Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Dog Years" - An Analysis

One of the most maligned songs in the Rush cannon, Dog Years is a song found on Rush’s 1996 LP, “Test For Echo.” The song is ostensibly about the life of a dog, and the lyrics are light-hearted and seemingly frivolous, all of which makes for a song that is often criticized by the fans of Rush, who have come to expect deeper and more meaningful words from their favorite band. To quote two opinions recently given on the Rush message board: “I hate the lyrics. I think they are embarrassing;” and, “The only mistake [Rush] made on Dog Years was writing lyrics.”

I have often argued that the reason many Rush fans don’t like Dog Years is because they don’t really understand it. It’s not, in fact, a song about a dog, and there are actually a number of very clever phrases in the song that only seem flippant because they make vague references that the average listener doesn’t get. I will look at each section individually and provide an analysis of what I think the song is saying. The lyrics, for anyone who cares, were written by Rush’s primarily lyricist, drummer Neil Peart.

In a dog’s life
A year is really more like seven
And all too soon a canine
Will be chasing cars in doggie heaven


I can agree that the last line is problematic. Regardless of the point Peart is trying to make, there’s just no good reason to ever use the phrase “doggie heaven.” Then again, Rush has always tended to have a typically goofy Canadian sense of humor, so the use of this silly phrase really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Be that as it may, this opening stanza is simply setting the stage for the extended metaphor that Peart makes throughout the song – a metaphor connecting “man” and “man’s best friend” and referencing the number seven. Convention says that a dog year is like seven human years. Thus, dogs age much more quickly than humans, and end up dying, on average, at about age 11 or 12 – which, if you multiply by seven, corresponds roughly to the average age human beings tend kick the bucket and head off to “people heaven.”

It seems to me
As we make our own few circles ‘round the sun
We get it backwards
And our seven years go by like one


Here, in the second stanza, the first connection to the human condition is made. As we make our own few circles around the sun, our time seems to fly by – we live in dog years; seven years go by like one.

Dog years – It’s the season of the itch
Dog years – With every scratch it reappears


This is the first chorus. That first phrase, “It’s the season of the itch,” is an obscure one. What is Peart trying to say here? My opinion is that he is making a vague reference to one of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous films: “The Seven Year Itch.” This is the film that produced the iconic image of Monroe with her white skirts billowing up over her torso. The phrase itself is one used by psychologists to refer to how married couples frequently begin to have trouble near the seventh year of marriage, and start “itching” for something else.

The connection, then, to the “dog years” outlined in the first stanza of the first verse is obvious and twofold. First, there is the connection to the seven years of a dog year. Secondly, there is the connection with the word “itch,” which draws to mind a scratching dog. This image is continued in the second line: “With every scratch it reappears.” Like a dog, no matter how much we “scratch,” we can’t make the “itch” go away – in other words, no matter how much we fight against it, time moves inexorably onward - seven years (the season of the itch) go by like one.

This chorus, I believe, is an incredibly complex and clever reference, pulling together the themes of the first verse.

On to the second verse:

In the dog days
People look to Sirius
Dogs cry for the moon
But these connections are mysterious


Here, Peart is again talking about the struggles of humanity. In the “dog days,” people look to Sirius. Another clever, yet vague reference here: Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the night sky. It is known as the “dog star.” The point, of course, is that some people look for comfort in astrology.

The stanza, of course, also has yet another clever twist, because the phrase “People look to Sirius,” when sung aloud, sounds like “People look too serious.” In other words, people take life way too seriously, particularly during the “dog days” of life.

The second part of the stanza has another clever play on words: “Dogs cry for the moon.” The expression “cry for the moon” is akin to “ask for the moon.” In this phrase, I think “dogs” can mean people, and thus some people “cry for the moon” – that is, they want everything – because they think that will soothe their discontent. But all this, Peart affirms, is “mysterious.”

It’s a play on words because, taken literally, he’s also talking about dogs howling at the moon, a fact of canine life that is mysterious to human beings.

It seems to me
While it’s true that every dog will have his day
When all the bones are buried
There is barely time to go outside and play


This second stanza of the second verse is an extended play on words that can be taken literally about dogs, or metaphorically about humans. For a dog, by the time he has buried all his bones, there’s barely any time left to get out and play. For a human, by the time he has “buried all his bones” – that is, by the time he has taken care of all his daily business – there is never enough time for anything else.

This, of course, fits the overall theme of “dog days” and looking too serious and life flying by like dog years.

The third line, of course, also includes another double entendre, because it can also be understood as our own bones being buried after we die. We spend our lives so busy, but once we are dead, there’s no more time left. Thus, it’s an encouragement not to waste one’s life. It reminds me of a phrase my friends and I used to say in college when debating about whether to stay up late and have fun, or go to bed early because we had class the next day: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Dog years – It’s the season of the itch
Dog years - With every scratch it reappears
Dog years - For every sad son of a bitch
Dog years - With his tail between his ears


This second time through the chorus extends it by adding rhyming phrases. This particular part of the song gets a significant amount of criticism by many Rush fans. They miss the vague and clever reference to the Monroe film, mentioned above, and they assume that “season of the itch” is a meaningless phrase written only to create a nice rhyme for “son of a bitch.” They also argue that “With his tail between his ears” is a nonsense line that is, again, only given for the purpose of rhyming. What does it mean, after all, for a dog to have his tail between his ears? Dogs’ tails go between their legs, not their ears, right?

We’ve already discussed the meaning of the first two lines. The third line is my favorite in the whole song, because like so many of the other phrases, it’s a clever play on words – the dog/human connection again. The poor dog is a “sad son of a bitch,” and the poor man, living in the dog years, is also a “sad son of a bitch.”

The fourth line connects to the one before it. It’s not the dog with his tail between his ears, but the human with his tail between his ears. And what does it mean for a human to have his tail between his ears? It can be taken a couple of ways. First, it could be understood as a clever way of saying the “sad son of a bitch” has “shit for brains” – his “tail” (i.e., his rear end) between his “ears” (i.e., inside his head). It can also be taken as a different kind of insult; the “sad son of a bitch” has his “head up his ass.”

I prefer that last one myself, and it fits the context of the song a bit better.

I’d rather be a tortoise from Galapagos
Or a span of geological time
Than be living in these dog years


Just in case you might feel that Peart is being a bit too hard on the “sad son of a bitch,” this bridge of the song makes clear that Peart, himself, is the one living in “these dog years” with his “tail between his ears.”

This bridge has also been a frequent target of criticism, either because “Galapagos” makes for a cumbersome word in a song, or because the point is not clear. What the heck does a tortoise from Galapagos (wherever that is!) have to do with anything? the frustrated Rush fan might ask (and I’ve personally heard this complaint). Of course, Galapagos is an island off the western coast of South America, and is the place Charles Darwin visited that helped inspire his work in evolutionary science. Tortoises, which are found in abundance on Galapagos, are famous for having extremely long life spans. One famous tortoise was given to the royal family of Tonga – an island in the South Pacific – by Captain Cook in about 1777. It didn’t die until the Beatles were a pop sensation – in 1965.

The second phrase – “a span of geological time” – is a bit more explicit.

The third phrase, of course, makes the point clear: I’d rather live for a really long time than have this fleeting human life, which passes like dog years.

In a dog’s brain
A constant buzz of low-level static
One sniff at the hydrant
And the answer is automatic


This is the first stanza of the song’s third verse. Like the rest of the song, it’s a play on words that can refer to both a literal dog and a human being. In reference to a dog, the meaning is fairly clear. In reference to a human, I think it can be understood much more deeply as a reference to how we spend so much of our lives on “autopilot.” This fits with the theme of the “sad son of a bitch,” struggling through the “dog days” of his fleeting life on earth.

It seems to me
As well make our own few circles ‘round the block
We've lost our senses
For the higher-level static of talk


This second stanza makes the implication in the first stanza clearer. As we humans make our own few “circles ‘round the block,” we miscommunicate and we run on autopilot, missing the important “conversations” going on around us – the “conversations,” of course, being the important events in life. More directly, I suspect, Peart is lamenting the loss of intellectual discourse in popular culture.

In the end, despite its frequent criticism, I think Dog Years is one of Rush’s most clever lyrical efforts – a song where nearly every line is a play on words, an extended metaphor, or a double entendre.

Perhaps some will still think the lyrics are bad for a rock song. To finish the first quote given above by the critical fan on the Rush message board: “I hate the lyrics. I think they are embarrassing. I also understand them. I still think they are embarrassing.”

Well, I suppose you can’t please everyone. I’m drawn to the song because the lyrics are meaningful to me – I often feel the same feelings described in the song – and as a wordsmith, I have a deep appreciation for the cleverness of the way those feelings are expressed.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nonviolent Resistance in the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount, as many Christians will know, is a famous “sermon” given by Jesus in the book of Matthew, containing some of Jesus’ most familiar sayings. I put the word “sermon” in quotation marks, because it is unlikely that Jesus uttered all these sayings in one long soliloquy on a single given day during his life. Comprising three full chapters in Matthew’s gospel, it reads more like a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, which Matthew collated into a single teaching discourse.

Entire books have been written about the various teachings that make up the Sermon on the Mount, but I want to focus particularly on five sayings that fit with Jesus’ profile as a prophet engaged in nonviolent resistance to the domination system of imperial Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

RESISTANCE MOVEMENTS IN PREINDUSTRIAL DOMINATION SYSTEMS

Don’t let the subtitle scare you. A “preindustrial domination system” is simply an anthropological way of referring to just about every civilization that existed prior to the industrial age of the 18th century. A “domination system” is a type of civilization where the vast majority of the populace lives near or below the subsistence level, with the fruits of their labors being expended primarily by a powerful and wealthy few. Think of medieval Europe, where the peasants – the serfs – worked the land and lived in virtual poverty, so that the kings and dukes and lords could live in luxury. This is a classic domination system, preindustrial, and thus “agrarian” (farm-based).

This is the kind of civilization Jesus and his followers lived within. The Romans were the imperial overlords, and the Jewish elite – the “chief priests, scribes, and teachers of the law” frequently named in the gospels – were their native collaborators. They were “collaborators” because they did Rome’s bidding to the detriment of the Jewish population. They kept people in line, collected taxes and fines, oversaw the court system and the religious system, and generally acted as the pawns of imperial Rome. Rome rewarded them with wealth, status, and power.

This, needless to say, did not go over well with the average Jew, which led to a serious of resistance movements and armed rebellions over a period of 140 years, from the death of Herod around 4 B.C.E., to the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 C.E.

The resistance movements that rose up among the Jews during these years are consistent with the kinds of resistance movements that tend to crop up in all agrarian domination systems. There are generally two types of resistance, each with two possible methods.

The first type is violent resistance, and it includes both passive and active violent resistance. Active violent resistance is, of course, akin to armed rebellion – bands of angry peasants rising up with sword and spear to overthrow the authorities. Passive violent resistance can be characterized as opting out of a true act of war, but being prepared to defend one’s self violently if necessary. “I won’t draw first blood, but I’ll strike quick and deadly if you make the first move.”

The second type is nonviolent resistance, and it too has passive and active forms. Passive nonviolent resistance is the form of resistance that many Jews of the 1st century took, including the gospels’ infamous Pharisees. Instead of violently resisting the Roman overlords and their native collaborators, the Pharisees delved into their religious traditions as a way to passively resist cultural, religious, and even genetic assimilation. This tradition of passive nonviolent resistance has become the hallmark of Judaism, and it is the reason why Jews still exist as a distinctive culture to this day, despite nearly 2,000 years without a homeland. In the annals of anthropology, this is quite remarkable. Notice that there are no Assyrians, Hittites, or Medians still around in the 21st century – they were assimilated long ago.

Active nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, is akin to the type of resistance the United States saw during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Violence is rejected, but active resistance through defiance, civil disobedience, and noncompliance with cultural norms is affirmed.

This active nonviolent resistance is the type of resistance that Jesus and his follower embraced during the first part of the 1st century. Jesus does not appear to have engaged in or supported violent rebellion, but he encouraged his followers to actively resist the domination system around him.

ACTIVE NONVIOLENT RESISTANCE IN THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

With that context in mind, we move to the Sermon on the Mount, which has several sayings that illustrate Jesus’ commitment to active nonviolent resistance of the imperial Roman domination system and its elite Jewish collaborators.

The sayings in question make up only a fraction of the entire discourse, but their importance to the Jesus movement cannot be underestimated. Walter Wink was the first scholar to highlight their importance as forms of nonviolent resistance, and the following analysis is largely Wink’s work, repeated by scholar Marcus Borg in a recent book on the historical Jesus.

1. You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.

2. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

3. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

4. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Each one of these sayings is rife with active forms of nonviolent resistance, though many (if not all) of them are frequently misunderstood in popular Christianity.

EYE FOR EYE, TOOTH FOR TOOTH
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.
I have often found it odd that Christians frequently quote this phrase to support the idea of capital punishment and other punitive measures against criminals. “If someone stabs a person 20 times, they should be executed by being stabbed 20 times.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this argument. A cruder version goes something like this: “If someone commits rape, they should have their genitalia removed.”

I’m reminded of a well-known song by the Charlie Daniels Band called “Simple Man.” After a verse that talks about all the violent things that the narrator would like to do to criminals, the chorus states: “The Good Book says it so I know it’s the truth: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You better watch where you go and remember where you’ve been, that’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.”

This sort of thing dumbfounds me because in the “Good Book,” Jesus explicitly rejects “eye for an eye” justice systems. Perhaps Charlie Daniels doesn’t realize there’s another 27 books after Malachi in his bible.

In any case, when Jesus says “do not resist and evildoer,” there is a slight mistranslation at play that causes the phrase to come off as entirely passive – if you are attacked, simply lay down and die. But in the original Greek, the word translated as “resist” implies violent resistance. So what Jesus says here is that his followers should not “violently” resist an evildoer. Resist evil, but not with violence.

Thus, this saying is a kind of introduction to what comes afterward. The remaining sayings in this cluster illustrate what it means, in practice, to resist evil nonviolently.

TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
As with the phrase “do not resist an evildoer,” there are those who would suggest that the “turn the other cheek” statement encourages us not to fight back if we are attacked. Lie down and die, as it were. It is difficult to believe that Jesus taught this – and clearly if his followers had followed such a teaching, the religion that sprang up in his name wouldn’t have survived the persecutions of the 1st century!

Instead, this saying from Jesus is talking about something much more specific – namely, the imperial domination system of the 1st century Jewish homeland.

In that context, consider the word choice: Jesus refers specifically to the “right cheek.” Picture a person slapping someone on the right cheek. In order to do it, the striker would have to use a backhanded swing. The backhanded slap was a way a superior struck his subordinate. A forehand slap was the way an equal would strike another equal – such as during a fight. In this saying, then, Jesus is talking about a superior – one of the wealthy, powerful elites – striking a commoner. Perhaps a landowner striking a day laborer. When this happens, Jesus urges, turn the other cheek as well. By doing so, you are giving your left cheek, which would require a forehand slap – the slap of an equal. This is a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance. You can strike me, but you will do it as my equal.

GIVE YOUR COAT AND YOUR CLOAK
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.
The radicalism of this particular saying is sometimes lost because modern folks don’t generally understand the clothing designations of the ancient world. To put it simply, a common Jew in the 1st century wore two garments – a cloak or tunic, which covered the body, and a coat or robe worn over top. The cloak, then, was the undergarment, and the coat was the outer garment.

What does it mean to talk about someone “suing” you for your coat? Quite simply, this is a reference to a person being sued for clothing because of debt. This may seem foreign to our modern sensibilities, but this was the nature of poverty that so many common Jews lived within in the 1st century. Indebtedness was rampant and feared almost more than anything else, and if you could not pay your debts, you might be sued for the coat on your back, so that the creditor could sell your coat to recoup his money.

When Jesus encourages his followers to give both coat and cloak, the image is quite striking – the debtor would literally be left naked. This, like the image of turning the other cheek, is a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance. First, it shames the creditor, because in 1st century Jewish culture, nakedness shamed not the person who was naked, but the person who saw the nakedness. Secondly, as Marcus Borg puts it, it serves as a symbolic statement: “Look what this system is doing to us, stripping us naked.”

GO THE SECOND MILE
And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
This statement, rather than being a general statement about giving yourselves to others, is referencing a specific practice in the Roman Empire. A journeying Roman soldier had the right to force a commoner to carry his heavy gear for one mile. The limit of one mile was put in place because the practice had been abused, and commoners were often forced to march with the army for extremely long distances. To put it bluntly, they sometimes had to walk as long as it took for the soldier to find another sucker. This, of course, not only served to stir up resentment, but also could have had an economic impact, as a landowner might see his fields lay dormant for a day because a passing regiment enlisted all his workers to carry their gear to the next town.

After the “one mile” rule was put in place, it was enforced with sometimes severe penalties. No Roman soldier wanted to be caught forcing a peasant to carry his gear for miles on end. So, as Walter Wink suggests (and Marcus Borg repeats), the image is almost a comical one, of a peasant insisting on going the extra distance, and the soldier wrestling with him to put the gear down and go home.

As such, this too creates a powerful image of active nonviolent resistance to the entrenched domination system, by revealing its absurd side and putting the soldier (who represents the power base of the system) in an uncomfortable spot. It turns him – and thus the system – on its head.

LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
In the same way that the “eye for an eye” saying functions as a kind of introduction to this cluster of instructions about nonviolent resistance, so the “love your enemies” saying works as a kind of summary or conclusion to the theme. “Resist evil,” Jesus says, “but do it nonviolently, and love your enemies just the same.” This, for Jesus, is illustrative of God’s character. As Marcus Borg puts it, speaking about Jesus’ perspective: “Love of enemies and nonviolent resistance are grounded in God’s character and passion.” For Jesus, Borg argues, “God’s character is nonviolent; therefore, be nonviolent. God’s passion is justice, therefore be passionate about justice. Resist injustice. And do so nonviolently.”

CONCLUSION

Jesus opposed the domination system of his day through active nonviolent resistance, illustrated by several teachings recorded in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus rejected compliance with the powers that be, and attempted, through his life and message, to encourage his followers to resist the imperial domination system – what scholar J.D. Crossan calls the “violent normalcy of civilization” – through nonviolent means. These nonviolent means, like the sit-ins and freedom rides of the 1960’s, were geared at making powerful statements and exposing the dark underbelly of the systemic evils in normal society.

It leaves us with several important questions. As Christians, what are we doing, today, to resist systemic evil? We no longer live in an agrarian domination system, but in what ways does our own civilization encourage oppression and subjugation? And, most importantly, are we fighting and resisting those oppressive elements in our own society, or are we collaborators against God’s sense of justice and compassion, against Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A Den of Robbers

Is a “den of robbers” a place where robbers go to steal, or a place where robbers go to hide?

Perhaps one of the most famous actions attributed to Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament, the account of the so-called “Cleansing of the Temple” is one that most Christians, devout or otherwise, are familiar with.

Theologians and historians have been picking apart this story for centuries, but my purpose here is not to give a detailed analysis of the story itself. Instead, I want to focus on one of the more famous lines from the story, uttered by Jesus: that the Jerusalem temple had become a “den of robbers.”

To give but a brief background, the story takes place during Jesus’ last week of life in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The gospel of John also relates the story, but places it early in Jesus’ ministry, most likely for thematic reasons. Most historians agree that the event most likely occurred near the end of Jesus’ life. Indeed, Mark tells us explicitly that Jesus’ actions in the temple led directly to his arrest and execution: “And when the chief priests and scribes heard [Jesus’ pronouncements against the temple], they kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18a).

In the story, Jesus enters the temple during the week of Passover and begins to “drive out those who were selling and those who were buying,” going so far as to “overturn the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15). In John’s account, Jesus actually brandishes a whip! After he is finished, he quotes from two of the great Jewish prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. From Isaiah, he states that the temple is to be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isaiah 56:7), but has instead become, from Jeremiah 7:11, a “den of robbers.”

This scene has traditionally been interpreted in quite simple terms: Jesus created a scene because he was angry to find the temple being treated like a marketplace – people buying, selling, and changing money, rather than worshipping and praying and sacrificing. In this perspective, Jesus’ reference to a “den of robbers” implies that in addition to not showing the right kind of respect to the sacredness of the temple, the merchants there were robbing people – charging exorbitant fees, making unfair exchanges, and applying unreasonable prices. Indeed, this idea of the merchants being unscrupulous has been behind countless interpretations of this story over the centuries. A quick Google search on “cleansing of the temple” turned up a bible study lesson from bible.org as its first site: “Of course, the dealers in cattle and sheep would be tempted to charge exorbitant prices for such animals. They would exploit the worshippers…The money-changers would charge a certain fee for every exchange-transaction. Here, too, there were abundant opportunities for deception and abuse. And in view of these conditions the Holy Temple, intended as a house of prayer for all people, had become a den of robbers.”

I like to call this sort of interpretation a “Sunday School answer” – it fits a very widely-accepted model, not too deep, easy to digest, easy to believe, and, I believe, utterly wrong.

First and foremost, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that prices placed on sacrificial animals in 1st century Jerusalem were tightly regulated. By the time of Jesus, an increasing number of Jews no longer had their own herds from which they could bring a sacrificial animal, and many who did still retain herds could not afford to use one for a sacrifice. Additionally, even those who could bring along their own animals were frequently loath to do it, because the journey to Jerusalem was hard enough without toting along a slew of sacrificial animals, particularly since the animals given for sacrifice were supposed to be unblemished. For the average Jew, it would have been next to impossible to make it to Jerusalem with an unblemished animal. For all these reasons, the sale of sacrificial animals in Jerusalem was a big business, one that made money for the temple treasury and which offered a much needed service to the average Jew. Since it was such a big business, prices were tightly regulated. There simply isn’t much evidence to suggest wide-spread price-gouging or wide-spread discontent among average Jews about having to buy sacrificial animals in the temple. Those commentators, like the one quoted above, who argue that corruption was widespread, are simply making wild, and certainly unsubstantiated, guesses based on understanding the story out of context.

Second, when we consider what the phrase “den of robbers” actually means, and apply it to the historical context of Jesus’ life and message, it becomes clear that this event had nothing to do with accusing temple merchants of robbery, or suggesting that financial transactions had no place in the sacred space of the temple.

As noted above, the phrase first appears in Jeremiah, where the prophet stands before the temple and indicts its leaders for not staying true to God’s justice. Jeremiah, speaking with the voice of God, lists a number of sinful things that the temple authorities routinely engage in, then accuses them of believing they are safe in the temple: “Will you [commit these sins], and then come and stand before me in this [temple]…and say ‘we are safe’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this [temple]…become a den of robbers in your sight?”

The Hebrew word translated most commonly as “robbers” actually has a more violent meaning to it. It is more akin to “destroyer,” and is often used to describe a wild animal. In its original setting, it has nothing to do with simple theft at all. Consider its usage in Ezekiel 18:10: “If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood…” The word is question is translated in this passage as “violent,” but it’s the second phrase – “a shedder of blood” – that indicates exactly what this word means. It is not a simple “robber” who steals things, but a violent person – someone who commits acts of violence against others – which may, of course, include violent robbery. But in the context of robbery, think of a mugger who clobbers someone over the head with the butt of a gun, then steals her purse, rather than a thief who sneaks into a house, steals a TV, and sneaks out unseen.

So when Jeremiah says that the temple has become a den of “robbers,” he is saying that it has become a place full of “violent people.”

The second, and perhaps more poignant, aspect of this phrase is the word “den.” The Hebrew word means “cave.” As such, Jeremiah is talking about a place where violent people congregate – literally a hideout. The temple, then, is not a place where violent people go to commit violence, but a place where violent people go to hide. Robbers, after all, don’t rob inside a cave. They hide inside a cave. The context of the passage makes this clear. As seen above, Jeremiah says that these people commit violent acts of sin, then go to the temple and say “we are safe.” Thus, as Jeremiah notes, they have turned the temple into a hideout for violent people – a “den of robbers.”

With this context in mind, Jesus’ use of the phrase becomes clear. The buyers and sellers, who represent the powerful Jewish elite, have turned the temple into a “den of robbers.” They don’t go to the temple to commit crimes; they commit crimes, and then hide in the temple. The phrase, then, does not implicate the Jewish elite for being robbers, it implicates the entire domination system that oppresses the Jewish population in the name of the temple – that is, in the name of God.

This, of course, is perfectly consistent with the context of Jesus’ overall message. As I have described elsewhere, Jesus spent his life fighting against a domination system – a system of Roman overlords whose “dirty work” was carried out by powerful Jewish collaborators, namely, the high priests, client-kings, and local authorities who ruled the Jewish homeland on Rome’s behalf. Rome’s imperialism oppressed the average Jew, and the Jewish elite – those very leaders who were supposed to be watching out for the best interests of God’s people – collaborated with Rome’s oppression.

In summary, when Jesus “cleansed” the temple, it was not an attempt to purify the temple from unscrupulous merchants or impious business practices. His action was a sociopolitical statement: you oppress God’s people and mock God’s justice, then you screen yourself inside the temple, making the temple itself little more than a hideout for violent robbers.

This, of course, sheds a whole new light on our own era. Is the modern Church working within Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God – a kingdom of justice, love, and acceptance? Or is it a den of robbers – a hideaway for those who would pervert God’s love and oppress God’s people?

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