Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

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 you didn't get sacrificed to her!"

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.


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