Sunday, 8 May 2011

Apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament

I talked in an earlier post about the apocalyptic tradition in Judaeo-Christian literature.  This is the literary genre that deals with the end of the world and the dramatic events that were expected to accompany it.  Its best known expression in the later Christian tradition is the notion of the Day of Judgement, as foretold in texts like the Book of Revelation and the great mediaeval poem Dies Irae.

It has been argued that the notion of an act of divine judgement over the world developed from a more primitive and nationalistic conception among the ancient Israelites of a battle in which Yahweh would lead Israel to triumph over her foreign enemies.  I also referred in my earlier article to a long-term change in emphasis.  The apocalyptic Day of Yahweh in the Old Testament is characterised to a large extent by darkness, fire, destruction and desolation.  The later Day of Judgement, while still inspiring awe and fear, was characterised more by God's judgement and justice, with eternal happiness for the righteous.

In this post, I want to assemble some of the texts from the Hebrew Bible which deal with apocalyptic themes.  I would sum up the motifs that underlie them as follows:

- The people of the world behave wickedly.

- There is a time of tribulation.  This may be characterised by war, suffering, desolation and disarray in the natural order.

- Good and evil supernatural figures appear.  The evil figures are named by Ezekiel as Gog and Magog.  Daniel speaks of an evil king who persecutes the people of God - this would later be incorporated into the Antichrist mythos.  On the side of good, a messianic figure such as the Archangel Michael appears.

- God executes his judgement.  This may involve rewarding the good and punishing the wicked.  Alternatively, it may be more nationalistic, involving the exaltation of Israel and the humbling of foreign nations.

- The city of Jerusalem plays a central role.

- The reign commences of Yahweh or of his people.


Isaiah 24-27

Now Yahweh is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master.... The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled.... The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.... On that day Yahweh will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth.... Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed; for Yahweh of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders he will manifest his glory....

On this mountain Yahweh of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.... And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples... he will swallow up death forever.... Then Adonai Yahweh will wipe away the tears from all faces....

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. For Yahweh comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain.

On that day Yahweh with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent... and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.... On that day Yahweh will thresh from the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you will be gathered one by one, O people of Israel. And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship Yahweh on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.


Isaiah 33

The highways are deserted,
   travellers have left the road.
The treaty is broken,
   its oaths are despised,
   its obligation is disregarded.
The land mourns and languishes....
‘Now I will arise,’ says Yahweh,
   ‘now I will lift myself up;
   now I will be exalted...
the peoples will be as if burned to lime,
   like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.’...
The sinners in Zion are afraid;
   trembling has seized the godless:
‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
   Who among us can live with everlasting flames?’
Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly,
   who despise the gain of oppression...
they will live on the heights;
   their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks;
   their food will be supplied, their water assured.
Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;
   they will behold a land that stretches far away....
No longer will you see the insolent people,
   the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend....
But [in Jerusalem] Yahweh in majesty will be for us
   a place of broad rivers and streams....
For Yahweh is our judge, Yahweh is our ruler,
   Yahweh is our king; he will save us....
Then prey and spoil in abundance will be divided;
   even the lame will fall to plundering.
And no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’;
   the people who live there will be forgiven their iniquity.


Ezekiel 38-39

Therefore, mortal, prophesy, and say to Gog: Thus says Adonai Yahweh: On that day when my people Israel are living securely, you will rouse yourself and come from your place out of the remotest parts of the north, you and many peoples with you, all of them riding on horses, a great horde, a mighty army; you will come up against my people Israel, like a cloud covering the earth.... On that day, when Gog comes against the land of Israel, says Adonai Yahweh, my wrath shall be aroused.... On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the animals of the field, and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground. I will summon the sword against Gog.... I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulphur, upon him and his troops and the many peoples that are with him. So I will display my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations....

And you, mortal, prophesy against Gog, and say: Thus says Adonai Yahweh.... I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand. You shall fall in the mountains of Israel, you and all your troops and the peoples that are with you.... My holy name I will make known among my people Israel... and the nations shall know that I am Yahweh, the Holy One in Israel.... On that day I will give to Gog a place for burial in Israel, the Valley of the Travellers east of the sea.... I will display my glory among the nations; and all the nations shall see my judgement that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them. The house of Israel shall know that I am Yahweh their God, from that day forward.... Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practised against me, when they live securely in their land with no one to make them afraid.... I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel....


Joel 3

Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
   stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
   let them come up.
Beat your ploughshares into swords,
   and your pruning-hooks into spears;
   let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’...
Let the nations rouse themselves,
   and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
   all the neighbouring nations.
Put in the sickle,
   for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
   for the wine press is full.
The vats overflow,
   for their wickedness is great.
Multitudes, multitudes,
   in the valley of decision!
For the day of Yahweh is near....
The sun and the moon are darkened,
   and the stars withdraw their shining.
Yahweh roars from Zion,
   and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
   and the heavens and the earth shake.
But Yahweh is a refuge for his people,
   a stronghold for the people of Israel.
So you shall know that I, Yahweh your God,
   dwell in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy,
   and strangers shall never again pass through it.


Zechariah 12-14

Thus says Yahweh.... On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it.... But on the house of Judah I will keep a watchful eye, when I strike every horse of the peoples with blindness.... On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot on a pile of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves; and they shall devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples.... On that day Yahweh will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, at their head. And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.... On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity....

In the whole land, says Yahweh,
   two-thirds shall be cut off and perish,
   and one-third shall be left alive.
And I will put this third into the fire,
   refine them as one refines silver,
   and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name,
   and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
   and they will say, ‘Yahweh is our God.’...

For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped; half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then Yahweh will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.... Then Yahweh my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. On that day there shall not be either cold or frost. And there shall be continuous day... not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem... And Yahweh will become king over all the earth.... Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site.... And it shall be inhabited, for never again shall it be doomed to destruction; Jerusalem shall abide in security. This shall be the plague with which Yahweh will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet; their eyes shall rot in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot in their mouths.... Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year by year to worship the King, Yahweh of hosts....


Daniel 7

As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
   and another shall arise after them.
This one shall be different from the former ones,
   and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
   shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
   and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
   for a time, two times, and half a time.
Then the court shall sit in judgement,
   and his dominion shall be taken away,
   to be consumed and totally destroyed.
The kingship and dominion
   and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
   shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
   and all dominions shall serve and obey them.


Daniel 11

At the time appointed he shall return and come into the south, but this time it shall not be as it was before.... He shall be enraged and take action against the holy covenant.... Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt-offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action. The wise among the people shall give understanding to many; for some days, however, they shall fall by sword and flame, and suffer captivity and plunder.... Some of the wise shall fall, so that they may be refined, purified, and cleansed.... The king shall act as he pleases. He shall exalt himself and consider himself greater than any god, and shall speak horrendous things against the God of gods. He shall prosper until the period of wrath is completed.... He shall pay no respect to the gods of his ancestors... he shall pay no respect to any other god, for he shall consider himself greater than all.... At the time of the end the king of the south shall attack him. But the king of the north shall rush upon him like a whirlwind, with chariots and horsemen, and with many ships.... Reports from the east and the north shall alarm him, and he shall go out with great fury to bring ruin and complete destruction to many.... Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.

At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered.... Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever....

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