Posted by: ritagone | May 19, 2010

Death and the Old Testament

I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to quote a rather lengthy passage from “The Gifts of the Jews,” by Thomas Cahill, which I mentioned last week as a book that is changing my way of thinking about the Old Testament (and which I’m still reading, slowly but thoroughly, each morning during my devotional time).  Chalk up quoting a book passage to you in the Rita’s Ramblings to two things: we’re leaving this morning to fly to Phoenix to celebrate Michael’s 92-year-old mother’s passing into the arms of Jesus after many years of dementia and frailty, and secondly, I was so struck by this passage that I just had to share it with you readers.  If it entices you to read the entire book, so much the better, but on the off chance that you’re just too busy to grab a copy of Cahill’s work, at least you’ll have the opportunity to marvel at what he has to say in this passage:

Talking about the Jews before the Babylonian captivity, Cahill writes: “God did not want their sacrifices, their national shrines, their outward show.  He was not interested in guaranteeing their political power: he had shown them most painfully that this was of no interest to him.  What on earth was this about?

To appreciate how unprepared the Jews were to pursue this line of thinking, one must take a quick look around the ancient world of the early sixth century.  Religion then was about sacrifice.  All peoples placated their gods in public temples, associated with kingship.  The identity of god-king-priests-people was visible and unmistakable.  There was no other way.  If their God had destroyed their identity, what more could he possibly want from them?  It was in the midst of this conundrum that the unheeded words of the prophets came back to them.  God wanted something other than blood and smoke, buildings and citadels.  He wanted justice, mercy, humility.  He wanted what was invisible.  He wanted their hearts – not the outside, but the inside.

There is no way of exaggerating how strange a thought this was.  The Jews thought as did all other ancient peoples – of houses and fields, flocks and herds, gold and silver.  The word which falls so easily from our lips – spiritual – had no ready counterpart in the ancient world.  YHWH was spirit, of course, and completely unlike other gods because he was invisible and could not be represented in art.  But this was precisely what had always given his people so much trouble, and they longed to depict him as other gods were depicted by their people.  The closest they could come to imagining spirit was ruach – wind, breath —  the only invisible thing that was real, real because you could see its effects.  Ruach YHWH sometimes descended on leaders, prophets, priests, and kings, for the sake of directing the people.  But the people?  The people had no ruach, God did not descend on them.

But men and women had the breath of life, which when they died escaped their bodies as mysteriously as YHWH had abandoned his Temple.  There was in every human being an ‘inside,’ which the Jews had never steadily adverted to before.  Could God possibly mean that each of them was to be a king, a prophet, a priest in his own right?”

Actually, I’m having to stop myself lest I quote the entire chapter of Cahill’s book to you.  The next time anyone says to me that the Old Testament is a different work than the New, I’m going to point them to this book.  I have never seen more clearly the connection between the Old and New Testaments, how God has moved through the history of his peoples to bring salvation – to bring ruach – to anyone who will partake of it.

In the midst of great loss through death in the past few weeks (Michael’s mother and our dear friend David Brantingham), I’m thankful that this is the book I’ve been reading.  It is reassuring and comforting to see the thread of life that weaves itself from Genesis through to the minor prophets’ writing of the Old Testament.  And I have never seen it more clearly than I do now after reading Cahill.  What’s even more amazing to me is that Cahill is not a believer, at least not in the fundamental sense that most of us reading this Rambling would define.  Somehow God has used this articulate, thoughtful man to speak truths that many believers have never even confronted.  That to me is an awesome God using anyone and everything to suit His purposes.

God is truly bigger and more awesome to me now than He was a few weeks ago.  I’m beginning to grasp a bit more what Paul meant when he told us that we see now as if through unclear glass, in a mirror, dimly, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), which means my understanding of God is miniscule, negligible, but one day, it will be clear, sharp, and amazingly wonderful.

I wish you all a blessed week.  Next week I’ll be writing from a cruise ship in the Alaskan inland passage, a 40th anniversary present from my husband Michael (and yes, he’s with me).  Maybe I’ll even figure out by next week how to include a stunning photograph in the Rita’s Ramblings – taken by yours truly.  Stranger things have happened.  Watch for it.

Regards, Rita


  1. It is also remembering the principles he died for and gaining inspiration for the sacrifices of those who died at Karbala.

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