Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Prophets

The voice of Isaiah, one of the classic Hebrew prophets:

In the year that King Uzziah died [probably 738 BCE.], I beheld my Lord seated on a high and mighty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” […] And I cried out, “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; Yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin shall be purged away.” Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am, send me.”

That’s Isaiah speaking—six hundred years after Moses had his own burning bush experience with God, six hundred years after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and helped establish them as a new people in covenant with God not to become another Egypt, not to re-establish the oppressive social and political dynamics of that nation, but to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” a people committed to a social justice vision of “shalom” which means “well-being, peace, and wholeness.”

But it’s a vision in trouble, six hundred years after Moses. The people entered the promised land, under the leadership of Joshua, but there was to be no centralized organization. For three hundred years, Israel was a confederacy of various tribes, each led by a military ruler. Did it work? The Bible suggests no, for in it we find this continuing refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” So, around 1000 BCE, a king was established: first Saul, then David, then Solomon. These are names many of us already know. But the tensions and complexities would ultimately prove too great for the kingdom to stay single. After Solomon’s death in 922 BCE, the kingdom split into northern and southern halves; and it is out of these kingdoms that we hear voices like that of Isaiah, voices which spare no feelings in their protest against what’s happening. Absence of shalom. People who were once slaves in Egypt, recreating Egypt among themselves! “I live among a people of unclean lips,” says Isaiah. So: “Here I am, send me.”

Biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad defines a Biblical prophet as “one who participates in the emotions of God.” Something happens to the soul of one who becomes a prophet; the guilt that prevents them from being fully present to life is burned away—a glowing coal is touched to their lips—and that’s when their sense of participating in a life larger than their own really and truly begins. The guilt is burned away; self-centeredness burned away; and from that point on, they live for the message, which is: We can be so much better than we are right now. Things are not good right now, but we can change before it is too late and all the negative karma we’re generating right now catches up with us. So wake up! Get shaken up, and then shake up the status quo! Make the vision of shalom real! (Side note: I know that the Biblical prophets never spoke of karma—I’m just throwing that word in to keep things “diverse.” Keep you on your toes…)

Just listen to what another prophet says, Amos (contemporary with Isaiah, although they would not have known each other, since Isaiah was in the southern kingdom and Amos was in the north). The words of Amos:

Thus says the Lord:

You oppress the poor and crush the needy. You trample on the poor and take from them taxes of grain. You trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.

Thus says the Lord:

Woe to you who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on your couches, eating lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music, who drink wines from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of [the poor]. Therefore you shall now be the first to go into exile.

Thus says the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

Thus says the Lord:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

That’s Amos. And if he was a prophet in the sense that Gerhard von Rad defines prophets, then what we are hearing are the emotions of God conveyed through human language. Could you worship a God who feels like this? Who stands for the poor and the needy and is outraged by their unjust treatment? Who is angry at the complacency and utter neglect of the self-indulgent wealthy? Who prefers justice and righteousness over anything else and will never be fooled (as many of us are) by shows of religious piety? Could you love and serve a God like this? (Of course, you don’t HAVE to: we are Unitarian Universalists after all! But … COULD you?)

And already we are deep into our topic for today. “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: the Prophets.” These remarkable, unforgettable voices of conscience to their own day and to ours. People whose lips have been touched by a live coal; people who feel a Larger Life surging through their own and sending them into the world to help people wake up and remember the vision of shalom, remember what life is really all about. There are silences in this world that are so hard to break … silence of groupthink, silence of complacency, silence of unexamined assumptions, silence of sheer habit … and the job of the Biblical prophet is to break that silence, speak truth against the power of all that oppressive silence.

Now a moment ago, after quoting the prophet Amos, I asked if you could love and serve the God that Amos serves, the God whose feelings Amos feels. But don’t answer yet, because the picture is incomplete. For there’s another side to the prophetic message. It’s not always and exclusively along the lines of outrage and anger and “get your act together or else.” It’s not just a broken record… We also find, among the prophets, feelings and words that are breathtakingly energizing and positive and encouraging…. We’d have to, if they’re truly feeling the feelings of God, because the God that they served is the God of “Let there be light!,” the God who delights in creativity and in renewal.

A classic example of this is the writer called “Second Isaiah.” One thing you have to know about the Bible is that one book does not necessarily mean one author. Appearance is not reality. Chapters 1 through 39 of the book of Isaiah are about the prophet whose lips were touched by a live coal, the Isaiah who said, “Here I am, send me,” the Isaiah who spoke to the northern kingdom in the 700s BCE. But then we have chapters 40 through 55, and these chapters—just tacked on to the earlier ones—refer to events hundreds of years later, after all the destruction that the First Isaiah predicted would happen really came to pass. Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE and the Israelites kicked out of their homeland, exiled, orphaned, lost, bereft…. This was their 9/11 … worse than 9/11. The writer of chapters 40 through 55 speaks to these broken people, conveys God’s emotions to them where they are. This is Second Isaiah, and here is a sampling of what he says:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain.

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.

God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. For behold, I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

This is the Second Isaiah. This is what shalom looks like. God’s feelings conveyed here are the feelings of an encouraging coach, a faithful mother, an irrepressible visionary, a passionate poet, an unfailing lover. So the question again: could you love and serve a God like this? The God who says, “For behold, I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” These are the among the most beautiful words ever written, words which are themselves like a burning coal, and when they touch our lips, they burn away guilt, they burn away fear, they burn away despair, and we are liberated into a larger hope. Despair is perhaps the hardest silence of all to break, but the Biblical prophet breaks it. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” 2500 years ago, the Israelite exiles had to believe, in order to come back to their homeland, once they were allowed to do so, and rebuild their nation; and we today, in a world that seems in so many ways on a path of soul destruction and ecological disaster, have to believe, too….

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing…” Just let the burning coal of that touch our lips…

**

It’s soo good. The prophets are soo good….

But there’s bad and ugly too. Gotta take a look at this before we’re done today.

One thing I can only mention in passing, and then encourage you to read about in our study text, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus Borg, is this: dueling prophets. People with opposite messages, all claiming to feel the feelings of God, all claiming to speak for God (which is unheard of today, right?). For example, in 1 Samuel 9: 11-22, the prophet Samuel basically says, “Thus says the Lord, if you go ahead and establish a monarchy, you are going to regret it. Bad news.” But then, in 2 Samuel 7:1-17, the prophet Nathan basically says, “Thus says the Lord, I love the fact that you are going to establish a monarchy. Nothing but good times ahead.” Whaaaat?

Clearly the question of distinguishing between true and false prophets was (and is) a burning issue, a complex one. Often the yardstick becomes a matter of consequences: does what the prophet say come to pass? Are the results of putting a prophet’s ideas into motion constructive or destructive? A reasonable yardstick: but not so helpful in the moment when you have multiple strident voices up in your face and you have to make a decision now….

Last thing I’ll say about this is an observation about the Bible. I love the Bible exactly because it is unafraid of featuring multiple voices. Lots of people are anxious to dress the Bible up in its Sunday best … but the Bible is more like the kid who, just five minutes after the mom or the dad has combed its hair and smoothed its dress, is already a mess, hair askew, grass stains on its pants, scuffed up shoes, juice stains and cookie crumbs everywhere. The Bible is messy, and that’s why I love it. It’s a book for human beings, by human beings. That’s what it is.

Bad and ugly in it, to complement the good. And now, more bad and ugly: Jonah. Let’s finish up with Jonah.

What do you think about that story? Here’s a hint: the essential message has pretty much nothing to do with the whale… (Some people in fact speculate that the whole episode with the whale is in there in the same way that a dramatic car chase might be smack dab in the middle of a chick flick—as a way to throw a bone to someone who might otherwise die of boredom…) God sends Jonah to Ninevah to convey a message: clean up your act, or else. But Jonah doesn’t want to go. He hates the Ninevites. Haaaates them. So God bless stubborn Jonah, he tries resisting his calling, gets on a ship going the opposite direction, to Tarshish. But what happens when you resist and deny your call in life? God doesn’t let you off the hook; and you become a danger to other people too. Horrible weather threatens to sink the ship; Jonah owns up to being the cause of it all; he says to them, “Throw me overboard;” but they have more love in their hearts for him than Jonah has for the Ninevites and they try everything they can to avoid having to throw him overboard, but it’s no use, in the end they have to. Which leads to the episode with the whale, which God calls to save Jonah, and good thing that the whale, unlike Jonah, doesn’t resist its call—it goes where it is sent, swallows Jonah up, and there Jonah stays until he’s spat out, all slimy and smelly. That’s when he reconsiders his stubbornness and makes his way to Ninevah, conveys God’s feelings of outrage at their cruelty and wickedness, and guess what? The Ninevites hear it, they see the error of their ways, they repent. Pisses Jonah right off! So he goes and sulks. Leaves the city, finds a hill to sit on. “Oh Lord,” he actually says, “please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die rather than to live.” But God does something very different, very … crafty. He calls to a seed to grow into a bush, to give Jonah shade (and once again, happily, the seed responds to God’s call in a way that puts Jonah to shame). Overnight, the seeds grows into a bush, the bush gives delightful shade to Jonah, and it makes Jonah feel a lot better. Doesn’t want to die so much anymore. But then God calls a worm to come and attack the bush, the worm responds to the call (again, putting Jonah to shame), the bush withers overnight, and next day, Jonah is back to “just kill me now.” This is when God appears. God says, basically, You are all upset about a bush that I made grow up overnight. Do you know how much goes into growing up a people, like the Ninevites? And what a tragedy it would be to have to destroy an entire city? And in the end, the entire story hangs on that line of questioning. We don’t know whether Jonah ever lets go of his hatred for the Ninevites. We just don’t know.

I mean, what kind of prophet is this Jonah anyway? It’s as if only a part of his lips got touched by God’s burning coal. The bullet just winged him. He’s just half-baked. Everything in the story God calls to responds immediately—except for Jonah. It’s as if Jonah is the kind of prophet who’s addicted to feeling God’s feelings of outrage and wrath but can’t feel God’s feelings of compassion and love too. That’s a dangerous kind of prophet. We have prophets just like this today….

But now, at this point, we need to know some history. Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria, and guess what the Assyrians did to the Israelites back in the eight century BCE? Tortured them. Crushed them. Exiled them. Violated their nation to the core. Jonah hates them because of this. Hates them with a pure hate. Vengeance.

Knowing this, does this make Jonah’s behavior in the story more understandable?

It also ought to make the Bible even more precious to us. For the Book of Jonah, if it is anything, is a satire on a certain trend within Israelite religion, which saw the Hebrews as loved and cared for by God exclusively. The book of Jonah is itself a work of prophetic criticism towards this “some are saved, others are damned” mentality which the Jonah character so stubbornly held on to, despite all—and which too many people today hold on to for dear life as well.

But the God of this prophetic story says no to all of that. God’s feelings of love and compassion extend to all, from Ninevite to Israelite, from liberal Unitarian Universalist to fundamentalist Church of Christ, from President Barack Obama to President George W. Bush. No favorites for God….

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. For behold, I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Could you love and serve a Universalist God like this, who feels this way about everybody, no exceptions? Could you?