Friday, December 17, 2010

December 17

OT: Nahum 1:1-3:19

A new day, a new book. According to Harris, Nahum was written around 612 BC, around the time of Assyrian's collapse at the hands of the Medes and the Persians (sidenote: I wonder if that dating is based solely on the belief that people cannot actually prophesy the future, and thus, the book could not have come before the collapse, or if there are other factors to it). Regardless, the fall of Assyria did happen, and Nahum was apparently pretty accurate in its portrayal both of Assyria's fall, and of its cruel practices. I read Nahum before I read Harris, and part of me wondered if the cruel treatment pictured in chapter 3 (Assyria as a woman being exposed and pelted with filth; the infants being dashed against the pavement) was meant to be read more as eye-for-an-eye type justice than over-the-top vengeance. And based on Harris' description of the Assyrian practices, these atrocities seem indeed to be mirror images of the kinds of things that the Assyrians themselves did.

Not that I'm saying that makes it any less horrible.

Of course, reading about Nineveh, you've gotta think of Jonah. It's kind of weird to read this guy's perspective (he is ready for the Assyrians to die a cruel, horrible death) and the perspective of the author of Jonah, who portrays the Assyrians more favorably. A few things pop to mind when I consider the two together. According to Harris, Jonah was written by a post-exilic author, so he has the benefit of hindsight. It would be easier to portray the Assyrians more sympathetically from that vantage point. In fact, I would almost say that he is portraying the Assyrians more theoretically than sympathetically. Like, they are the cookie cutter "bad guys" in the author of Jonah's illustration. It's like how we use the Nazis. Yes, no one likes the Nazis even now, but someone writing from the safety of their own home in 2010 would have a decidedly different perspective than someone writing from a concentration camp in 1942.

Thinking of it that way helps with the contrast of human perspective, but what about the idea that both of these books are divinely inspired? In that light, I think the two books make interesting counterparts to each other. Thinking of them together, I get the message that God loved even the Assyrians and wanted them to repent. They refused, however, and so they were punished for the many atrocities they chose to commit. You need both books together to see that. If you read just Nahum, you might think that God had no love or desire for the Assyrians. And if you read just Jonah, you might think that the poor Assyrians weren't bad--they were just misunderstood. Neither one of those pictures is accurate.

NT: Revelation 8:1-13

Wow, that seventh scroll was intense. When they opened it, "there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (1). I had to stop and just picture that. I have no idea what the symbols mean, of course, but I can appreciate the import of the scroll.

After that, God unleashes destructiveness upon the earth. The basic gist seems to be that a third of everything dies. The land is burned, the sea turns to blood, the fresh water becomes bitter, and the sun and moon are partially destroyed. Of course, that last part reminds us how figurative all of this is, b/c I don't think that destroying a third of the sun would have the effect of making the day a third shorter. I'm just sayin. So...that was just a reminder to me (as if I needed one) that we are firmly in figurative-land here.

Lastly, I found the last verse to be kind of strangely funny. An eagle flies through the air while calling out, "Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels" (13). Whoa. The trumpet blasts about to be sounded? This eagle makes it sound like woe hasn't already come to the earth.

Okay, one more thing. Thinking of the many prophecies we have read of judgment coming to various nations, it occurs to me that Revelation gives us a throne-room perspective of judgment on a larger scale. I don't have any commentary or insight into this, but I did think it was interesting to see judgment poured out on earth from God's perspective, rather than the ground-level perspective conveyed by the prophets.

Psalm 136:1-26

A call-and-response type psalm. The leader gives a line about some praiseworthy attribute of God, and the followers then echo, "His love endures forever." I thought that some of the leader's lines were interesting, such as when he emphasizes how God killed kings that were antagonistic to the Israelites (15-21). There are several ways to read that, and two pop immediately to mind: 1) as a prayer from a narrowly nationalistic perspective, 2) as a prayer that embraces the paradox between God's punishment and his love. I think that the first way also acknowledges the special role that Israel played, and it is most likely closer to the author's intentions. But from a wider perspective, I personally like the second way of reading it. So often in the Bible, you see two very different sides of an infinitely complex God. The temptation for us finite humans is to embrace the side that best suits our purposes for the moment, and to ignore the side that is more "problematic." It is not fair to the text, however, to play up one side and ignore another, equally clear side. The challenge is to wrap our minds around how both sides can exist at once, and to embrace the complexity of the vision.

Prov. 30:7-9

I thought the writer's prayer to receive "neither poverty or riches," but only his "daily bread" was interesting (8). It made me think of a similar prayer by Jesus: "give us this day our daily bread." Apparently, there is something to be said for living hand to mouth. After all, it is also how God fed Israel in the desert. He gave them only enough manna for the day and forbid them to stockpile. I guess such an existence would make you more aware of your total dependence on God. That awareness is so crucial that the Bible has two prayers that ask for that type of existence!

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