I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.

First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.

When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact,  “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get  away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.

Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?

It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.

How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words).  And God let’s him!

So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?

I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.

In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.

I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.

Good old Paul. Good old verbose, passionate, occasionally infuriating, often inspiring Paul. What the New Testament be without him? Well, very very short for starters.

These first two chapters bring up the mingled feelings of affection and frustration I have with the letters of Paul. I love his sheer bombasticy (not a word, but should be), his zeal and his directness. Even his salutation is a nifty summary of the gospel with references to Jewish heritage as well as a welcome to the Gentiles. He doesn’t waste time, our Paul. No sooner has he given effulgent thanks for the Roman Christians and slotted in a couple of verses about the power of the gospel than he sets off on hot subject number one; the guilt of humankind. ‘O here we go!’ says a naughty little voice in my head.

This stuff makes difficult reading for me if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up in the church and I had to work hard not to be completely thrown by words like ‘wickedness’, ‘evil’ and ‘impurity’. Not that they just occur in Paul, of course, but they are rather densely clustered here! Yet if I can get through the language laden with hundreds of years of human baggage there are so many gems in this reading; so many truths.

Before I go any further, though, let me deal with the big homophobic elephant in the room. Verses 26-27 make me profoundly uncomfortable. When these passages are read as ‘homosexuality is a sign of human degradation’ it makes my skin crawl. For me this a prime example of a culturally specific part of the Bible that we don’t need to take literally, just as we would no longer tells slaves to obey their masters or women to keep silence in church (if you would do either of those things then this might not be the blog for you.) This was a time when there we no space in society for same-sex couples to develop a loving, monogamous relationship and build a family. Now, thank God, there is in many countries. The Message translation of this text puts in lots of modern conservative Christian thought that’s not there but it does also say the problem was “all lust, no love”. That’s a sign of us going astray but it can happen to straight people as much as gay people, believe me, I know! So I’ll attempt to put this archaic aspect aside and concentrate on the more eternal truths to be found.

Paul writes that God’s divine nature is revealed in his creation; that though He is invisible he can be seen in the glory of the world (1:20). Later in, chapter 2 he tells us that those who obey the law without knowing it will be rewarded. He says that the law is not just something you hear and obey but something that is written in our hearts (2:15). He is writing this to break down distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, a favourite campaign of his, but more than this he’s illustrating the universality of God’s call, God’s truth.

But still, it’s not all peachy. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, he writes in 1:24. In the same verse he mentions about idol worship – worshipping the creature rather than the creator. This speaks to me of how easy it to reduce God to our parameters of understanding, rather than submit in awe to the Mystery we will never solve, but can somehow serve.

The lies are easier sometimes, aren’t they? We have swapped golden idols for money and images in magazines now. The perfect body, house, relationship, life. We worship ideals dictated more by commerce that anything else. I’m guilty as charged here. I once went to a great Christian arts campaigns night about fairtrade and one of the most striking things I wrote was the sentence “help us who love things more than their Creator”. When I buy something to cheer me up instead of leaning on God am I any better than the people with their secret golden gods? I can only answer no.

Paul really nails it in for me when he warns against judging others in early chapter 2. “Takes one to know one” says the Message translation. I don’t think I’m a very judgemental person, but I totally am on this front. When I see someone driving an immaculately clean 4X4 in the city or who spends more on his/her appearance than I spend on food, I judge. And Paul, with all his strictness and zeal, reminds me of my profound imperfection, reminds me that I fall short daily.

Now, this is a depressing ending to my usually breezy posts, unfortunately we haven’t got to the part of Romans that says “don’t worry if you’re not perfect, be Jesus is, yay” (not sure if that’s quite word-for-word…). But yay all the same. It doesn’t mean I don’t need reminding that there’s (a heck of a lot of) room for improvement. Indeed, if I didn’t need that much of the Bible would become pretty redundant, especially good old Paul. But somehow it’s easier to face my own imperfections when I know that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. God is the be-all-and-end-all, even gentiley old me knows that. It’s written on my heart.