Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nasty Surprises in the Old Testament


1. Rivers of Babylon
The pop song (in all its forms - one of the best episodes of Mad Men, Season 1 had a great one) cycles around the following lyrics:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;
ye-eah we wept, when we remembered Zion.
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Require from us a song -
Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
rather less frequently adding:
Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight here tonight
As wikipedia observes, while the last couplet comes from Psalm 19, the song mainly rehearses Psalm 137, which recounts the yearnings of the Jewish people for Jerusalem and their freedom while they are in exile, enslaved in Babylon (i.e., after the catastrophe of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first temple etc. in 587-586 BCE).

The song has a stately, mournful, undramatic, unaggressive feel (disco versions are metronomic), and it achieves this largely because it cuts off just before Psalm 137 gets interesting, i.e., by causally checking the enemies list back in Israel ('When we get free, we're comin' for you Edomites!'), and by climaxing with brutal, close-to-hand horror. Here's the full Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried,“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter [of] Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Because the Psalms are relatively free-floating songs/hymns, it's not entirely clear what situation is envisaged here. Are the enslaved Jews just metaphorically by the rivers of Babylon (i.e., in the same sense that anyone who's in LA is 'by the Pacific'), or is this a completely literal scene: Jewish women (presumably) literally on the banks of, e.g., the Euphrates doing their Babylonian masters' laundry, occasionally encouraged by (possibly genuinely curious, not especially sadistic, but the Psalm does go out of its way to call them 'tormentors') overseers/guards to sing songs of their homeland while they work? I suspect that it's the latter. The hanging of harps in the poplars places us outside and possibly at riverside, and the horror image of the final line seems to build on the traditional laundry method that involves slapping the laundry against flat rocks at waters' edge. If this interpretation is on the right track then the horror image is actually two-fold:
  1. The enslaved women who are doing your laundry by beating it against rocks, are thinking of beating your infants' brains out as they do so
  2. The women who are doing your laundry will (eventually and probably sooner rather than later) be providing your child-care.
The infanticide threat therefore is doubly concrete, and no mere fantasy. That said, the intensity of resistance that the fantasy itself expresses is frightening, and should be chastening for slave-holders. Slave rebellion of the household help - check. General Biblical idea that infants are fair game in a rough neighborhood - check.

2. David and Goliath

You may remember, as it were, from Sunday School, the story of unafraid, unarmored shepherd-boy David killing the highly armored, 9 ft tall Philistine warrior, Goliath of Gath with just a sling and a rock (effectively just because he's got God on his side, hence David's lack of fear, confidence, etc.). 1 Samuel 17 continues:
50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.
52 Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron.
53 When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.
54 David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.
55 As [King] Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine [Note the cool mini-rewind, flashback structure here!], he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”
56 The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.”
57 As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head.
58 “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
Sunday School never mentioned or elaborated on the beheading part, but it's clearly of the utmost significance to the author of 1 Samuel, hence the repetition. The next chapter flashes back again to the entrance of David into Jerusalem to further flesh out the scene:
6 When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres.
7 As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
So this is the image to have: David is instantly transformed from an unknown shepherd boy to national hero, where this change is capped by his entering the city in triumph before a crowd of thousands with the head of Goliath in his hand (it's irresistible to imagine him holding it aloft). Sunday Bloody Sunday school! At any rate, most of 1 Samuel 18 is concerned with Saul's paranoia about (and attempts to kill) David:
22 Then Saul ordered his attendants: “Speak to David privately and say, ‘Look, the king likes you, and his attendants all love you; now become his son-in-law.’”
23 They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”
24 When Saul’s servants told him what David had said,
25 Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.
26 When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed,
27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage.
The gruesome laying waste to Philistines is treated as a sideshow, almost as a gag 'Saul, the Putz, thought he'd set David a task that would get him killed, but no!' And note how David actually kills twice as many Philistines as Saul asked for as the bride price (which was what Saul thought would be enough for David to get himself well and truly killed - Saul's got the Terminator on his hands). Charming. And how utterly miserable that the Philistines have been remembered only incidentally as a kind of joke ('You Philistine!').

3. Joshua and Jericho
One of the most beloved of traditional Sunday School stories is the Battle of Jericho: the Jews parade the Ark of the Covenant around the walls of the city of Jericho once per day for six days, and on the seventh day they do 7 laps of the city with it. Then priests blow their horns, and, at Joshua's command, the people all shout at once, and....the city's wall collapses, the Jews take over the city, the end.

But not so fast! Not only is all the shouting and horn-blowing just pageantry (it's the Ark as a Raiders-style, divine WMD that's doing the work surely!), but also the Sunday School version cuts off just as things start to get interesting in Joshua 6 and Joshua more generally. After the wall comes down:

21 [The Jews] devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys...
24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD’s house....
26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the LORD is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.”
27 So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.
It's worth mentioning that by the Jews' own account in Joshua the people of Jericho had never done anything to or against the Jews (it's actually a little surprising to me that there's no attempt made to gin up some Gulf of Tonkin-like incident or 'those people disrespected the Lord'-type pseudo-charge against the people of Jericho). Rather the text is very clear: Jericho and its people are just IN THE WAY, i.e., they just happen to be living in a region that God has now supposedly granted uniquely to the Jews. QED. Kill, kill, kill, but retain valuable dry goods (but see below).

Most of the rest of Joshua continues and completes the programme begun at Jericho (although it had been promised explicitly by Moses in Deuteronomy 9 ('Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky... the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you'): the extermination of every existing settlement or group of people west of the Jordan River (at least) so that Israel will be able to be founded on a blank page. After Jericho comes Ai in Joshua 8 (after some 'not following the Lord's instructions' shenanigans in Joshua 7):
24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it.
25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai.
26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai.
27 But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua.
28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.
29 He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.
And so on. Note that the livestock are spared and carried off this time. Can anyone seriously believe that God changed his instructions from Jericho to Ai? Surely not. The only reality here is that Israel's methods are evolving (note the king's corpse impaled bit), being perfected. It's crazy/overkill/a luxury for a conquering army on the march to waste its enemies' livestock. God isn't changing his mind, the Jews are just becoming better, smarter terrorizers and ethnic cleansers. 'As God wished/commanded us' has just been rubber-stamped over every new malicious step.

Wikipedia's articles on the Book of Joshua and on the concept of herem (which apparently implies an exterminationist agenda) contain good, well-referenced summaries of scholars' hand-wringing about some of the most brazen and abhorrent propagandizing in favor of ethnic cleansing and genocide one could ever hope to see.

4. The Grapes of Wrath
Most of us know the phrase 'The Grapes of Wrath' from Steinbeck's novel and also from The Battle Hymn of the Republic (the 'Glory glory hallelujah, his truth is marching on' one) from the US's Civil War. But the Biblical roots of the phrase are obscure for most people. Although the phrase turns up in Revelations, it first appears in one of the most cinematic and horrifying passages in the Bible: the beginning of Isaiah 63. At this point in Isaiah there's about to be a new birth of freedom for the Jews as they've been released from slavery in Babylon and are now trudging back to their homeland or what's left of it. In Chapter 61, the narrator tells us that now at last all will be well.

4 [The Jews] will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
6 And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.
7 Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.
8
“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.
This is all sounding very ominous, like we're about to have a replay of the Joshua only with God himself very much on the scene this time. Isaiah 62 builds suspense:
8 The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled;
9 but those who harvest it will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who gather the grapes will drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.”
We await the Ark's appearance? But, no, God himself is on the case. Cue the Morricone: it's the man with no name, actually God as John Doe from Se7en, emerging from the haze.
1 Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.”
2 Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress?
3 “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing.
4
It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come.
5
I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.
6
I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
The narrator speaks quasi-fantastically for the whole of Israel conceived as 'on the road', trudging back to Zion from their 50 year Babylonian nightmare. Who is the blood-splattered stranger on the road from Bozrah, the mountain fortress of Edom, the narrator/Israel asks?

It's the Jews' God, and he has slaughtered all of the Edomites in their most impregnable fortress. This appears to be grudge-settling of an especially expansive, 'best when it's cold' form: remember Psalm 137 (Section 1 above) in which the Edomites cheered when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem etc.. After 40-50 years of enslavement, it's now payback time for the Jews. God's ticked that he had to do all the work himself this time around (a good Joshua is hard to find I suppose), still, it is accomplished. God's almost literally bathing in the blood of the Jews' enemies. God appears to be hoping that this action will be a one-off, that the Jews themselves will take things from here, i.e., now that they have this fresh example of what sort of barbarism's required to make the vision of Israel as 'land of milk and honey for the Jews' real. God will still be decisive for the Jews, but he'll mainly act in relatively abstract or invisible ways, e.g., invisibly ensuring the Jews win all their battle, etc.. The grapes of wrath, then, are enemies of the Jews being squished like grapes by a wrathful deity championing his favorite people again and again. The Battle Hymn of the Republic's first verse (all that anyone ever remembers) is:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Yankee soldiers marching against the South invoke the monstrous image of a John Doe God. Yee Haw.

A quick word about the rest of Isaiah 63: in effect the narrator is then led to reflect on what this reboot for the Jews means: won't they just screw everything up all over again? Isn't it inevitable that God will eventually tire of the Jews' lack of righteousness, of their general wickedness and disobedience? Won't God ultimately let the Jews' enemies overrun them as punishment for their inevitable frailty? What's the point if so? The narrator asks a plaintive question which David Plotz calls the toughest question in the Bible:

17 Why, LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?
The Narrator then seems to morph this question into a kind of plea that God should be more of a hands-on ruler of the Jews, at least if there's to be much hope. Fat chance of that! But interpretation here is very difficult. Isaiah is an incredibly complex, multi-authorial work, full of prophecy but also grappling with the historical realities of the reverse diaspora/new Exodus. Isaiah's fantastical levels of violence and truly psychopathic God are deeply disturbing, even if they're intended as fantasies, just as the infanticide plea in Rivers of Babylon in Psalms is even if it's interpreted just as a fantasy signaling the implacability of Jewish resistance.

Conclusion
In some ways, nothing can prepare one for the horror and terror of the Old Testament, and it's probably appropriate that kids should be spared much of it (of course the Richard Dawkinses of the world think that exposing kids to any religious texts at all is child abuse!). But it's often great literature - extremely cinematic with the spareness of a well-written screenplay - and it's spookily pseudo-historical too (in a way that speaks to the shape of many current events in the Middle East), so it's gripping stuff. At a deep level too the OT grapples with the problem of how to pass on wisdom to future generations who'll be living in very different times (and who'll tend to largely have forgotten all the precedents for the next shocking crisis). The unexpurgated version of the OT is therefore an amazing resource for adults, allowing them, among other things, to reflect upon the simplicitudes of childhood, and the shortness of effective cultural memory.

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