Chasing Emptiness

The prophet Hosea offers two evocative images for the pursuit of vanity.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.
An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

One of my joys in reading the Bible happens when a poetic image in the text suddenly arrests my attention. I stop to consider it. Then my imagination kicks in. I begin to make associations that carry me in unexpected directions.

That happened a couple of days ago when I was reading the prophet Hosea. I was just beginning to read Chapter 12 in the New English Bible translation. It begins:

Ephraim is a shepherd whose flock is but wind,
a hunter chasing the east wind all day;
he makes a treaty with Assyria
and carries tribute oil to Egypt.*

One of the great themes of Hosea is his denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) for seeking its security by manipulating power politics in the Middle East. On the one hand Israel seeks a treaty with the Assyrian empire. On the other it delivers tribute to Assyria’s rival, the Egyptian empire. The hope is that maybe Israel can remain safe by playing one power off against the other.

Hosea, however, sees the whole diplomatic exercise as a game of illusions. Earlier in chapter 8, he says that Israel is sowing to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Its diplomatic games will bring no peace. Instead they will bring disaster. His words proved true when Assyria sweeps down in 722 B.C. and obliterates Israel from the political map.

Shepherds of Emptiness

Hosea returns to this theme in Chapter 12 when he picks up this same image of sowing to the wind. But this time, it comes across in two arresting images (at least in the NEB translation). First he compares Israel’s pursuit to a shepherd who herds a flock of the wind. Its flock consists of nothing but invisible air. I immediately make the association with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Israelite king and his court may think themselves astute politicians. Hosea, however, suggests they are nothing but shepherds of illusions and herdsmen of emptiness.

Then the prophet goes on to compare Israel’s diplomacy to a hunter who chases the east wind all day. It was this image that so captured me.

Hunting has traditionally been a favored sport of the aristocracy in many cultures. (See the stone relief above from the ancient Assyrian empire.) It offers the thrill of the chase, whether that be after the lion, the deer, the boar, or the fox. (The favored prey varies from culture to culture.) As the prey races through the forests, over the hill ridges and down into the valleys and then across the plains, the horsemen follow, hoping to wear the animal out and corner it into its death.

That’s the association that Hosea’s image brings to my mind. Except that the prey that Israel pursues is the east wind. It is impossible to ever capture and imprison the wind. As one chases it, it forever eludes capture. In the end it is the hunter who is worn out, not the wind.

Now I find that a powerful image for the pursuit of vanity, however, we define vanity. When we pursue vanity, we are constantly pursuing something that slips out of our grasp in terms of giving us true, deep satisfaction. Just when we think we have achieved our dream, we find it has dissolved into thin air.

In many ways this image of the hunter chasing the east wind strikes home for me as a description of my own personal spiritual journey. For many years, I pursued God, like the hunter chasing the swift gazelle. But God always seemed to slip out of my grasp. All the reward I got for my obsession was exhaustion and frustration.

It is the tried and true experience of deeply spiritual people (as described by some of the great spiritual writers) that we can never cage God and force him to bless us with a vivid sense of his presence. As one of my favorite writers on prayer, Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, puts it, God is like a wild tiger.** We cannot domesticate God. He is beyond our control.

The Great Value of Being over Doing

What I had to learn was that if I want—and I believe if anyone wants—to experience a vivid presence of God, then we must stop chasing God obsessively. If we try to grasp the wind, the wind will simply slip through our fingers.

But if we stop the chase and try to sit calmly and expectantly, we may find that God slips into our life and consciousness quietly and unobtrusively. The tiger dwells with us intimately in his own gentle way. He has become the loving house cat. The elusive wind makes its presence known to us by its gentle caress upon our face. We sense God’s presence not in dramatic miracles, but in elusive intuition. But that we know God by intuition does not make that knowledge any less real.

This is why the practice of contemplative prayer has come to play such an important place in my spiritual journey. In contemplative prayer we do not try to do anything with God. We give up speaking and arguing and debating with God. We even give up trying to be pious. Instead we choose to sit with God in silence. We simply be with God.

Being rather than doing becomes the royal gateway into the presence that we have spent so much time and energy chasing. And then comes another surprise. As we settle into just being, the Lord begins to fill us with his Spirit, pouring energy into us that issues eventually into action, but now action that moves in harmony with God’s will. We can begin as spiritual hunters to chase the values that eternally count.

* The translation I was reading was an earlier version of the New English Bible. Verse 12:1 reads a bit differently in more recent editions. The book of Hosea has had a difficult history of textual transmission through the centuries, and so the Hebrew text is not always crystal clear. This accounts for a great diversity of readings in modern translations.

** This way of describing God comes from Anthony Bloom’s little masterpiece, Beginning to Pray. The book is now out of print, but I rank it high among the many books I have read on prayer. If you find a used copy, I suggest you buy it immediately.

Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider

One of my favorite books on prayer is Beginning to Pray by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. Bloom makes a statement that has always shocked me. He says: “To meet God means to enter into the ‘cave of a tiger’—it is not a pussy cat you meet – it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not seek information about it.” (Paulist Press paperback edition, 1970, page xv)

Bloom is speaking about the need for the Gospel to reach beyond the intellect into a person’s whole being. But what I have always taken from this statement is the insight that God is not someone we can contain into our intellectual or theological cages. God remains free. Whenever we try to domesticate him, he is likely to break out of our cages and surprise us, if not shock us, with his saving actions.

A prime example is the story that the evangelist Luke tells in his Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 8:26-40, he recounts how God led an early Christian evangelist named Philip to walk onto a desert road in southern Palestine. There he encounters an Ethiopian who had been to Jerusalem to worship.

On his return trip, the Ethiopian is seated in his chariot reading a scroll of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. What he is reading mystifies him. When Philip offers to explain the text, the Ethiopian invites him to join him in his chariot.

Philip gives Isaiah a Christian interpretation. The text is about Jesus, Philip says, and uses this opportunity to tell the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. The courtier is moved to believe. As they pass some water, he asks Philip to baptize him.  Philip does. The Ethiopian becomes the first black African to become a Christian.

Why It Was Daring to Baptize This Ethiopian

But there is much more going on in this story than a surface reading indicates. The black African was a well-educated man. He was reading. He is also probably what was known in the first century as a God-fearer. This was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, its monotheism and high ethics, but did not officially convert. Many early Christian converts came from this category.

What holds this Ethiopian back from converting to Judaism? It was not his African ancestry. It was that he was considered a sexual outsider. He was a eunuch. And by the dictates of the Torah, eunuchs were barred from membership in the people of God, or at least barred from full participation in the Temple worship.

This rule was based upon Deuteronomy 23:1, which prescribed: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

The eunuch was sexually mutilated and therefore an outsider denied access to the gathering of God’s people in the temple. This was the letter of the Torah. And because devout people would regard the Torah as divine law, presumably it could not be changed.

But try to tell that to God. The Deuteronomy passage was not the final word of God on the subject of eunuchs that we find in the Bible. Through the mouth of a later prophet, recorded in Isaiah 56, God speaks a word of hope to eunuchs. The day is coming when eunuchs will be included within the gatherings of God’s people.

Says the Lord in Isaiah 56:4-5:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

                        who choose the things that please me

                        and hold fast my covenant,

            I will give, in my house and within my walls,

                        a monument and a name

                        better than sons and daughters;

            I will give them an everlasting name

                        that shall not be cut off.

In this word of promise, God breaks out of the letter of Deuteronomy. He is not to be contained by it.

This gives deeper meaning to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip answers the question by baptizing the Ethiopian. The sexual outsider becomes a spiritual insider.

All this, Luke says, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The story begins with a command coming to Philip through an angel. And twice later in the story, Luke mentions the Spirit’s direct action in the movement of the story.

Welcoming the Ethiopian eunuch into the circle of God’s people is a saving action of God. For as God says in Isaiah 56:8, his saving work is gathering outcasts into the circle of his people. “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:8)

Respecting the Wild Tiger

Now what fascinates me in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as well as in the Isaiah passage is how God does not confine his actions within the letter of Deuteronomy. God freely moves outside the boundaries of the cage. He remains, in Bloom’s vivid image, the wild tiger.

This is not the only example in Scripture. The supreme example is the Holy Spirit’s leading the infant church to incorporate Gentiles as equal members into the church.

This struck the earliest Jewish Christians as a shocking innovation. The Old Testament had envisioned that Gentiles in the last days would come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of God (see Isaiah 2:2-3). But the implication was that Gentiles would be subordinate members of the people of God, not equal members with the Jews.

The Spirit’s action caught the infant church totally by surprise. That is clear throughout the New Testament. Luke captures that sense of surprise in his recounting of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10).

The letters of the apostle Paul bear witness to how the movement of the Spirit roiled life in the church for decades to come. (And to some degree, the reverberations continue into our day through the long and ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. As if they have not learned the deeper meaning of the Spirit’s action on their own behalf, Gentile Christians have practiced reverse discrimination in their relationship with Jews.)

What these actions by God say to me is that God cannot be domesticated, not even by the written words of the Bible. I say that not out of any disrespect for the Bible, but because of the witness of the Bible itself.

Every time we think we have caged God into our expectations of how God should act, we have set ourselves up to be surprised. That was true for the generations living in Biblical days. I believe it remains true for our generation as well.

Additional Note:

I know that my discussion of Deuteronomy 23 and Isaiah 56 ignores a source critical approach to reading these texts. In that approach, we would explain the differences in attitude in the two texts to their having different authors/editors writing in different eras of Israelite history. They would then represent different theologies.

The canonical form of both texts, however, presents them as words of God. And that is how a good many Christians will read them. If we read them that way, then God seems to have changed his mind between Mosaic times and the post-exilic times when the author of Isaiah was writing. My discussion is particularly directed to those who will be reading the Bible in that way.