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Brightness visible: on learning to see the gravity of bears and the wonder of beetles.

Abristly, lovely, although hot and fearsome recklessness invigorates God in the Old Testament when he loses patience. Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee, he says to Job, who has been complaining of his unjust sufferings. But justice is not what the majesty of Creation is all about. Consider, for instance, the hippopotamus. He moveth his tail like a cedar ... his bones are like bars of iron ...

For me too religion needs to wear a mask of jubilation. Yet unmixed glee is beyond my capacities. I begin to flag if I am required to be upbeat for many hours at a stretch--though I have in fact had just the sort of biblical experience that warrants a lifelong commitment to the happy tangents of faith. It happened during my late fifties, when two eye operations restored my sight after two or three years of legal blindness. My vision had shrunk to the point where I couldn't see faces, birds, or trees. Through my telescope I studied the rising moon or the way that branches interlaced, but even the lenses of such an instrument could barely recapitulate what my eyes with ordinary eyeglasses had formerly seen.

Quite suddenly, however, within a period of half a dozen weeks, the miracle of the streaming clouds, the blowing grass, the leaping birds, the upspread trees, and the variety of expressions on my friends' faces was given back to me. For possibly an entire year, in the exalting aftermath of regaining my eyesight, I was incapable of being depressed--I simply needed to glance out the window. I couldn't believe how golden the sunshine was, how softly green each leaf, or how radiant the city night could be, with its great arc-like sparkling bridges and hooded mobs of apartment houses, each of the thousands of lives packed inside signified by a small yellow light. If I was in the city, the slant of lion-skinned building stone on a skyscraper's face was breathtaking. In the country, I was lifted to rapture by the prismatic pointillism of the wildflowers, or a sea of seed heads shimmering underneath the black outcrops on a mountainside, the puce and pink of a slow dawn, the white slats of birch bark under a purple rainstorm medallioned by a rainbow or slashed by a crimson shaft of half-set sun, a sky big enough to fall right into forever and ever if I lay on my back and didn't grip the grass.

And, of course, I didn't neglect to look up Christ's miracle-working episodes, impromptu as they were. Set against the scale of eternal redemption, the temporary plight of the blind and sick whom he encountered accidentally was not his preoccupation. But pity for their anguish mixed with his practicality when he asked whether they "believed." Presumably, since God had created heaven and earth, God could cure blindness, leprosy, or whatnot with or without "belief," but Christ's own powers, swift and serene though they seem, may have needed that extra catalyst. Indeed, in Mark 8, the act requires two applications of Christ's hands: the first only restores the blind man of Bethsaida's sight to the extent that people look to him like trees ... walking about. So Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again. Rather like my surgeon.

I was truly, sadly startled, though, in the midst of my exuberance, to notice how many of my friends' faces had changed during my blind years. They looked battered, bruised, disheartened, bereft of illusion, apprehensive, or knocked a bit awry by the very campaigns and thickets of life that I was giddy with delight to have regained. I was seeing the forest, I decided, while they were engrossed by the trees. Like a prisoner sprung from a dungeon, I didn't care about minor harassments, frictions, frettings, inconveniences. The sky, the clouds, the colors and movement, and my sudden freedom were plenty for me. I could be irascible, impatient, and hard to get on with, but never unhappy; that's not what life was for. Instead I was charged up, alight, Lazarus-like, and I realized that such a marked alteration in my friends' faces and the cast of strangers' expressions could not be the result of my having just been "away" for a while, but that everything was clearer. The fox-red coat of a deer in June; the glow of a checkered, fat garter snake, its white skin shining between its black scales; a goldfinch's trampoline bounce on the wing; the fire-engine pace of a chimney swift tearing around; leaf shadows running on a tree trunk like a crowd of squirrels as the wind blew. Such a lovely, vivid, vibrant world--what does it matter if your marriage is going rancid? "Cheer up, for heaven's sake!" I wanted to say when the shaft of a stranger's glance on the street told me a tale of misery. Funky neon at midnight in the city, or raindrops zigging down a windowpane, a sky of featherblue, a sky of sleety pewter, a lady's dachshund walking like a leashed salamander down the sidewalk--and the piercing pleasure of a toddler seeing it--old bricks on a town house or a church front.

In Manhattan I went to services at the church where I'd been christened more than fifty years before, and both before and after my crucial operations I seemed so otherworldly or beamish to the vicars and the vergers that they assumed I was one of the homeless, fiftyish men who were mingling with the well-heeled parishioners for the sake of the sandwiches served afterward. There was no end to how glad I was at any hour to wake up, step outside, or simply pour and stir a cup of coffee and stretch my feet into the spill of zebra-patterned sunlight that the venetian slats threw on the rug so marvelously.

Behold now behemoth, God says....He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed ... the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. Or, God continues angrily to Job, Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook. ... Canst thou put an hook into his nose? ... Will he make many supplications unto thee? ... Wilt thou play with him as with a bird?

I use the King James translation, and Leviathan may be either a whale or a crocodile, though this spiky, vivid description goes on to resemble in its particulars a scaly, toothy crocodile, who, like the often dangerous hippo, could make the Jordan River terrifying. The biblical Hebrews were an inland people, not seafarers like the Phoenicians; but on the other hand, the author of the Book of Job is considered to have been a later, more traveled and worldly individual than some of the other writers. The Revised English Bible of 1989 splits this chapter, 41, into two entries divided by Chapter 40, so that Leviathan can represent both of these wondrous and unconquerable creatures. And the whole glorious dithyramb to the animal kingdom--peacocks; lions; wild, gleeful goats; formidable wild oxen; wild, nifty asses; dashing ostriches; soaring cliff-eagles--recited by God pridefully to the much abused Job out of a "whirlwind," is in marked contrast to that earlier, more famous God, whose injunction to Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis is that they and humankind should subdue ... and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

The Hebrew God is whimsical, jealous, inconsistent: mad, of course, very soon after that first chapter of Genesis, at Eve and Adam, with somewhat the same tone of thunderous petulance he later directs at poor Job for rather less reason. (Job's long sufferings have been the result of a sort of a sporting bet between God and a manipulative, teasing Satan, not an impulsive act of disobedience at the behest of some newly fledged Serpent.) Even in the single book of Deuteronomy, where Moses transmits, at God's instruction in Chapter 5, the Ten Commandments (plus at different points a considerable amount of merciful detail as to how bond servants, widows, orphans, and destitute wayfarers shall be treated), God also decrees, in Chapters 2 and 3, the genocide of the tribes of Heshbon--the men, and the women, and the little ones--and also of Og--utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city. And again, in Chapter 20, God ordains a further holocaust: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. Deuteronomy does contain the brief, winsomely generous admonition in Chapter 25 that thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn (in other words, not let him feel hunger), but it also includes, in Chapter 28, the dire warning that if God's established "holy people," the Jews, don't follow his commandments they will become cannibals from famine, conquest, siege, and plague, eating their own children. And in Exodus 20 and 34 the vindictive threat is floated that a father's sins will be visited upon his son even to the fourth generation--although, in fairness, Deuteronomy 24, Jeremiah 30, and Ezekiel 18 contradict this. I wound, and I heal, he says in Deuteronomy 32.

He seems a berserk and hideous deity in some of the more perfervid remarks that Moses and others record or attribute to him. He is an angry caliph who might better suit the Serbs or Hutus of 1994 or the Hitlerian Catholics of World War II, and he did not have much appeal for me as a boy, though the Old Testament stories we heard in church and Sunday school were riveting--the drama of baby Isaac almost being sacrificed by his father, Abraham; of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; of Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers; of little Moses in the bulrushes; of Job's faith and loss of faith; of David fighting Goliath with a slingshot; of Samson rendered powerless when the treacherous Delilah cut off his hair (Judith a heroine but Delilah a villainess). The sheer, gala accretion of these tales, extending over a good number of centuries, had more narrative weight than did the thirty-year story of Jesus, from Bethlehem to Calvary.

But Jesus spoke for a God whose teachings I could better swallow. His, too, in its abbreviated way, is a matchless tale. Born in a manger, although he was the Son of God, because there was no room at the inn, yet visited in his infancy by wise men and shepherds drawn by a radiant star; healing blind men and lepers, raising the dead, and throwing the money changers out of the Temple, accompanied by a small band of "fishers of men"; betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver and crucified between two criminals, dying in agony and thirst after several hours but forgiving his captors, "for they know not what they do," and on the third day rising from the dead to sit at the right hand of God himself. A most direct parable--just lengthy enough, yet coherent and confirmed by four testimonials. You can't beat it for what it is, and the interpretations within our own language and time have ranged from "Onward Christian Soldiers" to Martin Luther King. You see on TV the pomp of the Pope versus Mother Teresa. And whatever these elaborations have become, the central addenda of Christianity seem as essential to me as the Bill of Rights added onto a basic Constitution. Judaism without the Sermon on the Mount seems a religion incomplete, lex talionis--an eye for an eye--without the Golden Rule: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them (Matthew 7).

Jesus added to the undercarriage of Judaism not to destroy but to fulfill, he says. And like Moses before him, he went into the wilderness on a walkabout, up to a mountaintop for revelation--which I take to be more evidence of biblical ambivalence about the idea that the wilderness ought to be bridled and ruled, that the snake and crocodile, the elephant and hippo, the whale and lion should have no untrammeled territory left in which to strut their stuff and play their fateful, antique roles. Still, as against the legend of Christ, shimmering and imperishable as it is (and, indeed, priests and ministers wear desert dress), you have Judaism beginning not with a baby's birth but with the very universe. You have the theater of Eve and her Serpent; then Noah's brave Ark; wise Solomon; the visions of Isaiah; Jeremiah and Zechariah; Daniel in the Lions' Den; Jonah in the Whale; the Song of Songs; and zestfully on. No wonder so many Jews have regarded themselves as a people chosen by God.

My own bias is against a monotheism so people-centered, and thus the Old Testament God who most appeals to me is least "Hebrew." ("There is no certainty that the author was an Israelite," says Marvin Pope, a leading scholar on the Book of Job.) God's magnificently hair-raising answer to Job from out of the whirlwind outguns anything of the sort in the New Testament, which after all is more fit for the advent of St. Francis, lover of tiny birds, or the pacifism of Martin Luther King than for the preservation of old values. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? God declares (a lover of carnivorous tigers as well as small birds) ... when the morning stars sang together? ... Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days? ... Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? ... Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? ... Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? ... Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof? ... Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven? ... Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? ... Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds? ... Canst thou send lightnings? ... Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or ... provideth for the raven his food?

For me, that's plenty good enough as an underlying Constitution, an underpinning for my American Transcendentalism, as well as a basic link to other world religions and beyond them to the grandfather, or "pagan," spiritual impulses that occasionally well up in so many of us at the ocean, in the woods, or during slam-crash thunderstorms or the extraordinary hallucinations that afflict us when someone we love dies. Genesis's intolerance of wilderness was tailor-made for the Industrial Revolution. It covered the clergy on every lame excuse given for ducking their heads as the skies and fields and rivers turned sooty-black, and breathing space and sunny light and a whole panoply of flashing creatures disappeared. Just as on other issues such as slavery, child labor, racial prejudice, and colonial genocide, the church was rarely in the vanguard to intervene, but, rather, brought up the rear of the mainstream, snubbing the earnest mavericks while the situation rapidly grew worse. In my lifetime alone, perhaps half the species that were alive on earth when I was born will have been snuffed out.

Christianity displays these contradictions in St. George slaying the dragon while St. Francis plays with birds, in Androcles plucking a thorn from the lion's paw while St. Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland. And Judaism has faced its own immiscibility in the task of peacemaking in Israel, where rabbis and religious folk have not seemed to play an adequate part in whatever reconciliation has been accomplished with the Palestinians. Instead, it's been mostly the work of military men and secular idealists, as if the Jewish religion itself is incomplete, a religion of resistance, of "silence, exile, and cunning" (in James Joyce's analogous definition of how art should be engendered), but not yet a religion brought to closure, not yet a savior's religion here on earth.

No stretch of grief or the imagination, no precedent in science or logic can get a handle on this catastrophe--half of Creation extinguished in a single life span. Noah did not materialize again to save God's handiwork, or even a Mother Teresa. Flying beings, swimming things, creeping, crawling, running existences, long-legged or short-winged, brought to life over many, many millennia, had no escape and simply blinked out. People, says a friend of mine who is a Congregational minister, "are born in solidarity with Creation but live in brokenness with Creation," or, as he adds, "in sin."

The author of the Song of Songs, another extravaganza, might testify to that. You may recall some of his imagery: Your eyes are doves behind your veil, your hair like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes newly shorn ... your parted lips ... like a pomegranate cut open.... Your two breasts are like two fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies. (This from the Revised English Bible, which is more lyric here.) Come with me, the speaker adds to his new bride, from the summit of Amana, from the top of Senir and Hermon, from the lions' lairs, and the leopard-haunted hills, to civilization. The duality of nature in the Bible is like that in other ancient epics, such as Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, or Beowulf, and our own literary figures, Melville, Hardy, and Conrad. Psalm 104 boasts affectionate references to wild goats and rock badgers, storks, whales that sport in the sea, wild donkeys, and young lions seeking their food from God. But in Psalm 102, I am stricken, withered like grass.... I am like a desert owl in the wilderness, like an owl that lives among ruins, the writer says. The King James version uses the intriguing translation "pelican," but wild places are not habitats where you'd want to be.

And in Isaiah, Chapter 34, after the Lord has sated his bloody wrath upon the residents of Edom, horned owl and bustard will make it their home; it will be the haunt of screech-owl and raven.... It will be the lair of wolves.... Marmots will live alongside jackals.... There too the nightjar will return to rest and ... there the sand-partridge will make her nest, lay her eggs and hatch them, and gather her brood under her wings; there will the kites gather, each with its mate ... they will occupy it for all time, and each succeeding generation will dwell there. (The King James substitutes unicorns and cormorants, bitterns, dragons, satyrs, and vultures for some of these; and the American Revised Standard Version, porcupines, ostriches, and hyenas.) Likewise, when Babylon is overthrown in Isaiah 13, marmots will have their lairs in her, and porcupines will overrun her houses; desert-owls will dwell there, and there hegoats will gambol; jackals will occupy her mansions, and wolves her luxurious palaces. Sounds like the epitome of desolation but also like a bit of fun. The desert fathers lived closer to nature than us.

Here, as in Job, the wilderness is presented as an alternative to cities and to agriculture, certainly not one that man wishes for, yet one that, for God's superbly diverse purposes, continues to celebrate the glory of earth. Though God had been mean to the Snake, back in Genesis, for tempting Eve (upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed ...), wild animals are generally God's children, too. What he envisions for them at the end of time is summed up in Isaiah 11. Then the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion will feed together, with a little child to tend them. The cow and the bear will be friends ... and the lion will eat straw like cattle. The infant will play over the cobra's hole, and the young child dance over the viper's nest. There will be neither hurt nor harm in all my holy mountain; for the land will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

No permission is given in Isaiah, Job, or Genesis for the holocaust mankind has visited upon the natural world, whereby the rhinoceros may soon be as scarce as the unicorn. Behemoths, crocodiles, and the soaring eagles and fearsome lions that enriched, mythologized, and demonized the banks of the Jordan as manifestations of God's majesty are long gone, with their like being pursued to the edge of the planet. The blackened woods, the sooty skies, "Leviathan" more than decimated: God is not just. He is cryptic, elliptical, even countenancing your death, my death. Like sand in a wasp-waisted egg timer, we tumble through the slot before we're quite ready to, and the tumbling process does not ensure fairness even in priority. You and I, born the same year, may die thirty years apart. Justice is not God's department; justice is a man-made concept, except in the somewhat different sense that character is often fate, as, in fact, Job's is, finally winning him back God's favor, or, to be exact, fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and as many she-asses, so that he's exactly twice as rich as before God allowed Satan to toy so cruelly with him. In life we don't necessarily see people receiving their just deserts, but over a couple of decades we do notice their muddied faces and bitten nails if, although rich as Croesus, they have lived nastily. Time wounds all heels.

The Old Testament God seemed as primitive as a tribal sheik, being too much constructed in the splintered, banal image of man. Thus the New Testament, although less dramatically embellished with centuries' worth of narrative, convinced me more as a boy. I was a Tolstoyan then, and from that teenage base of idealism I discovered jubilee "shout" singing in the black Pentecostal church I used to go to in San Francisco in the late 1950s. I later discovered St. Francis's hymn of adoration called "The Canticle of the Creatures": "Most high and most holy, most powerful Lord.... To Thee and Thy creatures we proffer our praise:/To our brother the sun in the heavens ashine,/Who brings us the beauty and joy of our days,/Thine emblem and sign./We praise Thee, O Lord, for our sister the moon,.../For our brother the wind, for the bright of the noon,/For all of Thy weather./For our sister the water, so humble and chaste,/For beautiful fire, with his perilous powers,/For our mother the earth, who holds us embraced,/Who delights us with flowers ..."

Transcendentalism naturally followed, and I stopped describing myself as a Christian. Nevertheless, Psalm 148 does say it all: Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and ocean depths; fire and hail, snow and ice, gales of wind that obey his voice; all mountains and hills; all fruit trees and cedars; wild animals and all cattle, creeping creatures and winged birds.... Praise the Lord. And Psalm 150, the famous one: Praise the Lord. Praise God in his holy place, praise him in the mighty vault of heaven.... Praise him with fanfares on the trumpet, praise him on harp and lyre; praise him with tambourines and dancing, praise him with flute and strings; praise him with the clash of cymbals; with triumphant cymbals praise him ...

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee! An electrifying injunction, and for practically a lifetime I've been doing just that--observing zebras, and genuine behemoths like elephants, hippos, giraffes, whales, jaguars, and grizzlies. I have believed that they were indeed "made with me," and by the age of eighteen I was already thrusting my hand down a circus hippo's mouth to scratch the back of her tongue and the inside of her cheeks, much in the way that tick birds or "ox-peckers" do in Africa, searching out leeches. I also communed with Siberian and Sumatran tigers, both now almost extinct, and black-maned lions and Indian elephants, and I rubbed a rhino's itchy lips on sweltering afternoons, not in a trivializing manner but single-mindedly, with a passion that had begun with turtles when I was five or six--like that of city kids for dinosaurs nowadays. Leopard seals and eponymous leopards, killer whales in the Arctic and Antarctic, and Nile River crocodiles: I've traveled far and wide since then to glimpse these stirring beings. Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? ... Will he make many supplications unto thee? Can you make a banquet of him or part him among the merchants? God asks Job jeeringly, and, alas, it's come to pass that we can, with religion frequently a handmaiden to the merchants.

On the street, with my rejuvenated sight --$15,000 plastic implants--I seemed to see right back into the exhaustion and poignant anxiety in the recesses of other people's eyes, the thwarted potential for love and fun and dedication, the foiled altruism, now in abeyance, and the exasperation. And yet I could also see the imp that lived in them, the child that hadn't died. So often the variables that exist in somebody's face, from mirth to aggravation, add up to the wish to still believe in virtue, hope, and God.

"I have seen the elephant," the Gold Rushers and other frontiersmen used to say after they returned to town. For me, with a lifelong belief that heaven is on earth, not nebulously up in the sky, I see it every dawn and sunset and in the head-high joe-pye weed, smelling like vanilla in July (and used by the Indians in treating typhus, colds, chills, "sore womb after childbirth," diarrhea, liver and kidney ailments, "painful urination," gout, and rheumatism). I see it in the firmament at night and in a stand of spruce or a patch of moss beside a brook. And during the time when I was blind I could smell it in the scent of a blossoming basswood tree, or hear it in a toad's trill, or lay my head flat on the ground and gaze at the forest of fervent moss, inches away, a beetle or a caterpillar crawling. Behold now behemoth.
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Author:Hoagland, Edward
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:4418
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