Sunday, August 28, 2011
Sunday, June 13, 2010
In the end-times chronology, such a literary schema represents a fitting culmination to the "old order" of the creation. The Revelation is describing a divine intervention into the final days of the old order in the same progressive order that the creation began. The apocalyptic drama seems to be shaking the creation up in the same order it was created. The end-times drama has taken the old creation out like a rug and is giving it a thorough shake-up and beating. In the process, heavenly creatures are separating things out, sifting the wheat out from the chaff. It is as if the old order of the world is being given a thorough inspection, so the "good" that is still in the creation can be preserved and rescued, like the animals of Noah's ark.
But with the beginning of Chapter 14, a new work, a new order of creation, is also announced. A "new song" is heard. A new day has manifested itself. But this new "Day One" breaks through like a ray into the old order in what I call a "cascading" fashion. It cascades progressively through the three "dominions" of created things that the six days of the Creation Week represent to the Revelation author. These three cosmological dominions represent the Genesis One created order as follows:
The works of the Three Dominions of the old order of the Creation:
The First Dominion -- "The Heaven and the Things in It" : The light created on Day One and the "creatures" of the Heavens that were created on the Fourth Day
The Second Dominion -- "The Sea and the Things in It": The firmament or "expanse of the sky" of the Second Day, the waters of the deep, and the creatures of the sea and the flying things in the expanse of the sky that were created on the Fifth Day
The Third Dominion -- "The Earth and the Things in It": The plant life of the Third Day, the rivers, seas and springs on the land, mankind and the walking/crawling creatures of the land that were created on the Sixth Day.
Notice the chronological pairing between the creation days above. The poetic structure of the Creation Week in Genesis One is actually suggestive of such a pairing schema. Day One, the Second Day, and the Third Day represent "stanzas" of a poem, which together represent one complete poetic cycle. The Fourth Day, the Fifth Day, and the Sixth Day represent another, more elaborate poetic cycle which hearkens back to the works of the first cycle within each of these days in the same progressive fashion. The Fourth Day hearkens back to Day One, the Fifth Day back to the Second Day and the Sixth back to the Third Day. Day One through the Third Day, in other words, have established a chronology of three "dominions" that the creatures created on the Fourth Day through the Sixth Day go out and populate in the same chronological order. This chronological repetition is what I call a "paralleled" chronology.
The section of Revelation from Chapters 14 to 19 works with the same parallel "dominion" chronology that the Creation Account uses, but the stepped order is reversed. Instead of starting from the beginning of the chronology, beginning with the First Dominion, this section works its way backwards in three stages that begin with the Third Dominion, continues through the Second Dominion, and culminates in the First Dominion. In the meantime, rays of a new order are peeking through. A new day is breaking through, like light through a tear in the fabric. A New Day is cascading through the stepped chronology, until it finally overtakes it at the end, as the light of the old creation is snuffed out.
Here is the "Three Dominion" cycle that begins with Revelation 14:1...
1. The "Third Dominion" Passage (Rev. 14:1-20): The Final Harvest
Third Dominion in Creation: "The Earth and the Things in It."
Third Dominion Themes: Gathering. Harvesting. The Exodus. Mountains (Sinai and Mt. Zion). Man's control over the things on the Earth. Naming/marking things. Receiving/having a dominion or something no one else knows about.
Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Pergamum and Philadelphia and note how they appear in this passage.
2. The "Second Dominion" Passage (Rev. 15:1 - 17:18): The Wrath of God and the Harlot Who Sits on Many Waters.
Second Dominion in Creation: "The Sea and the Things in It."
Second Dominion Themes: The "sea of glass" (firmament). Clean/white linen. Pain and blasphemy.
Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Smyrna and Sardis. This Passage includes a musical "break" sub-passage describing the plagues of the "Bowls of Wrath" (Chapter 16), and a transitional sub-passage elaborating on the descent of the "woman" in the wilderness (Chapter 17). As with breaks in other places, both passages contain imagery from other Dominions; they are improvisational interludes. Note that the Seven Bowls of Wrath parallel the exact same Creation Day thematic chronology of the Seven Trumpets. Both passages use the Creation Days similarly, but note the difference: in this case, the sun of the fourth "bowl of wrath" is not "darkened" (as in the fourth trumpet blast) but the dial is turned up the other way instead. Power is "given" to the sun.
In the "transitional passage" of Chapter 17, it might be very difficult to spot any link to Second Dominion (Second and Fifth Day) themes, but can you remember where we last encountered a "woman" in the wilderness? I believe that the author considers the "woman" in Chapter 17 to be the very same woman who was given the "two wings of an eagle" to escape the dragon in Rev. 12:14. She was once like an eagle who could escape the dragon in the wilderness, but, instead, we encounter her here drunk and sitting on the back of a beast in the wilderness. Apparently, since her last mention, she had failed to stay in the midheaven, in the Second Dominion (remember that the woman's origin was originally higher, in the Dominion of the Heaven above, among the sun, moon and stars). The commenting angels see the "woman" as a First then a Second Dominion denizen who has progressively fallen (see Rev. 14:8 and 18:2). She is now at home in the Dominion of the Earth. I'll comment more about this passage below.
3. The "First Dominion" Passage (Rev. 18:1 - 19:21): The Angel of Light, the Darkening of Babylon, the Preparation for the Marriage of the Bride and the Lamb, and the Victory of the Heavenly Dominion over the Earth.
First Dominion in Creation: "The Heaven and the Things in It."
First Dominion Themes: Lamp Light. Paying back according to deeds. Singing and music. Truth and Wisdom vs. the false wisdom of immorality (the "deep things of Satan"). Faithful Israel vs. worldly and wealthy Israel. the Rod of Iron. Sun, moon and stars.
Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Ephesus and Thyatira.
...After this cycle we briefly go back to the Second Dominion in Chapter 20. Here, Satan is bound in an abyss for a thousand years and there is a "first resurrection" that brings the righteous back to life. Satan is released again after a thousand years, deceiving the nations once again and gathering them for one last battle. Fire from heaven, however, consumes his armies and they are cast into a "lake of fire". A little noted verse is Rev. 20:11: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them." Only the sea is left now! The sea, and Hades summarily give up their dead. Apparently, the sea, death itself and the Hades (as well as, it seems, the "abyss") are all considered "Second Dominion" places. Their dead appear before the throne to be judged and the great "Book of Life" is opened along with books recording every deed on earth. Startlingly, "death" and Hades itself are thrown into the lake of fire along with everyone whose name did not appear in the Book of Life. After this conclusion, there is a "new heaven and a new earth and there is no longer any sea." Now the Second Dominion is passed away and a totally new dominion of heaven and earth appear. There is only one dominion now.
These seemingly insignificant and obscure references to the dominions of "heaven", "earth" and "sea" seem like apocalyptic arcana that we tend to ignore, but they actually figure largely and centrally in the text of Revelation. The Revelator attaches tremendous significance to them. However, we are ill-prepared to understand their import because we are not steeped in the "Creation Week" language that forms the back-bone of his cosmology. If there is one single takeaway from all of this, just remember always that Genesis One is the lens through which ancient Jews understood the universe. Our cosmology is very different from theirs, and, partly because of that, Revelation continues to remain obscure and befuddling to our contemporaries.
As an example, lets go back to the description of the woman's activities in Chapter 17. Chapter 17 is one of those wonderful asides in the apocalyptic drama that can only be fully understood in light of the Creation Day themes. Without seeing how the Revelator is working cohesively throughout the dramas of the apocalypse using the Genesis One creation story as a cosmological frame, we will miss a subtle lesson building up through his very carefully placed symbols. The woman first appears in the Dominion of the Heaven, clothed with the sun and surrounded by the moon and stars. She falls down to the earth and gives birth to a son. The dragon is cast down and immediately, he pursues her. Ah, but heaven comes to her rescue and she is given the wings of an eagle. The Second Dominion comes to her rescue! The dragon spews forth a river to sweep her away in a flood, but strike two! The Earth swallows up the river. The Third dominion comes to her rescue!
...These seemingly small details and obscure corners in John's Book of Revelation suddenly unravel marvelously and pop up into clear sight when we are aware how the author is using the Creation Week compositionally and as a thematic lesson tool. They add layers to the apocalypse that give broader lessons to those Jewish heads "full of wisdom" who knew their Genesis One cosmology inside and out. These wise people would be able to follow these insignificant details with fine interest and knowing attention and build layers of meaning out of them. They would also spot immediately that the drama of Chapter 17 relates back to the drama of the woman in Chapter 12. They would know that this woman, drunk now with the blood of the saints, is Israel in the Roman Empire, that slayer of the prophets, that adulteress of the beast. That is a meaning that totally escapes us.
I have talked a lot about the Creation Days, the first six, but there is a Seventh Day, the Shabbat. In my next post we will talk about the Shabbats in Revelation.
Monday, June 07, 2010
4. Fourth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 12:1-17): The Woman and the Dragon
Fourth Day in Creation: God creates the sun to rule the day, and the moon to rule the night, and he creates the stars. They are for signs and seasons and days and years and for separating night from day.
Fourth Day Themes: All the themes associated with Day One, PLUS: father, mother, and children. Parenthood (and its authority). Leadership, shepherding, ruling the nations with the "rod of iron". Receiving the rewards according to one's "deeds". Loyalty versus adultery. The Woman vs. Jezebel/Babylon. Israel in the wilderness vs. apostate, worldly, and wealthy Israel. Signs in heaven. A son is born.
Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Thyatira. The theme of parenthood is attached to the sun, moon and stars in Genesis. The sun, moon and stars appear as symbols for Jacob, Rachel and Joseph's brothers in one of Joseph's dreams. God also tells Abraham that his children will be as numerous as the "stars in the heavens".
At verse 9 in Chapter 12 an interesting rupture begins to occur in the creation day imagery. This is the beginning of a "break", a transition passage. Note the up and down, up and down movement caused between 4th Day (heaven, stars), 3rd Day (earth, rivers) and the 5th Day (midheaven, eagle) symbols. At verse 12, we hear an angel proclaim: "Rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them", but woe to the earth because the "devil has come down to you". From this point on in the text, the sun, moon and stars are no longer harmed in the text of Revelation. They are instead empowered. The heavenly denizens created on the Fourth Day are suddenly off the table from the tribulations/judgments that follow.
5. Fifth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 13:1-10): The Beast From the Sea
Fifth Day in Creation: God creates the swarming creatures of the sea and the birds of the air (the midheaven).
Fifth Day Themes: All the themes associated with the Second Day, PLUS: Birds, sea creatures, wings and flying. Eagles and locusts. Midheaven. Completing, filling and multiplying, swarming over things. Being full of life, wriggling with life, being energetic and virile. Being healthy vs. being full of pain and blasphemy. Liveliness vs. deadness. Active vs. slumbering. The Book of Life.
Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Sardis and note how they appear in the Great Passage with some themes that also belong to the Second Day--being once slain but now healthy again most pertinently.
There are no (discernible) breaks in this passage. You are probably noticing by now that the Great Passages of Revelation have suddenly contracted in relative length. It's hard to understand why the pace picked up suddenly, but, actually, this kind of shortening or elongating of the literary structure seems typical of the text. The structures are somewhat elastic. Compare the relative lengths of the Seven Trumpet judgments for example.
5. Sixth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 13:11-18): The Beast From the Earth
Sixth Day in Creation: God creates the beasts from the earth and the man and the woman and he gives the man and woman dominion over the beasts and he gives the humans and the beasts the green plants for food.
Sixth Day Themes: The beasts of the earth and mankind. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Being empowered or given access vs. being weakened and denied access. Naming/marking things and having the power to do so. Exercising authority and granting authority or privilege, such as what to eat. Being given dominion over something. Images and giving "breath" to them. Making something in one's image. Giving one's name to something to mark its belonging/origin from oneself.
Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Philadelphia and note how they appear in the Great Passage. For greater effectiveness, go back and read the details of God's creation of Adam in Genesis 1-2 and then read Rev. 13:11-18. What do you notice?
...That's not the end of it. Revelation's Creation Day riffs only get more interesting from here. We are entering into what I call the "Great Break", an interlude leading to the Seventh Day that is quite a raucous and tempestuous passage of riffs wrestling with one another across many chapters...
Sunday, June 06, 2010
But another overlooked relationship of the book is exactly how it is written, how it is structured as a literary composition. Revelation is a book that artists (like JM) and designers (like me) can truly appreciate. JM's talk has inspired me to post a bit on how I reflect on the book of revelation as a designer, as someone who appreciates the beauty of patterns and, in this case, music.
Revelation is a very musical book. Not only does it contain a lot of interludes of hymns and passages describing heavenly singing, and reference to musical instruments, but the book is wonderfully patterned like a symphony (or--as I prefer to compare it to--a jazz composition). To spot the music of the book of the Revelation, you have to first spot what the notes or, better analogy, what the "riffs" of Revelation's jazz are. The "riffs" of Revelation (as that of John's other book John--read John Chapter 1 for a taste) are actually the seven days of the creation account of Genesis Chapter One.
The book, believe it or not, is subtly structured in seven great passages that relate back to each day of the Creation Account. All these sections are also in themselves working with sub-passages that are themselves structured as riffs borrowing or playing on the "themes" of the different days of Genesis Chapter One. Between each of the "great passages" (that each represent a sub-drama or "movement" in the apocalypse) are transitional passages that represent a kind of jazzy interlude between these larger overarching movements.
For example, the first great passage, the Day One "great passage" of Revelation, is comprised of the book's opening and extends into the conclusion of the Letters to the Seven Churches (Rev. 1:1-3:22). One of the important recurring items in the "first day" passages in Revelation is the voice of Jesus, who "spoke" the creation into being and who first calls out, seals, and designates what is "good" in the creation. Jesus speaks with the authority of the Creator who first called the light "good" in Day One of the Creation. In the seven letters, Jesus spends a lot of words dwelling on the subject of what is good and what is not. But, each of the letters, it turns out, also contain thematic sub-elements and symbols that (I kid you not!), reoccur in the rest of the Revelation in the same progressive thematic patterns. Within the "great passage" of the Letters to the Seven Churches, in other words, is a mini-Creation Day "riff" that extends through the main themes that Revelation attaches to each of the Seven Days of Genesis One. Each letter of the Seven Letters is itself thematically composed as one of the Seven Days of the Creation. The Seven Letters, thus, represent a kind of "table of contents" of the seven major passages that will follow and they also tell us how to spot the sevenfold "riff" themes that are riffed back and forth throughout the book between its subsections. For now, you just have to take my word for it, until you delve into the details yourself, but, to get you started, let me lay out the outline of the primary "Creation Week" pattern of the overall Book of Revelation for you:
1. Day One "Great Passage" (Rev. 1:1-3:22): The Vision of the Son of Man and the Letters to the Seven Churches
Day One in Creation: God "speaks" the light into being and calls it "good" and he names it "day".
Day One Themes: Lampstands (light), the word, hearing the voice of Jesus, day and night, good vs. evil/incompleteness, naming things, designating things, Tree of the Knowledge (the implied contrastive is the "Tree of Life"), knowing secrets, understanding/wisdom/knowledge/clarity to the truth, unveiling (apocaplypsis), all things "first" (e.g. first-born, first-separated/first-fruits), loyalty/obedience, speaking truthfully.
Look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the first church, Ephesus. Incidentally, I don't think that it is coincidental that, in the passage of the Seven Letters, a lot of ink (or, shall we say, "red ink") is actually devoted to the very words of Jesus...much, much more than all the other sections of the book combined. Whenever the topic of "speech" or "words" or "voice" is highlighted in Revelation, your feelers should go up...You may be in a "first day" passage or sub-passage or first-day "note" (or even "half-note") in an interlude. Revelation likes to nest "creation day riffs" within larger, overarching "creation days or weeks" at a number of scales, especially in breaking interludes--that is part of the jazzy, multi-valent scaling of its music.
2. Second Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 4:1-5:14, and the Seven Seals interlude or "break" of Chapter 6): The Visit Above the Firmament (aka, the "sea of glass, like crystal" beneath God's throne)
Second Day in Creation: God creates a firmament to separate the "waters above" from the "waters below".
Second Day Themes: Above and below contrasts, separating, second things, breaking through or ripping apart, establishing one greater/worthier in importance and one lesser in importance, death and life, and especially: resurrection, coming back to life. Repeating things. Being once dead and now alive. Being once lowly/dirty but now righteous/clean/worthy and apart from the world. Being made pure, putting on white garments, and, perhaps, other such concepts Jews associated with "baptism". Note: the waters of the deep are a symbol for the grave in Jonas' song in the belly of the great fish. (Another interesting note is that in Jewish tradition the "waters that are above" in the Second Day of the creation account are the especially flowing, "alive", sweet and refreshing drinking waters that are reserved for the cleansing/satiation of "the righteous in the world to come".)
Again, look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the second church, Smyrna, and note the appearance of a "sea of glass, like crystal" (this is the hard, translucent "firmament" that God created on the second day) in the Second Day Great Passage. Note also the themes of "being once slain" and "now alive". Note the theme of breaking/separating through things in the Seven Seals improvisational "break" interlude (which riffs on other days besides the Second Day). Note especially the sky (firmament) being ripped apart "like a scroll that is rolled back".
3. Third Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 7:1-11:19, this passage has within it several involved"breaks", including the Seven Trumpets and the "Two Witnessess"): The Gatherings of the Faithful
Third Day in Creation: God "gathers" the waters into "seas" (collections of water) and the dry earth appears. God causes the grass, plants, and trees to grow from the earth.
Third Day Themes: Gathering things. Moses, Phinehas/Elijah and other "Exodus themes" (esp. fleeing someone, being faithful in contrast to everyone else, and gathering in the desert). Being a "witness" (esp. in seeing/hearing the Torah). Seas, rivers and springs. Dry land, earth, stones, mountains. Harvest, growth, swords and sickles. Mannah. Stumbling blocks and words of teaching. Note: the symbol of the "mountain" refers to Sinai, i.e., the teaching or witnessing of Torah, in Jewish tradition. The theme of "teaching" may also come from the symbol mannah in Jewish tradition and perhaps also the symbol of the dew "dropping on the grass", which was a symbol for the "words/explication of Torah" as it flowed from the lips of Moses on top the Israelites (it appears in Moses' blessing at the end of Deuteronomy).
Look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the third church, Pergamum, and note the central importance of the teaching/faithfulness theme here. Note themes of "gathering" in the Third Day Great Passage. Note that the very first of the Seven Trumpets "blasts" a judgment against the things that "appeared" in the Third Day of Creation. Note the density of all the imagery pulled from the Exodus story in these passages.
That's it for tonight...I will get to the remainder of the "Creation Days" in my next post. Sorry for the long break from 33ad!
Saturday, February 14, 2009
(Thought I'd post something to 33AD, since I haven't in over 2 years...)
ACT I, Scene One
Scene: King SHLOMO’s Harem in Yerushalayim. The Harem denizens are busy preparing for King SHLOMO’s arrival from Beit-Lechem, adorning, powdering and perfuming themselves. Harried looking slaves are busy putting the final touches on the garlanded, netted and bejeweled coiffures/headwear of the concubines, while these primp and inspect the progress with mirrors.
Only one concubine, SHULAMIT – the youngest member of the Harem, is not at all occupied with activity…She has no attendant busy at her side. Instead, she is crouching in the middle of her very spare-looking boudoir, inspecting the scene with a look of boredom, and, frankly, betraying a slight contempt over all the fuss. Sighing, she begins to twirl one of her lengthy (and simply braided and unadorned) locks. As she does so, a frenetic pair of feet (belonging to the GUARDSMAN) suddenly appear below a curtain divider, and, as he approaches closer from the side, he announces quickly, gutturally, and with a short breath:
GUARDSMAN: The dust (huff) of the army has been spotted on the southern ridge!
(huff)…They should be here by the time (wheeeeeze)…the shadow reaches the
top of the
All turn to the audience and squint, as if peering through a distant window. The slaves suddenly pick up their pace, while SHULAMIT’s face changes and she swings back quickly the lock that she was twirling. As the guard’s feet disappear from view, she jumps up, excitedly singing:
Song 1: Black Am I
SHULAMIT: Oh, let him kiss me
With the kisses of his mouth!…
(Shulamit looks toward the audience wistfully.)
For your love is more,
More refreshing than wine!…
(The other concubines roll their eyes, while the slave-maidens look at each other and attempt to hide their snickering with their hands.)
And your sweat is so,
So aromatic like incense;
The sound of your name,
Like oil poured to anoint—
(SHULAMIT begins spinning in circles, arms spread outward.)
Thus the maidens love you!
Take me away with you!
Let us run after you!
(The HAREM – that is, the other concubines and the slave-maidens – joins in, in a chorus and in a high, mocking tone)…
HAREM: The king has brought me,
Brought me, oh dear,
Into his chambers!
(Looking towards the audience)…
We will be glad
And rejoice in you!
For we find your love,…
(They extend one hand towards the audience in an exaggerated gesture, as if offering goblets.)
More refreshing than wine!…
SHULAMIT (quickly, overtaking the chorus contemptuously before they can finish):
THUS the maidens love you!
SHULAMIT addresses the Harem loudly, breaking out energetically at the first stanza, but slowing progressively into a plaintive voice towards the end:
SHULAMIT: Black am I and beautiful,
Like the tents of KeDAR,
Like the drapes of Shlo-moh!
Don’t stare at me
Because I am darker,
Because the sun,
The Sun has so loved me!
My mother’s sons,
They were angry,
So sulky angry with me.
They punished me – Me!
With vineyard keeping…
(She picks up again the lock that she was twirling and looks down at it, as she trails into a quieter voice):
But my own vineyard,
I have long neglected.
(Facing the audience, she begins singing longingly in a high, loud voice):
Tell me, tell me
Love of my soul,
Where your flock grazes,
Am I not able to run
To where your heart lazes
In the hottest hour?…
(As she is singing, a pair of tanned feet – wrapped in rough sandals and powdered with white dust – quietly appear below the curtain divider behind her, as if lowering from a higher opening.)
For why should I – I!
Be as one kept veiled
Beside the thin flocks
Of your fat companions??
SHLOMO (laughing): If you don't know,
Greatest of all beauties,
Follow the heels of the sheep!…
(Startled, everyone jumps up with a yelp)…
Bring your kids bleating
Beside the shepherds' tents!
The concubines quickly veil themselves, and send the slave-maidens scurrying quickly off-stage… SHULAMIT (veil-less) runs to the curtain yanking it away to reveal the figure of King SHLOMO in dusty warrior’s raiment, and the pair enrapturously embrace. The other concubines all (somewhat artificially if you ask me) make a swooning sound…
SHLOMO (laughing): Haven’t I compared you, my love,
To a shiny black steed
Among Par`oh’s chariots?
Your glazed cheeks
Are burnished earrings!
Your sweaty neck
As if strung with jewels!
Don’t worry! (Laugh)…
We will make you earrings
All golden and studded
With silver and whatnot.
Probably a jumpy number follows here, with lots of belly-dancing involved for sure, …but I’ll leave all those details to your imagination.
End of Scene One.
Monday, October 29, 2007
In one of Aesop’s fables, a mighty tree boasts to a little reed, “Who shall pluck me by the roots?” Straightaway a powerful wind blows and uproots the tree, and the little reed, able to sway in the wind, remains in place. The moral: there is an upside to not standing out. Glancing at the Beatitudes opening the Sermon on the Mount, we might evince a similar moral at play in Christ’s words “the meek shall inherit the earth”.
However, is this the same Jesus who once praised John the Baptist for his fatal criticism of Herod Antipas’s adulterous dealings? (For this stance, John’s head was cut off and brought to Herod’s court on a platter). Before the masses, Jesus ironically contrasted the teaching style of their conformist religious leaders with that of John the Baptist’s by asking, “Who did you seek out in the wilderness, a reed swayed by the wind?”
Jesus owned an uneasy style for a moralist of his time (above is not his only stiff maneuver on Aesop). The Sermon on the Mount, both in our time and his audience’s, stands out among his unnerving strings of sayings. Still, a habit in our day is to regard Christ’s estimation of poverty and humility, and especially his saying to “offer the other cheek”, as prompts to passivity. (Is it an accident that the cantankerous philosopher Nietzsche regarded Christ’s call to love one’s neighbor as so much saccharine egalitarianism?) But to an audience under the thumb of Roman oppression, the tack of love carried a certain revolutionary zing. Jesus made that clear by giving ingenious expression to the Torah’s extreme valuation of human dignity.
From the starting blocks of the Law, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount elevates the worth of common-folk humanity to heretofore-unknown majestic heights. Every thinker who has ever read the Sermon has noted Jesus ratcheting up our responsibility to the precepts of the Law. Actually, he is pumping at the lever of human dignity. Using his poetic, Eastern homiletic style, he elbows out human presumptions about the awkward aloofness of God. God clothes the grass with the “lilies of the field” (a Hebraism), but He wraps the children of God in greater finery. Here, the sublimity of Solomon’s raiment is appraised as far inferior to the splendor of human flesh (I’m not kidding!). With Jesus, the wheeling swallows are evidence of God’s relentless decency. In this manner, Christ brings pungent questions to his audience’s trust in the guileless fatherhood of God. He draws attention to the bad habits of hypocrisy, self-advancement and gentile fatalism and worriment to undermine God’s life-giving overtures. Along the way, he drops some stunners – for example: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. In other words, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds”, as the New English Bible perfectly translates this.
Such moral insights remain unparalleled in the history of ethical discourse (we saunter along throughout our days in the West unaware how indebted we are to this sermon of firsts). Christ’s sayings once provoked an Israeli scholar of Early Rabbinics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to remark, “These are at once simple and profound, naïve and full of paradox, tempestuous and yet calm. Can anyone plumb their depths?” Another scholar I met in Jerusalem, an expert in the 900 some parables that appear in ancient Jewish literature, remarked that the parables of Jesus easily rise to the foreground of her studies (and, implicitly, her Orthodox Jewish experience). According to her, Yeshua seems to have no peer in Rabbinic history in his homiletic effectiveness with the parable form, namely to draw out the ethical dimensions of the Torah and frame a multi-faceted response to it.
In fine Rabbinic fashion then, Jesus concludes his Sermon with a call to urgent authenticity by telling the parable of the two house builders (perhaps also a thump number on Aesop above). In the parable, “doing” (in addition to “hearing”) invokes the unshakable stance of the Kingdom of God against a violent world. Christ invites his hearers to dare the goodness of God by bringing their new outlook to bear on human activity (living life without setting limits to one’s goodness, apparently, opens up the opposing equivalent of Pandora’s box – the storehouses of God’s exuberant goodness). One can understand here the total punch of the Sermon: what follows the Beatitudes in the next three chapters is a well-built elaboration on the estimation of humility, God-trust and authenticity to aggravate “certainties” in the face of indifference, brutality and the mundane rewards of convention. This is no mere sentimental teaching. Jesus, after all, identifies the mourners, the broken-spirited and those who hunger and thirst for justice (Ts’dakah) not as victims. From God’s vantage, they are the overcomers. Understood this way, the Beatitudes suddenly become unnerving – you might even say that they are Christ’s clarion call to engage the fight. There is no succor here for “supporting the burden of existence” (as Nietzsche claimed) except to encounter it brazenly.
Like a mythic haze, or an arcane poem, the strong, overcoming aspect of Christ’s message seems to have remained only ephemerally present or obscured in the mounds and valleys of Christian history, except in the blaze of a saint’s life here and there (as with the life of St. Francis). A young Indian lawyer and civil-rights activist in South Africa finally rediscovered the strong aspect of Christ’s message only a little over a century ago. To change the course of human events through nonviolent resistance and appealing to the humanity and reason of one’s overlords (interestingly, with their own sacred text providing the ironic inspiration: “Do not resist an evil person”) was an insight that had evaded Western intellectuals up to that time. Drawing inspiration from the Sermon on Mount, this non-Christian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, did not consider his political tactic of nonviolence as the weapon of the weak. In fact, he argued for its distinction from the misleading labels of “passive resistance” or (minority) “suffrage”. He called it instead “truth-force” (or “love-force”): the unblinking insistence on truth in patiently dispelling your opponents’ false constructs of life. Gandhi had understood that, with Jesus, love played on the offense. Only until the mid-twentieth century, and only in reflection of the life and thought of Gandhi after the emancipation of the Indian subcontinent, did the West recover an understanding of the strong aspect of Christ’s message. Through the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., who adopted Gandhi’s lessons in another civil rights movement, the love-force of Jesus was nudged back to the foreground of Christian history.
With easy conviction, I believe that Jesus was smiling at the Gandhis of history, both renown and unnamed, when he first uttered the Beatitudes. Nietzsche had assumed that only the pitiless Superman would transform history this devastatingly, and the last place Nietzsche would have looked for the kernel of that transformative power was in the words of the Sermon of the Mount. But today, our backs stiffen when we encounter pairs of drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored” in museum displays. Our head shakes uncomprehendingly at that salt and pepper reality less than 50 years ago when this kind of daily degradation of human dignity was a certainty of human existence. So strong has been that overcoming, the mammoth in the natural history section seems as hoary as these relics.
 Matthew 11:7
 Matthew 5:48
 David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), p. 30.
 Mathew 5:39
Saturday, October 13, 2007
A stonewall becomes our bench. The three of us sit side-by-side, as our legs dangle above a terrain that plunges toward the sea. Eric tells us that the apocalyptic book of Revelation is one of tragedy and hope.
“Embedded in the storyline,” Eric declares, “is the tale of the Church's survival. This was one of the deadliest periods of persecution that the Church had ever faced. Had the Revelation never been written, in fact, the Church might have compromised its basic tenets in an effort to survive, and perhaps would not have survived as we know it…
“Unfortunately Revelation has been often misinterpreted and even at times used to promote hatred instead of hope. The early Church Fathers read it with Anti-Semitic overtones. But to really understand the impact of Revelation and its meaning you have to dig a little into its historical context.”
“So, why were Christians in such distress? And, why was John banished to Patmos anyway?” I ask with an urgent tone.
“How is this a story of beauty?” I wick my head.
“We can call this a case of 'beauty from ashes'. This story has everything do with the surprising success of a humiliated and defeated people, the Jews…
“After the destruction of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Jewish nation at the hands of Titus in 70 CE, a very interesting thing happened. Droves of gentiles around the Empire became fascinated with Judaism, and by extension, Christianity. The nobility the Jews exhibited to persevere in their desire to be under the dominion of no man but one—and only one—god must have been compelling. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, for instance, admired the gallantry displayed by the Jewish resistance in Galilee—he was enamored with the ability of their ancient monotheistic faith to inspire uncompromising steadfastness in the direst circumstances. Regardless, so many gentiles appeared to be converting to Judaism and Christianity that toward the end of the first century the Roman Emperor Domitian began a serious crack down on Christian and Jewish proselytism. He used the tax system to attempt to crush Christians in particular, who were gaining adherents throughout the provinces and threatening the patronage of the local cults, especially in Asia Minor. Domitian also persecuted scores of high-ranking officials in the Roman population who were converting to Judaism and offending Roman sensibilities regarding Roman tradition, especially in respect to worship of the gods and deceased Roman emperors—who, as you know, were honored as gods in that age.”
“Was Domitian worried that no one would end up worshipping him?” Krista asks.
We all laugh. “Actually, Domitian did have a god-complex,” remarks Eric. “In fact, he killed some Stoic senators who had refused to address him as 'Lord and God'. Domitian called it 'atheism', you see, when folks refused to call him by those titles! But even to Romans, addressing a living emperor by such words was unprecedented – kind of a case of picking up the mantle too soon…He once,” says Eric with a smirk, “introduced his wife to the Senate as someone fortunate to visit his 'divine couch'.”
Krista guffaws, “I wonder if she ever visited his ‘divine couch’ again…”
“Ha!”, Eric almost rolls over, “…Well, guess who assassinated Domitian in the year 96? His wife’s house steward…so if that’s one indication.”
There’s no question in Krista’s mind and mine that Domitian’s wife was behind the deicide of Domitian.
“Well…I have to agree with you then,” says Eric still laughing merrily.
“But back (cough) to our story,” Eric tries to compose himself, “…leading up to Domitian’s fateful end. As you can (hu-hughhh) probably imagine, when gentiles converted to Judaism or Christianity life became quite tricky with an emperor who thought he was a deity, for, after all, the first two of the ten commandments bar idolatry and were held to be absolutely obligatory on both Jews and Christians. They might have respectfully bowed to an emperor but not to a god!
“But converts, in general, faced many cultural pressures to continue honoring pagan deities, especially the landed gentry who often held many civic offices and needed to officiate or participate in civic ceremonies, which always included some sort of homage to pagan deities in those days, if not to the emperor. Many aristocratic converts to Judaism and Christianity therefore seemed to disappear from public life…which was held as misanthropic, arrogant and impious by lots of folks once their absence became noted. The only strategy that the converts had, you see, to remain faithful to their adopted faith was to keep cooking up excuses for missing public ceremonies and to try to keep as low a profile as they could. Unfortunately, some Christian groups began teaching that it was OK to participate in civic ceremonies or guild rites (which also typically honored patron gods and goddesses) so long as one honored God in secret. According to these groups what really mattered was the spiritual devotion, not the externals. One of these groups is the 'Nicolatians' mentioned very derisively in Revelation.
“Now, the Romans had always granted the Jews the right to abstain from idolatry, but slowly and surely, this right began accruing a price. Following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, the Emperor Vespasian required the Jews to pay a privilege tax, called the fiscus Iudaicus, and other smaller taxes that guaranteed exemptions from religious and civic duties. Unfortunately, the Christian converts and 'God-fearers' (sympathizers of the Jewish faith) were not always guaranteed exemption by Roman law, even if they paid the fiscus Iudaicus in an attempt to do so. They had to first become full proselytes—for males, this meant circumcision. Circumcision and payment of the tax were assumed by the authorities to be the only valid way to gain exemption from idolatrous civic duties. But it was very unclear if Christian converts and God-fearers, who typically were not circumcised, needed to pay the tax of the fiscus Iudaicus, and for various reasons most simply kept low key and avoided payment of the tax.
“So eventually, in the early 90's, Domitian began a crack down on tax-evading converts, God-fearers and undercover Jews—Jews who had kept their faith secret in order to avoid enriching the Emperor by paying the humiliating fiscus Iudaicus. He demanded that all people who practiced or adopted any kind of Jewish religious practice (and that would include the Christians), whether openly or secretly, to be liable to the fiscus Iudaicus—and, if they were not born Jewish, they were not off the hook for observing civic duties and paying homage to the pagan cults! Furthermore, it they failed to come forward and continued to attempt to hide their identity, the state would hold their properties subject to confiscation upon exposure. In other words, Domitian just sardonically crystallized the predicament the converts were in, but this time, he also gave the tax policy enforcement teeth. Domitian thereupon began to reward informants who exposed tax evaders by granting prosecuting informants part of the proceeds of confiscated properties. As a consequence, many busybodies suddenly found a lucrative trade and many tax evaders began to pay off these informants to avoid prosecution. Blackmail thus grew to rampant proportions.
“Still, the high-ranking Roman converts or Jewish sympathizers remained a burr in the saddle of the Emperor, since, as Roman noblemen, Domitian could not use the tax policy to get at them. So, in the year 95, it all came to a head. Domitian banned secret conversion to Judaism and outright conversion to Christianity, declaring them 'impiety' (or 'atheism'), capital offenses. To make a good show of it, Domitian even executed his own kinsman Flavius Clemens, a nephew of Vespasian. Clemens and his wife Domitilla, who was Domitian's own niece, had apparently been found 'drifting towards Jewish customs'. Domitian executed Clemens on charges of impiety and banished Domitilla from Rome, probably intending to strike fear thus into the hearts of the Roman aristocracy. We cannot rule out, however, that other shady motivations may have been at play. Domitian probably rightly suspected Clemens for maneuvering political will against his draconian tax policies, and had perhaps even sensed his kinsman as a conspirator in a power play for the throne. It appears that Domitian declared conversion an ‘impiety’ in order to conveniently take care of Clemens and other of Clemens’s sympathizers…Such ruthless acts were not unknown for Roman emperors, especially paranoid ones like Domitian. Indeed, the historical record, especially Domitian’s assassination, hints that Clemens was offed for primarily political exigencies and was not an actual convert but merely accused as one for aiding the converts…
“Regardless, it was a dark day for converts and God-fearers when Clemens was executed, as they were now no longer with a prominent champion in the imperial family. For aristocrats, 'impeity' was missing civic ceremonies or failing to address the Emperor as 'Lord and God', and for all others, 'impeity' was hiding one's religious identity, which was proven by demonstrating that the accused had failed to pay the required taxes, namely the fiscus Iudaicus…
“Now, John, being Jewish, had probably always paid the fiscus Iudaicus, and so was probably off the hook for the charge of impiety. However, since he was one of the key evangelists in the Church, Domitian had him exiled to Patmos in 95 CE, right around the time conversion was outlawed. John was probably sent to the island shortly after Clemens was executed, and he might have already witnessed some of the travails his brethren were now facing in the mainland. Clemens's death opened the floodgates of prosecution cases against Christian and Jewish tax-evaders. Many of John’s exposed Christian brothers and sisters were now losing their properties and were going to trial for immanent execution. Jewish tax-evaders had it easier, since declaration of the Jewish faith could not easily be used to demonstrate impiety, as Judaism was an allowed practice in the Empire. But since Christian conversion was outlawed, Christians would have had to seek protection from the Jewish community to help avoid charges of impiety. Most synagogues did their best to protect tax-evaders, since it was a Jewish ethic to honor and treat any gentile who refused to participate in idolatry as if he or she were a member of the Jewish people, following the teaching of the late and beloved Rabbi, Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai, the most respected teacher to survive the Judean revolt. But, unfortunately, some of the Jews or gentile God-fearers were being blackmailed to expose tax-evaders, particularly at Smyrna and at Philadelphia. More than likely, it was God-fearers or covert Jews (who hid their Jewish identity to avoid paying exemption taxes) who were exposing fellow tax evaders, to get themselves off the hook for impiety charges by proving their loyalty to the Emperor thus…
“That's one of the saddest chapters in history to me,” Eric sighs, “From that point on, the relationship between the Synagogue and the Church would begin to rip apart. The frictions Domitian inflicted on the Jewish community—which up to that point, however marginally, had always included the Christians—became the wedge that drove apart the Synagogue and the Church. The travail and hard feelings that resulted from the cooperation of few synagogues leading to the exposure of Christians seem to have left a deep wound in the Church that never healed. The next generation of Christian leadership, sadly, slid into Anti-Semitic apologetics as a result. Hardly more Anti-Semitic sentiments are found in the works of Christian theologians than in the writings of some of the second century fathers of Asia Minor, such as Melito of Sardis. Revelation may have contributed to the tone, since it contains harsh language against the traitorous synagogues; however, this tone is not unwarranted! One of the greatest sins in Judaism – if not the greatest – is to betray your fellow Jew (or God-fearer – a potential Jew) to the authorities. This is considered an 'unforgivable sin' in Judaism. We must read the polemic against Jewish/God-fearer traitors in Revelation as an inner Jewish debate to keep the book in its context…
“It's just so sad to me…”, Eric pauses and looks down at the slopes below us, “…that history has not remembered the more numerous and noble synagogues around the Empire that must have risked much to sequester Christians in their communities from Domitian's sword.”
I try to imagine how John must have felt as exile in Patmos when he found himself alone in that cave. Was he heartbroken and perhaps afraid knowing that the future of the Church and the bond with his Jewish people was in tremendous jeopardy? Was this what he was praying about when Jesus suddenly appeared to him?
I notice that Eric is also lost in thought. We all sit on the cliff edge silently for a moment. Suddenly, Eric looks back up at the sea, and his face brightens slightly. “But,…as I said, this is a story of beauty from ashes. I am convinced that Revelation is not only fit to be the last book in our Scriptures…but perhaps should be appreciated much more for the beauty in history it represents, and I'm not just talking about the end of the world…
“Asia Minor, what is now Turkey 30 miles that way,” Eric points toward the open sea to our right, “was the most populous, cosmopolitan region in the Empire. More people dwelled in Asia Minor, in fact, than in Italy and Egypt combined. It was actually the heart of the Roman Empire, and the wealth of the Empire flowed through this region of crossroads…call it the Roman version of the 'Midwest'. It was here where Christianity transformed from a sectarian Jewish movement into a full-blown world movement. Had the jolt of hope and encouragement and promises of the message of Revelation never arrived to Asia Minor, I have many reasons to doubt that the Church would have persevered so steadfastly through the grueling second and third centuries of its history … or spread around the world so amazingly.”
“But if it was such a straight-forward message of encouragement,” I ask, “why was it written in such an obtuse way?”
“As you know,” Eric answers, “the Revelation is actually a letter meant to be circulated around all of the churches of Asia Minor (not just the ones mentioned in the seven letters to the angels at the beginning). So some have posited that it was written symbolically to make the message unintelligible to authorities who might have intercepted a copy of the letter. I, however, believe that the distinctly holy language of John's Revelation and descriptions of God and His throne room would have made it highly unlikely that a Jew would have ever written down or copied its words. The language was simply too holy to write down. To have a 'copy', a reader would have had to memorize it. In other words, the letter was transmitted by word of mouth…the couriers themselves were the 'letter'. The text itself hints that it should be transmitted by word of mouth when an angel commands John to eat the scroll of the vision in Rev. 10:10. Besides, if John was worried about prying Roman eyes, then the letter is a very thinly veiled rant against the Emperor indeed. I think any official with a slight bit of intelligence would have seen what it was about.”
“So why did John write that way?”
“A clue is found in the text. Its pervasive Semitisms and poor Greek diction suggests that the language it was originally circulating in was Hebrew, which would have definitely made it a very holy message indeed, but one that is also very particularly aimed at well-learned Jewish sages. The esoteric and holy material would have been familiar to Jewish 'heads of wisdom' who had the Hebrew Scriptures committed to memory. These folks were typically well-trained in advanced memorization techniques…
“Revelation is actually written in a way that makes it extremely easy to memorize…it is full of memory aids. One aid is the vivid imagery, which carries implicit and double-meanings a well-learned Jew would find poignant and prominent and would be able to unpack for his congregation. Another is the pervasive Scriptural symbolism and references, especially to the Prophets—books very important to Jews facing difficult times and that would have been known by rote in those days. But probably most importantly, Revelation is extra-ORRR-dinarily structured to facilitate rapid memorization! I have read many ancient apocalypses and none has quite the same kind of sophisticated literary framework that I can evince throughout the book. It is actually quite artistic. Revelation uses the same literary patterns but tweaks and plays with them to also make each section independently noteworthy in its own special, memorable way—kinda like a purposefully changing composition, much like a Jazz composition, in fact…quite beautiful, but I digress. To get to the point, Tam, it would have probably only taken a couple of hearings of Revelation for a well-trained Jewish scholar to recognize the familiar structures—such as the seven-day creation structure of Genesis 1-2 that figures largely throughout the book—and have the entire message committed to memory through these structural handles. That may sound fantastic and improbable to us, but the ancients were masters at memorization. After all, writing was at a premium in those days and the easiest way to 'copy' something at the least expense (monetarily and time-wise) was to memorize it. In other words, Revelation is a message that was intended to disseminate with blazing speed - to get to the largest audience possible in the fastest way available. It is an urgent letter."