Notes on Micah

As announced at the outset of his book, Micah lived during the reign of Hezekiah, making him a contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. He was from a town in southwest Judah. He comes down to us as a rural prophet critiquing the immoral life of the city.

The text of Micah echoes the same themes of the other “minor prophets” – highlighting the iniquities and false prophets of the northern kingdom of Samaria, the idol worship, and prophesying the downfall of Israel. Notably, when the Assyrians went to war with Israel they utterly massacred the Judeans, impaling many of the men. The text concludes on a note of hope for mercy from God, following the pattern of the other Biblical prophets.

Perhaps the most important passage in Micah is as follows:

“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah,
though thou be little among the thousands of

Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth
unto me that is to be a ruler in Israel; whose
goings forth have been from old, from everlasting” (5:2)

Micah’s prophecy of a future ruler of Israel, a man who will ‘unite the brethren of Israel’ and who will be “the peace” against the Assyrians, will be claimed by later Christian theologians as a prophecy of the forthcoming of Jesus. Christians decipher this prophecy to mean the birthplace of a messiah for Israel. This leader will be a warrior, a destroyer of Assyria, and Nimrod, when the foreigners tread on Israeli borders.


For this reading I used the King James Version.

The Reckoning of Edom in Obadiah

The book of Obadiah is a text that claims to record a vision of Obadiah; a vision of the downfall of Edom (the kingdom that is descended from Esau), a mountainous kingdom located just south of Moab and Israel, or Judah. The book is a single chapter lasting twenty-one verses, and is sometimes written as “Abdias”. It is the shortest book in the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible. The name Obadiah means something like “servant of YHWH.”

Obadiah expresses anger at Edom, for its failing to support Israel and fight off enemies together. It is portrayed as a betrayal of Esau (Edom) for his brother Jacob (Israel). Obadiah foretells of a coming reckoning of Edom for its betrayal of Israel, as the northern kingdom of “Samaria” was conquered and enslaved by Assyria, the greatest empire of the ancient Mesopotamian world. The tone of the book is vengeful. We imagine a bitter Obadiah prophesying the downfall of Edom for not coming to Israel’s aid when the northern kingdom of Samaria is carted off and enslaved under the empire of the Assyrians. The only hopeful message of the text is the hope that God will one day bring His wrath upon Edom for its betrayal.


For this reading I used the King James Version.

Thoughts on His Family

Published in 1917, Ernest Poole’s His Family was the winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1918, and it is a surprisingly delightful read. The book has been largely out of print in recent years, much like other early winners of the Pulitzer Prize.

HisFamily

His Family tells the story of the relatable but sometimes-curmudgeon Roger Gale who runs a “media clipping” service in New York City (a media clipping service was a business that provided selections of particular headlines relevant to a client’s business needs. Today, this job has long since been eliminated, tossed by the wayside in the age of automation). Like the company he runs, our protagonist, Roger Gale, is something of a relic. He is a widowed, middle-aged father of three daughters. Years ago, it was his wife’s dying wish that Roger remain close with his daughters while the city around him is transformed. In a certain light, the novel can be read as one long reflection about the changes and growth of New York City, for better or worse, as experienced through the microcosm of Roger’s life.

Roger’s daughters are: Edith (the eldest who is married with four children), Deborah (a school principal for inner-city children, primarily immigrant children), and Laura, who suddenly announces a surprise engagement to an unknown man named Hal Sloane. Edith has a fifth baby around the same time that Laura gets married and embarks on her European honeymoon. Before leaving, Laura loudly proclaims she will never have children, which dismays Roger. Meanwhile Deborah has been working frantically for her school and she eventually contracts tuberculosis. To help her recuperate, the family relocates to rural New Hampshire on the family farm. Edith’s anxious husband, Bruce, spends his time racing around the farm’s acreage in his new “automobile.” Upon their return to New York, Roger orchestrates a marriage proposal for his daughter Deborah to a doctor named Allan Baird.

Before the wedding, Edith’s husband Bruce is struck by an oncoming car in New York and he tragically dies, leaving her a widow with 5 children (anxiety about the advent of the automobile is prevalent among the early 20th century winners of the Pulitzer Prize). The wedding of Deborah and Allan is then further delayed by the outbreak of World War I, which causes financial strain across the nation, including for Roger’s business. Many clients cancel their contracts. Instead of closing the business, Roger takes out a second mortgage on his home and he brings Edith’s children home to be tutored by Deborah. Suddenly, Laura returns home from Europe. She has fallen in love with another man, her husband’s business partner. She divorces her husband and then elopes with her new Italian lover, against Roger’s objections. Money troubles grow worse and Roger sells his antique collection of rings, meanwhile Deborah raises large sums of money for her school, over the objections of her sister, Edith, who questions Deborah’s priorities: why focus on other people’s children when her own family is struggling? A debate surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage emerges and it grows ever-present throughout the novel, along with other “new” ideas concerning socialism, progress, and technology.

In the end, an exhausted Roger retires to his farm in New Hampshire, while his young Irish-boy immigrant employee, John, miraculously saves the business in New York by finding a new source of clientele. Sadly, the boy dies shortly thereafter causing Roger great sorrow. The novel ends as Roger dies peacefully in New Hampshire on his farm, and his three daughters all make amends.

His Family is less of a dark tragedy like Shakespeare’s King Lear, and more of an exploration into the mind of a man whose three daughters grow and change with time, much like the rapidly industrializing city around them. Roger wonders if all these changes happen for better or worse. Like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, each of the three daughters represent a different type of character – a mother (Alyosha or Edith), an activist (Ivan or Deborah), and a free spirit (Dmitri or Laura). Additionally, each daughter opens up a new part of Roger’s character as we experience his greatest joys, and his deepest sorrows.

The 1918 Pulitzer Prize
Apparently the 1918 Novel Jury consisted of the same three people as in 1917 but I was unable to determine who they were. In 1918, the Novel Jury also considered Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown, the story of two rural families whose lives are transformed by World War I. However, the majority decision sided with His Family. Much speculation has been made about whether or not the award was actually intended to honor Ernest Poole’s earlier and more celebrated novel, The Harbor.


Ernest Poole.jpg

Who Is Ernest Poole?
Born in Chicago and educated in journalism, Ernest Poole took an early passion for the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. He lived in New York City for most of his life and he became a writer for local magazines. Eventually Poole pursued the life of an activist in the socialist movement. He was a sympathetic defender of the Russian Revolution, and he wrote about it rather extensively. He married and had three children. His first foray into fiction writing utterly exhausted him and he left the city to to visit his family’s farm in New Hampshire, much like the farm in His Family. At the same time, The Harbor was published in 1915. The Harbor, Poole’s most financially successful book, demonstrated his socialist leanings. It was a coming-of-age novel about a New Yorker who spends his life gazing out over the harbor and ultimately finds his inner advocacy of labor unions. Curiously, there is a sense in his second novel, His Family, that the growth of poverty and tenements in New York City is over-crowding people like Roger Gale, and the growth of labor is more of a concern than a mark of progress. His Family does not share the same apology for socialism that Poole presents in The Harbor. Some have suggested that Poole’s win in the first ever Pulitzer Prize award was as much for The Harbor as it was for His Family. Ernest Poole continued to write until he died of pneumonia in 1950 in New York City.


Poole, Ernest. His Family. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1926.

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Daniel: A Book of Dreams and Dark Prophecy

The Book of Daniel is an odd book in the Hebrew Bible – it is believed to have been the last or most recent book written before it was later included in the Biblical corpus, though its contents take place many hundreds of years earlier during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In the deutero-canon, which was removed from the Septuagint, three additional stories were included as part of Daniel, including Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon. There is an odd shift in the book from Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of the common people (part of Chapter 2 – Chapter 7)  – the attendant characters speak in Aramaic.

It tells the story of Daniel, or Belteshazzar as his Babylonian name is called, a noble prophet living under the rule of the mad king of Babylon. The king has a dream and rather than explain its contents, he demands that his prophets repeat to him his dream. When they cannot do it, he condemns them all to death, but Daniel receives a vision from God of the dream. However, Daniel’s compatriots: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are cast into a fiery furnace but a fourth man of God appears.

The king continues to elevate Daniel as he continues to prophecy and interpret his dreams. And Darius of the Medes (Persians) takes the kingdom and then continues to elevate Daniel. However, his officials become jealous and persuade the king to prohibit worship of the gods for 30 days, however Daniel continues to pray three times each day facing Jerusalem. Darius’s attendants throw Daniel into the lions den, but he is spared by God and Darius then casts his accusers and their whole families into the lions den to be instantly devoured.

The second part of the Book of Daniel (Chapters 7-12) concerns several apocalyptic dreams of Daniel – four great beasts coming out of the sea (based on a Canaanite myth of origins, the four represent Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece), river of fire, tongue of flame, the Ancient of Days taking a seat to judge history, an everlasting dominion, allusions to Antoichus the infamous persecutor of the Jewish cult, a future rise of Israel ruling all kingdoms. By Chapter 8, Aramaic switches back to Hebrew. Again Daniel describes a vision – a ram by a brook, horns, invasion of the Greeks as a “he-goat”, princes, evenings, desolation, the coming of a warrior-king (Alexander the Great), sleepers in the dust shall awake, and so on.

The Book of Daniel is odd for its darkly conspiracy-laden, “end of days”, eschatological language. It does not fit the mold for much of the rest of the Tanakh, however it does play well into the new existential form of Judaism as seen elsewhere in Isaiah and Jonah and foreshadows the new ‘judgment of history’ upon which the weight of the coming Christian religion will rely – hence why a link has often been cast between the cryptic prophecies of the so-called Old Testament, and the so-called New Testament, a testament of the ‘good news’ of the self-sacrifice of the son of God and the fulfillment, finally, of a celestial kingdom that cannot pass away.


For this reading I used the King James Version.

Further Consideration of Jonah

Though we know almost nothing about the author of the Book of Jonah, it has been suggested that the book emerged after the Babylonian exile due to its universalist monotheistic message which came about with Second Isaiah, the anonymous sixth-century prophet of Babylonian exile. This global conception of God is wholly different than the more localized tribal war-god of the ancient Canaanite character.

Jonah means “dove” and he is the son of Amittai, which is closely linked to the word “truth” in Hebrew. Jonah, is linked to Noah’s dove which he sends out from the ark amidst the flood water. However, ironically Jonah is an unwilling agent. In this way he is similar to other prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even Moses, though Jonah alone flees from God to the other ends of the earth. Jonah is the only prophet called to prophecy to a foreign and unfriendly nation.

The Book of Jonah at only 4 chapters is radical for recasting traditional views of prophets in ancient Israel as a kind of aggressive global monotheism. It looks beyond the bounds of a nation-state with the hopes of a new kind of existential national religion, one predicated on “faith.” In this way Jonah is a critical text for the laying the foundations of Christianity and Islam, and is a good explanation of why it is the chosen book of many later missionaries.

God’s command of the natural world is notable in Jonah – instead of simply rebuking and punishing a recalcitrant prophet, God has forced the oceans to swell and for a giant fish to swallow Jonah. After three days and nights Jonah prays and God speaks to the fish who vomits up Jonah. Then he proceeds to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire to proclaim their wickedness and that God will destroy the city in 40 days. Thus, the Assyrians turn their back on evil and God spares them. However, in despair Jonah leaves the city and sets up a tent under an unknown fruit tree, but God sends a worm into the fruit which angers Jonah and makes him pity the plant, but God responds angrily that he pities the plant but not the 120,000 people in Nineveh who were living in evil. The book appropriately ends in a question from God to Jonah – “shall I not have pity on Nineveh…?” (4:11). The important piece of this text is that God now has “pity” – a quality we rarely see in the Torah and other earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible, and that he cares about potentially curing the evils of other kingdoms. This was not the case with the Canaanites or the surrounding peoples from the early scriptures from Deuteronomy to Kings.

jonah
Michelangelo’s portrayal of Jonah at the Sistine Chapel around 1512

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Reflections on Judges

In reading through Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew book of Judges, it is nauseatingly apparent how “stiff-necked” and disobedient the Israelites are.

Joshua dies at the end of the book of Joshua, however his death is again re-described in Chapter II of Judges, and thus the people of Israel are without a leader with a direct chain to Moses, the lawgiver. They become continually disobedient, by intermingling with the Canaanites and worshipping their gods, like the Baalim and the Asheroth. Therefore, the Lord raises up a series of “Judges” (Shofet in Hebrew meaning something like “champion or chieftain who passes judgement”). The Judges act as warrior kings and they do battle against other tribal kingdoms in the region, leading the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom and peace repeatedly.

The ongoing plot of the book can be summarized as follows: The Israelites betray their promise to God and worship other gods or make images, then the Lord becomes angry and sends them into the hands of their enemies until the people of Israel cry out and God sends up a Warrior-Deliverer who becomes a Judge of Israel. Peace is kept until his or her death.

In Chapter 3 Othniel and then Ehud lead the Israelites through a period of peace. In Chapter 4, Deborah, the Judge of Israel, is called up to raise the Israelites out of oppression. In Chapter 5 she sings the famous Song of Deborah, a victory hymn that some have suggested is one of the oldest fragments in the bible, alluding to various archaic references that are now lost in mystery, not unlike the archaic and older books referenced in the book of Joshua that are now lost and not included in the modern biblical corpus.

In Chapter 6, Gideon is raised by God and then an evil judge is brought up by God to raise the Israelite by the Mideonites. Then the process repeats and Abimelech, an evil judge, is raised up as son of Gideon and he is an evil judge who causes war and infighting. Then Jephthah becomes judge and leads the Israelites out of oppression from the Ammonites.

The final chapters of the book tell the great story of Samson (“Shimshon” in Hebrew meaning something like “man of potency”) as he is raised up to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. He is the final major judge whose story is detailed in Judges. He is not unlike a Hebrew version of Heracles and his story is bookended by the word “woman.” A messenger of god comes to a barren woman and gives her instructions for bearing a son, and her skeptical husband, Manoah, wants to meet the messenger in person. When he returns he refuses to say his name claiming that Manoah will not understand it. Manoah prepares a sacrifice to God and the messenger touches it with his staff and it becomes engulfed in flames and he ascends into the sky in a large fire.

Samson is born and falls in love with Timnah, a Philistine woman, and goes to marry her, despite his parents objections, and on his way he is attacked by a lion and becomes possessed by divine power from the Lord and simply rips apart the lion with his strength. Later, a hive of bees was nesting in the lion carcass and he took the carcass with honey and brought it to his parents. At the wedding he tells a riddle to the thirty groomsmen about the lion, and when they cannot solve it they threaten his wife, so she gets Samson to reveal it to her and she reveals it to the groomsmen. In losing the bet he travels to go kill thirty men and brings their garments to the groomsmen, but he arrives to find Timnah has already married one of the groomsmen. In a rage he gathered 300 foxes and lit their tails on fire and set them loose in the Philistines crops. He is enslaved but breaks free and slaughters 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey.

Samson goes to Gaza and falls in love with Delilah. She is approached by the Philistines to find Samson’s weakness, but he tells her three false stories. Eventually he capitulates and tells about the story of how no razor should touch his hair as a Nazirite. However she and her slave cut his hair making him lose his power. Samson is routinely betrayed by women. The Philistines take him and gauge out his eyes and put him on display. Samson prays to God for strength and bows low bringing the temple crashing down, killing himself and all those inside it.

At the close of Judges, the Israelites are in a bad place – infighting, constant war with neighboring tribes and kingdoms, and no single leader. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).


For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation as well as the King James Version.