Thursday, May 29, 2014

Whatever Happened To...


I have not abandoned the project but have had to put it on hiatus for a while.

It seems that I have taken on a new challenge. Beginning next week I will be teaching a course in World Religions at a nearby Community College.

Since teaching about World Religions requires that I know something about World Religions, I've been studying my tail off for the last couple of weeks.

I hope to get to Micah eventually.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Obadaiah 1:1-Jonah 4:11


Obadiah is the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible, a mere 21 verses in length. It consists entirely of an oracle against the nation of Edom. The prophet also refers to that nation as Esau, after its ancestor, and Teman, after one of its important cities. See verses 8 and 9 for all three of these titles. Esau, you will remember was the brother of Jacob. The Israelites considered the Edomites kindred though not always friendly. In this book, Edom is condemned because, when Israel was taken into exile, the Edomites did nothing to help and, in fact, gloated over Israel's fate.

Every Sunday School student knows that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Actually it was a "big fish" but why quibble? The book presents a parable about a reluctant prophet. The story is a fantastical, comic masterpiece. When YHWH tells Jonah to preach in the Assyrian capital, Ninevah, he instead books passage on board a ship headed to Spain. When YHWH sends a sea storm that threatens to wreck the ship, the pagan sailors reluctantly, at Jonah's insistence, toss the prophet overboard. The storm stops. The sailors all worship YHWH. Already, Jonah is making converts.

Jonah is swallowed by the big firsh and spends three days in its belly. He fills his time praying a psalm that, on the surface, sounds perfectly pious. A close reading reveals that Jonah mistakenly believes that YHWH is confined to the temple back in Jerusalem. We can't be sure how God reacted but, when Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish pukes.

Jonah finds himself on the shore near Ninevah. The city is described in exaggerated terms. Jonah, seeing no way out, goes partway into the city and preaches the most lackluster prophetic sermon ever.

"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
      (Jonah 3:4, NIV)

Then he leaves the city and sits down to watch the fireworks. Once again, Jonah's worst efforts meet with unparalleled success. By royal decree the entire city puts on sackcloth and ashes. Even the cattle! YHWH relents and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except Jonah.

Jonah wanted Ninevah to be destroyed. He also knew all along that YHWH is:

a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
      (Jonah 4:2, NIV)

We've heard that description several times before.

There is an episode involving a plant that springs up overnight and gives Jonah shade. Then, YHWH sends a worm to destroy the plant which only makes Jonah angrier. YHWH drives his point home:

But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?"
      (Jonah 4:10-11, NIV)

The book of Jonah probably comes from the same time as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the time when Jerusalem was being rebuilt. It serves as a counter-voice to the concern for ethnic purity evinced in those other works.

Arguments that Jonah is a reliable account of historical facts couldn't be further from the point of the book. The prophet is not Jonah, son of Ammittai, but the anonymous author of this wonderful little book.

The illustration of Jonah is by Chinese artist He Qi. See more of his wonderful artworks here.

Next: Micah

Monday, May 12, 2014

Amos 6:1-9:15


The sixth chapter of Amos begins with an oracle condemning Israel's elite for their self-satisfied, self-indulgent, complacency. While they laze about entertaining themselves and eating the ancient equivalent of bon-bons, they are unconcerned about the "ruin of Joseph" (v. 6). They are, in fact, no better than various pagan neighbor cities that have already been destroyed (v. 2).

Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
   and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
      (Amos 6:7)

It was, in fact, the wealthy, ruling class who were taken into exile first as a matter of policy.

Verses 9-10 are odd. A note in the Harper Collins Study Bible summarizes them nicely:

A narrative sketches a mysterious and ominous little scene of survivors hiding among the ruins and the bodies of the slain.

In verse 12 Amos uses some proverbial statements to make the point out that the injustice found in Israel is not natural:

Do horses run on rocks?
   Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
   and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood...

Chapter 7 records the first three in a series of visions. When he sees YHWH preparing judgment first by locusts and then by fire, Amos intercedes and YHWH relents. The third vision is of a plumb line, or something. The Hebrew word is known only from this context. Whatever it is, Israel doesn't measure up and Amos doesn't intervene.

These prophecies are not, as one might imagine, welcome in Israel. This is perhaps especially the case since Amos was a hick from Judah. Verses 10-17 tell how the prophet was confronted by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. This showdown is reminiscent of the confrontations we read of between Jeremiah and the professional prophets of Judah. In essence Amaziah says "Go home! Don't prophesy here." Amos responds that he is not a professional prophet. He gets the last word in with a nasty bit of judgment against Amaziah and his kin:

Therefore thus says the Lord:
'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
   and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
   and your land shall be parceled out by line;
   you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
   and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'
      (Amos 7:17)

The visions resume in chapter 8. Here Amos sees a "summer basket" or "basket of summer fruit." According to the Jewish Study Bible there is a pun in the Hebrew. That basket, kayitz, signifies the end, ketz. The NIV tries to retain the pun making the vision a basket of "ripe fruit" and declaring that the "time is ripe" for Israel's judgment. Nicely done, NIV.

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with graphic details of the pending judgment.

Chapter 9 begins with the last of Amos' visions. This time YHWH is standing beside "the altar." Whether this is the alter at Bethel is not specified. YHWH declares to the Israelites that they cannot hide from his judgment.

All the sinners among my people
will die by the sword,
all those who say,
'Disaster will not overtake or meet us. '
      (Amos 9:10)

Verses 11-15 are a promise that, at some future day, Israel will be restored and everything will be hunky-dory, if not better. The Harper Collins Study Bible suggests, plausibly, that these verses, which assume that Israel has been destroyed and its people exiled, probably were written by a later hand.

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. The image of Juan de Berogna's painting of Amos came from this website.

Next: Obadiah-Jonah

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Amos 1:1-5:27


Dating from the first half of the 8th century BCE, the book of Amos may be the earliest of prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible. Amos was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. He came from Tekoa, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom, Judah. But he preached in the northern kingdom Israel. According to the introduction to Amos in the Harper Collins Study Bible:

The message of Amos is direct and uncompromising. Over and over he announces to the people of Israel that, because of their social injustice and religious arrogance, the Lord will punish them by means of a total military disaster.
Amos opens with a series of oracles against Israel's neighbors. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre. Edom, Ammon, and Moab are each in turn condemned for their warlike ways (1:3-2:3). One can almost imagine the prophet's audience in full sympathy with this message. "Yeah, you tell those dirty Syrians! Stick it to those lousy Philistines!" When the prophet turns his attention to Judah (2:4-5), preaching against their idolatry, he might be getting a little close to home. But then when he starts in on Israel itself (2:6 ff) his audience must have been shocked. Amos lights into the northerners for their injustice, idolatry, and immorality.

Chapter 3 opens with a series of questions, the implied answers to which establish a pattern of cause and effect. The punchline to these questions is that when disaster befalls Israel's capital, Samaria, it will be because YHWH caused it.

Beginning at 3:9, YHWH calls the Philistines and Egyptians to serve as witnesses to his punishment of Israel. Verse 12 intimates that very little will be left when YHWH gets done with Israel:

This is what the Lord says:
"As a shepherd rescues from the lion's mouth
   only two leg bones or a piece of an ear,
so will the Israelites living in Samaria be rescued,
   with only the head of a bed
   and a piece of fabric from a couch."
      (Amos 3:12, NIV)

Chapter 4:1-3 addresses the women of Israel, rudely, as "cows of Bashan." Verses 4-5 tell the Israelites to go to their shrines at Bethel and Gilgal, but not for worship:

"Go to Bethel and sin;
   go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
   your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
   and brag about your freewill offerings —
   boast about them, you Israelites,
   for this is what you love to do,"
      declares the Sovereign Lord.
         (Amos 4:4-5, NIV)

The rest of the chapter describes how YHWH has chastened Israel with droughts, plagues, and destruction, but Israel paid no heed.

Chapter 5 begins with a call for Israel to turn to YHWH, not by worshiping at the unauthorized shrines at Gilgal and Bethel, but by practicing social justice.From verse 18 on the prophet warns that the expected "Day of the Lord" will not bring the vindication for which the people hope, but judgment and exile.

Next: Amos 6-9

Friday, May 2, 2014

Joel 1:1-3:21


Nothing is known about the prophet Joel, son of Pethuel, other than what can be surmised from the book that bears his name. Possible dates for his writing range from the 9th to the 2nd centuries BCE. The scholarly consensus, based on internal evidence from the book, places Joel in the 5th century. At this time the people of Judah had returned from exile, were living under Persian rule, and had reestablished the Jerusalem temple.

The occasion for the book seems to be a devastating locust plague. The imagery of the locusts is conflated, however, with images of invading armies. Joel calls for YHWH's people to lament and repent.

Rend your heart
   and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
   for he is gracious and compassionate,
   slow to anger and abounding in love,
   and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
   and leave behind a blessing —
   grain offerings and drink offerings
   for the Lord your God.
      (Joel 2:13-14, NIV)

These verses are part of a common reading for Ash Wednesday.

In response to Israel's repentance, YHWH restores his people's prosperity.

The remainder of the book is occupied with "the Day of the Lord." For Judah this will be a time of blessing.

And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
   your old men will dream dreams,
   your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
      (Joel 2:28, NIV)

The Apostle Peter quotes this passage in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2. He proclaims that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that day fulfills Joel's words.

Other nations will not fare so well as Judah on the Day of the Lord.

Proclaim this among the nations:
   Prepare for war!
   Rouse the warriors!
   Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.
Beat your plowshares into swords
   and your pruning hooks into spears.
Let the weakling say,
   "I am strong!"
Come quickly, all you nations from every side,
   and assemble there.
      (Joel 3:9-11)

Don't miss the way that verse 10 reverses the words of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Joel, apparently, was well-versed in Hebrew Scripture.

Next: Amos 1-5

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hosea 8:1-14:9


In Hosea 8 a bird appears over the house of the Lord. The NIV calls it an "eagle." The NRSV says it's a "vulture." Unless I'm mistaken, the Hebrew supports either translation. Whatever the bird is, it represents Assyria. Because Israel has appointed kings without YHWH's approval (v. 4) and put a golden calf up at the sanctuary in Bethel (v. 5) YHWH will abandon them to conquest by the Assyrians.

The Harper Collins Study Bible calls 8:7 ff. a "futility curse." Israel's disregard of YHWH's law will result in all of their efforts at prosperity being ineffectual. Verse 13 threatens a reversal of the exodus as Israel returns to Egypt.

Chapter 9 compares Israel's idolatry to prostitution. Threshing was apparently a festive time and the presence of prostitutes at the threshing floor may have been common. Israel has sold its favors to Baal, has ignored and abused the prophets (vv. 7-8), and have lapsed into corruption such as was seen at Gibeah (v. 9). Remember Gibeah? That's where the Levite's concubine was raped to death (Judges 19-21) leading to all out civil war among the Isrealite tribes. Back in the day, YHWH delighted in Israel, but ever since they arrived at Baal Peor (Numbers 25) they've been going for other gods. Now...

My God will reject them
   because they have not obeyed him;
   they will be wanderers among the nations.
      (Hosea 9:17, NIV)

In chapter 10, using more agricultural imagery, YHWH says that Israel's prosperity led to its neglect of God. Destruction is coming. In Luke 23:30, Jesus quotes the last part of verse 8:

Then they will say to the mountains, "Cover us!"
   and to the hills, "Fall on us!"
      (Hosea 10:8, NIV)
While the early chapters of Hosea focused on the image of YHWH as husband and Israel as wife, these later chapters tend to use the language of parent and child. In chapter 11, YHWH, filled with parental affection, softens toward wayward Israel. God will not destroy them like Admah and Zeboyim. These two cities, you may recall, were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah back in Genesis 14. The last verse of this chapter seems to belong more properly to chapter 12.

Chapter 12 uses the story of Jacob as an example for Israel. Verse 6 states the heart of this oracle's message:

But you must return to your God;
   maintain love and justice,
   and wait for your God always.
      (Hosea 12:6, NIV)

In chapter 13 YHWH returns to his angry mood. He really meant it when he said "No other gods."

You are destroyed, Israel,
because you are against me, against your helper.
      (Hosea 13:9, NIV)

At 1 Corinthians 15:55, the Apostle Paul quotes, or at least alludes to, verse 14:

I will deliver this people
from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
   Where, O death, are your plagues?
   Where, O grave, is your destruction?
      (Hosea 13:14, NIV)

The Harper Collins Study Bible points out that this verse is ambiguous in the Hebrew.

The Hebrew may entail a divine summons to effect punishment: "O Death, bring on your plagues. O Grave, bring on your destruction." Alternatively, the sense may be one of hope.

Paul's use of the verse certainly emphasizes the hopeful alternative. For comparison, here is the NRSV translation of the same verse which favors the negative reading:

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
   O Death, where are your plagues?
   O Sheol, where is your destruction?
      (Hosea 13:14, NRSV)

Frankly the note of hope reflected in the NIV translation seems out of place in this overwhelmingly negative chapter. Which is not to say that there is no hope to be found in the last chapters of Hosea. In fact the whole of the last chapter is a call for Israel to return to YHWH and carries a promise that they will be restored.

I'm reminded of Scrooge's speech to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!

Next: Joel 1-3

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hosea 1:1-7:16


The Blue Letter Bible canonical reading plan rushes us through the book of Hosea in 2 days. The prophet Hosea was active in the northern kingdom, Israel, in the mid-8th century BCE reign of King Jeroboam. He also refers to the nation as "Ephraim" (for its largest tribe) and "Samaria" (for its capital city). Hosea is critical of Israel's corruption, idolatry, and foreign alliances. There are hints in the text that Hosea may have been a Levitical priest.

The Hebrew Bible's worldview is primarily Judahite. Though Hosea was a northerner his oracles, with their criticisms of Israel's worship sites and practices, and their support of the davidic dynasty, fits well in the Hebrew canon.

In the first chapter we learn that Hosea's marriage was bad by any standard, ancient or modern. At God's command, he has married Gomer,  a "wife of whoredom" (NRSV). She was not necessarily a prostitute, however, and the NIV's less literal translation, "adulterous woman," may better reflect the meaning of that phrase. Gomer is unfaithful. In the world of the Old Testament this reflected shamefully on Hosea who failed to control his own household. The assumptions of a patriarchal culture underpin the whole of this book.

If Hosea has chosen his spouse badly, he also picks lousy names for his children although, technically, he can blame God for this, too. His first son is named Jezreel after the place where Jeroboam's grandfather Jehu slaughtered the Judahite king Ahab along with his family and friends (2 Kings 9-10). Even though Ahab was Judah's worst, evilest, most idolatrous king, YHWH is going to repay the house of Jehu for the slaughter.

Hosea's daughter is named "Unloved" (Lo Ruhamah) and his second son is called "Not mine"  (Lo-Ammi). Okay, technically Lo-Ammi means "Not my people." It's still a lousy name to hang on a kid.

Of course, Hosea's pathetic marriage and his children's crummy names are a metaphor for God's relationship to Israel. Israel has been adulterous, that is, idolatrous, worshiping other gods and making alliances with foreign kings. In chapter 2 Gomer and Israel are so conflated that it is sometimes hard to dope out just whom is being addressed. In verse 3 the idolatrous/adulterous wife is threatened with public shaming. In verses 14-23 the cuckolded husband seeks to win her back. In verse 16 the wife is told that she will no longer call her husband my "master." In Hebrew that would be my "Baal," a title by which wives did address their husbands and Israel did refer to YHWH. Baal, however, was also the name of a Canaanite storm deity.

In chapter 3 Hosea goes to bring his wife back. There is some question as to whether or not this means Gomer or a new wife. The problem is that Hosea pays for this wife. A bride price for a new bride would have been customary but who would Hosea have paid to bring Gomer back? Had she gotten herself into financial straits? Sold herself as a slave? It's not entirely clear. Still, as a metaphor for YHWH's love redeeming faithless Israel, it makes most sense for the bride to be Gomer.

Chapter 4 is a courtroom scene in which YHWH brings charges against Israel. The priests who serve at Israel's shrines in Gilgal and Bethel are particularly targeted. They have indulged in syncretism and idolatry. Their misconduct has even led to the employment shrine prostitutes (v. 14). Hosea calls Bethel, which means "house of God," Beth Aven, meaning house of iniquity, or delusion, or destruction, or something like that.

In chapter 5 Hosea addresses all of Israel but the royal house comes in for particular attention for its alliances with Assyria. Verse 14 says that Judah, too, will be judged. This seems almost to be an afterthought. I find myself wondering if it was added by a later hand.

Chapter 6 opens with a speech by some human agent (Hosea himself?) who urges Israel to repent (vv. 1-3). Next YHWH speaks words of condemnation directly to Israel. Once again Judah is mentions as an apparent afterthought (v. 11a). Verse 11b seems to properly belong with chapter 7.

The oracle in chapter 7 seems to say that everyone, great and small, is implicit in Israel's wrongdoing. Corruption is rampant. The nation is by turns loyal to Egypt and Assyria but not YHWH. The image in verse 8 of a "flat cake" not turned over seems to mean something like "Israel is half-baked."

Next: Hosea 8-14