHe is a Benjaminite, a member of the tribe that many generations earlier spawned Saul, Israel's first king. Mordecai uncovers a plot against Ahasuerus's life but goes, temporarily, unrewarded.

Mordecai has an enemy, a powerful member of Ahasuerus's court named Haman. He is a stock villian, treacherous and vain. He is an Agagite, that is an Amalekite, a traditional enemy of Mordecai's tribe. For reasons undisclosed, Haman is elevated to prominence by Ahasuerus. If traditional tribal enmity does not explain Haman's grudge against Mordecai and all the Jews, then the fact that Mordecai won't bow to him does. Everybody else bows down to Haman. Why not Mordecai. This really bugs Haman.

Again, the text gives no reason for Mordecai's failure to bow.

And that brings us to the book's title character, Esther. She is a beautiful and shapely young woman. An orphan, she is raised by her uncle.

After Vashti is sent into exile, Ahasuerus's advisers come up with a plan to find a new queen. Beautiful virgins from all over the empire are brought into the king's harem. Esther, naturally enough, is among them. After they are groomed and beautified by the king's eunuch's, the women are brought, one a night, to the king's bed. It is good to be king, I suppose. It's not so great to be a harem girl. Unless you are Esther. Esther pleases everyone, especially the king, and is made queen of all Persia. Oh, yeah, at Mordecai's advice, Esther has not told anyone that she is Jewish.

Haman tricks and bribes the feckless king into approving a pogrom against all the Jews in the Persian empire. When Mordecai learns of the plot, he informs Esther. After three days of fasting, she screws up the courage to enter the king's throne room, a move that could cost her life. Happily, the king welcomes her. Esther then invites Ahasuerus and Haman to a private dinner party. At that party, she invites them to come back the next day.

At the end of chapter 5, it is night. Haman has built a 75 foot tall pole on which he plans to impale Mordecai. The death of all the Jews in Persia seems sure.

For fans of old movie serials, this seems an appropriate place to end today's episode.

Next: Esther 6-10

Friday, October 4, 2013

Nehemiah 12:1-13:31


So here we wrap up Ezra-Nehemiah which tell of the Jews return to Jerusalem and Judah, their rebuilding of the temple and the city under the leadership of the titular characters, Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor. With this we conclude the historical portion of the Old Testament (unless you are a fundamentalist and insist that Esther is also a historical narrative). Ancient Hebrew historiography is obviously of a different nature than modern history writing.The historical background will be important when we get to reading the prophets (again, unless you are a fundamentalist and read the prophets without regard to their historical context).

Ezra-Nehemiah seems clearly to be a composite text and, I think, that the first person portions represent the actual writings of those two men, albeit heavily redacted. The question of whether the careers of these two overlapped remains open. If so, Ezra must have been quite old by Nehemiah's time.

Chapter 12 of Nehemiah begins with a list of priests and Levites and then moves on to a a description of the ritual dedicating Jerusalem's repaired walls. Two processions moving in opposite directions atop the walls meet at the temple area. Many sacrifices are offered. The sound of joy is heard far away.

It might be nice to end on that happy note, but concerns for ethnic and ritual purity, so important to Ezra-Nehemiah, occupy chapter 13. First, a reading from the Law of Moses confirms that no Ammonites or Moabites shall be admitted to the assembly.

Next when Nehemiah is out of town on business, the priest Eliashib moves his relative Tobiah into the temple. Nehemiah comes back and moves Tobiah out. Wait a minute. Is that Tobiah the Ammonite from chapter 2? The guy who opposed the rebuilding of the walls in chapter 4? The one who conspired to lure Nehemiah out of the city to kill him in chapter 6?  Well, yeah. Maybe that guy needed to get kicked out of the temple.

Nehemiah also makes sure that the people pay their tithes. He locks the city gates to prevent trade on the Sabbath and denounces mixed marriages. Unlike Ezra he doesn't make the Jews who have married Gentile women divorce their wives. He just roughs them up a little and tells them not to let their kids intermarry.

Actually, though I'm sure the men didn't care for the beatings, the women and children fare much better this time around.

Next: Esther 1-5

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nehemiah 10:1-11:36


The Jews are making a written covenant. Chapter 10 begins with a list of signatories. They and "the rest of the people" promise, under the self-invoked threat of curse, to obey the Law of Moses.

Actually, they go beyond the Law of Moses. In addition to not intermarrying with the people of the land, they promise not to buy merchandise on the Sabbath (at least not from Gentiles). They will let the land lie fallow in the seventh year and they will forgive debts that same year.

They will pay temple taxes annually. They will provide wood for the altar. They will give offerings of first-fruits and firstborn.

In chapter 11 some of the residents of other towns are resettled in Jerusalem to increase the population. The lists that complete the chapter seem to be from a time later than Nehemiah's.

Next: Nehemiah 12-13

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-9:38


It seems that there is some debate in scholarly circles as to whether Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries. Nehemiah 8:9 is the only place where the two men are named together and there is a grammatical problem in that verse. The verb is singular. It may be that Nehemiah's name was dropped in by a redactor. If Ezra and Nehemiah were not contemporaneous then the chronology of the narrative is mixed up.

Anyway, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra the priest makes his reappearance. With the help of some Levites, he reads the book of the Law to the people of Judea. The scene is highly reminiscent of 2 Chronicles 24:39 ff. where King Josiah did the same thing. Josiah's book of the Law was probably an early version of Deuteronomy. Ezra's is likely much larger. Lutheran Study Bible suggests that it was an early form of the entire Torah. That would have been a lot of reading.

It appears that Ezra read and the Levites interpreted, maybe translating from Hebrew to Aramaic, maybe explaining the meaning of the text.

While I think I'd have been bored to tears (Hey, I was raised on television) Ezra's audience is moved to tears of penance.The Levites comfort them and tell them to celebrate, eating, drinking, and sending gifts to the poor.

Next they celebrate the festival of Succoth (Booths). This celebration is unique since the time of Joshua, but just how differed from earlier celebrations is an open question. The text seems to suggest that there had been no celebration of Succoth since Joshua's time, but Judges 21:9, 1 Samuel 1:3, and Ezra 3:4 say otherwise.

Chapter 9 picks up two days after the Succoth celebration and tells of a national day of penance. Either Ezra (according to the Septuagint) or the Levites (in the Masoretic text) pray at some length recounting the history of Israel from Abraham through the Exodus, the settlement of Canaan, the exile, and right up to the narrative present: the resettlement. The prayer complains of Israel's current circumstances. They are "slaves" once more, at least in the sense of being vassals to Assyria.

And then they (who they are is specified in the next chapter) make a written covenant.

Next: Nehemiah 10-11