Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

Early Prophets

The usual order of reading the Old Testament of course is to begin with Genesis.  However Rabbi Sandmel says that his years of teaching at Hebrew Union College taught him that it is better to begin with the books that were written first.  The events related in the Torah/Pentateuch and other prose history books that tell the story of how ancient Israel came to be occurred before the time of the Prophets.  But most of the books in the "Prophets" section of the Tanak were written in their final form first, before the books that precede them in the established sequence of the OT and Tanak.  The books which now come first in the canon are actually compilations by later editors who wove together material from various early sources that are no longer extant.  

Given the complexity of issues involved in the composition of Genesis through Kings, Sandmel recommends beginning a critical reading of the Hebrew scriptures with the prophets starting with the book of Amos which is generally regarded by non-conservative biblical scholars as the earliest written Old Testament book.  I am going to try to follow Sandmel’s recommendation and see if that makes things easier.  It will also mean starting off with something I don’t know very well.  Growing up attending church school and Sabbath School along with Adventist church school and from an early age reading Adventist books I repeatedly encountered Bible stories from the Garden of Eden through King David.  I knew the stories of Moses, David, Daniel, Esther, Ruth, and Job very well.  I often heard Psalms read aloud and spent some time reading here and there in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  But, apart from an occasional text cited in a sermon or some religious publication, most of the books of the Prophets were pretty much unknown territory.  While the Minor Prophets are minor in that they are relatively brief books which, apart from a few frequently cited texts, are not that familiar for most people,  they are not necessarily minor in terms of their importance in the development of ancient Jewish theology.


Amos is the earliest extended record of the words of a prophet.  As is the case with most of the oldest writings in the Bible, it was written as poetry.  Some scholars have suggested that poetry, which lends itself well to oral transmission and is less easily altered than prose, is the earliest form of written composition.  Of course it is very difficult if not impossible to translate poetry which depends on rhyme and meter into another language and preserve the nuance of the original.  Old Testament Hebrew is full of puns and other kinds of wordplay which cannot be carried over into another language.  So what we have in an English translation, no matter how well done, is only part of what is there in the Hebrew.

First a little history is needed to establish the context of Amos.  After the death of Solomon the kingdom established by David split into the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was the capital.  For much of their history both kingdoms were threatened by more powerful nations.  

According to the book of Amos, in the middle of the eighth century BCE (in recognition of the fact that the OT is Jewish rather than Christian in origin I am using BCE - “Before the Common Era” - rather than BC - “Before Christ”), , "two years before the earthquake,"  a self-described “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” from the southern kingdom who claimed to have been given a message from Yahve (rendered as “the Lord” in most English translations - I will use the two designations for the Israelite deity interchangeably) disrupted worship at the royal sanctuary/holy place of Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel.  The resident priest reported him to the king as a threat to the kingdom and told him to go back to Judah with his prophecies.  That man was Amos.

Amos like the other minor Prophets is a short book.  Its nine chapters consist of a poetic account of what Amos said at Bethel along with a brief telling of his run-in with the Bethel priest.  In a series of "Thus says the Lord" verses Amos forecasts the ruin for their misdeeds of several neighboring nations, including Judah, before proclaiming a similar fate for Israel.  Remarkably Amos’ condemnation is not for worshipping deities other than Yahve, forsaking the ritual duties of the established cult of Yahve, etc. as might be expected.  Instead Amos' concern is social justice.  He denounces the privileged class of Israel "who oppress the poor, who crush the needy" while living in luxury.  Wealthy and greedy women are addressed as “cows” who the enemies of Israel will “take away with hooks” (4:1-2).

Far from urging more participation in established worship rituals, Amos quotes Yahve as saying: "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen” (5:21-23)  A modern day equivalent might be condemnation of wealthy churches and clergy who proclaim their piety while doing nothing to help the less fortunate.  This rejection of ritual worship is followed by the injunction to "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24), a text made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. which a footnote in the Oxford Bible states "expresses the heart of Amos' preaching.”

Most of Amos runs along the lines of "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion" and forecasts a “Day of the Lord” on which "I (God) will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in board daylight.  I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (8:9-10)   There will be nowhere to hide from divine wrath.  But following declarations of God’s intention to destroy Israel "from the surface of the ground" are verses which seem to take back the threat.

After all the dire prophecies of Israel’s fate Amos concludes on a hopeful note: "I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them . . . I shall plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plunked up out of the land which I have given them” (9:14-15).  Many scholars regard this, along with similar passages, as a later addition intended to lessen the overall negative tone of Amos.  However that may be, the eventual fate of Israel seems to fit the predictions of disaster: conquered by Assyria in the century after Amos, its people were exiled and scattered into distant territories ruled by Assyria to disappear from history.  The “promised land” given to Israel by Yahve was re-settled by Assyrian captives from other places.  Ancient Israel became the legendary “Ten Lost Tribes.”


Hosea lived somewhat after Amos.  Like Amos he preached in the northern kingdom of Israel, but unlike Amos he was a native there.  It was a time of great peril with Israel caught between two powerful kingdoms vying for regional dominance.  Pressed from the east by Assyria and from the west by Egypt, Israel’s kings tried to play one off against the other as the nation descended into an ongoing crisis which would end with the Assyrian conquest.     

The Hebrew text of Hosea is, as Sandmel puts it, “in very bad shape. . . . about one third of the individual verses defy easy translation unless the translator resorts to drastic conjectural emendations. . . . In chapter after chapter, two or three intelligible verses are followed by passages beyond comprehension.  The extant translations of Hosea own a greater debt to the ingenuity of the translators than to the original Hebrew.”  So much for the “infallible, unchangeable Word of God!”

Hosea’s message is, unlike that of Amos, unconcerned with social justice but is rather an extended denunciation of Israel’s infidelity to Yahve.  Worship of Baal was apparently prevalent in Hosea’s time and his attacks on it are a rich source of details about Baal cult ritual.  

Hosea is perhaps best known for the rather shocking use of an unfaithful wife as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to its god.  (Maybe that is why I didn’t hear much about Hosea in my childhood religious indoctrination?)  It is uncertain whether Yahve’s command to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children by harlotry” (1:2) is to be taken literally or symbolically.  That the children are named “Jezreel” (the site of a bloody incident involving the killing of wicked Queen Jezebel and her sons), “Not Pitied,”  and “Not My People” would seem to indicate a symbolic nature although something literal can of course also be symbolic, especially in ancient literature where the two may be one and the same.  And biblical prophets are recorded as having done some very strange things!

Hosea’s bitterness over the unfaithfulness of his wife with threats to “strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born,” (which was among the punishments for an adulterous woman) parallels Yahve’s threats to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness to him.  There are references to practices involved in ritual marriage to Baal.  Israel has joined herself with Baal and forsaken her spouse, Yahve: “I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord” (2:13).

After a chapter detailing the unfaithfulness of his wife/Israel, Hosea is told to “Go again, love a woman who loves someone else, and who is adulterous; even as Yahve loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (3:1)  (“cakes of raisins” were involved in Baal cult rituals).  The chapter containing this injunction is very short and may be missing something that would better explain its connection to the first account of Hosea’s marriage.  It may be that it is another version of the story of the same problematic marriage.  In any case this time Hosea and his wife are to live together “for many days” with her no longer “playing the harlot” and no sex in the marriage.  So too Israel will dwell many days without a leader or direction.  But “afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God; and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days” (3:5).  This is the message of Hosea: Israel must suffer for her unfaithfulness but will ultimately return to Yahve and his goodness.  

The rest of the book details the sins and punishment of unfaithful Israel before ending with a promise of redemption in the final chapter.  Some scholars believe that the last chapter is a later addition to provide hope after the dire threats of the rest of the book.  But regardless, it is, as Sandmel says, “a superlative piece of religious poetry” which is read in synagogue on the Sabbath of Repentance which comes between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur:  

“Return O Israel to the Lord your God for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. . . . I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely. . . . They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden, they shall blossom as a vine” (14:1, 4, 7).

This reminds me of a service of forgiveness that the Oakland, California Unitarian-Universalist Church used to do every year during Jewish High Holy Days (the minister was Jewish).  The congregation would pair off, each couple facing one another and read in unison a text asking and granting forgiveness.  It was always very moving.

First Isaiah

Continuing to follow Rabbi Sandmel as a guide, next up in the prophecies written prior to the 586-520 BCE exile of Judah in Babylon is the first part of the book of Isaiah which is sometimes referred to as First Isaiah.  The lengthy (sixty-six chapters) book of Isaiah is a sort of anthology consisting of prophetic and poetic writings by multiple authors who wrote over a lengthy period of time.  It may be that material with very different origins was at some point copied onto a single scroll which, with the passage of time came to be regarded as a single “book.”  Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah, the only part actually related to the individual for whom the book is named, date to the years 742-687 BCE while chapters 40-66 reflect events that occurred about one hundred fifty years later.  Here are some of the things that interest me about those first chapters.  Second Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, I will get to later.

Isaiah chapter 6 relates the prophetic call of Isaiah in a magnificent visionary experience.  Isaiah beheld Yahve seated on his throne in the Jerusalem temple which was was believed to be visited by the divine presence at certain times during the ritual year.  Isaiah is terrified at beholding the deity:  “Horrors!  I am as good as destroyed, for I am a man of impure speech who dwells among people equally impure, yet my eyes have beheld the royal Yahve of the Hosts.” (6:5 Sandmel translation).  But one of the six winged “fiery creatures” (“seraphim” in English translations) from above the throne of Yahve flew to him with a burning coal from the temple altar with which he touched and purified Isaiah’s lips.  Then the voice of Yahve asked, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go on our behalf?” To which Isaiah responded, “Here I am!  Send me!”  So Isaiah began his career as the messenger of Yahve.

Isaiah’s recorded prophecies follow a similar pattern to those of Amos and Hosea, denouncing Israel and Judah for forsaking the path of righteousness and foretelling national doom at the hands of enemy nations.  Unlike the two earlier prophets, Isaiah lived in Jerusalem where he shared “the word which he saw.”  Whereas Amos and Hosea were, as Sandmel puts it, “village gadfly(s), Isaiah was well known in the highest circles of the capital.”  

Yahve is deeply disappointed in his chosen people.  Isaiah relates a parable about a carefully tended vineyard which was expected to yield a wonderful harvest but only brought forth wild grapes whereupon the owner of the vineyard ordered that it be destroyed.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”  (5:7).

In addition to conveying his message in symbolic words, Isaiah began what became with later prophets a common practice of symbolic actions.  Isaiah is told to walk about “naked and barefoot for three years” in imitation of the desolation awaiting Egypt and Ethiopia which Judea had hoped would save it from Assyria (20:3).  Like Hosea, Isaiah’s children are given symbolic names related to their father’s prophetic message.

Isaiah like Amos is concerned with social justice, proclaiming “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field” (5:8), “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” (5:20).  Yahve and his messages have been neglected as people have turned to “mediums and wizards who chirp and mutter,” and consult “the dead on behalf of the living” (8: 19).  Echoing Hosea he proclaims “The faithful city has become a harlot” (1:21)  As did the earlier prophets, Isaiah says Yahve hates the ritual services and sacrifices of a people who are unrighteous.  Empty ritual, social inequity, and forming alliances with foreign nations are all instances of infidelity to Yahve.


In addition to the predicted ruin of Judah and Israel other nations will experience divine wrath and eventual destruction.  But on the other hand, following a lengthy oracle condemning Egypt it is prophesied that Egypt and Assyria will repent of their evil ways and be united with Israel in worshiping Yahve (19:16-24), which obviously didn’t happen.  It is more than a little confounding to the belief that the Bible is the literal word of God with a clear and coherent message throughout.  Clearly disparate, sometimes clashing material was assembled into what became the book of Isaiah.

A new development in the prophecies of Isaiah is the idea that Yahve does not, as in Amos and Hosea, simply passively abandon his straying people to their fate at the hand of other nations, but actively controls those foreign invaders.  Yahve is a universal deity; nothing happens in the world without his involvement.  Assyria destroys Israel, as Isaiah witnessed, because Yahve uses it as his instrument to punish his disobedient people.  Israel’s god is the force behind all historical events.  As Sandmel puts it, “History is the account of Yahve’s will and deeds as disclosed by historical events. . . . Isaiah was the first man to insist that Yahve is discerned in history and controls history.”  This is became a central idea in Judaism and eventually Christianity which would insist on the historical as opposed to symbolic reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Isaiah is greatly concerned with the political situation of Judah, advising the king (who apparently often failed to heed Isaiah’s warnings) in his relations with other nations.  It is in the course of one of these consultations that a text occurs which the Gospel of Matthew would use in support of the virgin birth of Jesus.  In chapter 7 Isaiah meets with the king of Judah who is in despair because the kings of Syria and Israel have formed a military alliance to wage war on Jerusalem.  Isaiah tells the king not to fear for both will be destroyed before they can conquer Jerusalem.  The king is doubtful, so Isaiah gives him a sign (7:14-17).  A “young woman” will give birth and before the child is weaned the kings of both Syria and Israel will be destroyed.  

While the word used in the Hebrew text is the feminine form of “young man” which in other instances in the OT is translated as “young woman,” the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures, uses the Greek work for “virgin.”  Matthew was evidently using the Septuagint as the source of the quoted text in Matt. 1:23.   It may be that by the time, several decades after the death of Jesus, when the author of Matthew wrote his account belief in the virgin birth was an established aspect of early Christian tradition.  Throughout the Gospel of Matthew there is an emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.  So it would be natural to look for texts in Jewish scripture that would support various aspects of Jesus’ life including his birth.  The only problem is that the text in Isaiah is not a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah but one foretelling the fate of Syria and Israel!

In reading Isaiah I came across several other texts which I recall being frequently quoted in support of a particular teaching that turn out to have a completely different meaning in their original context.  For instance, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (28:9-13 for the full context).  I was led to believe that this meant that scripture required long and careful study a bit at a time.  But that doesn’t seem to be the meaning Isaiah intended when considered in the context of the text in which those lines with their poetic repetition appear.  It is in fact addressed to those "who would not hear” the words of Yahve (i.e. Isaiah’s message) which are to them like words spoken in an alien tongue which they are unable to understand beyond “here a little, there a little” so that they will “fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”

Quoting texts out of context to prove a point wasn’t invented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew or my Bible teachers.  It was in fact common practice in early rabbinic Judaism.  The Talmud is a very old collection of rabbinic wisdom, parts of which predate Jesus, in which scriptural texts are quoted along with accounts of how various rabbis expounded on them.  Many of the remarks have very little relation to the texts on which they are supposedly commenting.  It often seems like the rabbis were, to borrow a psychoanalytic concept, free-associating to the text which is taken completely out of context.  This would seem to be what Matthew was doing with Isaiah 7:14.

Isaiah foretells a terrible time coming for Judah and Israel.  But, in some of the most beautiful and lyrical poetry in the Bible, there are also extensive promises that exiles from Israel and Judah will return to Jerusalem and “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahve as the waters cover the sea” (11:9 RSV).  These magnificent passages have made Isaiah one of the most quoted books of the OT.  A “Prince of Peace” is promised in verses Christians which believe were fulfilled by Jesus and which Handel used for his oratorio, “The Messiah.”  

The “Isaiah Apocalypse” of chapters 24-27 foreshadows themes more fully developed in later apocalyptic writings, warning of a coming time when “the earth will be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled” (24:3).  There are interesting bits of Canaanite and Babylonian myth here and there in descriptions of how Yahve will desolate the earth and punish the “host of heaven” along with the “kings of the earth.”  The Canaanite sea monster, Leviathan will be punished and “the dragon that is in the sea” will be slain, echoing ancient Mid-Eastern creation myths in which a hero creator slays a monster from whose body the world is made.  Isaiah’s “apocalypse” ends hopefully with a revised version of the parable of the unfruitful vineyard.  This time the vineyard is “every moment” watered by Yahve and “Jacob (who Genesis relates was renamed Israel) shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the world with fruit” (27:6 RSV).

The apocalyptic chapters are followed by multiple prophecies of coming doom for various nations interspersed with promises of an eventual end of suffering as “the ransomed of Yahve shall return and come to Zion with singing. . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (35:12).

First Isaiah concludes with a sort of prose historical appendix (chapters 36-39) which is duplicated in 2 Kings 13-20 describing Isaiah’s involvement in three events.  Judah was invaded by Sennacherib of Assyria who besieged Jerusalem, an event which an Assyrian inscription dates to 701 BCE.  King Hezekiah “rent his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of Yahve” (37:1) from which he sent for Isaiah who told him that the siege would be unsuccessful.  “And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. . . . Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home.” (37:36 RSV).  

There is also an account of the illness, near death, and recovery of King Hezekiah which contains interesting evidence of scribal error in a misplaced text (38:21) in which Isaiah prescribes a treatment for the king which follows the account of his recovery.  That the error occurred early in the repeated copying of Isaiah is evidenced by the fact that the text is also misplaced in the Dead Sea scrolls of Isaiah, the several copies of which date from approximately 125 BCE to 60CE, and the Septuagint.  In the parallel text of 2 Kings 20 this detail is in its proper place earlier in the narrative.  

The historical appendix ends with an incident (chapter 39) in which Hezekiah displays his riches to envoys from Babylon, alarming Isaiah who says that in some future time it will all be carried to Babylon along with Hezekiah’s sons who will be made “eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”  To which Hezekiah, apparently more concerned with his well-being than that of his kingdom and family, replies that what Isaiah has told him is good, thinking, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

Isaiah’s oracles of approaching doom greatly outnumber those promising eventual redemption.  Many scholars regard the hopeful verses as later additions to the book.  In Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah early Hebrew religion expresses what Sandmel describes as a basic hopelessness about humanity’s ability to live up to Yahve’s expectations.  Prophetic forecasts of doom seemed to be borne out as the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722/721 BCE never to recover.  Judah survived for a little more than a hundred years longer before Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon and its people carried away into captivity.  We will return to the more hopeful time of Second Isaiah and the return of Yahve’s people to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. But first there are a few more prophets from before that important turning point in the history of the OT and the Jewish people.

Four More Pre-Exilic Prophets

The pattern established by Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah of denunciation for forsaking Yahve and predictions of impending doom interspersed with hopes for eventual redemption was continued by the prophets who came after them.  However there began to be a gradual shift towards a more hopeful vision of a glorious future for a redeemed “remnant of Israel” along with a more compassionate Yahve.  

Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah from a small Judean village who championed the pure worship of Yahve and social justice.  In verses that might be applied to some wealthy church leaders today he warned against mercenary “prophets who lead my people astray.”  A lengthy criticism of the established system of worship is followed by the oft cited, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).  There is the usual prophetic threat of divine judgement and ruin for wayward Israel and Judah.  But Micah tempers his message of doom with a clearly stated promise of a future restoration of “a remnant of Israel.”  For Yahve “does not retain his anger for ever. . . . He will again have compassion upon us. . . . (and) cast all our sins into the depths of the sea”  (7:18-19).

Zephaniah is identified as the grandson of Hezekiah, presumably the king whom Isaiah healed.  Zephaniah was active during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE).  His strident attack on Baal worship implies a date prior to Josiah’s 621 reform which outlawed gods other than Yahve and restricted ritual worship to the Jerusalem temple.  In no uncertain terms Zephaniah proclaims “The great day of Yahve is near, near and hastening fast. . . . A day of wrath is that day . . . a day of ruin and devastation. . . . A full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (1:14-18).  But he couples his prophecy of destruction with a new emphasis on the promise of a restored Israel.  Yahve will purify his people, removing the unrighteous to “leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly” (3:12).  

In Zephaniah are the beginnings of the theme of a coming end of the world followed by a renewed, perfect world which would be further developed in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.  The older understanding of the convent between Yahve and Israel demanded perfect  adherence to the terms of the covent.  Israel’s repeated failings to meet Yahve’s expectations led inevitably to doom.  According to Sandmel, Zephaniah offered a new vision of  the covenant as “an unbroken and unbreakable relation between Yahve and his people as the ancient Hebrew religion developed into (what would become) Judaism.”  Yahve was becoming less the harsh judge and more a compassionate deity with love for his erring children.  As a psychotherapist who has spent many hours with guilt ridden people unable to forgive themselves for past mistakes, I like that perspective.  It moves away from harsh perfectionism to a realistic and forgiving acknowledgment of human imperfection.

Nathum, which Sandmel describes as “the least religious of the prophetic writings,” is basically an expression of hatred towards the Assyrian center of Nineveh.  The prophet’s diatribe is expressed in terms that are not what most people think of as biblical language:  “I (Yahve) will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.  I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt” (3:5).

The first chapter of Nathum is interesting in that it is an acrostic poem in which each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence with the first line, beginning with A (Hebrew aleph), second with B (beth), etc.  Unfortunately the acrostic and the poem fade away in the middle of the alphabet due to the poorly preserved text.  And of course the acrostic doesn’t translate into English.

Habakkuk dates to around the time of Chaldean (better known as “Babylonian”) ascendency in the ancient Middle East.  They conquered Assyria in 625 BCE, Babylon (which became their capital) in 614, Nineveh in 612, and Jerusalem in 597.  Parts of Habakkuk seem to be after the destruction of Jerusalem; in others it is still in the future.  

More than the other prophets Habakkuk is concerned with theodicy, the problem of an all-powerful deity who seems to allow evil.  The prophet dares to confront Yahve, accusing him of being “silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he” (1:13).  The answer is that the Chaldeans who have seemingly destroyed Yahve’s people and their homeland are “an instrument of justice . . . a means of chastisement” (1:12).  In time all will be made right.  In the meanwhile the righteous person must continue in faith.  As Rabbi Sandmel puts it, Habakkuk’s message is one of faith: “With faith, there is a prospect that events and experiences will become meaningful; without some faith all experience and life are meaningless.”  This reminds me a lot of the similar viewpoint expressed by Dostoevsky, one of my favorite authors, in his novels.

In Habakkuk 2:20 are words that I often heard in my childhood religious experience:  “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”  For Habakkuk it serves as a contrast to the clamorous worship of idols in the nations that oppress Israel and must date from before the destruction of the temple, the dwelling place of Yahve.  Or perhaps it was added by a later editor during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the return of the captive Judeans from exile.

Habakkuk concludes with a prayer/psalm.  As in some of the Psalms, there are parenthetical instructions for its ritual performance.  The glory and righteous anger of Yahve is praised.  Despite terrible things happening, one should continue with faith in Yahve and the promise of eventual redemption.  “Though the fig trees do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, and produce of the olive fail and the field yield no food . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18).  

I’ve been thinking back to what I was taught about OT prophecy so many years in my Seventh-day Adventist education.  While it was acknowledged that the prophets were of course originally writing about the ancient Holy Land, “rightly understood” their prophecies were supposedly even more applicable to events in the modern world.  Adventists were in fact the contemporary “remnant of Israel.”  We alone understood and followed God’s will.  There would come a time when we, like ancient Israel, would be severely tested.  Some SDA’s would, like God’s first chosen people who strayed from “the path of righteousness,” give into temptation and worship the modern equivalent of Baal.  But a “faithful remnant” would be saved; everyone else was going to end up like the the enemies of ancient Israel.

© 2021 James Moyers


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