Category: The Bible as literature

120. The Old Testament. The Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.

120. The Old Testament. The Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.

Plot: God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet, and warns him that one of the nations from the north (Babylon or Egypt) will invade Jerusalem, and act as God’s agent to bring His judgment on the people of Israel and Judah, to punish his chosen people as they still do not act as He has decreed, paying only lip service to His words, and persisting in wrongdoing and the worship of other gods and false idols. Jeremiah repeatedly warns the King, the priests and false prophets, but his words are ignored, the written warnings burnt, and finally Jeremiah is imprisoned.  Jerusalem will be destroyed, and those who are not slain, or killed by famine or pestilence will be enslaved by the invaders. But later generations of those taken away will be restored to the Promised Land and a new Covenant made with them, and Babylon will fall in its turn. The Book of Jeremiah ends with the actual sack of Jerusalem, the death of King Zedekiah, and the enslavement of the peoples of Judah as prophesised.

Lamentations, originally believed to be authored by Jeremiah hence its placement, poetically expresses the grief and suffering from the destruction of Jerusalem. In particular, the first chapter which personifies the city as a woman whose lovers and children have been killed or taken captive, and the sufferings of the prophet (?) in the third chapter, are quite moving.

Reading from the Authorised King James Version (Collins, 1934)

My thoughts: The Book of Jeremiah seems more historically grounded than Isaiah, with dates based on the years of reign of the kings of Judah.

Again, God uses Babylon (as he did Egypt in Moses’ day) to punish the Israelites, then in turn wreaks havoc on these peoples who carried out his wishes, indeed the desolation prophesised for Babylon seems a hundredfold more violent than that which destroys Jerusalem and Judah.

His anger and threats to both the Israelites and the Babylonians recorded in these  chapters must have provided much fodder for the sermons of old-school hellfire preachers.

Favourite lines/passages:
“Gird up thy loins, and arise…” Jeremiah 1:17
“thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” Jeremiah 12:5
“…they shall be an execration, and an astonishment, and a curse and a reproach” Jeremiah 44:12
(I’ll try to remember that the next time another driver cuts in front of me. “YOU BLOODY ASTONISHMENT!!!” I’ll cry at them and wave my fist)

Personal rating: Too much repetition of the central theme. A modern publisher would edit it heavily, which would be a blessing or a curse depending on your religious viewpoint. A 3.

The sanity in between: The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell’s first volume in the series, and a long standing resident of my TBR shelves. Perhaps not as great as his Sharpe books, but I am sucker for a good series and this will provide some painless history lessons amongst the battles and intrigues. Also my monthly hit of obscure Wodehouse – Big Money sees two impoverished young English gentlemen resolve their individual problems of true love and financial happiness with the usual Wodehousian complications. I was too busy chortling (that seems the most apt verb) to take down any quotes. Two very different but excellent reads.

Next : Some of the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC)

118. The Old Testament. The Book of Isaiah.

118. The Old Testament. The Book of Isaiah.

First of the Major Prophets, The Book of Isaiah deals with the upcoming judgment and punishment of nations, and the eventual restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. It also foreshadows the coming of Jesus.

Again I am surprised by the numerous times the Israelites turned away from the Lord and worshipped idols in the Old Testament, and God’s wrath in placing them under the yoke of other nations, only to forgive and raise them up, and smite their enemies. And finally now we have the possibility of inclusion of other nations and peoples under God’s hand, after they have been suitably ‘humbled’ as had the Israelites before them.

Favourite lines/passages: Some very well known verses here, and despite the predominant themes of punishment, the ones which resonate are to do with peace

“… and he shall judge amongst the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”      Isaiah 2:4

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid ; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”  Isaiah 11:6

which leads me to the foretelling of the coming of Christ

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign ; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”                             Isaiah 7:14

Diversions and digressions: This read was a diversion in itself from the dry works of Aristotle, but it’s not very satisfactory and I am still hanging out for a work of dramatic  literature. I will have to wait until Menander’s comic play Dyskolos (aka Old Cantankerous) which is still about 8 books away.

Personal rating: By no means a work of clarity on first reading – it might improve with study and more personal knowledge of the historical background. 2

Next : Back to Aristotle and his work on Metaphysics. Yikes!

87. The Old Testament. The Song of Solomon.

87. The Old Testament. The Song of Solomon.

Also called the Song of Songs, or the Canticles, this is the last of the Books of Wisdom in the Protestant Old Testament. It is a three way dialogue between a woman, her lover, and a chorus of her friends. While the chapter headings in my Bible and biblical scholars refer to the two lovers as Christ and the Church, it is hard not to believe that the author is describing the mutual, physical sexual desire between two lovers (Solomon and a shepherdess, possibly his concubine)

This is the first dedicated love poetry I have reached (excluding Sappho, which was mostly unrequited yearnings) and I found it quite sensual and erotic. Lots of natural imagery and symbolism especially gardening.

It is a little hard to tell who is talking when, and what is real or imagined or remembered. The verses breaks do not necessarily tell me when the dialogue switches from woman to man until a pronoun puts it in context again.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Rise up my love, my fair one and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone ; the flowers appear on the earth ; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.  The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise my love, my fair one and come away.”    Song 2:10-13.

(Turtle presumably meaning turtledove, as he calls her his dove in the next verse)

“My beloved is mine, and I am his ; he feedeth among the lilies until the day break, and the shadows flee away …”       Song 2:16-17

“Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of your eyes, with one chain of thy neck”   Song 4:9

“Awake, O north wind; and come thou south ; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his pleasant fruits”   Song 4:16

“Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm ; for love is strong as death ; jealousy as cruel as the grave ; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.  Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it …”     Song 12:6-7

Diversions/digressions:   Mentioned twice in this Book, spikenard is a luxurious perfumed oil obtained from a flower growing in the Himalayas. It’s exoticness not only suggests the special nature of the love between the two, but on a pragmatic level shows trade between two areas rarely connected in my thoughts – a trade route across Asia linking India or China with Israel in the centuries before the Roman Empire?

Personal rating:   The most literary and ‘non-Bible’ chapter of the Bible so far. Definitely a 6.

Next :  Back to me old mate Plato, and his post-Socratic dialogue Gorgias

86. The Old Testament. Ecclesiastes.

86. The Old Testament. Ecclesiastes.

I found I enjoyed Ecclesiastes more than the previous books of the Old Testament. It starts with a great feeling of the disillusionment of the old wise King (Solomon?) as he realises that all he has achieved – his great works and wealth, his happiness and wIsdom  –  is all vanity, and will not survive after this death ; that death comes to both the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the sinners. There is injustice, evil and danger in the world, so we may as well enjoy life and our own works for now as they will not last.

There are so many well-known sayings in this small book that I lost count of them. “All is vanity and vexation” is repeated in almost every chapter.

Favourite lines/passages: As I say above, there are many familiar lines, and the ones that appeal most will differ depending on the reader and their mood. I recommend you read the book itself (it’s only 7 pages or 12 ‘chapters’) to find what speaks to you best. Of course, any child of the Sixties will savour  Chapter 3 : 1-8

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,

A time to be born, and a time to die ; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted,

A time to kill, and a time to heal ; a time to break down and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance …..

A time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace”

but there are other gems such as

“Better a living dog than a dead lion”  Ecclesiastes 9:4

“A man hath no better thing under the Sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry”  Ecclesiastes 8:15

Personal rating:  A high 5 for this.

Next : The next book in the Old Testament : The Song of Solomon.

85. The Old Testament. The Book of Proverbs.

As the name suggests, this chapter of the Old Testament comprises largely a collection of proverbs on human virtues and vices, mostly ascribed to Solomon, with the fear of the Lord seen as the beginning of wisdom a recurring theme.

My thoughts: I won’t try to analyze the meanings of the more obscure and even contradictory proverbs – there are hundreds of bible study sites on the net which would do a far better job than I could. I will simply share the highlights I enjoyed.

Wisdom is personified in some of the Proverbs, which immediately brought to mind some of Plato’s Socratic dialogues which I had just been reading.

Favourite lines/passages:

Some of the Proverbs have survived as proverbs in common English usage.

A soft answer turneth away wrath   Proverbs 15:1
Pride goeth before destruction  Proverbs 16:18
Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise  Proverbs 17:28
Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord  Proverbs 18:22

Others I particularly enjoyed were less familiar

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise; which having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. Proverbs 6:6-8
For wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things that may be desired,  are not to be compared to it  Proverbs 8:11
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind   Proverbs 11:29
It is better to dwell in a corner of the house-top, than with a brawling woman in a wide house Proverbs 21:9
As a  dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly   Proverbs 26:11
Hell and destruction are never full ; so the eyes of man are never satisfied   Proverbs 27:20

Diversions and digressions:   I discovered a new word from this read : frowardness, which is used a lot in this Book, which I think means perversity of nature, compared to following the way of the Lord. Not something I will probably use in everyday conversation much.

Personal rating:  For the gems I discovered, this was an enjoyable read, but there was a lot of repetition of virtue and vice pairs which soon became wearisome from a literature point of view. A 4 overall.

Kimmy’s rating:   I did ask Kimmy about this vomit thing, and she gave me the slightly embarrassed big-eyes stare which means I should not enquire further.

Next :  The next two Old Testament books are very short, so I will finish those next. Firstly Ecclesiastes (of which I know absolutely nothing) and then The Song of Solomon.

 

71. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Book of Psalms.

71. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Book of Psalms.

150 prayers and songs of praise, about half of these doubtfully attributed to King David.

My thoughts : It is probably a truism that the best of a large set of anything will inevitably also be the best known to the novice. Beethoven’s Fifth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And in this case, Psalm 23. It is so superior to the rest of the Psalms, in both a literary and emotional sense. For anyone not knowing it by its number, you will surely recognize it from the image at the top of the post.

I must admit myself hugely disappointed with most of the rest of the Psalms. Many seem to exist just as much to beseech God’s protection from enemies as to praise Him. Indeed, the praising of God in these Psalms seems to be largely a means to winning His assistance in raising up the author and bringing down his adversaries. Psalm 13 is almost petulant while Psalm 44 is quite demanding in their appeals to God. Psalms 96-100 and 145-150 do solely offer up praise but it is a long read to get to them, and I admit after the first hundred, I started to skim over the remaining Psalms and skipped those which focused on seeking retribution or salvation from enemies.

Some also switch back and forth addressing both the Lord and David’s enemies in the same Psalm, or seem to change voice from the psalter to the Lord and back, making the reading more difficult and causing much re-reading on my part.

No doubt I could have learned more by studying each Psalm with the help of one of hundreds of online Bible study websites, but I think I got the overall flavour of the Book of Psalms,  and am now ready to move on.

Favourite lines/passages: Other than Psalm 23, my favourite Psalms were 104 and 121. Psalm 104 was my overall favourite probably because it dwells on the creation and wonders of the natural world. Psalm 104 is one of the longer Psalms but well worth the read and I couldn’t pick out particular lines to highlight so I simply recommend it to you.

Psalm 121 starts with

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made Heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not slumber ….. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore.”

The beginning of Psalm 69 resonated for me as well from its depiction of sheer despair…

“Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary of my crying; my throat is dried; mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.”

… but then it too began to seek relief from enemies.

“They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head ; they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully are mighty….”

Diversions and digressions:  The word selah appears many times within individual Psalms. The meaning of the word is not known for certain, but a case can be made for either “pause”, being an instruction to the singers or musicians, or “praise”, or a practical combination of the two.

Personal rating varied from many 1 or 2 to a very few 6, so I will give it an average of 3.

Next : I was going to continue with The Old Testament, specifically The Book of Proverbs, but I think something else might be more palatable right now so I will draw a deep breath and opt for the early Socratic dialogues of Plato, comprising Charmides, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, and Euthydemus . Frying pan? Fire?

 

70. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : The Book of Job

70. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : The Book of Job

This post and the next few will cover the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon. For the earlier books of the Old Testament, see posts 22 and 47.

My thoughts

After Genesis and Exodus, these are probably the books I was most looking forward to. Which makes my initial foray into Job such a disappointment as I found it very hard going.

Job is the most righteous man alive, worshiping God and shunning evil. He is also very wealthy, blessed with family and large numbers of livestock and slaves. God asks Satan if he has seen anyone in his travels as worthy, and Satan remarks that if  all of Job’s wealth was removed, Job would soon turn to cursing God. God allows Satan to take everything away from Job and kill his sons, yet Job remains worshipful.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away – blessed be the name of the Lord.”       Job, 1:21

Again Satan asks God to test Job by taking away his health, and God allows Satan to cover Job with boils, and yet he still stays faithful.

“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”      Job, 2:10

Job is then visited by three ‘friends’ : Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, who remonstrate with him that he must have sinned against God and he should now repent, as God would not punish the innocent so.

And here is where I started to lose the thread of the arguments, for now Job appears to question God’s actions and demand an explanation. God’s voice comes out of a whirlwind and describes His own wisdom and omnipotence without explaining why Job has been made to suffer. Nevertheless Job repents and admits his lack of wisdom and is restored to health, wealth and family.

Since Job is synonymous with patience, I expected some sort of superhuman endurance and resistance by Job to all the misfortune suffered, which he does demonstrate until his ‘friends’ arrive on the scene. The arguments of his three ‘friends’ and the mysterious fourth commentator Elihu are confounding and I had to look for explanation elsewhere. Luckily one of my staff is a Bible scholar and happened to be studying Job this week, so we have had a few chats about it.

I found it interesting that Satan could tempt God into allowing him to test Job. Surely God would be immune to Satan’s tricks and temptations?

Favourite lines/passages

“for the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit ; the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me”                                                  Job, 6:4

“For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow”                                                                                                                                                    Job, 8:9

and the rather obscure pronouncement from Job

“I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls”                                                       Job, 30: 29

Diversions/digressions

Who was the shortest man in the Bible?  Bildad the Shuhite 😉

Personal rating : 3

Next:  The Book of Psalms