return to religion-online

The Christian at Play by Robert K. Johnston


Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 1983. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.


Chapter Four: Play: A Biblical Model


Given the central place of play in the .lives of all people -- given the fact that we do some things as ends in themselves without ulterior motive or outside design, freely entering into such activity within its own time (a playtime) and its own space (a playground) and its own order (a playbook) -- it is surprising that we understand play so poorly. Surprising, too, is the fact that the Christian Church has put so little thought into the person at play. Rather than ground their discussion in biblical reflection and careful observation of play itself, Christians have most often been content to allow Western culture to shape their understanding of the human at play.

At the risk of oversimplification, one can see that the two major approaches toward play which have dominated our culture also characterize the Church's attitudes. (There are basic affinities here with the theologies of Sam Keen and Jürgen Moltmann, although the analogy should not be overdrawn.) The one tradition might best be labeled the "Greek," and the other, the "Protestant." Both models have definitions of play shaped in terms of work. While in the first (the "Greek") play is valued because it is opposed to work, in the second (the "Protestant") work is valued because it is opposed to play. The first looks to play for that which is truly human; the other finds in work humankind's true glory.

Before attempting to describe a biblically based alternative (the "Hebraic" model) to these cultural models, one more in line with the inductive play of Peter Berger and C. S. Lewis, let us summarize these common, though inadequate, understandings.

The "Greek" Model

For the Greek citizen of old, leisure and play were what were truly worthwhile, while the workaday world was viewed with disdain. Work was carried out largely through a system of slaves, so that the privilege of play and the obligation of work were mutually exclusive social functions performed by two distinct groups in society. This classical view of play still retains advocates today. Josef Pieper, for example, views the world of work as "the weariness of daily labour" and desires humankind to be transported out of this "into an unending holiday."1 Similarly, William Sadler, who agrees with Schiller's statement that "Man is only a man when he plays," states, "To live creatively means first of all to play. "2- Somehow life is reduced to an either/or -- either we work and suffer spiritual and sensual anemia, or we play in order to realize our full humanity.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, a theology of play surfaced in some sectors of the Christian Church that adopted this "Greek" model. Realizing that the world of work too often proved to be debilitating, enthusiasts of play argued for play's centrality in human existence. Lawrence Meredith, for example, rhapsodized about the possibilities of play over work in his book The Sensuous Christian:

Perhaps day after tomorrow, by some miracle of ecological awareness, food will just be. Then the psychedelic path will lead over the bridge of cybernation; and with Herbert Marcuse as guru emeritus, Norman O. Brown as classicist in residence, and William F. Buckley, Jr., as anti-utopian court jester, we will establish the new-consciousness Camelot, telling the little ones tales of old Greenwich Village, the Haight, Millbrook, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, of all the lotus-eating cadres of the leisure class. . . . The university could, in fact, become what it was: a playground and not a battleground. The church everywhere could be a happening where joy is like the rain.3

 

Meredith's utopia is, of course, an unintentional parody of the world of play he desires, for Greenwich Village and the Haight have proven to be anything but precursors of Camelot. But like Sam Keen and other theologians of play, Meredith is instructive. for he presents -- hyperbolically, perhaps -- one paradigm of the Christian at play.

The "Protestant" Model

Although this "Greek" model has a growing list of modern-day proponents, both inside and outside the Church, the more dominant tradition regarding play remains the "Protestant." In this model, industry, individualism, frugality, ambition, and success are considered the primary virtues, with work being understood as the criterion by which a life is judged successful. Within this model, an unfortunate diminishment of the play experience occurs. Play is conceived of as time off from work, and thus time vulnerable to misuse. Whereas for the "Greek," play is the perfect human state, for the "Protestant" play is merely a reward for past work, a temptation to idleness, or a pause that refreshes. Margaret Mead notes that "within traditional American culture . . . there runs a persistent belief that all leisure [play] must be earned by work and good works ... [and] second, while it is enjoyed it must be seen in a context of future work and good works."4 Play is, it seems, reduced to the poor stepchild of work. It is the alter side, that which stands behind, that which issues from work and finds its ultimate justification not in itself but in the work already or yet to be accomplished.

Within the Church are many modern-day advocates of this "Protestant" perspective on play. Rudolph Norden, for example, in his book The Christian Encounters the New Leisure, argues that for the Christian, leisure is that time which should serve the family welfare; that time in which worship takes place; or that time which relieves tension. He would have us read more good books, write letters, check the family budget, sew, work in the workshop, visit friends, or pursue any number of other "excellent leisure pastimes." For Norden, play is valid only as long as it is purposeful for something beyond itself.'

The "Hebraic" Model

The central problem for the Christian player in America today is nicely summarized by Bennett Berger. "We are all," he writes, "at least in principle, compromised Greek citizens carrying the burden of compromised Protestant ethics."5 It is this :spiritual and emotional burden, this cultural ambivalence, that influences most Christian discussion of play and hinders many of us from allowing play its God-intended place. Christian theology, if it is to be Christian theology, must do more than simply acquiesce to its surrounding culture. Theology, if it is to explore adequately the meaning of play and its relation to the sacred, must "study the various biblical traditions and engage in the systematic hermeneutical task of appropriating the meaning of the biblical message for today's world."7 These are the words of Gregory Baum in his critique of Peter Berger, and they aptly state the issue we must now turn to. What is a biblical understanding of play?

Such a question has seldom been addressed. When it has, the answers have too often seemed meager, if not counterproductive. For example, in his Essentials of Bible History, Elmer Mould writes of play:

The Hebrews were a serious people; yet there are many hints of an innate lightheartedness and readiness to play when they had a chance. Children played in the streets [Zech. 8:5]. Weddings, the harvest festivals, and the religious feasts were the only holidays for adults. Jer. 31:12f. characterizes the holiday mood. Most of this play seems to have been impromptu.... 8

Mould goes on to describe a set of backgammon pieces that was found in the excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim Kiriath-sepher at the level of 1600 B.C. He comments, "It is not an idle play of fancy to think of the biblical Hebrews playing the ... game." He then concludes, "No doubt the most common form of amusement was exchanging stories."9 Mould's comments are suggestive but contain more surmise than solid evidence.

A second example comes from Alan Richardson's often helpful study of The Biblical Doctrine of Work. He writes:

The Bible knows nothing of "a problem of leisure." No such problem had in fact arisen in the stage of social evolution which had been reached in biblical times. The hours of daylight were the hours of labour for all workers (cf. Ps. 104.22f., John 9.4), whose only leisure-time was during the hours of darkness. The general standpoint of the Bible is that it is "folly" (i.e., sinful) to be idle between daybreak and sunset. A six- or an eight-hour day was never envisaged. Hence we must not expect to derive from the Bible any, explicit guidance upon the right use of leisure.10

If the Hebrews were, in fact, a "serious people" who viewed leisure as "folly" or at best an "impromptu" respite, then the "systematic hermeneutical task of appropriating the meaning of the biblical message [concerning play] for today's world" would be difficult, if not impossible. We would need to ask whether the term "Christian player" is not a self-contradiction. But such is not the case. Rather, our cultural bias toward work and the Bible's primary concern with God's "work" of salvation have blinded traditional critics to the biblical discussions of play that are in fact present.

There is a section of the Scriptures that is not as concerned with God's saving acts in history as with God the creator involved in history. Here-in Genesis 1-11, in the Sabbath ordinance, in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs-we find a God concerned with our play as well as our work, our aesthetics as well as our ethics. Here the intended shape of created life is described and illustrated. For example, God is said to have "made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen. 2:9). Commenting on this passage, Leland Ryken writes: "Mankind's perfect environment, in other words, satisfies a dual criterion, both aesthetic and utilitarian. The conditions for human well-being have never changed from that moment in Paradise. People live by beauty as well as truth."11 Or perhaps, to paraphrase Ryken loosely, we could say that people live by "play" as well as by "work."

God need not have created a world that is beautiful as well as functional. But he did, as the Psalmist reiterates:

Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,

and plants for man to cultivate,

that he may bring forth food from the earth,

and wine to gladden the heart of man,

oil to make his face shine,

and bread to strengthen man's heart. (Ps. 104: 14, 15)

God has planted crops for our sustenance -- to produce wine, oil, and bread (grain). His work (creation) and ours (cultivation) produce that food necessary to strengthen one's total being (Heb. "heart"). But note that the explanation extends beyond the functional or the utilitarian. The bread will strengthen us, but the wine is to gladden our hearts and the oil to make our faces shine. Elsewhere in the Bible, oil can have a protective function (cf. Deut. 28:40; Ps. 92:10), but this is not the purpose the Psalmist mentions. Rather, the oil is a sign of gladness and celebration (cf. Ps. 23:5, 45:7; Frov. 27:9; Isa. 61:3). Similarly, the wine is valued not simply because it slakes one's thirst or increases physical vitality; it gladdens the "heart," i.e., life itself (cf. Judg. 9:13; Eccl. 1G:19).

It is this "Hebraic" perspective on creation that gives the Christian theologian insight into play in today's world. Here is a viewpoint concerning our play (and our work) alternate to that found in much of contemporary society: (1) It can be heard in the discussion of Sabbath rest; (2) It is basic to the advice offered by Ecclesiastes; (3) It is pervasive in the sexuality of the Song of Songs; (4) It is played out in such Israelite practices as festival, dance, feasting, and the providing of hospitality to travelers; (5) Although somewhat harder to demonstrate textually, it is even central to the pattern of Jesus' friendships.

1. The Rest of the Sabbath

Of all the various Old Testament instructions, none is more central to Israelite life than the law of the Sabbath. Not only does it take up more space in the Decalogue than any of the other commandments, but it is reformulated and discussed throughout the pages of Scripture. Whether the Sabbath originated with the Israelites themselves or whether Israel appropriated within her Yahwistic context practices from surrounding cultures need not concern us here. (The Babylonian shappatu and the Kenites' cultic prohibition of smiths working every seventh day are two frequently noted parallels.) What is significant for our present discussion is that Sabbath-keeping was so uniform in Israelite life that it became almost the trademark of Jewish faith and practice. By the time of the Maccabees, for example, the practice of keeping the Sabbath was so central to Judaism that, according to Josephus, the Romans had to exempt the Jews from military service because they were useless as soldiers on the Sabbath.12 Seneca could not understand the Sabbath exercise and chided the Jews for spending every seventh day of their lives in idleness.13

From its inception, the Sabbath was characterized by one practice -- a cessation from all physical labor. Hans Walter Wolff, writing on "The Day of Rest in the Old Testament," comments: "But how is the `Sabbath for Yahweh' to be `remembered,' `observed,' `sanctified'? The unambiguous, sole answer is: `You shall not do any work.' "14 Wolff theorizes on the prehistory of the Sabbath commandment, agreeing with A. Alt that "originally the Sabbath was characterized merely by the prohibition of all work, and in Israel's history had nothing to do with specific cultic worship of Yahweh as such."15 For the twentieth-century Christian, the Sabbath is inextricably associated with worship and cult. This, however, ought to be a secondary association. Originally the Sabbath was not a time for the cult. Sacrifices were, after all, a daily event. It was first and foremost a time to abstain from work (cf. Exod. 16:22f.). It was that "parenthesis" in life which had no outside design. According to our description in Chapter Two, it was intended to be an instance of "play."

Although the Sabbath was characterized by its "strike" against all work, it would be wrong to assume, as Seneca did, that it was superfluous or useless. Like play in general, its non instrumentality proved productive. By regularly resting from their efforts, the Israelites both found themselves refreshed and were able to renew themselves and to recall their God.

The Sabbath's recreative function has often been noted. After six days in which "man [went] forth to his work and to his labor until the evening" (Ps. 104:22), everyone in society needed refreshment, whether son or daughter, manservant or maidservant, sojourner or resident; even animals needed respite. In a break from the typical pattern of ancient Near Eastern life, the Hebrews recognized that the oppressiveness of work needed to be periodically relieved. And so it was that contrary to the -Greek" model, which allowed leisure only to the elite, and contrary to the "Protestant" model, which gloried in work-as-vocation, the "Hebraic" model declared that life was best served when all humankind both worked and then refrained from work ~"played").

But the Sabbath was not only for humankind's "re-creation" recreation?). Its focus was not only on men and women and their possibilities. It was also meant as a "demonstration" on behalf of Yahweh himself, It is in this sense that Gerhard Von Rad speaks of the Sabbath as a day which by its very nature belonged to God.16 The Sabbath was a remembrance that Israel rested ultimately in God's graciousness. Just as the Lord instituted the Sabbath day for his people who were wandering in the wilderness, as a tangible reminder that the manna they gathered .was a gift from God and not a result of their own effort {Exod. 1b:22-30), so the Sabbath became a periodic reminder that one could not master life by his own effort.

In characterizing the twofold significance of the Sabbath as we have -- that it is based in who we are, creatures in need of re-creation, and in who God is, one worthy of our adoration -- we have reversed the historic order of justification given to the Sabbath in Scripture, although we have been true to most subsequent discussion of this biblical theme. This is important to note, particularly in an age given to defining everything vis-a-vis the human and his work experience. It is true, as W. Gunther Plaut observes, that the Sabbath "became social time devoted to the liberation of every man from the fetters of work, a liberation which included the freeman as well as the slave." But Plaut is also correct in noting that prior to this "humanization" of the Sabbath -- prior to understanding the Sabbath according to its re-creative possibilities -- the Sabbath was viewed simply as "God's time, the God who created the world and also created lsrael."17 Even today, when the Jew lifts his Kaddish cup on the Sabbath, he first and foremost remembers the God of Creation and the Exodus experience. It was the proclamation of God's glory, not the need for human restoration, that was the original intention of the Sabbath command.

Although the "Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 are almost identical to the record of them found in Deuteronomy 5, the Sabbath commandment is a marked exception. One can only speculate about the reasons for the differences -- perhaps the changing social condition caused the Deuteronomic account to shift from a focus on God to a stronger emphasis on the human need for relief from the oppressive reality of much of work. (God's Word is always culturally directed.) But whatever the reason, these two fundamentally different descriptions and justifications for one's non-work on the Sabbath found their way successively into the inspired biblical texts. In the Decalogue given in Deuteronomy 5, we read:

" `Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant ... that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’" (vv. 12-15)

In the Exodus 20 recounting of the Decalogue, however, the prior theological rationale is expressed:

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work ... for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." (vv. 8-11)

These alternate accounts base their admonition on differing motivations. Appeals to both salvation history (redemption theology) and creation theology are given as the raison d'etre for the Sabbath rest.

According to the Deuteronomic account, because God had delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, they were commanded to "play." The Hebrew term shamor ("observe the Sabbath day") has a clear ethical cast. The people are to obey their God by ceasing all labor. It is interesting to note that included in this version of the fourth commandment is the further ethical justification "that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you." In the alternate and prior version of the Decalogue, however, an aesthetic context is suggested for the Sabbath, humankind "remembering" the Sabbath for God had blessed and hallowed it. The Hebrew term is zachor. Furthermore, it is not God's activity in the Exodus which is to be recalled but his pattern in creation, when he rested after six days of work. This "daring" (Buber) and "massive" (E. Jenni) anthropomorphism-i.e., God himself resting-perhaps finds its analogue in the communion experienced between humankind and God in the Sabbath event." From their experience of Sabbath rest, the biblical writers were able to reflect (analogia fidei) upon the character of God himself, whom they now understood , to have also "rested." Here is the context in which the meaning of the divine rest in Genesis 2 can also be understood: the point is not that God found renewed strength for his labor but rather that he stopped working.

From this brief discussion of the Sabbath emerge several implications relevant to our discussion of play. First, the Sabbath's original intention was to qualify the Israelites' workaday world, and thus to encourage them to recognize that life was a gift as well as a task. As Alfred de Quervain points out, "Activity which can be interrupted is thereby made relative."19 And this is as true today as ever. Far those who would become lost in the intoxication of creative work (for the doctor or professor or farmer who works joyously), the play of the Sabbath is a reminder that we cannot find ultimate meaning by mastering life. As Barth suggests, "The aim of the Sabbath commandment is that man shall give and allow the omnipotent grace of God to have the first and last word at every point."20 Our worth as God's creatures is not to be judged by the zealousness or success of our effort but by our relationship to God (cf. Neh. 13:15-22). By calling into question our single-mindness, the Sabbath -- and all play analogously -- serves to open us up for communion with the divine.

It is this emphasis on divine fellowship that seems to undergird the thinking of the writer of the book of Hebrews concerning Sabbath rest. The intended communion between the Creator and his creatures has been interrupted by disobedience, he argues. The result has been humankind's inability to enter fully into God's rest, i.e., to enjoy perfect fellowship with him. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews counsels: "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.... let us hold fast our confession. ... Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:11-16). The writer holds out that eschatological hope that what is partial now will one day be made complete, the people of God entering fully into his rest.

Secondly, the Sabbath came to be viewed as having ethical significance. The Old Testament laws of the Sabbath emphasized that all servants and laborers were to rest, so that they could be refreshed (Exod. 23:12). What was at stake here was even more than a humanitarian principle, because the animals were also mentioned (surely a concern not common to other peoples in the ancient Near East; cf. Deut. 5:14). The whole of creation was seen as in travail-it was laboring-and in need of recreation. For those few today whose work is intoxicating, whose labor is more "play" than toil, the Sabbath relativizes their efforts. They are not to think themselves God. But for the many whom work is wearisome, if not debilitating, the Sabbath is meant to restore. They are not to think themselves apart from God.

It is this recognition of the Sabbath's orientation toward the needy that causes Isaiah to connect fasting and delighting in the Sabbath with feeding the hungry from one's own supply (Isa. 58:1-14).21- It is this same connection between Sabbath rest and human restoration that Jesus recognized, as he did not let the Sabbath stop him from collecting needed food (Mark 2:23-28), from restoring a man's withered hand (Matt. 12:9-14), or from healing a chronically i11 woman (Luke 13:10-17). Whether it be rest from unrest, refreshment from drudgery, or release from endless competition, the Sabbath exists to serve humankind as much today as in Jesus' day. The circumstances have changed, but the need to turn from one's work and be refreshed remains.

The Sabbath is meant as a time of rest from the world -- a period of non-work and delight in which one's "useless" activity both fosters a recognition of the divine and sanctifies and refreshes ongoing life. Described in this way, the Sabbath can be understood as analogous to, if not paradigmatic of, play as we have discussed it in Chapter Two. The Sabbath, as "play," is that parenthesis in life which has its rightful limits. Nonproductive in design, it nevertheless has significant value for its participants. Entered into freely and joyfully, it has its rules and order for the sake of its integrity. (When, as in Jesus' day, the rules became more important than the player, the Sabbath ceased to be play. But at its best, even in Jesus' day, the rules were for the sake of playing the "game.") Lastly, this "play" of the Sabbath frees one up more generally for a "playful" life-style. One's six days of work are transformed and put into perspective by the Sabbath experience.

I have compared the nature of the Sabbath with that of play not to enter into a discussion of the Sabbath practice in any further detail but rather to better focus our inquiry into its theological rationale as set forth in Scripture. For the Sabbath has been often misunderstood by Christian theologians. Alfred de Quervain, for example, in his influential discussion of the Sabbath, Die Heiligung makes the point that in Israel the Sabbath was the sign of the covenant. The Israelite who did not joyfully rest from his work on that day was one who put his hope in his own work rather than in God's election.22 According to de Quervain, ". . . when our minds are illumined by faith, we see the Sabbath in Israel as grounded not in a sociological event, but in a theological one, the deliverance of God's people from bondage into the rest which he gave them as a token of the final rest."23

Karl Barth draws a similar conclusion, linking the meaning of the holy day to "salvation history and its eschatological significance." While claiming that the whole of creation has as its very structure the Sabbath principle, Barth qualifies this statement by suggesting that creation (through its culmination in the Sabbath rest) paints also to redemptive history (to covenant) and to the final consummation of the same. The meaning of the Sabbath for Barth thus lies in the fact that it is an "indication of the special history of the covenant and salvation," even if in a hidden form.24 (Can we not find a preview of Moltmann's theology of play here ?)25 The Sabbath not only relativizes (or puts into proper perspective) our own workdays by actualizing the holy and securing fellowship between Yahweh and his people; it also relates us to our final day of rest. Barth quotes de Quervain approvingly at this point: "The joy of Sabbath is ... superabundant joy at the blessings which have already been given and joy in expectation of new acts of God, of the coming salvation."26 For Barth, the meaning and basis of the Sabbath is thus also eschatological, for by pointing to the special history of the covenant and salvation, the Sabbath necessarily points to its ultimate consummation in history.27

Both de Quervain and Barth (and we could add Moltmann as well) are in one sense correct. The Sabbath, like all else in the Christian faith, has a covenantal reference. But they read the Sabbath too exclusively in terms of their covenant theology. The result is that its meaning is pushed undialectically forward into the future. Although Barth refers in his Sabbath discussion to Exodus 20 and not to Deuteronomy 5, his argument ignores the Exodus account's base in creation theology. Instead, it centers almost exclusively in "salvation history." The theological events (rooted in the past and future) of the deliverance of God's people and their promise of ultimate rest (the Exodus and the coming of Christ) overshadow the present "sociological"' event of the practice of the Sabbath rest itself. In the process the Sabbath's ability to recall the goodness of God in creation is lost sight of. The sociological event of the Sabbath has its theological grounds not first of all in God's past and future but in the present experience itself. For in the act of Sabbath rest, the Israelite experienced his God as a God whose very nature was one of rest. Like Moltmann, Barth and de Quervain have emphasized the frame for the play experience (past fulfillment and future promise) rather than focusing sufficiently upon the picture itself (the present experience of Sabbath "play").

Perhaps my differences with these theologians can be further clarified by Paul Jewett, who follows Barth and de Quervain on this point. Basing his hermeneutic on Oscar Cullmann's analysis of the biblical pattern of event and interpretation, new event and reinterpretation, he says:

Applying this hermeneutic to the specific question of the Sabbath, we might say: The first event is the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod. 12ff.); the interpretation of this event is that God thereby delivered his people from the toil of Egyptian bondage, that in the promised land they might find rest, a rest memorialized in the weekly Sabbath (Deut. 5:14). The new event is the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus: the interpretation of this new event, which takes up the old interpretation into itself in a reinterpretation, is that Jesus is the Christ, who gives his people rest from the bondage of sin, a final rest the Israelites could not obtain under Joshua when he brought them into Canaan.28

What is lacking in this otherwise helpful summary is reference to another Sabbath-oriented dialectic of "event interpretation" which Scripture suggests. In between the bookends of "Exodus" and "eschatology," there is the "event" of the Sabbath observance itself. Freed for the Sabbath by the events of the Exodus (i.e., by God's gracious acts of freedom on behalf of his people), the Israelites kept the Sabbath: they refrained from work. This led them to seek a theological interpretation of this further event -- their Sabbath rest -- and it was provided them in an analogy to the Creator himself (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11).

2. The Advice of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes)

Ecclesiastes would seem in many ways to be the least likely starting point for a biblical inroad to a theology of play. Although it is a wisdom book, its mood of resignation conveys a bleakness unique within the pages of Scripture:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

All things are full of weariness;. . . a man cannot utter it;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

(Eccl. 1:2-3, 8)

Qoheleth's intent in his book is to call into question our attempt to master life through our toil. He recognizes that the doctrine of retribution (so central to the wisdom tradition), in which the righteous are rewarded and the evil punished, does not always work out in practice. Not only do all of us share a common lot or destiny in death (Eccl. 2:15, 3;19, 5:13-17, 6:6, 7:2, 8:8, 9:2-3, 12:1-7), but all of us live an uncertain existence (Eccl. 4:13-16, 9:13-16) within an indiscernible moral order (Eccl. 3:16. 7:15, 8:14), where wisdom is easily defeated in the presence of riches or folly (Eccl. 9:17-10:1). Given all this, the arrogance of our effort to control or predict our fate is laughable. Wisdom's doctrine of retribution is naïve -- it does not match the facts of experience.

According to Qoheleth, our attempt to work at mastering life is misguided not only because life's experiences often frustrate the attempt (the "good guy" doesn't always win), but also because it constitutes an affront to the divine independence. We cannot presume to know God's will. God is sovereign and inscrutable (Eccl, 3:11; 6:10-11; 7:13-14, 23-24; 8:17). Thus, writes Qoheleth, we can neither find out what we are to do (Eccl. 6:12a, 7:29, 8:16-17) nor know what will come after us (Eccl. 6:12b, 9:11-15, 10:14, 11:4-6). Given life's experiences (which often undercut any notion of retribution) and God's inscrutability, all of our activities have merely the weight of one's breath (hebel). According to Qoheleth, they are like chasing after the wind (re'ut rukh; Eccl. 1:14).

How, then, in a book which James Crenshaw has labeled "pessimistic" and John Priest has called "cynical," do we look for a theology of play?28 Would it not be easier to turn to Proverbs, where wisdom is said to have "played" (sahaq) with God from before creation (Prov. 8:30), or perhaps to Psalm 104:26, where God is portrayed as playing with his creation? Perhaps the laughter of Abraham, which turned from cynical to celebratory when his son Isaac was born (the name means "He [God] laughs") would prove a more fruitful source for a biblical theology of play (Gen. 21). But such is not the case.

Even in this "extreme" book, which attempts to call into question our ability both to know God's will and to predict our fate, we find two root affirmations common to the wisdom tradition, based as it is in creation: (I) God is sovereign, and (2) present life is to be lived in joy as God's gift. Scholars of Ecclesiastes have often recognized the first of these tenets, but they have generally ignored or underplayed the latter. Gerhard Von Rad, for example, in his excellent book Wisdom in Israel, defines Qoheleth's "three basic insights round which his thoughts continually circle" as the following:

1. A thorough, rational examination of life is unable to find any satisfactory meaning: everything is "vanity." 2. God determines every event. 3. Man is unable to discern these decrees, the "works of God" in the world.30

Although this listing supports our above conclusions -- that Qoheleth seeks to contradict the idea of retribution and to contradict the idea that we can know God's will -- and although Von Rad recognizes, on the positive side, that Qoheleth affirms God's :sovereignty, what is conspicuously ignored in his summary of Ecclesiastes is anything of the acceptance and enjoyment of life as a gift from God, which Qoheleth counsels.

There are, however, a few scholars who have recognized this more "playful" aspect of Qoheleth's teaching -- that life is meant for our enjoyment. In his book Koheleth -- The Man and His World, Robert Gordis discards his earlier focus on Qoheleth's alleged resignation and instead understands "the basic theme of the book" to be "simhah, the enjoyment of life."31 Edwin Good concurs with Gordis, quoting him when he says:

For Koheleth, joy is God's categorical imperative for man, not in any anemic or spiritualized sense, but rather as a full-blooded and tangible experience, expressing itself in the play of the body, and the activity of the mind, the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of love.32

And Norbert Lohfink expresses a similar viewpoint in the chapter "Man Face to Face With Death" in his book The Christian Meaning of the Old Testament. Although Qoheleth's hatred of life has arisen from the stark fact of death, according to Lohfink, this is an intermediate stage. Qoheleth's final attitude, and the perspective from which he writes, is one of recognition of life's joys. We should accept "the gift of happiness in the present moment from the hand of God."33

Gordis, Good, and Lohfink all base their conclusions on a constant refrain found in Qoheleth which counterpoints the central emphasis of the wisdom writer's argument. Qoheleth asserts repeatedly that we are to enjoy life as God's gift (Eccl. 2:24-26, 3:12-13, 3:22; 5:18-20, 7:14, 8:15, 9:7-9, 11:9-12:1). This is our lot (heleq), or portion, in life. Our active participation and engagement in the world is not to be manipulative or assertive but rather a seeing of (ra'k; Eccl. 2:24, 3:13, 5:18; cf. 9:9) or a rejoicing in (sdtnah; Eccl. 5:19; cf. 3:22, 8:15) the good in all our labor, an affirming as "good" (tob) our eating and drinking (Eccl. 2:24-26, 5:18, 8:15, 9:7), a rejoicing in all our present activities (Eccl. 3:22), and an affirmation that life is meant to be lived joyfully in community (Eccl. 9:9, 4:9-12). Qoheleth preaches that we must accept life as given by God with both its joys and sorrows (Eccl. 7:14), and he argues for an active participation in and engagement with life, despite its uncertainties (Eccl. 11:1-6).

One can capture something of the flavor of Qoheleth's advice by quoting him:

I know that there is nothing better for them [mankind] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is God's gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil. (Eccl. 3:12-13)

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl. 9:7-10)

In the face of death. Qoheleth seeks to guide his readers into a joyful existence characterized by both work and play. Such joy is not facile or simpleminded, but rather a recognition and celebration of created life:

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun. For if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. (Eccl. 11:7-8)

Death becomes in Lohfink's phrase the "frontier situation" which forces Qoheleth to reflect upon life.34 Life is to be loved; its present happiness and joy cherished. Such is the advice offered by Qoheleth.

Gerhard Von Rad comments in passing that Qoheleth's concern in discussing God's determination of the "times" ('et) "is, in the last resort, not a theoretical, or a theological one, but an explicitly pastoral one. "35 In interpreting Ecclesiastes, scholars have rightly pointed out the problems related to translating Qoheleth as "preacher." But despite the linguistic problems associated with this designation, it seems that the epithet "preacher," in the sense of "pastor," is indeed an appropriate one, at least theologically.36 According to Duncan Macdonald, we have done Qoheleth an injustice by viewing his work as reflecting only a spirit of resignation and despair. Qoheleth is not merely giving his readers the pessimistic or cynical results of his attempt to wrest meaning from life. Rather, he intends his book to be a "guide to life."37

As a theological guide, the book of Ecclesiastes instructs man (Qoheleth is writing to Hebrew young men) to take pleasure in his life. A man is to enjoy life with the woman he loves. He is to eat and drink merrily. He is to dress festively. Moreover, he is to enjoy his work as well, giving himself wholly to all that he does. One's mistaken efforts at mastering life are doomed. One must relax and enjoy life as it unfolds from God.

Are there any theological insights in Qoheleth's advice which might prove helpful to us as we seek to delineate a theology of play? How can we compare Qoheleth's instruction with our discussion of Sabbath play, for example? And how can his advice serve as a helpful corrective to those theologians who embrace the "Greek" and "Protestant" models of play?

Qoheleth is one with the Sabbath theologians who found in the experience of play an impetus toward the divine. Play is prefatory to our experience of God. George Hendry alludes to this fact when he characterizes Qoheleth's preponderantly negative tone as used "only upon the misguided human endeavor to treat the created world as an end in itself." Hendry goes on to suggest that part of Qoheleth's purpose in writing as he does is to help people rediscover a God-centered joy. To accomplish this, Qoheleth must dispel our false and illusory hopes based upon our own toil. In this way he can assist us toward rediscovering our true happiness in God's gracious favor toward us (Eccl. 9:7).38 Toward this end, Qoheleth exhorts his readers to play -- to eat and drink with joy and to make love. For as we play, as we commune joyfully with creation and our fellow creatures, we become aware that life truly is a gift from God (Eccl. 2:24).

To the "Protestant," the Preacher affirms the value of play in and of itself. Our play need not serve our work. It has its own consequence, however unintended. Just as the Sabbath reminds us of our dependence upon divine grace, so, according to Qoheleth, our play experiences suggest God's gracious favor as their basis (Ecc1. 2:24-26). Qoheleth wishes that he could find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Eccl. 3:11), but God's special revelation eludes him. (This is one reason many Christian theologians have seen Qoheleth's writing as the final preparatory word of the 01d Testament prior to God's breaking into history in the coming of Christ. The voice of salvation history had been silenced. A further word was needed from God.) But although Qoheleth cannot know God's saving ways, nevertheless he asserts from God's general revelation in his creation that our happiness and joy in our play is a gift from God. (Eccl. 2:24-26, 3:13, 5:19-20; cf. 3:22, 5:18, 9:9). Although God does not speak to Qoheleth in His role as Redeemer, His creation when experienced playfully points us to its source, God the Creator -- the Giver of life 39

The book of Ecclesiastes also addresses those who would hold a "Greek" understanding of play. For although the Preacher calls us to play, such play is never apotheosized. We are not only to play but to find joy also in our labor (Eccl. 2:24, 3:13, 3:22, 5:18, 9:10; cf. 8:15, 9:9). Just as the Sabbath commandment states, "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work" (Exod. 20:9; Deut. 5:13), so too Qoheleth advises his readers to give themselves fully to their toil. But understood in the context of our joyful "play," this advice to work takes on a new perspective.0ur toil is not meant to master life; it is not for the purpose of wresting the key to salvation from life itself. Rather, our work becomes in itself a creative, joyously free activity. When play becomes our teacher, work, like play, is discovered to have value, for it is part of life's gift that will one day end. We should work and play, suggests Qoheleth, but "playfully."40

Not only are we instructed to work playfully, but we are told we must play playfully. The biblical writer is clear on this point, for he portrays at length, by assuming the role of king, the vanity and emptiness of those "Greeks" who work at having fun (Eccl. 2:1-11). A life of unreserved play is but vanity: it is chasing after the wind. If the play world becomes one's all-consuming end, it ceases to be fulfilling. Qoheleth looks at life and observes people attempting to master it by playing. He holds up instead the vision of the "playful" person: one who is able to see (rd'a, "to indwell, look into, look at"; Eccl. 2:24, 3:13, 5:18; cf. 2:1, 5:19, 6:9) the good in life, rather than attempting to manipulate his surroundings. To "see" in this sense is to commune with and to enjoy the world as it is. Only in this way can one playfully work and play.

In The Seduction of the Spirit, Harvey Cox echoes something of the message of Ecclesiastes when he writes:

To use a different metaphor, life for me is a two-step saraband of creating and letting be, of making and simply enjoying, of molding and then being molded, of work and play, prayer and politics, telling and listening. If you reduce it to a one-step, you might just as well stop the music, because it isn't really a dance any more. 41

 

Qoheleth's model for a human life-style is clear: we are meant to be both people-for-others (workers) and people-with-others players). Life is a two-step dance.

According to Karl Barth, Mozart recognized this fact. His life was characterized by both hard work and hard play (although he would have known what Cox does not -- that you cannot two-step a saraband because it is in triple time). Barth, .w-ho loved Mozart's music and became something of an expert on it, described Mozart as possessing "unflinching industry," a man who worked a great deal during his "short life." And yet Mozart also loved to sit at the piano and improvise freely, sometimes for hours on end, without attempting later to write down what he had created. There was, according to Barth, "an entire Mozart world [his play world) which sounded once and then faded away for ever and ever!" Mozart laughed often, Barth says, although in a life plagued by money problems, illness, and professional disappointment, there was not much for him to laugh about. "Rather he laughed (and that is something absolutely different) because he was allowed and able to laugh in spite of a11."42 Here is that "Hebraic" model for play, one that challenges both our "Greek" and our "Protestant" conceptions by trustfully and joyously accepting a God-given rhythm for our work and for our play.

3. Love in the Song of Songs

The Bible concerns itself only rarely with the joyful play of human love. As Karl Barth observes, "The [erotic] notes are few."43 Nevertheless, they are not absent, being centered (as one might suspect) in the creation-based discussion of Old Testament wisdom literature. For example, in Proverbs 5:15-19, we read:

Drink water from your own cistern,

flowing water from your own well.

Should your springs be scattered abroad,

streams of water in the streets?

Let them be for yourself alone,

and not for strangers with you.

Let your fountain be blessed,

and rejoice in the wife of your youth,

a lovely hind, a graceful doe.

Let her affection fill you at all times with delight,

be infatuated always with her love.

The writer here goes beyond merely prohibiting adultery. Love is viewed as a refreshing fountain, the beloved as a "creature" both lovely and to be loved. Affection and infatuation are to characterize the envisioned relationship. It should be delightful.

Such advice has its theological beginning in the second chapter of Genesis, where the woman is described as being created, for God saw that it was "not good that the man should be alone" (Gen. 2:18). In relating the story, the writer of Genesis• records the man's exclamation upon seeing his mate:

"This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman [Heb. ishshah]

because she was taken. out of Man [Heb. ish]." (Gen. 2:23)

The partnership of husband and wife is understood by this writer as "life's chief blessing. "44 Love is not deified, as it typically was by Israel's neighbors. It is not even personified. Instead, as Jean Paul Audet paints out, it is portrayed simply "as a good which man and woman [hold] from God by their common origin."45

The goodness of love as created by God is taken up again by the prophet Hosea, who uses the continuing infatuation and affection he has for his wife, Gomer, as an image of the love Yahweh has for his people Israel. It is not the fruitfulness of marriage that he draws upon, not the possibility of procreation, but, in Audet's words, "an aspect which is in a sense much more radical, and which is more specifically human, namely that of love. "46 Hosea's complaint about his marriage has nothing to do with sterility or lack of progeny. In fact, Gomer has borne him two sons and a daughter (Hos. 1:39). Hosea is torn apart by something else -- Gomer's unfaithfulness. Nevertheless, his love for her is unquenchable, and he sets out to woo Gomer back. He creates a new affection for her. Hosea's point is that God's plan for his wayward people is rooted in a love analogous to that of a man for a woman.

But it is not to Proverbs or Hosea -- not even to Genesis I and 2 -- that one must turn to see the full expanse of human love portrayed. It is the Song of Songs that provides the fullest commentary. Barth calls it the "Magna Carta" of humanity 47 In it the implications of the creation accounts of the love of a man for a woman are put into song. If the song were not in the Bible, the playfulness of its uninhibited yet delicate descriptions would be clear to all. But because the Song is in the Scriptures, it has most often been moralized or spiritualized; being understood as an allegory of the love God has for his people. Perhaps Saint Jerome can be seen as typical in this regard, offering the following advice to Laeta about her daughter: "Let her never look upon her own nakedness. She should not read the Song of Songs until she has read Chronicles and Kings, for otherwise she might not observe that the book refers only to spiritual love."48

When an allegorical interpretation of the Song first developed is debated. The Mishnah quotes Rabbi Akiba at the council of Jammia in 90 A.D. as saying, "For all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."49 The same rabbi is reputed to have said later: "Anyone who, for the sake of entertainment, sings the Song as though it were a profane song, will have no share in the World to Come. "5° From evidence such as this, it seems safe to conclude that the allegorical interpretation of the Song arose in reaction to those who were suggesting its largely secular character. As Calvin Seerveld notes, ". . . allegorical exegesis of The Greatest Song originated as a defense against the complaint, `How can such worldly love poetry be holy and a norm for the faith?' Allegorizing of the Song was a theological construction formed to answer critics sceptical of the Song's canonical status already assumed."51

The allegorizing of the Song's wonder concerning human love was given impetus by the early Christian scholar Origen, who contended that all language had a literal, a figurative, and a spiritual, or allegorical, sense. Such an approach, for example, led Cyril of Alexandria to interpret chapter one, verse thirteen ("My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts") as referring to the Old and New Testaments, between which hangs Christ.52 Not all interpretation that followed through the centuries was as ludicrous as this, although much of it was. As Seerveld points out, "Generation after generation of Christian scholars kept reading past the obvious sense of what was before them and spent their sanctified ingenuity ascertaining the hidden `spiritual' meaning of the words, so as to lead the inexperienced laity into the way of mystical truth."53 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, preached eighty-six lengthy sermons on the first two chapters of the Song, and found its single focus to be Christ's love for his Church.

Not all accepted such spiritualizing, but the cost of opposition ran high. Theodore of Mopsuestia (360-427 A.D.) was anathematized; Sebastian Castellio was deported from Geneva by Calvin; and Luis de Leon fell under the Inquisition. It was not until the Enlightenment that the vitality and passion of this love song could be recognized freely (the poet Johann Gottfried von Herder was one of the first to find its theme to be human love). But even then its "literal" advocates were few. Only in the twentieth century has biblical scholarship advanced to the place where the Song's "sheer, ecstatic enjoyment of human love between a man and a woman" (Seerveld) can be recognized.54 In his highly influential essay "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," H. H. Rowley speaks for most modern commentators when he concludes, "The view 1 adopt finds in it nothing but what it appears to be, lovers' songs, expressing their delight in one another and the warm emotions of their hearts. All of the other views find in the Song what they bring to it."55

A second issue of interpretation besides the tradition of allegorization must be faced by the reader of the Song. This has to do with its traditional status as a wisdom book. In its canonical form, the Song of Songs is a collection of songs (some going back to the Solomonic era and all being brought together in honor of Solomon), most likely edited by Israel's wisdom teachers in the post-exilic period. The question is, Was the book meant to instruct us concerning the nature of love? E. J. Young believes this is the case, arguing strongly for the Song's didactic intent:

The Song does celebrate the dignity and purity of human love. This is a fact which has not always been sufficiently stressed. The Song, therefore, is didactic and moral in its purpose. It comes to us in this world of sin, where lust and passion are on every hand, where fierce temptations assail us and try to turn us aside from the God-given standard of marriage. And it reminds us, in particularly beautiful fashion, how pure and noble true love is.56

On the other hand, W J. Fuerst writes: "It is fruitless to try to establish that this book teaches us about theology, or God's love, or even man's love. The book was written to celebrate, not to teach. "57 The issue might be defined as follows: Is the book a song or a lesson? If it is a lesson, then a certain somberness of tone is easily construed. If it is a song, then a lighter, more joyous spirit seems truer to its original intention.

One can complicate the issue quite easily. That the Song is a collection of songs implies a pre-history, a pre-literary period, for the individual pieces. It suggests that there might have been a variety of life settings for parts of the Song (courtship, wedding, etc.). It also suggests a possible distancing of the original vibrancy and playfulness of the songs; they became a kind of lesson. But our knowledge of this pre-literary period is totally inferential.58 And even if the Song is now meant to instruct us, and even if we are ignorant of the exact number of original poems and of their context, it seems safe to conclude with Jean Paul Audet that the text remains first of all a song and not a lesson.59 This conclusion implies an intended "state of consciousness" distinct from the earnestness that so easily befalls instruction -- even instruction about the playfulness of love between a man and a woman. We must not ignore the book's edited title. This collection of songs has a basic unity. It is to be received as a song -- n fact, as the greatest of songs, for that is what the phrase "Song of Songs" means in the Hebrew.

M. H. Segal is correct in observing that the text's joyous, youthful spirit as a song has seldom been recognized. "Its happy optimism, its gaiety, its love of good-natured fun" has been overlooked by most of its commentators, he says: "They have invested the Song with a serious edifying character which does not fit it at all. It abounds in playfulness, in gentle raillery and fun, mingled with touching sentiments of love and tenderness. "60 Segal hypothesizes that the original setting for the songs was the Solomonic era, when the horses of Pharaoh's chariots would have walked the streets of Jerusalem (S of S. 1:5; cf. 1 Kgs. 3: 1), when the details of life from Damascus to En Gedi would have been known (S of S. 6:5, 4:8, 1:14, 4:1, 7:5-6; cf. 1 Kgs. 5:1-4), and when life had a certain luxurious quality (S of S. 1:10; cf. Isa. 3:23). According to Segal, "The whole tone of the Song" with "its delight in love and in good living and in pleasant things" best suits "the reign of Solomon ... when `Judah and Israel were many ... eating and drinking and making merry' (1 Kings IV 20). "61

Segal's point is somewhat overdrawn, but it is a healthy corrective to much interpretation of the Song. Whether his assessment of the pre-literary history of these songs is correct or not, there is no doubt that the songs are the poetry of lovers. They contain nothing artificial. The varied aspects of human love-play are everywhere in view. Perhaps the clearest evidence of love's playfulness in the Song is the strong feminine presence within the work. The product of a patriarchal society, the Song's perspective is nonetheless egalitarian. In fact, it might be argued that a "new set of rules" has been adopted so that the emphasis falls on the female. Hyam Maccoby notes, for example, the "immodest behavior of the female lover" and calls this "the main enigma" of the song.62 It is the woman who most often sets out to "capture" the man. From the beginning, the female's sexual desire is uninhibitedly expressed: "O that you would kiss me"; "Draw me after you"; "Awake, 0 north wind"; "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits"; "Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields" (S. of S. 1:2, 1:4, 4:16, 7: 11). Here is female sexuality openly expressed, sensual yet tasteful. None of the strictures of the larger male-dominated culture is apparent. Judaism often gloried in the achievements of its patriarchalism, but here another perspective dominates. After all, "All's fair in love and. . . ."

That the interaction of the lovers in the Song is indeed play is seen in the brief dialogue that opens chapter two. There the woman describes herself as just one flower among many. Per haps she is being a little coquettish. The man responds playfully by saying, "As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens" (S. of S. 2:2). To this the woman responds, returning the compliment, "As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men" (S. of S. 2:3). The song of mutual admiration ends as the woman reflects on her time apart (her "playtime") with her beloved: "With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste" (S. of S. 2:3).

That the Song of Songs is to be interpreted in the context of the joyful play of lovers is also suggested by the opening song (S. of S. 1:2-4), a poem which, as Jean Paul Audet says, has "no close textual connection with what follows."63 If one were not interested in establishing a playful mood of ecstasy and joy, it would seem more logical to begin the song with verse five, where the woman introduces herself to the daughters of Jerusalem. The author, however, wants us to experience something of the emotion of love. He is not presenting an academic discussion. Thus he has the woman express her desire to be kissed. In reflecting on these opening verses, Audet has even suggested that the author chose to begin the collection with this song in order to provide a suitable title for the text: "O that you would kiss me. ... " According to this hypothesis, the appreciative superscription in verse one would be understood as coming from the pen of a later editor, from someone who recognized the merit of the Song and had deep affection for it. Audet asks, Is it likely that an author would call his own song "the most beautiful of songs"?

Throughout the Song the lovers take mutual delight in each other's physical and spiritual charms. Although the language is never crude or clinical, its explicitness takes it beyond the normal discourse of the workaday world. The enthusiastic praise of the physical beauties of the man and the woman seems more appropriate to descriptions of lovers, or to their conversations, or perhaps to the songs of a wedding ceremony. It is impossible to pin down the particular life settings for these songs; no doubt they are various. But the general context, surely, is the love play of ancient Israel. As we listen to the Song, we overhear the lovers teasing one another (e.g., S. of S. 2:14-15) or dreaming (e.g., S. of S. 3:1-5). We observe the wedding procession (S. of S. 3:6-11) and hear the beauty of the beloved described (e.g., S. of S. 4:1-7). We read of the erotic pleasures which the lover finds in his beloved (S. of S. 6:2-3). There is a description of a surprise rendezvous between the lover and the beloved in a garden (S. of S. 6:11-12). There is even a portrayal (a wasf) of the woman's physical beauty as she dances, a description that begins with her graceful feet and ascends slowly and graphically upward to her head (S. of S. 6:13-7:5). We overhear a dialogue about sexual desire (S. of S. 7:6-10), which is followed by another song in which the woman declares her willingness to give herself sexually to her lover (S. of S. 7:11-13). The Song ends with what M. A. van den Oudenrijn has suggested might derive from a game of "hide and seek" played by two people in love .64 To the biblical writer the value of such love play is immeasurable. Although love's extravagances might seem irrelevant to life's larger concerns, they are in reality fundamental. He summarizes:

... love is strong as death.... Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.... If a man offered for love

all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned. (S. of S. 8:6-7

Such is the nature of the Song of Songs -a beautiful, extended paean to human love. We would be untrue to the text if we ended our discussion here, however. Two comments of wider import are necessary. First, in his helpful article entitled "Sensuous Theology," David Fraser notes that the Book of Proverbs provides a number of counterpoints to the Song:

The same erotic language employed by the lovers in the Song without negative connotation is condemned when found on the harlot's lips (Prov. 5:3, 6:25, 7:15, 17, 18; Song 3:1,4:6, 9, 5:5, 8:11). Sexual love may exist for its own sake in the Song, but ... Proverbs relativizes human love by placing it within the established order of life and questions of prudence. -the Song is not concerned as such with whether the lovers are foolish or wise, or whether love must be evaluated by major ethical norms .65

That is, like play more generally, sexual love can be "bastardized. "66 What might have all the appearances of love play might in fact be nothing of the sort. It can prove inauthentic and manipulative, as the writer of Proverbs is quick to caution. But such larger ethical considerations are beyond the purview of the writer of the Song. His focus is on the simple wonder of love.

Secondly, although the Song has no allegorical intention, the community of faith, both Jewish and Christian, was in one sense correct in seeking to find analogies between the sexual love described in the Song of Songs and the supernatural love God has for his people. According to Donald Bloesch, it is not inappropriate to see a "reflection of God's love for his people and of the human response to this love" in the sexual love between a man and a woman.67 This prophetic theme is repeatedly mentioned in the pages of Scripture and is the central image of the Book of Hosea, as we have already observed. Roland Murphy notes, "How remarkable that Israel could understand the Lord as beyond sex, and thus proscribe fertility cult, and yet could exalt him as spouse."68

One must recognize, however, that in moving beyond the intention of the Song, in moving from creation theology to covenantal theology, in speaking of God's love for his people, one is assuming a prior and definitive understanding of God. That is, general revelation is congruent with special revelation, but one cannot derive the covenant from creation. This was the mistake we observed in Sam Keen's thinking. His natural theology based in the person at play necessarily had to remain "agnostic." Donald Bloesch warns, "Beginning with human love and then trying to find in it the key that opens the doorway to divine love only ends in a false mysticism."69 There is in human sexuality a sense of awe, intuition, and ecstasy that brings with it a "suspicion of holiness." Love's playground can, indeed, be a "consecrated spot." Human sexuality can, in Bonhoeffer's words, "keep a ground-base of joy alive" in all of us, and in this way prepare us for, and help sustain us within, our ongoing life of faith. But it cannot clarify the central wonder of God's grace.

4. Israel at "Play"

The descriptions of the "play" of the Sabbath and of the play of lovers, like the advice to play found in Ecclesiastes, find their theological center in God the Creator. But biblical discussions of play are not limited to these creational perspectives. If one reads the biblical record carefully, one will observe the importance of play even within the more dominant biblical discussion of God's saving activity on behalf of his people. In particular, Israel's God-intended play is evident in descriptions of her festivals and of her love for dance. It is basic to the importance attached to feasting. It is even central to her practice of hospitality.

Many of the texts having to do with such play have intentions other than to instruct us about play. That is why we have begun this biblical overview with the creation-centered texts on play. But a description of Israel's life-style is nonetheless instructive, for it models in a culturally specific way a more general pattern that views play as an important component of life. Even if the customs of hospitality might change, or even if such rites of passage as weaning might no longer be celebrated, the larger issue -- the importance of play -- remains evident.

A. Festival Religious festivals were occasions for a break from life's larger concerns, a special time, or "parenthesis" within life, consecrated to the Lord in joy. We read in Nehemiah, for example, that the Israelites gathered to hear Ezra read the Book of the Law of Moses. After he had read clearly from the Law and the Levites had helped instruct the people in it, Nehemiah, together with Ezra and the Levites, had to correct the people for failing to celebrate their God:

."This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." So the Levites stilled all the people. saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Neh. 8:9-12)

Nehemiah's call to festivity assumes that holiness is better associated with joy than solemnity, with happiness rather than zloom. He would have the people eat rich food ("the fat") and drink sweet wine. Moreover, to insuze that everyone can participate in the celebration (and thus, perhaps, to make sure that larger ethical questions do not intrude and abort the time of play), he counsels that food and drink should even be sent to those who would otherwise be left out. The festival is for all.

The description of this holiday (holy-day) is followed in the Book of Nehemiah by the discovery that God had intended this festival to last seven days and to include the building of booths for the people to live in temporarily while they celebrated. The booths were a reminder of the Exodus, when the Israelites camped along the way. These structures were to be made from the "branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm and other leafy trees" (Neh. 5:15). This Feast of Booths, or Feast of Tabernacles, as it came to be called, took place at harvest-time. "But notice what it did," J. Webb Mealy says: "it drew man's interest away from gloating over his accomplishments [in the successful harvest] back to rejoicing in who he was by virtue of God's election and love. Everyone had to live in booths made of pretty branches ... enjoyable but not so because of human ingenuity. "70 That is, the festival with its new "playground" (the booths) and "play-time" (seven days during the seventh month) became an occasion to rejoice in who God was and in what he had done for his people.

The story of Esther provides another example of the playfulness of Jewish festivals, giving a rationale for the feast of Purim (Esth. 9:26). Although the enemy had cast their lot (Heb. Pur) to destroy the Jews, with the help of Esther and Mordecai, the Pur fell on the wicked. The Jews thus were able to celebrate with "a day for gladness and feasting and holiday-making, and a day on which they send choice portions to one another" (Esth. 9:19). As a result, the celebration is said to have become a yearly event, when "mourning" is turned to "holiday" as "feasting and gladness" prevail (Esth. 9:22). As with the Feast of Booths, Purim was based, at least implicitly, in the activity of God on behalf of his people. As such it was meant to qualify one's work at mastering life.

In Deuteronomy 16, when Moses addresses the people of Israel gathered before him on the plains of Moab, he describes the three major festivals in Israel's early life: the Feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread (vv. 1-8); the Feast of Weeks, or "Pentecost" (vv. 9-12); and the Feast of Booths (vv. 13-15). In the descriptions the feasts are patterned on a sabbatical scheme, reinforcing the idea that they are to be a time of rest, not work. Nothing specifically playful is mentioned in connection with the first of these, the Festival of the Passover. It was, however, to be a week in which no work was done (v. 8), and in which the animals sacrificed each evening were to be eaten completely. On the other hand, both the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Booths were to be characterized by rejoicing (vv. 9, 14; cf. Lev. 23:40). As with the Passover, these other holy days were holidays on which the people made a pilgrimage to Yahweh's sanctuary (v. 16). There, with all of the community gathered together, Israel celebrated the goodness of the Lord in providing food. They were, said Moses, to "indeed be joyful" (v. 15).

B. Dance The Old Testament makes repeated references to dance, suggesting that it served an important function in ancient Jewish culture. In the Book of job, for example, Job complains that he is suffering while the wicked prosper. In describing their well-being, he laments that not only do their bulls breed but "their children dance. They sing to the tambourine and the lyre. and rejoice to the sound of the pipe" (Job 21:11-12). Job is in no way critical of such playful dance. He only complains that the wrong parties are participating. It is his family that should be dancing, not mourning (cf. Luke 15:25). As if seeking to answer Job's complaint, the writer of Ecclesiastes reflects: "For everything there is a season ... a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Eccl. 3:1-4). Similarly, in Lamentations Jeremiah bemoans the destruction of Jerusalem, saying: "The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning" (Lam. 5:15; cf. Ps. 30:11, Jer. 31:13).

On a more positive note, the Psalmist advises his listeners to praise the Lord "with dancing" (Ps. 149:3; cf. Ps. 87:7, 150:4). And the Israelites often did just that, as when they danced in celebration after David had repulsed the Philistines. We read: "As they were coming home ... the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, `Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands' " (1 Sam. 18:6-7; cf. Judg. 11:34, Exod. 15:20, 21). Dance seems to have been a common feature of life in ancient Israel, particularly at festival time. In fact, the very words for festival in the Hebrew seem to originate as terms for dancing.72 Judges 21 describes the dance of the daughters of Shiloh, most probably during an autumn harvest festival. Similarly, Psalm 68 portrays a processional dance up to Zion, accompanied by singers and timbrel players (cf. Ps. 118:27). And Jeremiah looks forward to the time after the exile when Israel will once again be able to celebrate at their festivals, when they will "go forth in the dance of the merrymakers" (Jer. 31:4).'z

Perhaps the most vivid recounting of Israel's playful dancing is the account of David when he brought the "ark of God" (the Ark of the Covenant) to Zion. While thirty thousand men of Israel paraded, it says, "David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals" (2 Sam. 6:5). A tragedy brought the celebration to a halt, and the ark was temporarily stored in the house of Obed-edom; but David later retrieved it and brought the ark "to the city of David with rejoicing. . . . And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and a11 the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn" (2 Sam. 6:12, 14-15). The narrative continues, relating how Michal, David's wife, was angry at him for leaping and dancing before the Lord, uncovering himself "as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself" (2 Sam. 6:20). But David rebuked her, saying, "I will make merry before the Lord" (2 Sam. 6:21). And the account ends with the editorial comment about God's judgment on the matter: "And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death" (2 Sam. 6:23).

The above text is instructive because it describes the worshipful, yet playful, way Israel celebrated her good fortune. It involved, for example, the use of a wide variety of musical in struments. Moreover, even David could adopt a new set of "rules" during this "playtime," wearing only an ephod for his dance. When Michal objected that he would be thought "one of the vulgar fellows," i.e., that such action wasn't proper for a king, David responded that the maids (the commoners) would not object but would revere him for his merriment before the Lord. Michal could not let David "play"; matters of propriety and station intruded. (It is interesting to observe that such revelry must not have been uncommon among the larger citizenry, because Michal compared David's informality with what a common person might do.) But David would not distance himself from his people during the celebration. There was a bond among the celebrants that made his simple attire appropriate.

David's dance before the ark can be contrasted with the licentious dancing of the Israelites before the golden calf in Moses' day. Wanting to be like their Baal-worshipping neighbors, the Israelites succumbed to orgiastic dancing (Exod. 32:19). The text states that "the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (Exod. 32:6). The verb "play" in Hebrew is the same word that is translated "fondle" in Genesis 26:8. It has a clear sexual reference. The description of Israel's play in front of the calf suggests a drunken orgy that included dance. In the years to come Israel would repeatedly be tempted to direct her celebratory dancing to Baal, not Yahweh (cf. the account of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12 and the repeated reference to the sins of Jeroboam throughout the book). But in this context the relevant point is not the temptation to idolatry; it is the constancy of Israel's "play." The Israelites danced before their God -- whether in their faith that god was Yahweh, or in their unbelief. Baal.

C. Feasting Special moments in the Israelites' lives often included a feast, a meal that went beyond mere physical maintenance and became an act of play. When Sarah weaned Isaac, for example, "Abraham made a great feast" (Gen. 21:8). But on that occasion Sarah refused to enter into the "playtime," seeing Ishmael, who was "playing with her son Isaac," as a potential threat to Isaac's inheritance. That is, matters from the larger arena of life intruded and dampened the feast's intended joy. In Genesis 29, a similar feast is described, this time to celebrate Jacob's marriage. Again, the feast has a surprising and sobering ending, as Jacob discovers the next morning that his wife is not Rachel, his intended bride, but Leah, her older sister. Nevertheless, something of Israel's style of playful feasting is evident. (One recalls here the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus assured its success by turning water into wine. Cf. John 2.)

It is this Jewish custom of celebrating important moments in one's life with a feast that Jesus uses in his parable of the prodigal son. After the father's younger son took his inheritance and squandered "his property in loose living," he returned home filled with remorse, expecting to be punished. But the father responded in love, telling, his servants, " `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on. him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry. . . .' And they began to make merry" (Luke 15:22-24).

When the older brother returned, however, he was angered by the feast in progress. He resented having his wayward brother honored in this way. The father responded, " `It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found' " (Luke 15:32). As with the occasions of weaning and marriage, this was a time for joyful feasting.

Jesus tells this parable to instruct us about the nature of God himself. But it is important to note the context Luke provides for it (Luke 15:1-3). Jesus is responding to criticism that he, like the father in the story, is "feasting" with the wrong people. One recalls here the earlier words of rebuke directed at Jesus, when he is criticized for his "eating and drinking": " 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' " (Luke 7:34; cf. Luke 5:29, 14:13). Jesus' life-style seems to have included sufficient feasting with "sinners" and other "undesirables" that it scandalized the religious establishment. The scandal, one should note, was not his feasting as such; this was part of Israel's customary activity. The offense was Jesus' choice of co-celebrants. Like Michal in her disapproval of David, the Pharisees could not allow Jesus to join with the "vulgar."

The association of feasts with significant moments in life finds its ultimate use as an eschatological symbol of celebration and renewal. Although Israel will be judged for her apostasy, God will restore her one day. Isaiah portrays that future hope, saying, "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined" (Isa. 25:6). Zechariah speaks similarly of future "cheerful feasts" (Zech. 8:18). Our feasting, like the rest of the Sabbath and the play of lovers, becomes symbolic of God's gracious presence with us. Thus in the book of Revelation John portrays a marriage feast which is to last throughout eternity: " `Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb' " (Rev. 19:9). The Christian's feast will one day know no end.

D. Hospitality Caring for the stranger (sojourner) was a sacred duty for the Israelite. With public inns rare and the threat of robbery real, hospitality was a necessary and reciprocal service. In fact, its provision was so important that its disregard was considered a sin deserving the severest penalty. (Note, for example, that the chief sin of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was inhospitality, not sexual perversion; cf. Ezek. 16:49.)

The book of Judges records the inhospitable treatment given a certain Levite by the Benjaminites of Gibeah. As was the custom, this Levite entered the city and sat down in the open square. But no one took him and his party in to spend the night (Judg. 19:15). Firally, an old man from the hill country of Ephraim offered him provisions, fearing for the wayfarer's safety. As the men were "making their hearts merry" with food and drink, others from the city came and demanded that the old man give up his guest so that they might homosexually attack him. Resisting unsuccessfully, the man and his guest were able to escape this violation only by letting the men of the city repeatedly rape the guest's concubine instead. After a night of abuse, the woman was found dead on the host's doorstep. The Levite left town only to rally the Israelites to war against these evildoers. And even after the Benjaminites proved dangerous adversaries, felling twenty-two thousand Israelites, the Israelites persisted, for such an offense must not go unpunished.

The evilness of the people of Benjamin was evident in their gross inhospitality. The guest deserved respect and protection, even if he were an enemy, up to three days after eating with the host. There were few more basic ordinances in ancient life (cf. Gen. 24:22ff., Exod. 2:20, Deut. 23:4, Judg. 13:15, 1 Sam. 25, 2 Sam. 12:1-6, 1 Kgs. 17:8-16, Neh. 5:17-19, Job 22:7, 31:32).

The ethical force of the obligation to be hospitable was formidable in ancient Israel. But being gracious to one's guests had another side as well. Not only were the guest and his party to be cared for, they were to be entertained. Hospitality was not only a duty; it was meant to be a delight. In the account from judges 19 just described, the text says that the old man from Ephraim made his guests' "hearts merry" (v. 22).

An even better example of hospitality's "playful" intent is found earlier in the same chapter. Judges 19 tells the story of this same Levite traveling in the remote hill country of Ephraim after his concubine had become angry and had gone to her parents' home. After several months the Levite came to her, speaking kindly, and tried to bring her back. On seeing him, the woman's father welcomed the Levite warmly and "made him stay, and he remained with him three days; so they ate and drank, and lodged there" (Judg. 19:4). This was the accepted practice of the time-offering the sojourner three days of hospitality.

But the woman's father wanted to do even more for his guest, so he continued to offer him food. "So the two men sat and ate and drank together; and the woman's father said to the man, `Be pleased [again] to spend the night, and let your heart be merry' " (Judg. 19:6). And the Levite did. On the fifth day the father pleaded once again with his son-in-law to tarry and to make his heart merry. It was only toward evening that the son-in-law, with his concubine and servant, was able to break away. While his guest was present, the father put aside other concerns, eating and drinking with him. His goal was to make his guest happy.

Perhaps the clearest Old Testament example of the cultural importance of hospitality as an occasion for "play" is the description in Genesis 18 and 19 of the visits to Abraham and Lot

by the divine messengers, who offered them salvation from the impending judgment on Sodom. Claus Westermann, in his helpful essay "Work, Civilization and Culture in the Bible," comments:

If we read this story carefully and take in its finer points, we realize that the visit of the three men is presented as a cultural event. A visit of this kind was a red-letter day for the nomadic people of that region and period. It stood out from the long days and weeks when they saw no one. Because it was so special, a meeting of this kind became a festive event, where every gesture; every word and every act had form and style. With exquisite respect and "courtesy" (though there were no courts as yet) the guests were greeted, invited in, welcomed and given food and drink. In this framework the words that were exchanged took on great importance. It was not a question of "conversation" in the trivial sense. . . . Words exchanged during a visit of this kind were cherished and passed on .73

It is important to realize that neither Abraham nor Lot knew of the secret identity of their heavenly visitors when they opened their houses to them. Both, however, went to greet these total strangers, bowing to the ground according to the custom. As the gracious host, Abraham tried to minimize his involvement. He asked if he could provide a "morsel of bread" and "a little water." In actuality, he ordered a feast, and conversation developed naturally. Only the best flour was used-abundantly-to make the bread. Milk and a farm of yogurt were served, as was meat from a choice calf which was slaughtered for the occasion. The strong custom of hospitality was reinforced by Lot's actions the next day. After leaving Abraham, the visitors traveled to Sodom; there Lot, who is otherwise portrayed in Genesis as a self-interested person (cf. Gen. 13), rose to greet them. And unwilling to take "no" for an answer, he took the guests to his home, where there was water for bathing their feet, food for their hungry stomachs, and safety from attack.

A final example of Old Testament hospitality is found in Psalm 23. In his time of crisis the Psalmist sings a song of trust to his Lord. He thinks back to his youth and finds effective analogies for his God's actions in his shepherding experiences and in the Near Eastern customs of hospitality practiced by his family. Wanting not to argue the truth but to sing it, he seeks to fill his listeners' minds with the wonder and glory of God.

God is that good shepherd who provides, leads, and protects. He is also a gracious host offering abundant hospitality:

Thou preparest a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

thou anointest my head with oil,

my cup overflows. (Ps. 23:5)

Like Lot (Gen. 19), God will not let the threat of attack stop him from preparing a lavish table. Beyond offering us protection, God as host will be our gracious supplier. He will freshen the hair and faces of his guests with olive oil after their travel. He will serve them a cup so full of refreshment that it literally overflows. God will meet his people's needs personally and abundantly. With such a playful prospect, the Psalmist can predict •surely that goodness and mercy will follow him, for he is God's guest. Moreover, he will dwell in God's house, not just for three days but for ever.74

5. The Friendship of Jesus

One will look in vain for a fully developed theology of play in the New Testament. Paul refers to athletic competition as he describes the Christian's life (1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, 2 Tim. 4:7), but his point is not about sports. We have already mentioned Jesus' parable of the prodigal son and have alluded to his participation in the wedding feast at Cana. Feasts seem to have been a frequent experience for Jesus; he often used them symbolically in his teaching (cf. Matt. 9:14-17, 22:1-14, 25:1-13). By and large, however, there is little formal mention in Scripture of the play of Jesus or of the early church -- and for good reason. The New Testament focuses on the Gospel, the "good news" about Jesus Christ. The text is so centered on this news that everything else is relegated to secondary status. Moreover, the events of the New Testament took place during a relatively short period of time, and during these years the mission of the Church captured the necessary attention of the early Christians. Paul, for example, in light of the importance of the evangelistic task, wished that Christians would even postpone marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, 7, 26, 32f.).

Some have found even this absence of reflection on play evocative. G. K. Chesterton, for example, concludes his auto-biographical reflections with these words:

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. ... He never restrained His anger. . . . Yet He restrained something. . . . There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth .75

More appropriate, surely, is the comment of Gary Warner in his book on a Christian approach to competition:

If one wishes to point a finger at God for leaving anything out of the New Testament, it could be in the area of play. The Gospels are a pretty serious proposition. While books have been written about the humorous Jesus and the playful Jesus, this requires an abundance of speculation, conjecture, and deductive reasoning as well as more than a pinch of wishful thinking.76

There is, however, one aspect of the New Testament record which has received scant attention and which might qualify as authentic play: Jesus' friendships, which were clearly important to him. In Luke 7, for example, Jesus contrasts his convivial life-style with John the Baptist's ascetic approach. John's life was a living parable of the need to repent, but his critics rejected it as demon-possessed, Jesus' style, on the other hand, embodied the future kingdom of joy. While John withdrew, Jesus enjoyed the company of others so much that his critics scolded: " `Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' " (Luke 7:34).

That Jesus was truly a friend of those often judged undesirable is reinforced by Luke, who follows the above account with a description of a dinner Jesus attended at the house of a Pharisee. While he was sitting at the table, "a woman of the city, who was a sinner" (most probably a prostitute or an adulteress). entered the house uninvited. While "standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment" (Luke 7:38). Jesus seemed to have known the woman -- to have been her "friend" -- as his later comments indicate. This was perhaps her justification for boldly entering the house. In the eyes of the Pharisee, however it was scandalous for a woman of questionable reputation to ,,)me into his home uninvited. Aligning himself with the woman, Jesus rebuked the Pharisee, whose name was Simon. Simon, said Jesus, offered no water to wash his feet; the woman used tears of love. Simon did not show any affection by greeting Jesus with a kiss; the woman kissed his feet. Simon did not even anoint his guest with olive oil (a cheap substance); the woman used perfume. Simon had not acted discourteously (neither water nor a kiss were demanded of a host in Jesus' day, though both were commonly given). But neither had Simon shown any real respect and affection -- any real friendship -- for Jesus. It is small wander that Jesus preferred the woman to Simon.

Jesus' association with undesirables, the "tax collectors and harlots," is also suggested in Matthew 21:31-32, where Jesus asserts that it is such people who will enter the Kingdom of God (cf. Luke 19:1-10, the account concerning Zacchaeus, the tax collector; and John 8:2-11, the account of the woman caught in adultery). The scandalous nature of such friendships as judged by the larger populace testifies to their authenticity. Since it sought legitimacy for the Gospel, the early church scarcely would have invented such slander. Jesus was, in the words of I. H. Marshall, a "living parable"-"one who brought to sinners the offer of divine forgiveness and friendship."77 Through the "new rules" he lived out in the time he spent with others, Jesus mirrored the freedom and joy characteristic of our life with God.

In addition to the Lukan account of the washing of Jesus' feet, there is a second "anointing" of Jesus by a friend which is recorded in the other Gospels. The incident took place in Bethany, sometime later in Jesus' life. Although the details of the story differ, depending on the emphasis of the particular Gospel writer, it is reported in Matthew, Mark, and John (Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8).78 Like the previous washing, this incident raised strong objections, this time from Jesus' disciples. They claimed that the costly ointment used might better have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

The accounts in Matthew and Mark are not concerned with identifying the woman, but John identifies her as Mary, Jesus' close friend. Moreover, John mentions that Martha and Lazarus, Mary's sister and brother, were also present, suggesting a warm, friendly dinner party as the occasion for the generous and loving act. As if to highlight the importance of Mary's friendship, both Mark and John contrast her act with the deeds of Judas Iscariot (Mark 14:10, John 12:4). He would betray Jesus for money; she would lavish expensive oil on Jesus.

During Jesus' earthly ministry, many plotted against him (cf. Mark 14:1-2, 10-11). Mary was a welcome contrast, accepting him as he was, wanting to be with him, and lavishing gifts upon him (Mark 14:3-9). The Gospels of Mark and Mat thew put the contrast in starkest terms, as they bracket their description of Mary's anointing with the sinister designs of the chief priests and scribes, and of Judas. Mary's acts showed both humility and affection. She was Jesus' friend. (In this context it is worth noting Kant's description of friendship as that which combines affection and respect.79) Thus Mary washed Jesus' feet (an act of humility) and used her hair to wipe off the excess ointment, or oil (an act of personal caring).

One further account concerning Jesus' pattern of friendship must also be mentioned. It, too, concerns Mary. In Luke 10, we read again of Jesus coming to Bethany to share a meal with Mary and Martha, this time at their home. Martha meant to honor her friend by preparing an elaborate meal. Mary chose instead to sit at his feet and listen to him. In a culture in which women had little significance beyond the kitchen, Mary's action was radical indeed. Moreover, as the immediate context of the dinner was Jesus' travels, Martha was correct in seeking to be hospitable. But it was the very need of providing hospitality that prevented Martha from listening to Jesus. The Greek text is ambiguous regarding Jesus' response. His reply might be, "few things are needful," i.e., keep the meal simple. Or more probably it is "one thing is needful," i.e., to listen to him takes priority. Although the latter interpretation is usually adopted, it is too often spiritualized, i.e., to sit at Jesus' feet is the one thing we need. Such an interpretation misses the point. It fails to see how important friendly conversation was to Jesus. I. H. Marshall goes so far as to suggest, following E. Laland, that the story was used in the early church to give instruction to women entertaining travelers.80 Hospitality should involve more than a sumptuous banquet. It should also include friendly attention. It should be an occasion for enjoyment-for play-and not merely a duty.

Bonhoeffer's perceptive remarks, quoted earlier in part, are again appropriate:

Who is there ... in our times, who can devote himself ... to ... friendship.... Surely not the "ethical" man, but only the Christian. Just because friendship belongs to this sphere of freedom ("of the Christian man"?!), it must be confidently defended against a11 the disapproving frowns of `ethical' existences, though without claiming for it the necessitas of a divine decree, but only the necessitas of freedom. I believe that within the sphere of this freedom friendship is by far the rarest and most priceless treasure, for where else does it survive in this world of ours, dominated as it is by the three other mandates [marriage, work, state]? It cannot be compared with the treasures of the mandates, for in relation to them it is sui generis; it belongs to them as the cornflower belongs to the cornfield.81

The friendship of Mary, like the friendly act of the sinful woman, cannot be compared with the obligation to provide one's guest with food and drink or with the need to help the poor. Here was Martha's error; here also the mistake of Jesus' critics. The obligation to work for justice remained paramount to Jesus. (Jesus, you remember, defined his mission as being " `to preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind' "; Luke 4:18.) But alongside Christ's work was his play, belonging to it "as the cornflower belongs to the cornfield."

Conclusion

The evidence for "play" in the Bible is extensive. Yet we have for the most part failed to recognize it or act upon it because our work-dominated culture has biased our interpretation. We have questioned how a book as cynical and pessimistic as Ecclesiastes could have found its way into the canon, failing to see the text's central affirmation of our work and play as gifts from God to be enjoyed. We have mistakenly interpreted the Song of Songs to be about God's love for his people, unable to consider that it could actually be a song in praise of lovers at play. We have limited the Sabbath to that necessary pause that refreshes, failing to understand its prior rationale as reflecting t~e pattern of God himself. We have failed to note the playful counterpoint that festival and feasting, music and dance provide -- and are meant to provide. Somehow such descriptions and commands have been thought of as relevant only to the ancient cult and no longer of concern to the Christian Church. We have failed to see their function to be that of surprising us with joy. We have understood the Old Testament custom of hospitality solely in ethical terms, viewing it as necessary for a traveler's well-being but failing to note also its wider context in play. We have overlooked the importance of simple friendship to Jesus, interpreting kindnesses to him in terms of his role as Savior. In all of these ways we have been guilty of misunderstanding the biblical record. As Christians we have failed to let Scripture speak authoritatively to us about our need to play.

 

Notes

1. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Random House, Pantheon Books, 1964), p/53.

2. William A. Sadler, Jr., "Creative Existence: Play as a Pathway to Personal Freedom and Community," Humanitas, 5 (Spring 1969), 72.

3. Lawrence Meredith, The Sensuous Christian (New York: Association Press, 1972), p. 157.

4. Margaret Mead, "The Pattern of Leisure in Contemporary American Culture," in Mass Leisure, ed. Eric Larrabee and Rolf Meyersohn (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), pp. 10-12.

5. Rudolph F. Norden, The Christian Encounters the New Leisure (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1965), pp. 70-88.

6. Bennett M. Berpr, "The Sociology of Leisure: Some Suggestions," in Work and Leisure: A Contemporary Social Problem, ed. Erwin C'. Smigel (New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1963), p. 27.

7. Gregory Baum, "Peter L. Berger's Unfinished Symphony," Commonweal, May 9, 1980, p. 266.

8. Elmer W. K. Mould, Essentials of Bible History (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1941), pp. 278-279.

9. Ibid.

10. Alan Richardson, The Biblical Doctrine of Work, Ecumenical Biblical Studies, No. 1 (London: SCM Press, 1952), p. 53.

11. Leland Ryken, "In the Beginning God Created," in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), p. 57.

12. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, 6.

13. Paul Jewett, The Lord's Day: A Theological Guide to the Christian Day of Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 22.

14. Hans Walter Wolff, "The Day of Rest in the Old Testament," Lexington Theological Quarterly, 7 (July 1972), 66.

15. A. Alt, quoted in "The Day of Rest," p. 67.

16. Gerhard Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary, trans. Dorothea Barton, The Old Testament Library, ed. G. Ernest Wright and others (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 58.

17. W. Gunther Plaut, "The Sabbath as Protest: Thoughts on Work and Leisure in the Automated Society," The B. G. Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies, Syracuse University, New York, April 1970, p. 10.

18. Jewett, The Lord's Day, p. 158. Cf. E. Jenni, Die theologische Begrundung des Sabbatgebotes im Alten Testament (Zollikon-Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1956).

19. Alfred de Quervain, Ethik, Vol. 1: Die Heiligung (ZollikonZurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1942), quoted in Jewett, The Lord's Day, p. 93.

20. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, 4: The Doctrine of Creation, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 54.

21. Wayne Boulton, "Worship and Ethics: A Meditation on Isaiah 58," The Reformed Journal, September 1976, p. 11.

22. de Quervain, Die Heiligung, pp. 353-380.

23. de Quervain, quoted in Jewett, The Lord's Day, p. 93.

24. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 4, 57, 55. For Barth's complete discussion of the Sabbath, see pp. 47-72.

25. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 269-270: "The weekly Sabbath is not merely ritual and symbol but an anticipation of the shalom, even if it is on the `exceptional day.' The Sabbath is certainly part of the weekly cycle, but in its content it interrupts the cyclical rebirth of time by anticipating the Messianic era." Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 76.

26. de Quervain, Die Heiligung, quoted in Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 4, 51.

27. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 4, 56.

28. Jewett, The Lord's Day, p. 119.

29. At the Society of Biblical Literature, Southern Sectional Meeting, March 1974, I presented a paper on Qoheleth's underlying posture of joy. During the discussion which followed, James Crenshaw questioned how such an interpretation was possible, given Qoheleth's basic "pessimism" toward life, while John Priest argued instead that Qoheleth might best be understood as a "cynic."

30. Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin (New York: Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 227-228.

31. Robert Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, 3rd aug. ed. (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), p. 131.

32. Ibid., p. 119, quoted in Edwin Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p: 192.

33. Norbert Lohfink; The Christian Meaning of the Old Testament, trans. R. A. Wilson (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1968), pp. 154-155.

34. Lohfink, The Christian Meaning of the Old Testament, p. 152.

35. Von Rad, Wisdom In Israel, p. 265.

36. Although the meaning of the text is disputed, Ecclesiastes 12:11 provides collateral suport for the pastoral emphasis of Ecclesiastes. As part of the concluding remarks of the book, verse 11 reads: "The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings which are given by one Shepherd." It is unclear whether "shepherd" refers to God (as suggested by the RSV capitalization), or whether it refers to the sages (as other critics believe-e.g., Loretz). In either case, however, it is reasonable to conclude that Ecclesiastes as a wisdom book is being given a "pastoral" context by this statement.

37. Duncan Black Macdonald, The Hebrew Philosophical Genius: A Vindication (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936), p 211. Unfortunately, Macdonald's insight is largely vitiated in his book by his misunderstanding of Qoheleth's view of God.

38. George S. Hendry, "Ecclesiastes," in The New Bible Commentary, rev. ed., ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 570-571.

39. Although the text is disputed by biblical scholars, this interpretation of Qoheleth's thought lends strong support to the traditional rendering of Ecclesiastes 12:1, "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth . . ." (RSV). Here, at the beginning of Qoheleth's summary poem (Eccl. 12:1-7), we find stated his underlying intent. Having tried to dispel man's false dreams, he calls man back to his rightful stance, that of being mindful of his Creator.

40. Qoheleth knows that there is much that mitigates against one's playful (joyful) work and play. There is, for this reason, a paradoxically "resigned" character to his emphasis on simhah (joy), for QoheIeth wishes that God would more fully reveal himself and his ways to him. Work and play are positive gifts from God, though Qoheleth always tempers this awareness with his recognition of humankind's ambiguous existence and God's inscrutable ways. In Qoheleth the "gift" of one's work or play is focused solely in the present. The larger dimensions of this "grace" remain for Qoheleth shrouded in mystery.

41. Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 51,

42. Karl Barth, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, ed. Walter Leibrecht (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), pp. 67-73.

43. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatacs, Vol. III, 2: The Doctrine of Creation, ed. G, W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), 294.

44. Otto A. Piper, The Biblical View of Sex and Marriage (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), p. 30.

45. Jean Paul Audet, "Love and Marriage in the Old Testament," Scripture, 10 (July 1958), 76.

46. Ibid., p. 78.

47. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 2, 296-298.

48. Saint Jerome, quoted in Hugh J. Schonfield, The Song of Songs (New York: New American Library, Mentor Books, 1959), p. 12.

49. Mishnah, Yadaim 3:5.

50. Rabbi Akiba, quoted in Schonfield, The Song of Songs, p. 16.

51. Calvin Seerveld, The Greatest Song: In Critique of Solomon (Palos Heights, Ill.: Trinity Pennyasheet Press, 1967), p. 12.

52. Cyril of Alexandria, Migne Graece 69:1281.

53. Seerveld, The Greatest Song, p. 12.

54. Ibid., p. 14.

55. H. H. Rowley, "The Interpretation of the Song of Songs," in The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament, ed. H. H. Rowlev (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), p. 233.

56. E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 327.

57. W. J. Fuerst, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 199.

58. Roland Murphy, "Towards a Commentary on the Song of Songs," Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 39 (1977), 487.

59. Jean Paul Audet, "Le sens du Cantique des Cantiques," Revue biblique, 62 (1955), 197-221.

60. M. H. Segal, "The Song of Songs," Vetus Testamentum, 12 (1962), 480.

61. Segal, "The Song of Songs," p. 483.

62. Hyam Maceoby, "Sex According to the Song of Songs," Commentary, 67 (June 1979), 54.

63. Jean Paul Audet, "Love and Marriage," p. 82.

64. For an excellent description of the great variety of love songs found in the Song, see Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Esther, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. XIII, ed. Rolf Knierim and Gene Tucker (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 105-124.

65. David A. Fraser, "Sensuous Theology," The Reformed Journal, February 1977, p. 22.

66. See Chapter Two.

67. Donald Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 157. Cf. Roland Murphy, "Towards a Commentary on the Song of Songs," pp. 495-496.

68. Murphy, "Towards a Commentary on the Song of Songs," pp. 495-496.

69. Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer, p. 157.

70. J. Webb Mealy, "Some Thoughts on Old Testament Authropology as Reflected by the Concepts of Sabbath, Festival, and Dance," unpublished paper, July 1980.

71. The Hebrew word (hag) for a pilgrimage festival seems to come from a circumambulating dance. Cf. the Muslim's annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj.

72. The poet Heine comments, "Dancing was worship, a praying with the bones." Quoted by John Eaton, "Dancing in the Old Testament," The Expository Times, 86 (February 1975). 139.

73. Claus Westermann, "Work, Civilization and Culture in the Bible," in Work and Religion, Concilium Series, Vol. 131, ed. Gregory46. Baum (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), pp. 85-86.

74. For a fuller discussion, see Robert K. Johnston, Psalms for God's People (Ventura, Ca.: Regal Books, 1982), chapter 6.

75. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1961), p. 159.

76. Gary Warner, Competition (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook, 1979), p. 196.

77. I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 302.

78. Cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 574: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Matthew, Mark, and John all refer to the same incident."

79. Immanuel Kant, "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue," in The Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), p. 135. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life, pp. 50-63, for a discussion of Christian friendship using Kant's ideas.

80. I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, p. 451.

81. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enl. ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 193.

 

Viewed 89208 times.