Prophet Margins

One of the most misunderstood of biblical phenomena is prophecy.  One of the reasons it’s so misunderstood is that other ancient peoples came to associate it with predicting the future.  Now, what prophets said often had implications for the future, but they were more forth-tellers, as they say in the biz, than fore-tellers.  Amos, for instance, was a prophet concerned with social justice.  We know little about his life, but we can discern that ancient prophets could be paid to become “yes men” (“yes persons” just doesn’t sound right, and most were male) for the establishment.  Kings then, as now, surrounded themselves with sycophants who would tell them their policies were approved, or even ordained by God.  Amos was not one of those.

Amos points out in the book attributed to him that he was no paid prophet.  He was an honest worker with a great concern for social justice.  He lived in a prosperous time, but the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor troubled him.  (Amos has never been a favorite among prosperity gospelers, since his message has always been recognized as authentic among both Jews and Christians and he condemns the inequality rampant in society.)  Many in the eighth century BCE believed ceremonial actions—like, say, holding up a Bible in front of a church—pleased God.  Amos boldly declared such things sickened God as long as society favored the rich at the expense of the poor.  There’s a reason Evangelicals and Republicans tend to avoid Amos.  “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is not an easy thing to hear when you’re busy giving tax breaks to those who earn more than enough while refusing basic health care to the poor.

Prophets tend to speak of the future in conditional terms.  If your ways don’t change, then this will happen.  Some Christians, anxious to prove that Jesus was the messiah, came to see prophets as great predictors of the future.  Amos would likely have taken exception to them.  Even in his own day Amos made people uncomfortable.  His favorite image for God was that of a lion ready to attack.  His contemporaries told him to shut up.  Amos then made the famous statement that he was no professional prophet.  He would not adjust his message so that the comfortable could feel good about themselves.  If Amos were in America the last four years would’ve had his throat raw with pointing out to “Christians” how they’d come to misrepresent everything the prophets stood for.  We need more like him today.

Dating Daniel

Last semester one of my students had an encounter with a literalist. This is not uncommon, but the issue raised ran counter to what we were covering in class, namely, the book of Daniel. Apocalyptically minded literalists use Daniel and Revelation as a two-tiered roadmap to the future, supposing that these books are predictions of the end of time. Scholars who’ve studied apocalyptic literature, however, know that such interpretations misrepresent a fascinating genre of ancient writing that says more about its own time than some unforeseen future (our time). Nevertheless, the myth of Daniel’s foresight persists.

Long ago biblical scholars noted that although set in the period of the Babylonian Empire, the book of Daniel makes several basic errors about that time period. On the other hand, Daniel knows the period of the Seleucid Empire (when it was actually written) in relatively precise detail. We think nothing of it when an author today sets a story in the past, but somehow this is dirty pool in the composition of an evangelical Bible. Apocalyptic was intended to provide encouragement to those under persecution, not to give them a Google-mapped future. It is in the nature of apocalyptic to present the author as a seer, but the future age is a Zoroastrian contribution that gives books like Daniel and Revelation their edge.

Misunderstanding genre is a large concern among literary scholars. A document like the Bible, which contains several distinct genres, must be handled carefully if it isn’t to be misrepresented. I used to point out that if the passages intended to be read ironically were understood literally many Bible-quoters would be in trouble. After all, doesn’t Amos declare, “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more” (4.4)? Learning to place biblical genres within their proper context makes a world of difference. Instead of Daniel telling us to hold tight because the end is near, he is found to be encouraging those who were suffering in his own day. We have no biblical roadmaps for the end times because the end of the story has not yet been written.

Daniel tells the lions a story about the future

Natufia to Say

The Natufian culture predated the Israelites by millennia. They were gone by at least 7000 years by the time Israel appeared. The Natufians seem to have been the first permanent residents of a hotly disputed piece of real estate: Israel/Palestine. On Monday MSNBC reported on the archaeological find of a feasting hall among the Natufians. The story reminded my wife of similar stone-age sites that we visited in the Orkney Islands several years ago. What the story reminded me of, however, was the marzeah. The Natufian site features two activities: feasting and burial. The article notes the coincidence of 28 human burials, including one shaman, and the unmistakable signs of feasting. Bring them together and its sounds like marzeah time to me!

Natufian burial, from Wikipedia Commons

The marzeah is an imperfectly understood social institution from the ancient Levant. It is mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Ugaritic texts. Although plausibly reconstructed by modern theorists, we simply do not have a complete record of what the marzeah entailed. Two of the key elements seem to have been feasting and a funerary nature. Monotheistic religions tend to downplay the role of the dead as influential entities since they interfere with a monistic view of the divine. The two Hebrew Bible references (Amos 6.7 and Jeremiah 16.5) do not speak highly of the practice. The Ugaritic material suggests drinking may have been involved as well, further problematizing the ritual.

Now here is where the ambiguity of archaeology is thrown into sharp relief. The fact is we do not know what the Natufians were doing when they buried or feasted at this site. The Hilazon Tachtit Cave does not seem to have been a regular occupation site, and we do not have any reason to connect the burials with the feasting. Beyond a hunch. The hunch is the incredible urge to bring like things together. People excel at pattern-recognition. When I read of funerals and feasting my mind leapt to the marzeah. There seems to be no organic connection between the Natufians and Israelites (or Ugaritians), but the continuity of cultural concepts seems to strong to dismiss. Were ancient people toasting their dead with feasts that were remembered down into the Late Bronze and Iron Ages?

Holy Amos, Holy Micah, Pray for Us

The semesters when I teach the prophets invariably find me filled with a holy rage toward injustice of all stripes. Unfortunately there is plenty of cause for basic human indignation caused by greed, cupidity, and elitism. I see New Jersey, my current home, as a microcosm. In this little version of the universe, a highly diverse population with over-crowded highways and endless financial woes, I see reflected some of the great challenges facing the human race. When such a delicate balance is guided by a self-serving government the human cost will always be high.

Our current governor, Chris “Slash” Christie, has made himself a national reputation by cutting the basic services required to buoy up a state where the underprivileged seek an opportunity to get ahead. The governor’s favorite target, naturally, is public education. Public school and university funds have been chopped with a zeal to impress Vlad the Impaler (the governor’s children attend private school, thank you). The Associated Press today, however, reports that the number of the governor’s staff who “earn” more than six figures has nearly doubled since our last governor’s term ended. We the taxpayers are being asked to fork over an extra two million dollars to the state budget to support those who live in comfort while our children are being systematically targeted as luxuries the state simply can’t afford. When will people say “enough is enough”?

The Republican Party, since it has shamelessly crawled into bed with religious conservatism, has flouted the message of the Bible in the name of the Bible. Only by ignoring the biblical characters known as prophets, and one guy from Nazareth who went by the name of Joshua, is it possible to see any right in feathering the nest of public “servants” while stealing from the children of their constituencies. I am glad Amos and Micah are dead. If they were alive and in New Jersey they would be suffering torment beyond words.

When Your World Rocks

The prophet Amos famously dates his oracles as “two years before the earthquake.” In ancient times (and some modern, dimly lit regions of some religious minds) earthquakes were thought to be signs of divine displeasure. We lost that naïve, magical view with the discovery of tectonic plates and fault zones, but it is hard not to take earthquakes personally. A third major earthquake of the year hit Turkey on Sunday, leaving further human distress in its wake. While scientists assure us that earthquakes are not increasing in frequency, we nevertheless hear more and more about them.

Although we have the technology to build earthquake-proof buildings, the nations suffering from the recent quakes do not have the luxury of ensuring that those who live around fault zones all have housing to withstand that unsuspected temblor. Those who cannot afford high cost housing are fated to be victims. We don’t cause the earthquakes, but we can ensure that affluent cities will withstand them. Haiti, Chile, and Turkey seem a long way distant.

Whose fault is it anyway?

Scanning the unfair distribution of wealth across the world, it is far easier to see an angry god behind an earthquake than it is to relinquish our personal gain. Perhaps it is a result of our biological urge to survive that we constantly seek to increase our own advantage while shaking our heads sadly as people we don’t know become the victims. Meanwhile neo-cons and prosperity gospelers bray loudly that wealth is their god’s reward for lives of righteousness in this wicked world. It is a scenario worthy of Amos himself.

False Profits

December’s edition of the Atlantic Monthly features a disturbing article by Hanna Rosin entitled “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” What is disturbing about this article is not the insinuation that many conservative Christian groups have caused far more problems than they’ve solved (“guilty as charged”), but the utter duplicity of the movement. The deception begins with the claim of the Prosperity Gospel pundits that they are holding true to biblical principles. In reality they rewrite the Bible to make it fit their vision of personal gain at the expense of the weak and needy. You can hear the sounds of Amos and Micah being ground beneath their wingtip heels.

The Prosperity Gospel is a particularly virulent disease in the United States, a nation of incomprehensible contrasts. The clergy of the Prosperity Gospel (churches of this stripe are among the largest and fastest growing in America) demand tithes on the part of their sometimes poor but always hopeful congregants. Most of them are being set up for failure. But it will be failure with a smile. As I read Rosin’s article, I was saddened that a growing number of those buying into this “Gospel” are those among the exploited Hispanic community. The message they are being given is the worst kind of blasphemy. One such believer, according to Rosin, claimed “the rich are closer to God.” A message farther from the actual Gospels would be difficult to concoct.

Prosperity Gospelers, decidedly not mainstream Christianity in theological outlook, judge a book by its glitzy cover. Its leaders, often fabulously wealthy, hold out unrealistic hope to their gullible and disappointed followers. It is so easy when a congregant looses everything simply to blame it on a lack of faith. This bogus idea of material payoff for spiritual righteousness is not only dangerous, but it is redefining the religious scene in North America. The article follows the story of Fernando Garay, the leader of Casa del Padre, a Prosperity Gospel church. When asked by Rosin about buying a house (a sign of God’s blessing) he tellingly replied, “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” Americans have a fondness for snake-oil and entrepreneurs. Now the hucksters are the ones claiming the right to define what Christianity really is. It is a religion that even Jesus would fail to recognize.

Not Lion

Being raised without much of a paternal presence, I frequently wondered at how church services were always presided over by men but populated by women. When I grew up (well, part-way at least) I became interested in feminist interpretations of the patriarchal Bible. The idea that just half of the human population seemed to have all the interpretive privileges simply struck me as unfair. Being a man myself, however, I wasn’t sure where to go with feminist interpretation, or even if I was qualified! This penchant no doubt vexed many an official in my Nashotah House days, but the conviction only grew stronger there.

While preparing class materials on the prophet Amos, I recalled how fond the prophet was of leonine imagery for Yahweh. Amos characterizes Yahweh as roaring, hunting for prey. Curious about lions in Israel, my research revealed that the great felines are extinct in that part of the world. The Barbary lion, extinct in the wild, was the biblical lion. As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.

Further research revealed that lions like to sleep even more than most teenagers. It is not unusual for a lion to sleep 20 hours a day! When they have to wake up, however, they are hungry. And here was the interesting tidbit — when lions hunt it is usually the females that do the work! Once a kill is made, the male struts in and takes the proverbial lion’s share, but the lionesses are the hunters. In the ancient world, before television, ipods, or even mindless Ann Coulter drivel, people were keenly aware of their environment. Ancient writers often made astute observations of nature. Would Amos, the shepherd, have known that it is the lioness who makes the kill? Was Amos the first feminist in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Compare the lions.

Compare the lions.

Which is scarier?

Which is scarier?