During this calendar year of 2023, I have begun focusing on the months of the biblical year. I have long known they existed. They are mentioned in many parts of the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. I just never paid much attention to them.
I began with Adar, which is the twelfth and final month on the calendar. This year, it began on Ash Wednesday. It’s focus is joy, and it is demonstrated by the book of Esther.
Then there is Nisan, the first month. The highlight is the premier feast, Passover (or Pesach). It’s followed by Iyar, the second month, which is a month of transition. The Israelites have been through the exodus and are in the wilderness. They complain of thirst and hunger. They are still on the way.
Sivan is the third month. It features Shavuot, or Pentecost. Traditionally, the book of Ruth is associated with it. There’s the all-night study session. For that, you better have some strong coffee or Turkish tea on hand!
The fourth month in the biblical calendar is Tammuz. We are more than halfway through it. The theme, or the association, with Tammuz in Hebrew thought is vision. It is a month of darkness and light. It is the month of the eyes. Guard your eyes, we are told; guard your heart.
The word “Tammuz” only appears once in the Bible (Ezekiel 8:14). It’s mentioned in a passage in which the Lord is revealing to the prophet, who is in Babylon with the exiles, what abominations are occurring back in the temple in Jerusalem. There is a lovely list of them, but here’s the one relevant to us.
“Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. He said to me, ‘Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.’” Oh goody!
So who is this Tammuz? There are various versions of the story, but here’s a common theme. He was a god of spring, and the myth regarding him told of his early death and of the descent of Ishtar his bride into the underworld in search of him. The death of Tammuz symbolized the destruction of the spring vegetation by the heat of summer, and it was celebrated annually by seven days of women’s mourning, if that can be considered celebrating.
Some say he was a handsome god, the Babylonian version of Adonis, if we can set aside the fact that Adonis was mortal. No wonder the ladies lamented so bitterly.
Here’s an obvious question: why name the month after a pagan god, indeed after an idol?
Look at the Ten Commandments. Right off the bat, here’s the big number one. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2-3, Dt 5:6-7). That would seem to settle it!
Again, there are many answers, but one recurring theme is a warning to avoid idolatry. The message is to gain mastery over it. The annual appearance of the month of Tammuz is a constant reminder of that lesson.
One story dealing with this month concerns the twelve spies sent into the land of Canaan by Moses. (One representative for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.) In Numbers 13 and 14 we see the command to “spy” out the region. This is all about vision. The spies were to use their eyes.
I like how the New International Version presents Moses’ volley of questions. “See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (13:18-20).
Then there’s an editorial comment. “It was the season of the first ripe grapes.” That’s how we know this was the month of Tammuz, which is the time of the grape harvest.
When the scouts return, they admit the lushness of “the land of milk and honey.” However, there are problems. They report seeing cities which in fact are fortified—and what’s more, the people who live there are giants! In comparison, we look like grasshoppers. The land devours those who dare enter it. Their advice: it’s not worth the risk. Christine Vales says, “They believed the fake news from the ten spies network.” There’s a conspiracy to stage a coup and find someone to lead them back to Egypt.
On a side note, the ten spies network has a report concerning the descendants of Anak and the Nephilim. Who are these Nephilim? There’s a strange story in Genesis 6 regarding them. We read, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (v. 4).
So according to the story, celestial beings mated with human women, who gave birth to the Nephilim, who were giants. Many cultures have legends about giants who lived long ago.
Speaking of giants, if you travel along I-90 in southern Minnesota, you might encounter the Green Giant giant with a height of 55 feet! (I think it’s still there.) And in Nashville’s Centennial Park, there is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, inhabited by a 42 foot-high statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, the tallest indoor statue in the United States.
Let’s go back to the conflicting testimonies. Joshua and Caleb have an alternate vision. They acknowledge the difficulties but see a different destiny. They aren’t blind, and they aren’t naïve. Where the others see tragedy, they see triumph. Their eyes and their hearts imagine a different reality.
Is it plausible, is it any way possible, during their mission of reconnaissance that Joshua and Caleb quite literally see what the other ten don’t? As just mentioned, sure, they see the cities and the people. Do their preliminary expectations alter what they can visualize? I don’t know; perhaps not. Regardless, I have been learning (or re-learning) for myself how my willingness to see affects what I truly see. I think I’m moving closer to that type of leap of faith.
If I don’t want to see something, does that mean I won’t see it? On the flip side, if I do want to see something, does that mean I will see it? Maybe.
We humans are making it easier to play tricks on our own eyes. Virtual reality opens up a whole new world of make-believe. We can see things, whether we want to or not. Virtual reality can present us with images, from our most heavenly dreams and from our most hellish nightmares.
In any event, it is safe to say our differences in vision run deeper than the technological. I would suggest reliance on the technological, for good or ill (it can be either) is helping to re-wire our imaginations. Artificial intelligence (AI) is able to not only trick our eyes, but what might feed our souls, by composing poems and sermons—tricking the eyes of the heart.
Last year, Rabbi Josh Franklin, who serves a synagogue on Long Island, preached a sermon written by AI. Before he began, he told the congregants he would engage in plagiarism. He challenged them to guess who wrote the sermon. “When he revealed that it was in fact written by a robot, Franklin said to the congregation: ‘You’re clapping, I’m deathly afraid. I thought truck drivers would go long before rabbis in terms of losing our positions to artificial intelligence.’”
(Okay, I’ll confess, all of this is the composition of a robot.)
Joshua and Caleb want the Israelites to see. This isn’t virtual reality. Yes, there are fortified cities, and the people there are fierce. They plead with them, “do not rebel against the Lord, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us” (14:9). We can eat them up!
See them. Really see them. “Their protection is removed from them.” The word for “protection” is צֵל (tsēl), which literally means “shadow.” They have no cover from the burning hot sun. They are exposed.
Tammuz is a month for vision. It is a month of darkness and light.
On that question of darkness and light, Sarah Schneider speaks of God in creation, “And God saw that the light was good” (Gn 1:4). She shares a teaching from Kabbalah. “In each instant of time, creation reverts to chaos and is born anew… In each moment we are dissolved and reconstituted, faster than the blink of an eye.”
In our darkness, when we’re not sure what we see… In our darkness, when we find ourselves worshipping and weeping for a false god… In our darkness, when we say no to the guidance leading us to the promised land… In our darkness, the light is constantly being reborn, just as we are.
Within the darkness of suffering, the light of healing is present. It is present in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
 www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL0YhAZz6ag (at 12:40)