Leviathan and Wisdom

Leviathan appears most famously in the Book of Job. As we shall see this sea monster also features in two psalms and the Book of Isaiah. In the Hebrew Bible Leviathan is a sea monster and is of such size that it stretches the word monster to its most monstrous scale. As well as its cataclysmic size and power this monster also carries mythic overtones too. In the Ancient Near-East there are various creation myths in which a god battles with a primordial sea monster to bring an ordered creation out of chaos.  So, in this way mention of Leviathan conjures up the terror and horror afforded by the biggest of sea creatures but further there is an allusion to a level of power than only an awesome warrior god could hope to survive an encounter with.

The sense of being overwhelmed by Leviathan is to the fore in Job chapter 3 where Job curses the day of his birth:

May those who curse days curse that day,

    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Job 3:8 (NIV)

The detailed meaning of this verse is disputed, but that need not delay us on this occasion. This passing reference to Leviathan does not prepare the reader of Job for the massive role that the huge monster plays towards the end of the book. Chapter 41 is wholly devoted to Leviathan. For those familiar with The Gruffalo a similarity of style is seen in verse fifteen onwards, as feature after remarkable feature is portrayed, enabling the fearsome horror that is this creature to be taken in. In just a few verses, however, it is clear that the Gruffalo is nothing compared to the might that is Leviathan. The point for Job who hears this description of Leviathan is that mighty though Leviathan is, God is a whole new level of power and majesty over and above this monster:

‘Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook

    or tie down its tongue with a rope?

Can you put a cord through its nose

    or pierce its jaw with a hook?

Will it keep begging you for mercy?

    Will it speak to you with gentle words?

Will it make an agreement with you

    for you to take it as your slave for life?

Can you make a pet of it like a bird

    or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?

Job 41:1–5 (NIV)

 Psalm 74 tells everyone what Job is told; that Yahweh is so mighty that he can turn Leviathan into fish food:

It was you who split open the sea by your power;

    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

It was you who opened up springs and streams;

    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.

Psalm 74:13–15 (NIV)

In this psalm we can see that not only God’s might but his role as Creator are celebrated. This centrality of creation is found in the Psalter’s second mention of Leviathan:

How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number –

    living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,

and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Psalm 104:24–26 (NIV)

In Scripture’s only other mention of Leviathan by name (Isaiah 27:1–3) the mighty creature is portrayed in eschatological tones—his demise at the hands of God will be a feature of the Day of the Lord. This defeat of mighty monsters at the second creation is picked-up and developed in the Book of Revelation. The wisdom material of the Old Testament very much centres on how to live wisely now, in a world created by God. But below this ordered surface lies mythopoetic imagery that the world as it currently is will one day change. This change for the better will be the defeat of anything that would harm us, whether in the deep dark wood or the depths of the sea.

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

Mountains Will Tremble Before Him: Isaiah 64:1-9

What does this mean? (vv.13)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Do you ever have moments when you just wish that God would intervene and make things right? I think we all do from time to time. It might be we just feel we need him and he feels distant—we feel alone, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. It might be that our life does not make sense—our finances are a mess, we are addicted to something unwholesome, our relationships seem broken or we are struggling with our family. It might be that we are horrified with the way things are. Why can’t God show up and deal with the warmongers, those that promote hatred, those that sow discord and those that use terror as a means to their own ends? Maybe, more positively, we have simply arrived at the elusive spiritual fulfilment of the Apostle Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]—a readiness for the Day of the Lord and the New Heaven and the New Earth.

There are all sorts of reasons to want God to show up, but the sort of arrival of God described here might not be what we always have in mind. The Advent of God described in Isaiah 64 certainly seems far away from a baby in a manager. This is the full-on might of God the Father, Yahweh God of Israel, showing up in all his power, glory and majesty. God appearing in creation as only the creator can.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Isaiah was writing to a people that knew this God of power, glory and majesty. For centuries they had known the reality of this God who made mountains tremble. Moses had made a covenant with him and experienced him in the burning bush. The nation had seen him settle in smoke and cloud on Sinai. They had followed him—a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He had dwelt with them in the holy of holies. And yet, more recently they knew his reality only by his absence. They knew what it was to be in exile, to be a pawn played by the big nations.

The experience of old, turned into a desire for salvation, for restoration, for vindication and for judgement of those brash big nations and their false gods. They wanted the nations to quake and squirm before their God, their Yahweh. Israel did not get the answer from Yahweh they hoped for. When the Father did rend the heavens it was indeed God who came down. But it was the Son who came down and became a man. A man who commanded the elements, but whose mission was not one of smoke, fire and trembling. No mountain trembled, at least not at his first Advent. Later, in his death and his resurrection, the cosmos would be set on a path to being remade but to the casual observer this was not Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. The first Advent happened 2,000 years ago—We still await the second.

 

Who is this God? (vv.45)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Israel did not invent their God. Israel experienced their God. Firstly through the patriarchs who he brought to the Promised Land working through day-to-day agriculture and farming, through world events and through asking remarkable things of unremarkable people. Later they experienced him through deliverance from slavery , through plagues upon their captors and through parted-water and desert wandering.

They were called to be a holy nation. God loved them so much that he gave them his precious law. Not a law just of legal statements but a law of life-giving instruction explaining who this God who acted on their behalf was. Instructing them to wait upon him in worship, sacrifice and praise—to centre a nation on doing right before him. But like us, when experience receded to memory they forgot, they turned away, they sinned by looking elsewhere for life and reward. Despite understanding that a God who can rend mountains is not one to be crossed, the people of Israel looked to Baal and other manufactured gods. They were led astray by other peoples they should have shared their faith with.

Idols of wealth, sex and power are not discoveries of our modern world—though we have developed, promoted and even marketed them. Humankind has struggled with such idols from the moment we looked from the true God to others with whom we hope to find satisfaction. That original choice, to question our relationship with God opens up the possibility of plugging that gap with alternatives that feel good in the short term, but fall to dust in the longer term, and in the age to come. We, like our ancient counterparts, struggle to remember the ways of God.

 

Why is this a problem? (vv.67)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

A God who makes mountains tremble is a problem for frail, sinful people. Such holiness and majesty that makes mountains quake is hostile to our lack of holiness. The language of the Bible on this matter, so we are told, is dated and outmoded. But we know our moral brokenness, our sin, is not removed by it being unpopular or inconvenient. The gospel of Good News only makes sense when we understand the bad news of our brokenness. Of course God did not make us broken—humanity chose that path.  Isaiah’s language of uncleanness picks up on a central theme of the law. He explains that despite our best efforts our attempts at doing right fall short of the perfection of God.

Theologians have tried to capture our difference from God in terms of righteousness in precise and sophisticated language, but the Prophet Isaiah’s language of filthy rags says it all. And as Isaiah nails our unrighteousness so well, he also captures the terrible consequences. This is poetic language, but no less sobering and disturbing for that. The fallen condition means that all will shrivel like a leaf and the wind of our sins blows us away as dust.

 

When will this happen? (vv.89)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

The God who shakes mountains is also a God of mercy and grace. As the potter he wants to remake us. The Two Advents are the means of this mercy and grace being worked out to refashion us. Advent is the coming of God who as potter can refashion us to cleanse us from sin, give us new life so that we will not shrivel, re-clothe us with royal garments and restore relationships.

That First Advent —the Incarnation of the Son as a baby—the story of the God-man Jesus is the story of the rending of the heavens firstly in Incarnation and secondly in Resurrection. Nothing less than a shockwave that makes space-time tremble as the New Creation is initiated. A new creation in which ultimately sin will not consume us as its power has been broken. A new creation in which resurrection eclipses the shrivelling finality of death. A new creation in which our filthy rags are replaced with spotless robes. A new creation in which relationships are made whole and wholesome.

The Second Advent, the so-called second coming, is Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. That day is when God completes both mercy and judgement and on that day:

[He] rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before [Him!] (64:1)

Right now of course we are caught between two Advents. It is here that we can encounter our Father as the potter. We can acknowledge him in his glory and majesty and know him in the mercy revealed at that first Advent. We will not know the completion of God’s work until the day when mountains tremble but we can continue the journey, to that day, by being re-moulded by him.

We can be clay in his hands; he gives us freedom to choose. One of the key ways to transformation, to be clay in his hands, is to learn what it means to wait. Waiting for God is central to the Christian faith. Why else would we find the psalmist crying time-and-again: ‘how long O Lord?’ Our Western societies have lost any sense of waiting. The patient waiting for the age to come stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age—the spirit of secular Christmas. The Bible promises more, but at a pace which is down to God. We don’t know when that day of second Advent will come. But we do know that patient waiting on him is the key. Waiting is not passive—as we wait we are moulded and refashioned.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Z is for Zion

Journey’s End

Zion is journey’s end. This is true for this A to Z project but also true for pilgrims of old who equated Zion with Jerusalem. It is also true today for pilgrims of a different sort who see life as ‘the life of faith’. For such modern day pilgrims, Zion is where God is and captures the hope and anticipation of resurrection and eternal life. As our journey’s end Zion is wholly positive. How could this be otherwise when Yahweh is there awaiting the pilgrim or disciple? The word Zion and especially the word Zionist, however, can have other more difficult connotations. The word Zionist and how one uses it can quickly be seen as taking sides in the complex issues of the Middle-East.

In this post Zion refers to (i) Jerusalem during the time of biblical events and the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and (ii) the eschatological destination mentioned above. Below we look at both of these in turn by considering the use of the word Zion in the fifteen psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents.

Psalms of Ascents and Zion

The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms, or Psalter, has 150 psalms arranged in five books. For many years scholarship on the psalms focused so hard on the genre of the psalms that this led to the conclusion that the psalms were an anthology. More than that, it was assumed that little, if any, care had been given to the arrangement of the psalms for the editor or editors of the Psalter. This conclusion was odd for a number of reasons. One of the more obvious contradictions was the apparent existence of prior collections of psalms now demarcated by headings or opening phrases. These include:

  • The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
  • The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88).
  • The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).
  • The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
  • The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

The Psalms of Ascents stand out in particular as they are all consecutive and have a remarkable number of features that draw them together as not only as a collection but as a highly structured whole. Mitchell [1] helpfully explores the interconnectedness of these fifteen psalms.

The fifteen Psalms of Ascents have a strong focus on Zion. The words Zion and Jerusalem occur twelve times. The connection with Zion is greater than this word count, as the collection can be seen to be consistent with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In this way even those Psalms of Ascents which do not mention Zion or Jerusalem have this connection—and of course the very name Ascents refers either to the fifteen temple steps or the ascent into Jerusalem on ‘its holy hill’ (Mitchell [1] argues persuasively that it is both of these).

Zion and the Life of Faith

The Christian tradition has seen pilgrimage as a point of continuity with its Jewish roots. Sometimes this is a very physical reality analogous to travelling by foot to Jerusalem. For many Christians however pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor of what it means to be sojourners on the earth and travelling to a life in the hereafter with Yahweh. The Psalms of Ascents take on a different dynamic when seen from this perspective. Of course it is not just the nature of this journey that differs to that made by pilgrims to the earthy Zion. For the Christian journeying to the heavenly Zion, the Hebrew Bible itself is changed because of the new post-Easter lens. The Hebrew Bible is still the Hebrew Bible and yet as precious Scripture which points to Easter it becomes part of the Christian Bible. This Old Testament is not old in terms of being outmoded or surpassed but is old only in terms of chronology. Unless this First Testament is recognised fully as the Hebrew Bible there is a danger we damage that which to the pilgrim is God-breathed.

 

Reference

  1. David C. Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples, Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015.

Further Reading on the Structure of the Psalms

 

 

 

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.