Sunday, May 25, 2014

Messianic Expectations

Contrary to popular Christian folklore, religious Jews did not always expect a Messiah and even today the notion of a Messiah does not dominate Jewish faith. Most of the biblical texts used to suggest otherwise have been re-read by Christians to prove to themselves that Jesus was the expected Messiah.

But it just ain't so. At least not necessarily.

The need for a Messiah did not arise in the thinking of the Chosen People until the period of decline and fall of the two kingdoms that led to the Babylonian Captivity. Things got so bad from the point of view of the just, or Mosaic-law abiding, believer that it was thought that God had to intervene more forcefully and thoroughly with a superpatriarch, superjudge, superking, superpriest, superprophet ... ta-da! ... a Messiah.

The prophets describe elements of what could be a Messiah, as the end-of-time (or eschatological) prophecies in Daniel suggest.

The word Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is Mashiach. It means “anointed one.”

I always wondered, what is all this business of anointing about? Why would anyone be anointed? Why would this be at all significant?

Anointing is the smearing perfumed oil, milk, water, melted butter or other substances. This was first used to heal or offer relief to the sick. Probably because it did the trick of soothing in some way, it became a valued process used to show honor, and later ritually, to show reverence in religious ceremonies. Kings and priests were anointed.

But why? Because, unlike what the Anglican hymn says of England as a new Jerusalem, the land of the biblical peoples was decidedly not “a green and verdant land.” Indeed, England knew no word for “anointed” until it borrowed the term from the French in the 14th century, for religious purposes.

It was semidesert, an arid land with a few irrigated fertile areas adjacent to major waterways, such as the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers. In such a climate your skin dried easily and cracked unless it was kept moist and oily, which was the physical effect of anointing.

The substances used for anointing were not easily available, thus only used for the sick or the very privileged. Today, instead of calling a Messiah the Anointed One, we might say have chosen the Smartphoned One, or whatever privilege we think matches.

Make no mistake about it, the Messiah was supposed to be Superman (as the TV series had it “strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!”) but one who set right all wrongs for all time.

The great Spanish rabbi Moses Maimonides, writing in the Middle Ages, declared that the Messiah would be someone who would
  • be descended from King David;
  • study the Torah (or divine law) and be occupied with its commands;
  • “impel all of Israel” to follow the Torah;
  • “fight God's wars” until he succeeded and “built the Holy Temple in its proper place” and gathered the lost tribes; and
  • “mend the entire world to worship the Lord together.”
No one would confuse such a personage with a marginal woodworker from the hinterlands executed as a common criminal for disturbing the peace. Yet few would dispute that Maimonides knew his Bible. Therein lies the scandal, to Jews, of saying that Jesus was the Messiah.

However, Isaiah speaks of an unnamed figure referred to by biblical scholars as “the suffering servant,” often thought to be a Messianic figure. This set of images involves redemption through suffering, closer to the manner of one Yehoshua ben Yosif from Nazareth, aka Jesus the Christ.

All of which brings us, in this post today, to the Greek for Messiah, Kristos. The classical Greek Χριστός ( transliterated Kristós, and in Latin, Christus) meant “covered in oil” or “anointed,” a literal translation. The word appears in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, believed to be completed by 132 BCE.

In the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew ends the genealogy of Jesus with the man himself, “Jesus, who is called Christ” (1:16). This alone should make clear that Christ was not Jesus’ family name, but a title given him by followers long after he walked the Earth like you and me.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The First Bible

The Babylonian Captivity—that long biblical pogrom and Holocaust—had a result that is seldom discussed popularly, even though it affected the Judeo-Christian tradition decisively. Upon returning to Judah, the rabbis began to edit and set down in writing what they believed were the essentials of their faith.

Cyrus the Great of Persia, whose face was for a time on many a modern postal stamp of Iran, the modern Persia, came to power and seized Babylon in 538 BCE, allowing the exiled Jews to begin a return to their homeland. It was at that time that the first five books of the Bible, known scholarly as the Pentateuch, were composed and redacted by the rabbis of the post-exilic era.

You didn’t think that Moses actually wrote the five books “of Moses,” did you? In ancient times, authorship and attribution were not what they are today, after two centuries of copyright law and newspapering.

The development of ancient literature followed a familiar pattern. Someone spoke or enunciated some great thought, story, idea or law. Hammurabi, Socrates, Moses, for example. Collections of their sayings were usually written down by scribes as “the book (or law) of” whoever was the person who had inspired the work.

Hammurabi is not the likely literal author of the famous law code that bears his name, which—incidentally—inspired much of the Mosaic law in the Bible. There is no extant work written by Socrates. The same is true of Moses.

Moreover, because biblical material contained divine ordinances, there was a potent rabbinical revulsion to the idea of setting down the biblical tradition in writing. Deuteronomy puts in God’s mouth the following remonstrance to Moses: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (4:2)

Keep in mind, of course, that the vast majority of people in biblical times—including prophets, kings and other greats—were illiterate. The biblical texts were told and retold orally for centuries before anyone dared put quill to parchment to leave a written record of such holy things.

It was only in dire straits, such as upon returning to the Promised Land laid waste, with a people who had been forbidden in exile to worship their God, that rabbis dared take up the task of collecting various versions of the same stories and putting them all together, organizing them into books that became known simply as The Books.

That same imperative against adding or subtracting led to the other commonly misunderstood curiosity of the Bible: multiple and sometimes contradictory accounts.

Again, let’s imagine how the biblical writings were told and retold. Let’s, for the sake of imagination, first imagine the first campfires in the long wandering through the Sinai Peninsula.

“Look at all those stars! I wonder how all those stars come to be ...” says one Hebrew man.

“God created them,” says someone, a proto-rabbi, who is respected as knowing things.

“How was that?” a third asks.

Our would-be rabbi sits up and summons a collection of things he has heard and starts the story, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth ...”

You think every biblical storyteller in every campfire of the people leaving Egypt on the way to their Promised land remembered the creation story in exactly the same words or in exactly the same sequence? You think no storyteller borrowed something that came from neighboring cultures, things passed on, like gossip, at a time there was no radio, no newspapers, no Internet?

Imagine, then after the Babylonian Exile, the various yeshivas, or rabbinical schools, with young and old students of the Torah who are trying to put together scrolls containing all the great stories, so no one should ever forget the Covenant and the many miracles that had happened.

They stumble across two or three versions of the story of Noah. Which one is the true and holy one? “I know,” says one young buck, “let’s weave them all in together, that way we preserve everything the spirit of the Lord has conveyed to us.”

That, told roughly and without eyewitness accounts, summarizing the views of many scholars, is how the first biblical books were compiled, written down and edited.

Moreover, they did not instantly have the entire collection of books we know today. There was a fluid collection of byblos (Greek for “books”) regarded as important, including books excluded from some modern Bibles. Nor did they come in numbered chapters and verses. Nor, importantly, did they include vowels, as in ancient Hebrew only the consonant sounds were written.

The canons, or official lists, of books deemed “holy” (or set apart) as divine revelation came centuries later for the Hebrew Bible and more than a millennium later for Christian Bibles.

Only the later texts, from Isaiah onward, came with Hebrew markings for paragraphs and in some cases chapters (these are not always identical to our modern verses and chapters); the Greek Christian manuscripts often lack either one. The Hebrew text was given vowels by the Masoretes, members of the rabbinical medieval school in Spain founded by the great rabbi Moses Maimonides; Greek, of course, always had vowels.

All this work began at a crucial historical moment, when those who revered the ancient traditions of faith feared that unless it was set down, it would be forgotten.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jeremiah warns Jerusalem

Jeremiah is the prophet who most fits the popular notion of a prophet as someone who runs against the grain, who warns of the results of disobedience and injustice, while, in the 21st century idiom, speaking truth to power, suffering for it.

Like Moses he is a reluctant messenger. In Jeremiah 1:4-8, the Lord appears to him and announces that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But Jeremiah replies: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” So God insists, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’ for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

 In this way we know of the prophet’s authority. It is not his own.

Jeremiah was from the southern and longer lasting kingdom, Judah. His ministry took place in the late 7th century and early 6th century before our era, from the reign of King Josiah (640-609, through kings Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (598-597) and finally Zedekiah (597-586), the last king before the neo-Babylonian Empire overran Judah and completed the defeat and exile of the people of Israel.

Throughout most of this period Judah sat uneasily surrounded by three empires the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian, vying for control of the fertile crescent, an area of fertile land around huge desertic areas of the Middle East, starting in the west from the Mesopotamia in today’s Iraq and Kuwait, arching north to Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, then south to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. In this unstable geopolitical setting, the little kingdom of Judah attempted to preserve its independence.

From the biblical perspective, independence means freedom from the forced or subtly absorbed worship of their neighbors’ gods, allegiance to whom is repeatedly called “idolatry. As we have seen, the Hebrews have been told already: they are to have one Lord, YHVH (variously rendered as Jehovah or Yahweh).

And what does the prophet have to say on God’s behalf of what he sees?

First he is told to remind Israel of “her” faithfulness as God’s “bride.” The notion of Israel’s relationship to God as a marriage runs through all the prophets. This will have consequences after Christ, but let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Second, he decries the behavior of the Chosen People as that of a “harlot” or whore. Third, he calls to repentance, to abandoning of the “unfaithfulness” of idolatry. He concludes warning that, as we would put it, there will be hell to pay for Judah’s misbehavior.

Note that by this time the northern kingdom, the one that called itself Israel and adopted the idolatrous Baal worship, has fallen to the Assyrians. In Jeremiah we see constant contentious dialogues between God and his prophet on one side, and the kings and their priests on the other. In these arguments, the kings’ party makes repeated disparaging comparisons between the purportedly more faithful Judah and the harlotry of Israel. They fail the test when Judah’s own faults, such as allying with the idolatrous Egyptians, which will cause the final fall.

Here, as he tells of God’s wrath “Be warned, O Jerusalem,” are some of Jeremiah’s words in chapter 6
For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of [the Lord’s] people lightly, saying, ’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown.
Who cannot look at one’s own country, one’s own land and one’s own people and in some sense not feel the finger of the prophet? This is Jeremiah’s powerful, almost ranting style gives rise to the word “jeremiad.”

For his troubles he is persecuted, ultimately imprisoned and freed when the Babylonian army pours into Jerusalem in 586 BCE and he is freed by express order of Nebuchadnezzar.


Into the chaotic mess of the divided kingdoms came the prophets. These were not people with crystal balls claiming to “see” into the future (usually for a fee), as noted earlier, but rather spokespersons and advocates deeply involved in the relationship between the people of Israel (or in modern terms, people of faith) and their God.

In ancient Hebrew the word “prophet” can be transliterated as navi, meaning someone into whose mouth God puts words. The Hebrew for prophet finds its way into the name of the Hebrew Bible, Tanak for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).

Note that all the historical books we have finished reviewing are included as Nevi’im. Obviously, many of the judges present prophetic elements, as I noted in the case of Samuel; also, Judaism considered a variety of other figures as prophetic.

The origin of the English word for prophet is closer to the modern faith understanding of the term; it comes from the Greek prophetes, or advocate. The biblical prophet is both a communicator of God’s vision and an advocate for God before us, particularly when we are losing our way. The prophet is God’s gadfly.

Judges and kings were powerful political and military figures, who acted with faith in Elohim, the law and the covenant. However, the prophet was God's reminder of the point of all the ruling, struggling and striving.

Prophets did not derive authority to speak from anything but a faith understanding that God was compelling them to do so. Moreover, the prophets did not represent the prevailing view of their society, much less the opinion of those appointed to power, even with divine ordinance to rule.

The story of the prophets is that of individual people who went largely unheard and disbelieved by their peers and contemporaries. Their inclusion in the collection of books “set apart,” or holy, such as the Bible collection, is a testament to a particularly acute stroke of rabbinical wisdom: God sometimes speaks through messengers we would rather not hear, but that is no reason to silence or exclude their words.

Traditionally, the prophets—each of whom has a biblical book  attributed to him—are divided into major and minor. The original reason for calling them one or the other was the length of their writings.

The major (or longer) prophets are the best well known: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The Bible also has a beautiful book called Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah but most likely not his. The minor (or shorter) prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

The Talmud, the Jewish post-biblical compilation of rabbinical wisdom, offers a list of 48 prophets.

These include: the patriarchs Abraham through Moses; some of the judges; several prophets who have no biblical book, such as Nathan (who confronted David about his murderous affair with Bathsheba); Elijah (found in the historical books and often mentioned in the gospels) and his homonym Elisha; and, in addition to the major and minor biblical author-prophets, a good number of other individuals.

The Talmud is advanced for its time in recognizing seven prophetesses, Miriam (sister of Moses), Deborah (the judge), Hannah (the mother of Samuel and notably a foreseer), Abigail (wife of Nabal, later of David, advocate against revenge), Huldah (the namesake of one of the gates of Jerusalem, also see 2 Kings 22:13-16), Esther (Jewish queen of Persia whose story is at the core of the feast of Purim) and Sarah (wife of Abraham).

In the next few posts we will explore two of the prophets, just enough to whet the appetite of the reader to explore more on his or her own. In so doing, the reader is commended to keep in mind that the prophets principally emerged at the time of the monarchy (united and divided kingdoms) and the Babylonian-Persian captivity. They will be speaking to the people of Israel in the context of strife, impending catastrophe and eventual subjugation.

Their message goes beyond history or soothsaying, it aims to confront religious complacency, hypocrisy and unfaithfulness to God. Those who embrace faith are always especially in need of gadfly prophets to shake things up a little.