What is God?
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The Writings comprise the third section of the Tanakh. Like the Prophets there is more than one category in the section. The Prophets contained the Early Prophets and the Later Prophets - distinctly different texts, the first being historical narrative, the second prophetic messages. The Writings consist not of two subsections, but three. First there are the inspirational or emotional works. These include the book of Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations. Next are the historical works including Ruth, Chronicles I and II, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel. Third is the Wisdom Literature – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. The three categories really don’t fit together at all. Even fitting the subsections together into a cohesive group isn’t easy. In all likelihood, these were the remaining writings that were deemed holy at one time or another and they were included in the canon. They had to be grouped together somehow, so they became the Writings.
Going through the three categories, we will start with the inspirational or emotional works. The Psalms have a legitimate claim to be the best known book of the Tanakh other than the Chumash books. They are quoted widely in both Jewish and Christian circles. Rabbinic literature makes use of Psalms verses everywhere. For whatever the concept, there is always a verse in the Psalms to back it up. In terms of number of chapters and it is by far the longest book in the Tanakh (it has 150 chapters – the runner-up, Isaiah, has 66). It is also the longest book in terms of word count.
The Psalms are the common person’s Bible. While they are deep, they are also extremely accessible. They touch on the emotions that everyone feels – anger, hurt, joy, fulfillment, awe, love. They express the very real elements of the human relationship with God. ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’ Which person has not felt this at some point in life? Jesus made some of these words famous around the world, but David, the traditional author of most of the Psalms first uttered them in his own moments of despair. The emotional roller coaster that is life, rushing from inspiring highs to overwhelming lows makes up the theme of the Psalms. Their significance to human feelings has hardly been matched in literature and possibly never will. Their authorship is usually attributed to David, but the Psalms themselves state that there were several other authors. Academics are divided over the date of their authorship with some favoring a second temple origin.
We will draw two images from the Psalms. The first will be from the famous Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd…’ The second will come from two equally well-known Psalms, at least in Jewish circles, Psalms 121 and 130. These three Psalms portray classic divine images, the first of God as a Mentor, the second as a Protector. They are among the most personal images that we will examine - an appropriate niche for the intensely personal Psalms.
Song of Songs has long puzzled both scholars and rabbis as to what it really means and what it is doing in the Tanakh. Ostensibly it is a rather long love poem, complete with surprisingly graphic (at least by Biblical standards) descriptions of sexual attraction. Needless to say, this does not fit in with the rest of the Tanakh. Rabbinic explanation of this strange selection usually leans towards the metaphorical – that the entire poem represents not the love between a man and a woman but between God and Israel. Not all rabbinic authorities have gone for this approach, but enough have bought in to make it part of the Holy Writings. Nobody knows when it was written, but tradition assigns it to King Solomon.
Lamentations was written following the destruction of the first temple in the 6th century BCE. Tradition has it written by the Prophet Jeremiah. There is no strong reason to doubt this but no reason to accept it either, other than tradition. It is simply a series of lamentations over the destruction, expressing anguish over what happened and a combination of hope and hopelessness over the future.
The historical section is a mixed bag. Chronicles is simply a retelling of the entire history of mankind from Adam to the destruction of the first temple. It starts off as just a series of names listed one after the other. It only begins as a historical record with the stories associated with David. It winds on and on, much of it paralleling the books of Kings. It ends with the destruction of the temple and the first stirrings of rebuilding 70 years later through the words of Koresh, king of Persia.
Ezra and Nehemiah usually come as a pair. In the traditional Jewish count of the books of Tanakh (24 books) they are counted as one. They are the story of the return of the Jews from Bavel to resettle the ancient homeland and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. They describe the difficulties these two leaders had in getting their fellow exiles to join in this ambitious project and in organizing the rebuilding once they arrived. Ezra was a scribe, one of the scholarly classes who were the progenitors of the rabbis. Nehemiah was a servant of the Persian king who managed to convince his ruler of the importance of the rebuilding project of the Jews in Israel. He became the administrative leader while Ezra was the religious leader. The religious reaction to the initial rebuilding of the temple found in Nehemiah will provide one of our images from this section.
Ruth is a simple story of a Moabite woman who converts to the Israelite religion. It is difficult to know how common this was in Biblical times but from the fact that a short book was written about it might indicate that it was on the rare side. The book tells of the interaction between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, as they make their way back to Israel from Moab and struggle to join the existing community around Bethlehem. Ruth eventually marries the leader of the community and bears a son who, the book concludes, will be the ancestor of David.
Esther chronicles events that took place in Persia at some point in the second temple era. In all likelihood it took place during the 5th century, though it is impossible to know for sure due to the ambiguity of the identity of the Persian king. Achashverosh was his name, and after deposing of his queen, chooses Esther, a Jewish girl, as the next queen. Esther’s uncle Mordechai learns of a plot by the king’s evil adviser, Haman, to destroy the Jews all over the kingdom. In a series of court intrigues, Mordechai and Esther manage to foil Haman’s plans and bring about his downfall. This book is read every year to celebrate the holiday of Purim, around the end of the winter. Purim means lots, as in a lottery, which was the system Haman tried to use to determine which day to carry out the destruction. Esther is unusual in that it never mentions God in the entire book. It focuses on the ingenuity and determination of individuals in overcoming powerful political forces.
Daniel is the story of a Jewish advisor to the king of Bavel shortly after the destruction of the first temple. There is no consensus on when it was actually written, but the events take place in the middle of the 70 year period of exile. It is loaded with messianic predictions that Daniel envisions. Despite its lack of a really cohesive theme, its prophetic declarations of what would be the fate of the Jews and the nations that would control them had great influence over the Jewish view of world events.
The third section, the Wisdom Literature, fits in nowhere with the rest of the Tanakh or the rest of the Writings. These three books are stand-alone works. The book of Job is about as mysterious as it is long. It begins with a very short dialogue between God and the spiritual adversary, known as the Satan. Satan wants to goad a righteous man named Job, to test him as to how far his righteousness goes. God agrees to this challenge with certain restrictions. After a few rounds of this testing, Job has suffered enough and curses his life. The next 30-odd chapters go through a winding series of dialogues between Job and three friends who attempt to dissuade him from blaming his misfortune on God or on fate. Job takes the argument that he has done nothing deserving of his fate so something must be amiss in the way God runs the world. In the end, a fourth friend arrives and sets the record straight, bringing God’s system of divine justice back into a good light. God Himself seems to confirm what this fourth friend advocates. The exact message of Job has been debated endlessly by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars for almost 2,000 years. Nobody knows when this book was written or who authored it. Its origins are every bit as mysterious as its message. But it will give us one of the more mysterious images of the divine.
The book of Proverbs is a long series of statements expressing the greatness of wisdom as a guide for life. Wisdom is praised endlessly from every imaginable angle. It is almost worshiped as a divine agency. Interspersed with all this praise for wisdom are countless little pieces of wisdom. These are tidbits of advice similar to what might be written on the side of a box of herbal tea. They go on and on in what seem to be a random sequence. These proverbs are described at the beginning of the book as the creations of Solomon, thus cementing his reputation as the wisest of all men. Academics consider this book to be of much later vintage, perhaps during the period when the Hellenist Greeks ruled the Middle East and Israel. This book will provide us with our final image.
Ecclesiastes is another wisdom-oriented book attributed by tradition and by indications in the text to Solomon. Academics place it also during the Greek period. It deals with observations about the futility of life, how every one of life’s pursuits is vain and empty. By around the third chapter, the author starts peppering the statements of futility with more positive observations about life and bits of practical advice that may help get through some of the pitfalls. The book ends with the famous conclusion that when all is said and done the only thing to do is to fear God and keep the commandments, for that is all of life. To some degree, this is a fitting conclusion to the Biblical outlook on life.
The Writings are no longer looked at as mere literature, whatever their origins. They have attained the image of holiness, somehow expressing the deepest human longings for understanding the essentials of what life is all about and how we should view God. There is no uniform religious message that comes from the Writings. Even within one book it is difficult to draw definite conclusions. But from the complete set a picture emerges from the fog, of man groping to find God and God responding by reaching out to man. There is a good deal of frustration along the way, and many obstacles, of both human and divine origin. In the end, as Ecclesiastes states, the bottom line is to fear God. If there is any cohesive theme in the multi-faceted Writings it is this: we are here on this earth to serve some purpose; we may not know exactly what it is, but we know that it has something to do with God. The rest is the task of religion and individual seekers.
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