Friday, October 3, 2008

Homotextuality v. Intertextuality, part 5 and LONG!!!!

To repeat the definition I offered yesterday from Paul Ricoeur, intertextuality is “the work of meaning through which one text in referring to another text both displaces this other text and receives from it an extension of meaning.” Today, I want to look at one significant change that occurred in Jewish theology around the time that the second half of Daniel was being written in the 2nd century B.C.E. In short, it was the establishment of what scholars call "eschatology," which is a Greek word meaning the study/word (logo) about final things (eschata). While there has always been a wide variety of theologies within Judaism (Jacob Neusner suggests that we use the word "Judaisms"), the eschatology reflected in Daniel 7-12 was a fairly new way of using older language, which was very strongly entrenched by the time the gospels were written in the 1st century of the common era (about 200 years later). I want to describe this change with regard to the dilemma that it addressed.

The Dilemma:
For many years, the idea of the covenant was central to Israel's theology and it influenced the way they organized themselves as a community as well as how many people conducted themselves personally. The covenant was initiated by God in Genesis 12:1-3, when God called Abraham and made a series of promises to him. ("Initiated by God" means that a doctrine of grace has been part of covenantal thinking all along. Don't let anyone ever get away with saying that the Old Testament is all about works while the New Testament is all about grace.) Relying on the covenant, then, means primarily trusting in God to be faithful to it- hence the crucial importance of saying "God's steadfast love endures forever." Secondarily- but still quite important- is a faithful response of living before God through, for example, keeping the law. (The covenant preceded the law by over 400 years; it is always covenant first, law second.)

Part of God's covenantal promise is that Israel would become a great nation, whose people will be established in their own land and receive God's blessings. Of course, the people were to hold up their part of the covenant and be faithful, but God was repeatedly better at keeping the covenant than people were (see Hosea's dramatic marriage to the unfaithful and badly named Gomer as an example of God's steadfast love vis-a-vis our wavering love.)

So, God is faithful and part of the proof is that God makes Abraham's people a great nation. Then, along comes slavery in Egypt. The people cry out, God remembers the covenant, the great liberator Moses brings the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Then, along comes Nebuchadnezzar. The prophets tell the people that God is not being unfaithful, it is they who have been unfaithful and God is punishing/correcting them; but God will preserve a remnant and be faithful to the covenant. And, in time, the exiles return- they've been 'redeemed' and come home rejoicing, as Isaiah puts it). Then, along comes Antiochus Epiphanes. And Israel is crushed again, as evidenced by the destruction of the second temple.

Dang! It's getting harder and harder to rely on the covenant if Israel keeps losing to every rising empire in the Mediterranean region! The dilemma is: How can we believe that God will keep the covenant when the evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise? Or, to put it another way: What we believe is running contrary to what we are experiencing. How do we name God's faithfulness when our world has just been turned upside-down?

Please understand, this is not a theoretical discussion of intellectual precision. It is a life-and-death struggle to have faith when the world is turned chaotic.

The Resolution:
One expression of faithfulness that took root during the 2nd century B.C.E. was the development of a belief in the afterlife. That's putting it very simplistically, because eschatology is always a complex set of beliefs, never just one thing. But, the driving force is that, if God is faithful, and if present circumstances look like anything but God's blessings, then God will be faithful, just not during time as we customarily think of it. (Incidentally, this is the same form of argument that Immanuel Kant would use 2,000 years later in postulating the "immortality of the soul" on the basis that a virtuous life must be rewarded, but obviously people are not often rewarded for their virtue during life as we know it.) So, if God's faithfulness is 'forever,' then God can be faithful beyond the finite term of life and history as we know it.

This is a pretty radical change in the way that the Hebrew Bible typically speaks of all kinds of issues.

The Consequences:
The rise of “eschatology” settled the problem of how God was faithful even though Israel was besieged. But, as you might imagine, changing something as significant as “how God will be faithful to the covenant” has radical implications throughout one’s whole belief system. To name a few: Before, life ended with death or 'Sheol' (the grave). Now, Sheol becomes Hades and the 'afterlife' begins to take priority over present sufferings. Before, God's blessings were expressed as owning vineyards and enjoying their fruits. Now, those who suffer will one day laugh. Before, God's faithfulness was experienced by being able to conquer one's enemies. Now, the present crisis is part of the passing order of things and we await a new heaven and new earth as the place where final justice takes place. In addition, titles like ‘the Son of Man,’ changed from being about kings, leaders, and other human beings to being about divine or divine-human saviors. And ‘the Day of the Lord’ was not a significant day on the calendar where reckoning would happen, say, on the battlefield. It became the end of the calendar, a day of eternity when heaven and earth would be changed.

That’s the kind of burgeoning theology that is taking place when the second half of Daniel is being written. Next week, we’ll make the connection to the New Testament.

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