Old Testament Adventures: Josiah’s Failure

Why isn’t Josiah the greatest of all the kings of Israel?

Sure, David is the gold standard by which all future kings are judged.  They either walk in the ways of David their father or (much more commonly) they do not.  He writes the psalms, the prayer-book of the people of Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  He brings the ark to Jerusalem and attempts to build God a temple, which leads to God making him a covenant mediator on par with Abraham and Moses.  None of this even touches upon the countless stories of his great personal faith in God.

But then again he has epic failures.  No other king has so much ink devoted to them, and quite a bit of that ink draws an unflattering portrait.  He multiplies wives.  He massacres the blind and lame of Jerusalem in response to a taunt.  He rapes a woman and murders her husband, one of his own trusted warriors, to make her his own.  And that’s not even the worst one!  He brings down a curse of death upon the people of Israel through the taking of the census against God’s command.  So at a minimum Josiah compares quite favorably to David by what he doesn’t do; there are no epic failures counter-balancing his greatest accomplishments. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Josiah’s Failure

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Old Testament Adventures: Elisha’s Death

As Elisha nears the final hour of his life, we get this perplexing scene in II Kings 13:

14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands upon the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; and he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”

What a horrible old man that Elisha must have been!  A grieving king comes to him in his final hour, full of filial devotion for this departing holy man, and instead he gets yelled at and blamed for Israel’s future ills because he didn’t correctly read Elisha’s mind?  How awful!

Just kidding.  What, do you people not read the whole Bible or something? Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Elisha’s Death

Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

The most crushing objection I’ve ever seen against the use of the death penalty is given by St. Thomas Aquinas as the first objection in ST II-II Q64 a2.  Let’s marvel at the objection for a bit and then look at how Aquinas responds.

In the Summa Theologiae, very often the first objection of an article is the conclusion of a previous article.  You might think of these as consistency objections, or an introduction to further refining a point.  “But wait a minute, you just said…” in the most annoying student voice you can muster.

On the other hand there are many objections which are just very intuitively powerful or insightful.  Reading the really great objections, being rocked on your heels, finally seeing the problem, really seeing it for the first time–these are perhaps the greatest the pleasures of reading St. Thomas.

The first objection against the use of death as a penalty is one of these, but with a bit of a twist: it’s a quotation from Sacred Scripture.  Why is that weird?  Well, very often I find his Scriptural objections fairly week or formulaic, or at least a bit of an interpretive strain to see how it really works as an objection.  There are exceptions of course, but I usually steer my students away from these so they can focus more on the main argument.

Well this is definitely one of the exceptions.  I’m not sure Aquinas ever gives a Scriptural citation with as much power as this one.  For those who know the reference, you probably don’t even need to see the text or have it explained to realize the problem for someone inclined to argue in support of the death penalty.  It is the famous parable of the wheat and the tares from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

The text, si placeat: Continue reading Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

When the ethical topic of war comes up, as it does often enough and with intensity every so often, St. Thomas Aquinas is usually mentioned as a defender of a long-standing Catholic endorsement of the idea of “Just War.”  That’s not wrong exactly, but let’s subvert the claim for a bit.  I’m a teacher; being ambiguously provocative is basically my whole life. Continue reading Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

Translating Psalms (75)

If you are not familiar with how the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, first read II Kings 18-19 (it’s also in Isaiah 36-37).  Then read Lord Byron’s immortal take, even though the psalmist beat him to it by about 2500 years.

For Holy Saturday, it is the harrowing of hell.

“Notus in Judaea” (Psalm 75)

[1] In finem, in laudibus. Psalmus Asaph, canticum ad Assyrios.

Unto the end, in praises.  A psalm for Asaph, a canticle unto the Assyrians. Continue reading Translating Psalms (75)

Translating Psalms (73)

Why indeed would God be angry with us?  Maybe because we just sold His Son into the hands of death?  A total desecration of God in the triumph of the enemy?  An overthrow of God in the garden of His holy place?

Sure if this weren’t Holy Week I could talk about what I think the historical setting of this psalm is–some later stage of the kingdom when the foreign cults were overwhelming the worship of God.  But that doesn’t matter compared to seeing Jesus heading to the garden to be betrayed by his friend.

“Ut quid, Deus” (Psalm 73)

[1] Intellectus Asaph. Ut quid, Deus, repulisti in finem, iratus est furor tuus super oves pascuae tuae?

An understanding of Asaph.  Why, O God, have You repelled unto the end, has been angry, Your fury, over the sheep of Your flock? Continue reading Translating Psalms (73)

Translating Psalms (72)

Obviously in some boring human sense it’s mere coincidence that I am translating this on Tuesday of Holy Week and publishing it on Spy Wednesday.  But it’s not only that; the coincidence of each of these psalms with their corresponding day in the Passion of Our Lord is some small, hidden corner of divine providence.  They are each of them, after all, written about Him.

Playing this in the background of His last day of ministry in Jerusalem, while Judas was plotting his betrayal, is downright operatic.

“Quam bonus Israel Deus” (Psalm 72)

[1] Psalmus Asaph. Quam bonus Israel Deus, his qui recto sunt corde!

A psalm for Asaph.  How good Israel’s God to them who are of right heart! Continue reading Translating Psalms (72)