This week we begin by looking at other examples of apocalyptic literature, their historical context, and what that literature meant for them and what it may mean for us now.
One of the most formative events for the people of Israel was the Babylonian Exile. If you look on the map below, you will see the route of exile. It goes up a valley along the Mediterranean Sea and then follows the shores of the Euphrates River to Babylon. Oh by the way do you see the city of Ur on the map? That is where Abraham was from. Thousands of years earlier, Abraham and Sarah would have taken much of the same route to the Promised Land. That actually is important. It highlights for us that this route along the Euphrates River along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea was an important trade route for thousands of years between Egypt and the lands to the north and west of it. So when the Babylonian Empire desires to expand its power to the west, it naturally brings it to the Promised Land.
As the full force of the Empire arrives in Jerusalem, things quickly go from bad to worse to hopeless. Jerusalem is besieged and falls, the temple built by David and Solomon is destroyed, the monarchy established by David loses its power, and around ten thousand prominent citizens of the Holy Land are forcibly relocated to the capital city of the Empire. God's covenant with Abraham could rightfully be called into question.
Perhaps the beginning of Psalm 137 captures the spirit of this time the best. One day during the march to exile, the captors ask for song about Zion. The exiles reply, "How can we possibly sing the Lord's song on foreign soil?"
An apocalyptic vision of Ezekiel answers that question. Take a moment to read Ezekiel 1 in your bible or online. So a few things to note. First is to acknowledge that this passage certainly has one characteristic of the genre: vivid imagery. So you think you could draw those living creatures? No? Well that's a for good reason. Remember apocalyptic writing uses figurative and not literal language. Ezekiel is not trying to describe literal animals. What he is describing according to verses one and twenty-six is a heavenly vision of God--in this case seated upon a throne.
Don't see it? Well your not alone. There's a lot of history wrapped up in the imagery including the cherubim throne for the ark of the covenant in the Temple (1 Kings 8). This throne embodied the presence of God among God's people and the promises made through Moses and David. Ezekiel's revelation is that this earthly throne is mirrored by the heavenly throne with vivid imagery of the cherubim as the four living creatures (Ezekiel 1:5) above whom was a dome (verse 22) and above that dome was the form of a throne with the form of a human being seated up on it (verse 26).
There is another important part of Near East history that will help us understand this vision. Anytime one king was dethroned by another it was believed that the god of the conquering nation had dethroned the god of the defeated nation. Ezekiel's revelation says not so fast! The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still seated upon his throne. Our earthly king, Jehoiachin, may have been defeated and hauled off to exile, but our God is still sovereign over all of creation. Furthermore, no human power is capable of unthroning God. Not now. Not ever.
"God may not be defeated but..." (you can almost hear the exiles muttering this word) ... "how can we worship God in this foreign land?"
Ezekiel's revelation answers this question in chapter 10. God's presence with God's people is not bound to the temple in Jerusalem. In fact God, seated on the heavenly throne, freely departs the temple (verse 18). Note in this chapter the absence of the Babylonian gods. Neither they nor their earthly forces destroying the earthly temple are casting out God. Instead God on his mobile heavenly throne freely leaves the temple and chooses to be with the People of God in their exile.
This revelation of God's sovereignty seen by Ezekiel remains the basis of our understanding of God as Christians today. It seems almost impossible to us that before the exile, our ancestors in faith would have seen the God of creation limited by the earthly rule of a monarch, bound to an earthly temple, and capable of being defeated by earthly powers. Yet it took this crisis from which Israel saw no earthly hope for this to be revealed to them.
Caught between Two Empires (2nd Century BCE)
Eventually the exiles were allowed to return home. Under the Persian King Cyrus the Great they were even allowed to rebuild the Temple. However, as you can see in the map below, the Judeans found themselves in the cross-hairs. This time not of one empire but two--the Persian and Egyptian. Both of these empires grew out of the power vacuum left by the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great. Oh and off to the west the Romans are beginning to expand their own empire.
It is in this environment that Daniel 7 is written. Take some time to read it in your bible or online here. Again this apocalyptic vision makes use of vivid imagery and figurative language--we are not literally looking for four beasts rising out of the sea. Instead these beasts represent four empires that the reader of the time would have easily identified. The Orthodox Study Bible identifies the relationship to beasts/empires as follows:
- The lioness with eagle's wings as the Babylonian Empire
- The bear who rose up on one side as Persia (the yellow empire above which includes and is on one side of Judea)
- The leopard as the empire of Alexander the Great
- The fourth fearful, terrifying and exceedingly strong beast as the Roman Empire
The Ancient of Days and the Son of Man
Daniel 7 introduces new metaphors for God, The Ancient of Days (also translated the Ancient One) and the Son of Man (sometimes translated human being), to address this crisis. In the heavenly vision, the earthly experience of God's people is cast in a new light. Sure, these earthly empires have their time and season, but they pass away are judged by the Ancient of Days, the God of Judah and Israel. Further, the Ancient of Days establishes a kingdom through the Son of Man that includes all people, nations and languages. The kingdom established by the Ancient of Days will not fade away and cannot be destroyed.
Once again, an apocalyptic vision transforms Judaism and is fundamental to the Christian understanding of God's kingdom. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is revealed to be the God of all people, nations and languages. God's people are given that hope that even though their nation may not ever become a global power like the Greeks or Romans, the Kingdom of God rules over and judges Israel and Judah as well as all the nations and peoples of the whole world. Judaism comes out of this crisis seeing itself as a global religion.
This vision of course comes to carry meaning beyond its historical context. As the followers of Jesus experience his ministry, death and resurrection they begin to see in Daniel 7 a vision of God the Father and God the Son who "will judge the living and the dead and whose kingdom will have no end." We will see the writer of Revelation's vision drawing on the imagery of the apocalyptic writing of Daniel.
It's the End of the World as We Know it...
Apocalyptic writing is not confined to scriptures. As noted in last week's blog, there seems to be an universal human vision of a coming end of the age and/or dystopian vision of the future present in today's world. This stands as an alternative world vision to the Enlightenment view that the humanity's future will always be better than it's past. One example of this would be The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.
The Second Coming was written in 1919 during the aftermath of World War I and anticipates a coming birth of a new age drawing on apocalyptic tradition of scripture although not Christian in nature. It also breaks with the apocalyptic genre by not being an otherwordly vision that offers hope to a world in crisis. The 20th century would see other crisis like the Holocaust and September 11th that would spark the apocalyptic thought in books, tv shows and movies.
Even Disney could sensed this universal part of human nature. In 2008 they made a movie that took a dystopian view of our future. Watch this short clip of what remains "alive" on planet earth--a garbage robot and of course a cockroach.
I hope the few examples of the biblical apocalyptic genre are giving you a feel for what is in store for us. Next week we will dive into the book of Revelation and see what we uncover.
In preparing this study of Revelation, I have read several works that have shaped my thinking especially “The Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse)” in An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown. Doubleday © 1997.
Additionally I make use of an article in the 2004 Catholic Biblical Quarterly by Dale Launderville for this post entitled "Ezekiel's Throne-Chariot Vision: Spiritualizing The Model Of Divine Royal Rule" and The Orthodox Study Bible, 2008.