Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Is God Unjust?

I've been asked to write a piece about the Book of Job -- a story which has intrigued and defeated the greatest intellects of Western Civilization for thousands of years now. It comes to us in the form of a story because there are things people simply don't 'get' when one states them baldly; but we know it possesses meaning; and generally we try to extract that meaning into one bald statement or another; isn't that just like us?

The story is particularly rough on great intellects because it isn't susceptible to any purely intellectual mode of understanding, except as a paradox.

It's said that "The opposite of a great spiritual truth will often be another great spiritual truth," so paradox -- the realization that Job triggers a question in us with no satisfactory answer, so that it behooves us to confess bewilderment and go home -- is one logical response.

There's more to it than that. The question of God's justice (or injustice) is clearly essential to any human being who knows we live under God's jurisdiction. Can we trust God not to throw a whirlwind at us for no apparent reason?

Job's real message is that it's the wrong question, an inappropriate question.

An uppity question? -- That's one way to read God's huffing and puffing towards the end; but that's not satisfactory either. ("Because I'm bigger than you and I say so!" is an answer people are bound to outgrow, to rebel against or use to draw all the wrong conclusions: ~"That's not okay for us, but profound when God says it!" or, conversely: "If God throws His weight around this way, it's okay for His Humble Servant Me to behave like that!"

Okay, we're allowed to ask about Justice and Injustice -- Job himself does so repeatedly -- but what we really need to know is, "What is God like?"

God has formed us within a world where pious souls and atheists can both look around and find their beliefs confirmed.

But God is implicitly real in the story of Job; and Job's neighbors not only fail to answer his complaints with their pieties; God appears in Person to refute them, rebuke them and tell Job he'd better pray for them.

And the Devil? The Devil is also real within the story. He is not the  well-known Christian Devil, rebelling against God and doing great harm to us in that endeavor -- nor is he God's absolutely-evil counterpart from Zoroastrian theology -- but he is a personage drawn from Persian influence all the same.

A 'satan', in the ancient Persian Empire, is an undercover cop assigned to test and promote loyalty to the regime. He'll buy you a drink or two, encourage you to get silly, make a few witty remarks about 'that clown Cyrus' and wait for you to respond in kind. If you aren't careful, you'll wake with a hangover in the morning, inside a jail cell, while your drinking buddy
will be outside in his judge's robes, heating the irons for a little judicial inquiry. 'Satan', in this story, is God's agent for exposing disloyalty. He's not acting on his own; his little bet with God (whether he can corrupt Job) is the sort of friendly banter you might still find today when public defenders and prosecutors go out to lunch together.

In this story, it's also quite possible that 'Satan' embodies certain doubts Job himself is trying to resolve. "Do I really love God? Or am I just feeling that way because He's blessed me so much? Do I even know He's real, or simply an illusion I can believe in because I've been so lucky?" Job isn't just excruciatingly pious and conscientious; he wants to Know!

Couldn't God simply tell him? "Hey, I'm real,"? Well, yes, but why should Job believe him? -- "Aren't you just an hallucination? A figment? Why should I believe what You say?" It wouldn't be a satisfactory answer, because it isn't God who needs to know, but Job.

"The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the world, but men don't see it." People faintly intuit a spiritual foundation to the world, to that juncture where their own consciousness and all the stuff 'out there' meet; but this isn't a thing that operates within our human notions of reason or goodness or anything else. It's everything we truly are, yet it's alien to everything we think we are!

People spend years, lifetimes under one or another spiritual discipline, because they're seeking an answer that can't be grasped by themselves, the way they are. They get frustrated, they sometimes crack (and sometimes, as in the song, some light seeps in that way.)

So a Zen teacher may have two sticks, one to shock people through the more typical obstacles -- and a thicker, heavier stick for the most stubborn blockheads. God does His best to clue Job in, but it takes the heavy duty industrial whacker to get through.

And then Job gets it: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you!"

May we all find an easier path!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Redemption, Jews, and Jesus

The Bible says that God produced the Jewish People -- a story which suggests (by its context) that God intends them to play a role in the redemption of the world, our release from the harmful consequences of the 'Knowledge of Good and Evil.' Clearly they have served this purpose in the past, and continue to produce good insights and inspirations. But equally clearly, their existence as a nation-state seems to have always provided bad examples of what human beings everywhere keep doing wrong. Their main contribution so far has been this seductive and problematic anthology itself, full of stories about God and their encounters with that often-enigmatic Being.

Without the Bible, of course, we might have little reason to consider mortality, oppression, or lack of contact with God to be problematic. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not surprising. The Eden story, whether or not we take the Christian view of it -- implies that things haven't always been this way, that our current unsatisfactory state isn't a given -- and may somehow be overcome. For the Jews, exile from Israel became a metaphor for the human condition. For Roman converts to Christianity, however, the offer of a new God-appointed ruler returning from Heaven to set all things right would have been more appealing. And so Christianity needed an explanation, other than Israelite sin, for why so much of the world needed fixing -- and the notion that humanity had inherited a sinful nature certainly fit most people's observations.

In theory, Jewish and Christian interpretations of our needs seem radically different. As to what people mean by them, maybe not so much. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi re 'what we seek': "We want to be attuned to God, experience a closeness to Him/Her, collaborate with His/Her entelechy as it unfolds His/Her design, become one-d with others who mind as we do, become aligned toward oneness and organicity, to receive the revelation of planetary telepathy with all the other sentient beings who form His/Her embodiment, to be instruments, limbs of God. Our questions are not so much what can we say about God's existence or the nature of His/Her being. Beyond all definitions we are challenged by the ground of our being that lives and breathes, thinks and feels in us." Both Judaism and Christianity can stretch to accommodate a wide range of understandings.

But our Bibles present a diverse set of books, the Hebrew scriptures being mostly unconcerned about death or resurrection, the Christian writings obsessed with them. Whatever ancient Hebrews believed about death and life beyond it, they didn't see much need to explain. They might even have practiced 'ancestor worship,' which would have been a family affair of little concern to the centralized religious establishment, so far as it didn't lead to calling in professional mediums (disapproved as potential rivals to the state cult's prophets, as the story of Saul suggests.) By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had come to believe in a general resurrection as described in the Book of Daniel, where martyrs would be singled out for posthumous rewards. At least some of their spiritual descendants, the rebbes of the Hasidic movement, included reincarnation among their doctrines... perhaps from some ancient tradition, but who could say for sure? The matter was relatively irrelevant to regulating a functioning theocracy.

Paul, however, in the first writings of the Christian 'New Testament', goes so far as to say, "If Christ is not raised from the dead, then all your faith is in vain." To anyone who values Jesus chiefly for his ethical teachings, such a stance seems perverse -- yet there it is, quite early in our traditions. Of course, for those teachings to be normative to anyone who didn't feel their intuitive force, God needed to  vindicate and thereby endorse the teacher, who had died so wretchedly. Nobody before Jesus expected a Messiah to die and be resurrected; and suddenly it becomes [for standard-brand Christian believers] 'foretold by the prophets.' NT Wright argues that it became doctrine by observation. That is, a dead Messiah could neither rule Israel nor conquer the goyim; once Jesus was alive and well again, his supporters could only conclude that God had returned him to life for that very purpose.

When? "Soon", we are repeatedly told. The Christian Bible is radically mistaken -- or people are mistaken in how we interpret it.

This again seems merely to illustrate how the Bible works. 'Inspiration' is not meant to be understood as rendering anybody whatsoever 'infallible.' Some things people can know intuitively, and not be mistaken -- but as with any source of truth, one needs to reach one's own understanding.

We are told -- with various explanations -- that Jesus' death saves us from our sins -- but supposedly, only if we believe it does. Little of this doctrine coheres with the nature of God as Jesus describes Him. A loving Father who does only good to his children, whether these belong to 'the Just' or 'the Unjust', can hardly be planning eternal punishment for any of them who fail to swallow some absurdity.

What we get are explanations that make sense in the ways people were thinking at the time. Jesus' Judean contemporaries considered "Sin" important because that was their best explanation for why Israel, having been liberated from Egypt by God Himself, was now being oppressed by unclean pagan foreigners.

A secular observer would say that Rome had a larger army, supported by plunder and tribute from rich neighboring countries -- and that agricultural civilizations had always included oppression, had always been ruled by elites taking a big cut from the crops of subsistence farmers -- if they didn't simply foreclose on  them and put them to work on their own land as slaves and casual laborers, as had already happened in Italy and was now happening, under Roman-style commercial practices, in Judea.

Though free from the evils of monarchy, the far-from-ideal institutions of ancient Israel had been constantly threatened by neighboring pagan kingdoms. Only continual miraculous intervention could have maintained their existence under tribal organization and ad hoc charismatic leadership. God might conceivably have provided such help -- but if the people no longer expected that level of protection, was it their fault for lacking 'faith'? -- or did it show that God had never intended that state of affairs to go on forever?

Even an ideal human government could hardly guarantee faith, enlightenment, or closeness to God among a people. A nation of saints might do without a government entirely -- or easily agree on whatever arrangement met the needs of a time. But no one knows what conditions would produce such a nation: wise and enlightened laws and rulers, prosperity, a way of life in which children could grow up happy and bright, yet somehow remain pious.

Yet Jesus' first and central proclamation was that something called 'The Kingdom of God' [This can also be translated as 'The Reign of God'] was either arriving or already, in some sense here. It was either 'within you' or 'among you' or both.

Meaning little to us, that phrase would have spoken eloquently to 1st Century Jews, suggesting the return of God's favor and intervention, deliverance from foreign oppressors, all the blessings their scriptures promised if they could keep to God's covenant with their nation. There were several occasions when popular prophets of the time led crowds out into 'the wilderness,' to cross back into The Promised Land, in one symbolic way or another -- and every time, the Romans suppressed such ceremonies violently. If there was to be a kingdom of Judea, they wanted emphatically to choose who'd be in charge and where the taxes would go.  

However many insights and misapprehensions Jesus' words have generated since then, neither he nor his hearers would have thought he was talking about a kingdom in the sky for dead people. He was saying that God, having seemingly abandoned Hsr people to slavery and their own devices, was now actively engaged with them and the world; as I now consider his sayings and parables, these are saying what that looks like in practice, what we need to do to join in that interaction.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

And What More Is the Bible Saying? Redemption II

For the Israelites to ask for a king was another fall from innocence -- initially relying on God to provide leadership, the elders now want to control the process of choosing leaders. No longer an example to other nations, they become another example of our mistakes, an example which is to acquire immense influence through the sacred books they will someday write.

It is not an example we are meant to emulate, though that's how many people will interpret the story: "God gave them an hereditary monarchy; therefore that's the kind of government God intends us to have." But if you read between the lines, the Israelite monarchy is a disaster from beginning to end. We've already seen the pitfalls of an hereditary priesthood; we've seen that making the role of Judge hereditary also fails with Samuel's sons -- that's why the elders say he should choose them a war leader. They want their leader to be God's choice -- Yet as God tells Samuel, "It is not you they are rejecting, but Me."

If they truly trusted God, they would have the leaders they deserve. So far as they already distrust God, they are getting the leaders they deserve -- Samuel's corrupt sons. We, too, get the government we collectively deserve, yet we, too, imagine that changing a few leaders and improving a few laws will bring us a better government.

Saul chooses Saul -- a strapping, good-looking young man, nobody of any particular rank or prestige -- and once Saul anoints him the Spirit of YHWH 'comes mightily upon him.' Even so, Saul soon reverts to normal consciousness, trusting God in theory but in practice showing anxiety, as if everything depended on his own initiative. When Samuel shows up late to an impending battle, Saul performs a sacrifice to 'entreat God's favor.' To us, this looks like a minor breach of protocol -- Previous war leaders, 'Judges' chosen spontaneously by God, had offered sacrifices. Samuel is the current such Judge, not Saul; so we can understand him feeling personally stepped-upon; but why should God object? Those leaders had been inspired by their faith in God; but Saul's rationale is: "I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord,' so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering." Saul does not pray to seek God's will; to sacrifice from that consciousness would have shown faith. He isn't Told to sacrifice, but instead he gets anxious about what might go wrong, wants to control matters personally.

That sort of orientation is one significant interpretation of what it means, for someone 'to know Good from Evil.'

David, the founder of the next Israelite dynasty, gets a very good press; the priestly scribes of his court clearly favor him. Saul is said to have massacred 'the priests of the Lord' because he suspected them of aiding David; and the lone survivor takes refuge with David's band. Unlike Saul, David 'inquires of the Lord' before major decisions. [This does not seem to mean praying for guidance, however, but having this priest perform some kind of divination.] David's rivals typically die under suspicious circumstances; but David has nothing to do with it, except sometimes to summarily execute a perpetrator. He is credited with killing Goliath; the story has it that it happens when David is an unknown boy -- but somehow is already King Saul's armor bearer (a prestigious job for a powerful, trusted professional warrior.) The patchwork story we're given about this simply won't fit together -- and in 2 Samuel 22:18 Goliath is killed again by David's servant Elhanan. It's likely the Psalms attributed to David were likewise written by subordinates. (Although Henry VIII did write a popular drinking song, it's less common for rulers to be poets than for them to take credit for work done on their behalf.)

The one truly rotten act David's scribes do admit is him taking Uriah's wife and having Uriah killed in battle. This is merely an offence against a foreigner, not one against an Israelite -- and it is incidentally crucial for establishing Solomon's right to the throne. Solomon, when he comes to power, kills everyone his father had promised to spare -- and institutes forced labor for all Israelite tribes except Judah. Slavery to a king, years after God freed their ancestors in Moses' time, has once again become a feature of Israelite life.

When Solomon's spoiled son becomes king in Jerusalem, the tribes of northern Israel complain and ask him to reduce their burden. Listening to his cronies' advice, he refuses -- and the country splits into two rival kingdoms. This may seem to be a misfortune -- but what it accomplishes, by creating two Yahwehist Israelite regimes, is to prevent the tyranny a unified rule could impose. The priests of the Temple in Jerusalem attempt to centralize the nation's religious observances there; the regime in Samaria maintains rival shrines at the two ends of its area, removes the family-membership requirements for priests.

In both regions, over time, wealth in land becomes concentrated, the poor are gradually forced into debt and slavery; prophets wax indignant and warn their rulers that God won't let this go on. Jerusalem, a natural fortress, holds out about 100 years more than the northern kingdom, ruled from Samaria. The Judeans later claim that the native Samaritans were taken away by their Assyrian conquerors, who replaced them with foreign heathens; Samaritans have books which claim instead that they're good Israelites who've been there since that upstart David introduced those silly innovations down in Jerusalem.

When the Judean elite return from exile to rule on behalf of their Persian supporters, they've acquired a heavy emphasis on ethnic purity and maintaining the Temple cult, which they re-establish as soon as possible. The hostility which develops almost immediately between this group and the Samaritans is still festering in Jesus' day. The Galileans, conquered and subjected to 'the laws of the Judeans' about 100 years before Jesus, were yet another group of Israelites whose customs and legal interpretations varied significantly from theirs.

None of this seems to have relieved any significant numbers of people from death, alienation from God, or the curse of toil. For a peasant farmer, taxes and tithes and tribute all work much the same, forever threatening you with hunger and the need to borrow. Whatever the Law says, the generous neighbor who helps you out will some day own your sons and your daughters and your ancestral land. Whatever the institutional arrangements, as long as  people are estranged from God, fear corrupts the relations between people.

Neither Christians nor Jews are satisfied with the situation at the end of the Hebrew Bible. As Nehemiah tells his adherents: "Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that Thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress."

In Judaism, the Messiah will come and all will be well, when the world is ripe. In Christianity, the world was ripe, and the Messiah already came -- but it still looks like some things could use a little improvement. In both cases, we're still waiting for something. The original Quakers believed that Jesus really had returned, as Christ 'enlightening everyone who comes into the world' [Taking John 1:9 to the max] -- but also warned everyone that "The Day of the Lord will steal upon those who live without restraint upon earth; whose hearts are set to seek after wickedness, as for hidden treasure; and it will come upon them as a thief." They said, probably rightly, that the appearance of the Messiah was to be experienced spiritually rather than observed as a physical event -- but they too expected to see this manifested in a redeemed world, the imminent overthrow of all evil by what God was doing through their new spiritual movement.

We have people who feel that they, as individuals, have been 'redeemed,'  yet the general state of humanity and the world remains downright scary. Jesus says, at the end of 'Matthew', that "All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me." But -- considering the current condition of the world -- What on Earth can this mean?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

And What More Is the Bible Saying?
Redemption I

Something goes amiss in Eden, whether that's the invention of "Sin" or our gaining the "Knowledge of Good and Evil." However you interpret the story, it results in painful childbirth, harsh labor, and death, not to mention God not wanting us loose in Hsr garden anymore. It is also clearly symbolic.

The way the story is told suggests that this 'Knowledge of Good and Evil' is to a very great extent illusory. This first couple discovers that they are naked -- Is that 'evil'? Is the difficulty, as some people have imagined, the discovery of sexuality? -- or vulnerability? Or distrust? Shame? Certainly both people are looking for someone to blame.

And now they're afraid to feel God's presence. Whether you consider knowledge of 'Good and Evil' to be wisdom, or sin -- People still find it difficult to encounter God; and there looks to be a tie-in. At least as Anthony Bloom describes the situation [in Beginning to Pray] -- God mercifully hides Hsrself because "a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us. We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned." 

Is that a conclusion basely merely on Christian Guilt, on the disease the missionaries spread so they can peddle a cure for it? 

I think it's based more on the fact that religions have two basic aspects, the ethical and what might be termed 'magical.' That is, they include practices intended to change a person's consciousness, which will (whether or not a teacher says so) also affect their situation, whether in this world or higher ones. 

But ethical practices -- what Buddhists call 'The Precepts', what yogis call 'yamas and niyamas' -- aren't just included for sociological reasons. Without those, you won't be 'right with God'; your practices could be hampered or even have destructive results. The I Ching quotes Confucius: "If one departs from innocence... Heaven's will and blessing do not go with his deeds." Discussing the hexagram for 'Innocence', it says: "If one is not as he should be, he has misfortune; and nothing he does serves to further." 

Isn't that what this story implies about our beginnings and subsequent doings?

So it's quite plausible that we're talking about a near-universal human problem. The story implies it's a problem that God set us up for, presumably for a purpose. What purpose? 

Human development as we know it seems to require experiments in disobedience. Though we might conceivably have been created perfectly obedient, we wouldn't have been the people we are; and this simply isn't how it was done.

Throughout the Bible we see people assuming that God intends us to be perfectly obedient... because most of it models God as a despotic monarch. 

Is that the way God views Hsr relation to human beings? -- or was it simply the kind of metaphor God could use to transmit the Israelite traditions through an age of despotic empires? 

To maintain a coherent world, God needs must work through human beings and through physical causation fairly consistently. 

That is: Each thing that happens could potentially be seen as an act of God, but for any one event to be a meaningful part of the world as a consistent narrative, that event needs to affect what comes after. If a divine act represents a discontinuity with what was there before, there still must remain enough of the previous setting, enough of our past experience, for us to recognize that intervention as happening within one otherwise-consistent world. An animator could make the next panel of his film show anything whatsoever -- yet without some continuity in the observer, change in his film would mean nothing.

Human spiritual maturation -- as a historical process as well as an individual one -- works as a development, like the sprouting and growth of a seed. [Several of Jesus' parables use the same metaphor.] People are born into a world with particular loyalties, with particular forms of leadership and government, particular traditions. Monarchy was a common, stable institution -- not because it was Divinely ordained, as the story of Samuel makes clear -- but because Fallen humanity is continually at war with itself, and a unified command is an effective structure for waging war. Spiritual traditions, to flourish under such governments, have made their accommodations -- not from servility, but because their leaders felt the same loyalties as the nations they belonged to.

Likewise God seems to have taken an interest in the survival of the Israelite people -- certainly in the survival of many nations, as works of Divine creativity -- but particularly in the case of Israel -- because this people have made themselves exemplars of dedication to God, of both the virtues of devotion and the pitfalls of living as a Chosen people.

Self-identification as a nation of former slaves must be a unique claim to ethnic identity. It also serves to show God in the role of redeemer, specifically as redeemer from the curse of toil laid on Adam. It gives the escaped nation a Divinely-granted home, a home sacred to God -- symbolizing Eden. Once there, this people attempts to govern themselves, united by a covenant -- not necessarily in the form given by modern Bibles, but as described in the Book of Judges: rule by custom, with God as their king.

Given a popular and competent national leader, the tribes can fight off their enemies -- though with a certain amount of friction, rivalry, and slacking among themselves. 

On the surface of the story, they succeed only when the tribes are united around their national god -- but either monotheism is not yet the norm; or that god may be known by different names. Gideon is called 'Jerubbaal son of Joash' and 'Gideon son of Joash' in the same paragraph, where that first alternative [despite the story of why he was called that] is most appropriate for a worshipper of Ba'al. Later on, in the time of Elijah 'Baal' is considered to be the name of a foreign deity -- but Joshua's covenant uniting the tribes of Israel took place in Shechem, where the local Canaanite god is called 'Baal-berith', 'the Lord of the Covenant'. Toward the end of Judges, a group from the tribe of Dan pick up a Levite -- an hereditary priest -- along with his master's images and other religious equipment -- to serve them as priest at Liash, where they set up the images after they conquer the place and rename it 'Dan'. The major national shrine, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept at the time, was at Shiloh.

The Israelites ask Gideon to be their king: "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian." Gideon is already their 'Judge' -- their war leader and settler of disputes -- but refuses: "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you." Of Gideon's many sons, Abimelech's name does mean "My father is King!" and this son allegedly slaughters "seventy" brothers to make himself King, whereupon he rules oppressively and is in turn killed when the people of Sechem revolt. The story seems designed as a cautionary tale, that could aptly be called: 'Why We Don't Have Kings.' 

We don't know why Judges repeatedly has the Israelites "turning again and playing the harlot after other gods." It may be that they simply keep on worshipping the gods they'd had all along -- or that they're using the names of Canaanite deities as names of God (as the Hebrew Bible itself often does.) Perhaps the Temple priests in Jerusalem, who later write these stories down, think of the Israelite kingdom to their north as heathens, or don't think much of their rivals at other shrines up there, believing they must have sinned or they wouldn't have been losing wars to foreigners. But it happens over and over, whenever the old leader dies and there's no one to replace him.
Eventually, in the story we're given, the priesthood at Shiloh itself becomes corrupt, a typical enough phenomenon. The old priest's sons take to wolfing down the best parts of the sacrifices and groping the female worshippers. Samuel, a young apprentice there at the time, begins to hear the voice of God... and is told that those sons will die, that their whole priestly dynasty, which God once promised would last 'forever', is now to effectively die out. The next time the tribes go out to fight the Philistines, the battle goes badly for the Israelites -- and so they ask to have the Ark carried to the battlefield. 

The Philistines, hearing the uproar in the Israelite forces, conclude that "a god has come into their camp," and hence resolve to fight harder! The old priest's sons are killed and the Philistines capture the Ark. [They soon return it, plus a gift of golden rats and buboes, after plague strikes the cities where they put it on display.] Samuel, because of his successful prophecy, becomes the new leader, and judges Israel until he becomes old, then makes his sons judges over Israel. "Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice." This is why all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah: "Now appoint for us a king to govern us like other nations."

Samuel warns the people that their request will put them under the same oppressive institutions as those 'other nations.' God tells him: "They are rebelling against Me, not you," and tells him to do as they ask. In the task of Redemption, evidently, mistakes are part of the process.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What More Does the Bible Mean? -- III

The deal with Abraham seems to be multipurpose. For one thing, it gives Abraham a legitimate son, Isaac, one his wife Sarah can't object to. (For a patriarchal society, the women in these stories seem to have plenty of chutzpah and a remarkable degree of influence.) And then Abraham decides to 'do the right thing' -- probably in accord with the customs of the time -- and sacrifice this first son to his god.

Another reason God often uses stories to convey Hsr messages:  the meaning of a good story will be appropriate to whatever message a reader is ripe to understand. To a literalist 21st Century reader, this looks like a flaw: "It might mean anything!" Or at least, such a reader will prefer a plain statement -- and then fail to realize how much his interpretation of such statements is influenced by his culture and personal assumptions. To Paul, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is a sign of his great faith. To a contemporary young Jewish kid -- It looks like typical parental indifference to what he wants, ie to not be a doctor or a lawyer or get sacrificed like that. To the pious Christian -- God was 'testing' Abraham; and when Abraham 'passes' the test, relents by providing a substitute sacrificial candidate.

Another reading: Abraham's faith is shown, not by his sheepish compliance with what he thinks God demands -- but by his finally listening to God, looking for the ram caught in the thicket nearby, realizing that God would really prefer some nice roast mutton. As Jewish readers have observed, Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain, leaving their companions below -- but only Abraham comes back. Perhaps this is what his servants are expecting -- but offstage, Abraham has maybe whispered: "Sneak back through the bushes to Sarah; no one's going to complain to her you should have been sacrificed!"

Isaac really doesn't add much to the story, except to marry Rebekah, and beget two inconvenient sons; perhaps being trussed up like a roast has traumatized him? He travels like a nomad, suffers famine, but obeys God's instruction not to go to Egypt for relief. There is considerable delay and family drama before his grandson Joseph arrives in Egypt under inauspicious circumstances, becomes Vizier to Pharaoh, draws the whole family there after him.

This seems like a very indirect way to give Israel to Abraham's descendants. They're all going off in the wrong direction, and there doesn't seem to be a clear message... Okay, Joseph's misfortune becomes their salvation, and makes him the number two man in Egypt. That switch from calamity to blessing is a typical motif, but Joseph's clever service to Pharaoh leads to disaster for Egypt. It isn't just 'a success story' because it renders all of Egypt slaves to Pharaoh; and that eventually becomes the fate of the Israelites there as well.

Another core message develops: God really doesn't like slavery! 

This message wasn't clear to 19th Century defenders of black slavery in the United States; it was perfectly clear to the slaves themselves. And so we have another explanation for the Israelite detour into Egypt: There are important things about slavery that many people don't catch on to except by being enslaved.

This is crucial to overcoming the alienation between God and humanity, because the overwhelming reality of human history has always been slavery.Despite the differing names and institutional arrangements people have used to describe and rationalize that reality, the various means of denial and justification, this is where the curse of Adam really takes hold on a daily basis.

The fear of death is seldom directly manifest, while slavery is everywhere. Ignominious death is the ultimate weapon in slavery's arsenal, but ultimate weapons lose their power if used too freely. Toil and pain -- mitigated by small rewards -- reconcile slaves to their misery, masters to their comforts. Anyone might sympathize with a slave -- but few people want to do their own toil. Anyone might prefer to believe that people suffering more and enjoying less must be somehow less deserving than they themselves. The story that God intervened to rescue the Israelites from slavery -- implies a different scale of human worth, in which God, despite appearances, favors the underdogs.

Various peoples have conceived of a universal Spirit as the creator of this universe. What made Israel unique was that this people knew God as their liberator. Unimpressed by civilization, they settled in marginal areas of Palestine -- refugees from the slavery-based civilizations of Egypt [perhaps from colonies once established along the coast] and of the local Canaanites -- finding refuge only in the hills where the chariots of their enemies couldn't operate effectively.

Initially, they lived in small, relatively egalitarian villages without a centralized administration or a standing army.

And this, early on,  was their alternative to the hierarchical, empire-building ways of what we call civilization. YHWH was 'their king;' they had no one to oppress them but each other; and their customs worked to keep it that way.

However many ways they'd escaped the dominant cultures of their richer neighbors, the most obvious point of their legendary beginnings was that their ancestors had been enslaved, and God had broken them free.

Another message, implied by all this, is 'tension': The writers have different understandings of what is happening and what it means, along with loyalties to different institutions with conflicting interests.
Liberation from slavery is not stable. What's stable, under that 'Curse', is not liberation. God breaks us out of slavery; we screw up; then we start reducing ourselves to a kinder, gentler slavery -- something with padding and euphemistic justifications. Constant threat of death gets replaced with a hovering insecurity.

To enforce liberation, Israel introduced a compulsory Sabbath.

Even when "There was no king in Israel; everybody did what was right in his own eyes", there was custom to tell everybody what should be "right in his own eyes", and how he'd better behave if he wanted the help of his neighbors when life got tight.

Priests, Kings, isolated villages -- all had different interpretations -- one lineage of priests vs another, Kings of Judah vs Kings of the secessionist kingdom of Israel.

Times change; eternal commands shift. When the Israelites go to Samuel, asking him to choose a king for them, he tells them how any king other than YHWH is going to oppress them. They are tired of being oppressed by priests, tired of relying on their tribal, ad hoc army to defend them. God tells Samuel that by choosing a human king they are rebelling against God -- Yet before long Nathan, another prophet, is blessing David's monarchy as if it had been God's idea all along.

In regard to slavery, ancient Near-Eastern kings had an ambiguous significance. They added royal taxes and tributes to the toil and precarious survival risks of subsistence farming -- but they served to deter foreign raids and offered a court of appeal against local inequities. Along with being war chiefs, they could and did issue Jubilee edicts, cancelling debts and freeing peasants enslaved for debts. Without such powers, they could not have raised peasant armies in emergencies, because peasants were continually falling prey to bad weather, moneylenders, and royal taxes.

When the customary Law is finally codified and written [probably under the monarchy] a priest 'finds a book of the Law' in the Temple, which adds that "When you do choose a king from among you, he must not be a foreigner." Kings serving foreign gods -- like Ahab in his alliance with Jezebel's family -- might not consider themselves obligated to their poorer subjects -- hence Ahab's theft of Naboth's vineyard and his conflict with Elijah. 'Ba'al' meant 'Lord' as much as 'YHWY' did, but his rules were different.

Solomon, David's son, institutes 'forced labor' for all the tribes but his own native Judah -- which leads to the breakup of the monarchy when his son promises to be harsher than Solomon: ~"My little finger is thicker than my father's whang!" Subequent kings of Israel [to the north] and the rump state of Judah continue to be oppressive; their cronies get rich at the expense of poorer farmers -- so unofficial prophets begin to denounce their regimes and the popularity of 'foreign gods.' Probably the nation never had been unified under one god until after the Exile, when its monarchies came to their prophecized doom -- but YHWY's prophets stood for the national diety and the national Covenant with 'God who brought you out of Egypt' [ ie 'slavery'] -- and that Covenant demands that the Land belongs to God, is only loaned to the Israelites so that all of them, even the least of them, can be nourished by it. "Woe to you who join field to field until you live alone in the midst" --  because those fields were supposed to remain in the hands of their original small-farmer owners.

Jeremiah induces the king of Judah, facing a Babylonian threat, to call for a Jubilee. But when the threat peters out, the big landowners force their liberated slaves back into servitude; and Jeremiah has no hope left. The Promised Land becomes the Land that Israel is exiled from... and when their leaders return, years later under Persian rule, Ezra and Nehemiah are blaming that exile on marriages to foreigners.

Prominent ancient Israelites build altars and sacrifice to YHWH wherever they please; and Passover is initially a family celebration at home. But priests in Jerusalem 'find a book' -- traditionally attributed to Moses -- which forbids sacrifices anywhere but in their Temple, and demands that Passover be celebrated there.

'Contradictions' can be laboriously and dubiously explained away, but 'God's Book' has clearly been written with a wide variety of tendentious human fingerprints. This, too, must be part of the message. That we humans don't always get it right, the whole Truth and nothing but, in one handy sound-bite. That this book can point to the Answer, but shouldn't be mistaken for it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Does The Bible Mean? II

When I say 'The Bible must be understood poetically', this is not a put-down. Poetry connects: meaning to meaning, spirit to thought and emotion and flesh & back again.

Metaphor is the most basic form of human thought: "I know how this works so I can understand that by comparison" -- so far as two things really are alike. Metaphor was extensively used in Biblical Hebrew, a language with few individual words, so that complex thoughts usually needed to be built up metaphorically from these, or suggested by the similar sound of words based on the same root.

Poetic forms... are not essential to poetic modes of thought. They are used in much of the Bible, however, as in most ancient literature. Books were unwieldy and literacy expensive to teach. To 'read' generally meant to 'recite' -- scrolls being best suited for use as a sort of 'sheet music for public liturgy', a memory aid for someone who knew the score already -- who would not have been able to 'sight-read' such without considerable familiarity with its contents. For a work to be memorable 'by ear', the language had best flow eloquently and be conceptually linked by any means available, like the common Hebrew device of pairing two or more lines of similar meaning:
"Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass."
[When one tries to take something like this too literally, one can fall into absurdities like 'Matthew's reading of this, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem mounted on two animals. Details matter, but need to be understood in larger contexts.]

Systematic theologies tend to read the Bible like a philosophical work incorporating technical terms, where 'the same word' should normally mean 'the same thing.' This builds up structures of human thought with little relation to what a passage meant to its authors or -- as I see it -- to the message(s) God intend(s) to convey to us by the existence of the Bible.

But the Bible is present, in this Creation, where I'm led to believe that nothing is accidental or without purpose -- and despite some evidence to the contrary, inclined to consider it intended for human good.

Aside from (but not altogether excluding) what I consider common misreadings: What is this anthology meant to tell us? Certainly not -- as some people evidently read it -- that "We're special because we understand this book; but everybody else is doomed!" If it's Good News, it's good news for everybody, even if not necessarily the particular news we had in mind.

One initial message is human alienation from God. 
For Christian readers, the story of Eden introduces death, labor -- and Sin! Jewish interpretations differ from Christian ones at this point; both takes illuminate human experience in different ways. Clearly [as Jewish readings tend to agree] this story describes the development of a new kind of wisdom we could not have acquired without some experience of this sort -- and equally clearly [as Christian readers decided quite early on], that development has been traumatic and productive of many evils.

Even if we didn't Fall -- but were Pushed -- humanity soon begins misbehaving: jealousy, murder, the building of cities. Soon after the founding of cities comes vengeance... and by Noah's day, the Earth is said to be so 'full of violence' from us that God determines to drown the lot.

In the next story, humanity has started to build The Tower, striving to reach Heaven without an invitation. It is not clear whether God then 'confuses our languages' as a hostile act, or it's more as Alan Lew sees it: Given this perfectly harmonious world, we weren't satisfied. Since we were trying to take our fate into our own hands, God (for our sake) made us misunderstand each other's words. Another thought: people were given a multitude of languages so we could discover a wide variety of different ways to understand life -- And that incidentally kept us from getting trapped into a premature agreement that would actually have hampered further development. Whatever God's motive, He stops the project without  one word of prohibition or explanation; by this point in the story God is evidently not even talking to us.

One thing we continually observe in the human lives around us: People are not explicitly aware of the spiritual dimension of the universe; we generally deal with problems by physical, social, or technical means first, then pray about them, if at all, as an afterthought. In general people learn to evade questions of God's existence and nature: first, because traditional concepts of God have frequently been punitive and harsh -- frightening and repellent to the most sensitive souls -- and second, because the real nature of God seems 'too good to be true' to people who don't know God, or who know God only by hearsay.

To the extent that anyone knows God directly, the Bible serves mainly as confirmation and reminder. It's also a reminder that God is vast, bewildering, and scary -- that Divine/human relations have long been subject to misunderstanding, disappointment, mutual complaints of betrayal: Human betrayal because people are largely unenlightened in what we consider our self-interest, and a sense of Divine betrayal because human expectations don't match what God intends for our ultimate good.

For the atheist, of course, to expect anything whatsoever from God is simply insane; so the book reduces to one massive incitement to insanity, interspersed with a few nice ethical sentiments among a host of cruel and oppressive injunctions.

And to the extent that anyone imagines God as a vast, Authoritarian Father, for them the Bible is a truly wonderful book. That's the image that most people love or hate: "Boy, are you going to be sorry when your Daddy gets home!" If you marry the Hebrew scriptures to the Christian notion of Hell, that description makes a perverse kind of sense -- except that doing that distorts the image of God Jesus found in those same Jewish scriptures and described from his own convincing intuitions.

Since most human beings are a complex mix of inconsistent feelings, ideas, and intuitive realizations... the Bible is a better introduction to God than you would otherwise expect. That is, if you read the Bible, thoroughly and critically, it frustrates, confuses, says things you don't want while not quite saying what you'd like -- It deals in hints and mysteries but all the same confronts you with a radical revelation you need to come to terms with somehow; this does happen to be the sacred book Western Civilization was given.

Meandering right along from a cluster of myths and legends, it develops through a deepening appreciation of God's nature and character, eventually reaching claims that through this book and the people who came to write it, God intends to somehow rectify our estranged condition.

In hindsight, Abraham's call looks like an initial step in that endeavor. God doesn't, as we see, go about this the way we might normally attempt making peace with an estranged family of our own. If God wanted to announce a peace offer more to all of us, make an official record of some sort -- He might have approached someone more prominent. There was a whole civilization back home in Ur, where Abraham's father came from. They were literate; they wrote on clay tablets that could have lasted for millennia.

Instead God picks a seventy-five year old man and tells him to wander into a land he's never seen, which God intends to give to his descendants. He travels as a herdsman, who if he'd even known writing would do it on portable but perishable sheepskin, into a place where contracts are made orally and confirmed by cutting dead animals in half. When he arrives in Canaan, there is already a priest of God Most High at Salem; what can Abraham's wanderings possibly add to that?
Well, they lead to Abraham's nephew Lot travelling to Sodom -- where he settles down to live a comfortable life, only to find his neighbors corrupt, xenophobic, inhospitable -- and according to the Midrash later Jewish commentators added, a place where the laws were unjust and it was a capital crime to help a beggar survive. This is also a place about to be destroyed, not by human but by Divine violence.

The existence of Divine violence seems to be another message of this book.
That's disturbing; anyone who really likes the idea of Divine violence is likely to make us nervous. But a reader with authoritarian values will take it as a matter of course. Believing there are times when violence is necessary and right, particularly for supporting and imposing his authorities' kind of order -- He will also assume those authorities know and recognize [even if we simple folk don't] such situations.

Does this make God an Authoritarian? Jesus depicts God as 'our Father', certainly as an authority figure -- but as being parental in a nurturing way. Many people of primarily liberal values hence see "the Old Testament God" as violent, even evil, as opposed to "What Jesus Really Taught."

But God in the Hebrew scriptures is more than an idealized Oriental despot; while Jesus in the Christian scriptures speaks to Israelites in the context of their traditions, pronounces Divine judgement against the Temple and Jerusalem much as Jeremiah did before him. It isn't that human concepts of God aren't developing throughout the course of the Bible (and afterwards) but that those concepts are being modified, in many of its stories, through direct interaction.

The Bible is not about how people would like things to be, but about how things are -- not that it's entirely accurate about science, history, or anything else -- but that it represents the world as people in a particular civilization saw it, with violence as much a factor for them as it is in our world. They saw the hand of God in all events -- While the typical modern belief is that things happen only through physical causes, and are thus meaningless except to the extent that human intentions are involved. We say 'an act of God' means 'a meaningless disaster;' whereas they saw disasters and blessings alike to be meaningful acts of God.

The ideas are different, but one is no more a 'prejudice' than the other unless subject to confirmation or correction -- which in spiritual matters, cannot come from physical measurements or from anyone else's beliefs, but through God directly.

Yet another message of the Bible is that such direct communication is not only possible, but has happened many times to people who weren't otherwise different from anyone else. Are such messages subject to error and misinterpretation at the receiving end? -- So far as we are finite beings, that seems inevitable; and to my eyes, much of the Bible serves to confirm this.

Abraham, of course, makes a deal with God. All this contract seems to require of Abraham is that he and all the males of his household, and any male descendant to be covered by the agreement -- get circumcized. In return, his descendants are to receive the land of Canaan, delivery date to be arranged... It's not, on the surface, the most cogent condition ever attached to a land title; but then again, the long-term effects of this simple requirement are probably incalculable. In the story, it leads to Abraham and Sarah, both of them very old, receiving the message that in one year she will have their first child.

And the next thing that happens -- is that Abraham objects to God's intention of obliterating Sodom. "Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" He dickers about it; he's polite, but he dickers: "What if there are fifty good men in the city?" -- "Forty-five?" -- "Fifty?" He argues God all the way down to ten. One begins to see what God likes about this man.

His family stories go on, very strange stories. There are no police; and the customs are very different from ours.

The Greeks wrote fables; they attached brief 'morals' at the end. But in this holy book, we get stories. They don't come with morals; and they don't necessarily even make sense. They do serve to illustrate how God does the more important tasks. Kings give orders, make laws, send vast numbers of people vast distances to slaughter and pillage. God uses narrative devices, speaks quietly to people we might not have chosen, hints at long term benefits but seldom finds us ready to understand Hsr full purposes or how they are to be accomplished.