Monday, December 06, 2010

The Word of God in the Old Testament

I find this mind-blowing. I don't know if you ever come to a blog post with an expectation that reading it might be mind-blowing but I'd like you to think that after reading this you will never be the same again.

Before I explain the good part of never being the same again I have some bad news. The bad part. The Bible you thought you knew; you don't know. You might have remembered some, even quite a lot of it, but that is not the same as knowing it.

Here are three stories. So you don't get scared, here are the endings to the stories. Imagine it's like a movie which begins with something dramatic and then the screen fades to a caption 'Three years earlier.' I'll tell you the punchlines then work up to them. In fact I told you the punchlines in the preview so you should be ready:

1. I don't believe what it says in the Bible

2. What it says in the Bible is wrong

3. God is a liar

And I needed to tell you that so you are as shocked as you are going to be. I also want to be clear that hearing those sentences is not the end. There will be more.

Nearly three years ago now we had a  Parochial Church Council (PCC) discussion on divorce. I was asked to prepare some biblical material and it was hard work because the Bible is not univocal on the question, but I did the best I could and was pleased with the paper I wrote and the discussion that followed. Towards the end of the meeting one member of the PCC spoke forthrightly. 'I believe what it says in this book,' he said, shutting it and placing it firmly on the table in front of him. He didn't say, 'End of,' but may as well have done. Closed book; closed mind. He seemed to have missed the whole point that I did too but the matter couldn't end there. Since we now permit remarriage of divorcees in church in certain circumstances and some verses of the Bible say that such action is wrong it follows that I don't believe what it says in the Bible. QED1.

Now here are some verses from the Bible:

As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more.


If (God) comes along and confines you in prison and convenes a court, who can oppose him? Surely he recognizes deceivers; and when he sees evil, does he not take note? But the witless can no more become wise than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human. How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure?


If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot— a human being, who is only a worm!

These sound like acceptable descriptions of God and his righteous anger. The sort of Old Testament stuff we are used to. Smacks of the Book of Proverbs. The three quotes are all from Job's comforters. But in Job 42:7 God says they were wrong. The three men who advised Job with such words did not know what they were talking about. Several chapters of the Old Testament are the speeches of men who didn't know what they were talking about.

God tells Job he'd better pray for the guys who advised him, that he won't get wrathful on them.

Trouble is, a lot of what the guys said in their speeches was quoting Deuteronomy. If what they said was wrong, was Deuteronomy wrong? But isn't Deuteronomy one of the most quoted books in the New Testament? Help. What it says in the Bible is wrong. QED2.

Finally, to the very beginning. Genesis 2:16-17. God says clearly in this creation story that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will lead to certain death. 'When you eat of it you will surely die.' No reader or hearer of the story would have taken it as a metaphor for life-limitation entering the world. In those days that sort of interpretation was centuries away. What happened? The story tells us the snake tempted, Eve succumbed, the man was embroiled and God threw them out of the garden, still alive. God is a liar. QED3.

Our problem, as those stories demonstrate, if we read the Bible, is that we read it through logical, legal, New Testament eyes where many of the writers were trying to impress their more intellectual readers with their Greek, philosophic credentials. John 1:1 'In the beginning was the word' is Greek philosophy. Paul in Athens debated with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The Bible becomes a constitutional document at which point we have made it a book too hard for us simple souls to read if we find constitutional ambiguities. It says one thing then another.

What, should we do to our enemies? Let's hear author and scholar Brian McLaren give us the range of answers the Bible has for us:

'Matthew 5:44 tells us to love them. Romans 12 tells us to do good to them and never seek revenge against them. 1 Peter 3 tells us to suffer at their hands and set an example for them. Psalm 139:19 says we should hate them. Deuteronomy 7 says we should destroy them utterly and show them no mercy. If we want to call down fire on them, we can refer to 1 Kings 18:38, but before we do so, we'd better check Luke 9:51-6, which condemns that kind of thinking...'
(A New Kind of Christianity - Hodder 2010)

What is God like? If our human understanding gave us one clear and easily graspable picture of God then that god would not be essentially 'other' but simply another of us. So our Bibles show us God who is a warrior leading his people into battle, telling them to be bold and strong. They give us God who reveals himself partially in dreams, visions and insights, God who wants to mother his people like a hen its chicks, who wants to have his prophets live out ghastly, real-life metaphors by cooking on excrement or marrying prostitutes to show how he feels about his people, God who is intimate and distant, caring and angry, enthroned on high and surrounding his people, the house builder and the house occupant. There are even books of the Bible where God makes little or no appearance yet is a backdrop to all that is going on. Which of these is the true picture? All of them. Together.
(A paragraph not entirely unlike this will appear in Mustard Seed Shavings, the book, to be published by BRF, April 2011.)

So the Bible is not a constitutional document but it contains some basic grounding for those who wish to set up a community. Not a rule book like the Highway Code yet it contains some rules. Not a history book like Caesar's Gallic Wars but it contains some history.

What is it? It's a cultural library says Brian McLaren. It's an agreed starting point, says Rowan Williams. It is, says Karen Armstrong (The Bible - The Biography - Atlantic 2007), a place where we stand, as Moses stood once, sandal-less before a burning bush, praying for revelation and listening intently, willing to lay down our former preconceptions.

I went to an Anglo-Catholic church in the deanery the other day. I was struck again by the symbolic act of a Gospel procession with incense. The central part of the Eucharist was read. If process was all we did we would be missing the point. But if all we do is say 'I believe what it says in here' we are being equally lightweight.

The Bible includes some statements about God which are contradictory, some which the book itself says are wrong, some distasteful stuff and more.

When John the Baptist marched out of the wilderness with his wild behaviour he was making a huge statement about the word of God in the Old Testament. John was saying – it is here. Don't listen to it any more; listen to him.

Mind blowing.

(Based on a sermon at Trendlewood Church and Christ Church, Nailsea, yesterday)


Marcella said...

My mind is appropriately blown.

Martin said...

God is bigger than I thought (God still bigger than I am thinking now). Good to be reminded of that, so thanks.

Caroline Too said...

hmm, loads to think about there, st... so I'll try not to let my mind be blown while I do that thinking...

in academic writing, before an article, we tend to put together an abstract... it's the highlights/summary of the argument we're going to make... I'm starting to think that the bible is like a whole load of abstracts run together... they point us toward the full argument/thinking but that is to be done in conversation with God over time (and eternity?)

been reading Luke recently, sometimes my eyes just spin as verses of Jesus' teaching just don't seem to follow from each other... a bit like the quotes on the back of a book... try reading them as a single narrative: they don't make sense... seperate them out and they're more comprehendable...

ok, st

guess that you've worked out that I need to do more thinking! but thank you for your contribution to my learning, I appreciate it.

DNA said...

Thanks for this Steve. Charlie Moule of blessed memory used a metaphor for the Bible's purpose and work (and it was a working book for him) which reduced the Bible to a full stop or a comma (and the way we use it of course). He wrote, and it has been a blessing to me, 'The Bible is neither an anthology of uplifting thoughts nor an oracle. If there are times when it seems to be both, that is incidental. I understand the Bible - basically and with a minimum definition - not as a chart or a compass to steer us through the shoals as much as instructions for finding the pilot.' Useful? Yes!

St said...

Great stuff DNA/Moule. Love it.