Prophets and Exiles

One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.  I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.  In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).  Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.  Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.  Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.  If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.  I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.  They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.

Taking verses out of context has a name.  It’s called “prooftexting.”  It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.  All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.  The Bible’s a big, big book.  Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.  Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.  No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.  That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.  What was that message?  Stop saying the exile is the end!  There’s more to the story.  Read the book to the end and see.

The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.  Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.  And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.  Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.  It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.  If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.  But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.

Prophetic Breakfast

The irony doesn’t escape me—and why does irony always try to do that, anyway?—that Ezekiel 4:9 is about famine.  I’ve posted about the breakfast cereals from Food for Life (yet more irony, from Corona, California) before, but during this time of shortages at the local grocery stores, famine is an apt topic.  I don’t mean to underplay famine.  Death by starvation is something nobody should have to face, but looking ahead, who knows?  The reason I was eating Ezekiel 4:9 is that my usual cereal brand was sold out.  Empty shelves and the prophet seem symbolic, don’t you think?  The box quotes the verse as a kind of health-food recipe, but the point was, in context, that this was not something you’d normally want to eat.  This was food for hard times.

Ezekiel, you see, lived through the collapse of his own society.  In his case it wasn’t because of a virus, but imperial ambition.  The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar was expanding and Judah was in the way.  The city was captured and Ezekiel, a priest, was exiled.  His symbolic action of eating poor food was to show people they ought to plan on this as “the new normal.”  Even now we hear people saying, “when things get back to normal…” but I also wonder if that will happen.  Collapse can occur slowly.  The thing about reading history is that we see centuries compressed into a few hundred pages.  Things take time.  Like restocking toilet paper.  Meanwhile empires crumble.

The Babylonian Empire didn’t last long.  Oh, it was long enough to mean some people knew nothing else, but looking back we can see that it held sway for decades rather than centuries.  In the middle of his book, Ezekiel changes his tune.  Once the temple is destroyed, when the worst has happened, he starts looking for a better future.  Many people have been under serious strain since November 2016.  Anxiety levels have been consistently high for damaging lengths of time.  I suspect the book of Revelation hasn’t been so well thumbed for decades.  The seventies were also apocalyptic times, as I recall.  Although we’re living through history, we each do it on the ground.  We experience it in our own little lives.  These seismic shifts can’t help but impact us.  It helps me to act like some things are normal.  I still get out of bed early.  I stumble into the kitchen and fumble on the light.  I settle down for breakfast with a prophet and wait.

Finding Fakes

The Museum of the Bible has been a source of controversy since well before it even opened.  Many people don’t understand what biblical scholars actually do, and this leads to misunderstandings and not infrequent accusations.  Turning no basic critical thinking skills toward a museum intended to champion certain social causes (claimed to be “biblical”), those who support it can’t understand why a “biblical” scholar would object.  What do biblical scholars do all day, anyway?  We’ll come back to that in a moment.  The reason I’m writing about the Museum of the Bible in the middle of a pandemic is an article on National Geographic’s website, “‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the public imagination for decades now.  Having seen the collection at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I know it can be an awe-inducing experience.  One thing biblical scholars do is ask questions.

Artifacts are becoming increasingly easy to fake.  Some biblical scholars were fooled by these fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  Now, my own specialization was Ugaritic.  Ugaritic is a cuneiform language with clay tablets as the substrate.  One of the things that you learn from looking at a specialized body of material closely and for a long time is how they were written.  Some of the Ugaritic tablets have writing along the edges, like marginal scrawls.  Some are written with large characters in a clumsy hand, while others are clearly done by a professional.  With some practice you can learn to recognize handwriting even in cuneiform.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on vellum or leather, are similar: specialists know just how they were written and close examination can reveal if they were made in antiquity or simply made to look antique.

Biblical scholars often get accused of taking the life out of things.  Would it be better to believe in something that is exposed as a fake?  Not exactly debunkers, scholars are those who ask pointed questions of unstated assumptions.  If some antiquities dealer claims to have access to material kept out of official hands, and is willing to charge you a lot for it, it’s best to call in the skeptics.  It works the same in most fields that keep our society going.  We need to trust those who’ve studied a subject in depth for many years.  Devoted their lives to it, in fact.  Many museum items around the world are forgeries and fakes.  It’s not too often, though, that someone specializing in really old stuff gets called in to make an evaluation.  There’s a risk involved—the risk of learning the truth.

Die Besuch

It was both sweet and perhaps misguided.  I’ve not written much about the coronavirus because I’ve really had nothing to say on the pandemic.  Also I’m squeamish.  Being a remote worker I spend most of my time alone anyway.  So when the knock came to my door, I wasn’t sure I should answer.  Afraid that some vital bit of information was to be conveyed, I gave in.  Two young ladies stood there and at first I thought they were selling Girl Scout cookies, but one of them had some copies of The Watchtower in a folder and I knew that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had come calling.  I didn’t invite them in.  I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but those who go around knocking on doors might have been exposed to who knows what.  They were here, the older one said, to give good news.

Although she didn’t mention the coronavirus directly, she said people were feeling anxious.  But God—our creator—had promised everything would work out.  She read me Revelation 21.4, about God wiping every tear from our eyes, from an iPad.  I’ve read that verse many times on my own, and, tainted with decades of specialist knowledge, knew a good deal about the context in which it was written.  The Witnesses didn’t stay long.  As they walked away I couldn’t help but think how this current scare has been affecting us all.  We are afraid.  I don’t need any advice when it comes to social distancing (I am an introvert, after all), but there’s a kind of hopelessness afoot.  I don’t read the papers but every headline is about the virus.  The world seems awfully quiet.

This will go down in history, I suspect, as a strange episode.  I feel guilty for conducting normal business, as if there is anything I could do to prevent the disease beyond isolating myself even further.  It’s perhaps the waiting.  Those of us in circumstances where joy is more fleeting than a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses often invest huge amounts of time waiting for things to get better.  The news, for example, that a piece has been accepted for publication.  Or that a long wished for promotion has come.  Or that somebody has actually read your book.  Such news is rare indeed and outside a disease rages out of control.  What else beyond missionary zeal would send you to strangers’ doors at such a time as this?  They didn’t even leave any tracts.

Merch

I recall the time I first heard the word “merch” used as a verb.  I was with some wonderful ladies on the second annual Women’s March, in New York City.  We had to leave fairly early to get there from Jersey and as we made our way to the march route, we saw the goods.  Vendors had all kinds of things on sale, from the ubiquitous tee-shirt to refrigerator magnets.  One of the women in the group said, “I guess you can merch anything.”  And so you can.  People will buy all kinds of identifying marks.  It’s a craze I personally don’t get into.  I buy plain clothes, having more of an Amish aesthetic.  Still, I was a little surprised to notice that the Society of Biblical Literature is now merching itself.

Now, who can blame a non-profit for trying to score a little on the side?  We all know what that’s like.  What I find myself most curious about is who would want to advertise that they’re working on a degree that will, in all likelihood, find them on the breadline when it’s all over?  I’ve known many who’re proud to be nerds—they’ve got employment to give them creds.  Those of us tormented by the meaning of it all, not so much.  My decision to go to grad school was accompanied by the blessed assurance that there’d be plenty of opportunities, but there was no merch.  Indeed, I was two years into my doctorate before  I even found out what the SBL was—the great connector whence came jobs.  At least in theory.  I found my post at Nashotah House because a friend told me about it.  I still have some of their merch.

Knowing what I do now, would I have done it any differently?  It’s difficult to say.  Who can recall the frame of mind of his younger self with such clarity as to know his choices?  Having studied Bible I was curious whence it came—to turn back even further the pages of history.  As I sit here in the early morning I have on my last two remaining pieces of Edinburgh merch.  My moth-eaten woolen divinity scarf and my blue alma mater sweatshirt.  I try hard not to think how close to three decades ago it was.  I was so sure I’d find a job with that rare Scottish degree, imprint of John Knox’s breeches still fresh upon my head.  Instead the merch of my current employer—a coffee mug—stands before me, reminding me that work alone awaits.

More Classics

Western civilization, in as far as it still exists, has traditionally identified itself with a heritage that includes the classics and the Bible.  As study of the Bible grew beyond a bunch of guys discussing what they thought the text meant, realization dawned that comparison with the classics might not be a bad idea.  The main difference between the two was that one was considered revealed by God and the other was mere human invention.  Nevertheless, an educated person was expected to be well acquainted with both.  In today’s version of “western civ” it’s sort of an embarrassment to admit to being interested in the dusty old classics, and the Bible has reverted to being a bunch of guys discussing what they think it means.  In the interim there was some fantastic work done that helped us understand whence we came.

Those of us born in the sixties or later were raised in a culture where the classics were diminishing.  Yes, I’d heard of Cicero, Seneca, and even Ovid, but I couldn’t tell you what they wrote.  By the time I really took an interest I had the hundreds of volumes of the Loeb Classical Library to tackle—a daunting feat even for an undergrad.  Those guys wrote a lot.  Compared to the classics the Bible—a pretty big book—is miniscule.  As someone who deals with biblical studies all day long (and who has done so for decades) I’ve had to pick up on the classics a bit.  Those of us who were more inclined toward the Hebrew end of the spectrum discovered the vast, and still not fully translated, archive of ancient West Asian material.  If you wanted to include these ancient classics that influenced our civilization only indirectly, you wouldn’t have time even to tweet.

There are those who accuse classicists of any strip of being backward looking.  Those of us so accused are often amazed at how current events so closely resemble things the ancients encountered.  Historians, relegated to their shadowy corners, have been the Cassandras of us all, warning that if we don’t learn this stuff we’ll end up repeating it.  As often as they prove correct the rest of the “civilization” scratches its head in wonder at how we’ve come to this point.  I’ve not read all of the classics.  I’ve not even read all of the Ugaritic tablets—more have been discovered since my ill-fated dance with academia.  We have much to learn from ourselves.  About ourselves.  If only we could spend our time in the classic pastime of reading.

Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.