Abraham the Babylonian?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac

Hebrew poetry relies on conceptual rather than auditory rhymes, with line pairs expressing similar ideas. To pick an example at random: “Save me O God, by your name, / and vindicate me by your might” (Psalm 54:1). While I was correcting proofs for The Prince of This World — a preorderable book, incidentally — I was particularly struck by several of my quotes from the Hebrew prophets that refer to the Babylonians in the first half of a line pair, then the Chaldeans in the second. On some level, this pairing is probably just a poetic convenience. They talk about the Babylonians a lot, and the demands of Hebrew poetry require them to have a synonym for the second line. Yet there’s another context where the Chaldeans come up — namely, Ur of the Chaldeans, the hometown of Abraham.

What does it mean that the ancestor of the Israelites is a Babylonian? Or more specifically, that he is someone who breaks with the Babylonians, in the first story of the Book of Genesis that is not in some sense a reworking or parody of Babylonian mythology? Empire is always already there as a rival who inspires mimesis and rejection all at once, and the Israelites, who will spend most of their history in exile within Empire, are here figured as primordially exiles from Empire.

By the end of Genesis, they have been thoroughly reincorporated into Empire, due to the exceptional political success of Joseph in Egypt, but their very success proves to be the greatest danger, exposing them to slavery and attempted genocide. And so they must go into exile from Empire again, and they are led by a man who is by all appearances a child of Empire — Moses the Egyptian. A strange cycle of theme and variations.

(Idle thoughts, probably not saying anything new.)

Reading the Joseph story as a prequel

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of a prequel, and it’s clear to me that it’s a genre with deep roots. Oedipus at Colonus is a self-conscious prequel to Antigone, for instance, supplying interesting background to Antigone’s torn loyalties. (By contrast, Oedipus Rex does not seem to me to be so self-consciously prequelic.) A similar argument could be made for the Book of Genesis — though it draws on materials that may predate the Genesis story, it was redacted in such a way as to provide a self-conscious prequel to the Exodus events and the subsequent conquest of Canaan (including Israel’s relationships with its closest neighbors, Moab and Edom).

The most interesting prequel element is the Joseph story. It is very distinctive in its style and approach, as it injects the kind of post-exilic narrative we find in Daniel and Esther into Israel’s primal history. The most straightforward narrative work of the story is to account for why the Israelites were in Egypt in the first place. But it goes beyond that in making Joseph (and the Israelite God who so favored him) into the source of Egypt’s survival and Pharaoh’s overwhelming power.

In this sense, like the most ambitious prequels, it winds up recontextualizing and even subverting the narrative to which it is a prequel. Joseph engineers a plan to reduce the entire Egyptian population to slavery, and for his service, he gets the assurance that his family will be a privileged population. Once a subsequent Pharaoh forgets about this promise, he initially reduces the Israelite population to the same level as everyone else.

Obviously he goes much further than this later on, but the background of the Joseph story shows that the problem isn’t mass enslavement as such — it’s mass enslavement of the Israelites. A narrative of God’s justice and liberation retrospectively becomes a narrative of God’s favoritism.

Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the death of God

In my Humanities capstone class, we just finished a unit on music, interweaving key modern classical pieces — Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms — with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. We concluded with Symphony of Psalms yesterday, and though it’s a piece that may not have the overtowering obviousness of the others, I assigned it because Stravinsky is the composer I know best and because Symphony of Psalms is a major piece of his that I don’t know as well as I’d like to.

As I discussed it with my two sections, it became less rather than more comprehensible to me, particularly the lengthy final movement on Psalm 150. The first two movements, which are paired as a kind of prelude and fugue, seem to fit together smoothly and to display a clear relationship between the text and the movement. The Wikipedia page quotes Stravinsky as claiming, “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The quote came up in both sections, and I think it’s pretty plausible with the first two movements — he’s trying to get at what Nietzsche might call the Dionysian impulse that motivated the composition of the text we now have.

In the third movement, however, the emotional content seems strangely out of sync with the text of Psalm 150. It is particularly jarring in the lines about the cymbals, where the music is calm and meditative — “the exact opposite of cymbals,” as I told both classes. There are more upbeat passages, and those are the ones that always stood out to me most in previous listening, more or less in isolation from the remainder of the movement, which often faded into the background. Listening intently and placing them in context, however, the more memorable passages can seem almost shrill or desperate, or at least forced. The slower portions, with their slow and steady repetition of “Laudate Dominum, laudate Eum…,” can seem mechanical, almost evacuated of emotion.

Some have viewed this symphony as a testimony of faith on Stravinsky’s part, and I could perhaps see that for the first two movements — but the last seems almost to evacuate the psalm of meaning. It may not be a coincidence here that the texts of the initial pair of movements are both focused on the subjective experience of the worshipper, while the latter seems to evoke a more purely Dionysian absorption in the worship of God.

Perhaps it’s from this perspective that we can begin to understand the strange ending of the first movement, where the choir belts out the final words of the text, “non ero, I will be no more.” The subject is “no more” in the final movement, which consists of a repeated impersonal command to praise God in various ways — a situation that might initially seem to be just the opposite of that predicted in the text of the first movement, where the subject was afraid of being abandoned by God. Yet if we look more closely at the text, there’s a strange decoupling between the course of the human life and recognition by God: whether God answers or not, the speaker still has a limited sojourn on earth and will eventually return to the nothingness from which he came. The final movement, then, can be read as a final enactment of that decoupling, allowing the worship of God to gradually wind down and run out of steam and allowing the subject to live in the abandonment of God.

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.

What’s the deal with Job’s new daughters?

I spent the morning rereading the Book of Job for the first day of my devil course, and while many enigmatic passages leapt out at me, none was quite as surprising as this segment from the final chapter (emphasis added):

And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

What in the world is this supposed to mean? Are the three daughters meant to be parallel to the three friends in some way? Why is it significant that Job gave them an inheritance? Any ideas?