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BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, continued
EZRA AND NEHEMIAH
Ezra and Nehemiah, the third and fourth books of the Chronicler's four-volume history of Israel, were probably written during the fourth century B.C. In view of the fact that portions of both books are written in the first person, it is possible that the Chronicler made use of personal memoirs written by (or at least in the time of) Ezra and Nehemiah, but no such documents have survived outside of the Bible. Little in either book is of special literary interest. But the two books are very important sources of information about Israel after the return from exile and about the continuing evolution of the Hebrew faith.
The starting point for the Book of Ezra is the remarkable decree by King Cyrus of Persia allowing the Jews of Babylon to return to Jerusalem. But first, here's a little historical background. Having crushed the empire of Assyria and the Kingdom of Judah, the Babylonians were themselves overrun by Persia in 539 B.C. It was the common practice of Near Eastern conquerors not only to loot the lands they defeated but also to take the local gods from their local shrines and bring them to the imperial capital, as a clear sign that the gods of the conquerors were more powerful than those of the conquered. The Persians had a different idea. Within a year after the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus of Persia issued a decree allowing the gods taken captive by the Babylonians to be restored to their shrines, and permitting all peoples- including the Jews- to follow their own religious practices.
NOTE: The place of Cyrus in Hebrew tradition offers an important insight into the Jewish concept of the Messiah. Isaiah 45:1 declares, "Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus...." The word for anointed is maschiach, or messiah. This is the only time in either the Old or the New Testament that the title Messiah or anointed is given to someone not of Jewish birth. (Did you remember that Jesus was Jewish?)
Ezra was a priest and scribe who, during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, headed a band of exiles returning from Babylon. Equipped with broad authority to teach and administer Jewish law to the Jewish community of Jerusalem and its environs, Ezra arrives to find the people's faith diluted by ignorance and intermarriage. He issues an absolute ban on mixed marriages and requires that those who wish to remain within the community must immediately divorce their non-Jewish wives (10:11-17).
The action by Ezra that had the most lasting value is described in chapters 8-10 of the Book of Nehemiah. Ezra gathers the Israelites together and reads to them the Hebrew scriptures, with a running commentary in Aramaic, which by now has become the language of the people. In a renewal of the covenant, the people bind themselves to follow God's laws, and the Torah effectively becomes the written constitution of the Jerusalem community.
In 445 B.C., Nehemiah, a Jew who holds a high position at the Persian court, hears news from his brother that the Jewish community in Judah is in desperate trouble. Appointed by the Persian king as governor of Judah, he supervises the repair of Jerusalem's fortifications, bans usury (the taking of interest on a debt), and orders that the poor be given back the land and goods that have been unjustly taken from them. Moreover, he is careful to set the best possible example of honesty and frugality in public office (5:14-19). Upon returning to Jerusalem after an absence of a year or two (chapter 13), he campaigns for renewed support of the Levites and the Temple, strict observance of the Sabbath, and (like Ezra) an end to intermarriage.
It was with some reluctance that the rabbis admitted the Book of Esther into the Hebrew canon. The form of the story is that of an Oriental romance, the setting is Persian rather than Palestinian, and there is not a single reference to God. Counting heavily in the book's favor was the association of the story with the Jewish festival of Purim, on which the Scroll (Megillah) of Esther was read annually. We are fortunate that some justification was found for its inclusion, for the Book of Esther is a literary gem, a well-told tale of a bigot caught in his own trap.
NOTE: The word Purim means "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman to choose on which date to destroy the Jews (Esther 3:7). The Scroll of Esther is still read in synagogue each year. Each time the name of Haman is mentioned, members of the congregation razz him with noisemakers, for reasons the story makes clear.
Like the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the tale of Esther takes place at a time when Israel is under Persian rule. The names of certain characters in the story resemble those of the leaders of Persia in the fifth century B.C. Ahasuerus is the Hebrew form of Xerxes, a Persian king who reigned from 486 to 465 B.C.; one of his royal officers was named Marduka, a possible model for Mordecai. However, many plot details square neither with known Persian history nor with Greek accounts of the same period. For these and other reasons, many critics, regarding the story as a distillation of one or more folk traditions, place the date of writing in the third or second century B.C.
As you read the Book of Esther, notice how different it is in style from any of the books of the Pentateuch, the Kingdoms narrative, or the Chronicler's work. God is not appealed to, except indirectly through fasting (chapter 4), nor does He intervene; instead, the story stresses collective action against oppression. Esther has been assimilated into Persian culture and is indistinguishable, except for her great beauty, from the Persian women around her. The narrative is tightly knit, the dialogue is realistic, the portrait of the prideful Haman is psychologically accurate, and the plot reversals are keenly ironic.
King Ahasuerus, furious at Queen Vashti's refusal to display herself before the guests at a banquet he is giving, holds a beauty contest to find a new queen. The winner is Esther, who accepts the honor without telling the king that she is Jewish. Somewhat later, the king elevates one of his courtiers, Haman, to be chief among his princes, and all the other members of the court are ordered to bow down to him. When Esther's cousin Mordecai, who is known to be Jewish, refuses to do this, Haman determines to exterminate not just Mordecai but all the Jews of the kingdom. What Haman does not know is that Queen Esther is also a Jew and that Mordecai has already been recorded in the royal archives as having foiled a plot against the king's life.
NOTE: Why does Mordecai not bow down to Haman? The answer is not given in the text itself. Some commentators explain his action by arguing that, as a Jew, Mordecai could bow down before God but not before any mortal. Others, contending that Jews were indeed allowed to show high civic officials proper reverence, refer to Haman's Agagite origins (3:1). They point out that the Agagites, or Amalekites, were traditional enemies of the Israelites, and they claim that Mordecai, in snubbing Haman, was expressing an ancient tribal hatred.
After convincing the king that the Jews are a threat to his kingdom and reinforcing his arguments with a sizable bribe, Haman wins permission to do as he pleases. But Mordecai hears of the plot and persuades the reluctant Esther (who knows that to come unbidden to the king is a crime punishable by death) to help him. The story unfolds with considerable suspense as, in chapters 5-7, Haman's plot unravels. After a banquet given by Esther, the sleepless Ahasuerus learns from the royal book of records how Mordecai saved him. The next day the king asks Haman (without naming Mordecai) how such a hero should be rewarded. When the puffed-up Haman (thinking the king means him) suggests a grand parade, the king orders that Mordecai be so honored. That night, at a second banquet, Esther reveals her true origins and courageously accuses Haman of plotting against her people. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, who takes his place as the king's chief adviser. By Persian custom, Haman's original decree ordering death to all the Jews of the kingdom cannot be revoked, but the king grants the Jews free rein to defend themselves against attack. The story ends on a nationalistic note, with the Jews rejoicing at the bloody slaughter of their would-be oppressors.
Sabean cutthroats kill Job's herdsmen and cattle. A fire from heaven burns up his shepherds and sheep. Chaldean raiders slaughter his servants and camels. A great wind blows down his eldest son's house, crushing all his children. He is covered with ugly, oozing, painful sores. His wife mocks him. And what has Job done to deserve all this?
Nothing, he insists. Nothing at all.
But I didn't do anything. Maybe you've said that when a parent told you to stop teasing your younger sister, or when a teacher singled you out for detention, or when a highway patrolman signaled you to pull off the road. Perhaps you noticed the look of skepticism that greeted your repeated denials.
But I didn't do anything. When you see a picture of someone dragged into court and charged with a serious crime, a well-meaning voice inside you may say: He's innocent until proven guilty. But another voice inside you may also say: He must be guilty of something or he wouldn't be in such serious trouble.
How do we know who is innocent and who is guilty? What- or who- is the source of undeserved suffering? Is there a logic to life that people can understand? Or must we be content to stand in awe of a heavenly Father who can exalt us or crush us at His own choosing? These are the questions the Book of Job asks. Whether its answers inspire reverence or despair is a question only you can decide.
The Book of Job resembles nothing else that has come down to us from the ancients, although its message bears similarities to Ecclesiastes. Suggested dates for its composition range from the sixth to the third centuries B.C., but there is an archaic feeling to the story that suggests, in the opinion of some critics, a more ancient origin. Other critics, looking at the same evidence, have answered that the Book of Job is the work of a self-conscious and highly skilled writer deliberately seeking to evoke the past.
THE ETHICAL DILEMMA
The prologue (chapters 1-2) sets out with brilliant economy the ethical problem of the work. Job, we are told, is "perfect and upright" (1:1). Recognizing Job's virtues, God mentions him to Satan, who- in his heavenly capacity as a tester of virtue- claims that Job is pious only because he has much to be thankful for. If his comforts are taken away, says Satan, then Job "will curse Thee to Thy face" (1:11). God's permission to Satan to test Job's goodness marks the beginning of Job's sufferings. Later, when the loss of his wealth and children does not cause Job to lose his faith, Satan gains God's permission to afflict his body. This torment Job also bears without cursing God, but he refuses passively to accept his fate without questioning the cause of his afflictions.
NOTE: What does this prologue really accomplish? After you read the prologue, you know something Job and his friends do not know: you know why Job suffers. He suffers because God consents to join Satan in a cosmic bet. What you do not know- what the author never explains- is why God joins Satan in making this bargain.
Ignorant of the drama that has gone on in heaven, the wretched Job and his friends set about the task of puzzling out the Lord's intentions. Chapters 3-37 present an extended philosophical dialogue in which Job's friends suggest various approaches to the problem, and Job finds all of them wanting. When Bildad contends that because God is just, what has happened to Job must be just (chapter 8), Job challenges God not merely to condemn him but to show him the reasons for His anger (10:1-2). When Zophar tells Job that God's ways are beyond human comprehension (chapter 11), Job, like a prisoner held on unspecified charges, insists that God at least make out the case against him (13:22-23). In effect, Job wants the chance to prove his innocence to God, in which case God must be guilty of unjustly punishing Job. To Bildad's accusation that the wicked person is "cast into a net by his own feet" (18:8), Job demands that his friends recognize that "God hath overthrown me, and hath compassed me with His net" (19:6). The voices of the friends grow increasingly shrill, and Eliphaz, convinced that Job simply cannot be innocent, begins to list the sins of which Job might be guilty (22:5-7). In reply, Job not only denies all his friends' accusations but also imagines other sins that might have been committed and denies those, too. Round and round the fruitless dialogue rolls, until the voice that silences all voices, the voice of God, speaks from a whirlwind (38:2-7):
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
For three chapters the Lord's speech continues, in some of the Bible's most glorious poetry. Briefly, what God tells Job is this: When you can create a world and dominate a universe, then- and only then- will you have the right to summon Me to account for My actions. A repentant Job embraces this answer and, in the epilogue (42:7-17), sees his friends chastised for their thoughtless and tactless criticism. In compensation for his suffering, he receives double his former wealth and lives out the remainder of his 140 years in peace and happiness.
Job appears to be profoundly moved by God's answer, but are you? Do you feel, as some critics have argued, that God never really addresses Job's challenge? Or do you believe that the Lord's grace in making His divine presence known to Job is the greatest answer and reward He could offer? Are you comforted by the awesome revelation of divine power? Or are you troubled by man's inability to comprehend the purposes for which that power is used? Are you delighted to find that Job does indeed reap his material and spiritual rewards? Or are you disturbed to discover that we cannot know- at least until the voice in the whirlwind speaks to us- who are the innocent and who are the guilty? In short, is Job a work of doubt or a work of faith? The problems are so difficult, the answers so elusive, that a first reading of the Book of Job is only the bare beginning of your journey.
The Book of Psalms is an anthology of 150 poems grouped into five volumes (1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90- 106; 107-150). The unmistakable reference in Psalm 137 to the Babylonian Exile ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down") means that the book cannot have reached its final form until the sixth century B.C. at the earliest. Prevailing opinion during the nineteenth century was that the whole Book of Psalms was a product of the Maccabean period. More recent scholarship has tended to push back the date of composition. Many individual Psalms could have been written as early as the period of the Judges, and there is no reason why David himself cannot have written many of the 73 Psalms that are labeled "A Psalm of David." If you are hazy about some of these dates and periods, go back and look at the time line in the section "The Old Testament and its Times."
The word Psalm comes from the Greek psalmos, meaning "a song sung to the harp." The Hebrew title is Tehillim, or "songs of praise," a phrase that describes many but by no means all of the poems. The entire collection has been called "The Hymnbook of the Second Temple," reflecting the use of the poems for public worship as well as private study.
NOTE: The style and language of the Psalms in English cannot be analyzed apart from the characteristics of a particular translation. To see just how different translations project different moods and meanings, see the comparison based on the Twenty-third Psalm in "Translations and Editions."
To help you in understanding individual Psalms and in comparing two Psalms or more, the following list shows some of the themes that come up repeatedly throughout the volume. But first a warning: No classification of themes can replace the experience of reading a poem. A single Psalm can move from lamentation to petition to thanksgiving when the prayer is answered. Each of the 150 Psalms repays the closest study- which, to get the full flavor of the poetry, should include reading aloud. If you spend your time memorizing a list rather than reading poems, you are only cheating yourself.
Although the opening verse of Proverbs (Mishle in Hebrew) appears to credit King Solomon with authorship of the book, commentators have long recognized that Proverbs is a composite work whose contents were in flux until the dawn of the Christian era. In ancient times, Proverbs probably served as a kind of school textbook, providing materials for study, memorization, and writing practice. Similar collections of wise sayings have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and some of Proverbs appears to have been based on an Egyptian model. Through the King James Version, numerous maxims from the Book of Proverbs have entered the common heritage of the English language:
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind (11:29).
THEMES AND STRUCTURE
The first of Proverbs' four main sections, all of which are addressed to a male audience, consists of an extended lecture about the ideal man (1:1-9:18). As you read, try to form a mental picture of this ideal man, what he avoids and what he seeks out. Try also to develop a sense of the personality of the speaker. Is he more likely to be old or young? Rich or poor?
The second section (10:1-22:16), generally thought to be the oldest, consists of a diverse group of sayings, most of which show some kind of parallel structure. Sometimes the parallelism is synonymous, with the second line restating and reinforcing the first (19:5):
A false witness shall not be unpunished,
Also common is synthetic parallelism, in which the first line states a theme and the second presents an analogy or elaboration (11:16):
A gracious woman retaineth honour:
Often the parallelism is antithetical- that is, the second line reinforces the point of the first by stating a contrary example (12:4):
A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband:
The third section (22:17-24:34) is the one most clearly based on an Egyptian model, a collection of sayings attributed to Amenemope, who lived in the eleventh century B.C. Compare, for example, these two comments on money, the first from Amenemope, the second from Proverbs 23:5:
(1) If riches come to you by theft,
The fourth section (25:1-31:31) consists for the most part of additional proverbs of Solomon as recorded in the time of King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah around 700 B.C. This section concludes with a well-known poem of praise for the ideal wife (31:10-31), beginning "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." The original form of the poem is an acrostic, each of whose twenty-two lines begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
NOTE: The "virtuous woman" poem has been used by social historians to paint a word picture of a well-to-do household in ancient Israel. How does this description of a woman's status and responsibilities accord with the portraits of women given elsewhere in the Old Testament- for example, in Genesis and in the historical books?
Perhaps you have heard the modern French expression "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose," "the more things change, the more they remain the same." This idea, which seems at odds with much else in the Hebrew Bible, is a basic theme of Ecclesiastes (1:9):
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Ecclesiastes announces itself as the wisdom of the "son of David, king in Jerusalem"- in other words, Solomon- but this traditional attribution is not taken seriously by recent scholars. The late Hebrew (heavily influenced by Aramaic), the Greek-like spirit of individualism and fatalism, the absence of reliance either on the Temple or on religious commandments- all these argue for a date of composition some 700 years after the time of Solomon.
NOTE: The King James Version holds some snares for careless readers. In Ecclesiastes the term vanity, so obsessively repeated, does not mean excessive pride or self-absorption but rather "worthlessness" or "pointlessness"; the saying "all is vanity" means "nothing has any meaning." The name Ecclesiastes itself is rather obscure. In Greek, it means someone who belongs to, convokes, or addresses an assembly or congregation (this same meaning is conveyed by Kohelet, the Hebrew title). In modern English, "The Preacher" or even "The Teacher" offers a clearer translation.
Do you believe in progress? Do you feel that life is better now than it was a hundred or a thousand years ago? Do you think the world will improve in your lifetime, and do you expect to have a hand in its improvement? Belief in the power of human action runs very strongly through the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, but it is important to recognize that not all of life can be controlled by man. That is one way of reading the message of the Book of Job, and the lesson applies equally to Ecclesiastes. So powerful are the underlying cycles of life- the forces of nature, the annual turning of the seasons, the alternating rhythms of day and night, seedtime and harvest, birth and death- that human action barely makes a difference, the Preacher says. Of course, wisdom is better than foolishness, friendship is better than loneliness, obeying the commandments is better than breaking them, and the joys of youth are better than the frailties of age, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that by living a good life we will necessarily come to a good end or even make the world any better. This is a minority opinion in the Old Testament, but Ecclesiastes' view of life can be found as early as a dark day in Eden (Genesis 3:19): "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
NOTE: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is one of the most wonderful pieces of poetry in the Bible. So enduring is the beauty of this passage that a folk-rock arrangement of the lyrics ("Turn, Turn, Turn") became one of the more popular songs of the 1960s.
SONG OF SOLOMON
In the Roman Catholic canon, the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is one of the wisdom books, preceding Wisdom and Sirach, two works regarded as noncanonical in Jewish and Protestant editions. Protestant Bibles classify the Song as the last of the poetic books, while Hebrew texts place it among the Ketuvim, between Job and Ruth (with which it shares its themes of love and springtime).
The title "Song of Songs," found in many Bibles, is a literal translation from the Hebrew Shir ha-Shirim. Most modern scholars doubt that the book was actually written by Solomon, although some parts of it may be ancient enough to qualify; as with Ecclesiastes, Aramaic influences on the biblical Hebrew suggest that the book appeared in its final form between 400 and 300 B.C.
EROTIC AND SPIRITUAL LOVE
Reading about great love poetry in Barron's Book Notes is like trying to savor a gourmet meal by staring at a menu. So, close this book and, if you haven't done so already, read chapter 7 of the Song of Solomon. Then reread it. After that, we'll talk.
If you didn't know it was in the Bible, where would you think this passage came from? A book of Oriental love poems? A romantic comedy by Shakespeare? A 2000-year-old copy of Playboy? All joking aside, the distinctive mixture of the exotic and the erotic in the Song of Solomon has posed severe problems for biblical commentators, and few books of the Old Testament have received more varied interpretations.
NOTE: The belief that Solomon wrote Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes explains why they are described as wisdom literature. One talmudic rabbi said, "When a man is young, he sings songs. When he becomes an adult, he utters practical proverbs. When he becomes old, he speaks of the vanity of things."
A literal interpretation views the Song as an extended celebration of physical love, perhaps intended for use at wedding festivals. But this alone would not have qualified the work for the biblical canon. What did admit the Song to the Bible was a symbolic interpretation that considered the Song's real meaning to be the love felt by God (here cast as Solomon) for His people Israel. When the work was adopted into the Christian canon, this symbolic interpretation was modified to make Solomon a figure of Christ. Thus, Christian commentators see Christ as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His heavenly bride. Other interpreters have viewed the Song as a two-character drama about a country girl who helps Solomon ascend from mere infatuation to a higher kind of love; as a three-character drama in which the king and a young shepherd compete for the young girl's affections; and as an Israelite adaptation of an ancient pagan fertility ritual.
In fashioning your own interpretation of this work, you need not say that the Song is about either erotic or spiritual love; you might want to say that it is about both. The opposition of flesh and spirit is a powerful strain in both Judaism and Christianity, but an equally powerful line of thought in the two religions holds both flesh and spirit to be the dual aspects of a single Creation. In seeking support for an interpretation that combines both erotic and spiritual meanings, you might point to the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the physical world, commands all His creatures to "be fruitful, and multiply," and calls everything He has made "very good."
Until relatively recently, the prevailing view among biblical commentators was that the book of Isaiah was the work of a single prophet, Isaiah the son of Amoz, who lived in Judah during the eighth century B.C. As for the references in the Book of Isaiah to events that cannot possibly have taken place within his own lifetime (for example, the mention of Cyrus of Persia at 45:1), these were credited to Isaiah's prophetic powers. During the last 200 years, the traditional viewpoint has been almost totally abandoned. Chapters 1-39 are now seen as the work of the Isaiah identified in 1:1, but chapters 40-66 are now attributed to an anonymous writer of the postexilic period. To distinguish the two, the name First Isaiah is usually applied to the author of chapters 1-39, and Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah) to the author of chapters 40-66. Some scholars also distinguish in the latter chapters the imprint of a Third Isaiah.
FIRST ISAIAH (CHAPTERS 1-39)
While Hosea and Amos are preaching in the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah and Micah prophesy in Judah. The central fact of life for Israel at that time is the expansion of Assyrian power, which topples the Northern Kingdom and comes within a hair's breadth of overrunning Jerusalem. Like the other prophets of his time, Isaiah sees the chariots of Assyria as God's instruments for punishing the faithlessness of Israel (1:4,7):
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger....
NOTE: The message of Isaiah was political as well as spiritual. As the Assyrian threat grew, Judah was tempted to seek Egypt and Ethiopia as allies. According to Isaiah 20:1-6, the prophet demonstrated against such an alliance by walking naked and barefoot for three years as a sign that the Egyptians and Ethiopians would be conquered and taken naked as slaves by the armies of Assyria.
Isaiah's abiding power lies in his ability to see beyond Israel's present trials. Sounding a theme heard increasingly among the Latter Prophets, Isaiah, speaking for God, forecasts the coming of the "Day of the Lord," a terrifying day of divine judgment (13:10-11):
For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
That ghastly prospect is tempered by Isaiah's vision of a messianic age, an era of universal peace that still beckons to us (2:4):
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Integral to this belief is the prophecy that a Redeemer will restore Israel's former glory. The passage beginning "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" (9:6) has been taken by Jewish commentators to mean that an earthly king from the royal house of David will restore peace and prosperity in the Promised Land. Christian interpreters see this passage as a prophecy of the coming of Christ, the eternal Prince of Peace.
NOTE: One of the most famous of Isaiah's messianic prophecies appears at 7:14:
Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The "virgin" is understood by Christians to mean the Virgin Mary, and Immanuel- from the Hebrew for "with us is God"- is identified with Jesus.
SECOND ISAIAH (CHAPTERS 40-66)
Style and substance shift dramatically at the opening of chapter 40:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
No longer do we hear the voice of Judah trembling at the onslaught of Assyrian power. Now the Lord has chosen a new instrument- Cyrus, king of Persia- to conquer the enemies of Israel and to allow the Babylonian exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. But this message of consolation does not apply only to the Jews: Second Isaiah's prophetic vision is one of universal relevance.
Among the many messianic prophecies of Second Isaiah, none was more important in the development of Christian belief than the "suffering servant" passage from 52:13 to 53:12. Who is this suffering servant who "was wounded for our transgressions" and "is brought as a lamb to the slaughter" (53:5,7)? Is he, as a few commentators have suggested, a purely mythological figure, an echo of the "dying god" motif that characterizes so many primitive religions? Is he some historical king of the Davidic line or a martyr in a war against foreign oppression? Is he, perhaps, merely a symbol for the people of Israel itself? All these readings have been proposed by critics who deny the validity of using the New Testament as a tool for interpreting the Old. If, however, you regard much of the Old Testament as a prophecy of the New, and the New as a fulfillment of the Old, then the identity of the suffering servant is clearly Jesus.
We are unusually fortunate not only in knowing a great deal about the life of the prophet Jeremiah but also in knowing how his book- or at least a major part of it- came to be written. Chapter 36 relates how Jeremiah summoned a scribe named Baruch to copy Yahweh's revelations to Jeremiah concerning the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet then told Baruch to read the scroll aloud at the Temple. When King Jehoiakim was informed of what Jeremiah had prophesied, he had the scroll cut up and burned, and ordered Jeremiah and Baruch arrested. Undaunted, Jeremiah began dictating a second scroll to Baruch, who not only wrote down everything destroyed by King Jehoiakim but added "unto them many like words" (36:32).
NOTE: The name Jeremiah comes from the Hebrew yerim-yahu ("may the Lord exalt"). In literature, a jeremiad- a name derived from Jeremiah- is a prolonged complaint or lament.
In its present form, the Book of Jeremiah reflects the interweaving of several different kinds of materials. Of principal importance are the poems of prophecy (oracles), thought to represent the authentic voice of the historical Jeremiah. Autobiographical prose makes up part of chapters 1-25; biographical prose, much of it by Baruch, contributes to the remaining chapters.
THE LIFE OF JEREMIAH
Born into a priestly family about the year 650 B.C., Jeremiah begins his career of public prophecy in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah (627 B.C.). The reforms of King Josiah may have silenced Jeremiah for a while, but his prophecies of a coming judgment on Judah resume in 609, with the accession of Josiah's son Jehoiakim. Just as the growth of Assyrian power is the central political fact in the time of Isaiah, so the expansion of Babylonia (which had conquered Assyria) dominates the politics of Jeremiah's time. Like First Isaiah, Jeremiah sees the foreign conqueror as an instrument of Yahweh's wrath- so much so that the prophet opposes all resistance. For if the king of Babylon (whom Jeremiah portrays as the Lord's servant) has been chosen to execute God's judgment, how can the opposition to him succeed (27:8)?
And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve... Nebuchadnezzar... that nation will I punish, saith the Lord....
Because of such highly unpatriotic- even treasonous- prophecies, Judah's political leaders have him arrested and imprisoned. He remains in custody until the Babylonian conquest (586), after which he finds a final refuge in Egypt.
THE PROPHETIC MISSION
What is most remarkable about Jeremiah is not so much the nature of his prophecies but his attitude toward his prophetic mission. Like the Nazarites Samson and Samuel, Jeremiah is called from birth to the service of Yahweh (1:5):
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
He does not marry nor does he have children, because, he tells us, God has warned him that both parents and children shall die "grievous deaths... as dung upon the face of the earth" (16:4).
In reading how Jeremiah's unpopular prophecies- and his denunciations of false prophets lead to his imprisonment and isolation, you might well have asked yourself: Why doesn't Jeremiah just keep quiet? Why does he keep saying things that so few people want to hear and that get him into so much trouble? Certainly it takes great courage to tell your nation's ruler that he is wrong and the enemy is right. But courage alone is not what drives Jeremiah onward (20:7-9):
O Lord, Thou hast deceived me,... Thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me....
The only thing more painful to Jeremiah than the burden of prophecy is the burden of keeping silent. Try to remember this unhappy, God-obsessed man when you come to read of how another prophet, Jonah, tries to evade his calling.
NOTE: Not all the prophecies of Jeremiah are those of gloom and destruction. At 31:31-34, the prophet offers a vision of a "new covenant with the house of Israel," written in the hearts of the people. This passage, which provided sanction for the belief of the early Christians that they were the bearers of a new covenant with God, is quoted by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews (8:8-12).
The Book of Lamentations is called in the Septuagint the Lamentations of Jeremiah, but few scholars today have any confidence that Jeremiah was actually the author. However, it seems likely that the five poems that make up Lamentations were written close to the time when Jerusalem and its First Temple were destroyed by Babylon.
The first four chapters of Lamentations are acrostics, following a Hebrew alphabetic pattern; the fifth, though not in acrostic form, has twenty-two verses, matching the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The central image of the first poem portrays the whole of Jerusalem as a lonely widow, weeping in the night; line 1:19 implicitly compares the ruined city to a forsaken adulteress (see chapter 2 of Hosea). The second poem offers a more detailed description of the devastation and explicitly casts Yahweh in the role of destroyer. In 3:1-39, the poet meditates on the meaning of suffering. The poet concludes that no calamity can happen unless God wills it, but that the ultimate cause of the suffering is the sufferer's own sins (3:39). Verses 40-47, written in the first person plural, amount to a national confession of guilt, while the concluding verses, which revert to the first person singular, express the hope that the enemies of Israel will likewise be punished. In the fourth poem, the emphasis passes to the individual sufferings of those who were caught up in the Babylonian conquest. The fifth poem, the final lament, gives voice to those who survived the battle and remained amid the ruins.
NOTE: Who is the "I" in chapter 3? Tradition identified the speaker, "the man that hath seen affliction" (3:1), with the prophet Jeremiah. At least one commentator has suggested Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. The chapter can also be seen as an exercise in personification, with the "I" standing for Judah or Jerusalem itself.
The prophetic career of Ezekiel (which means "may El strengthen") begins about 593 B.C., four years after Jerusalem has come under the sway of Babylon but seven years before its destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. Generally speaking, chapters 1-24 prophesy Israel's coming doom, while chapters 25-48, presumably written after 586 B.C., offer consolation to a generation of exiles. Living in Babylon, Ezekiel, who may have been a priest, is a contemporary of Jeremiah, with whom he may have been in contact.
There are many problems with the text, and assessments of which passages are by the "real" Ezekiel are difficult. Most commentators believe the book was written by Ezekiel and/or his followers during the sixth century B.C., but a few critics place the writing or editing of the book as much as 300 years later.
NOTE: No prophet- not even Moses at the burning bush- receives his calling in more spectacular fashion than Ezekiel, to whom the Glory of the Lord appears enthroned on a flaming chariot (chapter 1). Ezekiel's flamboyant style seems to have made him something of a popular entertainer among the exiles. At least, that is how some commentators read the complaint in Ezekiel 33:32 that the prophet's manner of prophecy has more effect on the crowds than the content of his message.
THE PROPHET AS VISIONARY
The Book of Ezekiel includes an extended prophecy of the doom of Judah and Jerusalem (chapters 3- 24), including in chapter 18 a call to the exiles to repent for their misdeeds and the reassuring message that the innocent will not be punished for the sins of the guilty; predictions concerning the destruction awaiting Phoenicia, Egypt, and the other nations (chapters 25-32); a forecast of Israel's restoration (chapters 34-39); and a code governing the rebuilding of the Temple, the reconstitution of the priesthood, and the redistribution of the land. Amidst this wealth of material, among the most striking passages are Ezekiel's visions of Jerusalem corrupted and then renewed, and of the "valley of the dry bones."
THE CORRUPTION OF JERUSALEM (8:1-11:25)
Let's briefly take the part of Ezekiel as he leads his listeners on a visionary tour of Jerusalem, city of abominations. First the hand of God lifts you by the hair and carries you from your home in Babylon to the Holy City. You approach the Temple's outer courtyard and, finding a weakness in the wall, break through it to find "every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel" (8:10) being worshiped by seventy elders of the community. At the gate of the inner courtyard you see women serving the fertility god Tammuz, and in the inner court stand twenty-five men with their backs to the Holy of Holies and their faces gazing worshipfully toward the sun. Unable to contain His fury, the Lord lets loose six armed men to wreak vengeance on Jerusalem, sparing only the few pious ones, a small saving remnant of the house of Israel.
A horrifying vision of Judah dominated by foreign cults- but how true is it? No such description of the profaned Temple can be found in Jeremiah or Lamentations, and it is difficult to see how Ezekiel, prophesying in Babylon in 592 B.C., could be a reliable observer. Was Ezekiel then actually in Jerusalem, speaking as a ruthlessly honest eyewitness? Or was he in Babylon, preaching to the exile community, and exaggerating the truth to convey to his audience the enormity of the sins for which Jerusalem had been and would be punished?
NOTE: Paralleling Ezekiel's vision of Jerusalem destroyed is his vision of Jerusalem restored. At 40:1-43:12, Ezekiel takes his listeners on a prophetic tour of the rebuilt Temple, in the company of an angel who holds a measuring stick in his hand. The Glory of God, which departed the Temple at 10:18- 11:1, returns to His house of worship at 43:5, signifying the full restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
THE VALLEY OF THE DRY BONES (37:1-14)
Now you are inside the mind of the prophet as the Lord sets you down in a valley that is full of dry bones. Commanded to speak to these long-dead skeletons, you tell them that God will fit them with living flesh. As the skeletons once again become bodies, God orders you to call upon the wind to breathe life into them. You see the spirit of life return to them, as they stand "up upon their feet, an exceeding great army" (37:10).
Lines 11-14 explain that the "dry bones" are the whole house of Israel, which shall rise from the grave through the grace of God and the powers of the prophet. Jewish and Christian scholars have generally interpreted this scene as an allegory of the return of the Israelites from their countries of exile, and not as an allegory of individual resurrection. Belief in the resurrection of the dead did not come to full flower in the Old Testament until centuries later, in the Book of Daniel.
NOTE: Ezekiel's messianic vision, like those of Isaiah and Jeremiah, played an important part in shaping Jewish (and therefore Christian) expectations of a Messiah (37:24):
And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd....
For the influence of the Davidic prophecy on the New Testament, see Luke 1:32 and Romans 1:3. The image of the Messiah as a shepherd appears frequently among the Hebrew prophets and in the Christian scriptures, most startlingly in the Revised Standard Version at Revelation 7: 17, "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd."
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