From the Book of Joel:
Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joel 3:4 – November 16, 2012. Note – Using a cyber-lectionary, yesterday [Nov. 16] I mistakenly clicked on the link today’s lessons and so offered a meditation on Joel’s image of the “valley of decision”. Today [Nov. 17], I decided I would read the lessons from yesterday and make up the difference. It was serendipitous: this part of Joel treats of conflict between Israel and her neighbors. Today, war seems to be erupting yet again between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza.)
“Are you paying me back for something?” What an interesting question to find God asking!
This is the New Revised Standard translation of the verse. An earlier version (The New American Standard) rendered it rather differently: “Are you rendering me a recompense?” This seems to me a rather better translation. The operative words here in Hebrew are shalam and ghemuwl. The first is related to the Hebrew word for “peace” and in a construction such as this means “to complete” or “to make whole” or “to make good”. The second specifically means “recompense”.
“Pay back” suggests revenge of some sort. “Completing a recompense” suggests a settling of accounts. Both are appropriate within the context of the slave trade that was carried on in Tyre, Sidon, and other city-states of Philistia. Historically, we know that the Jews were among those peoples from whom slaves were captured for this trade. This is the context of God’s question. God promises to turn their trade back on them; God will recover the slaves and see the slave-traders themselves sold into captivity.
It is a lesson about evil feeding upon itself, evil begetting evil, hatred begetting hatred, oppression begetting revenge. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. A CBS news item reports this evening, “Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the emergency call-up of up to 75,000 reserve troops ahead of a possible ground offensive. Israel has massed thousands of troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles along the border in recent days.” Acts of war lead to retaliation; the suffering imposed fosters a thirst for vengeance. A full-scale ground war may be the eventual result, a conflict that may involve many other nations.
The Ouroboros symbol is an ancient one that can be traced to ancient China; it is found in Egyptian and Norse mythology, and also in the art of Medieval Europe. Depicted as a dragon or serpent devouring its own tail, it represents the cyclic and interactive nature of events. Specifically, it reflects how some of our attempts to solve problems, especially attempts that involve violence, can come back to haunt us; our actions have unintended and unexpected consequences which worsen the situation. The serpent feeds on itself. While it is not a part of Jewish or Christian tradition, the Ouroboros readily came to mind as I read this text and God’s promise to “turn your deeds back upon your own heads.” This prophecy reminds us that God is concerned not only with individuals but with nations. Our military leaders, politicians, and the CEOs of major corporations may think they are in charge but, in the end, this is God’s world and God is in control. Missiles fired from Israel into Gaza, or the other direction, will solve nothing; they will only beget larger tragedy. Attack leads to pay back, pay back leads to unexpected consequences, the cycle goes on. The only hope to is to break the cycle, not to feed it.
“Are you paying me back for something?” It is ironic that the question, in Hebrew, includes the word for “peace”. It is not in today’s readings, but this lesson and today’s events recall me to Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.'” (v. 6) Pray for all, for Israelis, for Palestinians, for all who love Jerusalem; may they break the cycle of pay back and unintended consequences.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.