Habakkuk and the Sermon on the Mount

In an earlier post, Habakkuk’s Lament, we saw that Habakukk was on the receiving end of a “teachable moment” by God, precipitated by a complaint lodged actually by Habakkuk — why does he see violence and injustice all around him, and God remains silent?

As was shown, Habakkuk is actually asking a narrow, ethnically based question. He wants to know why he sees violence and injustice, but his concern is really for his own people.

In three very short chapters, however, a kind of character realignment takes place for Habakkuk. Obsessed with godly revenge on enemies in chapter one, he comes to be in awe of what God can do, and by chapter three instead prays to God that, “in wrath may you remember mercy” (3.2).

So, what happened?

Like us, Habakkuk has a kind of selective morality. Angered by injustice and violence, he calls on God to act (1. 1 – 4). God’s response is, “Well, of course. Look! I can raise a people more violent than the ones you are worried about, and I will send them over to clean house. Look at my power!” This troubles Habakkuk, since this does not seem like a solution at all, and so he demands a better response from God (2.1). God comes across in chapter one as arrogant and violent, whose solution will only bring more suffering.

The Lord’s response in chapter two is a panoramic view of his power, and he shows the justice he can mete out to the enemies of righteous people all over the earth. But a question is implied for us, which Habakkuk realizes: if every person suffering around the earth asks God for the same thing (i..e, punishment of one’s enemies), then what?

Human beings express outrage, demand justice (especially from God ), and so for certain wrongs, but fail to recognize their own failures to act justly, or to right wrongs when they can. Habakkuk’s realization of his selective morality and outrage is seen in 3.2 when he asks God to forgo violence and revenge against the nations, and rather to shows the power of his mercy. In other words, give them a chance!

While nations rise according to the mercy of God and are removed by him because of their sin (Tarazi, Land and Covenant), these events take place over vast time periods. But what about injustice today?

This remarkable short book is a lesson for us to do something about how we see things, beginning with an examination of our own selective morality. For example, we protest wars in other lands, but have remained silent when our own country enacts violence. Worse is when we have “God on our side.”

Still, Habakkuk’s value is immense throughout the Bible. As has been expressed many times on this blog, Jesus carries the arc of Scripture to its conclusion . He alone is its true interpreter, sent by the Father to save the Scriptures from a religious and political class that appropriated it for its own use, including calling on the God of Scripture to punish enemies.

All that appears in the New Testament has its basis in what was already written. This is why I believe Jesus uses Habakkuk as a basis for the Sermon on the Mount:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5. 43-48)

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Shem, Japheth . . . and Translations of the Bible

In a conversation recently, the question of the meaning of certain words in the Bible came up. In this particular case, predestination. I was asked: why don’t you preach about predestination, since it’s in the Bible? Well, there’s a word there translated as “predestination,” but there is not a theory of predestination in the Bible.

How do I know that? Because I know biblical Greek and have read Paul many times in the original. As the post Sounding Out the Readings showed, there are simply things in the Bible you will not learn in English. To put it bluntly — the Bible in English, French, Spanish, etc is not the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible and thus, open to legitimate literary criticism.

So, then, wouldn’t God want his message to be translated into as many languages so as to reach as many people as possible?

Here is the issue. Maybe this is the wrong question.

In Decoding Genesis 1 – 11, Father Tarazi engages in a magisterial overview of the opening chapters of the first Book of Scripture. Lamenting the abuse (yes, abuse!) of the Scriptures by Europeans and North Americans who not only failed to submit to the original text, but also appropriated it for their own ends, he takes us back to one of the most important passages in the early chapters of Genesis — Noah’s blessing upon Shem, his conditional blessing of Japheth, and the cursing of Ham’s son Canaan.

In Genesis 9 we hear:

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan;
   lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for* Japheth,
   and let him live in the tents of Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.’

Well, who are the descendants of Shem? Simply, in the Bible, they are the peoples who inhabit the Syrian desert and surrounding regions, for whom shepherdism is a way of life.

And the Japhethites? Well, in the Bible, they come to be known as he “island peoples,” whom we would recognize today as the sea-faring Greeks and Romans. There are no North Americans or Northern/Central Europeans in the Scriptures. But they must function as if they were Japhethites. Why? Because they are not part of the Scriptural story at baseline but must be invited into it.

And that is the issue here. Anyone outside the story of the Bible has, in order to share in the blessings of Shem, to actually dwell in the tents of Shem — where the scroll of Scripture is unveiled and read in its original languages.

And so, Noah’s (i.e, Scripture’s) blessing of Shem as the “gold-standard” for those outside of the original purview of Scripture to embrace, holds lessons for us when it comes to biblical translations.

The translation will always, like the Japhethites, be by invitation, and will receive a blessing only by being fully within the tents of Shem. And that means knowing the original languages.

In an earlier post, Baseline, I argued that the West appropriated so many of the treasures of the peoples of the Middle East — most recently since 2003 with the invasion of Iraq — that we have again come to see everything out there as belonging to us. To walk with the God of Scripture, it would help if we entered fully the tents of Shem, instead of thinking we made those tents and that they belong to us.

Skepticism and the Bible

I am currently in the middle of reading the late Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark. Sagan tackles the superstitions and false beliefs that give rise to a kind of mental, if not political and economic, slavery. The way out of this word of superstition, often perpetrated by religion, is for a society to have broad scientific knowledge capable of asking relevant and critical questions borne of skepticism.

There is one section that caught my attention the most, and it it is this section that is worth reflection. In chapter 7, eponymously entitled “The Demon-Haunted World,” Dr. Sagan quotes the British historian Edward Gibbon who, commenting upon the philosophers who became Christians, makes this observation:

“The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers” (TDHW, page 126).

The result for Gibbon, and Sagan, was that superstition came to eventually replace reason and critical thinking.

In his The Mythic Past, biblical scholar Thomas Thompson makes the case that the authors of the Bible often tackled philosophical questions about suffering and our views as humans of the divine, as in the case of the Book of Job. Thompson asks if the God portrayed in the book actually answers Job’s questions, because it looks like he pulls rank on poor Job, in effect telling him “who are you to question me?” Thompson (if I am reading him correctly) sees this as the authors actually questioning the widely held human awe of the divine that all cultures share. When we look at Elijah, do we see a righteous man eager for the Lord (our standard view of him), or a zealot who slays others in contravention of the commandment not to kill? God has to teach Elijah in the silence of Horeb that he is not the God of fire, wind, or earthquakes (i.e., violence; see 1 Kings 19).

So, skepticism of human views of the gods (indeed, of superstition) and of human behavior is very much woven into the fabric of the Bible. It is a book that introduced skepticism of religious traditions, and the dangers of excessive piety long before modern science entered the scene (Mark 7. 1 – 13).

In earlier posts on this blog, it was established that Plato and his followers “did a number” on the human race. We are still paying for Plato’s dreams. Sagan is partial to philosophy, presumably as a critical and skeptical practice, but it seems strange, because at the end of the philosopher’s discussions, nothing remains resolved.

So, it is not accidental that when Paul goes to Athens (Acts 17), he encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” along with the rest of the Athenians.

I consider this passage to be one of the most indicting comments in the Bible of philosophy and how uncritical it is, as it is devoid of actual engagement with the real world. All the philosophers of Athens would do is talk, and frankly, behave like the rich man in Luke, ignoring Lazarus at the gate. That is, they would feed themselves and do nothing for the poor and needy who surrounded them, and who were invisible to them.

Scripture invites us to open our eyes — as Jesus says, to “look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6) — and be critical of the lessons we are being taught. Asking questions is very much part of the biblical tradition.

If the Dead Are Not Raised . . .

On Pascha, it helps to take a look at Paul’s prose in 1 Corinthians 15. Again, because it bears repeating, Paul (along with the other authors of Scripture), does not have a “theology of” or a pre-set view of some issue. Chapter 15 follows chapter 14, which follows 13, all the way from chapter 1. There is a narrative flow.

So there is no Pauline “view” of the Resurrection. Paul, true to Scripture, is taking the promises of God made in the law and the prophets that God’s message will reach the Gentiles, and Paul then explains this message. Anything Paul “says” about the Resurrection is what his predecessors already wrote, which he now presents to the Gentiles.

Because we have been conditioned to think that we need to find pre-Christ references in the Old Testament, we tend to see even the issue of the Resurrection exclusively in this manner, i.e., as being concerned mainly, if not solely, with Jesus Christ. But Jesus, as we have shown in Arc of the Covenant, comes at the end of the Scriptural story, where he carries the entire arc of Scripture to the Cross. As we wrote in part two of that essay, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the Father’s restoration of the entirety of Scripture as a living word that must reach all nations. If Jesus dies and is forgotten, so are the promises of God.

Hence, as we wrote then:

“And so, if the death of Christ was supposed to lead to the loss of the “message of God,” [i.e., by the conspirators who put him to death], then what does the resurrection of Jesus from the dead mean but that this word is a word of life that can never be buried into oblivion?”

And so, to what is Paul referring when he writes that, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (15. 13)?

It helps to look at Paul’s imagery in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the letter, he uses the image of the body or a building to help the hearers understand what he is saying. In chapter 15, he introduces the image of a seed (vv. 42 – 44 ff). A seed grows after it is buried into the ground.

What was the purpose of the Resurrection of Jesus? Well, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead happened only because God had already decided to raise all the dead. But subject to human manipulation, even the word of God could be used to cause harm, as Jesus and the prophets before him showed. Jesus’ interpretation of the law and the prophets, being the only valid one, “protects” the Scriptures as a life-giving word. His being raised from the dead by the Father was done to bring that message to us.

This is why hope is so prominent in the New Testament writings. We now have hope, based upon the teachings we have received as disciples.

But what type of “hope?”

In the Scriptural readings of Holy Week in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, an important “axial” segment were the readings devoted to Jesus’ betrayal. This betrayal was repeated so much one could not lose sight of some important messages: an innocent man was being betrayed, and a judge (Pilate) representing the prized Roman legal system washed his hands of everything and knowingly sentenced an innocent man to death.

Jesus’ death on a cross was simply meant to erase him from history and the face of the earth, to be buried into oblivion. But we remember him and the lessons he taught against the control of the Scriptures exerted by religious authorities and the crimes of unjust judges.

Hope. But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish (Psalms 9. 18). Though the world may forget you, cast you into oblivion, God will not. Jesus’ death on the cross is indeed a promise by God that no innocent human being will ever be forgotten by God, and on the “last day,” will not only be justified, by glorified in His kingdom.

Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!

Habakkuk’s Lament

It’s only three chapters long, but the prophecy of Habakkuk packs a decent punch.

It helps, before diving into some of the gems in this book, to repeat a point made throughout this blog — if you read the Bible with pre-set assumptions, or filtered lenses, you will lose sight of what it is saying. As explained recently, in the essay Circling Back to the Text, we can easily overlook, since our assumptions prevent us from looking any deeper, that the fact Uriah is a Hittite is earth-shattering and damning to the Davidic saga. You can only “see” this if you study the text long enough to recognize the connections the authors make for us.

Because of centuries of theological training, it became the norm for people to see the prophets as people “predicting” the future, be it the coming of the Messiah or world events. Lost in this view was a more basic human concern, such as taking up a complaint with God for all the pain and injustices in the world. We tend to overlook this aspect of the prophets, but the prophets are filled with their own very real complaints about how God does things. And they want answers.

Habakkuk is a good place to look at how the authors of Scripture address human complaints against God and what they learn, and we from them, in this process of challenging God. The Book of Habakkuk is essentially the questions of a human being for why the vulnerable suffer in war.

The Complaint

Habakukk’s lament is expressed in the opening verses:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise” (1. 2-3)

Habakukk is expressing the position of being part of a people who are on the receiving end of a war, and with the violence he observes (“destruction and violence are before me”), he is calling on the Lord to answer for this. But the response, far from being an exercise in hand holding, seems to add fuel to the fire. In his retort, the Lord is admittedly proud of raising up foreign armies to punish the disobedient and wayward nations (vv. 6 – 11), including Habakkuk’s!

The Lord’s response in verses 6-11 gives the reader the impression that God relishes war. Not satisfied at all with this reply, Habakkuk continues:

“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). In other words, I won’t leave from here until he gives me a decent reply.

In chapter two, verse 2, the Lord responds. What is important here is that we, along with Habakkuk, are learning that the prophet’s original question was myopic.

In his extended response in chapter two, the Lord expresses that his concern is for all the earth (2.8), something absent from Habakkuk’s original complaint: “destruction and violence are before me” (1.2). The key verse in the Lord’s response is 2.4: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

Where are these righteous found? All over the earth (2.14).

The Lord has to teach Habakkuk to enlarge his concern. Noble as it is to lament the violence against our own people, or people like us, the Lord is educating the prophet to also be concerned about the violence against people over the face of all the earth. In other words, compassion is not ethnic, national, or geographical.

After a lengthy song of praise, the prophecy ends with the words, “God, the Lord, is my strength” (3. 19). The only hope for strength is trust in the Lord. Strength is not the number of chariots or the size of the treasury of a state.

In three short chapters, Habakkuk learns that the Lord is not a God who relishes violence. At the same time, he learns also that a human being’s concern must be for all those suffering on the earth. Human compassion must mirror that of God’s.

He Has Been Chosen!

I had a great conversation recently with someone about God’s choices, as what we hear/read in Romans 9. 11 – 13. There, in discussing the birth of Jacob and Esau to Rebekah, Paul writes:

Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’

As we learn, Jacob is born, and he is an ambitious fellow who has no problem being conniving and short-sighted, among other things. The question is, would you want him as a brother? A son in law? A son? A husband? A friend? He steals his older brother’s birthright and for this, Esau is exiled by Isaac.

As we addressed in one of the earlier essays, “It’s Good to See You, Bro,” Jacob is of course petrified to learn (as he is finally granted release by Laban to go home) that his older brother Esau is literally over the hills coming straight at him with an army of four hundred plus men. To repeat, Jacob was the reason for why Esau was exiled from his father’s house and became a wanderer, having to fend for himself. But, as we see, God was good to him and to Jacob — well, Jacob struggled his whole life.

So, what benefit did having been chosen bring Jacob? Is chosen-ness a de-facto benefit in Scripture?

Looking at the Bible, it looks more the case that the authors of the Bible are taking a very real human fascination with chosen-ness, which exists in every culture and tribal society — and dynamiting it from within. It’s another construct humans create — in politics, religion, sports (e.g. MVP), you name it.

But behind this outside is an inside that tells a different story. Being chosen is not a priori a safety net, but more the case that God may very well make of you an example.

So in Romans 9, Paul is not really talking about Jacob being preferred over Esau. And he is not creating a “Scriptural approach to election and chosen-ness.” All he is doing is highlighting that, whether or not Israel (another chosen group) followed the Law is irrelevant, because God can even use human failures for His purposes.

Poets and Canons

I recently purchased a copy of the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein; UC Press, 2013; Kindle Edition). This is a collection of poems of mourning and his coming to terms with the loss of his ancestral homeland.

By no means am I a reader of poetry; but even a cursory, “first impressions” reading of the first series of poems shows how it is the author who creates a literary canon, and not the reader. What we call “canon” is simply the collection of writings by an author (or school of authors) bound by inter-textual linkages the author(s) creates intentionally.

Briefly, the first four poems in the series are: I Will Slog Over This Road; Another Road in the Road; Were It Up To Me To Begin Again; and, On This Earth.

Th first poem introduces a word or phrase that will then become the main theme of the following poem. For example, in I Will Slog Over This Road, Darwish says: “On the roof of neighing, I will cut thirty openings for meaning.”

The “neighing” (of horses) then becomes the center theme of the next poem, “Another Road in the Road.” He says, “No widow wants to return to us, there we have to go, north of the neighing horses.”

This poem then introduces the image of the rose, “I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee.”

In “Were It Up to Me to Begin Again,” the poet continues with the image of a rose: “”Were it up to me to begin again, I would make the same choice. Roses on the fence.” Later, he introduces the theme of love, and family:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories

In other words, the sights, smells, and memories of home and family life.

This then becomes the basis for the next poem, I Belong There.

This is an example of inter-textuality, and how only a writer can create it, never a consumer.

So, it is the author, in accomplished and serious literature, who set the tone and creates the canon. The readers are left to enjoy, study, learn, and grow from what is written. The Scriptures, then, are the literary gem of a school of writers who worked together and created an interwoven narrative across the entire story, for all ages.

Afghanistan and the Thucydides Trap

As we look at the images from Afghanistan from this past week, it is always helpful to remember why things happen. I thought my posts on Plato and his truly nefarious influence on humanity were done, but then things happen, and the printing press rolls again.

Consider the Think Tanks, the nexus between government power, international corporations, and . . . academia. Yes, the nexus of financialized and weaponized ideas. Like, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we . . . ?” Afghanistan, against the wishes of Platonists and all variations thereof, is Exhibit A for us that re-wiring shepherd societies does not work, no matter how many books, papers, or counter-insurgency manuals are written and discussed.

But what I want to focus on today is an idea promulgated by American think tankers called “The Thucydides Trap.” It’s a pseudo-intellectual “idea,” really, a half-idea, that uses the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides to justify American foreign policy today. It was, as Thucydides explained, the rise of Athenian power that caused fear in Sparta, and not the other way around.

The Thucydides trap is named after the first serious historian, Thucydides the Athenian, who set out to explain the destruction of Athenian society as a consequence of a very long war against Sparta and its allies. During the Cold War, some American academics used The History of the Peloponnesian War as a kind of blueprint. They saw America as Athens and the USSR as Sparta; in their mindset, the one a democracy, the other a closed society; the one a naval power, the other a land power.

Whatever the facile comparisons, the Trap is up and running again, this time between the US and China, with the same comparisons.

The problem is that, well, one wonders how well the promulgators of this idea . . . actually paid attention to what Thucydides actually wrote. Why do I say this? Because Athens lost the war, and did so because of the same kind of policies we are seeing today — expeditionary warfare, brutal occupations, internal societal tension, and poor leaders (including demagogues), among other things (yes, there was also a plague). In short, they were eliminated by their own empire.

It’s hard, because empires, following the Scriptural approach to these matters (see Tasks), always build too high. It’s the internal logic of empire. Their builders do not realize it’s a fool’s errand to begin, and simply do not know when to stop once they’ve begun.

Circling Back to the Text

In the previous posts In the Same Boat and Who Reveals Whom?, the issue of David’s treatment of Uriah the Hittite came up. One of the points made there was that Uriah, as a Hittite, was a foreigner, and so the horrible abuse David meted out to him should be seen in that light as well.

In listening to some of the recent Tarazi Tuesday podcasts at the Ephesus School Network, I learned something that puts David mistreatment of Uriah in a new light. Uriah is actually not a foreigner; he is living on his people’s (as we would say today, ancestral) land. This new lesson just reinforces that reading and re-reading the Bible without preconceptions brings out important nuances we would otherwise miss if we do not keep reading.

Uriah, as Father Paul reminds us, is a Hittite. The introduction of the Hittites does not appear with the story of David, but much earlier, with Abraham. In Genesis 23, we are told of Sarah’s death. Abraham, as a sojourner trusting God to provide, has no place to bury his wife. So he approaches the Hittites and asks from them a burial place. They offer him the choicest place, gratis. Abraham does not want to take advantage of their generosity, and for a nominal price offers Ephron of Zohar some money. Ephron eventually agrees, and the cave and surrounding land in Machpelah become Abraham’s land to bury his wife.

Abraham receives hospitality and generosity from the Hittites who long inhabited the land. He was a stranger in the land where they lived for generations. He had nothing, not even a plot for his wife and they graciously gave him one. But later, his descendant David would abuse one of the survivors of those people still living on that land, Uriah, and treat him as expendable.

The inclusion of the Hittites in the Bible is thus a powerful indictment of human arrogance, power, and ingratitude.

Sounding out the Readings

We are currently in a cycle of readings centered on the Gospel of Matthew. Textually, none of the four Gospels are actually titled by the authors. The idea that people with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the authors is, at a quick glance, more of a product of ecclesiastical tradition and such.

But, then again, maybe not.

It has been a basic thesis of this blog that reading (actually, hearing) the Bible in the original languages is the way to go. The original languages provide the field of vision that makes the story come alive fully. This is because we have a play on words in those languages, or repetition, or parallel poetic structures, and so on, that are authored this way.

It helps to appreciate this, otherwise you might have a hard time understanding why Matthew is called Matthew.

In Greek, Matthew is written as Ματθαῖος. Nothing extraordinary here, so far at least.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, however, the word μαθητης is repeated. This is the Greek word that means disciple.

If one compares the name of the Gospel author with the message of the book, then one notices the following:

Ματθαῖος and μαθητης sound similar in Greek. Even though they are spelled differently, the message is clear. The Gospel according to Ματθαῖος is the book of how to become a disciple (μαθητης) of Jesus.

You won’t get that in English.