Thursday, October 29, 2015

Another hope essay

Hoping and Waiting

Those that wait upon the LORD will renew their strength
They will fly on wings like eagles
They will run and not get tired
They will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31

            Old Testament scholar, Howard Macy, tells me that the Hebrew word translated as “wait” in this verse could just as well be rendered as “hope.”  So the NIV says: “… those who hope in the LORD…” I think there is something subtle and important here, though I am not at all confident that I can explain it.
            I agree with Adrienne Martin that hope is a syndrome; that is, it typically combines thoughts, perceptions, feelings, motivations, imaginings, and actions.  We think about the good thing we desire, we imagine what it would be like, we are motivated to certain actions, we perceive or interpret events in the world in the light of our hope, and we are encouraged or strengthened to carry on.  But the various signs and symptoms of a syndrome are not necessary conditions; they appear differently in different cases.
            Consider Marty McFly in Back to the Future.  By accident, Marty has taken a time machine (cleverly disguised as a DeLorean, a futuristic-looking car manufactured only in the early 1980s) to 1955.  After a number of adventures there, Marty wants to return to 1985.  He and Doc Brown devise a plan to send Marty back to the future, a plan that requires them to achieve split second synchronization between a lightning bolt and the position of an accelerating car.  (Hollywood movies are very realistic.  Right.)  The wackiness of the story doesn’t change the fact that Marty hopes.  On the basis of his hope, Marty and Doc Brown take actions that put both their lives in jeopardy.  This light-hearted fantasy connects hope very closely with action.
            If we reflect only on cases like Marty’s—e.g. Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption—we might conclude that real hope always motivates action.  We might say, “If someone doesn’t act on her hope, it isn’t genuine hope.”  Not so fast.
            Consider a much more famous character, from a classic story: Penelope in The Odyssey.  For more than twenty years, Penelope waits and hopes for Ulysses to return from the Trojan War.  Marty McFly and Andy Dufresne took definite actions that aimed at bringing about the thing they hoped for.  Marty drove the time machine toward the electrical connection at just the right speed and just the right time.  Andy spent years digging his escape tunnel.  But Penelope can do nothing to bring Ulysses home.  Her hope is displayed in a kind of waiting.
            Hold the phone!  Someone might object that Penelope’s waiting and hoping was hardly passive.  Penelope hoped that her husband would return and that their lives together would return to normal.  She did lots of things appropriate to her hope.  Most importantly, she did not marry one of the suitors; she could only marry if she abandoned her hope for Ulysses’ return.  And it was not merely a case of saying no; Penelope resorted to various stratagems to put off the suitors; e.g. unraveling at night the weaving she performed during the day.
            So: while Penelope’s actions were not aimed directly at bringing about the thing she wanted, it is not true that she “merely” waited.
            Let’s consider, then, another character, Jeremiah.  Now we move from fiction to history.  Some people might object to that statement; virtually every Bible character has been made the subject of historical skepticism.  But I am interested in Jeremiah as a character in a story, so it doesn’t really matter.
            Jeremiah lived and prophesied through the final turbulent decades of Judah’s independence, roughly 615-580 BC.  In contrast to the official court prophets, Jeremiah predicted disaster for Judah.  The Babylonians were going to win, he said.  The king was going to be captured.  Jerusalem would be burned.  Young men were going to die and young virgins taken as war-booty.  No wonder some of his fellow Jews thought Jeremiah was a traitor.  His prophecies were hardly helpful war propaganda.
            Jeremiah’s prophecies came true in excruciatingly painful stages.  Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Judah’s king Jehoiachin and most of Judah’s nobles and exiled them to Babylon; he installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as a puppet king in Jerusalem.  But Zedekiah listened to nationalists and patriots, who said that God would help them defeat the pagan enemy, so he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar.  The final disaster came in 586, when Nebuchadnezzar burned the temple, killed Zedekiah’s sons (and put out Zedekiah’s eyes, so the last thing he ever saw was the death of his sons), and exiled even more Jews to Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar installed a Jewish governor, Gedaliah.  But before long, the patriots assassinated Gedaliah, so once again the Babylonian army invaded to punish Judah.  The patriots then fled to Egypt, taking with them a prisoner—Jeremiah.
            Throughout all this suffering, Jeremiah consistently preached disaster and defeat.  God was not going to fight for Judah, he said.  God was fighting for the enemy, bringing judgment on Judah for a variety of sins.  If the Jews had any sense, Jeremiah said, they should surrender to the Babylonians to preserve their lives.  More importantly, they should repent of their sins and obey the covenant.
            As I say, it’s easy to understand why many of Jeremiah’s contemporaries thought he was simply a traitor.  In reality, though, he anguished over the suffering of his people.  (According to tradition, Jeremiah wrote the hauntingly beautiful Lamentations.)  And at the nadir of his dark prophecy, he announced a “new covenant”: “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers…”
            Christian authors in the New Testament claim that the new covenant has come true in Jesus.  Jewish interpreters, as you would expect, have a different reading of Jeremiah’s prophecy.  We don’t have to settle that debate in order to see that Jeremiah models a different aspect of hope for us.
            Picture Jeremiah in your mind’s eye.  See him counseling Zedekiah to reject the advice of the patriots and submit to Nebuchadnezzar—and then imagine his anguish when Zedekiah’s stupidity brings siege and defeat.  Imagine Jeremiah taken captive to Egypt by fools who rejected his advice again.  For Jeremiah personally and for the country he loved, every thing had turned to ashes and gravel.  In the end, he died a prisoner in Egypt, where he never wanted to go.

            And still he hoped.  Jeremiah could do nothing to bring about a good future for himself.  At one point in the story, God told Jeremiah to go buy property in his hometown of Anathoth.  How strange!  Jeremiah was no farmer, and he had no children, so no one would inherit his property.  Jeremiah bought the parcel as a symbolic gesture; someday Jews would again buy land and farm in Judah.  But that was the extent of it.  Jeremiah’s purchase was purely symbolic.
            Still, he hoped.  Jeremiah believed that God would bring about a good future for Judah, a good future so far from anything he or his contemporaries knew that it would require a “new covenant.”  Jeremiah hoped in a transcendent power, in a good future that he could not well describe.
            How does one hope in this kind of case?  Hoping, I think, is a kind of waiting.  Perhaps not in all cases, but in some.  Sometimes we can’t do anything, but we hope anyway.

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