In my last year of seminary, I and five of my most creative friends co-created and produced a Broadway revue that told the story of the book of Exodus.
We began our work with Biblical preparation led by Old Testament scholar David M. Carr: not just reading and exegeting the text but also examining the history of interpretation of the text. We learned how passages from Exodus were used to forward an idea, connect a current struggle to an old one, and in the case of the US Civil War, used by both sides to suggest God was on their side. Reading about interpretation helped us in our own, as we found ourselves wanting to explore the text’s relationship with violence, oppression, and women. As a result, we created a show that humanized the Egyptians, leaned into the stories of Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter, and reacted with compassion at the moments of violence.
This came to mind this morning as I explored this song online, and found almost nothing about the song itself but plenty about the verses from which it is formed.
And ev’ry one ‘neath a vine and fig tree
shall live in peace and unafraid. (Repeat)
And into plowshares turn their swords;
nations shall learn war no more. (Repeat)
The texts, from prophets Micah and Isaiah, put together like this are very anti-war. Yet what I have discovered at the site Teaching American History is that the first verse especially (Micah 4:4) was such a favorite of George Washington that it not only became – in his use – a representation of what the colonies should experience after the Revolution, but also a call to arms, a ‘let’s get this thing over with so we can go back to our farms.’ It was quoted to give depth to the more defiant ‘don’t tread on me’ – a feeling of hope, of being free not just to go back to one’s land but to be free from an oppressive government. The passage was not so much an ant-war sentiment as a ‘let’s fight, let’s win, and then let’s go home’ sentiment. And it was such a popular image, it appeared in art and even embroidered samples (such as our image today).
Adding on the Isaiah text for this song from the Jewish tradition does distill the let’s fight sentiment, although it acknowledges war in the present even as we hope for no war in the future.
I don’t know that I thought much about this one before today, and while I find it full of anti-war sentiment, it also feels very full of sadness, as the peace being longed for is hard-won and may never come. It doesn’t rally me but rather feels like a song of lament. Maybe this is me in my present context – realizing how long we have been at war, realizing that in American history, we’ve been at war or in conflict nearly the entire time, realizing how much violence we have normalized within and beyond our borders. For us, to sit under the vine and fig tree unafraid is a pipe dream akin to Psalm 137 – living in terrible circumstances, remembering not with hope but with tears.
Sorry to bring you all down today – this is where my thoughts are as we continue to fight the wars of oppression at home without much recognition of how worn and inured to the violence we have become. My heart is so heavy with the weight of sorrow I can’t remember any other way. And while I can sing this song, I can’t imagine it ever coming to pass.
This song is my lament today.
The embroidered image, Chairback-Vine and Fig Tree, is from the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework.