November 2, 2010
Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:
“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”
and the :
“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”
just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?
However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!
Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?
Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and, importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.
You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.
November 1, 2010
In Genesis 12-15 we meet Abram, or the artist-soon-to-be know-as-Abraham as I like to call him, and his entourage. This is the man from whom God will make a great nation, the one whose descendents will be as numerous as the stars.
Seriously? This guy?
I have heard a lot about Abraham being obedient to God and confident in his promises even when there’s little hope. I’m sure it’s all true. But I’ve never really had good relationship with his stories. Today when I was reading the second story we are given about him, 12:10-20, I actually let out a little gasp despite being on a rather crowded bus. Now, I must have read this story several times before but it is still pretty shocking to me.
There’s a famine so Abram goes down into Egypt with his wife Sarai (soon-to-be Sarah). She is really beautiful and he knows the Egyptian men will desire her. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect from their lustful ways” he says… oh no, sorry what he actually does is gets her to pretend she’s his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him. Nice. Then of course he lets her be taken into Pharoah’s house (if you know what I mean) and laps up the brother’s benefits; sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, you name it…
Seriously? This guy??
Yes, this is the guy, dodgy marital values and ill-gotten riches don’t seem to deter God from his choice, and that makes me uncomfortable. This is just one example of many in the stories that follow of women being treated like chattel and there being no overt criticism of this treatment in the text. Sure, God does send a plague on Pharoah and put a stop do to the utterly degrading situation, but there’s no punishment for Abram. Sarai is voiceless in all this, used for her looks and sex appeal and later focussed on for ability, or inability to bear a child. This text seems so stuck in the time it was written, in a time when women were often named among property and only valued in terms of their sexual and reproductive functions.
But what would I rather? That there was a miraculous gender-equality in a story originating thousands of years ago about the firstof the patriarchs?? Well, yes that is what I’d rather, but it’s not what’s here. The Bible is timeless text in some ways, but not in others. Rejecting it because of that seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.
So is there much here for a 21st century woman? Although I find it hard to look past these injustices to a great theme, Abram’s willingness to follow God does indeed shine out from these pages. And would it really be better if he were perfect? God doesn’t call us based on our perfection. If He did then the Bible would have a lot fewer characters. And the Church would have a lot fewer members. If He did then I would certainly be off the list.
So I will try to get my relationship with the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Abraham back on track. Not by ignoring his imperfections, nor by embracing them, but by accepting them. There are no perfect protagonists in Bible, if there were then there would be little space for us to imagine ourselves as among those God has called. He calls murderers and adulterers and persecutors (Moses, David, Paul) and makes them into imperfect servants. In doing so he shows us that there is no one He can’t use. And that’s some pretty good news.
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…
October 12, 2010
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…