Leaving the Garden: Biblical Irony as an Invitation to Discernment

By The Rev. Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp, Yale Divinity School

The Holy Scriptures present us with a powerful and lively Word of hope. On this beautiful spring afternoon, when showers coax the trees into budding and flowers are pushing up through the dark wet soil, we know that our God is a God of hope. In this season when our Jewish brothers and sisters have celebrated the Passover festival of God’s marvelous deliverance of Israel only three weeks ago and Christians are rejoicing in the Easter news of Christ’s resurrection, we know well that the Old and New Testaments alike offer us words of promise about God’s love for God’s people and for the world.

The Hebrew Scriptures invite us into a rich and wild variety of ways in which we can understand God’s promises. Biblical witness is offered through powerful stories such as that of Abraham lifting the knife to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah or Jacob wrestling until dawn with an angel at the Jabbok River. The Bible speaks of God’s promises through songs of trust and praise, through wisdom meditations on the incomparable sovereignty and inscrutable ways of our Creator, and through visions—who could forget Ezekiel’s dramatic vision of the heavenly chariot of God with its wheels whose rims were full of eyes all around, powered by four living creatures dashing back and forth like flashes of lightning? Ancient story and song, proverbs and prophetic oracles: all these are holy means by which the Word of God seizes our imaginations and convicts us of the power of God’s grace.

But we so often refuse to listen. We resist. We allow ourselves to be distracted, to be lured away from Scripture, to forget its astounding promises. We allow ourselves to become smug in the knowledge that we go to church or synagogue, or we seek to be “good people,” so that’s enough – we don’t have to engage the God who is spoken through Scripture’s pages. The Bible is hard to understand, after all. I’m not being ironic here: it truly is sometimes very difficult to “get” what the Bible is doing, and the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes can seem so very foreign to the ways in which we live and make meaning in our lives.

But God already knows us, to our core. As Psalm 139 has it, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” Yes, even from as far away as 3,000 years ago, from as far away as ancient Israel when the Scriptures were composed: God knows us, to the depths of our being. God knows that we are easily distracted from pursuit of that which is holy. God knows we tend to settle for idols, whether we are feverishly bent on acquiring money or prestige, or we think that political change will be the salvation of the world . . . or perhaps we are a little too fond of the idea that we ourselves are godly and faithful.

God knows! And so God has given us an extraordinarily precious gift in the Hebrew Scriptures. That gift is the gift of biblical irony.

This afternoon, I will explore with you some of the ways in which irony in Scripture challenges our idolatries, powerfully refuting our inadequate perspectives and inviting us into deeper wisdom. My goal this afternoon is to convince you of the vital importance of ironic biblical texts for the spiritual formation of Christian believers in the contemporary world. We will look briefly at the story of Balaam, the prophesying of Amos, and the skepticism of Ecclesiastes.

1.  Balaam: the irony of prophetic vision
First, the story of Balaam, a Mesopotamian seer who tries to curse Israel at the behest of King Balak of Moab in the Book of Numbers. Try as he might, Balaam is unable to curse Israel and in fact inadvertently blesses Israel each time he opens his mouth. Some scholars have argued that that the Balaam story is all about celebrating God’s sovereignty. Dr. Brueggemann says, “The [Balaam story] asserts the immense force of YHWH’s sovereignty that will finally prevail in the face of every resistance. . . . It is asserted that all of the force of YHWH’s sovereignty is a blessing for Israel. . . .The text . . . picks up on the Genesis theme that not only is Israel blessed, but through Israel other peoples are blessed as well.” Quite right! I want to build on Dr. Brueggemann’s insight to urge us to consider a darker and more ironic layer of meaning in this story, a layer that brilliantly shows Israel’s wrongheadedness and thereby underlines God’s sovereignty all the more.

It is fascinating that the figure of Balaam has aroused hyperbolic praise and hyperbolic condemnation in the history of reception of this story. Number 31, Deuteronomy 23, Joshua 24, Nehemiah 13, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation all condemn Balaam for intending to curse Israel, for practicing divination, or for sexual immorality; in a fragmentary Dead Sea scroll text, 4Q339, Balaam’s name appears in a list of false prophets; apparently Philo of Alexandria thought of Balaam as a magician (which is bad). But citations of him in 3 other Dead Sea scrolls (Testimonia, the Damascus Document, and the War Scroll) seem to confirm the truth of his prophecies, and the Jewish historian Josephus said he was the greatest of the prophets of his day. Some early Christian writers, such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria, were clearly conflicted, calling Balaam both a true prophet and an illegitimate sorcerer, I think reflecting the strongly divided reception of Balaam before them. I think this strongly bifurcated reception of Balaam  is due to the fact that he is being presented only ironically as good, and readers for centuries have been able to sense, if only dimly, the brutal ironizing going on in this text. My colleague John Collins writes of the Balaam story, “The blessing of Israel seems all the more sure because it is put on the lips of a pagan prophet. Balaam is acknowledged as a man of God—indeed, he acknowledges YHWH as his God, although he is not an Israelite. The Hebrew Bible seldom appeals to the testimony of Gentiles in this way.” [i] Seldom indeed, and perhaps that isn’t the main point here either! A crucial thing to understand about the way in which ironic texts signify is that you have the said and the unsaid. The “said” is what is ostensibly presented as true; the ironic meaning, then, is some kind of converse of that, an unspoken, “truer” truth that stands in complex relationship to the said.

I’d like to present for you a way of understanding Balaam and his oracles that depends on us reading the character of Balaam, the character of his blessings, and indeed the entire story as deeply ironic. Interpreters usually content themselves with noticing how amusing and satirical it is that Balaam’s donkey is more perceptive than the seer himself.  All true, but there are more shriekingly obvious clues to ironic intention in the story. The first: overstatements in the story, particularly in Balaam’s self-representation. Second: significant ambiguity at crucial moments in the text.  Third: hyperbole — drastic overstatement — in the blessings that are heaped upon Israel. And fourth: dramatic irony seen in the cluelessness of the Israelites in the plains below as the drama with Balaam is unfolding up in the hills overlooking the Israelite camp.

On the first and second points: To read Balaam in the traditional way as unconditionally obedient to God, as faithful in his prophesying of blessing for Israel, is to misunderstand the drastic way in which the reliability of Balaam’s voice is undermined by the text and to misread the rhetorical function of the oracles of blessing. The judgment and claims of Balaam are rendered highly suspect through overstatement. Overstatements or overreactions that seem incongruous in context include this Mesopotamian seer’s immediate and brash identification of the God of Israel as “the Lord my God,” even using the special name of the Lord, the Tetragrammaton, in his confession (Num 22:18). Even though Balaam is a diviner for hire — the envoys of Moab have journeyed to him with “the fees for divination in their hand” (22:7),  Balaam bursts forth with, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more” (22:18). Please. He is totally for hire, and is he this perceptive about the power of the God of Israel? No, he isn’t, and the point that Balaam is not that perceptive is made very clearly in the story of Balaam and his donkey which comes up next. He has no clue that the angel of the Lord is blocking his way, when even the donkey can see it! This irony is so great that lots of commentators have noticed it; but there are many other ironies in the story that have drawn less attention.

On the second point: there are significant textual ambiguities at crucial moments. For example, we find in Balaam’s oracles a description of God as One who is like “the horns/strength of the wild ox” to Israel (23:22, 24:8). We can try to track down that phrase in other instances in the Hebrew Bible, but ultimately we are left with a profound ambiguity, because the ox could be defending Israel from its enemies or using its horns to gore Israel itself, which is precisely what happens in Numbers 25 when Phinehas, the zealous priest, impales the copulating Israelite man and Midianite woman in the act of intercourse in their tent. Another famous ambiguity is Balaam’s characterization of himself as “the man whose eye is šetum,” an elusive Hebrew term that can connote either “open” or “shut” (24:3, 15), so here we have a seer who is either discerning or, pointedly, not discerning. He can see, but he also can’t see.

On the third signal of irony here: the hyperbolic nature of the blessings Balaam heaps upon Israel also signal an ironic trap, one into which many commentators walk. Shubert Spero characterizes Balaam’s oracles of blessing as “some of the most lofty prophetic utterances about Israel to be found in the Torah.” Similarly, Dennis Olson in Harper’s Bible Commentary notes, earnestly, “Through Balaam, God blesses Israel with accolades and promises unsurpassed in the entire Pentateuch.”   Unsurpassed in the entire Pentateuch, indeed! Hyperbole is a classic signal of irony across many, many cultures. It warns the alert reader to remain wary, an interpretive instinct that is surely rewarded when Balaam’s inability to curse Israel, inadvertently transmuted into excessive blessing, finally degenerates into indiscriminate cursing of Moab, Edom, Amalek, the hapless Kenites and Eber (24:17-24).[ii]

And on the fourth point: the governing irony of the whole story can be perceived in thunderous narrative silence concerning a central character: the Israelites themselves, who throughout the machinations of the Moabites and Balaam ironically “remain oblivious to the drama taking place outside their camp.” [iii] Wayne Booth and other analysts of irony identify as a clear marker of irony the ignorance of one or more characters regarding important information known by other characters or by the audience. The irony becomes clear after Balaam and Balak go home, their contest over: the abundantly blessed Israelite males promptly engage in illicit sex and apostasy with Moabite women, bringing down upon themselves the wrath of God via a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites (Numbers 25). God is sovereign, as Brueggemann argues, and it is incongruous to have a Mesopotamian seer blessing Israel, as Collins notes; indeed. And more than that: irony is richly and dangerously afoot throughout this whole story, satirizing the notion that Israel’s blessedness somehow will protect them. They need protection from their own apostasy, not from enemies.[iv]

The main point of the story is the unfaithfulness of the hyperbolically blessed Israel. Israel has a hugely important mission to embrace its own holiness, its separateness, and thereby to be a means of blessing and light to all the nations of the world; the most urgent danger is not enemies but that Israel will forget its covenant with God. The Balaam cycle is crucial in the overall literary and theological message of the Book of Numbers, because it shows us with scathing irony the reason for the death of the old generation in Numbers, and it prepares the way rhetorically for the great sermon of Deuteronomy, which exhorts every Israelite in every future generation to do better than those ancestors did. People of faith who read the Balaam story today would do well to remember how extravagantly blessed we are by God and how crucially important it is that we remain mindful that we are God’s people.

2.  Amos: the ironizing of cherished traditions
Next we consider the artistically brilliant ironic reversals that are effected in the rhetoric of Amos, the paradigmatic social justice prophet.

Amos opens with consummate irony, building rhetorical momentum in a diatribe against foreign nations only to drive home an indictment of Judah and Israel (Amos 1–2) in what Robert Alter has called a “rhetoric of entrapment.” The Lord  roars from Zion, and the audience of Amos is thrilled, sure that their God will come roaring down to put their enemies to flight.“For three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment!,” the God of Amos thunders. The Israelite and Judean audiences cheer as the wrath of their God is directed at their enemies: God will send a punishing fire first on Damascus, then on the Philistines, then Tyre, then Edom, then the hated Ammonites and despised Moab . . . and then, “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes!” What??! “So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.” The audience is shocked. The smiles slowly fade from their faces . . . and the Lord  roars on, “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Judah and Israel are doomed. The audience has fallen silent and is ready, now, to hear the word of this Lord whom they cannot domesticate with their religious traditions and their long history of deliverance.

Amos continues ironizing the audience’s expectations all the way through the book. Amos alternately lulls and confuses his audience with deceptively simple rhetorical questions (“Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey?,” 3:4; “Does disaster befall a city if the Lord has not done it?,” 3:6) that ultimately serve to ensnare and terrify the hearers.[v] Amos proffers a pseudo-clerical call to worship with biting sarcasm (“Come to Bethel—and transgress, to Gilgal and multiply transgressions” 4:4),[vi] and he skewers his audience with a proleptic ironic lament over a “dead” Israel whose doom is in fact still approaching (5:1-3). The Day of the Lord will be itself a day of unexpected reversals that ironize its audience’s hopes for redemption (5:18-20).[vii]

The various punishments God has sent on God’s people per Amos 4 (famine, drought, blight, mildew, locust, pestilence, war), are named in almost the same order in Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:35ff (drought, famine, pestilence, blight, mildew, locust, war).[viii] Amos is drawing upon his audience’s knowledge of Deuteronomistic tradition here. But where the Deuteronomists insisted on the efficacy of repentance, Amos revoices the tradition ironically to make the point that the time for repentance is long gone.[ix]

Amos offers three doxologies of praise to God the Creator in a grouping in which the ironic intensity increases as the real purpose of the doxologies—heightening the imminence and inescapability of doom—becomes ever clearer (4:13, 5:8-9, 9:5-6).[x] With these doxologies, Amos’s implied audience is put in the untenable position of needing to acknowledge the praiseworthy destructive power of a Creator Who advances precisely in order to destroy them. Biblical scholars Francis Andersen & David Noel Freedman note that these hymns “celebrate God’s limitless, terrifying power . . . . The most ominous threat of all is that every act of creation can be canceled, the work reversed and undone.”[xi]

Indeed, Amos is a book of reversals and ironic undoing! Central to Amos’s prophetic strategy is a focus on the Exodus traditions as a primary cultural site for Amos’s attack on the false confidence of his audience. Amos subverts Exodus traditions with brutal irony, undermining his implied audience’s sense of Israel’s election. His allusion to the deliverance from Egypt serves as forensic evidence to be mustered for Israel’s greater accountability for sin: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2). Israel alone is accountable in this unique way—accountable to a God whose power to destroy has been made abundantly clear. The foundational event that constituted Israel as the Lord’s own people has become a cause not for rejoicing but for sheer terror.[xii]     

Amos extends his ironizing of the Exodus proper to include the time of the wilderness wandering. In Amos 8:11-12, the Lord says, “I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” The people will wander to and fro in search of the sustenance that they need—not food nor water, but the word of the Lord. Hans Walter Wolff points out that the verb used for this wandering about in 8:12, šū, comes up also to describe the wandering of the ancient Israelites seeking for manna in the wilderness of Sinai (Num 11:8).[xiii] In that first wilderness journey, they found the word of the Lord, inscribed on stone tablets. In these latter days, they have disregarded that word too often, so they will be left to wander. The redemption enjoyed in that first Exodus is over for good.

In his most devastating ironic twist, Amos finally refers to the Exodus itself as just one of a variety of saving acts the Lord has performed on behalf of various peoples (“Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?,” 9:7). This unthinkable statement is Amos’s coup de grâce: even that first Exodus meant little. The Exodus, the essential hallmark of identity for ancient Israel and the very foundation of her story of redemption, is to be understood as just another common event in the history of the nations of the earth. The Lord delivers all and judges all: divine deliverance implies no special status on the part of the rescued, Israel’s ancient traditions to the contrary notwithstanding.

The ways in which Amos alludes to the ancient deliverance from Egypt are brilliantly crafted to further the larger purpose of the Book of Amos: namely, to strike into the hearts of his audience a fear so compelling that they will be forced to repent, to “seek God and live” (“seek Me and live,” 5:4; “seek the Lord and live,” 5:6; cp. “seek good and not evil, that you may live,” 5:14). The prophetic task of Amos has been to divide the hearers against themselves and absolutely terrify them, to persuade them to choose a newly faithful identity over against its own history of misguided trust in tradition. There is only one hope, a hope whispered by Amos in chapter 5 and taught through the parables of Jesus of Nazareth: seek God and live.[xiv]

3.  Ecclesiastes: skepticism as a path through and beyond irony
Finally, I want to think with you about Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible influenced by ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian pessimistic literature and by Hellenistic philosophy as well.a href=”#[xv]”>[xv] One reason some scholars want to suggest a date even as late as the Hellenistic period, starting in the 3rd century B.C., is because of striking resemblances between Qohelet’s philosophical posture and certain Greek philosophies (especially Epicureanism and early Stoicism), especially as regards the existential dilemma experienced by Qohelet and his suggestion in response that one should just enjoy the blessings you have while you can, knowing it could all be taken away in an instant.[xvi] Particularly of interest to Joseph Blenkinsopp is the emphasis in Ecclesiastes 3 on there being an appropriate time for every action, something that has resonances in Stoic ethics.a href=”#[xvii]”>[xvii] Qohelet looks to human experience as the primary source of wisdom, the God of Qohelet certainly exists but is both distant and capricious, and the chief benefit in life was to enjoy ‘joy’ whenever one could, while living life by means of the exercise of a highly pragmatic wisdom, or prudence.

Major themes in Ecclesiastes:
The most important refrain in the book, of course, is the famous “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” This word translated “vanity” is based on the literal meaning of “vapor” or “mist” in Hebrew. It connotes some aspect of vapor: transience, insubstantiality, futility, emptiness, nothingness, absurdity.

Because we are short on time, I will simply cite other themes for you; if you have never read the book of Ecclesiastes, I encourage you to try it, because it’s absolutely brilliant skeptical literature. I have found that people who are pragmatic-to-negative about what we see in the world around us – injustice, unfairness, hypocrisy, absurdity—are usually very glad this witness is in the Bible. So, Ecclesiastes is very rich and very wise, yet he sees, in his life experience, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” all of the lovely things in the world are vanity, and the wise die just as fools do. He sees people working very hard indeed, laboring without rest all of their miserable lives, only to lose that for which they have worked. Toil is ultimately fruitless, and the unworthiness of those who get your stuff when you die really grates on Ecclesiastes’ nerves. Wickedness and oppression go unpunished and the innocent have no one to vindicate or help. The most Ecclesiastes can say, ultimately, is that one must seize the moment when one is enjoying the good things in life. Happiness is better than misery. Joy is good, even if it is unreliable and can be snatched away at any moment.

As James Crenshaw says in a wonderfully apt phrase, in the book of Ecclesiastes, “moral impotence reigns.”[xviii] Yes. But the question is, does the speaker Ecclesiastes, with his deeply pessimistic perception of the world and his boundless frustration regarding life works, actually represent the voice of the narrator, or not? In a piece of literature as sophisticated and complex as this, should we not be careful to distinguish between characters or personae, on the one hand, and the actual perspective of the biblical author, on the other?

I think the point of the whole book is said right out in 12:13: “Fear God and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” Now, the consensus view in scholarship is that those are the words of an orthodox “editor” at the end of book who could not bear the brutal skepticism of the speaker, Ecclesiastes. My own view is that the persona or character of Qohelet is being presented ironically, as a foil that manages to demonstrate (in the negative) what you become if you don’t cherish the Torah.

A number of scholars, including myself, see in the Book of Qohelet an intentional and obvious construction of a persona Qohelet — that is, the creation of a literary character with his own distinct voice. This is a mainstream and not terribly radical idea; interpreters who might not otherwise agree with each other can agree on this. Michael Fox, for example, a liberal Jewish scholar on Qohelet, argues that there is the constructed voice of “Qohelet” and then what he calls the “frame narrator” of the book, who openly and explicitly reflects on the content of the book and on the person or persona of Qohelet; and Tremper Longman, a conservative evangelical Christian scholar, says something similar in his commentary. Since the book of Ecclesiastes itself speaks in the voice of Qohelet and then has observations about Qohelet in the third person in chapter 12, the idea of “nested viewpoints,” as Fox puts it, is pretty obvious to the alert reader and is nothing that would shake the beliefs of even the most conservative of readers in terms of their religious tradition’s appropriation of Ecclesiastes. That distinction of voices is right there in the text.

Where folks differ is on the relationship of the frame narrator’s voice to that of the persona of  “Ecclesiastes.” Fox thinks the frame narrator essentially, in most things, agrees with Ecclesiastes. By contrast, I am convinced that the frame narrator is ironizing what Ecclesiastes had to say. I think the persona of the bitter and skeptical sage was constructed as an ironic foil for the frame narrator’s true beliefs, which are quite different from those of Qohelet. We are supposed to realize, as we read along through the overstatements, contradictions, and depressing claims that suffuse the discourse of the sage: he is not a reliable speaker and his viewpoint ultimately is inadequate. Time does not permit me to go into the details of the argument,[xix] but I would observe that there are certainly examples in world literature of speakers — protagonists and narrators — being ironized, being misguided or flawed in ways that are not perceptible to themselves. For one example, there’s a Yiddish story in which a kind of schlemiel who has borne all kinds of indignities and abuse during his life dies and goes to heaven, where he is celebrated for his stalwart and humble character, his integrity, &c. &c.; but it becomes clear in a devastating moment at the end that, far from being a humble hero, he was just too dim-witted to realize what was going on during his life.

I will close with a fantastic example of the kind of ironizing that the Book of Ecclesiastes is performing, Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Think about this analogy: the reader is the “I” in the first word of the poem, and the traveler from an antique land is the narrator of the book of Ecclesiastes. This traveler is describing the ruins of a vast statue of someone who was once “king of kings,” or who claimed he was and had the statue built at any rate. Look at the motto on the pedestal: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” And the irony is absolutely crushing, right? because what we look on now are the ruins of the statue and of the king himself, his reputation and his might. We see two legs of stone with no trunk; we see a “shatter’d visage” half sunk in the sand. “Nothing beside remains” around the “colossal wreck.” There is no kingdom, there are no armies, there is no more power, and only the barest and heavily ironic remembrance of him. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! was meant one way by proud Ozymandias the king, but it signifies now in a new way, because we look on his works — the wreck of them, the crumbled ruins half-buried in the desert — and we despair for a different reason: We despair only if we put our trust in the sort of might that Ozymandias once trumpeted.

I think the Book of Ecclesiastes is like this. We see Ecclesiastes trumpeting his own wisdom about the futility of life, but we also see the “wreck” of him, his mental anguish throughout the book, the contradictions that he can neither resolve nor be at peace about, and finally the dissolution of his body, the breakdown of the “corpus” of the sage, in 12:1-8. I think we are meant to look on his “works of wisdom” and despair. But not just despair: as the Epilogist finally makes clear in 12:13, we are to look on them, despair, and know now with a deeper and fuller conviction than ever before that we must obey God, that we must fear God and keep God’s commandments, because all else is dust and hopelessness and vanity.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a work of utter genius, because through the skepticism of the character Ecclesiastes, it renders the exhortation to love Torah more impervious to irony this way than that exhortation ever could have been if it were given straight. If someone just said, “Look, obey the Law. That’s what you have to do,” a skeptic could wing right back with, “Yeah, sure, and look how it doesn’t help the innocent, who still suffer, nor does it end up punishing the wicked, who still prosper,”  &c. This way, Ecclesiastes himself has said all those things already, and we see that those observations, while partly true  (this is how irony works, playing on the “said”), are not sufficient.


We have come to the end of our time. I hope that I have convinced you that biblical irony is an extraordinary gift of God. Biblical irony shows us that we can do ourselves much more spiritual harm than enemies ever could if we forget that we are God’s people (Balaam). Biblical irony encourages us not to become over-confident in our sacred traditions but rather to continually seek God and live (Amos). And biblical irony shows us that the only way out of the bleak despair of existential skepticism is to fear God and obey God’s Law, which of course for Christians is the Law of love that we know in Jesus Christ. Thank you.


 Note to readers: this was originally an oral presentation. I ask you to be generous regarding shorthand bibliographical references and any typographical or other minor errors. I simply do not have the time to polish this as I would polish a written piece for publication.

[i] Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 154. Collins then goes on to suggest that the Balaam story is something of a forerunner of literary conventions in later times, in the Hellenistic period, in which Jewish writers have Gentiles praising the God of Israel. If that is the point, or one of the points, it is certainly being deployed in a more heavily ironic way here than in other examples. [Note to readers: some points made in this presentation are featured in lectures I give to an introductory divinity-school class that is reading John Collins’s textbook, hence you will see regular engagement of Collins in these notes.]


[ii] In light of the unreliability of Balaam’s voice and character, the seer’s allusion to the covenant with Abram in Gen 12:3, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you” (Num 24:9) is best read ironically.


[iii] The material here relies on my treatment of Balaam in “Oracular Indeterminacy and Dramatic Irony in the Story of Balaam,” pp. 134-51 in my Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).


[iv] We see support for reading the whole Balaam cycle in light of what then happens in Numbers 25 with the apostasy at Baal Peor. The Priestly writer read it that way as well, one can easily argue on the basis of the notice in Numbers 31:8, 16. In Numbers 31 we have the story of the Israelites, under the leadership of Phinehas, slaughtering the Midianite males and also putting Balaam to death. The Israelites initially take the women and children captive, but are scolded by Moses, who yells at them, “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague!” He then commands them to slay every little boy and every woman who is not a virgin. For our purposes now, I would only note that here we have Priestly reflection on Balaam that — this is obvious — absolutely does not valorize him but in fact blames him for apostasy.


[v]. As James R. Linville puts it, “In v. 8, the reader must agree that the roaring lion causes one to fear. But then the trap is revealed. The lion’s roar becomes a metaphor for divine speech and fear turns into prophecy. . . . Amos is implying that they should begin to prophesy as he has done. But, of course, none of them truly understand that they are threatened themselves. . . . The trap here forces the readers to judge their own relationship vis-à-vis the word of YHWH” (“Visions and Voices: Amos 7–9” [Biblica 80 (1999): 22-42], 25-6). Francis Landy interprets the irony of Amos 3:8 differently: “Prophecy . . . involves a loss of self, dramatizing the prophet as God’s prey; at the same time it affirms the prophet as the only one who is truly and courageously conscious. The rhetorical question, ‘My Lord YHWH has spoken; who can but prophesy?” ironically evokes the unexpected answer: no one prophesies except Amos, the deportee, who alone fulfills Israel’s prophetic purpose” (“Vision and Poetic Speech in Amos” [HAR 11 (1987): 223-46], 241).


[vi]. Paul R. Noble suggests that the irony here involves Amos’s parodying the people’s busyness doing legitimate activities without concern for ethics; he sees this passage as corresponding to 5:21-27 in a chiastic structure. See his “The Literary Structure of Amos: A Thematic Analysis” (JBL 114 [1995]: 209-26), 211-12.


[vii]. The astute reader Francis Landy finds irony in the timing of the locust plague at the start of the second growing season (7:1-2), irony in God’s question “What do you see?” (7:8) to a prophet who can see only what God reveals, irony in Amaziah’s accusation of corruption levelled at the only one who in fact is free of such corruption (7:10), and irony in the vision of the basket of fruit that usually represents thanksgiving for the produce of the land now symbolizing the land’s destruction (8:1-3). See Landy, “Vision and Poetic Speech in Amos,” 225-35.


[viii]. See the discussion in Jeremias, Amos, 70-2.


[ix]. This contra Jeremias, who sees the theology of Amos here to be in line with Deuteronomistic theology: “Because even this most extreme act of God did not attain its pedagogical goal, the coming encounter with God (v. 12) is portrayed as one, final chance for Israel’s survival. In preparation for this final chance, the exilic community is presented with the book of Amos itself, with its harsh reproofs and demonstrations of culpability. . . .” (Amos, 72). I would affirm Jeremias’ point that the entire Book of Amos is intended, as a rhetorical performance, to work repentance in the hearts of all those who encounter it. But this passage in Amos 4 is intended to take away not any hope for repentance that the implied audience might still have had, in their present circumstances and/or in the Deuteronomistic conditional covenant as such.


[xiii]. Hans Walter Wolff, Amos, 330. Andersen & Freedman agree, “The contrast with Moses and Sinai seems deliberate: at that time Moses fasted while receiving the words and the people listened and promised to obey. Now or in the future there will be no famine of food or drink, rather of listening and obeying, and that dearth will bring judgment” (Amos, 825). The verb šū comes up only 13 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all other instances are in contexts unrelated to food-gathering. Wolff ties this allusion in Amos to the reinterpretation of the manna we find in Deut 8:3: “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”


21. Amos 5:24 is really, really scary. The God of Amos is saying that God’s justice will roll down like waters, and God’s righteousness . . . but not like an “ever-flowing stream,” a translation that sounds lovely and refreshing and evokes a charming burbling brook of righteousness. No, the Hebrew there is naal ’etan, which signifies something more like a never-ending flash flood in one of those dry river beds in the Middle East. These river beds are dry in the dry season and then all of a sudden when it rains, because the earth is baked so hard that it is not immediately absorbent, a raging torrent can come pouring through those channels with no warning at all — with only seconds of advance notice. This is God’s justice! In the Book of Amos, God’s justice is not comforting but terrifying, because it will come sweeping across the world and across all of the cultural “strongholds” that we have built for ourselves: military power, economic power, social status, education, achievement. God’s justice will not be an ornamental creek running through the lovely manicured grounds of our church property but a perpetual flash-flood of unstoppable force sweeping away every act of injustice, every gesture of narcissistic smugness, every posture of callous indifference to the suffering of the poor!



[xvi]. The author of Qohelet could well have had contact with adherents of Stoicism and Epicureanism — the founders of both of those schools of thought were active in the 4th and 3rd centuries, well within the range of dates proposed for Ecclesiastes. Scholars have in fact spent a significant amount of time working out the potential resonances between Qohelet and the writings of Epicurus and the early Stoa. Joseph Blenkinsopp, among others, considers that Qohelet does reflect some influence from early Stoicism. Blenkinsopp suggests that there would have been time for the writings of Zeno the founder and at least two other Stoic philosophers, Cleanthes and “probably also Chrysippus,” per Blenkinsopp, “Ecclesiastes 3.1-15: Another Interpretation,” JSOT 66 [1995], p. 58.

[xviii]. “The Chasing After Meaning,” 128.


Qohelet’s project, while ostensibly impressive, ultimately fails, and all you should do — all you cando — in the face of death and inequity and transience of life and all of life’s absurdity, is to fear God and keep God’s commandments. Only obedience to God, not wisdom as such, can name the human person as being more than just a hapless pawn in the injustice, moral disintegration, and predictable and tedious disintegration that constitute the cosmos and characterize human life.  Where traditional wisdom fails, I think, the Book of Qohelet — understood properly as ironizing that wisdom — reconstitutes Israel as a community identified by and given life by its obedience to God.