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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wisdom Books

So far, I've completed the Books of Moses, the Gospels, the Histories, and now the Wisdom books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. These books are valuable because they address the real life of individuals. Even the Psalms, which I've admitted don't always hold my attention, are important because they show how a person can express himself or herself to the Almighty. I don't necessarily agree with all of the proverbs, but I appreciate that they elevate the importance of everyday living. Which is also true of Job on suffering, Ecclesiastes on despair, and Song of Songs on passion.

Going forward I have the prophets and the epistles. There will be some relief in Jonah & Daniel, which I know to be more narrative. However, my expectation is a much more serious theologically heavy climb from here on out.

Day 81 (SEX!)

[reaction to OYB's Sep. 6-8 readings]

Today's readings--I guess obviously--include the Song of Songs, sometimes called the Song of Solomon. It basically a love poem that focuses overwhelmingly on the physical aspects of the "Beloved" and her "Lover". The poem is explicitly lustful, although I'm not sure that the poem alludes to intercourse. For example, we have this from chapter 2:
3 Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
4 Let him lead me to the banquet hall,
and let his banner over me be love.
5 Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
6 His left arm is under my head,
and his right arm embraces me.
7 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you
by the gazelles and by the does of the field:
Do not arouse or awaken love
until it so desires.
I don't know. If you are tasting a guy's fruit does that mean you're having sex, or just making out? Depending on what you want to use this book for it might matter. Similarly, there is nothing to suggest Beloved and Lover (renamed She & He in the more recent NIV translation :-( ) are married. Also, although Beloved talks about Solomon's carriage and warriors it isn't at all clear to me that Lover is Solomon. In fact, I kind of assume he is not.

I take this book first and foremost to acknowledge that sexual passion is a good thing. Sure, we have plenty of stories about how it can be abused and misused. But, nonetheless, almost pure physical lust is okay. (Beloved and Lover do love each other, but more time is spent on her breasts and describing his stag-like nature than on their inner beauty.)

There is also some weirdness in the poem. Beloved goes out looking for Lover twice (something that sort of reminded me of Proust's passage in Swann in Love where Swann desperately seeks the woman he realizes he is in love with), but the second time, this happens in chapter 5:
6 I opened for my beloved,
but my beloved had left; he was gone.
My heart sank at his departure.
I looked for him but did not find him.
I called him but he did not answer.
7 The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
They beat me, they bruised me;
they took away my cloak,
those watchmen of the walls!
8 Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you—
if you find my beloved,
what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.
More strange is this toward the very end from Beloved's friends:
8 We have a little sister,
and her breasts are not yet grown.
What shall we do for our sister
on the day she is spoken for?
9 If she is a wall,
we will build towers of silver on her.
If she is a door,
we will enclose her with panels of cedar.
Uh, okay. We know this isn't Beloved since much space has been devoted to her gazelle like breasts. So, not exactly sure what the point of bringing up your sister is. I don't know how Song of Songs compares to "To the Virgins", "Shall I compare thee", or other sexy literary works. I also don't know how it compares to contemporary writings about passion. Maybe something to look into another day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Day 80 (Wind chasing)

[reaction to OYB's Sep. 2-5 readings]

Another supersized selection so I could get the entire Book of Ecclesiastes in. So, Esther is about situational ethics, and Job is about suffering, and maybe it is just my looming fortieth birthday talking, but it seems Ecclesiastes is about mid-life crisis. The author is identified as "the Teacher" who was a son of king David and also a king in Jerusalem. (That's Solomon for those of you who have not been paying attention.) And despite having everything he could want, not just power and money and--yeah, he said it--a harem, but also wisdom and knowledge, he goes back to the same refrain at least three times: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. 2:24, see also 5:18; 8:15.

It occurs to me that this is the American dilemma--how can you relate to the world when you are not constantly joyful despite having literally everything you want. Our problems are that we eat too much food, have houses that are too big, spend too much time in leasure. Compare to the existence of ancient Hebrews, I really think we have much more in common with Solomon--the harem notwithstanding. And I think his refrain is not a bad one.

This book is also honest in that it, like Job, recognizes that bad things do happen to good people. It also provided important cultural language such as dust to dust and the lyrics for a Byrds song. On, and his catch phrase for things that are meaningless is that it is like chasing the wind, hence, the post title. Also like Job, this book is encapsulated in prose that sort of explain what is going on. These words were likely added by editors, but not NIV editors. Rather, ancient editors.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Careless Reaction to Histories

Folks, my professional obligations are interferring with the time I have to reflect on my readings, particularly bonus reflections like this that cover whole Biblical genres. So here's what I think about 1 Samuel through Esther:

~ I like the variety of situations
~ I think some of the story telling is compelling and thought provoking
~ I like reading about God's people forming a nation under God
~ I like that we don't have the same pressure of "do it this way" that there is in Leviticus et al.

* I think much of it is difficult to relate to: i.e., the reduced value of individual children & women; the lack of familiarity with other cultures of the time.
* I rarely find myself uplifted or inspired by this tales (cf. the passion, the resurrection, even the nativity)

Ultimately, I think there contain important references for Jesus' ministry, they are full of stories on which other writers of western civilization rely, and I'm glad to be able to talk to my pastor about how do we survive this time of exodus. Now to catch my bus!

Day 79 (Finishing Job)

[reaction to OYB's Aug. 27 to Sep. 1 readings]

Today's selection is supersized to get to the end of the book of Job. So, throughout the book, Job has been crafting this idea that if he could just make his case to God, he would be found guiltless and be vindicated. Finally, he rests his case, which he has really been making to his friends, with these words from chapter 31:
35 (“Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
36 Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.
37 I would give him an account of my every step;
I would present it to him as to a ruler.)
Just as a note of curiosity, one of the Psalms in my reading for today seems to ask for something similar, but with a much different tone.
I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Psalm 42. Anyway, after Job has convinced his friends that he doesn't deserve what God has given him, he has to endure the scorn from some kid, Elihu, which includes these ironic lines, "Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight. Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man!" Yeah, that's what Job deserves is to be tested, like for instance in some game between YHWH and Satan.

Job comes to a close first with Job getting what he has been asking for. YHWH responds, not by declaring that Job was guilty of anything--which the story tells us he was not--but by asking, "Who the hell are you to question me?" Or, more precisely, "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!" God Rant. Not exactly comfort. Then we have the super weird ending where everything is alright for Job after after. I was pretty sure this was added later, but Fundamentalists rule internet searching for theology, so I'll have to address this when I have my own books in front of me. In any case, I've never studied Job without people being trouble by this idea. So what, he got new kids, that doesn't replace the ones he lost. The book of Job wonderfully illuminates the problem of evil and unjust suffering. Does it provide any answers?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day 78 (With and ONLY with God)

[reaction to OYB's Aug. 24-26 readings]

The Bible is full of affirmations of God helping people succeed. The histories, which I need to write a general response to, are full of stories of people going against God and failing. One of today's readings from Proverbs makes it personal, "There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD." 21:30. After his friends just don't seem to get it, Job also chooses to highlight some of the bad things that God can do to a person:
13 “To God belong wisdom and power;
counsel and understanding are his.
14 What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
those he imprisons cannot be released.
15 If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
16 To him belong strength and insight;
both deceived and deceiver are his.
17 He leads rulers away stripped
and makes fools of judges.
18 He takes off the shackles put on by kings
and ties a loincloth around their waist.
19 He leads priests away stripped
and overthrows officials long established.
20 He silences the lips of trusted advisers
and takes away the discernment of elders.
21 He pours contempt on nobles
and disarms the mighty.
22 He reveals the deep things of darkness
and brings utter darkness into the light.
23 He makes nations great, and destroys them;
he enlarges nations, and disperses them.
24 He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason;
he makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in darkness with no light;
he makes them stagger like drunkards
12:13-25. Many of the psalms do this too, but I really think it is valuable to have a character in the Bible dealing with suffering and being angry at God about it. I couldn't pass up this little gem, however, provided by one of Job's friends that details how evil is its own punishment.
12 “Though evil is sweet in his mouth
and he hides it under his tongue,
13 though he cannot bear to let it go
and lets it linger in his mouth,
14 yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
it will become the venom of serpents within him.
15 He will spit out the riches he swallowed;
God will make his stomach vomit them up.
16 He will suck the poison of serpents;
the fangs of an adder will kill him.
17 He will not enjoy the streams,
the rivers flowing with honey and cream.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Day 77 (Sin & Health)

[reaction to OYB's Aug. 21-23 readings]

Does your sinfulness cause you to be physically ill. Psalm 38 says maybe it does. The book of Job says sinfulness is at least not the only reason we get sick. Maybe God has a bet with Satan about how much suffering you can take. The fable of Job is so important for everyday living because it strikes out at the notion that all misfortune comes from sin; particularly on the personal level. If it is a literal story, however, it would really call into question exactly how good is our God after all.

Something I noticed for the first time on this reading is how Job's friends really do try to comfort him. After God lets one horrible calamity after another be brought on faithful Job by Satan, his friends
set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
Now, they will eventual suggest this is all Job's fault for something he or his ancestors did. But I think sitting in silence with a friend for 7 days shows real devotion.

Day 76 (Greatest Hits)

[reaction to OYB's Aug. 17-20 readings]

After struggling with some advice that at least I question from Paul, today's extended reading includes some of the most memorable bits from Corinthains. From 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Of course, it is actually in the middle of scolding them for having bad table manners. Then we get chapter 12, with the ever popular many-gifts-one-Spirit theme. Could we have planning retreats without this chapter? Finally, a little something that even the pagans will recognize. The Love Chapter. A must read for even the most secular of weddings. "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Silliness aside, Paul wrote some important things; some meaningful things. And it is key to remember from time to time.

Today's readings--because I stretched them to four days--also contained the entire book of Esther. Like the book of Job, it is such a compelling tale. Situational ethics galore. How to survive while in exile.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Day 75 (Subtle Change)

[reaction to OYB's Aug. 13-15 readings]

Nehemiah, who is a governor, has overseen the completion of the wall around Jerusalem. Ezra, the preist and scribe, deserves some credit, too. We celebrate with a recitation of the history of the chosen people that does not name a single king of Israel or Judah. Neh. 9:4-38.

Paul writes about food again. The letters to Corinth pre-date his letter to Romans. The major theme is there: "who really cares if you eat food dedicated to idols, just don't make a show of it." Nonetheless, I believe you can see the evolution of his thoughts. Cf. 1 Corin. 10:23-33, Rom. 14

The Book of Nehemiah closes with some chilling racial purity material. Neh. 13:1-3, 23-31. I feel compelled to point out that this rule would have excluded David's great-grandma Ruth, who I suspect he called GG. See e.g., Matt. 1:5, Ruth 1:4.