Between horror and expectation

Niek Schuman mentored Hans de Wit in writing his doctoral thesis and was later co-referent when de Wit earned his doctorate. Over the years they became good friends.


As I am writing this, during the autumn of 2013, the media is giving some attention to what went on in Chile forty years ago. President Salvador Allende was killed, General Pinochet seized power treacherously; bands including Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani were silenced; and the activities of playful wall painters, writers, and actors were brutally ended. The stadium of Santiago became a venue of interrogation and torture; folksinger and guitarist Victor Jara’s hands were cut off. Whoever saw the movie Missing has an idea of these and similar scenes that took place there. If you heard the women who for years cried “Dónde están? ” (“Where are they?”) tell their stories about their search for their missing sons and husbands—victims of “the caravan of death” or other terrorist acts—you will never forget it. Apocalyptic is perhaps the best word for the spirit that haunted Chile during a long succession of years.

This horror happened in the country with which Hans de Wit has become closely associated since his lectureship at the Comunidad Teológica Evangelica (CTE) de Chile. As a tribute to him personally, but also to his colorful integration of craftsmanship as an Old Testament theologian and lecturer on the one hand, and his social and political involvement on the other hand, I relate some memories that have to do with both elements.


Isaiah 59: Divine righteousness

Hans de Wit and I first met in the early 1970s. I had returned from the rectory to the theology department as assistant to our former professor of Old Testament studies, Nico Ridderbos. De Wit completed his specialized Old Testament studies with a thesis on Isaiah 59. Ridderbos thought I had to take a look at it because the content touched on what was occupying me increasingly as a theological issue: the nature of divine righteousness. In 1968 a surprising study concerning this issue had been published by Hans Heinrich Schmid. Unlike what was previously often assumed, especially in theological treatises of a more systematic nature, all relevant texts speak about divine righteousness as a beneficial (re)organization of many forms of chaos, which may or may not have been caused by people. That that righteousness also entails punishment, and even retaliation, does not alter its beneficial character. Briefly summarized, this was quite a new approach to the theme of divine righteousness in those days, a theme that is not only important for biblical theology as such, but also takes pride of place in Hans de Wit’s dealing with it. This theme determined his choice of Isaiah 59.

In that dramatically constructed biblical passage, divine righteousness plays a major role. In particular, word fields of the word pair tsedaqah and mishpat—righteousness and justice—are well represented here, with their synonyms and antonyms presented as characters who, so to speak, are unable to get through. They are kept at a distance and even pushed back by force (verses 9, 11, and 14). Then divine righteousness eventually realizes the breakthrough to a future full of salvation:

But Jhwh saw it
and was displeased that there was no righteousness.
He saw that there was nobody,
and he was astonished, because no one intervened.
Then his arm brought him relief,
and his righteousness, it sustained him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and the helmet of salvation was upon his head.
He clothed himself with revenge as with a robe
and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to their deeds will he repay, fury to his adversaries,
retribution to his enemies,
to the coastal lands will he bring retribution. (Isa. 59:15b–18,

The first moment of personal appropriation by Hans de Wit of what is proclaimed here has to do with this type of retaliation. In his thesis he showed by painstaking exegesis how divine righteousness, and—including and directly connected with it—revenge and retaliation are depicted in Isaiah 59 as beneficial activities, creating order in a world of disorder and chaos. It is this understanding, growing into the personal life motto “thirst for righteousness,” that can be discerned as a red thread through his later exegetical writings.

This also applies to a second characteristic of Isaiah 59. A striking feature, especially in the passage quoted above and its immediate sequel (verses 15b–20), is the change of tense. Jhwh saw the disorder, he saw that no one came between them, and he was astonished. Then comes the actual theophany of the divine intervention, retold narratively as something that took place. Then from verse 18 to verse 20, the perspective shifts to the future: Jhwh will bring retribution, he will come to Zion as redeemer, unstoppable as a forceful stream. The memory of the story feeds the expectation the vision discloses. This feature can repeatedly be found in de Wit’s publications.

There is a third point of reference in Isaiah 59 for yet another main focus in de Wit’s exegetical and hermeneutical publications. I am referring to what we have come to call rereading, the relectura of traditional texts. In this case, it is mainly about how Trito-Isaiah connects with and deals with the then already existing text of Second Isaiah. The circumstances that led to the creation of the body of Isaiah 55–66 were not the same as those that lie behind the text of Isaiah 40–55. In his wonderful commentary on Trito-Isaiah, Wim Bashing calls these “transpositions” of themes from Second Isaiah, updated in a creative way for new listeners in a new era. The exodus from Babylon is transposed to the entry into Zion; the role of the Servant of Jhwh is taken over by the servants of Jhwh. This gives many issues, including the concepts with which they are expressed, a new content (Beuken 8ff., 15ff.). That this very approach to the biblical texts plays an important role for de Wit is well known. I will nevertheless give examples on the basis of the three characteristics distilled from Isaiah 59.


Underway with the Prophets

Under this title, de Wit published in 1987 a handy Spanish book about the Old Testament prophets, illustrated with maps of the Middle East, a fairly detailed timetable, and a socioeconomic survey of the respective periods. In a crucial part of that history, prophets arose in Israel, from Elijah in the time of the early kings to the postexilic period. They all spoke not as noncommittal preachers in a vacuum but with the urgency of the words from Amos 3:8, which is the subtitle of de Wit’s book: “The lion has roared; who will not fear?”

What strikes me again in rereading this book is the care with which the political, social, and religious context of Israel’s prophets is outlined (de Wit 1987, 30–31). De Wit uses “classic” historical-critical methods. Later, in 1991, he came to the conclusion in his doctoral thesis that among Latin Americans exegetes, listening to the poor had yielded no particular new method of exegesis. (See also Hans Snoek’s contribution to the present book.) Such listening for them was not necessary. Rereading de Wit’s Spanish-language books from the 1980s has convinced me that contextual relevance is based on the proper use of existing methods and knowledge.

It is certainly not the case that a hasty attempt to make the text relevant has jeopardized a precise reconstruction of that context. Yet the terminology used was recognizable to the students for whom the book was written (students in Santiago, but also in other places where, as part of the so-called extension work, lessons were given). It is the terminology of the world in which they themselves lived, a world in which the upper class—the rich and powerful—think it a matter of course that they rule over the masses of the powerless. In the first, fundamental chapter, de Wit expands on this thought by viewing statements by scriptural prophets against the backdrop of such seemingly divergent passages as 1 Samuel 8 or Genesis 1. The first outlines how leaders and landowners, the king most of all, showed few scruples when trying to achieve desired situations and perpetuate them. In the light of this unscrupulousness, the second passage, the creation song in Genesis, can be read “from the first to the last verse as a protest song against what the king’s ideology implied and expressed.”

Here we must remember that the students in question had a largely traditional religious background. There were also increasing numbers from various Pentecostal churches. This meant that they did not directly associate texts like Genesis 1, or texts from prophetic writings, with such concrete, recognizable situations of a socioeconomic nature. This applies possibly even more to the prophetic criticism of religion. De Wit (1987, 59–83) also gave this topic detailed attention in a separate chapter, which bears the name of the ironically charged statement in Jeremiah’s temple sermon: “Do not put your trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (Jer. 7:4).

De Wit invites his readers to take a look into that temple. The first thing that stands out is the number of people and the piety they evince. It seems, he writes, that they are mainly from the barrio alto, given the quantity and quality of the sacrifices they hand to the priests—much more impressive than the pigeons that the poor from the poblaciones bring with them! So it goes on for a while, but for his readers then, it was clear enough: the equally sarcastic and caustic prophetic critique à la Amos 5:4ff., 21ff. or Isaiah 1:10ff. concerns the propertied classes of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. They closely resembled that part of Chilean society in the Pinochet era who did so well for themselves, thanks to the free play of social forces. They lived in Santiago and elsewhere in the upper districts (barrio alto), much less vulnerable to winter rains than were the shabby houses in the slums (poblaciones).

There can be no misunderstanding; this book about Israel’s prophecy is drenched in what I earlier called “a thirst for righteousness.” The passion with which it is written reflects that of a prophet such as Amos, whose his fierce diatribe against “the noise of your songs and the melody of your harps” closes: “Let justice (mishpat) run down like water, and righteousness (tsedaqah) like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

These words could have been said by Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the modest and actually quite conservative archbishop of San Salvador, who had to pay with his life on March 24, 1980, for his protest against the violation of human rights in El Salvador. It is not surprising that de Wit concludes his publication about prophecy with a number of statements by Romero, all taken from his public sermons, complete with dates (like the prophets, Romero always spoke in a concrete, reconstructable context). The statements are divided thematically like the seven chapters of the book itself (1987, 122–29). And this is what Romero as a prophet of that era said on February 24, 1980, exactly one month before his death: “Let not those in power continue to impose silence on us who invite them [to repent], and let them certainly not continue to murder those of us who fight for a fairer distribution of power and wealth in our country.”


Genesis as a gateway

Hans de Wit’s second Spanish publication (1988) offers a relectura of a number of key stories from the book of Genesis. I reiterate: it should be remembered that his readership to a large extent was used to reading such stories, especially those about creation, the garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, etc., as prehistory in the strict, narrow sense of the word. But how would those stories, read narrowly as prehistory, add to or alter the situation of our own existence? That is what de Wit asks his readers. Does the book of Genesis—or even the whole of the Bible, when you read it like that—change anything in the practice of our lives and of our society? Does it even slightly ease the pain of those who are so mistreated? This is why he calls for a new dialogue with the texts: in order to discover how they should be read against the background of the situation in which those who collected the stories and (re)told them lived: in exile. The verse from Psalm 126:5 applies to them: “Who sows in tears shall reap in joy.”

Recognition and appropriation of this exilic location opens the door to a new reading of the book of Genesis, says de Wit, which in turn is the gateway to the faith perspectives portrayed throughout the Bible. The Bible only becomes Scripture when it sheds new light on our present existence. Then it is relevant to current problems: raw violence, repression, and a distressing gap between boundless wealth and unimaginable poverty (de Wit 1988, 24–28). And again, as in his book about prophecy, de Wit outlines in detail the world of the text on the basis of various Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. There the praise of megalomania and its exercise of power is dominant. The story of the “sons of God,” their power, and then the inevitable cleansing of the earth in the great flood is made recognizable to readers in the Chile of Pinochet (who once went to communion wearing his huge general’s cap).

Other examples of how de Wit tries to make his readers appreciate the mythical character of many stories in Genesis (and aware that that is what makes their reservoir of meaning so large) cannot now be given. I will restrict myself to the last chapter, the story of Joseph, his humiliation in the well, his rise in Egypt, and especially the long story of his brothers who come to buy grain to survive a famine (de Wit 1988, 265ff.). In the Old Testament it is hard to find another story with such vivid messianic coloration. De Wit compares the (scarce) episodes from the New Testament about the meeting of disciples and other confidants with the risen Jesus (and vice versa). In both passages, shock and disbelief dominate. How can he who was so deeply humbled now be the risen one, who ultimately provides the whole world with bread? Jesus responds to this question by showing the disciples his wounds for verification: he is both the crucified and the risen one, who leads them to Galilee, where everything began and begins again. Whoever recognizes him must share his walk from Galilee among all who are marginalized or have even disappeared. In this way Joseph says today, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen. 45:4). This recognition can only break through when Judah and his brothers want to take a similar road through the deep to finally become the means of salvation for many. Thus the story of Joseph becomes a stock example of a visionary perspective, which is based in an old story about some occurrence in the past. It’s similar to what happens in Isaiah 59 at the level of the text: the memory nourishes the hope that it evokes, in a situation that seems to hold no hope.


Apocalyptic imagery

Such backgrounds contrasting with grand vistas are a potent factor in reading apocalyptic texts. Precisely there it is important on the one hand to resist reading those texts as predictions of the future, and on the other hand to reread them as a source of encouragement. That is the commitment of the third of de Wit’s Spanish publications that I want to mention. We are no longer surprised to see that he again starts with a concrete outline of the historical and social Umwelt of Daniel’s visions, complete with maps and timetables. Whoever has made himself or herself familiar with these backgrounds, including the decoding of the apocalyptic secret language (to be taken quite literally in Daniel) can easily see the relevance of this type of vision.

De Wit seems to have written the book about the visions of Daniel with even more passion than the he brought to his earlier works. This is especially noticeable in his commentary on the end and climax of this remarkable book from the Bible. He characterizes the story of the rescues from the extra-stoked fiery furnace and from the ferocious lions’ den several times as a “theology of martyrdom.” In his treatise on Daniel 12:1–3 he expands on this idea by focusing on the special character of the imagery used here. There will be unprecedented tribulation. Then many who sleep in the dust will wake up, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting disgrace.” And “teachers” (the wise people with insight), who have taught many what righteousness is, will shine as the brightness of the sky, like stars that will not be extinguished.

De Wit emphasizes that this is new; never before was resurrection spoken about in this way in the Old Testament. And, he adds, it’s not about resurrection as an article of faith per se; it is about resurrection as the beginning of a process leading to the restoration of divine righteousness. This sounds like an echo of the prophecy of Isaiah 59! It is precisely that perspective that is offered to those who live in a reality of oppression and deep sorrow for all the wrongs they have suffered. Thus a present-day rereading of apocalyptic imagery becomes a source of insight and encouragement (de Wit 1990, 191ff., 210ff.).

The publication about the book of Daniel was, at the time, part of a project of the theological institute in Santiago on the imagery, meaning, and significance of the apocalyptic. In this context, a video was made ​​especially for the extension work. The film showed, in text and image, how “ambiguously” (alluding to more meanings) language can be used. As an example of ambiguity that is easily decipherable for the good listener, the song about the cock and the dove was also included. The text of “El palomo” is by Osvaldo Torres; the song is sung by Isabel Aldunate. Lies de Wit supplied fine illustrations. Here is the text, in Spanish and in translation:

Estaba el palomo volando en el cielo;
vino el cazador, detuvo su vuelo;
herido de muerte, se entregó el palomo;
cruel el cazador disparó en el lomo.
La paloma triste recorrió los cerros,
buscando el palomo, triste e desconsuelo.
Vienen de las nubes pajaros morenos:
‘Señor cazador, mate mis desvelos!’.
Vienen gavilanes, diucas, picaflores,
todas muy unidas rompen las Dolores.
Todas las palomas van abriendo surcos,
y el cazador se muere de susto.
Se escucha un clamor allá en la floresta:
todas las palomas reclaman respuesta,
todas las palomas juntas con el pueblo:
‘Si vive o si muere, vayan respondiendo!’
There was a dove flying across the sky;
there came a hunter, who broke his flight;
mortally wounded, the dove surrendered;
the hunter, so cruel, disappeared into the bushes.
The sad lady dove searched the mountains
looking for her love, sad, inconsolable.
Then appear from the clouds black birds:
“Mr. Hunter, kill my sadness!”
Hawks come in, blue sparrows, hummingbirds,
and all unite, break through the pain.
All doves leave traces in the air,
And the hunter nearly dies of fright.
There’s a noise in the green:
all doves demand an answer,
all doves, together with the people:
“Whether he is alive or dead, answer!”

This simple yet striking song, part of the Chilean folk tradition, expressed the feelings of the loved ones of the disappeared people. And it resurrected in them a glimmer of hope: there will be a day that will end the silence, a day of righteousness.

The quest for that day, the study of biblical stories, prophecies, and visions about it, for me is the hallmark of Hans de Wit, from the time when I first read any of his work. With him I look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness.” Dwells—not stays briefly, but dwells—there forever.


de Wit, Hans. 1987. Caminando con los profetas: ¿ruge el león quién teme? Santiago, Chile: Rehue.

de Wit, Hans. 1988. He visto la humillación de mi pueblo: reflectura del Genesis desde América Latina. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Amerinda.

de Wit, Hans. 1990. Libro de Daniel: una reflectura desde América Latina. Santiago, Chile: Rehue.

Schuman, Niek. 2012. Mijn jaren van geloven: voorgoed verleden, blijvend visioen. Zoetermeer, the Netherlands: Meinema.