Folded into the corner of a comfortable old sofa, reading an equally comfortable old novel, I discovered an unoccupied corner of my mind with which to contemplate Wallace Stevens’ great poem about reading: “The house was quiet and the world was calm.” But almost at that moment it occurred to me that Stevens surely had no child in the house when he wrote that focused but tranquil line. My house was, according to the distressingly apt cliche, too quiet, and as I hauled myself up and lurched toward the bedroom, sliding in my socks on the oak floor, I had just a moment to wonder what my year-old son had destroyed and which of his preferred methods, dismemberment or ingestion, he had employed.
I found him sitting serenely in the middle of the bedroom with a Bible opened before him.
When he saw me he gave me a white, pulpy smile, but as I reached down, hand extended, he began twisting his head violently to keep me from digging out his chaw. Eventually I retrieved it and saw that it was a small piece, but the print had already dissolved, so I couldn’t tell what he had torn out. I looked at the Bible, but the pages I could see were whole and apparently undefiled. Of course, I would have to find out; even in this most secular and unsuperstitious age, who can resist contemplating the prospect of a sign?
“Except ye see signs and wonders,” said an exasperated Jesus, “ye will not believe.” It was not a habit of which he approved: “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign,” he warned—establishing the doctrine of universal human depravity, since it is not possible to imagine a generation of human beings which, by this standard, fails to be evil and adulterous. Given the choice between seeking signs with even the faintest of hope before us or settling for certain knowledge that no sign will ever come, who among us would choose the latter? To Jesus’ charge we can only plead guilty and quickly resume scanning the skies for whatever may be read in the patterns of birds’ flights, in the odd shooting star, in the somber processions of constellations, or in the banners towed over football stadiums by droning little airplanes.
Or, perhaps, in the Bible. Does anyone still do as I once did, and open Holy Writ at random, with closed eyes, solemnly dropping a finger onto the page? No one ever taught me to do it, as best I can remember, but it seemed natural and logical enough, as it has to many over the centuries. When Christianity was still a creed to be eradicated in Rome, futures were read in the pages of the Aeneid: later, these sortes Virgilianae (Virgilian lots) were replaced, quite predictably, by rituals involving a newly more authoritative tome. Edward Gibbon reports with characteristic wryness that “from the fourth to the fourteenth century, these sortes sanctorum, as they are styled, were repeatedly condemned by the decrees of councils and repeatedly practiced by kings, bishops, and saints.”
I might add, for the benefit of future historians, that they were also condemned, and with admirable and disarming wit, by a Sunday School teacher in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1972.
“A fellow wanted to know whether he should marry his girlfriend,” Mr. Hutchins told his wretched flock of imprisoned teenagers, “so he decided to see what the Bible had to say. He opened a page and put his finger on a spot—at this point I emerged from my usual stupor and sat up straight, never having suspected that anyone else did such a thing—and it said, ‘Judas went and hanged himself.’ Well, he didn’t like that too much, so he tried again. This time it said, ‘Go thou and do likewise.’“ A grin flickered. “So he tried one more time, closed his eyes, opened his Bible, put his finger on the page . . . .” Mr. Hutchins paused for effect, with his own Bible open in his lap, his head uplifted and eyes screwed shut, his finger wavering presciently over the surface of the page. Then, suddenly, the finger plunged like a dowsing rod, he popped open his eyes, and concluded: “And this time it said, ‘What thou doest, do quickly!’”
Mr. Hutchins had confidence in the moral power of storytelling; he didn’t say another word except to dismiss us. I repudiated my biblical dowsing—for several years, anyway. But I did wonder, as we traipsed off to the sanctuary for church, just what verse Mr. Hutchins’ own finger had found as he told that story. Maybe his own destiny had been there for him to see, had he merely looked down . . . .
O evil and adulterous generation!
Yet, as Gibbon indicates, even the saints of the Church have sought God’s will in this way. St. Augustine responded to the child’s call—”Take up and read”—by reading the first biblical passage his eyes fell upon. St. Francis of Assisi and his companions, in the church of San Damiano, read three verses from the Gospels that became the foundation on which one of the great movements in the history of the Christian Church was built. If these great saints were weak, then God made concessions to their weakness; and if he could do it for them, why not for me?
Why not indeed? But to anticipate such concession is fatiguing; for that reason, I suppose, most of us eventually tire of watching for our own portentous and unmisinterpretable sign, the one that will point our way through life and settle once and for all those nagging questions about where our lives are heading. About the time such weariness sets in, however, many of us have children, and consequently shift our divinatory attentions toward their as yet unmarked lives. Their signs could still come—and thus my readiness to exercise all available hermeneutical energy upon the tableau I had discovered in the bedroom. But as I dug the sopping paper out of my son’s mouth, I thought of a purely factual question: Who was the prophet who ate the scroll? A little later, when Wesley was napping, I got out my concordance and did some searching. Ah, yes. Ezekiel.
And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and lo, a roll of a book was therein.
And [the Lord] spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel.
So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.
And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.
It is an impressive performance, in its way, and yet the idea of Ezekiel as a role model for my little boy somehow failed to appeal. Ezekiel is notably harsh, even for a prophet. The Talmudic rabbis have surprisingly few words for him, and still less approval, perhaps because he presided over one of Israel’s greatest catastrophes, the destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing Babylonian captivity.
No. I didn’t even want to think about what bringing another Ezekiel into the world might mean, for him or for the world. The concordance, however, directed me also to the New Testament—specifically, to the book of Revelation—but this (as might be expected) was no better. The roll St. John eats also tastes sweeter than honey, but all the pleasure is in the eating: later it gives him indigestion. Moreover, St. John apparently wrote from a Roman prison colony on the island of Patmos—a place that presents a prospect for Wesley’s future no more appealing than Ezekiel’s, though, if tradition is to be believed, he lived much longer than is common for prophets and apostles.
What does all this scroll-eating business mean anyway? I thought as I thumbed through some biblical reference books. Clearly these prophets loved the flavor of the word of God, though at least one came to find it disquieting later on. Both experiences were familiar to me, though not always in that order.
Many years ago I heard on the radio an old-fashioned, foot-stomping Bible teacher giving a talk on the importance of bringing the Gospel to the unbelievers. At the end there were questions, and someone asked whether, since unbelievers by definition didn’t acknowledge the Bible as the Word of God, Christians should cite Scripture when seeking to convert them. The preacher had a ready answer: “Brothers and sisters, the Bible is the sword of the Spirit, so stick ‘em with it anyway!” He was thinking of the Apostle Paul’s injunction to spiritual warriors to “put on the whole armor of God,” including the sword “which is the Word of God”; but he might also have remembered the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who says that the word of God “is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” In other words, it is as dangerous to the one who wields it as to the one against whom it is wielded. Surely St. John had something of the kind in mind when he said that its original sweetness scarcely prepares the reader (or the eater) for the pain that comes afterward.
Another warning from Jesus tells us, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”—there is no need to hunt for any extra. Is sign-hunting anything more than trouble-hunting? Clearly this whole sortes sanctorum business poses a problem, and, as I hinted earlier, over the years I seem to have lost interest in what it might tell me about my own future. Yet Wesley’s little textual snack put me into a tizzy. However normal and natural it may be to shift our concern for the future from ourselves to our children, before Wesley’s birth I never suspected just how persistently speculative one could become about that future.
So I sat down with that nibbled Bible, plus a whole one to identify what was missing, and started thumbing through the pages. After a few minutes I came across a torn corner, but my pulse quickened only until I saw what it was: the last chapter of Leviticus, with some commandments about how priests may set the value of certain unclean beasts that are brought before the Lord. I frowned, unable to find a connection. But then I realized that a very obvious fact had escaped me: book pages are printed on both sides. And on the other side was the first chapter of Numbers, in which Yahweh tells Moses to number all the eligible fighting men of Israel, in preparation for the forthcoming war against the Canaanites.
I sat there for a few moments, thinking about war, and history, thinking too about the character of Yahweh. But then Wesley woke from his nap. I walked slowly to his room, and opened the door more quietly than necessary. He was standing in his crib, and babbled smilingly at me when I entered. I picked him up and held his cheek against mine and thought, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. O evil and adulterous generation.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois.