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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
 

Jeremiah and Lamentations

This is a difficult and somewhat long reading for this week, and yet it is fitting that it lands for us as we look toward Holy Week. To read Jeremiah, and the Lamentations that have been traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, is to work through some of the most vivid and painful poetry and prose of the entire Bible. Jeremiah is writing just before and then during the Babylonian exile of 587 BC. Though the writings under his name were likely compiled later both from his own work and those of his followers, there is a personal note throughout that is quite riveting. Jeremiah opens with his call narrative, the story of his being chosen a prophet, about which he wants to make two points: he tried to turn down the job ("Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."), and he believes himself to have been chosen even before his birth. The relationship continues to be one of great personal cost to Jeremiah, as narratives of incidents of both violence and imprisonment are scattered through the book, along with poetry lamenting the pain he causes and is caused by his role as a prophet. See chapter 20 for a powerful example. See also chapter 29, his advice to the exiles to "build houses," "plant gardens," and "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile" - i.e. plan to live in Babylon for some time - as an example of the painful prophecies he must offer his people.


Lamentation is Jeremiah's primary mode, hence the tradition of assigning the book of that name to his authorship as well. Most likely it is instead a compilation of materials from a variety of sources. Both books, however, should be sampled liberally for their wrenching invocations of suffering, self-castigation, and hopelessness coupled with some of the most beautiful moments of faith and hope. These are not books to read through in one sitting; rather, dip and skim in and out, keeping an ear out for the multiple voices and perspectives. They strike me in totality as an Impressionist painting, with swaths of light and dark colors commingling to create a luminous whole.

Isaiah 60-66

A short reading this week, which is good since I'm even later than usual with this blog post. Sorry about that!


As we move into the second half of Lent, we wrap up the Book of Isaiah with the last seven chapters. "Arise, shine, for your light has come" - what a marvelous beginning to our reading, and a marvelous sentiment to hang onto with Easter on the horizon. Some of ancient Israel's most beautiful and celebratory poetry is found in these chapters.


The Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire in 538 BCE and Cyrus, the emperor, allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel that same year. Our chapters in Isaiah last week anticipated that development, with Isaiah most famously proclaiming, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." That road was both metaphorical - a call to the people to return to God's way, God's path - and literal: let's build a highway home! Now those hopes have been fulfilled, the people have gone home, and Isaiah in these last chapters sings out with joy, calling Israel to a new degree of social justice ("he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor"), declaring the wondrous role of Jerusalem as a beacon of hope and faith, and warning the people not to forsake the God who has restored them to favor.


This is a set of lovely and moving passages; note that the section from chapter 61 quoted just above is the role that Jesus claims for himself the first time he preaches in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-23). Enjoy!

Isaiah 40-59

My apologies for the delay in posting this week's blog. Enjoy your reading!

 

While Second Isaiah (see last week's blog) is usually held to be chapters 40-55, I've extended the reading (new version of the reading schedule now available here on the website) through chapter 59 this week so that it includes the warnings about conflict and disobedience in these last chapters – which allows next week's shorter reading (chapters 60-66) to center on the most joyous passages this prophet provides. Our reading this week focuses on passages of extraordinary beauty (chapters 40, 51, and 52, for example) as Isaiah promises the people of Israel exiled in Babylon that they have not been forgotten, and assures them of God's salvation, that they will go home. The mood here is set by the narrative of Second Isaiah's call in chapter 40, a vision of the prophet being instructed to cry out the constancy of God's promise in comparison to the transiency of human life, offering comfort and hope to God's people. Perhaps some of Handel's "Messiah" is echoing in your head?


Our reading also includes what are known as the four Songs of the Suffering Servant: 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12. These passages have been traditionally taken by Christians to prefigure the person of Christ who suffers for our salvation, and they have therefore provided some of our standard imagery for Jesus' mission and Passion – notice the end of the second song, for example, and the atonement imagery in the final song. We should remember, however, that Isaiah is speaking more immediately of Israel, anthropomorphized into an individual figure, suffering yet upheld by God's plan. Thus even these difficult passages are suffused with faith and hope.

Isaiah 1-39

With this week's reading we launch into the books of the prophets that will take us to the end of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The word "prophecy" derives from Greek roots meaning "to speak for" - thus a prophet is one who speaks for God. The sense of "prophecy" as foretelling the future is a component of the prophet's work, but in the Bible it is the result of the prophet's primary work, not the primary work itself. In other words, a prophet speaks God's perspective on the present situation of God's people, and then points to the consequences of that perspective - the future that will result from what God thinks of this present. Thus the prediction aspect of prophecy is not meant to be the center of the performance of the prophet - rather, how well the prophet conveys God's words, God's meaning, God's purposes.


The Book of Isaiah is the first of the great prophets. But while there is general agreement that much of the book was written by the self-identified Isaiah son of Amoz, the writings themselves cover a span of something around three centuries. Three broad divisions are usually acknowledged. First Isaiah, chapters 5-39 (with many scholars arguing for a variety of exceptions, seeing some of these chapters as belonging to the later figures), was written between ca. 750 and 700 BCE, in the context of the divided kingdom (Judah in the south and Israel in the north) and up to the fall of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom) to the Assyrians. Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, was written during the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE); and Third Isaiah, chapters 1-4 (though perhaps written by a later editor) and 56-66, was written after the return from exile (538 to mid-5th century BCE). Contemporary study Bibles provide even more divisions and historical contexts, but there is far from universal agreement on these.


Broadly, then, First Isaiah speaks of both God's promises to Israel and the threat of destruction caused by the people's turning away from God. Not to be missed, then, in this week's reading: the Song of the Vineyard in chapter 5 (a powerful metaphor for the people of Israel), Isaiah's original call narrative and vision of heaven in chapter 6, and the messianic prophecies of chapters 7, 9 and 11. The wonderful expressions of hope and faith in chapters 25 and 35 also relieve the otherwise rather doom-laden writings.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon

Proverbs is a difficult book to read, no sense pretending otherwise. It is repetitive, and its lectures and pithy proverbs alike too often sound like tired cliches. Nonetheless it is worth mining for some striking images; I particularly enjoy the scoundrel who goes around "winking the eyes, shuffling the feet"! (6:12-13) And beginning in chapter 8, we find a wonderful personification of wisdom as a feminine aspect of the divine, created by God in the beginning: "before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth." (8:25) The opening of John's gospel, with its invocation of the Word, is clearly modeled on this section.


While skimming through the rest of Proverbs, take particular note of the "antithetic parallelism" that is found in chapters 10-15 and compare this inversion of the standard form of Hebrew poetry to what we have been seeing in the psalms. The oppositional nature of the images can be quite striking. And don't miss the close of the book, 31:10-31, the hymn in praise of the perfect wife – while the feminine role is carefully circumscribed by societal (male) strictures, this image also points to a woman who develops as much independence as the constraints permit. This tension between gender roles in a patriarchal society has already informed such readings as the stories of Sarah and Hagar, and the Book of Esther.


Ecclesiastes is known as a "cynical" book for its refrain that "all is vanity," yet it is perhaps more of a resigned faith: we are all to die, nothing will change that, but "this is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot." (5:18) And I defy you to read the opening of chapter 3 without the Byrds' song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," bouncing through your head (if you're of a certain age, that is…).


As to the Song of Solomon, this collection of gorgeous and erotic love poetry has been explained away by those shocked by its imagery for two-and-a-half millennia now. This is the other book, after Esther, that never mentions God; Christians have tried to turn it into a love story between Christ and the Church; I think we should relax and enjoy the imagery and the passion. Don't try to make the dialogue between lovers make sense or fit together in a schematic way, just let the poems wash over you as a celebration of the beauty and pleasure and pain of human love.


As with all things Biblical, there is always more to it than there seems!

Psalms 76-150

We finish the Psalms this week, and I'd remind you to look back at last week's blog (below) to remind yourself about how to read these poems in context. I know, they're all beginning to blur and sound alike - skim when you need to, especially when it comes to the nearly-endless Psalm 119 (enjoy its structure in passing, however - it's like a little anthology of its own). Take a moment to focus on the ones listed as essential on the reading schedule. For example, Ps 137 is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the homesickness of exiles and a desire to never forget what matters most, suddenly followed by two particularly vicious verses crying out for revenge for the oppression suffered; this change of mood captures the ways sadness and rage commingle. Psalm 139 contains powerful imagery of the overwhelming presence of God that is sometimes too much to bear, followed by a wonderful series of images of our inability to escape God's love (some of us compare it to the children's classic, The Runaway Bunny!). And Psalm 150 finishes the collection with a lovely sense of the entire creation rising up in a song of praise to the Creator. Powerful stuff here.

Psalms 1-75

A few thoughts about working your way through the Psalms this week and next:


- Try a couple different translations: NRSV, King James, and particularly the Book of Common Prayer's translations, which are quite wonderful.

 

- Bounce around in the book; that may be easier than trying to read the psalms straight through. See which ones grab your interest.

 

- Know the classics – see the list on the reading schedule for the bare minimum.

 

- Enjoy the ways different poets use the standard Hebrew poetic form of parallelism: it sets up an expectation of repetition and deepening within each verse, but some psalms cut against that grain for other effects (Ps. 14:7, for example, uses the parallelism to contrast the hope that deliverance would come from the people with the faith that it will come from God).

 

- Explore the variety of emotions and subjects covered in these poems: lamentation, triumph, pleading, assurance, revenge, careful teaching, etc. Do any catch your heart as you read?

 

- Note that these were probably written for use in worship much as we use our hymns: to offer praise, to offer prayers, and to teach the standard images of the faith, so think of them as sung or chanted as well. Attend to the rhythms and musicality and imagine a congregation singing them, or medieval (and modern!) monks chanting them.

 

- Many of our classic lines in prayer and literature come from the psalms; keep an eye out for them and see how finding them in their original context changes your sense of how others then use them.

 

Stay the course, and enjoy!

Job

This is one of the most powerful and profound books of the Bible, and it rewards patient reading. You may find the poetic chapters of dialogue between Job and his friends (initially, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, later joined by Elihu) to be repetitive, and some skimming would be understandable, but I urge you to try to work your way through the whole thing if you can. An annotated Bible may be helpful to follow the spiraling development of the argument. You may well find yourself appalled at God's behavior, in the fable that bookends the poetry and sets up the theological issue, as God inflicts terrible suffering on someone we know to be a good man just to make a point. But again, attend to the development of the arguments and I think you will be moved by the depth of the relationship between Job and God.


The problem of suffering (the technical term in theology is "theodicy") is the entire thrust of this book: why does evil exist? why does a good man suffer? The friends see this second version of the question, worded that way, as in itself a logical inconsistency, and therefore demand that Job acknowledge his sinfulness – and then find him arrogant when he maintains his innocence and righteousness. God's answer out of the whirlwind is ultimately less an answer - to Job or us - than an assertion of the distance and absolute difference between the Creator and his creation; we cannot comprehend the workings of the creation, but can in the end only accept that its existence and purposefulness are on a plane beyond our knowing. The conclusion, in which Job's family and community are restored to him, does not negate the suffering he has endured, but God does definitively state that the efforts of the friends to blame all suffering on the sufferer are in error. Taken as a whole, then, the book can be seen as a cry of the heart by humanity about our state, responded to by a God who sees and knows our pain but cannot and will not explain it away. I find this portrait, finally, to be of a deeply sympathetic God.

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

What better way to come in and out of Super Bowl Sunday than by reading the Bible? And even better, by reading a book that features much duplicity, bad behavior by men (including binge drinking and temper tantrums), and a woman who saves her people?


OK, first give Ezra and Nehemiah a skim, noting how they combine to form an interesting picture of a people trying to rebuild themselves on their return from exile: establishing a new Temple, setting up the priesthood all over again, hearing the reading of the Law to remember who they are – it's a poignant picture of the revitalization of a community that was nearly destroyed, and these two books (organized as a single book in Jewish Bibles) cap the sweeping historical narrative we've been working through this past month. As always, focus on the essential stories on the reading schedule - but here I would also suggest a quick look at the last two chapters of Ezra (9-10) and the problematic issue of intermarriage that scapegoats "foreign women." (And don't get lost in the genealogies!)


But then turn to Esther, the strange and wonderful book to which I was referring in the opening paragraph. Set in the Persian capital, it never mentions God by name, and scholars enjoy debating whether its heroine is a portrait of a proto-feminist learning to wield power or a compliant woman using her subordinate position and "feminine wiles" to get what she wants. You choose! Seriously: Esther invokes an early attempt at a genocide of the Jewish people, yet mixes humor, faith, and quick thinking to provide us with the story that lies behind the Jewish festival of Purim.

1 & 2 Chronicles

This is a week to skim - and I mean really skim! The two Books of the Chronicles are filled with either genealogies and lists of people, or narratives that largely repeat what we've already read in the Books of Samuel and Kings with many minor variations. It's worth noting the much more positive narrative tone - especially the constant emphasis on "rest" and "peace." Note too how the Chronicler passes over the foibles of David and his family, in keeping with that positive tone - there's no hint here of David possibly being a usurper. But as I say, most of this we've seen before and it doesn't bear close reading. The story of Asa (2 Chr 14-16) provides a paradigm of the Chronicler's perspective of both good and evil in the kings of Israel and Judah; take a look at that and wave hello to the rest.