Biblical Quizzes for Smart People XII
Bill Long 1/1/07
One REALLY Difficult, and One Meaningless Verse
As we continue in our search to internalize and make meaningful the very words of the Scripture, I decided that in this essay I will probe a passage that is probably known to almost no one, but which I have seen referred to in two writings, one from 1928 and one from 2006. Then, I will give a quotation that should make us hesitate in thinking that every word of the Bible should be taken seriously. I hope, therefore, to set up a kind of tension between passages--a tension that forces us to consider how we think about the text of the Bible.
1. "He saith among the trumpets, 'Ha, Ha,'" KJV. The NRSV has: "When the trumpet sounds, it says 'Aha!'"
[Note: This has nothing to do with I Cor. 15 or I Thess. 4]. Let me set the literary, and then biblical, context for understanding this most interesting and obscure reference. In his 2006 book Democracy Reborn, Garrett Epps tells the story of Carl Schurz, who had investigated life in the deep South after the Civil War ended (1865) and then reported to President Andrew Johnson the "bad news" that white Southerners wanted to re-establish a society similar to the one that had existed before the War. After the passage of the 18th Amendment in the Congress in the next year, Schurz set out to promote it througout the country. Epps comments, "Even though he (i.e., Schurz) had lived several lifetimes, he was still only thirty-seven, and he flung himself into the battle like the warhorse....who 'saith among the trumpets, Ha ha,'" (p. 250). In other words, Schurz promoted the passage of the 14th Amendment with energy and passion.
The other quotation of this biblical passage comes from an essay in the Feb. 16, 1928 Christian Century by Douglas Horton. In this engaging article, entitled "God Lets Loose Karl Barth," Horton introduced the immensely powerful work of the Swiss theologian (b. 1886) which had recently been unleashed on the German theological world. Barth's Commentary on Romans attacked what he considered to be the bankruptcy of world-affirming German cultural Protestantism, whose genial liberalism had been fully unable to do anything other than meekly support the reckless military adventures of Germany which led to the 1st World War. Barth's exposition of Paul's Epistle inaugurated what theologians would later call "crisis" or "Neo-orthodox" theology, where the message of human sin and evil, rather than potential for goodness, framed the theological debate.
But Barth's work would certainly not be well-received among those same confident (but now shattered) liberals he criticized. Barth was called to succeed the "venerable Doctor Ludemann" at Bern, where a "storm of protest arose" in Bern as "would have dismayed the doughtiest." Why?
"There is "culture-Protestantism" elsewhere than in America. Its devotees in Switzerland do not relish this theologian’s suggestion that the modern worship of the state or even of the family, instead of God, has the same effect as the worship of the "beast of the bottomless pit" or of some "voracious idol." They join with others in their own country and in Germany in condemning his thought as 'desperado-theology.' To Barth, being such a one as saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha! the very protest must have made the call more tempting; but he declined."
Now we see what the phrase "saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha!" means. As Barth is one who would "say among the trumpets Ha Ha,' it means that he is ready for, and maybe even itching for a fight. Such a fight would have been very tempting for such a theological pugilist as Barth, but he "declined" the invitation. The same was true for Schurz (above), who threw himself into promoting passage of the 14th Amendment. He, too, "said among the trumpets Ha Ha!"
The biblical context in which the phrase appears describes the warhorse, a strong animal, who is raring to get into battle. It laughs at fear and is not dismayed by the flashing spear or javelin. "When the trumpet sounds, it says 'Aha!'"--meaning that it is ready for, primed for, battle.
Isn't this a sophisticated use of the Bible? So, where is it from and what is the larger context in which this quotation appears?
When the Bible Makes No (or Little) Sense
2. "At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar," KJV. The NRSV has the following conjectural translation: "and for the colonnade (Hebrew "parbar": meaning uncertain) on the west there were four at the road and two at the colonnade (same note)."
The author describes the duties of the "gatekeepers" of the house of the Lord. Various divisions of the gatekeepers cast lots to watch over the different gates (north, south, east, west). The verse previous to the one just quoted says: "On the east there were six Levites each day, on the north four each day, on the south four each day, as well as two and two at the storehouse..." and then it is "parbar" from then on out. Well, we just don't know what it means, and no suggestion has garnered a majority of scholarly support. I will confess that I don't know what it means, but there it is, in God's Holy Word. Well, where does it appear?
3. "Where the corpse is there the vultures will gather," NRSV. "For wheresover the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together," KJV.
The statement is easy enough to translate, and, unlike the previous passage, each word has a meaning that is readily ascertainable. But when you put it all together you have a sentence that is clear enough but makes absolutely no sense, at least as far as I can divine, in the context in which it appears. The speaker has been talking about the suddenness of the appearance of the Son of Man; then he shifts to corpses and vultures. Where does this appear, by the way?
Let's now return to more "normal" passages.