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.

Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.

Incident at the Wailing Wall

While reading about Jerusalem lately, I recalled my first visit to the Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is the only standing part left of the temple that Herod the Great refurbished on the site of the temple originally built during Solomon’s reign, destroyed by the Babylonians, and rebuilt under the Persians. This was called the “Second Temple” because the first had been razed and although Herod had basically rebuilt it, the second one had never been destroyed (that would happen a few decades down the road). Today the Wailing Wall, the western wall of that magnificent temple, is a sacred site to Jews, and to not a few Christians. My visit took place in 1987. I was volunteering on a dig at Tel Dor, and on a free weekend I’d taken the bus to Jerusalem with some friends to look around.

It was late Friday afternoon. I was on my first trip overseas, and, like most fresh-eyed youngsters, photo-documenting as much as I could. I raised my camera. A guard walked up to me. “No pictures on the Sabbath,” he said. He had a machine gun and I didn’t, so there was no arguing the point. Besides, I had just finished the roll. (Does anyone out there remember film cameras?) I stepped into the shade of an alcove to change the roll. A couple of Hasidic men stopped me. “No photos on the Sabbath,” they warned. I assured them I was just changing my film. It was clear, however, that no more pics would be snapped. I rejoined my party and took out a notebook—at least I could jot down a few impressions. Another guard approached, “No writing on the Sabbath,” he said.

This episode has stayed with me over the years. With Trump’s international tour, I’m reminded that I’ve always striven to avoid the “ugly American” syndrome. I respect the local rules. The incident at the Wailing Wall, however, was a case of religious rules, wasn’t it? Does the enforced rest of the Sabbath apply to Protestants? Indeed, I’d been warned that if I didn’t catch a bus before sundown I’d never make it to Jerusalem on a Friday evening at all. Conflicting theocracies have led to more than their share of international sorrow. Why not take the high road and simply absorb what is going on around me? There’s a profound wisdom in that. Travel should inform our worldview. Those who encounter walls should stop and consider all they might mean to all who will eventually face them.

Before and After

Fresh from seminary with a head full of historical-critical theory competing against my immortal soul, I was lost in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I’d learned enough in class and in my own reading to know that the association of Jesus’ burial here only dates back to the fourth century. And also that the identification was made by a politician—Helena was the mother of Constantine—and not a archaeologist, or even a theologian (God help us!). The location was, in other words, hearsay. Three hundred years is a long time to keep track of where something happened. I sit on a bus trundling through Weehawken every day and ponder that we don’t really know where Alexander Hamilton was shot. Such are the ravages of time. I was young and, presciently didn’t know if I’d ever return to Israel, so I wanted to make sure at the time. It was holy confusion. Finally an elderly Coptic monk beaconed me into his edicule to touch the stone. He gave me a cheap rosary and asked for a donation.

churchoftheholysepulcher1885

The scene returned to me when a friend sent me a story about the “discovery” of the actual chamber behind the build-up. The report by Fiona MacDonald in Science Alert briefly tells the background to the location and describes the hurried excavation. Still, we have no idea if, as Indiana Jones might say, “They’re digging in the wrong place.” Tradition has nevertheless hallowed the spot. For seventeen-hundred years some people have suggested this is where it all happened, and where many of the liturgical churches agree. Some Protestant groups, attuned to the Bible a bit more than tradition, have suggested The Garden Tomb is the correct location. The years ago when an academic future seemed in store, I stopped by there too, just in case. There were no crowds.

An enormous amount of effort was poured into building and maintaining the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Crowded with tourists and various orders of clergy, I wondered how anyone might find such an experience spiritual. Territories are marked out between the various denominations seeking legitimacy in stone. Who wouldn’t want to own the spot where it actually happened? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate truth claim? So more money is being spent. More digging is taking place. Science, some believe, might come to the rescue of religion. From my experience, brief though it was, trying to make sense of the Holy Sepulcher, I have my doubts. But what do I know? I’m not even sure if Copts use rosaries.

Only Hummus

I remember the moment well. I was in Jerusalem on my own. Although in my early twenties, I really didn’t know much. The man at the vending cart didn’t speak English, but I was hungry. My first experience of falafel would certainly not be my last. After I married a few years later, I introduced my wife to the various Middle Eastern foods I’d tried. Hummus became a personal favorite, especially after I became a vegetarian. There are plenty of things for vegetarians to enjoy, and many cuisines of the world have less meat-heavy options than many restaurants I’ve experienced in the States. Hummus, to get to my point, can be rather bland. It is generally inoffensive, and people of many dietary and religious restrictions can eat it. The Christian Century ran a blurb recently about a hummus restaurant in Netanya, Israel. This eatery offers a fifty percent discount to Jewish and Arabic customers who sit together. Here is a workable idea for peace.

We all have to eat. Half the trick to world peace is getting people who dislike each other to sit down and do it together. Those of imperialist bent may not realize, or even be able to see, that we have more in common than most agitators think. Human needs are the same, and often, very easily provided. You like hummus? I like hummus! We must not be so different, after all. If instead of weaponizing themselves, radical believers armed themselves with food to share, not nearly so many warplanes would have to take to the air. I admit I’m an idealist. I don’t think peace is impossible. We can choose to focus on what divides us, or on what we have in common.

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Perhaps if I’d never traveled to Jerusalem I would never have tried hummus. I didn’t travel for the food, but travel led me to a kind of serenity. Both falafel and hummus are made primarily of chickpeas, a versatile vegetable that has a verisimilitude of peace. If we could learn to eat together we would find it harder to hate each other after that. Sharing our mutual needs sometimes, as the restaurant owner in Netanya understands, requires a financial incentive. Although it may be lucre that lures those who are different to the same table, it is the peace itself that, I believe, will keep them coming back.