The Black Sabbath

This evening marks the beginning of Tish B’Av, that is the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. It is one of the special Sabbaths which is known as Shabbat Chazon, that is the Sabbath of Vision, where Jewish people mourn the destruction of both Jewish Temples. The first temple in 587 BCE and its replacement the second temple in 70 CE. According to tradition both happened on this day. These events, as I will briefly explain, are not only important to Jewish people but to Christians because we have a quintessentially Jewish heritage. Knowing them has significantly impacted how I read scripture.  First we must have a quick run through of how the day is marked to help us understand its significance for followers of Jesus.

To commemorate this event, Jewish people read a portion of the Jewish lectionary from the Prophets known as the Haftarah, which for day of Shabbat Chazon is Isaiah 1:1-27. It is the prophet’s vision, hence the name Sabbath of Vision, warning of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple as well as promising the eventual restoration of the Jewish people. They also sing the Book of Lamentations as a dirge. According to tradition, Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah who as an eyewitness wrote these poems lamenting the fall of the Temple, Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Shabbat Chazon is also known as the Black Sabbath because it is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

Quite appropriately, the weekly Torah reading (parashah) is from Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22, which is a recounting by Moses of Jewish national history beginning with reception of the Law at Sinai and ends at the cusp of the entering the promised land 40 years later. Deuteronomy begins the main block of Old Testament historical narrative which scholars call Deuteronomistic history that ends with Kings. (It does not include Ruth which is the same in the Jewish canonical ordering.) What makes the readings so complementary, apart from representing each major section of the Hebrew Bible, is that they perfectly bracket the story of the Jewish people. They made a covenant with YHWH their God but ultimately failed to keep it and therefore did not receive the promises. It also reminds them of God’s unending faithfulness and enduring covenant love, which is their national anthem, and that gives them hope that he will fully restore his people after these great calamities. It is the over-arching narrative of the Jewish people in the scriptures, a cycle of covenant formation, dissolution and renewal.

Deuteronomic history forms the backbone of biblical history and Shabbat Chazon marks the two most definitive crises events in ancient Jewish history, the destruction of the Temples. While the destruction of the first Temple is recorded in the Old Testament, you have to go the New Testament to see references to the destruction of the second. The first destruction was done by the Babylonians who took them off into captivity. The exile caused a deep re-evaluation of their identity as the people of God as well deeply impacting their culture and society. Strict adherence to monotheism and other aspects of Torah observance became a priority. It was in its aftermath that Jewish messianism began to emerge, especially in the second Temple period of which Jesus belonged. It was within these theological, historical and cultural currents that the Nazarene lived and went about his messianic vocation. It is pretty clear in the synoptic gospels that Jesus believed his death on the cross would be a sacrifice that would save Jerusalem from a second catastrophe by taking it on himself, if only they embraced his particular messianic vision of the rule of God’s kingdom on earth. After the second Temple fell, Jewish people had to again reassess themselves and innovate to survive. It is out of that tragedy, which some consider the original holocaust, Rabbinic Judaism emerged which continues to this day as the mainstream version of Judaism.

Without knowledge of these seminal historical events, it is impossible to have a clear picture of the biblical narrative, both Old and New Testaments, as well Christianity’s inescapable relationship with Judaism, after all we serve a thoroughly Jewish Messiah. The destruction of the first Temple casts a long shadow over the Old Testament as well as the New. Jesus’ own ministry is with full awareness of the fate of the first while prophetically reacting to the destruction of the second Temple just a generation later. That prediction significantly shapes the gospels and possibly the book of Revelation as well. I simply cannot stress their significance enough. They are crucial moments in the story of God and his people and they teach many profound lessons.

One such lesson is perhaps more than anything, crisis shapes us and how we see God.  Throughout the Bible, you notice that great theological developments often happen because of crisis events. The epic drama of scripture and the people of God would not be the same without these two pivotal tragedies. All the great stories involve difficulty including the story of God. As Jonathan Collins said, ‘story is what happens when desire meets resistance.’ In these things we see a very complex, nuanced picture of God, one who is both just and severe yet infinitely more kind and faithful. He revealed himself in and through those dark places. He does not ignore the pain but out from it he recreates joy. This wonderfully paradoxical wisdom comes to full expression on the cross. While Gentile Christians like myself cannot observe the Black Sabbath, it concerns things that are very instructive and certainly worth remembering always.


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