Tuesday, July 25, 2023

God through Jewish Eyes - A lecture.

Session 2 – God through Jewish Eyes
(Part opf the 'Roots and Realities' Course, offered at St Faith's Havant.

Last week,


Fr Frank introduced us to some of the archaeology of faith.  We saw that faith itself, as a phenomenon has a very ancient history, stretching back far into the origins of the human race.  We also saw that the Jewish Faith, from which Christianity emerged, was itself an amalgam of ideas which circulated all around the Middle East, including Zoroastrianism (the faith of the Babylonian Empire) in which senior Jewish leaders and thinkers spent 70 years, during the time known as the Exodus.

As Frank also explained last week (of which is worth reminding ourselves) the Old Testament – or the Hebrew Bible was largely put together, we think, around 500 years before Christ.  It was a setting down of what had been mainly oral stories and legends up until then, although no doubt there were some written manuscripts to which the ancient scribes had access.  Both Jewish and Christian scholars agree, however that 500 years BC is a pretty good date for the Hebrew Bible we now hold in our hands.

Let’s pause for a moment, to get a VERY broad sense of the timeline of the Old Testament…

This week, we want to take a very broad look at some of the themes of the Old Testament, especially as it would have been (and still is) read by Jewish people.  As Julie Andrews might say, I’d like us to start at the very beginning.  It’s a very good place to start!  And so we commence with the opening chapters of Genesis.

Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are among my favourite chapters of the Bible.  I love it because, right at the very beginning, it shows us the folly of attempting to read the Bible literally.  It may have escaped your notice, as it does many, that chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are, in fact, two different, complementary stories of Creation. 

In the first story, creation is fashioned over six days. 

There is a specific order to creation, starting with light and darkness (on the first day) then, the earth and moon, vegetation, animals and finally, on the sixth day, human beings.  In this account, there is no reference to a garden of Eden, and human beings (both male and female) come last on the list of created things…we are, if you like, the pinnacle and conclusion of the Creation story.

But turn over the page to chapter 2, and we find an alternative account of the creation, cheek by jowl with the first one.  The first thing we notice is that in verse 4, the earth and the heavens were made in a day, not over a number of days as in Chapter 1.  In verse 5, we note that no plant of the field was yet on the earth.  And yet, with the earth in a sterile state, no plants, no animals, the Lord God created ‘the man’ from the dust of the earth.  Then God plants a garden, and puts the man in it.  Then, God creates the animals, supposedly as helpers and partners for man.  God creates them, and brings them to the man “to see what he would call them”.  Only then does God create woman – because from among all the animals, “there was not found a helper to be his partner”.

There are, of course, various ways in which people who read the Bible literally try to do mental gymnastics to explain the difference between these two accounts.  But, as a wise old teacher once said to me, the trick when reading the Bible is to accept that ‘what is plain is main, and what is main is plain’. 

The plain meaning of these two chapters is that the writer of Genesis wrote down two comparable myths about how the world came to be.  It was as if he was saying ‘I don’t know what is literally true – but here are the two primary stories which have been handed down to us.  You decide.  Or just read them as myths.’  The plain meaning of the myths is that God is the creative force behind all life.  The details don’t really matter, frankly.  It’s the plain meaning we need to focus on.

Another clue to the many voices that made up the Old Testament are the various names that are given to God. 

In the earlier writings, God is known by such names as El, and Adonai (meaning Lord or Master).  These are often conflated with another adjective, describing a characteristic of God, such as El Shaddai (which can be translated as ‘the many breasted God’ or the ‘God of the Mountain’, but which is usually rendered ‘Lord God Almighty’).    Other names are ‘Qanna’ (which translates as ‘jealous’), and finally ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ – the name God gives himself to Moses at the burning bush, meaning ‘I AM’ – conveying a sense of God as the cause and ground of all existence. 

All these different names for God would be confusing to the modern reader, so most modern translations simply write ‘The Lord’ when such names are encountered.  What they do though, taken together, is make us realise that the Hebrew Bible managed to absorb some of the names which other tribes and nations used for God, appropriating them for Jewish use.

So, we find that the Bible is, in fact, a wonderful amalgam of ideas, concepts, stories, poetry and myths.  Some of the really ancient stories,

like Noah and the Flood, are also found in other middle eastern cultures…suggesting that there may indeed have been an enormous flood in human history, the horror of which has been carried forward over the centuries.  Some archaeologists have speculated that this might have been

when the Atlantic smashed through the land corridor between Africa and Spain, at the Straits of Gibraltar (which the ancients called ‘the pillars of Hercules’) forming the Mediterranean, and possibly drowning Atlantis on the way.  Another theory is that the Mediterranean broke through what is now the Bospherous, to form the Black Sea.   Whatever happened, it certainly would have been a cataclysmic event, for anyone who experienced it.  And for people who thought the world was flat and small, it would have felt as though the whole world had flooded.

Another fascinating feature of the Old Testament is the way that different writers and characters appeal to God to support their own prejudices.  There is, for example, a battle of ideas throughout the prophets, which could be defined as ‘nationalism versus universalism’.  Take for example the story of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was a leader of Israel in Babylon.  After the 70 years of exile, he finally persuaded the Babylonian King to let him return to Jerusalem, with the other Jewish leaders in exile, and he got permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Once he and the other Jewish leaders arrived back in the city, the High Priest Ezra led a public service, to gather together all the peasants and poorer Jews who had stayed behind in Jerusalem.  He read them the book of the Law – which was probably the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), and which had no doubt been edited and re-compiled in exile.  Then, in a rather shocking move, Ezra and Nehemiah commanded that all Jews who had married women from other tribes during the Exile, had to send their wives away – to divorce them.  Nehemiah and Ezra invoked the name of God, and in his name, they demanded racial purity.  They did not want pure Jewish blood to be mingled with that of the neighbouring tribes.  Nationalism was a strong theme in Jewish thinking – along with the theological notion that they were God’s chosen and unique people, with a special mission to lead the world back to the one true God.  It’s worth saying, at this point, that the Jews were by no means the only tribe to believe this of themselves.  Every tribe believed that their idea of God was the only true one.  They still do today, by and large.

But set against this tide of nationalism, other prophetic voices spoke too.  In particular, the prophet Jeremiah. 

Writing around the same time as Nehemiah, Jeremiah had a vision of Jerusalem as a city for all the nations.  His was a universal vision, in which all people would come from the four corners of the earth and find themselves welcome in the Holy City.  Jeremiah’s vision was still Judo-centric.  He inevitably saw the Jewish Temple as the focus of a world religion.  But his was a much more open and welcoming, universal vision that the one shared by Nehemiah and Ezra.

Similar tensions existed between prophets and teachers over the keeping of God’s laws.  On the one hand, some writers emphasised the importance of detailed laws and regulations over every aspect of life. We can read their laws in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, for example.  But others wanted to free the Jewish people from slavish devotion to ritual, and towards a more general and all encompassing vision.  The prophet Micah, for example, famously said

that God hates all your festivals and legalistic sacrifices.  Rather, what God requires is to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’.

So, you see, the Old Testament is a vast library of opinion about God and the ways of God.  For every line of strict legalism, one can find another line of welcoming openness.  Every ancient story of long-dead ancestors like Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses are laden with story-telling techniques which even children would have known not to take literally.  Rather, these stories are mythical lenses through which we can examine our own lives, and hold up a mirror to our own society.  They invite us to consider what kind of community we want to build.  Will it be one, for example, in which Nationalism is allowed to gain traction (as it did for Nehemiah), or is it to be a universal vision of shared humanity.  These are questions which the Bible invites us to consider.  It doesn’t always give us an unambiguous answer…but it does offer some themes and principles for us to consider.  These are themes that Jewish and Christian scholars have debated for millennia – and anyone who claims to have taped down a precise understanding of the Bible’s teaching on any great ethical matter has probably not studied the Bible enough, yet!

The Bible’s stories also invite us to think about what God may be like.

Take for example, the Book of Job. 

I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression ‘the trials of Job’ – but it’s not a book which gets much airtime in the Sunday lectionary.  Scholars generally agree that it was written between the 7th and 4th centuries before Christ.  It is an account of a probably fictional character, who debates the problem of evil and suffering in the world with a group of friends.  In  chapter 1, the prologue on Earth introduces Job as a righteous man, blessed with wealth, sons and daughters. The scene then shifts to Heaven, where apparently God asks Satan (who seems to be hanging around in heaven!) for his opinion of Job’s piety.  Satan accuses Job of being pious only because God has blessed him with riches.  Satan says that is God were to take away everything Job has, then he would surely curse God.  God then gives Satan permission to take Job’s wealth and to kill his children and servants – and thus begins the trials of Job.

Over the subsequent chapters, in dialogue with his wife, his friends and with God, Job ranges through a wealth of emotions and ideas about God.  In the early chapters, Job berates God as intrusive and suffocating, unforgiving and obsessed with destroying a human target.  According to Job, God is angry, fixated on punishment, hostile and destructive. Job complains that the wicked have taken advantage of the needy and helpless, but God does nothing to punish them. 

If you were only to read the opening chapters of Job, the picture you would receive would be that of a very angry and unfair God.  But as the book unfolds, through a series of monologues, dialogues, poems and speeches, Job eventually finds his way to a new understanding.  He realises that he knows nothing of what God is really like.  He confesses his own lack of knowledge of things beyond him which he did not previously know.  He retracts his earlier statements, and repents in dust and ashes, and is then, finally, restored to health, riches and a new family – getting to see his children to the fourth generation.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I could go on like this for a very long time! 

The Hebrew Bible is such a rich and varied source of competing and illuminating visions of God and God’s will for creation and humanity. 

My central point in sharing these stories is that we need to learn to read the Bible as Jewish people do - and indeed as Jesus himself would have read it.  We make a huge mistake if we imagine the Old Testament to be some kind of historical novel, by Hilary Mantel, carefully written down to unfold a particular timeline and unique understanding of history, and a single unified picture of God. 

Some more fanciful readers imagine that the whole of the Old Testament was written by God, essentially taking over the hands of the Bible’s scribes, or dictating it word by word, line by line.  But in reality, it is nothing like that.  As we saw when looking at Genesis, the Bible is perfectly capable of offering two entirely different accounts of the same event – Creation.  It is capable of questioning the very goodness of God (as Job did).  For every page that proclaims God to be the loving Father of all the children of Earth, there is a page declaring that he is the jealous and tyrannical god of a small Middle Eastern tribe, capable of commanding the crack troops of Israel to rape, pillage and destruction in pursuit of a ‘promised land’.  Nehemiah’s nationalism sits side by side with Jeremiah’s universalism.  God’s angry destruction of sinful humanity at the time of Noah sits side by side with his compassion for sinners – especially in the sending of his own Son.  For every claim in the Bible that marriage is only between one man and one woman, the Bible also shows us men who had many wives, and close loving relationships between people of the same gender.

So, you may well ask me, what do we mean when we say the Bible is true?  Is it God’s word, or not?  Let me put it this way, in the words of John Dominic Crossan,

“My point is not that those ancients told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.  The idea that the Bible is inerrant and literal arose rather late in the story of our Faith.  It really rose up in the 1600s, as a result of the Protestant Reformation.  In many ways, it rose up as a reaction against the emerging claims of science, which were starting to challenge the way the world appeared to the ancient writers of the Bible.  Scientists like Copernicus and Newton began to deduce, for example, that the world was round, and that it went round the sun.  But the Bible says that the world has four corners, and that the Sun goes round the earth.  Biblical literalism arose out of a sense of unease, that science was upending beliefs that had been held for centuries, even millennia.  And that process continues today. 

So, in what sense is the Bible true?  Let me quote another scholar, Marcus Borg, who affirmed: 

“the Bible is true. And some of it actually happened.”  By this we mean that the Bible reflects truth, through story, myth, poetry and prophecy.  It points to an underlying truth at the heart of the Universe – the truth that God simply IS, and that we, like our ancestors, are invited to seek God.  We might also speak of the fundamental truth, as Fr Frank said last week, that Love is the creative and sustaining force behind the Universe. 

Like our ancestors in the Bible, our search will sometimes head off down blind alleys, and weird paths.  We can read the record of our ancestors’ search for God in the pages of the Bible.  We can recognise our mistakes in theirs, and sometimes we can glimpse, with them, the true face of God. 

For Christians, the most truthful, most complete picture of God is the picture offered to us by Jesus of Nazareth.  But that, my friends, is the focus of next week’s talk.

Discussion questions…





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