It’s too late at night to start on another big writing project for this diary, but if I stop writing I leave myself to the mercy of reading on the internet, and that will do me in.
So instead, I’m going to start a series I’ve thought about for a week in which I write about some books relevant to the situation. So let’s start with an obvious one. Eycha – The Book of Lamentations, which I’ve written a little about before. Even if there’s TMI about Jeremiah’s hemorrhoids, it is one of the great literary masterpieces of the Bible, and unlike many others, it takes about ten minutes to read.
But before that, let’s briefly go back eighteen years, because it was a few days before my 24th birthday when I realized the full power of the Bible. A friend committed suicide just an hour after saying a personal goodbye to me. I was living in Israel, dozens of us were in mourning, and all of us mourned in our own way. Even music gave me no comfort, so I did what I (somehow) promised myself I wouldn’t do in Israel and opened the Bible. As I quietly chanted along with the words of Ecclesiastes, I wept as I read.
I turn to the Bible in trouble, not for the word of God but for the spiritual comfort which only great art provides. if the Bible is not God’s word, then The Bible is a curation of the best stories and poetry written over a thousand years in one of the world’s first literary cultures. The Bible is, almost literally, an anthology put together (and edited) for public use. Whose use? Well, I can venture an extremely uneducated guess that it reached its final anthologized form at the court of the Hasmoneans (Maccabees), which is why the Books of Maccabees are not counted in the Jewish version of the Old Testament. I’m sure some biblical history professor has taught a class that reads the Bible in an historical context: starting with Miriam’s Song of the Sea and ending with Song of Songs.
The Bible, like all the great religious texts, tells us truths far deeper than the religions they inspire. They make us see the eons progress, and dispel us of the illusion that there is any such thing as progress. Whether any religion is at all true, the impulse that makes people turn to religion is true: that sinking feeling that when you expect fulfillment to be derived from social action, you will likely fail to find it. Whether it’s through religion, or art, or science, or learning itself, fulfillment is derived by contemplating mystery, not from solving it. What the history of politics teaches us is that for all the victories we fought so hard to deserve, every battle is eventually a losing one, and just like in the life cycle, every civilization is in a battle to maintain prosperity and health, but eventually, everything that lives must die.
And that’s why a sacred text like the Bible is deeper even than the greatest secular texts. For me, nothing in even Shakespeare compares. I’ve said it before in these spaces, but Shakespeare, so influenced by classical Greece and Rome, is about great men and nobles. He’s every bit as great as everyone says, but in Shakespeare, everyone is outsize, everyone is extravagant, everyone is too quick to fall in love and react with hatred. Shakespeare is a map of human personality because he can magnify our personal evolution to seconds which in real life takes years to unfold.
The Bible is not about great men. Sure, the Bible has plenty of Shakespearean kings with operatic recitations, but most of its great men are small men. The forefathers and prophets are all outsiders, weirdos, and not nearly so virtuous as their reputations. They’re rejected by their fellow men and isolated for what they foresee, viewed with contempt all the moreso for their eloquence. Shakespeare’s greatest characters feel lonely in the company of other people, but characters in the Bible are most ecstatic when lonely. Moses sees the burning bush while alone on the mountain, Joseph interprets dreams in prison and his father dreamed while exiled to a rock, Isaiah is alone when he sings to his vine and Jeremiah only curses God after he’s taken out of the stocks.
Eycha was composed by Jeremiah, the Bible’s resident depressive; the book is chanted on Tisha B’Av, a holiday so depressing that Jewish day schools tell kids it’s in the summer. Supposedly, he composed it in the midst of Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BC, though the destruction of King Solomon’s temple is just one among the dozens of times Jerusalem was destroyed.
Look at the structure of Eycha first: Five chapters, 22 verses in the outer four – representing the 22 letters of Hebrew’s alphabet, and 3×22 verses in chapter three, the central chapter. The whole thing is 7×22: a book of perfect form. Judaism is huge on numerology and ‘seven’ in Judaism doesn’t just represent the days of the week: in ancient Hebrew there are seven terms for Heaven and seven terms for the earth. There are seven laws in the Covenant with Noah, seven weeks for the Spring Harvest. seven days of Sukkot and Passover (in Israel). David was the seventh son of his family, and every sabbath, the Torah reading is divided into seven intervals. Not to mention, the Menorah in the Biblical Temple had seven lamps.
But the form would barely matter if it didn’t house content. What is revolutionary about Eycha is that it’s one of the few books in the Bible courageous enough to ask aloud if God stopped caring.
In the first chapter, the destroyed Jerusalem is compared to a violated woman. Jerusalem’s rape is clearly likened to a woman’s, and just in case it seems as though that has a patriarchal trivialization of women’s trauma, try to remember that every sacking of a city is generally compounded by the behavior of the conquering soldiers. Surely Jeremiah was composing from the scenes he witnessed. “All that honor her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness… Her filthiness is in her skirts, she had no comforter… Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?… The lord hath trodden the virgin… as in a winepress.” I will not press its contemporary relevance any further.
The second chapter is terrifying, it is about God’s anger, and literally declares: “The Lord was as an enemy.” The Bible, like the greatest literature, is visceral at the level of language. Whether in the compact Hebrew original or the florid English glories of King James Bible, the feel of the language is as tactile as anything in Shakespeare or Dante. Read some of the English in line 4: “He hath bent his bow like an enemy, he hath stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion, he poured out his fury like fire.” Read it again, look at that alliteration, feel how tactile it is in the mouth: “bent his bow” “as an adversary” then a phrase with no alliteration – as though he is bending back a bow again, and then releases a linguistic arrow “he poured out his fury like fire.”: an arrow of words flies through eternity, so memorable that even Donald Trump quoted it. In the Hebrew it’s no less visceral: Hebrew is a tactile language, full of consonants, but in Hebrew it’s the vowels that do the heavy lifting. The ornate: “He hath poured out his fury like fire” becomes the very compact “Shafakh ka’esh. Khamato.” Five ‘ah’ sounds in three words.
The form completely changes in chapter 3 to terser sentences for a much more direct tone. It’s entirely possible that chapter 3 was a separate poem fused into the middle, but whoever redacted it made it make great formal sense. The themes obviously go together. This is where the accusations against God go into high gear. There are fifteen separate accusations beginning with ‘He hath.’ Finally, in accusation 16 he directly accuses God with a ‘Thou hath.’ That basically is the first third, the middle third sounds like a man in captivity, trying to assure himself that his captor is merciful. Perhaps the captor is the divine voice in the head of a crazy man. Perhaps the captor is an army holding captives ransom. But the last third goes back into the accusations, and switch to ‘thou hast’: direct accusations against God in the Bible itself.
And now we get to the horrifying chapter 4, which describes famine: “They that are slain with the sword than they that are slain with hunger.” and documented in an incident which happened everywhere from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem to the Holomodor famine of 1930s Ukraine: a mother cannibalizing her own children. The English softens the phrase to “The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children,” but the ever more direct Hebrew makes it definite what’s happening: “Y’dei. Nashim rakhamaniyot–bishlu” Bishlu – boil.
Chapter 5 is in the laconic form of chapter 3. It’s a little underpowered next to the tactile horror of the previous chapters. It sums up the themes already addressed, like the final paragraph of a high school essay. And yet there’s a final peroration “Thou, o Lord, are enthroned forever, Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost Thou forget us ever, and forsake us so long time?” It sums up the whole thing: OK, God is wroth with us, but we have a right to be wroth at God too.
The Bible is greater than any religion. It’s the book Jews have to turn to when they inevitably realize that progress is a myth. Conservatives and progressives have different explanations for why civilizations collapse: progressives generally see history as a linear progression, progress built upon progress and the civilizations fall because of their failure to keep up with necessary progress when progress is demanded. Conservatives believe civilizations fall precisely because progress is demanded. To them, civilizations rise because of their values and fall because of failure to keep those values. Of course, the truth is neither, and both. Some progress delays civilizational collapse, some hastens it, and we have no idea which is which, because eventually, civilizations fall. Period. There is no wherefore or why except in the realm of hypothesis. What remains of civilizations is two things:
1. Their art: their books, their buildings and pictures, their history and philosophy, and eventually, their music and movies – all of which is a record of their entire times and worldview and disappears like the conservative circle of rise and decline. And thereafter, it’s a new society can write their particular cultural history with their particular worldview.
2. Their learning, their science, their math, their technology, all of which is a record of how those before us progressed, and evolved the species over time to make particularly us, and always there for civilizations thereafter to stand on the shoulders of their progress.
We too will disappear. We don’t know when, and it will be tragic for those remaining, but we are part of a continuum of being so much bigger than us, As we can’t pull a leviathan through a fishhook, we can’t see what the inner plan is of existence, but God or not, there is a cosmos that has a cause and a reason, and Someone out there knows what it is.