In the last chapter I suggested that Jesus was so far ahead of his culture and setting, and that his holy book (set of scrolls) both helped to shape his life and thoughts and at the same time restricted his progress. And of course this is something we have to consider also when anyone who is a Christians reads their holy book, the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments. It is a more-than-amazing guide but can also restrict our progress if we mis-read it or mis-judge what it is and its purpose.
If we simply took everything we read within the Bible and tried to make it all make sense we would certainly end up with a headache! There are also some serious problematic areas that we encounter when we read the text. What are we to make of situations where God wiped people from the face of the earth, such as with the flood? Or texts that report that God commanded all men, women and children be killed? Those are certainly difficult texts to read (an understatement!).
I have always found that trying to understand how Christians have wrestled with how the Bible seems to endorse slavery as being very informative. (And the slavery the Bible reflects is perhaps more similar to that of what might be termed historic slavery. Modern slavery continues at many levels, from human trafficking to so much of modern economic practices and trade, for example, the clothing industry.) In the pages of the Bible we find that slavery is all-but encouraged! It suggests that God ‘blessed’ people by increasing the number of slaves they owned; we do not read of Jesus at any stage challenging the institution of slavery; and a follower of Jesus such as Paul, who wrote so much of what we term the New Testament, commanded slaves to be obedient! Most Christians today read those verses and sub-consciously dismiss them as irrelevant for us, and also accept that slavery is an abuse and should be opposed at all levels.
We all-but delete the verses. Delete verses from our holy book! The verses are not an issue to us as they do not apply to our everyday life. But if we go back a century or more they were an issue and Christian slave owners were very confident that they were right as they had the Bible on their side! Those who were Christains and believed in abolition did not have the Bible as a book on their side, but they believed they had the Bible as a story on their side. What do we mean by this?
They knew the Bible was written into a culture and was a historic book, but within it there was a trajectory, a direction, a movement toward something, and sometimes the goal of the trajectory was beyond the pages that are read. I think this concept of a trajectory is ever so important.
Taking the example of slavery we mentioned, the abolitionists understood they could make a strong defence of their position by appealing to the creation stories where people were made in the image of God; that any subjection of a person to another person came after things went off-track; that Jesus called us to love our neighbour as ourselves; that Paul encouraged a slave who could obtain freedom to do just that; that he returned a slave to his owner (we read of this in the book of Philemon in the New Testament) saying he was returning the slave as a family member. And finally those who believed in abolition appealed to the direction that they understood was set in motion by the Scriptures. The good news (technically called ‘the Gospel’) that results from the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant that there was no longer ‘slave nor free’ (a direct quote from Galatians 3: 28) and as far as possible that reality should be reflected in the life of Christians and also society. Their appeal then was to the trajectory that Scripture seemed to indicate. They did not read the Bible as simply a set of verses that could be glued together, and were willing to go beyond what they read in the actual pages.
Let’s try to suggest a way of looking at the overall story, that will help us see that there is a movement forward, and ultimately when there is a conflict within the pages of the Bible themselves between a restrictive path or a freedom path, with the latter will have to be the direction we lean toward. That always seems to be the direction Jesus moved in, and at one level he contradicted his holy book at times, for he could say ‘You have heard it said’, and then quote from a holy scroll, but then he would go on to say ‘But I say to you’. We can suggest he contradicted the text, but we can also say he followed the trajectory.
If we were to suggest that the overall story could be compared to a play set in a series of acts, with some of the individual stories and verses then relating to a specific act we could do it like this:
Act 1. The stories of creation, where the key characters are presented. There is no need to take these stories as literal in the sense of this is what really took place. It is not something that the writers seem to suggest, for they were surely well aware that they wrote of specific days passing before there was a sun and a moon! They also join together two stories that don’t harmonise at every point. We should give the writers (editors?) respect by acknowledging they were well aware of this and deliberately gave us two versions of the beginning of things, of this ‘creation project’; one version for one profound story was not sufficient to give us the insights that would be helpful to us.
What do we learn from these stories? We read of the God who ‘created’, and can understand certain aspects of what makes that God ‘tick’. High on that list has to be the generosity of God. God gives a wonderful setting to humanity and encourages them to eat of ‘all the trees of the garden’. We are not presented with a list of restrictive prohibitions, solely of one restriction. The emphasis is on generosity, but within it the story contains one element where a choice has to be made. Although not quite accurate the choice exposes what ‘sin’ is. We read that the woman described the forbidden fruit as appealing to something inside her, and that she ‘saw’, ‘desired’, ‘took’ and ‘ate’. Words that sum up consumerism, not just in terms of how today’s culture defines it, but when applied beyond material things, a consuming culture that will even take life from someone else and consume it though treating others as objects existing for our benefit, rather than see ourselves as being present for others. It is not surprising that this is the heart of ‘sin’, it is to live in a way different to the generosity of God. Many other ancient creation stories have humanity obliged to produce food for the ‘gods’; the Genesis stories have God providing food for humanity. If humanity is made in the image of God, to sin is to fail to image God. We should not think of ‘sin’ as a list of ‘do nots’, but as a way of life that is less than being in the image of God. In the words of Paul in Romans,
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
To sin (a universal experience) is to ‘fall short of the glory of God’. In John’s Gospel we read that when the life and person of Jesus was examined that his glory was visible.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1: 14).
Jesus was fully and truly human, he reflected God and he showed us what constitutes true human life. He did not ‘fall short of the glory of God’, but showed God to us, and that glory was full of grace and truth. There was truth that showed through in his life, sometimes it came forth and his words made people (and continue to make us) uncomfortable, but it is almost as if the truth that came was inside the container of grace (love, favour expressed that is not deserved).
Act 2 consists of the next chapters of Genesis through to chapter 11. Classically this is called ‘the fall’ but given that there are many aspects outlined that go wrong we might be better to call it a series of falls. Again there is no need to accept this as an historical account, for what is more important is to grasp what is being put across. It’s really a kind of analysis of what needs to be fixed. We read a summary list of what is out of sync. Right up front we are presented with a God / human problem. The problem is primarily one of perception, how God is viewed. God is viewed as restrictive and self-protective, hence it is deemed better to create one’s own path. The result of that is guilt, but a primary manifestation is that of shame. A low (and wrong) self-image.
Then the list just piles up. Damage to and tension within interpersonal relationships follow, with distortions to male / female relationships with a society where patriarchy will tend to dominate. The tensions continue: within the family (Cain murders Abel) or among the nations, and there is even a strange story that indicates a lack of harmony between the spiritual world and the material world.
So in these two acts we have a great start to what might be termed God’s ‘creation project’ but an acknowledgement that it is not moving in a right direction, this not being due to the nature of God but to the choices of humanity. We see something more about the character of God as we move into Act 3 in as much as God does not give up but works toward a solution to our problem.
Act 3 takes up a lot of the Bible and we can give it a one word heading ‘Israel’. It really fills the rest of the Old Testament and also occupies some of the early stories of the New Testament; Israel also remains as part of the historical background to the New Testament era, and is a significant part of the theological background.
This act begins with Abraham being ‘called’ while he is at the centre of the civilised world of his day, ‘Ur of the Chaldees’. From there he embarks on a journey as a nomad and travels the (literal) opposite direction to the people movements of his day. He is ‘chosen’ not to damn all others but so that all families of the earth might be blessed. A later text says of Israel that they were chosen as a unique people and designated as ‘a holy priesthood’ (Exodus 19: 5,6). Most theologians understand that the Adam and Eve story presents them as priests, to represent God to creation and to represent creation to God, to live as intermediaries; this then is the calling of Israel – to represent God to the other nations and to represent the nations to God. Maybe we could put it like this; they were to see their task as helping the world be the best it possibly could be.
If we put it in this context we can understand that being chosen is not to do with defining the classic lines of who is in and who is out; who is saved and who are damned. Rather the question that is put to us is ‘chosen to do what’, and as the calling of Abraham and his descendents (Israel as a faith nation) comes immediately after the list of ‘the mess that needs to be cleaned up’ it is natural to read the choice of Abraham as being God’s response to the mess. It is, in simple terms, ‘Abraham, come help me clear up the mess’.
The stories that unfold make a fascinating read, with more turns and twists than the average soap opera! Some key points do unfold. One of the most significant turning points is when Israel asks that they too could have a king, so that they might be just like one of the nations. Given they were always meant to be different, to be living for the other nations, this call for a king has tragic consequences. In big theological terms it means that the ‘redeeming’ nation will eventually also need to be ‘redeemed’; the doctor chosen to administer the cure ends up incapacitated through catching the disease they were seeking to cure.
The stories relating to John the Baptist strongly have Israel as the backdrop. He baptises at the river Jordan, the same place where Israel had entered the ‘promised’ land. He is calling for a restoration of Israel, and is very dismissive toward some of the religious leaders of his day. When they came out to see what he was up to, he was certainly not flowing in the ‘how to make friends and influence them’ stream. He was less than polite:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham (Matthew 3: 7-9).
The ‘coming wrath’ is typical of the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. They had a world view that when the special nation (Israel) was no longer living up to her true identity that a foreign nation would come and punish them. They called this the ‘wrath of God’. He also very typically rebukes them for thinking that they were safe because of who their ‘father’ was. For those prophets ethnicity counted for little, what counted was being faithful to God.
John the Baptist appears at a watershed moment, as a door opener to a greater era. That greater era (often called the kingdom of God) in relation to John was summed up by Jesus:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).
John then starts to close the door on a former era and open the door to a new era. That new era we describe as the next act.
Act 4 is concerning the life of Jesus. He comes as the promised Messiah. Although there seems to be a few different expectations among Jews as to what kind of Messiah will come, there certainly was a strong view for many that he would come to restore the good old days, hence he is described as the ‘son of king David’. When David (and in the subsequent reign of his son, Solomon) was king Israel was one of the most dominant of the nations in the ancient world. Strong in battle, expanding her territory, prosperity was in abundance. The good old days! (However, internally there were seeds of division, a wealthy class and a poor class began to develop… and more importantly, Israel found an identity in herself as an important nation, losing sight of the gift she was to be to the other nations.)
The expectation was that the Messiah would deal with the major presenting problem. He would come to rid the land of the oppressive Roman regime and restore Israel as a sovereign nation. Salvation was not primarily thought of as a ‘spiritual’ or personal experience but would be experienced politically and corporately. This is why we should not spiritualise some of what read in the Gospels. A verse that has been taken to mean ‘Jesus saves my soul’ such as in Matthew 1: 21 applies not in that way but to the historic people of Israel in their historic setting. We read,
[Jesus] will save his people from their sins.
The Old Testament was very clear. Follow God and you will be blessed as a nation; go your own way (‘sin’, fail to live up to being Israel) and you will be punished, your relationship with the land will be broken. That was the situation that John (and Jesus also) addressed. We need to read a good proportion of the texts in the context they were written to, and the promise is that Jesus will ‘save’ (politically) his people (Israel) from the situation that has resulted from their sins.
So much more could be said but let’s move on to Act 5. This is an interesting one as it takes up the story after the resurrection of Jesus with the early part of ‘the act’ applying the ‘Jesus event’ to the immediate Jewish situation; the latter part indicating that there were implications into the dominating and oppressive world of the Roman Empire. And it clearly leaves this act as unfinished, leaving us with an invitation. The invitation being, ‘come on board and join this movement to see the world transformed’, or if not transformed, in a better state once you depart this life to how you found it when you were born. Quite an invite!
Narrative, story. The nature of story means we cannot simply quote a set of texts, as some of what we read might not be relevant for us. (What we read might educate us, but some texts cannot be used to forcibly apply us directly.) Given that the story is unfinished we also have to try and work out where the trajectory is headed. Challenging, but also liberating! It also means that someone might think the trajectory moves toward a different point than I do. (Later I will look at what I consider is a guiding principle as to what the direction of the trajectory is.)
A long chapter… If you have managed to stick with it I hope you have picked up how the Bible both guides and instructs us, but if we read it a certain way it can actually imprison us.