Isaiah 1-6, phew, that’s a lot to take in. Highlights include the old favourites; “they shall beat their swords into to ploughshares” (2:4); “Here am I; send me!” (6:8) and of course the Sunday morning favourite “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Each of these verses deserves a treatise of its own, each of them have blessed and will bless me and you and us. But to cherry-pick these 21st century friendly (if any Bible verse can be called such) lines would really not reflect the ambience of the chapters as a whole, would it?

Here’s the general drift: God is angry. Majorly angry. Wrathful, if you will. As with huge swathes of the Bible (see recent posts on Job and Joshua) it all seems a bit harsh on first reading. Most striking to me is the vitriol against the “haughty” daughters of Zion; “the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” Oh matron! Sorry, serious times are going on down in Zion, this is not the time for Carry On references…

The truth is that I find it hard not to make jokes about verses like that. I feel compelled to somehow defuse my middle-class, western, liberal (oooh I hate that word!) discomfort with these verses of desolation. So I’ll write “swords into ploughshares” in nice writing and put it up somewhere and forget the slightly threatening tones of the song of the unfruitful vineyard (5:1-7).

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Thankfully, my eyes were opened to the ferocious appetite for social justice that lay within the biting words of Isaiah – especially by great Christian campaigning groups like SPEAK. I used to find “righteous anger” a bit of oxymoron, and I would read passages like Isaiah 1, which describes the desolation and degeneracy of Judah as if it said “God has punished you so now you’re like this” rather than “look what you’ve done! now you’re like this”. But prophecy is truth-telling’. The people of Judah wonder why everything’s gone so wrong and Isaiah’s not afraid to tell it to them straight; you accumulate with no view to the future, you neglect widows and orphans, you live in opulence and take from those who have nothing. So greed begets greed, violence begets violence, oppression begets oppression. From Exodus to the gospels God is the God of the oppressed; when you become the oppressor it’s very hard to stay in tune with Him! So in Isaiah God’s turning that great old break-up line on its head; “it’s not Me, it’s you!”

This is heart-breakingly apparent in the song of the unfruitful vineyard when the gardener asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” The voice of God, like a forlorn parent regarding their misguided progeny. It’s been almost 3000 years but still the alarming revelation that blessing, security and even salvation don’t guarantee a faithful heart, or a people dedicated to compassion. See also the Conservative party front bench (oh no she didn’t!).  

 5:8 incisively illustrates how one can be isolated by ones own greed:

 Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

This could be a message for any Western nation in the days of climate change and decreasing bio-diversity 

So though I’m left rather shell-shocked by it all, I’m glad it’s in there. Sometimes it seems that social justice is on the fringes of the Church. In fact I once heard a ‘celebrity pastor’ (now there’s an oxymoron) from the US say that if your church teaches social justice issues you should leave it. I’m not sure what Bible he was reading! Maybe the Tea Party Translation (oh no she didn’t!)

And it’s also nice to know that along a good, and very necessary, telling off there’s also hope. More on that next Saturday I’m sure (for unto us a child is born!) But for now “swords into ploughshares” ain’t bad…not bad at all…

photo by the talented Sterlic http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/

Testing times… (Job 1-2)

October 15, 2010

Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??

A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).

What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself.  David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean  a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…

The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”

Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.

The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.”  Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…

The Bible reading plan I’m using (a link to which can be found at the bottom of the page) doesn’t go through the Bible from front to back. Each day of the week focusses on a different section of the Bible; Tuesday (which I’m reading on Wednesdays) is ‘History’, which begins with the book of Joshua. “O goody!” I thought “the one where the Israelites kill everyone else!”

But I am pleasantly surprised to be reminded that the first 5 chapters of Joshua contain no actual killing. Sure, there are more than a few hints that a lot of killing is about to take place; armed warriors are to cross the Jordan first, spies are sent to Jericho, Rahab tells them that “all the inhabitants of the land melt before you.” But the beginning of the Israelites’ return to the promise land has the power of God and the importance of God’ law at its centre. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded of the Exodus story and here is no different. God brings the Israelites across the Jordan by stopping its flow, just like in the Exodus.

Then in Chapter 5 all those born in the time in the wilderness (which is everyone, all the previous generation have died) are circumcised. This is followed by an account of the celebration of the passover and Israel’s first meal of the “produce of the land”, which must have tasted pretty sweet after all that manna. And finally we are told of an encounter between Joshua and “the commander of the army of Lord”. This chapter, which is directly followed by the fall of Jericho, ends with the command “remove the sandals from you feet, for the place where you stand in holy.” Very Moses and the burning bush; don’t you think?

There are many mysterious and inspiring passages in these early chapters of Joshua, but I must admit I can’t help finding them tainted them by the anticipation of what is to come…”holy war”. Yet if I put that aside this time – I fear it won’t be so easy next Wednesday – I see that this is the home-coming of the Israelites. The climax of exile. A return to where they are willed to be by God. And every chapter revere’s God’s power to do this, through the narrative voice and the voices of Joshua, Rahab and God Himself.

So I try to ask what is this saying to me? I don’t think it’s as simple or cheesy as “God can part seas for you” and certainly not “God wants to give you stuff; just be good and do what you’re told and you’ll get it”. But maybe that there is always a way home, through the wilderness, it may take forty years and a complete change of personnel, but there is a way. And Iguess the problem is that the following chapters and books could be saying that once you’re home you can leave again, forget again. Wednesdays are going to be interesting…

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…