Bernie Sanders and Jonah

I realize now the false claim that Senator Sanders is an atheist has contributed to a major blind spot regarding the meaning of his campaign—at least for me. In fact, it could be argued that the Sanders campaign has been making a religious statement about the nature of our times—a statement that has not been articulated for two thousand years.

When he spoke at Liberty University Bernie quoted the prophet Amos:

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5: 24)

Perhaps this association between Sanders and Amos can explain how Sanders could wage such a devastating battle against his opponents and yet accept his losses with equanimity. Perhaps his desire to win is not mutually exclusive of the focus on getting his message out.

According to Robert Eisler, this verse in Amos refers to the Messianic water of life in its original spiritual sense. ((Orpheus the Fisher: Comparative studies in Orphic and early Christian cult symbolism. Rare Mystical Imprints, Kessinger Publishing)) However it has also been interpreted literally. Eisler says this tug-of-war between the mystical and the literal is a characteristic of religious experience.

Many of you will be aware that the last person to be influenced politically by verses like this one from Amos was John the Baptist, and this may not seem like the most encouraging of associations for Senator Sanders.  But I would argue that we are not re-enacting that old drama. While scriptural verses might give us clues about its nature and meaning, the phenomenon itself is fresh and new for our time.

Some might also be concerned that this view is in conflict with the views of one of our friends in this conversation, Pope Francis. But it is not at all. These ideas represent the meeting of all religions, especially Christianity and Judaism, but also Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, among others.

Eisler speculates that Ezekiel 47: 9-10 is another passage that influenced the doctrine of the Baptist and he presents this passage as an example of the way in which literal interpretations compete with allegorical interpretations.

The Jewish exegesis of the scriptures haven’t been handed down to us, but Eisler thinks it’s possible to reconstruct them from the commentaries of the Christian Fathers by eliminating the specially Christian features of their symbolism and retaining those elements which clearly correspond to Jewish ideas. He begins with Theodoret’s Commentary on Ezekiel:

“The Church Father refers the prophecy about the mystic stream to the sacrament of baptism, by saying ‘all those that are washed in the redeeming waters will reach salvation’. He means of course the Christian baptism, but the words could quite as well be used by a disciple of John, since the latter’s baptism is intended to save the repentant and regenerate new Israel from the ‘wrath to come’.”

And he provides a direct quote from Theodoret:

Ezekiel says also that the water will be full of fish and frequented by many fishermen: for many are they who through these waters will be fished for redemption, and numerous are they to whom the catching of this booty is entrusted…And Ezekiel says also that the multitude of fish will not resemble the number contained in a river but in the largest ocean; for the new people will not be equal in number to the old, but similar to the ocean of the nations, and it will fill the habitable world.

Also, Jerome identified the mystic stream running down from the threshold of Ezekiel’s temple to the desert with the pure water of regeneration, which God Promises to sprinkle over Israel in Ezekiel 36:24.

This water signifies, as he says several times, the grace of God to be obtained through baptism. By the fishermen, however, that stand on the river’s banks the same fishers are meant, to whom the Lord Jesus said, “I will make you to become fishers of men,” of whom we also find written in Jeremiah [16:16] ‘Behold I shall send many fishers that shall fish you’.

Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis seem to be carrying on the tradition of John the Baptist with the content of their teachings as well. Jesus said of John that he came in the way of righteousness. (Matt. 21:32) And Josephus put it this way:  “[H]e taught the Jews to practice virtue both as to justice towards one another and piety to God.”

According to Eisler this means that John’s ideal was the old Jewish ṣedākah, the legal principle of justice, a religious ‘suum cuique’ involving faithfulness to our duties both towards God and our fellow-men. Eisler cites Luke for single examples of his moral teachings:

“The publicans shall exact no more than that which is due to them; the soldiers shall be content with their wages and not abuse their function as police by doing violence to people or bringing false denunciations against them; whoever has the least superabundance of clothing or meat, shall give of it to his brother in need.”

I think it is important in the context of this election, to also mention important differences of opinion that exist in Judaism regarding the proper approach of said fishermen. First, there is the conviction that men could accelerate the coming of the Kingdom and force it down immediately by certain actions, either of obedience or of disobedience to the commandments of God. John thought fervent repentance would be strong enough to bring the kingdom of heaven down by force, and Jesus indicated that he thought God approved of this when he said of John:

“But from the days of Jonah—the Baptist—until now the Kingdom of Heaven is being stormed and the violent appropriate it by force.” (Matt. 11:12 and Luke 16:16)

In the notes on page 158 Eisler explains the second approach.  Speaking of taking the kingdom by force he says:

“That such an apparent violation of the Divine plans of Providence was not always considered as sinful…may be seen from the repeated saying in the Talmud, that God loves to be conquered by a sinner through repentance. For the contrary view, cp. the Rabbinic comments on Canticles 2:7: ‘I conjure you…do not stir up, do not awake love, until He pleases.’ This double entreaty is said on the one hand to charge the Israelites not to cast off the yoke of the secular powers by force and not to return by means of a revolution into the promised land, on the other hand to warn the Gentiles against making the yoke of Israel unbearable. For in both cases the wrongdoers would be guilty of forcing the Messianic Day to dawn before its time.”

This is from the chapter in which Eisler compares John the Baptist to Jonah, who ‘quarrels with Jahvé because He defers again and again in His forbearance the foretold Day of Judgment’. We know Jonah was punished. In addition, Eisler cites Rabbi Oniah’s statement that ‘four generations have already perished, because they tried to invade the kingdom’. Rabbi Oniah specifically mentions the generation of Bar-Kokhba.

Speaking of literal interpretations, some of Sanders’ followers think he should have strong-armed his way to the presidency.   I would argue that this background suggest the importance of balance at the Democratic Convention.

I don’t know if Sanders would agree with the associations I’ve made in this article.  I think they are reasonable based on the evidence, but either way I’m content to let things unfold however they will.  I’m confidant that the ultimate meaning of this campaign will not be decided by the hard facts of this election.

Leave a Reply