Monday, September 2, 2013

A Couple of Johns

One of the pleasures resulting from an obsession with the Bible is the opportunity to read some of the superb writing about the Bible that is produced every year. This summer, for example, we have seen a very good book about Jesus, Reza Aslan’s Zealot:The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, climb to the top of the best-seller lists. But more importantly for me, it has seen the publication of a remarkable new study of the Gospel of John, John Shelby Spong’s The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.



The Fourth Gospel was my introduction to the writings and perspective of Rev. Spong, the long-time Episcopal bishop of Newark, now retired. But following my discovery of this refreshingly down-to-earth cleric and scholar, I have been voraciously devouring his works. The Fourth Gospel is his 23rd published book, and I look forward to reading them all, because this one has altered my perspective in  way that few written works ever have.


John can be a troubling gospel for those of us who question the supernatural content of the Bible. For us, it can be relatively easy to read the other three gospels, called collectively the synoptics, for their philosophical wisdom, focusing on the brief, pithy, parables and beatitudes as evidence of Jesus’ incomparably beautiful philosophy, and to gloss over the recounting of miracles as so much filigree added unnecessarily to embellish His brilliant teachings. But the gospel of John is a different animal; it is distinguished by what is called its “high Christology,” its insistence on the godly and timeless nature of Jesus, characterized as the “only begotten son” of God. There are no parables in John, and few brief statements of wisdom. Instead we get that gorgeous prologue, a poem of unsurpassed beauty, followed by a narrative of Jesus’ ministry that focuses on seven “signs”, in turn followed by several lengthy chapters of monologue known as the “farewell discourses,” and finally the passion, crucifixion and resurrection. Much of what is told in John is told only in John, and the telling has an altogether different feel than do the other three narratives (which are called synoptic because they view Jesus “with the same eye”).
Over the past 2000 years, John seems to have been the loudest voice inviting us to worship Jesus rather than to learn from him. And as one who views Jesus primarily as a teacher, a “rabbi”, who meant for his words to be listened to rather than his life fetishized, I sometimes found John’s gospel a little bit hard to take.

The new John in my consciousness, Rev. Spong, has blessedly corrected my view. Indeed, Spong says, he had to correct his own view of the gospel, which he had often found “repellent,” due to the creeds and dogmatic thinking and abuses done ‘in the name of the Lord’ for which he blamed John.
“Because this book was thought to have spelled out ‘orthodox Christianity,’ John’s gospel also helped to fuel such dreadful events in Christian history as heresy hunts and the Inquisition. As the centuries rolled by, John’s gospel seemed to make meaningful discourse on the nature of the Christ figure almost impossible.”
He goes on to say:
“Throughout most of my career, both as a priest and as a bishop, I saw John’s gospel more as a problem in ministry than as an asset. So my tactic was to avoid it, if possible, to ignore it whenever I could not avoid it, and simply to resign myself to the reality that it was in the canon of scripture. Sometimes I walked around this gospel. At other times I attacked it or at least attacked those I thought misunderstood and/or misused its message. I certainly never wanted to spend much time on it.”
The change in his thinking came about, Spong says, when he began to view the fourth gospel as a Jewish book and to examine its connections to Jewish experience, Jewish history and, especially, Jewish mysticism. He describes his journey in some detail, but the climax is this:
“I began to rethink and ultimately to dismiss the theistic definition of God and started moving away from an understanding of God as ‘a being’ to an understanding of God as ‘Being itself,’ or as Paul Tillich, the formative theologian of my early training, would say, as ‘the Ground of Being’ … John’s gospel began to unfold before me as a work of Jewish mysticism and the Jesus of John’s gospel suddenly became not a visitor from another realm., but a person in whom a new God consciousness had emerged. Now, seen from that new perspective, the claim of oneness with the Father was not incarnational language, but mystical language.”
And, because I can’t keep myself from quoting this amazing volume that has resulted from Spong’s years of study:
“John’s gospel is about life – expanded life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life – but not in the typical manner that these words have been understood religiously.”
From what I have gleaned so far in his writings, Spong has built his notable career on an effort to free Christianity from a literalism that he believes imposes first-century thinking on contemporary life, to no good end. A heaven that is above the sky and disease caused by demons are not concepts we can tolerate in the face of today’s science, but a literal reading of the Bible – an atrocious insistence that the words and events of the gospels are “literally true” – demands that we accept what we know to be nonsense.

Thus, it is no surprise that his new approach takes on the issue of literalism. One of the most striking aspects of The Fourth Gospel is Spong’s illumination of the many passages in this gospel that speak directly to this issue, and which ridicule or dismiss the notion that its words should be taken literally. For example, when Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus, who in chapter 3 has come to visit him in the dark of night, that, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus’ response is a comically literal reading of Jesus’ words:
“How can one be born when one is old? he asked. “One cannot enter a mother’s womb a second time and be born.”
In the next chapter, the Samaritan woman at the well reacts in a similar manner to Jesus’ statement that,” Whoever drinks the water I give them will not be thirsty again. The water I give them will become in them a fountain of water springing into eternal life.” Taking His words literally, the Samaritan woman sees the “living water” as a great labor-saving innovation:
“Sir, give me this water so that I won’t be thirsty or have to come here to draw it up.”
Once Spong has pointed it out, it’s clear from these passages that those who apply literal meaning to the words given to Jesus by John are meant to be seen as foolish, misguided. The Samaritan woman, whose visit with Jesus happens in the light of day, comes to understand what Jesus meant and goes on to convert her townspeople, while Nicodemus chooses to retreat back into the darkness from which he briefly emerged (and from which he will make additional brief appearances).

So, if we aren’t meant to take this gospel as literal history, what does it mean? Does it have any meaning for us? Oh yes, Spong says. The meaning derives from Jewish mystical tradition. The magnificent prologue to this gospel, which I consider to be among the most beautiful words ever written, is often said to reflect Greek thinking, but Spong argues that this tone-setting poem reflects instead a deep understanding of Jewish spirituality. The prologue is shaped, of course, by reference to Genesis 1, the priestly creation story in which God creates the world entirely with words. Since this gospel, like all of the others, appears to have been written in Greek, the word “logos” has been given primary importance, and with it all of the connotations in Greek thought and Greek usage that come with it. But Spong urges us to look at the Hebrew word for word, “dabar,” and to understand that, “The Hebrew concept of dabar indicated that this ‘word’ had power to shape the world, to reveal the presence of God, to call people to a heightened sense of selfhood, a heightened consciousness.”

And so it makes great sense for John to say that, ”What came to be in the word was life, And the life was the light of the people.”

The equation, then, of the word to life and to light and to Jesus tells us that Jesus brought the light of life to the people he encountered, that in fact his mission was to bring this light in the form of a new consciousness that allows us to experience life fully, abundantly, gloriously.

The wedding at Cana, a story specific and unique to John’s gospel, takes on a new cast in this new light. A wedding marks the beginning of new life, the life of a new family. This wedding takes place significantly on the “third day,” a reference that may seem mysterious because we have just been told about three preceding days, which would make this at least the fourth. But again, don’t take the reference literally. The third day is, as we know from all of the gospels as well as from Paul, the day of resurrection, the day when new life is given to something or someone that has died. So we can understand this a symbolic setting, one that is about the moment of new life, a reading which may help to explain why in this wedding story we are told nothing of the bride and groom or why Jesus, his mother and the disciples have all traveled to attend.

We see that the wedding has run out of wine. The old wine is gone. After his mother’s urging, Jesus directs the servants to a set of six large jugs meant to hold water for ritual use. But the jugs are empty. Not only is the old wine gone, the ritual water is gone. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jugs with water (the jugs are said to hold two or three measures, an amount equivalent to 20 or 30 gallons each) and then to dip from them and take the liquid to the master of the celebration, who congratulates the bridegroom effusively on his brilliance in serving a superior wine late in the celebration. The new wine, brought on by Jesus, is a superior wine as well as a transformation of old, empty ritual into new life. Jesus, we are being told, is bringing new life to replace old, tired traditions and rituals that have lost their meaning.

I’m going to end this post here, because I know I will write about the Rev. Spong and his wonderful books again soon. And I can’t tell this story with anything like his brilliance.

Read The Fourth Gospel. Buy it, borrow it, steal it if you have to. But read it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Bible I Love

The Bible is the greatest achievement of western culture. I say that without a touch of irony, because I believe it – if I have a reservation, it is only about whether ancient Israel should be considered “western.” But I’ll move past that reservation because the Bible is foundational to the west. It is the bedrock upon which our art, literature, music and philosophy rest. Our world would be unrecognizably different were it not for the Bible.


The wonder of the Bible is in its vastness, its complexity, its vivid narratives, its passionate polemic and its gentle expressions of love. An anthology – some would say an anthology of anthologies – spanning more than 1,000 years of the greatest writing of the ancient Middle East, the Bible takes us from the beginning of the world to its end. It’s hard to be more comprehensive than that.

The Bible is endlessly enjoyable, filled with familiar stories that form the background of our lives and less familiar ones that may shock people who think they know what’s within its covers. It is both high art and lowdown, raucous entertainment.

It is important, I think, that it be appreciated as art. The many authors of this text were adults writing for adult audiences. They wrote complex texts that can support a multitude of readings; they are meant to be studied, torn apart, argued over. They span a wide variety of styles – prose and poetry, fable and fairy tale, domestic and wartime drama, thoughtful and probing essays, warnings and celebrations.

The Bible is many, many things. What it is not is a factual history or a science textbook – and it is the insistence that it fill these roles that leads to the intolerance and demagoguery that is too often associated with those who claim to live by “the Book.” I would argue that taking the Bible literally as either history or science is in fact an insult to its authors, a manifestation of deep disrespect for their achievements as artists.

Yes, the Bible is meant to teach us, but not in this literal fashion. Various portions of the Bible – in particular the Gospels – are in fact quite direct in pointing to the parable as their preferred form of storytelling. It’s not just the stories Jesus told directly that should be understood as parables.

I’ve spent most of the past year teaching about the story I consider to be the heart of the Bible – the David narrative in the books of Samuel . In my view, everything that comes before David in the Bible looks forward to his reign, and everything after looks back. Seen in this light, the stories of the patriarchs, of the exodus, and especially the tales of the judges all are told to prefigure the coming of David, whose kingdom represents the height of earthly power for the sons and daughters of Israel. Afterward, beginning with the reign of his son Solomon, things begin to fall apart and nothing that subsequent rulers, prophets and military leaders can do will restore the glory of the time of David.

It is, of course, a story that has strong parallels to the much later legend of Arthur. But the David story as told in Samuel (and the first few chapters of I Kings) is more complex, more believable and more memorable than that of Arthur (which I also love, but which has to yield ground to the David narrative). David combines domestic drama -- his many wives; the betrayal that allows his marriage to Bathsheba; the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon; the revolt led by his son Absalom – with the military exploits of David and Saul, and the religious narrative focusing on the life of the prophet Samuel, the anointing of Saul and David, and the subsequent prophecies of Nathan.

The storytelling in Samuel is vivid, the detail is stunning. Although there is no undisputed archaeological evidence of the united, prosperous kingdom of the Jews described in these texts, the power of the narrative is so strong that I tend to believe there was a real David, and that his story – a prime example of a “warts and all” biography – was written down close to the time of his life. Although a popular theory holds that Samuel is part of what is called the Deuteronomistic history, composed or compiled after the Babylonian exile, I suspect that the David story was an existing narrative that was edited and woven into the larger narrative cycle.

That doesn’t mean I believe the David story is accurate history, just that there is a core of truth on which the story is built, much in the manner of a historical novel.The author of Samuel shaped the David story as a work of art, designed for impact. We are meant to see -- and we do see -- David as Messiah, as the pinnacle of Israelite history and culture. We are meant to understand that his unwavering faith in Yahweh places him there, despite his otherwise very human failings.

Chronicles retells the David story without the warts. It's still a majestic story, but it doesn't have the immediacy or the impact of Samuel. It's respectful and respectable -- as the Samuel telling manifestly is not. Chronicles contains no hint of the betrayal of Uriah, for example. We don’t hear about Saul’s gradual descent into madness, leading to his deadly pursuit of David through the wildernesses of the Holy Land. When David’s first wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, watches the procession that brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, Chronicles dutifully repeats the Samuel author’s observation that while watching David dance ecstatically she “despised him in her heart,” but leaves out the compelling detail that a good part of the reason for her displeasure was that while David was dancing, his short ephod flipped up, exposing his genitals to the view of everyone in town.

It’s details like that that make the David story so absorbing. Like all great literary art, the David story transports us into its world and crowds out doubt. By itself, it would be a staggering achievement. That it is one of so many powerful stories in the collection that is the Bible, makes its existence all the more astonishing.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Am I My Brother's Keeper?"

It’s the first question asked by a human in the Bible, and one of the most resonant questions of all time. God is a veritable question box in the early chapters of Genesis (he seems far from omniscient in these stories), and the serpent famously asks Eve a challenging question about her allowed diet. But not until Cain defensively poses this question to God has a human made an inquiry of any sort.
God’s response to Cain comes in the form of banishment for the murder of Abel. The answer is essentially that if you don’t consider yourself the protector of your sibling, you can no longer be considered part of the family. However, Cain’s sentence is tempered not only by the mark of protection he places on him but the opportunity to create his own family and to understand the protective relationship from a different perspective. Where that wife of his came from is never answered, but Cain does become a husband and father. God teaches Cain a lesson, but one that gives him the opportunity for redemption, for a new life in a different setting.
And the sibling relationship becomes one of the great themes of the Bible. It is explored over and over again both in the literal sense – in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelech and his 69 brothers, Amnon and Absalom, Adonijah and Solomon, and others – and in a broader sense through the fact that all of the nations with against which Israel goes to war are shown to come from a common ancestry, generally well documented. Not until we hit the Romans in the New Testament does a culture seem truly alien (the story of Rome’s integration into the family is post-biblical but certainly no less stunning than the Bible’s stories of familial/cultural relationships).
Many have noted that throughout the Bible, it is the younger son – usually one perceived as physically weaker – who receives God’s favor. Certainly the nation of Israel is perpetually portrayed as weaker than its enemies but stronger in its relationship to God (in the story of Gideon, for example, the Israelite army is forced through a selection process into a position of physical weakness over which it prevails).
As the stories of warring siblings and warring nations unfold, a related topic is brought into play: Our responsibility to care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. “Widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used.
Here is God laying down the law to Moses in Exodus 22: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict them in any way and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; you wives shall be widows and your children orphans.”
In Deuteronomy, Moses repeats and elaborates on the requirement, insisting that the Israelites have an obligation to feed not only widows and orphans, but resident aliens and the homeless (the Levites, descendants of Israel who were not given a portion of the Holy Land). In addition, debts are to be forgiven every seven years, and failure to honor this obligation is considered a serious offense:
If there is among you a poor man of your brethren within any of the cities in your land the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother; but you shall surely open your hands to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a hidden thought in your heart, a transgression of the law, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it be a great sin among you. You shall surely give him and loan him as much as he needs, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in everything to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore, I commdn you to do this word which says, ‘You shall surely open your hands to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.’

In Job, Eliphaz the Temanite poetically speculates that failure to care for the needy is one of Job’s sins (although we certainly can’t be sure about the veracity of Job’s supposed friends): 


For you have taken pledges from your brethren for no reason

And taken away the clothing of the naked.

Neither have you given the thirsty water to drink,

But have even withheld a morsel from the hungry.

You have also admired the personality of some

And have transplanted those already settled on earth.

Your have sent widows away empty

And have have mistreated orphans.

Therefore snares are all around you,

And a serious war has troubled you.

The light has turned to darkness for you,

And water has covered you as you fell asleep.

In Psalm 68, David calls God “the father of orphans and the judge of widows,” and in Psalm 82 we are told to, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked.”
In all, we are instructed more than 40 times in the course of the Bible to care for those who are least able to care for themselves: The widows, orphans, resident aliens and homeless who live among us. Because “widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used, some may be tempted to identify them as a special class, but the inclusion at key times of resident aliens and the homeless Levites should make it clear that what the Bible is talking about are the most needy and vulnerable among us.

Given that this message of familial responsibility toward all of humanity is so explicit and so often repeated, it has been more than a little disturbing in the past few weeks to hear people in the audience at political debates here in the United States cheer for the idea of letting an uninsured 30-year-old die if he has no insurance, whoop at the notion that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,”  and boo at the thought of respectful treatment  for a homosexual soldier defending this country in a theater of war. That these reactions came from political factions that loudly self-identify as Christians makes the behavior even more disturbing.
While I try not to make this blog too overtly political, neither my political beliefs nor my moral ones are ever far from me. And when behavior like this erupts at political events, I often wonder whether these supposed believers use the Bible as anything more than a hard surface upon which to thump.

There are many topics upon which the Bible is internally contradictory. But the obligation to care for the neediest in society is not one of these. David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, James and many of its other authors repeat the message and reinforce it. And lest anyone try to argue that the Bible extends this charity only toward like believers, get over it. The Bible argues that we are all of common descent; charity is extended without requirement of a test of belief.
“All men are brothers” may be viewed by some as a trite and sentimental statement, but the Bible is quite clear in laying out the idea (through its descriptions of the genesis of nations and societies) and even more clear about our obligations toward each other.

I’ll end with the simple words of the prophet Isaiah: "Learn to do good. Seek Judgment and redeem the wronged. Defend the orphan and justify the widow."


Saturday, August 27, 2011

They Shall Have Dominion ...

The day after a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the east coast of the United States, I read this thoughtful article by Rabbi Edward Bernstein of Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, Florida. So, as thoughts all over the east coast turned from the earthquake to an approaching hurricane, my own thoughts, as usual, turned to the Bible.
I had some help. That the Washington, D.C., area was facing a one-two punch of natural disasters had set the political blogosphere and the Facebook populace afire. There were prophecies of doom and of impending salvation based on readings of biblical passages. There were jokes about the founding fathers turning over in their graves because of the sins of the right or the left; there were attempts to label the earthquake fault line “Obama’s fault” or “Bush’s fault”; there was Pat Robertson making his usual pronouncements about the events being signs from God. I got into the act with an observation that the epicenter of the quake was in Rep. Eric Cantor’s district and thus was a Tea Party phenomenon; it was fun for a day or so.

But when I read Rabbi Bernstein’s article, I began to reflect more seriously on humanity’s impact on the Earth. Now anyone who has read this blog knows that I am in no way a believer in the Bible as literal truth. It’s certainly not anything approaching literal history or science. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God and have no use for the idea that He sends down specific earthly judgments.
But I do believe in providence. And I believe that the Bible supports the idea of providence. I’m also a believer in a concept of universal law and justice that is not wholly based on biblical teaching but is in part expressed through the teachings of Jesus, Paul, James, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other biblical figures. All those ancient Middle Eastern philosophers were on to something big, in my opinion.

The Sh’ma – the topic of Rabbi Bernstein’s piece – is one place in which the Bible gives us a poetic portrait of humanity’s responsibility for the “behavior” of the Earth. The paragraphs on which Bernstein focuses read (in the translation available online in the JewishVirtual Library:

And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love HaShem your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which HaShem giveth you. Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which HaShem swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.

(HaShem, literally “The Name,” is a Hebrew term for God that Jews often use as a way of referring to Yahweh while avoiding other names that are limited to ritual use).

This passage -- part of Moses’ grand valedictory address to the Israelites who are approaching the Holy Land after 40 years in the wilderness – suggests a direct relationship between the Israelites’ behavior and weather events in the Holy Land. We may reject that one-to-one correspondence – I do – and yet, as Bernstein points out, find in it a broader truth: That humanity’s behavior toward the Earth does have an impact on the Earth’s “behavior” toward humanity.
To explore that, we might go back to Genesis 1:26, in which God, having created humanity in His image, gives our species a level of control over the rest of creation:

And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth'.

This passage was famously cited a few years ago by the political provocateur Ann Coulter (I’m never sure how to refer to Coulter, but provocateur seems as good a term as any) in an anti-environmental rant:
God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.’
Giving Coulter the benefit of a great degree of doubt, I will assume this was one of her typical attempts to start a fire by exaggerating a position. But it’s a particularly feeble one, even for her. Coulter is representative of a small, vocal minority that rejects environmental science, using a misrepresentation of scripture to support right wing political/economic ends. I’m pretty sure there’s no implication in Genesis that we should rape the Earth.

Indeed, we are told to replenish the Earth, a command that I think is best read broadly. Although it is coupled with the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply,” I would argue that the injunction to “replenish the Earth” is not limited to promoting the survival of humanity. And while “dominion” is a term implying rule – it shares an etymological root with “dominate” and “domain” – I don’t think it in any way suggests reckless rule.

I share with a lot of religious people a belief that when God placed his creation in our hands, he did so in the sense that we should care for it and protect it as something holy, something to be revered. And in this sense, taking responsibility for human behaviors that have exacerbated global warming is entirely consistent with the Bible.
It’s important to point out that Genesis 1 is attributed by most biblical scholars to the Priestly source, a person or group of writers who worked during the post-exilic period, around 500 B.C., a time when the Jews, recently allowed to return to the Holy Land from forced exile in Babylonia, were rebuilding their cities and places of worship, in particular the Temple in Jerusalem. The God depicted by the Priestly source is one who values law and order; this source is also deemed responsible for Leviticus and the portions of Numbers that are concerned with laws of human behavior.

The Sh’ma, the passage of Deuteronomy cited earlier, is attributed, in contrast, to the Deuteronomist, who is also believed to be the author(s) of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. This author, who wrote in the years prior to the conquest and exile, was focused on telling the story of the founding of the Jewish nation.
And the second creation story, in Genesis 2, is attributed to the Yahwist source, or J, who wrote something very different, a narrative focused on humanity in which God plays an important role but human behavior is really in control of events. It is through J’s narrative that we learn about Adam, Eve and the serpent; Abram and Sarai’s wanderings; the complex family dynamic of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

I know that many people reject this standard scholarship and believe that the  Torah was handed down by God to Moses in its current form (notwithstanding the fact that there is no universal agreement on that current form). For those who hold to this belief, there is a compelling sequence in the events of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, culminating in the Fall of humanity.
After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the whole concept of dominion over the Earth seems to fly out the door. Instead of being overlods, we are told, humanity will be at the mercy of the Earth. The angry God, after condemning the serpent to wander on its belly and Eve to endure labor pains, passes sentence on Adam:

And unto Adam He said: 'Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.'

We’re no longer above the rest of creation. We came from the Earth and we will return to be part of the greater whole upon our deaths. Disrespect for the environment – the Earth – is disrespect for ourselves, for our roots and for our destination.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Enemy Within

In the quasi-historical rollercoaster ride that is the book of Judges, the Israelites are forever tormented and besieged by their neighbors – the Canaanites (Deborah), Moabites (Ehud), Midianites (Gideon), Ammonites (Jephthah), and Philistines (Samson) take turns subjugating and oppressing the descendents of Israel who, we are told over and over, asked for trouble by deciding to worship the gods of these nations.

The nations that bedevil the Israelites are portrayed as enemies, but in the grand scheme of the Bible they are not outsiders. All of them can claim a heritage of descent from key biblical figures: The Moabites and Ammonites from the incest of Lot and his daughters; the Canaanites and Philistines from Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the Midianites from Abraham and the wife he married in his old age, Keturah. While their lineage sometimes strikes me as a set of “yo’ mamma” insults, it is clear they are cousins of the chosen people and might have remained among the chosen themselves except for a wrong turn here and there.
  Looking at the battles of Israel from a distance, one might interpret the history – as I often like to do – as a metaphor for the individual struggles we all face. Who do we battle with the most? Those who are closest to us. Who do we resent the most? Those in whom we see those aspects of our own character what we dislike. I don’t know whether the author of Judges intended for his or her work to be viewed this way, but I don’t doubt it. As I have written before, the author evidently pulled these stories together from oral tradition, and may well have understood their connection to each other and to our psychic battles.

In one of the curiosities of translation with which biblical history abounds, the Septuagint version of the Bible, on which Orthodox Christian churches base their scripture, has a significant addition – as compared to the Mazoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and most western Christian translations -- to the end of the book of Joshua, which precedes Judges. In the Mazoretic text, Joshua ends with the death and burial of the priest Eleazar. But the Septuagint adds the following:
  "On that day the children of Israel took the ark of God and carried it about among themselves, and Phinehas held the office of priest in place of Eleazar his father, until he died and was buried in his own place at Gabaath. But each of the children of Israel departed to his own place and to his own city. Then the children of Israel worshipped Astarte and Astaroth of the gods of the nations round about them. So the Lord gave them over into the hands of Eglon the king of Moab, and he ruled over them for 18 years."

This extra passage links the events of Joshua explicitly to the story of Ehud and Eglon in chapter 3 of Judges, but also turns the ending of Joshua – which in the Mazoretic version is a sequence of closure documenting first the death and burial of Joshua, then the reburial of the bones of Joseph and finally the death and burial of Eleazar – into an ominous foreboding of the future.

Joshua, whose devotion to Yahweh (usually translated as the Lord or the Lord God in modern English Bibles) never wavered, had, in his final speech to the Israelites, warned them to destroy the idols of the nations they had conquered and not be tempted by their gods and temples. But, as the history makes clear, these conquered nations were never annihilated, and in Judges the Israelites are swayed over and over again by their gods and temples and rituals. If we view, again, the stories of Judges as a metaphor for the individual struggle, we see that we are continuously tempted by those stray thoughts that have remained in our heads despite our efforts to ignore them. To a dedicated twelve-stepper like myself, this is a familiar concept. Alcoholics sometimes speak of the “itty bitty shitty committee” in their  minds urging them to relapse; Al-Anons and Nar-Anons speak about battling the urges to “rescue” their addicted loved ones.
It should be no big surprise, then, that the worst of the many villains in the book of Judges – at least the one whose evils are most elaborately documented – is not from one of these enemy kingdoms but is in fact the son of one of the greatest judges, Gideon. Abimelech, whose story of villainy is told in chapter 9 of Judges, is one of seventy sons of Gideon, born from Gideon’s relationship with a concubine rather than by one of his many wives (concubines were a sort of second tier wife). After Gideon’s death, Abimelech conspires with his uncles, his mother’s brothers, to kill Gideon’s other sons so that he can take over the Israelite nation.  When they carry out their plan, all of the other sons are killed except the youngest, Jotham, who manages to hide from the murderers.

And while Gideon had refused an explicit request to become king, Abimelech has no qualms about assuming the trappings of power. His reign is one of terror inflicted upon his own people. He demolishes the cities of those who politic against him, sows them with salt, and burns down a tower filled with people who have taken refuge there.
Meanwhile Jotham, the one escapee from the mass murder of Gideon’s sons, goes to the city of Shechem – part of the land given to the tribe of Manassah and later the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel -- and addresses its population with what is credited as the first parable in the Bible, the Parable of the Trees. In this tale, the trees go looking for a king to reign over them. They first ask the olive tree, known as the most useful of all trees in the Holy Land for its fruit, oil and wood. The olive tree refuses the request, because it has a more important role in the world, of providing riches that are used in rituals that glorify God. The trees then ask the fig, which also refuses because its proper role is to produce its sweet fruit. Third, the trees nominate the vine, which says it should not cease its job of providing wine, “which cheers both God and man.” Finally the trees turn to the bramble, the thorny bush that was the plague of the region’s farmers. The bramble happily accepts the kingship, but even as he assumes the role, he warns of the danger that he will spawn fire that will “devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

The message is clear: Beware of the person who is anxious to rule over you. In the previous generation, Gideon has been a reluctant leader throughout his life; his son Abimelech, by contrast,  plots to take power and then uses that power against his own people. (It might be interesting to ask some of our current presidential candidates – particularly those who blanket themselves in scripture – to comment on this parable).
It may not be inconsequential that the Abimelech of Judges bears the same name as the Philistine with whom Abraham makes a treaty in chapter 21 of Genesis, and who later provides refuge to Isaac and Rebeccah during a famine (this latter story is one of several accounts in Genesis of a man who misrepresents his wife as his sister while in exile). This earlier Abimelech, though a foreigner, behaves honorably toward two of the Hebrew patriarchs.  The later Abimelech, though born within the tribe, is a thorough dirtbag. Going back to my earlier interpretation of these stories as metaphors for our internal struggles, we see that the closer we get to the center, the worse the baggage we must deal with.

To everyone’s relief, Abimelech doesn’t last long. His reign of three years ends when, besieging another tower, a woman drops a piece of a millstone on his head, breaking his skull (as stated before, women are extremely important figures in the book of Judges). The dying Abimelech asks one of his soldiers to kill him off with his sword, so that he doesn’t bear the shameful legacy of having been killed by a woman. As if he needed more shame than the oppression and murder of his own people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Older Women

In a society whose first commandment from God was to “go forth and multiply,” infertility must have been a dispiriting burden. Even today, when fertility clinics abound and pharmaceuticals can provide considerable hope for women who desire children, the inability to conceive and bear children can have serious psychological consequences: Feelings of guilt for unknown or imagined sins, questioning of self-worth, devaluing of relationships. In ancient Israel, when the only cure for infertility was a miracle, one suspects the effect on women was exponentially worse.
No wonder, then, that the phenomenon of an aging woman – who has long given up hope for motherhood – finding herself unexpectedly pregnant plays such an important role in the biblical narrative. It happens over and over again, with slight variations, beginning with the 90-year-old Sarah, who laughs (understandably) at the suggestion that she will bear a child. Her daughter-in-law Rebecca, Rebecca’s daughter-in-law Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah and Elizabeth all play out the story of the unexpected pregnancy of a long-barren wife.

The recurrence of this narrative strain constitutes what the biblical scholar Robert Alter calls a “type-scene”. These repeated stories show up in different parts of the Bible, affecting different characters, and with differing details; scholars debate why they are such a common convention. There is the story of a romance sparked by a chance meeting at a well – it happens to Jacob and Rachel, it happens to Moses and Zipporah, it happens by proxy to Abraham’s servant – who is off to seek a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac – and Rebeccah. Tantalizingly, it happens to Jesus and the Samaritan woman (at Jacob’s well!) although in that case it is never taken beyond a flirtatious exchange of dialog. Other type-scenes include the wife whose status is misrepresented as that of sister (Sarah, Rebbecah); the captive youth who makes his reputation through interpretation of a ruler’s dreams (Joseph, Daniel); the reluctant leader called to service by God (Moses, Gideon).

But I’m not aware of a motif that occurs as often as the barren wife who gives birth after many years. As identified above, it occurs at least six times in the biblical narrative. Often it is accompanied by an angelic visitation, an annunciation. Inevitably it serves as an introduction to the career of a notable biblical figure.
To varying degrees, the women in this repeated story have been desperate for children. Rachel tells her husband, Jacob, that she will die if she does not conceive. Hannah, overcome with despair, stops eating and weeps incessantly. Sarah turns to her handmaid, Hagar, and enlists her as a surrogate, to bear a child with Abraham that will legally be Sarah’s. That last one, of course, doesn’t turn out so well; Hagar lords her fertility over Sarah and the resulting conflict leads the pregnant maid to run away (an angel turns her back). But the child ultimately bears, Isaac, is favored over his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael (At least in the Judeo-Christian telling. In Islam it is Ishmael who is the key ancestral figure).

Sarah’s granddaughter-in-law Rachel also ends up resorting to the handmaid/surrogate strategy, enlisting her servant Bilhah; the maid in short order produces two sons, Dan and Napthali. And while we don’t hear of any particular conflict between Rachel and Bilhah, we know that there is an intense rivalry between Rachel and her sister-wife Leah, whom Jacob does not love but who is remarkably fertile, bearing him seven children.
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, also has a fertile sister-wife, Penninah, who, like Leah, is unloved but fertile.

All of these women ultimately conceive and give birth, and all of their offspring are pretty special characters in the biblical narrative: Sarah’s son is Isaac; Rebeccah’s twin sons are Jacob and Esau; Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin (she dies in childbirth with the latter); the unnamed wife of Manoah mothers the Israelite judge Samson; Hannah’s son is Samuel; and Elizabeth, many generations later, becomes a mother in old age to John the Baptist. That the Greek evangelist Luke chose to repeat this Hebrew story in the New Testament context shows its lasting and cross-cultural power.
These births are miracles, as an unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy must have seemed at the time and still may seem, despite the availability of fertility treatments today. Surely God took special care in the conception of these children. Thus we have angelic annunciations as a common rider to these stories.

The story of Samson, presented in Judges 13-16, is a peculiar combination of Hebrew biblical conventions and Mediterranean demigod conventions. Samson may be the first – and only Jewish – superhero. In his career he slays a lion with his bare hands, defeats an army of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass as his only weapon, annihilates his enemies (and himself) by pulling down a temple on their heads. Like the Greek Achilles, he appears to be invincible except for one hidden weakness. For Achilles, it was his unprotected heel; for Samson it is the hair that has never been cut.
But his story begins with the familiar Hebrew motif of the barren older woman. Unlike the other older moms, Samson’s mother is never given a name. She is identified as the wife of Manoah, a man from the tribe of Dan living in the Judean city of Zorah. This unfertile woman is visited by an angel who gives her instructions to raise her soon-to-be-born son according to a law laid down in Numbers 6 for men and women who devote a period of their lives to the service of God: No wine or intoxicants, no unclean foods, and “no razor shall come upon his head.” While these rules are voluntary in Numbers, Samson’s mother is commanded to raise her son from birth in this way, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (the term Nazirite means consecrated or separated). It's a vow that Hannah will later repeat with regard to her son Samuel.

When his wife tells Manoah about her visitation, Manoah asks God to send the angel back to provide more explicit instructions. God does so, and the angel, after sharing the instructions once again, disappears spectacularly in flame, convincing the couple of his supernatural provenance.
Like the other biblical sons of older women, Samson is a powerful figure, but like them – certainly like Jacob -- he is not without flaws. He has a weakness for exotic women, falling in love and demanding in marriage a Philistine woman (“What, you can’t find a nice Jewish girl?” is a paraphrase of his parents’ reaction) and then, of course the famous Delilah, introduced as a harlot from the Philistine city of Gaza. He also seems to get a sexual charge from being tied up, as evidenced in his repeated ruses to get Delilah to do so.

But it’s the hair that ultimately does him in. Is his uncut hair really the source of his strength, or, as one of my students suggested, is it his belief in the source of his power that makes it so? The story of Samson to a large degree follows the conventions of demigod mythology and so one may be justified in suggesting that it really is the uncut hair that gives him his strength. But the story of Samson's conception and birth ties him to the somewhat more naturalistic conventions of biblical narrative. I say somewhat more naturatlistic because, of course, the Bible is full of the supernatural, including the angelic visitations that mark these repeated stories. But Samson -- a fool for love if there ever was one -- also hews to the biblical tradition of characters with recognizably human traits, behavior that ties these ancient stories to our lives today. The girl-crazy he-man, the heartsick older woman yearning for a child -- these are characters that we could and do come across in our lives every day.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tales From The Dark Side

One of the more tiresome complaints I hear about the Bible from people who don’t know what’s in the Bible is that, “It’s just a bunch of fairy tales.” I have several problems with that statement, beginning with the disparagement of both the Bible and fairy tales.

Many of us consider the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to be among the giants of world literature. Their stories – and those of countless other “fairy tale” writers and transcribers – are vibrant, powerful shared memories that connect us across time, culture and technology. There’s a reason we pass these stories on from generation to generation, and that artists in other media continue to seek new ways to interpret and portray them for new audiences.
Unquestionably, some of the narrative portions of the Bible resemble fairy tales and other forms of traditional story-telling: The legends, romances, and fables that often began as oral transmissions and only came to be written down later. The reason for that resemblance is that some of these Bible stories undoubtedly began in just the same way. The Biblical authors – like the Grimms – were documenting for future generations the stories their kinfolk and fellow tribesmen had passed down to them.

That doesn’t discount the worth of the Bible stories any more than it discounts the work of other fairy tale scribes.  The term “just fairy tales” implies a lack of value that doesn’t bear out under any level of scrutiny.

Moreover, characterization of the Bible as “just” anything is ridiculously wrong-headed. To my knowledge, world literature contains no other collection of comparable complexity or inclusiveness. The contents of the Bible range from these folk tales to the complex moral and philosophical writings of the Prophets, Paul and James, encompassing the elegiac reflections of Ecclesiastes, the poetry of the Psalms, the political history of Chronicles, the aphorisms of the Proverbs, the stunning psychological portrait of King David in Samuel and much more.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately re-reading and examining the books that have in the last century come to be known as the “Deuteronomistic History”: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges,  Samuel and Kings.

Even within this small portion of the Bible, which may have been written  by a single author (the Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has posited that that writer is the prophet Jeremiah), the breadth and diversity of topics and treatments are astonishing. Apparently written in a time of great turmoil, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom of Judah was under threat of annihilation by Babylon, the books collectively portray a society rife with conflict and confusion, uncertain whether to put their faith in the supreme god Yahweh or to spread their bets among a pantheon of traditional middle eastern deities. The Jews of the Deuteronomistic history are at war with enemies external and internal – and the internal enemies include both their neighbors and themselves.  The strongest enemies of all are their own psyches, struggling to find meaning in this war-torn landscape.
The history begins majestically, with the long, valedictory address of Moses to his people. This greatest of Biblical figures has been denied the triumphant climax to his career – entry into the Promised Land -- because he failed to follow an explicit instruction from God. Told to bring forth water from rocks for his thirsty people with words, Moses instead struck the rocks with his staff, twice. As a result, he is allowed a brief view of the Promised Land from just outside its borders, but is forbidden to go further and dies in the mountains to the east.
The Israelites are led across the Jordan and into Canaan by his hand-picked successor, Joshua, whose eponymous book can be read as a model of effective project management. Joshua never takes his eyes off the prize – in Biblical terms he looks neither to the right nor the left – and as a result, the conquest of the Promised Land proceeds from success to success, with one brief interlude of failure when one of his followers steals and hides for personal gain bounty that should have been part of a collective sacrifice. But while triumphant, Joshua is incomplete in his victories. At the end, the Israelites dwell ominously in a land peppered with enemy tribes: The Canaanites, Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and more.
And after Joshua’s demise, things go sour quickly. The books of Judges, Samuel and Kings constitute a roller-coaster ride through a history that careens back and forth repeatedly from spectacular triumph to unimaginable disaster, giving us along the way some of the most memorable heroes and villains in the historical record: Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Delilah, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jezebel, Saul, Goliath, David, Absalom, and Solomon, to name just a few. These are the characters we learn about in Sunday School, but too often our training doesn’t put these stories together in a way that illustrates the wild ride of the Jewish people during this remarkable period.
Other writers of the time addressed the same tumultuous history that is the focus of the Deuteronomist’s account, perhaps none more poignantly than the prophet Hosea. A resident of the northern kingdom, who apparently lived and wrote about 100 years before the Deuteronomist, Hosea fell – madly, head over heels – in love with a prostitute, Gomer. His feelings for Gomer were so strong that he experienced them as a message from God. But Gomer, though she agreed to marry Hosea and bore three children by him, was drawn back to her earlier life. When she left Hosea and her children, he chased after her and purchased her back, unwilling to give up the great love of his life. (The writer Karen Armstrong believes that Gomer was a cult prostitute in a temple of Baal, the mighty Canaanite god, but I think the Biblical evidence for this is questionable). In his writings, Hosea sees his history with Gomer as a metaphor for the Israelite people, torn between worship of Yahweh and worship of pagan gods. Like Hosea, Yahweh is powered by love for these faithless people. Over and over, he forgives them and welcomes them back. But like Gomer, the Israelites can’t stay away from the temptations offered by the pagan pantheon.
Hosea compressed the history of the Israelites into a single story of a faithful man and his faithless wife. The Deuteronomist takes a more leisurely approach,  telling the story through a thousand years of history and incorporating a host of stories that may have circulated among the various tribes of Israel throughout the generations.
Nowhere is the Deuteronomistic history more obviously a collection of stories than in the book of Judges. The eight major stories and several minor ones that constitute this collection are linked in only a rudimentary way to each other. Essentially, the author tells a story, says that its hero or heroine dies, says that the land was at peace (or not) during the central figure’s time, and then talks about the people backsliding before the next hero emerges. Thus Caleb gives way to Othniel gives way to Ehud gives way to Gideon, etc.
The story of Samson, probably the most familiar of the Judges tales thanks for Cecil B. DeMille, resembles a Greek or Roman myth. Samson is a Hercules-like figure of superhuman strength, killing a lion with his bare hands. But like Achilles, he has a weak spot: If his hair is cut, he will lose his strength. Enter Delilah and the tragic conclusion in which the weakened Samson is put in chains before he regains the strength to bring down the palace on both himself and his captors.
Many people are familiar to some extent as well with the story of Gideon and the fleece, but many of the stories in Judges get left out of Sunday School class and with good reason: These are some of the most disturbing stories you will ever read, rife with human sacrifice, rape, torture, and violent murder.
At least one story – that of Ehud – is a comically scatological tale that might have survived because it held the attention of teenaged boys over the generations. The Israelites are under the thumb of a Moabite king, a hugely fat ruler named Eglon. Ehud, who is described as ambidextrous, gains a private audience with Eglon and – having hid a dagger under his clothing against his right thigh – manages to stab the king to death, the dagger disappearing in Eglon’s folds of fat, so that Ehud cannot remove it. As sometimes happens at the point of death, Eglon has a bowel movement – “the dirt came out,” in the words of the King James translators. Ehud then sneaks out a back door. Meanwhile Eglon’s guards notice the foul smell and joke crudely that the king is really stinking up the place ("Whew! Smells like something died in there," you can almost hear them saying), before getting worried after a period of time passes with no activity and opening the door to find their slain ruler. Ehud’s murder ushers in an era of peace for the Israelites, with the usual backsliding after his death. All in all, a story worthy of a summer frat-boy movie.
In other parts of Judges, women are key figures, In a way they rarely are in the Bible. Deborah, for example, is not only a prophetess who serves as a Judge, but a warrior heroine whose battlefield victories against Canaanite foes are punctuated and sealed by the actions of yet another fierce woman, Jael, who lures the Canaanite general Sisera into her tent, lulls him to sleep and then drives a tent spike into his forehead.


Other women, though central to the stories of Judges, are not so lucky in their fates. Jephthah, a later judge who is introduced as the son of a harlot, has a beloved daughter who is his only child. In the heat of battle, Jephthah promises Yahweh that if he is allowed to be victorious and return home, he will sacrifice to Yahweh the first living thing he sees when he enters his front yard. Upon his arrival home, that first thing turns out to be the daughter who has run out to greet him. At her request, Jephthah allows her to go off for two months with her girlfriends to bewail her virginity, but when she returns home he carries out the promised sacrifice.
And in perhaps the most disturbing story in all of the Bible, a woman who is a concubine (concubines being a sort of second-tier wife) to an unnamed Levite, runs away from her husband and returns home to her father. The Levite goes after her, spends several days in the father’s house, and in an undescribed way regains his concubine. On the way home, they stop in the city of Gibeah in the land of the Benjaminite tribe and are offered a bed for the night in the home of a hospitable old man. In an echo of the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the locals turn up at the door and demand the Levite be turned out so they can gang-rape him.
Like Lot in the earlier story, the old man offers women -- his daughter and the concubine -- as alternatives to the rapists, and in this story the concubine ends up being handed over to them. After a horrific night, the concubine crawls back to the door in the morning and dies at her husband’s feet. The husband takes her body home, cuts it into pieces and sends a piece to each of the Israelite tribes with the exception of the Benjaminites, sparking a war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes of Israel.
If these horrifying stories have a moral purpose, it is hard to discern. I could come up with something in each case, but, frankly, the morals would be baloney. As far as I can tell, these stories are the tabloid shockers of their day, and I suspect they were retold in the ancient culture in just the same way the Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson murders are recounted at backyard barbecues today. They are told over and over again for the sheer shock value. Eventually, the Deuteronomist collected and assembled them, linking them together in a quasi-historical way as part of the shared history of his culture.
Cautionary tales? Maybe, in part. Certainly Jephtah and his daughter could be a warning not to make solemn oaths without thinking through the possible consequences. Or maybe just a collection of stories, the Hollywood Babylon or Urban Legends of their day.
But given conditions in the Holy Land at the time they were assembled into book form, I think they serve as a portrait of a culture struggling to understand how it found itself in its current condition. What horrors had we perpetrated to justify this onslaught from all sides, you can almost hear the writer asking. Shocking, and shockingly well told, the stories of Judges survive as artifacts of an ancient culture in much the way that the stories of the Brothers Grimm tell us about the psyches of central Europeans on the cusp of the modern age. And our world is richer for it.