Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: The Pentateuch

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past.}

I finished the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) earlier this week....keeping up with the schedule decently, although I did fall a day behind after a long shift on Wednesday and very heavy eyelids the next morning.

So, I thought I'd share a few observations and unsolicited opinions. This will be super general, just because of how fast this reading has to go. I'm making some notes to go back and study in more detail later.

A few things stand out as I re-read these books. One is the sophistication of the writing. This wasn't just a crude list of do's and don'ts. There are literary devices: poetry, imagery, metaphor, suspense. There's a great deal of beauty in the language. Whoever wrote these books (most people say Moses, but there's some dispute among scholars) was educated. The characters are familiar, like childhood friends, and it's good to get to know them again, although they all seem a bit more complex than what I remember. When I read the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, of Dinah, of Joseph and his brothers, of the Israelites as slaves and then nomads, of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, I see a LOT of humanity, and a teeny tiny glimpse of divinity. I see the culture of the day and its best understanding of God. There's some pretty dark stuff in there; there are things that just don't seem compatible with the God that Jesus later reveals. I keep saying that, to myself and out loud, over and over. The LORD, as he's called in these texts, seems like a different character than the God we later get to know.

In high school, one of my more memorable assignments was to try to design a perfect society with a group. We had to think about and develop all the details of a society: where people will live, how they'll make money, what infrastructure the government will provide, what to do with people who break the society's codes, etc. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy detail the complexity of trying to form a functioning society: chapter after chapter of case law, ledgers, protective hygiene practices, and repeated calls for justice and kindness to the foreigner (this concept of justice, though selective, seems ahead of its time.) Moses served as a judge much of the time, hearing case after case and, the text says, consulting the LORD for the answer. That's how many of the laws came to be written. He was so overwhelmed with this job that his father-in-law advised him to set up trusted men to bear some of the load.

An ever present theme in the Pentateuch is that the Israelites have special favor with the LORD. I always took that idea for granted, without questioning it--after all, the LORD is presented as saying this, not the Israelites. Now, I would really like to know why--is the purpose of excluding everyone but the Jews to later dramatically include Gentiles also? Or was it a human thing attributed to God? Then there's the idea that the LORD gives the Israelites land and possessions to plunder; that the land ultimately belongs to them and others are occupying it (not, the text says, because the Israelites are more righteous; the LORD calls them a "stiff-necked people", but because the other people are exceedingly wicked, and also because of the promises that the LORD made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.) So they wander in the desert for forty years, figuring out the whole functioning society thing and preparing to take the land that the LORD promised their ancestors.

Now, I realize that a lot of the hard stuff is setting up for a redemption or re-definition later. The animal sacrifice will be over once Jesus takes all that on himself.  Paul will extend a controversial welcome to the Gentiles. Jesus will take the "eye for an eye" laws and turn them upside down. He'll tell people to love their enemies. New covenants will be made. But, in the meantime, this stuff is terrible. As a metaphor, it's tolerable I suppose. You can find applicable lessons in it. But are we to accept that God, our God, commanded all of these things? Something deep within me says no.

It's entertaining and a little sad to see what I've underlined in my Bible in past years. Lots of verses sound pretty good on their own, but read the whole passage and you might want to bang your head on the table (or maybe that's just me.) When I was younger, I approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all true, that it all happened. God really did command the Israelites to plunder and was in the text, and that made it more palatable somehow. If I read something I didn't like, it didn't really matter because if it was in there, I had to accept it. I think now, in retrospect, that that kind of reading caused a coldness, a numbness, in me.

I have to say, I did thoroughly enjoy reading Genesis, because of the stories. I think one of my favorite moments, found in Genesis 16, concerns Hagar. She is sent in to her mistress' husband (Abraham) to bear him a child, since her mistress (Sarah) is barren. She conceives, and her mistress "deals harshly with her" and she flees. She stops by a spring of water, and the "Angel of the Lord" finds her, and tells her to return to Sarah, and that she will have a son called Ishmael, "because the LORD has heard your affliction." Verse thirteen says:
Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-who-Sees; for she said, "Have I also here seen Him who sees me?"
Hints of the divine, in an oh-so-human situation. The God who Sees. That's familiar, that rings true. God is not monstrous here; he's compassionate.
There's a sort of tension in the text, between the LORD as ruthless enforcer of justice and nurturing, forgiving leader. The Israelites praise the LORD as being slow to anger, loving, and forgiving, but also as just (in the sense that the guilty must be punished.) Numbers 14:18 captures the paradox of how the Israelites see the LORD:
The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
It's important to note that on several occasions Moses pleads for LORD to forgive guilty parties and He does. He doesn't seem very slow to anger though; His anger is often swift and fierce. Of course, I'm reading these stories with twenty-first century eyes, with a very different perspective on justice, and with VERY different ideas about women and slaves. What's heinous to one culture is commonplace to another. But the big question, the question that transcends culture is this: what is the nature of God? I personally believe that God's true nature and the human perception of it don't always line up. I hope that's the case anyway. It seems quite likely that the Israelites were giving the God credit/blame for things He didn't actually do, because of their own lack of knowledge and superstition about things like miscarriage (if a woman miscarried, she must have sinned, or if she was barren, the LORD had made her so), and natural disasters, and also just because they lived in a survival-of-the-fittest world. I've heard that our political views are shaped by what we see out our own front door; I would add that our view of God is largely shaped the same way.

The point of this whole endeavor is to read the Bible through the lens of Christ. Here's where I am with that right now: I think that maybe as long as we're human we're going to mis-characterize God. I see what I think is the Israelites doing it in the text and I see us doing it today. We're still cruel; we still use God to justify our wars and greed; we still think we're God's favorite. But, and it's a big but: Jesus makes such a difference. I'm not there yet in the text so I'm going to leave that for another post, but let me just say that as I've read these books, I've often been left with a feeling of hollowness and sadness. I think this comes from the way God/the LORD is described as such a monster in the text. But I remember that the Jesus part is coming. He's going to change the face of God; wipe off some of the weird stuff we've pasted on it. Grace will show up.

So, that was a bit heavy. Here's some interesting tidbits, to end on a lighter note. If you're still reading, I salute you :)

Did you know......

  • Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah) were half brother and sister. They had the same father. (Genesis 20:12) The practice of marrying one's sibling, whether half or full, is later condemned in Leviticus 20:17. So, when Abraham lies to and says Sarah is his sister, he's actually sort of telling the truth.
  • After getting off the ark, Noah sacrificed one of every clean animal and bird (Genesis 8:20). I'm guessing they must have already reproduced on the ark, otherwise there wasn't much of a point of carrying around two of every kind on the boat for all that time.
  •  Exodus 33:11 tells us that Moses spoke with the LORD "face to face, as a man speaks with his friend."  Later, in verse 18-23, Moses asks to see the LORD's glory. The LORD tells him, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." So Moses hides in a cleft of a rock and the LORD allows him to catch a glimpse of His back. Perhaps when Moses was speaking face to face with the LORD, His glory was hidden somehow? Pretty interesting.
  • In Numbers 27:1-11, a case is brought before Moses in which five daughters, whose father has died, are asking to be able to have his inheritance. They have no brothers, and so a new law is made to say that daughters may inherit if there are no sons. Seems a bit ahead of the times, although later (in Deuteronomy, I believe, I forgot to make a note of it) the law states that if a woman has inherited property, it goes to her husband when they marry.

Next up are the Historical Books.

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