NY TIMES June 19, 2000
Sacred Magic Can Elevate the Secular Storyteller
By ELIE WIESEL
Most writers speak poorly about their work. And is work the right word? As a child I doubted that telling stories to strangers could be a serious endeavor, especially since often those stories were not even true. Everybody knows that stories are, by definition, the fantasies of those who don't know how to do anything else. I thought of writers as clumsy, lazy and frankly useless. Actually, one could very well live without them.
In the secular school I was sometimes forced to attend, my teachers made me read novels: first Romanian, then Hungarian novels. But I would lie if I said I remember their titles or the names of their authors, for I was too absorbed in my study of sacred literature. The stories and their commentaries about the binding of Isaac, Jacob's fight with the angel, the Revelation at Sinai or Moses' solitary death interested me much more than the fictional adventures of our national writers.
And then there was the Talmud with its often stormy debates, the spellbinding power of Midrashic legends. I loved to plunge into their deep waters. There were times, as I tried to solve ancient questions with the help of masters and disciples of long ago, that I would smile, responding to the magic of personal encounters.
Still, the Hasidic stories were my favorite. To hear my maternal grandfather tell them in his nostalgic yet lively manner was to be transported into a world apart, a vivid realm in which the wicked always ended humbled and punished, whereas their victims forgot their misfortunes and found themselves invoking their right to happiness. In short, this was a world in which miracles were part of everyday life.
Of all the Hasidic tales, the ones I loved best were those told by Franz Kafka's predecessor, the celebrated and mysterious Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. They made me dream. When Kafka, the great novelist from Prague, spoke of his wish to see his tales turned into prayers, he was more than likely thinking of Rabbi Nahman. Only he did the reverse: he transformed his prayers into tales. Was Rabbi Nahman then Kafka's teacher? Perhaps, but surely he is mine.
I still feel close to his beggars and madmen roaming through forests inhabited by princes in love with exiled princesses. There one hears the wondrous songs that lift the soul to its celestial roots but also the harsh laughter that signals the nefarious presence of demons ready to tear apart the heart of man so as to consolidate their eternal reign.
I confess that had I not been drawn to that strange and beautiful universe, I might not have written some of my books, surely not those that reflect my love for the Hasidic tradition.
But what about my other books, my novels? Or my short stories, essays and plays?
My very first book, "Night," was, paradoxically, born more in certainty than doubt. I knew I had to testify about my past but did not know how to go about it. Here, neither Talmudic sages nor Rabbi Nahman and his peers were of much help. In fact, in spite of all my readings -- for in the meantime I had studied French, German and American classics -- I felt incapable and perhaps unworthy of fulfilling my task as survivor and messenger. I had things to say but not the words to say them.
Acutely aware of the poverty of my means, language became obstacle. At every page I thought, "That's not it." So I began again with other verbs and other images. No, that wasn't it either. But what exactly was that it I was searching for? It must have been all that eludes us, hidden behind a veil so as not to be stolen, usurped and trivialized. Words seemed weak and pale.
Which ones could be used to tell of the long journey in sealed cattle cars toward the unknown? And of the discovery of a twisted and cold universe where some people came to kill and others to die? And of the separation, during nights engulfed by flames, the brutal disruption of families, what words could describe them? And the disappearance of a small Jewish child so wise and so beautiful when she smiled, killed together with her mother the very night of their arrival? Before these images, all words disintegrate and fall lifeless into the ashes.
And yet it was necessary to continue. And speak without words; more precisely, without the proper words. And to try to trust the silence that surrounds and transcends them, while knowing, "That was still not it."
Is this the reason why the manuscript -- written in Yiddish, my mother tongue, and translated first into French and then into English -- was rejected by all the major publishers in France and the United States? In New York a renowned editor justified her rejection in a letter to my literary agent: "Anyway, this author will never write another book."
She was right on one point: I never wrote another book about my wartime experiences. "Night" silenced in me the voices that clamored to be heard. Anyway, I thought, people will not listen.
To a friend who wanted to know why I tend to avoid the subject of Auschwitz in my work, I answered, "Woe to the writer who is overwhelmed by his subject." Instead I chose to write on the Bible, the Talmud and Hasidism, and novels on Jerusalem, the Middle Ages, mysticism, Communism and Alzheimer's disease, all so as not to find myself among the dead. There were moments when I regretted the times when, faithful to my vow, I let silence be my only link to the violent but mute world of my nightmares.
Miraculously, my first small volume got a good reception. Was it the writing, or was I protected by the event it described? Reviewers seemed to like me. Perhaps they agreed with the skeptical New York editor who felt I would never write another book: why "kill" him since he is already half dead?
I considered myself lucky. And I was. My second book was also a succès d'estime. Yet a voice inside me kept warning me by whispering Napoleon's mother's wise comment "If it would only last." Well, it did not. The next book brought me my first negative review. Why deny it? I was miserable. I wanted to go from newsstand to newsstand and buy up every single copy of the daily containing the unkind evaluation of my novel. Later I learned to cope with nastiness better than with praise.
Now with the passing of years I know that the fate of books is not unlike that of human beings: some bring joy, others anguish. Yet one must resist the urge to throw away pen and paper. After all, authentic writers write even if there is little chance for them to be published; they write because they cannot do otherwise, like Kafka's messenger who is privy to a terrible and imperious truth that no one is willing to receive but is nonetheless compelled to go on.
Were he to stop, to choose another road, his life would become banal and sterile. Writers write because they cannot allow the characters that inhabit them to suffocate them. These characters want to get out, to breathe fresh air and partake of the wine of friendship; were they to remain locked in, they would forcibly break down the walls. It is they who force the writer to tell their stories.
Writing, however, is getting more and more difficult. Not to repeat oneself is every writer's obsession. Not to slide into sentimentality, not to imitate, not to spread oneself too thin. To respect words that are heavy with their own past. Every word both separates and links; it depends on the writer whether it becomes wound or balm, curse or promise. It would be simple and comfortable to play with words and win; all it takes is to play the game and practice a bit of self-delusion.
But for my generation, playing games is not an option. We need to bear witness, we need to hope, with Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, that with a measure of luck, some of our testimonies will safeguard the essence of our prayer.
Ultimately the Jewish boy from my little Jewish town was wrong: writing is anything but easy.
The following material serves to close out my course for those who wish to familiarize themselves with the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
Introduction to Deuteronomy
The name of the last part of the Pentateuch is Devarim in Hebrew. This means Words and derives from the opening line of the book. However, the title was once known as The Repetition of the Torah which was translated into Deuteronomion in Greek and then as Deuteronomium in Latin and finally as Deuteronomy in English.
Moses has brought his people to the boundaries of of the Holy Land. In several orations and a song Moses reviews the forty years of wandering and warns against the coming temptations of Canaan.The book is quite theological in its messages and might well be skimmed by the teacher. (Prominent in the book is the theme that if people disobey God's word they will be punished, but if they are obedient they will be rewarded, clearly a difficult part of the Bible to teach in the public school.) Many modern critics of various shades of opinion assign the book to a far later time in history than its traditional place at the conclusion of the forty years following the exodus. There is traditional agreement that the book was lost for a time and rediscovered in 621 BCE during the reign of King Josiah.
Tradition assigns this book to Moses' last days, when the Israelites camped in the land of Moab (present day Jordan) and prepared to enter Canaan following their lengthy and roundabout journey from Egypt forced upon them by the Edomite king's refusal (Numbers 20:14-21) to permit them a pass through his country. It is from the summit of Mount Nebo, across the Jordan River from Jericho, that Moses is permitted to view the Promised Land he is not to enter.
Moses' third and longest farewell speech extends from chapters 12 through 25 and is the final law code of the Torah. Chapters 27 and 28 comprise a long series of blessings and curses, while the next two chapters reemphasize the importance to Israel of loyalty to God and the covenant. Chapter 31 confirms the passing of the mantle of leadership to Joshua and the transmission of the law to the Levites, who are to read it in public assembly on a regular basis. Chapter 34 records not only the death of Moses but the passing of the patriarchal era.
Introduction to Joshua
The book of Joshua is the first volume following the Pentateuch. It is at this point that perhaps a serious consideration must be given to the length of the coursework in Biblical literature which the teacher is able to present. Any opening to the Neviim and Ketuvim sections of the Hebrew Bible (assuming a full consideration of the vital Torah section by the class) could be very demanding timewise and in a course not totally dedicated as an elective in Bible might be curtailed.
In the book of Joshua are recounted the history of the early struggles of the Israelites to establish themselves in Canaan following Moses' death. Joshua, Moses' faithful attendant since Exodus, takes over from Moses and leads the settlement of the Promised Land. In Numbers, Joshua, joined only by Caleb, gives a favorable report following the reconnaisance of Canaan by the spies. The two men are the only members of their generation consequently permitted to enter the Promised Land. The Book of Joshua, which contains espionage, Israelite trespass against the Lord, military struggle (including defeats), and the challenge of carrying out the apportionment of territory, portrays Moses' successor as a military leader and a prophet. The book ought to be assigned for perhaps one day's discussion or less, depending on how the several succeeding historical volumes are treated. Alternatively, some telescoping of Joshua together with Judges, Samuel I and II, and First Kings and
Second Kings may be best or a good synopsis might be proffered the students.
The twenty-four chapters of Joshua fall into five divisions:
I i-iv, Preparation. God's charge to Joshua. The mission of the spies. The crossing of the Jordan. Circumcision of the people.
II vi-xii, Immediate fulfillment. The conquest of Canaan. This includes the miraculous fall of Jericho's walls following the procedure of circling the city once a day for six days followed by a seventh day seven fold encirclement followed by the blasts of seven rams' horns seven times to tumble the walls, the setback at Ai and its subsequent capture, the building of an altar on Mount Ebal, the surrender of the Gibeonites, the alliances against Joshua and the list of defeated kings.
III xiii-xiv, Future fulfillment and past achievement. This section contains a list of territories still to be conquered and a historical retrospective of the conquests effected by Moses.
IV xv-xxii, Boundaries. The frontiers of the tribes are described, to which is added an appendix enumerating the cities of Refuge and the Levitical cities.
V xxii-xxiv, Epilogue. The return of the two and a half tribes to their land east of the Jordan. Joshua's farewell addresses, his death and burial.
The reading of the book should be assigned prior to the lesson which follows. Also the students might answer the following question in writing: How does Joshua consummate the Pentateuch?
To examine the persona of Joshua and the events of the book bearing his name.
To consider the geo-political structure of the early settlement in Canaan following the Exodus
Should one feel that a different kind of text is being studied once the Pentateuch yields to Neviim? What are the aspects of continuity, what those of difference?
What are the facts of Joshua's role in the Torah? Why is he more than just a military leader?
He leads the fight against the Amalekites (Exodus xvii 9), accompanies Moses up the mountain (Exodus xxiv 13), guards the tent during Moses' face to face talks with God (Exodus xxxiii 11) and defends Moses' prerogatives when Eldad and Medad prophesy in competition with Moses (Numbers xi 27). He is one of the twelve spies; together with Caleb he vainly seeks to counteract the ten defeatists. Only those two of all those who leave Egypt get to enter the Promised Land (Numbers xiv 6,22).
How does Joshua exhibit a high moral purpose?
He encourages moral action rather than military, he keeps word to Rahab and her family, keeps faith with the Gibeonites though they obtain his promise under falsae pretences. He does not seek advantages for his family or tribe.
What are the boundaries of the land inhabited by the Israelite tribes? How is the land divided?
Roughly, 30 miles east and 40 miles west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. There are twelve tribes claiming descent from Jacob's sons and grandsons, with only Manasseh claiming Mediterranean coastal land. The dominance of the coast by the Philistines in the south and the Sidonians in the north, as well as Moabite and Edomite territories in the southeast set the stage for generations of military-political difficulties by the tribes. It appears Dan was the northernmost tribe, Menasseh the single largest landowner, Gad and Reuben in what is today Jordan. The Levites, landless, received portions of cities from other tribes. The tribal structure survives until the establishment of the monarchy in Saul's time.
Introduction to Judges
The biblical judges (known as shoftim in Hebrew) were charismatic prophets and warriors rather than juridicial figures as we might think. None of them ruled over all Israel, but when members of one or more tribes were in peril, these heroic figures saved them through moral and military leadership. The book of Judges not only continues but actually overlaps with Joshua. The slow process of settling Canaan did not end with the earlier volume, and many of the episodes in Judges -- Deborah and Barak against Hazor, Gideon versus the Midianites, Samson and the Phillistines -- form part of an ongoing multi-century history of contact and conflict between the tribes and their neighbors. Thus, the Book of Judges has an important role as an historic document. A certain theological view of history begins to clarify itself in this book that will remain central to the remainder of the Hebrew Bible: The people turn from God; an enemy is sent to carry out God's punishment; the people cry out to God; a leader (or prophet) is sent to deliver them; once rescued, the people pledge loyalty to the leader and God, whose mandate the leader holds and for Whom he speaks; prosperity brings the people forgetfulness; they grow corrupt again.
Some of the most colorful characters and fascinating stories of the Hebrew Bible appear in Judges. Gideon in chapter 6 subdues the Midianites with trumpets, pitchers and lamps. Samson appears in 13 through 16. He tears a lion apart barehanded, kills a thousand Phillistines with the jawbone of an ass, is betrayed by Delilah (who destroys his powers which derive from Samson's pre-natal Nazaritism by cutting his hair), and finally sacrifices himself when (blinded and seemingly permanently weak) he pulls down the packed Phillistine temple.
Some of the most noteworthy females of the TANACH appear in this book. There is Deborah (chapters 4 and 5), the only woman among the judges and the only woman portrayed biblically as an important military leader. In the same chapters appears Jael, the woman who resourcefully murders the captain of Hazor after pretending to give him sanctuary. Chapter 11 presents the story of Jephthah and his daughter, who comes to greet her warrior father after a battle. The judge has pledged to sacrifice the first thing he sees at home following a victory over the Ammonites.
Introduction to 1 and 2 Samuel
These two volumes cover a period (c. 11th century BCE) of relatively short duration that marks an incredibly complex transformation from a disorganized group of tribes into the powerful empire of David with an eternal capital in Jerusalem. Tributaries come to include the kings of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Three great biblical personalities (Samuel, Saul and David) dominate the two books. Samuel is both the last of the judges and apparently after the lapse of direct Heavenly messages the bearer of a renewed designation: prophet. Saul is the first king, unable to satisfy the expectations of the Lord and consequently unable to keep the monarchy within his lineage. David is a shepherd turned hero, musician, warrior, rebel, poet, friend to Saul's son, and finally founder of a royal line who is not permitted on account of the blood he has spillt to build the great templer to the Lord in Jerusalem.
Chapter 1 marks Samuel a Nazarite. His mother Hannah, like Sarah, is barren until God intervenes. Hannah sends Samuel to live with the priest Eli at Shiloh (where the temporary sanctuary the Mishkan is kept). One night the Lord appears to Samuel, telling the youthful prophet He will bring judgment on Eli's family because of the wickedness of Eli's two sons. After a description of the evils which befall the Philistines when they capture the ark of the covenant (4-7), the text returns to Samuel as a prophet, priest and judge. By chapter 8, an elderly Samuel has made his unworthy sons judges.
The tribal leaders fear anarchy and demand a king. Saul emerges as chosen by God and is annointed by Samuel. Samuel ceases to serve as judge but continues as God's prophet. Saul disobeys Samuel's prophetic warning of the need to wipe out the entire Amalekite nation and shows mercy after his conquest. Samuel turns from Saul; Saul grabs at Samuel's mantle, which rips. Samuel witheringly tells Saul God has torn the kingdom from Saul.
In the wake of Samuel's rejection of Saul, the prophet is sent to Jesse of Bethlehem to choose his youngest shepherd son as Saul's annointed successor. To soothe his depression, Saul sends for David. David slays Goliath the ferocious Phillistine champion with a sling shot. Saul grows paranoid about David, who becomes best friends with Saul's son Jonathan and weds Saul's daughter Michal. David's popularity grows. When Saul plots to kill David, the younger man can count on Michal, Jonathan and Samuel to protect him. In chapter 22, the fugitive David gathers a band of the disgruntled. In 25 Samuel dies. In 26 David quietly rejects an opportunity to harm the sleeping Saul. David flees to the land of the Phillistines. In 28, when God will not answer him, Saul ironically (he has abolished necromancy) seeks out the witch of Endor to raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead. The crushing prophecy of utter failure for Saul is fullfilled and he commits suicide. The death of Saul means there is only one annointed king. David's private annointment by Samuel earlier is repeated publicly at the outset of 2 Samuel. As the book proceeds David consolidates his reign over all Israel, making Jerusalem his center of power. To this new capital he brings the ark of the Covenant, although his request to build a permanent temple there is denied by God, speaking through the prophet Nathan. Through a combination of diplomatic skill and military valor, david's kingdom rapidly grows into an empire. The problem of succession arises seriously. In chapter 11 David has sinfully sent Uriah to die in battle so that he can marry Bathsheba, Uriah's wife. Nathan in 12 warns David "the sword will never depart from your house." Soon Amnon, David's oldest son and heir, rapes his half-sister Tamar and despite opportunities to legally condone the relationship turns against her and rejects her. Her brother Absalom slyly revenges his sister two years later by arranging Amnon's murder. Forced to flee the royal household, Absalom organizes a rebellion, proclaims himself king at Hebron, forces David to flee Jerusalem, and takes possession of the royal capital and harem. In 18 the rebellion is crushed and Absalom, whose long hair leaves him dangling from a tree, is killed against David's orders by David's general Joab."O Absalom my son," is David's piteous cry. The succession
question remains open.
Introduction to 1 and 2 Kings
The quarrels within David's household continue and whereas the previous books have covered the rise of a powerful united kingdom, these two books provide the decline into division of the kingdom. The boundaries achieved by the Jewish kingdom under Solomon are never to be as great again with the possible exception of the late Maccabean period shortly before the Roman destruction of Judea.
In chapter 1 David is dying a weak, manipulated old man shivering with cold in a bed heated by the warmth of a young girl's body. Nathan and Bathsheba connive to prevent Adonijah, David's son by Haggith, from inheriting the kingdom and putting Bathsheba's son Solomon to death. Instead Solomon is to reign as perhaps the wisest and most famous of earthly kings in all history and literature. David shows enough strength in chapter 2 to offer his son a canny and tough charge which includes a settling of scores with David's friends and enemies at the outset of the new reign. When David dies, Solomon ruthlessly proceeds to consolidate his reign. In chapter 3 Solomon presides at the judgment between two recently delivered harlots, one of whom has lost a baby, who are each claiming the remaining child as her own. Solomon calls for a sword to split the baby in two. The true mother of the child calls out to give her son to the other woman. Solomon orders the woman who has been willing to give the baby up be given the child as its true mother. Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem and creates a magnificent household as well. Eventually the expenses lead to the king's sale of northern cities to the King of Tyre, his marriages to numerous foreign brides and importation of foreign craftsmen leads to tolerance of non-Israelite cults and sets the stage, according to the Bible, for misfortune following Solomon's death.
At 1 Kings 11:43 Solomon dies after reigning over forty years. Even during his lifetime Jeroboam had plotted against him. Now, the northern tribes revolt against Solomon's son Rehoboam and form a kingdom of Israel in contrast to the southern kingdom of Judah. The rest of Kings relates the history of the two kingdoms until the northern kingdom is permanently dispersed (the Lost Tribes) by the assyrians and the Judaean kingdom goes into temporary exile in Babylonia. The tone of the biblical text is clearly that Assyria and Babylonia are instruments of God employed to punish a straying people and to clear the way for religious revival.
Particularly interesting episodes include Elijah the Prophet's struggles (1 Kings 18:1 - 41), King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (21:1 - 29), the Assyrian triumph (2 Kings 17:1 - 6), the Judaean reform under King Josiah (22 and 23), and the fall of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar (24 and 25)
Introduction to 1 and 2 Chronicles
The chronicler is probably a priest or Levite. He was undoubtedly a student of history, a statistician and, above all, a pious person, steeped in religious belief and practice. Rabbinic tradition makes Ezra the original author assisted at the end by Nehemiah. In this book, there is a historical review all the way back to Adam with the purpose of interpreting all events as providential divine reward for good behavior or divine punishment for bad. Mainly the account concerns the Kingdom of Judah. Special attention is paid to the Temple services and ritual. Some passages contradict events described in Samuel and Kings. What might be seen, for example, as embarrassments for David in the episodes of Bathsheba and Absalom are deleted. Also, in 1 Chronicles 21 Satan is introduced as an adversary to Israel to be blamed in an episode which, when described in 2 Samuel 24, was the result of God's anger against Israel.
Introduction to the Prophets
The term Navi in Hebrew emphasizes the ability to convey divine messages to the people by word of mouth. The prophet was preacher, counsellor, sociologist , reformer and inspired critic of society. He raised his voice of warning on the eve of critical events. When disaster befell and overwhelmed the people and threatened them with extinction, they turned to him for guidance, and the stern preacher became a sympathetic friend, comforting and directing them in their sorrow. Aglow with the loftiest religious, ethical and political ideals, the prophets originated a style of oratory in which pathos and lyrical fervor, poetry and sober prose are found side by side. Among the outstanding of the prophets were Amos and Hosea in the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah in Judea, and Ezekiel in Babylon.
The current Jewish canon places Isaiah directly after Kings. Traditionally, Isaiah has been regarded by Jewish sources as the most important of the latter prophets.It is followed by Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). In Talmudic times the order was Jeremiah, Ezekiel and then Isaiah, suggesting the natural order of the books' subject matter: Jeremiah predicting national woe after the destruction of Jerusalem recounted at the end of Kings, Ezekiel beginning with forebodings of disaster but ending on a note of hope, and Isaiah foretelling Israel's redemption.In the Septuagint, the Twelve ProphetsIsaiah
Introduction to Isaiah
The chronology of oracles and the question of authorship present strong difficulties for this text. In all candor it might be fair to say that Isaiah is a very difficult work to deal with in the public school. The book is at the heart of the argument between Judaism and Christianity. Isaiah's prophecies include predictions of universal acceptance for Israel's God and world peace at the advent of a time when the nations will beat their swords into plowshares. Christians interpret some of the prophecies to prove that Jesus is foreordained in the Hebrew Testament.This is absolutely disputed by those with close knowledge of the Hebrew text. In particular the famous reference in 7:14 to the young woman (alma) who will bear a child is mistranslated by Christians as pertaining to a virgin giving birth. The Jewish view is that the events described are very much of the eighth century BCE when the book is written. The volume would best be dealt with not at all in most public classrooms to avoid theological problems.
Scholars pay wholehearted tribute to Isaiah's brilliance of imagination and his picturesque and graphic descriptions, his command of powerful metaphor, alliteration, assonance and the fine balance and rhythmic flow of his sentences. His thought constantly and spontaneously blossoms into imagery, the images appropriate and natural expressions of his ideas.
According to the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, the prophets wrote their books shortly before death, but Isaiah could not do so because he was assassinated by King Manasseh. Non-traditional scholars use stylistic arguments to divide the book into two or even three parts, each the product of a different writer. These critics suggest that the first 39 chapters are one unit; that second Isaiah wrote chapters 40 through 50; and that 51 through 66 belong to third Isaiah, someone active after the return from exile.
Introduction to Jeremiah
We have a more thorough Biblically based biographical picture of Jeremiah than of any prophet other than Moses. No other prophet tells as much about himself, his feelings and emotions as this tragic figure so strangely compounded of intrepid boldness, which makes him brave the fierce animosity and hatred of people and leaders alike, and a diffident shrinking from his task of telling them the doom which inexorably awaits them -- a task which he would abandon altogether if he could but must perform despite himself.
The period of Jeremiah's ministry extends from the thirteenth year of Josiah's reign (625 BCE) until after the destruction of the Temple and the overthrow of the Judean state in 586. His time was the bleakest that until then had been known by the Jewish nation.
Josiah came to the throne at age eight, after the fifty-two year reign of Manasseh. Menasseh's reign had been marked by political and religious retrogression. Politically the country was forced to submit to the suzerainty of Assyria; religiously, the people had reverted to idolatry even to the point of human sacrifice. Menasseh made his own son pass through the fire to the God Molech. Mosaic religion was vigorously suppressed. The Torah was suppressed. In the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign a copy of the Torah was uncovered beneath rubbish in the Temple as the structure was being renovated. Stirred by this, Josiah introduced complete but superficial reform. Jeremiah realized that the changes were external only and not in the hearts of the people even during Josiah's lifetime.
In the face of a threat by Scythian hordes, assyria joined hands with its ancient enemy Egypt. Moreover, a new power -- Babylonia -- threatened all. Josiah became embroiled in the wars and was killed at Megiddo. His death and defeat gave an impetus to renewed idolatry. In the religious and political chaos of this period Jeremiah did his prophesizing.
An intresting comparison might be made among Jeremiah, Isaiah and Moses with regard to their attitudes toward being called into service as prophets. Although not called by name, Isaiah ( Isaiah 6:8) says, " Here am I; send me." Moses, called by name (Exodus 3:11) reacts that he is unfit. The same humility characterizes Jeremiah's response in chapter one to being called: I cannot speak; I am a child.
Jeremiah may thus have been the weaker vessel as compared with Isaiah, but his task was far more difficult. In the supreme moment of Judea's trial , when Sennacherib's army lay encamped about Jerusalem, Isaiah had the gratifying duty of assuring King Hezekiah that the city would not fall. When poor Jeremiah had to deliver his prophetic message advising submission more than a century later as Nebuchadnezzar's forces threatened the holy capital, he had to face the obloquy, hatred, taunts of cowardice and defeatism, and the accusation of treason. Jeremiah's woeful self-pitying laments invite comparison with those of Job.
How did Jeremiah, whose name has come to be synonymous with pessimism (the word Jeremiad is defined as an elaborate and prolonged lamentation or tale of woe), feel when uttering dire threats? How did he feel seeing his prophecies come true?
What kind of courage did it take for a shrinking personality to brave the fury of the people, their leaders and even the king? We know of his repeated imprisonment for his dangerous teachings. Also he repeatedly took actions to affirm patriotism and faith in restoration despite seeing his dire prophecies fullfilled in Zedekiah's reign.
Was he a pessimist? Rather, it might be argued he was a realistic optimist, realistic because he would not be lulled, nor allow the people to be lulled, into a false sense of security and optimistic because beyond the immediate blackness he saw brightness for a people spiritually purified by their sufferings, restored to their homeland living as a reunited nation on their own soil. He speaks more in sorrow than in anger.
The book consists of both prose and poetry. The style is direct and concise and easily understood. The prophecies cover about forty years. They are not arranged chronolologically but according to subject matter. The first forty-five chapters provide prophecies dealing with current history and events at home. 46 to 51 involves prophecies relating to foreign nations. At the end in 52 a supplemental and ultimately optimistic appendix is offered.
Introduction to Ezekiel
It has been said by a modern commentator that "the book of Ezekiel is generally considered one of the most difficult in the Bible; it is certainly one of the most interesting." Little is offered about his personal life. He was married, his wife died suddenly and he was carried away captive by the Babylonians. He received a prophetic call five years after arriving in Babylon but there is no indication of the length of his ministry, though the text suggests it extended at least over twenty years. There is a tradition shared by Jews and Moslems that a magnificent tomb near an Iraqi synagogue which members of both communities made pilgrimages to for many centuries is Ezekiel's. Unique among the prophets was his prophetic activity outside the Holy Land.
Ezekiel's writing is distinguished by frequent use of simile, parable, symbolism and allegory.
Unlike the highly poetic diction of other prophets, Ezekiel spoke mainly in prose. Even his poetic passages are less lyrical and imaginitive, perhaps because his discourses were addressed to people humiliated by captivity and plain language was most efficacious in communicating with such people He needed to give positive direction, not stir the imagination.
Like all prophets, Ezekiel lays his chief emphasis on paying due attention to both the ceremonial and ethical doctrines of Judaism.
The most remarkable section of the book is the opening chapter, in which the prophet tells of his experience by the banks of the river Chebar where he saw in the opened heavens the divine Throne Chariot. This description has given rise to much mystical pursuit.
Introduction to Hosea
Although preceded in point of time by Amos, Hosea heads the group of the Twelve Minor Prophets perhaps because of the size of his book. He prophesied during the First Temple but in the Northern Kingdom divided away from Judea since post-Solomonic times, probably in the years 760 to 720 BCE. Finding his society totally corrupt, he courageously raised his voice in denunciation of his age. His pointed references and veiled allusions are mostly lost on the modern reader. Appearing brief and unconnected, nonetheless his prophecies are emphatic in denouncing vice and corruption and the futility of making treaties with alien and aggressive powers.
Told to marry a wife of harlotry, Hosea must buy her back from humiliating captivity and struggle to keep her from going astray. After the first three chapters the book mainly paints a picture of the confusing times described in 2KingsXV following the death of Jeroboam II, with the rapid succession of numerous monarchs twisting and turning in various attempts to forestall the destruction that would finish off the Northern Kingdom in 721.
Introduction to Joel
Interestingly, this short book is very puzzling as to its date. With Joel having provided no clear indication of his time, it has been speculated that the book pertains to either the 800's or the 400's BCE. Also we know almost nothing about Joel. The most prominent feature of the four chapter book is the description of a plague of locusts and the concomitant consequences thereof. Debate over the centuries has occurred as to whether the plague is a literal one or whether the episode is to be taken as purely allegorical.
Introduction to Amos
Herdsman Amos gets a message in his rustic homestead in Judea to warn the Northern Kingdom to repent to avoid destruction. This starts him on a career of prophesy to numerous targets: the Northern Kingdom and surrounding non-Israelite peoples. He does not focus on his native Judea to the south. The time is generally believed to be in the reign of Jeroboam II (782-743 BCE) a time of conquests which led to great increases in wealth and a consequent indolence and selfishness on the part of the parasitic rich on the one hand and grinding poverty and misery for the masses. The earthquake referred to at the book's outset and the eclipse of the sun described in 8:9 help with the chronology. Traditions describe various violent deaths for the prophet, whose message included the notion that the God of Israel was universal and not just local. He also offered the message that society must rest on justice between persons as well as between nations. For Amos, honesty and fair dealing were the mainsprings of national welfare. He remains one of the great personalities in biblical literature, a man whose lofty conception of universalism, defense of the oppressed, denunciation of injustice and exposition of right conduct make him an admirable figure beyond the realm of religion alone.
Introduction to Obadiah
This is the shortest book in the Bible. It is a single chapter with a single theme, an attack on the Edomites. Though related to Israel by blood, this nation stood as the implacable foe and even lent its name, involuntarily, as the Talmudic code term for the hated oppressive Romans in later times. The book is undated and nothing is known of the prophet. Dates as varied as 889 and 312 BCE have been suggested. The relationships with Edom were so bad for so long that the prophet's outburst could have come almost anytime. Verses 11 to 14 can hardly refer to anything other than the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in which the Edomites showed themselves particularly treacherous and hostile. If the vehemence of the denunciation suggest a freshness in the author's memory, then the book must have come soon after the destruction in 586. A bitter cry that the Jewish state will return uttered at the time of deepest despair is what the book seems clearly to be.
Introduction to Jonah
This wonderful book provides the student with an exercise in the reading of allegory. The fame of the great fish which swallows the prophet should not get in the way of appreciating the book. The historicity offered in the book's account of Jonah's mission to the people of Nineveh is not what the book should be read for whether or not one accepts the veracity of the said history.
It might be argued that this is the most liberal book in the Hebrew Testament. The purpose of Jonah's adventures is to teach him by experience, and through him his people and all mankind, that it is never too late to be sorry, that Gentiles too are God's creatures worthy of pardon when repentant, and most significantly that no one should be begrudged the chance to clear his record and avoid punishment.
The book is sometimes regarded as a parable and sometimes as an allegory. Noting the differences might serve as a good lesson. Both allegories and parables are figure-stories intended to enforce moral teachings. In allegory, the characters are representative or symbolical; in parable, the characters serve only the story. As a parable, the book would be an attempt to teach the lessons noted above by means of an imaginitive story, the method simply being a more graphic, forceful and appealing technique than a plain statement. According to allegorical interpretation, Jonah would be the representative of his nation. His disappearance would symbolize the exile, the ejection onto dry land the restoration. Like Jonah, the nation flees from the duty placed upon it by God and exhibits an ill will to believe that God has any fate for the heathen except destruction.
Introduction to Micah
The younger contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah, Micah prophesied in his seven chapters with the ethical fervor of Amos and the compassion of Amos. It is the pitilessness of injustice as much as its ethical wrong that Micah abhors, its consequences in human misery, broken lives and homes. He has the deepest sympathy with the underdog, the dispossessed, the victims of the social injustice so rife in his day. However, he sympathetically bewails the dire fate which he must threaten his people with. He feels for them in their misguidedness and tenderly prays for their restoration.
Introduction to Nahum
The book by a prophet about whom almost nothing is known runs three terse chapters, a mere forty-seven verses. His theme is the downfall of Nineveh (c.608 BCE), the same city saved in the book of Jonah. He came to his people with the satisfying prophecy of the destruction to general rejoicing in the world of the cruel Assyrian empire assembled by Asshurbanipal.
Introduction to Habakkuk
The prophet's fifty-six verses are divided into three chapters. In the introductory chapter he challenges God for allowing the innocent to suffer and the evil to prosper, God responds not to the prophet's satisfaction and he tells Him so. In chapter two the prophet withdraws into solitude to await a divine response. And it comes: the righteous shall live by their faith while the oppressors will be overtaken by nemesis. In chapter three God is begged to intervene and the prophet visualizes the march by God and his entourage to overthrow the enemy. Unlike Jeremiah and Ezekiel who focused on the sins of their people, Habakkuk directs his attack on the sins of the oppressor.
Introduction to Zephaniah
Like the other prophets, Zephaniah preached a fervent nationalism indignantly opposed to assimilation and was a source of condemnation against luxury. He too saw salvation as flowing from the poor and humble. Unlike other prophets, he made denunciation and threat rather than positive moral teaching the main theme of his preaching. Forcefulness rather than eloquence is his forte.
Introduction to Haggai
Two chapters (thirty-eight verses) make up this book dealing with the restoration of the second temple. Haggai conveys a direct message of encouragement and hope to the struggling returnees from exile. He preached the encouragement to build the temple anew. To the prophet, the international tumult of his time was an indication of the advent of the Kingdom of God.
Introduction to Zechariah
This fourteen chapter book presents many problems of interpretation. Traditional medieval Jewish commentators were puzzled by the obscurity of Zechariah's exposition. Modern scholars likewise have difficulty with this text. Chapters one through eight are markedly different from nine through fourteen.
The historical setting is like that in Haggai the second year of return from the Babylonian exile, a time of disheartened struggle on the part of the community. To him the temple service was but a means to achieving a religious society, one dedicated to justice and mercy. He preached that fasting and religious observance could not replace righteousness of character and action. The prophet describes personal visions bearing divine messages in the first eight books. Chapter nine introduces a different atmosphere. These six chapters seem to be of two parts: nine through eleven describe the doom of the heathen nations and the restoration of Judah and Ephraim. Twelve to fourteen announce the trials of Jerusalem, her restoration and advancement to the sanctuary not only of Israel but of all nations. No more visions appear, no prophecy is dated, no allusion to building the temple is made, there is no mention of the Persians.
Introduction to Ezra and Nehemiah
In the Hebrew Bible Ezra is included in the third division, the Hagiographa or Writings, between Daniel and Nehemiah. That this was not always its position is evident from the testimony of the Talmud which places it between Esther and Chronicles. Abarbanel, a fifteenth century CE commentator, asserts that Ezra is in reality the third and Nehemiah fourth book of the chronicular account since Ezra begins with two verses which are identical to the two with which Chronicles ends. The two books (both apparently originally known as just the Book of Ezra) are important sources of information about Israel after the return from exile, a period that offers no other historical source about Israel despite its being within a time period about which other areas are historically verifiable (the 6th century BCE era of Cyrus the Great). Modern scholars agree with traditional ones that personal memoirs or diaries that are incorporated in Ezra make the book plausibly a fifth century BCE work.
Chapters 1 through 6 of Ezra recount the arrival in Jerusalem from Babylon of Zerubbabel, a grandson of king Jehoiachin and therefore a direct descendant of David, and his party in response to Cyrus of Persia's liberal policy of restoring the local religions of those states brought under Persian imperial sway as well as the dedication of the renewed Temple after various political difficulties are settled. An inexplicable interval of sixty years occurs between chapters 6 and 7. Ezra appears with a charter from Artaxerxes to reorganize the community in Jerusalem in accordance with Jewish law. He acts to end mixed marriages which have grown prevalent and caused ignorance of Judaism.
The book of Nehemiah presents some conflicts with that of Ezra but can be seen as coordinate, as longstanding tradition insists. Nehemiah, a prominent Persian Jew, is appointed governor of Judah, supervises the repair of Jerusalem's battlements, bans usury, restores property unjustly taken from the poor, sets an example for holding public office, pushes strict Sabbath observance and backs Ezra's policies against intermarriage.
Introduction to the Book of Esther
Like the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the book of Esther takes place at a time when Israel is under Persian rule. Its focus is the Persian capital of Susa rather than the land of Israel. The story is excellent from a literary perspective and highly recommended to teachers.
Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that describes a post-Biblical world. God speaks directly to none of the protagonists, and so they must muddle through on their own. They are the only figures in the Tanach with the modern pathos of doubt. "And who knows," Mordechai wonders, "whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this," as he beseeches Esther to intercede on her people's behalf with her husband, the non-Jewish king of the persian Empire. "And if I perish, I perish," she says, when she agrees to act. These are the words of individuals without the revelation the rest of the Bible is founded upon. They believe God, who is never mentioned once, is on their side, but they cannot prove it.
There is further familiarity of the text to the modern reader. The Book of Esther is a book of politics. It is a tale of intrigue at the Persian court. And in its third chapter, anti-Semitism appears for the first time, and as a political instrument. "There is a certain people," the villainous Haman tells the king, "scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them."
In the seventh chapter, Haman is foiled and the Jews are saved. But such events are not smoothly arrived at. The Book has ten chapters. The Jews are defensively permitted by the king, whose system has no provision for annulling the original licence to kill the Jews,"to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish all the power of the people and provinces that would assault them." Thus chapters eight, nine and ten take the story in rough and morally vexing directions. These chapters provide a sacred history of an iron fist.
Introduction to the Book of Daniel
The book of Daniel, partly Hebrew and partly Aramaic, consists of two main sections. The first part (chapters 1 -- 6) tells a series of six stories about the eponymous character, an interpreter of dreams, who lives in Babylon during the time of Babylonian exile. The fiery furnace of chapter 3 and the handwriting on the wall of chapter 5 might deserve some review in a brief consideration of the book. The second part (7 -- 12) recounts, in the first person, four revelations to this selfsame Daniel. Traditionally the prophecies have been held by Jewish and Christian commentators actually to have been delivered in the 6th century BCE. Daniel is not recognized as a part of the prophetic Neviim by the Jewish canon and is placed in the Hagiographa after Esther and before Ezra. Modern secular scholars treat the book as a 2nd century BCE work recounting events which had transpired. Archaeology has not made much difference in bridging the wide gap in projected dates for the book.
The Greek word apocalyptic meaning "to uncover" or "to disclose" fits the kinds of prophecies found in the book. The Book of Daniel's last six chapters are really the only serious example of apocalyptic writing to be found in the Hebrew Testament.
The ultimate triumph of righteousness, with its sequel in the establishment of God's Kingdom, is integral to this book, but not confined to it. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos the same notion is just as fundamental. The immortality of the soul, implied in many biblical books, is explicitly enunciated in Daniel.
Introduction to the Book of Ruth
The placement of the book is among the Ketuvim according to the Jewish order but between Judges and 1 Samuel in Christain Bibles. Timewise there is no argument that it is set in the times of Judges.The book establishes David's ancestry (from a convert). The story of Ruth and Naomi lends itself to literary consideration as the characters are powerfully drawn while multicultural issues are raised.
Introduction to the Book of Job
The book, which contains the longegst speech attributed to God in the entire Bible, is one of the works that fall under the rubric of 'Wisdom Literature". It is the story of a good man who dares to challenge the judgment of a God who is very much a character in the story. Job's search for the answer to the problem of apparent injustice in God's design has stirred religious controversy and inspired readers for thousands of years. Tennyson called the book "the greatest poem of ancient and modern times." D.H. Lawrence described it as "the story of your own soul." William Safire describes "The moral excitement in the book....[as] the sufferer's outrage at god's refusal to do justice."
The struggle in Job between a distant, almighty God and his puny, ignorant, but probing and demanding creation, man, fascinates because all literature depends on heroes defying powers that threaten to overwhelm the hero. The confident power of the canon's redactors is forcefully illuminated by a book that can delight the irreverent, satisfy the blasphemous and offer at least some comfort to the heretical. Job denounces God's injustice, criticizes divine management of the universe and predicts God will be a bully if and when confronted.
Textually, there are more examples of hapax legomena -- words that occur only once -- in Job than in any other biblical book. More rare and unique words are used too. Wordplay also seems to be employed readily. This makes the meaning of this book at points more difficult to decypher than any other.
In the book an innocent Job is consigned to suffering following a discussion between God and Satan in which God points to Job's blameless and upright life and Satan responds by challenging God to see how good Job will be after losing his huge benefits in life. With God's permission, Satan proceeds to cause disasters to rain down on Job. Ignorant of the drama in Heaven, Job remains patient with God. Then Satan gets God's permission to go after Job's person, stopping short only of taking the man's life. He afflicts the hapless Job with loathsome sores from top to toe. When Job's wife advises him to curse God and die, he resolutely asks, "If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil?'The chapter concludes in many translations "In spite of all this Job did not sin with his lips." Talmudic scholars as well as modern exegetes have taken the last three words to mean that the apparently patient Job might have formulated sinful thoughts about God's justice in his heart. The dramatic irony here (that is, the character does not know what the reader knows) is striking: Job does not know he has been chosen for a test. Job rejects his wife's advice. Three eminent eastern chieftains sit with him in commiseration. Thus ends the prologue.
Chapters 3 -- 37 present an extended philosophical dialogue in which Job's friends suggest various approaches (all of which he finds wanting) to Job's problem after he suddenly passes to the blasphemous cursing of the day he was born. Stunned, Eliphaz, the senior visitor, tries to soothe Job. He asks whether an innocent man be punished for no reason and concludes that Job, like all humans, has sinned and is getting what he, like all impur humans, deserves. "Happy the man whom God rebukes!" Job brushes this aside, demanding the loyalty of his friends despite his own loss of faith in God. Bildad argues less gently than Eliphaz that God does not pervert justice and that the sins of Job's sons invited destruction.Job calms a bit. Then Zophar accuses Job of secret sins and tells the sufferer that "God exacts less than your sin deserves." His dander raised again, Job challenges God's imperfect, even senseless, running of the universe.
Round and round the fruitless dialogue rolls, until the voice of God speaks from a whirlwind in the longest direct oral participation by God in the whole Bible. For three chapters God says: When you can create a world and dominate a universe, then -- and only then -- will you have the right to summon Me to answer for My actions. Job reconciles himself to God. But why? Is this a work of faith or one of doubt? All sorts of answers may be offered.
What in God's second speech clinches the reconciliation? Not fear (What could God do? Kill him and put him out of his misery?). Not a rational explanation of the Satanic wager. Not a bribe of reinstatement of Job's losses. Rather, God dwells on His responsibility to sweep back the waves of chaos, ordering the stars while feeding the squawking little birds and allowing the likes of Job to squawk too. Don't accuse Me, He seemingly says in His speech, in response to the charge of having no purpose, plan, design or counsel; that this is not so. God has pushed chaos back in the universe. Job must accept that he does not know all that exists in the universe, that like all mortals he cannot know everything and so cannot judge the justice of his fate. It may be understood that the challenge from Job, however, is not a bad thing but a worthy demand. The theophany -- appearance of God -- to contend with Job raises his stature to that of worthy interlocutor with God. Job tests authority and goes beyond hypocrisy, rigidity and convention in contemplating the reality of life. The vassal may make demands of his lord. Fidelity flows up and down. Noblesse Oblige dictates that the one who demands allegiance must pledge allegiance as well.
In an epilogue Job's friends are chastised for their thoughtless and tactless criticism and Job is compensated for his suffering with double his previous wealth and peace and happiness for the rest of his 140 years.
Introduction to Psalms
Psalms, from the Greek psalmos (a song of a stringed instrument) is known in Hebrew as Tehillim (songs of praise). One hundred and fifty poems are broken into five volumes. The book provides a certain difficulty for the public school. This is because the target of many of the poetic songs of praise is God, making the work quite liturgical and consequently religious by nature and requiring interpretation in the context of worship. The inclination to gloss over and skip the work entirely is made hesitant by the presence of some of the most famous biblical language, especially in the King James translation.
Traditionally, King David was the composer of the entire book. Even the most skeptical modern critics (those who believe it took six centuries for the psalms to take their final shape) are willing to grant that some of the psalms may indeed go back so far. Though everyone agrees there are 150 psalms, the division of lines allows for variations in different traditions that will either fuse or divide various verses.
There are liturgies for all kinds of regularly recurring festivals and even for isolated days of rejoicing, and for penitential gatherings convened in times of peril (drought, plague, war). Then there are prayers for individuals.
One critic, Christoph Barth, suggests:
Many psalms reveal with astonishing clarity the occasion and purpose for which they were used in ancient times. And it also becomes obvious that by no means all were intended for worship in the Temple or synagogue. Some clearly have their place in the royal palace, others in the streets and gateways of the city or even in the open field.
There are many examples of religious poems that are meditative and didactic, or present a prophetic challenge, though it is often unclear to whom they were addressed.
Introduction to Proverbs
Proverbs (Mishle in Hebrew) is one of the three Wisdom Literature books ascribed traditionally to King Solomon. All three works have been understood to pertain to man's pursuit of the wise and, consequently, good life.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs form a lecture about the ideal man, what he avoids and what he seeks. From 10:1 to 22:16, a diverse group of sayings, mainly marked by their stylistic reliance on parallelism, highlight the text. Many of the sayings from 22:17 to 24:34 echo Egyptian sayings many critics say antedate Proverbs.
Since the wisdom literature in Proverbs is often commonsensical or certainly controversial because of its assumptions about human nature rather than God, the book makes for some fine possibilities in the public school classroom. The teacher might form lessons from almost any material to be found in Proverbs.