They Cry “Peace”

In the long litany of excuses given to avoid biblical accountability, my personal favorite goes something like, “the Old Testament is too violent,” or “the Bible is too negative.” Lamenting the many and various examples of scriptural cruelty, abuse, and assorted graphic unpleasantries, biblical detractors suggest that humanity should instead “focus on the positive.” In reality, and along the lines of ancient Sanskrit wisdom, biblical violence is nothing more than a looking glass for the human race. 1  Responding to our self-delusion on behalf of the victims of abuse, biblical violence in Micah taunts the reader, “God is too violent? Really? Too violent for whom?”

In chapter 3 of Micah, God’s anger turns toward the religious rulers of Jerusalem, who shy away from God’s violent message (2:6) crying instead for a “peace”  that ignores “justice” (3:1) while ensuring their own comfort. (3:5) Overlooking violence against women and children (2:9) they deride the veteran (2:8) even as their sanctimonious “peace” consecrates a self-serving “holy war” at the expense of the most vulnerable of God’s children.

In contradistinction with modern makers of war 2 the biblical God speaks loudly and carries a small stick. Begging and pleading with the leaders of Jerusalem to look in the mirror, Micah threatens them with a terrorism that is the natural consequence of their own misdeeds. In this sense, biblical violence is a hoax. God does nothing. We do it to ourselves.

In Micah–among the most violent non-violent texts ever written–God employs the language of  the oppressor to open our eyes to the plight of the victim. Most people reading this blog–people with access to computers and electricity–do not go to bed hungry. In a world where the vulnerable suffer violence, hunger, and abuse every day, platitudes about a “more positive” alternative to the Bible are an abusive sham.

Uncomfortable, yes. But to the afflicted and the brokenhearted, the Bible’s violence is good news; For those held captive or in prison, it is the herald of their liberty; (Isaiah 61:1) For the rest of us, it is a warning.

Notes:

  1. “Others are merely mirrors of you.” – Ancient Sanskrit Proverb
  2. Monroe Doctrine: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Worse than a Deadbeat Dad

Religious readers often underestimate the centrality of metaphor to the Bible’s genre. Even when we acknowledge metaphor at work, we dismiss it as secondary to an assumed event in time, or contextualize its meaning with our own experience and perspective. In both cases, we ignore a symbol’s natural setting in history and its integration with a specific narrative system. In Micah, allowing these symbols to unfold in their assigned context uncovers the horrors of Judah’s immorality; in Paul’s vernacular, sins committed “against” the “body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18)

In the Ancient Near East, it was common to personify cities as women. 1 If the city is a woman in the prophetic tradition, its gate is understood as the entrance to her womb. These metaphors carry over in the New Testament, where Paul follows Ezekiel’s lead regarding the city of Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26, Ephesians 5:26-27) or in Luke, where we encounter “a dead man” at “the gate,” a metaphor for stillbirth or bareness. (Luke 7:12) In effect, the “calamity” in Micah that has “come down from the Lord to the gate of Jerusalem” (1:12) is the rape of the city. More than a way of describing the brutality of occupation, this imagery speaks to the consequences of trusting the wrong man.

From the beginning, God chose Jerusalem as his bride (Ezekiel 16:8) even as her children rejected him as their father. (1 Samuel 8:7) “In that day,” Samuel warned, “you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you.” (1 Samuel 8:18) In Micah, a faithless king was unable to fill God’s shoes as sole provider for his wife and children. Worse than a deadbeat dad, the imposter cut a deal with his adopted family’s abuser. What kind of husband invites the rape of his own bride? “Is the Spirit of the Lord impatient? Are these His doings?” (2:7) No, God answers. “My words,” those of a true father, bless “the one who walks uprightly,” exposing the “calamity” of the one who does not listen.

As if there were ever a choice.

Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish 2

Notes:

  1. Ryken, Leland, Wilhoit, James C., Longman III, Tremper, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1998. Pg. 194.
  2. Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish. British Museum, London.

Micah & the Big “I Told You So”

The prophecy of Micah begins with a literary motif that is at once normative and exclusive to the Bible’s genre. In the realm of philosophical religions, it is common to justify suffering via theodicy, the foolish attempt to reconcile rational concepts of God with the existence of evil. When disaster strikes we have come to expect the question, “if there is a God why does he allow suffering,” and its corresponding platitude, “behind every storm cloud there is a rainbow,” and other such tripe. In truth–neither good nor evil–suffering is essential to the natural ecosystem of which humans are a part and to which they contribute. In contrast with human projections of a “rational god,” Micah imposes a biblical deity who in human terms is completely irrational. Not only does he allow suffering, he causes it. Not only does he take sides in war, he takes sides against his own people.

A contemporary of Isaiah, Micah was written “in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1) during the aftermath of Judah’s egregious capitulation to Assyria. Turning away from God, Ahaz had leapt to the affluent and welcoming arms of the king of Assyria. (2 Kings 16:5-9) Soon thereafter, Hezekiah paid the price for his father’s apostasy with the seizure of Judah. (2 Kings 18:13) As with the rebellion of Samaria (1:5)–a reference to the idolatry of Omri, the city’s builder (1 Kings 16:24-25)–Ahaz had placed his eggs in the wrong basket, endangering both Israel and Judah. (1:6-9) It is for this reason, Micah announced, that the Lord was “coming forth from his place,” “from his holy Temple,” to exact punishment. (1:2-3)

In historical terms, the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem were threatened by foreign invasion. Whatever the cause (or not) in history, the impending seizure of Judah presented Micah with a teachable moment. In the Bible, suffering acquires meaning when it is co-opted by the biblical narrative to demonstrate the power of God’s instruction, either as judgment or as witness. In Micah, the former. To help illustrate this point during the introductory presentation to both adults and children, I used the following example.

With the help of two young volunteers, I asked one student to role-play as “a hot stove,” and the other as a child playing in the kitchen. I assumed the role of a parent, warning the child not to touch the hot stove.

“In that day,” I warned her in a trumped up prophetic tone, “your wound will be incurable” (1:9) and you shall know that “your calamity has come down from the Lord.” (1:12)

In our skit, my leaving the room was the child’s cue to touch the hot stove. So she did, and I returned to announce that “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7) and that her burn was a punishment from the Lord.

“Does that mean that God burned your hand,” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “It means that God is saying, ‘I told you so.'”

Out of the mouths of babes. No theology degree required.

Jonah the Post-Modern Nihilist

The final section of Jonah opens with the prophet’s anger and displeasure at the reversal of God’s wrath. (4:1)  In a reprisal of  his teenager persona, Jonah justifies his selfish behavior from chapter 1, wagging his finger at Dad, “didn’t I tell you?” (4:2) Jonah’s childish rant teems with hypocrisy.  Even as he is rescued from Sheol (2:2) he angrily pouts that his weaker brother (Nineveh) is forgiven for lesser crimes.  Lesser, since before God sent Jonah to warn Nineveh, they had no way of knowing their offence. Again, Matthew’s application of Jonah comes to mind in the parable of the merciful king:

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Questioning Jonah with fatherly patience, the Lord asks, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4:4)  This inquiry appears twice in chapter 4 and addresses inherent contradictions in  Jonah’s rebellion.  A kind of post-modern nihilist, Jonah finds neither purpose nor meaning in God’s judgement (4:2) or in life itself. (4:3)  Still, when faced with his own suffering, nihilism gives way to Jonah’s active engagement in his own comfort.

Like an American watching cable news, Jonah setup a “shelter for himself”  grabbed a bucket of popcorn and “sat down”  in judgement (4:5) to watch 120,000 people suffer a certain and violent death. (4:11)  It is notable that the Lord’s plant–not the prophet’s self-made shelter–was able to provide for Jonah’s needs. “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do they labor who build it.” (Ps 127:1) Alas, suddenly,  the same Lord who provided the plant for shade replaced it with a “scorching east wind.” (4:8) Poor Jonah. What does it all mean? Does Jonah have a “good reason” to be angry about the plant? (4:9)

Jonah is a nihilist for his neighbors but a believer for himself.  To paraphrase The Sopranos, sorry Jonah, “either it means something or it means nothing.”  You can’t have it both ways. Jonah mourned the loss of a transient plant “for which [he] did not work and which [he] did not cause to grow” (4:10) yet cared nothing for his needy neighbor. Surely, if Jonah’s comfort means something, what of Nineveh?

“Then God said to Jonah:”

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:11)

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

New from OCABS Press, Mark, Canonizer of Paul  by Tom Dykstra. A new look at intertextuality in Mark’s gospel:

“For over 150 years the idea that Mark used the Pauline epistles has been recurring in New Testament research. Now in the work of Tom Dykstra, wide-ranging work and thoughtful, the truth of that idea emerges with a clarity it never had before. The result is to give a fresh sense of the origin and nature of Mark, of all the New Testament books, and of the quest for history.” –Thomas Brodie, Director, Dominican Biblical Institute, author of The Birthing of the New Testament

“Tom Dykstra draws connections between Paul and the Gospel of Mark that are stunning, surprising, and original, and leave readers with a sense that the evidence deserves a better interpretation than traditional Synoptic models can offer. Well argued, easy to read, immersed in the relevant current exegetical discussion, the book fascinates, provokes, and encourages to think outside the box.”– David Trobisch, author of The First Edition of the New Testament

“In addition to its main focus on Mark, this book is a lucid introduction to early church history, oral tradition, the gospels’ genre, and how to understand scripture in general.” – Paul Nadim Tarazi, Professor of Biblical Studies, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

“Qum” in Jonah and the Continuation of Life

We begin chapter three with Jonah out of detention, pursued by a Word intent on its objective from chapter 1: to make Jonah “stand up” or “get moving” (qum/קוּם) in Nineveh, bearing witness to God’s instruction. Matthew’s explicit mention of this text (Matt 12:39) draws parallels between the movement of Jesus in Matthew and that of the Word in Jonah. Taking this into consideration, the expression “stand up” in the New Testament may create connections with Jonah that shed light on the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Used throughout the Old Testament, the word “qum” does not imply resurrection. In context, “qum” simply means, Jonah, “get up” or “get moving.” In the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew used by New Testament writers) the word “qum” corresponds to “anesti” (ἀνέστη) but also its more common synonym, “egeiro” (ἐγείρω). Like “qum,” both mean to “stand up” and are typically translated in English as “raised” or “risen.” This connection is more intuitive in the Arabic form (qam/قام) as in the expression, al-masih-qam, literally, the Christ [is] “stood up,” or, [is] “made to stand.”  In context, it is implicit that Jesus is made to stand for all time . 1

In Matthew, just as the Word of God in Jonah both precedes (1:1) and outpaces (3:6) its messenger, a risen Jesus outpaces his disciples in the race to evangelize the gentiles (Matt 28). Moving in and among the people of Nineveh, the Word “raises up” children for the household of Abraham (Matt 3:9) ensuring life where death was once certain. Moreover, the Word in Jonah inverts human hierarchy, reaching the people of Nineveh before moving to the king. “The last,” Matthew explains, “become first.” (Matt 20:16) In a gesture acknowledging God as monarch, upon hearing the Word the gentile ruler “gets up” from his throne only to sit down “on the ashes,” a sign of shame and a gesture of his repentance (3:6).

As with the captain of the sailors (1:6) it is the gentile king, not Jonah, who embraces the call to repentance, shepherding his people to “turn” (shuv/שׁוב) from their wickedness and live–in other words–the Word of the Lord is fighting to ensure the continuation of life in Nineveh. It is worth noting that the king’s decree includes man, beast, herd and flock (3:7) reflecting the completeness of Nineveh’s submission to God, but also the magnanimity of God’s deliverance, which holds man together in fellowship with creation. (Ex 10:9) In the New Testament, this pattern–which began with the circumcision of Abraham’s entire household (Gen 17)–is repeated in the general metaphor of household baptisms.

On seeing the action taken by the king and the household of Nineveh, God himself decided to “turn” (3:10), sparing them the doom he had sent Jonah to proclaim. Deplorably, at the end of chapter 3, the only person in the story left unrepentant is Jonah himself. Once again, we are reminded by Matthew’s exegesis to emulate the teacher’s instructions, not his behavior. (Matt 23:2)

Notes:

  1. It is customary for Orthodox Christians to stand in church throughout the paschal season.

Swimming with the Fishes

In this week’s class we saw the metaphors of entrapment from chapter 1 realized in Jonah’s predicament in chapter 2. Sinking head first and entangled (Jonah 2:5) Jonah found himself cut off and bottomed out in the sea (קצב/qetseb, 2:6) with no chance of escape–a bit like sending a child to stand in the corner. Has Jonah changed his ways or is his prayer simply the quiet after a child’s tantrum? Even the most resistant child will stop fighting for a time once they realize the parent is willing to wait it out.

It is good that Jonah has recognized his dependence on God but it is no credit to him. Had God not sent him “to the corner” of the sea, he would still be running away from Dad as fast and as far as his money would take him. (1:3) Like a teenager with a broken car or a new parent unable to change a diaper, Jonah called on his father for help and he answered him. To whom, then, is the credit due?

To further complicate the integrity of Jonah’s prayer, we find the prophet shunning “those who cling to worthless idols,” and who “turn away from God’s love for them.” (2:8) To whom is Jonah referring? After all, it was the pagan sailors, not Jonah, who sought the Lord, and it was Jonah who turned away from God in chapter 1. (1:3)

To borrow an American idiom, Jonah was “swimming with the fishes,” and his only way out was to accept a loan from his father with all the strings attached. He may be willing to yield to Dad in his time of need, but the real test will come when he is faced with his original assignment. Should God save Jonah? Conversely, should he destroy Nineveh, that wicked city?

More next week.

Role Reversal and Hypocrisy in Jonah: First Lesson with Adults at Ephesus School

In our first session with the adult group, we compared the functional role of Jonah as “ignoble preacher defiant of God” with that of the pagan sailors, whose behavior–in contrast with the prophet–served the intent of God’s instruction.  It was the captain of the boat, not Jonah, who feared the God of the Hebrews and looked to him for assistance. (Jonah 1:6) This type of role reversal is typical in Scripture and is given to shatter our self-righteous assumptions about each other.

Lest we idolize the sailors, the writers quickly turn the tides against the reader.  As the Gospel of Matthew explains, “no one is good” but God. (Matt 19:17)  Just as Jonah tried to pay his own way–supporting himself instead of accepting God’s provision–the sailors too found themselves rowing against the will of God. (Jonah 1:3, 1:13)  From the moment the Word of the Lord appears in verse one, all sides in Jonah are consigned to a “no win” scenario, best intentions aside.

Finally, from a position of hypocrisy and at his own risk,  Jonah preaches the Word of the Lord to the captain and his shipmates, offering a way forward for everyone. Matthew, who calls our attention to Jonah’s “sign” (the Word of the Lord) reminds us that since all men fall short, we are to emulate the teacher’s instructions, not his behavior. (Matt 12:39, 23:2)  In the end, it is Jonah’s proclamation of the “fear of the Lord” that will lead to salvation for all parties. (Jonah 1:9)

Teach Children

“Teach children to love true wisdom and they will possess wealth and glory such that money cannot provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, it is nothing compared to the art of detachment from money. If you want to make your child wealthy, teach him that the one who is truly rich does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth.”

John Chrysostom

An Entreaty

“I also always entreat you, and do not cease entreating you, not only to pay attention here to what I say, but also when you are at home, to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures. When I have been with each of you in private, I have not stopped giving you the same advice. Do not let anyone say to me those vain words, worthy of heavy condemnation, ‘I cannot leave the courthouse, I administer the business of the city, I practice a craft, I have a wife, I am raising children, I am in charge of a household, I am a man of the world; reading the Scriptures is not for me, but for those who have been set apart, who have settled on the mountaintops, who keep this way of life continuously.’

What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those do who are involved in many occupations…reading the Scriptures is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation.”

John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty