Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and the Many Voices of Jeremiah

The conflict between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West that erupted into media consciousness this past week or so had been brewing for some time. It is not my place to adjudicate the dispute, but I have some observations about what is happening and why I think it is important, particularly in relation to West’s own claim, taken up by others, including Dyson, that West is a prophet within the line of the biblical Jeremiah.

Much recent study of the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible has focused upon the processes that produced the literature now within the biblical canon. This literature is our best connection to the persons who acted as prophets in ancient Israel because it presents them as narrative characters and frames the oracular material as speech by these characters, but there is a great distance between a prophet as a historical figure within a particular social context and a complex piece of literature produced by and for a scribal class and their audiences. Jeremiah is a useful case because no other prophetic figure appears more prominently as a narrative character in the book named for him. Still it is important to distinguish between the person named Jeremiah and the book that shares his name. The person named Jeremiah appears to have been active in and around Jerusalem in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B. C. E. The dominant theme of his prophetic proclamation was the impending invasion of Judah by the neo-Babylonian empire. Jeremiah claimed this invasion was God’s punishment for acts of idolatry and injustice in Judah. His criticisms of the religious leadership in Jerusalem were particularly harsh. To understand Jeremiah from a contemporary American context, imagine a prophet early in our own century telling Americans that the work of terrorists is deserved divine punishment for our sins and we should let them destroy us in order to come out redeemed on the other side. No doubt, such a prophet would have shared Jeremiah’s experience: “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (20:8b).

The book we call Jeremiah was likely produced in Judah during the Persian period of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., a century or two after the death of Jeremiah. This means that the destruction which Jeremiah warned Judah about had happened and the audiences of the book were the descendants of those who had survived and were struggling to rebuild and redefine Judah in the context of the Persian Empire. Some of these survivors descended from those who remained in the land after the invasion and others from those who were exiled to Babylon and later returned. The difficult question for the book of Jeremiah was how to preserve the tradition of the prophet. What could his pronouncements of doom and destruction do for those who had survived it and continued to suffer from its effects? These are the kinds of questions being raised by some of the most adapt readers of Jeremiah, such as Carolyn Sharp, Louis Stulman, and Kathleen O’Connor. The book of Jeremiah documents a process of renegotiation. The cataclysmic event to which its namesake had pointed was complete, and his words needed to be reshaped into a message for survivors.

The black prophetic tradition finds itself in an analogous position right now. The election of the first African-American president in 2008 was a seismic event for this tradition, something which it had been pointing to and yearning for through many years of struggle. During the last couple of decades leading up to the event, no voice had been more profound or influential than Cornel West’s, and the Jeremiah comparisons are apt. West’s explosion onto the scene of American political thought are reflected in his first two books, Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979) and Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), but his public activism, speeches, and other performances are what places him in the line of a prophet like Jeremiah. He also worked with and advised political campaigns of candidates like Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and Al Sharpton. So, it would seem that the election of Barack Obama was a crucial event that West’s prophetic engagement was moving toward. The question that event posed next was what the prophetic message of West would become in the aftermath of such fulfillment. It did not take long for this question to receive an answer, as West’s criticism of President Obama became harsh, a surprising reality documented by Dyson, among others. For those who admire West and Dyson, and others within the black prophetic tradition that West has criticized, the events of recent days have been painful. There is no way to be sure that this kind of personal tension and conflict surrounded the transformation of Jeremiah from a radical prophetic figure to a scroll providing a new way forward to survivors after their world was shaken, but it is not difficult to imagine. The more condensed time-frame in this case means that many who generated the tradition are still alive and involved in it renegotiation. One thing those who admire the figures most central to this modern conflict can do for them is to give as much careful attention to the questions the conflict is identifying as to the conflict itself.

Why a “Sequel?”

The argument in my 2013 work, Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology, that received the most push-back was that even for Christian interpreters a theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament should be complete before moving on to the New Testament. Because my approach followed the narrative development of the divine character, the reading of a Christian Bible moves in one direction.

What I found dissatisfying about this claim was that so much more still sits between the Hebrew Bible/Protestant Old Testament and the New Testament. This observation presented the need for my forthcoming work, An Apocryphal God: Beyond Divine Maturity. The title plays with the Greek word for “hidden” because the beginning point for a further development of the divine character lies in the collection of literature found in the larger Christian canons that sometimes receives the label “Aprocrypha,” and because the divine character developed in the Hebrew Bible that moves into later traditions is almost always hidden in some way.

My new book also examines texts commonly assigned to the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” and some found only among the Dead Sea Scrolls to see how the divine character continues to develop. The linear nature of this development remains a matter of uncertainty because some of the literature contained with the Hebrew canon was still developing and the boundaries of the canon itself were not fully determined at the time these books we perceive to be later were being written. Some of the books, like Jubilees, go back and retell ancient stories, presenting a divine character in those times who acts more like the one at the end of the plot in the Hebrew Bible. Additional books in the “wisdom literature” category, like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, seek to connect the wisdom tradition with other elements of Israelite religion like the law and worship in the temple, reshaping the divine character of their present in the process. Still others, like 1 Enoch and the War Scroll, develop a detailed layer of supernatural characters and activity, both good and evil, between earth and the divine realm, pushing God’s direct work in the human world into a distant future.

I summarize these developments in Jewish literature leading up to the Christian era as revising God’s past, expanding God’s present, and charting God’s future. There are multiple directions to this movement, and the division of Judaism into sectarian movements, including Christianity eventually, is a reflection of this diversity. The challenge is finding a way to present the many directions that is organized enough for readers to follow without over-simplifying the complex reality in and around these fascinating texts. We will find out how well I have accomplished that in August.

Meanwhile research on the literature that lies on or outside the boundaries of the Bible continues its explosive growth of the last two decades and our ability to do the kind of synthetic work I have attempted will continue to increase.

Deciding What to Do with Prophetic Voices.

Sunday School was iced out this morning, so I thought I would write some of what was on my mind. There were also some significant developments on one of my book current book projects this week. A Chorus of Prophetic Voices appeared on both Amazon and the Westminster John Knox website, with a publication date of August 2, 2015, and I spent much of the snowy week in Nashville working through the copy-edited pages. The foundation of my book on the prophetic literature is that modern readers must pay careful attention to both the historical circumstances that generated the prophets, their words, and their actions, and the finished forms of the literary works that present those characters to us.

The class had asked me to lead them in a four-week study on the book of Amos, and I concluded the second lesson last week with a question for them to think about that went something like this: How can we read and make use of the prophetic literature in the modern world in a way that does not resort to finger-pointing about what may happen in the future or blaming the victims of what has happened in the past? The first part of the question emerges from the observation that while those in the class can easily point to actions of other people that violate the sense of justice in the text, there are plenty who would point to us as the violators whom God is about to judge. Using the prophetic literature to identify present day immorality and its perpetrators may be a legitimate use of the text, but is it all we can do? A close companion to this kind of reading is using the text to identify the causes of tragedy and suffering after they occur. Those reading this way might differ widely on the degree to which they believe direct divine retribution was at play, but there is choosing of sides and the blaming runs in both directions.

Today’s text was to be Amos 5, which includes: “Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel with no one to quench it.” We catch only a glimpse of the person named Amos. Perhaps he is a shepherd, according to 1:1. His enemy, Amaziah, uses royal power to attack him in 7:10. This minimal character might caution readers against using accusations of injustice to gain power, and to be sure the target of such accusations are always aimed at those with greater power. Eventually, the judgments of Amos required a greater context. Internally, new material was later added onto the end of the book in 9:11-15 that changed the tone of divine intent for his audience. Externally, Amos was placed among other prophets like Hosea, Jonah, and Zechariah whose messages became a terrible personal burden for them to carry and aligning them with those who suffer judgment.

A Bumpy start to the Book of Joshua

I am returning to blogging after a long absence, now that two nearly simultaneous book projects are complete, at least in the sense that I have handed them to the editors and have a brief pause before work on revisions and proofs. A new course I am teaching  called “The Story of Ancient Israel in the Land” will probably keep much of my attention on Joshua-Kings and Chronicles for the next few months.

For a long time, my surface-level reading of Joshua 1-5 has focused on the literary effort to make the character named Joshua look like Moses. He mediates between YHWH and the Israelites, sends out spies, facilitates a miraculous crossing of water, builds a stone monument, and experiences a theophanic vision in which he is told to remove his shoes. It is difficult to miss the point, yet this reading misses the many incongruities of the text. An excellent paper at the Society of Biblical Literature back in November by Melissa Jackson and Mark Biddle called “Rahab’s Visitors: Spies, Spokesmen, or Stooges” illustrated many of the absurdities of the story. The “spies” speak to Rahab in 2:20 as if the Israelite invasion of the land is a secret plan, yet statements like those in 2:8-10 and 5:1 indicate that everybody knows about it, and that the intimidation and fear created by this knowing aids the success of the invasion. The books on either side of Joshua repeatedly condemn the Israelites to death and destruction for any kind of accommodation to the inhabitants of Canaan, so by the end of the “spy” story Rahab seems to have played the two Israelites and their Canaanite “pursuers”.

The account of the first Passover in the land in Joshua 5:10-12 is obviously an important tradition that also serves to connect Joshua to Moses, who led the initial Passover event and the first anniversary celebration at Mount Sinai, but its link to the cessation of the manna and eating “the produce of the land” creates a striking level of narrative incoherence. How could these refugees who just entered Canaan already be growing and harvesting crops? Looking carefully at this little text by itself reveals the absence of Joshua within it. Only his presence in the verses immediate preceding and following create the sense that he might be presiding over the occasion.

This is a place where both attention to the literary purposes of the “author” and careful consideration of the traditions with which the author had to work provide the path toward better understanding of the text.

Using the Bible to Talk about the Death Penalty

The past two weeks have generated a heightened discussion of the death penalty in America, largely as the result of the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29.  Plenty of others have written about that event and about the death penalty in general.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who devastates me with everything he writes, established the moral framework for the discussion here :

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty” here:

Shane Claiborne responded to Mohler, observing among other things that in a 1200 word essay, Mohler never mentioned Jesus:

Rachel Held Evans responded with a more direct attack on the “myth of redemptive violence” here:

Anthony Santoro, using the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev two weeks before the Lockett execution, proved one need not appeal to any one specific religious tradition to make a thoroughly convincing moral case against the death penalty.

I am happy to see Claiborne and Evans entering the discussion because it means large numbers of young adults will be thinking and talking about the death penalty in America, and I can hope they will do better with it than my generation has.  I want to take up one specific question here, prompted by their essays, regarding the use of the Bible in the discussion.  Can we use the Bible to talk the death penalty without creating a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy?

Christians who use the Bible to support use of the death penalty tend to quote passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, in part because it is so easy.  Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12-17 could hardly be more clear, and they do not merely make the death penalty an option, but a legal and moral obligation.  This is where the Old Testament argument of death penalty supporters like Mohler falls apart.  If we are to follow such texts then the death penalty should not be “rightly and rarely applied.”  It should be common and frequent.

Christians who oppose the death penalty will tend to go to the teachings of Jesus like the “Antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, again, because it is so easy. Matthew 5:35-48 could not be more clear.  There is a reason why in the oft-cited, recent Barna poll only 5% of American Christians believe Jesus would support the death penalty.  They have read that text and they know Jesus himself became the object of the death penalty.

It is only a little more difficult to find texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to use in opposition to the death penalty.  In Genesis 4, God chose a punishment other than death for Cain, the first murderer.  The three greatest heroes in Israelite tradition were subject to the death penalty, but dodged it.  One could easily argue that Jacob’s deception of his father fell into the category of dishonoring for which the law prescribed death, and if Esau had succeeded in carrying out the death sentence he proclaimed in Genesis 27:41 there would have been no Israel.  If Pharaoh had succeeded in his attempt to use the death penalty on Moses in Exodus 2:15, then the Israelites might have had no deliverer.  When David was found guilty of murder, no human authority considered executing him, though God chose to execute his infant son instead in 2 Samuel 12:15.  There is a profound ambivalence about sin, guilt, and punishment at the core of the Torah in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD, the LORD,a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in        steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,    forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting  the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and  fourth generation.

Who could read such a divine statement and be sure about anything? There is no other single text to which subsequent writers of the Hebrew Scriptures return more diligently to wrestle with its implications.  The prophets pull it apart, quoting portions of it as they struggle to understand the fate of Israel and Judah.  When Ezekiel dives into the depths of this debate, he emerges with a word from God in 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”

Jesus did not begin the struggle to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures on sin, guilt, and punishment.  He stands in midstream, along with many of his contemporaries, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, who engaged in the same debate and said similar things.    We avoid the Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy by honoring Jesus enough to put him in his context.

The Character named Ezekiel as a Reflection of Israel’s Story

I am preparing to write a journal article on Ezekiel, a book that presents interesting problems and possibilities for integrating historical and literary approaches.  Of the four prophetic scrolls Ezekiel may be the most self-consciously unified as a literary work.  The most visible aspect of the literary cohesion is the Merkabah (divine chariot) vision, which describes Ezekiel’s visualization of YHWH’s glory in chapters 1, 10, and 43.  The divine glory departs the condemned temple in Jerusalem (10:18), appears to Ezekiel among the exiles in Babylon (1:1), and returns to inhabit a new temple (43:2).  Ezekiel also contains many chronological notices, most of which appear in order.

1:1/1:2                  30th year, 4th month, 5th day, and 5th year of the exile of Jehoichin, 4th month, 5th day

8:1                          6th year,6th  month, 5th day (of the exile of Jehoicahin)

20:1                        7th year 5th month, 10th day

24:1                        9th year, 10th month, 10th day

26:1                        11th year, ? month, 1st day

29:1                        10th year, 10th month, 12th day

29:17                     27th year, 1st month, 1st day

30:20                     11th year, 1st month, 7th day

31:1                        11th year, 3rd month, 7th day

32:1                        12th year, 12th month, 1st day

32:17                     12th year, 1st month, 15th day

33:21                     12th year, 10th month, 5th day

40:1                        25th year, 1st(?) month, 10th day

Features like these led many interpreters of the 20th century to conclude that Ezekiel had very little composition history.  They argued the book was written in something close its present form all at one time, perhaps by Ezekiel himself during the early years of the exilic period.

More recent views of Ezekiel have moved away from that model toward one that describes a complex history of composition and allows the book of Ezekiel to participate in the difficult theological negotiations of the Restoration/Persian period.  Among the most important issues the book of Ezekiel negotiates are the tension between inherited guilt and individual responsibility (Ezekiel 18) and the delineation between the righteous and the wicked (33:10-20).  The aftermath of national defeat and shared personal trauma demand reexamination of easy assumptions about these issues in the Restoration period.

Paying attention to the book of Ezekiel as a set of traditions originating in the last days of the Judean monarchy, and arriving at its current status as a cohesive literary work in the Persian period requires a synthetic approach to the book.  The feature best equipped to help us keep our interpretive questions connected is the literary character named Ezekiel.  He begins the book grounded in the last days of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon in the early sixth century, and finishes his role inside a grand vision of a rebuilt temple, wading off into deepening waters in Ezekiel 47.  Between these two points he is often a tortured and tormented figure who embodies the captivity, pain, and grief about which he prophesies.  His life story becomes the renegotiation of sin, punishment, repentance, and redemption the book wants and needs to accomplish.

The Bible in Public Schools (Part 2)

The story of a new Bible curriculum for public schools moved forward in the past few days.  Months ago the school board of a district in the suburbs of Oklahoma City approved the curriculum, sponsored by Steve Green, CEO of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, but those involved had kept it private.  My last post reviewed the story of a similar effort about a decade ago, and pointed to some early parallels in the promotion of the new curriculum, particularly the secrecy surrounding it and vague claims about the scholarly expertise involved.

Copies of the curriculum leaked out in recent days.  The Associated Press acquired a copy and asked Dr. Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University to review it.  Dr. Chancey’s initial comments are now public, but not his thorough evaluation.  One comment from his evaluation reveals that the curriculum approaches the Bible from an evangelical Protestant perspective, which contradicts claims supporters of the curriculum have made.  Steve Green has said publicly “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it’s about a book.  We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.”  The superintendent of the school board said, “We’re not asking kids to believe the stories,” McDaniel said. “This is a purely academic endeavor. If it turns into something beyond that, either we will correct it or we will get rid of it.”  The few images of the curriculum that have become public do not come close to fitting this description.

The situation presents two possibilities.   Either the producers and supporters of the curriculum are deliberately deceptive, or they have no idea what an objective, academic approach to the Bible would look like.  I want to try to be charitable and assume the latter as much as possible.  Let me begin with one hypothetical example not in the few examples I have seen, because it should be the first question the curriculum confronts.  An academic course about the Bible should ask first “What is the Bible?”  Many who do not have practice asking and answering such a question in an academic setting may assume this is a simple, factual question with a simple, factual answer, but a simple answer always assumes the perspective of a particular religious tradition, because the academic, historical answer is long and complicated.  If one begins by saying the Bible is an ancient collection of literature with two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and a total of 66 books, the answer may sound factual and objective but is really biased and sectarian.  It describes the Bible only for a minority of Christians, those within Protestant denominations.  The answer is different for Jews, Catholic Christians, and Orthodox Christians.  Who are the writers of the curriculum and will they assume that their Bible, or Steve Green’s Bible, is the same as everyone else’s?

One example that has become public is an image of a page listing the attributes of God under the heading “What is God like?”  Under the heading descriptions such as compassionate, loving, faithful, orderly, disciplined, gracious, and good appear, each with a reference to a verse from the Bible illustrating the divine trait.  It is fine for someone to believe God is like this and the selected biblical statements support such belief, but this is a selective reading of the Bible that does not come close to the academic standard touted by the supporters of the curriculum.  For example, there is not a reference to Exodus 19 where God is erratic, out of control, and dangerous or Numbers 11 where God is vengeful, deceptive, and murderous.  The biblical characterization of God is complex, and most people filter out what they don’t like to construct their own image of the God in whom they believe.  Recognizing when we are doing this requires rigorous critical-thinking and academic discipline.  So far, the new curriculum does not demonstre those qualities.