At the church that Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba attends (“But, but …” Shhh! Another time, yeah?), the theme for the Sunday service (8 April 2018) is conveyed by a single verse out of the Christian Bible.
In which “the priest/prophet Ezekiel” delivers the promise (or threat) by the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Yahweh, Lord of “All” (namely, the miserable remnant of the nation of Judah in Babylonian captivity) that this Lord will chisel out the heart of stone that his [sic] adherents possess, and replace it with a heart of flesh.
To YFNA, this is a troubling image. A heart of stone is not beating, yes? And that makes the matter not one of heavy theological discourse but emergency surgery, lest this Yahweh be deprived of the few people remaining to him, yes?? Besides, most of what’s being heavily theologically discoursed resides in the brain, does it not, and there’s no discussion of chiseling that out …
Wait. Where was …? Oh. Yeah. Heart replacement, Judeo-Christian style. A common enough call to, and promise of, membership in some community or other. In Christian terms, “accept Jesus, and your heart, your soul, all (except maybe your savings account if you have one) will be made new!” Simple. Easy.
Now, in case you, dear reader, haven’t heard, YFNA has long argued that easy is a mocker. Things are seldom, if ever, as easy as they look, and YFNA is no longer particularly interested in hiding the elephant that lurks under every seemingly-simple, seemingly-detached, thread. That elephant is there, whether We the People wish to see it (never mind deal with it) or not. Come to think of it, the prophets of Judah and Israel weren’t much interested in hiding the elephant, and they weren’t particularly successful in getting prehumous recognition for their efforts either. And posthumous recognition is cold comfort, especially when the bulk of that recognition consists of solemn parroting of their words, followed by honoring them in the breach …
Sorry. Again, where was … Oh. Yeah. Easy. Like, as anyone of you know, dear readers who have been subjected to as many as three internet memes, how easy it is for 140 characters or less to be interpreted any way a person wishes, and be attributed to anyone a person wishes, however implausible. (Ezekiel 36:26 [NIV] is 101 characters, 130 with spaces, thus it is, and has always been, tweetable.)
So let’s do a deeper dive into this Ezekiel thingy, shall we? Got your gear all checked out? Dry suit (it’s going to be cold down there)? Mask? Regulator, properly adjusted? Extra tanks? Weight belt? All good? OK, let’s go.
First. Did these words actually come from the prophet Ezekiel?
“Ah, get off it, Amoeba! They’re in the Book of Ezekiel! What more do you want?!?”
Yeah. Which Book of Ezekiel?
” […] whut?”
Gotcha. Y’see, the text of what Christians call the “Old Testament”, in any Bible you’re likely to get ahold of, is based on something called the Masoretic Text, compiled mostly during the first millennium of the Common Era by Jewish scholars. These scholars mostly worked from scraps of the Holy Books in Hebrew and Aramaic that had survived the Roman sack of Jerusalem, and in the process, they edited out any of the variations among versions that they found. By a similar process, uniform texts of the New Testament books were established by the 5th century CE.
But, beginning in the 3rd century before the Common Era, a group of scholars got together (or were gotten together by a Greek-speaking Pharaoh of Egypt) and translated the Hebrew and Aramaic Holy Books into Greek, resulting in a translation called the Septuagint, after the number of scholars involved in the translation. “Septuagint” is the Koine Greek word for “seventy”; tradition holds that there were 72 scholars. Ever look up a quotation of the Old Testament that you find in the New Testament and wonder what the hell happened? Most of these quotations are of the Septuagint, not the Masoretic Text (which did not exist yet). And they are not necessarily the same! Therefore, behold, there are at least two ancient, more or less authoritative, versions of most of the “Old Testament” Biblical books: the Masoretic Text in Hebrew/Aramaic, and the Septuagint, in Greek.
Now, let us look for Ezekiel 36:26 in the older of the two texts, the Septuagint. YFNA reads that you will look for the passage there in vain. Neither that verse nor most of the surrounding oracle is present. Indeed, the book of Ezekiel is 5% shorter in the Septuagint than in the Masoretic Text from which most English translations of Ezekiel derive. It’s concluded that Ezekiel 36:26 was not composed by Ezekiel, but by some later wannabe who interpolated into the text of the book what he [almost certainly sic] thought Ezekiel should have said/written. Hence the quotation marks around “the priest/prophet Ezekiel” way up at the top of the page there. And, a demonstration that misattribution of quotations is not an invention of the Internet Age. Alas.
Hokay, next. What did this wannabeEzekiel actually say about this new heart business, and how well does that message coincide with the come-on that it’s used for in many Christian churches today?
Here’s the passage. Text in roman is, near as YFNA can make out (he does not read Greek), present in the Septuagint, whereas text in italics represents the later interpolation, present in the Masoretic Text but not the Septuagint. The reasons for the bold text will be given anon.
22 “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.
23 “‘I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.
25 “‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
26 “‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
27 “‘And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
28 “‘Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
29 “‘I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you.
30 “‘I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.
31 “‘Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices.
32 “‘I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!‘
33 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt.
34 “‘The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it.’
35 “They will say, ‘This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.’
36 “Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.
37 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Once again I will yield to Israel’s plea and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep,
38 “‘as numerous as the flocks for offerings at Jerusalem during her appointed festivals. So will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.'”
YFNA ventures to suggest that this wannabeEzekiel would not be welcome among those who promote self-esteem, self-care, self-regard as a precursor to spiritual health.
He ventures to suggest that the “heart of flesh” in the oracle is more accurately represented as a heart of iron. The iron of the chains that a slave bears, that bind the slave to the cage. The cage may be gilded and well-stocked, and the alternatives may be far worse, but a cage it still is. One in which the obligations to the cage-keeper are absolute, onerous (follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws), and depressing (be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct).
Lest the reader think that wannabeEzekiel is unique in this view, YFNA offers the parallel passage, Isaiah 43:25, suggested in his reading, from Second (Deutero-)Isaiah, a fellow prophet of the Babylonian Exile, and a further example of Biblical misappropriation:
“I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions, for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.”
“Right, Amoeba. So this Yahweh god of yours is a hot-headed, thin-skinned, possessive, manipulative, megalomaniacal superprick who’s addicted to Civilization VI and doesn’t care who he burns while he’s playing. One which the whole world is better off without. Him and all of his bogus kind. Thank you for your unqualified support of atheism.”
Yeah? So how come we aren’t all atheists already, if the truth of atheism is so self-evident? Have you forgotten who’s the President of the United States, forgotten which is the leading party of both Houses of the U.S. Congress, and how they all got there? Have you bothered to pay attention to the fact that religious systems are on the rise, not the decline, all around the world, and that it ain’t the so-called “liberal” versions leading the charge? In Pakistan, you now have to declare your religion in order to get identity papers, a government job, yada. And if you’re not Muslim in a Muslim country, you may as well leave. Or immolate yourself. Why hasn’t Pakistan reared up against this en masse? For that matter, why hasn’t the USA reared up against its apparent surrender to religious fundamentalism?
Let’s, just for jollies, take god – any god – out of wannabeEzekiel, out of Second Isaiah. What’s left? Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba argues that it’s this:
You have forsaken your community and the rules that bind it together. You have put your pursuit of self, and self-gratification, against the needs of your fellow humans, and in so doing have set their teeth on edge against you, and ultimately set the teeth of each on edge against all. When you were rich, you could get away with this, as you did not need the sacrificial assistance of your fellow humans to prosper. But you exposed yourself to chaos, you and your fellows in your community, and when chaos came with strength to overcome your wealth, you were not prepared, could not repair your damaged relationships in time to meet the chaos. You clung to your life, to the things with which you surrounded, with which you defined that life, while others were prepared to die to overwhelm you, to claim what you so uselessly tried to defend. And you were overwhelmed. Learn to yield your self to support the community on which you depend, for the sake of which you act, and prosper. Forget the learning, and die in futility.
There is nothing in this scenario that requires a deity to observe, or to enact. It is played out constantly among the animal species, especially the social animals, with which we humans share this planet (no thanks to us). But, YFNA argues, the uniform lesson of history is that human societies arranged around a god, or a godhead, Adolph, routinely conquer those that are not. Herding cats, Professor Dawkins, might be good enough for an atheist “community” whose members are smug in each one’s affluent self-sufficiency. Against a banzai charge? The cats will be scattered to the hills, and be grateful for that much. And the field will be left to the community of those who were willing to sacrifice their comfort, not to mention their lives, to win it.
“But, the self-loathing?”
Yes, dammit! Because YFNA accepts the precept to which Jordan Peterson has recently given voice.
That he is a monster. Not because he is evil – a term which has no absolute meaning – but because he is selfish, by birth and base tendency alike.
That he is capable, in the constant, inescapable quest to gratify that self, of unleashing the monster, at any time, wittingly or unwittingly, under any provocation or none whatsoever.
That it is only his constant [sic] vigilance, guided by the rules of his local community, his local culture, that partially prevents the monster from breaking out against the members of his community – and that grants him the privilege of begging grace for, and offering grace to, those breakouts that do occur.
That it is only his constant [sic] vigilance, guided by his knowledge of, and compassion towards, other cultures, that prevents the monster that is his own culture from breaking out against others – and grants to his culture the privilege of grace.
In this vigilance, there is no space for self-esteem, for feeling oneself to be “good”. For “good” has no more absolute meaning than does “evil”. There is only self, and the community to be served by the self, to be protected against the excesses of the self. Lest the community perish, and the self along with it.
Hard words? Perhaps. But the spirit that does not hear them, YFNA argues, has put a dollar in the confession box and walked away, thinking it has bought grace when in fact it has bought nothing. It is a spirit that has shied away from the emergency surgery its heart needs, and hopes that a prescription for Lipitor will address its ills.
Meet the new heart. Same as the old heart.
And chaos and catastrophe await it.