The biblical prophets lived in a time much different from ours. They knew nothing about peak oil, climate change or biosphere destruction. Yet they did understand that calamities can occur. They often attributed these calamities to the fact that people of Israel had forsaken their faith and were now worshiping false gods.
This may sound strange to us until we recall that we in our time are also guilty of worshiping the false gods of the Church of Endless Material Progress. Therefore, it is both interesting and useful to listen to what these prophets from ancient times had to say. It may be that they have lessons for us.
Grief and Hope
Although the prophets talked about doom, exile and loss they were not without hope. Of these prophets, the Rev. Susan Hendershot of Interfaith Power and Light says,
I’m reminded of the Hebrew prophets who chose to live in the often-painful reality of their time and place . . . they didn’t bury their grief, but instead expressed it openly and vocally to everyone who would listen—and many who wouldn’t.
But the prophets didn’t stop there. They expressed a hopeful vision for the future, like the one in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
BUT, in order to reach this future, according to the prophets, we need to change. We need to come back into right relationship with the sacred, with one another, and with the earth.
The first of the prophets that we consider is the one who is most famous of them all: Jeremiah — often referred to as “Weeping Jeremiah”.
Jeremiah by Rembrandt (detail)
In the post Exile to Babylon our current climate change situation is compared to that of the people of the people of Israel when they were driven into exile. Specifically, around the year 586 BCE the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple (2 Kings). These events were foretold by the prophet Jeremiah who attributed them to the fact that his people had taken up idolatrous practices.
Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew.
In spite of its rather melodramatic tone, the above Bible verse fits our current situation quite well. The “disaster” that Jeremiah talks about is the decline of our fossil-fuel based society. The “foreign gods” are the symbols of material progress that we often worship. Our cavalier use of fossil fuels can be compared to the burning of sacrifices.
Jeremiah and the other prophets attributed the tribulations of the Hebrew people to that fact that they had abandoned the true faith and that they were worshiping false gods. They maintained that the only way of averting catastrophe was for the people to forsake those gods. We in our time may not worship false gods in quite the same way. But we do “worship” the idea of material progress. It is what we believe in, and we anticipate material rewards as a result of that belief. Just as the prophets of old said that people needed to return to the God of their heritage, so we need to recognize that material progress for most of us is coming to an end — we need to look for a future that is more spiritual, and a way of life that is more in harmony with the natural world.
We, in our industrial and scientific society, fell to be unique. We believe that we have conquered nature. Whatever problems we face we believe that there is a technical solution. Because we are so special — or so like to think of ourselves — we assume that we have nothing to learn from events of the past. Yet, as climate change catastrophes follow upon one another at an ever faster pace, we wonder if we are all that special. As Hamlet said,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions!
Maybe we are suffering from hubris, maybe we need to recognize that pre-industrial people do have something to say to us. In particular, is it possible that we can learn from the people of Biblical times? From our point of view, they were a primitive, semi-nomadic people, but it is possible that their physical and spiritual wanderings have something to teach us. It is true that we now have a much better understanding as to why the climate is changing, and we also know that the human activities are contributing to those changes. But we face the same challenge as did the people of Biblical times — how do we respond to climate catastrophes such as drought?
Consider the following words from the book of Jeremiah.
Judah mourns, her cities languish; they wail for the land, and a cry goes up from Jerusalem.
The nobles send their servants for water; they go to the cisterns but find no water. They return with their jars unfilled; dismayed and despairing, they cover their heads.
The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land; the farmers are dismayed and cover their heads.
Jeremiah lived about 2,500 years ago, yet his words could be applied to the on-going drought in today's American west. Here is a picture of the Lake Mead “bath rings”.
The water provided by that lake (behind the Hoover dam) is absolutely crucial for the very survival of the people living in California, Nevada and parts of Mexico. Yet the flow of water from in the Colorado river that feeds Lake Mead is just a fraction of what it was due to on-going drought conditions. Farmers in California are “dismayed and cover their heads”.
Jeremiah and the people of his time attributed the drought that they experienced to the people going against God’s word.
Although our sins testify against us, do something, Lord, for the sake of your name. For we have often rebelled; we have sinned against you.
We believe that we have advanced beyond this primitive belief system. We understand the causes of drought and other climate catastrophes in a way that ancient peoples did not. Yet are we all that different really?
Jeremiah attributes the Lord’s anger to the fact that the people of Judah have followed false prophets. Here we see Moses after his descent from Mount Sinai. He is outraged that, while he was away, his were worshiping a golden calf — a false god.
Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.
In our time these warnings to do with false prophets seem not to be all that relevant. After all, we do not have pagan temples on every street corner. But we do worship in the Church of Eternal Material Progress. We believe that science and technology will continue to bring us material benefits, good health and a fulfilling life.
However, as we contemplate the on-going crises of our time we wonder if we also are worshiping a golden calf, a false idol. A new approach is called for. We need to abandon the false prophets of the Church of Material Progress, and to find a new way of living in a world where much is changing, whether we like it or not.
The insights and warnings, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were, of course, ignored. So it is in our time; the number of people who understand the nature of our current predicaments is small, and the number who are taking action in their personal lives is smaller still.
Our technology seems to be a “worthless idol”. We are radically changing the climate and out secular institutions have failed us. New ways of thinking, new ways of worship, are needed. Leadership is needed. One of the themes of this site and blog series is that the church can provide that leadership. Unlike the secular authorities, church leaders should not feel obliged to offer a future of material prosperity. Like Jeremiah, they are able to offer a different vision.