A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

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Sloppy Editing or Rhetorical Subtlety?

I’m fascinated by the way the book of Isaiah begins.

 I was reading the book of Isaiah recently when I was struck by how oddly it begins. The books of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all begin with an account of the prophet’s call to be a prophet. That account may be short, as in the case of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) or long, as in the case of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27).

This call establishes the prophet’s credentials in proclaiming a word of God to the people. Only once that authority has been established do we get the content of the messages each prophet is commissioned to deliver.

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The prophet Isaiah, as envisioned by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, 16th century.

The call of Isaiah, however, does not come in his book until Chapter 6. What precedes it are five chapters of the actual messages that Isaiah delivers. That’s what I find odd. We don’t learn about Isaiah’s authority to speak for God until we have been exposed to a powerful summary of his prophetic burden.

Lifted High, Dropped Low

That summary is a real emotional roller coaster ride. Chapter 1 begins with a denunciation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The prophet denounces the people’s religious infidelity. This infidelity is shown in the people’s extravagant piety in worship while they accommodate to injustice in the kingdom’s social and economic life.

So fierce is the prophet’s denunciation that he calls Jerusalem Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities are the Old Testament’s great symbols of urban corruption. They suffer a fire and brimstone fate (Genesis 19). One can hardly imagine a greater insult to Judeans, who considered themselves pious, faithful, and respectable.

Chapter 2 opens, however, with a glorious vision of the temple mount in Jerusalem drawing pilgrims from all over the world. People come to the mount because there they expect to receive instruction from God and the word of the Lord. It will be a transforming word, for they shall end up beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Then the prophet returns to his denunciations. The land is filled with riches and the machinery of war, but it will be humbled when the Lord comes in judgment. Chapter 3 continues this recital of destruction, describing a society collapsing in chaos. It contains a particularly vivid description of the elite women strutting around town in their jewelry and finery (Isaiah 3:18-23),* before they will be reduced to baldness and sackcloth.

Then abruptly in chapter 4 the prophet returns to a hopeful vision of the glory that will return to Jerusalem after its spiritual cleansing. The Lord will dwell in the city and protect it as the Lord did the Israelites journeying through the wilderness during the Exodus. Whoever lives in the city will be called holy.

Then as we launch into chapter 5 we plunge again into a fierce denunciation of Judah as a people who were created to be the vineyard of the Lord, but a vineyard that has produced a harvest of sour, wild grapes. As a result, Sheol, the land of the dead, will open its mouth and swallow the people into its land of no return. This chapter ends with a vision of darkness enveloping the land:

They [foreign invaders] will roar over it on that day,

            like the roaring of the sea.

And if one look to the land–

            only darkness and distress;

and the light grows dark with clouds. (Isaiah 5:30)

Only after this rhetorical cycle of highs and lows do we come to the story of the prophet’s call. When I reach chapter 6, I am crying out for a respite. In a sense that is what chapter 6 provides for at least its first eight verses, before the text launches into another searing description of the judgment to come.

Why This Beginning?

When I read all this, I find myself asking what rhetorical purpose did the editor who compiled the book of Isaiah have in mind when he chose to arrange his material in this way. Was it to grab his audience’s attention immediately, and when they begin to protest to the emotional barrage, to spring the authority behind it with the call of the prophet?

I am not sure I see clearly the rhetorical purpose. But I have learned that the biblical writers and editors are generally very astute communicators. Things in the biblical text are seldom left to chance. The writers and editors bring an acute intelligence to their work.

And so when I come upon things that I don’t understand, I don’t immediately assume that this is a case of sloppy writing and careless editing. There may be a rhetorical subtlety at work that I don’t yet perceive. Is such the case with the opening of Isaiah?

Any thoughts among you, my readers?

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* This passage is a particularly detailed description of all the paraphernalia that the women of ancient Jerusalem would have considered high fashion.

Was Jesus Born Again?

Does Jesus experience himself that spiritual awakening that he describes in John 3?

In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Jesus talks about the necessity of a new spiritual birth if we are to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Is Jesus speaking from personal experience? A close reading of the opening chapters of the Gospel of John might suggest he is.

When Jesus describes this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he says:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’(John 3:5-7)

Jesus mysteriously talks about this spiritual birth coming from water and Spirit. There has been much debate about what Jesus is talking about? Some read water as referring to our natural birth as creatures of flesh. Other read water as referring to baptism. Which is it?

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The Baptism of Jesus, by Piero della Fancesca, 15th century.

I find myself wondering if we should not read these words of Jesus in the context of John, chapter 1. Chapter 1 contains John’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ Baptism

What all the accounts of Jesus’ baptism bear witness to* is that it was at the moment when John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove. Notice in these accounts the close link between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit. One seems to trigger the other.

In my last posting (Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?), I interpret the spiritual birth that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus as a kind of spiritual awakening or transformation of consciousness that allows a person to perceive and live within the kingship of God. If this is the proper understanding of the new birth Jesus is describing to Nicodemus, then I would ask: Is this not exactly what Jesus experienced in his own baptism?

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism emphasize that this was the moment when Jesus received the gift of the Holy Spirit. His baptism also marked the moment when Jesus launched his public ministry. It was a ministry characterized by powerful acts in the Spirit.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also note that Jesus’ message was one that proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near. It was on the doorstep. This implies that Jesus had a discerning insight into the movements of God in history. He perceived something that others did not.

The gospel accounts therefore suggest that his baptism marked a momentous transition in Jesus’ life. Luke’s account of the 12-year-old boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) suggests that Jesus had an acute spiritual sensitivity even in his childhood. He already acknowledged God as his father. But he, like any human being, awaited a moment of spiritual transformation in order to see the nearness of the kingship of God and to work powerfully in harmony with that kingship.

If the born-again experience is a transformation in consciousness (as I contend in my previous posting), then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism suggest that that was exactly what happened to him. They talk of his seeing the heavens opened, of seeing the Spirit visibly descend upon him, and hearing the direct voice of God. In that respect what Jesus experienced calls to mind what the apostle Paul experienced in his Damascus road experience (see Acts 9:1-9).**

Born Again: A Necessary Transformation Because of Our Humanity

If this is a correct understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then it suggests that the born-again experience is not so much a remedy for sin, but a necessary transition for human beings as creatures of nature to rise to a higher level of existence where they as creatures of nature are also creatures infused with the divine life and power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

This has always been an idea embedded in much Eastern Orthodox theology in its doctrine of divinization. Salvation in this doctrine has always been about more than redemption from sin. It has been about human beings being raised to share in the divine life. All this is summarized in the Orthodox proclamation that God became human (in the incarnation of Jesus) so that human beings can become divine.

It is standard Christian proclamation that Jesus was sinless. So Jesus would not need to be born again as a remedy for sin. But if Jesus was truly human (as orthodox belief has always asserted), then he too would need to experience that birth from above–that spiritual awakening–that raises humans from a purely natural and material existence to that unity with the divine that has always been God’s salvific purpose.

I recognize that what I am proposing is a bold reinterpretation of Jesus’ baptism. I am fully prepared to admit that I might be very wrong. But I also contend there is much more depth to John 1 and John 3 than we have customarily seen.

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* For the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, see Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.

** It is also important to note in the account of Paul’s experience the close link between baptism and his spiritual transformation. This is one further reason why I think we must interpret the word water in the phrase of water and Spirit in John 3:5 as referring to baptism, not to natural birth. In Christian sacramental theology baptism does confer a new spiritual birth. Baptism marks the initiation into life lived under the kingship of God, but it does not confer spiritual maturity. One must grow into that maturity through a life lived as a spiritual journey into greater and greater spiritual wholeness.

Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

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A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

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* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

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America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

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Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.

 

The Third Authority

Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.

Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.

Pemberton

Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.

Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).

The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*

Three Sources of Authority

Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.

The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.

The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.

The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.

The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.

Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.

The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.

Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]

What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.

Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture

As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:

“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]

What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.

This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:

Disaster comes upon disaster,

                        rumor follows rumor;

they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;

instruction shall perish from the priest,

                        and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]

Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.

Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**

Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]

A Christian Application?

Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.

As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.

Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.

This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]

I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.

_________

* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.

** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:

  • The Torah: The five books of Moses
  • The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
  • The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.