A Liturgical Enigma
By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Among the effects of the church’s adoption of the Septuagint’s ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the Megilloth, five books selected to be read on five Jewish festivals, have been separated in the biblical text. That may not appear important for many biblical scholars, for these scrolls were composed at different times with different styles and were written to be read independently. Nevertheless, someone chose to include them together as a unit in the third part of the Hebrew canon and that unit may bear meaning that the individual parts do not.
The first thing to note about the Megilloth is that they do not, in the Hebrew canon, follow the chronological order of the festivals with which they are connected. If one regards the first month as occurring in the spring, the proper order ought to be: Song of Songs (Passover), Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (Ninth of Ab), Ecclesiastes (Tabernacles), and Esther (Purim). Instead, the Megilloth begins with Ruth and has Lamentations following Ecclesiastes. Why? Perhaps there is an argument in the five works that demanded a reordering of the texts.
Following the Hebrew canon’s order, therefore, we begin with Ruth. Clearly, from a strictly Jewish point of view, the book of Ruth is shocking. After all, the Jews claim to be the chosen people of God and therefore have sought to keep their bloodlines pure. Intermarriage with the goyim has always been frowned upon. The book of Ezra, another work of the Kethuvi’im, calls upon the men of Israel to relinquish their foreign wives, but in Ruth a Moabite girl not only is glorified for her determination, after the death of her husband, to stay with her Israelite mother-in-law and then to marry a second Israelite man; she is also identified as the great grandmother of none other than King David himself. The Book of Ruth is a lovely story about a determined woman, but why was it included in the Bible? The fact that David was part Moabite hardly concurs with basic Jewish attitudes.
Ruth is followed by the Song of Songs, a work that is reminiscent of many divine-human love poems from around the world. I think of the Gitagovinda, Jayadeva’s wonderful Indian poem about Krishna and Radha’s love affair and of Mirabi’s passionate verse. The Song of Songs is also surely consistent with the common biblical metaphor that portrays Israel as the wife of Yahweh. Indeed, the whole biblical story can be understood as a love story in which Yahweh chooses Israel as his bride.
In this poem, however, it would appear that Israel is a captive in the harem of Solomon while Yahweh is, as her shepherd lover, either unable or unwilling to save her. She hopes that he will come like a “young stag upon the mountains of spices” (8:14), but he has not come yet. Jayadeva’s poem ends with the complete reconciliation of Radha and Krishna and a scene of monumental love-making. The Song of Songs, however, provides no happy ending. The young woman who loves the shepherd lad so much is left pining for what may be but not yet is. It is as though the marriage covenant celebrated at Sinai is “not yet” either.
The Song of Songs is then followed by Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) a piece of ancient wisdom literature totally devoid of any references to the covenant and the chosen people. God is mentioned quite often, but he hardly seems to be the lover of Israel or a covenantal deity. In fact, the author looks at the world with open eyes and realizes that since we all die and there is no clear certainty of life after death, neither pleasure nor piety nor wisdom really gets anyone anywhere. In the end, the wise and the foolish meet the same end: death. “Drink your wine,” he says, “with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” (9:7) Qoheleth is not an epicurean for he sees all reality as “empty,” but in the midst of such emptiness one should try for enjoyment, not asceticism.
God, for Qoheleth, seems very far away and unapproachable. It is true that the book ends by saying “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man,” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) but this is so out of character with the rest of the book that there is good reason to believe that these word were added by a later hand. More in character is “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (5:2)
Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) is followed by The Lamentations, a series of poems responding to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Judah. The punishment of the people has been severe and all are in deep morning. The author writes, “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into the darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.” (3:1-3) In the Song of Songs God is an absent lover, but he still seems to be a lover. In Ecclesiastes he is absent but not vindictive. Here, however, God has wreaked disaster upon the Jewish people. Nor is it clear that he shall ever return. The book ends with the somber words, “Renew our days as of old! Or hast thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us?” (5:21-22)
Finally, there is the book of Esther, a work that actually seems to have created Purim, the festival at which it is read. God is not even mentioned once in the work. The chief protagonists, who are Jewish, live in Persia, a foreign land, and are subjected to prejudice and persecution. Curiously their names reflect, not their Jewish past, but Mesopotamia. The name Esther is derived from Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of life, while Mordecai derives from Marduk, the chief male divinity. It may well be that the whole story is an historicized version of a Mesopotamian myth. So the Megilloth ends in a very secular way. The Jews win out, but are seemingly on their own. God does not step in and help. Like Boaz in the book of Ruth, Esther is married to a gentile, this time to King Ahasuerus of Persia. The circle has been completed.
All of this seems to indicate that neither the so-called “death of God” nor the triumph of secularism are new; they are a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In these books God is absent, not present. No prophet speaks; the wisdom, such as it is, is highly secular. The only “heroes” are women. Why rabbis would have chosen such books for liturgical reading seems strange indeed. Why should the absence of God be so obviously emphasized? The answer is unclear. Nevertheless, the Megilloth are “in the Bible” and therefore constitute a significant aspect of the faith. If one affirms the Bible as the Word of God, these texts must be included. Far from being a curious addendum without great meaning, they are together a time bomb waiting to explode. Perhaps in our time it has exploded.