Prophecy is history / 24 - Following nothingness we become nothing: it is the eternal struggle between faith and nihilism
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 17/11/2019
«I am well aware that the word lout, in the current language of my country, is now a term of offense and derision; but I adopt it in this book in the certainty that when in my country pain will no longer be an embarrassment, it will become a word of respect, and perhaps also of honour»
Ignazio Silone, Fontamara
The hope of true prophets is the opposite of the false and comforting hope of false prophets, it is as true and strong as a son.
There are many who justify unjust actions in the name of something good that people or institutions, guilty of denying justice and universal rights, do as well (jobs, GDP...). The cry of the prophets, saying that these "good" acts will never be really good without the support of justice behind them is still too weak, especially without justice as conceived and measured from the perspective of the poorest in our world. The reasons behind the economy, politics and finance seem profoundly transformed if you look upon them together with Lazarus, from under the table of a rich man.
«Jeremiah [II] He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea,[e] in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher» (2 Kings 14,23-25). One of the constants we have encountered in these years of commenting on the Bible is its pluralism in reading historical data. These differences come in many shapes and forms. An important one is the difference between the interpretations of the facts by court prophets and those made by the great biblical prophets. The main purpose of the prophets of palace, almost always false prophets, yesterday and to this day, is to confirm and reassure the kings and the powerful in their certainties and, above all, in their illusions. True prophets, on the other hand, have no agenda of their own, and thus have the freedom-obligation to report only the words they receive. For this reason they are unmanageable, unpredictable, non-domesticated, and not for sale.
In this chapter, we find a prime example of this typical diversity. To the Book of Kings, this Jonah, probably a court prophet, hardly the author of the biblical book that bears his name, seems to have expressed a positive evaluation of those military victories. While another prophet, Amos, truly a great and a great contemporary of Jeroboam II, had given those same facts the opposite interpretation: «You have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness - you who rejoice in the conquest of Lo Debar and say, “Did we not take Karnaim by our own strength?” For the Lord God Almighty declares, “I will stir up a nation against you, Israel, that will oppress you all the way from Lebo Hamath to the valley of the Arabah» (Amos 6,12-14). Amos is not a court prophet, he reads those conquests as war actions of an unjust king who, not respecting the justice and the right of the poor, was certainly not acting according to the heart of YHWH. About two centuries later, the group of scribes who wrote the Book of Kings made a different and altogether providential reading of that military action by Jeroboamo II: «And since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash» (2 Kings 14,27). The overall judgment on Jeroboamo II remains negative also in the Book of Kings («He did evil in the eyes of the Lord»: 2 14,23); but while to these editors even an evil king can do good deeds, to Amos and to many other prophets the presence or absence of justice becomes the decisive element to evaluate all the actions of a king. For the prophets, law and justice are the absolute parameters with which to judge the politics of a people, it can only be compared to that of another absolute judgment: that on idolatry. By that same logic, at the beginning of his book, Isaiah addresses Jerusalem: «“The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?” says the Lord, “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals [...] Stop bringing meaningless offerings!... even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!» (Isaiah 1,11-15).
Certainly, even the kings of Isaiah's time will have made sacrifices and offers that were formally valid and lawful in the eyes of the Law; but for the prophet those "hands that drip blood" cancel out the value of even the most religious of actions. For that injustice and lack of rights directly contribute to deprive every action of any truth, because these sins cannot be compensated or condoned. The prophets are partial, partisan, unbalanced, excessive, and this is exactly why we love them, this is how they save us from all our calculations and compromises within the realm of common sense and prudence. The eighth century, politically tumultuous and idolatrous, was populated by many great prophets. This was the time of Amos, of Hosea, of Micah, and it was also the time of Isaiah. We should read their prophecies together with the historical events narrated in the Book of Kings, and retrace these news events accompanied by the words of the prophets. We would discover many important things. We would see, for example, that Isaiah's Ahaz does not cross the same path of the Ahaz of the Book of Kings, which in chapter 16 dedicated to him does not make a single mention of Isaiah. Different traditions and sources, of course, but it remains a bit mysterious not to see the name of Isaiah mentioned next to the name of Ahaz somewhere in there. In fact in the book of Isaiah, this king is the (negative) protagonist of the great miracle of the Lord that removed the Assyrians from Jerusalem. But he is also the cause of one of Isaiah's most beautiful and powerful verses. Despite receiving special words directly for him («Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: "Ask your God for a sign» (Isaiah 7,11), Ahaz disobeyed and did not ask for a sign. But this refusal produced a wonderful prophecy, which takes our breath away every time: «Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel» (Isaiah 7,14). Immanuel, the dream of dreams; a child, the sign of signs.
Of course, we cannot really know Ahaz without reading the second book in the Book of Kings, as well as the Book of Chronicles; but it is equally true that to get a good idea of what Ahaz really meant to the Bible, the description that Isaiah gives us is also essential. Not to ascertain a truer image of Ahaz, but to recognize that the two are co-essential. The truth of the Bible is symphonic, and this symphony has kept and still keeps it alive and generative through millennia. And if we wanted to try to understand, or to imagine, how biblical humanism would judge our economy, our politics, and our religion today, we would obviously need all the analysis and chronicles that tell us about wars, conquests, court intrigues and the reasons of States; but we would also need, above all, the prophetic words of those who know how to read the intimacy of the men and women of history, and the words of those who actually find themselves in the folds and pages of the chronicles, of the minutes of the board of directors and the documents of the judges, in order to truly interpret the essential things required to understand the meaning of what we live. We should also look for the pages on Immanuel, otherwise we will always miss the most important page of our personal and collective stories. These chapters in the second Book of Kings are an escalation towards its culmination: the fall of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, by the Assyrians, and the consequent double deportation (of the inhabitants of Samaria in various distant regions, and many peoples and tribes deported to Samaria to replace the Jews: chapter 17). It was not a mass deportation (an Assyrian document speaks of 27,290 deportees, out of a population perhaps of 800,000), but it was a socially and "religiously" devastating event, the most dramatic historical event that is second only to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (in 587). The Bible interprets the fall of the kingdom of the North and then of the South as a consequence of the same infidelity to YHWH and of idolatry of the people. The prophets basically agree with this historical reading, even if they also place an even greater weight and importance on the "economic and social" infidelity.
There is a phrase that, in all its prophetic-theological strength, contains the true profound meaning of that end: «They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless» (2 Kings 17,16). The Hebrew word that the text uses for this "nothing" is a very dear and precious word to the Bible: hevel. It is the great word of Qoelet: everything is hevel, everything is the vanity of vanities. Everything is an infinite nothing. But hevel is also one of the words that the prophets (Jeremiah) use to define idols: idols are vanity, nothing, a nothingness (hevel) that nullifies those who worship them. Following nothingness we become nothing: it is the eternal struggle between faith and nihilism, that nihilism that today is filling the world with nothing having first emptied it out - humans do not know how to resist for long in empty temples. But even in this case, the prophets are able to pronounce and tell us words that go beyond this nothingness. They know how to see and understand it better than anyone else; but, once they’ve seen and understood it, they can also go further. The nothingness of the prophets is only the penultimate word. And so, as they announce the fall and condemn infidelity, they also manage to see the dawn within this dark night, and announce a salvation. Amos, Isaiah, Micah are the prophets of the rest or "remnant of Israel", of that little certain hope that says that what is dying will not die forever, that there is something alive that will continue the story: «Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph» (Amos 5,15). Micah: «I will surely gather all of you, Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel» (Micah 2:12). And Hosea: «How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused» (Hosea 11,8). Few things in the Bible (and in life) are more wonderful than the "prophecy for the remnant" or the rest.
Then, these prophets pronounced in chorus the phrase that would become the heart of Jeremiah's prophecy, the chanter of the destruction of Jerusalem: one story is over, but the story is not over. They are ruthless in announcing the end of what must end, they are radical in denouncing errors and deep causes; but their masterpieces are Immanuel, the bride who returns, the bowels that quiver, and the rest or remnant that will return. And this is precisely because they are born out of that very ruthlessness and that radicalism, without which they would remain mere poor comforting pages. Without prophets, one does not return home from exile. Because we lack the ability to see the rest that return while everything speaks of despair and death. The prophets do not see the remnant as they announce it, because it has not yet come to be. Prophecy is also the gift of generating non-vain hopes by detecting them while they are still invisible. This makes them a necessary common good. Isaiah showed up at his appointment with Ahaz together with his son, bringing his name as his first message. Isaiah's son was called Shearjashub, which means: «A remnant shall return» (Isaiah 7,3). That prophet wrote his prophecy with the name of his son. In order to say something greater than Isaiah, that word had to become the flesh of his flesh. The child is the rest or remnant that returns and saves our history, it is the son who says that life is greater than any death. In every child who is born hope wins over hevel. The Bible knew this very well, we must see to re-learn it as soon as possible.
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