God May Relent
The Prophetic Books of the Old TestamentHello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 24: God May Relent. This is the tenth and last show we’ll do on the Old Testament, and it’s on the seventeen final books that stretch from Isaiah to Malachi. These books, the earliest of which were written in the first half of the 700s BCE in the north kingdom, and the latter of which were created well into the Hellenistic period, are called the Prophetic Books.
When I put this program up onto iTunes and a couple other hosting sites, I had to give it a rating. Was it explicit, or was it appropriate for general audiences? they wanted to know. This is actually kind of a big deal, because if you say your show is fine for general audiences, and then end up having explicit content, it can be pulled down from iTunes. Although I have as colorful a vocabulary as anyone off the air, I don’t find profanity particularly essential to exploring literature or history. My initial impulse, then, was to say the show was for general audiences. But there are some things out there in literature, and in religious scriptures. They might not involve four letter words, or explicit sex. But still, certain texts are so irremediably bleak and horrifying that you wouldn’t want youngsters exposed to them. To me, some passages in the Old Testament’s Prophetic Books fit this description. I was thinking about certain moments in Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; Hosea, and Zechariah, and Zephaniah. These are powerful, vivid, and almost incomparably important books. But they are not for children.
If you’ve been along for the past nine episodes, you’ll recall something about the history of Canaan, and the monotheistic religion that had consolidated in Jerusalem by the time of the Diaspora to Babylon in 586 BCE. You’ll recall that Canaan, during the years the Prophetic Books were being produced, was not a peaceful or happy place. Wars with Syrians gave way to conquests by Assyrians from the east. The history of the years from the mid-700s all the way until the end of the Babylonian Captivity was almost unrelentingly desolate for the inhabitants of Canaan. And so when we look into the Prophetic Books – the writings produced by people who endured these horrific centuries – we shouldn’t be too surprised that they’re neither content, nor optimistic, nor, at times, even particularly coherent. The Prophetic Books are the unfolding diary of traumatized ancient people who had almost everything taken from them. If the fantasies in these books sound sadistic, or their rapid switches in tonality seem erratic, we need to remember the dark history that produced them. [music]
Overview: The Scope and Contents of the Prophetic BooksLet’s back up, actually, and talk about something that we talked about a number of episodes ago. That was [Four Main Parts jingle]. When I approach something as gigantic as the Prophetic Books, the last of those four main parts, I can’t help but reach for a spreadsheet, or a tabular diagram. Numbers and data are useful with many of the goliaths of literary and religious history. At just under 162,000 words, the Prophetic Books alone would be about 540 pages if printed like a modern novel.1 The Prophetic Books, at about 162,000 words, are over half again as long as the entire New Testament’s 109,000 words. So, in short, the Prophetic Books are an enormous part of the Bible – dwarfing the stories about Jesus and the apostles.
Though there are seventeen Prophetic Books, almost 75% of the words in this section of the Bible come from just three Books – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – gargantuan swaths of writing that dwarf the other fourteen of the group. The five lengthiest books in the Old Testament include Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Psalms and Genesis.
So there are seventeen Prophetic Books, and three of them alone account for the vast majority of Judaism’s prophetic writings. The Prophetic Books end the Christian Old Testament, though they occur in the middle of the Hebrew Tanakh. Now, you might be wondering something. The past couple of episodes have dealt very closely with specific Wisdom Books. Episode 23 lingered carefully on the eight chapters of the Song of Songs. Episode 22 spent a huge amount of time with the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. Why in the world, then, are we ramming the 250 chapters of the Prophetic Books into a single episode? Why devote entire shows to Books that are less than one percent of the Bible, and then slam 25% of the Bible into a single program?
There are many answers to this question, and they will inevitably show my personal preferences and biases. If this were a podcast specifically on the Bible, or the theology of Judaism, it would be important to devote several episodes each to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. But for the purposes of a podcast on literature, and not the Bible or theology, combing through the often - ah - turbulent mass of the Prophetic Books and trying to disentangle is, in my opinion, less fruitful than just packing the essentials into a single episode. To anyone who wants a podcast that’s similar to Literature and History, but specifically devoted to the Bible, I’ll again recommend the History in the Bible Podcast, put together by a brilliant Australian Ph.D. named Garry Stevens.
My decision to compress the Prophetic Books into a small place is definitely not unusual. If you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, center stage is given to the creation story – from God dividing light from darkness, all the way to Noah’s drunkenness. Nine panels at the crown of the ceiling go a single book – the Book of Genesis, with fourteen lunettes around the perimeter of the ceiling filled with characters from the Historical Books. The four pendentives in the corners of the chapel ceiling show great scenes from the Pentateuch and Historical Books – David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, and the punishment of Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther. A few of the Prophets are there, too. There's an austere looking Isaiah on a panel, and dour and grizzled Jeremiah. There’s a frantic looking Ezekiel, a monkish Zechariah, and a bookish Joel, and an imperious Daniel. But that’s it. These Israelite prophets are interspersed with female prophets of the Greco-Roman world, as though Hosea, Amos, Micah, Malachi and the others are so insignificant that pagan prophets are more important than them. Maybe Michelangelo just wanted to paint some Greco-Roman stuff. But maybe there’s a different answer.
The Old Testament prophets are more or less in the periphery of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And the Prophetic Books, with important exceptions, have traditionally been in the periphery of artworks inspired by the Old Testament. Though the Prophetic Books constitute a massive part of the Bible, the Prophetic Books are fragmented, and difficult. They're filled with unexpected interruptions and changes in tone. Often in first person singular, their prose repeats itself, changes settings abruptly, and coils back on earlier themes with all the unevenness and complexity of a modernist novel. It’s no wonder that Renaissance art preferred Adam and Eve, or David and Goliath, or the Madonna and infant Jesus, to the tangled thorn bushes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and their compatriots. The former are stories with chronologically ordered events and searing images, while the latter – the Prophetic Books – are largely convoluted dramatic monologues, part fury, part hope, and challenging to read from end to end. [music]
Two Drawers, Two Compartments EachSo initially, I thought I’d try to do the Prophetic Books chronologically. Isaiah, Micah, Jonah and Amos are thought to be the oldest, while Malachi, Zechariah, and Haggai are thought to have been later prophets. This made some sense, but there was a huge problem. All of the prophetic books were redacted, or edited by centuries of scribes. So Isaiah, for instance, a prophet who supposedly lived during the northern kingdom’s wars with Syria around 745 BCE, also writes about the fall of Assyria in 612, the fall of Babylon in 539, and the Second Temple period up into the early 400s. Unless Isaiah lived almost 300 years, the Book of Isaiah was a long, multigenerational project. As you know by now, it was standard practice in the ancient world to attribute religious writings to some legendary patriarch, and the development of the Prophetic Books was no exception.
So it didn’t make sense to try and cover the Prophetic Books chronologically. Then I considered trying to introduce them individually. But this, I thought, would be intolerably complicated. Introducing seventeen different books and summarizing their contents along with the legendary extra-Biblical records about their lives would make for a really bewildering show. You’d have to have a superhuman memory to take all that in. But then – I think – I came up with a pretty decent way to wrap them up all into a single episode. Here it is.
While the Prophetic Books are challenging, they are also, almost mercilessly repetitious. This repetitiousness is part of their difficulty, but it also makes them easier to summarize. I think that the overwhelming majority of the Prophetic writings can be broken down into two separate themes, each with two subcategories. Let’s try to get an image of this. Imagine you’re sitting at a desk. Underneath the writing surface are two drawers. And each drawer has two compartments. Got that? A desk, two drawers, two compartments in each drawer.
Let’s reach out with our left hand and open that left drawer. In the leftmost compartment is a subject that takes up an incredible amount of the Prophetic Books. This subject can be called “Condemnations of Foreign Nations.” Hundreds and hundreds of verses in the Prophetic Books are devoted to bloodthirsty condemnations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Damascus, Moab, Philistia, Edom, Kedar, Elam, Amon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and other civilizations that, at some point during the early Iron Age, did wrong by Israel. So in our left hand drawer, in the leftmost compartment, are those condemnations of foreign nations.
Now, on the other side of that left hand drawer is something fairly similar. We can call everything in this compartment “Condemnations of Israel.” One of the ways that inhabitants of Judah and Israel rationalized their subjugation under the heels of foreign powers was imagining that the batterings they received at the hands of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others were punishments from God. This was the main idea of Episode 19: The One Who Struggles with God, if you happen to remember – the notion that Judah and Israel never struggled with conquering people, but that everything happened to them was punishment from God. So in addition to condemnations of foreign peoples, the Prophetic Books include hundreds of verses condemning Israel itself. Israel is imagined as blasphemous, morally feeble, a wayward child, or a shameless whore, a disgraceful figure who brought its sufferings on itself.
So that’s the left hand drawer – condemnations of foreign peoples, and condemnations of Israel itself. Now, the right hand drawer’s two compartments.
The right hand drawer, sad to say, is a bit smaller. But its contents are refreshing, and far different from the condemnations in the left hand drawer. In the first compartment of the right hand drawer are prophecies of better times for Israel. Generally, in this compartment are visions of a prosperous time when Jerusalem will be the chief of all cities, when the Israelites will be at the helm of geopolitical power, and overall, when peace, prosperity, and the religion of Yahweh will have eradicated everything else on earth. So that’s the first thing in the right hand drawer.
Now, the second thing in this right hand drawer is related. A special group of these visions of the future, found especially in Isaiah, envisions a messiah. Sometimes a king, at other times a messenger, still others a child, or a man who endures much suffering, this figure is prophesied to be a catalyst to an impending era of peace and prosperity. As you can imagine, these Old Testament descriptions of a messiah are of particular importance to Christians, who have traditionally associated this pivotal figure with Jesus.
So again, in our two drawers and four compartments, from left to right, are condemnations of other nations, condemnations of Israel, visions of a better future, and visions of a messiah. With the exception of the narrative portions of the Books of Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai, and the social criticism of Amos and Micah, those two drawers I’ve described hold almost everything in the gigantic Prophetic Books. And unfortunately they’re not compartmentalized so neatly when you’re actually reading the Prophetic Books. A fantasy of Moabites suffering grisly deaths might be followed by a happy vision of Israel’s future, after which is a pronouncement that Israel is like a filthy loincloth, and then a disconnected vision of a savior figure. The contents of the drawers, in other words, are slammed together in seventeen piles of various sizes, seventeen piles which are the Prophetic Books.
In the remainder of this episode, we’ll rely on our four categories of themes in the Prophetic Books. The main idea for this show is in its title – Episode 24: God May Relent. It happens to be a line from Jonah, though Jonah is no more central in the Prophetic Books than any other volume. But I think that its three words – “God May Relent” – perhaps best summarize the contents of all seventeen books, and two hundred and fifty chapters. Judah and Israel’s prophets believed that they were suffering horribly under God’s wrath, and wished that this wrath would instead turn to engulf their oppressors. And if God relented, they believed, perhaps due to the intercession of a messiah figure, then the future would truly be glorious. As the centuries passed, though, and oppression continued, the Prophets remained trapped in the same emotionally excruciating loop – a loop of hope, and disappointed expectations; furious resentment, and hope reborn – hope that maybe, in spite of the pattern of centuries of history, “God May Relent.” [music]
Condemnations of Foreign Nations in the Prophetic BooksLet’s get back to that desk, and open up the leftmost drawer, and look in that left hand compartment – the compartment we named “Condemnations of Foreign Nations.” We’ll begin by looking at one – one of the hundreds and hundreds of “Condemnations of Foreign Nations.” This is from Chapter 13 of the Book of Isaiah, and it’s an oracle against Babylon, the civilization that sacked Jerusalem in 586 BCE and forcibly deported much of its population to Mesopotamia. Here is Isaiah’s vision of what will happen to the Babylonians in retaliation. “Like hunted gazelle,” he writes, “or like sheep with no one to gather them, all will turn to their own people, and all will flee to their. . .lands. Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished” (Isa 13:14-16).
This is not a forgiving vision. Its desire for ethnic cleansing, rape, and child murder isn’t particularly unusual in the Prophetic Books. While almost all of the seventeen prophets include brief oracles against Israel’s foes, eight prophets have long chapters devoted to visions of Israel’s enemies suffering. Huge portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are filled with these condemnations. Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Zechariah also devote many pages to visions of Israel’s enemies being butchered. While these passages aren’t particularly cheery, we should look at some more of them in detail to get an idea of just how much time the Prophetic Books spend fantasizing about a time of reckoning.
In an oracle against the people of Edom in present day Jordan, Isaiah branches out to imagine everyone in the world who is not an Israelite being killed. “[T]he LORD is enraged against all the nations,” Isaiah writes, “and furious against all their hordes; he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter. Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood” (Isa 34:2-4). Bloody mountains also appear in the Book of Ezekiel, in an oracle against Egypt. Ezekiel, speaking in the voice of Yahweh, writes, “I will strew your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass[es]. I will drench the land with your flowing blood up to the mountains, and the watercourses shall be filled with you” (Ez 32:5-6). The blood of enemies continues to be at the center of attention in Zechariah, when Zechariah imagines Israelites drinking the blood of their Greek enemies.
I will arouse your sons, O [Israel], against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword. Then the Lord will appear over them, and his arrow go forth like lightning; the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. The Lord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood like wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar. (Zech 10:13-15)And in a later passage of Zechariah, the prophet vividly imagines the decomposition of Israel’s enemies. “Their flesh shall rot,” he writes, “while they are still on their feet; their eyes shall rot in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot in their mouths” (Zech 14:12).
So, these excerpts are fairly representative of condemnations of foreign nations in the Prophetic Books. Occasionally these condemnations become so dark that they verge on the surreal and hallucinatory, as when Isaiah pictures Babylon and writes, “wild animals will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance” (Isa 13:21). But more often than ostriches and goat demons, the Prophetic Books picture foreign nations suffering specific physical punishments – impalement, burning, infants smashed on rocks, and women violated.
If you read something like Chapters 13-23 of Isaiah, or Chapters 46-51 of Jeremiah in isolation, without knowing the history of Canaan, you would assume you were reading the diary of a sociopath or murderer. Now, this isn’t exclusive to the Prophetic books, of course. If you read cuneiform inscriptions about a Babylonian king’s bloody conquests, or Egyptian hieroglyphic records of a pharaoh’s foreign rampages, you would see the same unhesitating fascination with gore and death visited upon enemies, literally the same references to infants dashed apart on rocks and pregnant women ripped open. Certain Assyrian inscriptions, in fact, make the Prophetic Books look like a picnic. Still, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian inscriptions about murder and torture don’t fill maybe a hundred pages of the most widely circulated book in human history. The Old Testament, along with maybe the Iliad, remains a vivid reminder of the horrible violence of the ancient world.
So the first way we can understand the shocking fantasies of violence in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and elsewhere is to remember that these passages are in some ways representative of the way that you wrote about your enemies in, say, 550 BCE. Whether you were a Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Canaanite, the ancient world had a rhetoric of rancor that frequently envisioned or recorded gruesome physical punishments of enemies. So if the condemnations of foreign nations in the Prophetic Books seem appalling, we should remember that these condemnations were grist for the mill, or maybe gristle for the mill, in the Ancient Mediterranean. And actually, there’s another way to help explain the murderousness of these verses of the Bible.
During the centuries the Prophetic Books were being written and edited, Israel and Judah, along with the later Persian province of Yehud, were often under attack by foreign nations, and, in fact, were often actually being forcibly ruled by foreign nations. We covered this history in Episodes 15 and 19, and I’m bringing it up again for a very important reason. When an Isaiah or an Ezekiel envisions a grim, bloody fate for a foreign nation, these visions are driven by invasions, mass killings, forced relocation, and cultural subjugation that the prophets and contributors to the Prophetic Books really did historically endure. In other words, the visions of Nineveh, Babylon, Damascus, Egypt, and a dozen other civilizations suffering from bloodletting and rot – these visions were spurred by specific historical events – conquests, slaughters, political betrayals, severed alliances, territorial encroachments, and that kind of thing. So that’s the first compartment of that first drawer – condemnations of foreign nations. Now, let’s move on to the second compartment of the first drawer. [music]
Condemnations of Israel in the Prophetic BooksIf you haven’t read the Prophetic Books, you’re probably thinking, “Gosh, that was dark. Well, it can’t get any darker than that.” Actually, it can. The next compartment of the first drawer is full of what we will call “condemnations of Israel.”
Now, I know I just said this, and have talked about it a lot, but let’s make every single one of us is on the same page. Although the Israelites believed that their God was the only true God, and that they were his chosen people, they couldn’t help but notice that they were almost powerless to stop the assaults from their much larger neighbors. The priestly caste of Israel who wrote and edited the Historical and Prophetic Books rationalized Israel’s sufferings by maintaining that Israel’s powerful neighbors were merely agents of Yahweh, sent against the Israelites to punish them. It’s obviously an ethnocentric way to view the passage of history, but it did provide a workable explanation for Israel and Judah’s military and territorial losses.
So in this second compartment of the first drawer, we’re going to hear condemnations of Israel – condemnations that derogate the Israelites while simultaneously presuming that they’re at the center of world history. These condemnations, in my opinion, are the darkest parts of the Bible.
Isaiah writes that Israel is “a sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil” (Isa 1:4). “[Y]our iniquities,” Isaiah writes, “have been barriers between you and your God” (Isa 59:2). So, put plainly, Israel was wicked and thus incurred the wrath of Yahweh. It’s not long afterward in the Prophetic books that this wrath is imagined crushing the Israelites in various ways. Jeremiah imagines God saying “I will appoint over [the Israelites] four kinds of destroyers. . .the sword to kill, the dogs to drag away, and the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth to devour and destroy. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Jer 15:3-4). Jeremiah’s visions of Jerusalem’s destruction continue with higher intensity a few chapters later. Jeremiah imagines God growling,
I will make [Jerusalem] a horror, a thing to be hissed at. everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbors in the siege, and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them. (Jer 19:8-9)Hard as it is to believe, this vision of Israelites deserving to literally eat one another still isn’t the bottom of the barrel.
In one of the older Prophetic Books, Hosea, Yahweh imagines how he will avenge himself on the sacrilegious citizens of the northern territory of Samaria. “I will fall upon them,” God says, “like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart. . .they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hos 13:16). The deaths of women and children were common themes in ancient writings about conquests, but the Prophetic Books show an unusual level of fascination with violence against women.
Specifically, the Prophetic Books spend chapter after chapter picturing Israel as an adulterous wife or whore who has broken her marriage, or covenant, with God. This came up briefly in previous show on the Song of Songs. But because of the sheer mass of content in the Prophetic Books likening Israel to a whore, we should look at some of these passages in detail, as disquieting as they are.
Speaking as before about the blasphemous north, Hosea writes that “[A] spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. . .[T]he land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (HOS 4:12,1:2). Jeremiah depicts Israel similarly. In Jeremiah, Israel’s faithlessness, or “whoredom,” to use the biblical word, is the cause of its sufferings. “This,” Jeremiah’s God proclaims, “This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you. . .because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen. I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighing, your shameless prostitutions on the hills of the countryside” (JER 13:25-7). This vocabulary, and the passage imagining lifting up the skirt of the whore that is Jerusalem, are standard within the Prophetic Books’ condemnations of Israel.
The longest sustained passage likening Israel to a whore is in Ezekiel, taking up the Book’s lengthy sixteenth chapter. I’m going to read some excerpts from it – again, Ezekiel, Chapter 16. The speaker in this quote is Ezekiel’s God, and the addressee, the whore who is Israel. And – buckle up, because this is a really sadistic passage.
I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine . . .But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. . .on them [you] played the whore. . .with them played the whore. . .As if your whorings were not enough! You slaughtered my children and divided them up as an offering to them. And in all your abominations and your whorings you did not remember the days of your youth. . .[Y]ou. . .prostituted your beauty offering yourself to every passer-by, and multiplying your whoring. You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, to provoke me to anger. Therefore I stretched out my hand against you, reduced your rations, and gave you up to the will of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with [Babylon], the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied. . . I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you . . . I will stop you from playing the whore. (Ezekiel 16: 8,16,17, 20-2, 24-9, 37-40)Needless to say, this is not my favorite passage of the Bible. On one hand, maybe, the Prophetic Books’ attempt to blame Israel’s sufferings on Israel is a sort of courageously masochistic way of interpreting the course of history. But far, far too often, the association of Israel’s faithlessness with female faithlessness drives home the idea that infidelity and sexual lewdness are qualities that women have, and not men. In passages like the one we just read, male speakers growl and harangue nastily against women – they are the voices of authority and the bringers of punishment, and women, like the whore in Ezekiel, are mute, they are forcibly stripped, and then violently killed. Misogyny may not be the direct intention of these passages. But they offer an elaborate vocabulary of antifeminism, and read altogether, they begin to make violence against women seem commonplace and almost valorous. Again, we can understand that these passages are parables about God and his faithless Israelites. But at the same time, it’s hard not to imagine generations of male readers encountering chapter after chapter of these condemnations and getting some garbled sense that women are all as unfaithful as the figurative Israel, and that violence against them is accordingly permissible.
Sorry. I usually try to keep a strict, straight up historicist approach in this show. But with some things I absolutely have to put on my feminist brass knuckles. Let me keep them on for just one more minute. I want to look at another chapter, also from the Book of Ezekiel. This is definitely the most sexually explicit passage in the Bible. Kids, cover your ears. In this passage, the prophet Ezekiel is using the voice of God to tell a story about two sisters. One sister is Oholibah. The other sister is Oholah. The first sister stands for the Southern Kingdom, Judah. The second sister stands for the Northern Kingdom, Israel. After accusing the two sisters of all sorts of harlotry, Ezekiel’s God tells the Judah sister that she “played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your bosom and caressed your young breasts” (Ez 23.19-21). So, Ezekiel implies, this Judah sister enjoyed huge Egyptian penises and – uh – horse sized ejaculations all throughout her youth. And as punishment for her sexual permissiveness, Ezekiel’s God proclaims that Oholibah, the Judah sister, will be stripped and exposed, she and her sisters will be stoned to death, and then they will be chopped into pieces with swords.
Again, we can understand this as a brief figurative tale about Israelite faithlessness. But so much of the imagery in the Oholibah story involves brutality toward women, and reveals a violent desire to control female sexuality. Ezekiel normalizes these things, even though the book may really just be trying to explain away Israel’s military and cultural defeats. In casting female characters in the metaphorical role of the wayward Israel, the Prophetic Books – maybe unintentionally – often appear shockingly hateful toward women. Okay, sorry, folks. Feminist brass knuckles off, now, and good old historicist gloves back on.
We’ve looked at the Prophetic Books’ condemnations of foreign peoples. And we’ve looked at the Prophetic Books’ often antifeminist condemnations of Israel. It’s time to close that left hand drawer, and open that right hand drawer. Fortunately, the contents of both compartments of that right hand drawer are much, much sunnier. The biblical prophets can get pitch black. But they could also, against all odds, during unthinkably dark periods of Canaan’s history, be pretty optimistic. Not all of their visions are of blood and death. Many are hopeful – they’re of a time of coming prosperity and joy – prosperity and joy that the quiet, steadfast, enduring people who have never wavered in their faith would, when all was said and done, be granted. So we’ll leave the cannibalism, infanticide, and rape in that disturbingly large left hand drawer, and open the right hand one. [music]
Visions of a Prosperous Future in the Prophetic BooksAbove, in a passage from one of the darker moments of Jeremiah, we heard Jeremiah’s God growl that “I will make [the Israelites] eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbors in the siege” (Jer 19:8). About ten chapters later, God’s plans for the Israelites have evidently changed. “I will turn their mourning into joy,” God resolves, “I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty” (Jer 31:13-14). At one moment, then, God plans to starve the Israelites into cannibalism, and a moment later, to give them plenty of food and make them joyous. Within the Prophetic Books, these vacillations between darkness and buoyant joy happen hundreds of times. For many reasons, it doesn’t make for an easy read.
We’ve spent plenty of time on the left hand drawer. Let’s spend some more time on the right hand one. In the Book of Isaiah, God tells the Israelites that “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). Joel is similarly optimistic, his God telling the Israelites that “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. . .[I will] restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. . .Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (Joel 2:26, 3:1, 3:20-1). Hmm. That sounds pretty nice. Just a bit better than the siege and cannibalism stuff from Jeremiah.
Now, of all the Prophetic Books, Isaiah has some of the most sustained visions of a rosier future. Some particularly famous passages from this book picture a peaceful futurity, overseen by the grace of Yahweh. Isaiah describes how:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. . . It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited. (Isaiah 11:6-9, 25:9)You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to appreciate the peace and serenity imagined in this passage. Isaiah pictures a time when even the rivalries of nature will be mollified by the grace of the Israelite God. Snakes won’t bite any more, animals won’t eat one another, and bears and lions will eat grass. The wolf and lamb vision of Isaiah is one of his more famous passages about a time of coming peace. But I think a different – also very optimistic – prophecy from Isaiah most clearly bears the marks of the history that produced it.
If the Book of Isaiah really were worked on for the years from the 700s down to the 400s, its scribes saw it all. The Syrian Wars, the multigenerational Assyrian invasions and settlement in the north, Egypt’s northward charge into the power vacuum after Assyria fell, Babylon’s sack of Jerusalem and the subsequent captivity, and the later Persian period. The cultural core of the Judahites and Israelites during these centuries had both their lives, and their way of life continuously under threat. And I think some hopeful passages from the center of Isaiah, which prophecy cultural and political independence, imagine the end of this threat. Isaiah’s God promises his followers, in a passage about the Assyrian invasion, that some day,
No longer will you see the insolent people, the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend, stammering in a language that you cannot understand. Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes will be broken. . . On that day the LORD will thresh from the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you will be gathered one by one, O people of Israel. And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isa 33:19-20, 27:12)Well, I think most subject peoples would enjoy political sovereignty and religious freedom. The same was the case with Isaiah’s Israel. This is obviously a fantasy about a time of cultural freedom unobstructed by oppressive outsiders, a time of religious togetherness and renewed unity. It might not have any images of jungle cats snuggling up to lambs, or universal veganism. But I think overall this latter quote in Isaiah might reflect exactly what the Israelites were experiencing and hoping for a bit more accurately. [music]
Visions of Messiah and Savior Figures in the Prophetic BooksWe are three out of four for our drawers, now. Let’s keep that right hand drawer open, and look in the final compartment, furthest to the right. The contents of this compartment are very, very theologically interesting. This compartment is small, but its substance has been minutely examined for thousands of years. This compartment contains references to resurrection, a redeemer figure, and a time of universal judgment. To Jews, these passages reference a moment of corporeal resurrection and the beginning of the ultimate prosperity of the Chosen people of Yahweh. To Christians, these passages describe Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and Christ’s impending salvation of all who believe in him.
Let’s start by looking at passages that reference bodily resurrection, a theme that comes up occasionally in the Prophetic Books. The first comes from the giant book of Isaiah. It’s from a vision of a song sung by inhabitants of Judah, and it’s addressed to Yahweh. “Your dead,” the singers declare, “shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isa 26:19). So, there's an unmistakable reference to the risen dead there. A similar reference exists in Ezekiel. God tells Ezekiel to speak a prophecy to the dead. Ezekiel’s words are, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ez 37:4-6). Bodily resurrection is an important doctrine within Judaism, and of course, life after death is foundational with Christianity. It’s important to remember, though, that in other books of the Old Testament, like Job, and Ecclesiastes, there is unequivocally no afterlife. The dead – good or evil – go down to Sheol, and that’s the end.
So these references to resurrection in the Prophetic Books, whether they come from the influence of Egyptian immigrants or Zoroastrian neighbors, or real divine revelation – these references to resurrection near the end of the Old Testament don’t always feel consistent with the way death is imagined in the Pentateuch, Historical Books, and Poetic Books. This inconsistency is probably a result of the enormous timeframe in which the Old Testament was composed. Let’s look at one more reference to resurrection. In the Book of Hosea, the prophet writes, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he [who] will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hos 6:1-2). Hmm. A reference to being struck down and then rising up on the third day. Gosh, who does this remind you of?
Right, so we’ve looked at some passages describing bodily resurrection. We should look at some passages in the Prophetic Books that talk about a messiah figure who will be the catalyst of better, happier times. Now we've already met this messiah figure once in this show. In the wolves and lambs passage from Isaiah, Isaiah writes “The wolf shall live with the lamb. . .and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). Whether interpreted as Jesus or a non-Christian herald of salvation, this child, and perhaps a dozen other cryptic messiah figures in the Prophetic Books, have received a gigantic amount of analysis and attention.
Let’s look at the longest and most influential one, first – yet another passage from the always – interesting Isaiah – specifically chapters 52 and 53. I’m going to read some excerpts of these two chapters to give you an idea of exactly how this messiah gets described. [music]
[M]y servant shall prosper; [says Yahweh, the “servant” in question being the messiah.] [H]e shall be exalted and lifted up (52:13). . . [K]ings shall shut their mouths because of him. . .that which they have not heard they shall contemplate (52:13). . . [H]e grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (53:2-5). By a perversion of justice was he taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. (53:8)And again that was from the Book of Isaiah, Chapters 52 and 53. So, with good reason, Christian tradition associates this servant figure with Jesus. He commanded kings, and was fated to have the exaltation of God, but at the same time he was deprecated, and rejected, and despised, and killed, and in doing so he suffered punishments that healed others. To Christians, this passage in Isaiah became even more special when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, about ten miles east of Jerusalem in the modern day West Bank. The Great Isaiah Scroll, the most complete of all the Dead Sea Scrolls, having been carbon dated and scribally dated multiple times, was written at least a hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The Isaiah scroll seems, to many, to be physical evidence of divine prophecy.
But let’s hold our horses for a minute. The Talmud, or religious law codex of Judaism, does not associate the Messiah figure in Chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah with Jesus. The idea of God having a son whose death saved mankind isn’t, as I’m sure you know, a part of Judaism. To the Talmud, this figure in Chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah is not Jesus, but Moses.2 During the Exodus and the events of the Book of Numbers, if you’ll remember, Moses again and again intercedes to try and compel Yahweh to forgive the nation of Israel, thus, in effect, saving them again and again, and enduring great strife and personal risk in the process, just like the “servant” in Isaiah.
So this “servant” figure might be Jesus. It might be Moses. And actually, the story of a pivotal Messiah figure who endures the wrath of God and the slander of people, only to end up saving the people in the end was fairly common in the Ancient Near East. Remember those Historical Books, if you caught that episode? A number of kings in these books are described as savior figures who protect either Israel or Judah from God’s wrath. Josiah, who the most treasured king in the Historical Books behind David, maybe, is just this sort of figure. And, notwithstanding his unending sanctity and goodness, Josiah dies at the city of Megiddo, at the hands of the Egyptians. That passage in Chapters 52 and 54 of Isaiah could easily be about Josiah, another of the Bible’s tragic savior figures.3 or the later Judahite king Jehoiachin.4 Throughout the Historical Books, the monarchs of Judah and Israel are the fulcrums determining the wickedness or faithfulness of Yahweh’s followers – the salvation or damnation of an entire people resting on the shoulders of a single man is actually the main theme of the two hundred or so chapters that make up the Historical Books. And beyond the Bible, if you caught Episode 2 of Literature and History you might remember the Babylonian story of Atrahasis, the brave and devout mortal who leads and pleads tirelessly on behalf of humanity, and endures the trauma of the great flood, who, after great suffering, just like Noah, who may be modeled after him, saves the human species from extinction.
So when we look at passages like Chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah, it’s important to understand that though they often bear an uncanny resemblance to the great stories in the Gospels, they may have also been influenced by a long and rich textual past with roots in ancient Mesopotamia. Let’s look at some more passages in the Prophetic Books that describe messiah or savior figures. A second quote in Isaiah, almost as famous as the following, envisions a better future unlocked by a savior figure. “[A]ll the boots of the tramping warriors,” Isaiah writes, “and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Now, this mysterious messiah makes a few more appearances in the Bible – much briefer and more ambiguous ones than the famous ones I’ve quoted. Much more commonly, some of the prophets themselves suffer persecution – particularly Jeremiah. “The officials,” Jeremiah recalls, evidently writing in the third person, “The officials. . .they beat him and imprisoned him. . .Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there for many days” (Jer 37:16). Like the suffering messiah figure, then, suppressed and jailed prophets brought divine messages in spite of imprisonments and corporal punishments.
So that’s a short introduction to that final rightmost compartment – the one holding a tiny but very famous collection of prophecies about messiah figures. Now that we’ve seen the four main subjects of the Prophetic Books – the condemnations of foreign nations, condemnations of Israel, the prophecies of a better future, and prophecies of a messiah – now that we’ve had a look at all of these, we can make some interesting observations about the entire Old Testament's structure. [music]
Why Christian Bibles Move the Prophetic BooksLet’s zoom way out. All drawers closed. And we’ll pretend we’re looking at a table of contents of the Old Testament. The organization of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament is fundamentally different, as you may know. The biggest difference is that when Catholics and Christians moved the Hebrew Bible’s table of contents around, they took the Prophetic Books out of the middle, and moved them to the end. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but 15 out of the 17 Prophetic Books occur in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, and Christian Old Testaments have them situated at the end.
Why reorganize them? Let’s start by talking about the Hebrew Bible’s organization. In the Hebrew Bible, right after Second Kings, we find the Book of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – the big three prophets, who are then followed by twelve other prophets. So the Hebrew Bible shows a seamless transition between the historical events of Second Kings on one hand, and the prophets and prophecies of Judaism on the other. In the Hebrew Bible, the organizational message is clear. The prophets are a part of Israel’s history. Their anger, their hope, and their oracles are products of events that took place during the Historical Books.
In Christian bibles, on the other hand, the prophets are all squished together in a block at the very end, after the Poetic and Wisdom Books – after Job, and Psalms, and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The Christian bibles put hundreds and hundreds of pages between the history of Israel and the prophets who directly experienced that history. Why do this? Why interrupt the narrative?
Surely there were many reasons. And surely, one of them is that within the Prophetic Books, Christians found the most convincing evidence that Jesus was spoken of by Isaiah and a small handful of other prophets, even the very last prophet, Malachi. The second to last chapter of Malachi – actually the 1073rd of the Catholic Old Testament’s 1074 chapters, speaks of a messiah figure. Malachi mentions a “messenger of the covenant [who] will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi. . .and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness” (Mal 3.1, 3.3). Now, if you’re a Christian, and believe the messiah references in the Prophetic Books are talking about Christ, this is a pretty smart way to wrap up the Old Testament. The Old Testament seems to end with a cliffhanger – a small, but tantalizing group of visions of a savior figure – and then, the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew. So, in short, the glimpses of a messiah figure we find in the Prophetic Books, which Christians usually interpret to reference Jesus, are a central reason why Christian Bibles reorganized the books of the Hebrew Tanakh. [music]
Eschatological Time in the Bible and Qur'anWe’re almost there, folks – to that marathon finish line of completing our ten shows on the Old Testament. We’ve moved through the four drawers that contain almost everything in the Prophetic Books, and we’re almost through with them. But I want to talk about something before we close those Prophetic Books.
The Old Testament is already sitting on our desk. Let’s put two other books next to it. The New Testament to the right of it, and the Qur’an to the right of the New Testament. Old Testament, New Testament, Qur’an. Now, what do these three books have in common? The short answer is plenty. Belief, generally, in a single god, doctrines requiring belief in this god, law codices that generally inculcate the values of temperance, self restraint, respect for authority, clemency and mercy to the weak, and belief in prophecy, miracles, and the surrogate status of women. They believe in a single, universal morality that exists beyond the senses that all should adhere to, and they have varying degrees of ideas about the consequences of not adhering to this moral code. It’s no wonder that Christians, Muslims and Jews have got on so harmoniously during various periods of history! But these three books have something else in common – something that has to do with time – something that we can call doomsday.
Doomsday, or judgment day, or the apocalypse, or Armageddon, or Yawm al-Qiyāma – whatever the intricacies of the doctrine, the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, along with Revelation in the New Testament, and the 75th Sura of the Qur’an all imagine that some day, the universe will end. Way back in Episode 2, we talked about this idea – that time itself is a bell curve, and an explosive moment will eventually come in which everything is sorted out. It’s a powerful idea. Particularly during turbulent periods of history, having faith in a period of eventual order and retribution helps many of us cope with losses and injustices. If we are stricken that real wolves tear lambs to shreds, or that unethical people are blissful and prosperous, or that our own good deeds have been misunderstood and unrecognized, the doomsday doctrines of these religions offer compelling consolations. From the Egyptian Middle Kingdom’s Book of the Dead onward, the notion of eventual divine judgment has helped humanity weather some really hard times, and I imagine this idea will be with us for a long time to come.
But I want to ask a question. A prickly question, maybe. What if there aren’t any end times? What if the party just gets to continue? I mean, I know the sun will burn out in five billion years, but five billion might as well be eternity as far as we’re concerned – in five billion years, we’ll probably have grown tentacles and extra eyes, since all evolution on earth has taken less than five billion years so far. So what if, before the crock pot of deoxyribonucleic acid eventually compels us to sprout wings and frog legs – what if we just keep trucking along, making no fatally bad decisions, and learn from our mistakes? This is what I’m hoping for. And one of my favorite books in the Bible – a Prophetic Book, actually – seems to explore this question.
We’ve seen our fair share of darkness in the Old Testament. So I want to end this whole series on the Hebrew Bible with a happy story. A story that maybe anyone, religious or secular, can smile at. This story is the Book of Jonah, possibly the most beloved anti-hero of the Old Testament.
Reluctant Jonah and the Repentance of NinevehJonah was a northern prophet, who lived in the early eighth century BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II, near the gorgeous northern city of Samaria. One day, Jonah had divine summons. God told him of a formidable quest Jonah had to undertake – a journey of over five hundred miles to the northeast, into the dangerous Assyrian empire and to the city of Nineveh. Jonah was not convinced that venturing deep into the lands of people who impaled and skinned their foes was all that good of an idea, and so he embarked westward on an oceangoing vessel to escape his divine summons.
It wasn’t a well thought out plan. The Old Testament God doesn’t take kindly to insubordination. Yet his retaliation against Jonah was pretty mild. God hurled gales and squalls against Jonah’s ship. The sailors aboard Jonah’s ship realized that one of their passengers had incurred divine admonishment. And Jonah, wanting neither to go to Nineveh, nor to get a ship full of people killed, told them to just toss him in. The sailors initially refused, but as the tempests grew worse, eventually they conceded, and tossed him into the water.
If Jonah thought he’d escape God’s summons by swimming to safety, or just dying, he was wrong again. The reluctant prophet was swallowed by a giant fish. “[T]he LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah,” the book explains, “and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (Jon 1:17). Grateful to still be alive, within the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed and gave thanks, and then had the unique privilege of being puked up onto land.
I picture him there, perhaps reeking with fish guts, a sour expression on his face, looking at the beach and then back at the ocean, and the beach and back at the ocean one last time, maybe muttering some Ancient Hebrew profanity under his breath, like “[sigh] ah, I can’t believe this [censored],” and then harrumphing and heading eastward, inland. After a long journey through many strange lands, Jonah reached the formidable walls of what was then the world’s most powerful city.
Knowing that he had no choice, Jonah huffed through the gates and got an audience with the king and his people. Jonah explained the situation concisely. The city, he said, would fall due to God’s wrath unless the citizens repented and acted in accordance with divine laws. They’d really better shape up, Jonah said, perhaps citing examples of a city that had disrespected Yahweh in the past. And then, something earth shattering happened. Something that doesn’t usually happen in the Old Testament. I imagine the king of Nineveh pursing his lips, and looking around at his most trusted advisors, and the people of the city talking under their breath to one another. Eventually a decision was reached. The king ordered everyone to wear sackcloth – even the animals, to chastise themselves for their evil ways and repent. “All shall turn from their evil ways,” the king of Nineveh proclaimed, “and the violence that is in them. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And indeed, God saw that everyone in Nineveh had respectfully taken the advice of his prophet Jonah. And no one there was punished. This caused the ever strange Jonah some embarrassment. He was, after all, in the middle of a thousand mile round trip journey, and for all the Assyrians knew, Jonah might have made everything up. So Jonah stormed off and sat sullenly in the countryside. God watched his reluctant prophet go. To help shelter Jonah from the fierce Mesopotamian sun, God made a nice bush grow up, and Jonah rested in its shade all afternoon. Only, when he woke up the next morning, the bush was gone. Jonah was again livid. He’d appeared ridiculous in front of the Assyrians, and now he’d lost his nice leafy bush. God patiently shook his head, and gave Jonah some advice.
“Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” God asked. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?” (Jonah 4:9-11). And the story ends with this rhetorical question, and we imagine Jonah, though he’s off camera, is won over by God’s deep mercy and bulletproof reasoning.
It’s - ah - an adorable story. Being a third person omniscient narrative, constructed like a piece of short fiction or folklore, it’s far more readable than many other Prophetic Books. The Book of Jonah’s goofy, surly anti-hero is all the more human for his quirks. It’s a book about resilient mercy, and second chances, and learning from lessons. Everyone is fallible, humble, patient and human. God doesn’t punish Jonah, the sailors don’t want to hurt the poor Prophet, God forgives the repentant Ninevites, and then shows even more forbearance with the pouty Prophet at the book’s end, offering him a beautiful, eloquent speech. In the mammoth 160,000 words of the Prophetic Books, the miniscule thirteen hundred words of Jonah are perhaps far more hopeful than ecstatic visions of an eventual messiah, or end of times. Because in Jonah, we see that whether or not the universe ends, and justice is done unto all in an explosion of divine majesty – in Jonah, we see that whether or not judgment day comes, in the mean time, we can listen to each other and learn from each other, and that we’re all the better for it. [music]
Plan for Literature and History's Upcoming ShowsAlright. [Sound effects] That was the sound of me opening a beer. To celebrate. Because if you’ve joined me through the last ten shows, we’ve come a long way, haven’t we? And if getting into the Christian heaven involves answering some fairly basic or true false questions about the Old Testament, we’re in a lot better shape than we were before! On the other hand, if getting into heaven requires abstemiousness and sobriety, I’d better get rid of this beer. And the best way of getting rid of beer is to drink it. [sound effect] Whew. Anyway.
I’ve really, really enjoyed putting together these programs on the Old Testament. Though I’ve only scratched the surface, it’s still a huge surface to scratch. I know I’ve left things out, mispronounced Ancient Near Eastern names, and from time to time been reductive for the sake of simplicity. In a free educational podcast, I hope, these are pardonable slips. And, like I said, while this show has offered a general overview of the Prophetic Books, if you’ve stuck with me for the past ten, you’ve had a fairly long introduction to the structure and contents of the most influential book in the western world. And now, you know a fair bit about the Old Testament.
This is a good moment for us to talk about the long term plan of this podcast, which claims to be a program on the history of Anglophone literature, and thus has far not covered a single work in English. Although once, I think I quoted John Keats. There was that, at least. Well anyway, don’t worry. We’ll get there. We’re at Episode 24 right now. And though I’ve ignored plenty of ancient literature to get us here this fast, we’ve still come pretty far. Being at Episode 24, at my current count now, we should actually reach Anglophone literature around Episodes 60 through 70. The next sixteen episodes will be Greek literature - Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature – first the lyric poetry, and then Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Apollonius, and Menander. I’m going to tell you the stories of Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, of the great king Oedipus, of Medea, of Jason and the Argonauts, and we’ll hear Aristophanes slam Socrates and some of the more revolting demagogues of the Peloponnesian War. Most of all, as we venture into to our sixteen or so shows on Ancient Greece, we’ll be moving from religious scriptures into pure, high octane literature – into gripping stories that fit really, really well into podcast episodes. Unlike, say, 160,000 word chunks of ancient Hebrew religious scriptures that I have to come up with strange metaphors about drawers and compartments to try and make digestible in an audio format. Anyway, I’ve already written the Ancient Greece shows, and I can tell you that if you’ve liked Literature and History so far, there are some really magical stories coming up soon.
After Ancient Greece, we’re on to thirteen episodes on Roman literature. We’ll cover Rome’s great playwrights Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. We’ll learn about the great orator Cicero in show I’m proud to have named Ice Cube in a Toga. We’ll cover Virgil, and the epic poem the Aeneid – I’m very much looking forward to that – and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, along with an understudied epic by the Latin writer Statius called the Thebaid. After some later Roman Comedy – the Satyricon, The Golden Ass, and the beautiful philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, we’re on to the New Testament , along with contemporary Ancient Near Eastern religions often associated with it – Manichaeism, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. After a couple shows on Augustine, Boethius, and some of the church fathers – at some time after that, depending on how distracted I get by the Viking Sagas early Byzantine literature, and the Qur’an, which is way too mind bendingly awesome to ignore – we’ll get to Old English – I mean Caedmon, Bede, Alfred, and Beowulf. Long as you keep subscribing, listening, and telling your friends about the show, and please please please write a nice review – I’ll keep doing it. Deal? Cool, pinky swear.
In the next show, it’s déjà vu as we jump on a motorboat, turn on some cool music, and blast westward over the Mediterranean. We’ll follow the sun past the south of Cypress, and then head northwest to hug the west coast of Turkey, plunging into the choppy waters of the Aegean. The year is 582 BCE. Last time we made this journey, it was far earlier. By now, the Ionian coast has more olive orchards, more settlements, more kids playing at the beach, more seaport towns with bright walls reflecting on the dark water. Homeric poetry and the works of Hesiod are recited and circulated throughout the city states of the Aegean. 582 BCE was just a few years after our much loved friends the Israelites were split up and many were forced to live in Babylon – I imagine that in 582 the Israelites were slowly, sadly settling in and trying to learn a new language and way of life. Anyway, hard as 582 was for the Israelites, in the central Aegean, things weren’t going so badly. In fact, in just this year – 582 – some of the most spectacular, and raunchy, and strange, and jingoistic poetry the world has ever known was floating all over Ancient Greece. In the next show, we’re going to a party. Sappho will be there, and Pindar and a number of other famous Greek lyrical poets, and we’re going to experience Greek lyric poetry as it was intended – not alone on a printed page, by the austere light of a desk lamp, but instead with music, with a crowd, with an emcee, and, of course, with wine. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you stay on for the songs, I’ve got one on the Prophetic Books. If not, see you soon!
Still listening? Oh, boy, okay. So I got to thinking about the Prophetic Books. I’ve read them a few times, and to me, the most striking thing about them is the way they go back and forth between really hopeful visions of the future and then visions of corpses and carrion and rape and murder – back and forth and back and forth and for over five hundred pages. And I wondered what it would sound like if you had a song that flipped back and forth between happy singing optimism on one hand and blood drenched doomsday on the other. And the next thing was that I needed to pick a genre of music for each. And I figured the optimistic part would be a singsong thing with some kids gathered around a piano. And the doomsday part, obviously, had to be heavy metal. So this tune is a bit over the top – it’s silly, and strange, and it’s possibly a new, and very bad genre of music – children’s heavy metal – and it’s entitled “Happy Lambs and Doom.” I hope it’s funny, and I’ll see you next time.
[Happy Lambs and Doom Song]
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The New Oxford Annotated Bible||Ed. Michael D. Coogan, et. al.||This is the Bible that I've used throughout my career and this podcast. Its annotations, accompanying essays, and notes on translation are terrific.|
|Free||Podcast||The History in the Bible Podcast||Garry Stevens||This is a sprawling, wonderful podcast entirely dedicated to historical analysis of the Bible. If you liked this episode, subscribe to Dr. Garry's podcast. Read my full review here.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Bible Unearthed||Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman||This modern classic is perhaps the most famous work on the doings and findings of survey archaeologists in Israel, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and so on. It's grippingly narrated and informed by a huge amount of scholarship.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Old Testament Parallels||Victor Harold Matthews||This is an anthology with extensive notes. It includes transcriptions of papyri and stele that have direct linguistic and thematic parallels to the Old Testament - materials from places like Egypt, Assyria, Ugarit, Babylon, and so forth. It also includes useful short essays introducing the materials.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms||Walter Brueggemann and W.H. Bellinger||Ready to get to the next level with the Book of Psalms? This gigantic book, which came out in 2014, has everything you need to do so - every single psalm, annotated and with explanatory notes and historical interpretations. Brueggemann and Bellinger are humblingly erudite.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Who Wrote the Bible?||Richard Elliott Friedman||This book was first published in 1987, and then reissued in 1997. It's a deep analysis of the Documentary Hypothesis, and basically a detective story in which Friedman tries to identify the Deuteronomist. If you've read the Old Testament, you will find this book as fascinating as the other hundreds of thousands of people who have read it have.|
1.^ The 161,947 words of the Prophetic Books would be 648 pages if printed at 250 words per page, 540 if printed at 300 words per page (a standard number for today’s publishers), and 405 pages if printed at 400 words per page.
2.^ See notes to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20). The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (Page 1039). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3.^ See 2 Kings 23.29-30.
4.^ See 2 Kings 24.10-16.
2.^ See notes to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20). The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (Page 1039). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3.^ See 2 Kings 23.29-30.
4.^ See 2 Kings 24.10-16.