Shabbat shalom

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“The Sabbath comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories. It is already night when joy begins, when a beautifying surplus of soul  visits our mortal bones and lingers on.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), 68.

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Exegetical Exercise

pen and ink drawing by Rembrandt of the Prophet Jonah

The Prophet Jonah before the walls of Nineveh – maybe enjoying the shade of the bush?

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 28 is the fourth and final chapter of the book of Jonah. My notes on the text include:

“Anger” or “angry” shows up five times in the chapter’s 11 verses; almost all the anger is Jonah’s, although God is mentioned as “slow to anger.” Jonah’s anger is in response to God’s decision not to “do” the calamity that God had planned for Nineveh after the events of chapter 3.

The names of God seem once again significant. Jonah communicates with “YHWH” – prays to YHWH, and is answered by YHWH. YHWH God, and God, take action and also communicate with Jonah. Both YHWH and God ask Jonah “Is it right for you to be angry …?” Finally, YHWH God lectures Jonah on the relative importance of the “bush” that Jonah is angry about in v. 8ff, and Nineveh, a great city with 120,000 people “and also many animals.” (v. 11)

Creation shows up again; YHWH God “appoints a bush” to participate in an elaborate object lesson for Jonah; God “appoints a worm” to eat the bush, and then prepares a wind to make Jonah’s life fairly miserable. All these agents cooperate without hesitation.

In v. 5, Jonah goes out of the city and sets up an observation post (a “booth”, a sukkah, such as one would have during the festival of Succoth) on the east side of the city. This seems likely to be significant, since the direction is mentioned. On the other hand, what is the significance? East is farther away from Israel, closer to … what? Why would Jonah go farther away from Israel? Is he afraid the Ninevites will mount more raids on Israel, and so doesn’t want to be in the path? Is there another reason? It’s curious.

Jonah quotes Psalm 145:8 (well, maybe) on God’s qualities (“gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”), although God’s readiness to relent from punishing might fly in the face of the opening oracles of Amos, in which YHWH says revoking punishment is not going to happen, so there is a possible site of ambiguity … which YHWH does Jonah really “know”?

Jonah seems oblivious to the clear inference that Jonah is benefiting from God’s merciful and gracious behavior, too. Whether it’s that he doesn’t recognize it, or thinks he deserves it more, or maybe is entitled to it because of his prior relationship with YHWH, … again, indeterminate.

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Sixth Sunday of Easter

picture of prophet Jonah preaching in Nineveh

“Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

[A sermon mostly on Jonah 3, and a little on Revelation 7:9-17, for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.]

The people of Nineveh – and to a lesser extent, the animals of Nineveh – are really the main characters of this reading, even though it comes from the book of Jonah and Jonah does play a part in it. So we might want to pause and ask: Who are these people, anyway, the people of Nineveh? How we answer this question may have a lot to do with the way we understand what happens in this dramatic chapter, this dramatic portion of the story of Jonah. And believe it or not, there is more than one way to answer this question …

We could say the people of Nineveh are the enemies of Israel and Judah, the enemies of the people of God. They are the feared and hated Assyrians, the ruthless rulers of the Assyirian empire, the warriors who have raided and captured and kidnapped and killed the Israelites for a long time, the armies who marched on and threatened Judah and Jerusalem – assuming this story is supposed to be taking place after that event. This is almost certainly how Jonah thinks about who they are, as his feared and hated enemies, the kind of people about whom people have been known to think and say things like “the only good Assyrian is a dead Assyrian.” Most readers of the book of Jonah think that attitude is what explains Jonah’s epic refusal to follow God’s instructions in the first place: he runs the other way because Nineveh is a tough and violent place where no one in their right mind goes unless they have to, certainly not an Israelite, and he doesn’t care anything about these people, anyway – they’re the enemy, and if he had a hand grenade, he might throw it in their general direction, but loving them enough to go warn them of their impending doom is the last thing he wants to do, because … they’re the enemy. read the rest

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Shabbat shalom

Miriam Neiger painting of Jerusalem

“Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, [we are] touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1979. 68.

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picture of cars driving at night

We have driven the girls around a lot over the years. Now they mostly drive themselves.

The girls are graduating from high school. It has required delicate logistical negotiations, because their graduations are on the same day, and too far apart, so yesterday we drove seven hours (round trip) to see our niece graduate from technical school, and some of the family will come to our daughter’s high school graduation and some will come to “the party” a few days later, so we will all “be there” one way or another.

We did not grasp the full meaning of “get there early.” read the rest

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Exegetical Exercise

picture of prophet Jonah preaching in Nineveh

Jonah looking uncharacteristically enthusiastic

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 21 is Jonah 3 – the aftermath of Jonah’s escapade with the big fish. This is the text:

(1) The word of YHWH came to Jonah a second time, saying: (2) “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (3) So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of YHWH. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. (4) Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (5) And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

(6) When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. (7) Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh. “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. (8) Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. (9) Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

(10) When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Here are my notes on the text: read the rest

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Fifth Sunday of Easter

sculpture of Jonah in the belly of the fish

Jonah remembers God

[A sermon on Jonah 2, with references to Acts 9, which was actually in the Revised Common Lectionary for last week … ]

So Jonah’s prayer comes from a dark place; Jonah is in a dark place – not just metaphorically, the way we might mean a place of fear, or desperation, or regret, is a “dark place,” but literally, the way a closet in a cellar without any windows or light switch is a dark place, as in without any light. No windows or light switch in the belly of that great fish!

We know this because of the way Jonah talks. He never actually uses the word “dark,” but he certainly makes references to deep, dark places: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew word for the underworld, the world of the dead; the “roots of mountains,” the “deep,” the “Pit.” Not words that evoke a walk in the park on a sunny day. And then, he emphasizes the problem of not being able to see: he talks about being driven from before God’s eyes, about not being able to set eyes on God’s holy temple, the place he really associates with God’s presence and with God’s saving and forgiving activity. So from all that I think it’s fair to conclude that Jonah can’t even see his hand in front of his face. It’s dark, he’s in a dark place. read the rest

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