Laughing at leaders/respecting leaders Two Biblical perspectives

Laughing at leaders

Making fun of those in authority has been long a way of disguising political criticism.  In our day, little effort is made to hide the criticism such as Saturday Night Live, but in the times of autocratic rulers, open satire could bring banishment, imprisonment or death.  Setting the events in long ago and far away provides additional disguise for the criticism of contemporary rulers.  There is Biblical precedent for laughing at rulers.  For the Hebrews who suffered under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE) the choices were accepting suffering in silence, accepting the Antiochus’ brutal efforts** to make them become like the Greeks or join the guerilla activity leading to active rebellion.  The later leaders of this rebellion were known as the Maccabees.   Making fun of leaders was part of the scheme by the Daniel editor to bring down the oppressive ruler.  One group of Jews relied on the stories and visions of Daniel for guidance.  That guidance included ridiculing the rulers; showing the examples of faithfulness to the Torah of Daniel and friends; and affirming the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the teaching of wisdom.  Hope in the resurrection completed their arsenal of weapons against the oppressor.

In Daniel one food offered to idols brought wisdom according to the king.  Vegetables, Daniel’s health food, God’s food, did just as well.  The lack of details about the connection between details here and in the Levitical Code suggests that this was more than faithfulness to the food code of Leviticus.

Why would the king kill all of his of his advisors?  Did this ruler decided to fire (kill) all his advisers instead rather than being embarrassed by his forgetfulness?  The experts listed in chapter two were the king’s chief advisors, religious experts, the spokesmen of the king’s gods.  The king later praised the God whose diet gave more wisdom to the dream’s interpreter than the king’s diet.

Arrogant and boastful leaders seem to be present in all ages.  The Babylon king had been warned about taking credit for the blessings of God and the accomplishments granted him.  Our Hebrew writer (chapter three) sees God reducing this braggart to a cud-chewer for a year to help him learn humility.

Simple worship characterizes Hebrew ritual.  In chapter four, the odd statue and the variety of participants, plus the repeat in naming of them suggests that this is a weird, highly complicated worship setting.  The Hebrews would find this amusing.  This contrasts with the simple presence of the four in the furnace.  The humor of the contrast of the wild commands of the kings—contradicting his earlier threats—versus the silent power of the fourth one in the furnace is clear.

Chapter five brings the five-finger terror to the ruling classes of Babylon.  The Babylonians desecrated the temple vessels by using them in a pagan banquet.  (This paralleled the pig sacrifice at Jerusalem in 168 BCE.)  The overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty affirmed the message of the visions that God would overthrow the evil empires. Violent revolt such as the Maccabees promoted was not necessary.

The foolish Babylonian leaders jealous of Daniel thought that the “god for a month” plan (Chapter 6) would bring down their enemy. The Babylonian leaders sought the rank and status that Daniel was given.  But if they could trick the king, Daniel would be fed to the lions. Daniel’s prayers to the eternal God continued, so, it was the schemers that the lions consumed.

How God works

Throughout these accounts we see God exposing the arrogance and foolishness of lords and kings. God exposed and defeated them by various means. Faithfulness to God (and in chapter 11, the teaching wisdom), not violent action was required of Daniel and friends.  Whether violence was an option is not the question here.  The reality was that God showed how puny and helpless rulers were in the presence of God’s power.  The Daniel writer used humor (as well in the later chapters visions of God’s power) to remind his fellow sufferers that God would defeat their enemies.

 

(*My speculations about humor in Daniel were provided some scholarly support when I discovered an article on court jesters.  David M. Valeta, Court or Jester Tales? Resistance and Social Reality in Daniel 1-6, PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 32(2005) 309-324.) On Daniel and opposition to Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, see Apocalypse against empire: theologies of resistance in early Judaism.  Portier-Young, Anathea, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011

 

Respecting leaders

Psalm 72

What model do we have for understanding what a leader should be?  This psalm provides important principles.  In the New Testament Mary confirms these principles in her prophecy before Elizabeth.

Actions worthy of respect:

May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure[a] as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Respect will come

May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.

More actions worthy of respect

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.

Respect and prayer

This Psalm was likely written for David, a military man and apparently a ruler with administrative ability.  The book of Samuel and Kings detail his battles and efforts to establish control over Israel and the areas conquered.  But military and administrative skills are not mentioned here.  Compassion is the main theme for which the King is praised.   We will want to respect leaders who achieve greatness by caring for the poor and helpless.  These verses should also be the content of our prayers for our leaders.

 

Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.