Magazine article Cross Currents

Watch Your Back: Ruminations on the Biblical Poetics of Hope

Magazine article Cross Currents

Watch Your Back: Ruminations on the Biblical Poetics of Hope

Article excerpt

And it shall come to pass in the behind-the-back days ..."--Isaiah 2:2


It's About Time

There are hints in the literature of the Ancient Near East of an orientation to time quite different from our modern, Western version. (1) Americans are especially prone to talk glibly of "facing the future," and of "turning our backs on the past." We value foresight over hindsight. We forecast, foresee, predict, and prognosticate. We believe in progress towards a goal that is out there in front of us somewhere. We talk as if we were sitting on a train, facing the front, able to anticipate what is to come around every corner.

In contrast, there are expressions from Ancient Near Eastern texts that seem to reflect a cultural construction of time flowing from back to front. (2) If we imagine a person from such a culture traveling on that same train, they would be seated facing the back, watching the landscape flow by, catching glimpses out the window of where they have already been. There is an echo of this conception of time in the temporal phrase introducing Isaiah's vision of an ideal Jerusalem (quoted above). The term usually translated "last" or "latter" ('acharit) is an abstract noun indicating "that which comes after," or "that which results from." It is cognate with words designating the back part, behind, or end of something. There is a convergence of spatial and temporal signifiers reflected in the root word pointing both to that which is located behind, at the backmost extremity, and that which is to take place afterwards, in the future (temporal), or as an outcome of (i.e., logically after). (3) And so it is in the "behind-the-back days," according to the prophet, that the holy mountain will be (re)established, when many peoples will stream to Zion to obtain instruction in Torah.

The concept of time is notoriously difficult to explicate, much less to reconstruct from scattered references in ancient texts. But if such expressions do provide clues to underlying cultural conceptions, the notion of time flowing from back to front correlates well with human experience. We can't really see into the future. All we can "see" are the reflexes and vestiges of what has already happened. We catch glimpses of events that have taken place in the past, images preserved in individual and corporate memory which in panoramic perspective begin to suggest emerging patterns that have shaped us and are likely to continue into the future. In order to understand the present then, and anticipate the future, it is necessary to keep looking foreword at the past, spreading out before us as an emerging landscape. It is this orientation to time, the prophet's temporal construction implies, that enables us to glance over the shoulder, backwards towards the future.

Of course we can't really "see" the past either. We construct it out of the fractured human experiences that happen in fits and starts outside the coherence of ritual time, ritual space, and ritual action. And here finally we begin to approach the complexity of eschatological language and the biblical poetics of hope. It is a commonplace of prophetic diction in the Bible to refer to events that will unfold in the future. The things to come are predicated on the patterns of God's past acts--whether for judgment or deliverance. There are former things that have come to pass, things of old that lie out there before us (qedem). There are also new things that God is about to do, things that are declared ahead of time to those who will listen (Is 42:23). These are the behind-the-back days.

Since at least the 8th century oracles of Amos biblical prophets have given voice to the expectation that the God who created the world, entered into covenant, gave the Torah, and delivered the people from destruction, is about to act again. The coming Day of the LORD was anticipated as a time of deliverance and vindication, when Yahweh would defeat the enemies of Israel. …

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