Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hebrew Prophets: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Hebrew Prophets: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 27th, 2008

Selected Readings from the Minor Prophets

The Good:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. --Amos 9:13-14

The Bad:
I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
--Zephaniah 1:2-3

The Ugly:
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle.
--Nahum 3:5-6

Today marks the end of our tour through the Hebrew prophets.
In our journey through the Bible we have finished the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), and the Latter Prophets, which is divided into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi).

Next month we begin the Writings.
We will read the poetic literature first, Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Then for June, we will read The Five Scrolls: (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). We will also read the Post-Exilic Writings: (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles). And by the end of June we will have completed the Hebrew Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament. We are reading them, however, in the order of the Hebrew tradition rather than the Christian tradition.

The poet Robert Frost, in one of his poems wrote that he had a lover’s quarrel with the world. In his 1942 poem “The Lesson for Today,” a long philosophical poem, we find this stanza:

And were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover's quarrel with the world

You will find on Robert Frost’s tombstone in his resting place in Vermont, that sentence: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I took a photograph of it when I visited there a few years ago.

On my tombstone should be written, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the Bible.” It truly is a lover’s quarrel. I have been marinated in it since I was a child. I learned critical methods, even a dabbling in its original languages. I have argued with it, dismissed it, embraced it again, cursed those who misuse it, embarrassed myself in my misuse of it, and here I am again encouraging you to read it. Perhaps I want you to share my pain. The Bible won’t go away. I cannot seem to write it off. Its narrative continues to mess with my head and heart.

I still want to trust that what it says is true—we matter, something bigger than us cares, and in the end we experience Resurrection and a shining city.

Religious scholar Bart Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, just published a book in 2008: God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer.

I think Professor Ehrman has a lover’s quarrel with the Bible, too. I resonate with what he wrote on page 17:

It is important, then, to see what the Bible actually says, and not to pretend it doesn’t say something that happens to contradict one’s own particular point of view. But whatever the Bible says needs to be evaluated. This is not a matter of setting oneself up as God, dictating what is and what is not divine truth. It is a matter of using our intelligence to assess the merit of what the biblical authors say…(p. 17)

That is true enough. Yet the Bible has power over us at that exact point. If we do “assess the merit of what the biblical authors say” we are breaking a taboo. It is that very assessment that is considered to be the slandering of the sacred. This taboo is not just for fundamentalists. Biblical scholars across the spectrum all have the desire to bring the Bible to their side. We really have a hard time finally saying, for example, “Yes, the Apostle Paul was probably homophobic, but we don’t have to be.”

Folks who have no lover’s quarrel with the Bible have no difficulty saying that. The Bible is as foreign to them as tales of the Norse god, Odin. But for those of us who do trust the Bible as a sacred text, we have a problem. Can it be true if we have the freedom to assess its truth claims? Is it true if we conclude that some of it is not true?

I am not speaking about whether or not an event in the Bible happened or not, I am talking about the big ticket questions, such as, “If God loves us, why do we suffer?”
This is the question Bart Ehrman addresses in his recent book.

Ehrman believes that that question is the foundational question of the Bible. Ehrman writes that it is not only a foundational question for the Bible but for most if not all religions. It is an existential question with which we live.

Why do we suffer? The reason we ask it is in order to then ask: How can we end suffering, or at least reduce it, or at even be at peace with it? I bring up Ehrman’s book because he begins with the prophets and how they answered that question.

There are a number of different ways the biblical writers answered that question. The dominant answer, the classic answer, is that suffering is God’s punishment for disobedience. The prophets also assert that some suffering is caused by human beings who inflict pain on others. The prophet Amos accused the rich of selling the poor for a pair of shoes. Their suffering was the result of the greed of the rich.

One explanation for human suffering is true enough: we bring it on others and ourselves by making selfish and cruel choices. Why do people suffer from grinding poverty, war, and sickness. Some of it can be explained by neglect, cruelty and ignorance. Those who see human suffering in that way, seek to eliminate it or alleviate it. There is suffering that we can do something about.

This is why Amos, of all the prophets, resonates so much with those who work for social justice. The hope is we can do something about it, if we care enough to act. Amos, in that sense, is quite modern.

That explanation doesn’t account for all suffering, though. It doesn’t account for natural disasters, birth defects, disease, pain in childbirth, and death itself. As much as we might enjoy blaming politicians and leaders for our suffering, we cannot concede to them that much power.

The classic explanation for suffering from the Hebrew prophets was that suffering was inflicted upon them as punishment for disobedience to YHWH. The crisis was this: YHWH chose us and made a covenant with us. Why then are we in such misery? Why are we being overthrown by our adversaries? Why do we die from famine and drought? Why do mothers weep for their children and refuse to be comforted? Why doesn’t YHWH answer our cries for help?

The answer from the prophets is that this suffering is not the result of indifferent weather patterns, nor is it the result of the Babylonian or Assyrian Empires’ quests for power. This suffering is YHWH’s way of communicating. You are suffering because you have disobeyed and you need to repent. When you do repent, YHWH will restore you.

Job didn’t buy it. Job rejects the classic answer. Here is a righteous person who suffers. There are two answers in Job. The first is that suffering is none of his business. YHWH speaks to him finally from the whirlwind and gives no answer. The second answer from the prologue and epilogue that the reader knows, but the character Job does not, is that YHWH was playing games with him. YHWH made a bet with the Adversary regarding how much suffering could be inflicted upon poor old Job, before he would break his covenant with YHWH. Suffering in this case is a test. Although, one might legitimately ask, for what purpose?

The answer from Ecclesiastes is “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.” The good suffer and wicked prosper, just the make the best of it. Ecclesiastes also resonates with our modern view on things.

In the saga of Joseph, which Ehrman points out, is the same theme of the story of Jesus, God uses suffering for redemption. In this case suffering is not caused by God but used by God to achieve a greater good. The New Testament does not really provide any new answers. Although some have suggested that the incarnation shows that God suffers with us.

So far we have suffering is unexplainable, suffering is caused by the cruelty of others, suffering is a test, suffering is a means to a greater good. The classic, dominant answer is that suffering is punishment. That is what we find, for the most part in the Torah and the Prophets.

Here is the question: Is that true? Were the prophets correct? I am going to argue that they were not correct. As one biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan put it: if the Hebrew people had been on their knees in prayer, day and night, and been perfect followers of YHWH, the Assyrians and then the Babylonians would have slaughtered them anyway.

This is why I find the prophets very difficult to read. I resonate with Amos and the call for social justice. I do like the visions of hope and justice we find there. I call that prophetic message good. The message of punishment, that everything from drought to the defeat by enemies is God’s way of punishing, I cannot accept. I don’t think that theology is good or good for us. That prophetic message to me is bad.

I have to have some special category for the almost pornographic language of the prophets as they graphically depict the violence of God on those whom God punishes. Not good, worse than bad, it is ugly.

That is my quarrel with much of the Bible and the god who is portrayed there. I simply cannot accept a notion of God who punishes people either then or now because of their sin. Am I setting myself as smarter than God for saying that? Perhaps. Some would say that is exactly what I am doing. I do not think so. I think I am evaluating or assessing the merits of what the biblical authors wrote.

Actually, in an odd way, I think it makes me a lover of the Bible and the people who wrote it. I want to understand it and them. Why did they say things the way they did? What was at stake for them? Understanding includes assessing. Because they saw god in a certain way then, does that mean we must see god in that way now?

I may be wrong in my assessment. But I think that our personal growth is allowing ourselves the freedom to risk being wrong. We have the freedom, perhaps the responsibility to forge a way of thinking about God and our human plight in ways that move beyond ancient formulations.

There is a great deal of suffering in the world. Much of it we can do little about except to be compassionate to others and to ourselves. Yet there is much suffering that we may be able to alleviate and in some cases prevent. I do think that how we think about God does matter in how we respond to the challenges of life. I will give up God’s power and righteousness for God’s compassion any day.

Daring to assess the merits of the Bible may seem a road less traveled by in our culture.
So, I will close with another poem by Robert Frost that reminds me of this congregation and why I am glad I am here:

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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