Thursday, April 20, 2006

Being Chosen

The Rest of Numbers

By the end of Numbers, the Israelites have now made their way to the land east of the Jordan River where they are now poised to come into their promised land, Canaan.

Their even being this far has necessitated conquering some kingdoms of people who happened to be dwelling here first. In one case (Midian), this actually meant killing all of the men, and all of the women who were not virgins (see chapter 31). The remaining Midianite women and girls could be “kept for themselves.” What did the Midianites do that was so awful as to justify this genocide? One of the Israelite men had brought home a Midianite woman as a wife. What is so awful about this (after all, Moses’ wife was also Midianite)? It is not clear, except that this particular incident gets connected with an entirely different one: other Israelite men had sexual relations with women from Moab (note: not Midianite women) and got enticed by them to worship their gods (Num 25:1-5).

Meanwhile, the rest of the first generation dies off, except Moses and Caleb and Joshua (Num 26:65). Moses is reminded that he is not going to live much longer and will never get to enter the promised land himself, and so he prepares to have Joshua become the new leader in his place. Two of the tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites decide that they would like to stay in this land east of the Jordan, but they promise to help the others win and settle in Canaan before they fully settle there. Half of the tribe of Manasseh decides to join them in this (Num 32).

The boundaries of the promised land are clarified (Num 34:1-12). Leaders are designated for the remaining tribes, who will apportion the land to these tribes in proportion to the current population of each tribe (rest of chapter 34). Arrangements are also made for the Levites (Num 35:1-6). And further rules and practices for the people are clarified.

Among the clarifications are laws about what to do about people who have accidentally killed other people (cities of refuge are set up for them to live in until they can be tried). People who intentionally kill others are themselves to be killed. Because it is apparently okay to kill to avenge murder, and okay to kill non-Israelites whose land you’d like to take over, apparently at least one of the ten commandments (“thou shalt not kill”) is not absolute but has certain exceptions.

Clearly, I continue to struggle with all of this.

Now, I do know that all of this has to be read a certain way to be properly understood, but I continue to be troubled because the face-value acceptance of these stories is still at play in our world. If a country wants land or resources occupied and controlled by another country, they think it is okay to go into that other country and take over the land or resources by force, especially if they declare that God (or moral virtue) is on their side. Also, some of the very people who want the 10 commandments posted in schools and other public places (because they believe that the 10 commandments count as absolute moral rules) also support the death penalty.

But let me go ahead and try to read this text more positively.

One of the messages is that things are not always easy, and a person or a group can struggle for a long time, but through the struggles, God is still with them. The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years. The first generation died off before ever seeing the promised land. The message here is that even if you struggle your whole life and never see the results you hoped for, your struggles may yet be blessed, helping create a new and better world for later generations.

Another message is that even though the people in their struggles did not always uphold the highest standards of morality or faithfulness, and God was disappointed – even angry – during these times, God did not give up on his people. In this text then we see the emergence of a kind of committed love, a love that endures even through disappointment and anger: a love not linked to the actual actions of the people, but to who they are.

The notion of a “chosen people” is very powerful. On the one hand, I struggle with it because of the apparent exclusivity (one group of people is “chosen”; others can be expunged from the earth, not even from doing anything wrong themselves, but just because they happen not to be the “chosen”). But on the other hand, what is attractive about the concept of a chosen people is the notion that the people belong to God: that no matter what they do, they are loved and will not be abandoned. God still struggles with them, trying to make them better people. But as hard as they may resist, God will not give up on them. God believes that it is possible for them to be the best that they can be. The notion of chosenness is thus a notion of enduring relationship, and enduring hope in the inherent goodness of the people (even if their actions at any given moment may not be living up to this hope). A better life is possible; a better world is possible.

The way I resolve this in my own interpretation is to believe that all people are God’s chosen people.

So the long journey through the wilderness, out of bondage and towards the promised land and a new life in which God’s ideals can be realized on earth (if only the people would behave properly towards each other and towards God) is a powerful and important story: for all people and in all times.

Friday, April 07, 2006

On the Move Again

Numbers 1-20

I’m finding it hard getting through Numbers.

The story continues: Having finished building the tabernacle and consolidating their spiritual life together, now the Israelites take stock of their numbers for military purposes (Num 1:3), finding that they had 603,550 men 20 years old or older (Num 1:46). This did not include the Levites, the women, or the children. So it is estimated that their total population was about two million.

As they journey through the wilderness, sometimes they have problems finding water or food. The people get upset at these moments. The Lord gets upset with them for getting upset. When they want meat, they are given lots of quails, but then also become afflicted with plagues (See Num 11:18-20 and Num 11:31-34). Spies are sent forth to scope out the land they want eventually to settle. When they come back with reports about how hard it will be to conquer the people already there, the Israelites begin to question whether this is really what they want to do: to fight for this land they thought they were promised. The Lord gets even more angry, and finally reveals that in fact the first generation will never make it to the Promised Land (Num 14:29-30). When a group organizes themselves to challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, the earth opens up and swallows some of the people; fires come forth and consume others (Num 16:31-35). The rest are terrified back into submission.

But a bit later on, the Lord even inexplicably gets upset with Moses and Aaron, and tells them that they will not make it either (Num 20:12). Sure enough, Aaron does die (Num 20:28).

And now, as the people continue to advance, the battles against those they meet begin … (to be continued).

So, hmm, I’m finding all of this difficult: a struggling people; an angry Lord; a violent invasion…

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mysteries of the Tribes of Israel

Numbers 1

I’ve heard of the “lost tribes” of Israel, and so I’m staying alert as to when those tribes go missing. But, meanwhile, we seem to have now gained a tribe. While the 12 male descendants of Jacob were listed in Genesis 35:22 as: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Daphtali, Gad, and Asher, at the beginning of Numbers (1:5-15), the 12 tribes are listed as: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim (a son of Joseph), Manasseh (another son of Joseph), Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. The changes include the omission here of Levi, and the breaking down of the descendants of Joseph into two separate lines tracing from Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. If we add back the Levites (the priestly tribe), there are now 13!

So, I will stay alert as I continue to read about when the "lost tribes" go missing, and which ones they turn out to be!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Rest of Leviticus

Leviticus 18-27

The rest of Leviticus includes more rules to structure the Israelites' life together in community. Here are a few that especially caught me by surprise:

  • "You shall not put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev 19:19).
  • "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard" (Lev 19:27).
  • Every seventh year is a sabbath for the land! So, farm laborers, as well as the land itself, had sabbaticals (Lev 25:2-7)!

Sexual Ethics

I also found myself a little surprised about the detailed prohibitions about sexual behavior (Lev 18 and Lev 20). I wasn't surprised that there were prohibitions, but I was surprised that they needed such detailed specification. Why not just say, "don't have sex with anyone except your spouse"? I'm not sure if the detailed prohibitions suggest (a) having sex with those not explicitly prohibited was okay (in general, anyone not already married or close of kin), or (b) these were really details about who could be chosen as a wife (remembering that, during this time, men were allowed to have multiple wives). Also, the intended audience seems to be men. Were the rules a little different for women? (Or is this a translation issue -- was the gender meant to be neutral?)

Eye for an Eye

I had earlier noted that the context of the first "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage was much more specific than I had expected. I wondered then whether a more general statement would come up later. Yes. See Leviticus 24:19-20.

More on Slavery

Earlier, I had also puzzled over the issue of slavery. A passage in Leviticus clarifies the difference between hired labor and slavery. If Israelites themselves came upon hard times and had to sell themselves, they were not to be regarded as slaves but as hired laborers (who would be freed again in the jubilee year, every 50th year). So the only people who could become slaves, as such, would have been aliens (Lev 25:39-46).


I am very struck with the claim that people did not really "own" land in a permanent sort of way, but the land belongs ultimately to God (Lev 25:23).

But at the same time, the land was to be laid out in a surprisingly permanent way (once they reached the promised land), with a portion for each of the Israelite tribes. People could sell off parts of their land, if they needed to do so for money, but there would be a "jubilee year" every 50th year in which the land would be restored to its original tribes. Additional rules structured how this would happen in a fair way. Since everyone knew this would eventually happen, the buying and selling of land would be regarded as temporary, and thus would affect the pricing (Lev 25).

These are very powerful ways to establish a community's relationship to the land: to regard the land as ultimately God's, and to establish a practice that ensures that that sometime during every generation the whole economic system would be "reset" to give everyone a fresh start!

What if we now also took seriously the notion that no one ever "owns" land or other material property or resources in any permanent way?

And what if we were to establish a practice of re-distributing resources every 50 years? Imagine, for example, everyone's assets being tallied and then redistributed, giving everyone an equal amount! What would such a practice do to our economy?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cleanness and Uncleanness

Leviticus 11-17

When I was in college, I remember a professor telling us one day in class that he had learned that not all cultures around the world have a distinction between good and evil, but all cultures do have a distinction between clean and unclean. This professor then speculated that maybe the clean/unclean distinction was more basic than a good/evil distinction. It is only sometimes that a culture will develop out of the pragmatic clean/unclean distinction the moral good/evil distinction.

When we read moral connotations onto the clean/unclean distinction, that is because we come from a culture that does have a strong good/evil distinction as well. Having this latter distinction, we sometimes use clean/unclean as a metaphor for the basic moral distinction.

But we wouldn’t have to regard cleanness/uncleanness as any more than a pragmatic issue impacting on health and aesthetics. In fact, in many contexts, we do not regard it as more than this. When a child comes into the house with dirty hands and feet from playing in the mud, we normally don’t regard him or her as having done moral wrong. Kids play in the mud. We still ask them to wipe their feet and wash their hands, but that’s just so they won’t muddy the carpets or contaminate their food.

So, as I read the chapters in Leviticus (11-15) on cleanness and rituals of purification, this part does not seem very different from our current views. Some of the details may vary, but, in spirit, we continue to follow rituals of purification in an attempt to prevent contagion and contamination.

It is interesting that the rules in Leviticus also address clothing and houses! While the passage about houses may seem strange (Lev 14:34-53), I cannot help but think of the “rituals” we follow for asbestos removal, or the “rituals” we are to follow if the carbon monoxide detector should go off, or if a gas leak is detected.

Leviticus 16 begins with a reference back to the death of Aaron’s two sons: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died” (Lev 16:1). I quote this passage because it offers a somewhat different interpretation of why they died: they drew too near the Lord.

The rest of this chapter is about the rituals for the Day of Atonement, and shows the origins of the notion of “scapegoat.” The “scapegoat” is not sacrificed, but is presented alive before the Lord. The priest confesses over it all of the sins of the people, and then the goat is sent out into the wilderness, carrying those sins away (Lev 16:7-10, 20-22).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lessons in Meaning-Making

Leviticus 8-10

This passage covers the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Here, something happens that totally caught me by surprise.

At first, as I read along, all goes as expected: Moses guides Aaron and his sons through their ordination. After the initial sacrifices are done, and Aaron and his sons are anointed, they remain in the tent of meeting for 7 days. On the eighth day, they come out and now perform their first sacrifices as priests.

Aaron himself does all right with these, but two of his sons do not perform their sacrifices correctly, and so they die: “they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev 10:1-2). This is the part that surprised me!

Since Aaron and his other two sons were now priests, and still had to finish with their initial sacrifices, they were not permitted to mourn in the usual way.

Part of what I'm finding strange about reading the Bible is how little there is about how people actually felt about the events they were participating in. This probably reflects a different style of storytelling. Events are described, and interpretations are layered over these events, and that's it. (Note the passive construction of the previous sentence: that was intentional!) The only moments that reveal glimmers into people's thoughts or emotions are when they are talking to God or to others -- then you can sometimes catch in their words their anxieties or uncertainties. Another way that emotions are described is somewhat symbolically, as in the struggles with God that I mentioned in a previous post. The struggles are not described in inner emotional terms, but externalized as, for example, a literal fight with an angel.

One of the implications of this kind of storytelling is that, not only does it have an almost dream-like sense of detachment, but also the layered-on interpretations read as definitive truth (instead of interpretation). Let me give an example:

After Aaron's sons die, here's what comes next (an interpretation of why that happened, and what it meant): "Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord meant when he said, "Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified."' And Aaron was silent" (Lev 10:3). The textual notes in my edition of the Bible try to explain further: the sons must have done something wrong; Aaron's remaining silent means that he refrained from the normal cries of mourning because he was a priest now and priests weren't supposed to do this sort of thing, etc.

But the passage in the text is very sparse. We guess that Aaron and his two remaining sons must have been horrified, because we are horrified. Moses' words are hard to understand and seem almost stern and unfeeling. It is, though, an attempt to make sense of what had happened. But, written in a way that hides everyone's immediate emotional reactions, the interpretation reads as literal truth (instead of interpretation: a people's attempt to make sense of the unexpected).

But understanding it instead as interpretation, we can ourselves choose to read it differently. We can imagine ourselves back in the scene. What exactly happened? Was it that the sons were unprepared for how much the flames would burst out, and maybe their clothes caught on fire? What a tragedy, in the midst of such an important holy event! This, remember, is the first formal ordination of priests! This surely was not what anyone expected would happen! Of course it was urgent for Moses to try quickly to explain why this happened, in a way that wouldn't now discredit God (or Moses' own authority as spokesperson for God) and undo all of the religious practices he had been trying to establish among his people.

And we are all, always, doing this sort of thing: trying to make sense of what happens to us and around us. We try to weave it into our own accounts of an overarching orderliness of the world, even when things may take us by surprise and seem chaotic. We don't want the disasters and tragedies that befall us to gain any more power over us than they already have. We try retrospectively to regain a kind of control (or re-establish the control of a higher being whom we want to trust as ultimately benevolent) by re-writing it into our life histories in as meaningful a way as we can.

Even though Exodus and especially Leviticus are filled with passages that describe the proper ways to do things, it is striking that this passage is not described in those terms. We are not told exactly what Aaron's sons did wrong; nor is there then the pronouncement that performing the rituals incorrectly will always result in death, and so let this be a lesson to future priests! The lack of detailed explanation seems to suggest this really was a surprise that they found hard to understand.

And so it is a touching story. After all, you detect their shock and grief, and you perceive their humility in the face of the unknown and unexpected. Despite this tragic event, they proceed with their rituals and finish the ordination. They do not pause to demand a better explanation before they will continue to accept their God. They trust, even though they do not fully understand. They move into deeper relationship with God, letting this kind of story stand as part of the ultimate mystery of it all.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sacrifices and Atonement

Leviticus 1-7

In Leviticus thus far, there are detailed instructions about how to perform animal sacrifices.

On the one hand, it’s a little gruesome reading all of these details about exactly how animal sacrifices are performed. But many humans do eat animals, even today, and eating them requires killing them first. And so, in a society that eats animals, having animal sacrifices in religious rituals means that at least some of the killing of animals is done with real reverence.

It is important to remember that these are a people in transition, who have not yet settled the land they hope to inhabit, but are wandering in a wilderness. Their livestock may be their most reliable food source. In this context, sacrificing animals is sacrificing something centrally important: fundamental to the very sustaining of life. They must choose the best (animals without blemish). In some of the rituals, people do eat some of the meat; but in others, the entire animal is offered to God. So the meaning of sacrifice is clear: when they offer animal sacrifices, they offer that which gives them life.

Sacrifices are offered for the following purposes (at least so far):

  1. For sins of omission or sinful thoughts.
  2. Offerings of well-being.
  3. Purification offerings: for having unintentionally sinned or for having become ritually unclean.
  4. Sins against the Lord (those having to do with desecrating holy objects or failing to fulfill vows to the Lord).
  5. Sins against others (deceit, robbery, fraud, lying).
  6. Votive offerings (when a person has successfully fulfilled a vow made to God).
  7. Freewill offering (spontaneous expression of happiness or gratitude).

These rituals then become a means of cultivating awareness and self-reflection. You must pay attention to how you live your life. You won’t do everything perfectly, but most of the common kinds of mistakes are forgivable. Having rituals gives you something specific to do when you realize the mistakes you have made. They mark your awareness (confession), and bring atonement.

I am moved by the reverence and humility in this way of life.

I reflect on the reasons for offering sacrifices above and ask myself whether there are things I should do to more clearly acknowledge my mistakes, and also to acknowledge my successes and times of well-being and happiness.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A People Consolidating their Spiritual Identity

Exodus 25-40

This time my readers will be relieved to see that I’m finally finding something positive as I continue my way along this rugged journey of reading the Bible from beginning to end. But before I get to the positive, I must note first a few anomalies and puzzlements.

Anomalies and Puzzlements

In trying to trace the actual story of the 10 Commandments, I am very confused. Last time, I noted that after the listing of the 10 Commandments (Ex 20), the story seemed to begin over again (Ex 24), leading me to think that Moses hadn’t really come forth yet from the mountain with the 10 Commandments carved onto tablets of stone. In Exodus 20, the Lord tells Moses “the ten commandments” (along with all of the other ordinances), but it is never mentioned that Moses has a chance to tell the others, because then in Exodus 24 he actually goes up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, disappearing now for 40 days and 40 nights. It is unclear what exactly will be on these tablets of stone (see Ex 24:12).

Next there is a long account of how to make the tabernacle; how to make vestments for Aaron and his sons, who will become priests; and finally how they should be ordained (Ex 25-31). Presumably the Lord is telling Moses all of this while he is in the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. This section culminates with his now having tablets to take back down, but it’s really hard to tell what is carved on these tablets, because in the context of this entire part of the story, from the promise of tablets (Ex 24:12) to the presentation of them (Ex 31:18), the instructions that are given are about the tabernacle, clothes, and ordination procedures. There is no mention here of the ten commandments, as such. The word that is used is simply the Hebrew word eduth which gets translated “covenant” but could also be translated “treaty” or “testimony.”

At any rate, when Moses returns he is so upset at the chaos he finds (in his long absence, the people have made and have started worshipping a golden calf) that he dashes the tablets down and breaks them. (Given that he is only just returning with the tablets that we all now interpret as containing the 10 commandments, how can he be so upset that people have disobeyed rules that they did not even know about yet? Or was it that he did tell them the 10 commandments before he went up onto the mountain? If so, what was on the tablets then?)

So, Moses gets upset at Aaron for letting this all happen (and Aaron lies about his role in this). Then Moses calls forth those who are “on the Lord’s side,” and has them go forth and kill people (“Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Ex 32:27)). 3000 people thus are killed. What’s clearly troubling about this is that it is a direct violation of one of the 10 commandments (Ex 20:13). Even more astonishing: their killing people is how they (the killers) are cleansed and ordained!!! (Ex 32:29). And in the long run, even though Aaron cooperated in their falling into this grievous sin of idolatry (Ex 32:4), and later lied about it (Ex 32:24), took no responsibility, and blamed the people instead, he is in fact later ordained as the first priest of the new covenant!

But back to the story at hand: next, Moses goes forth to atone for the sin of his people and beg for the Lord’s forgiveness. While the story seems to indicate a new covenant, the Lord asks Moses to make new tablets and take them up the mountain “and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke” (Ex 34:1).

But here’s what’s really strange. This time the Lord says this (shortened version of what can be found in full in Ex 34:17-26):

1. You shall not make cast idols.
2. You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread.
3. All firstborn livestock and children are mine.
4. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
5. You shall rest on the Sabbath.
6. You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.
7. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.
8. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
9. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
10. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Then: “The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments [or ten words]” (Ex 34:27-28).

So it is not at all clear to me from my reading so far that the tablets of stone really do contain the 10 commandments; nor is it clear what exactly constitutes the “covenant.” It may be that these are clarified later. It may be that this is unclear because of the difficulties of translation. But I am surprised not to find a clearer statement!

One more troubling note: Exodus 34:11-16 is chilling. The Lord promises to help Israel drive out the people who already live in the land they are to settle, and insists that the Israelites not make a covenant with those people, but instead destroy their altars, etc. Here then we have what appears to be the Lord’s approval that one people invade and violently drive out other groups of people, and the Lord’s command that trying to understand the Other sympathetically is a dangerous idea. Recall that the Israelites have been gone from their promised land for 400 years! So this is a really crucial passage for understanding the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and maybe many other land disputes as well!

Leaving this huge issue for the moment, I do want to turn my attention to what I have very much appreciated about the story in Exodus.

Appreciations, At Last!

After the new covenant is established, the Israelites now enthusiastically come forth to build the tabernacle and make the vestments, offering their best to these tasks. The end of Exodus thus gives a detailed account of the establishment of the practices of worship, and the reader gets a sense that this is a time of clarification and consolidation of their identity as a people. Most significantly, this identity is rooted in the fundamental importance of a good relationship with God. That is central.

Furthermore, this task takes something like nine months. So, Part I of the story was God’s leading them out of bondage and into freedom, and Part II is how the people must organize themselves into a community that must keep trying to stay in good relationship towards God. Before they embark on the rest of their journey, they must take this long time to organize themselves and establish the right kind of relationship with God.

I also appreciate the themes of: (1) offering your best to God—contributing your finery and best talents for the creation of something beautiful that is shared by the community and whose purpose is to honor God; (2) the structuring of both space and time to place relationship with God at the center; (3) God’s compassion receiving more prominence in how the story is told; and (4) a subtle but important shift in the human side of the relationship with God, as exemplified by Moses.

Even though God still gets upset and impatient with the people, Moses keeps intervening and convincing God to be more forgiving and compassionate. This is striking because it shows a kind of human autonomy that contributes not what God has already ordained, but something new that persuades God to change His mind (and even to become more compassionate)! Humans are not just either obeying God or messing things up – sometimes humans can add something new to the conversation and to the relationship with God, which God respects.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Wandering in the Wilderness; Receiving 10 Commandments Plus Many Other Ordinances

Exodus 15-24

The journey of Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness lasts a long time. During their journey, there are times when they are without food or water, but the Lord always provides (see for example Ex 16).

They fight a battle agains Amalek at Rephidim (Ex 17:8-16). Israel prevails. The Lord says, “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex 17:14), but not right away: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex 17:16).

Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, comes, bringing Moses' wife and sons to him, and meanwhile gives Moses advice on how to manage the life of the community better (Ex 18).

The Lord said to Moses: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).

The Lord promises to show Himself to the people, by coming out of the mountain in a dense cloud. There is thunder, lightning, and loud noises; the people are told that they will be stoned if they approach too close to the mountain. The mountain is wrapped in smoke and shakes violently. Moses is summoned to go up the mountain (Ex 19).

The first listing of the 10 commandments is at Exodus 20. God speaks these words to Moses. But these words are followed by many other ordinances (see Ex 20:23-26 and Ex 21-23). There is no mention of tablets of stone: instead, Moses writes all of this down (Ex 24:4).

Later in Exodus 24, it is as if the story appears a second time: Moses is called up. This time the trusted elders “beheld God” too (Ex 24:11), but then Moses alone is summoned to the mountain. In this version, the Lord does promise tablets of stone, “with the law and the commandment” (note singular) (Ex 24:12). In this account, Moses disappears into the smoke on the mountain and is gone for 40 days and 40 nights.

But I'll pause here to backtrack slightly and comment on what most surprised me. Among the many ordinances offered in chapters 20-21 is the famous "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage. I had always thought that this passage was a general pronoucement. On a negative reading, it sanctions revenge. On a positive reading, it at least limits revenge.

But let's look at it in context:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex 21:22-25).

For the full effect, imagine the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. The men, ashamed, stop fighting and tend to her. The husband demands a fine and gets paid.

Scenario 2: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. Her husband goes into a rage and ends up killing the man who had hit his wife. So the husband is put to death.

In scenario 1, the "tooth for a tooth" rule does not go into effect because there was no subsequent harm done after the miscarriage.

In scenario 2, it is unclear whether anyone would lose a tooth in response to the woman's having had her tooth knocked out prior to her miscarriage, but at any rate, she is now left with absolutely nothing. She's lost a tooth, lost her child, and lost her husband, and there is no mention whatsoever of what should become of her then.

So, it's a very strange passage. It's not a general statement (that anytime someone knocks out another's tooth, they lose their own) -- the other ordinances make this very clear. It seems to be a rule for just this special situation -- a rule intended to stop people from fighting further if a woman miscarries -- and yet it conspicuously leaves out how the woman is to be taken care of after such a tragic event.

Other observations about these ordinances: harm done to slaves is dealt with much less severely than harm done to those who are not slaves. The passages also give insight into how people become slaves: when a man sells his daughter (Ex 21:7) or when someone steals and cannot repay (Ex 22:3). Male slaves are released in the seventh year (Ex 21:2), but can take their wives and children into freedom with them only if they were married before becoming slaves -- if they got married while in service, the master can keep the wife and children when the man is released. If the man refuses to go, he is now held in slavery forever (Ex 21:3-6). Female slaves are never given the opportunity for release (Ex 21:7).

Putting all of this together: when a father sells his daughter into slavery, she becomes a slave for life. But a man who steals, is caught, and cannot repay, goes into slavery for 6 years and then is released.

We'll continue with the 10 Commandments story next time -- the text kind of leaves us hanging here, because other things happen while Moses is gone for 40 days...

Saturday, January 28, 2006

God Helps the Oppressed Gain Freedom, But...

Exodus 5-14

What I’m appreciating so far about the Exodus story is that it is about an oppressed people seeking freedom. God is helping a group of people who are looked down upon and treated badly in the society in which they live. God helps this group to find its dignity, and to claim its freedom.

There is a lot that is interesting in this story. First of all, after Moses and Aaron make their initial request to Pharaoh (a bit deceptive, because they ask only for a few days to go and have a religious festival, but really they do seek permanent escape), Pharaoh is so upset that he commands that the Israelites be compelled to work even harder than before, so that they will not have time to pay heed to deceptive words (Ex 5:7-9). This strategy was very clever, because he even got the Israelites mad at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the increase in work that they now suffered (Ex 5:20-21).

I must pause here to observe that we in the U.S. have been driven (by the Pharaoh named “Economic Growth”) to work harder and harder – so hard that we don’t have time to pause and look around and question our predicament. When we do have a chance to pause from our work, we are easily seduced into the trance of watching TV. In this trance, we are convinced that we are happy with our lives and have freely chosen this life of working hard so that we can buy all the things that TV programs us to buy. We are (mostly) protected from having to face the full consequences of our all of our frenetic activity: the exploitation of the poor and the destruction of our natural environment.

But, back to the Bible story: Because the Pharaoh did not respond well to the request of the Israelites, the request is repeated, and each time it is denied, a new plague comes down upon Egypt. Here are the 10 plagues:

1. The Nile turns to blood.
2. Swarms of frogs appear.
3. Dust turns into gnats.
4. Swarms of flies appear.
5. Egyptian animals are killed by a disease.
6. The air fills with soot and causes festering boils on people and animals.
7. Thunder, hail, and fire rain down from the sky.
8. Swarms of locusts appear.
9. A dense darkness covers that land.
10. The firstborn children and livestock of the Egyptians all die.

Until the last one, the Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, though interestingly sometimes it is not that “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (e.g., Ex 8:32) but “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (e.g., Ex 9:12).

The 10th plague finally really upsets the Pharaoh, and he now wants the Israelites (who have consistently been spared the ill effects of these plagues) to be gone. So at last they leave, but then the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart again (“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex 14:4).) Pharaoh and his army now pursue the Israelites, but the Red Sea parts to let the Israelites through, but then closes in upon Pharaoh and his army and they are all drowned (Ex 14:10-31).

I am greatly troubled by this part of the story because it portrays God as trying to show off His power, using fear to try to gain notice and respect. I am also troubled because this story reinforces the problematic attitude that God intervenes in really direct ways, such as by invoking natural disasters, suffering, and death, to punish the bad people. This in turn reinforces “blame the victim” kinds of attitudes: when bad things happen to someone, it must mean that the person somehow deserved it, and God is punishing him or her.

Admittedly, there are other more metaphorical ways to interpret this story, but, still, this well-known story, read literally, is an important source of really problematic attitudes that people do voice on a regular basis.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Spiritual Struggles in the Middle of the Night

Exodus 1-4 (and Genesis 32:34-30)

The Israelites then continued to live in Egypt for a long time, and after several generations, a new king arose who was worried that the Israelites had become so numerous, and so he enslaved them. The king also tried to reduce the numbers of Israelites by asking the midwives to kill any boys who were born to the Israelites.

One mother who bore a son hid him for three months and then, when she could no longer hide him and was supposed to throw him in the Nile, made a little boat and put him in it on the Nile to give him a chance to be rescued and live. He was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, in fact, and was thus raised in the Pharaoh’s own house. This child was Moses (Ex 1-2:10).

When Moses grew up, he went among his people and was surprised and horrified to see them living hard lives of forced labor (Ex 2:11). He did not (yet) live among them, but settled in a nearby land called Midian, where he married, had a son, and tended the flock of his father-in-law. The Lord appeared to him one day in a burning bush (Ex 3:2) and told him that he must free his people. Moses was filled with doubts about whether he could accomplish something like this (Ex 4). The Lord told him that his brother Aaron would help him. So Moses headed back to Egypt with his wife and sons, but along the way, “at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him” (Ex 4:24)! This is a most surprising passage! His wife, Zipporah, saved the day.

There was an earlier passage, back in Genesis, about Jacob fighting with an angel of the Lord (Gen 32:34-30). Here, even though the angel put Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob didn’t give up, and finally the angel asked Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). The angel blessed Jacob, and re-named him “Israel,” (Gen 32:28) or “one who strives with God.”

I suspect that both of these passages are passages about spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. In both cases, these struggles happen the night before an important moment in these men’s lives. For Jacob, it happened the night before he was to meet and try to make peace with his brother Esau. Jacob was very worried, because his brother had good reason to be very upset with him. Jacob was not at all sure that he would emerge from this reunion alive! (He did.) In the case of Moses, his struggle was also the evening before meeting his brother Aaron, but in this case their reunion was symbolic of the beginning of their joint effort to free Israel from being enslaved by Egypt.

Many who work for peace and justice go through spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. These struggles become defining moments along the journey towards embracing one's calling.

Other observations about Exodus, so far:

1. It is interesting that the person who emerges to free his people from being held slaves was himself raised in Pharaoh’s house. It is often the case that the people who have the vision to see clearly that something is wrong have something unusual in their background or experience that enables them to see and question something that everyone else takes for granted (even if unhappily).

2. When Moses received the calling to free his people, at first he was filled with many doubts as to whether he was capable of doing this. God promises to help him at every step of the way.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Joseph Rescues His Jealous Brothers

Genesis 23-50

Next in Genesis are additional stories about Abraham’s family – chapters 23-36. These include stories about Isaac and Rebekah, and their sons Esau and Jacob; and Jacob’s marriages and his twelve sons and one daughter. And then there is a remarkable story of one of his sons in particular: Joseph, the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel.

I really like the story of Joseph (beginning chapter 37), because Joseph, at first highly favored by his father, falls into bad times due to the jealousy of his brothers. He is taken captive and lives as a slave in Egypt. At first he does well even in this situation, but another stroke of bad luck lands him now in prison. But his ability to interpret dreams brings notice of him to the Pharaoh, and so he is brought out of jail and ends up becoming second-in-command in Egypt, guiding the country well through a long famine. The famine ends up bringing even his brothers to him (they do not yet recognize him) asking for help. He graciously does help them, and forgives them, and brings everyone now to a fertile region of Egypt so that the family is able to survive the long famine.

I like it that Joseph is able to make well of bad times, and is able to forgive those who have wronged him. I especially like it that he was able to appreciate the way God redeemed the bad actions of his brothers by enabling him (Joseph) to be able then to rescue his family from the famine.

This story suggests that what happens to us in life may not be as important as what we make of it. This story also shows how those who gain favor, either by accident (as when Joseph was favored by his father because he was the firstborn son of his father’s favorite wife), or through their own efforts to do well (as when Joseph gained the favor of his master in Egypt), are vulnerable to jealousy – but even so, do not have to be destroyed by it. By living with integrity even through injustice, one’s dignity is restored even if one’s life does not turn around. In Joseph's case, his life did utlimately turn around.

Genesis ends with this story. The Israelites had to leave the promised land and now reside in Egypt.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 12-22

Abraham’s story begins at Chapter 12. (At first, his name is Abram.) “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen 12:1-3). Thus the story of a promised land, and a chosen people, begins with Abraham’s story.

Various stories about Abraham and his family are told in chapters 12-19 (I’ve mentioned a few in previous postings). One of the most famous of these stories is the Lord’s continuing promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child – a promise they find harder and harder to believe as they get older. In the meantime, Abraham has a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. This child is named Ishmael. Sarah is unhappy not to have a child of her own. In chapters 17-18, the promise to Sarah is reiterated. Now they laugh out loud, because Abraham is now 100 years old, and Sarah 90, and “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen 18:11). But then Sarah does in fact have a child: Isaac (Gen 21:1-3).

The most famous story about Abraham is the story of how his faith was tested (Gen 22). After all of this time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him (fulfilled in the birth of Isaac), then God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. In the Bible’s account of the story, we cannot see into Abraham’s emotional state. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, meditates at length on this story, and tells the story in various ways, trying to see into Abraham’s internal reaction to what he has been asked to do. What is he thinking as he walks up the mountain? Is he quietly assured that, although he was asked to do this terrible thing, yet he will not have to? Is he quietly trusting – or inwardly distraught? It is impossible to tell from the Bible version of the story. We are given no clues.

I very much appreciate Kierkegaard's meditations on this story and what it implies about the meaning of faith. How can we be sure we have correctly discerned God's will? Could God sometimes ask us to do something that goes beyond the bounds of what we generally regard as "ethical"? Do faith and ethics always correspond -- or not? Is it better to live ethically, or to be what Kierkegaard calls a "knight of faith"? Or would God never actually ask us to do something that goes against the ethical? These are hugely important questions.

At the last minute, it turns out that Abraham does not have to sacrifice Isaac after all. (Faith and the ethical come back together.) The Lord is very pleased with Abraham. Since Isaac is allowed to live, the rest of the promise now has a chance to be fulfilled. Isaac grows up, marries Rebekah, and has children. One of his children, Jacob, has 12 sons who are then regarded as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

So the story of Abraham and Sarah is a story of a particular couple, guided to a new land to settle and begin a line of descendants who are regarded as a special people, chosen by God. Abraham is admired for his faith: for living close to God, for being attentive to how God guides him, and what God asks of him. But God’s blessings are not limited just to Abraham’s family: “in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

As I continue reading the Bible, I will continue to meditate on the recurring themes of a promised land, a chosen people, living in relationship to God, and the meaning of faith.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Women and Slaves in Genesis

More scattered passages in Genesis

Next in the Bible (beginning at Genesis 12) is the story of Abraham – very important. But before I get directly into that story, there are a few more observations and puzzlements I would just like to note.

Multiple Wives

First of all, apparently during these times it was common for men to have several wives. The first mention of this practice is at Gen 4:19.

Not only did men sometimes have several wives, but sometimes took female servants as wives or concubines. Since Sarai (later named Sarah) did not have children (yet), she offered her female servant Hagar, to sleep with Abram (later named Abraham). Sarai says, “it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Hagar had a son, Ishmael. Later Sarah did finally have a son of her own, Isaac.

Another notable example is Isaac’s son, Jacob. It is Jacob who fathers the 12 sons who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, but with the help of four wives, or, to be more exact, two wives and two concubines. His two wives were Leah and Rachel. Jacob also had children with Leah’s servant, Zilpah, and with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah. The full story can be found in Genesis, chapters 28-30. Besides Jacob’s 12 sons, he also had a daughter.


It is also clear that people had slaves during this time. Even though we may want to think of them as servants instead of slaves, multiple passages point out that their rights were very different, and that in fact they were bought and sold, so it is clear that they really were slaves, not hired servants who were free to quit whenever they wanted to quit.

Two other stories in Genesis have me worried, not only about the practice of having slaves, but about the status of all women (slaves or not).

Men Who Don’t Want to be Killed for Having Beautiful Wives Pretend Their Wives are Their Sisters

Abraham himself pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife – not once, but twice! Later, his son follows his example in this respect. Here are the passages:

First version: Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt during a famine in their land. Because Sarah is so beautiful, Abraham is worried that he will get killed, so he tells Sarah to pretend she is his sister. Sarah then is “taken into Pharoah’s house” (Gen 12:15). In fact, he took her for his wife (Gen 12:19).

Second version (Gen 20): they are living in Gerar for a time. Same story. This time, King Abimelech takes Sarah, but apparently doesn’t actually sleep with her before he realizes (through a dream) that she is someone else’s wife already. What is even more bizarre about this story is that it is placed after the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he will father a child with Sarah. Why on earth does he not only endanger Sarah, but expose her to the possibility of conceiving someone else’s child instead of his?!? What’s also strange here is that it now seems as though Sarah is in fact his half-sister!!!

Later, Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac does the same thing: he and his wife Rebekah go to Gerar; Isaac pretends that Rebekah is his sister; King Abimelech looks out a window one day and notices Isaac “fondling his wife Rebekah” (Gen 26:8) and so he calls for Isaac and questions him about this. “Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us’” (Gen 26:10).

Another Shocking Story on the Status of Women

Genesis 18:16-18:33: A foreshadowing that the Lord is greatly displeased with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and will wipe them out. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot is there, questions the fairness of wiping the cities out if there are still some good people left. The Lord agrees that even if there are just 10 righteous people there, the cities should not be destroyed.

It is not at all clear what specifically is so wicked about Sodom and Gomorrah. The common interpretation comes from just one cryptic passage: when the angels come to Sodom, and Lot invites them in, all the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring out the men he had invited in, “so that we may know them” (Gen 19:5).

The notes explain that this is a threat of homosexual rape. If it is, it is still not at all clear that that is the exact nature of the “sinfulness” of Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe it is an isolated event, and there are other significant ways that Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked.

At any rate, at first I thought what was so objectionable about the mob’s behavior was the threat of rape, not necessarily its homosexual character. But the passage that follows seems to suggest that a mob of men threatening rape is not really so horrible: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’” Gen 19:6-8). This makes it clear that what is specifically wicked is to want to rape one’s guests instead of one’s family members. Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s children? Or is it one’s guests instead of one’s daughters? Or is it – men instead of women?

This is the passage that, on my first attempt to read the Bible, stopped me in my tracks. Lot is supposed to be the righteous one who is being saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah! He is the nephew of the great Abraham! So, what is he doing, offering his daughters to the angry mob?!?!? The mob refuses Lot’s offer (I’m sure his daughters were grateful to the mob about that!), and in the morning, Lot and his wife and two daughters flee. They are warned not to look back. Lot’s wife does glance back, and turns into a pillar of salt.

Then, to top off this most remarkable story: Lot and his daughters live in a cave in the hills, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him in order to have children, who become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.

Ok, now that I've confessed to all of what horrifies me in Genesis, let me now shake the dust off my feet and try to turn my attention towards more positive observations in my next posting! Thanks for bearing with me through this very difficult part of the journey!

Nephilim and Other Puzzlements

Genesis 1:26, 6:4, and 11:1-9

Today, I will just point out some smaller passages that puzzle me:

1. Just before the full story of Noah: Gen 6:4: "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." Very interesting! Who were the Nephilim?

2. Some passages where God says "we" or "us": "'Let us make humankind in our image'" (Gen 1:26); "'Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech'" (Gen 11:7). Why is God referring to Godself in the plural?

3. The second passage in #2 above is from the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). This famous story, as I read it, puzzles me. Why should God be threatened by humans understanding each other and working well together? Examine, for example, this passage: "And the Lord said, 'Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them'" (Gen 11:6). What strikes me about this passage is that we hear something like it echoed when people will say, "If we work together, imagine what we could accomplish!" Taken on its own, this seems like a wonderfully positive affirmation of human potential. If only we could stop miscommunicating! If only we understood each other better! Imagine the problems we could solve!

And here, in the Bible, for a moment it is nice to hear God affirming this potential: "nothing ... will now be impossible for them"! There is nothing in the passages up to here to suggest that the people are up to no good, or that God is displeased with them. The people are simply building a city, and a tall tower. So the unwary reader, unfamiliar with the story, can read happily along thinking that this is a story about human community at its best, and God's delight in this. But then the next sentences change the story completely: "'Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city" (Gen 11:7-8).

Does this mean that the next time we find ourselves in a heated meeting in which misunderstandings ricochet around the room, we should cite the story of Babel and say, "It is God's will that we should not understand each other, and that we should fail to accomplish our joint task here"?

Ok, I never said my Bible Wonderings would be pretty!

But, seriously, these are the earnest concerns of one trying to understand.

I know that the Babel story is supposed to be about the tempering of human pride. It foretells how groups of humans do sometimes get together and, with their combined power, create something terrible. That has happened repeatedly in human history in spite of the Babel story. After all, the confounding of human languages did not, once and for all, solve this problem of human pride.

But what troubles me the most about this story is, again, the image of a God who seems rather threatened by humans and who does punishing kinds of things to try to control and subdue people. My own image of God is very different; my own faith can no longer be challenged by passages like these. But when I hear the questions and doubts of other seekers who have developed an aversion to "organized religion," or Christianity, or the Abrahamic traditions, or the Bible, I can see why, and it is not always clear how to respond to their concerns.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Noah and the Ark

Genesis 5:28-9:29

The story of Noah and the Ark is familar enough that I won't comment on the text itself, but instead will reflect on the implications of this story.

It is a story that reflects the human tendency to interpret great natural disasters as "acts of God." Are they? Modern science calls such interpretations into question (since they can be interpreted in relation to "natural" causes, we do not have to consider them "supernatural" in origin.) And yet a new version of the old myth begins to be reborn in today's world. Now, after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, we wonder if we are somehow responsible: but the way we ask it is in a "scientifically updated language": are we responsible for global warming, and was global warming responsible then for the unusual intensity of this hurricane?

In other words, have we been living so badly that terrible things then happen to us?

But there are other ways of thinking layered into the Noah story, and it can be helpful to pull out the different assumptions and consider them each in turn.

  1. First of all, the image of God so far forming in the Bible greatly troubles me, because it is a God who is portrayed as punishing.
  2. Secondly, one major form of punishment is death.
  3. Thirdly, it is not at all clear why some are punished more severely than others. (This concern will actually become clearer as we continue forward in the readings, so I will not say much about this point yet.)

Now, it could be that the stories, as translated (not only into our language, but into our cultural assumptions) portrays a punishment theme more clearly than was originally intended. Or it could be that regarding events in terms of punishment reflects a stage of moral development that individual human beings sometimes move beyond.

What I'm getting at here is that we can think of cause-and-effect patterns in (at least) two very different ways: (1) as expressing predictable mechanisms in how processes unfold, or (2) as expressing patterns of moral relationship. It's probably a mistake to read all of reality as either just the first or just the second. The challenge then is in distinguishing: what kinds of thing just happen (maybe predictably and regularly, but not morally), and what kinds of things happen for moral reasons? It is very common to blur this distinction, as when we say, for example, "little Johnny must learn that there are consequences for his behavior!" Usually that's meant as a moral threat of punishment, rather than a pragmatic observation that, for example, if he doesn't go to bed on time he will be pretty tired tomorrow.

So, in my interpretation of the second creation story, I was actually trying to move beyond a moral reading of the unfolding of events (since Adam and Eve were amoral beings before eating the fruit, and therefore should not have been held morally accountable), and into a pragmatic reading (it is not punishment that life becomes hard after the dawning of moral awareness -- it's just built into the very nature of moral consciousness).

So, to what extent should we take God to be a guide through the predictable patterns built into life, teaching us about these patterns -- and to what extent should we take God to be a punisher?

Some of my students who claim that they want to reject religion have said that what troubles them about religion is the view that God has made this complicated world structured by moral rules, but doesn't give us a very clear instruction book, and yet punishes us for not being able to figure it out. I've heard others then argue that the Bible is that clear instruction book. But what strikes me so far is that the moral lessons in the Bible are not at all clear, and I will be pointing out some of the confusing passages I see as I go along.

Second point (this one troubles me even more): using death as punishment. Lately, I've been noticing how often people ask, "how can God allow this to happen!" when someone they love dies. "This person was so good!" people often say. They may then fall into a crisis of faith -- because a good person died. It makes no sense that God should have "punished" that good person while all these other "bad" people keep living. My careful response has been to nudge in the direction of pointing out that everyone eventually dies, and so it can't be right to interpret death as a sign of God's punishment. To Christians, I point out that even Jesus Christ died on the cross. God surely was not punishing him. And so I've gotten very puzzled. Where does this line of thinking come from: that death is the ultimate divine punishment?

Now that I am reading the Bible, the answer is very clear. In the Noah story, for example, the Lord very clearly decides to wipe out most of the human race because of people's wickedness and violence. But, again, is it punishment, as such -- or just a way of trying to wipe the slate clean?

And even if "the Lord" is portrayed as using death as punishment, what is also odd is how the Lord does not always use it immediately. For example, Cain is not killed for having killed Abel.

Now that I've shared some of my concerns about the image of God, let me come back to the point I started with: how should we interpret natural events, such as floods and mighty storms? Part of what is prized about the Bible is that it tells a story of God's involvement in the world and in human history. The God portrayed in the Bible is not a God who set the world in motion and then stands back and watches how things unfold from a distance. It is not a God who is indifferent to human matters. It is a God who is intimately involved.

I myself am attracted to the general idea of God's continuing involvement in our lives, and in the dramatic events that shape our lives. But exactly how, and why, and in what ways God is involved are not easy questions with simple answers.

I worry that these famous stories do present a really problematic image of what God is like, and of what morality is like. So, what do we do with this?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4:1-24

After the two creation stories, there is the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-24). This story is much shorter than I expected it to be. Given Alice M.'s comment to yesterday's posting, it strikes me as significant that the brother who tends crops kills the brother who is a herder. It seems to foretell how those who settled land ended up (mostly) wiping out more nomadic kinds of societies.

But I find part of the story, as told in the Bible, troubling. Why was the Lord happier with one kind of offering than another? Upon reading this, you can kind of understand why Cain was disappointed and jealous. After working so hard on the land, Cain was upset that the Lord "had no regard" for his offering (Gen 4:5). Still, the wisdom the Lord offers is good advice for us all: work hard, do well, and if others don't fully appreciate what you’ve done, master your disappointment (a rather free paraphrase of Gen 4:7). Also, this passage is now the first mention of "sin" in the Bible: "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7).

Instead, we all know, Cain gives into it and kills his brother. Sigh.

He is then banished from the land, and now the interpretive notes in my edition of the Bible (the Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version) point out that he goes on to become founder of cities and of culture (Gen 4:17-22). But also, violence continues (Gen 4:23-24).

So, even though the story, as told, is rather brief, it can be interpreted on many levels. Maybe it is better not to read it as a story about individuals, but a story about the complexities of human society as it shifts and changes: how settling the land, and then settling into cities, became the new norm for human society; how we may have lost something beautiful in the process (societies that wandered freely and more peacefully upon the earth without jealously claiming ownership of the land); how we then gained something new (arts, crafts, culture), but how this gain comes at a cost (this more settled life has a dark side: it breeds human violence).

It may also be read as a story of how hard it is for us to handle our difficult emotions well. We long so much for approval and acceptance, but, ironically, it is exactly when we most fear losing them that we are most inclined to behave in the ways that guarantee their loss.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Two Creation Stories

Genesis 1:1-3:24

What I first noticed as I started reading the Bible is that there are two different creation stories. The first is Genesis 1:1-2:3, and the second is Genesis 2:4-25. Lots of people have noticed this -- the helpful textual notes in the edition of the Bible I am using point that out, and tell me that it is thought that the two versions come from two different sources.

It is the first that sets out the seven days of creation:

  • Day 1: heavens, earth, light, day and night.
  • Day 2: the "dome" (sky) that separates the waters below (on earth) from the waters above the sky.
  • Day 3: dry land and vegetation.
  • Day 4: stars, moon, sun.
  • Day 5: water creatures and birds.
  • Day 6: land animals; humankind (both male and female). The number of human beings created is not specified. Also, God here gives to people "every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (Gen 1:29) -- no prohibitions.
  • Day 7: God rested, and blessed this day.
In the second creation story, things are a little different. First of all, individual days are not specified. And the sequence is very different:
  • earth and heavens; no rain yet but a spring would well up and water the ground
  • from dust, man was created (not woman yet)
  • garden of Eden -- man is put here; garden includes the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil
  • God tells man to till and keep the garden of Eden, but not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (note that Woman has not entered the scene yet! Man is alone).
  • God notices that Man is alone and wants to find him a helper and partner, so He first creates animals and birds and Man names them. But still there was no helper as partner.
  • God makes Man fall asleep, pulls out a rib, and makes Woman.
  • The story of original sin then ensues.

In the first story, all of creation is good. In the second story, even the garden of Eden is not a place of relaxed enjoyment, but a place of work (Gen 2:15), and a place where something is off-limits (Gen 2:16-17). God tells Man that if he does eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will die that very day (Gen 2:17). But later, that's not what happens.

While it may seem unjust that Woman, who wasn't even there yet when this prohibition was originally stated, then gets punished for eating of that tree, it is clear that she knew of the prohibition (Gen 3:2-3). Once Woman and Man eat of the tree, God says, "'See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'" (Gen 3:22) and this is why they get kicked out of the garden of Eden -- so they won't become immortal.

While I find many aspects of this second creation story troubling, I am fascinated by the relating the concept of "knowledge of good and evil" with "wisdom" and that being a divine characteristic. Also, it is true that perceiving the world through a moral lens makes existence more painful. But what troubles me is that, as the story is told, originally amoral beings are yet held morally accountable and are punished. Without knowledge of good and evil, they couldn't have known it was bad or wrong to disobey God.

So, maybe the story shouldn't be read morally. Maybe it is not, after all, a story of punishment for disobedience. Maybe God really was trying to say, "if you eat of this tree, everything will change, and you might not like it." Eventually, they do eat of that tree. Sure enough: everything changes. God says, "ok, now this kind of existence will be much harder, so you won't want to live forever anymore..." and closes off access to the tree of life as an act of compassion.

If so, does this mean that the concept of "original sin" (the most common interpretation of this second creation story) is not so much due to a moral disobedience somehow present in us in the start (because this contradicts the original amoral casting of human beings), but is better taken to express the essential pain inherent in moral awareness? It's not that we've done anything wrong -- its that awareness of right and wrong simply does make life difficult and painful.

Anyway, the word "sin" has not at all come up yet in this passage of the Bible. So even interpreting this story as a tale of original sin must have been a later interpretation of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In the Beginning...

In the beginning, God created a world, and saw that it was good.

Here I begin a journey that I feel led to take: a journey into a large and difficult but profoundly important text that almost everyone knows about but few have read completely.

While I have long had "read the whole Bible" on my list of "things I'd like to do someday," it wasn't until earlier this month that I suddenly wanted to get started now. I am not even sure what exactly prompted this decision. While it is true that I am a little embarrassed to confess that I have never read through the whole Bible, it wasn't embarrassment that prompted me. It was something else. An awareness crystallized before me that the Bible shapes a lot more of everyone's thinking than people realize. I had the strong sense that if I read the entire Bible through, my understanding of history, literature, and current events would deepen.

Other times when I've tried to start reading the Bible, I did so because it was supposed to be spiritually illuminating. But I'd come across a passage like Genesis 19:6-8 and would slam the book shut in shocked disbelief and wonder how anyone could take such a book seriously! What is this supposed to mean? Why and how is this supposed to be spiritually illuminating? Well-intentioned friends and teachers would try to point me to interpretive materials that would help me to understand how the Bible as a whole was constructed.

So I took courses and studied interpretations and learned so much that I ended up mostly bypassing the actual reading of the text itself, except for recommended passages and the passages that get quoted and read aloud over and over again. I began almost to think that sticking with this "broken Bible" -- the Bible one can re-construct in one's own mind from the Bible stories one has heard and from the quotations that others do find spiritually illuminating -- was enough.

And maybe that "broken Bible" is enough for most people's spiritual journeys.

But now I feel called to face the Bible in its entirety. I will share my thoughts and questions along the way. Anyone who is interested can feel free to chime in with interpretations or additional observations and questions.

This feels like a journey -- into a different time and place, and into very different ways of thinking. I look forward to seeing what I will discover.