Friday, November 27, 2020

Apocalyptic Hope

     Ever since the start of the pandemic, each morning our friary has been celebrating a conventual Mass (i.e. Mass with just the friars of the house). We've continued this communal celebration even after public masses were reinstated later in the spring, and the ordained friars take turns presiding. Although I'm a brother, and thus do not preside at Mass, I offer a reflection on the Scriptures in lieu of a homily on Fridays.

    Not accustomed to delivering memorized or off-the-cuff speeches, I prefer to write out my reflections. It's not the most riveting style of preaching, but then this is yet another reason why I appreciate my vocation to the brotherhood. I have, however, garnered much more respect for my confreres who are ordained priests. Preparing homilies is a lot of work, and they preach more than just on Sundays. Moreover, preaching is only a fraction of what they do as priests, so have some gratitude for your local pastors. They do quite a bit that goes unnoticed.

    Anyway, since I write out my reflections, and since today's readings were apocalyptic in nature, I thought I would post what wrote up for this morning's Mass. It seemed fitting, given that my last couple of posts from early this summer were about apocalyptic literature. That, and we come to the end of a liturgical year this weekend and begin a new one with the season of Advent. This tends to be a time when the Church's liturgy has a bit more of an eschatological bent. So, without further prelude, my reflection from the Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time (November 27, 2020).

Revelation 20:1-4, 11-21-2; Psalm 84:3, 4, 5-6a and 8a; Luke 21:29-33

Here we are at one of the climactic, final scenes in the book of Revelation. We have the capture and imprisonment of the dragon (a.k.a. Satan); the martyrs and faithful ones enjoying the reign of Christ; the final judgement; death and the underworld are at last destroyed, and there’s a completely new creation, with a new  heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. In just these few verses, this section covers most of the major themes in apocalyptic literature: cosmic upheaval, the kingdom of God, judgment, and renewal. But is this about the past, the future, or times concurrent with this book’s composition? The answer is, “Yes.”

               In the book of Revelation past, present, and future are sort of fused into one, but ultimately, though there are cosmic battles, and earthly disasters and suffering, Christ is always triumphant and the members of the Church enjoy and are actively a part of that new creation. Yes, Christ was definitively victorious over sin and death on the cross and in his resurrection, but this victory is an enduring reality, for Christ lives on in his Church. Just as our ancestors in faith struggled against the all-pervasive political and cultural system that was the Roman empire in the ways that it opposed Christ, so too do we today struggle against a culture of indifference, consumerism, individualism, hate, and injustice.

Personally, I find the dualistic character of Revelation rather off-putting. I’m wary of a cut-and-dry, black-or-white worldview, and yet we can’t deny that things are not right in the world, and there really never has been a time when truth, justice, and goodness reigned entirely. One of the values of Revelation is that, though the battle has already been won in Christ, and Christ is indeed King - as we celebrated this past Sunday - we are still part of that living story. There are still forces and prevailing attitudes, both outside of ourselves and within us as well, that stand against the work and the Spirit of God. We might not use the same imagery as apocalyptic authors, but the Paschal Mystery is being lived out in the members of Christ’s Body - in those who are crucified when profit is prioritized over human life, when power is chosen over people. We do continue to fight against evil in our world today. But evil is not so much a thing in and of itself; rather evil gets its nature from its opposition to God. I certainly would not say that there are evil human beings, but there are human actions and inactions that are in conflict with goodness, peace, charity, self-control, and the like.

Naturally, the wrathful violence of the apocalyptic narrative can be a bit unnerving for many folks. But we also know that history, from the stories of the Old Testament even until now - have shown us that destruction, disaster, war, and death give way to renewal, resurrection, and new life. It’s a shame that we live in a world in which we needed a civil rights movement, but where would we be without those men and women who risked their dignity and their lives for equality under the law? But, of course, we still have a long way to go. Even as we look back on this 2020 year, we remember those awful deaths that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement - these killings were unjust tragedies and should not have happened, yet I think we are seeing a new creation of sorts being formed in a movement striving for a more just society. I’m reminded of the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who said, “If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran people.” The mystery of dying and rising is written into the fabric of the human story and is very much at the core of our faith where Christ is always victorious - and even death itself has no power over us. This is why we need apocalyptic, not because we look forward to war, death, and destruction, but because it gives us a lens with which to view the human story, and it reminds us that, after enduring the travail of pursuing goodness and righteousness, Christ will reign.


In today’s Gospel we are told to consider the blossoms on the fig tree. We know this is a sign that summer is near, so likewise we should read the signs of the times to recognize that God’s kingdom is at hand. I think with so much that has transpired in the last several months, not least of all the pandemic, we are experiencing a God-moment in our world - a nearness of God’s kingdom. I don’t think it’s the linear end of the world or signs of Jesus' second coming, for we’ve experienced rays of God’s kingdom like this before in history and in our own lifetimes. God’s Word, both spoken and incarnate, has endured all kinds of risings and topplings of kingdoms, nations, movements, philosophies, and technologies. And now, with everything that has been going on, I have apocalyptic hope that new life is budding forth - though not without challenges and forces of opposition. I don’t know what it might look like or even how long the struggles might last, but I believe that Christ and his kingdom will prevail.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Why So Apocalyptic? Part II: To Wipe Away Every Tear

A good friend asked me what I was up to during this time of quarantine, and I told her that I had been writing about apocalyptic literature. In typical self-pitying fashion, I lamented to her that my earlier posts did not generate as many pageviews as I thought such a compelling topic would. To this she responded, "Duh, Ian! People don't want to read about the apocalypse right now. They want to read something happy. They want to hear some good news." Yet in my mind I was thinking, But apocalyptic literature is all about good news!

In my last post I wrote about how different biblical traditions dealt with the nagging question of why good and faithful people suffered so much. One reason why apocalyptic thought developed was because it provided a sense of God's justice. For them, even though the righteous suffered now under the weight of oppression, they would be rewarded for their fidelity while the persecutors and backsliders would get their comeuppances in the end. Judgement is a common denominator in nearly all apocalyptic literature, because those who wrote it lived in a world where justice was not realized. But there was another reason why these books with frightening imagery and allusions to cosmic destruction captured the imaginations of their audience. As strange as it may seem, apocalyptic literature offered comfort, hope, and consolation.

Apocalyptic thought feeds on oppression. Sometimes that oppression is merely perceived, like when Hellenism was slowly eroding away Jewish culture. It wasn't overt persecution, but it gave rise to apocalyptic books, like The Watchers, in which apostasy and foreign influences are the enemy. The temptation to compromise one's religious values or cultural identity spurred a movement that clearly delineated how God's justice would be served. Today, however, we look at the impact of conflict - deadly conflict - because when the trauma becomes real, and people are dying all around you, it feels like the freakin' end of the world. And if that isn't a recipe for apocalypticism, I don't know what is.1

I left off in the Greek period of Jewish biblical history with mention of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. We're looking at the years 175-163 BCE. The empire of Alexander the Great had long since been divided up among his successors after his death. Palestine originally fell under Ptolemaic control (based in Egypt) but was later usurped by the Seleucid kingdom, which controlled Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Antiochus was a Seleucid ruler who was kind of an egomaniac. (I mean, his self-given title, Epiphanes was akin to God Manifest.) A failed campaign against the Ptolemaic kingdom left him in financial straits, so he stormed the temple in Jerusalem and stole from the treasury. Naturally, the Jews rioted and rebelled, which provoked a mass slaughter. As a result, Antiochus basically made Jewish religious practice a capital offense. On top of everything else, he even desecrated their temple by erecting in it an image of Zeus and sacrificing pigs on the altar.2

1 & 2 Maccabees chronicle, among other things, the events of Antiochus' reign and the Maccabean revolt led by Judas Maccabeus. Prior to the Jewish revolt's surprising success, the two books of Maccabees describe the horrific plight under Antichocus' anti-Jewish policies. For example, "Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree... In keeping with the decree, they put to death women who had their children circumcised, and they hung their babies from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed (1 Macc 1:57, 50-61). The second book of Maccabees details the gruesome torture and martyrdom of a woman and her seven sons, many of whom offer last words that indicate a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. (I highly encourage you to read chapter 7 of 2 Maccabees.) Now regardless of the how historically accurate these accounts are, it's clear that they were inspired by the bloody reign of a Gentile king bent on crushing all who did not succumb to his forced Hellenistic assimilation.

It's conditions like these that propelled apocalyptic thought forward. For wisdom literature, suffering was just a part of God's larger mysterious plan or, if nothing else, simply an inevitable part of life. But anyone who has experienced extreme sorrow and loss knows that such pious rationalities don't cut it when you're feeling that much pain. For the prophets, suffering was either merited for breaking the covenant or would be resolved at some point in the vague future. For the apocalyptist, though, people were dying for the sake of the covenant, and the time for their affliction to end had to be coming soon! Things had gotten so bad that God had to radically intervene and hit the reset button on the world.

Think of the game Mario Bros. There's no need to start the game over when things are going well, but when you're down to one life, and you've failed to beat Bowser twice already, it may just be time to press Reset and start fresh. In the end, that beast will be defeated once and for all. A more biblical example would be Noah and the ark. Basically, humanity had become so sinful that God wiped everything out with a massive flood and started over again with a renewed earth. This is one of the reasons that allusions to the flood story are common in apocalyptic writings. God had restored creation to paradise once before, and he could do it again.

 You might think that there is nothing consoling about the destruction of life on earth, but those writing or listening to apocalyptic texts felt that they were already approaching or in the midst of the end times. Remember, the basic principle of apocalypticism was that God was in control. So where was God's sovereignty whenever their world started falling apart and it seemed like chaos and bloodshed reigned? For them, it meant God's great reset was coming. Like the peak of a heatwave or a tumultuous storm just before the cool relief of a cold front, God was about to act in some definitive way. For those who died there would be resurrection (as with the mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees), and for those who survived they would see God's glory and his reign established firmly on the earth. This is what gave hope and consolation in times of such crisis.

One of the more fascinating characteristics of apocalyptic literature is ex eventu prophecy. Apocalyptic texts, like Daniel or the apocryphal (i.e. non-canonical) books of Enoch, were not actually written by those men or even around the time when they supposedly existed. They were written much later. Daniel, for example, is a figure from the Babylonian exile. He sees a vision of beasts that represent four historical kingdoms beginning with the Babylonians and ending with Greeks. He specifically points out a horn on the fourth beast's head that speaks arrogantly and wages war against the holy ones. This is a symbol of Antiochus IV. But the character of Daniel is from several hundred years before Antiochus. So while fundamentalists would say that Daniel foresaw the reign of the Greek empire, what is really going on is ex eventu prophecy. The author of the book retrojects historical events that he's familiar with into the the visions of his protagonist.

Whether or not the original audience believed that Daniel, Enoch, or whoever else is cast as an apocalyptic visionary actually foretold various periods of history is not as important as what this literary technique did to comfort those in crisis. Using ex eventu prophecy to give a bird's-eye view of time emphasized God's authority over history. It also helped them to process time into distinct periods, which meant that, just as with all the other chapters of history, their age of consternation and suffering would come to an end. 

Furthermore, the visionary "prophesies" events leading right up to the situation in which the author and audience presently find themselves, but then he sees a little further than their current lived experience into a new and glorious period of God's reign. This gave the impression that God's intervention was close at hand. If the author and audience believed they were living in the penultimate period of tribulation and devastation, then the ultimate period of God's reign and renewal would naturally follow. Apocalyptic literature, though weird and at times frightening, usually ends on a happy note.

But when the court is convened,
and his dominion is taken away
to be abolished and completely destroyed,
Then the kingship and dominion and majesty
of all the kingdoms under the heavens
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High,
Whose kingship shall be an everlasting kingship,
whom all dominions shall serve and obey. (Daniel 7:26-27)

Ten-horned beasts, ravaging he-goats, seven-headed dragons, and monstrous locusts may be the stuff of nightmares for us. But ancient Jews (and early Christians) between 200 BCE and 200 CE were already living their worst nightmares. They experienced the chaos of mad kings and emperors, religious persecution, internal corruption, apostasy, and even death for living their faith. Mere words and pious platitudes were not going to satisfy. They needed symbols as extreme as the reality they were facing to meet them were they were in the midst of their turmoil. As I write this, it makes me wonder: is this why The Tiger King became so popular during this covid-19 pandemic? I mean, think about it. Isn't it a relief to know that, as insane as our world feels right now, it's not quite as crazy as the likes of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin? Something to think about.3

But whereas Tiger King might hold our attention because its mayhem and madness are cathartic, apocalyptic literature didn't stop with the terrifying beasts and cosmic catastrophes. The terror and destruction always gave way to the manifestation of God's glory. God's kingdom would finally be inaugurated, the dead would be raised to new life, and heaven and earth would be recreated. This is why apocalyptic literature was so consoling. Yes, to those who compromised their faith and moral values, the fearsome imagery and prospect of God's judgment was meant to wake them up from their laxity. On the other hand, to those who were enduring persecution even unto death, the promise of God and his heavenly forces bringing an end to oppression brought hope. The assurance that the faithful who had died would be resurrected gave them comfort and strength.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

I know that this pandemic has been a crazy and difficult time to say the least. Every day thousands of people are dying from covid-19. Unemployment is in the millions in the U.S. alone. And even as stay-at-home orders are being eased, there's too much fear and uncertainty to take much advantage of it. Moreover, the tension that society is experiencing in this country is hitting a boiling point - at it's worst, manifesting itself in armed protests. And if all of that wasn't enough, the probability of a second wave looms heavy over all our heads.4

It's no surprise that my friend thought that I should be writing about happier things than the apocalypse. Yet while a viral plague is obviously not the same thing as, say, a hostile overlord destroying a race's religious and cultural identity, people have been asking if this pandemic is an apocalyptic event. Like our Jewish and early Christian ancestors, who experienced their own tribulations and sought comfort in a revelation that God was in control, would be victorious, and would raise up the faithful, we too want to know that God is still with us. The answer apocalyptic literature gives is a resounding Yes, and he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

My scriptural recommendation this week is Revelation 20:1-21:7. Don't overthink the symbols, but simply let this passage fill you with consolation. Though I do not think that the covid-19 crisis is a sign of the end times, we are nevertheless experiencing a challenging period in history that is rapidly changing our world. Apocalyptic literature was written to meet people in the midst of such crises, to give them courage and to remind them that God was more powerful than even death itself. So maybe we can take away some good news from it too. Until next time...

Peace and all good,
Bro. Ian

1 The idea of compromise and conflict as major influences on apocalyptic literature derives from Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, (Abilene, ACU Press, 2013), 74-87.
2 Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003), 361.
3 For the record, I haven't watched The Tiger King... as of now, anyway.
4 Oh yeah, and Murder Hornets now makes Apocalyptic Bingo.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Why So Apocalyptic? Part I: A Matter of God's Justice

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about what an apocalypse is and what it means to be apocalyptic. For review, you can read the whole thing by clicking here, but in summary here are a few things to keep in mind. Apocalypse means an "unveiling" or a "revelation." In biblical studies it refers to a particular kind of literature, one in which a supernatural message is revealed to a human being through or with the help of a heavenly being. To be apocalyptic is to espouse a worldview in which the spiritual realities of God, angels, demons and the like are real and active in the world. God is in control of his creation and has a plan; the forces of good and evil are in conflict with one another as evidenced on earth, and there will be some ultimate and imminent finale to all this in which God and those aligned with him will triumph.

I guess I could have just said that instead of posting a lengthy blog earlier, but brevity has never been my forte, especially with this much time to write. In any case, I ended that post on a cliff-hanger: Why was there an apocalyptic movement? Why did people write apocalypses? These are complicated questions, and anyone who knows me well knows that I'm high-context. So I apologize; I'm going to have to give you a little bit of biblical background. First, I recommend that you check out my blog post from four years ago entitled "Greek Week: The Bible in the Hellenistic Period." It should provide a fairly decent historical backdrop for Jewish apocalyptic literature.

Like you have somewhere to go. It's spring of 2020.

It's important to keep in mind that the books of the Bible come from a variety of different time periods in Judeo-Christian history. While there is continuity in the Scriptures, over time the Bible also reveals an evolution of theology. One issue that the authors of Scripture grappled with is that of God's justice (a.k.a. theodicy). When it comes right down to it, theodicy today and for much of history asks, If God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist? For the ancient people of Israel, however, this wasn't quite the question that was on their minds. They didn't try to reconcile God's benevolence and omnipotence with the existence of evil in the same sort of post-enlightenment way that we do. They were more comfortable with accepting the reality that evil exists and that bad things happen.1 Furthermore, the Scriptures frequently remind us that God has a special love for the poor and seeks to rescue the innocent. All that being said, it didn't stop them from asking why good people suffered so much or why corrupt people seemed to have it so easy.

You see, one prevailing notion from an earlier scriptural tradition was that goodness and faithfulness were rewarded in this lifetime and evil was cursed. Proverbs draws upon this theme quite a bit: e.g. Truly the evil man shall not go unpunished, but those who are just shall escape (Prv 11:21). Another earlier belief was that everyone - the just and the unjust, rich and poor alike - had the same fate after death. They would go to Sheol, a sort of shadowy underworld. Belief in a eternal reward or punishment developed later, as did a theology of resurrection. Until then, there wasn't much of any kind of existence to look forward to in the afterlife. So the suffering of the innocent flew smack into the face of their ideology that the righteous would be blessed and the wicked would be cursed. With the belief that everyone shared the same fate after death, where was God's justice to be found?

Various books and literary styles of the Bible deal with this issue differently. Wisdom literature, like Psalm 49 and Ecclesiastes, point to the futility of wealth. They remind their audience that, since both the rich and the poor will die alike, those who amass riches will not be able to take any of it with them. For Ecclesiastes especially, everything was vanity and that suffering was just a part of life, but the author still believed that God had a plan. We just aren't privy to what that plan is. Down the road, apocalyptic literature will be like, "Guys, I have seen the plan, and let me tell you what it is!" But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Job is perhaps wisdom literature's theodicist par excellence. In the midst of his devastating anguish, his so-called friends keep telling him that he should admit that he did something to offend God and therefore deserved his lot. They tow the line that the good are blessed and the wicked are cursed. But Job maintains his innocence and demands that God explain himself. God's answer is, in short, that God is God and Job is not. However, God justifies Job for speaking rightly of him, while his friends are chastised for upholding a flawed concept of God's justice. One message of Job is that it's fair to question God and God's ways and even to cry out to God for suffering that is unmerited. In the end, though, we'll never quite know why. On the other hand, to think that affliction is a curse for evildoing, or even that wealth and comfort are a reward for righteousness, is definitely not the wisdom of God.

Prophetic literature is different in that it's generally more concerned with the whole of the community or nation than with the individual. Communal suffering, therefore, is attributed to social sin. The prophets were not theodicists, asking why bad things happened to good people. Instead, they were the moral conscience of society, beckoning their communities to fidelity to the covenant. They knew why bad things were happening or would eventually happen. They could see the writing on the wall, the consequences of idolatry, injustice, ill-advised foreign policy, etc., and they called their people out on it. Some prophetic literature though, especially after the Babylonian exile, began to look toward an eschatological climax and end to the suffering of the Jewish people.

PAUSE! Yes, eschatology refers to the end times. Eschaton in Greek is related to the last days, or the end. But don't be afraid! It didn't mean the ultimate annihilation of the earth, though it would probably involve some form of destruction. Rather it refers more to the cosmic fulfillment of time, end of oppression, and renewal of heaven and earth. It's not the end of the world per se; it's the end of the world as we know it. 

You should feel fine. This is really good news!

So now we can start talking about an apocalyptic movement, because you can't have apocalypticism without eschatology.  You can't have an apocalyptic ideology without conflict between good and evil and the pronouncement of God's judgement upon the earth. And you can't have apocalyptic literature without a sense that history is moving forward to some ultimate event, resurrection, renewal, and coming of God's kingdom.

After the Babylonian exile and return to Judea there were certain promises that were not fulfilled. The land didn't belong to the Jewish people anymore; it was a province in the Persian empire. Moreover, they did not have a descendant of David on the throne. There was a prophetic movement to rebuild the Temple so as to hasten these expectations, but even when the Temple was rebuilt, it did not seem that God's reign had come. The Gentiles were ultimately in power, internal corruption was rampant, and infidelity to God's law persisted. Some prophets had pointed to a time of doom and God's intervening salvation in the future: "On that day... on that day." But for centuries that day never seemed to come. For those of the apocalyptic worldview, however, that day was near. So what does it take to go from prophetic to apocalyptic eschatology? The same thing it takes for coal to turn into a diamond: pressure. Pressure, in this case, manifested as oppression and persecution, because apocalyptic literature is not written at Starbucks sipping on a latte, folks.2

Again, I recommend that you check out the Greek Week blog post for a little bit more detail on this period in Old Testament history, but let me do a quick run through on some of what went down.

Under Persian rule things were, relatively speaking, not too bad for the return community, especially after rebuilding a temple by 515 B.C.E. Nevertheless, the collective memory of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of Solomon's Temple would forever be with them. It should be noted that Jews were not just living in Judea, but at this point were all over the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East due to the the deportations of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively This is known as the Diaspora. Much of this Persian period saw a consolidation of their traditions and sacred texts. And then came Alexander the Great, who conquers the Persian Empire (and specifically Palestine in 333 B.C.E.).

While the Persians had been pretty chill about their subjects as long as they paid their tribute, the Greeks were all about Hellenism (i.e. Greek culture). They wanted everyone to be Greek, and there were a lot of Jews who, either from pressure and discrimination or by their own will, assimilated to the Greek culture - learning the language, hiding their circumcision in the gymnasium (or foregoing it altogether), intermarrying with Greeks, etc. It was not outright oppression and persecution, but it was certainly perceived that way by some Jews. A dominant, invasive culture was snuffing out their Jewish identity! They had already experienced the destruction of their monarchy, capital city, and temple for not keeping the covenant once before; they weren't going to lose what little they had left because Jews were compromising their faith and identity.

The earth was ripe for cultivating the seeds of an apocalyptic worldview. Prophetic literature had already begun to set the stage for some kind of restorative culmination to the Jewish narrative since the devastation of Babylon. It was clear that there were forces of good (those who kept the covenant) and forces of evil (those who made concessions to their faith and Gentiles who led Jews astray). It was in this time of cultural crisis that early apocalypses were composed, though almost none of them made it into the Jewish canon of Scripture. A radical theodicy was developing in which the suffering faithful would be vindicated and the backsliders and oppressors would get their comeuppance. No more of the equalizing perception of death from the wisdom literature of the past. The theme of judgment becomes very prevalent, and in fact is one characteristic that is in nearly all apocalyptic writings.

One example of an early apocalypse is the Book of the Watchers, which is part of a much larger corpus known as Enochic literature after its protagonist, Enoch. Enoch is an obscure figure from Genesis, and it says of him, "Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him" (Gen 5:24). The mystery surrounding Enoch made him a perfect candidate for someone to have supposedly received a secret revelation from God about the future. So in this book, as with other apocalypses, the visionary is taken on an otherworldly journey and learns of the places of paradise prepared for the righteous and those of torment for the wrongdoers.

The Watchers also draws on another obscure passage from Genesis in which angels from heaven have intercourse with the women on earth and beget giants known has the Nephilim (Gen 6:1-4). Now I urge you not to read too much into that weird passage. I can't say the same thing to the apocalyptists at the turn of the second century B.C.E., though. This narrative from Genesis made some interesting source material for them. We'd probably call it fan fiction today. In Enoch's account, the evil "Watcher" angels teach humans things like weaponry, cosmetics, fornication, and astrology (1 Enoch 8:1-4). Some scholars speculate that this may be an allegorical reference to leaders of the Greek forces teaching the Jewish people their pagan ways.3 Later on in the story we discover that there's a special place in hell (so to speak) prepared for the Watchers. We can assume that the authors felt the same for the Greeks as well as those Jews who had succumbed to Greek ways.

 Whereas the issue at hand in the early stages of this apocalyptic movement had to do with cultural and religious compromise, the pressures from persecution were about to become more dire, and the apocalyptic heat was about to get turned up! It was one thing to feel as though justice was lacking when fidelity to the covenant made life challenging. Even more so when your fellow Jew was living well yet betraying the Torah. But what happens when all perceptions of God's justice go up in smoke and you're put to death because you keep the covenant? Extreme times such as that call for extreme literature!

On that note, I'll leave you with another cliff-hanger until I write again. Next time I shall write about that son-of-a-beast, Antiochus IV, and the effect of bloodshed on apocalyptic writings. I hope, though, that this provides some insight into how apocalypticism developed, especially in regards to the notion of God's justice in the midst of fidelity and compromise to God's Law. In the meantime, my Scripture recommendation for the week is 1 Maccabees 1:1-64. I know it's not in every Bible, so if it's not in yours at home, you can click the link and read it online. This chapter and all the atrocities described within really get at the heart of why there was an apocalyptic movement at this time in Jewish history. As you read it, put yourself in the shoes of the Jewish people living under the reign of Antiochus. What would be your response to God? How would you interpret your experience? What kind of salvation would you look forward to, and how would you want God's justice to unfold?

Until next time,

Peace and all good,
Bro. Ian

P.S. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the "Follow the Codega" box. You can also also like and follow @biblecodega on Facebook for even more scriptural reflections.

1 Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, (Abilene, ACU Press, 2013), 40-45.
2 Timothy Milinovich, Class Lecture, January 12, 2010.
3 Mitchell Reddish Ed., Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader, (Peabody, Abingdon Press, 1990), 145.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Lost Sabbaths

All this was to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled. (2 Chronicles 36:21)

Okay. Let me begin by saying that this is not a post about apocalyptic literature like I promised. I do intend to write another one, but I felt inspired to compose this first. I have been ruminating over this verse from Scripture for the last week or so and thought I would share a reflection on it.

In a short span of time schools, colleges, businesses, restaurants, theme parks, and even churches have all closed. Sports, concerts, and other large events have all been cancelled. Air travel is almost unthinkable at this point, and the cruise industry is practically kaput. People are encouraged to stay home as much as they can, and not just from work but from... well, everything. It seems like the whole world is being drawn into a massive, communal Lenten observance. You thought you were going to just give up chocolate and soda pop this Lent... Little did you know.

Occasionally, like in times of crisis such as this, we might ask ourselves, "What does this all mean? Is God trying to tell us something?" I believe our ancestors in faith, the people of Israel, contemplated these questions very intensely. They interpreted their history from a religious perspective, and this is what informed their sacred writings. The so-called "Historical Books" of the Hebrew Scriptures were more theological than historical annals. They were oftentimes (though not always) rooted in actual events that had taken place, yet the meaning they ascribed to their social and political experience was influenced by how they viewed their relationship with God.

For much of the Old Testament, a national disaster was usually interpreted as the result of Israel and Judah's infidelity to God and God's commandments. That was certainly the case for the Bablylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Why did the Babylonians conquer Judah, sack Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and send us into exile? Because we had broken the covenant. The historical tradition of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, tends to place the blame largely on Judah's faithless and corrupt rulers, especially king Manasseh. However, the Chronicler (as the author of 1 & 2 Chronicles is often called), retells their history a little differently. He was writing later than most of the Hebrew Scripture tradition, and his audience had already returned from exile and rebuilt a Temple. His was a community that was striving to move forward in faithfulness to the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps as a warning to them all, he extended responsibility for the exile to the sins of the whole people in his account of history (2 Chr. 36:14-16).1 He and his audience weren't expecting a restored monarchy anytime soon, but they could at least keep the law and promote the ritual cult of the Temple.

The quotation from 2 Chronicles at the beginning of this post adds another layer of interpretation for the exile. The duration of the exile was seen as reparation for not keeping the sabbatical and jubilee years (see also Leviticus 26:34-35). Every seventh and fiftieth year the land itself was supposed to have rest from agricultural labor (as described in Leviticus 25:1-13). These were also years that debts were to be forgiven and slaves too were supposed to have rest from their labors. The Torah lists all sorts of punishments that would befall the people if they did not keep the commands of God, and losing the land was one of them. For the Chronicler, however, the removal from the land was not a permanent loss, like the end of the monarchy appeared to be. The exile was a hiatus in order to repay the land for the rest it was denied.2 Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. (Lev. 26:25 JPS).

As I've said before, I am not a biblical fundamentalist or literalist, and I don't presume that the Bible foretells current events. More importantly, I'm not bringing up Israel's punitive interpretations of the exile in an attempt to suggest that Covid-19 is divine punishment for breaking a covenant with God or any other sort of social sin. That all being said, I believe the Word of God is living and active and that it resonates with the human experience across time and space. Wars, famines, plagues, economic breakdowns, natural disasters, and crises of all manner are perennial problems we face as people on this earth, so of course these things make their way into our sacred texts. One of the reasons why I love the Scriptures is because they're as much about the human condition as they are about God. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of practical wisdom in Scripture that should inform our conscience.

I imagine that the Chronicler looked back on his people's experience of the exile and, having prayed  with the Torah and the oracles of Jeremiah, gave it a meaning beyond the sheer devastation and humiliation that it appeared to be. Recognizing his ancestors' past failings, he gave his community of Jews a way forward from their apathy and an invigoration to heed the Law and Prophets.3 Among the commandments, sabbath rest was so central to who they were as a people. This was something they needed to be reminded of, but I'm sure it also just made good practical sense.

God's law and the prophets' warnings were not arbitrary rules to follow. Any farmer will tell you the importance of rest for the land and the need for crop rotation. A just economy, as dictated in the Law, protected the most vulnerable, like widows, orphans, slaves, and foreigners. Even the dietary restrictions and ritual washings had practical implications. With the Chronicler's hindsight, he could see that infidelity to the Law and the Prophets had consequences, and whether the calamities that befell them were divine punishment or not, it was clear that there was a reason why God wanted them to keep his commandments. Social sin is as real today as it was in the time of our biblical ancestors. It would be the fundamentalist's stance to suggest that God is punishing us with this virus, but it would not be impractical to see how our economic systems and self-indulgence have exacerbated the crisis at hand.

I cannot say if there is some objective meaning from on high for this global crisis. Frankly, I don't pay much thought to the possibility, and for now it's a philosophical position I'm unwilling to entertain. I do, however, believe that we can observe our experience and listen for the echoes from Sacred Scripture that resonate with it. Even when our lives are upended and everything seems irrational, we can imbue this period of time with meaning. I think about all of the closures and cancellations, the abrupt halt of the normal flow of daily life, the images of empty streets and vacant businesses. One biblical commandment that seems to haunt me in all this is that of sabbath rest.

I am not insinuating that Covid-19 is an act of God intended to impose upon us an involuntary sabbatical. I'm not suggesting that this period of crisis is even all that restful. For a lot of people its been an anxious, stressful time as they try to figure out how to work from home, or find daytime child-care, or take classes on-line. Some parents are thrust into home-schooling their kids. Many people are without jobs and are wondering where their next meal is coming from. Those in the medical field or who are working at grocery stores or for delivery services are experiencing anything but respite. The number of cases and deaths are rising around the world. These are extremely difficult times, and, as was the exile for the people of Judah, this is not a favorable event. In fact, quite the contrary.

But at the risk of sounding as if I'm seeking a silver lining, I do believe that, for those of us who are forced into self-quarantine, we can give this time a sacred meaning. Is God calling us to retrieve once again the rest and the silence, which has been denied us by obligations or superficial distractions of our own making? This can be an opportunity to explore our relationship with God, to break open the Word and commune with the Lord, especially since many of us cannot receive communion in the Eucharist. It's a chance to rediscover the value of relationships we've taken for granted, as we are compelled to be apart from friends or together with our families. This is a time in which our common humanity is felt most strongly as all across the globe we share in the same feelings of loss, fear, and isolation but also in the hope and desire for salvation. We are one human family, and we are in solidarity now more than ever with those who are isolated in prisons and hospitals, with those who are vulnerable, and those who long daily for the dignity of work.

Even the earth itself is finding rest from the pressures we have put on it from our consumerism. It seems that already the atmosphere can breathe just a little easier as we fast from carbon emissions. Apparently, the absence of boat traffic in Venice has made their usually opaque canals clearer as well.4 Who knows what other positive environmental impacts may be possible? It may be a good time to take a walk if you are able (or open up a window) just to listen to the sounds of nature that we have become immune to in the hustle of our busy lives.

But I believe there's something deeper and more solemn to be gleaned from all this. For the Chronicler, just because the exile would give back to the land the sabbaths it was denied did not mitigate the tragedy of Judah's destruction. It was not a "bright side." Rather, his interpretation gave his community reason to have remorse for their sins. Perhaps this is also time for us to have compunction for the good we've failed to do as we've gone about business as usual, noses pressed to the grindstone - or to our phones. It's a time of reckoning for the whole human race as we come face-to-face not just with our individual selves but with our global systems and social structures that fail us and crush the lives of the most vulnerable when a crisis strikes.

Without minimizing or disdaining the severity of this pandemic - all the deaths, confirmed diagnoses, loss of jobs - the biblical commandment for sabbath rest hovers over my view of some of what's happening. I feel a faint connection with the people of Judah who were sent into exile so that, as the Chronicler would say, the land would experience the lost sabbaths. There's cause for individual and communal reevaluation to see what we've ignored or failed to appreciate. If you are compelled into self-quarantine at this time, this recess from our daily activities can be a sobering period - a chance to examine our lives. When everything else around us is shutting down, what becomes truly important? When we're forced into social-distancing and limitations, what have we, individually or collectively, taken for granted? Have we turned futile things into idols? Have I failed to take the time to recognize God's presence? Have I appreciated God's creation, my family, my friends, my neighbors? Have I paused to even hear my own self think up until now? Have I taken time to rest and just be?

My only scripture recommendation this week is that one verse, 2 Chr. 36:21, but feel free to click on the links to those other passages from Leviticus. If anything I've written resonates with you or your experience of going into self-quarantine, ponder those things. I should add, though, that it doesn't all have to be navel-gazing. There are certainly people in desperate need right now. Are you able to run an errand for an elderly neighbor? Do you need to check in with your co-workers to see if they need anything while they are home-bound too? Can you donate food or money to a soup kitchen or food pantry. And of course, this is also a wide open door to pray. Pray for our world, for the medical professionals, for those looking for a vaccine, for the elderly and at risk, for the infirmed, dying, and deceased, for their families, for those who have lost employment, and for an end to the global health crisis. If this be a time of sabbath rest for you - because it definitely isn't for everyone - make it mean something.

Until next time, be safe!

Peace and all good,
Bro. Ian

1 Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003), 328.
2 Jewish Publication Society, study note on 2 Chronicles 36:21, in The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1825.
3 Harris and Platzner, 328.
4 Denise Chow, "Coronavirus Shutdowns Have Unintended Benefits: Cleaner Air, Clearer Water," NBC News Science 19 March, 2020, NBC News, Web, 20 March, 2020.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Let's Talk Apocalypse... Seems Appropriate, Right?

Have the four horsemen of the apocalypse come to rove the earth in recent days? One might certainly get that impression with the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although confirmed cases are (for now) low in Indiana where I write this, the entire country is in a state of emergency. Obviously this is a global crisis, with many other countries facing much more severe predicaments. And let's not even get into the toll this will take on the world market and the long-term economic ramifications. Here in the States alone, schools and colleges are closing, events are cancelling, businesses are taking a hit, grocery stores have lines half-way into the parking lots and are selling out of toilet-paper. Toilet-paper, though? Seriously? I mean, hand-sanitizer I understand, but I would have thought there'd be a run on vitamin C or something like that. Revelation 6:6 talks about a ration of wheat for a day's wage, not a pack of bathroom tissue.

Anyway, I was recently informed that this month's deanery young adult gathering, at which I was to be the presenter, has been cancelled. What a coincidence that I had been preparing for weeks to talk about the Apocalypse! Fortunately, all that brushing up I've been doing on apocalyptic literature need not go to waste. For though I won't be speaking about it at Theology Uncorked anytime soon, I can at least write about it on this poor, neglected blog. And hey, if I'm hunkered down to write, I'm guessing you're hunkered down to read. What else is there to do?

So let's begin with a little quiz. What is an apocalypse?

a.) A cataclysmic event resulting in massive death and destruction
b.) A literary genre
c.) The Greek term for the conclusion of a comedy or tragedy
d.) The end of the world

Despite how the word apocalypse is typically used, an apocalypse is not an event - neither the end of the world, nor a global catastrophe, nor even the Coronavirus. An apocalypse is far less outrageous or dire, though I still think it's pretty extraordinary. If you chose option C, you're half right. Apocalypse does derive from the Greek word apokalupsis (
ἀποκάλυψις) for "unveiling" or "revelation," but it has nothing to do with the ending of Greek dramas. Think of pulling back the curtain from a window or a piece of artwork; that would be an apokalupsis. We'll get into the significance of this "unveiling" later. However, if you answered B, hooray for you! An apocalypse is a particular form of literature, a genre.

Now scholars can get very technical about what constitutes an actual apocalypse and what writings should be classified as apocalyptic. You might ask if there is even a difference between an apocalypse and literature that is simply apocalyptic. Take for example the mystery genre. To be considered a mystery, a book normally has some standard elements: a crime, a protagonist who will solve the crime, clues, and an ending in which the perpetrator is revealed. Naturally though, some books might have strong mystery attributes, but they are not branded as mysteries per se. Think of Harry Potter. One of the things that makes Harry Potter books so captivating is that they're very akin to mysteries: who's trying to steal the Sorcerer's Stone; who opened the Chamber of Secrets; who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire; who is the Half-Blood Prince, etc. But you're not going to find Harry Potter next to Murder on the Orient Express at Barnes & Noble, and not just because J.K. Rowling isn't near Agatha Christie alphabetically.

So what's apocalyptic, and what makes an apocalypse an apocalypse? Let's start with the latter. Many scholars classify an apocalypse more or less as "a narrative in which supernatural beings mediate a revelation to human beings that discloses a spiritual reality."1 There are only two books in the Bible that are apocalypses: Daniel and Revelation (a.k.a The Apocalypse, since it's Greek name is simply Apokalupsis ).2 If it's not a narrative, it's not an apocalypse, so most of the books of the prophets - apocalyptic though some may be - are not apocalypses, because they're poetic in style. In an apocalypse an angel (or some heavenly being) will relay the vision to a human. Sometimes they mediate the revelation by asking questions and explaining what the different symbols mean, and sometimes they act as a tour guide of realms like heaven or hell. Basically an apocalyspe is a book about a dude that has supernatural visions directly from or explained by an angel.

There is more to an apocalypse than that, but that's kind of what one boils down to. Some apocalypses are sort of allegorical history books, kind of like Orwell's Animal Farm. In others, the visionary takes an otherworldly journey with an angelic sidekick. However an apocalypse is written, though, the author is definitely influenced by his apocalyptic worldview. So what does it mean for something to be apocalyptic?

Remember that apocalypse comes from the Greek word for "unveiling." You might ask, then, "What is being unveiled?" In his book, A Slaughtered Lamb, Gregory Stevenson writes, "apocalyptic pulls back the veil between the spiritual and the physical and, in so doing, exposes the physical world to a divine perspective."3 An apocalyptic worldview presumes that there is a close connection between the world we experience and the spiritual world. This is very important to remember. Literature and ideas cannot be apocalyptic if they don't hold that God and the powers of heaven and hell have some kind of influence or effect on earth. Ultimately, the essential apocalyptic theme is that God is in control! And for as frightening as the apocalyptic imagination may seem to be on the surface, this one guiding principle is very good news! If God is in control, even if things appear awful on earth, then there's hope and consolation for the present and future. So take that, Coronavirus!

Stevenson identifies four apocalyptic characteristics. The first is transcendence, which I already touched upon. An apocalyptic worldview presumes that reality extends beyond this mere physical world that we experience. There are also angels and demons, heavenly beings, and the throne of God aside from what we take in with our five senses. However, we can't access this spiritual reality without some kind of disclosure from a heavenly being. Thus the need for an apokalupsis, a revelation4.

The second characteristic is determinism. Like I said, God is in control. While human beings have free will, God has an ultimate plan for creation, so even the cataclysmic events are not beyond God's power, but rather extend from God's sovereignty over time and space. It may seem to paint an unflattering picture of God in some ways, but for the apocalyptic thinker, an aloof and indifferent God would be so much worse!5 There is a lot of exploration and interpretation of the past in apocalyptic literature, which demonstrates that God had been present and active in the events of history and thus is present and active now as God will also be in the future. Determinism acts, then, as a consoling concept.6

Stevenson next speaks about symbolism in apocalyptic literature.7 If you've stuck with me thus far, you might be wondering when I'm going to talk about dragons, beasts, fire and earthquakes, trumpets, and plagues (*cough* like the one we're experiencing now). Well... not today. But it is important to note that an apocalyptic outlook needs to employ symbols. I have a real issue with biblical fundamentalism, so when it comes to apocalyptic texts, like Daniel or Revelation, I internally eye-roll when folks start earnestly drawing one-to-one connections between symbols in the passages and events or people of recent history and today. Just because Revelation speaks of plague, does not mean we are living in the end times.

That all being said, I love delving into symbolic worldviews, because the use of a symbol is so much more powerful than verbose description. Think about our meme culture: a scant caption and an image say a lot! Moreover, that same image can be used to convey so many different messages! Symbols are even more compelling than memes because people experience a visceral relationship to them. Think of the cross, the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the peace sign, a rainbow, the Star of David, etc. Symbols tap into the values, philosophies, emotions, and histories of a people. They engage and overwhelm the whole being of their audience. And since apocalyptic literature is conveying a message about spiritual realities too ineffable for human minds, the audience needs to be wholly enveloped by it. Symbols, similes, and metaphors are the closest approximation to what the authors are striving to relate.

...or what a symbol is for that matter.

The fourth characteristic is dualism. In an apocalyptic worldview, the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn; there's no gray area. Personally I find this component a little unnerving, because if one takes this concept to the extreme it can spawn moral elitism and disastrous, self-righteous us vs. them conflict. But there is a reason why a sharp distinction between what is good and what is evil was important to a person who saw the world from an apocalyptic perspective. Their lived experience was so turbulent and chaotic that dualism helped to bring a sense of order and justice. God was not only in control, God was omnipotent and was going to be victorious over his enemies!8

Besides these four, scholars have identified other motifs of apocalypticism. Some scholars speak about an apocalyptic movement in the ancient world which influenced such literary works. A few of the characteristics of this apocalyptic worldview included an "urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future" and that this end would involve a "cosmic catastrophe." There would certainly be some kind of judgment at this end time, but there would be a "new salvation, paradisal in character." God's kingdom and glory would be manifest, and there would be some sort of royal mediator between heaven and earth.9 A lot of these concepts are what come to mind when people think of an apocalypse today, but we are far removed from the experiences of those people who generated apocalyptic thought in the last few centuries B.C.E. and into the first few centuries C.E.

Why was there an apocalyptic movement? Why did people write apocalypses? What was the point of literature that reads like an acid trip? These are questions I hope to answer in my next blog post. In the meantime, here is my Scripture recommendation for the week: Daniel 7. It's a classic example of apocalyptic writing. If your Bible has explanatory footnotes, I highly recommend checking those out. As you read it, consider how the elements of an apocalypse feature in the passage, but more importantly think about how this obscure vision ultimately offers a message of hope and consolation. As my Apoc. Lit. professor said, "Like good preaching, apocalyptic literature should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted."10

Peace and all good,
Bro. Ian

1 Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, (Abilene, ACU Press, 2013), 91.
2 For the record, it's Revelation singular, NOT Revations plural. There is only one revelation. Trust me. I watched a man miss that question on Jeopardy because he added an s to the end of The Book of Revelation as his answer.
3 Ibid., 93.
4 Ibid., 92-94.
5 And frankly, I agree.
6 Ibid., 94-96.
7 Ibid., 96.
8 Ibid., 98-102.
9 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature 2nd Ed., (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 12.
10 Timothy Milinovich, Class Lecture, April 8, 2010.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Taking the Knee... Jeremiah Style

Perusing the library of Sacred Scriptures this summer, I decided to read through the book of the prophet Jeremiah. One of the most tragic and unnerving figures in Old Testament literature, I have found Jeremiah to be particularly relevant for our world today. In exposing sin and injustice, he confounded the comfortable and perturbed the presumptuous. He prophesied national defeat when others believed Jerusalem could never fall. They thought he was a blasphemous traitor, when, far from desiring Judah’s destruction, he hoped his country would be repentant and become a holier, more just kingdom. A recent message thread with my sisters about Megan Rapinoe got me thinking the other day about actions at sporting events that protest the status quo. I couldn’t help but think of Jeremiah and his own controversial signs he had performed. And I thought, might Jeremiah be a lens for interpreting and appreciating sporting arena protests? No doubt an unsettling (perhaps touchy) topic, so first, let’s take a look at our prophet from Scripture.

I don’t want to belabor you with too much about what a prophet is. One of my earliest, longest, and (not surprisingly) least viewed posts is all about the prophets. If you want, you can check that out by clicking here. I will, however, recycle a quote from scholar Victor Matthews. The prophet’s “role was to challenge the establishment and the social order, to remind the leadership and the people of their obligation to the covenant with Yahweh, and to warn the people of the punishment that would surely ensue if they violated this covenantal agreement.”[1] It’s no wonder prophets, like Jeremiah, were so unpopular.

Now there’s a lot of historical and political intrigue going on in Judah during Jeremiah’s career, but I’ll be honest, it gets really convoluted. Kings are killed in battle. Puppet kings are put on the throne. Egypt’s in control. Babylon’s in control. Judah’s allegiances flip-flop. There’s a smaller exile in 597 BCE, and then the really bad one happens twenty years later when Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. And up until then, the people still thought that they couldn’t be defeated. Yeah. Little ol’ Judah… against Babylon. Really?

But “the temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD” – so the people thought to put their trust (Jeremiah 7:4). Indeed, Jerusalem, seemed to have miraculously survived a devastating siege by the Assyrians over a century earlier. But Jeremiah condemns the presumption that they would be safe because of the temple.

On top of Judah’s tumultuous political crisis, the religious reform begun by King Josiah never really came to fruition after his untimely death in battle - not long before the call of Jeremiah. So not only is Judah politically weak, they’re also morally bankrupt. They’re still worshipping false gods, their worship of the LORD is empty and insincere, and they do not keep the covenant commands of justice and love of neighbor. They have not protected the widow, orphan, and immigrant. In the midst of all this, Jeremiah is called by God to preach repentance and eventually to prophesy Jerusalem’s destruction and, with it, the temple as well.

 Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with your neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien [sic], the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow after other gods to your own harm, only then will I let you continue to dwell in this place…
But look at you! You put your trust in deceptive words to your own loss! Do you think you can steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, sacrifice to Baal, follow other gods that you do not know, and then come and stand in my presence in this house, which bears my name, and say: “We are safe! We can commit all these abominations again!”?...
And now, because you have committed all these deeds—oracle of the Lord—because you did not listen…I will do to this house, which bears my name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your ancestors, exactly what I did to Shiloh. I will cast you out of my sight… (7:5-7a, 8-10, 13a, 14-15a)

What had become of Jerusalem and its temple? What had become of our ancestors in faith at this time in history? Had not the temple, a good and holy thing, become an idol? In their eyes, this edifice was an emblem that seemed to say, “God is on our side (whether we live justly or not) and therefore we can’t be beat.” And to them, Jeremiah’s denunciation of the temple was both blasphemy and treason. How dare he say that in the name of the LORD!

As with other prophets, Jeremiah did not just preach the message. He also performed prophetic actions to convey God’s Word. For example, in chapter 27 the LORD commands Jeremiah to place a yoke on his shoulders to signify that the people should submit to the yoke of Babylon or perish. One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is chapter 13, when God orders the prophet to bury an unwashed loincloth near a river. After a while, Jeremiah is told to fetch the cloth, only to discover that it is rotted and good for nothing. And then God says, “So also I will allow the pride of Judah to rot, the great pride of Jerusalem” (v. 9). Not the most charming of stories, but I love how in verse 11 God says to Jeremiah, “So close as the loincloth clings to a man’s loins, so had I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the LORD; to be my people, my renown, my praise, my beauty.”

What a profoundly intimate image of God toward his people! To think, this is how close we are to God! I mean, don’t overthink it, folks. This is poetry in action. But the point is that this is not a god who is distant and indifferent; this is the God who deeply cares for us and wants to be in union with us. And so you can hear the sigh of heartbreak when God then says: “But they did not listen.”

It’s prophetic signs like these that bring to mind certain actions of athletes at sporting events. Although there are many other kinds of symbols used in protests, there’s something about kneeling during the national anthem before a game or raising a fist on the medalist stand at the Olympics that strikes a powerful chord - whether people like it or not. For one, these are high-profile people on a vastly public stage. But I also think it has so much to do with the startling juxtaposition of criticism and dearly held national symbols. Consider the British suffragette, Emily Davison (not an athlete herself), who, it would seem, tried to pin a women’s suffrage emblem to, not just any horse, but the king’s horse! In any case, it was the king’s horse who crashed into her and killed her, and if that wasn’t a high-profile protest colliding with a national symbol, I don’t know what is.

Sit-ins and marches send a message, no doubt, but mess with people’s symbols, and you strike a well of emotions that runs inordinately deep. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a sports fan, but even I couldn’t escape the tidal wave of opinions in the news and social media about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. I hardly watched a lick of the Women’s World Cup, but I still heard about Megan Rapinoe’s public activism. And I was far from even being born when this photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos was taken,

but the image still reverberates today. Symbolic actions like these send some people into tailspins, but honestly… they ain’t got nothing on Jeremiah.

One of Jeremiah’s most shocking prophetic signs is when he takes the elders and priests out to Jerusalem’s city dump (Ben-hinnom) and shatters before them an earthen vessel, saying “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Thus will I smash this people and this city, as one smashes a clay pot so that it cannot be repaired” (19:11). What makes this act so provocative is that when a king was installed, he was presented with pottery inscribed with the names of enemy nations, and the newly anointed king would break them with a rod, symbolizing his power over them. An echo of this is referenced in Psalm 2, a coronation hymn: “With an iron rod you will shepherd them, like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them” (Ps 2:9). To put Jeremiah’s action into context, imagine someone gathering congress at a garbage dump, burning the American flag, and saying “This is what will become of the United States!”

Jeremiah’s prophetic signs were intended to draw his people’s attention to God’s message of conversion. Likewise, the actions of athletes who take the knee during the national anthem, enter the field with heads bowed and arms raised, wear jerseys that say “Los Spurs” or “Los Suns” or shirts emblazoned with “I CAN’T BREATE” are calling us to examine our conscience about a message we’re not hearing with mere words – a message we perhaps don’t want to hear. Far from disrespecting the flag or country, and farther still from symbolic acts of treason as Jeremiah teetered on, these prophetic actions in our day are rather signifying injustice in our midst. That there are systems in our country that are broken. That racial prejudices have fueled police brutality against minorities. That our immigration laws and attitudes are unjust. Etc.

The leaders of Judah were outraged by the words and actions of Jeremiah. They denounced him as a liar and a traitor and they tried to kill him. Yet for all of the religious and social critique that he preached and all the devastation he prophesied, Jeremiah did not despise his nation nor his fellow countrymen. On the contrary, it tore him up inside that he was called upon to proclaim such a demoralizing message and that his people would suffer so much. He wished he could remain silent, but alas, he felt compelled to utter his warning (cf. 8:18-23, 20:7-9).

Moreover, he prophesied God’s judgment and Jerusalem’s fall not out of spite, but in sorrow for a people who could do better. There is hope in Jeremiah, and in chapter 31 he speaks of the new covenant God will make with Israel: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33). Although he vehemently condemned their sins and foretold the dire consequences of their actions, ultimately Jeremiah believed that, by God’s grace and mercy, they can be a holier, more just nation. This, I believe, is what motivates prophetic actions in today’s world, not spite or contempt.

Jesus of Nazareth faced a similar experience as Jeremiah. He criticized the religious and social corruption of his time. He, too, challenged the authorities’ presumptions about the temple and was thought to be a blasphemer and a traitor. His words and actions defied the nationalism of his day (e.g. conversing with a Samaritan woman and pagan officials). Even his teachings regarding the family as those “who do the will of God”, or his pithy response of “Let the dead bury the dead” to the man who was going to have a funeral for his father were ways in which Jesus broke with the prevailing tribalism in favor of a far more encompassing kingdom than that built on bloodline or citizenship. But this does not mean Jesus hated his country or fellow Jews either. He wanted them truly to be a light to all the nations as they were called to be (cf. Is 42:6, 49:6, 60:3, and Mt. 5:14-16). Disappointment, criticism, or even anger toward the status quo are not reprehensible; they are catalysts for change toward the better.

By the time I write another post you can probably read the entire book of Jeremiah from beginning to end, but for this week I recommend 7:1-1513:1-11, and 19:1-15. These are not necessarily comforting passages, but then, the Word of God is not always meant to console. Oftentimes it calls us to task and cuts us to the quick. Jeremiah’s protests and signs disturbed and infuriated his audience, as sometimes the prophetic actions of athletes do today. Nevertheless, we are called to recognize that things are not right in the world. Things are not right in this country, where racial prejudice threatens the lives of black Americans. Where minorities and the economically poor are inhibited from advancing in society. Where bigoted remarks from the nation’s leaders are dismissed or, worse, defended. Where women do not receive equal pay for equal work. Where even a viable yet unborn infant is unprotected. Where the cries of our brothers and sisters seeking refuge from the violence in their homelands are being ignored. Families are torn apart; children are caged in detention centers; walls are raised, and tear gas is hurled.

Read these or other passages from Jeremiah and ask yourself: do we listen? Or do we let pride obstruct us from hearing the message to reform. Have good and honorable symbols become idols, as the temple had? Does a piece of cloth or a song mean more than a human life? Do we persecute the prophets among us because they look, speak, think, or believe differently than we do? Has nationalism turned our hearts into stone? And what future do we face if these things are so?

Until next time, 
Peace and all good,

Bro. Ian

[1] Victor H. Matthews, The Hebrew Prophets and their Social World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 19.