By The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan
May 21st, 2023
Lectio Divina – Divine or Sacred Reading-(Download)
O God of new beginnings, who brings light out of night’s darkness and fresh green out of the hard winter earth, there is barren land between us as people and as nations this day, there are empty stretches of soul within us. Give us eyes to see new dawnings of promise. Give us ears to hear fresh soundings of birth.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 100.
Part V - “Resistance Stories”
[“Inspired – Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans.]
The Bible teems with monsters. From the sea dragon Leviathan, with its fearful scales and claws, to the rumbling Behemoth with brasslike bones and cedar-strong tail, to the mysterious giant fish of the Mediterranean Sea that swallowed Jonah whole, the creatures of our holy text practically roar and fulminate from the page. In a vision, Daniel encountered four great beasts – one like a lion with eagle’s wings, one like a bear with three ribs in its mouth, another like a leopard with four wings and four heads, and a fourth with iron teeth, bronze claws, and ten horns (Daniel 7). The book of Revelation combines these images into a description of a single monster rising from the sea, resembling a leopard, lion, and bear, with “seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns” (Revelation 13:1 KJV). The beast is joined by a fearsome consort, a fiery-red dragon, whose tail thrashes so widely it sweeps a third of the stars from the sky.
Biblical beasts can represent several things – the awe-inspiring mystery of the natural world, the fearful chaos of the unknown, the sovereignty of God over even the most powerful forces in the universe – but in the case of the mutant creatures of Daniel and Revelation, they represent the evils of oppressive empires.
It’s easy for modern-day readers to forget that the Bible was written by oppressed religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states known for their extravagant wealth and violence. For the authors of the Old Testament, it was the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Persian Empires. For the authors of the New Testament, it was, of course, the massive Roman Empire. These various superpowers, which inflicted centuries of suffering upon the Jews and other conquered populations, became collectively known among the people of God as “Babylon.”
One of the most important questions facing the people who gave us the Bible was: How do we resist Babylon, both as an exterior force that opposes the ways of God and an interior pull that tempts us with imitation and assimilation? They answered with volumes of stories, poems, prophecies, and admonitions grappling with their identity as an exiled people, their anger at the forces that scattered and oppressed them, God’s role in their exile and deliverance, and the ultimate hope that one day “Babylon, the jewel of the kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God” (Isaiah 13:19).
It is in this sense that much of Scripture qualifies as resistance literature. It defies the empire by subverting the notion that history will be written by the wealthy, powerful, and cruel, insisting instead that the God of the oppressed will have the last word. The Bible’s resistance stories include heartbreaking poems of lamentation and defiant songs of hope. They give us moments of stinging satire and moments of devastating self-criticism. There are tales of resilience and cleverness in which our heroes navigate everything from a lion’s den to a beauty contest to a hostile Assyrian city, and there are highly symbolic visions of a future in which a valley of bones reanimates into an army and a seven-headed beast gets cast into a lake of fire. Resistance stories appear in various forms throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, sometimes overtly and sometimes with a subtlety that might be missed by the untrained eye. (Remember how the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is meant to stand in contrast to those Babylonian tales of warring gods and goddesses?) While themes of resistance are perhaps most concentrated in the lives and writings of the prophets, they appear anywhere in Scripture that, as Walter Brueggemann put it, “the mythic claims of the empire are ended by the disclosure of the alternate religion of the freedom of God” – which is to say, everywhere.
Perhaps the most significant character in any story of resistance is the prophet. Biblically speaking, a prophet isn’t a fortune-teller or soothsayer who predicts the future, but rather a truth-teller who sees things as they really are – past, present, and future – and who challenges their community to both accept that reality and imagine a better one.
“It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination,” wrote Brueggemann in his landmark book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” “to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
This calling gives us some of Scripture’s most memorable characters. [A reading from “Inspired,” pp. 119 -120.]
In other words, the prophets are weirdos. More than anyone else in Scripture, they remind us that those odd ducks shouting from the margins of society may see things more clearly than the political and religious leaders with the inside track. We ignore them at our own peril.
The prophets, explained Brueggemann, “are moved the way every good poet is moved to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. And, of course, in their own time and every time since, the people that control the power structures do not know what to make of them, so they characteristically try to silence them. What power people always discover is that you cannot finally silence poets.”
In addition to the prophets, resistance literature recounts the stories of unlikely political dissidents, like Daniel, a noble Jew who masterfully negotiates life in the courts of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, keeping God’s law amid temptation, calling pagan rulers to account, and surviving a night in a lions’ den after his political rivals grow jealous. When Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refuse to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue during a state parade, they are thrown into a fiery furnace, where all three survive without a single singe. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther recount the tenuous relationship between the Jews and the Persian Empire, which ranges from the empire’s support for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls to a storied attempt at genocide.
Jesus takes the Resistance beyond prophecy, beyond songs of hope and lamentation, beyond satire and mockery, and beyond apocalyptic visions to declare the inauguration of a new kingdom. With his birth, teachings, death, and resurrection, Jesus has started a revolution.
It just doesn’t look the way anyone expects.
For this week with the “ear of your heart”: Read Daniel 1 and practice Lectio Divina.
“Thought for Extending the Practice”: The book of Daniel, addressed to Jews suffering persecution, begins with six stories about Daniel, showcasing his wisdom. Though Daniel and his three companions are instructed in Babylonian language and culture, they remain faithful to their religious practices. Even when pressured to eat the king’s food, they strictly observe Jewish dietary laws. By placing fidelity to God’s law ahead of personal advancement and success, Daniel reveals how truly wise he is. When do social pressures or the desire to succeed tempt me to compromise my beliefs and values?
Source for “Thought for Extending the Practice”: “The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible”
An invitation to our virtual participants: Discussion and comments are very much encouraged and welcomed. Online discussions can be held in the comments section in the upcoming post on Facebook for this week’s Deacon’s Reflection which is part of adult formation at St. Francis Episcopal Church.
The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and of sky.
On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth,
the gifts of sea and of sky.
May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul. May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.
May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight, and forever. Amen.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 101.
“Inspired”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2023.