What comes next for me?

What comes next for me?

I have now posted all the 11 Areas of Questioning of the book, as well as this last post. They have be interrupted by other posts but there are all there now. In this last post regarding the book, I have posted the complete set of all the lyrics used throughout the book. Feel free to use any or all of them as you wish. There are no copyright limitations or restrictions attached to any of them. There is also a Bibliography of sorts. If you read any of the book, I would be very pleased to receive any feedback both positive and negative.

have taken up the challenge presented by Dr Val Webb in her recent book ‘Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology’ where she states that her aim

..is to help lay people in particular to see that there has never been only one way to think about God and that traditional arguments have often been held in place by power and authority against other more refreshing theologies. My aim is to keep people ‘doing their own theology’- finding something that works for them and is transforming in our contemporary world.  [1]

I hope I have not betrayed her trust in regular church-goers.    As I said at the beginning, I am unlike most regular church-goers, in that I have had a formal theological training and I have probably done more theological reading and solid Bible study than most others so I suppose I am not really representative of the great bulk of people who still attend church services.   Even so, not being an academic theologian, a biblical scholar nor historian, I still have this urge to make a response to my continual questioning.   Some of this has been very difficult for me, but Val Webb has challenged me to find my faltering, partially-informed and maybe sometimes ill-informed voice.

So how do I respond to all this ‘faithful questioning’, concerning the exercise of my discipleship? Am I virtually saying that the Bible has got it wrong about a theistic, anthropomorphic God? Am I saying the early church fathers got it wrong about Jesus? Am I saying that the church, for hundreds of years has been preaching the wrong message about the Cross and God’s Plan for Salvation? To an extent I suppose I am. Some might say that is very arrogant. I’m not sure how to respond to that accusation. All I can say is, “This is where my study, my searching and all my ‘faithful questioning’ has led me.”

Sometimes I feel I am betraying the church and Jesus.   Sometimes I feel I have been betrayed by the church and its teachings.  I never feel betrayed by Jesus.

So what is the outcome?

In some areas of my belief I perceive I have had to ‘Start all over again’.  However, I believe I am now in a much more belief-satisfying and Jesus-centred situation than before. 

It might be suggested that I no longer have a biblical faith, and I think there might be some truth in that.  However, I would assert that, if I do not have a biblical faith, I do have a Gospel-centred set of beliefs.   I have a Gospel faith.   I trust Jesus; what he stands for and that to which he points.

I have tried to argue my positions logically.   I have included smatterings of cosmology, psychology and natural sciences in my comments. I have spoken of my experiences as nearly determinative for me.   I have tried to state issues as I have perceived them to be, from a regular church-goer’s perspective. I have relied on new, for me, and old information. I have tried to be rational in what I have proposed. I have concentrated on what I see as common sense, plausible and reasonable for my day and age.

I have tried to give room for others to have their own but different understandings and interpretations of Bible passages and have different emphases in their own theology, Christology and beliefs about Prayer, Life after Death, etc., etc.  I hope I have done this without being condescending or falsely humble.   I too, with Dr Val, wish to encourage others to do their own thing regarding their beliefs, their searching, and hopefully finding what ‘works for them’.   I hope my endeavours may have helped in this exercise if you are so involved. 

I find it disappointing that some of my closest friends have decided that all talk of God is somewhat pointless and leads nowhere.   For years of their church life they have been presented with theologies and ideas about God which, for them, have been uninspiring, unhelpful and do not connect with them in any of their life’s journey.  Their dissatisfaction has been validated by many current books and I suppose this, my book, has added to that.  I make no apology for this.  Some have become tired with this search for replacements for that which they have discarded.  I certainly share some of this feeling.   My plea to them, however, is “Please, never give up on Jesus.”

I also realise that if I had been brought up as a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Muslim or in any other faith, I could probably have now, a completely different set of beliefs but I hope I would still be ‘faithfully questioning’ everything. There must always be the ‘Yes. But…..’ and ‘Why?’.

And in my continuing questioning journey, I believe that

I must allow both logic and dreaming to have a voice.
I must embrace both the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’.
I must allow science to be heard alongside myth and poetry.
I must consider new information but not let it silence old wisdom.
I must not allow the past to dictate, unquestioningly, the present or the future. 

All have a contribution to make to my human response to Mystery.

I also wish to correct any impression I may have given, that I feel there is nothing in the Christianity I have been taught which excites or inspires me. That is not the case. There is much in it.  It all has to do with Love and the challenge by Jesus to live abundantly. 

One part of my church heritage that sticks out for me is the hymn ‘Jesus bids us shine’.  It was taught to me when I was a little boy.  Two verses of this hymn are particularly inspiring for me today. It is No. 671 in the Revised Edition in 1927 of the Church Hymnary used by the Presbyterian Church of my childhood and youth. 

Jesus bids us shine 

Lyrics by Susan Warner  1819 – 1885 

Tune  Excell – composed by Edwin Othello Excell  1851 – 1921

Jesus bids us shine
With a pure, clear light,
Like a little candle
Burning in the night.
In this world of darkness;
So let us shine,
You in your small corner,
And I in mine.

Jesus bids us shine,
Then, for all around;
Many kinds of darkness
In this world are found –
Sin and want and sorrow;
So, we must shine,
You in your small corner,
And I in mine.

I have presented an alternative framework for a different set of beliefs than that of my childhood, youth and following years.

I am not going to continue to believe God and humans are separate distinct persons.  I am dispensing with the anthropomorphic, intervening God.   I am not going to allow sin to define my, your or anyone else’s humanity.  I am not going to let the Bible with its emphasis of God’s Plan of Salvation and the necessary reconciliation between God and humans, be determinative regarding my, your or anyone else’s relationship to God.   I am not going to continue to believe that the Cross of Jesus is all about God’s forgiveness of sin.   I am not going to continue to believe that Heaven and Earth are different realms.  I am not going to continue to regard transcendence and imminence as separate and mutually exclusive experiences in life.  I am not going to harbour the idea that Life and Death are in continuous mortal combat.  

The different framework I present is one based on unity, the mutual ‘in-ness’ of God and Humans; a basis in which Divinity and Humanity, Heaven and Earth, Transcendence and Imminence and Life and Death are complementary  dimensions of a single reality.  This different framework presents the Cross of Jesus as the defining moment in his life of what he taught and what he practiced; love, integrity and faithfulness. This new framework also champions the teachings ‘of’ Jesus. 

This is what I believe at present.

All this is conditioned by my panentheistic beliefs.  
So, endless questioning.  Maybe some rather pointless.  
Continuing reappraisal.   Maybe some rather dodgy. 
More rejections.   Maybe some rather challenging.  
More affirmations.   Maybe some rather bold.                                       
More journeying with Jesus.   Most exciting and always challenging.

All together, if my endeavour has helped to nurture me and you as disciples, to bring love to blossom, to spread justice and mercy, to encourage ourselves and others to live abundantly, then all of this has been worthwhile.   If not, it has been a waste of time, both yours and mine!

Let me conclude, remembering a saying of Jesus, “I tell you this; unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”   So I appeal to the little child in me and each of us. 

Do you know this rhyme?

Scintillate. Scintillate. Globule vivific.
Feign would I fathom thy nature specific.
Loftily poised in the ether capacious;
Strongly resembling a gem; carbonaceous.

You may not.  However, I think you may remember this one.

Twinkle. Twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high;
Like a diamond in the sky

I believe both rhymes are significant.  ‘To scintillate’ is significant and ‘to fathom’ can certainly lead to spiritual growth.    I also wish to affirm that both ‘to twinkle’ and ‘to wonder’ are profoundly important.

Let us wonder.  Let us twinkle for ourselves, Jesus and most importantly for others around us. Let us love.  You in your small corner and I in mine. 

The way we live is more important than what we believe.

My warmest greetings.     Grace and Peace.   George.


[1] Webb, ‘Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology’,1.

The following set of lyrics is my favourite.   Have a look and listen on my website.   The link is on my Homepage.

 If you can, please use it in whatever way you think is suitable.

We can change the world

Tune   Jerusalem (Not in AHB) Presbyterian Hymnary  No 640

How can we change the world we know?
How can creation safely grow?
What can we do to stem the flow
Of evil now and long ago?
We dream of pictures bold and bright,
Of children squealing with delight,
Of strong integrity for the right,
Of darkness conquered by the light.

How can we change the world to be
Where ev’ryone is safe and free?
How can we make society
A kind and just community?
We dream that fear will have no place;
When war will cease and leave no trace;
When all humanity, every race,
Will greet each other and embrace.

We can do more than only dream;
We can enhance love’s wondrous beam;
And when the torment is extreme
Be sources from which hope can stream.
We can refuse to bow to greed;
We can speak up for those who bleed;
We can, with sympathy, help to feed
The hungry ones and those in need.

In Christ we have the way laid bare;
Follow his calling, if we dare;
God’s love is costly, so beware
God’s claims can take us anywhere.
But in God’s love we can be strong;
And be triumphant over wrong;
And in our joy we sing a song,
For in God’s love we all belong.


The full text of the new lyrics used.

The full text of the first set of lyrics I have used, ‘In praise of Doubt’, is printed in the Introduction.   The last set, ‘We can change the world’ is also printed in full on the previous page.    The full text of all the other lyrics used are printed here with reference to the volumes of lyrics I have self-published, just in case you have copies of the books. You can access all my 500 or so new lyrics on my website at https://sites.google.com/site/george007site or from the search in Google, ‘Singing a New Song George Stuart’ and then choosing the option ‘george007 – Google Sites’.

Few copyright restrictions or limitations are attached to them. (See Page 7)

As there is no significant copyright limitations or restrictions on them you are welcome to use them as you wish, particularly in church services.    If you do use them, I request that acknowledgement be given to me as the author.

I also reference the tunes I have selected from the two official Australian hymnbooks – AHB – the official Australian Hymnbook and TiS  – AHB’s second edition, Together in Song.  On occasions I have selected tunes from the older Methodist and Presbyterian hymnbooks.    For most of the lyrics there are alternative tunes that can be used.   You can access these different tunes from my website by using the two metrical indexes I have provided.  Most of the tunes I have chosen are in the Public Domain so they can be used freely.  For the tunes not in the Public Domain, you will need to gain permission for use from the copyright owner/s.  These tunes are identified by the tune being ‘suggested’.

The complete sets of lyrics, portions of which are printed in body of the book, can be accessed on the following pages.   Just highlight what words you wish to print and then copy or, if necessary, print multiple copies for congregational use. Go for it!

A note on Christmas carol new lyrics.

I have briefly mentioned these traditional lyrics before but I need to get this off my chest.

The traditional Christmas carols make the Christmas time one of the most difficult times of the Christian year for me.   I do not wish to celebrate Christmas with these traditional lyrics.

This time is a commercial bonanza but at least we are encouraged to spend money mostly on other people and not on ourselves.  As our capitalist system is built partly on consumerism, I suppose it could be thought of as positive and by some, even necessary.   I find that a dubious basis on which to be positive about Christmas.   This time can also be a time of family gatherings and I think that is very positive.   The Christmas spirit is thought of as a spirit of giving, a spirit of good will etc., etc.  We need more of that.  Some of the secular Christmas festivals are delightful for young and old alike.  For so many, they bring enjoyment that is so welcome.

But for me, Christmas is a theological disaster!  For me it is a nightmare.   We have kept the biblical stories and lost their meanings.    The rampant dualism associated with it, takes Jesus further away each time we celebrate.  This dualism is certainly a basis for the stories in Matthew and Luke but I think the hymn writers of 19th and 20th centuries took this to a new level.  I believe that through the carol lyrics we have been fed this dualism and many have thus discarded the stories as unbelievable.   Many would not be so rude as to say “They are ridiculous” but I imagine that is what they are thinking.     Cecil Frances Alexander, so bound to her theological era and the dualism it espoused, has contributed sets of lyrics I will not sing; ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Away in the manger’.   For me, ‘Away in the Manger’ is a set of lyrics I find totally unacceptable but many still think it is a ‘lovely’ song to teach children.  For me, these lyrics are a perfect example of how to keep Jesus in the land of make-believe, in La-La-land, and far enough away, enabling us to avoid his message and his challenge.  All very safe for a consumerist, self-indulgent society.  All this is made possible and encouraged by the dualism of Heaven and Earth and the theism which it presupposes.   The first word ‘Away’ sets the tone for the lyrics of this carol which end with, ‘And fit us for heaven to live with you there’. Dear Me!  

I would estimate that the Christmas carols’ lyrics from our official hymnbooks are the best known in our secular society, of the so-called sacred songs.  What a shame that they teach about an inhabitant of Heaven or ‘fairyland’, visiting Earth for a short period.  My lyrics give quite a different slant on the story. You’ll find all of the new Christmas lyrics, as well as many more, on my website at https://sites.google.com/site/george007site.  They suggest a different theology.  You might even find some useful.  Who knows?

Enough said!

Here are the full sets of lyrics referred to in my book.

No. 1 – page 24, No. 2 – page 37, No. 3 – page 46, No. 4 – page 48, No. 5 – page 50, No. 6 – page 51, No. 7 – page 54, No. 8 – page 56, No. 9 – page 71, No. 10 – page 72, No. 11 – page 76, No. 12 – page 89, No. 13 – page 91, No. 14 – page 94, No. 15 – page 104, No.16 – page 105, No. 17 – page 121, No. 18 – page 159, No. 19 – page 180, No. 20 – page 195, No. 21 – page 209, No.22 – page 257, No. 23 – page 259, No. 24 – page 309, No. 25 – page 316, No. 26 – page 317, No. 27 – page 326, No. 28 – page 329, No. 29 – page 347.

The lyrics are printed in full in the following material.

No. 1.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 60.

Certain of Uncertainty

Tune   Forest Green AHB 240 and TiS 316.

In life, with such uncertainty;           
We long to feel at peace;                    
But with such complex liberty
We feel our stress increase.  
When, in the maze we grope each day,
‘Confusion’ is our name.
When change unsettles life, we say,
“Please, let things stay the same!”


No easy answers anymore;
We know there never was!
The slick and glib we now ignore;
We question more because
We know we are responsible
For this world of today;
We know God’s not accountable 
For what we do and say.


In knowledge, we have help at hand
To live life with less fear;
With learning, wisdom can expand,
And help the truth come clear.
But attitudes cannot remain
In ages long ago;
Our understandings must ordain
Beliefs that help us grow.


When we discern a brighter light,
Act out the God within,
Then – ‘God is love’- that great insight –
Is where we must begin.
We do not need a certainty,
However much desired;
For Jesus knew love’s energy
Is all that is required.

No. 2.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 11.

In God we live and move and be

Tune   Ballerma AHB 18 and TiS 515(i).

In God we live and move and be,
In God we have our place;
If we accept this for ourselves
Then love shines from our face.


In God we live and move and be,
Our life is truly blest;
God welcomes us with olen arms
As to an honoured guest.


In God we live and move and be,
E’en when we feel alone;
In God we can accelt what is;
A strength can still be known.


In God we live and move and be,
And when our love is true
God’s ‘lresence’ is revealed to all
In what we say and do.


In God we live and move and be,
In God have harmony;
We praise and celebrate with joy
This mystic unity.

                                                 

 No. 3.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 22.

 God Beyond

Tune   Ar Hyd Y Nos (All through the night) Not in AHB  TiS 168.

Time and space are both a mystery;
God is beyond.
Limitless yet with a history;
God is beyond.
When we think of human millions,
Study galaxies in billions,
When we ponder stars in trillions,
God is beyond.

In nonillions*, yet are living;
God is beyond;
Tiny cells are unforgiving;
God is beyond;
Genes bequeath to us our hist’ry,
Germs attack and give no mercy,
Microscopic – all is mystery;
God is beyond.

Science drives investigations;
God is beyond.
Offers many explanations;
God is beyond.
Gathered facts we list together;
Growth of knowledge – our endeavour;
Much is understood, however
God is beyond.  

With our questions we stand silent;
God is beyond.
Overwhelmed, in raw amazement;
God is beyond.
When we contemplate creation;
Honour countless variation;
We are hushed in meditation;
God is beyond.

*A nonillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

There are at least 5 nonillion bacteria on the earth’s crust!

            No. 4.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 16.

My God is in Jesus

Tune   Kresmer AHB 25 and TiS 107.

My God is in Jesus; the gospel is telling
The story of one who was servant of all;
Whose love and compassion, so rich and so compelling,
Restores the broken-hearted, supports those who fall.


My God is in Jesus; befriends the rejected;
Who stands by the victim, disputes with the strong,
And offers a hand to the poor and the neglected;
Who welcomes every stranger, helps outcasts belong

.
My God is in Jesus, who dines with the sinner,
The homeless, unclean, the diseased and the lame;
Invites in the outcasts and cripples to his dinner;
Accepts the unaccepted, negates all their shame.


My God is in Jesus; gives comfort in sorrow;
For when they are dirty, God washes our feet;
Shows mercy, forgiveness; gives courage for the morrow;
For prodigals and guilty – the welcome, complete.


My God is in Jesus; gives hope to the helpless;
Who challenges those who would tread on the meek;
Confronts all oppression; opposes what is ruthless;
Gives courage to the failure and strength to the weak

.
My God is in Jesus, who changes our thinking;
His crown was of thorns and a cross is his throne.
This young man is killed, but our hearts should not be sinking;
His loving and His goodness have burst through the stone.


My God is in Jesus, who shares all our living;
From inside our being we know he is kind.
Compassion displayed in the power of his giving;
My God is in Jesus. Real love is defined.

No. 5.

Singing a New Song    Volume 3  No. 14.

Love and …

Suggested Tune   Iris  AHB 235 and TiS 309.

When we strive to be much better
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this urgent feeling
And its forcefulness is God.
Love and challenge are so life reforming;
Love and challenge can be life transforming.


When we share a tragic moment
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this tender feeling
And its sentiment is God.
Love and kindness are, in life, enfolding;
Love and kindness are, for us, upholding.


When a gen’rous gift is given
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this noble feeling
And its graciousness is God.
Love and goodness are, for us, bewitching;
Love and goodness – always life enriching.


When delightful thoughts surprise us
Do not think that it is odd
To believe these thrilling feelings
And their joyfulness is God.
Love and gladness prompt us into dancing;
Love and gladness are so life enhancing.

No. 6.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 24.

God lives within Humanity

Tune   In Dulci Jubilo AHB 238 and TiS 313.

God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Quietly born amongst the hay;
We recall good news today.
Jesus, Mary’s little child,
So precious and so undefiled;
Jesus’ special day;
God amongst the hay.


God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Kings and shepherds come sincere;
Some with wisdom, some in fear;
Grace and peace and love and joy
Are welcomed in a baby boy;
Jesus greeted here;
God, incarnate, here.


God lives in our humanity;
Divine and human unity;
In our care and gentleness
God conveys a blessedness.
As with Jesus, God imparts
Divine intention to our hearts.
Jesus lived to bless;
God in us will bless.


God lives within humanity;
From Bethlehem to Calvary;
Through it all he shows us how;
Jesus Christ invites us now;
He reveals what life can be,
So hear his call. ‘Come follow Me.’
Christ invites us now.
God invites us now.

No. 7.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 61.

God Between

Tune   Ar Hyd Y Nos (All through the night) Not in AHB  TiS 168.

In community with others
God is between.
Prizing them like sisters, brothers,
God is between.
God involved in human action,
Spark of life in each reaction,
Core of every interaction
God is between.


When we learn to live together
God is between;
Harmonizing with each other,
God is between.
When corruption is deemed loathsome,
When our diff’rences are welcome,
When community is wholesome
God is between.


When equality is central
God is between;
Justice, truth when fundamental
God is between.
When our leaders show they’re honest,
Comp’ny profits when kept modest,
Disadvantaged, when they’re noticed
God is between.


When compassion flows quite freely
God is between;
When we share our love sincerely
God is between.
When we suffer no rejection,
When our strength provides protection,
When in love we make connection
God is between.

             No. 8.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 19.

 God Beyond, Between, Within

Suggested Tune   O Store Gud  (How great Thou art)  Not in AHB   TiS 155.

There are no words by which we catch the myst’ry;
Yet still we sing, we praise and we adore;
There are no words in which we hold the history
Of all creation.  We just stand in awe.
God is beyond our wildest fantasies;
God is beyond, yet we respond.
God is beyond exotic ecstasies;
God is beyond, yet we respond.


When love is shared and people show compassion,
As Jesus did, once there in Galilee,
When love is shared and given without ration
We show how fully human we can be.
God is between, involved in all events;
God is between, although unseen.
God is between involved in every sense;
God is between, although unseen.


Within our souls, the stirrings of our spirit
Prompt us to try to make all conflict cease;
Within our souls we’re conscious of the merit
Of gentleness, of love, of grace and peace.
God is within to share our human need;
God is within; rejoice therein.
God is within; our life is blest indeed;
God is within; rejoice therein.


God is beyond, between, within – not absent;
Not far away, not on some lofty throne;
God is beyond, between, within so constant;
No gulf to bridge to some angelic zone.
This is Good News; we know that we belong;
For God is love; for God is love.
This is Good News, the everlasting song;
For God is love. Yes! God is love.

No. 9.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 65.

Human do Amazing Things

Tune   Ebenezer AHB 295, 499 and TiS 232, 373.

When we contemplate our neighbourhood
Humans do amazing things.
When deprived of basic livelihood
Humans do amazing things.
Some accept what life has handed,
Some will never, never retreat.
Even feeling lost and stranded,
Some refuse to suffer defeat.


In the darkness of deep tragedy
Humans do amazing things.
When engulfed in endless misery
Humans do amazing things.
Somewhere we find light in darkness;
Somehow find the strength to grin.
Hope can live when swamped with sadness;
Hell will never finally win!


When surrounded with adversity
Humans do amazing things.
When struck down by grim calamity
Humans do amazing things.
Strangers risk their lives to rescue;
Danger ignored; the trapped must be freed;
People are of priceless value;
All to help each one in need.


Where do we find strength to persevere?
How do we find strength to win?
What enables hope to reappear?
Could it be that God is within?
God is courage. God gives daring.
God is strength and God gives wings.
God is love and God gives caring.
Humans do amazing things!

No. 10.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 55.

The Beauty within Us

Tune   To God be the glory AHB 85 and TiS 147.

The beauty within us – the impulse to care
Is God’s image planted, of which we are heir;
For friend and for stranger when need is severe
Our heart gives attention; our help is sincere.
When we heed others’ need
And no matter how small,
When we heed others’ need
We respond to God’s call;
With God deep within us, our spirit is bold;
The Christ is then present; his love we unfold.


The beauty within us that prompts us to prayer
Is God’s image planted, of which we are heir;
The struggle continues with evil abuse;
And sometimes we feel it may be of no use;
We remain; not in vain
To give comfort and hope;
We remain; not in vain
Helping others to cope;
With God deep within us, our spirit is strong;
The Christ is then present to right what is wrong.


The beauty within us when willing to share
Is God’s image planted, of which we are heir;
Our friendship, compassion and all that is true
Will multiply endlessly when they shine through;
We are blessed with the best
Of what God can bestow;
We are blessed with the best
Of much more than we know;
With God deep within us, our spirit can grow;
The Christ will be present when we let love flow.

No. 11.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 24.

God Lives Within Humanity

Tune   In Dulci Jubilo AHB 238 and TiS 313.

God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Quietly born amongst the hay;
We recall good news today.
Jesus, Mary’s little child,
So precious and so undefiled;
Jesus’ special day;
God amongst the hay.


God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Kings and shepherds come sincere;
Some with wisdom, some in fear;
Grace and peace and love and joy
Are welcomed in a baby boy;
Jesus greeted here;
God, incarnate, here.


God lives in our humanity;
Divine and human unity;
In our care and gentleness
God conveys a blessedness.
As with Jesus, God imparts
Divine intention to our hearts.
Jesus lived to bless;
God in us will bless.


God lives within humanity;
From Bethlehem to Calvary;
Through it all he shows us how;
Jesus Christ invites us now;
He reveals what life can be,
So hear his call. ‘Come follow Me.’
Christ invites us now.
God invites us now.

No. 12.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 17.

He was a Threat

Tune   Maryton AHB 522 and TiS 601.

The leaders of his day were right;
He was a threat.  He had to die.
He caused unrest, but did not fight!
He was a threat. He had to die.


He criticised all unjust law;
“Don’t act corruptly.” was his cry;
Condemned the rich who wanted more;
He was a threat.  He had to die.


He spoke against abuse of might;
Yet Romans used it to deny
Justice and truth; the sword was right;
He was a threat. He had to die.


He taught a different way to live;
He would not teach, ‘An eye for eye.’
He practised love; he said “Forgive.”
He was a threat. He had to die.


It was not God who planned his death;
He was a threat! He had to die!
Evil still says with every breath,
“He is a threat!  He has to die!”

No. 13.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 15.

A Sacrifice?

Tune   Salzburg AHB 49 and TiS 564.

The tragedy of tragedies
We’re taught that violence wins –
That blood of Jesus is God’s plan
To wash away our sins.


We do not need more blood to flow
To feel the strength of grace;
Acceptance flows from God’s own heart –
A deep profound embrace.


Can we accept a world where grace
Is always freely given?
A world that Jesus dreamt about
Where sin is just forgiven.


There is no need for sacrifice
To pay a price for sin;
Forgiveness, mercy, grace occurs
When love abides within.

No. 14.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 74.

When Jesus Died so Long Ago

Tune   Horsley AHB 266 and TiS 350.

(Original lyrics for ‘There is a green hill far away’)

When Jesus died so long ago
And shared our human fate,
He did not curse his human foe
Nor utter words of hate.


He prayed for those who drove each nail;
He comforted a thief;
He struggled to let love prevail;
He battled unbelief.


He cried not to be left alone;
His friends had run away;
The torture of his flesh and bone –
We can but watch and pray.


And as we watch and see his pain
We ask, “What can we pray?
“Is love, compassion all in vain?
Has violence won the day?”


He breathes his last; he bows his head;
This is the end – but NO!
The powers that be – they think he’s dead;
They are so wrong; we know!


His love survives and still lives on;
It lives in you and me;
Oppressed, abused but never gone;
Love lives eternally.

                                       
No. 15.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 28.

 The Ordinary is Marvellous

Tune   Irby AHB 237 and TiS 312.

When we ponder on the Advent story,
When we contemplate the wondrous birth,
Let us sing of miracle and glory,
Bursting through our hist’ry here on earth.
Let us also prize the common,
That which happens ev’rywhere and often.


For, although each human birth is special,
It is also very commonplace.
Jesus born in Bethlehem, quite normal;
Numbered with us in the human race;
Born as us, dependent child.
Treasured infant, gently meek and mild.


Nazareth, where everybody knew him,
Where he learned an ordinary trade,
There they spurned him.  Jesus was a victim;
Treated like a wilful renegade.
Sorrow, pain, he knew so well;
Suffered in his agonising hell.


Joy, despair, adversity and pleasure;
He has shared our happiness and strife.
Yet in him is something that we treasure,
Nothing strange about this Jewish life.
God in Christ has friend and foe.
God involved in everything we know.


Then in death, horrific yet quite common
For those judged committing heinous crime,
Jesus shared extremes of our condition;
Lived and felt in every age and clime.
Jesus walked our human way;
Tested, tried. He did not back away.


So we treasure all the common graces,
Live each day as precious and unique.
God is present at all times and places,
On the plains, as on the mountain peak.
Plain yet wondrous, every hour,
God, within, enriches us with power

No. 16.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 6.

God is Mystery

Tune   Lasst Uns Erfreuen AHB 3, 42, 87, 276 and TiS 72, 100, 150, 360.

God in all galaxies beyond,
Yet in our hearts and we respond;
God of mystery shares our history;
God is the gentle breeze that blows;
In every creature as it grows;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.


God is beyond our wildest dreams,
Quite out of reach it almost seems;
God of mystery shares our history;
Yet we all know of God within,
Facing each day as we begin;
God in hiding, yet abiding;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.


God is the sacredness of life;
Meets us in all our peace and strife;
God of mystery shares our history;
God shares with us our human mess,
Feeling each joy and every stress;
God of trying; God in crying;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.


In God we live and move and be;
In God we find our destiny;
God of mystery shares our history;
God is the love that fills our soul:
God is the love that makes us whole;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.

                                                             
No. 17.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 36.

Jesus – Teacher, Carer, Rebel

Tune   Battle Hymn AHB 205(ii) and Tis 315.

The Lord, a wondrous teacher, brought a challenge when he spoke;
His authority was welcomed by the poor and simple folk;
Yet, the truth he taught and lived was calculated to provoke.
His wisdom guides us on.
   Glory, glory, Hallelujah
   His wisdom guides us on.


The Lord, a patient carer, was aware of human need;
He gave healing and forgiveness, and the freedom to succeed.
His compassion, love and gentleness, affirmed in word and deed.
His caring draws us on.
   Glory, glory, Hallelujah.
   His caring draws us on.


The Lord, a fearless rebel, faced the power of his day;
He exposed the shallow piety of orthodox display;
He fought battles for the victim, heartless laws he’d disobey.
His courage leads us on.
   Glory, glory, Hallelujah.
   His courage leads us on.
The Lord, as teacher, carer, rebel calls to everyone;
There are conflicts to engage and there is work that must be done.
For in him we have assurance that the victory will be won.
His triumph drives us on.
   Glory, glory, Hallelujah.
   His triumph drives us on.

No. 18.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 76.

Jesus is Our Friendly Teacher

Tune   Converse/Erie  Not in AHB or TiS.

Methodist Hymnbook 538 Presbyterian Hymnary 701(ii)

Jesus is our friendly teacher,
Giving guidance as we grow;
We are happy that we know him;
Though he lived so long ago;
When we listen to his stories,
Look at all his healing care,
We can see him loving others
With a love beyond compare.


Jesus is our daring teacher,
Leading in a dangerous way;
We are confident we know him,
Through the conflicts of his day;
He could often get quite angry
When the rulers were unjust;
He spoke up for all the needy;
He was one whom they could trust .


Jesus is our special teacher;
We will follow where he leads;
We are blest because we know him
Through his words and loving deeds;
As we think about his message,
How he lived and why he died,
We will try to love each other
With a heart that’s open wide.

No. 19.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 12.

God is Love, Unfailing Grace

Tune   Grafton AHB 343(i), 422(ii) Not in TiS

God is love and ever present
In each time, at every place;
God is love and dwells within us;
Is discerned in every place;
This is scared; this is myst’ry;
God is love, unfailing grace.


When love blossoms, when love beckons
Let us taste its sweet delight;
When love welcomes, when love listens
Then our darkness turns to light;
This is myst’ry; this is sacred;
This is sunrise after night.


God is love and love keeps yearning
For response and then gives more;
God is love and love is gen’rous;
Not controlled by rules or law;
This is sacred; this is myst’ry;
Love abides for evermore.

No. 20.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 106.

Violence in the Bible

Tune   Cross of Jesus AHB 72(ii) and TiS 136.

In our sacred book there’s violence
Often done at God’s behest;
Why would God demand mass killings,
Act in ways that we detest?

We would question all the stories
When they tell of God at war,
When they tell of ethnic cleansing
Done according to God’s law.

Can we see the hands of Jesus
Cutting off Goliath’s head
Can we think of Jesus wanting
All of Egypt’s first-born dead?

Jesus is for us the standard;
His non-violence is our stand;
When we look at God through Jesus
We begin to understand.

No. 21.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 91.

Jonah

Tune   Morning Light AHB 509 and TiS 592.

He ran away so quickly; he found a speedy yacht;
He did not want to rumble with such a motley lot!
For Jonah was the preacher whom God had asked to go
To foreigners to tell them, “Stop misbehaving so.”


When Jonah tried to practice a disappearing trick,
His boat sailed into trouble, the storm came up so quick.
The captain threw him over; he had a ‘sort of’ hunch;
The fury stopped, and Jonah became a tasty lunch.


The whale got indigestion and Jonah, he popped out;
He knew he was a loser; he did a turnabout.
He preached to all that city; “You must be good and true,
Then God might reconsider what had been planned to do.”


God did not chuck a wobbly, but Jonah wished them dead;
For they were not like he was – not Jewish born and bred.
So God taught him a lesson; not sure if he agreed;
God’s love is for all people, for every race and creed.

No. 22.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 4.

It is so Grand

Tune   Woodlands AHB 109, 328 and TiS 161, 411.

It is so grand – the cosmos and its store
Of galaxies and stars; we stand in awe;
The constellations, nebulae and more,
So limitless, no human can explore.


It is so grand – the beauty of the earth;
Abundant life; all species seek re-birth;
We look at nature; she responds with mirth;
And then we wonder at her dazzling worth.


It is so grand – the body, soul and mind –
So complex yet exquisitely combined;
Belief, thought, deed – effectively entwined;
Reveal the miracle of humankind.


It is so grand – the virtues we hold dear –
Soft kindness, goodness, gentleness sincere,
Faith, hope and love which constantly appear;
And grace compassion which help conquer fear.


The God beyond is always on display;
The God within sustains us all each day;
The God between in all our interplay;
We are so blest; we need to kneel and pray.

No. 23.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 99.

Nature’s Moods

Tune   Moscow AHB 61 and TiS 221, 447.

Nature won’t be subdued.
Has more than just one mood;
Can cause us fear.
Earthquakes and violent storms,
Tempest in all its forms,
Tornado that deforms,
They’re so severe.


Fire and floods destroy;
Treat buildings like a toy;
Such is their force
They always devastate;
Leave people desolate;
All in their course.


Why should these things be so?
Has nature turned to foe?
We’re in despair.
We ask the question, “Why?”
No answers satisfy;
We stagger and we cry,
“It’s just not fair!”


Some blame catastrophe
On God’s activity,
As if it’s planned.
But nature’s frantic deeds
Do not serve human needs;
Amoral nature heeds
No such demand.


Standing by those in pain,
Trying to ease the strain,
Gloom is reversed.
Our spirit still survives,
And human hope revives;
When love’s support arrives
God is immersed. 

No. 24.

Singing a New Song    Volume 2  No. 9.

Divine persuasion

Tune   Bishopgarth Not in AHB or TiS.

Methodist Hymnbook 964(ii) and Presbyterian Hymnary 370

Dr Val Webb states: 

God is imaged metaphorically as Divine Persuasion

call it conscience, heart, ground of being, Love – 

working within us and the world towards richness and wholeness.

Divine Persuasion urges us, “Make life-enriching choices.”
At every time in every place hear silent sacred voices;
As thoughts divine direct our ways and with us earth rejoices;
We move to wholesomeness enhanced by life-enriching choices.


Divine Intention prompts us to a way of love and justice;
The challenges enable us to bring about, through service,
The reign of God, the prize of peace, and all that life can promise;
We move to wholesomeness in life by way of love and justice.


Divine Involvement permeates the essence of our nature;
Provokes, entices, sponsors us to forge a wondrous picture
Of human worth and dignity in every race and culture;
We move to wholesomeness and find the essence of our nature.

No. 25.

Singing a New Song    Volume 3  No. 68.

Praying – Living Values

Tune   Holywood  Not in AHB   TiS 501.

When I pray I feel more deeply;
Reaching out with thanks and praise;
When I pray I think more deeply;
Pondering life’s puzzling maze;
When I pray I live more deeply
In the values love conveys.

When I pray I can’t act badly
Giving way to grim deceit;
When I pray I can’t be angry,
 Wishing for some vengeance sweet;
When I pray I’m far more ready
To befriend each one I meet.

When I pray I act intently
Showing kindness, patience, grace;
When I pray I strive intently
Seeking justice for each race;
 When I pray I toil intently
 Building peace in every place.

When I pray I speak more clearly
To affirm the ones who fail;
When I pray I give more freely
To the poor, infirm or frail;
When I pray I live more fully,
And in God I can prevail.

No. 26.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 48.

God’s Incarnation

Tune   Grafton AHB 343(i), 422(ii)  Not in TiS.

C. Robert Mesle states in ‘Process Theology – A basic introduction’

 “Every person incarnates the divine call – i.e. incarnates God – to some degree.”

We can be God’s incarnation
When we live in love and peace;
God’s own kingdom is reflected
When all wars and conflicts cease;
With the promise
Of true justice
We may see God’s reign increase.


We can be God’s incarnation
When we care for all around;
God’s own kingdom is reflected
When in kindness we are bound;
In our living
And our giving
God’s own action can be found.


We can be God’s incarnation
When we link with Galilee;
God’s own kingdom is reflected
In our life and ministry,
When with Jesus
We find purpose
Bringing love to victory.

No. 27.

Singing a New Song    Volume 4  No. 9.

In Awe and Thankfulness

Tune   Rivaulx AHB 259(ii) and TiS 131.

For God inherent and within,
That sacredness when we begin,
In awe and thankfulness we raise
Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.


For God in process, movement, change,
In all things common, also strange,
In awe and thankfulness we raise
Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.


For God involved in space and time,
In all things normal and sublime,
In awe and thankfulness we raise
Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.


For God engaged, both day and night,
In pain and that which brings delight,
In awe and thankfulness we raise
Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.


For God immersed in all our ways,
In life, in death, in all our days,
In awe and thankfulness we raise
Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.

No. 28.

Singing a New Song    Volume 1  No. 61.

Moving Forward in Belief

Tune   Stuttgart AHB 200, 216, 265, 477 and TiS 272, 291, 349.

When we ponder what we value,
When we search our past belief,
Then we struggle to surrender
What we’ve known that’s brought relief.


Explanations are more complex
Than the answers we’ve been taught;
Wisdom from the past can lead us,
But we now probe every thought.


We are called to venture forward;
We are challenged to review
Our beliefs and our behaviour;
Always seeking what is true.


If we linger and are passive,
If fear makes us hesitate,
We may find life moves beyond us,
And we can’t participate.

God inside calls us to venture;
Calls to risk and be aware;
Calls to go and meet the future;
Be assured that God is there.

No. 29.

Singing a New Song    Volume 3  No. 92.

When Tears Begin to Flow

Tune   Belmont AHB 435 and TiS 514.

In life we meet the times that please
But also times of dread;
We know they can bring joy and peace;
But also gloom can spread.


God is the one who suffers much
When we are torn apart;
When grief and tragedy close in
And break our grieving heart.


Sometimes our tears are all we have
To share with those in pain;
But these are precious gifts to give
When we can’t ease the strain.


In tears we share with those who cry
God’s love is on display;
A calming word, supporting hug
Reflect the Jesus’ way.


God is within and also there
When we begin to rise;
God is our strength to start again;
God gently wipes our eyes

Bibliography.

I cannot give a strict bibliography because I have read quite a few books but on some occasions I cannot remember the precise place where the quotes come from. I’m sorry.  So I list the books from which I have quoted and other books I have used. As I have said in my acknowledgements, there are probably some other books I have read which have given me important information as well as new insights and ideas. Numerous people have contributed to my journey. 

General.

Macquarie Dictionary. Third Edition 1997, Macquarie Dictionary Publishers.

Stuart, George – Singing a New Song. Personal Website, http://sites.google.com/site/george007site

The Australian Hymnbook.  Collins Liturgical Publication 1977, Wm Collins Publishers Pty Ltd.

The Bible.  Good News Bible, Revised Standard Version, The New English Bible.

The Koran.  Dawood, N. J., Penguin Books 1977.

The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Abingdon Press 1994. Various volumes.

Together in Song.  Harper Collins Religious, Harper Collins Publishers 1999.

Specific books, hymn lyrics, writings and electronic material, many from which I have quoted.

Abelard, Peter – ??

Alexander, Cecil Frances – Hymn lyrics.  There is a Green Hill Far Away, Together in Song, No. 350: Once in Royal David’s City, Together in Song, No. 312.

Berlin, Irving – Song lyrics.  Cheek to cheek, ??

Boberg, Carl Gustaf – Hymn lyrics.  How Great Thou Art, Together in Song, No. 693.

Borg and Crossan – The Last Week, Harper Collins 2007.

Borg, Marcus – Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco 1995: Reading the Bible       Again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco 2002: The Heart of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco 2004.

Browne, Deirdre – Hymn lyrics.  Come as you are, Together in Song, No. 693.

Brueggemann, Walter – Genesis Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, & Old Testament Theology, ??: Living the Questions DVD – The Jesus Fatwah.

Bultmann, Rudolph – Kerygma and Myth, Harper Collins, 2000.

Crossan, John Dominic – Lecture on DVD, Is the God of the Christian Bible Violent?

Emilsen, William and Squires, John – Validating Violence Violating Faith?, ATF Press Adelaide 2008.

Flood, Derek – Disarming Scripture, ??

Fox, Matthew – Original Blessing, ??

Funk, Robert – Honest to Jesus, HarperSanFranciso 1996.

Funk, Robert, Roy W. Hoover & The Jesus Seminar – The Five Gospels, HarperSanFranciso 1997.

Gandhi, Mahatma – A Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, Axiom Australia 2002.

Haussig, Hal – A New New Testament Website and his personal Website.

Hidayatullah, Azsla – Living the questions DVD, The Jesus Fatwah.

Jenks, Greg – Jesus Then and Jesus Now, Morning Star Publishing 2014.

King, Martin Luther – I have a Dream, ??

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth – On Death and Dying, ??

Kushner, Harold – When Bad Things Happen to Good People, ??

Mandala, Nelson – Personal Website.

Mesle, C. Robert – Process Theology – A Basic Introduction, Chalice Press 1993.

Morwood, Michael – Is Jesus God, Spectrum Publications 2002, Tomorrow’s Catholic, Twenty Third Publications 1997.

Parkinson, Lorraine – Lecture given to the Commons Dreams Conference in 2016.

Rohr, Richard – Hidden Things – Scripture as Spirituality, St. Anthony Messenger Press 2007.

Spong, John Shelby – Here I stand, Harper Collins Publishers 2000: A New Christianity for a New World, Harper Collins Publishers 2001.

Stuart-Crone, Rahni – Her paper is available from her on rahni.stuart.crone16@icloud.com

The Conversation – Internet Discussion.

The Rainbow Spirit Elders – Rainbow Spirit Theology, Harper Collins Religious 1997.

Vermes, Geza – The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, Penguin Books 2004.

Vosper, Gretta – With or Without God, Harper Collins 2008.

Waring, Anna – Hymn lyrics.  In heavenly love abiding, Together in Song, No. 588.

Webb, Val – In Defence of Doubt, Mosaic Press, 2012: Like Catching Water in a Net, New York and London Continuum 2007: Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology, Morning Star Publishing 2015.

Whitbourne, Susan – Website on ‘Self Talk’

Williams, William – Hymn lyrics.  Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, Together in Song, No. 569.

Zagdanski, Doris – Stuck for Words, Hill and Content 1994.

Other important books in my journey

Boulton, David – The Trouble with God, John Bunt Publishing 2005.

Crossan, John Dominic – The Power of Parable, Harper One 2012.  

Felton, David and Jeff Procter-Murray – Living the Questions – The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, Harper One 2012.

Geering, Lloyd – Christianity Without God, Polebridge Press 2002.

Harris, Sam – The Moral Landscape, Bantam Press 2010.

Keller, Catherine – On the Mystery, Fortress Press 2008.

Kung, Hans – What I Believe, Continuum International Publishing Group 2009.

Levine, Amy-Jill – The Misunderstood Jew, Harper Collins 2006.

McLaren, Brian – A New Kind of Christianity, Hodder and Stoughton 2010.

Moltmann, Jurgen – Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Fortress Press 1994. 

Onfray, Michel – The Atheist Manifesto, Melbourne University Press 2007.

Richardson, Cyril – Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Publishing Company 1970.

Sacks, Jonathon – Not in God’s Name, ??

Sen, K. M. – Hinduism, The World’s Oldest Faith, A Penguin Book 1961.

Spong, John Shelby – Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,?? Why Christianity Must Change or Die,??

Yancey, Philip – What’s so Amazing about Grace, Strand Publishing1997.

There are many others that I can’t remember.  Sorry. George.

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My 11th Area of Questioning

11.   Life after death. 

This is a very sensitive area to discuss but it is also one where I may have to ‘Start all over again’.    I certainly have to do some radical questioning, serious revision and maybe a lot of ‘faithful rejection’.  The ramifications of this are enormous and very confronting for me because I claim to be a panentheist and I have rejected the dualism of Heaven and Earth.  It is also a sensitive area because it appears to be important for so many regular church-goers, indeed most, if not all, humanity.   The individualistic emphasis in some expressions of Christianity suggest that ‘the faith’ is all about going to Heaven after you die. 

Where does my rejection of this dualism of Heaven and Earth leave me regarding death and life after death?

I need to tackle this aspect of my journey with Jesus, because I believe this area of religious teaching is a main one in which my religion has used beliefs to exact obedience.  In many cases it has done this through fear; fear of what might happen after we die. Some world religions other than Christianity have done the same.  In the past and continuing today to some extent, Christianity has used concepts of life after death to frighten people into adhering to certain beliefs, to perform certain religious rituals and to behave in certain ways.   ‘If you don’t believe this and don’t behave in this way you will go to Hell but if you do believe this and behave this way you will be rewarded with Heaven.’ This is unfortunately still used as a treat of rewards and a threat of punishments.  For some, this has been a source of hope, hope in something good or better than this life, in the life hereafter, but for others it has been the opposite.  This was prominent in what I remember of my early church instruction.  

For some, and I may be seen to be over-dramatizing this matter, I believe the ideas of rewards and punishments still lingers even though it as has diminished in my recent church experience.  When life after death is seriously contemplated, the question, “Are you saved?” can arise and that prompts the further question, “Saved from what?”  As I have said previously, ‘being saved’ very often conjures up the idea of being saved from something nasty or at least from something that is not good.  My understanding of salvation is certainly linked with ‘being saved’ from something bad and this has led to Fall/Redemption theology.   Jesus paid the price for my sins.   He died!   He received punishment and because of that I don’t have to.  All will be OK when I die.   I won’t have to go to Hell.

I believe it is nearly universally accepted that we have no certainty at all about what happens after our physical death, if anything.  This area of discussion may be somewhat difficult because some people can become dogmatic about the correctness of their views and this, I suggest, is not helpful.  Some people think they know but their so-called ‘knowledge’ is really a belief which cannot be proven or disproved.  This subject is also sensitive because people experience many different feelings when personally confronted by the profound Mystery surrounding death.  For the one who has physically died, I believe what happens, happens, if anything does.  We just don’t know. 

As with comments I have made about prayers of intercession, I wish to deal with this subject dispassionately, not wanting to pour ridicule or disdain at all, on any belief that people find helpful for themselves.   I can only share my experiences and ideas as a thought-provoker, hoping they may be helpful and not offensive.

So what have been my life/death experiences?  I have had little experience during my life of the trauma that accompanies death.  My mother and father died many years ago.   My grieving was sincere then but time has passed.  I was brought up in a loving family with three elder brothers.  Two of my brothers are still alive, one well over 80 and the other over 90, however, my eldest brother died a few years ago.  My three sisters-in-law have also died, one of them more recently.   These are the closest members of my family who have died, all of whom I remember well and all of them made a significant contribution to my life.   However those who have died were not as close to me as the members of my immediate present family.  My wife of nearly 60 years and my four daughters, their partners and their children are all still alive and well.     Looking more broadly at grief and loss, I have never suffered from any prolonged serious illness nor had any significant life-changing injury.  My family has had many pets over the years and these have died but my attachment to them was not all that significant.  I have never lost my job and as such I have not been in any extremely traumatic situation of financial uncertainty or insecurity.  When speaking particularly about death, it could be said that I have had no real experience of what deep personal grief or loss is.  That being true, I venture ahead in this chapter, very tentatively. 

I know there are millions in the world today, maybe most of humanity, who want something better compared with what they are experiencing here and now.   Many experience loss of security, significant health issues, tragedy, trauma, death of loved ones, uncertainty, torture, homelessness, starvation; all kinds of suffering.   If my experience of life was worse than it has been and presently is, I may well hope for a Heaven, a different place after I die, which would be much better than the here and now.   I cannot even begin to imagine what some people have gone through, and/or are going through in life.   I certainly would never criticise them for holding any beliefs that give them hope in the future.  Some individuals and many groups of people are exploited, traumatised and oppressed continually, having little to no hope for a better earthly future.   When hope is extinguished I think people, in a very real way, die.  That which engenders hope can sustain people in their suffering and I would never wish to belittle or frown upon any source of hope.   In all this I believe I am talking about life and not death.  However, life can be so unbearable that a belief in a better life after death can be a real source of hope.  

In a detached way, if I may, I need to discuss this matter. 

Just about everything I have been taught about life after death by the church and other sources in my 80 plus years, has been, what I now consider to be unhelpful, even absurd. Most of it has been completely tethered to time and space and this causes it to make no logical sense to me.  At worst, it has been used as a manipulative set of ideas which has engendered fear in me.  I regret that I have to ‘faithfully reject’ the orthodox, traditional teachings I have been given on this matter but I feel I have no other option.  

The teaching I remember was much the same, I think, as the Christian teaching given to numerous church-goers down the ages.  After we physically die, our immortal soul lives on and goes to another realm, the spiritual realm.   Its name is Heaven.  The church teachings I have received, state that God is there and after death we will face judgement concerning our behaviour.  Hopefully we will be forgiven and accepted by God.  We may meet with loved ones who have died previously.  We will be at peace and rest.  We will have no more suffering, pain or discomfort, no more struggle or stress.   We will see God and Jesus face to face and worship them for ever.  Love permeates this realm and there will be no more tears, neither sorrow nor crying.   A very comforting image for many.  Some believe all of this; others may believe some of it; some believe none of it.  I find it saturated with anthropomorphic, supernaturalistic theism and dualism, so I am not able to ‘faithfully affirm’ it.

I accept that different aspects of these teachings can be extremely important and helpful to many people.  It might mean that meeting again with a dearly loved but departed one, gives great hope.   It might mean that relief from pain and suffering is paramount.    It might mean being at peace and rest is what is longed for.  These can be the real hopes of those who are about to die.  They may also be the wishes of those still living, wishes for the one who is dying or who has died.   However, these wishes, I suggest, have to do with the immediate and short term future, not eternity.

Depending on the way death occurs, suddenly or after a long period of suffering, the death of a child or an aged parent, the reactions of those still living can be incredibly different.  Every death is unique and reactions of those still living are also all unique.  

Grieving reactions to a death can include such things as shock, anger, guilt and regrets, sadness, indifference, fear, acute loneliness, bitterness, withdrawal, relief; to name but a few.  

The work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others have suggested 5 stages of the human reaction to loss, particularly the loss of a loved one.  These stages are said to be relevant also to the reaction of one who has been told devastating news about one’s own imminent death.  The stages are suggested as a way of understanding the process of grieving.   The stages are listed as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These stages are not exclusive to each other; they may not follow the same sequence and they may not all be experienced by everyone. They may overlap or even happen concurrently. Together they can create a helpful framework in which to approach the whole issue of grief.   For more information about this, the book by Kubler-Ross, ‘On Death and Dying’ is well worth a read.  There are many other very good books of help.

My comments in this endeavour are not about standing beside someone who is grieving so I will leave it there.  Suffice to say, that in this extremely difficult area of life, we could be involved with incredibly vulnerable people so we need to exercise the greatest sensitivity and generosity of spirit with them.  

If I reject the dualism of Heaven and earth, does this all leave me with nothing?  Death winning?  Death having the last say?  Death being victorious?  Can I dig myself out of this huge empty hole I have created?  Are there any positives for the person who does not believe in traditional teachings about life after death?  

Does dualism of Heaven and Earth lead to hope and non-dualism lead to despair?

There are five main areas of teaching I have received, that I have ‘faithfully rejected’. 

  1.  Death winning.
  2.  Death having the last say.
  3.  The wages of sin is death.  Death is bad.
  4.  There being no change in Heaven.
  5.  Anxious fears.

A.   Death winning

I have been taught the idea that there needs to be a ‘victory’ over death.  Life and death are in mortal combat.   If there is no life after death then death has won.   Life has been defeated and death is victorious and it’s final.  The resurrection of Jesus is often spoken of in terms of his victory over death.  I have been taught that Jesus ‘conquered’ death. 

So what for me now?

For me, death is a normal, integral part of life.  I don’t believe it is a case of winning or losing.    Something which stops a particular process doesn’t necessarily mean it has won.   It can mean that change in the process has taken place.    It can mean that an opportunity is made for the process to continue but in a different way.  A seed dies but in so doing it enables the process of life to continue but in a different way.  The seed ceases to exist as a seed.  It dies and change happens; not a winning or a losing.  The seed has not lost by dying.   I think this could be said about lots of changes that occur in nature.  

Physical death brings a physical life to a conclusion but I believe that has nothing to do with victory.  Death and life, for me, are not in mortal combat.   They are both essential parts of the same process and they follow one another.  Death brings about change in the process but it does not stop the process.   That continues.   Life gives way to death and death gives way to life.   I believe death can be seen as an agent of transformation.

This is incredibly difficult to accept and may sound terribly insensitive and confronting.  The drowning of an infant in a home swimming pool, and other untimely deaths are utterly tragic.  Having had no experience of such, I cannot begin to imagine what some people have had to go through in such circumstances.

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes.  However, death leads to a new life and that new life leads to a new death.   Change/transformation occurs continuously.  Evolution teaches me that.   If there needs to be a ‘victory’, I believe it can be seen as a victory over the grief that can cripple one’s growth; a victory over the grief that can keep one in despair or even bitter resentment.   This, for me, is the real ‘victory’.

B.   Death having the last say.

This follows logically from death ‘winning’.   If death wins then it must have the ‘last say’. 

So what for me now?

I don’t believe that death has the last say.  It can prevent more memories being created but the memories that have already been created remain and keep speaking.   They are not erased by physical death.  

When I have dealings with a person who is suffering because of the recent death of a loved one, I concentrate in conversation with them on their past experiences, their good memories.    It has been my experience that these conversations have been, without exception, positive and helpful. 

This is a process that does not allow death to have the last say.   Memories have their continued say after the death of the person being remembered.  I believe that memories keep us connected in a strange and mystical but in a real way, to loved ones who have died.  The person who has physically died lives on in our memories.

Memories are incredibly important.  Sometimes I hear someone say, “Oh. That’s just a memory”, as though it is unimportant.  I think that is a pity.   I think we can very easily undervalue memories.    Memories are an essential part of our living.  Without them we would be lost.   Some would nearly go so far as to say that it is memories that enable living to continue.   Many fear the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, which can change life beyond measure.   Some might even say it virtually takes life away from the person.  It is frustrating when the person cannot remember where the toilet is but it is tragic, particularly for friends and loved ones who are standing by, when the person can’t remember loved ones’ names or any of the experiences they have shared in the past.  

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes.  Memories are living recollections of the past.  I have heard it said many times, “I remember it so well as if it happened yesterday.”, but it may have happened many years ago.   After we die physically, we do live on in the memories of those who knew us.   I believe this is part of our own on-going living.    The memories created continue to speak to us. We know this, so let us hang onto it. 

Death does not have the last say.

C.   The wages of sin is death.  Death is bad.

My experience is that I have been totally conditioned to think that death epitomises all that is sad, grim, lamentable and even demonic.  Death has certainly been considered something of dread over the centuries and still is.   This may be one of the reasons why, in my Christian experience, death is always presented as that which must be conquered.  

Sin and death are commonly linked. Death, in the church teaching I have been given, has epitomised everything that is the opposite to life so if I think life is good then death must be bad.

In Romans 6:23 it states, ‘The wages of sin is death’.  This has been a major teaching I have received in my Christian upbringing.  In this context death may have a meaning different to that of physical death.  However, my behaviour is linked with my death.  Death is punishment for sin.  I think this teaching is tragic.  Forgiveness is stronger than sin so I believe in life after death.

So what for me now?

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes.  Death is part of the natural sequence of events, the life-death-life-death-life cycle.  This for me, is one of the fundamentals of being.  I am not advocating re-incarnation, however, everything that has life eventually dies.   Plants, insects, trees, birds, animals, humans all die.    Do they all sin?   Is their death the result of their sin?  

Might not death be considered bad or evil because it is a major cause of grief?   The experience of loss can be so acute when the death of a loved one occurs.   It can feel so final.  The person or people left can feel utterly desolate.  And if the grief is not dealt with, at least to some extent, the feeling that death epitomises all that is bad, can continue and increase. 

After visiting nursing homes and aged-care facilities frequently and regularly for many years, I have come to realise that death is sometimesappropriate, even good.  This, obviously, is not usually the case with death.  In my experience, even though death is so often wished for by very elderly people, the physical body seems to resist dying, sometimes for what seems to be a long time. Medications, given nearly universally, enable or at least help facilitate this lingering. 

I recently heard it said, “Natural death is a friend of the aged.”   Death being a friend?  Very hard, but it does make sense to me.

Euthanasia is a hotly debated topic in Australia at present.   I would suggest that many proponents of euthanasia would argue that death is appropriate, even good, in some extreme circumstances. Death is seen as better for the person who is just surviving, particularly when experiencing tremendous and continuous pain with a condition that will inevitably lead to imminent death.   Can death sometimes be good?

D.   There being no change in Heaven.

One of the hymns I can remember singing in a church service has the lyrics,

In heavenly love abiding,

No change my heart shall fear;

And safe in such confiding,

For nothing changes here.  [1]

This was giving confirmation that love alone is experienced in Heaven and that does not change.  It seems there is no variation or contrasts in the traditional ideas of Heaven and in what I have been taught about life after death.  

In my experience, one of the best known hymns that comes to mind when thinking about life after death is ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/Redeemer’.  

   When I tread the verge of Jordan

Bid my anxious fears subside;

Death of death and hell’s destruction,

Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Songs of praises, songs of praises

I will ever give to thee

I will ever give to thee.  [2]

‘I will ever give to thee’ is the final thought in this hymn.  Do we sing for billions of years?  Looked at through the paradigm of time and space, away from the moment of trauma and loss, the idea makes no sense to me.   If I do think about the lyrics, they present a rather frightening scenario.   No change!

I wonder if many people ever think of eternity when they think about life after death.  I think most may not. 

Someone once said to me that, “Singing praises for eternity is a rather hellish view of Heaven.”   Also, I personally cannot imagine anything worse than an eternity ‘At rest’; a phrase that is often used when speaking of someone who has died.  I think these ideas are seldom linked to eternity in even regular church-goers’ minds.

So what for me now?

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes.  But no variation is a significant reason why traditional ideas and words about Heaven and life after death make no sense to me.    Strong and weak, sickness and health, good and bad, justice and injustice, war and peace, all exist in our life’s experience.    Life is full of contrast.   For me, no variation breeds pointlessness and boredom.   I would suggest that life’s contrasts give it purpose and stimulate human effort and endeavour.  

Eternity and the time/space paradigm just don’t mix.  That is why we cannot take many of these words and teachings literally. We use these words/ideas when trying to bring comfort to those grieving and this is an endeavour born out of love and compassion.   That is the way I believe it should be.

E.   Anxious fears.

From the hymn immediately above, I quote,

Bid my anxious fears subside… [3]

is part of the treading

the verge of Jordan… [4]

If God is love, as seen in Jesus for the Christian, what ‘anxious fears’ have to subside?  Do these fears have to do with judgement and punishment? I hope not. The idea of life after death when linked with a judgemental God who rewards and punishes, is for me, grotesque.   It has been used by religious leaders of different faiths for thousands of years, and unfortunately is still used today by many, to control the masses, to instil fear, to encourage violence, to impose gross beliefs about God, to prevent enquiry and human spiritual growth.

So what for me now?

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes and it is not ruled or conditioned by fear.  If anxiety has to do with uncertainty, unanswerable questions, that, for me, is not unreasonable. We want to know what is happening and even what is likely to happen in the future.  This is far better than anxiety about punishment.   Eternal punishment has no place in my beliefs about the God I see in Jesus.

Is there any more for me?

I wish to say something about life; or to be more personal, my life.  I believe me, my life is a lot more than my own personality, my own being, my own living, my own doing, my own individuality, that which is mainly contained and experienced in my own body and mind.   In my understanding of me, my life spreads much wider.  It is more than my own consciousness, my own experiences, my own perceptions, attitudes and beliefs.   These all go to make me; they even define and constitute who I am, but they do not set the limits of my understanding of me and my life.   

I understand me, my life, in terms of numerous extensions from my personal individuality.  I understand me, my life, in terms of the love and lack of love I demonstrate with others, the relationships I have with others, the memories I create with others and the memories others create with me.  I understand me, my life, in terms of the contributions I make to the world and the way I accept or reject the contributions of others.   These relationships, memories, contributions are all unique to me.  They would not exist without me and I would not exist without them, so I understand them as an inseparable aspect of me, my life.  These, to an extent, go to make me, even define and constitute who I am.   

I also want to say that my life, me is connected to everything else in the universe.   If I did not exist the universe would be a little bit different.   I would not exist if it were not for the universe and all that is in it.

It would not surprise me if many people consider their life to be their own individuality, their own consciousness, their own breathing, and their own physical being.   I think many might think that their personal life does not really include contributions to the world, relationships with others, memories that have been created.   I can imagine someone saying, “These are all connected to me but they are not me.”   Maybe I am creating my own meaning of the words ‘me and my life’ but that’s where I am starting from. When I talk about death, and thus life after death, I am using my understanding of ‘me and my life’; quite a broad understanding, I believe, and maybe not shared by too many others.   I don’t know.

So, the love that has been shared does not die.  It is remembered and lives on.  The memories of this can be very sustaining.   They can engender thankfulness.  They can cause tears to flow, but maybe tears of joy as well as of sadness.   Even if I do not continue in any personal, individual, physical way after I die, love does continue.   To the extent that I have been loving, I have helped love flourish.    To the extent that I have not been loving, I have hindered love’s blossoming.  

When I remember someone who has died, I am thankful for the love they have shown and I try forgive their unloveliness.    I hope others will do the same for me when I die.    I affirm the positive contribution they have made to life and try to forgive the not-so-good parts.   These feelings continue after the person being remembered has physically died whether they have a continued personal, individual everlasting life or not.   I believe these feelings keep alive a mystical connection between the living and those who have died.  

I believe that our legacy, as well as memories associated with us, lives on in the minds and lives of others.  If I say that our influence lives on, I believe I am pointing to our personal legacy that continues to have life after we physically die.   Legacy is broader than memory.  Memory, in our context here, has to do with one’s personal relationship with the person who has died.  Our legacy is broader than this.  If we have written a book or books, painted any picture/s, created a website, built a structure, made some contribution to our community, etc., these live on after us for a time, and for some people, a long time.   These are not small things and they do not depend on whether or not we personally, individually live on in some state other than the physical, after we physically die.  Our legacy contributes to history.   It continues at least for a period.  Shakespeare’s legacy is probably much bigger than that of most other people, but we all leave our unique legacy.  This legacy is often mentioned when the person who has died, is spoken of.   I believe that every person who has lived has made a difference, even if it is very small.   My/your contribution remains.   Someone might say, “My dad built the Sydney Harbour Bridge.”  Absolutely true and his legacy lives on, at least for a period.

As well, I believe our influence continues through the nurture we have given to any children and grand-children we may have had.  This influence can be far broader than for just the immediate family but this influence is unique!   It is connected to us and no-one else.   I believe in a mystical sense that the deceased person continues to have life after physical death through their nurturing which still has influence. 

Biology tells us that part of our physical side continues.   I am made up of billions of indestructible atoms which are billions of years old and I am more than happy to think that they might join the universe in a different way after I physically die, and continue to contribute, infinitesimally I know, in some way.  It has been said to me a number of times that, “You might push up some daisies.”  It is often said in a derogatory or demeaning way but it sounds absolutely delightful to me. I hope some of the atoms that presently form me, do.  But again people say to me, “But it won’t be youthat is pushing the daisies up.  It will be some atoms that once formed you, that will be doing the pushing.” I am comfortable with that. These indestructible atoms and molecules have been and continue to be part of the universe.   I love George Stuart with all my warts (I might need to think about that one a bit more, I reckon!!!) but I am very happy to release these atoms from my individuality and let them go their own way and continue to make a contribution to the universe for ever, in a different way.   I don’t own them.  They have been loaned to me by the cosmos for a short moment.  

Also, biologically speaking, if we have had children, we have passed on our genes to them and these genes continue to physically live on after we physically die.  Half of a baby’s genes come from its father and half from its mother.   This is why we might say, “You’re the spitting image of your mother/father.”  The baby’s parents in turn, inherited half of their genes from each of their own parents.   One quarter of each person’s genes therefore, come from the grandparents.  In a diminishing way, but being more widely distributed, our genes give us continued physical life after our own personal physical death.   If we have had no biological children then of course the story is different.

I know these scientific, biological facts are not contemplated at the time of a loved one’s death because they are of little to no comfort, but they are not insignificant for me when discussing this issue more dispassionately.   They speak of a continuing physical life but of course our feelings of grief take us to a different place.  However, I believe we are inseparably connected to the universe, and this continues after our physical death.

Funerals.

I welcome the change of emphasis in my community from a funeral to a ‘Service of Celebration of the life of ……’.   This is what a service of memorial is often called.     I think that is good.

Unfortunately, it is my experience that there is virtually no positive sharing or learning opportunities offered to regular church-goers on this matter of life after death.  The major exposures we get are through the hymns we sing in church services and at funerals we attend.  The liturgies used at church funerals give some exposure to the church’s teachings.  This, I suggest, is grossly inadequate, and, for me, most of it is unhelpful.  One example that identifies my problem with the church’s teachings is a passage in John’s Gospel which is, in my experience, a standard Bible reading used at Christian church funerals.  I hear it repeatedly.  

Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.   In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.     (John 14:1-3.)

Looked at closely, these words do not mention death.  The author has Jesus speaking about ‘my Father’s house’ and Jesus and his disciples being together.   The church however, has used the words as Jesus’ teaching about living after death, being in Heaven with him. I believe this is the understanding that people attending church funerals, gain.   I believe that very often these words may be taken literally.  These words pre-suppose a dualism of Heaven and Earth that belongs to, and was accepted by 1st century people as the normal way of thinking.  It was part of their world view.   I think a great number of 21st century people, including an increasing number of regular church-goers, think differently about such matters.  Many embrace Mystery.

To digress for a moment.  

I find as totally inappropriate a reading often used in Christian funeral services.

No one comes to the Father but by me.   (John 14:6.)

These days many people who go to funerals do not frequently attend church services and for them, if they listen to this verse, it would convey a very exclusive message.  Only those who are Christian, who believe in Jesus and go to church regularly, can expect to get God’s blessing and others will not be able to ‘come to the Father’.   What about the person who has died?   Does she/he qualify?  I suppose most give the benefit of any doubt to the deceased.  

I believe this particular verse should never be used in a funeral service.   And as I have said previously; for years I have refused to read it.  

The statement in many church funeral services is often said.  “Those who are in Christ shall never die.”   In cold hard facts, we are present at a funeral to the coffin that encases the person who has died.    What can that phrase ‘shall never die’ mean?  I think an increasing number of people regard such words as gobble-de-goop.  Maybe I’m being too literal but maybe many people think this way.   I can imagine that for some, this phrase might be unhelpful in coming to terms with the death.  Death is real.   It can cause great pain and distress, feelings of desperate separation, however I believe we need to confront it.   I’m not sure that such phrases help this happen. 

All this leads me to think that the words, phrases and ideas that many church leaders/teachers use when speaking of life after death and use in funerals, shows that the church is continuing to teach about life after death in terms of the dualism of Heaven and Earth which I believe many, if not most people today, have abandoned.   Maybe this is one of the reasons why more and more people are having funerals conducted by civil celebrants and are held in non-religious funeral parlours.   That’s fine by me and maybe be appropriate for some people.

‘Strange’ experiences.

Some people have ‘strange’ experiences of loved ones after the loved one has died.   They may ‘see’ them or ‘feel their presence’ in a very special way.   There are some psychological explanations of these phenomena but in mentioning such possible explanations, I do not wish to diminish the realness and possible richness of these experiences for those who have had them.   I do not engage in these explanations when people are telling me about these experiences; that is unless they ask.   I accept their feelings of joy, bewilderment or whatever.  

Many people have these experiences.  They are not uncommon, so some reassurance, I believe, is what can be given when people think they might be going out of their mind.  These experiences are not unique to them.  They are not alone.   Encouragement to try to enjoy but not necessarily expect any future possible similar experience, could be in order.  The transcendent or extraordinary/inexplicable can become part of our imminent experience.   

For me, these and other inexplicable experiences are not proof of another realm or of the supernatural.  These experiences of life go ‘beyond ordinary limits, surpassing and extraordinary’.  They are part of the transcendental dimension of life, however, these experiences are also part of our imminent experience.  They are a very real part of the Mystery and I am willing to live with that Mystery.  All is Mystery so let us hang onto things we know and leave all else to Mystery.  Let us remember those who have died with love, thankfulness and yes, forgiveness.    Let us know that their physical side does live on in a very different way.  Let us continue to experience their influence and connect with their legacy.  Let them continue to live on in our lives, as we remember.   Do I believe in life after death?  Yes. 

If we ‘live and move and have our being’ in God then I believe we die into God whatever that means.   It might mean that the atoms and molecules that at present form me, disburse into the cosmos in some way to make a continuing contribution.  It may also mean that my personal individuality continues in some other spiritual form.  Both, I believe are in God.    For my loved ones who have died, this is my comfort.   God is love so my dear ones are in that which is soaked in, saturated with love. All has been and continues to be in God.  All is well. 

Mystery?  Yes but that’s the way it is.   Our present experience is grief and in this time and place we are in God.   God grieves in us.   Our tears are God’s tears and God’s tears are our tears.  When we get a hug from a loved one in time of grief, God is hugging us and we are hugging God.   The hug is soft yet firm and secure so let us hang on.    Sad.   Absolutely.   But all is well.

From my lyricsNo. 29.

When Tears Begin to Flow

Tune    Belmont

                                                        In life we meet the times that please

                                                 But also times of dread;

                                                 We know they can bring joy and peace;

                                                 But also gloom can spread.

                                                        In tears we share with those who cry

                                                 God’s love is on display;

                                                 A calming word, supporting hug

                                                 Reflect the Jesus’ way.

As I have already said many times; I realise that in this life many, many people get more than their fair share of trauma and suffering.  I might have different ideas about life after death if my life had been different.    I do not begrudge people at all, the desire, the hope, the belief that there is something better.  

In the end, how do we hold the tremendous significance of each moment together with limitless time?  How do we hold our threescore years and ten or how many we do have, together with the billions of years since the Big Bang?   Believing in an afterlife for eternity, the way I have been taught by the church, is little help to me with all my questions. 

How do we accept our sublime significance as well as our utter insignificance, holding them both as important?  

My significance and insignificance suggests that I need not postulate an immortal soul for me, but it also suggests that every living moment has unique purpose for me and others. The way we use each moment lives on.  Our contribution lives on. A difference has been accomplished.  That is significant.  On the other hand, my insignificance comes to the fore when I contemplate the BIG picture and my extremely limited time of life and its influence.

Jesus and his resurrection.

With no acceptance of dualism, no separate realm called Heaven, how do I view the resurrection of Jesus?  I suggest that the story of the empty tomb taken literally, is a distraction from the real meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.   The resurrection of Jesus, for me, in no way revolves around an empty tomb.  A belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection is not important for me anymore.   The resurrection of Jesus is a statement for me, about the living influence of his life in my life.  The memory I have of Jesus, the legacy of his teachings and the continuing influence he has in my life is what is alive.  That, for me, is his resurrection; just as with other human people I have known.  The influence they play in my life determines how alive they are to me and for me.   The resurrection of Jesus has everything to do with his living presence with me and in me and has nothing to do with a resuscitated corpse or even an everlasting soul he may or may not have had.  

What about Hitler?   With this sort of thinking, he too has risen from the dead because his influence is still alive and well in the minds and endeavours of some people.    For me, this is absolutely true and convinces me that any life after death is inseparably bound up with our human legacy and the memories others have of us.   The legacy of Jesus outweighs the legacy of Hitler completely, utterly and absolutely, even though both exist.   Jesus’ legacy is good and not evil.  I remember Jesus’ legacy and try to forget Hitler’s, but they both, Jesus and Hitler, have their life after death. 

I believe Jesus is alive, challenging us to reach our potential, to search for new and significant ways to make this world a better place.   In my imagination, I think tears of joy well up within him when he sees people doing this, and tears of sadness come when they don’t. 

In this section of my journey with Jesus, I hope my comments have not been offensive.    I hope some may have been helpful.    I personally feel such things need to be said.  I offer them and suggest that more contemplation is appropriate.  If I have more time to be physically alive, I certainly have a lot more experiencing and ‘faithful questioning’ to do.  In this part of my journey I think I may have needed to ‘Start all over again’.  

All is Mystery and that Mystery is all sacred.   I believe that I live and move and have my being in God, as we all do, so I believe that I and all of us, die into God.   If I have any continuing sensory perceptions and experiences as George Stuart after my physical death, I pray they will bring about more wholeness and unity with the God I learn about from Jesus.


[1] Anna Waring, Together in Song, Hymn No. 588, verse 1.

[2] William Williams, Together in Song, Hymn No. 569, verse 3.

[3] Ibid, verse 3.

[4] Ibid, verse 3.

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My 10th Area of Questioning

10.   Prayer and Praying.

I need to address this important subject because prayer is such a significant part of public church services and also it can be a vital part of one’s personal religious life.  Some people engage in praying very frequently and regularly.  Some people call it a time of meditation, a quiet time, time given to God, or something else.    For many people, they feel it is an important way in which they can grow in their personal relationship with God.  However, many people in the church have serious questions about prayer; how it works and if it does.

In traditional church instruction I have received over the years, and in the normal church environment in which I often pray these days, an outside Supreme Being/Person is always a ‘given’.  In church services such phrases as, ‘Let us come before God in prayer.’ are repeatedly used.  God is ‘someone’ to whom we have to ‘come’.  Speaking and listening to an outside, distinct Being is presumed to be what is happening.  This is very anthropomorphic speech.  As a non-theist, post-theism student, believing in no separate, distinct supreme anthropomorphic Being, to whom can I talk and to whom I can listen when I pray? 

Do I have to ‘Start all over again’ in this area of religious life?    Maybe not, but certainly I need to give a great deal of consideration and ‘faithful reappraisal’ to what I think I am doing when I pray and to what the content of my prayers is.  Praying to or listening to an outside Being has never been a helpful idea to me.      

Maybe I am a little too analytical and brain-centred, not giving enough room for feelings and emotions, but I press on.  When I participate in religious exercises, I want to understand to the best of my ability, what I am doing and why.

So what for me now?

The following quotation I think is well worth contemplating.  My following questions and comments about prayer and praying have this quotation as a basis.  

 

Hal Taussig gives me a helpful statement about prayer.   

Prayer Is an Outpouring of Primal Emotion, not a Loyalty Oath.  Prayer makes humans more vibrant and conscious. Prayer is not just one thing, but an inexact set of practices that allow people to connect more deeply to lived experience. Countless prayer gestures connect people to what is happening in their lives: spoken and unspoken thanks around campfires, intentional silence giving way to a sense of expansiveness, swaying bodies davening the rhythms of Hebrew chant, conscious lament in the face of loss or failure, walking up a hill to see the sunset.   As the Native American poet Joy Harjo puts it:

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know there is more.

So, the main point of prayer is human aliveness. Although in some circumstances praying can be boring, pretentious or silly, it mostly contributes to people shining, growing, reflecting, seizing the moment, resisting numbness, opening themselves, facing pain and problems, and coming closer to one another. [1]

For me, this is as close as I have come, to a helpful entry into thinking about prayer.   Harjo continues,

Given the bossy ways some religious institutions prescribe prayer, it is quite surprising that prayer as experience and gesture does not require belief or religious adherence. Anyone can pray anywhere – within or outside of religious organization. You can yell at God, like the Hebrew psalmists, or you can run the last mile to finish the Boston marathon. The lonely soul can croon in the shower, the pilgrims can trek toward mountaintop or stained glass, and the gay teen can pick out his finery for the parade.

Unfortunately in North America and Europe, (and I suggest Australia as well) the sense of what prayer ‘should be’ has been dominated by the mostly Protestant portrayal of prayer as a speech to God. This has tended to have the effect of silencing those who are not speech-makers and losing a wide array of prayer traditions that focus on other kinds of expression.

….   Perhaps even more surprising is that prayer does not require conscious allegiance to God. That some want prayer to be a kind of loyalty oath to God robs prayer of much of its power to orient and energize people. The urge to pray comes not so much from some divine policing of our behavior as from needs to cry out in pain, roar with joy upon landing a job, or stand still to remember a friend. It doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes needs mentoring of sorts – but prayer often flows generously and unprompted from human growth and longing. [2]

Within this framework of thinking, I share my understandings and experiences. 

For me, the activity of praying is a mental/spiritual exercise, a thoughtful exercise but not always performed in silence.  Sometimes in public prayer we might participate speaking aloud, as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer.  At other times we remain silent listening to the prayer being prayed.     In private prayer I do not usually speak aloud.  Some do, some don’t.   Mostly, I undertake it in the silence of my inner being.    

I can speak only of my personal experience but I add a small smattering of psychology I have picked up along the way.  

Psychologists often use the phrase ‘self-talk’.   Often it has to do with how we talk to ourselves about ourselves.  Dr Susan Whitbourne, currently professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, speaks of this concept.

We all hold internal conversations as we go through our days, and sometimes nights. Psychologists have identified one important type of these inner monologues as self-talk, in which you provide opinions and evaluations on what you are doing when you are doing it. You can think of self-talk as the inner voice … You can actually ‘hear’ what your self-talk is saying. [3] 

I believe that these internal monologues or dialogues we have with ourselves are amongst the most important ‘conversations’ we have.  They can help us crystallise our opinions and attitudes; they can influence our behaviour; they can motivate our actions; they can prompt love and hate.

Examples of positive ‘self-talk’ could be saying, “I am doing this well.” or “I look nice in these clothes.” or “I’m glad I spoke up and stood up for what I believed”   Examples of negative self-talk can be, “I am making a mess of this.” or “I look awful in these clothes.” or “I should have kept my mouth shut.  People will think I’m stupid.”  We indulge in this sort of self-talking a lot and there are strategies we can use to make this ‘self-talk’ work for us in a positive way.  To some extent we can take control of this ‘self-talk’.

While acknowledging this sort of ‘self-talk’, I wish to use the term in a much wider sense. I wish to use the term as referring to the silent, or otherwise, talking we use every time we think and every time we question something or make a decision.  The level of self-awareness we have, may determine to an extent, the depth of our ‘self-talk’.  

Sometimes we say, “I talked myself into it.”   I believe this is literally true.  After thinking about a matter for some time, we eventually come to a decision.   It might take some internal debating with ourselves, a lot of ‘self-talk’, but eventually we can literally ‘talk’ ourselves into it.

When reading about ‘self-talk’, I have found that the word ‘inner’ is used very often.   ‘Inner conversations’ and ‘the inner voice’ are phrases often used.   In a wider sense of the term I would suggest that ‘self-talk’ is experienced by most people in all of their daytime activities and at night as well. Think for just a moment.  You are silently reading the words on this page.  It could be said that you are talking to yourself using the words you are reading. 

I accept that there are many ‘selves’ that form me.   There is my 14 year old self who makes himself very influential in some, very few I think, occasions.   It may be that this 14 year old self becomes influential when some experience I have, reminds me of the way I reacted those many years ago.  During winter, my 2-3 year-old self speaks up nearly every time I get out of my daily hot shower.  This 2-3 year-old self of me begins crying because I remember that when I was very young, my mother used to bathe me and I hated being taken out of the warm water in the bath, into the cold, cold atmosphere of the bathroom. My present experience is that after my morning shower, my more mature self kicks in and tells me that the discomfort I am experiencing will last for just a few seconds and I ‘hear’ my more mature self saying how fortunate I am that I am not part of the majority of human beings today who are not able to warm themselves when they are cold.   However, the 3-4 year-old self makes his presence felt and I need to quieten him down most mornings.

Another self may be my humble self who reminds me of my many limitations.   It could be my passionate self, maybe aligned to my super-ego, who wishes to bully others into my ‘correct’ way of thinking.  It may be my confident self who happily discusses with others, things important.  And so on.  So in my ‘self-talk’ I need to be as aware as I can, as to which other part of my total self I am conversing with.  But internal conversations continue at a rare old rate!  Confusing? Yes!  But that’s who I am.  All of us are very complex beings.

In my conversations with others, the idea of ‘self-talk’ is often given negative connotations.   It has often been said to me, “Talking to yourself is the first sign (of going mad)”.     I think this is an unhelpful, unfortunate and ill-informed comment.  It can nearly prevent ordinary people speaking about ‘self-talk’ altogether.   Pity.

I wish to suggest that ‘self-talk’ is incredibly significant and in doing so, I wish to reclaim its importance regarding prayer and praying.   The depth of ‘self-talk’ which occurs in our inner selves, I believe is one of the experiences which defines us as human and maybe separates us from many other forms of life.    We can and in fact, do talk to ourselves.

If we take this ‘self-talk’ idea to an extreme, we could call some of it ‘self-chatter’. We talk/chatter to ourselves when driving a car.  Instantaneously, most of the time, but we go through the process.  Our internal chatter goes, “There is a 60 km restriction sign.  I had better slow down a bit.  I will take my foot off the accelerator.”  It happens in an instant, automatically.  We take our foot off the accelerator and we slow down.  (I hope.)  Many of these sorts of actions happen so often that they become automatic and our mind is, one might say, in neutral. 

‘Self-talk’ can give rise to decision making and so to our behaviour.   The more important the decision we need to make, the more comprehensive may be our thinking, our ‘self-talk’.

In many of the very serious conversations I have with my inner self, I can be involved with what I believe is my divine dimension.   The ‘self-talk’ conversation I have with God Within I believe is prayer.    I am not saying something flippant here.   I am saying something which is of great significance to me.  It is now basic in my thinking about prayer.   The big difficulty for me, is that I seem to be replacing the Supreme Being, in whom I have believed and to whom I have prayed for so many years, with myself.   Is that not extremely presumptuous?  I press on.

Prayer for me, is very intentional ‘self-talk’; talking with and listening to God Within.  If we do regard prayer as this sort of ‘self-talk’, it is a human exercise which does not need a separate outside Being/Person called God.   It involves the inner aspect of my being in a conversation with that divine dimension of me.  I believe it is a profound human experience open to all human beings.  For those of us who are panentheists,the concept of God Within is consistent with God being in me and me being in God.   ‘In God I live and move and have my being’, God Within, that spiritual dimension of me which makes me sacred, is in conversation with me in my ‘self-talk’, and it happens very intentionally many times.  

Some might say God Within is our conscience.  Conscience can be defined as that aptitude, facility, intuition or judgment which assists us in distinguishing right from wrong.   Our culture, our up-bringing, our personal development, our past and present experiences, all contribute to its development.   In psychological terms, conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values.  I believe it can also lead to feelings of rectitude and self-affirmation when actions conform to such values.  Examples of the ‘self-talk’ that involve conscience are explained for me, by the use of idioms like, ‘I have a guilty conscience.’, ‘In all good conscience, I can’t ..’, ‘It’s a matter of conscience.’, ‘He pricked my conscience.’, ‘It weighs heavily on my conscience.’ etc.   We can take note of our conscience and act accordingly or we can turn it off and act accordingly.  My concept of God Within is far more comprehensive than conscience; however conscience is involved.   God Within, my divine dimension, is much larger than that which prompts me regarding right and wrong.  God Within can be involved in nearly all my intentional ‘self-talk’, if I ‘listen’.   In our silent internal conversations, we can allow God Within to be involved or we can ignore God Within.  When we do take notice of God Within, this God conversation continues and the good, the loving, the healthy, the generous, the forgiving and the thankful can result.

I have written many lyrics about this sort of God Within conversation.  

From my lyrics  No. 24.

Divine Persuasion

Tune    Bishopgarth

Dr Val Webb states:  “God is imaged metaphorically as Divine Persuasion – call it conscience, heart, ground of being, Love – Working within us and the world towards richness and wholeness.”

                       Divine Persuasion urges us, “Make life-enriching choices.”

                       At every time in every place hear silent sacred voices;

                       As thoughts divine direct our ways and with us earth rejoices;

                       We move to wholesomeness enhanced by life-enriching choices.

                       Divine Involvement permeates the essence of our nature;

                       Provokes, entices, sponsors us to forge a wondrous picture

                       Of human worth and dignity in every race and culture;

                       We move to wholesomeness and find the essence of our nature.

As regular church-goers, we are given the opportunity to participate in many different sorts of prayer. In public, this requires that the prayer content should reflect to a large extent, the common experience of the group in which the prayer is offered. 

Prayers of Intercession. 

For me there are intercessory prayers and intercessory prayers.    Some can be like a basket of requests for a God to intervene and fix up things.   For me, some intercessory prayers can be little more than a Father Christmas wish list.   Some prayers seem to be cajoling a God to do something and to do it quickly.  I don’t believe in these sorts of intercessory prayer and I will not participate in, nor lead other church-goers in such.

However, if the intercessory prayer encourages me to think positively about someone, if it invites my love to surround that person, if it challenges me to do whatever I can to stand with that person in their suffering, if the prayer suggests ways of possible prevention of similar suffering to others in future and/or if the prayer alerts me to situations of suffering I may not otherwise be aware of, then I would participate in such prayers.  

I was once told that the only intercessory prayer that is effective is the prayer that challenges us to be responsible and sensitive in our time, place and situation and enjoins others that they be the same in their time, place and situation.  I personally find that helpful but I think our prayers for others can go a bit further.

 I think there are many people in our churches today who attribute to a theistic God the good things that happen and they give thanks to God for them.  It seems, however, that many of these people are reluctant to also blame this same God when bad things happen or even when the good things prayed for do not happen.   Gretta Vosper states,  

Following any natural disaster, newspapers are filled with stories and pictures of people thanking God for their survival.  The feeling is natural but the attribution is problematic.  It is as though they are utterly oblivious to the loss or death of their neighbours, of children and the elderly – who have succumbed to the conditions…. We must listen to the words we so commonly use, and hear within them the silent implication that if God chose to save us from the flood, God must have also chosen not to save the person who drowned next door. [4]

That seems to me to be a reasonable conclusion for those for whom intercessory prayer has ‘not worked’, even if they do not attribute to a God the bad things that happen.  It is not that this God has done something bad.  It is just that this God has not done enough good.   If this God has saved certain people from disaster or has healed certain people miraculously or has enabled certain people to escape injury, why then has this same God not chosen others to be protected or healed or escape injury?  It is not that people attribute curses to this God.  But this reasonable analysis remains – If this God chose to save or heal some then this same God has also chosen not to save or heal others.    This is the core problem I have with a theistic God who can intervene.

Whenever some are chosen, in any situation for whatever reason, then there are others who are not chosen.   For me, this is obvious common sense.   Choosing always creates a ‘them and us’ situation.  Not always but sometimes this can be unhelpful, even dangerous.

Inevitably comes the question, “Why?”  We humans are always looking for causes or reasons for what happens.  We are always asking the question, “Why?” even from childhood.   We want to solve the mystery.  We don’t like unanswered questions.

If this God can be thanked for survival or healing or whatever, it is presumed that this God had something to do with it.  Otherwise why thank this God?   For some people this God is the whole answer and for others, at least part of the answer as to “Why?”   If there is an answer or at least part of an answer as to “Why?” some are saved/healed, it is quite reasonable for the same question be asked about those who are not saved/healed.

These questions, in my opinion, exist because of a biblically theistic view of God, a God out there who has the power to intervene; i.e. to heal, to save, to protect.  Sometimes this God does something and sometimes this God does not!    Can you see my problem?

This, I think is where some church people, usually unconsciously, can be unhelpful or even cruel.  The conversation can sometimes go this way, when people say, “It cannot be God’s fault that a person was not saved or remains un-healed, because God is all-loving.  God always wants the best for all God’s children.   It must therefore be the fault of the person not saved or the fault of the people praying for the person who was not saved or remains un-healed.  It can’t be God’s fault.”  

Then, recriminations can continue.  Not always, maybe not frequently, but by no means rare.  I know such things are unfortunately said sometimes. “The person suffering didn’t have enough faith.” or “You’ve got to pray believing.” or, “Those who were praying didn’t pray in the right frame of mind.”  When people say these things they may be trying to be well-meaning but this approach is cruel.   It’s called, ‘Blaming the victim’.  The person suffering or the people standing by trying to support those suffering, do not need guilt heaped onto them. They have enough to cope with as it is.  

But because we continue to ask the question, “Why?”, because we wish to solve the mystery, at least partially, and because there are no clear and unambiguous answers that are satisfying, some find themselves going deeper into their pain because just maybe they are the cause of the lack of saving/healing.  It just might be because of their lack of faith.   It just might be that they are not praying in the right frame of mind.   Etc.   Guilt is added to pain.   It happens.   Recently in a church weekly news sheet that I read, there appeared a ‘Thank you’ notice.

Thank you to all who have prayed for the recovery of my husband from …  Our prayers were answered.  He has been cured.

Others in that same congregation, who have partners with serious health conditions and for whom many prayers have been prayed, felt affronted by the imputation that their prayers were not effective because their loved ones had not been cured.  I have been told by some people how guilty they feel when this sort of unhealed, uncured situation occurs.  They feel their prayers have not been effective and they feel responsible because the healing has not happened.

I consider that a theistic, interventionist view of God not only permits, but also encourages some of these attitudes and beliefs. 

 Some beliefs are based on the rewards and punishments approach to God.   The above cruel, insensitive attitudes sometimes arise from an emphasis on the judgements of God.   Good faith, strong faith, right faith is rewarded.  Lack of faith, wrong faith is not.  Lack of reward can border on punishment.   I think we should name this sort of belief and shame it.   I believe it is anti-gospel.  

So what for me now?

I have been involved in a Prayer chain, praying for someone in a life threatening situation. I have baptised infants who have been in imminent danger of dying.   Mothers have come to me on a few occasions, frightened that their newly born baby might go to hell if not baptised. (What an absolutely disgraceful teaching given by parts of the Christian church.  I believe it still happens.)  As a matter of pastoral concern I have baptised the unfortunate infant and in the process, I believe, brought comfort to the mother.   I have at times joined in the laying on of hands in a special healing service when a person has requested that I be involved.  Again, as a matter of pastoral concern I would not separate myself from such a demonstration of compassion for the one who is stressed or in need of support.  I involve myself with all sincerity and not just as a show.  

For me, these are certainly not the times to engage in theological discussion or questioning. 

When people know that they are being prayed for by a chain of concerned people, when people realise that they are the centre of other peoples’ positive thoughts and silent prayers, it may sometimes make a positive difference.   It may even contribute to the healing process. Some people have told me that it has made a positive physical difference to them.   It is all a total mystery to me.  This is why I remain open to various ways of thinking and practice regarding prayer.   Who am I to discourage people’s desire, in whatever way they may find helpful, to seek some personal support and comfort or give support to their family, to their friends or even to strangers, in times of trauma?

Some have lived all their lives with the belief in a loving God who ‘comes’ in times of trouble. Many have experienced ‘the everlasting arms’ of this love, enfolding them, renewing their strength, enabling them to face tomorrow.  Who am I to question this experience of support and comfort?  Who am I to query such a connection between beliefs and the way people tackle life’s difficulties?  Many of us might remember verses in the gospels where Jesus, according to the gospel writers, said comforting things.

Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  (Matthew 11:28.)

Numerous believers have gone to such verses and found in them, an assurance that may have been the difference between giving up and enduring to the end.   Who am I to suggest this is not authentic living?  

I would not go so far as some clergy who say they no longer believe in intercessory prayer, but I think we need to be as clear as we can, when we talk about such things.  I think most people, most of the time, want to be helpful and considerate of others but unfortunately sometimes their beliefs prevent this from happening. 

An important reason to risk thinking more deeply about this issue, I believe, is that people who believe that intercessory prayer has not worked for them, are often forced into silence.  We are told that it is not a good thing to question a person’s beliefs, particularly if those beliefs are a source of strength and comfort.  Beliefs are sacrosanct. They should not be questioned.  Fair enough. But most of these people for whom intercessory prayer has not worked can then be forced into silence.  They remain mute.  Sometimes they suffer in silence, unable to accept their situation but also not able to voice their feelings for fear of upsetting someone for whom such prayers have worked. Those suffering need to be given a voice. Their stories have got to be heard.

However, if we do confront these situations and attitudes/beliefs, are we calling on regular church-goers to question the idea of God intervening?  This can be very threatening.   If God doesn’t make things happen or prevent other things from happening, who or what does?  If we can’t pray to God for help what can we do?  If we can’t answer these questions we are left with too much uncertainty.  We are left without the security based on what we may have believed and what the church may have taught us for years and years and still does.  Someone must be driving the bus! I have been taught that God is the driver.

And then we can be confronted by the dreaded scenario – death.  I quote again from Gretta Vosper’s book. 

We explain the tragedy of death by assuring ourselves that God, in love, took the deceased home to Heaven.   It is crucial that we peel away the interventionist deity concept from our belief system and face reality.   We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world, not some otherworldly deity – not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Hinduism, not in Islam, not anywhere. [5]

That is hard!   And because it is so hard, I think, we and some church leaders avoid speaking this way.  I believe the above quote puts the issue in cold hard terms but, I believe, these are appropriate for thinking about this complex issue.  I believe firmly that humanity, generally speaking, is responsible for much of the blessings and curses we experience in this world; not all, but quite a bit.    Sometimes other things are at play.  I think Vosper is arguing that an interventionist deity is not involved.   If such a deity was involved, I would have serious questions about what motivates such a deity to act sometimes and not at other times.

Another suggested part of this picture is the behaviour of nature.  Nature is sometimes thought of as being the source of blessing and curse in our world.   We don’t control nature but surely God does.  God, I have been taught, is almighty.  As asked before, “If God doesn’t make things happen or prevent things happening, who or what does?  Someone must be driving the bus!”   Gretta Vosper continues.

Some might look at hurricanes and landslides and want to add nature as co-creator of blessing and curse, too; despite the fact that lately we’ve been found to be terribly responsible for what Nature has been handing us.  I would agree that what nature doles out is neither blessing nor curse – it just is. [6] 

What is, is just what is.  I think we need to accept this.   This is not fatalism that everything is pre-ordained, but it is an acceptance of the things we cannot control as just happening with no consideration of what the implications are for humanity.  Nature behaves according to the laws of nature, those dictates which have evolved with the Earth, in our solar system and in the rest of the cosmos over many billions of years.  These laws and processes are amoral.   What is, just is and when we humans get caught up or affected by nature, chance or luck can be at play.   To think otherwise and suggest that God is acting with rewards and/or punishments is monstrous to me.  Some dangerous religious leaders still preach that God who rewards and punishes, uses nature to execute these outcomes.  The results of the so called ‘Acts of God’ in nature are random as far as their effect on human beings is concerned.  To suggest that God has a decisive hand in them, is to point to a God whom I would have nothing to do with at all.  Jesus does not teach me about this sort of God. 

I have commented on these matters earlier when speaking about God being in total control of everything at all times and places.

Gretta Vosper asks a few piercing questions.  

Can one’s concept of a guiding, loving God be a source of help to them in difficult situations?  Absolutely.   Does everyone experience it this way?  Of course not.  Should the church declare and guarantee not only that an omnipotent, omniscient god helps everyone in this same way (when clearly it does not) but that everyone should seek guidance from it?  Absolutely not.    

Could the church help us to figure out how to choose to be a blessing instead of a curse?  How to open ourselves to another’s plight instead of retreating into a guarded self-protection?  How to open our hands instead of closing them whether we believe or not in God?   I certainly hope so.  If not, we might be sunk. [7]

Some theologians say that prayer is the living out of love, etc.  I do not support this because I believe that prayer is the internal thinking/listening/speaking process with God Within that motivates/prompts future action.  For me, prayer and the following action are different; obviously connected, but different.  If no action follows prayer, the prayer is idle chatter.  Action authenticates prayer, but I believe action is not the same as the prayer.   

From my lyrics  No. 25.                           

Praying – Living Values

Tune    Holywood

                                         When I pray I feel more deeply;

                                         Reaching out with thanks and praise;

                                         When I pray I think more deeply;

                                         Pondering life’s puzzling maze;

                                         When I pray I live more deeply

                                         In the values love conveys.

                                         When I pray I can’t act badly

                                         Giving way to grim deceit;

                                         When I pray I can’t be angry,

                                         Wishing for some vengeance sweet;

                                         When I pray I’m far more ready

                                         To befriend each one I meet.

I believe that we are the channels of love to the world; we are those who can bring about justice and equality; we can give comfort and support.   If we don’t then it just may not happen.   If we don’t decide to live lives of compassion there is no point praying to a God of love.  If we don’t work for justice there is no point praying to a God of justice. If we don’t support those who are suffering, there is no point praying for support a God can give.

From ‘Process Theology – A basic introduction’ by C. Robert Mesle, states:-  

“Every person incarnates the divine call – i.e. incarnates God – to some degree.”

From my lyrics  No. 26.

God’s Incarnation

Tune    Grafton

                                            We can be God’s incarnation

                                            When we live in love and peace;

                                            God’s own kingdom is reflected

                                            When all wars and conflicts cease;

                                            With the promise

                                            Of true justice

                                            We may see God’s reign increase.

                                            We can be God’s incarnation

                                            When we link with Galilee;

                                            God’s own kingdom is reflected

                                            In our life and ministry,

                                            When with Jesus

                                            We find purpose

                                            Bringing love to victory.

So with God Within involved in all these personal matters, prompting and guiding my beliefs, attitudes and actions, God Within is very much part of my internal conversation that I have with myself on a nearly continuous basis, my ‘self-talk’.  As part of this, my conscience, my inner voice, my ‘self-talk’ can be powerful.

But then there is still the question, “Who is driving the bus?” “Who is in control?”   I do not think of God as the driver but as a co-passenger, in each passenger.   Whether the bus is being driven through the beautiful countryside with lovely views on each side that we enjoy, or whether the bus has just crashed through a safety rail at the top of a cliff and is plunging to a rocky, tragic disaster below, God is in each one.  We, the passengers, are not alone.   God is not the author of the accident but God is in us in the event.   God is involved, inherent in all our suffering and all our good times.  If we die, we die into God.  If we live, we still have our life and our being in God.    In our grieving, God Within us is grieving.  When we suffer, God suffers.

Here is an example of a prayer of intercession which I find helpful, involving and deeply meaningful.   It was offered by one of the congregation at the Toronto Uniting Church in New South Wales, Australia very recently.

As we pray may we see ourselves in the prayers we share!

May the light of these words fall strongly upon each of us.

May we find the truth they reveal in our own being, and may we respond with compassion and love.

(PAUSE)

I invite you to ………… be still.   Slow down.

Find the centre, where God is.

It is from this place – not our head, not even our heart, but from the depths of our being, where God is.   From the depth of the silence, we are called to LISTEN! 

(SILENCE)

In this time, amongst these people, may we sit and be STILL!

May we learn to open the depths of our being to others that we might cast light into darkness, and wonder into reality, and in turn be lifted by the beauty and truth we offer to each other.

We light a candle as we pray.

We woke this morning and the news was still bad – we weren’t having a nightmare!   The reality of the Syrian situation is at last sinking in!  

We want to speak about our despair and helplessness for the Syrian people, for the people of Iraq.   Our response still paralysed by the enormity of the situation.   We hear and see pictures of the children in the cities around Mosul – some of them not knowing the freedom and light that education gives, not ever feeling safe!

We pray for tables of diplomacy and cooperation between nations; for those who strive for liberation and justice, bringing God’s wisdom; for peace that transcends differences.

We light a candle as we pray.

There are many countries where genocide and ancient grudges are responsible for violence, rape, abduction, death, where fear and anger dominate human hearts.

Can we imagine a world when anger will no longer be a motive, when fear will no longer be the reason for brutality?  

When anger and fear will give way to healing – to wholeness – to God!   (PAUSE)

Can we imagine a world when power will no longer be found in armaments, when strength will not be found through oppression?

When armaments and oppression will give way to justice – to freedom – to God!   (PAUSE)

May this vision be seen more fully in us?

We light a candle as we pray.

From the depths of our being can we imagine a world when people will no longer be suspicious, when terror will no longer control us?

When suspicion and terror will give way to community – to love – to God! (PAUSE)

Can we imagine a world when children, women and men will no longer cry out from abuse, when ‘life’ is seen as precious and will no longer suffer needlessly?

When abuse and suffering will give way to care – to harmony – to God!

May this vision be seen more fully in us?

We light a candle as we pray.

We pray for those in our community who want to be fully included – the stranger among us, for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru.

We pray for those we know who always seem to fail; those in the grip of habit, addiction and abuse.

Daily we see and read of the failures of those in principal positions of care, whose treatment of patients, parishioners, clients, spouses, and children leave us feeling ashamed, yet also mindful of our own shortcomings.

Can we imagine a new world where we are ready to make a creative difference?

We pray for those whom we know who are suffering – are ill ………. waiting for test results.   (PAUSE)  

Those who are in grief, the family and friends of ……..   (PAUSE)

The weak and frail among us, many of whom are forgotten or disregarded!   (PAUSE)

Those struggling in the darkness of depression!   (PAUSE)

When wounded-ness, isolation, loneliness give way to mercy – to compassion – to God!

May this vision be seen more fully in us?

We light a candle as we pray.

For ourselves we pray – for that safe place where we can speak of what is hard to talk about.

We offer our attempts at patience, at loving.

Our attempts to receive those who are different from us;

Our attempts to keep our ears perked to hear all the voices in our world, to see through inner eyes, and listen to a still, soft voice within.

We light a candle as we pray.

May we be courageous in our action!

May we be faithful in our loving!

May we be transformed as we pray!

Amen.

Thank you, Di Atkinson. (Di acknowledges that some of the thoughts in her prayer come from others but she is not sure who.  She says, “Thanks”.)

Here is another example of a prayer of intercession which makes sense to me.

When we look out at our world there are so many issues about which we need to pray.  There are so many calls on our love.  There is so much in our society that needs drastic change.

We hear Jesus in Luke’s gospel say “Blessed are the poor.”   But recently a chief executive of an Australian company has had his pay cut by $2 million, from 6½ million to 4½ for 2018. 

We hear Jesus teaching non-violence and non-vengeance.   But some of our politicians praise the possibility of Australia becoming a major exporter of military arms and machinery.   Some European leaders are calling for a European army.  

We know of the elderly who lose control of their lives and face anxieties about every aspect of their living. But we have heard that a Royal Commission into the ‘aged-care’ sector is considered as necessary.  

Violence, dislocation, corruption and sexual abuse seem to be the norm.  We know that 67.000 people were murdered in Brazil last year.  We are told that domestic violence is at epidemic proportions in our community.

Where do we start?  Are our prayers pointless?

Let us pray.

We sometimes cry out in frustration in our apparent powerlessness.   So often we seem to be caught in systems that breed conflict, inequality and profit driven motives in which care and compassion are absent.   May we be prompted by others and from within ourselves to be generous with our own wealth, to be peacemakers at home and away from home, and to give time and effort to befriend the lonely, the elderly and those who are shut in.      Amen. 

We cannot allow negative thoughts to swamp our vision of life.  Millions of little people perform deeds of kindness and selfless love every day, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes after deliberate serious decision.   Little people keep love alive.  We spend a lot of conscious effort in trying to be good neighbors. 

A number of volunteer fire fighters have been killed trying to contain the fires in California.  A multi-national team of courageous people in Thailand rescued 12 young cave explorers and their coach while the world held its breath.   People of different nations can work together successfully.  We don’t need to fight wars.  

Thousands of organizations throughout the world rely entirely on unpaid volunteers to perform deeds of service and compassion.  These are never reported in the mass media because they are ordinary.   Thank goodness they are ordinary.   They happen every day.   Little people keep love alive. 

Let us pray.

We are thankful for the goodness of human beings.   We are thankful that some of us welcome the stranger, some of us befriend the outcast, some of us feed the hungry, some of us give shelter to the homeless, some of us visit prisoners.  We are thankful that some of us speak up for those who have no voice, that some of us build bridges instead of bombing them, that whistle-blowers call to account corrupt behavior.   Amen.

I believe that we are the channels of love to the world; we are those who can bring about justice and equality; we are those who can give comfort and support.   If we don’t then these things just may not happen.   If we don’t decide to live lives of compassion there is no point praying to a God of love.  If we don’t work for justice there is no point praying to a God of justice. If we don’t support those who are suffering, there is no point praying for support a God can give. 

If you choose you may join me in praying together:-

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference;

Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as a rough pathway to peace;

Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would like to have it;

Living with the hope that life is good and love can make a difference.   Amen.

Prayers of Thanksgiving.

How can a post-theism student be thankful if there is no one to whom she/he can give thanks?      I have problems with thanking God for blessings because if I attribute the good things that happen to me to God and thank God for them, then I have a problem when such good things do not happen to others.    Using our traditional anthropomorphic talk, we might say, “Does God favour me and not favour others?”   I think not!   

Sometimes in church I hear a prayer that gives thanks to God for living in Australia with all the benefits we enjoy.  Did God organise me to be born in Australia??   I have problems.

So what for me now?

I think that being thankful and giving someone thanks engenders the same inner human feelings/emotions.   The experience is similar. If I am thankful, I am not suggesting that God has favoured me over others but if I thank God then the problem arises for me.

Sometimes we need to be intentional about our thanksgiving.  We may need to prompt ourselves or be prompted into giving thanks. I believe this self-prompting comes from God Within.   We can be thankful that we or someone else has had a safe journey, that the bushfire did not burn our home down, that an operation was successful, that a growth was not malignant, that the weather was what we wanted it to be, that we were not injured in the motor vehicle accident; and so on.  In life, it is often very appropriate to thank some other human being.   Some of the good outcomes in life can be attributed to the responsible, generous or compassionate activity of others.   In the case of an operation we can give our thanks to the surgeon.   In the case of a safe journey we can give our thanks to the bus or train driver or air pilot.   In the case of a bush fire it may be very appropriate that we give our thanks to the volunteer fire-fighters.

But there are happenings in our lives for which we can just be thankful, sometimes profoundly thankful. Sometimes a good outcome might be pure luck and we say, “Thank goodness.”   I think that’s great!  A growth not being malignant will generate relief and thanksgiving.  That is a matter of our good fortune as well as, possibly, good diet, avoiding smoking, etc.   Our ‘self-talk’ can be, “I am so thankful.”  In the case of a motor vehicle accident, we can be thankful and maybe feel a bit guilty, if we were in the back seat and luckily walk away from the accident uninjured.  If we had been sitting next to the driver we would have been killed. If we thank some God, where does that leave the person who was killed and where does it leave others associated with the person who was killed?  Again, let us just be thankful.

Being thankful, thankful ‘self-talk’ is good for the soul, our inner being.  When we are thankful, this, for me, is a prayer of thanksgiving.  God Within is in our self-talking.   This is thankful ‘self-talk’ but we are not thanking ourselves.  We may not be thanking anyone else either but in our ‘self-talk’ we are still being thankful.

Let us be thankful for the good things and work to enhance life, thus making more good things happen.  Let us rejoice in the good things that happen, the ordinary as well as the miraculous, the unexplainable, and the mysterious.   But let us do it in a way that does not raise negative implications for other people who are in situations that are not good.  Let us do it in a way that does not create, even by implication, a ‘them and us’ picture.  Let us do it in a way that encourages hope and not despair, hope and not guilt.  Let us rejoice and be thankful and leave it at that.  I believe this enhances our thankfulness.  It does not diminish it.

I believe this attitude is consistent with a non-theistic based theology.   I believe that the biblical theism of which I speak, with its interventionist possibilities, points in a very different direction that I do not follow.

Prayers of Confession.

As understood by many regular church-goers, prayers of confession have to do with confessing our sins.    This is what I have been taught.   It has to do with saying, “Sorry”.    But confession can have to do with confessing our faith.   Confession is not necessarily connected only with wrong-doing.

However, when we move to confession of wrong-doing it can be, for some people, the most serious of ‘self-talk’.   Self-examination can lead to self-rejection, self-affirmation or both.  If it leads to self-rejection it is can be accompanied by depression and guilt, and these can be very strong, sometimes an overwhelming human emotions.    When feeling guilty we can think we have done or said something wrong and we wish we hadn’t.  Maybe we have not done or said something that we feel we should have done or said and we feel sorry.   Hindsight can both affirm us and challenge us, even convict us. 

If guilt does take over, we might feel we could make an endless list of our failings.  I am reminded of many human failings in the prayers of confession in church services I attend.   These prayers are often very detailed and quite personal.   We hear, “Forgive us Lord.” or, “We confess these our wrong doings.” These responses can nearly compel us to own the sins listed.  These prayers often end with a longer response like, “We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed.  Lord, hear our prayer and in your mercy forgive us.”  If we listen to these prayers, we are left with little doubt about how guilty we should feel about ourselves.  

So what for me now? 

I believe we need to acknowledge we could be better people.  When we intentionally contemplate this, this ‘self-talk’ is for me, a prayer of confession.   I see no reason to call it other.  God Within prays our prayer. 

I believe God Within is in all this ‘self-talk’ with us.   We are prompted by our beliefs in the good and thus, by the comparison we make between the good and what we think of ourselves and some of our past behaviour, God Within prompts us to accept our shortcomings but also accept that we are accepted as we are, the good parts as well as the not-so-good parts.   “Confession is good for the soul”, we are told.  I believe this is very true and one might also say, “All things in moderation.”  We need to find a balance.  Maybe we need to accept that we are both good and not so good; that we do have a bright side as well as a dark side.

Prayers of Adoration.

As a non-theist what can adoration mean if I have no separate, external, Supreme Being/Person to praise and adore?    How can a prayer of adoration be prayed if there is no distinct Being to adore? 

So what for me now?

As a post-theism student, I go to my concept of God Beyond.   I refer you back to the previous section on the Trinitarian Faith.  Amongst other things I make belief statements about God Beyond. 

God Beyond is the life within all that exists and lives, including me, but not limited to me; other people, trees, ants, rocks, moon, stars, galaxies and most microbes and bacteria are outside, beyond me.  God Beyond is God everything has its being in. The phrase God Beyond is appropriate because nearly everything is beyond or outside of me. 

I also made mention earlier, with regard to the universe being magic and awesome.

Nature, the Cosmos is absolutely and utterly awe inspiring.  No question!  We only need to look at the starry sky at night, we only have to contemplate the complexity, the intricacy of the human body and how it functions, and we only need to think about the interdependence of all living things on our planet earth …. and so on endlessly, to say that the Cosmos, Nature, the creatures and all else that are part of it are beyond imagination in beauty.  Pure magic! 

Adoration, if you wish, and awe I find totally appropriate.  I can say quite comfortably that I adore the way the trees seem to dance in the wind. I can say that I adore the way you smile. Even though adoration makes a lot of sense to me, I prefer the words ‘awe’ and ‘thankfulness’ in the religious prayer context.

From my lyrics  No. 27                     

In Awe and Thankfulness

Tune    Rivaulx

  For God inherent and within,

                                                    That sacredness when we begin,

                                                    In awe and thankfulness we raise

                                                    Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.

For God in process, movement, change,

                                                    In all things common, also strange,

                                                    In awe and thankfulness we raise

                                                    Our hymns and prayers in grateful praise.

In the lyrics above I am speaking of the ever and always in-dwelling God and not as an external Supreme Being to be worshipped and adored.  Before a God-saturated universe, a universe-saturated God I can only stand in silence and awe.   I believe prayers in church services can have the tone and content of adoration without reference to an external, distinct, Supreme Being.  In the face of such an ever-changing universe, speaking of a Creator in the terms I have become used to in the church, presents me with a concept of a God, far too small.  

God Beyondis totally mysterious yet ever present to and in all.  My response to the awesomeness of the cosmos, to all that is around outside and within me, is one of praise and thanksgiving.  Yes, adoration.

I have written many lyrics about this.  Being in awe of the Mystery is what is important for me.   Many may call this adoration.  That’s OK but, for me, not adoration of a distinct, supernatural, supreme, Creator Being/Person.  

Prayers of Supplication and Petition. 

These prayers no longer have a significant place in my understanding of prayer. 

So what for me now?

I can meditate on having more patience, more tolerance, etc., but this, for me, is the ‘self-talk’ of which I have been speaking.   It is my internal challenge of being truly human, with such words as, ‘May I be……,’ or ‘May I have…..’

From the Macquarie Dictionary the definition of ‘supplication’ is

humble prayer, entreaty, or petition  [8];

and of ‘petition’ the definition is

a request made for something desired, especially a respectful and humble request, as to a superior or to one, or those in authority  [9]

The desire for changed behavior is totally appropriate but for me, it does not revolve around or is involved with an external supernatural Supreme Being.   For me, this attitude is all about God Within and the ‘self-talk’ to encourage it to happen.  It is not me helping me but my divine dimension having influence.  I believe this can be very intense for some people.   For me, ‘Letting go and letting God’ fits in here, when approached panentheistically.  For me, it is letting God Within have influence.  It means doing a lot of ‘listening’.

I recently heard of a priest who asked his congregation to pray for a particular rugby team to win a match.  I know this is somewhat extreme and it is absurd and disgraceful but it happens.   It happened just the other day and it was not done as a joke.   It was serious!   What would God do if a neighboring parish prayed for the other team to win??  I often hope that weather will be good for a particular event, but to pray to a God that this will be the case is, I believe, manipulatively absurd. 

The language we often have used in prayers in church services.

It is my experience of public prayer in the church environment, I always hear the words as those addressing a separate outside Being.  Prayer, being conversation, involves two parties.   I believe most regular church-goers, living their religious lives in an environment saturated with biblical theism, would regard the other party as external, a separate outside Being called God.   I am suggesting that the ‘other party’ is internal.  That is why I speak of ‘self-talk’, speaking to and with God Within.    I think this points to the fundamental difference between biblical, supernatural theism and panentheism.

Significantly different understandings of God lead to significantly different ways of praying and thus the language we use in prayers.  The sort of prayer language I experience in church services has not changed in any significant way from 1000, maybe 2000 years ago.  A separate out-there Being we call God has always been a ‘given’ and still is.  Although not actually stated, this separate out-there Being is assumed by the many often repeated phrases like, “We come into your presence …”, “Let us come into the presence of God…”, “Hear our prayer O God…”, “Our Father who art in Heaven…”, “In your mercy, O God, forgive us…”., “We thank you, O God…”, etc.    I have heard these phrases continually in my 80 years of church attendance.  

I have often heard it said that personal relationships grow with communication and if biblical theism dominates then having the conversation with an out-there separate Being is totally appropriate.   These phrases fit perfectly.   Personally, I have to do theological cartwheels to feel involved.  The time of the church service I attend has changed from 11.00am to 9.00am but, in my estimation, not much else has changed in the prayers prayed.   Even inclusive language is still a matter of some debate, for goodness sake.

So what for me now?

I believe we can have the experience of thanksgiving, celebration, confession, intercession, adoration etc. in prayers and liturgies without the presumption of an out-there separate theistic God, without addressing this God.  The websites of many progressive Christians give abundant resources for such prayers and liturgies.

From my lyrics  No. 28.

Moving Forward in Belief

Tune    Stuttgart

                                                      When we ponder what we value,

                                                      When we search our past belief,

                                                      Then we struggle to surrender

                                                      What we’ve known that’s brought relief.

                                                      We are called to venture forward;

                                                      We are challenged to review

                                                      Our beliefs and our behavior;

                                                      Always seeking what is true.

I have tried to deal with prayer and praying from a regular church-goers perspective and from what my experience has been, however in the broader sense of the meaning of prayer and praying I wish to reiterate that with which I began.

Prayer makes humans more vibrant and conscious. Prayer is not just one thing, but an inexact set of practices that allow people to connect more deeply to lived experience.    So, the main point of prayer is human aliveness. Although in some circumstances praying can be boring, pretentious or silly, it mostly contributes to people shining, growing, reflecting, seizing the moment, resisting numbness, opening themselves, facing pain and problems, and coming closer to one another.

Given the bossy ways some religious institutions prescribe prayer, it is quite surprising that prayer as experience and gesture does not require belief or religious adherence. Anyone can pray anywhere — within or outside of religious organization. You can yell at God, like the Hebrew psalmists, or you can run the last mile to finish the Boston marathon. The lonely soul can croon in the shower, the pilgrims can trek toward mountaintop or stained glass, and the gay teen can pick out his finery for the parade. [10]

 My ‘self-talk’ in praying often centres on the words of the Serenity Prayer:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference;

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as a rough pathway to peace;

Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would like to have it;

Living with the hope that life is good and love can make a difference.

Like in other aspects of my journey, I have had to do a great deal of ‘faithful reappraisal’, ‘faithful revision’, ‘faithful replacement’ and some ‘faithful rejection’.  My summation of my situation is that I do not need to ‘Start all over again’ but I do need to take cognisance of my previous beliefs and work with them, not being afraid to change the words of my prayers when I think it is appropriate.  This is a continuing process for me.


[1] Hal Taussig, form his internet blog posted in June 27, 2013.

[2] Ibid, Hal Taussig, from his same internet blog.

[3] Dr Susan Whitbourne, from her website.

[4] Vosper, With or Without God, 28.

[5] Ibid, 29.

[6] Ibid, 29.

[7] Ibid, 30.

[8] Macquarie Dictionary, 2127

[9] Ibid, 1606

[10] Hal Taussig, from his internet blog posted in June 27, 2013.

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My last church service

Sunday 14th March

Toronto Uniting Church

God Is Within.

Church Service Sunday 14th March 2021 at Toronto Uniting Church.

Introductory comments before the service commences.  

This will most probably be the last church service I ever conduct.  An important milestone in my life.  My physical body is wearing out and the time and effort to prepare is just becoming a bit much for me.   Whether or not my mental capacity has also deteriorated may become evident during this service.  I don’t think it has deteriorated but we’ll see.  So, before we begin the service, I wish, if I may, to share with you some of my personal spiritual journey and the way my beliefs have changed.  My journey will continue and I have no doubt that my beliefs will change, as time goes on.

Without interruption, I have been associated with the church for all my 85 years.  When little, I always sat between Mum and Dad in church every Sunday.  I can remember dad would give me a nudge on the leg, if my head was not bowed low enough or my eyes were not closed during prayers.  Not quite sure how he knew my eyes were not closed!!  I attended at least 2 church services every Sunday for about 30 years and can remember even the numbers, in the Presbyterian hymn book we used, of many hymns we sang again and again.  Nos. 1, Holy, Holy, Holy; 535, Onward Christian Soldiers; 205, The Church’s One Foundation; 105, There is a Green Hill Far away, and so on and on.

The theology of the Cross of Jesus I was taught for about 50 years both in church services on a twice a week basis, and also to a large extent in theological seminary where I studied to become an ordained minister, is quite well summarised in the hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away’.   Why did Jesus die?

He died that we might be forgiven.                  There was no other good enough

He died to make us good.                                To pay the price of sin.

That we might go at last to heaven,                  He only could unlock the gate

Saved by his precious blood.                           Of heaven and let us in.

I was deemed to be such a sinner, that it needed Jesus to die for God to be able to forgive me for being such a bad person.  I can remember endless conversations I had with my elder brother Alan, asking him ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’  Over the years my bewilderment grew significantly. 

During all these 50 or so years, Jesus was portrayed as God, in human form.  I was taught that that was the Incarnation – God coming to earth as a human for a short period, to live as a human, to die, rise again and then return to heaven from whence he came; all according to God’s plan.   This was preached by the early disciples of Jesus, as in Acts 2:23-24;

In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him.  But God raised him from death…

And from a carol we still sing at Christmas, ‘Once in royal David’s city’;

And our eyes at last shall see him                    Not in that poor lowly stable,  

Through his own redeeming love;                    with the oxen standing by,

For that child so dear and gentle                                  we shall see him; but in heaven,

Is our Lord in heaven above.                           set at God’s right hand on high,

And he leads his children on,                          when his children gather round                                                     To the place where he has gone.                           bright like stars, with glory crowned.

God was always portrayed to me anthropomorphically, as a super-duper human being.   ‘He’ had all the traits of a Human Being; bodily features of eyes, fingers, hands, feet, ears, nostrils and mouth, etc.; human emotions of love, hate, jealousy, uncertainty, wanting power, getting annoyed, etc.; human attributes of hearing, seeing, listening, talking, smelling, whistling, laughing, resting, etc. “He’ destroys, fights, forgives, creates, goes away, gets weary, changes God’s mind, etc.    All that humans do.    And so on and on!  But of course ‘He’ had more.    This anthropomorphic image of God is the major way, nearly the only way, God is spoken of, right throughout the whole Bible

All this is what I have been taught most of my church life, and I now find a lot of it unhelpful, in my journey with Jesus.  However, I don’t wish to criticise or belittle our religious forebears. 

Different people in all different ages have used their imaginations to contemplate the mysteries of life, God and the universe.  I use my imagination too but it is very different to the imaginations of those who wrote our many of our well known hymns as well as the writers of the Bible.   This is partly because I live 2 to 3000 years after many biblical writers.  I do not believe the earth is flat with a solid dome above it, called heaven; as they did.  I do not believe in a three tiered universe with heaven up there, hell down there with the earth in the middle, as they did.  I do not believe there are many gods and that their god was the strongest; the almighty creator of all things, as they did.  I do not believe that God makes everything happen, as they did.  Their god was separated from the earth, living in heaven.  This was the imagination of the Bible writers.

My imagination is very different.  It includes the Big Bang, as the origin of the universe; billions of galaxies, with billions of stars in each.  This universe is expanding.  It includes the idea that all matter is made up of tiny atoms and molecules that are in continual internal motion.  These atoms and molecules are indestructible.  The atoms and molecules that form me are billions of years old.  I don’t really think I look quite that old!   These atoms and molecules came into being at the explosion of stars and all of them are still here, some in me.  I am connected to stars!  Wow!  

Theologically, the imagination of past religious teachers had Jesus as the second person of the trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  I was encouraged to worship Jesus as God, who came to earth for a short period, before returning to heaven from whence he came.  I was taught that he will come again so I had better be ready for that and behave myself; or else!

Now, my theological imagination includes the idea of God as the Divine Energising Force which is present in everything and everybody; always has been and always will be.  Some call this Panentheism.  This Divine Energising Force is inherent, an aspect that is an inseparable dimension of everything and everyone, including you and me.  So for me, God is not a separate being but an inseparable feature of me and you.  God is part of who I am and I am part of who God is.  God is in me and I am in God.  This is all mystical, spiritual talk.   I can’t explain it but I believe it.    All is mystery and I accept that.  

Much of my imagination can be found in the Bible and I hope this will become obvious as the service continues.   The traditional theology I have been taught also had the seeds in it that enabled my beliefs to grow into what they are today.  It was an important part of my spiritual journey.

However, I can remember that from about 1990, for about the last 30 years I have been re-evaluating many of the basics of my past religious teachings.  In many ways it has been quite traumatic for me; turning my back on a lot of what I have been taught all my life; but in other ways it has been rewarding, enriching and a great release for me.     So we commence our church service.

 As we come together.      We come from different places but we do come together.   We sing but think about the words.  Our church service can be an experience of contemplating life and what it means to be human.  It can be a celebration of life and a time to remember Jesus and what he taught us.

 As we come together.            Tune  Caswell   TiS 344

 As we come together                  

 Come just as we are.             

 With our diff’rent feelings;   

 Near and from afar.              

As we come together,

Some may come to pray;

Seeking for direction 

How to live each day.

As we come together,

Some to meet with friends.

Talking, list’ning, sharing;

On these love depends

As we come together,

Some to understand

Challenges from Jesus;

And what they demand.

As we come together,

Some may come to pause;

Stressed or in depression;

Looking for the cause.

As we come together

At this time and place,

May we see God’s presence

In each other’s face.

So we come as we are with our own special feelings, feelings that arise out of our own individual living experiences.  We come with our own beliefs, our wisdom and beauty as well as our inadequacies and needs.

We will hear some teachings from the Bible. However, instead of working with the Bible as we usually do, being given a reflection on a particular passage, we are going to have the Bible work with us.  We will have a few conversations with it.   I have decided the themes that we will deal with and I have researched the Bible, using some of what it has to say about them.  Everything Jeff reads is a direct quote from the Bible.

 About God and the relationship we, as human beings, have with God.

Bible conversation. 1.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … So God created man in his own image; male and female he created them.’  Genesis 1:26 & 27.

All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men.  John 1:4.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the    world.  John 1:9.

We are all sacred, made in the image of God.  From the very beginning, the light of God has been life to all humans.  That is still the case.  Let us be aware that we are all sacred.

There is but one body and one spirit, just as there was but one hope set before you when you received your call.  There is but one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is but one God and Father of all mankind who is Lord of all; – the God who is over all, pervades all, and is in all.  Ephesians 4:4-5

God pervades all and is in all.  God, pervading all and being in all, means that God is inseparable from what is, all things, everything in the universe.  There is a divine quality of all there is, absolutely everything.  What does this mean for all of us here, today?

It can mean that we are conscious of the Divine dimension of ordinary things, of everything that happens and of all us ordinary people.

Everything in God    Tune  Lobe Den Herren  TiS 111

God is the One in whom we all have life-giving purpose,

Spirit encompassing all and yet present within us;

Breath of each birth,

Source of all beauty and worth,

Found in us all, yet mysterious.

Have faith in virtue, have hope in great beauty abounding;

Hear words of love, and then listen for laughter resounding;

When, with delight,

We turn from darkness to light,

God, we discern, is surrounding.

Home is our world amidst wonder of life with its splendour;

Movement and colour show nature’s abundant agenda;

God is thus found

In air and sea, on the ground;

God is displayed by each gender.

God is the One in whom we live and move and have being;

Spirit within as we ponder our faith and believing;

Here and elsewhere,

Past, present, future to share,

God, the beginning and ending.

Bible conversation. 2.

What is my experience of God

In God we live and move and have our being.  Acts 17:28

If we ‘live’ in God, I believe that Jesus teaches us to ‘see’ God in all of our life, even the everyday experiences we all have from time to time.   Stories about Jesus and stories Jesus told, I believe, demonstrate that he ‘saw’ God, a sacred dimension in everything, including very ordinary things.   Some of these have to do with daily work.

The Kingdom of God is like this; A man sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went off.   Matthew 13:25-26.

Why do bad people try to undo the good that others do?  Sometimes things don’t turn out how we wish.

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A man takes a mustard seed and sows it in his field.  It is the smallest of all seeds but when it grows up, it is the biggest of all plants. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with 40 litres of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.

“They don’t have to leave”, answered Jesus.  “You yourselves give them something to eat.”  They replied, “All we have is five loaves and two fish.  The number of men who ate were about 5,000.” Matthew 13:31-32,33&14:16-17&21.

Jesus talks about a man’s work, about a woman’s cooking and about feeding a whole crowd of people.   But he uses these ordinary things to teach about the deeper meaning these teachings pointed to.  A little thing can do a lot.  I can say to someone, “Are you OK?”  Who knows what affect this will have?  It may begin a process preventing suicide?

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  Some fishermen throw their net out in the lake and catch all kinds of fish.   Matthew 13:47.

Some fish were nutritious and others had to be thrown away.  I can say something which I think is positive and someone else may think I am being insulting.  This should make me far more sensitive when talking, but it should not stop me fishing!

Suppose a woman has 10 silver coins and loses one.  What does she do?  She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and looks carefully everywhere until she finds it.   Luke 15:8.

Whoever heard of someone teaching about the Kingdom of God when speaking about house cleaning?  I can try to think and do something positive when I am annoyed, unhappy or even depressed. 

Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.   Jesus stood up and commanded the wind, “Be quiet.”, and he said to the waves, “Be still.”   Mark 4:37&39.

Can I engender calmness when everything around me is violent or in conflict?

No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts it on a lampstand where it gives light for everyone in the house.  In the same way your light must shine before people, so they will see the good things you do…   Matthew 5:15-16

I can heap praise on people for the good they do.  Others may ignore them or not mention them.  I need to affirm good deeds. 

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel round his waist.   John 13:6.

Is washing dirty dishes and dirty clothes important?  Thankfully, they can be acts of loving service.

Everything that exists had a sacred dimension for Jesus.  We can learn godly things from the ordinary.   God is never absent, but always present in all things, if we use our eyes to see and our ears to hear.

We think about the world so we pray about the world.

Acknowledgement of all our human ancestors.  (Said by the congregation)

We are thankful that all our human ancestors helped to leave us a world that we can treasure and enjoy.  We are particularly grateful for the care the Awabakal peoples gave to the land on which we stand and which we inhabit.   By our responsible deeds, may we be able to hand on to our children and their children, a world which they too, can treasure and enjoy.

Not only is God in us but we are also in God.  This is all very mystical, spiritual; but this is a way of thinking that can help us use our imagination to approach the ultimate mystery in which our lives are engulfed. 

Bible conversation. 3.

In him we live and move and have our being.  Acts 17:28

Jesus, for me, is the prime example of this.   Jesus lived and moved and had his being in God.

Phillip said to him, “Lord show us the Father; that is all we need.” Jesus answered, “For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me Phillip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why then do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe, Phillip that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?   Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  If not, believe because of the things I do.   I am telling you the truth.”   John 14:8-12.

Do not believe me then if I am not doing the things my Father wants me to do.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, you should at least believe my deeds, in order that you may know, once and for all, that the Father is in me and that I am in the Father.  John10:37-38.

The way Jesus lived, his actions and his deeds show me that he was ‘God saturated’, ‘God filled’; that he was in God and God was in him.   I imagine this as God within.  Jesus, and the way he lived, is an excellent example of what a human life looks like when we cooperate fully with God Within.   I believe we can imagine this as God Within us.  Can we be ‘God saturated?  I believe so. 

Love and ….. Tune Gloria/Iris TiS 309

God is love and when we love we manifest God.  We expose God in our midst.  We are profoundly blessed to be part of this experience.

When we strive to be much better

Do not think that it is odd

To believe this urgent feeling

And its forcefulness is God.

Love …….and challenge are so life reforming;

Love …….and challenge can be life transforming.

When we share a tragic moment

Do not think that it is odd

To believe this tender feeling

And its sentiment is God.

Love …….and kindness are, in life, enfolding;

Love …….and kindness are, for us, upholding.

When a gen’rous gift is given

Do not think that it is odd

To believe this noble feeling

And its graciousness is God.

Love …….and goodness are, for us, bewitching;

Love …….and goodness – always life enriching.

When delightful thoughts surprise us

Do not think that it is odd

To believe these thrilling feelings

And their joyfulness is God.

Love …….and gladness prompt us into dancing;

Love …….and gladness are so life enhancing

We connect with the God Within us.

We are thankful that, at times in our lives, we are prompted to be forgiving.  We are prompted to be generous.  We are prompted to serve others.  We are prompted to be considerate and kind.  We are prompted to be good.  From time to time we all experience these promptings. Where do they come from?

 Let us imagine that these promptings are God within us. 

We pray that we may allow these promptings to give rise to godly thoughts and actions.  We pray that we may ‘listen to this good inner voice’ and let it influence our thoughts and actions.  In our dealings with others today, God Within will prompt us to be considerate and thoughtful. 

Will we let this influence guide us today in what we say and do with family, friends, and strangers?  Will we let this influence guide us today in how we regard and treat animals and how we care for our environment?

So we affirm our commitment to be kind. 

Are willing to be a gift of love and generosity to others?

Can we be thankful for these intentions and will we work hard to make them happen? 

Can we seek the way of the Spirit of Life and Love?

I believe Jesus shows us that way. 

 We think about ourselves so we pray about ourselves.

 When we cooperate with the good spirit within us, what I call God Within, human virtue is the result.  I believe this good spirit is what makes us human; is what challenges us to want to love and care for each other and for all that is around us; is what prompts us to be honest and responsible; is what joins us with others in our efforts to build a better world. 

 God Within  Tune Ar Hyd Y Nos (All through the Night)  TiS 168

From beginning to each ending

God is within.

Human and divine keep blending;

God is within.

In our coming and our going,

In our learning and our knowing,

As we struggle in our growing

God is within.

When we cease from being greedy

God is within;

When we look to serve the needy

God is within.

When we use our wealth for sharing,

When we stand with those despairing,

When we live our lives in caring

God is within.

God and Jesus are in union;

God is within.

We are also in communion;

God is within.

We can now find perfect rhythm,

We are cherished, we are welcome;

In this unity is freedom.

God is within.

When we act with human virtue

God is within.

Strive for live ideals we value,

God is within.

When we guard and guide each other

With compassion, we uncover

Our true selves and we discover

God is within.

I relate to the humanity of Jesus because I can see what a human being can do and be.  If he has special qualities that I do not share, then, for me, he is not one of us.  If he is God, then for me, he is not one of us.  If he is human, I can relate to him.  For me, he is then one of us.   God is in him and he is in God just like all of us.   He had a divine dimension the same as we have.

I have been taught to worship Jesus.   But I try to follow him.

I learn nothing from perfection.  Excellence is my challenging mentor and my inspiration. 

I have been taught to glorify Jesus.   I want to acknowledge him as my mentor, teacher and guide.

I have been taught to pray to Jesus.    In my imagination, I wish to pray with him.

I believe the Cross of Jesus defines him and his message.   The Cross was inevitable, given the way he lived and what he taught.   The possibility of suffering and conflict did not distract him from what he believed was his mission in life.  Suffering and conflict were certainly not foreign experiences for him.   The gospel stories tell us that Jesus struggled; he was tempted to change course; he sweated blood in his decision making; he thought at one stage that God had abandoned him.   Yet, he never let go of his personal dignity, his strength of purpose, his integrity, his willingness to take responsibility for his actions, his will to love and forgive others, right to the very end.    This end of his life shows me what a human being can endure and can achieve.

And he did it alone!   I think I might be able to be reasonably strong when standing with others of like mind, but I am nearly certain that I could not do it alone.   But Jesus did and he was human. 

Jesus was betrayed, but he loved his betrayer.

His disciples all ran away and left him, but he loved each one.

Jesus was denied, but he loved his denier.

Jesus was falsely accused, but he loved his accusers. 

He was abused, but he loved his abusers.

Jesus was cursed, but he loved those who cursed him.

His mother grieved for him, and he loved her.

Jesus was killed, but he loved his killers.

What amazing inspiration.  

What intense humanity.  

What provocative challenge.  

What a man! 

The gospel stories tell us that there were 7 sayings from Jesus when he was dying on his Cross.   Many commentators do not believe these sayings actually came from the lips of Jesus but together, I believe they present a story that fits perfectly with what we know from the gospels, about Jesus of Nazareth.  He lived with integrity and this was how he died; with unquenchable integrity.   He died as he lived; faithful to what he taught.  He loved to the end.

Combining the sayings from all the gospels, I have a significant picture of Jesus.

Bible conversation. 4.

“My God.  My God; why have you forsaken me?”  

Mark 15:34.

These are the dying words of a man who was humiliated beyond reason and without legitimate cause.  He had been betrayed and denied by those closest to him.  All his friends had run away, leaving him without support.    He felt isolated, totally alone.   He was broken.  Why would he not have called out to his God in such utter desperation?  Was he wrong, after all?

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Luke 23:43.

These are the words of a man, even at the point of his own death, who cared for a stranger who was also dying.  He gave hope to another in a hopeless, tragic situation.  Love still flowed from him.

“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”  Luke 23:46.

These are the words of a man who believed deeply; a man whose confidence in God could not be destroyed.  He knew he was finished but he still trusted that God would be there for him.  God would take care of him. 

“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Luke 23:34.

These are the words a man who forgave others who were killing him.  They didn’t ask for it.  They didn’t deserve it but it was still available in abundance. He had taught forgiveness and now he lived it.  Forgiveness was the last thing he could give them and that’s what he did.

When Jesus Died so Long Ago.  Tune  Horsley  TiS 350

When Jesus died so long ago

And shared our human fate,

He did not curse his human foe

Nor utter words of hate.

He prayed for those who drove each nail;

He comforted a thief;

He struggled to let love prevail;

He battled unbelief.

He breathes his last; he bows his head;

This is the end – but NO!

The powers that be – they think he’s dead;

They are so wrong.  We know!

“Woman behold your Son.  Behold your mother.” John 19:26-27.

Speaking to John, these are the words a man who cared for his mother to the end.  Women were there at the Cross, grieving.  His mum was one of them.    At his death, she was important to him.  She was beginning to age and he was concerned for her.  He wanted her to be cared for. 

“I thirst.”  John 19:28.

These are the words a man who was very human.   His body was drying out.  He was suffocating.   The one who gave ‘the living water’ to so many, could give no more.   Now, he needed some himself.   So he cries out in his own need.

  “It is finished.”  John 19:30.

These are the words of a man who endured to the end.  Exhausted, weak, drained and empty.  He had run his course.  He had completed the task given to him.  He had remained faithful.  Nothing more was needed to be done.  He couldn’t do any more but he knew he had done well.  He had loved to the end.

He uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark 15:37.

This crazy mixture of contradictory human emotions and deathly experiences were those of Jesus, my friend, my mentor, my guide, the One who completely exposed God Within, the One who calls me to follow.  

What amazing inspiration!

What intense humanity! 

What provocative challenge! 

What a death! 

What a man!

The centurion surely had it right when he said, “Truly this man was a son of God.”

I shout “Hallelujah” and I weep with tears of sadness but also of admiration. So I shout “Hallelujah” again because in Jesus’ words are the seeds of resurrection; seeds of the victory of love and integrity over violence and the abuse of power.  This man is certainly worth remembering and following.

Jesus is crucified but he doesn’t stay dead on his Cross.  Love is murdered but it is never exterminated.   Jesus, Love never ends!   This is the wonderful news of the Gospel!  This is the message I gain from Jesus and his Cross.

Our last conversation with the Bible. 5.

 Though God has never been seen by any man, God himself dwells in us if we love one another; his love is brought to perfection in us.   1 John 4:12.

God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him.   1 John 4:16.

It seems that love makes all the difference.

I may speak in tongues of man and angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging symbol.  I may have the gift of prophesy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.  I may be able to dole out all I possess or even give my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I am none the better.   1 Corinthians 13:1-3  

Wait a minute!   I (Jesus) tell you this: “If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’, and it will move; nothing will prove impossible for you.”

 I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.                1 Corinthians 13:2.

If any man says, ‘I love God’, while hating his brother, he is a liar.  And indeed this commands comes from Christ himself; that he who loves God must also love his brother.    1 John 4:20.

Loving others is what matters.  To love is godly.  To love God has no meaning if we don’t love others.  Maybe the only way we can show that we love God is by loving others.

We think about others and our community so we pray about others and our community.

God  is Constant Pursuing Love  Tune  Hyfrydol  TiS 217(i), 233, 517

As we come with our thanksgiving,

Sense God’s presence in each one;

Feel the pulse of wholesome living;

Peace and joy can still be won.

Confident we know God’s guidance;

We approach God’s open door;

Prized and precious we are welcome;

Peace in God; we need no more.

God is love and love gives freedom;

Freedom from all fear and guilt.

God is love and love will blossom;

Broken lives can be rebuilt.

Punishment for past wrong-doing

In God’s dealings has no place.

Love is constant, keeps pursuing;

We are bound in God’s embrace.

God is love and love is gentle;

Love can keep no scores of wrong;

God is love and love is central

When discipleship is strong.

If the kind and good and tender

Are to happen here today,

It will issue from surrender

Of our lives to Jesus’ way.

We disperse but we are still together in spirit, for God is in us and we are in God.

We know what this means by remembering Jesus.

We leave this place and go our own ways; into our homes,

our own work places and our leisure activities,

pursuing our interests, in God.

We meet God everywhere, in everyone we meet.

We are all, everyone is sacred.

God, in us, goes with us;

to challenge us, to comfort us and be in every part of our lives,

in everything we think and do.

We are never alone.  No one is ever alone.  We are thankful.

We are in God and God is in us.

Some extra stuff for those interested.

Gretta Vosper is a leading Canadian ‘progressive’ Christian, who was subjected to what many thought, was a heresy trial.  She is an author of many books and a theologian.  I quote from her book, With or without God.

Sit for just a moment.  When you think about it, you may find that you haven’t been thinking about god theistically – as a distinct, other being separate and definable – for a while.  You may think of god as a remote being for some of the time, but you also may have often thought of god as a feeling that makes you want to be the best person you can be. 

You get that feeling when you plunk a quarter into a stranger’s parking meter. You get that feeling when you talk to your kids about trying to make this world a better place, and they tell you some pretty good ideas they’ve come up with, all on their own.

You get that feeling when you stop and talk to that other person who has been sitting all alone the whole time you have been visiting your mum in rehab.  All he does is smile at you and nod but that feeling is almost tangible.  You get that feeling when you pick up the package you were expecting, and in it you find that perfect gift you ordered for your child, your lover or yourself. 

I invite you to think of that feeling as god.

I think this can be our experience if we use our imagination.   Maybe not the same imagination as the Bible writers and those of the last centuries, but that does not make our imagination wrong or unhelpful.   I urge you to use you own imagination.

Walter Brueggemann,a modern German biblical commentator says,

The Bible is an act of imagination.  It is not a package of certitudes.  It is an act of imagination that invites our faithful imagination which makes it possible for us to live faithfully.

I think Brueggemann is suggesting that we can understand the Bible as written by people, using their imaginations to express how they experienced God as they imagined God to be.   We have the freedom to do the same. 

For me, this means that to maintain my honesty and integrity, I cannot allow my imagination to be bound to, or to be bound by the imaginations of the Bible writers/authors, who lived 2000 to 3000 years before me.   In some instances I must break free from this bind.

Matthew Fox is an American priest and theologian.   When he was expelled from the Catholic Dominican Order, he joined the Episcopal Church in 1993.  He says a lot about his concept of God, amongst which is,

What is the solution to the killing of God and the losing of the human soul.  It is moving from theism to panentheism. 

(A panenthieist believes that God is IN everything and everything is IN God.   Theism is the belief that God is a supernatural being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good.  Monotheism believe that there is only one such God.)

Experiencing the diaphanous and transcendent God: – ‘C.G.Jung has written that there are two ways to lose your soul.  One of these is to worship a god outside you.’  If he is correct, then a lot of churchgoers in the West have been losing their souls for generations to the extent that they have attended religious events where prayer is addressed to a god outside.   The idea that God is ‘out there’ is probably the ultimate dualism, divorcing as it does God and humanity and reducing religion to a childish state of pleasing or pleading with a God ‘out there’.  All theism sets up a model paradigm of people here and God out there.  All theisms are about subject/object relationships to God.

A bit difficult to understand but I think Fox is saying that if we think of God as a supernatural being then ‘he or she’ is separate and ‘out there’.   Being separate leads to ‘dualism’; there are two places; there are two realms of existence; things are here or there; they are not a unity. 

But I think Fox is too hard when he says ‘reducing religion to a childish state of pleasing or pleading with a God ‘out there’.   I don’t think people do that in their religious life.  I believe that people who do believe in a supernatural Person they address as God, are not being ‘childish’ at all.

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The Exodus Story

Truth-Telling and our sacred book.

In the pursuit of ‘Truth-Telling’, I believe the church has some difficult ‘Truth-Telling’ to do about our past particularly regarding our sacred book, the Bible.  Why the Bible?  Because it comes to us from our somewhat distant church past.  This ‘Truth-Telling’ is not absent but I believe it has to be far more obvious to the general public and also needs to be given more voice within the church to help our members confront the issues this ancient book raises.  I believe the church needs to gain again some credibility in our world today.

With the call to excise from our present situation the ‘honoring’ of the names of historical figures who are now being exposed as slave-traders, violent leaders, racists, etc., along with the disfiguring and dismantling of statues of past prominent figures of history, some of it in the name of the ‘Truth-Telling’, maybe now could be an opportune time for some more hard thinking about what more needs to be said by the church about the our church’s past.

There are many issues raised by our sacred book but being specific, I believe it is very necessary for the church to ‘call out’ and repudiate the violent activity of the God which is depicted on so many of the Bible’s pages, particularly of the Old Testament but also to a lesser extent of the New.  I think this ‘Truth-Telling’ about our sacred book needs to be done especially when Christians and Christian leaders make critical comments about the way some people, particularly non-church people like President Trump, use the Bible. 

‘Truth Telling’ about the past, as we all know, can often be very difficult and painful because it can bring to the light those parts of history we wish to ignore or forget; parts that we do not wish to discuss with, or teach to those who may not know.  It often raises those parts of history about which many of us take a very different posture today, thank goodness, but it can also raise guilt feelings which we find very uncomfortable and to a degree, sometimes resist. 

Self-examination within the church can be unsettling particularly when it exposes our ‘dark’ past and thus can offend others who are members of our own ‘tribe’. 

When Jesus involved himself in some ‘Truth-Telling’ about his Jewish history in the Hebrew Scriptures, he got himself into strife.  Early in his ministry, we are told, he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, teaching.  The reaction of those listening was,

And all spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth ;…(Luke 4:22.)

However, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus continued his teaching with,

And he (Jesus) said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.  But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon to a woman who was a widow.  (Referring to a story in 1 Kings 17:8-24.)  And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them were cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian.  (Referring to a story in 2 Kings 5:1-14.)  (Luke 4:24-27.)

Jesus certainly knew his Jewish scriptures.  Very selective in his quoting, but the stories are there and were probably avoided by the current religious leaders and teachers.  Some confronting ‘Truth-telling’!  Was this exposing a side of their history his fellow Jews didn’t want to hear?  The stories he was referring to were suggesting that foreigners were respected and even cared for more than their own Jewish ancestors.  What was the result of this ‘Truth-Telling’?

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath, and they rose up and put him out of the city and they lead him to the brow of a hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.  But passing through the midst of them he went away.  (Luke 4:28-30.)

It amazes me how quickly crowds can turn from praise to persecution.  I find it worrying that this can be the reaction to ‘Truth-Telling’.  The fear of persecution may even lead to the avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ particularly if it is thought that this persecution could be carried out by members of one’s own ‘tribe’.  It may also lead to unwanted division within the ‘tribe’.

So, I hope you find this paper useful.  It is my honest attempt to do some ‘Truth-Telling.’, as I see it.  I think we regular church-goers sometimes accept, without a great deal of scrutiny, what we are told in the church.    

Although extremely difficult for me, I feel I need to construct this paper using the concepts of God that are nearly universal in the church and certainly promoted right throughout the Bible.   These concepts include the anthropomorphic characterization of God and connected with this, that God is a being, a person, who ‘does things’.  This biblical God intervenes in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.   Being a panentheist I find all this unacceptable and I use quite different images when speaking of God.  I am somewhat reluctant to use the word God at all, because of the immense unwanted baggage which it carries and which seems extremely difficult to throw off.  My concept of God is that God is in everything and everything is in God, so for me, the life force, the inherent underlying foundation of all that is, is ‘involved’ but not intervening from ‘outside’. 

So in this paper I use biblical images and concepts to try to connect with regular church-goers because I think this is where they start.  But by using them, I do not wish to convey the impression that I like using them or that they are the foundational images and concepts of God that I embrace.  Not so!

In this paper I refer to ‘Reader-Response interpretation’, quite a few times.  Because of the study I have done regarding the numerous Bible references I make throughout this paper, I recognise my interpretations can differ from other people’s interpretation.  I have found that very different interpretations are given by various biblical commentators when they deal with the same text. 

‘Reader-Response interpretation’ is reading into the text one’s own experience of one’s own day and culture, rather than reading the text itself; taking note of what the text actually states and then learning from it, always taking into serious consideration its 1st Century middle-eastern cultural context.

I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged in this ‘Reader-Response interpretation’ a great deal, and in extreme cases, have created their own text and then proclaimed it as being what the Bible teaches.  I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation, hopefully not to an extreme. 

Moises Silva expounds on this matter.

Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning, and thus creates a new text.  [1]

 Edgar McKnight, a respected proponent of Reader-Response theory, suggests that since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating system, ultimate meaning is unreachable. All we can hope for is to discover and express truth ‘in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning’.  We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, ‘which is satisfying for the present location of the reader’.  [2]

With this in mind, in this paper I am claiming to do some ‘Truth-Telling’.  That may be seen by some as being arrogant.  Am I saying, “My interpretation of the Bible is one of ‘Truth-Telling’ whereas other approaches and interpretations are false and not concerned with ‘Truth-Telling’?”  I certainly hope not.  I don’t wish to give that impression but I suppose this is the predicament that one can get into when one expresses one’s views with passion and strong commitment.  Others who disagree with me are ignorant and wrong!!  I don’t wish to even suggest that.  I certainly have passion and strong commitment to what I put forward in this paper, however, I wish, in no way, to say or suggest that other people who have different approaches are not as concerned with the truth as much as myself. 

Their search for truth may be more productive than mine.  For you to decide.

Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.

For me, one of the very troublesome issues of ‘Truth-Telling’ in the church is violence in the Bible. 

Violence in itself, must have a place in telling about humanity’s past, the church’s past.  Not telling the violent aspect of the past can cause the cry for ‘Truth-Telling’.  However, when ‘Truth -Telling’ about the past in the Bible involves telling about a God being violent and commanding humans to be violent, I have a huge problem.  Not that it is there, but that it is often either just accepted, explained away, ignored or completely avoided.

For years I have been faithfully questioning many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught and reflected in his life.  I have no right to expect all the stories in the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn from Jesus, however, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the whole Bible, including the Old Testament with its stories and its teachings in front of me.  In every church service, at least one, and sometimes up to four Bible passages are read.  Thus, the Bible is presumed to be extremely important in the instruction of Christian beliefs and for guidance about how we should live.  I need to determine whether particular stories and teachings help my spiritual growth or hinder it.  I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers, but many who think about this issue of violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult. Why is it difficult?   Because the Bible is revered as authoritative but it has stories in it that speak of a God demanding the slaughter of infants and children!

The other day I was sharing with a friend in my congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament.  She is one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus.  She is a regular church-goer like myself. She said to me, “Well George, just don’t read it.”  Maybe sound advice.  However, the whole content of the Bible is still available for everyone, including church-goers, to read and study and so my concern remains.  When such issues are addressed by serious ‘Truth-Telling’, and when followed by essential, competent teaching, this helps us ordinary church-goers address these.  Otherwise we are encouraged to keep our heads in the sand!

So, to my endeavor.

At the outset, it is important to emphasize that in the Bible, the violence of God and God’s commands to be violent, are nearly always God’s response to idolatry, worshipping other Gods, and/or the practice of injustice and corruption by the Israelites and their national and religious leaders.  Regarding God’s violence, the ‘religious’ aspect of life, the human relationship with God, is nearly always bound to the ‘secular’ practice of justice and the appropriate use of power, the relationship that humans have with other humans.. 

As an example, a few quotes from Jeremiah.

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed blood in this place, and if you do not go after other Gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever.  (Jeremiah 7:5-7.)

Also,

Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord.  Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness into which they shall be driven and fall; for I will bring evil upon them in the year of their punishment, says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 23:11-12.)

This connection of the worship of other Gods and the practice of justice in society are linked continuously throughout the Bible as that which incurs God’s judgement and consequentially, particularly in the Old Testament, God’s violent punishment.  However, it must also be acknowledged that the violence of God is sometimes directed at the enemies of God’s chosen people and is often very excessive.  The Exodus story is at the beginning of this violence and it continues in the violent conquest of the Promise Land.  This particular partisan violence of the tribal God of Israel sickens me!

It takes the Bible only about 100 verses, not counting verses which are just lists of names in genealogies, for this biblical God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah plus; see Genesis `6:7.  This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except one family; see Genesis 19:24-25.  And this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, including innocent men, women, young people and children; see Exodus chapters 7 to 14.  I deal with this story in great detail later.  I could go on and on and on.

These stories, being the product of a theology of about 3000 years ago, I take none of them literally but for me, the image of God presented in them is ultra-violently abhorrent.  I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as one much respected commentator seems to suggest.  For me, that trivializes the matter.

This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath and vengeance in the prophets, fighting against idolaters and God’s enemies. 

And the angel the Lord…slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians.  (Isaiah 37:36.)

The violence of God continues in the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah.  These books have many statements about God waring against idolatry and injustice, those who don’t obey God’s commandments and even sometimes against enemies of God’s chosen people.  These prophetic books are also appropriately quoted about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness and about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings in the exercise of their personal relationships with each other.  An important example of this is in the Book of Micah in which there is the often quoted text of significant moral challenge.  Notice again how the exercise of justice is linked to the peoples’ relationship to God. 

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8.)

However, only nine verses before this injunction, God says that God will act very violently.

I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities. And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.  (Micah 5:14-15.)

Asherim refer to Gods who were worshipped, other than Yahweh, Israel’s’ God,

This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as is clearly demonstrated in certain texts in the gospels and other parts of the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation.

A major image of God in the Bible is that of a God who deals out rewards and punishments.  These rewards and punishments are very often excessive.  They are not absent in some parables of Jesus in the gospels. 

Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God.  I think this is because I do hear in church services, a lot of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the good content of the Bible.  The violent image of God is by no means the only image of God presented in the Bible and in particular, in the Old Testament.  Far from it; however, in my experience there has been a skewed instruction about our sacred book, which can be pinned down to a lack of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the ‘dark’ side of its content.  This violent image is on a vast number of its pages, so in calling for ‘Truth-Telling’ about it, I need to highlight some stories, as I remember them.

At this stage I need to say that I believe this violent image of God plays little to no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it, and I find it significant that Jesus seems to avoid parts of this ‘dark’ side of his Jewish scripture.  I give examples of this a bit later.

Probably the worst story.

It is the notorious story in 1 Samuel 15.  It deals with the first command the Lord gave, through the prophet Samuel, to King Saul after he had been anointed king.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’  (1 Samuel 15:3.)

Saul did not follow the commands of the Lord to the letter.  He took Agag, the king of the Amalekites, a live prisoner and did not kill the best of the animals.  This story concludes with how Samuel kills Agag by ‘hewing him in pieces before the Lord’; see. 1 Samuel 15:33.

I believe this whole story is a disgraceful story regarding the image of God contained in it.  Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is concluded with, ‘In this is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.’  Also, not a story for Sunday School children.

The Exodus story.

The Exodus story is important to me because it is taught as part of my Christian heritage and it still features in some of our church liturgies.   Jews celebrate it very frequently and especially at their yearly Passover festival.  To an extent, it tells of the origins of the Hebrew nation.   This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.  Marcus Borg writes,

For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’. It was the most important story they knew.  [3]

Also,

…as Israel’s primal narrative, the exodus account is a paradigmatic story of God’s character and will.  [4]

Also, I pick on the Exodus story because it is considered by some as a paradigm story for the whole of the Old Testament.  Father Richer Rohr states,

One of the great themes in the Bible, which begins in the Hebrew Scriptures and is continued in Jesus and Paul, is called ‘the preferential option for the poor’; I call it ‘the bias toward the bottom’.  We see the beginnings of this theme about 1200 years before Christ with an enslaved people in Egypt.  Through their history God chooses to engage humanity in a social and long-standing conversation.  The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, through twists and turns and dead ends, finally brings them to the Promised Land, eventually called Israel.  This is a standing archetype of the perennial spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation.  It is a universal journey.  [5]

My interpretation.

Reasonably recent translations of the Bible are what many regular church-goers have and I am trying to put this paper together as one of those, a regular church-goer.  So in my study of this Exodus story, I have concentrated very much on the biblical text in the Revised Standard Version.  Also in this paper I have commented on what some liberation theologians say, given a brief reaction to the film ‘The Ten Commandments’, stated what some modern biblical commentators teach and also have researched some material about the historical growth of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Lastly, I have compared what some different translations have as the specific words of the story.  In this comparison I have used the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV and the Good News Bible, GNB, comparing them to the one I usually use in the paper, the Revised Standard Version, RSV.  This extra reading and study is probably significantly more than many other regular church-goers have done, so, there may be some new material for you in this paper. 

The Story.

I now comment in great detail, on the Exodus story as I understand it and interpret it, looking particularly at the image of God within it. 

Like some other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story for me, presents an image of God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/Person, intervening in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.  I believe that, at the time of writing, ‘the Lord’ was understood as being the Hebrew tribal God.

In a nut-shell, this is the story I have been taught.  This is how I remember it.

The Hebrews, called the Children of Abraham, were a nation of oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of suffering were heard by God, so God came down to earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation.  God sent ten plagues to demonstrate God’s power in ‘signs and wonders’, and through them, punished Egypt because Pharaoh would not let the Hebrew slaves, God’s people, go.  The first nine plagues in the story are; water in the Nile River and all over Egypt turned into blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder, hail and fire; locusts and darkness for three days. These plagues caused untold death and destruction in all the land of Egypt; the death of all animals and the total destruction of all vegetation, fruit, plants and trees.  The last and most devastating plague was that of the human death of the first-born of all Egyptian families and thus caused the death of countless humans, some infants, many older children and adults.

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  (Exodus 12:29.)

After this, Pharaoh, wanting to rid himself and Egypt of these Hebrew slaves, submits to the Lord’s demand to let them go, but as they are escaping, Pharaoh turns on them again.  The Hebrews slaves get caught at the edge of the Red Sea, with the sea of water in front of them and Pharaoh and all his warriors behind them.  They are terrified.  But God, in a show of almighty power, ‘divides’ the waters, enabling the Hebrew slaves to go forward on ‘dry land’.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry land, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.  (Exodus 14:21-22.)

The Egyptians had their hearts ‘hardened’ by God so that they pursued the escaping slaves.  All the Egyptians in chariots and all Pharaoh’s horsemen get drowned when God ‘returned’ the water to its natural position.  Thus God demonstrated, yet again, God’s power in this final ‘sign and wonder’.

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots and his horsemen.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.  (Exodus 14:17-18.)

Also,

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.  (Exodus 14:28.)

As a consequence of this final and most powerful ‘sign and wonder’, the people of Israel are at last liberated from their bitter slavery and continue their journey as God’s chosen people, freed from the oppression of Pharaoh.  God’s power is greater than Pharaoh’s so the Hebrews’ great liberation is achieved.

The biblical background to the story.

This Exodus story and its biblical background is found in Exodus 1:1 to 15:21.  I found the background in chapters 1 and 2 very important.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it states that all the brothers of Joseph, together with their families, numbering 70, went to Egypt with their father Jacob.  Joseph was already in Egypt, holding a very senior position in Pharaoh’s kingdom.  However, after Jacob,

Joseph, all his brothers and all that generation died’, there ‘arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.  (Exodus 1:6,8.)

Then,

These Israelites are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us.  (Exodus 1:9 GNB.)

So the Egyptians enslaved them,

The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery.  (Exodus 1:12-13 GNB.)

Although there is little hope of ever establishing correct dates for what was happening, if indeed anything did happen, it appears that this slavery continued for hundreds of years.  Some estimates suggest upwards of 700 years.  The Bible gives its comment when it states,

The time that the people of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.  (Exodus 12:40.)

The situation of the Hebrew slaves was hopeless.  They were being treated extremely brutally at the hands of the Egyptians.  They had no freedom.  They were bitterly oppressed.  They were slaves.  Their slavery was accompanied by the systematic killing of every Hebrew male child, following the decree of the reigning Pharaoh.

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.  (Exodus 1:22.)

And, according to the story, as already stated, this had continued for hundreds of years, so there were many generations of Hebrews who had known nothing in life except bitter, brutal slavery and the slaughter of their children.

There is a problem here.  If all the Hebrew male children are killed at birth, who is to sire Hebrew children for subsequent generations.  They would all be half Egyptian.  Yet, many years later, at the time of the Exodus, there is said to be literally hundreds of thousands of slaves, and they wouldn’t be all women.  My point is, I guess, that as with this, other statements in the story could be equally exaggerated or plainly false.  This and the whole story, simply cannot be taken literally.

Such is the biblical background to the story; an immensely wretched situation for all the Hebrew people.

I read the story again, for the First Time.

With the above biblical introduction to the story, I read the story again ‘for the first time’.  Thanks to Marcus Borg for that phrase.  Initially I was delighted that the Lord was on the side of the desperately suffering slaves.  At last they had someone who was concerned about their suffering and wanted to do something about it.  They could not do anything for themselves.  Their life had been so wretched for so long!  They needed help.  But, now, God being on their side, was going to do something.  That was all very positive. 

But alas, as the story continued, I became more and more disillusioned by the Lord who inflicted so much suffering and destruction on all the land of Egypt and its inhabitants, eventually killing thousands of Egyptian men, women and children, in order to free the slaves

Five interwoven themes of the story.

So to my analysis of the story.  After a close reading of the Exodus story itself, in chapters 7 to 15, there seems to me to be five different but intimately connected themes running through the whole story.

  1. God’s self-promotion suggests to me that the Lord insists, ‘I am the Lord’, to be acknowledged universally.  This recognition was to be given throughout all the earth.  This Lord is determined to ‘gain glory’.
  2. The Lord intends to free God’s people from the cruel, oppressive rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt.
  3. God enlists human agents, Moses and/or Aaron, to communicate with Pharaoh and to cooperate with the Lord in performing the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.
  4. The Lord ‘hardens’ Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will try to resist God’s power.
  5. Pharaoh is very brutal and is continually obstinate in refusing to obey the Lord’s commands and to recognize the Lord as Lord.

The text is saturated with all five.

I use both ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ throughout this discussion because I believe there is no distinction between the two, in the minds of regular church-goers.  ‘The Lord’ is ‘God’ and vice-versa.

  • I cannot ignore the self-promotion by the Lord.  The story is full of it.  In my interpretation, ‘I am the Lord’ is a short, emphatic proclamation that demands an immediate response.  This self-promotion as well as self-identification, occurs 15 times.  ‘I am the Lord.’ occurs in the text as spoken by the Lord or by Moses, quoting the Lord to Pharaoh or to others.  Seven times in the text it is stated that something will happen ‘so that they will know that I am the Lord.  God’s intention is for God’s glory/name to be known throughout the earth and be acknowledged as its Lord; see Ex. 9:14,16,29.  This emphasis on God ‘gaining glory’ is stated several times late in the story, notably as the reason for the last ‘sign and wonder’; see Ex. 14:4,17-18.

Brueggemann states in his commentary about this last ‘sign and wonder’ that,

The reason for Yahweh’s action is crucial for our interpretation.  The last confrontation will be staged so that “I will get glory over Pharaoh.”  Yahweh arranges the confrontation as an exhibition of enormous power, not for the sake of Israel.  The final decisive intention is not Israelite freedom, but Yahweh’s glory, which is decisive.  The outcome of the struggle (which Yahweh will win) is that Pharaoh in all his recalcitrance shall come at last to know “I am Yahweh.”  [6]

In other words, in the final ‘sign and wonder’ of God, this first theme, that of the Lord wanting to ‘gain glory’ and be recognized as Lord of all, totally overshadows the second theme, mentioned below, that of the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves.  Parting of the waters is the final act which secures the successful escape of the slaves, yet that is not mentioned as the reason for this last ‘sign and wonder’.  It all has to do with God ‘gaining glory.’

  • From the very beginning, God’s intention to free the Hebrew slaves is made abundantly clear; see Ex. 3:7-10.  The Lord is aware of God’s peoples’ situation of suffering; see Ex. 3:7-8, 6:5; and God demands the freedom of God’s people by commanding Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”  This demand occurs six times in the text; see Ex. 7:16, 8:1,20, 9:1,13, 10:3, however, every one of these is linked to the first emphasis above, because the full demand is “Let my people go that they may serve/worship me.”  For me, the purpose as stated in the text, is not specifically to give freedom to the slaves, which is vital and obviously intended, but that ‘they may serve/worship me’ thus giving the Lord more glory.  Was the Lord’s main intention the freedom of the slaves or the worship they would give the Lord after their liberation?  Obviously both were important.  Freeing the Hebrew slaves is certainly a major intention of the Lord.  God chose which side to be on the side of the oppressed and because they were God’s people.  God intends to make good, God’s promise in the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; see Ex. 6:4-8. 
  • The Lord uses Moses and/or Aaron as God’s agents to communicate all God’s messages and demands to Pharaoh, sometimes at great risk to their own safety; see Ex. 10:28.  The Lord never speaks directly to Pharaoh.  God enlists Moses’ and Aaron’s cooperation by constantly being the Lord’s mouthpiece, and also by doing certain things like using Aaron’s rod; see Ex. 7:9,20, 8:5,17, 9:25, 10:13, 14:16, throwing ashes skyward; see Ex. 9:10, raising their hands to the sky; see Ex.9:22,33, 10:22, or stretching out their hands; see Ex. 14:21.  In the text, God constantly executes God’s ‘signs and wonders’ with the assistance of Moses and/or Aaron throughout the story.  Moses is told by the Lord to perform the miracles; see Ex. 4:21, and he and Aaron perform them; see Ex. 11:10.  At one point, Moses seems to have the power to perform miracles without the Lord’s involvement, in that, by stretching out his hands, he stops the thunder and the hail; see Ex. 9:29,33.  This may be the case, but it is God who gives Moses this power. 

I find it interesting that the Lord does not request any involvement of Moses or Aaron in the killing of the first born Egyptians.  God does it by ‘himself’; see Ex. 11:1,4, 12:12,13,29, 13:15.  God’s ‘destroyer’ is mentioned as God’s agent only once; see Ex. 12:23.  The story conveys to me that God alone is the deliberate killer.

Even though Moses and Aaron are important ‘agents’ of God, I still believe that accountability for all the ‘signs and wonders’ always and ultimately rests with the God of the story.  For the story, it could be no other way.  God is the initiating force behind what happens and without the Lord nothing would have happened.

  • Before the story of the actual Exodus story begins, the purpose of ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ is made explicit; see Ex. 4:21,so that he will not let the people go.’  Then halfway through the story; see Ex. 10:1, ‘that I may show these signs among them.’, and near the end of the story, see Ex. 14:17, ‘so that they will go in after them.’  These purposes are confirmed many times through the story, in that the phrase, ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ is immediately followed in the text by Pharaoh deciding to ‘not let the people go.’  This suggests that a causal connection exists.  There are 19 times stated in the text when this ‘hardening’ occurs; ten of which state that it is the Lord who does the ‘hardening’; seven times when no attribution is made and twice where it is stated that Pharaoh ‘hardened’ his own heart.  These numbers strongly suggest to me that the ‘hardening’ in the story, is God exercising God’s unopposable influence on the decision making ability of Pharaoh.
  • However, near the beginning of the story and even before the Lord performs any ‘signs and wonders’, Pharaoh slaps a further severe dictate on Hebrews, in that they are to gather straw for themselves as well as continue to make the same quota of bricks: see Ex.5:10-13.  Previously the slaves had been given the straw.  Pharaoh is a merciless slave-driver, before we are told his heart is hardened.

Pharaoh is totally unwilling to bow to the Lord’s demands or to recognize the sovereignty of God.  Even after God has consistently shown that God has much superior power, Pharaoh refuses to accept he is the loser, and that in the end, all he will do is incur more determination by God and thus eventually leading to God inflicting death on all Egyptian families.  12 times it is stated in the text that Pharaoh would ‘not let the people go’, several times associated with ‘he would not listen to them (Moses and/or Aaron)’; see Ex 7:4,13, 8:15,19, 9:12.  Near the end of this saga, just prior to the warning about the last plague of the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families, Pharaoh threatens Moses that, if he comes back into Pharaoh’s presence, he will be killed; see Ex. 10:28.

Comment on 4 and 5.

For this story, I to try to sort out the puzzle raised by Nos 4 & 5 above, as to who is actually the real force behind Pharaoh making his decisions.  On the one hand there is the Lord’s ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’, which is dominant in the text, but on the other hand Pharaoh does ‘harden his own heart’, twice in the story.  Also the Lord knows what Pharaoh’s reaction will be to the Lord’s demands; see Ex. 7:22, 8:15,19, 9:12,35.  Probably this is quite predictable to anyone who knew the way Pharaoh exercised his authority so ruthlessly and without fear.  Several times in the story Pharaoh makes hostile decisions without any mention of God ‘hardening his heart’; see Ex.5:10-11, 10:10-11.

Even though the Lord’s influence on Pharaoh’s decisions is unmistakably evident and extremely compelling, maybe irresistible, I think Pharaoh would have welcomed such influence because it confirmed what he was going to decide anyway.  This, of course in no way excuses the way God uses God’s powers of influence.  For me the puzzle remains.

So what for me now?

Pursuing a line of questioning, causes me considerable unrest because I am questioning a fundamental story of the Bible and thus, the Jewish celebration of it.  I am a follower of Jesus but might I separate myself off from my heritage if I keep on questioning?  If, however, I am going to do this exercise of what I understand to be ‘Truth-Telling’, I must keep questioning.

With the above as my understanding of the content of the story, although difficult, I must be honest with myself and ask the questions, ‘What does the story actually say to me?’ and ‘What is the image of God that I perceive is being conveyed to me in the story?’ 

I know I can answer questions only from within my own prejudicial predisposition, whatever that prejudice is.  My prejudices and predispositions will become far more evident to you as you read, rather than to me as I write.  However, I have tried to avoid bias and let the text itself have dominance.

I am trying to look at meanings within the story.  I am not taking the story literally. 

I believe I have looked at the actual content of the text in close detail and have given it, I think, little expansive interpretation.  I have given what I think is a logically simple interpretation, while still regarding it all as story, albeit told at a particular time, in a particular situation, to a particular group of people in a particular culture, all very different to my own.

For example, if the words in the text say, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve/worship me’, I have given the interpretation that the reason for God wanting God’s people to be let go from the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, is ‘that they may serve/worship me’.  If this is repeated through the story in the text, then I have understood that the story-teller is trying to emphasize that this is the reason.  If the command elsewhere in the text, to ‘let my people go’ is not immediately followed by some other reason, then I understand this to mean that, ‘that they may serve/worship me’ is the only reason for slaves’ liberation.  There is no other.  I think this is logical, reasonable and may well be correct.

However, underlying the actions of the Lord in the story, is the intense and resolute intention to free the Hebrews slaves.  As I have already said, God has chosen sides because God’s purpose is to liberate the oppressed slaves, who are God’s people.  This is also determinative in God wanting to keep God’s promise made to Abraham; see Ex. 2:24, 3:7-8,17, 6:2-8.

I came away from the story feeling alienated from the Lord because of all the destruction, terror and suffering the Lord inflicts.  This feeling however, made me totally confused because the Lord had to do something major to free the slaves.  Violence seemed the only possible way to accomplish this.  Pharaoh was so obstinate and recalcitrant.  One might even say the Pharaoh ‘forced God’s hand’.  But the violence of the God involved was excessive and God was responsible for it all; no one else was.

I am in a bind because the more I look at this story and try to understand its teachings, the more I become confused.  The image of God it portrays, I think, is of a power-hungry, self-indulgent, violent individual who will use any strategy to extract total submission from an adversary.  If the Lord in the story was a human being, I think most people would agree but if this main character is God, then I have a huge problem.  Yet this same God is on the side of the oppressed slaves, determined to bring them to freedom.  This God is determined to put a stop to the terrible injustice dished out by Pharaoh.  The difficulty for me is the means by which this God achieves it.  God in the story is more violent than the brutal force of Pharaoh.  My problem increases.

Are there times when being confronted with the violent abuse of power, the only way to prevent it is by using stronger violence?  Is the teaching of Jesus about enemy love always adequate and appropriate?

God of the Exodus and Jesus.

Richard Rohr states;

I believe the Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology, which Jesus fully teaches and exemplifies, especially in the three synoptic gospels; see Luke 4:18-19.  Jesus is primarily a healer of the poor and powerless.  That we do not even notice this reveals our blindness to Jesus’ obvious bias.  [7]

While I accept Rohr’s comment as far as it goes, like most other commentators I have read, he does not address here, the profound difference between Jesus and the God of the Exodus, regarding how each achieve liberation.  Also, like most people who quote the incredibly significant and well known Luke passage, he fails to comment that Jesus, by cutting short that reading from Isaiah, separates himself off from the violence of God; ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’; see. Isaiah 61:2b.  I deal with this later when commenting on how Jesus uses his Jewish scriptures. 

Carol J. Dempsey, Associate professor of Theology at the University of Oregon, USA Portland, states

Christians came to understand themselves as “the new people of God”; see, 1 Peter 2:9-10; Exodus 19:6, and thus heard the Exodus story of liberation in relation to their own lives and to the Christ event.  Release from the tyranny of sin became analogous to the freedom gained by the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.  Within the gospel tradition all the stories that depict Jesus healing people of their infirmities; see Luke 10:1; forgiving their sins; see, Mark 2:1-12; and working for their benefit in the midst of rigid political, social, and religious institutions and mindsets; see Matt 12:1-14, embody the spirit and theology of liberation first heard in Exodus, where God is depicted not only as hearing the people’s groans but also as committed to doing something about their pain and suffering.  [8]

For me, linking the liberation of the Hebrew slaves to the liberation ‘from the tyranny of sin’, gives approval for God to deal violently with sin by the ‘killing of his son’, as in substitutionary atonement theory.  Both are totally unacceptable to me.

What was Jesus on about, regarding the meanings I see in this Exodus story?  I make four points.

  1. Unlike the God of the Exodus, Jesus was non-violent in his work of liberation.  He acted with acceptance and hospitality, and thus liberated the poor, the diseased the outcasts and oppressed; see the above quote from Carol Dempsey.  And he was ridiculed and criticized by the people, including the religious leaders of his day, for associating with the oppressed and the outcasts. 

…the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  (Matthew 11:19.)

and,

Now the tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2;)

and,

And when they saw it, they all murmured, “He has gone to be a guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7.)

  • Jesus was not interested in ‘gaining glory’ or having ‘his name known throughout the world’ or ‘showing his power’ through violent, destructive ‘signs and wonders’.

Jesus’ third temptation as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’  (Matthew 4:8-10.)

And, when people wished to make Jesus their king, thus giving him glory, he would have none of it.

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself.  (John 6:15.)

And again, about being known throughout the earth;

Then he (Jesus) strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.  (Matthew 16:20.)

And yet again, Jesus seems to turn his back on ‘signs and wonders’ when speaking to an official whose son was ill.  He seems to rebuke him.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”  (John 4:48.)

Then there was the enquiry from John.  If Jesus was interested in ‘signs and wonders’ they were totally different to those used by the God of the Exodus.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him (Jesus), “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  (Matthew 11:2-5.)

  • On leadership and the exercise of authority, Jesus taught his disciples the opposite, to the way in which the God of the Exodus acted.  The God of the Exodus, as I perceive that Lord, fits perfectly into the mold of the Gentiles.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28.)

And again,

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.  (John 13:3-4.)

  • All the killing and the violence displayed by the God of the Exodus, goes in the opposite direction to the teachings of Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.  But if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  (Matthew 5:38-42.)

Also,

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”  (Matthew 5:43-44.)

I could go on and on but the Lord of the Exodus is on the side of the slaves, the same as Jesus is on the side of the oppressed.  This is extremely significant but there seems to be hardly anything else about the God of the Exodus that reminds me of Jesus.  It is nearly all the exact opposite.  When I look at the behavior and not the intention of the God of the Exodus, I think the opposite and then say, “Yes. That’s Jesus!”

I know these above New Testament texts are quoted hopelessly out of their context, but I still think they all point to the different way by which Jesus worked to achieve his goals.  For me, they are symptomatic of his whole message.

However, and it is a big HOWEVER! 

Jesus seems to act only on an individual basis.  There seems to be no activity on his part to initiate or organize on a group basis, any resistance to systemic oppression and abuse of power.  He speaks out repeatedly about the systemic oppression of the poor and the hypocritical abuse of power, particularly by the religious leaders of his day, but these are all individual disagreements he has with his adversaries.  He also does teach a great deal about what our individual response as disciples should be to violence against our own person, but for me, it all seems to concentrate on individual action.

But the Exodus story is about systemic oppression against a nation!  I ask the question, “What would Jesus have said to all the Hebrew slaves?”  I wonder.  I wonder what his attitude to Pharaoh would have been.  I wonder what he would have said to him.  I wonder how or if he could have persuaded Pharaoh to let the people go.  If Pharaoh still would not let the people go, I wonder what would have Jesus’ reaction been.  I wonder if he would have lead or at least encouraged some sort of revolt against Pharaoh. 

Jesus did warn his disciples to expect that both individual and systemic violence would be used against them when they went out to preach his message; see Matthew 10:16-23, 28-31.  BUT, he didn’t seem to have any strategy, non-violent or otherwise, for protesting against systemic oppression that might bring about regime change.  Some may suggest that he didn’t pay much attention to this way of protesting.  In the Matthew text referred to, there is no comment about how to correct, or even counter the unjust treatment that the disciples would most likely receive.  There is only an encouragement for the disciples not to be fearful, to endure and then in Heaven all will be made right.

So have no fear of them…..Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Matthew 10:26,28,31.)

and,

… he who endures to the end will be saved.  (Matthew 10:22.)

and,

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…  (Matthew 10:23.) 

and,

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,…  (Matthew 10:32.)

All this is an individual response. 

There is no mention of organized resistance to systemic oppression.  Jesus advocates non-resistance to evil, but this is very different to non-violent resistance to evil. 

With Jesus, we do get a public action of protest against systemic power; the incident in the temple when he overturned the tables of the money changers and herded the cattle and the sellers of pigeons out of the temple; see Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17.  Different commentators mention different things that Jesus was actually protesting against and they also give different meanings to the Old Testament quotes that are used by the gospel writers in the passage.  However none question the protest itself.  Some commentators suggest this act of Jesus was violent and indeed, the ‘trigger’ that quickly precipitated his crucifixion. 

There is no mention of any of his disciples being actively involved and no organization of a group protest. 

This line of questioning leads me to ask, “Why did Jesus teach nothing about slavery.”  It was part of society’s system and had been so for millennia.  I have little doubt that the exercise of masters over slaves in Jesus’ day would have been, in some cases, similar to that of Pharaoh in the Exodus story.  Slavery, as always, would have been an example of systemic oppression in Jesus’ day but he says nothing about it.  Why?

The Exodus story teaches me that systemic violence must be dealt with by stronger violence.  It teaches me that, ‘Although violence loses, it also finally wins.’  About how to deal with evil, the story seems to me to give the opposite instruction to that which I am given by Jesus and most of the New Testament.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:21.)

Back to the story.

Death at the center.

The Exodus story has death as the principle feature in most of its content.  It is saturated with the stench of death; see Ex.7:21, 8:14.  A death-dealing God is one of the main characters.  Fish in the Nile die; see Ex. 7:21.  All cattle of the Egyptians die; see Ex. 9:6.  All green plants, tress, fruit, man and beasts are all struck down; see Ex. 9:25.  The locusts complete the task; see Ex. 10:15.  Even frogs died; see Ex. 8:13, and locusts are driven into the Red Sea; see Ex. 10:19, both, after they have done their destructive work for God.  Flies seem to escape death because they are just ‘removed’; see Ex. 8:31.  All first-born humans of Egyptian families die; see Ex. 12:29.  All Pharaoh’s warriors die; see Ex. 14:28.  This is what the text says.  Right through the story, it is death that is result of the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.

On four occasions God makes a ‘distinction’ between Egypt and the Land of Goshen, where the Hebrews live, as well as between the Egyptians and the Hebrews, regarding what they owned; see Ex. 8:22, 9:4,26, 10:23.  Using this ‘distinction’, God inflicts death only on the Egyptians and what they own, but protects the Hebrew slaves and what they own.

In the story, we are not told that Pharaoh tried to retaliate by destroying the Land of Goshen, like the ruin brought on by the flies on the Land of Egypt; nor killing the Hebrew owned cattle; nor striking down all the Hebrew men, beasts, plants and trees, as inflicted on the Egyptians and Egypt life, by the hail.  In the story, destruction, death and killing is only initiated by the Lord.  In the story Pharaoh does not retaliate to the plagues with any increased harsh edicts on the slaves nor striking out at what the slaves owned or where they lived. 

I am not trying to say anything good or bad about Pharaoh.  I am just relaying what the story, the text, does and doesn’t tell us.  Make of it what you will.

Pharaoh does continue to not let the Hebrew slaves go.  There is also Pharaoh’s probable intention to kill the escaping Hebrews or at least recapture them to make them all slaves again, see Ex. 14:5-10, but the story tells us that this was unsuccessful because of God’s protection, see Ex. 14:19-20.

If this is ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story, I read little to none of this detail in what I have read in most modern commentaries and I hear nothing of this in what I am taught by the present church.  In the avoidance of all this violence, is there avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ here or am I on the wrong track?   

Theological context.

I have been told on numerous occasions, “You have to look at the story in its historical and theological context.  How did people back then think about God and humans?  What did story-tellers emphasize in the stories they told?  You have to realize that back then people had very different ideas about Gods and their activities, when compared with what most people think today.  All this must be taken into consideration.”  Yes.  I agree totally.

About 3000 years ago is when this story was most probably written down and it is most likely part of the ‘J’ tradition of the Pentateuch.  I deal with this in detail later.  As such, the theology of this tradition determines its theological meaning.  

In this tradition, I realize that humans looked on Gods as tribal Gods, with only limited tribal interests.  These interests were also geographically limited.  I realize that it was thought that these Gods improved their status among the Gods, sometimes by demonstrating their violent power and that of their tribe by winning armed conflicts against rival tribes.  I realize that these tribal Gods were thought to have supernatural powers, and sometimes gave these powers to particular leaders of their human subjects.  I realize that these Gods were jealous of other Gods.  I realize that these Gods could be totally dominant in the human sphere of existence; rewarding, punishing, demanding allegiance and setting rules for human behavior.  I realize that these Gods were thought of as living in a separate and different sphere of existence. 

This, I believe, is the theological context of the Exodus story and it helps me enormously in trying to understand it.  Many of the above features are abundantly evident in the story. 

  • In the story ‘the Lord’ is referred to as a tribal God many times. ‘The God of the Hebrews’ is mentioned five times; see Ex. 5:3, 7:16, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3, ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ is mentioned once; see Ex. 4:5, and ‘the God of Israel’ once; see Ex.5:1. 
  • The story presumes there are many gods. ‘The gods of the Egyptians’ are referred to; see Ex. 12:12, and in the Song of Moses, the text asks ‘Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?’; see Ex. 15:11. 
  • The God in the story has a lot of status among the Gods, at least in the minds of the Hebrew slaves; ‘Who is like thee, O Lord, among the Gods? Who is like thee, majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds doing wonders?’’; see Ex. 15:11. 
  • The story tells of the conflict of the God of the Hebrews and the Egyptian Gods; ’and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements’; see Ex. 12:12. 
  • The story portrays the Lord as constantly violent and in pursuit of glory; see Ex. 9:14,16,29.  The people of Israel praise this violence; ‘In the greatness of thy majesty thou overthrowest thy adversaries; thou sendest forth thy fury, it consumes them like stubble’; see Ex. 15:7.  The emphasis on God ‘gaining glory’ is stated several times late in the story.  It is the reason for the last ‘sign and wonder’; see Ex. 14:4,17-18. 
  • When violence occurs in the story and when ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ is mentioned, the word for God, ‘Yahweh – the Lord’, is always used; see the ’J’ tradition explained later.

It’s all there in the text.

BUT, I believe that very few regular church-goers know or have ever been told about this theological context.  So I believe it is very dangerous to use this story or teach it to anybody, without identifying these totally out-of-date theologies which formed the theological context of the story.  I think teaching this story without explaining its theological context is irresponsible and can be very misleading. 

Not being appropriate to have any theological explanation in a liturgy, I think the story should not be used in such.

This, I believe, is a very important part of ‘Truth-Telling’ about this story.  I believe it is an example of an important principle when ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Bible as a whole.  The historical, theological context of the passage or story must be incorporated in the ‘Truth-Telling’.

Scientific credibility of the story.

I now turn to some historical/geographical research into the possible origins of parts of the story.

One suggestion made is that a volcano, maybe on Crete, erupted, sending clouds of ash drifting towards Egypt, causing the sky to darken.  Volcanic ash could have precipitated a sudden plague of lice.  The water when polluted, could have caused various sicknesses, like boils.  The pollution of the ash in the water may have even caused a plague of frogs, when they tried to escape the filthy water; etc.  Also the Nile has been known on occasion to turn red, maybe because of its banks of red sand. 

The number of Hebrew slaves with their families could reach 2&1/2 million if certain texts are taken together.  This number is unrealistically huge, particularly when considering the crossing the Red Sea, and striking a rock to give the thirsty millions a drink.  There are other texts which, when taken together, give far more realistic number of escaping slaves.

For the actual crossing of the Red Sea, it is suggested that this could have taken place at the Reed Sea, a marshy stretch of land near the mouth of the Nile.  If this were the case, the Hebrew slaves could have progressed, but the wheeled chariots of the Egyptians and their horses would have become bogged.  The soldiers in the chariots as well as the horsemen would then have presented no real danger to the escaping Hebrews, walking or running on foot.

This may be fascinating for those interested but I find it all quite irrelevant to the theological issues raised by the story-tellers, regarding the picture of their theistic God, how this God intervenes in human history and how evil, oppressive power structures are to be dealt with.  I think this historical/geographical distraction goes in the wrong direction, thus trying to answer, what are irrelevant questions for me.

Walter Brueggemann in his very instructive 50 page commentary on this Exodus story in the New Interpreters’ Bible, states in his overview,

It goes without saying then that the prospect for asking critical questions about what happened in the plagues, is irrelevant.  Greta Hort has provided the classic modern attempt to make the plagues scientifically credible.  While her analysis is careful, disciplined and discerning, in the end it does not touch the dramatic issues that are at the center of the narrative.  [9]

Being frank and far more brutal about this, I am as interested in these possible scientific explanations as I am in knowing the name of the Good Samaritan.  Totally unimportant and irrelevant!  The real question for me is, ‘What meanings are being communicated by the story?’  When looking for guidance from our scriptures, I think this is a question that must always be asked.

So what more for me now?

As I have already said, I have been taught in my past church experience that this story is all about freeing the Hebrew slaves from oppression.  I think that is what most regular church-goers think.  ‘Liberation is the word I have been given that is most closely associated with the story.  This being the case, I need to look at theologies built on this word to see if this Exodus story is used in any way, and if so, How?.

Liberation Theology

In the 1960’s and 70’s, a theology of liberation was developed.  Although initially having to do with the liberation of poor, black women, liberating them from both economic and political oppression, there were a number of different strains of Liberation Theology that emerged.  The exploitation of the poor by the rich, black people by whites, women by men, cultural traditions, sacred rites, religious rituals, etc., are but a few areas of human interaction in which many liberation theologians have been and are active. 

Regarding the story of the Exodus, it is nearly impossible to read any liberation theologian without being introduced to their use of it.  This story is seen by many as the defining story about oppression and liberation.  The Exodus became a central, ‘privileged text’ of Scripture for liberation theology.  Gustavo Gutierrez,a Peruvian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican priest, regarded as one of the founders of liberation theology, underlines its centrality when he points out, that “the heart of the Old Testament is the Exodus from the servitude of Egypt and the journey towards the promised land.” 

However, despite the centrality of the event that liberation theologians narrate, the biblical texts that record the Exodus are hardly given any extensive examination by Gutierrez or other liberation theologians in general.  Attention is given essentially to the theme, rather them to details of the texts that worthy of commentary and discussion. 

This process of liberation is the taking of power within society from the privileged minorities and giving it to the poor majorities.  Rohr, in his paper I have already quoted from, states,

Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (what Pope John Paul 11 called ‘structural sin’ and ‘institutional evil’).  It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular ‘naughty behaviors’ which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture…..  Liberation theology, instead of legitimating the self-serving status quo, tries to read reality, history, and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. [10] 

Gustavo Gutierrez states, when speaking about the Exodus in his book, A Theology of Liberation,

The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation …[11]

and

In Egypt, work is alienated and, far from building a just society, contributes rather to increasing injustice and to widening the gap between exploiters and exploited.” [12]

and

The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.  They are marginalized by our social and cultural world.  They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labour and despoiled of their humanity.  Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.  [13]

One of the fundamental elements of their theology is that it must start with, and be totally grounded in human experience.  If one is confronted by oppression, then one has to start by joining the oppressed and within that experience build one’s theology.  One’s understanding and interpretation of the Bible must be conditioned by one’s own present experience. 

This, of course, leads directly into ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’ of the Bible and its stories.  Start where you are and then read the Bible in that context.  If we don’t do this to some extent then the Bible can become an irrelevant historical account of the religion of a foreign nation.  I believe, however, that it can be dangerous to allow our personal experiences be the dominating, the over-riding factor in our reading and understanding.  ‘Reader Response Interpretation’ can take over to such an extent that the creation of a very different text is the outcome.  If we allow our own experiences to be the only dominating force in our interpretation, we may be in danger of making little sense to those who have not had similar experiences in life.  It can also, in extreme cases, allow a distortion in interpretation and even misguided teaching, regarding what the Bible really says.  This may not always be a bad thing however, I think it needs to be called out for what it is.  This is particularly important when dealing with a sacred book like the Bible, as it is given so much authority and reverence. 

Having said this, it is an essential ingredient in our Bible study that we must always ask, “What does this passage say to me, in my situation here and now?”  We need to bring our own present experience of life to our study. 

Nevertheless, for me, some liberation theologians seem to be so overwhelmed by their own experience of discrimination, disempowerment and oppression, or so passionate about liberation and what it can deliver to the oppressed, that they sometimes allow this to become the only basis of their interpretations of Bible stories and passages. 

It is a difficult thing to criticize a person’s skill in one area of their life when, at the same time, having deep admiration and respect for that same person’s values and the way they live their life.  When I question this emphasis in biblical interpretation, I am not questioning the authenticity of the commentator’s experience.  I would not dare do that!  When I do question their interpretation I am doing it from a position of looking closely at the text itself and not looking at the life of the interpreter. 

Such is the case for me when reading a Spanish liberation theologian, Jose Luis Caravias , in his book, Living in Fellowship, where he deals with the Exodus story.  [14]

I have great concern about the way the story is used by this author.  I have the utmost admiration and respect for his commitment to the poor of his community and his passion to do and say whatever he can about it, to bring about positive change for the oppressed. 

However, his use of the Exodus biblical story must be questioned.  He suggests that many things are based on the biblical text but they are not.  I think he has indulged in extreme ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’ and then used his interpretation as what the biblical story actually states.  I do not think this is a legitimate use of the Bible.  I use a number of quotations from his book in my questioning about his use of the Exodus story.  Quotes from his book below are in italics.

  • Thus step by step, they start organizing themselves more closely and will go about achieving their new status.  [14, page16.]  Where is this ‘organizing’?  There is just a list of names and genealogies, in the text, identifying where Moses and Aaron fit in; see Ex. 6:26-27. 
  • We have to take care that we don’t become confused by this lengthy series of public calamities.  [14, page 17.]  The story as told in the Bible breeds no confusion.  There are a number of plagues and each are explained quite clearly and concisely.  It is all quite clear to me.  I do not think regular church-goers would find it a confusing story or even lengthy.  The ‘public calamities’, are the direct result of God’s ‘signs and wonders.’
  • We should not fix our attention too much on the material aspect of the plagues of Egypt?  [14, page 18.]  Why?  Because it all so violent and we would thus be confronted by the ultra-violent nature of the Lord’s activities?  I’m not quite sure what the author means by ‘material aspect’, but the outcomes of the plagues are important and the reason for God performing all the ‘sings and wonders’ is also important.  Is the author wanting to avoid the violence of God? 
  • The first nine “plagues” of Egypt may be considered as a gauge of strength which is non-violent.  [14, page 18.]  In my reading of the text, the first nine “plagues” result in death and destruction of all the land of Egypt, the death of fish, frogs, all plants, all fruit, all trees, all animals of the Egyptians, all flies and all locusts.  As such most of these nine plagues are very violent and must ‘be considered as a gauge of strength’ of violence, not non-violence.  Is the author saying that if anything does not kill or injure humans, it is non-violent?  If so, I think he is wrong.
  • The Israelites had attempted their liberation through every means.  [14, page 19.]  In my reading of the text the Israelites had cried out because of their suffering; see Ex. 2:23, have observed all the Moses had told them; see Ex. 12:28, 35, 50, had asked for jewelry from the Egyptians; see Ex.12:35-36, and at the Red Sea had complained to Moses about being brought out into the wilderness to die; see Ex. 14:10-12.  They are hardly mentioned as doing anything in chapters 7-14; certainly not attempting ‘their liberation through every means’.  I do not regard their actions described in the text, as ‘every means’ and I cannot see how it can be regarded as such.  Caravias is persuasive but he is not using the Bible story as it is in the text.

However, it is stated that ‘the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle; see Ex. 13:18.  This seems quite strange when compared with all the rest of the story.  It is not hinted anywhere else in the story that the Hebrew slaves were organized or intending to fight or were ‘equipped for battle’.  This statement in the text, comes before the complaint by the people of Israel to Moses mentioned above; see Ex. 14:10-12.  They are fearful and complaining; not getting ready for battle. 

I find it interesting that this statement about being ‘equipped for battle’ is embedded in a small section of the text, see Ex. 13:17-19, where the word ‘God’, in Hebrew ‘Elohim’, not used in any other part of the story, is used four times and not ‘the Lord’ in Hebrew ‘Yahweh’.  ‘Yahweh’ is used in all the rest of the story but not used in this small section; only ‘Elohim’ is used.  This could point to a different theological tradition being incorporated in the story.

  • That is why, as a last resource, they resort to violence.  [14, page 19.]  In the text, the slaves do not ‘resort to violence’.  They are the passive benefactors of the Lord’s violence.  Nowhere in the text are the Israelites stated as acting violently. I think this is a serious misrepresentation of the text.
  • We do not know clearly how it happened.  [14, page 19.]  Because it is myth and not to be taken literally, this is the wrong direction for making statements about the situation, as my previous quote from Brueggemann clearly explains.  Myths often state ‘how’ things happen, but do not try to explain this ‘clearly’.  They state that they have happened and often try to give a reason why.
  • The institutionalized violence of Pharaoh is responsible for the violence of the Israelites.  [14, page 19.]  Where in the story is the violence of the Israelites?  The Israelites are not mentioned in the text regarding any of the violence.  Violence by the Lord is apparently seen as necessary but the Lord was responsible and not Pharaoh.  Is not the Lord responsible for the Lord’s own actions?  Both presuppositions in this statement have no biblical basis. 
  • And God did not hide behind the scenes when he had to apply extreme measures like these ones.  [14, page 19.]  Although not stated by the author, I presume this last sentence is a comment about the plagues.  It seems to me that there has been somewhat of a reluctance by the author to involve God but in the end he has to.  But it nearly seems to be an after-thought.  My interpretation!

I find it significant that none of the quotes above from Caravias’s book have any biblical reference.  There can’t be because there are none, except maybe for the last quote, No. 9. 

I think this misuse of the Bible does little for the cause of the author.  I believe his book would have been far better without these pages.  At this point I don’t feel greatly assisted by his book in my effort at ‘Truth-Telling’.

However, from these same pages are the following quotations, so there is much here that, for me, aligns with the story as told in the Bible and how we should approach it. 

The Israelites were totally oppressed and dominated by fear.   Let us not take them (the plagues) literally….God wants his people to get out of the oppression in which they live…..The oppressive authorities are opposed to the plan of God…..God’s will is irresistible…..But one thing sure is that blood flowed.  A good number of young Egyptians died…..God is the liberating fore of the oppressed….[14, pages 10 to 21.]

I have made all my comments in reaction to a translation of Caravias’s book originally written in Spanish.  Kenneth Bailey in his intensive studies in his book on Jesus’ parables in the gospel of Luke, Poet and Peasant, warns us that translation always comes with interpretation.  No matter how objective a translation may be, I suppose that is inevitably true, to an extent.  So in reacting to something that has been translated, I hope I have reacted to the authentic ideas and emphases of Caravias. 

This example I have quoted is probably an extreme case of ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’, but it is there.  In biblical interpretation, passion can sometimes take over and that must be questioned.

In dealing with the issue of God’s violence in relation to the teaching of Jesus about enemy love, Gutierrez does address this.  John Frame, Professor of systematic theology and philosophy emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, in an essay on liberation theology states,

Gutierrez considers the objection that such militancy is inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching that we should love our enemies.  He replies that combat with one’s enemies does not necessarily involve hatred.  It may be for the enemy’s good.  In any case, one cannot love his enemies until he has identified them as enemies.  Cheap conciliation helps no one.  [15]

In this context, combat, for me, implies some kind of violence, even though hatred of a person may not be the motivating force behind the violence.  There is a difference between hatred of a person and hatred of a system. 

I can imagine that Bonhoeffer may not have hated Hitler.  I can also imagine that Bonhoeffer may have prayed for Hitler.  But because of what he was continuing to do and the system that he led, Bonhoeffer felt he had to join an assassination plot to kill Hitler.  I don’t think killing him, however, was for his own good, BUT It was certainly for the good of many millions of other human beings; particularly Jews.

Also, I’m not sure what is meant by ‘cheap conciliation’.  I’m not even sure that any sort of conciliation between enemies can be ‘cheap’.  If conciliation is ‘cheap and helps no-one’ then, for me, there is no conciliation worthy of the name.  In the Bible teaching about enemy love there is the teaching, ‘Pray for those who persecute you.’  Surely this points to non-violence.

Frame continues,

So Gutierrez insists that all theology must take its bearings from the “axis” of oppression and liberation.  In the Bible, such an emphasis will focus on the Exodus, God delivering his people from slavery, and on the laws and prophets that call Israel to have compassion for the poor.  Jesus’ redemption is a second Exodus in which God again brings down the proud and exalts the humble.[16]

And,

Gutierrez says that Marxism presents the best analysis of the oppression/liberation conflict in terms of class struggle.  So the liberation theologian must be committed to Marxism at least as an “analytical tool” at most to socialist revolution as such.  [17]

Karl Marx was not a pacifist and taking recourse to him led to severe criticism from the Vatican, especially from Cardinal Ratzinger. 

Some liberation theologians, as well as many political philosophers believe that transition of power cannot be envisioned as taking place naturally or peacefully because of the violent resistance of the minorities who have power.  Some of the theologians say that revolution is not only permitted, but it is obligatory for those Christians who see it as of fulfilling love to one’s neighbour.

The way the Exodus story is presented in the Bible, it would appear that the only effective way, for the Hebrew slaves to be liberated was by the violent intention of God.  Recognizing that the story is a myth, I need to ask the question, “Was this myth created only to reveal God all powerful and as always, being on the side of the oppressed or was it also created to legitimate the use of violence so that the oppressed could be liberated.

Not having ever lived in a situation of such systemic violence and oppression, I can only but try to imagine the joy of the oppressed when they were liberated.  So, as Brueggemenn puts it,

In a situation of victimization, one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.  [18]

I have little understanding as to how to respond to the claims of liberation theologians when they challenge with such words as, ‘Revolution is not only permitted, but it is obligatory for those Christians who see it as of fulfilling love to one’s neighbour.’  Is my life as a disciple of Jesus somewhat worthless unless I am personally involved in revolution, non-violent or even violent?  This challenge is very significant because there are numerous situations in the world today where protest and even revolt is necessary.

My response to what I know of liberation theologians.

My overall response to what liberation theologians teach me, is that the Exodus story is a paradigm for a response to systemic oppression and as such violence is not only permitted but sometimes necessary.  The fact that many of them do not mention the violence of the God in the story, suggests to me that liberation is all important and the means by which it can be achieved is far less important; nearly irrelevant.  Their recourse to Karl Marx is very telling for me, because, maybe having looked to Jesus for some teaching on the matter and finding little if any that they think is helpful, they have looked at class struggle in society being the way to liberation and not individuals’ responses.  This all seems to me to be totally legitimate so am I missing something in the teaching of Jesus?  I don’t know.

My study of liberation theology has not been extensive however, the one possible exception to my overall response is that of Carol Dempsey already quoted.  She states in her paper,

The book of Exodus, then, speaks of liberation from oppression.  The way the liberation is accomplished, however, is prime material for ongoing critical theological reflection.  First, liberation for the Israelites happens in a manner that does harm not only to the perpetrators of injustice but also to the community, as well as to the rest of creation that plays no role in the oppression caused by humans in power who wield their power unjustly.  Second, the one causing such devastation is said to be Israel’s God, the creator of all, who had once established an everlasting covenant with all creation (cf. Gen 9:8-17).  Third, the image of God as warrior in the context of the Exodus event communicates to readers then and now that the divine work of liberation is accomplished through violence, which the text, if read and received uncritically, both sanctions and legitimates.  

Thus the story of Israel’s liberation as recorded in the book of Exodus creates tension within the communities that continue to hear the text today.  Biblical scholars have long recognized that the stories of the plagues reflect the grand imagination of the ancient biblical writers who wrote the stories from a certain perspective, for particular communities, and for particular theological purposes, namely, to assert that Israel’s God is sovereign and Lord over history and creation.  Much of the Exodus story reflects the culture and religious thinking of its day and that of its authors and later editors.  [19]

This quotation spells out for me the closest to what I would call ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story of the Exodus in what I have read from liberation theologians. 

Having said all this, it’s all very well for me to sit aloof from it all and trust in necessary but sometimes sublime moral principles.  But in the actual encountering of such oppression, I wonder if there is any alternative to taking drastic and even violent action against power crazy, evil leaders of nations and their subjects who are not willing to change their violent, oppressive ways.  I feel I cannot sit in judgement on those who decide that their last option is to be violent in their protest and opposition.

My continuing problem with the Exodus story is that the God who executes all the violence does so to unnecessary extremes, and does it, at least in part, as mentioned in the story, ‘to gain glory’.  This, of course, is inseparably linked to the ancient theological concepts of the tribal nature of the Gods.  I don’t find this ancient theological context mentioned by hardly any of the liberation theologians.  Pity!  I think it is irresponsible to pluck stories out of the context of totally out-of-date theologies and without reference to these, use them as appropriate examples for how we should act today.

Non-violent protest.

I take some refuge in the idea that liberation can be gained in ways other than violently.  For me, an extremely memorable event of the non-violent way of resistance to oppression was the ‘Salt March’ in India during the early part of 1930. 

Satyagraha, or holding onto truth, or truth force, is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance.  The term Satyagraha was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi in India.

The Salt March was an act of Satyagraha, nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Gandhi.  This 24-day march lasted from 12 March to 6 April 1930 and was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. Another reason for this march was that the Civil Disobedience Movement needed a strong inauguration that would inspire more people to follow Gandhi’s example.  Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers.   Walking ten miles a day for 24 days, the march spanned over 240 miles (384 km), from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi.  Growing numbers of Indians joined them along the way.  When Gandhi broke the salt laws at 6:30 am on 6 April 1930, by the simple act of rubbing sea water in his hands and then eating the salt, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians.  Although over 60,000 Indians were jailed as a result of the Salt March, the British did not make immediate major concessions.  Independence was not gained until 1947, 17 years after the Salt March. 

Although complex, with many different forces at play and for many different currently impacting reasons, as is the case with most major shifts in world history, I believe, the gaining of India’s independence from colonial rule was significantly influenced by the non-violent revolution over many years, mainly lead by Gandhi. 

It has been asserted that this Salt March, and the subsequent beating and killing by British police of hundreds of nonviolent protesters, which received worldwide news coverage, demonstrated the effective use of civil disobedience as a technique for fighting social and political injustice

It was certainly not motivated or inspired by the Exodus story and the activities of the God therein. 

It has also been stated that the Satyagraha teachings of Gandhi and the Salt March had a significant influence on American activists Martin Luther King Jr., and others during the Civil Rights Movement for the rights for African Americans and other minority groups in the 1960s; not always peaceful but at least non-violent protests against oppression and injustice.

This non-violent approach to powerlessness, disposition, discrimination and injustice, I believe, is still evident in the ‘Me too’ movement and most recent marches across the world, announcing that ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

Again, not motivated or inspired by the activities of the God in the Exodus story; maybe by this God’s intentions but certainly not this God’s actions

What seems to be problems with non-violent protests to bring about regime change, is that it usually takes a huge number of ordinary people to be motivated and involved.  And even if successful, it takes a long time to come into effect; e.g. gaining independence of India from British rule, by Gandhi’s methods.  Yet, if enough violence is used, then regime change can often come about quite swiftly and with the involvement of possibly few people.  Whether or not regime change, brought about through the use violence, is ultimately beneficial, is a matter of debate. 

The intentions and the accompanying actions of the Exodus God, I believe, is very much the ‘modus operandi’ of the modern movie industry which has only about 2 to 3 hours, the length of the movie, to bring about drastic change in policy or even regime change; at least the defeat of the ‘badies’ and the victory of the ‘goodies’.  In this movie environment, violence by the ‘goodies’ is seen as not only effective but also totally appropriate in bringing about the desired end result.  I am manipulated into being very pleased that the villain is killed at the end of the film, thus often saving the world from disaster.

My response to the Exodus God.

I realize I am making a 21st Century response, but, in this story the Lord deliberately targets innocent men, women, young people and children for death.  Today, this God would be convicted as a terrorist, committing crimes against humanity, or even worse, and when found guilty in an International Court of Criminal Justice would be given multiple life sentences.  (I’m not quite sure what a ‘life sentence’ for God looks like.)

Maybe I am looking too much for things in the story I wish to reject.  I deny I am deliberately doing this even though I am highlighting the nasty parts.  I just keep looking at the text itself.  I am not inventing the negatives within it.  They are there for all of us to read.  I find it quite disturbing that such an image of God is presented in our Christian sacred book as a paradigm of how to bring about liberation and thus used as such by many liberation theologians.

What I am being taught today, about this story.

In my earlier church education, the Exodus story was never identified as probably the most violent story in the whole of the Bible.  In my reasonably recent past, I had this story described to me by a member of the clergy, from whom I learnt a great deal, as one of the most wonderful stories of liberation.  When I heard this comment of praise I had to voice my disquiet.  Some friends I have who are members of the clergy, do not wish to discuss the story.

The film – The Ten Commandments.

Not as a joke, but seriously, I go to the film, The Ten Commandments, when beginning my research for present-day instruction about this Exodus story.  I go there because I think the vast majority of church-goers as well as numerous members of the non-church public, maybe tens of millions, have seen this film; far more than will ever read commentaries or theological comments about the story, or even read it in the Bible.  I go there because I continue to try to speak from a regular church-goers position.  I think the film may play a significant role in people’s understanding of the story.

It is stated that this film, which was released in 1956, features one of the largest sets ever created for a film, and, at the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made.  It is also one of the most financially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million (equivalent to about $1.25 billion in 2020 terms), at the box office during its initial release.  According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the 8th most successful film of all time.  Although released over 60 years ago, it is still screened today.  Network television has aired the film in prime time during Passover/Easter season, every year since 1973.  So a lot of people have seen it, maybe more than once.

The first 2 hours of it (It is a very long film, over 4 hours.) deal with the earlier life of Moses when he was brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace.  In typical Hollywood style, interest is maintained by a love triangle involving Moses, Pharaoh’s son Rameses and Nefertari.  According to the film, Nefertari becomes Rameses’ wife, but she loves only Moses, who, while living at the royal court returns that love.  Interest is also maintained by the growing hostility between Rameses and Moses.  They are presumed to be related because Moses, as a baby, was plucked from the Nile River and secretly taken to be the previous Pharaoh’s daughter’s son.  Rameses in the film, is depicted as the ambitious, ruthless villain.

The second half of the film tells how Moses learns of his Hebrew roots and reluctantly becomes the ‘deliverer’ of the Hebrew slaves.  The film-makers employ a number of special effects to portray God’s call to Moses out of the burning bush, some of the plagues, the protection of the escaping slaves by God’s pillar of fire, the crossing of the Red Sea, and at the end of the film, the giving of the Ten Commandments.  Looking at this film, it appears that the film-makers take the story literally; that it all actually happened.  I found it almost convincing.  It would comfortably fit with a belief that God is an almighty Person who intervenes in human history in supernatural ways to enact God’s will.

My reaction to the film was mixed.  I found the spectacle created was amazing and enthralling.  The harsh servitude of the Hebrew slaves is graphically portrayed and no wonder they dreamt of freedom.  I think the film mirrors well, much of the biblical story.  Rameses, Egypt’s Pharaoh, was certainly brutally ruthless and would not bow to God’s demands.  God speaks directly to Moses but never to Pharaoh.  Moses often says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord…”  The wrath of God is certainly taken seriously because at one point in the film, Moses cries out, “Turn from thy fierce wrath, O Lord.”  Some of the ‘signs and wonders’ pictured by special effects, pointed me to the Lord’s supernatural powers as depicted in the Bible.  Pharaoh’s capitulation is definitely portrayed with him admitting, “I cannot fight the power of (Moses’) God.”, and “His God is God.”  The praise of Israel’s God is evident many times and particularly after crossing the Red Sea, with the emancipated Hebrews shouting, “The Lord is one.”

However, my reaction is also such that I think there are important biblical emphases which do not feature in the film and vice-versa.

  • The early life of Moses, growing up in Pharaoh’s place, is not in the Bible.
  • In the film, God is never portrayed as ’hardening‘ Pharaoh’s heart.  At least twice it is stated in the film that Pharaoh’s heart was/is ‘hardened’ but no initiator of this ‘hardening’ is identified.  God is never stated as ‘making sport’ or ‘making fools’ of the Egyptians, as in the Bible story.
  • In the film, the plight of the Hebrew slaves is given much graphic presentation but the death and destruction incurred by the plagues is not.  This is a major theme as told in the Bible.  For me, it is not in the film.
  • Moses, in the film, speaks continually about the evils of slavery and that all men should be free.  This strong emphasis from Moses is not found in the biblical story.
  • Most of the plagues are given just a two sentence mention in the film.  They are not depicted at all.  Frogs, flies, boils, lice, gnats, animal death and locusts are given no film footage.  In the film no devastating results of the hail and fire are given.  We are shown the hail falling with its accompanying fire, only on the porch of Pharaoh’s palace.  No destruction of all the plants and trees is shown in the film.  
  • The negotiations, mentioned on several occasions in the Bible, about the conditions by which the slaves could go and ‘serve/worship’ the Lord, and the requests of Moses to the Lord to relax or stop a plague, are not mentioned in the film.
  • God’s aim to ‘gain glory’ is not mentioned in the film.
  • In the film, only two deaths of the first-born Egyptians are pictured, thus lessening the devastating impact of this on the film viewers.  We do hear the cries of anguish in the background.  However, the ‘agent’ of God or God being personally involved in the killing, is avoided in the film.
  • Even the death by drowning of all Pharaoh’s warriors and horsemen is not very graphically presented in the film.  The viewer does see the water engulfing the chariots but it is just a fleeting view.  Viewers are not shown all the Egyptians dead on the shore.

Thus, my perception is that the film producers wanted to present God as not doing anything extremely terrible.  The film presented the Lord as doing what the Lord did do, for the only purpose of freeing the slaves.  The film did not want to portray the Lord as being ultra-violent.  Even after the death of Pharaoh’s son, the boy’s mother, Nefertari, shouts at Rameses, “You let Moses kill my son.”  No mention of God.

The film wanted to emphasize that liberation was the main message of the whole story.  The film also made capital out of the awesomeness of God’s supernatural power.  Good viewing!

All this would ensure the film’s general acceptance by the public.  It had to be successful.  I think this film’s emphases are what regular church-goers understand as the basic meanings of the biblical story.  Being viewed by millions of people both inside and outside the church, I believe the film has exercised significant influence on how the story is generally understood.  I know many people, who are not church-goers, regard the story, what they know of it, as a great tale of liberation.  I think this is how most, if not all regular church-goers view it.  I do not believe the film helps in portraying the story as it is told in the Bible.  I think it presents a better slant on the story and of the God involved, and in doing so, it is not all that biblical.

Modern commentators.

I now look to some modern commentators for instruction.  Some are helpful at times, but many, I think, do not seriously address my questions of the violence of God in the story.

Walter Brueggeman.

I commence with Walter Brueggemann, an eminent biblical scholar and theologian of world repute.  I have already quoted from his commentary on the story.  I will begin now with his general comments about violence in the Bible, from his book Old Testament Theology.  In this book, Brueggemann uses more than 1000 quotes from the Old Testament and about 50 from the New Testament, giving a detailed explanation of what the text of the Bible says and the theological emphases it is making.  He makes numerous comments on many contemporary implications of the teachings in the text.  I found his book very instructive and helpful. 

Having written more than 58 books, hundreds of articles, and several commentaries on books of the Bible, I feel ill-equipped to question him, let alone challenge him.  His incredibly extensive knowledge of the whole canon of the Bible completely dwarfs mine.

However, on the overall subject of violence, he makes some comments in his above mentioned book.    

There is no doubt that the imagery of divine warrior is problematic for biblical faith, as we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed. ….we are of course much more aware of the ways in which such imagery is a huge liability for it serves willy-nilly to authorize and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….

There are, of course, interpretative strategies that can lessen the toxin of these traditions.  Biblical theologians, however, must take care not to ‘explain away’ what is so definitional for the textual tradition.  The imaginary is something we must live with, albeit with awkwardness and embarrassment.  We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have.  The presentation of this God is not marginal to the Bible nor can it be justified simply as human projection among the disinherited, nor can it be easily resolved by a ‘developmental hypothesis’ the preferred strategy of Old Testament scholarship.  It is there; self-critical reflection requires of course critique of the very God the Jews and Christians confess.  While we make our awkward self-aware confession, we cannot fail to notice, even among us, the ways in which this theological tradition continues to fund that which we rightly abhor. [20]

For me, Brueggemann has named the problem.  

The imagery is something we must live with… We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have….. It is there.

I think he is correct.  I cannot alter this ‘imagery’ even though I wish to.  However, if it ‘funds that which we rightly abhor’ then my reaction to it is that I must faithfully reject it.  Having ‘to live with it’ because ‘it is there’, does not mean for me, that I have to give it any credence even if it is the Bible where it is found.  I can reject the imagery and never refer to it, or I can refute it every time I do encounter it, wherever and whenever.  If I give it authority or influence or even take any notice of it in my beliefs in or about God, then I believe I am leaving myself open to spiritual abuse.  Is it similar to saying to a woman whose partner is violent, “We know he is violent but he is the only one you have.  You are his partner so you have to live with him and make the best of it.”?  We know what this often leads to. 

Has the church been saying for centuries, the same sort of thing about the biblical violence of God to church-goers?

I realize the authors of many of the biblical stories depicting God as violent, were writing within their own theological framework but that does not make their teachings authoritative or even helpful for me today.  I may have things wrong regarding my opinions and my theological stance, but I believe the biblically violent image of God is wrong, horribly wrong.  My journey with Jesus is seriously jeopardized if I give any credence to this image of God.  I faithfully reject some Bible passages vehemently and I speak out against them

With this introduction to Brueggemann’s thoughts, I somewhat apprehensively turn to his commentary about the Exodus story under consideration.

In an effort to respond to his thoughts in a responsible way I make comments about his ‘Reflections’ on the Songs of Moses and Miriam at the end of his commentary of the story in the New Interpreters Bible. .

I do realize that responding in such detail is open to misunderstandings, even mistakes.  When Brueggemann or other commentators use specific words or phrases, they may have a meaning for them which is different, maybe sometimes in only a minor way, to the meaning they have for me.  Also, I may have misunderstood their ideas and concepts.  Given these dangers, I have found much of his commentary both helpful and instructive.

I proceed with his ‘Reflections’ on the Song of Moses in Exodus 15.

  • God is portrayed here in embarrassingly anthropomorphic categories (I.e. God has qualities of emotion and body that may offend our ‘metaphysical propensities’.).  Our Western inclination to portray God as removed from the human drama of our experience, however, is a highly dubious gain.  Such anthropomorphic portrayals as we have in the text belong to the core of biblical faith and are not incidental footnotes.  Moreover, such earthiness brings the questions and resources of faith very close to how we experience and live reality.  Such speech in this poem opens up the most elemental struggles and hopes that are part of the human enterprise.  No other mode of theological speech so well touches the human concreteness of faith. [21]

I disagree with Brueggemann on two counts regarding anthropomorphic speech.  First, for me, he seems to imply that if we abandon the anthropomorphic mode of theological speech, then God becomes

..removed from the human drama of our experience.

I do not believe this to be so.  As a panentheist, I believe that God is in everything and everything is in God.  I do not believe in a Being called God who is separate and distinct, spoken of anthropomorphically.  Yet I find my experience of God is deeply rooted in my personal experience of life and reality, and to use his words,

..an earthiness which brings with it questions and resources of faith very close to how I experience and live reality.

This is my experience, but without any anthropomorphic image of God.

Secondly, I disagree that such a move brings with it ‘a highly dubious gain’.  The gain for me is tremendous.  For me, the gain is not questionable or ‘highly dubious’.  God, for me, is no longer too small.  God is no longer just a super human being.  God is no longer tethered to my Sunday School teaching’s, to irrelevant, out-of-date biblical concepts or to a 1st Century world view.

I also disagree with his statement;

No other mode of theological speech so well touches the human concreteness of faith.

No other ‘mode of theological speech’ is as familiar at present, but that may be because other ‘modes’ have not been given enough chance to make their impact.  They may have been stilted by so much reliance on outdated biblical ‘modes’ of speech and concepts.  I hear some theologians speak of God as ‘energy’.  That makes a lot of sense to me and in this modern day can be very concrete.

Also if ‘Such anthropomorphic portrayals as we have in the text belong to the core of biblical faith and are not incidental footnotes.’ as I believe it possibly is, then I do not have a biblical faith. 

From Brueggemann again.

  • More specifically, the military metaphors for God raise problems.  Yahweh is a ‘man of war’, a description that seems to evoke and authorize violence in the world.  Our primary way of dealing with this problem is to transpose the political-historical violence into ontological violence; i.e. God’s struggle with death.  No doubt there is something positive in such an interpretative move (made even in the Bible itself).  Such a maneuver, however, may on occasion be a bourgeois device.  It is evident that theological rhetoric about God’s use of force against the power of oppression is not experienced as violent by those who are, in fact, oppressed.  In a situation of victimization, one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.  Metaphors of violence are problematic, but we must take care not to escape them by ideological dismissal.  There is in the gospel a model of conflict and a deep struggle for power and authority.  To miss this element is to distort biblical faith into a benign innocent affair.  We are (as the Bible recognizes) caught in a deep battle for humanness, a battle far larger than we ourselves can manage.  This, finally, is what faith asserts in its claim, “God is for us.” [22]

Because this touches the core of my questioning, I deal with some of the comments separately.

More specifically the military metaphor for God raises problems.  Yahweh is ‘a man of war’, a description that seems to evoke and authorize violence in the world.

Brueggemann does acknowledge, as he has many times in his writings, that the ‘military metaphor’ is problematic, but, for me, he downplays it here, by the use of the word ‘seems’.  The continuing use of violence by God right throughout the Bible, does in factevoke and authorize violence in the world’, in numerous people’s minds, some very powerful people’s minds, and that’s a big problem.  I think he agrees because in a quote from him previously, he states, ‘It serves willy-nilly to authorize and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….’

Even regular church-goers may say, “If God does it, it must be OK. I’ll follow suit.”  That, I believe, is the attitude taken by some leaders of society, for thousands of years in human history.  I believe this Exodus story continues to be read as a definite authorization for violence.

It is evident that theological rhetoric about God’s use of force against the power of oppression is not experienced as violent by those who are, in fact, oppressed.  In a situation of victimization one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.

For sure. But that doesn’t make the use of violence acceptable.  Also, I think it may be possible that there can be ambivalence in the attitude of some victors and victims alike, regarding excessive use of violence by a rescuer.  I think many people could regard that the Atomic Bomb strikes against Japan as necessary to end the Second World War, but they are in fact, ‘worried about’ that sort of excessive violence.  If violence is excessive (and who decides what is excessive?), I think rescuers could regard that as a source of ‘worry’.  Such excessive force and violence is abundantly evident to me in the Exodus story.

Metaphors of violence are problematic, but we must take care not to escape them by ideological dismissal.  There is in the gospel a model of conflict and a deep struggle for power and authority.  To miss this is to distort biblical faith into a benign innocent affair.  We are (as the Bible recognizes) caught in a deep struggle for humanness, a battle larger then we ourselves can imagine.

Absolutely!  But in the gospel, ’the deep struggle for power and authority’ is dealt with by Jesus in the opposite way when compared with the way of the God of the Exodus.  Jesus struggles non-violently.  Most of the New Testament continues in this vein of teaching.  The ‘model of conflict’, in the gospels is very significant, not only because it is obviously there, but more importantly because of the way Jesus deals with it; with love, strength of integrity and forgiveness.  Jesus never mentions the Exodus story in his ministry and, I think, for very good reason.  One can reject the story of the Exodus utterly without missing this element of conflict and struggle in the gospels.  To miss this in the gospels is to ignore a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings, his life, and particularly his death.  It doesn’t need the Exodus story to prompt us to think about this issue.

For me, Brueggemann nearly seems to ignore Jesus’ non-violence, when mentioning the gospels in his Reflections.  He seems to avoid making any moral judgements about the violence of God in the story.  By making few, if any moral judgements on this matter, I think he nearly gives tacit approval for it.  Is it OK because God does it?  Should we never question such actions?  Is it OK because it is embedded in liturgy and liturgical presentation and language?

Brueggemann’s 4th Reflection contains,

The good news of the poem is that God’s power for life is arrayed against, and victorious over, every enemy of human well-being in every present power arrangement. [23]

The ‘good news of the poem’ is not good news for me.  God’s power, all through the story, is exercised in God’s power of death, and not ‘God’s power for life’.  In the story, one of the main aims of Yahweh is to free the Hebrew slaves.  Sure, but the Lord does this through the power of death.  Gods’ power of death is what is praised in the song, as a glorious triumph.  This is what the text says to me.

Living the Questions – DVD  Part 1.

In a Living the Questions DVD, Walter Brueggemann is featured in Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, a series of five lectures on the story of the Hebrew journey from Slavery in Egypt to Covenant at Mt. Sinai; from oppression to commitment.  This is an excellent series that can and should, I think, be used as a resource for small group study in your church.

This series is presented with power and great insight.  Brueggemann in the first session, The Way Out, deals with the tremendous, seductive power of Pharaoh to drag us back to the slavery of the Production-Consumption system.  He speaks of the core of biblical faith as being about ‘moving out of the box of conforming oppression that is made possible by the intervention of holy power’.  He speaks of the Exodus story as one of regime change.  Being saturated with the biblical context, he speaks of the situation of the Hebrew slaves under the oppression of Pharaoh and the intervention of God through God’s ‘signs and wonders’, and this being accomplished through ‘human agency’, namely, Moses and Aaron.

God is mentioned as one of the three ‘actors’ in the story; the first being Pharaoh, second, the oppressed Hebrew slaves and last, Yahweh.  Of Yahweh, Brueggemann says a number of things in the DVD.

  • God is ‘a magnet’ to cries of ‘voiced human pain’.
  • God ‘enters the venue of rapacious economics’.  God breaks the system open with the ‘wonder of the plagues’ to destabilize the system.
  • God is the great ‘equalizer
  • God’s power is ‘irresistible’.

The violence of the ‘signs and wonders’, the plagues, is not mentioned.  It nearly seems irrelevant because regime change is all that is important.  I do not see how the violence of God can go un-mentioned.

  • If ‘all cries go up to Yahweh’, and if God is ‘a magnet to voiced cries of human pain’, what about,

…and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead. (Exodus 12:30.)

  • The system of Pharaoh was certainly ‘rapacious’, but God breaks it open by killing, destroying, killing!
  • I don’t believe God is an ‘equalizer‘ in this story.  God is on about ‘regime change’ and that change does not bring about equality for all the players.  In his commentary on the story, Brueggemann states,

The term makes clear that power has now fully shifted to Israel, and Israel may take whatever it wants. [24]

Also,

In this story, the Israelites are the powerless multitude, abruptly transformed into a community of power and significance, “on their way rejoicing”…. This encounter faithfully reflects how it is that this completely powerless people is filled with power to transform. [25]

No equality here.

  • God’s power is irresistible because God kills off all opposition, and more.

This activity of a tribal God, all fits perfectly into the context of the attitudes and theological thinking embraced by the story-tellers in their time, but if the story is to be used to make comment about present day issues and situations, then I believe it is necessary to address the violence in the actions of this God.  I do not believe it should be ignored or be thought to be of minor significance and thus no comment made.  If Pharaoh and the release of the slaves have relevance for today then surely the activity of how the Lord brings about this freedom, also has significance.  If this God is violent, is it OK for us today to be violent in bringing about regime change?  Jesus didn’t act this way or teach it.

The last point that Brueggemann makes in his overview of the story is that

The story ends well.

I beg your pardon!  I find that conclusion totally unacceptable.  How can a story, which has as part of its end result  

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

the killing of every first born, all done by the Lord; how can it be understood that such a story ‘ends well’?  I think Brueggemann follows the biblical attitude of the totally partisan Exodus God.

Brueggemann does confront the issue of God’s violence when he says in his commentary that the last plague was,

This final plague narrative, the most intensive and extreme action by Yahweh against Pharaoh, is brief. [26]

using

brutal power…, [27]

and that it led to a situation

…that the retention of Israel in its midst would only guarantee death’… [28]

So I don’t think, by any means, that he has ignored the violence of God’s action.  Even though he says these things in his commentaries, I think he falls short of condemning God’s behavior.

He courageously confronts the issue of the telling of this story to children in his Reflections, No 3, on the Song of Moses. He states,

The lesson taught the children in Ex.13:14-15, requires enormous interpretive agility. The child is told that God must kill all the first-born in order to bring about their freedom. Such a voicing of violence, especially by the hand of God, may be unsettling to a child. [29]

I certainly do not have such interpretive agility!  Is Brueggmann virtually saying here that we have to ‘explain away’ the facts of the story?  I think he is somewhat downplaying the difficulty, by his use of the words ‘may be unsettling to a child’.  I don’t think there is any ‘may’ about it.  I am very pleased that I do not have the responsibility of telling this story to any children.  I’m not sure how to tell it even to adults! Brueggemann states that,

The child learns in this telling that the God who killed the first-born is also the God who has risked everything for the beloved first-born. [30] 

I think I have missed something important.  I’m not quite sure what ‘risks’ God took.  Anyway, this, I believe, is a very dangerous path to follow.  Even if this God did take risks, that, for me, in no way justifies God’s killing or the other violence God uses in the story. 

I know I am sometimes involved in this sort of thinking, trying to explain or even justify my violent response or even my impatience, but it demonstrates to me just how subtle and seductive the appeal of retaliating violence is when we are confronted with the opportunity to respond to violence against ourselves.

Brueggemann is helpful but he has not convinced to retain the story as I journey with Jesus.  He does articulate the problems but, for me, he doesn’t really give me satisfactory answers to my main questions.

What does the rejection of this story do for the rest of the Bible and its possible guidance for me?  If I faithfully reject and clear out the violent image of God, I am rejecting a major theme of the Old Testament. Brueggemann says,

…that the Bible is permeated with violence in which Yahweh is deeply enmeshed,  [31]

So I am rejecting a major emphasis of the Bible.  I cannot do this lightly.  Regarding the way we approach the Bible, I find Derek Flood is both helpful and challenging with his suggestion to ‘faithfully embrace’ or ‘faithfully reject’ what we read.  This takes a lot of serious thinking and study.  I refer to this, in detail, a little later.

Terence Fretheim.

I now move to the commentary of Terence Fretheim, another eminent biblical scholar.

In his book on Exodus, in the series, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and. Preaching, I found his commentary instructive, but I also found some of it difficult to accept.  Like Brueggemann, Fretheim gives a scholarly, detailed and extensive comment on the story, about 120 pages.  He does so, building his commentary on the thesis that the Lord’s conflict with Pharaoh is an allegory of the conflict between life and death, the conflict of the order of creation against anti-creation, order versus chaos.  For Fretheim, the story has cosmic ramifications.  Maybe Fretheim has uncovered the main intentional idea of the original story-tellers.  Who knows?

The most basic perspective within which the plagues is to be understood is a theology of creation. [32]

and

We have seen that God’s liberation of Israel is the primary but not the ultimate focus of the divine activity.  The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of the entire creation. [33]

In Fretheim’s setting of the Exodus story as an allegory of creation, life versus death, he states,

There is thus a symbolic relationship of ethical order and cosmic order.  Seen against this background, Pharaoh’s oppressive, anti-life measures against Israel are anti-creational…  Egypt is an embodiment of the forces of chaos, threatening a return of the entire cosmos to its precreation state.  The plagues may be viewed as the effect of Pharaoh’s anti-creational sins upon the cosmos writ large. [34]

For me, the Lord’s action in the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’ are not pro-life or driven by the forces of creation and order.  For me, the execution of God’s ‘signs and wonders’ unleash chaos and anti-life results far beyond the results of Pharaoh’s oppressive rule and his anti-life behavior; far beyond ‘Pharaoh’s anti-creational sins’.  Fretheim states,

The considerable range of correspondence that exists between Pharaoh’s sins of oppression and the plagues shows that the latter are destined for Egypt according to an act-consequence schema. [35]

My question is, “Why is this ‘act-consequence schema’ not entertained regarding the acts of God in the plagues and then their consequences?”

  • We are told nothing in the text that the blood of the Nile River was changed back to water; only that ‘the Nile became foul’, see Ex. 7:21, and the Egyptians had to ‘dig around the Nile for water’; see Ex. 7:24.  How long did the blood last?  How serious was the consequence?  We don’t know from the text.
  • The frogs were ‘gathered together in heaps, and the land stank’; see Ex. 8:14.  What were the consequences?  Did the frogs just decay, probably taking weeks or maybe months?
  • The ‘swarm of flies’ was just ‘removed’; see Ex. 8:31, so we don’t know what consequences occurred, if any.
  • All the cattle of the Egyptians died.’; see Ex. 9:6.  The consequences could have lasted for decades.
  • ‘The hail struck down every plant of the field and shattered every tree of the field.’; see Ex. 9:25, And after the locusts ‘not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field through all the land of Egypt.’; see Ex. 10:15.  The consequences of this could have lasted for more than decades.  How could any of the vegetation revive?
  • At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt.’; see Ex. 12:29.  The consequences of this could have thrown the burial section of the community into absolute chaos with so many human bodies needing to be embalmed and buried.  Not to mention the grief and following mental state of all the Egyptians.
  • The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.’; see Ex. 14:28.  Together with all the first-born of the Egyptians being dead, this would have pushed the community to the brink, with such universal grief and loss, as well as such a depleted number of males to father the next generation.

The consequences of all this death and destruction could have nearly destroyed the whole Egyptian civilization.  I suppose all these consequences are appropriate in, and consistent with Fretheim’s basic thesis; ‘Egypt is an embodiment of the forces of chaos, threatening a return of the entire cosmos to its precreation state. ’

The whole basis of Fretheim’s basic thesis, for me, is unsustainable.

For Fretheim, questions of the morality of God’s actions seem somewhat irrelevant.  For me, he doesn’t address those questions.

Fretheim’s commentary on the last plague.

As with Brueggemann, I wish to deal in detail, with some of Fretheim’s commentary, particularly his comments about the killing of all the first-born of the Egyptian families.  Many of you will not have his commentary so I place it before you.  It is rather long but I wish to give you the opportunity to make your own judgements about my disagreements with him.  He states in his commentary on Ex. 12:29-36,

As noted, the placement of this plague in the midst of ritual considerations takes it out of the normal flow of the story, out of ordinary time and space.  This gives it an impressionistic character in relation to actual events.  Its somewhat episodic flow may be due to the composite nature of the text, but it also enables the narrator quickly to view death and new life from different angles of vision.  The story is told in spare, straightforward language; there is no literary embellishments, no stopping to savor what happened to the Egyptians.  Even with the joy associated with newfound freedom, Israel, like its God, voices no pleasure in the deaths of these persons.  This gives the entire scene a certain solemnity.

Attention is here given to two major aspects of the narrative; it is a story of both death and new life.

It happened in the middle of the night, when all of that world was dark.  The darkness of the night matched the darkness of the deed.  No household was spared, not one.  Indeed no barnyard escaped.  It was a deed done when all were asleep; it was not a public execution, though the effects were public indeed.  As hard as it is to say, the victims were primarily children; both boys and girls – whoever happened to be the first-born in the family.  It helps little to say that there was no suffering; to use a modern image, it was sudden (infant) death syndrome throughout Egypt that night.  One can appreciate the great cry that went up, from parents in particular, including Pharaoh himself.  However much it is appropriate to speak of judgement, and Pharaoh’s genocidal decision to kill all Hebrew baby boys was made long ago, (see Ex. 1:16, 22.), no reader can rejoice at the deaths of children.  Their lives were snuffed out because of what adults had done.  It might be helpful to draw on historical parallels, not finally as a justification for killing, but as a reminder of other forms of history’s violence.  Perhaps carefully drawn analogies between Pharaoh and Hitler might be helpful, including the fact that American bombs killed many German children while asleep and wide awake, and in strange unpredictable patterns of location.

It is one thing to speak of American bombs, but it seems almost blasphemous that God is the one ‘who drops the bomb’.  The text does not back away from identifying the subject of the judgement: God smote all the first-born in Egypt from the least (this time prisoners are mentioned) to the greatest, both animals and human beings.  This does not mean that God killed each of the first-born directly, one by one (see Psalm 78:49).  The text uses various words in speaking of a non-divine agent: 11:1 speaks of nega (“plague”), a word often used for diseases; 12:13 speaks of negep (“plague”) a word commonly used for pestilence or blow; in 9:15 deber (“pestilence”) is used, as in 9:3 for the cattle epidemic; mashit (“destroyer” NRSV) occurs in 12:23, a word associated with destruction and pestilence (cf 11 Sam. 24:15-16; Isaiah 37:36).  It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly.  This killing of the first-born only ought not to be interpreted literally (its possible historical basis is that of no household remained untouched.).  As with the other plagues, the emphasis on “all” is intended to portray an aspect of creation gone berserk.  The moral order had “boomeranged” in such a way that the order of nature (which includes epidemics) has become something it ought not to be.

The language of 4:23 should be recalled.  There the killing of the Egyptian first-born is understood as a measure for measure, making the punishment fit the crime.  Pharaoh had sought to kill all male children of Israel (1:22), a genocidal measure that would in time have killed off the people of Israel.  So the first-born of Egypt suffer a fate comparable – it is not genocidal – to what Pharaoh had planned and begun to carry out.

This helps answer the question, Why not just any person from every Egyptian family?  It is because of the widely known understanding regarding the first-born.  This could be a public statement as to God’s claim over Egypt, God’s authority over the people rather than Pharaoh’s.  The first-born are dedicated to Yahweh rather than to Egypt’s Gods. (see 12:12)  Given Pharaoh’s attempt to claim Israel’s children, this constitutes God’s counterclaim at a comparable, if less severe, level.  Because it was directly responsive to the type of claim Pharaoh was making, it would perhaps have been a measure that would finally be convincing to him. [36]

My comments.

  • I found it helpful that Fretheim identifies that the story is embedded in liturgy and vice-versa and thus it is, to an extent, taken ‘out of ordinary time and space’.  He also speaks of the ‘composite nature of the text’, which helps me cope with the apparent inconsistencies within the story as the Bible presents it.  It is not told as accurate actual history, and it probably has multiple sources.
  • Fretheim states that the story has two major aspects – it is a story about death and new life. That’s for sure.  Lots of death and at the end, new life for the Hebrew slaves.
  • He certainly does not shy away from the fact that it was a dark deed, but he also says ‘when all were asleep’.  For me, this is Fretheim’s effort to lessen the toxicity of the deed and the effect it had on those involved.  People were asleep so they died in their sleep.  Maybe not too bad and not painful.  I think ‘all were asleep’ cannot be assumed from the text.  Probably true for most but not necessarily everyone, ‘all’.
  • Certainly not a public execution with all its shame and humiliation.  I think this is important.
  • The victims were primarily boys and girls’.  Not so.  I have looked at my present family.  Seven of those presently alive would have been killed that night. My wife, Wendy, 83 years old; one of my sons-in-law, Alberto, aged 65; my eldest daughter, Cathy, aged 58; and four of my grandchildren, Rahni,19; Jasmine, 19; Harrison, 15, and Alannah, 2.  All would have been killed that night in Egypt.  Just because you are a father or mother does not preclude you from being the first-born in your family.  Just because you are over 80 does not change your position of being the first-born of your family.  I contend it would have been possible for seven people in one household in Egypt to have been killed that night; four grandparents, two parents and only one child.  Certainly improbable but not impossible.  They could all have been the first-born in their respective families.  Thus, I further contend that this slaughter by God could have been actually worse than the child slaughter done by Pharaoh, because a father, mother and a child could have been killed by God that night, grandparents as well.  Not that I like to make comparisons of such tragic events.  Such comparisons are to be avoided because each event is horrendous.  This is my second mistake at doing this!!  

In the film, The Ten Commandments, as a result of this last 10th plague, an adult man falls dead on the porch of Pharaoh’s palace.  One of Pharaoh’s older advisors states that he was his first-born son.  This suggested that such a death could be quite sudden and painless. 

However, the constant use of extravagant images, that the water in all Egypt turned to blood; that there was not one green thing was left after the locusts; that all cattle died; that all the first-born of Egyptian families were killed by God; that all Pharaoh’s warriors were drowned, so that not one remained, lends weight to my contention that it was not only children that were killed.  ALL the first-born were killed.  In fact, for the story, there may have been far more adults killed than children and most likely, very few infants.

  • So why does Fretheim mention ‘sudden (infant) death syndrome’?  The first-born and not the last-born were targeted that night. Many infants would have been the last-born and not the first-born. I believe that for the story, as told in the Bible, there may have been very few infants involved.  Yet he states that, ‘it was sudden (infant) death syndrome throughout Egypt that night.’  How can he say that?  There is no biblical basis for this.  None at all.  It is nowhere in the text.  Does he want to protect this brutal tribal God of the Israelites?
  • It helps to say that there was no suffering.’  For sure, but I think this is another presumption to try to lessen the toxicity of the situation.  How can Fretheim suggest there was no suffering?  There was a great cry from the Egyptians but I don’t think we can presume that that was only the cry of those grieving.  It may well have been mixed with the cries of those suffering a painful death.  The text does not help much in deciding whether the death was painful or not, so I don’t think Fretheim has any right to presume.
  • It was sudden.’  In the film; Yes, but in the Bible?  Who knows?  Where is the validation for this in the text?  Maybe yet another of Fretheim’s presuppositions coming to the fore, to try to lessen the toxicity of the situation.  This Exodus tribal God has shown no mercy so far in the story, so why should mercy be shown now?
  • It is one thing to speak of American bombs, but it seems almost blasphemous that God is the one who drops the bomb.’  For me, it is not a case of ‘seems almost’.  It is a case of actually being obscenely blasphemous, at least from my Christian perspective.   In ancient times this was thought of as the way that tribal Gods behaved.  Had they had bombs, I have little doubt they would have enjoyed using as many as were available.  The strategies by which they ‘gained glory’ were irrelevantGaining glory was what was all important.  The tribal God of the Israelites was no different.
  • ‘…that American bombs killed many children, while asleep and wide awake.’  So were the Americans worse than God?  By presuming that all the Egyptians were asleep, a quite subtle comparison is made, for which, I believe there is no biblical justification.
  • It is good that Fretheim does not avoid the matter when the text does identify the one who is ‘the subject of this judgement’.  However, by using the word ‘judgement’, which is biblical, he again, for me, avoids the violence of the action of God, as, I believe, he mostly does throughout his commentary on the whole story.
  • ‘This does not mean that God killed each one first-born directly, one by one (see Psalm 78:49)’. (This is not my favorite Psalm and I think the verse quoted gives an expansive interpretation; ‘a company of destroying angels.)  The Lord had to look at every house, ‘one by one’, to see if there was any blood on the lintels of the door posts.   From the text,  ‘

For the Lord will pass through to slay the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel of the two door posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.’ (Exodus 12:23.)

This was all an individually, deliberate and considered operation.  Nothing must or will go wrong! I think it is a case of God killing each Egyptian ‘one by one’ and not killing each Hebrew ‘one by one’.  There would have been a large number of Hebrew dwellings with blood on the lintels of their doorposts so a ‘distinction’ was made in every single case.  ‘When he sees…’ is a specific individual identification.  If blood was seen by the Lord then no killing was undertaken.  When the Lord ‘did not see’, killing was appropriate.  This is ‘one by one’. I realize that the Hebrews lived in the land of Goshen and thus were separated from the Egyptians, but we are not told that every Hebrew lived there.  I suppose that could be inferred but the text still states that it was necessary for God ‘to see the blood’. This points me to an individual ‘seeing’ and thus a ‘one by one’ killing.

  • Fretheim uses the phrase ‘non-divine agent’, and identifies four different Hebrew words used in the story.  This phrase conjures up in my mind an agent which was not God’s.  It nearly suggests to me, that the ‘agent’ was not working under God’s instructions.  Was Moses a ‘divine’ or ‘non-divine’ agent? In asking this question, I suppose my predisposition and prejudice is coming to the fore.  Am I knit-picking? I don’t think so because I am dealing with the individual details like Fretheim does.
  • It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly.’  For sure, and, as mentioned before, the film certainly suggests that.  But again, is this not trying to lessen the toxicity of the action by God?  Who knows whether the death was quick or not?  Fretheim wants us to think so. Again I say, “The God of the Exodus has shown no mercy so far, so why should mercy be shown now?”
  • ‘…all is intended to portray an aspect of creation gone berserk.’  Could I suggest that it is the Exodus tribal God who has gone berserk?  This is what this tribal God does to ‘gain glory’.
  • The moral order has ‘boomeranged’ in such a way that the order of nature (which includes epidemics) has become something it ought not to be.’  It didn’t just happen.  In the story, the Lord makes it ‘boomerang’ with the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.  God uses anti-nature, anti-life, death and destruction to accomplish God’s purpose.  It is God who is doing something that God should not do.  God is ‘becoming something’ God ‘ought not to be’.  But that’s what tribal Gods do!
  • When Fretheim rightly states that God will act in a tit-for-tat way; see Ex. 4:23, is he suggesting that God is in some way justified, even though God uses one of the lowest human motives for action; retaliation or revenge?  When he compares God’s killing of the first-born with Pharaoh’s killing of every male child, Fretheim, for me, is virtually saying that what God did was not as bad as that which Pharaoh intended to do the Hebrew race and had, in fact, commenced.  What the Lord was doing was not genocidal.  I think Fretheim is asking for understanding that God’s claim is ‘less severe’, because God kills only the first-born and not all male childrenIs Fretheim saying, “We know God is bad but he is not nearly as bad as Pharaoh.”?  When one compares evil with something that is worse, it doesn’t look so evil.  I try to never make moral judgements that way.  I didn’t do too well at this, just a moment ago!
  • ‘The first-born are dedicated to Yahweh rather than to Egypt’s Gods.’  In its historical context, I think Fretheim has given a helpful explanation as to why it was that the first-born was killed.  This was surely a way of indicating to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, that Israelites’ God was way above the status of all the Egyptian Gods.  But what a way to do it!

For this part of his commentary, Fretheim wants us to think that God gives a swift, painless death, occurring in sleep to all the first-born Egyptians.  At the age of 84, this is what I wish for.  However, I do not think that Fretheim can get this understanding from an objective look at the text in the Bible.  There is no biblical validation for a slow, drawn out, painful experienced death while awake, but I believe there is also no solid validation in the text, for a quick, sudden, painless death while asleep.  I believe Fretheim wishes to divorce God from doing things that are really nasty.  With the Exodus story I do not believe that is possible.  For me, Fretheim presents God as doing what is deemed necessary to demonstrate that God is Lord of all creation, no matter what it takes.  For me, he seems to try in some ways to nearly exonerate the Lord, regarding the extreme violence that the Lord employs.

I find his commentary, dealing with the last plague, quite unacceptable, even misleading.  I would not recommend it as a resource for preaching or teaching.

Personally, I find little help from Fretheim in my effort at ‘Truth-Telling’.

I know I have come to Fretheim’s commentary with the teachings of Jesus about ‘enemy love’ in my mind, but I think this is the way most regular church-goers would take.  That’s why the violence of God in the Bible is such a huge difficulty for most regular church-goers, that is, if they think about it.

Fretheim obviously has a great deal of knowledge of the Old Testament and a wide understanding of the Hebrew language, so I suppose I have little right to question such a scholarly presentation, regarding his conclusions.  But as with all of us, I believe Fretheim, imposes some of his predispositions on the text and as such, indulges in Reader Response interpretation to such an extent that he creates his own text and does not address many of the questions that ordinary church-goers like myself, ask about this Exodus story.  I believe they are not the wrong questions.

We may call the actions of the Exodus God ‘signs and wonders’, ‘judgements’, ‘consequences’, what God needed to do to achieve liberation, necessary actions to ‘gain glory’ and be known ‘throughout the whole earth’ as Lord of all creation, essential actions to make all peoples recognize that ‘I am the Lord’, but with any or all of this, I believe we cannot escape the fact that the actions of this God hurt all the land of Egypt, plants, trees, insects, animals and many human beings.  The actions ruined the whole land until there was no green thing left alive, killed all animals, killed all locusts so that not a single one was left and also killed numerous human beings some of whom were children. 

We must rid ourselves of this tribal God who acted precisely the way tribal Gods do.  We must reject this image of God because, I believe, with all our sophisticated theological understandings, we cannot hold this Exodus image of God and the Jesus image of God together at the same time.  I choose the Jesus image and utterly reject the Exodus image.  This means, I think, that I must reject the whole story.

Marcus Borg.

Now to Marcus Borg, an author of many books in the field of Progressive Christianity and an eminent biblical scholar and commentator, whose books I have enjoyed and from which I have learnt a tremendous amount.  In his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, he has a very short statement, telling in his own words, the story of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  He talks about

Then begins a dramatic episodes in which God sends plague after plague against the empire. [37]

He lists nine of the plagues and then states a bit later,

And so the most devastating plague strikes: the death of the first-born of all Egyptians, Including Pharaoh’s son. [38]

Although Borg makes his own observations, he makes no comment (not that I can remember) about the violent nature of God’s actions and the devastating effects of the plagues.  Of the Song of Moses, he states,

The deliverance of Israel at the sea is celebrated spiritually in a magnificent hymn of praise to God. [39]

I believe Borg is saying here that a song praising violence is ‘magnificent’.  If this is what he is doing, I cannot agree.  I am very pleased that Onwards Christian Soldiers has been deleted from our official Australian hymnbooks.  That happened back in 1977.  The fundamental struggle/conflict between good and evil, between God and the devil, if you will, is profound and a central theme of discipleship of Jesus, but military metaphors are all unacceptable for me. 

One of the features of Hebrew poetry is the universal use of couplets; two consecutive lines which communicate the same idea but in different words.  The Psalms are full of these couplets.  Borg mentions that the first couplet in the Song of Moses is,

Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.

He thus equates the glorious triumph of God with violently drowning all Pharaoh’s warriors.  This poem in chapter 15, goes on to speak about the Lord, and the results of this God’s actions.

‘Man of War’, being ‘glorious in power’, who ’shatters the enemy’.  ‘The peoples have heard, they tremble; pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Philistia.  Now the chiefs of Edom are dismayed; the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.  Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as stone’. (Exodus 15:6, 14-16.)    

These are parts of the song which I would not call ‘magnificentThis is not the action of a God I would praise.

In his most helpful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, when commenting on the Exodus story, he states,

What is the story about?  Most basically, it is a story of bondage, liberation, a journey and a destination. [40]

I think his statement about the basics of the story is inadequate.  Because it is so short, I suppose Borg could be excused, but, for me, he does not adequately announce all the basics.  Why is there no word about the violence of God and God wanting to gain glory, both of which saturate the story?

In his short retelling of this story, Borg makes no mention of the violence in the actions of God.  Violence doesn’t come into his picture here.  Is this irrelevant?  It would seem so.  I think this is an unfortunate omission; and, again maybe interpretation taking over from what the text actually says.  In his nearly three pages on the Exodus Story, Borg finishes this section with,

Though we find ourselves in bondage to Pharaoh, it proclaims, there is a way out.  Through signs and wonders, through the great and mighty hand of God, God can liberate us, indeed wills our liberation and yearns for our liberation, from a life in bondage to culture, to life as a journeying with God. [41]

In the above quote Borg makes a more personal reflection about our liberation from Pharaoh.  I do not believe God liberates us through acts of violence.  Using the Exodus story in this context is, for me, very dangerous.  ‘Through signs and wonders, through the great and mighty hand of God.’  Yes!  But with violence?  Borg does not address my questions.  Maybe in some other of his writings he does, and if this is so, then I cannot remember it or I have not read it.  I’m sorry if this is the case.

Tom Wright.

I turn to Tom Wright, another modern eminent theologian, scholar and biblical commentator.  In his co-authored book with Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, he states,

But if you start with the God of the Exodus, of Isaiah, of creation and covenant, and of the Psalms, and ask what that God might look like were he to become human, you will find that he might look very much like Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps never more so than when he dies on a Roman cross. [42]

I can never imagine the God of the Exodus choosing to die on a cross.  I can never imagine the God of the Exodus doing the things that Jesus did; loving and forgiving his enemies.  I can never imagine the God of the Exodus washing dirty feet.  I realize that Wright is probably referring to God’s intention in the Exodus story to liberate downtrodden slaves, which intention, I think Jesus would have absolutely endorsed, but again I say that the God of the Exodus and Jesus do things in totally opposite ways to bring about liberation.  These two ways are incompatible.  Why does Wright suggest that if the God of the Exodus were to become human, he might look like Jesus?  I do not understand.  As I have said previously, I find that the image of the God in the Exodus story is the antithesis of all that Jesus taught and lived as his image of God.  I believe other regular church-goers would think the same.

Wright is quoted as saying on Twitter on the 17th of May 2018,

Just as the Exodus was launched by the coming of Israel’s God in person to rescue his people, so the new Exodus has been launched by the long awaited return of this same God in and as Jesus himself. [43]

I would suggest that Israel’s God in the Exodus is notthe same God in and as Jesus himself’.  These Gods are opposites and nothing like ‘the same’.  Israel’s God in rescuing God’s people in the Exodus Old Testament story, is ultra-violent, killing and destroying everything to achieve this God’s goals, and to show how great and powerful God is.  The ‘God in and as Jesus himself’ acts in the opposite way, with compassion and forgivenessJesus’ God teaches and demonstrates ‘enemy love’.  This is completely absent in the behavior of the God of the Exodus.  I do not understand.

Derek Flood.

In desperation, I turn to Derek Flood, an author I have quoted before.  In his excellent book, Disarming Scripture, in which he deals with violence in the Bible, he states,

Jesus embraces the story of the Exodus, but applies it in a way that is different, unexpected and transforming. [44]

How can he say that ‘Jesus embraces the story of the Exodus’, when Jesus never mentions it in his teaching or preaching; not in any of his ministry?  Again, I don’t understand.

Is there a scotoma, a blind spot, existing here?  Are some commentators looking critically at the extent of the violence of the God in this story, or have they become as immune to violence and its catastrophic effects, just like the Israelite tribal God who inflicts it all?  Am I on the wrong track altogether?  I begin to think I am.  Maybe my questions need no answers.  Maybe they are just the wrong questions.

I am questioning, challenging Brueggemann, Fretheim, Wright, Borg and Flood!  I’m sorry, but I cannot stop.  The text in front of me forces me to continue.  So I continue, seeking to try to do some necessary but somewhat unpalatable ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story.

Karen Armstrong.

I continue my research.  Karen Armstrong in her book, The History of God, when commenting on the story of Abraham being directed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, states,

Yet to modern ears, this is a horrible story.  It depicts god as a despotic and capricious sadist, and it is not surprising that many people today who have heard this tale as children, reject such a deity. [45]

Commenting on the Exodus story, she states,

The myth of the Exodus from Egypt, when God led Moses and the children of Israel to freedom, is equally offensive to modern sensibilities. ….  This is a brutal, partial, and murderous God, a god of war who would be known as Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Armies.  He is passionately partisan, has little compassion for anyone but his own favorites, and is simply a tribal deity.  If Yahweh had remained such a savage god, the sooner he vanished, the better it would have been for everybody. [46]

I believe Karen Armstrong is correct.  Sadly though for me, the story with its gross image of God has not vanished, but is still used in some Christian liturgies and teachings today.  I believe this story is a source of great difficulty to most regular church-goers, if they think about it and its content.

John Shelby Spong.

Revived in my search, I turn to Spong to see if he has anything to say about the story.  He does not address this issue in his book, The Sins of Scripture, as I thought he might.  However, I looked further and in a lecture reported in the Chautauguan Daily on June 27th 2012, in answer to question as to whether God changes, he answered,

“Does God change? Can God change?”, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong asked Tuesday at the start of his afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

“In certain religions and passages from sacred texts, God is defined as the ultimate embodiment of perfection, so the idea of a changing and transforming God is possible.”, Spong said.  “However, an analysis of humankind’s historical perceptions of the divine, evidences not only have humanity’s ideas of God morphed through the millennia, but even within the pages of the Bible the nature of God has evolved.” 

“The fact is, the concept of God changes very dramatically even in the pages of Holy Scripture, which makes it really difficult for fundamentalists”, Spong said, “because if you literalize the Scriptures and find that even the concept of God changes, somehow you’ve got to change along with it.” 

In the second lecture of his weeklong series entitled ‘Re-claiming the Bible in a non-religious world’, Spong evidenced the changing Judeo-Christian concept of God through an examination of biblical text and the stories of the four minor prophets; Hosea, Amos, Jonah and Malachi.

“The Bible begins with a world marked by tribal religion.”, Spong said.

“There are two things that are always true about a tribal deity. First, the tribal deity always has a chosen people.  And secondly, the tribal deity always hates everybody that the chosen people hate.”, he said. 

“That early understanding of God as a tribal deity is evident in the Book of Exodus.” Spong said. “In Exodus, God hates the Egyptians because the Egyptians enslaved God’s chosen people, the Jews.” 

“This God decides to attack the Egyptians with vengeance and with power. We call that the story of the plagues.” he said.  “God hits the Egyptians up one side and down the other.” 

“This understanding of God as a vengeful, violent deity that would murder the first-born son of every family, and thoughtlessly drown Egyptians in the depths of the Red Sea, is not a friendly identification.” Spong said.

“The understanding of God as a tribal deity appears in Exodus, the Book of Joshua, and again in the Book of Samuel, when the prophet Samuel orders King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.”, he said. 

“Tribal religion is part of human development, it’s part of our history, it’s part of the Bible, and yet if you read that entire book, you will discover that this God changes dramatically.”, Spong said.  “The same God who sends plagues on the Egyptians, and stops the sun in the sky to kill more Amorites, and calls for genocide of the Amalekites is also quoted as having said, ’You are to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ” [47]

Sadly this tribal God is far from dead.  God is always on our side.  During the two world wars, listen to both the opposing armies singing in the trenches and praying to their tribal Gods for victory.  How sad!  Will it ever end?

John Dominic Crossan.

There is also John Dominic Crossan’s book, Jesus and the Violence of Scripture. In his long review on the book, Rev. Neil Richardson, at one point early in his review, askes,

Is it possible to excise from our picture of the biblical God the many instances where he is violent and encourages violence in others?….Could we manage to drop these bits out of the Bible altogether, and just keep the material about loving our neighbours and remembering the plight of the poor?  And were we to do this, would we be what Crossan defines as “still… a Christian”? [48]

He then comments,

Crossan’s answer is, Yes.  That is because his Bible is a supermarket where you have to read the labels of the wares on the shelves to avoid being hoodwinked into thinking you are getting the authentic stuff. [49]

This is not a comment I would make of Crossan’s book.  The author certainly does not back away from the fact that the Bible presents,

…on the one hand, a God of non-violent distributive justice and, on the other hand, a God of violent retributive justice. [50]

and a decision has to be made as to which biblical God is the God we can believe in and which was the God to whom Jesus gave his allegiance.

Crossan repeatedly says that the Bible has both, in the New Testament as well as the Old.  He does not deal with the Exodus story in the book but I personally see it as an example of; God’s ‘violent retributive justice’ in punishing Pharaoh and all Egypt for their treatment of the Hebrew slaves and not letting them go, and God’s ‘non-violent distributive justice’ intending to bring the slaves to freedom.

Crossan states twice in his book, quite graphically, no doubt for prominence and strong emphasis,

The norm and criterion of the Christian Bible is the biblical Christ
and
The norm and criterion of the biblical Christ is the historical Jesus.
[51]

This of course, raises the issue, ‘How do we discover and identify the ‘historical Jesus’?’, and when we identify him, ‘Is he violent or non-violent?’  Having answered this, according to Crossan, we can then apply that to the biblical Christ and thus to the Christian Bible.

It seems to me that one of the important reasons why Crossan believes the ‘historical Jesus’ was non-violent is,

Pilate judged Jesus to be a revolutionary, and therefore he required an official, legal, and public execution of Jesus.  But Jesus was nonviolent rather than violent, and therefore there was no need to round up any of his followers. Pilate got it exactly correct. [52]

Had Jesus been violent, Pilate would have rounded up all Jesus’ followers and would have had them all crucified.  That was the Roman strategy to keep ‘the peace’; kill all the rebels. 

Crossan states a little later,

What about divine violence? Jesus non-violent resistance, and that of his followers, was explicitly based on the character of God, and our call to be members of God’s Kingdom was seen as God’s family. 

‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain…  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’  (Matthew 5:44-45, 48.)

For Jesus, seeing humans as God’s children derives from his fundamental vision of God as householder of the universal family in the world home….  For Jesus, therefore, non-violent resistance to evil is divine before it is human and should be human because it is divine. [53]

Crossan was a noted member of The Jesus Seminar, a group of about 50 critical biblical scholars and 100 laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk.  This seminar was very active through the 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century, who, by consensus voting, separated out what they believed were the actual sayings and thus teachings of Jesus from those that were considered to be statements and beliefs within the tradition of the early church.  Thus they were involved in an intense and very scholarly search for the ‘historical Jesus’.  My perception is, that the Fellows of this Seminar, as a whole, regarded the ‘historical Jesus’ as decidedly non-violent and that sayings attributed to him which pointed towards him being violent, or God being violent, were constructions/beliefs of the early church, early traditions about Jesus, and then put into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel writers.

For Crossan, the ‘historical Jesus’ acted non-violently, because of his firm conviction that God was non-violent.

A point that Crossan makes is that violence escalates in chapter 4 of Genesis,

If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventyfold. (Genesis 4:24.)

Crossan states this escalation is applied by Jesus in the opposite way,

…for forgiveness rather than for vengeance. [54]

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?  Jesus said unto him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven“. (Matthew 18:21-22.)

This is another example of the way Jesus taught and lived non-violentlyBig problem!  The Jesus Seminar states that this direction by Jesus is not one of his own statements; see Robert Funk’s and The Seminar’s book, The Five Gospels, page 217.  Maybe this is one of the Seminar’s decisions with which Crossan disagrees.  (No wonder I get confused and don’t really know what to think sometimes, when studying the Bible in detail.  I suppose it is unrealistic to think that all teachers, all scholars, would agree on everything!)

Jesus’ own use of the Bible.

Because the violence of God in the Bible raises serious questions, I think Derek Flood gives good advice, because in his book, Disarming Scripture, from which I have quoted earlier, he deals with Jesus’ own use of the Bible and comes to the conclusion that,

Jesus expects his disciples – expects you and me – to be making these same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject. [55]

This conclusion comes from Flood’s examination of the story of Elijah in combat with Moab.  Half way through that biblical story, Elijah calls fire down from heaven on his enemies.

And Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven and consume you and your company.”  And fire fell from Heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men. (2 Kings 1:10.)

Flood states,

Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John, ask Jesus in response to opposition they were experiencing, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them.” (Luke 9:54-54.) …  Luke tells us that the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples.  In that rebuke of Jesus is an implicit yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well.  Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them (Luke 9:55-56.).* In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah was not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil. 

While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a ‘man of God’, this passage in Luke’s gospel makes the opposite claim; the true ‘man of God’ incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal and restore it (Luke 19:10 & John 3:17). Jesus not only recognizes this himself as the Son of God, but rebukes James and John for not coming to this conclusion on their own.

In other words, Jesus expects his disciples – you and me – to be making the same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

Flood has a footnote which states,

*Even if this verse is a later addition, representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who consistently rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom. [56]

Flood’s book has clearly shown me one of the most important reasons for, knowing what to reject in the Bible.  If it teaches violence, then I ‘reject it.

I would like to add some positives regarding criteria for ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible.  If it teaches generosity, forgiveness, love, hospitality, inclusiveness, peace, respect, justice, equality and hope, and if it teaches me to challenge any power that practises the opposites, then I ‘embrace it.  For me, these all point to Jesus and likewise, Jesus points to all of these.  I deal with this in my book, Starting all over again? Yes or No?, in chapter 6, with many comments on the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.  (By the way, you can purchase my book directly from me, for $20.00 plus postage.  If you want a copy, just contact me.)

I have deliberately underlined above, what I believe is a very valid way to approach the Bible, certainly not encouraged by the church in my present and past experience.  I believe Flood has a point when he implicitly suggests that Jesus faithfully rejects the underlying teaching of the Elijah story. I believe this is an example of Jesus making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

Another example of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject’, is a well-known passage, where it is said that Jesus read from the Old Testament, but he stopped short when, in the synagogue, reading from the Book of Isaiah.  Luke 4:16-17 states that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was given a book with Isaiah in it.  The text states that he opened it and found the passage he wanted. Jesus said,

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2a.)

But Jesus stops short.  He omits the last part of the last verse of that Isaiah reading, which is,

..and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:2b)

After he finished reading he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant.

Whether this is actually Jesus speaking in the synagogue, or the gospel writers telling a story about him, I believe this omission from Isaiah is not a slip, inconsequential nor a mere oversight either by Jesus or the gospel writers.  The part dealing with the vengeance of God was not read.  Jesus did not read it.  I can even imagine Jesus thinking that, when he came to that last statement about vengeance, he could have said to himself, “No!  This is not what the spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach.  I won’t read it.”

Jesus omitted the Exodus story.

Is Jesus’ omission of the Exodus story from his teaching and preaching yet another example of him making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject?  Was his omission deliberate?  I think it probably was.  As stated previously, this Exodus story was the most revered and celebrated story of the Jews.  This story was the most important story in all of the Old Testament

In the Cross-reference Bible I have, there is no cross reference in any of the gospels to the Exodus story.  Even though there are well over 500 cross-references in the four gospels to the Old Testament, there is not one to the Exodus story.  It seems to me more than strange that this is the case.  The larger story of Moses is alluded to many times in the early chapters of Matthew; in the Jesus’ birth stories, his baptism and temptations, and the Sermon on the Mount.  Some commentators have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the second and greater Moses. 

It has been commented that the Passover has been re-interpreted by Jesus and New Testament writers, presenting it as the basis for the Last Supper and the church’s sacrament of Holy Communion.  However, I believe that Jesus turns the Passover meal from being one which celebrates being saved from death at the hands of God, into being a remembrance of one who was willing to die with strength, integrity and love for what he believed.   

If his omission of this Exodus story was deliberate, his non-use might have come down to two significant reasons.  First, it could have been because ‘the Lord’ in that story is pictured as so partisan, so discriminatory against one race and nation and in favor of another.  This is certainly opposite to a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings.  A second reason could have been that the image of ‘the Lord’ is so violent that Jesus, of necessity, had to avoid using it in his message and preaching of non-violence. 

It is my contention that these are both good reasons why Jesus could have deliberately omitted using the story, but I believe it was probably the second.  ‘The Lord’ in that story was just too violent.

Exodus and the Cross/Resurrection of Jesus.

I have been told a number of times that I should liken the story of the Exodus to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus; the death of slavery to the Cross and the new life found in freedom, to the Resurrection.  I personally find this dangerous but also stretching my imagination beyond the realms of sensibility.  For me, it totally ignores the contexts and details of the two separate events.

I suppose any situation which leads from desperation and suffering to a life of hope and better possibilities could be linked in some way to the Cross/Resurrection paradigm.  But I think what happened to Jesus and the growing understandings of the Cross/Resurrection paradigm, have much more to do with how it happened and what the actions were of the main ‘players’ involved in the stories.

Jesus’ death came about because he lived and loved the way he did.  Jesus chose to be on the side of the exploited, the outcast, the poor, the slaves; he chose to teach and live love and forgiveness, enemy love; he chose to rebel against the status quo, the unethical system of exploitation, but he did it in a non-violent way.  He knew this would lead him to his Cross.  The Hebrews did not choose slavery.  God in the Exodus story was certainly on the side of the slaves and did rebel against the unethical system of exploitation, but this God did it with violence. 

I believe Jesus’ Resurrection came about because of the power and ultimate worthiness of the human values of love and forgiveness, because of the power of what Jesus taught and lived, because of the power of what his God-saturated dream for the world was.  The new found life for the Hebrews was brought about by the violent ‘signs and wonders’ of their tribal God.  Jesus’ Resurrection came about in a non-violent way.

Slavery, exploitation, immoral systems win for a period but generosity, equality, hospitality, forgiveness and love are radically, sublimely and decisively victorious.  They ultimately always win the day; every day.  The struggle is continuous and profoundly dangerous, complex and herculean, but victory is assured through love, not violence.  This is the Christian truth as I understand it from Jesus.

The Exodus story has violence as the winner.  For me, there is no place for the ultra-violent God of the Exodus story in any comparison with the Cross/Resurrection story of Jesus.  That God doesn’t fit!

Anti-Semitic?

For me, all this reaction to the Exodus story does not make me anti-Semitic.  When I come across Jews, Muslims, anti-Christians, of anyone else with whom I disagree, or who is ‘different to me’, I always try to follow my non-violent, non-racist Mentor by respecting and accepting them.  I’m not anti-Semitic; I am just anti the Exodus story.

I know virtually nothing about the 3-4000 year histories of any continents of the world and the different nation-states which may have existed over time, so I cannot make any comparisons between any other nation-state and Israel. 

However, it is my understanding that no other European or Middle Eastern nation-state has had a history so saturated with exploitation, outside domination and discrimination against it, as Israel.  Very unfortunately, this disgraceful attitude is still alive and well in our present day.  It would thus be no surprise to me, and I would find it quite understandable, if sometimes, even currently, that Israel’s foreign policy was influenced to an extent by this Exodus story, particularly in the minds of ultra-conservative, orthodox Jews.  I will leave it there because I am not qualified to say any more.

Living the Questions – DVD  Part 2.

Walter Brueggemann, at the beginning of the series of lectures on a DVD, Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, on which I have commented previously, states,

The Bible is an act of imagination.  It is not a package of certitudes.  It is an act of imagination that invites our faithful imagination which makes it possible for us to live faithfully. [57]

For me, these are the most important things Brueggemann says in all five sessions in the DVD.  They are certainly not the only important things he says.

I understand him to be saying that the Bible does not say things that are all correct and unchangeable.  I think he is saying that the Bible is full of stories and statements about God, humans and reality that cannot be taken as actually true for all time.  They are molded by the imaginations of the authors and story-tellers.

We must make our own faithful imaginative response and thus changes in understanding the text may occur.  The Bible has statements and stories created by its authors working within the limitations of the information and knowledge they had.  What they said, was said within the framework of their limited, sometimes very limited, information and knowledge.  Their imaginations were linked inseparably to their own time.  It could be no other way.

To know something about the historical context of the biblical literature in which stories and statements are imbedded, we need to take on board some historical research done by biblical scholars.  The Exodus story is in the Pentateuch, so we need to look at the historical context in which the Pentateuch, often called The Torah, was told and written down.

The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, has a long and complex history of evolution.  It is obvious from a study of the material contained, that there are inconsistencies, contradictions, different theological emphases, distinctly different styles of writing and most significantly, very different images of God developed.

A generally held theory, undisputed amongst all reputable Old Testament biblical scholars, is that the Torah took hundreds of years to evolve.  It began with laws and stories handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth from father to son; oral traditions. 

This theory states that there were originally at least four separate traditions commonly known now as ‘J’, ‘E’, ‘D’ and ‘P’.  These were gradually combined into what we now have in the Bible (See diagram later).  There are variations of this theory.  Some have slightly different writing sequences and different combinations of the various traditions, but there is wide consensus on the basics.

The ‘J’, ‘E’, ‘D’ and ‘P’ theory.

The ‘J’ tradition is considered to be older than the other three, written down about 950 BCE  (Before the Common Era) and now called ‘J’ because of the word it uses for God, ‘Jahweh’, an alternative spelling for ‘Yahweh’, translated as ‘Lord God’ or ‘Lord’.  This ‘J’ tradition includes the older, second story of creation in Genesis chapter 2, the Garden of Eden story, the Cain and Abel story, the older story of Noah and many stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Its content then stretches through the time of the invasion and conquering of the Promised Land under Joshua, and maybe even further to the time of King David. 

The ‘E’ tradition, considered to be older than the last two traditions, ‘D’ and ‘P’, was written down about 850 BCE and now called ‘E’ because it uses the Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ translated as ‘God’.  It has a shorter historical span than the ‘J’ tradition, from Abraham to Moses and not much more.  It has a priestly emphasis and goes well with the last tradition, ‘P’, when, in the evolution of the Torah, they were combined. 

The ‘D’ tradition derives its name from the book of Deuteronomy.  This ‘D’ document, written down at about 650 BCE, has little reference to stories about times prior to Moses.  The ‘D’ document was probably a single unit and not as much a collection like the ‘J’ and ‘E’ traditions.  For a few scholars, Deuteronomy is understood to be Moses’ farewell address to the Hebrew people.  It is intensely nationalistic.  ‘D’s’ theological emphases were quite influential throughout the writing of the Old Testament.  The ‘D’ tradition’s emphasis on justice and responsibility played a significant role in the development of the Israelite religion.

‘P’, the last tradition of the four, is so called because of its emphasis on a Priestly Code; priestly or religious laws.  Gathered together, edited and subsequently written down at about 500 – 450 BCE, it is very legalistic and systematic.  Its authors had about 500 years of theologically interpreted Hebrew history, ecclesiastical, sociological, cultural and religious thought and reflection, above and beyond that which the earliest stories and traditions had.  It has the first story of creation in Genesis chapter 1, the second story of Noah, embedded in the older story, stories about Abraham and Jacob. It also has most of the contents of the books of Leviticus and Numbers.   

The diagram.

This theory is built on the proposition that these four traditions were at some earlier time, written down but these original documents have been lost.  All we have now is the final combination of the four in the Torah/Pentateuch as it is in the Bible.  One suggested possibility, I have heard, is that the priest Ezra may have had a hand in the Torah’s final compilation and editing.

Most regular church-goers know nothing of these origins of the Torah.  They have never been told.  They may not be very interested either, but having such information can assists me in my approach to the Exodus story.

Tradition of the Story is ‘J’.

Realizing that one of the major ways of separating out the different traditions was by identifying where ‘Yahweh – the Lord’, and ‘Elohim – God’ were used, it becomes obvious that the Exodus story belongs to the oldest ‘J’ tradition.  In chapters 3 to 15 of Exodus, where the story is told, ‘Yahweh – the Lord’ is used well over 150 times, whereas ‘Elohim – God’ is used less than ten times.

This points to the story dating back to the earliest times in the Hebrew religion when, as I have stated previously.

If I am correct and the Exodus story is part of the ‘J’ tradition, dating back about 3000 years, it is no wonder we find it impossible to align this Exodus God with the God we see in Jesus, about a thousand years later.  The huge problem for regular church-goers is that they have never been told these things.

I did my own research regarding the book of Joshua.  That book uses the term ‘Yahweh Lord’ over 150 times, ’the God of Israel’ about 18 times, ‘the Lord your God’ about 38 times and ‘ElohimGod’, only seven times.  I think it is no wonder that this book is also thought of as being part of the ‘J’ narrative, not only because of how it addresses God/Lord but also because its tribal God is so violent.

With this Exodus story being assigned to an ancient period of Hebrew religious history, I suppose then, I might be able to accept it for what I think it is, a story driven by a hopelessly out-of-date theology regarding its image of God.  But it is dangerous if we use this image of God to instruct us about how we should think about God today.  I can also accept it as a story pointing in the opposite direction to which Jesus points.

As an alternative, I can reject the story as being unhelpful for me, concerning my journey with Jesus.  I can also urge others to reject it as well.

I believe the church generally, has left ordinary church-goers in the situation like a doctor, who has medicine that can cure an ailment but does not administer it, or even prescribe its use.

Different translations.

I now turn to another significant difficulty; that of different translations and the different meanings of particular words and phrases.  Sometimes different meanings given to a particular word or whether a particular word is used or not, can make a world of difference to the main thrust and message of a text or story.

I have used mainly the text of the Revised Standard Version in my discussion of the Exodus story.  Other translations have different wordings and I think some are reasonably significant.  For some verses, I have compared the three translations; the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Revised standard Version (NRSV) and the Good News Bible (GNB).

Exodus 4:21-23.

RSV ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.  And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.”, if you refuse to let him go I will slay your first- born son.’

NRSV ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.  Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first-born son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.”  But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your first-born son.’

GNB ‘Again the Lord said to Moses, “Now that you are going back to Egypt, be sure to perform before the king all the miracles which I have given you the power to do.  But I will make the king stubborn, and he will not let the people go.  Then you must tell him that I, the Lord, say, “Israel is my first-born son.  I told you to let my son go, so that he might worship me, but you refused.  Now I am going to kill your first-born son.”

  • The difference of the use of ’Now that you are going by the GNB instead of ‘When you go, in the other two, gives a definiteness to Moses’ going back.  Maybe an insignificant difference.
  • The difference of ‘miracles’ used in both the RSV and the GNB instead of ‘wonders’, used in the RSV and throughout the story, gives a slightly different slant of the events, which could have been the original intent of the story-teller.
  • The difference in the GNB in using I will make the king stubborn instead of ‘I will harden his heart in the other two translations is a minor difference but I think however,I will make the king stubborngives a modern flavor to the text.
  • In verse 21, the tiny word ‘so’ is used in both the RSV and the NRSV; ‘so that he will not let the people go’This makes the result of God ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart quite clear and it is that Pharaoh will not let the people go.  The GNB and only one other translation of the 40 odd I have researched, uses the word ‘and’ instead of ‘so’, thus giving no substantial link to, nor definitive result of the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
  • In verse 23, the RSV and the King James Translation are the only translations of the six I have that use the word ‘if’.  Both the NRSV and the GNB use ‘but you refused.  No ‘if’ is used.  Fretheim makes mention of this little word and he seems to think it is important.   I think he is incorrect in stating that the verse is ‘usually translated’ as in the RSV, using the word ‘if’.  Of over 50 translations I researched, only 15 use the word if, and none of the commonly used, I think, translations use the word, except the RSV and the King James translation.  Because of this word ‘if’, Fretheim states that there is a degree of uncertainty as to what the final outcome of God’s conflict with Pharaoh will be.  He states;

There is therefore in the final analysis an openness to the future in 4:21-23.’ [58]

The NRSV and the GNB, as well as other translations I have, state in their texts that Pharaoh ‘refused’ to let the people go whereas the RSV leaves the matter up in the air a little.  I believe the NRSV and the GNB and other translations make it clear that Pharaoh’s decision would be ‘hardened by the Lord to the extent that he would definitely not let the slaves go.  I think Fretheim wishes to give Pharaoh’s free will more weight in this matter and less responsibility to God’s ‘hardening of his heart, so that Pharaoh will decide in a certain way.  This, I believe, is consistent with the general tenor of his whole commentary.

These two last comments above (4 and 5) are examples of how important a single word can be in making a particular emphasis for a text.  I think the use or non-use of the words ‘so’ and ‘if’ make a world of difference.

Exodus 8:1.

RSV ‘Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” ‘

NRSVThus says the Lord, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” ‘

GNB ‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the king and tell him that the Lord says, ’Let my people go so that they can worship me.’ ‘

Maybe the NRSV and the GNB use of ‘worship’ captures the idea of God wanting to ‘gain glory, and having God to be recognized.  I think ‘worship’ conveys, at least for modern readers, a meaning closer than ‘serve’ used in the RSV, to what the God of the Exodus would want.  Reasonably important, I think.

Exodus 9:15-16.

RSV ‘For by now I could have put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose have I let you live; to show you my power, so that my name may be declared through the earth.’

NRSV ‘For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose have I let you live; to show you my power, to make my name resound through all the earth.’

GNBIf I had raised my hand to strike you and your people with disease, you would have been completely destroyed. But to show my power I have let you live so that my fame might spread over the whole world.

  •  I find it interesting that Fretheim refers to the text in this way.

The question here is not what God ‘could’ have done, as if God’s power were in doubt, but what God ‘should’ have been done had God not had a more comprehensive purpose that his life could serve. … If it were not for larger purposes that God could achieve, Pharaoh should have met his end. [59]

For me, the word ‘could’ does not infer, in any way, the doubting of God’s power.  It is about when that power will be used by God. God ‘could’ have done it whenever God wished to.

  • my mane’ used in both RSV and NRSV would have meant more to the Hebrews but for modern readers I thinkmy fame’ used in GNB says it well.

Exodus 10:2.

RSV ‘and that you may tell it in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I have made sport of the Egyptians.’

NRSV ‘and that you may tell your children and your grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians.’

GNB ’and in order that you may be able to tell your children and your grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians.’

For me, the different translations give a different feeling to this verse.  Makingsport’ used in RSV, is far worse, I think, than making fools of’, used in NRSV and GNB, I think, makingsportis more sadistic, which I think, probably fits better the behavior of this tribal God.  Maybe my prejudices at play again.

Exodus 14:17-18.

RSV ”And I will hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots and his horsemen.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”

NRSV “Then I will hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and I will gain glory over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots and his chariot drivers.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariots drivers.”

GNB “I will make the Egyptians so stubborn that they will go I after them, and I will gain honor by my victory over the king, his army, his chariots and his drivers.  When I defeat them, the Egyptians will now that I am the Lord.”

This last example shows how unlike, in detail, different translations can be.

  • The GNB is much shorter than the other two, partly because it deletes some of the repetitions of the other two.
  • The GNB changes ‘get glory of RSV and ‘gain glory’ NRSV into ‘gain honor’.  For me, the GNB, in making these changes, is changing the meaning of the text quite significantly.  I think it conveys a different message. ‘get glory’ or ‘gain glory’ seems to me to be more in line with the whole story than ‘gain honor’.  God is on about ’gaining glory’.  ‘Gaining glory’ is different to ‘gaining honor’.  Glory is more extreme and that is what God wants.
  • gotten glory’ in RSV or gained glory’ in NRSV is quite different to ‘defeat’ in GNB.  The words ‘gain’ or ‘get glory speaks about what happens for God whereas ‘defeat’ speaks only of the outcome of the conflict.  God is interested in the former.

These above are but a small sample of the differences in translations and the difference they can make in the meanings and emphases within the story.  Individually they may not amount to much, but their cumulative impact can be quite significant, when taken together with numerous other different translations of other texts in this particular story.  This, of course, permits quite different interpretations by commentators as is obvious from all the above comments.  It is also a basis of confusion and uncertainty as to the meaning of the story for regular church-goers. 

The Bible is never an easy book to understand!

My conclusions.

I have tried to give a comprehensive set of arguments and reasons why I question the Exodus story as being, in any way, helpful for my journey with Jesus.  It points me in the wrong directions when compared with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  As such, I do not believe it should be given any voice in liturgies of the church, as presently is the case.  I believe it is best left unmentioned, as it is with Jesus.  For me, it does not belong within the pages of ‘Holy Scripture’.

This Exodus story, as do the stories of God’s violence in the conquest for the Promised Land, belongs to the age in which it was written; maybe about 3000 years ago.  Even though we should not criticize nor ridicule the authors/story-tellers, and even though we might lose some positive and important insights from the stories, I can do without them and I believe we all can.  Although not given total vindication for my stance, I think I have a very strong, significant precedent in Jesus and the gospels, regarding the Exodus story.

So my analysis gives me three strong reasons for rejecting the story. These three are different but inseparably entwined.

  1. I reject the story because the image of God in it is so violent and seeks to guide me in the opposite direction to the way Jesus lived and taught.
  2. I reject the story because the image of God in it comes from a totally outdated theology, from 3000 years ago when people actually believed there were many Gods and these Gods, being tribal deities, were often in conflict, to gain glory over each other.
  3. I reject the story because it is a story which Jesus omitted to use in his ministry and his teachings.  The gospel writers never mention it.  Jesus doesn’t mention it and for good reason.  I believe it is because of its ultra-violent image of God.  He achieves his goals of liberation by totally different means to those used by the God of the Exodus story.

My analysis of the Exodus story could be regarded as a very negative exercise and I suppose it is, in that I have highlighted its negatives, as I see them to be.  But in doing so, I think I have done something very positive, at least for me.  When one gets rid of something negative, one does something positive.  I have been told in Mathematics that two negatives can give rise to a positive.  Like “It’s not bad”.  That can mean it is good.  From two negatives comes a positive!

By rejecting the Exodus story I no longer have to accept it as being part of my journey with Jesus and that’s good.

I believe I have tried to do some ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Exodus story, and thus about one of the most significant stories in the whole Bible.  While not wanting to be too critical regarding what I have been taught in my past church education, I feel I have not been given a great deal of ‘Truth-Telling’ about it.

For you to decide.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Volume 1 118.

[2] Ibid 118.

[3] Marcus Borg  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 122.

[4] Marcus Borg  Reading the Bible for the First Time, 103.

[5] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[6] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 792.

[7] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[8] Carol Dempsey  Internet  Cambridge Papers  The Exodus motif of Liberation  Its Grace and Controversy.

[9] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 722.

[10] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[11] Internet  Quotes from Gustavo Gutierrez.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Jose Caravias  Living in Fellowship 10-21.

[15] John Frame  Internet  Liberation Theology in a History of Western Philosophy and Theology.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 803

[19] Carol Dempsey  Internet  Cambridge Papers  The Exodus motif of Liberation  Its Grace and Controversy.

[20] Walter Brueggemann  Old Testament Theology, 93-94.

[21] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 803.

[22] Ibid 803.

[23] Ibid 804

[24] Ibid 781.

[25] Ibid 782.

[26] Ibid 769.

[27] Ibid 771.

[28] Ibid 781.

[29].Ibid 787.

[30] Ibid 787.

[31] Walter Bruegemann  Old Testament Theology, 93.

[32] Terence Fretheim  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Exodus, 106.

[33] Ibid, 108.

[34] Ibid, 106-107.

[35] Ibid, 101.

[36] Ibid, 140-141.

[37] Marcus Borg  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 96.

[38] Ibid, 97.

[39] Ibid, 98.

[40].Marcus Borg  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 123.

[41] Ibid, 125.

[42] Marcus Borg and Tom Wright  The Meaning of Jesus, 167.

[43] Tom Wright  Internet Twitter at N.T Wight says 17th May 2018.

[44] Derek Flood  Disarming Scripture, 42.

[45] Karen Armstrong  The History of God, 18.

[46] Ibid, 19.

[47] John Shelby Spong..Internet..Chaufauguan Daily 27th June 2012.

[48] Internet  Rev. Neil Richardson’s review of Crossman’s Book Jesus and the Violence of Scripture.

[49] Ibid.

[50] John Dominic Crossan  Jesus and the Violence in Scripture, 18.

[51] Ibid, 36 & 240.

[52] Ibid, 167.

[53] Ibid, 168.

[54] Ibid, 65.

[55] Derek Flood  Disarming Scripture, 43.

[56] Ibid, 42-43.

[57] Living the Questions  DVD Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, The Way Out.

[58] Terence Fretheim  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Exodus, 77

[59] Ibid, 124.

A few Epilogues.

  • The majority of modern biblical scholars state that the Exodus story as told in the Bible, has little historical worth; that the biblical story has little to no historical basis.  I have been instructed that the best way I can understand the Exodus narrative, is to look at it as a founding myth of the Jewish people, explaining their origins and providing ideas about their culture, festivals and institutions.  For me, not particularly helpful!

If regular church-goers were told all this, they could be horrified and might say, “If it didn’t happen, why do we talk about it as if it did?”   They might even become skeptical about the usefulness of other parts of the Bible.  How could they trust it?  They might say, “If it’s all made up, then why do we read from it every Sunday and say it comes from God?”  So it might be too dangerous to tell them, but if we don’t, I think the church will lose more and more thinking, 21st Century people. 

However uncomfortable this situation may be regarding this story, this is where we are at.  So we need to regard Bible stories as stories which may have something important to say to us.  Let us take them as stories which have a meaning to share, a meaning that just may help us in our journey with Jesus.  If they don’t help us in this journey, let us take Flood’s advice and ‘reject them’ and if they do help then ‘embrace them’.  We need to do more ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Bible.

  • I have a big problem with the Bible in the way it presents God.  I have a big problem with the different Gods in the Bible, or to say it in different words; I have a big problem with the different images of God that are presented to me in the Bible.  It’s not that there are different Gods but it is that we have many different images of God.  So when I say, “I don’t believe in a God who…”, I am really saying, “I don’t accept an image of God that…”.  My problem is that these different images of God are not always clearly indicated as such, in the Bible.

A prize example of different images of God being presented, is found in the first two chapters of Genesis.  The God, or the image of God, in Genesis chapter 1 is totally separated and distant from creation; authoritatively pronouncing that things will happen but making these commanding pronouncements from afar.  This God is totally transcendent, and seems to be not involved in God’s creation at all, but grandly apart and detached.  This God is absent; out there!  However, the God, or the image of God, in Genesis chapter 2 is totally involved with the creation, making, breathing, planting, putting, taking, bringing, etc., etc.  This God is at work in a garden which this God has planted.  This God talks to the man and the woman; all ‘in’ the creation.  This God is even concerned that the man is lonely!  This God is totally present, still a separate Being but present.  These are two totally different images of God, or as some people might say, “Two different Gods”.

If you read the first two chapters of the Bible, I think you will see what I mean.

In the Bible, we are all introduced to God in Genesis chapter 1 (‘P’).  It comes first in our sacred book.  But, in the religious history of the Hebrews, the image of God presented in Genesis chapter 2 (‘J’) is more ancient, because Genesis chapter 2 was written about 500 years before Genesis chapter 1.  So the image of God in chapter 2 comes from an older tradition than the image in chapter 1.  A bit confusing but it that makes all the difference.  The two chapters, although slap-bang together in our Bibles, come from very different ancient traditions, probably from different times, 500 years apart.   

The Genesis 1 God would never take advice from Moses, as did the God of the Exodus story.  That is unthinkable!  This God of Genesis 1 takes advice from no one.  This Genesis 1 God would never want or need to ‘gain glory’.  That too is unthinkable!  The God of Genesis 1 has total unquestionable glory.  This God is the Creator of the whole universe!  The Exodus image of God belongs to the more ancient ‘J’ tradition.

In many different translations, there is a helpful separation of these two stories of creation and thus the different images of God the stories portray.  However, this separation is not always there in other places.  Different images of God get mixed, within certain books and from book to book, throughout the Bible.

The biblical God (image of God) changes.  The biblical God, at different places in the Bible, has different attitudes about so many things, and does things in completely different ways.  About the Bible, I have said in my book,

This sacred book is so big and varied, it is difficult to know where to start.  With 66 individual books, the Bible really is a library.  Read through modern western-culture eyes, it has inspiring books of love and loyalty as well as books that would not pass an ‘MA’ rating if made into a film…. The images of the Bible’s theistic God range from the extremely ultra-violent to the unconditionally loving God, and everything in between.

Can you imagine Jesus believing in a God who commanded King Saul,

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3.)

or believe in a God who did this?

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Exodus 12:29.)

I can’t.

If we look in the Bible for the same, unambiguous and consistent image of God, the same all the way through it, we will come away sadly unsatisfied and disappointed.  There is none.

I embrace the image of God that I see in Jesus.  Full stop!

  • I have tried to keep my own theological views out of this exercise and concentrate only on the text.  However successful or unsuccessful that may have been, I now wish to say that the concept of God being an intervening God, is not where I sit.  I do not believe that God intervenes.  I do believe that because God is in everything and everything is in God, -Panentheism,- there is a divine influence/involvement in all that happens.  I wish to take the human involvement in what happens in our world so seriously, that I believe that what happens in our living, happens because of what humans initiate and do or don’t do.  God is the inherent force/influence in us when we do things that bring about good, wholesome outcomes.

About humanity, I wish to quote one of my friends, Ivan Hawke, who says,

As I move, year by year, into and begin to pass through the ‘old age’ phase of my life one of the insights I have gained from my senior years is that my physical presence before others often calls forth the inherent goodness in many other people I meet.

That ‘inherent goodness’ is very apparent to me when I encounter the cashier at the supermarket, the teller at the Building Society, a fellow pedestrian on the footpath, a driver who stops at a road crossing for me.  In each case the essential humanity of each person is revealed when the person (rightly or wrongly) assumes I am in need of help or assistance.

What is it that compels and seemingly impels these strangers to respond in such a manner?

In my mind, that motivating and energising force is a response to, and attributable to, “The Divine”; to be found most clearly and activated in each human being.  In some individuals it may be latent, dormant, ‘asleep at the wheel’, but it is lurking there, awaiting discernment and activation. 

Whenever we are beneficiaries (deserved or not) then we should recognise and acknowledge that motivating and impelling energetic humanising force for what it is;  “The Divine Essence” embedded within each individual (irrespective of race, religion and creed, as well as any other kind of classification that is cast upon others!) 

For me: Humanity transcends Religion!

“That Divine Energising Force” is how I prefer to image the concept of “God”. 

For me, that Divine Energising Force is a process residing in and throughout the entire Universe and operationally evident in all things before and after the “Big Bang”! 

As conscious, sentient beings we need to collaborate with that process; to choose not to do so, is at our own peril

I think he says well what I try to say in the words ‘God Beyond, God Within, God Between’, which I expound in my book.   However I think I might be getting to the stage of not using the word God at all.  I think it is too difficult to throw off all the baggage the word carries with it.  I find the Divine Energising Force very helpful and well worthy of use.  (D.E.F is easy to remember too!)

Grace and Peace.   And thanks for sticking with me.    George.

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Toppling statues.

This morning I read an article in our Australian morning paper, The Sydney Morning Herald.  Its title is ‘It’s time for a monumental shift’.  It’s about demolishing statues of people who depict parts of our Australian history.  Amongst other things the author, Bruce Skates, a Professor based in the School of History at the Australian National University, says, and I quote,
‘What our country needs now is a courage of our own, a willingness to grapple with and move on from our troubled past.’ 
and
‘By occupying civic space, tributes to white heroes (and there are many) serve to legitimise narratives of conquest and colonisation; they sanitise the violence that marked the forcible occupation of Aboriginal lands.  Calls to topple such monuments vent the anger of generations; they repudiate past wrongs and remind the Prime Minister (Australia’s) that the values and heroes of past generations need not be our own.’
I could not help but think that these comments could fit well in the paper I will post a few days ago, ‘ The Exodus Story’.    I think that ‘What our (country) church  needs now is a courage of our own, a willingness to grapple with and move on from our troubled past.’   A major part of this for me, is that much of the Bible is such a monument, such a statue that needs to be toppled.  Much of the Bible  postures ‘the values and heroes of past generations’, and particularly postures a past violent God.  I believe many commentators have ‘sanitised the violence’  of the God of the Exodus.
Can we topple this ‘sacred’ book or at least some major parts of it, and replace it with only the teachings of Jesus, and other parts which teach the same?  A big ask!!   In  my paper, I call for the ‘toppling’ of the Exodus story.
If you haven’t read it, you might be surprised.
Grace and Peace    George.
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My Ninth Area of Questioning

9. The Garden of Eden story and gender bias, promoting male dominance. 9. 

Part of the Hebrew tradition treats women as second class citizens when compared with men. This, of course, is no different to most, if not all other cultures both of the West and the East, over the centuries. Tragically it is still prevalent today in nearly all areas of human civilization, some areas worse than others. I believe, that for the church, this norm of the different status of men and women, begins with the second story of creation and is confirmed in the Garden of Eden myth. This different status continues through to the New Testament and is a significant aspect of 1st Century culture as well as today.

I have dealt with what I perceive to be this issue in the second creation Myth in Genesis 2 and now continue my questioning with the story of the Garden of Eden. Before dealing with that myth, it seems to me that Hebrew discrimination against females and the female gender is enshrined in many of their ancient laws of purity and their civil law as expounded in Leviticus and other early biblical books. An example is in Leviticus.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. ….. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child she shall be unclean for two weeks, and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.’ ” (Leviticus 12:1-5.)

There is discrimination against the mother, depending on the sex of her child even at its birth. This law continues with the requirement that the mother should bring an offering, a burnt offering and make atonement for herself. It is after this she will be clean. There are no parallels or similar requirements for the father of the child. There are probably some traditional health reasons for these sorts of laws and customs but the discrimination is obvious to me, and it is spelt out in other ancient Hebrew religious rituals and practices. Some New Testament writers continue this discrimination, forbidding women to teach or even speak in church, see 1 Corinthians 14:34. Tragically this discrimination continues in certain parts of the church today where women are forbidden to occupy certain positions of responsibility, e.g. no women priests.

I have been taught that, in the Hebrew tradition, adultery was not really considered a crime against a woman. It was considered a crime against another man, taking liberties with the other man’s possession, his wife. In the last commandment of the 10, a wife is listed with other possessions owned by the man. Sure the wife is named first but his ox and ass are listed as well, and the commandment concludes with

or anything that is your neighbour’s. (Exodus 20:17.)

I continue to learn a great deal from my grandchildren. My eldest granddaughter, 18 year old Rahni Stuart-Crone, has just completed an assignment for her final year in High school. She did amazingly well and, having read it, I can understand why. It was a research project on her chosen topic in the subject of Society and Culture. She chose:

The Surname: To Change or Not To Change? That is the Question. How attitudes towards marriage naming traditions reflect empowerment, conflict and cooperation at the micro, meso and macro levels of society.

– the custom in our culture for the female to change her family name from the one she inherited from her parents, to that of the male she is about to marry.

I quote from her Conclusion. She states that she attempted

to understand the origin of surname changing customs and how they influence women’s identity within society. However, through the process of this project, I have learnt that the issue of surname changing in Western marriages is something that not only impacts the perceptions of women but also of men and is the result of long-standing traditions evolved from historical patriarchal structures. I also discovered that it is not a simple binary choice, but a complex issue with not one definite solution. [1]

With the influence, down the centuries, of the Christian church in Western culture, I believe the church has been an active party encouraging these ‘long-standing traditional’ pejorative emphases, embracing the ‘historical patriarchal structures’. In its previously standard marriage liturgy with the father of the bride ‘giving her away’ to the would-be husband, I believe the idea of ownership was symbolised. I can still remember my father-in-law saying to me when he came down the aisle with Wendy, saying to me, “Well she’s all yours now, mate.” I accepted his humour and 60 years ago neither myself nor Wendy found it offensive nor was it meant to be so. However, symbols can be powerful and I believe this was symbolic of the way many people thought and sadly, some still do. I now find this unhelpful, even misogynistic. For the Christian church, I think this has its seeds in some biblical teachings. I am very pleased I cannot find this ‘giving away’ in any current Christian wedding liturgy and that the church has changed such liturgies. Sadly much damage has been done in the past.

I have been told by a student of Hebrew history and culture that there was a prayer recommended for males to say at the beginning of each day.

Lord, I thank thee that I was created a male and not a female.

I hope and trust that this prayer is not prayed today by anyone. I don’t know.

There are Old Testament laws which give protection to adult women who had become widows but I perceive these to be in place because such a woman had to be protected because she was the ‘possession’ of neither her husband nor her father. In a way, I think this could be considered as discrimination in favour of the female gender. If she was not protected by a male who owned her, she would be vulnerable, to be used by any other male for whatever purpose. It certainly doesn’t speak well of male behaviour. Can men just use women as they wish even if they are not owned by another male?

I reject this gender bias in all other cultures as well as my own. I reject it utterly when it rears its head in church regulations and structures.

So to the story of the Garden of Eden.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, to the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’ ” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “ But the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not die. For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?“ The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all cattle and above all wild animals. Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. II will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; And he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”

And to the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; In pain you shall bring forth children, Yet your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, And have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it.’ Cursed is the ground because of you. In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made Adam and his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” – Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17 and 3:1-24.).

I look at this story regarding a couple of aspects of it and then at what for me, is its gender bias.

The first thing to mention is that there are two trees mentioned in the story; something that often goes unnoticed. There is the tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ as well as the tree of ‘life’.

The woman looked at the tree of the ‘the knowledge of good and evil’.

…it was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit and ate.. (Genesis 3:6.)

In the story she knew that the Lord had forbidden them to eat the fruit. Apparently, Adam must have told her so. That should have been enough. The serpent in conversation with her said that she would be like God if she ate. Was this the reason she ate? It is not mentioned as such in the text but I think it is not an unreasonable interpretation to think so. She was being disobedient but I do not see anything actually wrong with the stated reasons in the text that gave rise to her eating. It was good for food. It looked nice. It was desired to make one wise. These stated reasons at face value, seem to me to be not unreasonable, for eating. However, she was being disobedient and, for me, that overrides all other considerations.

Knowing good and evil is what enables human beings to be moral creatures. Yet the Lord God is portrayed in the myth as saying that this knowledge will give rise to death. Without this knowledge I think humans would be less than human. Knowing good from evil makes humans responsible for their behaviour. What is wrong with that? Does it give rise to death? Did the Lord want us to be puppets, not knowing good from evil? It might appear so because of the command not to eat. It seems very strange to me that the Lord wants to withhold the knowledge of good and evil. It makes no sense to me at all, not even in story form. I think most regular church-goers might think the same if they ask questions of the story.

Then there is the business of dying. The Lord speaks to the man.

…in the day that you eat of it you will die. (Genesis 2:17.)   

 The man and the woman both eat the fruit but neither of them die that day.  What is going on?  Is the Lord God deceiving them?   I the Lord saying something that is not true?  Is the Lord God a liar?

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For the God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5.)

On the surface, it would seem so. Is the Lord instilling fear to bring about the desired behaviour? Despite the Lord God’s warning, they did not die in the day they ate. The serpent is correct in what it says as to what the results of eating will be.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened. (Genesis 3:7.)

In the story, I think the Lord God’s behaviour was, to say the least, a little strange. There could be more than one meaning to the word ‘die’ but that is not evident to me in the text. I might be under-informed at this point. I think most other regular church-goers would be as well.

Now, to what I see as the gender bias of the story.

Terence Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament in the Lutheran North-western Theological Seminary, Minnesota, USA, gives 10 pages of commentary and reflection to this story. He argues that there is a partnership of Adam with Eve in the story.

That the woman plays the lead role in the transgression and the man in the inquest may suggest an interest in balance.[2]

Whereas the woman functioned as the dialogue partner in Genesis 3:1-5, the man serves that function in Genesis 3:9-12. Hence the author creates a certain balance between them in the whole story. [3]

He also argues that Eve is not a temptress by emphasising the ‘partnership’ theme.

The woman takes some of the fruit and gives it to her husband. As a silent partner ‘with her’ throughout this exchange, the man puts up no resistance, raises no questions, and considers no theological issues; he simply and silently takes his turn. The woman does not act as a temptress in this scene; they both have succumbed to the same source of temptation. They stand together as ‘one flesh’ at this point as well. [4]

For me, this commentary is unconvincing.

Proponents of gender inequality have used this story very effectively. The woman has been regarded as the temptress of Adam in much of the story’s interpretation down the centuries. I am surprised that Fretheim, quoted above, states that she was not a temptress. If I give something to someone, I am surely suggesting to them that they take it and do with it what is appropriate. I am presenting them with an option. Surely this is what temptation is all about.

The punishment given by the Lord God to the man is prefaced by a statement from the Lord God.

Because you have listened to your wife… (Genesis 3:17.)

What did she say? We are not told in the story. But it would have been absurd to think she would have said, “This is the forbidden fruit so don’t eat it.” What other implication of the Lord God’s statement can be understood than, ‘You sinned, or at least were foolish, because you listened to your wife.’? The tempter or temptress does not commit the sin but they present the opportunity to begin the process. Adam began his downward slide by listening to ‘his wife’. Not very complimentary for her. Does this give me valid reason for not listening to my wife?

I find it very disappointing that Fretheim makes no mention, in all his 10 pages, of this statement by the Lord God about ‘listening to his wife’. I personally find this omission very disappointing and somewhat significant. Was it an oversight or was it too difficult to address?

My understanding of the portrayal of Eve makes this part of the story quite objectionable for me. I believe that with a common sense approach to the story, Eve was a temptress and as such, the story is sexist. Certainly the writer of the books of Timothy, some hundreds of years after the origins of the Genesis story, took its teachings as Eve being the sinner, deceived and the transgressor. Adam seems to be dealt with far more leniently. A New Testament passage certainly states this.

and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor. (1. Timothy 2:14.)

I hear what the author of the Books of Timothy is saying and I acknowledge the context in which he is teaching, but the interpretation/teaching the writer gives, is totally unacceptable to me, both for then and today.

Incorporated in punishment to Eve there is an unambiguous statement of male dominance.

He shall rule over you… (Genesis 3:16b.)

Why is this part of the ‘punishment’ that the Lord God gives to Eve?

I believe this gives permission for later interpreters, as well as those who read the text as presented, to justify an attitude of superiority of the male of humanity. Fretheim, quoted above, has something to say about this.

The ‘rule’ of the man over the woman is part and parcel of the judgement on the man as much as the woman. [5]

Having read his whole commentary and reflection on this story, I cannot see that he gives any real justification for this conclusion, but it fits well with the general thrust of his approach and his emphasis on partnership. I can imagine some female interpreters might say that this is obviously a man’s interpretation.

Another major concern I have with this story is not only that the man and the woman are expelled from the Garden of Eden but that they were never to return, ever. The man and I presume the woman, cannot be trusted. They are never to return. The expulsion is final and permanent. In the myth the Lord made this quite certain.

and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24b.)

This blocked any future re-entry to the garden. Well that’s not quite what the story says. It says that the ‘way to the tree of life’ is ‘guarded’. Does that mean that coming back into any part of the garden is impossible? I think so. The myth does say that the Lord ‘sent him forth from the garden’ and

So the Lord God drove him out of the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken. (Genesis 3:23.)

It has been stated to me that the expulsion from the Garden was an act of grace by the Lord. The Lord knew what was best for Adam and Eve so the Lord prevented the possibility of them living for ever because living for ever in a ‘fallen state’ would be unbearable. This interpretation also holds little water for me because it seems rather obvious to me that the Lord is protecting the Lord God’s own superiority. I use the New English Bible translation.

He (the Lord) said, “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; what if he now reaches out his hand and takes fruit from the tree of life also, eats it and lives forever?” So the Lord God drove him out of the Garden of Eden…..He (the Lord) cast him out, and to the east of the Garden of Eden he stationed the cherubim and a sword whirling and flashing to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24.)

‘Knowing good and evil’ as well as ‘living for ever’ seem from the story, to be two qualities of being that the Lord God does not wish to share with humans. They seem to be significant regarding the Lord God’s superiority. The man ‘has become like one of us’, like the Lord God, by gaining the first quality of being. The second quality of being must be withheld at all costs. My interpretation, I know, but it seems logical. The Good News Bible has reason for the expulsion stated clearly.

He must not be allowed to eat fruit from the tree of life, and live for ever. (Genesis 3:22.)

‘So’ in both the New English Bible and the Good News Bible, or ‘Therefore’ in the Revised Standard Version, the Lord God took decisive action. This surely indicates the reason behind the expulsion. God and humanity must ‘live’ in different zones; separate.

I believe about 100% of regular church-goers would say that the reason for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden was punishment for disobedience. That is what I and other church-goers have been taught. This is not what the story says.

The myth states that the Man is expelled permanently so that he (and she) will never

eat from the tree of Life and live for ever.

Punishments for disobedience are detailed earlier in the myth.

There are other ways of looking at this myth, some more recent interpretations. Like some other origin myths, this myth can be considered as answering the question “How do humans become different from the gods?” After questioning the authority of the Lord God, the humans then go to live in their world, tilling the soil. The gate is shut, not as punishment but as a barrier for them ever to enter the world of the gods, where they don’t belong. Just like a human family, when children challenge the rules laid down by parents and then move out to find their own way in the world.

I find this interpretation rather unconvincing in that it does not take into account the fact that, in the myth, Adam and Eve are ‘driven out’ by the Lord God. They did not move out. They were kicked out by the Lord God. This particular act of the Lord God, I believe points to an important message within the myth as it is told in Genesis, as taught in the history of the church, and as taught to me. It is about God’s relationship with me and the rest of humanity. It certainly has links to my growing up, looking to spread my wings and the propensity of humans to want to take complete control, but, for me, the action of the Lord God in ‘casting out’ Adam and Eve is crucial. This was the Lord God’s deliberate and decisive action; not Adam’s and maybe Eve’s decision or desire to leave.

At the end of this story, the permanent expulsion from the Garden has featured large in the history of the church. ‘The story of the Fall’ is a very common term used over the years, to identify this story. It is a story about the disobedience of humans, the first sin, the ‘Fall’ of humanity.

In my experience of the church, Paradise has been equated with the Garden of Eden and Heaven. Heaven is where God is. I believe it is understood by many regular church-goers that because of this permanent expulsion from Paradise there has been a complete and continuing separation from the presence of God. This could be changed only by the death of Jesus on the Cross. There has to be a reconciliation. This is the past teaching from the church I have received. I despair.

I find the Koran has a more balanced way of telling this story of the Garden of Eden. Islam accepts that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as Holy Scripture, even though it does not give it equal value or authority as it gives to the Koran. It tells this story.

And We said: O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden, and eat ye freely (of the fruits) thereof where ye will; but come not nigh this tree lest ye become wrong-doers.

But Satan caused them to deflect therefrom and expelled them from the (happy) state in which they were; and We said: Fall down, one of you a foe unto the other! There shall be for you on earth a habitation and provision for a time. Then Adam received from his Lord words (of revelation), and He relented toward him. Lo! He is the relenting, the Merciful. (Sura 2:35-37.) (‘We’ and ‘He’ are both pronouns for Allah often used in the Koran.) [6]

Aysha Hidayatullah when giving commentary on the story, states

And then we actually move to the story of Adam and Eve. What we find is that there is no indication that Eve was created from a rib of Adam. She is not secondary or a derivative creature. That she was created of the same source that Adam was, that she was not supposed to be simply the helpmate for Adam…..She was not created from Adam or for Adam. One of the other things we learn is that Eve does not figure as a kind of temptress either. You see that both Adam and Eve being responsible for a transgression in eating from the tree, and both committing that transgression and both actually being forgiven that transgression. [7]

I find the Koran story far more acceptable than the story as told in the Bible, and certainly better than the New Testament interpretations/quotations from the Timothy and Colossians, stated previously.

I realise the Bible has another perspective on this gender inequality and this is stated also in Genesis from the first creation myth.

So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27.)

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he created him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when he created them. (Genesis 5:1-2.)

For me, even though these two quotations point to an equality of male and female, they do not adequately compensate for, what I believe is the sexist content of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. I suppose it depends to an extent, on one’s presuppositions when reading.

So what for me now?

A lot of ‘clearing out’. I do not see enough in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden to entice me to retain it. There are the important lessons about wanting to hide when we know we have done wrong, about very quickly blaming others when found out, as well as wanting to make one’s own decisions regardless, but my journey with Jesus would have been better off without this story. There are also lessons about God’s concern in this second creation myth but this is abundantly evident in Jesus’ teachings. The way some New Testament writers use this story certainly encourages me to reject this story. I believe it is dangerous.

This story plays no part or influence in my beliefs about God’s relationship with humanity and with me personally. It also plays no part in my attitude to the female sex, nor indeed my relationship with my wife. I believe it leads in a direction away from Jesus. I find some helpful instruction in the story about my behaviour but I know about this if I take mindful recognition of how I am tempted, how I respond when being found guilty and when making some decisions. Other sources, particularly the teachings of Jesus, guide me in this.

What I see as a gender bias is a very serious problem, and rightly so, for a growing number of women and men who are members of the church.

In this area of my discipleship I have to ‘Start all over again’ and I have to be careful to continue along this path. My grandchildren probably know nothing of this story and I am not going to introduce it to them. For me, a major aspect of this myth points in the wrong direction, away from Jesus’ teaching.

Having said all this, I also need to say that within my church experience I have been taught and encouraged in many positive ways regarding gender equality. I remember how Jesus gave equal respect to both men and women and I remember and treasure many other biblical teachings such as,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.)

However, there are other Bible quotes which I choose to reject.

Wives, be subject to your husbands; that is your Christian duty. (Colossians 3:18.)

A woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission. (1 Timothy 2:11.)

Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. (Titus 2:3-5.)

Notice how this quote from Titus links behaviour with ‘the word of God’ in order to give it more weight and a status of absolute authority. Unfortunately, this still happens in the church today.

In the business of ‘clearing out’, I find some teachings in the New Testament quite obnoxious.

Yet woman will be saved through bearing children if she…’ (1 Timothy 2:15.)

Where does this leave women who, for physical or genetic reasons, find it impossible to have children, or for women who have decided for their own reasons not to have children? They don’t need this sort of disgraceful misogynous comment lumped onto them from a book that is claimed to be ‘sacred’.

I think there might be a message for me, in that, this passage is the only one in the complete copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible I have, which has been moth-eaten. Thank you moths. You have done a good job.

These latter quotes seem to be more specific when compared with the earlier one, but together they demonstrate to me very clearly, how the Bible can be quoted to suit one’s prejudice and previously decided attitude. I know I do this as well, so I have to be careful not to dismiss others who do the same thing but come to a different conclusion. I can question, even disagree vehemently, with their ideas and beliefs, saying that I believe they are terribly harmful, but I still have to respect others as people with their right to a different interpretation.

Coming from a different age and a different culture, I think it might be as well to leave some of the Bible where and when it was created, especially when dealing with certain matters of current concern. Some, but certainly not all biblical teaching should endure. This myth of the Garden of Eden together with the second myth of creation, lead me down a track which I believe is quite unhealthy. They are not helpful for me on my journey with Jesus. I hang on fiercely to,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.) ________________________________________

[1] Stuart-Crone, Rahni, email, rahni.stuart.crone16@icloud. com. [2] Terence Fretheim, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume 1, 359 [3] Ibid, 362 [4] Ibid, 361 [5] Ibid, 363. [6] Aysha Hidayatullah in a DVD series from Living the Questions, The Jesus Fatwah. [7] Ibid, The Jesus Fatwah.               

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My Eight area of Questioning.

  1. A Creator God.

It is with great reluctance that I question the concept of a Creator God.  From birth, I have been brought up with this concept.  Where did the world, the universe, come from?  Where did I come from?  A Creator God of course.  I have given ‘unquestioned obedience’ to this belief nearly all my life.   It has given me a long-time convincing answer to the questions about ultimate origins, which is still widely accepted in my culture.  I am seduced to continue with this belief because so many of my friends and acquaintances, particularly those inside the church, hold to it.  To question this belief brings with it a feeling of isolation, for me.  In fact when I raise the issue, some of my church friends look at me in disbelief. I find that difficult.   Has my questioning gone too far?

My questioning, as well as the answers I now embrace, in no way detract from my respect and reverence for the awesome cosmos and, in particular, the unparalleled beauty and the wondrous nature of my home planet, Earth. In fact my presently held beliefs enhance this reverence and awe.  In my minute corner of the cosmos, I have a specific and personal responsibility to protect and contribute positively, in whatever way I can, to the mysterious progress of the evolutionary processes which are operative in this magnificent, dazzling environment in which I live.    I need to exercise this responsibility both individually as well as with other concerned members of my community.

 

Numerous people who are involved in protecting and caring for the environment pay no allegiance to religion or a Creator God.   In fact, in my experience, most of the people I know, who are involved in positive action regarding the environment, have no connection with the church nor have any traditional Christian motivations for their activities. Many think the concept of a Creator God is irrelevant or even unhelpful.

 

Part of my problem with this issue, however, is that there seems to be the stance of most, if not all regular church-goers as well as the church institution as a whole, to an ‘unquestioning obedience’ to this Creator God concept.  Belief in a Creator God seems to be a basic, essential element of a Christian faith.  It is ever-present in our church service liturgies, in the hymns we are requested to sing, in church doctrine and in creedal statements of orthodox belief.  It seems, that to question a belief in a Creator God is nearly as serious as questioning a commitment to Jesus and his message. ‘You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in a Creator God.’   But belief in a Creator God is not peculiarly Christian.   Other world religions ascribe to this Creator God belief. What is peculiarly Christian, is Jesus and his story.

 

I believe now that a Creator God has little, if anything, to do with the core teachings of Jesus. I can find only sparse reference in his teachings where he speaks of God as a Creator God. It was probably a ‘given’ and didn’t need a specific mention. For me now, such a belief, seemingly so important, nearly becomes a distraction to his message.

 

All cultures have their myths and often they have to do with the activity of supernatural deities.   A creation myth is usually a story, saturated with symbolic images and language, which relates how the world began and how humans first came to inhabit it.  Western culture, with its close links to Christianity over the centuries, has, until recently at least, adopted the biblical creation myths in Genesis, not in detail but in broad principle.

 

In my ‘faithful questioning’, I need to be fair to the Bible and its content.  As I have said a couple of times previously, the Bible was written thousands of years ago so I need to be as aware as I can, of the mind-set of a Hebrew person, living 2500 years ago.  How can I do this?  I need to ask the question, “Back then, what were the stories telling their hearers?”    I’m not sure that regular church-goers ask this question but if they do, they face a near impossible task, because most of us have only the Bible text in front of us.  To approach the Bible asking this question, needs a lot of wise instruction.

 

What is the historical and theological context of these Hebrew stories?

 

Before I examine this question, a very short introduction to the evolution of the Torah, in which we find these Hebrew creation myths, is appropriate, to give some background as well as address the question, ‘Why are there two creation stories?’

 

The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, has a long and complex history of evolution.  It is obvious from a detailed study of the material contained, that there are inconsistencies, contradictions, very different theological emphases, significantly different images of God developed and distinctly different styles of writing.

 

A generally held theory, undisputed amongst reputable biblical scholars, is that the Torah took hundreds of years to evolve.  It began with laws and stories handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth from father to son; oral traditions.  This theory states that there were originally at least four separate traditions commonly known now as J, E, D and P.  These were gradually combined into what we now have in the Bible.

 

There are variations of this theory.  Some have slightly different writing sequences and different combinations of the various traditions but there is wide consensus on the basics.

 

The J, E, D and P theory.

 

The ‘J’ tradition is considered to be older than the other three, written down about 950 BCE  (Before the Common Era) and now called ‘J’ because of the word it uses for God, ‘Jahweh’, an alternative spelling for ‘Yahweh’, translated as ‘the Lord God’.  This ‘J’ tradition includes the older, second story of creation in Genesis chapter 2, the Garden of Eden story, the Cain and Abel story, the older story of Noah and many stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Its content then stretches into the time of the invasion and conquering of the Promised Land under Joshua, and maybe even further.

 

The ‘E’ tradition, considered to be older than the last two traditions, ‘D’ and ‘P’, was written down about 850 BCE and now called ‘E’ because it uses the Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ translated as ‘God’.  It has a shorter historical span than the ‘J’ tradition, from Abraham to Moses and not much more.  It has a priestly emphasis and goes well with the last tradition, ‘P’, when, in the evolution of the Torah, they were combined.

 

The ‘D’ tradition derives its name from the book of Deuteronomy.  This ‘D’ document, written down at about 650 BCE, has little reference to stories about times prior to Moses.  The ‘D’ document was probably a single unit and not as much a collection like the ‘J’ and ‘E’ traditions. For a few scholars, Deuteronomy is understood to be Moses’ farewell address to the Hebrew people.   It is intensely nationalistic.  ‘D’s’ theological emphases were quite influential throughout the writing of the Old Testament.  The ‘D’ tradition’s emphasis on justice and responsibility played a significant role in the development of the Israelite religion.

 

‘P’, the last tradition of the four, is so called because of its emphasis on a Priestly Code; priestly or religious laws.  Gathered together, edited and subsequently written down at about 500 – 450 BCE, it is very legalistic and systematic.  It had about 500 years of theologically interpreted Hebrew history, ecclesiastical, sociological, cultural and religious thought and reflection, above and beyond that which the earliest stories and traditions had.  It has the first story of creation in Genesis chapter 1, the second story of Noah, embedded in the older story, stories about Abraham and Jacob.  It also has most of the contents of the books of Leviticus and Numbers.

 

This theory is built on the proposition that these four traditions were at some time written down but these original documents have been lost.  All we have now is the final combination of the four in the Torah.  One suggested possibility, I have heard, is that the priest Ezra had a hand in the Torah’s final compilation and editing.

 

It is interesting to note the two different reasons for keeping the Sabbath Day holy and resting on it; one in Exodus 20:11 (‘P’) and the other in Deuteronomy 5:15 (‘D’).   The first follows the ideas of creation and God resting, giving rise to the Priestly Code of Sabbath rest. The other, builds on the connection of the Hebrews to their slavery in Egypt.  It follows their well-known and cherished national history and states the responsibility of letting slaves rest, reminding them that they were once slaves before God liberated them.   This is just one example of the different theological emphases evident in the Torah.

 

The evolution of the Torah is very complex and what has been stated is an extremely short introduction to a huge and much debated topic.  However, it is quite unhelpful and misleading that the Authorised King James Version, unfortunately repeated by the Revised Standard Version, has the titles, ‘The First Book of Moses commonly called Genesis’, ‘The Second Book of Moses commonly called Exodus’, etc.   This could encourage regular church-goers to think that Moses actually wrote the first five books of the Bible; an idea that is ill-informed.  I’m pleased to say the later versions I have of the Bible, do not have these misleading titles.   Most regular church-goers know nothing of these origins of the Torah.  They may not be very interested either, but not having been told, who would blame them thinking that Moses wrote all of the Torah?

 

Having set the stage for my ‘faithful questioning’, I proceed.   What then is the historical and theological context of these Hebrew stories?

 

This first myth of creation in Genesis chapter 1, encapsulated and enhanced some of the religious cosmological concepts from other ideas in the Old Testament and stories in the Hebrew culture, but I believe that was not its main purpose.  I think this myth is more about God than cosmology.

 

Considering this myth in its historical context, if the dating scenario suggested previously is reasonably correct, by dating the ‘P’ document at about 500 BCE, many Jews had experienced exile.  This exile, in which portions of the population of the Kingdom of Judah were deported to Babylon, occurred in the early part of the 6th century, commencing at about 586 BCE.  It is often called ‘The Babylonian Captivity.

 

For a generation or more, these Jews, in captivity, had been exposed to the ancient Mesopotamian myth of creation.

 

This Enuma Elish myth commences with water.  In the beginning there was only undifferentiated water swirling in chaos. Out of this swirl, the waters divided into sweet, fresh water, known as the god Apsu, and salty bitter water, being the goddess Tiamat. Once differentiated, the union of these two entities gave birth to younger gods. In this myth, Apsu planned to kill these younger gods because they were too noisy, disturbing his sleep at night and distracting him from his work during the day.  Tiamat learnt of his plan and warned Enki, her eldest son, who then kills Apsu.  Tiamat, in revenge, made war on the younger gods, wishing to destroy her children by using many terrible monsters.  Victory alludes the younger gods until Marduk comes onto the scene.   He vows to kill Tiamat and does so by shooting an arrow at her, splitting her in two.   From her eyes flowed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.   The Heavens and the Earth were formed from Tiamat’s spilt blood, bashed-in skull and her dismembered, stretched-out, split corpse.  Marduk then creates human beings from the remains of other dead gods.   He is rewarded for his victory and his creative prowess by becoming the main god, being praised by humans and gods alike.

 

This Enuma Elish was read and recited widely throughout Mesopotamia and was especially important at the New Year Festival in Babylon.   All very violent.  The Jews, in captivity, would have been quite conversant with it.

 

Some biblical historians tell us that the Hebrew myth is a revision of this Mesopotamian Enuma Elish myth.  These two Babylonian and Hebrew myths obviously have very significant differences but similarities seem to exist in that, both have one deity doing the creating, that order is created out of chaos and that the chaos is associated with water.  Other biblical historians suggest that the belief in only one God, a Creator God of the world and everything else, came with the experience of the Jewish people, when they realised they could worship their God even though they were living in Babylon and not in their homeland.   They started to believe in one God even though previously believing, like different surrounding cultures, that many gods existed.  Look at the first of the 10 commandments, with its recognition of other gods.

 

 You shall have no other gods before me.   (Exodus 20:3.)

 

In their very early history, their God was their local tribal God, but later they believed their God was the only one true almighty God.  There was no other.  After this Babylonian captivity, which lasted about 50 years, the creation story in Genesis 1, was adopted as the start of the Jewish sacred scripture; the Torah.

 

In this Genesis 1 creation myth, God was in total control.  Good.  God had a purpose and the Hebrews were involved in it as God’s chosen people.  Good.  God brought them out of Egypt, liberating them from slavery.  Good.  God gave them food and drink, enabling them to survive in the wilderness for forty years.   Good.  God gave them the Promised Land as God had promised.  Good.  God delivered them from exile in Babylon and now they had rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple.  Good.  Behold, everything was very good, purposeful and God did it all. I can imagine the Jewish priests and religious leaders could have thought about this, their theological history, when creating and telling their creation story.  God was in total control.  God had a purpose, God’s plan prevailed and it was good.  This had to be a theme of their creation story.  Also, it was not to be violent like the creation story they had been subjected to for years, during their exile.

 

God did not need to show God’s power in violence.   God showed it in creation.  This was very different to the Babylonian Enuma Elish creation story.  The Hebrew creation story was of a God who was unchallenged in power, bringing God’s plan to completion but without interruption or conflict.  Such I believe, could have been some of the historical/theological context of Genesis 1.

 

One of the intriguing qualities of a myth is that there can be a ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ encased in it, sometimes hidden but assumed, and sometimes stated quite openly.   These ‘truths’ can be thought of as basic underlying principles or assumptions which lie behind the actual content of the myth.

 

Marcus Borg quotes a Native American tribal storyteller friend, stating, that when he introduces his tribe’s creation story, he says,

 

Now I don’t know if it actually happened this way or not, but I know this story is true. [1]

 

The tribal storyteller releases me from thinking that his creation story has to be looked at literally, or as historically or factually accurate.  I find that helpful but I am prompted to raise the questions, “If your story is not factually correct, if your story is not about what actually happened, what then about it are you saying is ‘true’?  What ‘truth’ lies behind your story?” It may be ‘true’ for you but I need to ask, “Is it ‘true’ for me?”

 

The storyteller was really saying, “My story has an underlying principle, a deep meaning, which is ‘true’.”   I can imagine some Christian preachers saying the same about the Genesis myth; “I don’t know if it actually happened this way but I know this story is true.” But what principle or underlying ‘truth’ is being referred to?

 

In deciding whether a ‘truth’ in a myth is ‘true’ for me, I need to make my response today with all my own personal history involved.  I live in the 21st century and not 500 years before the 1st.   I have certain beliefs about God, the universe and humanity.  In my secular education I have learned something about the cosmos and nature on Earth.   My personal history is important.   It is basic and crucial to my response.

 

I believe the two Hebrew stories encourage me to go down this path, that of seeking meanings, seeking underlying ‘truths’, rather than pondering the correctness of the actual details of the myth.  What ‘truths’ are encased in these Genesis stories?  When I discern what these might be, I cannot give ‘unquestioning obedience’ to them without some scrutiny.   Simply because they are in the Bible does not make them ‘true’ for me.   I need to ‘faithfully question’ them.

 

Maybe other people looking at the Genesis myths could find other, maybe more ‘truths’ than I.  However, I wish to discuss the ‘truths’, to which I think the myths might be pointing.  Some are obvious and others are somewhat hidden but, for me, they are there.

 

Fortunately, I was never encouraged to understand the Hebrew creation stories literally, however the first, found in Genesis 1:1-2:3, has been a very significant part of the Bible in my past church instruction.   In Western culture it is probably one of the best known passages of the Bible, not in detail but in broad outline.  I quote it all from the Revised Standard Version.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called night.  And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so.  God called the firmament Heaven.  And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together, he called seas.  And God saw that it was good.  And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.”  And it was so.  The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.”  And it was so.  And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.  And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.”  So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.  And God saw that it was good.  And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds; cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.”  And it was so.  And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind.  And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”  And it was so.  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.  And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.   (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3.)

There are 12 ‘truths’ that I discern in this first Genesis myth.  Some are far more important for me than others but they all need ‘faithful questioning’.  Many are not ‘true’ for me.

 

  1. Concerning the concept of creation.

 

  1. The creation is distinct and thus separate from the Creator God; not specifically stated, but there. 
  2. Each creative act is separate; not specifically stated, but there.
  3. Each creation is separate and distinct; not specifically stated, but there.
  4. Each creation is complete and creation as a whole is also complete; stated and obvious.
  5. Creation is all very good; stated and obvious.
  6. Creation happens peacefully and is strictly ordered; not specifically stated, but there.

 

  1. Concerning God.

 

  1. God is; stated and obvious.
  2. God is a separate being, a Creator God; not specifically stated, but there.
  3. God is in total control; not specifically stated, but there.
  4. God is depicted anthropomorphically; not specifically stated, but there.

 

  1. Concerning humanity.

 

  1. Made in God’s image; stated and obvious.
  2. Male and female are equal; not specifically stated, but there.

 

  1. Concerning the concept of creation.

 

When dealing with this subject, it is difficult for me to separate the influences of both scientific and theological insights I have gained over the years, because both have a lot to say about it.    In making my 21st century response, I refer to both.

 

In ordinary speech, when we talk of creation we necessarily assume there is a creator.   When something is created it is automatically understood that there must be a creator.   How can something be created if there is no creator?  The two are totally interdependent but separate.   The creator creates what is created, but the creation and the creator are separate and distinct.   For me, this is plain common sense.  We often talk about creators putting something of themselves into their creation but the two are still basically separate and distinct.

 

When we talk about human creations we are not talking about creating something out of nothing; there is always a raw material which is used.   Creation presupposes separate, individual creative acts, giving rise to separate creations which are intended to be completed.  The creator usually wants to finish the act of creating and thus have the creation complete.  When we contemplate an unfished creation, we normally think there is more work that needs to be done to bring it to completion.   For me, these ideas are what the theory of creationism is built on.  They lead me down the path of separateness and away from interdependence and connectedness.

 

In my past, I enjoyed the hobby of woodturning.  Using the commonly understood meaning of the word ‘create’, I am quite comfortable saying that I ‘created’ plates, bowls, candlestick holders, lampshade holders, goblets, etc., made out of wood that was available from a tree or bush.  I am not suggesting that I have ‘created’ something out of nothing.  I sometimes had to search for a particular type of wood to use as my raw material.   Each separate act of woodturning gave rise to a different product.  Sometimes I found the act of woodturning quite difficult, long and intricate.  At other times it was simple and easy. It depended on the wood I was using and the article I was trying to turn.  These acts, however, were separate and distinct. I was sometimes pleased with what I had created and sometimes not.  Each separate product of my endeavours brought about a different response. When I completed a woodturning, I could concentrate on my next creation until it was also finished.  I can remember being pleased when I had completed a woodturning because I could then give it away, display it or use it, but most importantly, I had actually completed it.   It was finished.   I could then start on another, if I wished.

 

This all works fine when I think about human creations, be they small of large; be they created by individuals, groups or big companies.  However, when contemplating the known universe, nature on Earth and humanity and how everything came into being and the way it works, this way of thinking – creationism – all falls apart for me.

 

Beginning my 21st century response, I need to make comment about evolution.

 

For the cosmos, life on Earth and humanity as a whole, following my secular education, I replace ‘Creation’ with ‘Evolution’.  I cannot embrace both concepts at the same time.

 

The theory of evolution points me in the opposite direction to that which the concept of creation points.    Creation, as I have said, presumes a creator.   On the other hand, evolution, for me, is a self-projecting, self-promoting, self-propagating process.  For me, it is one of the underlying fundamental processes operative within the cosmos.  It is a process unto itself.   It just is, has been and always will be.  Creation involves a stop and start sequence of separate acts, giving rise to separate products.  On the other hand, evolution is a connected, integrated, continuous process. That which evolves is partly dependant on what existed before and that which exists now, determines to an extent, what evolves from it.  Everything is connected and part of a continuous process.

 

I too, am involved.

 

Numerous evolutionary processes needed to have happened in sequence and now be in place for human life to come into existence.   It took thousands of millions of years for little me to emerge from the combination of atoms and molecules all of which are thousands of millions of years old and products of the Big Bang and/or exploding stars.  They form me.  What an evolutionary marvel!  If all these thousands of processes did not happen in the sequence they did and how they did, I would not be here! For me, this is a benevolent Mystery ‘par excellence’.  Not that it all happened because I was the end result being sought or the purpose for it all happening.  I think that might be arrogant.   Rather it is that I happen to be part of the end result, maybe the inevitable result of evolutionary processes.

 

To realise that I am made up of billions of atoms, all of which are products of these evolutionary processes, blows my mind.  For a miniscule of a second in time, but of course for me it is more than 80 years in human time, these pre-existing atoms have come together in me.   The fact that the carbon atoms, of which there are millions in my body, originally came into being by a star exploding, also blows my mind.   Some of me is connected to and dependent on that event, and it occurred long, long ago.   I wonder which exploding star gave rise to the carbon atoms in me.  I wonder if there was more than one exploding star involved.   If I have the nerve, I can assert that I am made of this stuff – stardust!  We all are.   I am, you are connected to the stars.

 

Of the more recent evolutionary processes and their connectedness, Stephen Hawking, an eminent scientist, theorist, researcher of the 20th and 21st Century, is quoted as saying,

 

We are just an advanced breed of monkeys. [2]

 

Unlike creation, evolution does not seek completion.  It seeks and works its way towards that which is more complex, often in minute changes and usually over extremely long periods of time. ‘Thresholds’ are said to be part of the process but it is continuous and never finished. A very interesting question for me is, “What are we human beings evolving into?”

 

I put under my umbrella of evolution all changes within the cosmos, biological changes in nature’s life on Earth as well as the changes in the cosmos beyond.   Modern science informs me that the cosmos is constantly changing, expanding at an ever-increasing rate.   Stars explode and new galaxies are being formed when cosmic dust and gas are squeezed together.  Stars collapse in on themselves at the end of their life cycle and Black Holes are expected to form when this happens. Etc. Etc.  Mostly theoretical but based on observable and interpreted evidence, very mysterious and complex, but, in my understanding, the processes of evolution of never-ending change are operative.

 

In our minutely tiny part of the universe, evolution and its numerous processes, have given birth to Earth’s nature in all its magnificent variety and interdependence.  But it took billions of years and it is continuing. This time period is beyond my comprehension, outside the boundaries of my ordinary thinking.  Whether all evolutionary processes are similar or not, I have no idea, but modern science understands a great deal about the factors which apparently give rise to the huge variety of life forms on Earth.  I have heard the term, ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ often used.   Some of the main factors at work in this evolutionary process, annunciated by Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century, can be summarized as follows:

 

  • Life forms reproduce and therefore have a tendency to become more numerous.
  • Factors such as competition and predatory behavior work against the survival of individuals.
  • Each offspring differs from their parent(s) in minor, random ways.
  • If these differences are beneficial, the offspring is more likely to survive and reproduce.
  • This makes it likely that more offspring in the next generation will have beneficial differences and fewer will have detrimental differences.
  • These differences accumulate over many generations, resulting in changes within some of the population.
  • Over time, populations can split or branch off into new species.
  • These processes continue indefinitely.

 

Many different scenarios have been put forward regarding the history of life on the Earth.  I have picked one which has some scientific support. This timeline looks something like this.

The Earth is about 4.6 billion years old and here are the accompanying evolutionary (obviously very approximate) datings:

3.8 billion years ago, evolution of simple cells

2 billion years ago, evolution into complex cells

600 million years ago, evolution into simple animals,

570 million years ago, evolution into arthropods – ancestors of insects

550 million years ago, evolution into complex animals,

500 million years ago, evolution into fish

475 million years ago, evolution into land plants,

400 million years ago, evolution into insects and seeds,

300 million years ago, evolution into reptiles,

200 million years ago, evolution into mammals,

150 million years ago, evolution into birds,

130 million years ago, evolution into flowers,

65 million years since the non-avian dinosaurs died out,

200,000-300,000 years since humans started looking and acting basically something like they do today.

 

No doubt these numbers will change in the future, maybe quite considerably, as new archaeological ‘finds’ are discovered and as ‘dating’ procedures improve.   Even some present theories have different datings and sequences.

 

The processes of evolution make a lot of sense to me regarding how, what we observe now, has come to be and is coming into being.  From what I understand, creationism does not flow from scientific and observable evidence.

 

All is connected in evolutionary processes which never finishes.  Creation points me in the opposite direction, a direction I do not follow.

 

All this information and much more forms part of the background for my 21st century response to the Genesis myths.

 

So to the ‘truths’ in the first Genesis myth, as I perceive them.

 

  1. The creation is distinct and thus separate from the Creator God; not specifically stated, but there.

 

This is quite obvious for me, right through this first creation myth.   The Creator God is there in the beginning but the creation is not. The creation has to be created.  Creation is the result of the Creator God’s work.    The creation is not united with the Creator God.  Creation is distinct from the Creator God.   The creation is here and the Creator God is out there.   They are totally separate and distinct.   This, for me, is absolutely obvious in the myth.

 

So what for me now?

 

Being a panentheist, my beliefs are the opposite to this.   I believe that the creation is in God and God is in the creation.   The two are united.  God is the divine dimension of creation. My first perceived ‘truth’ within this Genesis myth is not ‘true’ for me. This is of paramount importance for me.

 

  1. Each creative act is separate; not specifically stated, but there.

 

In this Genesis myth, the sequence, number and time-line of the creative acts are not to be taken literally but the creative acts are ordinarily understood as separate.   There are eight separate and individual acts of creation.   Each commences with, ‘And God said…’   The only departure from this in the text, is the making of the stars.  The text, in the style of an afterthought, has only, ‘He made the stars also.’   Separate acts of creation are inferred by the statement that each day had ended.  The next day with its new, distinct and separate act of creation is anticipated.

 

  1. Each creation is separate and distinct; not specifically stated, but there.

 

It is quite clear that in the Genesis myth, each creation is separate and distinct.

 

  • Light, – day 1’s creation
  • The firmament – Heaven, – day 2’s creation
  • The gathering of the waters, – Seas and Earth, – part of day 3’s creation
  • Vegetation, plants and fruit trees, – part of day 3’s creation
  • The sun, moon and stars, – day 4’s creation
  • Living sea creatures and birds, – day 5’s creation
  • Cattle, beasts and creeping things, – part of day 6’s creation
  • Man, male and female, – part of day 6’s creation – the final creation

 

These creations have little to no connection to other creations.  Light and the firmament, vegetation and the sun moon and stars, sea creatures, cattle and humans – all distinct and separate in their origin. Many are quite unrelated.   Each creation does not give rise to the next.   No real connection.

 

  1. Each creation is complete and creation as a whole is also complete; stated and obvious.

 

All creations in this Genesis myth are considered to be complete.  Completion is quite explicit in this Genesis myth.

 

Thus the Heavens and the Earth were finished, and all the host of them.  And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.   (Genesis 2:1-3.)

 

God completed God’s work of creation and with that, all the creations were finished.  This states a completion.

 

Thus the Heavens and the Earth were finished, and all the host of them,  (Genesis 2:1.)

 

All creation is complete.    ‘…he had done…’ confirms this.

 

God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.   (Genesis 2:3.)

So what for me now? 

Evolution is an unfinished process, always seeking more complexity.

 

These 3 previous, somewhat minor, for me, underlying principles, work for creationism but not with evolution. Hence I find these ‘truths’ not ‘true’ for me.

 

  1. Creation is all very good; stated and obvious.

 

For me, this is a major complicating factor about this first Genesis creation myth in making my 21st century response.   My fifth perceived ‘truth’ is stated emphatically and is transparently obvious in Genesis and my current church teachings.   Six times this ‘goodness’ is mentioned in the text.

 

God saw that it was good.   (Genesis 1:4a, 10b, 12b, 18b, 21b and 25b.)

 

Then everything is pronounced very good.

 

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31.)

 

The Good News Bible complicates the matter further for me, with its translation.

 

God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased.   (Genesis 1:31.)

 

Not only is the Genesis creation ‘all very good’ but God is also ‘very pleased’ with it.

 

It is this ‘cover-all’ statement which I find unacceptable.   Could it have been that the redactors, those who brought the ancient stories to a presentable literary written form, just did not want to say that God could create something that was not good, or was not pleasing to God?   I can imagine that they did not want to write that God created something that was bad.  God is the Creator God and God is good so God could not create something that is bad.  Therefore all creation is very good.   This is the way biblical theism works.  Unfortunately, the church today often avoids the down-side when speaking of nature.

 

Could it also have been that the story tellers wanted to counter the Babylonian myth, as stated previously?  They wanted to say the creation was good in keeping with what God had done in their earlier history.

 

Walter Brueggemann, states,

Throughout the narrative, God judges the results of his work ‘good’ and in verse 31 he pronounces the whole ‘very good.’ The ‘good’ used here does not primarily refer to a moral quality, but to an aesthetic quality. It might be better translated lovely, pleasing, beautiful (cf Ecclesiastes 3:11). The shift from the sixth day to the seventh is perhaps, then, not just that time has run its course, but that God knows satisfaction and delight in what he has wrought. He rests not because the week ends, but because there is a satisfying, finished quality in his creation. [3]

 

I believe Brueggemann is being true to the text when he states that God knew

 

…satisfaction and delight in what he has wrought. [4]

 

However, I reject these implications of the text, and that, I think, means I must reject the text itself.  If the text is correct, and God did feel satisfaction and delight, then I submit that, in this myth, God didn’t look too deeply into the creation ‘God had wrought’.

 

I am now continuing to make my 21st century response.   I make no apology for this because I think this is the only responsible response a 21st century regular church-goer can make.   I have the text in front of me, but I have to make my response in the context of my personal history and other information I now have.

 

So, is it delightful that earthquakes, lightning strikes, cyclones and tsunamis occur, causing so much damage and human suffering?    Yet these phenomena naturally occur on Earth.  Are they not part of God’s creation and how it works?  Many people experience the forces of nature in a very destructive, ruinous way.   In Australia, when extreme drought is experienced, the number of animals that perish is innumerable.  Also, suicide, committed by farmers, male and female, and their children, is a common cause of death at such times.  Many natural occurrences can bring with them untold devastation and suffering and they are essential parts of the process of the Earth’s continued existence and evolution; shifting of tectonic plates within the Earth, changes in weather patterns, changing temperatures of oceans, etc.  They are some of the controlling processes of the universe. We sometimes might say that a particular earthquake is ‘bad’, but in saying this, we are not making a moral judgement.  We are speaking about the extent of devastation it causes.

 

Should all this please God, give God knowledge of a ‘satisfying, finished quality in his creation’ as Brueggemann, I think, correctly suggests, when interpreting the text as presented in the myth?

 

Other questions arise.  When this other side of the universe, or at least of nature and how it works on our planet Earth, is confronted, I ask,  “Is it good, does it please God, that most animals seem to live in fear all their lives, kill or be killed; that some mice eat their offspring; that certain bugs eat the eyes of humans; that germs cause so much human disease and suffering; that some insects and bugs prevent the healthy growth of plants, flowers and vegetables?”  And so on and on.   This darker side of nature is obvious.  Violence is part and parcel of nature.  Creatures fight each other to the death.   Creatures eat other creatures to survive.  The Genesis myth avoids this issue.

 

And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food….  (Genesis 1:30.)

 

Some animals do not eat green plants.  They never have, and never will.

 

One knows very clearly that in life on Earth, there is destruction, conflict, death, and struggle for survival everywhere.  It always has been the case.   Maybe the observation of all this could have helped give rise to the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’.   I do not believe that death, suffering, struggle and conflict is/was caused by human/Adam’s sin.   That is quite absurd!   Recently, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Dr Glenn Davies is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying,

 

Death is our enemy.  Death is not natural to this world… death is an intruder into our world and it is not the way God made the world when everything was good. [5]

 

The article went on,

 

Dr Davies said that death was the result of sin and that Adam and Eve only faced the possibility of death once they sinned. [6]

 

I don’t know where Dr Davies lives but I am sure it is not on the same planet where I live.

 

Death has been part of the natural cycle on this Earth for billions of years.   There has never been a time when conflict, suffering and death were not part of the natural order of things on Earth, millions of years prior to the existence of humans.  For me, to postulate something different is to ignore common sense.   The Earth itself is given to changes which sometime cause untold human misery.   Many people have experienced total devastation because of the forces of nature and some of this, I submit, has nothing to do with human behaviour.   It just happens; it does and always will.

 

On the other hand, I can totally accept that many people, both inside and outside the church, speak glowingly about the peace and serenity they feel when walking in a forest, close to nature.   I hear people speak of the wonders of the universe when they look up at a starry night sky.   I share these experiences. I wish to emphatically affirm all this.  When looking out at the world around us, I believe most people think that it is beautiful beyond words.  These sentiments are reflected in many traditional hymns sung in church services today.  The lyrics of a well-loved traditional church hymn, ‘How great thou art’, state this.

 

When through the woods and forest glades I wander,

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,

And hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze:

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee,

How great thou art, how great thou art. [7]

 

An older hymn was written back in 1800’s by Cecil Alexander.

 

All things bright and beautiful…

The Lord God made them all..

He gave us eyes to see them

And lips that we might tell

How great is God almighty

Who has made all things well. [8]

 

The biblical text and our good experiences of nature encourage these sorts of lyrics.

 

However, if our experience in life has been torturous and one of suffering at the hands of nature, people may say that if there is a Creator God of all things, then that Creator God has a warped sense of humour, intent on punishing and destroying and then sitting aloof to observe it all.   “Don’t ask me to worship such a Creator God!” some say, and then go on to ask, “Who created cancer cells?”  Comments and questions like this are serious and need to be addressed seriously. They fly in the face of what is stated in the Genesis myth, quoted above.

God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased.   (Genesis 1:31a.)

 

If God created all things and they were all pleasing to God, are we willing to sing, as an extra verse to the older lyrics quoted previously?

 

The typhoon and the earthquake

The cancer cells of death;

The predator, with violence

Kills what it needs for breath.

All things gross and horrible,

The Lord God made them all.

 

‘All things gross and horrible’ as far as humans are concerned, are there and are an obvious part of Earth’s nature.  I believe this cannot be sensibly disputed.   I’m not suggesting that this side of nature is morally bad or bad in any other way, but neither is it good morally or aesthetically.  If we thank a Creator God for creation, we need to think about ‘all’ things, not just the pleasant ones.   If we believe in a Creator God, I believe we need answer the question, “Who created cancer cells?” and a myriad of similar questions.  These questions cannot be avoided.  They must be addressed.  If we believe in a Creator God and the concept of creation, we need to include all creations because if we don’t; Where did the nasties come from?   Who created them?  Are we not then forced into a situation of postulating ‘a devil’ or some other Creator God of all that is bad?    I cannot go down that path.

 

We cannot separate off the appearance of a creation from how it works.    A leopard or tiger can look elegant, quite grand and, when running, can look magnificent.  But when hungry its actions can be very violent and murderous.   So when this Genesis myth says that ‘God saw…’ it must have been speaking about more than just appearance.  To think only of appearance that is ‘seen’, is to treat the matter in a very shallow way.   How nature works and what it physically looks like must be considered together and at depth.

 

For me, this Genesis myth has it wrong with the use of the words ‘everything was very good’.  To accept this part of the text and its message, is to court ridicule.  I find that the text attributing a feeling of satisfaction to God is somewhat preposterous to me, yet that is what the text does.

 

What follows from all this?  I believe that if regular church-goers pause and reflectively think about this subject at any depth, they will have many questions, some of which I have raised.  If they do not think deeply about this issue, when confronted with people who do think about it and criticise vehemently what Genesis teaches, saying it is absurd and should not be taught to children (in schools), these regular church-goers, with only the traditional teachings from the church, will often be at a loss as to what to say.   The instruction I have received from the church regarding this whole matter, has been quite inadequate and inappropriately skewed.

 

So what for me now?

 

I need to embrace a balanced view of nature and the universe.  I need to accept that our experience on Earth can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The processes by which everything has come into being are processes of cosmological forces and of evolution which are presently operating and still unfolding. Some of these continuing processes produce harmony and others cause conflict; some bring about beautiful outcomes and others cause what is ugly, some gentle and some brutally violent. But these processes are all amoral.   They just are.   That’s the way it is.

 

Contemplating the positive side of the universe and Earth’s nature, all is beyond my imagination in its beauty and functioning.  It is pure magic. I ‘faithfully affirm’ all this in many different lyrics I have written.

From my lyrics  No. 22.

It is So Grand

Tune   Woodlands

 

It is so grand – the cosmos with its store

Of galaxies and stars; we stand in awe;

The constellations, nebulae and more,

So limitless, no human can explore.

 

It is so grand – the beauty of the earth –

Abundant life; all species seek re-birth;

We look at nature; she responds with mirth;

And then we wonder at her dazzling worth.

 

I have written many more lyrics on this positive theme but all together, they are quite inadequate in expressing my imagining awe and wonderment at the cosmos.  I am constantly ‘god-smacked’.  However, I do not need a theistic separate Creator God to experience and enjoy this wonder.  This is my human, personal and I suggest, my natural reaction to my environment. Thank goodness.

 

In my experience, David Attenborough and his many TV series of nature documentaries, has done more than probably any other individual, to engender in ordinary people a feeling of total spellbound awe and reverence for nature.   Yet he has done it all without reference to a God or any Creator God.  In his series ‘Flying Monsters’, as with many others of his documentaries, he has used the word ‘evolve’ or ‘evolution’ many, many times.  He speaks of periods of time in the tens or hundreds of millions of years.  Also, he has not shied away from the unpleasant side of nature but has included it in a sensitive way, not wanting people to turn the television off because of scenes of ultra-violent killings, or of an orgy of feasting by animals on other killed animals.  He has not avoided the confrontation of natural drastic devastation.   I am very thankful to David for his wealth of information, his honesty and his wise insights.

 

I quote again from Stephen Hawking;

 

We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is; there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.  …  We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful. [9]

 

I too, am extremely grateful.  Even saying that, is totally inadequate.

 

However, I also need to acknowledge that which is terrifying and violent, humanly speaking, in nature and the universe.

 

To avoid this is to make the church’s message deficient and open to ridicule.  It leads to being shallow about this extremely complex issue.   It is to leave unaddressed, issues which many 21st century people confront.  It is to trivialise the whole matter.

 

 

From my lyrics  No. 23.

Nature’s Moods

Tune    Moscow

 

Nature won’t be subdued.

Has more than just one mood;

Can cause us fear.

Earthquakes and violent storms,

Tempest in all its forms,

Tornado that deforms,

They’re so severe.

 

Some blame catastrophe

On God’s activity,

As if it’s planned.

But nature’s frantic deeds

Do not serve human needs;

Amoral nature heeds

No such demand.

 

Again I stress, I have made my 21st century response to a 2500 year old creation myth but I believe this is the situation of most regular church-goers.

 

They have the biblical text and numerous TV shows which supply a tremendous amount of scientific information on this subject.   When they think about it seriously, questions must arise regarding a Creator God who is believed to have created everything good.

 

This fifth ‘truth’ is not true for me, certainly not in its all-encompassing nature.

 

  1. Creation happens peacefully and is strictly ordered; not specifically stated, but there.

 

Is my sixth perceived ‘truth’ ‘true’ for me?   Is it important?   This forces me back to look at ‘context’.   Back in the 2,500 years ago context, it could have been important and ‘true’, endeavouring to contradict the violent Mesopotamian myth, but it is somewhat irrelevant to me today.

 

 

  1. Concerning God.

 

  1.   God is; stated and obvious.

 

The first words in this myth are, ‘In the beginning God…’  ‘God is’, can be understood as the first, only and final statement on the matter.   God just is.  No question.  In this creation myth, God has a non-beginning, unquestioned ever-existence.  God just is.

 

So what for me now?

 

This is ‘true’ for me but I am not affirming an outside transcendent Being.  This seventh ‘truth’ is ‘true’ for me, but as in panentheism.  This distinction is crucial for me.

 

  1.   God is a separate Being, a Creator God; not specifically stated, but there.

 

As with my 1st perceived ‘truth’, this first Genesis myth paints God as a Creator God being completely separate.  For me, this is absolutely obvious in the myth.  God, the Creator God, is totally and majestically distinct.  The Creator God is ‘out there’, creating by giving bold commands.  For me, this myth tells me that the Creator God is not the creation nor in the creation.    This Creator God observes the creation but this Creator God is not looking in a mirror. The Creator God is looking at something quite distinct; the Creator God’s creation.  In the myth they do not combine; they do not unite.   The Creator God is always separate, ‘other’.

This first chapter of Genesis sets the stage for the whole Bible as well as for regular church-goers, with its bold emphasis on the Creator God being other, separate and distinct.

So what for me now? 

 

I reject any separation of God from the universe because I am a panentheist.  I have mentioned this many times because it is so fundamental to my world view, my theology and my connection to Jesus.   For me, panentheism takes me in the opposite direction to the separateness, the distinctiveness between God and creation in this first Genesis myth.    I do not even like using the word ‘creation’ because, for me, it presupposes a separate creator.  Let me say, “God is in the universe and the universe is in God.”

This is a significant departure from what I have been taught by the church.  I think that to believe that God is the Creator God is the initial step to believing that God is mystically but absolutely separate and outside the universe.  God can have relationships with the universe, with you and me, but God is still a separate Entity/Being, ‘out there’.  This, I think, is the church’s teaching that most regular church-goers have accepted for centuries.

 

I cannot hold to my panentheistic beliefs and also embrace the emphasis of separation that I understand is a fundamental ‘truth’ behind this Genesis myth.    My eighth perceived ‘truth’ from the myth is most emphatically not ‘true’ for me.

 

  1.  God is in total control; not specifically stated, but there.

 

This separate Creator God is absolutely in control from start to finish and a set of creations is the result. Nothing can or does go wrong.  It could be no other way. It would seem that everything that happens, goes to a pre-determined plan.   No interruptions occur.  Right through the myth, God makes bold pronouncements and things happen immediately.

 

God said, Let there be…..and it was so.   (Genesis 1:6-7, 9, 11, 15, 24.)

 

All that happens, happens in a strict and totally organised fashion. The repeated phrases in the text like ‘according to its kind’ and ‘It was so.’, lend emphasis to the orderly and controlled nature of the process. However, the creations have no say at all in what happens.   They are just created.   God is the powerful one.

 

God’s power seems to be one of the main themes in the Old Testament, begun in this Genesis myth.

 

Water was always seen as a very threatening thing to the Hebrews but God is mightier.

 

Mightier than the thunders of many waters,

Mightier than the waves of the sea,

The Lord on high is mighty.  (Psalm 93:4.)

 

Power seems to be paramount in biblical theism.  The power of God is constantly referred to in current church service liturgies.   There are many references to this power in the hymns we are requested to sing in church services. ‘Almighty’ is a word often used to describe God.  It is part of the climax of the Lord’s Prayer we say so often.

 

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever….

 

This question of God’s power can be, I believe, very confronting to many regular church-goers.  God must be in control.  It forms a major thrust of Christianity in my church experience today and I believe it has its seed in this first Genesis creation myth.   As previously suggested, I believe that the vast majority of regular church-goers no longer believe that God is an old bearded grandfather in the sky but most still hold onto a more sophisticated idea of the same basic concept, that of God being the one, separate, supernatural, almighty Creator.  The emphasis I experience in church services is that this God is involved in human affairs, caring for everybody and everything, but as an almighty Creator God.

 

So what for me now?

 

In my understanding of panentheism, control and power are irrelevant.  ‘Presence’ and not ‘power’ is what is important.  This ‘presence’ is not there because of intervention or a ‘visit’ but because of a unity of God and the cosmos, you and me.  Earlier I have spoken of control and power in the section on ‘The biblical presentation of God’.

 

The ‘truth’ of God being in total control, I believe is clearly present in this myth but I ignore it because it is irrelevant to me.

 

  1. God is depicted anthropomorphically; not specifically stated, but there.

 

God creates.  God speaks.  God looks and sees.  God rests.   This is what humans do.  In the myth God is certainly supremely more powerful and greater than any other human but God is still spoken of in human, anthropomorphic terms.

 

So what for me now?

 

I have got to grow beyond my Sunday School teachings.  This way of speaking about God is not helpful to me.  If this is a ‘truth’ within the myth, then I reject it.

 

  1.   Concerning humanity.

 

  1. Made in God’s image; stated and obvious.

 

This is quite explicit in this myth.  It can be taken as a direct teaching.

 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;   (Genesis1:26a.)

 

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:27.)

 

This phrase, ‘the image of God’, has been used down the centuries by many different interpreters but what does it mean?  In the text, this phrase seems to be linked with authority or ‘dominion’.  This ‘dominion’ over all other creatures is mentioned twice, apparently to give emphasis.

 

..and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.   (Genesis 1:26.)

 

..and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over everything that moves upon the earth.  (Genesis 1:28.)

 

Humans, both males and females seem to have a special place in the hierarchy of ‘creation’.  Humans are made in the image of God.   Plants and vegetation aren’t.   Neither are animals, birds or any other creatures.   Could this mean that, as God is to humans so humans are to be to other creatures?   This would certainly not entitle humans to be irresponsible regarding other creatures.  Their ‘dominion’ was to be exercised by those who were in the image of God.  It is not suggested anywhere in the text that God exploits humans so, I submit that humans should not understand the word in this way.

 

So what for me now?

 

If there is a ‘truth’ here concerning humanity, I have more questioning to do. In my experience, the image of God is usually thought of as good, but it has been interpreted in many different ways.   Terence E. Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament in the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minnesota states,

 

The ‘image’ refers to the entire human being, not just some part, such as reason or will…. The image functions to mirror God to the world, to be God as God would be to the non-human, to be an extension of God’s own dominion. [10]

 

To continue with this biblical way of talking, if humans have an extension of God’s dominion, then for me, it certainly imposes a big responsibility as well as privilege.  Is my eleventh perceived ‘truth’, ‘true’ for me?  Not sure because I’m still not quite sure how to interpret the phrase, ‘image of God’.  What about the ‘image of God’ in the Exodus story?   If I take the ‘image of God’ with what I believe Jesus taught about God, then my eleventh perceived ‘truth’ is ‘true’ for me.  What a responsibility! However, there is no panentheistic unity of God and humanity, so I accept this ‘truth’ but with reservations.

 

  1. Male and female are equal; not specifically stated, but there.

 

Little comment is made in this first Genesis myth about the relationship between male and female.  It is stated,

 

…male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them… (Genesis 1:27-28.)

 

Is there equality between the sexes?   This can certainly be inferred.   God recognises both, blesses both and speaks to both.   God gives both ‘dominion’.   No distinction.   This is affirmed a bit later, continuing the ‘P’ tradition in a later part of Genesis.

 

This is the book of the generations of Adam.  When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.  Male and female he created them and he blessed them and named them Man when he created them.      (Genesis 5:1-2.)

 

So what for me now?

 

In this first creation myth, my twelfth perceived ‘truth’ is ‘true’ for me.

 

There are some major difficulties for me in this myth because of the separate, theistic, almighty Creator God. Mystery is still ever present but if this separate Creator God is no longer part of the scene, we no longer have to thank or blame this Creator God for the universe, what happens in it, how it happens and the consequences of what happens.

 

I am in turmoil now because, although there are a few ‘truths’ that are ‘true’ for me in this myth, my total summation leaves this first Genesis myth in chapter 1, as a part of the Bible I now wish to ignore.  God as a separate, almighty Creator God of an all-good creation, forms no part of my set of beliefs any more, even though it seems to be a fundamental part of the church’s continuing proclamation.

 

What ‘truths’ I find in this myth that are ‘true’ for me, have to do with humanity; that humans are made in the image of God and that males and females are equal.   That’s about it.  Not enough for me to think this myth is important enough to retain as part of my journey with Jesus.  For me, this myth leads me in the wrong direction, not necessarily away from Jesus, but not towards him either.   However, it certainly leads away from what I have learned in secular education about evolution and the cosmos.   Most importantly it leads me in the opposite direction and away from my panentheistic beliefs.  This is fundamental.

 

Overall, this myth is not ‘true’ for me and thus I make a very significant, but also somewhat reluctant ‘faithful rejection’ of it.

 

I would not teach this story to children.   For children, I might include this myth along with other, ancient, different cultural creation myths, but in no way as superior to them.

 

I think that the Genesis chapter 1 myth sets a solid foundation for orthodox Christian theology which most church-goers and nominal Christians take for granted.  However, it can lead non-Christians to think that, if Christianity is built on such ideas, it belongs to a pre-enlightenment religion and thus irrelevant to the 21st century.  Although not believed literally as the way things actually happened, I believe Genesis 1 is perceived to declare that ‘creationism’ is the way to view origins.   I cannot accept this.

 

We need a new origins’ story.

 

I now have to look at creation and a Creator God, using the second Hebrew myth.

 

I believe it encases some similar, but also some very different ‘truths’.   This second Hebrew myth of creation follows immediately after the first and is found in Genesis chapter 2:4 continuing to the end of that chapter. It is entwined with the myth of the Garden of Eden, and as I deal with that myth a little later, I have separated it out.   I quote again from the Revised Standard Version.

 

These are the generations of the Heavens and the Earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the Earth and the Heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.  Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living creature.    The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.   And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  ….

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first was Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone is there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  ….

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.”  So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.   The man gave names to all cattle and to birds of the air and every beast of the field; but for man there was not found a helper fit for him.  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up the place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then he said

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be call Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh. …..   (Genesis 2:4-15, 18-24.)

 

This second myth has nothing to do with cosmology or anything beyond the Earth but is located in a particular place on it, the Middle East.   The Lord God and the man are the two main characters.  Late in the myth, the woman also gets a place on the stage.

 

Again, I have itemised the underlying assumptions, the ‘truths’ as I perceive them.

  1. Concerning the concept of creation

 

  1.   The Creator God usually uses existing materials; not specifically stated, but there.  
  2.   Different creations are connected; not specifically stated, but there.
  3.   Creation is localised; stated and obvious.

 

  1.   Concerning the Lord God

 

  1.   The Lord God is; not specifically stated, but there.
  2.   The Lord God is an anthropomorphic Creator God; not specifically stated, but there.
  3.   The Lord God is present and concerned; stated and obvious.
  4.   The Lord God delegates responsibility; stated and obvious.
  5.   The Lord God seems to lack total control; not specifically stated, but there.

 

  1.   Concerning humanity

 

  1.   Man is created from humble beginnings; stated and obvious.
  2. Man becomes a living creature by the Lord God’s in-dwelling; stated and obvious.
  3. Male and female are not equal; not specifically stated but there.

 

This second myth gives me a very different picture of God and how God creates things.  Notice that, in the first myth, God is referred to as ‘God’ and in the second as ‘The Lord God’.   This is one of the clues which enabled biblical scholars to separate out the two myths from within the total text.

 

In this second myth, the Lord God is still the Creator God and as such, not the same as the creation nor in the creation, but the Lord God is ‘present’ rather than ‘away’ as in the first myth.  The Lord God is, as it were, on stage but sharing it with the man and the woman. The Lord God doesn’t seem all that well organised because things don’t always go to plan.   The order of creation is totally different.  In the first myth the male and female are created last and together, after the plants and animals, whereas in this second myth, the human male is created first, then the trees and plants, then the animals and lastly the female human.  The Lord God makes no grand pronouncements from afar. The Lord God is a present busy body, doing different things; things that humans do.   It all happens locally and there is no interest in things beyond the Earth. There does not seem to be any cosmic ramifications resulting from what the Lord God is doing; no sun, moon or stars, etc.  I suppose they are taken as ‘given’.

 

I can imagine children might listen quite enthralled as this story unfolds.  It is a tribal story for telling around a camp fire; not a cosmological religious pronouncement to begin a learned lecture about the origin of the universe.

 

  1.  Concerning the concept of creation

 

  1.   The Creator God usually uses existing materials; not specifically stated, but there.  

 

Many things seem to be in existence with which the Lord God begins work.  There was a mist that watered all the ground.  The Lord God uses the dust from the ground or the ground itself to make the beasts of the field, all the birds and the man.   The Lord God plants the garden and we can only presume that the Lord God had the seeds or seedlings before the Lord God planted them.  The Lord God had to plant something.   The Lord God uses one of the man’s ribs to make into a woman.  In all this activity, the Lord God is very human, similar to a wood-turner, using raw materials available to do the creating.  It is not suggested that the Lord God created things out of nothing.  Many things, not mentioned, are presumed to exist.   This is very different to the first myth.

 

So what for me now?

 

All this fits into this myth and maybe there is a ‘truth’ here.   A preacher could well expand this idea to the thought that God ‘uses’ what is available to perform God’s purposes now.  It could be said, “We are God’s hands and feet and we are essential to bring in the Kingdom of God.”   My first perceived ‘truth’ is ‘true’ for me.

 

  1.   Different creations are connected; not specifically stated, but there.

 

Rain is connected to the growth of herbs but there was none yet, however, a mist does the job.   It does the ‘watering’.   The man is connected to the dust of the Earth.   He was made from it.  So too, with the animals; they are also connected to the ground.   The garden the Lord God planted needed the man to look after it, to till it and keep it.    The man and the garden seem to have some mutual connection.  The woman is made to be the man’s ‘helper’ and to alleviate his alone-ness.   They are connected.  The man leaves his father and mother to become one flesh.  They become very connected.

 

Again, all different to the first myth.  It is a very different myth.

 

So what for me now?

 

This very tentatively points me towards the ‘connectedness’ but not in terms of the theory of evolution.  It does not get even near to the interconnectedness of everything in that theory but at least points that way.   ‘True’ for me?  Nearly.

 

  1.   Creation is localised; stated and obvious.

 

In verses 10-14 of this myth creation is localised in the Middle East.   We are given the names of rivers and different locations.  There are four rivers.  Their names are Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates and the locations mentioned have the names of Havilah, Cush and Assyria.   Some of these are now unknown to us.

 

So what for me now?

 

This fits well for this tribal myth.   Is my third perceived ‘truth’, ‘true’ for me?  Maybe that the Lord God always works locally.   Maybe this is pushing the point a bit too hard, however, this is a ‘truth’ to which Jesus often points.

 

  1.   Concerning the Lord God

 

  1.   The Lord God is; not specifically stated, but there.

 

Like the first myth, in this second myth, the Lord God is just there.  Beginning with

 

In the day that the Lord God made…. (Genesis 2:4b.)

 

There is no explanation as to how the Lord God came to be or came to be there.  This ‘truth’ of God’s ‘is-ness’ is assumed, not specifically stated.   Again, as with the first myth, the Lord God is a ‘given’, not as almighty, but the Lord God immediately gets busy.

 

So what for me now?

 

A major difference when comparing the two myths is that God in the first myth is out-there and majestically, transcendentally separate, whereas the Lord God, in the second myth, is imminently present, on stage, there and ready to ‘do’.   The first myth, as I have said, does not have any ‘truth’ for me in this respect, but this second myth, even though the Lord God is still a separate character, a ‘truth’ hovers near.  It points tentatively in the direction of panentheism.  For me, it certainly doesn’t get there, so I am reluctant to speak of it as ‘true’ for me.  The Lord God is still separate but, for me, not nearly as separated as in the first myth.

 

  1.   The Lord God is an anthropomorphic Creator God; not specifically stated, but there.

 

To say God is the Creator God, is to speak anthropomorphically.   To say God is the maker, is to speak anthropomorphically.   In this second creation myth, anthropomorphisms are multiplied.  Every verb used in this myth speaks of the Lord God doing human things.  The Lord God

 

  • makes, verse 2:4, 9, 18.
  • causes, verse 2:5, 21.
  • forms, verse 2:7, 8, 19.
  • breathes, verse 2:7.
  • plants, verse 2:8.
  • puts, verse 2:8, 15.
  • makes to grow, verse 2:9.
  • takes, verse 2:15, 21.
  • says, verse 2:16, 18.
  • brings, verse 2:19, 22.
  • closes up, verse 2:21.

 

All anthropomorphisms, right through this myth.  The scene painted is a domestic one. We might even imagine this happening just down the street.

 

So what for me now?

 

For a tribal children’s story it’s OK, but my fifth perceived ‘truth’ is not ‘true’ for me.  I need to try to grow beyond my Sunday School images of God.

 

  1.  The Lord God is present and concerned; stated and obvious.

 

The Lord God is very present to what is going on.  The Lord God plants a garden.  The Lord God is present.   With these mythical images presented, I can image the Lord God down on hands and knees pushing mounds of dust together, when creating man and the animals.   The Lord God is present.   The Lord God puts the man into a deep sleep and performs surgery.   The Lord God closes up the place from where the rib was removed.  The Lord God brings the woman to the man.   The Lord God is always present.

 

The Lord God shows concern for the garden because there is no-one to ‘till it and keep it’, so the Lord God gives the man that responsibility.

 

…, and there was no man to till the ground. … The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.   …   The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.   (Genesis 2:5, 8, 15.)

 

The Lord God is concerned about the man’s alone-ness, so the Lord God creates the woman to be a helper, fit for the man.

 

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So…   (Genesis 2:18-19.)

 

A bit later in this ‘J’ myth, the Lord God is concerned that the man knows he is naked and thus embarrassed.   So the Lord God made for him and his wife garments to hide their nakedness.

 

 And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.   (Genesis 3:21.)

 

So what for me now? 

 

This points me to what Jesus teaches me about God.   If God is love then God is present and concerned.   My sixth perceived ‘truth’ is ‘true’ for me.  However, God is still very anthropomorphic and a separate Being.

 

  1.   The Lord God delegates responsibility; stated and obvious.

 

The Lord God brings the animals to the man for the man to give them their names.   And their names remain.  To give a name in the Hebrew culture was more than just naming.  It announced that the person doing the naming had some sort of authority over, and responsibility for the one named.   Without a name, the job of creation is not complete.   The man takes part in the creative process.

 

So what for me now? 

 

For a tribal children’s story I think it is rather good.  It would be a great answer to a little child’s question, “Mummy, Daddy. How did the animals get their names?”   Together with a few previous comments, there could be a ‘truth’ here, in that I too, am involved in the creative process.   The Lord God relies on me to bring in God’s Kingdom.    This is not only a privilege but also a deep responsibility.

I am reminded of the story about God and Jesus talking about his visit to Earth.   God says, “How did it go?”  Jesus replies, “Not too bad.  Quite hard at times but I did what I had to do.”   God asks, “So what now?”  Jesus replies, “Well, I have given responsibility to twelve friends to continue what I began.”   God continues, “What if they don’t do what you asked?”  Jesus says, “I don’t have any plan B.”

 

Is my seventh perceived ‘truth’, ‘true’ for me?   I think so.

 

  1.  The Lord God seems to lack total control; not specifically stated, but there.

 

The Lord God has to try twice to make a ‘fit’ helper for the man.   The Lord God makes the animals and brings them to the man.

 

..but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.  So the Lord God …  (Genesis 2:20-21.)

 

The Lord God needs to try again.  This second time the Lord God succeeds.  Those wishing to protect the Bible and the God of the Bible, would interpret this very differently.

 

So what for me now? 

 

In my perceived eighth ‘truth’ there is little ‘truth’ for me.  However, it certainly questions the Lord God’s almightiness.  Yet again the Lord God is very human here.

 

  1.  Concerning humanity.

 

  1.  Man is made from humble beginnings; stated and obvious.

 

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground…   (Genesis 2:7.)

 

So what for me now? 

 

I have no right to try to bully some other person.  I am made of ‘dust’ and that should give my super ego a good kick in the pants.  Who am I to try to dominate it over someone else?  I am dust.  I need to take this ‘truth’ on board but not to the extent of self-deprecation.  However, my super ego certainly needs a timely reminder quite often. By the same token, from the first Genesis myth, you do not have the right to bully me either.   I am made ‘in the image of God’ so please treat me that way.

 

My ninth perceived ‘truth’ in this myth, is ‘true’ for me.

 

  1. Man becomes a living creature with the Lord God’s in-dwelling; stated and obvious.

 

… and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7.)

 

My breath is God’s breath and God’s breath is mine.

 

So what for me now?

 

This is the main ‘truth’ for me in all this Genesis material.  The breath of the Lord God gives me life. This, for me, is a magically poetic way of acknowledging that God is in me.  Every time I breathe in and out I can become aware of God within me.  Wow!  This ‘truth’ is about ‘presence’ and not ‘power’.   It is poetically and totally ‘true’ for me.  For me, this is the closest the Genesis myths get to panentheism.

 

  1. Male and female are not equal; not specifically stated but there.

 

If this is a ‘truth’ imbedded in the myth here, then it is certainly not ‘true’ for me.  This myth paints man and woman as very unequal. Sure, the Lord God is concerned about the alone-ness of the man and sure, man and woman need to be helpers for each other, fit for each other, but the way this myth works through these issues is quite unacceptable to me.   This makes this second creation myth quite dangerous.

 

There are many ‘faithful questions’ I raise.

 

  • The woman was made from the man to meet a need of the man.  In the myth, the man is not actually consulted by the Lord God but the Lord God is obviously concerned about his aloneness.

 

Then the Lord said, “It is not good for that the man should be alone.”  (Genesis 2:18.)

 

Apparently the intention of this new creation was to alleviate the man’s aloneness.   If the Lord God had not thought that the man felt alone, would the woman have been created?   In the myth, man’s alone-ness seems to be the same reason for creating the animals.  Man is the centre of the Lord God’s concern and woman is seen as a possible solution to the problem. The animals didn’t work but the woman might.

 

  • Man and the animals were made from ‘dust’ and given life by the Lord God’s breath, but woman was made from a part of something that had already been created; man.  Does this not speak of a secondary creation?

 

  •  Woman is made for the man and she has to be ‘fit’ for him.

 

… I will make a helper/partner fit for him.  (Genesis 2:18.)

 

From the Lord God’s point of view, should the man be ‘fit’ for the woman?   No such issue is raised.  Man is the centre of the Lord God’s concern and the woman needs to ‘fit’ in.

 

  • Like the animals before her, she was brought to the man.

 

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh, and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.   (Genesis 2:21-22.)

 

Did she have any choice in the matter?   Why was she brought to the man?  Apparently for the man to give his opinion, approval or otherwise, about this creation.  Maybe also for the man to ‘name’ her.  The man approves this creation.  According to the man she is very acceptable.  However, not, as stated in the text, for herself, but because she was an extension of the man.

 

This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  (Genesis 2:23.)

 

Some might say, “Typical!”   I have heard some people say that all traditional marriage does, is create an ‘extension’ for the male.

 

  • Man, made from the dust of the Earth, became a living creature by the Lord God breathing breath into his nostrils.  However, the woman was made from a piece of the man.  No breath of the Lord God is mentioned in the story, regarding the woman.  Should it be assumed that because the man had the breath of the Lord God in him that anything made from the man would automatically have the breath of the Lord God?   Good question.  We are not told in the text.

 

  • The man calls this new creation Woman.

 

Then the man said…. She shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man,    (Genesis 2:23.)

 

Later in Genesis 3:20 the man called his wife’s name Eve.   For the Hebrews, as I have already said, if you knew the name of a person you had some sort of power over them.  The man gives the name to the woman as he did to the animals. This is more than just knowing the name.

 

This second Genesis myth plays no part or influence in my beliefs about the relationship between men and women.  In fact, it suggests to me, attitudes which I vehemently reject.  The whole priority and attention of this part of the story is given to the man.  Maybe I have got it wrong and scholars who know the finer points of the Hebrew language better than I, can instruct me regarding the translation which might give a different understanding to the one I hold.   All I can do is work with what I have gleaned from my study and what the text before me seems to say.   I think I am in the similar situation to most other regular church-goers.

 

I also have to try to cope with how some New Testament writers use parts of this myth.  The writer of the books of Timothy says,

 

I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve;   (1 Timothy 2:12-13.)

 

The writer of 1 Corinthians also comments about gender when referring to dress that is suitable for worship.

 

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:8.)

 

I believe this second Hebrew creation myth has encouraged and exacerbated the whole practice of gender inequality.   But I am told, “It’s is in our sacred book.”   All the worse!

 

I think we should dissociate ourselves from such statements and stories without being too hard on the authors.  As followers of Jesus, I believe we should disown and condemn inequality in all its forms, particularly concerning gender.   For me, this use of the myth, together with the New Testament interpretations stated above, constitute a classic example of how the Bible is so often used to authenticate bad ideas and how some stories in it are so unhelpful to me.

 

Gender bias is a very serious problem for a growing number of members of the church, both men and women.  I am somewhat dismayed that inclusive language in the hymns we are requested to sing in church services, is still a matter of debate.   Continuing to speak of God as Father and using the personal pronoun, ‘He’, I find unhelpful.  I believe that inclusive language should be mandatory, even automatic, in all our church talk.  I’m sure we could get used to it.

 

So what for me now? 

 

I find I still have to be careful about how I speak today.   I can easily lapse back into gender-bias talk in ordinary conversation.   Without becoming too dramatic about the matter, I think this sort of talk can become an initial entrance into psychological or even physical violence committed by men against women.   It has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus!     If it is actually there, my eleventh perceived ‘truth’ in the myth is certainly not ‘true’ for me.  As I understand this myth, Man and Woman are certainly not equal. This is crucial, and makes this myth dangerous and thus worthy of rejection.

 

Significant messages of this second myth are not ‘true’ for me, so I wonder if I should make a ‘faithful rejection’ of it.  However, for me, there are some very important messages in this myth; that the Lord God is present and concerned, that the Lord God delegates responsibility, that I am made of dust and that I have the Lord God’s breath in me that gives me life.   I find these ‘truths’, ‘true’ for me.  They are significant.   However, the inequality of the Man and the Woman is quite obvious to me.  I cannot really understand interpreters who disagree with this.  The fact that this myth with its inequality has been quoted by New Testament writers is of great concern to me, as I have previously stated.

 

This leaves this second Genesis myth in chapter 2 as a part of the Bible about which I need to be very careful, if I ever refer to it. This male/female inequality issue seems to me to be an obvious thrust of the myth so I would not teach it to children.  I believe the ‘truths’ in the myth which I accept are evident in the teachings of Jesus and so if I reject the myth, it does not mean that I reject all of the ‘truths’ I perceive to be in it. I feel quite ambivalent about this myth as a whole.

 

This all means that I have ‘faithfully rejected’ one, the first of the Genesis myths, and am undecided about the second. Both have been very important in my past church teachings.  But, I do not need a distinct Creator God in my journey with Jesus.   For me, such a belief goes against what I have learned as a 21st century person.

 

However, with these two myths, God is majestically transcendent in the first myth and imminently ‘present’ in the second.   Together these myths can give regular church goers the biblical teaching that God is both transcendent and imminent, remote and present.   This, I believe is what much of church teaching and preaching endeavours to convey. For me, this does not bring me close to panentheism.   In the first myth God is obviously other and a distinct Being/Person – out there. In the second myth, the Lord God even though ‘present’, is there in a side-by-side relationship. The Lord God, Adam and Eve are separate persons; obviously in relationship, but separate. Unity of God or the Lord God with the human players is never even hinted at.

 

Thus, for me, even taking the two myths together, they do not point me towards panentheism so I find them unhelpful.

 

We need a new origins’ story.

 

 

Along with discussing the two Hebrew creation myths, the diagram following [11], represents a cross-section of God’s created universe as the ancient Jews imagined it thousands of years ago.

 

I don’t think the Hebrews had the word ‘universe’ or ‘cosmos’ in their vocabulary.   They spoke of the creation, God’s creation of the Heavens and the Earth.   This is what the first Genesis creation myth and other parts of the Bible are speaking about.  The picture is a picture of their religious cosmology.

 

Picture6610

 

 

Added to this ancient description of the physical creation as they observed it, they had other realms.   They used the term ‘seven Heavens’, which referred to seven layers of the sky, above the firmament. These seven layers were where various deities and powers had their abode and exercised their major influence.  I have already mentioned how Bultmann states that it was thought the influence of these deities and powers, supernatural in nature, was exercised on Earth as well.

 

These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. [12]

 

The Hebrews thought these Heavens, mentioned in Genesis 1:1, were associated with stars that were fixed.  However these Heavens were also thought of as being associated with other celestial bodies including Mercury, Venus, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn which were considered as being vast spheres, moving around the Earth at different speeds.   It was believed that these Heavens could influence what happened on Earth, like the movement of the sun and how it affected the behavior of plants, and the movement of the moon, affecting ocean tides.   This religious cosmology also seemed to relate to the seven days of the week and the princes of each Heaven were given names.  These were angels or archangels – Michael for Sunday, Gabriel for Monday, and so on.

 

This cosmology is not detailed in any of the biblical text, but from this thinking came a passing reference in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 12:2-3, where the writer speaks of a man in Christ being ‘caught up to the third Heaven’.

 

Some variations of this cosmology were current in the time of Jesus.  If he had given much thought to such matters, he would have probably believed some of it.   We are not told in the New Testament text, even though he does refer to Heaven a number of times and he may have had some idea of God living there.   After all, he was a first century man.

 

Having pointed out some of the physical details these Hebrew stories of creation and other parts of the Bible were describing, I do not regard them as important, apart from helping to put other biblical stories and language into context.  They are all pre-scientific and as such are only of historical interest to me.  Basically I find their theological teachings unhelpful.

 

So what for me now?

 

I have discarded creationism and a Creator God as my beliefs.  Evolution and panentheism form the basis of my theological response to nature/cosmos around me and God’s involvement, inherently in it.

We need a new creation story/myth.

 

Ian Crawford, Professor of Planetary Science and Astrology in the University of London made comment on this when speaking about the ‘Big History’, a phrase coined by David Christian, an historian at the Macquarie University, in the 1990s, when aiming to integrate human history with the deeper history of the universe.

 

As Christian has recently articulated, Big History can be viewed as a new modern ‘origin story’, but one with the great advantage of being as factually true as modern science can make it.  Moreover, as science learns more about the universe and our place within it, the narrative can be continually corrected and updated.

It is generally accepted that Big History can yield intellectual benefits by forcing academics in different disciplines to work together.  For example, it forces astronomers to talk to geologists and biologists.

But would a wider appreciation of Big History yield any practical benefits for society?

Firstly, the evolutionary perspective provided by Big History powerfully reinforces the fact that all life on Earth is related and shares a common history.  Moreover, as far as we know today, Earth is the only place in the universe where life and intelligence have arisen.  Once grasped, this realisation implies that humanity has a strong duty of stewardship to our planet and our fellow travellers on ‘Spaceship Earth’.

Secondly, Big History may provide a basis of drawing different human cultures closer together.  At a time when populist nationalism and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity, it is important to find unifying perspectives that can counter these centrifugal tendencies. [13]

 

As Ursula Goodenough states

 

Any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview; a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are… our scientific account of nature, an account that can be called The Epic of Evolution… this is the story, the one story that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true. [14]

 

This brings into clear relief the fundamental difference between what I understand to be the scientific method and the way the church orthodox theology works.

 

Science works on the basis of a hypothesis being suggested to explain and interpret what is observed.  This can then be considered satisfactory but only for as long as that explanation cannot be refuted, modified or enhanced.   It is constantly probed by further questioning and investigation.  All conclusions are open to such.   Science has been described as a philosophy of ignorance.

 

The church with its official theology seems to work in the opposite direction.   A statement of right belief is made and that which confirms it is constantly asserted.   If any question is raised, any suggestion of error or any modification proposed, it can be regarded as heresy or, at least treated with suspicion.   I am pleased to say this has changed to an extent more recently but heresy trials are still not a thing of the past.  Some people have said to me that they feel the church takes away their freedom to think.  Church dogma, has been described to me as a philosophy of certainty.  It took the Roman Catholic Church 350 years after Galileo recanted in 1633, to formally accept that he was correct in declaring that the Earth did move, rotating around the sun.  Such is the brutality of church dogma.

 

Science, for me, prompts and encourages my imagination whereas orthodox doctrine restricts it with declarations of certainty and unchangeable dogma.  In this regard, early Christian creeds are no help to me.  They are still said and believed by many regular church-goers more than 1500 years after their initial creation.

 

Many creation myths seem to suggest that our Earth or specific parts of it are the most important bits of the universe.  Unfortunately, this is only to be expected because we are somewhat self-centred as a human race.  It is even sometimes suggested that the universe was created for humanity and that humans are the most important creatures in it.   I now think this is the ultimate in human-centred arrogance.

 

Modern cosmology and evolution seeks to explain to some extent, how things came to be the way they are today but they cannot explain why, or answer the question of ultimate origins.   That remains Mystery, and probably will continue to be so.

 

Our Big Origin’s History is discussed in many different arenas, with some of the following ideas postulated.

 

There is what is called ‘The Big Bang’.  It is proposed that this happened about 13.7 billion years ago.  Some theories include the idea that after an initial explosion of a minute particle of immeasurable temperature and infinite density, the cosmos cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later the more simple atoms. Larger atoms evolved and these combined to form elements.  Giant clouds of elements later coalesced through gravity, eventually forming the stars and galaxies that are visible today. Other theories do not postulate a minute particle of matter exploding, but speak of a ‘singularity’.   I’m not sure what that means.

 

Not until the 1920s was it realized that our galaxy is just one of billions.  Now, with billions of galaxies, most of which consist of billions of stars and being billions of years old as well as being many billions of kilometres away from the Earth, this scenario gives us a picture of the cosmos unthinkably old and huge.

 

It is more recently agreed by many cosmologists that most, if not all stars, have at least one ‘attached’ orbiting planet, an exoplanet, many of which may be able to sustain some sort of life. It is believed that many of these exist in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, not too hot and not too cold where life, as we understand it to be, could exist.    Some scientists number these exoplanets in trillions.   I would not be surprised that, in the not too distant future, a discovery of life elsewhere in the cosmos will be made.   Why shouldn’t there be?    Scary or awe inspiring?   Maybe both.

 

We now know a lot more about our Earth’s environment and the huge variety of life within nature here on Earth.   For instance, I have been told that there are more than 4500 species of cockroaches.  Thank goodness there aren’t that many in the house where I live.  There are thousands of different sorts of butterflies.   There are untold varieties of birds and fish.   For billions of years, evolution has worked its wonders and together with different environments have played their significant part in the processes that give rise to this incredible variety.   Many hundreds, probably thousands of books have been written detailing the research that has been done into all this.

 

Another fascinating wealth of scientific information becoming evident, is about the micro world.   Could this be part of our Tiny History?

 

To realise that all material/physical things are made up of different combinations of some of the only 92 naturally occurring elements, I find fascinating.  These 92 so-called elements are, in their smallest form, 92 different atoms, with components of protons, neutrons, positrons and electrons; Hydrogen being one of the smallest/lightest with only 1 electron and Uranium being one to the biggest/heaviest with its 92 electrons.   It is also mind blowing that all atoms are in constant internal motion with electrons whizzing around a nucleus of neutrons, positrons and protons.  We might picture this orbiting of electrons around the atom’s nucleus, like a ball whirling round and round at the end of a piece of string.  If the nucleus of an atom was the size of a tennis ball, the electrons orbiting it would have orbits of about 400 kilometres in diameter and much, much more!   However, in real terms, the atom is a million times smaller than the width of a human hair.   The desk I am working at and the chair I am sitting on now, are not really stationary.   They are a made up of an incalculable number of atoms, all of which are in constant internal motion – billions of electrons constantly whizzing round billions of different atomic nuclei!

 

When I sneeze I cause billions of atoms and molecules to suddenly move. When I have a shower, billions upon billions of atoms and molecules are involved.  This is all very difficult for me to comprehend but it is scientifically true.

 

And again, bacteria are micro-organisms needed to sustain life.  Microbiology informs us that on the Earth’s crust there are about 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them.  I don’t think anyone has actually made a count.   They are amongst the earliest life forms on Earth, having existed for billions of years.    I could go on nearly indefinitely.

 

All of this and so very much more about the universe, both macro and micro, makes me feel that creation myths both of the Hebrews and other cultures of which I have some knowledge, must be thought of as myths and can never be taken in any way at all, as literally or factually correct.   Taken as scientific statements, myths make no sense at all and that would trivialise the matter.  Being scientific or factual history is not their function, their intention or their purpose.  To take them as such, degrades them into nonsense.

 

To my knowledge, seldom, if ever, do creation myths address the incredible immensity and complexity of the cosmos.  They also seldom, if ever, address the minuteness of our planet home Earth and humanity in general, when compared with the whole universe in both time and space.  Why should they?   The myths I know, were composed by humans long before the modern cosmological approach to the universe was postulated.  Most creation myths seem to put our Earth or some part of it, at the centre of the universe, certainly at the centre of the myth.

 

With all the scientific information we have now, myths must be regarded as myths because to do otherwise is to present a God and a universe which are far too small for 21st century people.  I’m not sure that creation myths are always trying to answer ultimate questions of origins, but that is often what they are understood to be doing.

 

For me, science and theology can each contribute to my response to the Mystery, but they come from different disciplines within the whole arena of human learning so I don’t think it is appropriate to ask theological questions of scientific statements nor to ask scientific questions of theological statements.  However, modern scientific knowledge is significant to me, to help me evaluate whether or not a myth is helpful in my understanding of reality today.

 

Are embedded ‘truths’ helpful for me today?  I have tried to address this question regarding the two Genesis myths mainly by means of theological reflection, although science has been by no means absent in my ‘faithful questioning’. The ‘truths’ that I perceive to be present about God and humanity are more important for me to consider and these are dealt with theologically. Science hardly gets a look in.   Science and the analysis of observations of the cosmos and nature on Earth come to the fore when I consider issues concerned with the concepts of creationism.

 

 

I continue to be in awe of the cosmos and our home planet Earth.   But I no longer hang onto a belief in a Creator God.   Anthropomorphic images of God continue to limit my ‘spiritual’ growth as does the theological idea of God being separate and distinct from the cosmos.  With these images I stagnate in my early childhood beliefs.  Much of the liturgies I experience in church services, centre around these two ways of speaking about God, so I am often uncomfortable.

 

I am still exposed to the wondrous Mystery beyond me and for that I am profoundly thankful.  I just wish that what I experience in church services made a little more sense to me.   I sincerely hope I am not being arrogant.   I’m trying to share honestly, how I feel. I wonder if, or maybe how many, other regular church-goers experience much the same?

 

 

[1] Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 50

[2] From the Internet, Stephen Hawking quotes.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis, Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 37.

[4] Ibid, 37.

[5] Dr Glenn Davies, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 2016.

[6] Ibid, Later in the same article.

[7] Boberg, Gustaf,  Together in Song, Hymn No. 155, verse 2.

[8] C.F. Alexander, Together in Song, Hymn No. 135, verse 5.

[9] Hawking, Stephen, from the Internet quotes.

[10] Terence E. Fretheim, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 345.

[11] Hugh Martin, The Teacher’s Commentary, 406.

[12] Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth.

[13] Crawford, from the internet, The conversation, 9/8/2018

[14] Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of nature, from the internet, The conversation, 9/8/2018

 

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My seventh area of questioning

  1. The reverence and authority given to the Bible, the Christian sacred book. 

 

The Bible is recognised as a sacred book.   I’m not quite sure what this phrase means but it certainly puts the Bible into small select group of books regarded by many humans as being very special.    These books are often accorded a reverence and authority given to no other books.   They are regarded by millions of people as being a guide for human behaviour and a way to view God and reality which should not be doubted or questioned.   They are even thought of by numerous devout religious people, as being without error.   The words in these sacred books are sometimes thought to have come directly from God, that transcendent, perfect, all-knowing supernatural Being/Person.   I do not share any of this approach.  In fact, how ordinary religious people have been instructed how to treat sacred books, I believe constitutes one of the main issues I have with some world religions, including Christianity.

 

Do I need to ‘Start all over again’ regarding my attitude to the Bible?   No, but I have to do quite a bit more ‘clearing out’, on top of what I have already done in the past   As I have for years, I need to continue to ‘faithfully question’ what I have been taught about it and what I read in it.   I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ the content of the Bible for many, many years and have revised my attitudes to it many times.   I have little doubt that my willingness to allow the Bible to have influence or authority over my theological thinking will continue to change.  Every new book I read, every new insight I gain from wherever, encourages me and sometimes forces me to reconsider or reprioritise my thinking and so it is with the Bible.  Modern biblical scholarship has been very influential in this part of my journey with Jesus.

 

I am pleased that in church services I attend these days I am not subjected, as I was in the past, to the introduction to Bible readings with, “Hear the word of God as it is contained in…..” and at the end of the readings, “This is the word of God” and then the congregation was expected to reply, “Thanks be to God.”  For me this announced that the Bible had complete authority and should not be questioned.   For regular church-goers I believe it was far more than a mark of respect for what was read.   These liturgical comments by the leader prompted a reverence which, I believe, no book deserves.   The congregation in some churches, stand when services commence with a procession in of the Bible and the officiating leader.  In some church services, congregations are requested to stand when sections from the gospels are read.  For me, this borders on idolising the Bible – bibliolatry.

 

This sacred book is so big and varied, it is difficult to know where to start.   With 66 individual books, the Bible really is a library.   Read through modern western-culture eyes, it has inspiring books of love and loyalty as well as books that would not pass an ‘MA’ rating if made into a film.   Many of the individual books have content which ranges from exciting and engrossing to totally boring. The images of the Bible’s theistic God range from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving, and everything in between.  It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour.  The characters within its stories vary widely, from disgracefully in-human to profoundly divine.    From its rousing wondrous heights to very disappointing, disgraceful lows, the Bible has it all.   Despite all this, it has Jesus and his story.

 

Because of its content, the Bible should never be given to children.  Some content is OK for them but certainly not the majority of its stories.   The fact that it has been openly available to adults in different cultures through the centuries, has led to significantly different results, many very desirable but some mammothly disastrous. When I look back over my life, I think I may have unfortunately contributed to some of these disasters.   Am I one for censorship?  Well.  No, but!  Every crazy, misinformed interpretation has flourished without restriction and this has brought about calamitous results for religion generally, the peace of the world and for the well-being of countless individuals.   Maybe one of the big problems we have is not the Bible itself, but how much reverence and authority has been given to it by human beings over the ages.   But it has Jesus and his story.

 

The Bible has been used and abused so much over the ages and this continues.  It has been the basis for unscrupulous people to take unto themselves uncurbed power, instil fear into millions, condone and encourage slavery, rip millions of dollars off the public by corrupt, self-serving individuals and to finance spurious church purposes, demonise those of various sexual orientation, subjugate women and condone, even encourage, all sorts of violence.    It has been used as the foundational ground for justifying burning some people at the stake and terrorising the masses.     One could go on.  It also has been the basis of much positive social change.  It has been the inspiration for numerous peace initiatives.  It has been used to fight racism.   It has given a core message of love to millions of ordinary people in innumerable, ordinary ways and expressed our common humanity, inspiring many to work for equality.  One could go on.    And it has Jesus and his story.

 

The size and complexity of the Bible has inevitably given rise to experts.    I believe this is extremely helpful and necessary.  Biblical scholars and historians have shared much wisdom and given to me an enormous amount of information that, I believe, has helped my spiritual growth and understanding.  Unfortunately however, this need for experts has also given rise to an attitude in many church-goers’ minds, that if someone knows a lot about the Bible, this sacred book, they must be right.   Not so.

 

For me, a tremendous amount of biblical teaching takes me back into the past, and if it is not interpreted appropriately, leaves me there.    I wonder where other disciplines of human knowledge would be if such authority and reverence was given to their 2000 – 3000 years old texts and writings?   I venture to say that we might still be back in the Dark Ages.

 

I wish to state that the Bible has been the most important book in my life.   It still is.   It has taught me about love and forgiveness, respect and equality, mercy and justice.   It has helped me understand these human values and has challenged me to live by them.   However that is not the end of the matter.   Because of its total content, the Bible has provoked in me numerous serious theological and moral questions.  The feelings I have now while writing, are feelings of considerable ambivalence.   Even though there are some comments about its positive instruction, the process I use now is to do the ‘clearing out’ of that which I find unhelpful now.   Continuing this way causes significant turmoil within me.

 

The Bible has been fundamentally influential in my Christian upbringing.  There has been an emphasis on the New Testament, particularly the story of Jesus in the gospels, but the Old Testament has not been ignored by any stretch of the imagination.

I have been encouraged to think about Jesus and his ministry as being built on and expanding the religious ideas of the Old Testament.  The Suffering Servant concept in the prophet Isaiah is one example.  The whole Judaist sacrificial system is another.   With other Old Testament themes, both these have prompted much ‘faithful questioning’, so I continue.

 

My continuing ‘faithful questioning’ about the Bible revolves round these matters.

 

  1.   Biblical theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.   
  2.   The major biblical themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.
  3.   Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.
  4.   The public use of the Bible in church services.    
  5.  The Bible’s internal conflict.
  6.   Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?
  7.   The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.

 

  1.   Biblical Theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.   

 

Acknowledging that I am now a post-theism student, I question the talk by God I encounter all through the Bible because it nearly always assumes God to be a separate distinct Being/Person, conversing and having dealings with humans and inhabiting a place other than our Earth home.  Because of this, if the Bible is to have any real meaning for me, I need to re-word, or at least re-think nearly all the talk by God in it.  At times, that can be very difficult, sometimes impossible.

 

If the Bible had been written without the basis of its theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Human/Divine, it would have come to us as a completely different book, probably unrecognisable when compared with what we now have.   I do acknowledge that the authors of all the Bible books were honest, thinking, devout people who, in their time and environment were making their sincere response to the Mystery and in that, did their best at the time.  However, that does not make the content something that I need to take as correct or even helpful. I have to exercise my critical faculty but always keep in mind that they were writing 2000 and more years ago.

 

How we approach the Bible obviously affects its meaning for us.  Among many ways of trying to understand it, two significantly different frameworks can become apparent.  They have to do with whether the Bible is regarded as a God-book revealed by God to inspired authors or whether it is a human-book written by inspired authors searching for appropriate responses to the unknowable God, the Sacred, and ever present Mystery.   The first sits comfortably with supernatural biblical theism and dualisms and the second, I believe, makes room for panentheism.   I firmly subscribe to the second.

 

If we accept the first of these approaches, the Bible is the account of God’s activity revealed by God.  God is understood to be a distinct and separate Being/Person.  This God is the initiator, the One who does things, who speaks and fulfils God’s own will.   From creation to the sending of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, everything occurs because of God’s activity to execute God’s own plan.  If the Bible is approached this way, God continually enters our world, having relationships with humans from the outside. I believe this is the basis of biblical, supernatural theism.

 

I go to a well-known story in the Old Testament.    It is found in Genesis chapter 22, a story about Abraham, Isaac and human sacrifice.  This story is an example of there being an ‘outside’ influence right through it and this influence is God.

 

I quote from the Revised Standard Version.

 

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”   And he said, “Here I am.”   He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”   So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled an ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

 

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.  Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you”  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together. 

 

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father.” And he said, “Here am I, my son.”  He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering my son.”  So they went both of them together.

 

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

  

Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.  But the angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,”   And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  

 

So Abraham called the name of that place, The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’  (Genesis 22:1-14.)

 

Abraham does things, following instructions given by God.  God calls Abraham, tells him where to go and what to do.  An angel of God from Heaven directs Abraham to stop when he is about to kill Isaac, his son.  Abraham is told that he has passed the test initiated by God.

 

This reading of the story with its biblical theism relates that which is totally outside my experience of life and of God.  The custom of human sacrifice obviously makes the story impossible for me to enter it.   Told this way, with God being a separate but all-important character, the story is not only strange but irrelevant to me.  Abraham seems to be responding only to outside influences and the final outcome is controlled by the same.

 

So what for me now?

 

If I accept the second framework suggested previously by which to approach the Bible – that it is a record of responses of inspired human beings to the Mystery – it contains the story of human struggling, trying to make a godly response to perceived important religious customs and to life in general.  Telling the story within this framework prompts me towards panentheism.  God is active within the story, not from the outside but from inside Abraham.  God is active from within, deep inside Abraham and is the ever-present divine dimension in his questioning, in his struggle, in his agony and in his deciding.  Some might say this is the way of a struggling conscience, the way of listening to the good inner voice, the way of human ‘faithful questioning’ life as it affects us.   I have called it God Within throughout this venture.

 

With this framework operating when looking at the Bible, we usually have a movement of three steps forward and two steps back, as humanity tries to come to grips with its experience of the unknown Mystery, as humans try to live life within the customs of society, as humans struggle towards truth and express it in action.

 

With this second approach, God Within is involved in this inner human experience of Abraham.   I believe I can use this non-theistic, non-dualistic way of approaching this story but it needs re-wording.  When the story is understood within this framework, there is an ‘inside’ influence right through the story and this influence is God; God Within.

 

The Bible reading from Genesis 22:1-14 with a presumptuous re-write.

Abraham was a man of honour.  He was highly regarded as a great leader.  But he was also a person who questioned the status quo.  He took risks.   Abraham took very seriously the cultural custom of human sacrifice. He had to face this issue personally.  He knew all the surrounding religions practised human sacrifice and the practice was believed to be obeying their gods’ command. The first born had to be sacrificed to the gods.  People of his day knew it, feared it, hated it but obeyed it.

 

Abraham had avoided the issue far too long.  However, he knew he had to face it.   So he rose early one morning, saddled his donkey, took two of his young men and his young son, Isaac, whom he loved, with him.  He cut some wood for a burnt offering and set out for a very distant place.  He wanted time to contemplate the matter thoroughly conscience-wise, and check it against his own internal moral judgements.  He seemed to draw strength from the country-side he loved so much.

 

But the time for the decision arrived all too soon.  So he said to the two young men, “Stay here with the donkey.  My son and I will go a little further and we will make our sacrifice together.  Then we will come back to you.”

 

So Abraham took the wood for the offering and gave it to his son to carry. Abraham carried the fire and the knife.   So the two walked on together.   Isaac called out to his father, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”  Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering.” Abraham replied, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  So the two walked on together.

 

When they came to a place that Abraham thought worthy, he and Isaac built an altar and put the wood in place.  Abraham then bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the wood, on top of the altar.  Isaac struggled and screamed, shouting, “Father! Don’t!  Don’t!  Why do you have to kill me?”

 

Abraham, crying uncontrollably, and embracing his only son, yelled, “I don’t know!  I don’t know!  I don’t know!”   He reached out, took the knife and raised his hand to strike his son dead.  “No!  No!  No!  No!” he roared.  “This is wrong!  This cannot be right!  God does not want this!  The law is wrong!  I can’t do this!  I love my son and that love is right.  God loves my son and God wants me to love and care for my son.  Love is the way!  Not killing!”

 

“Nooooo!”

 

Breaking down completely, he cried, “Oh, Isaac, Isaac my son, my only son, what have I done to you.  How could I consider doing such a terrible thing?  Forgive me!  Forgive me!  Please forgive me!”

 

Abraham unbound Isaac, fell to his knees and begged his son’s forgiveness.   They both embraced.  They sobbed together until there were no more tears.  They laughed and wept together as Abraham tried to tell Isaac about the custom of human sacrifice.   But in the telling, it just didn’t make any sense whatsoever.  In his bewilderment, Abraham cried, “Why do we think such a commandment should be obeyed?  Why do we have such a horrendous custom?  Why do we have to kill, kill, kill and think we are doing something for God?”

 

Looking at his father who was crushed with guilt and confusion, Isaac stood up and said, “I love you, my father.  I do.  I really do.  But father, what are we going to do about the offering?”   Abraham, still not able to stand, muttered, “What offering?  I want to worship God with love not death!”   Isaac replied, “What about the altar then, Father.  Should we break it down?”

 

After contemplating the whole scene for some time and struggling to compose himself, Abraham, in his agony, stood up and looked around.   He saw a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket.  He said, “Come here you unfortunate animal.  You have to pay the price for being caught up in this terrible crisis.  I have made enough mistakes for one day. We will make an offering but IT WILL NOT BE MY SON!”

 

So Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  And so it was that Abraham called that place, ‘Human sacrifice is wrong.’, because on that day Abraham said that human sacrifice had to cease.  The name of that place has remained to this day.

 

With this re-wording, the story is more relevant to my personal human experiences and strivings.  I too have struggles with the moral decisions I have to make.   Certainly nowhere near as traumatic as in the story, but I believe that God Within me is involved in my struggles and in my decisions, just as with Abraham, just as with all of us.   I often use more common phrases like ‘my conscience’ or ‘the inner voice I hear’, when talking of these experiences.

 

There are numerous other Bible passages which for me, need this sort of re-wording.  When I do this, I find the passages inspirational and very instructive but without a basis of biblical theism.   Bible passages can regain their powerful message for me.

 

The well-known Psalm 23, without the outside God influence, speaks to me when re-worded.  Another presumptuous re-wording, but for me, necessary.

 

I experience the Lord as my shepherd.   I shall not want.  When I lie down in green pastures and when I walk beside still waters, my soul is restored.  God in me, prompts me to walk the paths of righteousness. They are godly paths for me.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  I am at peace for I am united to God.  My rod and my staff are ever present symbols of my experience of God within me, supporting me.  A table is prepared before me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil and my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy is my portion all my life for God is in me and I am in God forever.

 

The familiar beautiful poetry is absent but, for me, the meaning is still very powerful.

 

In the books of the Old Testament prophets there are numerous profound religious teachings.

 

Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,.. But this is the covenant I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord.”, for each shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:31 and 33-34.)

 

This passage points towards God Within, for me.   However, I understand this passage in a far more universal way than is presented biblically.   I think most church-goers, most of the time, take this approach.  A possible re-thinking of this passage might be,

 

Behold, I live in the days when I am heedful of the Lord within me.  The Lord’s covenant is such that God’s will is within me, written on my heart; we are all in God and God is in all of us. So no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord”, for each shall know that God is in us all, from the least of them to the greatest; for we know our iniquity is forgiven, and our sin is not remembered.

 

With re-wording, I always try to move as close as I can to a unity; God united with humanity.   So, for this passage it is not God’s law or covenant that is in me, as in the original Bible teaching.  It is God in me.   If God is in me then God’s law or covenant, I understand, is part of that experience.

 

For me, the book of Isaiah reflects the way society very often reacts to rebellious servants/heroes.  Whistle blowers come to my mind.   They often suffer.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…  By oppression and judgement he was taken away…    ..although he had done no violence… (From Isaiah 53:1-12.)

 

And as history often regards them,

 

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great…    (Isaiah 53:12.)

 

and hopefully

 

… he shall see the fruit of his travail of his soul and be satisfied.  (Isaiah 53:11.)

 

Amen for people like Martin Luther King Jnr. and Mahatma Ghandi and numerous others about whom I know nothing.  Heroes!  All of them.   For me, they certainly have their portion with the great and hopefully they have had a deep conviction to the end that they have done well.

 

Even though this Isaiah passage has been used in the church as a prediction of Jesus and a foundation for Fall/Redemption theology, I believe it conveys different wisdom than that, and can be interpreted in a far more universal and relevant sense.   For me, it conveys profound and sensible theological wisdom about the way some contemporaries and society in general, often treat innocent, but godly rebellious protesters.   For me it need not be cluttered up with biblical theism and the Fall/Redemption theology connected to Jesus.

 

The violent initiatives taken by God can be deleted from this passage of Isaiah 53.   For me, they add nothing to the wisdom of the passage.   They detract from it.   Suffering certainly happened to Jesus and has happened to many others down through history, but I do not believe this happens because of God’s initiative or God’s plan.  It is the result of the abuse of power by humans within human society.

 

Reader-Response interpretation I know, but if these deletions are made, it makes the passage relevant for me and enables me to listen to it.  Otherwise it hinders my growth in Jesus.

 

The prophet Micah is often quoted about true worship.

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.   (Micah 6:8.)

 

So what for me now?

 

Simple and profound.  I can quite easily re-think, re-word this passage as being,

 

You have been shown, George, what is good; and what is required of you in life to be a true disciple of Jesus but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly at all times.

 

When I say “You have been shown…”, I mean that my parents, my immediate and extended family have shown me, other good people have shown me, all the good in my environment has shown me.   Jesus has shown me by his life and teachings.  In so far as God is in everything and everything is in God, God has shown me, but not as an outside separate Being/Person.

 

I believe nothing is lost when hearing this passage the second way but without its biblical theism, and I think this way is probably how many regular church-goers approach it.

 

These few examples illustrate how I need to work on stories and teachings in the Bible to regain, in a non-biblically-theistic, non-dualistic, non-supernaturalistic way, that which is noble and inspiring.  The more I do this re-interpreting, re-thinking, the easier it often becomes, however, sometimes it takes quite a bit of work.

 

Looking to the New Testament, it has an untold number of passages which are challenging and inspiring.   Some which immediately come to mind are the parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son, the Great Feast, the Importunate Widow and the Good Samaritan.  I could go on and on.  For me, biblical theism doesn’t get in the way too much with many of these.

 

Consider Matthew’s collection of sayings from Jesus in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, see particularly Matthew 5:3-11.  What could be more radical, challenging and inspiring?   Because biblical theism and the supernatural do not get in the way all that much for me, I can overlook these and listen to their spiritual wisdom.

 

However, some other gospel passages that come to mind are so steeped in biblical theism and accompanying dualisms that this framework makes it difficult for me to hear the spiritual wisdom they might express.  Jesus’ conversations with the disciples in John’s gospel chapters 13-17 are a case in point.  For me, they have less to do with God and more to do with Jesus and my relationship with him.  Even though supposedly spoken to the disciples, I can hear them spoken to me.  This, I believe, is the way most church-goers approach the instruction within them.

 

From these ‘conversations’ come the quotes listed below.  They are not overly steeped in biblical theism and dualisms, thank goodness.   From John’s Gospel,

 

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (13:14.)

I am the way the truth and the life.  (14:6.)

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?  (14:10.)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  (14:27.)

I am the vine, you are the branches.  (15:5.)

This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.  (15:12.)

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.  (16:33.)

 

I have made much more comment about Jesus’ inspirational and challenging teachings in the previous chapter on Jesus himself.

 

Numerous teachings in the latter part of the New Testament have also been, and continue to be crucial in my journey with Jesus, many of which are free from biblical theism.

 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, endures all things.     (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.)

 

I personally find ‘the fruits of the spirit’ very challenging.  They can be found in Galatians 5:22-23.  Have a read.   Together these passages alone give me voice to praise this book as ‘my sacred book’.  I might be in a bad place without it.

 

Some of these comments highlight the need for me not to allow the theism and dualisms of Bible passages to block off wisdom and guidance which might be encapsulated in them.  The message is more important than the framework in which it is housed, even though both are important.  For me, I just have the extra exercise of interpreting the words outside the box of biblical theism and its dualisms.   Sometimes, as I have said, it is not easy.

 

In this rejection of biblical theism, I suppose I am exercising the ‘Reader-Response’ way of biblical interpretation, maybe to an extreme.   Dangerous?  Some might say, “Very!”   Some might even say that I am being totally arrogant in changing Holy Writ to such an extent; not just with interpretation, but with re-wording!  It could be claimed that I am destroying the message of the whole Bible.

 

If I embrace panentheism and no longer believe in an outside separate Being/Person called God, then this desire, even necessity, to re-word/re-think biblical content is the consequence.  I realise this is a fundamental shift and some make claim it robs Christianity of its Christian-ness.    I don’t accept this criticism because I believe Jesus is what makes Christianity Christian, and I still retain Jesus as central to my beliefs.

 

Having stated my rejection of biblical theism and its dualisms, I believe I have the responsibility to do this extra work of re-thinking, re-wording numerous biblical passages and also some central biblical concepts.

2.  The major themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.

 

God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in context here, are all concepts built on supernatural, biblical theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and divine/human.  For me, without that basis they make no sense to me.

 

The Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that the Hebrew people are God’s Chosen People.   This chosen-ness leads inevitably to Promise and Fulfilment.  Many passages declare this.

 

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it was the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.    (Deuteronomy 7:6-8.)

I have been told that God ‘chose’ in order to give responsibility, not privilege.  This could be confirmed by the call of Abraham.

 

…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.   (Genesis 12:2.)

 

‘So that you will be a blessing’, is being chosen for responsibility and not to be given privilege.

 

However, so many of the early stories of the Hebrew people, not the least of which are the stories about the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, point to a favouritism/privilege of the Israelites over other nations.   God even punishes nations that did not help the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt.

 

I can accept the concept of ‘a call’ being directly linked to a responsibility but I find using the word ‘chosen’ difficult.  In biblical theistic terms, ‘choice’ points to the possibility that God will do things for God’s ‘chosen’ people that God will not do for other nations.  God will protect them; God will win wars for them; God will sustain them and give them a second chance.   This God will also punish them at times.

 

I believe this term, God’s ‘Chosen People’, is nearly universally understood by regular church-goers as one which points to favouritism.  For me, the term is unhelpful.  I do not use it.

 

When taken as pointing to responsibility and not privilege, the concept can be helpful, but when there seems so much evidence in the Old Testament that the Israelites are God’s favourites, I find linking the idea of being ‘chosen with responsibility’ difficult to retain.

 

In the text quoted above we have

 

and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers… (Deuteronomy 7:8.)

 

This obviously speaks of ‘Promise and Fulfilment’.

 

Marcus Borg states,

 

The theme of promise and fulfilment is central not only to the Pentateuch as a whole, but to many of its individual stories.  These stories often dramatize and intensify the theme of promise and fulfilment by adding a third element; a threat to the promise and a formidable obstacle to its fulfilment. …. Will God be able to fulfil the promise despite what looks like hopeless circumstances? [1]

 

That is a very good question for the biblical theist.

 

Sometimes promises lead people who make them, into very difficult situations.  It would seem that some of the promises that God made to Abraham and God’s chosen people, led God into such situations.   In many Bible stories, it seems that the fulfilment of God’s promises justifies the means whereby their fulfilment was accomplished.  God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would be a great nation but there they were, slaves in Egypt.   God had to make good God’s promise even if it meant taking violent actions against Egypt and all its people.  That seems to be OK because God has to be faithful to God’s promises. This imperative is contained in the biblical text quoted previously.

 

Worse was to come with the invasion of the ‘Promised’ Land.   All this seems necessary to preserve the faithfulness of God who would not break God’s word.   This again, I think is how biblical theism works.

 

God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in my understanding of the phrase, presupposes a separation between God and humanity.  In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ has to do with God’s work of reconciling humanity to Godself, bridging a gulf.  All I can do, I have been taught, is plead for God’s mercy and rely on God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.

 

The church teaching I have received about God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is encapsulated in Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost.

 

… this Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…  (Acts 2:23.)

 

The New English Bible has it,

 

When he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God…

 

I believe this points to a dominant theme of the New Testament.  Biblically, God’s initiative in God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is definite and deliberate.   It is about God’s activity in the Old Testament to save his chosen people announced in Exodus 3:7-10 & 17 etc., and then in the New Testament, this is expanded into the saving of all humanity, or at least to those who believe in Jesus.

 

In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is deeply involved with the Cross of Jesus, paying the price for sin, reconciling us humans to God, finally and completely bridging the gulf; all God’s activity.

 

I no longer use the term, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.  For me, it is built on an image of a blood-thirsty God, inseparably bound to a human invented sacrificial system. I do not see any of this in the teachings of Jesus.  It also presumes God’s intervention and that makes no sense to me at all.

 

All talk of God’s ‘Chosen people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’, and ‘Plan of Salvation’ is also brought about by the continual anthropomorphic images of God, acting as a human being, and a very strange one at that. It is also entirely built on God and humans in relationship but being distinct and separate.

 

So what for me now?

 

I cannot believe any of this theistic theological thinking and, at the same time hold to panentheism.     My understanding of panentheism turns all of it on its head.

 

This does not mean that I ignore the brokenness of the world and brokenness of human relationships, mine included.  No.  This is all too obvious and ever present, all-pervading.   Nor does it mean that I have no hope for the world and humanity as a whole.    My theological response to these three biblical concepts are replaced by my belief that there is no separation between God and humans in the first place.   ‘God is in everyone’ and ‘Everyone is in God’ are the drivers of all my theology, so the anthropomorphic activities of God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and ‘Plan of Salvation’ are no longer relevant for me.

 

From my lyrics  No. 19.

 

God is Love, Unfailing Grace

Tune    Grafton

 

God is love and ever present

In each time, at every place;

God is love and dwells within us;

Is discerned in every face;

This is scared; this is myst’ry;

God is love, unfailing grace.

 

When love blossoms, when love beckons

Let us taste its sweet delight;

When love welcomes, when love listens

Then our darkness turns to light;

This is myst’ry; this is sacred;

This is sunrise after night.

 

3.   Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.

 

I come to the vexed question of violence.  I have dealt with this previously, very briefly.  I do so now in more detail.  This area of my ‘faithful questioning’ brings about a major crisis in my questioning.  For years I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught about and reflected in his life.  My conclusion is that many parts actually hinder my spiritual growth significantly because of the violent image of God they present.

 

Some myths/stories of the Bible leave me with big problems because of their underlying messages.   Violence is particularly evident in the Old Testament but by no means absent from the New Testament.

 

I probably have little right to expect the stories of the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn about from Jesus.  However, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the Old Testament and its stories in front of me, so I have to determine whether or not particular stories help my spiritual growth or hinder it.  I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers.  I believe that many who may think about the issue of God’s violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult.

 

The other day I was sharing with a friend in the congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament.  She was one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus.  She is a regular church-goer like myself.   She said to me, “Well, George, just don’t read it.”   Sound advice but my questions remain and the whole content of the Bible is still available for all to read and we are encouraged to do so.

 

As I have previously stated, it takes the Bible only about 100 verses (not counting verses that just list names in genealogies) for God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah, plus.  This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except Lot and his family, and this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, picking out innocent children for special attention.   One could go on and on.

 

I take none of these stories literally but the image of God presented in them is gross, wicked and ultra-violent.  I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as some commentators might suggest.  I think it is good that even regular church-goers probably do not think too deeply about these stories but again, they are there to be read and studied by us all.  This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath punishing wrong-doers and idolaters in many of the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah.   Hosea, Micah and Amos are awash with God’s violent punishments even though these books are often quoted about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings.  An important example of this is in the book of Micah in which is an often quoted text of significant moral challenge.

 

He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8.)

 

Yet only 9 verses before this injunction, the violence of God is active.

 

I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities.  And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.   (Micah 5:14-15.)

 

We don’t often hear these verses quoted.  Is this a case of ‘Do what I say but not what I do.’?

 

This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as the Book of Revelation clearly demonstrates.

 

I must remind myself that this violent image is by no means, the only image of God presented in the Bible but it is there on a vast number of its pages and, being in the process of ‘clearing out’, I highlight it.   Sometimes I wonder why the Christian Church has retained all of the Hebrew Scriptures in our sacred book.

 

Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God.  This image of God plays no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it.  I find it significant that Jesus never refers to the Exodus story in his preaching and teaching.

 

Like many other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story presents God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/person who is ultra-violent.  Commenting on this story in detail, highlights the extent of God’s violence.  In my analysis, I am using the text as presented to me in the Bible.  I pick on the Exodus story because it is the central story of the Old Testament.   In many ways it could be considered determinative for the whole story of the Old Testament.   This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.

 

The Hebrews were bitterly oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of servitude were heard by God, so God came down to Earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation.   Never in my church education has the Exodus story been identified as probably the most violent story in the whole of the Bible.  It certainly has the strong theme of oppression and liberation.  Many liberation theologians treat this story as nearly definitive in the way God is primarily interested in liberation and freedom.  With this Exodus story, however, it is my experience that they seldom comment on how God delivers it.   The fact that the story tells of God achieving deliverance is what is totally significant for the Hebrew slaves.  In my reasonably recent past, I had this story described to me by a member of the clergy, as one of the most wonderful stories of liberation.  When I heard this comment of praise, I had to voice my disquiet.

 

Liberation and freedom are certainly major themes of the story, however it portrays the Lord as not only murderously violent, but also seeming to enjoy it.   This is pointed to by both the New English Bible and the Revised Standard Version.

 

 .. how I (the Lord) made sport of the Egyptians.   (Exodus 10:2.)

 

This is the same attitude of the Lord that underpinned the continuing teaching of the priests, quite a bit later in Israelite history; see 1 Samuel 6:6.    For me, this is a very disturbing extra feature of the story I just cannot accept.   What does this story in my sacred book teach me about God?

 

The Lord is depicted as gaining glory through violence, see Exodus 14:4, and gaining that glory by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see Exodus 10:1-2.  Even before any serious negotiations begin, we are told in the text that the Lord is active.

 

I (the Lord) will harden Pharaoh’s heart…    (Exodus 4:21.)

 

This idea of the Lord hardening hearts occurs seven times throughout the story, see Exodus 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:8.  The last time is with the Egyptians having their hearts hardened by the Lord so that they pursued the Hebrews into the sea.

 

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them…  (Exodus 14:17.)

 

This message is consistent throughout the story.   It appears that Pharaoh and the Egyptians have no choice in the matter.  They have their hearts hardened by the Lord.  Biblical theism again.   The Lord makes everything happen.

 

There are ten plagues in the story; water in the Nile and all over Egypt was turned to blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder and hail and fire; locusts; darkness for three days and lastly human death.    These ten plagues are climaxed with the death of countless humans.

 

..the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt… (Exodus 13:15.)

 

The whole story is told in Exodus 7:14 – 11:6.    I come away from the story feeling utterly repulsed by the Lord who inflicts all the terror and suffering.  How could anyone worship this sort of Lord?     Particularly Exodus 12:29-30 is horrific.

 

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not one house where one was not dead.”   (Exodus 12:29-30.)

 

Would Jesus be happy?   Of course not.

 

I realise I am making my 21st century response but in this story, the Lord deliberately targets innocent men, women and mainly children for death.  Even cattle are not exempt.  All the killing is deliberate, in order, it seems, to make Pharaoh change his mind to let the Hebrew slaves go, even though it had been continuously ‘hardened by the Lord’.   I suppose this could point to the human experience of not being able to negotiate with someone who is just not willing to negotiate, trying to reason with a person who is totally unreasonable.   But that is not what the text states.   Everything happens because the Lord makes it happen.

 

I believe that one does not need to be a Bible fundamentalist to perceive the underlying message of the story that, ‘Violence wins’.  When all else fails, violence becomes necessary. Liberation in this story apparently required excessive violence.   And the Lord does it all!  That’s how the Lord’s power is demonstrated – through violence.  I find this unacceptable; anti-Jesus, anti-gospel, anti-Christian.  Maybe I am looking too much for things in the story that I wish to reject.  I deny I am deliberately doing this, even though I am emphasising the nasty parts.  I just keep looking at the text itself.   I am not inventing the negatives within it.   They are there for all of us to read.  I find it a disgraceful story and should not be in a sacred book, presenting such a picture of God.

 

I have been told that God is a magnet for human pain, when voiced.   However for this story, I must retort, “What about the cries of the Egyptians?  Does the Lord have selective hearing?”

 

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

 

In a ‘Living the Questions’ DVD, Walter Brueggemann is featured in a series of lectures on this story.  He states twice that

 

The story ends well. [2]

 

I beg your pardon!    I find that conclusion totally unacceptable.   How can a story, which has as part of its end result

 

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

 

the killing of every first born, all done by the Lord – how can it be understood that such a story ‘ends well’?

 

I find it significant that Jesus himself, and the writers of the gospels preaching about him, do not mention the Exodus story.  In the Cross-reference Bible I have, there is no cross reference in any of the gospels to the Exodus story.  There are well over 500 cross-references in the four gospels to the Old Testament, but not one to the Exodus story.   It seems to me more than strange that this is the case.  The larger story of Moses is alluded to many times in the early chapters of Matthew; in the Jesus’ birth stories, his baptism and temptations, and the Sermon on the Mount.  Some commentators have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the second and greater Moses.  It has been commented that the Passover has been re-interpreted by Jesus and New Testament writers, presenting it as the basis for the Last Supper and the church’s sacrament of Holy Communion.   However, I believe that Jesus turns the Passover meal from being one which celebrates being saved from death at the hands of God, into being a remembrance of one who was willing to die with strength, integrity and love for what he believed.    The Passover is the most solemn of all Jewish festivals.  They celebrate it every year and by it, they remember their defining story.

 

Marcus Borg states,

 

For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’.  It was the most important story they knew. [3] 

 

I repeat that Jesus does not refer to the actual story of the Exodus in any of his teachings even though he certainly would have known it well.   I ask, “Why does Jesus never mention this story in his ministry?”  It was not just another story!   He teaches his message about bondage/oppression and liberation without it.   Of course Jesus didn’t use every story in the Old Testament.  It would be absurd to think he could have.  There are too many.   But the Exodus story was not just another story.  It was so important to the Jews that I believe Jesus and New Testament writers didn’t forget about it or pass over it without thought.  For me, it is not unreasonable to think that it was a deliberate omission by Jesus and/or the gospel writers.

 

When considering another passage where Jesus does use the Old Testament, he stopped short when, in the synagogue, reading from the book of Isaiah.  The text in Luke 4:16-17 states that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was given the scroll with Isaiah in it.  It states that he opened it and found the passage he wanted.

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.   (Luke 4:18-19. Quoting from Isaiah 61: 1-2a.)

 

Jesus stops short.  He omits a section of the last part of the last verse of that Isaiah reading.

 

…and the day of vengeance of our God.   (Isaiah 61:2b.)

 

After he had finished reading, he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant.

 

Whether this is actually Jesus speaking, reading in the synagogue, or the gospel writer telling the story about him, I believe this omission from Isaiah is not a slip nor inconsequential.  The part of the verse dealing with the vengeance of God was not read.   Jesus did not read it.  I do not believe this was a mere oversight either by Jesus or the gospel writers.

 

Back to Exodus.  If Jesus’ omission of the Exodus story from his teaching and preaching was deliberate, his non-use might have come down to two significant reasons.   Firstly it may have been because the Lord in the story is pictured as so partisan, so discriminatory against one race, one nation and in favour of another.  This is certainly opposite to a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings.  The second reason could have been that the image of the Lord is so violent that Jesus, of necessity, had to avoid using it in his message and preaching of non-violence.  It is my contention that these are both good reasons why Jesus could have omitted using the story, however I believe it was more likely the second.  The Lord – God portrayed in this Exodus story is just too violent.

 

This Exodus story is not the only story in the Old Testament presenting this violent image of God.   Biblical theism is a problem for me but the image of a violent theistic God is totally unacceptable.    The Exodus story belongs to the age in which it was written.  Even though we should not ridicule the authors and even though we might lose a few positive insights from the story, I can do without it and I believe we all can.   Although not given total vindication for my stance, I believe I have a very significant precedent in Jesus of the gospels.

 

There has been some historical and geological research into the possible origins of parts of this story.  One suggestion made is that a volcano, maybe on Crete, erupted, sending clouds of ash drifting towards Egypt, causing the darkened sky.   Volcanic ash may have precipitated a sudden plague of lice.    The Nile has been known to turn red, maybe because of its banks of red sand.   The water when polluted could have caused various other calamities like sickness and boils or even a plague of frogs, trying to escape the filthy water; etc.   The number of Hebrew slaves with their families could reach 2½ million if certain texts are taken together.   This of course is crazy in terms of crossing the Red Sea and the striking of a rock to give the thirsty millions a drink.  Crazy!  There are other texts which, when taken together, paint a far more realistic number of Hebrews.   For the actual crossing of the Red Sea, it has been suggested that this could have taken place at the Reed Sea, a marshy stretch of land near the mouth of the Nile.   If this was the case, the walking multitudes could have progressed but the wheeled chariots of the Egyptians would have become bogged and thus inoperable.  They and the soldiers in them would then present no danger to the escaping Hebrews.

 

This maybe fascinating for those interested but I find it all quite irrelevant to the theological issues raised by the authors regarding the picture of their theistic God and how this God violently intervenes in human history.  I think this historical distraction goes in the wrong direction, looking at the story literally and/or historically, thus trying to answer what are irrelevant questions for me.

The Exodus story carries within it the picture of an ultra-violent God and it is there for all to read. This meaning comes to me without any literal understanding of the text.  Even if the total story is fiction/mythical and I think it is, the underlying message is clear.  Can I keep this story without its image of the ultra-violent, theistic intervening God?  I think not.  It just doesn’t work for me that way so I have to ‘faithfully reject’ it all.  This is very serious! If this story determines or is foundational for a biblical faith then I do not have a biblical faith.  I feel somewhat betrayed by my past church teachings in this matter, but in rejecting the story I also feel I am cutting myself off from an important part of that church heritage.

 

On this matter of ‘faithful rejection’, I quote again from Derek Flood’s book where he deals with Jesus’ own use of the Bible.  Flood, refers, in particular, to the story of Elijah in combat with Moab.  Half way through the biblical story, Elijah calls down fire from Heaven on his enemies.

 

..And Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven and consume you and your company.”  Fire fell from Heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men.   (2 Kings 1:10.)

 

Flood states,

 

Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John in response to opposition they were experiencing, “Lord do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to destroy them.” (Luke 9:54-55.)…..  Luke tells us the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples.  In that rebuke of Jesus is an implicit yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well.  Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56).*   In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah is not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil.

 

While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a ‘man of God’, this passage in Luke’s Gospel makes the opposite claim; The true ‘man of God’ incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal, and restore it (Luke 19:10 & John 3:17).  Jesus not only recognises this himself as the Son of God, but rebukes James and John for not having come to this conclusion on their own

In other words, Jesus expects his disciples – you and me – to be making these same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

 

Flood has a footnote which states,

 

*Even if this verse is a latter edition representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who constantly rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom. [4]

I have deliberately underlined what I believe is a very valid way to approach the Bible, certainly not encouraged by the church in my past or present experience.   I believe Flood has a point when suggesting that Jesus ‘faithfully rejects’ the underlying teaching of the Elijah story.   Of course that story is about Elijah.  It deals with what Elijah says and does.

 

For me there is a significant implication that God’s activity is announced.   Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven….” and fire fell.   Was this not a vindication of Elijah being a man of God and also of God’s willingness in the story, to use violence?  Flood states, ‘that the way of Elijah is not of God’, but who made the fire fall from Heaven?  It is not suggested in the text that Elijah had such power.   For me, God is clearly implicated. Is Flood trying to ’protect’ the God of the Bible?

 

I wonder what Jesus might have done with the story of the Exodus if the disciples had used it as a foundation for some of their bad, maybe violent or racist behaviours or attitudes? I think my rejection of the story of the Exodus is far more significant than rejecting the story about Elijah, but I think it is a logical extension of Jesus’ reaction to James and John, commented on previously.

 

‘What to embrace in the Bible and what to reject’, from Flood, is the closest to any permission I have been given to deal with the Exodus story the way I have.

 

The use of violence by God is consistent with numerous stories in the Old Testament.  There is a notorious story in 1 Samuel 15.   It tells of the first command the Lord gave to King Saul after he had been anointed king.

 

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3.)

 

Saul did not kill Agag, the Amalek king, but took him a live captive.   He also did not kill all the animals.   He kept the best to sacrifice them to the Lord.  The Lord was angry with Saul for not obeying his command to the letter, and even though Saul repented and asked for his ‘sin’ to be pardoned, the Lord was still angry.

 

I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Samuel 15:11.)

 

Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is said at the end, “In this is the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.”   Also, not a story for Sunday School children.

 

This particular story is one of the final episodes in the saga of the conquest for the Promised Land. Violence is either sanctioned or carried out by God.

 

And violence continues in the passages within the prophets. Isaiah 37:36 tells of the angel of the Lord killing 185,000 Assyrians.  Violence is found in many Psalms and prophets.

 

Shamefully, the story of the violent conquest for the Promised Land has been used as validation for other, more recent conquests.   I quote from George Tinker, Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Ministries.

 

The socio-political context of imperial Europe generated a colonial interpretation of the Exodus account.…and the 17th Century Puritan conquerors of New England, who consistently saw themselves as the New Israel settling in the new promised land. [5]

 

Even more recently again, there is the 1997 publication of ‘Rainbow Spirit Theology’ written by The Rainbow Spirit Elders, Aboriginal Australians.

 

When the missionaries spoke about the land, they often spoke of the Promised Land of Canaan where God led the chosen people of Israel.  They said that Israel had a right to possess the land because God had promised it to the people.   And Joshua was hailed as the great hero who conquered the land and so fulfilled God’s promise. But little was said about the indigenous people of the land whom the Israelites conquered.  No questions were asked about whether Joshua’s scorched earth policy was what God really wanted for the indigenous people.  Today Joshua’s mode of operation sounds to us very much like that of the British colonial conquerors.  Was there another way, a better way? Did the British have to follow Joshua’s way? [6]

 

We believe that the Abraham story, rather than the Joshua story ought to be the model for how indigenous and immigrant peoples are to live in this land. [7]

 

I believe there have been, and still are shameful ways to use the contents of the Bible, but the content is there for all to read and ‘unquestioning obedience’ is given to it by so many church-goers.  Is it their fault or is it a lack of responsible teaching by church teachers and leaders and maybe even the theological education presented today in church seminaries and theological colleges?

In the Old Testament there are so many other stories of violence and commands of God to war violently against God’s enemies, there is not room to recount them all here. However, the God portrayed there would certainly be convicted today of crimes against humanity and be deemed a terrorist. And it’s all there in the sacred book. I sometimes do not wish to call the book ‘sacred’. I believe this problem of the violence of God has its roots in biblical theism. It just would not fit with panentheism because with panentheism, as I understand it, humans are responsible for what happens, from wars to loving deeds. There is no outside God to blame or thank.

 

In his book, Walter Brueggemann uses more than 1000 quotes from the Old Testament and about 50 from the New Testament in giving a detailed explanation of what the text of the Bible says and the theological emphases it is making.   He makes numerous comments on many contemporary implications of the teachings in the text.   I found his book very instructive and helpful.  On the overall situation of violence, he makes some comments.

 

There is no doubt that the imagery of divine warrior is problematic for biblical faith, as we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed. …

… we are of course much more aware of the ways in which such imagery is a huge liability for it serves willy-nilly to authorise and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….

There are, of course, interpretative strategies that can lessen the toxin of these traditions.  Biblical theologians, however, must take care not to ‘explain away’ what is so definitional for the textual tradition.  The imaginary is something we must live with, albeit with awkwardness and embarrassment.  We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have.  The  presentation of this God is not marginal to the Bible nor can it be justified simply as human projection among the disinherited, nor can it be easily resolved by a ‘developmental hypothesis’ the preferred strategy of Old Testament scholarship.  It is there; self-critical reflection requires of course critique of the very God the Jews and Christians confess.  While we make our awkward self-aware confession, we cannot fail to notice, even among us, the ways in which this theological tradition continues to fund that which we rightly abhor. [8]

 

For me, Brueggemann has righty named the problem.

 

The imagery is something we must live with… We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have. [9]

 

I think he is correct.  I cannot alter this ‘imagery’ even though I wish to.   However, if it ‘funds that which we rightly abhor’ then my reaction to it is that I must ‘faithfully reject’ it.   I don’t have to live with it because it is there.  I can reject it and never refer to it, or I can refute it every time I do encounter it, wherever and whenever.   If I give it authority or influence or even take any notice of it in my beliefs in or about God, then I believe I am leaving myself open to spiritual abuse.  Is it similar to saying to a woman whose partner is violent, “We know he is violent but he is the only one you have, so you have to live with him and make the best of it.”?  We know what this often leads to.  Has the church being saying the same sort of thing about the biblical violence of God, to church-goers for centuries?   Shame!

 

I realise the authors of many of these biblical stories were writing within their own theological framework but that does not make their teachings authoritative or even helpful for me today.   Just as I may have things wrong regarding my opinions and theological stance, I believe the biblically violent image of God is wrong, horribly wrong.   My journey with Jesus is seriously jeopardised if I give any credence to this image of God.   I ‘faithfully reject’ some Bible passages vehemently and I speak out against them.  I reject them and say so.

 

What does this rejection do to the rest of the Bible and its possible guidance for me?   If I ‘faithfully reject’, ‘clear out’ this violent image of God, I am rejecting a major theme in the Old Testament.    Brueggemann says,

 

that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed,[10]

 

so I am rejecting a major emphasis of the Bible.  I cannot do this lightly.   Regarding the way we approach the Bible, I think Flood is helpful but challenging, with his suggestion, mentioned previously, to ‘faithfully embrace’ or ‘faithfully reject’ what we read.   That takes a lot of very serious thinking and study.

 

From my lyrics  No. 20.

Violence in the Bible

Tune   Cross of Jesus

 

In our sacred book there’s violence

Often done at God’s behest;

Why would God demand mass killings,

Act in ways that we detest?

 

Can we see the hands of Jesus

Cutting off Goliath’s head?

Can we think of Jesus wanting

All of Egypt’s first-born dead?

 

Jesus is for us the standard;

His non-violence is our stand;

When we look at God through Jesus

We begin to understand.

 

I doubt whether these lyrics will ever be sung in a church service but they are out there anyway.

 

This matter of violence in the Bible is a gigantic problem for me.  However, I do not wish to sit in judgement on modern disciples of Jesus who may decide that violence is the last and only option to them, in the pursuit of liberation from oppression.   I believe that godly human reactions to a situation need to be made in the context of the particular situation and no ‘silver bullet’ is available to solve every moral dilemma.  It is relatively easy for someone to make grand moral pronouncements to answer incredibly complex issues, when one is sitting in an armchair away from such situations, or when writing comments about them.   Even one’s interpretation of how Jesus might respond, might be seen as rather trite and unrealistic to the people who are actually enduring terrible suffering.   I cannot imagine what internal turmoil Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and a strong advocate of non-violence, must have gone through in deciding to become involved in an assassination plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  Maybe situations arise in our human predicament that we find violence is ultimately necessary and all we can do is ask for forgiveness after having been violent.   It could be said that it is pointless loving someone if they repeatedly refuse to accept that love.   Yet Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven.  We are called to exercise perfect love yet that may not bring about liberation from oppression.  Where do we go from there?  It seems sometimes that I/we are left with questions that have no satisfactory answers, even on the horizon.

 

However, what I find significantly unacceptable is that the Bible commences with a judgmental, unforgiving, violent God in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah, exacerbated by the excesses in the Exodus story, and then ends with one of the most violent of books in all the world religious sacred books, the Book of Revelation. This last book paints God as the one presiding over the end of the world with destruction, punishment and annihilation.  The anger and wrath of God is ever present.   I think it was Richard Rohr who once said,

 

We have to create a violent God so that we could be violent. 

 

I have looked at violence and the ultra-violent image of God mainly in the Old Testament and in the Exodus story in particular, but it still bewilders me that the New Testament ends with the Book of Revelation.  Even though there was serious debate by early church leaders about its inclusion in the New Testament, what bewilders me most, is that it was actually regarded as being appropriate to be incorporated in the Canon of scripture at all.   Maybe having been written about the same time as the other Johannine material, it could be dated about the mid to late 90’s.   That would place it about only two generations after the preaching and life of Jesus.   It amazes me that such a book, with the accompanying image of God in most of its pages, presiding over or at least sanctioning such a catastrophic violent end to the world, could have been thought suitable to include in the Cannon, so soon after the preaching of non-violence from Jesus.  Is humanity so hooked into, obsessed and dominated by violence that so soon after the intrusion into human history of one of the world’s greatest preachers of non-violence, the sacred book about him mostly ignores his message about God in its final book?   Whether the Book of Revelation is taken literally or figuratively my comment is the same.   It seems that we go back to the Exodus story with a vengeance.  Do we create God in our own image?

 

So what for me now?

 

With no biblical theism, the two dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divinity/Humanity and no Fall/Redemption, the problem of violence, to an extent, dissolves for me but that of course necessitates the rejection of much in the Bible, the story and teachings of Jesus being the all-important exceptions.  His story and how I understand it, determines how I treat the Bible, ‘faithfully affirming’ and ‘faithfully rejecting’ various passages.

 

Having discussed the problem of violence, I must add that this violent image is not the only image of God in the Old Testament.  Thank goodness there are numerous stories of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness, both of God’s own activity and God’s commands for humanity to behave in such a way.    Thankfully they present some sort of a counter to the negatives I have emphasised.  For me, unfortunately they do not balance or force into minor significance, the image of the violent God.    I have to do that very difficult job but that job, I feel, must be done!   That job can be done by comparing everything with the teachings of Jesus. For me, this brings about many condemnations and ‘faithful rejections’.

 

What more for me?

 

Having done this exercise, I also need to reiterate that there are numerous fabulous passages and wonderful ethical teachings in the Old Testament.  I want to share just a few examples of what I have find important.

 

For starters, Jesus could have extracted an emphasis from Old Testament laws in order to add a third commandment to his main two, namely, ‘Love the stranger.’

 

The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…. (Leviticus 19:34.)

 

In Deuteronomy it states that God loves the stranger,

 

He (God) loves the sojourner… (Deuteronomy 10:18.)

 

The stranger is singled out for God’s love.   I find it significant that Jesus identifies himself with the stranger in Matthew 25:35.   I suppose Jesus could have included in his second commandment, in his meaning of the word ‘neighbour’, all strangers and aliens.  However, over 100 times the word ‘stranger’ is specifically mentioned in the Pentateuch and a great majority of these have to do with caring for them and not discriminating against them.   The Hebrews were to deal justly and fairly with aliens/strangers as they would deal with their own fellow Hebrews.  They were to care for them as a brother or sister.

 

A few times, the Hebrew farmer and vineyard owner are commanded to deliberately leave some of the harvest or grapes for the poor and the stranger to gather.

 

You shall not deprive aliens/strangers and orphans of justice nor take a widow’s cloak for a pledge. ………  When you beat your olive trees, do not strip them afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  ……  When you gather the grapes from your vineyard, do not glean afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to do this.   (Deuteronomy 24:17‑22.)

 

When you reap your harvest in your land, you shall not reap right into the edges of your field, neither shall you glean the fallen ears.   You shall leave them for the poor and for the alien/stranger.  I am the Lord your God.    (Leviticus 23:22.)

I am not a student of anthropology and know very little about the customs and laws of ancient civilizations, but it would not surprise me if these injunctions were unique to the Hebrews, or at least not common in other ancient cultures.   They would certainly not go well with a Productivity Commission investigation today.

 

Also in the Old Testament there is the Year of Jubilee, an amazing concept.  Have a look at it in Leviticus chapter 25.   I wonder how capitalism as we know it, would accommodate such a concept.  No doubt it would be dismissed as a stupid and unworkable system by modern economists. Surprise!  Surprise!   The four big Australian banks would not be able to make their obscene $20 billion profit each year.   That’s for sure!   I think this concept of the Year of Jubilee was probably a genuine effort of the part of the Old Testament Hebrew theologian/economist to aim at equity and fairness; to give the opportunity to make a new start.

 

Both the Old and New Testaments are full of new starts, new beginnings, new opportunities.

 

This brings me to further questions about how we use the Bible in public church services.

4.  The public use of the Bible in church services.  

 

Because the Bible was written 2000 years ago and more and because its authors came from a different culture and historical context, if there is no competent explanation of its content, certain texts/passages could either be misunderstood or their intent be completely missed.

 

A classic case for me, is the story of the Good Samaritan.  In each of my Bible versions, which gives a top-of-the-page title for the content of the page below, this parable is named ‘The Good Samaritan’. For the people to whom Jesus was telling this story, there was no such person.   None of them, by definition, could be good.  The Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Yet Jesus, in this story, is praising the despised foreigner and castigating Jewish religious leaders!  No wonder these religious leaders wanted to silence him.  This could be missed if the historical context was not explained to those who may not know.

The Bible is often read in public church services without any explanation at all.  I believe this is not good.   It seems to be considered by some church service leaders that the Bible is always able to stand alone.  This, I believe, is a serious mistake.   I can remember at one particular church service recently when the New Testament reading read, was from Matthew.

 

In the passage that was read was,

 

A man who divorces his wife must give her a note of dismissal.  But what I tell you is this, “If a man divorces his wife for any other cause than unchastity, he involves her in adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”.   (Matthew 5:31-32.)

 

This reading was left with no comment on its historical and cultural context and no explanation about it was given in the whole service.   There were at least six divorced and re-married people in attendance at that service.  They were left with this teaching as it stood, supposedly from the lips of Jesus.    If they were listening and took this passage seriously as it stood, how would they react?  I suggest, guilt upon guilt, and they might have said to themselves, “I should not be here in church.  Jesus has condemned me.”

 

This ill-considered use of the Bible should not occur.    If such readings are used in public church services, their historical, cultural context must be explained.  If no explanation is intended, I believe such readings should not be used.

 

Another reasonably recent church experience I had was when another passage from Matthew, as nominated by the lectionary, was read.

 

(Jesus said) Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.  (Matthew 10:34-36.)

 

The service as a whole, I remember was helpful to me but that part of the Matthew passage had no comment made on it at all.  No teaching of the cultural setting was offered by the lay-leader of the church service.   This passage is often considered as one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus but I contend that if no comment or teaching on it is planned, the passage should not be read.

 

This sort of misuse of the Bible doesn’t happen all that often, but it happens occasionally and it shouldn’t.

 

It has been my experience, there is not much teaching done in church services.   Preaching from such a book needs teaching to accompany it.  Modern commentaries abound so there is no excuse for a lack of teaching.

 

In the Uniting Church of Australia, the Revised Common Lectionary is nearly universally used by leaders of church services.  I believe it is not mandatory in this church, however, in Australia, I believe it is encouraged to be used in most Christian churches.   This lectionary has a three year cycle and nominates a prescribed set of Bible readings, 4 readings for each Sunday.   There is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading and a second New Testament reading, recommended for each week.    The use of this lectionary, I believe, brings a mixed blessing.   I have been told by clergy friends that if the lectionary is followed, it prevents preachers getting on their ‘pet hobby horse’ every Sunday.  While this seems valid, I would have thought there are other effective strategies that can be used to combat this tendency.   I have also been told that if the lectionary is followed, the main themes of the Bible will be covered in the three years.  However, I suggest that the theme of the violence of God is certainly not covered.   Is it not a major theme?

 

In pursuing my ‘faithful questioning’, I have looked reasonably closely at this 3 year cycle lectionary because it determines to a significant extent, what passages of the Bible are read in most public church services.   Obviously not all of the Bible content can be used in such a lectionary.  Choices have to be made.

 

Of the 150 Psalms available, over 50 are not listed for use; 29 are suggested for one year; 26 are suggested for each of 2 years and 32 are suggested for use in each of the 3 years.  A few are recommended to be used many times; 9 times for Psalm 8, 8 times for Psalm 23, etc.   Most of the 50 or more not listed for use, have content about enemies and a request for God to deal with them.  Some have the wrath and anger of God highlighted.    These are obviously not really suitable for church services and, I think, are rightly omitted from the lectionary.

 

Listed suggestions from both the Old and New Testaments show a strong bias for certain books and exclusion of others.  Some passages are listed for use in each of the 3 years of the cycle.  From the Old Testament, Isaiah is by far the most listed, over 70 times, many of the passages being suggested to be used more than once.   Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Job and Jeremiah are suggested often, while Leviticus, Nahum, Haggai and a few others hardly get mentioned.   For the New Testament, there is a gospel reading for each Sunday.  All but 3 of the New Testament letters are listed for the second New Testament reading.   Romans, 1 Corinthians and Hebrews are the most commonly listed, followed by 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and then 1 Peter and Revelation.

 

I personally think that those entrusted with the responsibility of determining what readings were to be included, were given an onerous job.  Sometimes it would have been very difficult to decide what passages to list and which to leave out.  As I found, when trying to write new lyrics to be sung with each gospel reading in the three-year cycle, some passages I believe are just not suitable for singing about in church services.   I have stated quite openly in my publications that I found some gospel stories/passages were not suitable to work with. There are great biblical passages but there are very nasty ones as well.

 

A rather blatant example of the exclusion of the nasty biblical bits is that of the listing of Psalm 104, the verses to be used being 24-34 & 35b.   I wondered what the content of verse 35a is.    Answer?

 

May the sinners be destroyed from the Earth; may the wicked be no more. (Psalm 104:35a.)

 

Is this protecting church-goers from the whole content of the Bible or protecting the Bible from a possible bad reaction from church-goers, or both?    Tricky!

 

When the lectionary lists passages from the book of Revelation, I have questions.   Together by themselves, the lectionary passages chosen, give the impression that the book presents a wonderful image of God.  Revelation is listed eleven times for use, four of which are the verses 21:1-6.   These verses give a vision of a new Heaven and a new earth with God dwelling with man.

 

Now at last God has his dwelling among men!  He will dwell among them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain; for the old order has passed away.  (Revelation 21:3-4)

 

This passage concludes in verse 6 with,

 

And he said it is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life.  (Revelation 21:6.)

 

This whole passage gives a beautiful image of God and life in Heaven.  However, immediately prior, the message is very different.

 

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he will be thrown into the lake of fire.    (Revelation 20:14-15.)

 

Immediately following the lectionary choice, this nasty picture continues.

 

He who conquers shall have his heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.   (Revelation 21:7-8.)

 

These other verses announce the darker side and, I believe, the main theme of Revelation.  This book has been stated by some biblical scholars as the most violent book in all religious sacred writings.

 

Also the last listed lectionary reading from this book of Revelation in the 3 year cycle, 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, gives me problems.   I was curious about the content of the missing verses.

 

Outside are dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters and every one who loves and practices falsehood.    (Revelation 22:15.)

 

This tone is continued.

 

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if any one adds to them, God will add the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.   (Revelation 22:18-19.)

 

The other passages listed for use from Revelation speak of God being Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of worshipping the Lamb that was slain and of all tribes and peoples clothed in white, worshipping God.  This is mostly positive but I believe, they alone, present an image of God which is not consistent with the main image in the whole Book of Revelation as we have it in the Bible.  My question arises, “Is this censorship or responsible choice?”   I have a sneaking suspicion that it is censorship.

 

I do realise that using the Book of Revelation in church services can be somewhat problematic.   It does have sections in it which may be considered worthy of use in church services, however, I have to question whether the lectionary creators are protecting church-goers from the violence of the book or are they protecting the book from being berated by church-goers?   Maybe both, as I have suggested previously.    Exposing the bad parts has to be weighed up against emphasising the good parts.   I would certainly find it rather difficult to strike this balance and be honest in the presentation of the story of the whole Bible.

 

The story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5:1-11, dropping dead after withholding from the disciples some of the proceeds of property they sold, is not listed for use, I suggest for obvious reasons.    The same goes for numerous passages of the Old Testament.   I don’t think the book of Joshua is a good book from which to read in church services.  It gets listed once.   The last few chapters of Ezra are, I think, unbecoming for a sacred book.

 

As I have said previously, I believe we have a mixed blessing with the lectionary.  On the one hand we have suitable passages for church services for praise and thanksgiving and for teaching the positive aspects of our religion but I believe we have a somewhat skewed presentation of what the story of the whole Bible actually tells.   I realise that a church service is not the time or place to come into disagreement with the Bible, its stories and teachings, however, it is the only book consistently read in church services and brings with it an authority that many regular church-goers do not question and are not encouraged to do so.  Teaching about the whole of this book’s contents is essential.  I believe the Bible is presented to a large extent as a book to be unquestioningly obeyed.  To do otherwise can be unsettling.

 

So what for me now?

 

In my experience in church services, the Bible message is often equated with the message of Jesus. In church services I have attended over the years, preachers and leaders of church services have concentrated on love as the basic Christian message and there are plenty of Bible passages, particularly from the gospels, which confirm this.

 

To hear in church services, the challenge of Jesus to love and accept love, is great.   Most times that is the message I hear.   This is one of the main reasons why I keep attending church services.

 

I do not conduct church services now so I do not have the responsibility of choosing Bible readings but when possible, I encourage leaders of services not to feel bound to use the set lectionary readings.   I encourage choices which blend in with the theme of the service and which help the congregation understand the great teachings of Jesus.

 

5.  The Bible’s internal conflict.  

 

The internal conflict within the Bible is often ignored or even avoided.   However, some commentators speak of the dominant and the minority voices of the Bible.  I find this distinction helpful.    There is a great deal of internal conflict in the Bible.   As I have mentioned near the beginning of this chapter,

 

The image of the Bible’s theistic God ranges from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving and everything in between.  It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour.

 

The book of Ruth is a case in point.  I think most regular church-goers would think of this story as a love story about a loyal daughter-in-law who stood by her mother-in-law when things got really tough.   And so it is.   It has a happy ending, which is a bonus.

 

Most regular church-goers look at Ruth as one of the heroines of the Old Testament and that’s about it.  I submit that many may look no further.   However, when a bit of detailed study is given to this tale, we can find a depth of meaning far beyond the obvious.   Let us remember this book is in the sacred book of the Hebrews.

 

Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabitess, see Ruth 1:3-4.   The Moabites were historically regarded as a hated enemy of the Israelites, God’s Chosen People.  The Lord looked on them with genuine hostility.

 

No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord for ever.  (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

 

This was because they had not helped the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt.   This hostility was to continue indefinitely because the Lord decreed it.

 

You shall not seek their peace or prosperity all your days for ever.  (Deuteronomy 23:6.)

 

After the Babylonian Exile, Moabites are listed as being one of the nations causing the Israelites to have sinned, regarded as faithlessness, by taking their daughters as wives.

 

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons; so that the holy race has mixed itself with peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness … (Ezra 9:1-2.)

 

And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel.  Now then make confession to the Lord and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”  (Ezra 10:10-11.)

 

The book of Ezra concludes with a long list of the ‘sinners’ and then makes a statement of what was considered one of high moral rectitude, following the command of the Lord through Moses.  To maintain the purity of their race and their religion, the Israelites had to abandon their foreign wives and children.  Not only were they to abandon their wives and families but they had to confess their sin for marrying these foreign women in the first place.

 

All these had married foreign women, and they put them away with their children.   (Ezra 10:44.)

 

I believe a conflict exists in that, not one, but two Israelites had married Ruth. Yet this Moabite woman is the heroine of the story!?!

 

Some commentators suggest this story of Ruth originated as a counter teaching to the ethnic cleansing done under the supervision of Ezra the priest.  If this is correct, there is serious disharmony within the Bible.

 

Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who is the grandfather of King David; see Ruth 4:21-22.   This means that King David has a foreigner as one of his immediate ancestors.  That causes David to have ‘outsider’ blood in his veins; not much but enough to label him as not a true-blood.   If this was correct, he probably should not have been king.  According to the story, for some very strict Jews, he has impure blood flowing in his veins.   So Ruth is not only a member of a corrupting nation because of her marriage but she is also the cause of King David having foreign, corrupting blood in his veins.

 

Amazingly, she gets a mention in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus; see Matthew 1:5.  There just might be a hidden message here.

 

Regarding the story of Ezra’s ethnic cleansing and the Lord’s earlier commands about it, it could be asked if any ‘faithful questioning’ has been done with this God-directed activity.   I think that probably most regular church-goers know nothing of it.  I have never heard it mentioned or explained in any teaching within a church service.

 

So what for me now?

 

Without this more detailed analysis, the story of Ruth would remain just a lovely story with a happy ending.    I think there are deeper meanings which speak of racism.   The general church teaching I have received on this story has been inadequate.   I had to do my own research.  I’m not complaining but I maintain that the teaching of the Bible, born of critical analysis, is necessary. Congratulations to those who included the book of Ruth in the Old Testament Canon.   This extra meaning of the story is, for me, close to Jesus’ message but sadly most regular church-goers know nothing of this.   They have not been taught.

 

For me, this is an example of the Bible disagreeing with itself.    According to Ezra it would not be possible for a Moabitess to be a heroine.   Do I discern parallels with Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan?  The book of Ruth is not about one religious leader (Jesus) arguing with other religious leaders.  It is the Bible arguing with itself; the book of Ruth versus Ezra who was obeying God’s commands.

 

The book of Jonah is another book like Ruth which also could be regarded as a tract, teaching the errors of the way Ezra, who follows the commands of the Lord.    Jonah is the story of God being concerned about gentiles who live in Nineveh, a great city in Assyria.  God is concerned about Gentiles; concerned enough to send Jonah to them, in the hope of staving off impending punishment for their wrong-doing.  This does not sit well with the racist, ethnic cleansing activities of Ezra.

 

That’s what the story is about and has nothing to do with a whale, or to be precise, a big fish.  Unfortunately the whale and Jonah being its belly for three days and nights, is the only part of this story that is remembered by many who have heard it.

 

A bit of fun from my lyrics  No. 21.

 

Jonah

Tune   Morning Light

 

He ran away so quickly; he found a speedy yacht;

He did not want to rumble with such a motley lot!

For Jonah was the preacher whom God had asked to go

To foreigners to tell them, “Stop misbehaving so.”

 

When Jonah tried to practice a disappearing trick,

His boat sailed into trouble, the storm came up so quick.

The captain threw him over; he had a ‘sort of’ hunch;

The fury stopped, and Jonah became a tasty lunch.

 

The whale got indigestion and Jonah, he popped out;

He knew he was a loser; he did a turnabout.

He preached to all that city; “You must be good and true,

Then God might reconsider what had been planned to do.”

 

God did not chuck a wobbly, but Jonah wished them dead;

For they were not like he was – not Jewish born and bred.

So God taught him a lesson; not sure if he agreed;

God’s love is for all people, for every race and creed.

 

Both the books of Ruth and Jonah can be regarded as examples of real internal conflict within the Bible, presenting teachings, opposite to those presented in other parts of the Bible – the books of Ruth and Jonah versus the book of Ezra.

 

Also it has been said by many commentators that there is a significant difference of emphasis in the teachings of the priests and the prophets of the Old Testament.   Often the priestly requirements for worship are questioned and even ridiculed by the prophets, who insist on other priorities.  Passages from Amos and Micah make this explicit.

 

I (the Lord) hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, even though you offer me burnt offerings and cereal offerings I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.  (Amos 5:21-24.)

 

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offerings with calves a year old? …  He has shown you O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.   (Micah 6:6 & 8.)

 

In this internal biblical ‘faithful questioning’, there is Jesus.  Jesus does his own ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful expansion’ in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew has Jesus saying, not once, not twice, but six times,

 

You have learned that our forefathers were told …… But what I tell you is this….(Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-99, 5:43-44.)

 

In five of the examples, what was taught previously ‘to our forefathers’ comes directly or indirectly from the Torah, sometimes with multiple references to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.   Jesus here is giving a deeper interpretation to these ancient scriptures.   I think this is evidence of further internal conflict which is not censored out.   This conflict is not as serious as in other parts of the Bible, but I believe it is there.

 

It is not unreasonable to say that Jesus and his emphasis on loving ones enemy and praying for one’s persecutors in Matthew 5:44, is in serious conflict with limited revenge permitted in the Old Testament.

 

Whenever hurt is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.   (Exodus 21:23-25.)

 

In its historical context this law in Exodus, with its injunction of one-for-one retribution, was a step forward because the practice of revenge then, was nearly unlimited in some circumstances.  Nonetheless, Jesus disassociates himself from this part of Exodus and replaces it with his own teaching.

 

So what for me now?

 

A redeeming feature of the Bible for me, is the internal conflict that exists in much of its content.   This honesty of the Bible in telling its story with this internal conflict, gives it a validity because it suggests a lack of strict censorship, to speak in modern terms.   The New Testament sometimes tells stories which paint the disciples as either stupid or disloyal to Jesus.  Mark’s gospel has many such stories and so do the other gospels.   Some very early followers of Jesus are painted in less than glowing terms.   This indicates to me an honesty, an authenticity in the telling of the story.   I sometimes wonder what Peter and others would have thought about some of the stories in the gospels that were told about them.   When the gospels were written, I suppose most of the disciples were dead and not able to defend themselves.

 

I think this internal conflict is healthy.  I don’t look for it but when it is there, I accept it thankfully.

 

6.  Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?

 

If I did a survey, I think most regular church-goers would be able to recite off favourite Bible verses.   I have asked some people and various answers have been the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, John 3:16 etc., etc.    Also many people have in their memories such verses as,

 

God said, “Let there be light and there was light”’, or Jesus said,I am the way the truth and the life.”, or Faith hope and love; these three last for ever; but the greatest of them all is love.  

 

You probably have others.    One of my favourites is

 

God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. (1 John 4:16b.)

 

It fits very well with my present theological emphases of panentheism.

 

Maybe regular church-goers build their theologies on their favourite verses and vice-versa.  Thankfully I don’t think any church-goer would quote from Isaiah and state it as their favourite, the verse below.

 

 And the angel of the Lord … slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians… (Isaiah 37:36.)

 

Maybe because of our early Christian education, our family life, and/or our life’s experiences, we tend to remember only some sayings and forget others.   Maybe a reason we have remembered certain things is because they have supported us when we needed it, or they have resonated with what we think, believe and feel.   Also, maybe it’s just because we have heard them repeatedly, so often.

 

As with most church-goers, I think my own ‘faithful affirmations’ and ‘faithful rejections’ expose my own likes and dislikes, my own prejudices and attitudes, my own theologies.  On reading some passages, I have made a mental note to be sure to use them again when appropriate, in personal mediation, in conversation or in church group life.   I encourage others to do the same.  I think many may already do so.  Having read other certain passages, I have exercised a ‘faithful rejection’ so I never use them again.  If other church-goers, on reading certain passages/stories of the Bible and after ‘faithfully questioning’ them, feel they need to reject them, I encourage them to do so.   There’s plenty of other good biblical material available to remember.

 

All of this recognises that our views, attitudes and reactions are individual.  Different people reading the same passage of the Bible can often get quite different messages and meanings from it.  This can be Reader-Response interpretation again.    But this is natural and I think, can be encouraged, at least to some extent.   If a reading makes an impact, we may remember it and even go back to it from time to time.  After doing our ‘faithful questioning’, we may find even more/new support or challenge in the reading.  Such, I think, is often the way of spiritual growth.

 

So what for me now?

 

I have said that one of my favourite texts is,

 

God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him.  (1 John 4:16b.)

 

and I use it quite often when discussing religious or theological matters.  However, I have also refused for years to read at funerals, a verse which has Jesus saying,

 

No man cometh to the Father but by me. (John 14:6b.)

 

Even the so-called words of Jesus should not escape the scrutiny of a ‘faithful questioning’, ‘faithful review’ and maybe even a ‘faithful rejection’.

 

I believe we all have the responsibility and privilege, maybe not to construct our own Canon of Scripture, but at least to create our own little reservoir of Bible sayings, other stories and sayings which are helpful to us.   I think most of us do this anyway.   The way some of us do this is with our refrigerator door.   Our frig door has many such sayings on it.   Some are funny but that’s OK.   Along with family photos, there is –

 

Boring housewives have immaculate homes. (My wife, Wendy, put that one on.  She likes it and so do I.)

If coffee can’t fix it… then it is a serious problem.

 

Then there are others that are more serious.

What you think, you create; What you feel, you attract; What you imagine, you become.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.   Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. [11]

No culture can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.

 

I often read these.  Good for the soul.   The sayings on our frig door do get changed but infrequently.

 

The Bible as we have it now, the Canon of Scripture, is there whether we like it or not and I don’t think we can change that, at least not in the foreseeable future.  However, I think such a change is what some confronting biblical scholars are moving towards when they have called for the Canon to be opened and revised.  I think they are calling for some very serious ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful re-appraisal’ to be done with the Bible and its content as we have it now.

 

Some church leaders think that parts of the Bible as it exists now, need to be removed.   Some other church leaders have suggested seriously, that other ancient documents, not included in our present New Testament, could be included.   One such group is called the New Orleans Council, initiated by Dr Hal Taussig, recently retired as Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He, with 19 other church leaders and scholars, both women and men, have, over an extended period of time, researched a large number of ancient documents which were available to be included in the original New Testament, but were not.

 

Many ancient documents, some fragmented and others more complete in their preservation, have been discovered in the last 60 to 100 years in various parts of Egypt and the Middle East, including the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls.  Much research and scholarly discussion has taken place about many of these documents but that has not filtered down to regular church-goers and I’m not sure that it ever will.  I would be surprised if many regular church-goers even know that many other gospels, other than the four in our present New Testament, were written in the first few hundred years immediately after Jesus.

 

This New Orleans Council, organized by Dr Taussig, asked the question as to which of these newly discovered ancient documents, if any, could be considered worthy enough to be included in a new Canon, to create A New New Testament.  Taussig has actually written a book entitled, A New New Testament.  He could have been burnt at the stake in some previous periods of church history for presuming to undertake such an enterprise.    After their deliberations, the New Orleans Council voted that 10 more documents were worthy to be included in A New New Testament.   These extra books are the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, The Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Odes of Solomon 1, 11, 111, and 1V, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, The Letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John.   These are all included in Taussig’s book, inserted in what was considered the appropriate places.

 

On Taussig’s book A New New Testament, Marcus Borg comments,

 

(This book is) important both historically and theologically. Readers will not be able to see the New Testament in the same way again. [12]

 

There are twenty-seven books in the traditional New Testament, but the earliest Christian communities were far more vibrant than that small number might lead you to think. In fact, many more scriptures were written and were just as important as the New Testament in shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs. Over the past century, many of those texts that were lost have been found and translated, yet are still not known too much of the public; they are discussed mainly by scholars or within a context of the now outdated notion of gnostic gospels. In A New New Testament Hal Taussig is changing that. With the help of nineteen important spiritual leaders, he has added ten of the recently discovered texts to the traditional New Testament, leading many churches and spiritual seekers to use this new New Testament for their spiritual and intellectual growth. [13]

 

Having read these other 10 books listed above, my experience is that Marcus Borg is correct.  I found the 10 books refreshing but also couched in 1st century biblical theism, dualisms and mythology and this contributed to some of their content being rather mystifying to me.  The Odes of Solomon, presented examples of joyful liturgies and songs of praise, apparently practised by the early followers of Jesus, some of which I found more helpful than some of the liturgies used in church services I attend these days.  I found the gospels of Mary and of Truth very helpful.   This reaction was my predisposition at work, I suppose; at least to some extent.

 

These 10 books did present to me a better balance between the male/female imagery of God and female church leadership than that which is presented in our current New Testament.  In the Gospel of Mary, there is dissention between the male disciples and Mary, when Andrew and Peter argue that Mary, a woman, should not be listened to as a teacher of the message of Jesus.  Levi comes to her defence and suggests that the males should desist their opposition to Mary and repent of their antagonism.   This sort of conversation happens nowhere in our present New Testament and, I think it presents a new dimension to the subject, giving women significant recognition, which obviously is their right.  The fact that this argument is recorded is significant for me.

 

I quote from the Gospel of Mary.

 

But Andrew responded and said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she has said.  I do not believe that the Saviour said this, for certainly these teachings are strange ideas.”  Peter responded and spoke concerning the same things.  He questioned them about the Saviour, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it?  Are we all to turn around and listen to her?  Did he choose her over us?”  Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking?  Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Saviour?”  Levi responded and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been an angry person.  Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries.  But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her?  Surely the Saviour’s knowledge of her is trustworthy.  That is why he loved her more than us.  Rather let us be ashamed.  We should clothe ourselves with the Perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves, and proclaim the good news, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said.” [14]

 

An introduction to the Gospel of Mary written by Taussig states,

 

The importance of the Gospel of Mary for today’s worldwide negotiation of rights and roles of women cannot be underestimated.  That an early Christian writing presents a major female figure whose leadership is actively disputed by the apostles introduces a dramatic new dimension to Christian understanding of women’s authority.  ….this document still turns the tables on claims like that of the Vatican that women cannot be priests because there were no women disciples. [15]

 

This particular gospel also presents a far more positive attitude to humanity and to the human relationship with God.    I quote again from Taussig’s introduction to this Gospel.

 

In many ways this gospel makes the promise of becoming real human beings in the most excited and clearest way of any early Christian gospel. … For many twenty-first-century readers this emphasis on the goodness of humanity, comes as a surprise.  So often Christianity has been understood as praising God and judging humanity.  …  TV evangelists and popes alike portray humans as so thoroughly deserving of God’s condemnation that only the bloody sacrifice of Jesus can make things right.  This is simply not the portrait of humanity in the Gospel of Mary.  Here Jesus and his followers are united in perfect humanity.  The good news is not escaping one’s human identity but in embracing it.

Nor does this gospel treat Jesus’ death as a key of salvation.  His death is not an act of atonement, but rather an event to overcome through the teachings Jesus told to Mary. [16]

 

Regarding another book of the 10, The Secret Revelation of John, I found it particularly interesting and for me, if compared, it is better than the one we have at present.   A short comment by Taussig about this book is,

 

In the Secret revelation of John, injustice and cruel domination are overcome by the power of the Spirit, by knowledge and by goodness without violence and destruction, offering a tradition from within the Christian movement that is both an alternative to stories of divine wrath and judgement and an affirmation of hope and trust. [17]

 

Having read The Secret Revelation of John, it was full of mythical characters who supposedly have power over certain aspects of humanity in the world and the different heavenly layers above the Earth, that were thought to exist.  Without having the necessary academic or historical background, I found much of the book somewhat mystifying.  However, when compared with what is in the Book of Revelation in the present New Testament, this Secret Revelation has far less violence in it and when violence does occur, it is only used by the false gods.   The True God, in it, works through the illuminating light of truth, compassion and moral goodness.   In this Secret Revelation, God is sometimes referred to as Father-Mother; different from the New Testament we have at present.

 

Another of these 10 ancient documents is the Gospel of Truth.   Of this gospel, Taussig’s commentary states,

 

The Gospel of Truth takes seriously human pain and error but concentrates on affirming the ways the goodness and beauty of life continue to overflow everywhere.  The Son revealed to people who God is, which ‘became the way for those who strayed and knowledge for those who were ignorant, discovery for those searching and strength for those who were shaken, purity for those who were defiled’ (16:10) ..  The results are that ‘the Father is within them and they are in the Father.  They are full and undivided from the one who is truly good.  They need nothing at all, but they are at rest, fresh in spirit, and will listen to their root.’ (27:6-8).  For the Gospel of Truth, this is not a beatific vision of Heaven, but one of humans fully alive in the present moment. [18]

 

Without ignoring the issues of conflict and difficulty, the Gospel of Truth is perhaps the most joyous and ecstatic book of early Christianity.  It provides a stunning contrast to the kinds of 21st Century Christianity that feature condemnation and dark prophesies. [19]

 

It would appear that maybe a sort of panentheism is as ancient as early Christian times, with ‘in-ness’ a major theme.

 

I personally found much of the content of these 10 ancient documents stimulating, however, I would need to do a great deal more study and research, particularly of the then current cosmology, if I am to understand more of these books and their messages.   However, from my brief introduction to these 10 books, it makes me wonder what Christianity would look like today if the Canon of the New Testament was different from the one originally decided upon, that which we actually have now.

 

The fact that these biblical scholars have done this work, is very significant to me.

 

I wonder how long it will take for all this questioning approach to the content of the Bible, to filter down to church-goers, if ever.  I feel privileged to have been exposed to these writings.

 

There may be other groups of biblical scholars and church leaders who are doing much the same thing regarding a critical investigation of our sacred book.   I mention only those I know about.  So, if we make personal efforts to create a different but more helpful Canon of our own, or at least put together our own little reservoir of guiding teachings and sayings, let us not think we are the only people looking seriously at what we have in the Bible at present.   Let us not think that such a venture should be frowned upon.

 

If we do create our own special collection of teachings of Scripture and other material, I think it is essential that we have solid criteria for our choices, inclusions and rejections.   For me, these criteria are spelt out in detail in the previous chapter on Jesus.    Jesus, his life, his death, his living presence and most importantly his teachings, are for me, the norm and standard for my choices.  For me, he teaches by word and example, the greatest of human virtues – love.  This is my gauge.   I have to live with the limitations of my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and that’s why there may be changes as I continue my journey with him, hopefully forward.

 

At this stage of my journey with Jesus, I have sayings and teachings in my little reservoir, which are not in the Bible, but which I think are very helpful to me in terms of guidance, challenge and support.  I comfortably include new material.  I don’t think we need to limit our little reservoir to only biblical material.   Obviously for me, any new material would have to pass the Jesus test.  Does it point in the same direction of his teachings?   Does it expand what he was on about?  Does it add a modern dimension to what he taught?  Does it lead me away from being hurtful to others?  Does it speak of love?   If it passes these, then I am happy to include it.

 

For starters, I add to my little reservoir, sections of I Have a Dream from Martin Luther King’s speech August 28 1963,

 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’                                                       

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.                                     

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.   I have a dream today. [20]

 

Sure, the above quote is localised in America, but so were the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, chapters 2 &3.  Each has far wider application than being localised. They both have great words worthy of deep reflection.

 

Rabbi Rudolph Brasch states,

 

It doesn’t matter which faith one follows so long as it preaches love, understanding and respect.

 

Then there is Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on being a devotee of the Bhagavad-Gita.

 

Thus the devotion required by the Gita is no soft-hearted effusiveness.  It certainly is not blind faith. The devotion of the Gita has the least to do with the externals.  A devotee may use, if he likes, rosaries, forehead marks, make offerings, but these things are not test of devotion. He is the devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action but remains unaffected  by it, who renounces all fruit, good and bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect and disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason.  Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments. [21]

 

From Nelson Mandela:

 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. [22]

 

From John Shelby Spong:

 

God is life, we say, and we worship this God by living fully.  God is love, we say, and we worship this God by loving wastefully.  God is Being, we say, and we worship this God by having the courage to be all that we can be. [23]

 

I have, in my study, a wall hanging given to me years ago by our second eldest daughter, Beverley. I’m not quite sure where the statements come from but I read them about every week. Again, good for my soul.   The six statements are as follows;

 

Happiness   When one’s spiritual needs are met by an untroubled inner life. Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.

Peace    To bring peace to the earth, strive to make your own life peaceful.

Wisdom Knowledge, intuition and experience combine to guide us in thought and deed.

Tranquillity The peace that comes when energies are in harmony, relationships are in balance.

Love   An inspired form of giving, love breathes life into the heart and brings grace to the soul.

Courage   Not the absence of fear or despair, but the strength to conquer them.      

 

All these and more belong to my little reservoir of wisdom.  Could we have such or similar readings in a church service as an alternative reading to a Bible passage?  Even say after them, “These are words of transforming wisdom for us, today”, and ask the congregation to reply, “We give thanks.”  Maybe too drastic a change.

 

Here’s another suggestion for such a reading. Steve Jobs died a billionaire at the age of 56.   This is reported as his final essay.

 

I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world.  In some others’ eyes, my life is the epitome of success.  However, aside from work, I have little joy.  In the end, my wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.  At the moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death. 

You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you. Material things lost can be found or replaced.  But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost – Life.  Whichever stage in life you are in right now, with time, you will face the day when the curtain comes down.

Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends.  Treat yourself well and cherish others.   As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we realize that a $300 or a $30 watch both tell the same time.   You realize that your true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world.  Whether you fly first class or economy, if the plane goes down – you go down with it.

Therefore, I hope you realize, when you have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who you chat with, laugh with, talk with, have sing songs with, talk about north-south-east-west or Heaven and Earth that is true happiness.  Don’t educate your children to be rich.  Educate them to be happy.   So when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price.   Eat your food as your medicine, otherwise you have to eat your medicine as your food.

The One who loves you will never leave you for another because, even if there are 100 reasons to give up, he or she will find a reason to hold on.   There is a big difference between a human being and being human.  Only a few understand it.  You are loved when you are born.  You will be loved when you die.  In between, you have to manage.

The six best doctors in the world are sunlight, rest, exercise, diet, self-confidence and friends.   Maintain them in all stages and enjoy a healthy life. [24]

 

I also add to my little reservoir, some of my own sayings like, ‘Little people keep love alive.’   Sometimes when I look at what the so-called big people do, I become disappointed.  I am reminded of the adage, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.   So too, of course, with the behaviour of myself and other little people, I can become disappointed.  But often when I look at what little people do, I am delighted and inspired.  So I often use my little saying.   I do not think that all humans are ‘totally depraved from the moment of conception’.   To Augustine, Calvin and Luther, I say, “No Thanks!”  I also add my other little saying to my reservoir, ‘The Kingdom of God is alive and well.’ On some occasions I say this to church friends who might understand.   I say this when I observe some godly deed they do and when I say it to them, I refer to the deed they have done.   They sometimes look back at me with bewilderment but I hope they think about it later on.

 

Creating one’s own Canon of Scripture may be going a bit too far but I believe it is important for us all to have one’s own little reservoir of sayings and teachings to remember. And what we remember will probably be different for each of us.   That’s fine.

 

7.   The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.

 

This last area giving rise to ‘faithful questioning’ is probably the most important because culture determines the basic attitudes, views of reality and the sum total of ways of living of people.  Culture is a fundamental framework in which most humans determine their perceptions of nearly everything and helps create the presuppositions and prejudices which affect much of the way we humans approach life.  Different cultures give birth to different ways of regarding the human condition, religion, family and community relationships, personality, social status, economics and humour, to name but a few.  They also give rise to different customs, bodily gestures, figures of speech, rituals, morals, etc., etc.

 

An important book for me in this area of questioning is ‘Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels’ by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh.

 

In their book, the authors itemise about 60 different words/attitudes/norms which they considered needed a 1st Century cultural/sociological explanation to help in understanding the text in its original context. I came away from this book thinking that, in the past with my limited knowledge and understanding of 1st Century living and thought, I have probably misunderstood and misinterpreted some stories from both the Old and New Testaments.   I wonder how much of this has happened and still happens in the church today.  I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged a great deal in Reader-Response interpretation, creating their own texts and then teaching them as being what the Bible says.  I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation.

 

A couple of examples of 1st Century cultural context when compared with 21st Century understandings may help us accept the differences these make.

 

  1. Shepherds at the birth of Jesus.  

 

I think it is generally accepted as great, to have shepherds and wise men (Kings) together, in the numerous nativity scenes displayed in churches at Christmas.   However, I think very few regular church-goers would realise how confronting these would be for 1st Century Jewish people; those who were contemporaries of Jesus.   Even though we have the 23rd Psalm, speaking of the Lord as the Good Shepherd and David being called the Shepherd King, shepherds, in the time and society of Jesus, were regarded as outcasts.  They did not worship in the synagogues on the Sabbath.   They couldn’t.  They had to tend their sheep.    Shepherds were regarded as thieves because their sheep ate grass growing on other peoples’ properties as they wandered around the countryside.  In those days, if you had a son, the last thing you would want him to become was a shepherd.   Shepherds were despised.  Yet, here they are at the manger and being the first to bring the good tidings to the world.   I think there might be some deep theological wisdom in this.   In 1st Century days it would have been totally unthinkable for shepherds and wise men (kings) to be in each other’s company.   Shepherds would contaminate the whole environment. They were outcasts.  However, I can imagine most church-goers think these various nativity scenes are all rather lovely.   That’s fine for so they are. The opposite would be the case in the times of Jesus.  It would look gross!  Wise men, kings would never be seen anywhere near shepherds! With this contextual explanation of shepherds, a profound insight is available to enlighten us regarding the way love can work in our world. Little people keep love alive.

 

  1. Jesus told the parable of the talents. 

 

This is a much longer conversation with those who state that an understanding of 1st Century culture is essential for correct explanation and preaching.   The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the Revised Standard Version, has Jesus saying,

 

For it will be as when  a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.  Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.  So too, he who had two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.   And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.”  His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.”  His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”  He also who had received the one talent came forward saying, “Master, I knew you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”  But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant!  You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I have not winnowed.   Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”   So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will be given more and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30.)

 

I have been taught this parable had to do with the Kingdom of God, with rewards for those who are diligent, active disciples of Jesus. I have been taught that the master was God and the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God works. The talents were to be thought of as abilities given by the Holy Spirit to people, to further God’s Kingdom.  There were rewards and punishments at the end of things. I thought that the servant who was given the one talent was rightly described by the master as being wicked and slothful.  I added my estimate that he was also lazy.   I have also been taught that the parable has the lesson in it – ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’

 

However, I have also had problems with this story.  I thought the punishment to the third servant was harsh and I could not understand the one talent being taken from him and given to the one who had ten.   I always thought that was unfair.  It was not suggested to me that I should look at the way the master did not question the third servant’s criticism of him.   Even though the master agreed with the criticism of the third servant, I thought what the master said was his sarcastic response.     Rewards and punishments never sit well with what I believe is the basic message of Jesus is, but these seem to be crucial in this story.   If the Master was likened to God then I thought God was rather harsh.   These were my problems.

 

  1. Eugene Boring gives a commentary.

 

The meaning of ‘good and faithful’ is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk…..

The pictures point beyond themselves… speaking of the reality of judgement and the necessity for decision and responsible action. [25]

 

This confirmed for me, my understanding that the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God worked and my involvement in it.  A disciple of Jesus had the responsibility of working for the kingdom, multiplying goodness and virtue, and not sitting idle, waiting for someone else to do the work of discipleship.

 

I now have to put alongside this understanding, the comments from Malina and Rohrbaugh, with their 1st century, middle-eastern cultural context.

 

Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of ‘limited good’.  In modern economics, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply.  If a shortage exists, we produce more.  If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may mean the factory worked overtime and more became available.  But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite; all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed.  This included not only material goods, but honour, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.

An honourable man would thus be interested only in what rightfully was his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s.  Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing.  The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person.  Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud.  The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. [26]

 

Then, referring specifically to the parable under consideration, the authors give their commentary.

 

Two slaves trade up their master’s holdings, doubling the amount.  They are clever slaves, behaving as slaves should.  In the ‘limited good’ world of the first-century Mediterranean, however, seeking ‘more’ was morally wrong.  Because the pie was ‘limited’ and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else.  Honourable people, therefore, did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves.  …….   

The third slave buried his master’s money to ensure that it remained intact.  This, of course, was the honourable thing for a freeman to do; was it honourable behaviour for a slave?  ……

When the day of accounting arrives, we find the master rewarding those who were vicious enough, shameless enough, to increase his wealth for him at the expense of so many others.  These slaves, in fact, are just like their master.  For we find out from the third slave (and the master agrees) that, indeed, the master himself is quite rapacious and shameless ‘a hard (NRSV “harsh)’ man, reaping where (he) did not sow and gathering where (he) did not scatter seed. (v. 24).  …….

But the master’s problem is that the third slave is wicked and slothful; he did not even put his money in a bank at usury (v.27).  Because of his sloth, the master decides to entrust the third slave’s property to the one who embezzled the most profit.   The reason for the behaviour is a truism in peasant society (v. 29); ‘Those with more get more and have abundance; those with nearly nothing have even that taken from them’.  And the master’s final decision is to publically shame the ‘worthless’ slave (v. 30)…..

From the peasant point of view, therefore, it was the third slave who acted honourably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the king.  Moreover, the harsh condemnation he received at the hands of the greedy king, as well as the reward to the servants who cooperated, is just what peasants had learned to expect.  The rich could be counted on to play true to form – they take care of their own. [27]

 

This was all strangely new to me.  With this interpretation, built on the 1st Century Mediterranean economic model, this parable is given a meaning precisely the opposite to what I have been taught in my church past instruction.

 

According to this interpretation, it is not a parable about how the Kingdom of God works but a realistic picture of how the then current unjust society worked.

So what for me now?

 

These two examples demonstrate how important knowing the original context is when trying to understand what was written in a different age and culture.

 

Regarding this parable dealt with, the second interpretation of it seems a lot more sensible to me.   It takes full cognisance of the original environment in which the story was told and it also answers some difficult issues that have arisen for me with the first interpretation.

 

With this second interpretation in my mind, when looking at newspaper picture of the CEO of a company, I often ask the unfair questions, “How much corruption have you been involved in to get to the position you now hold?  How many people have you trodden on to climb the corporate ladder? Are you a thief, taking from others what was rightfully theirs?”

 

I suppose, at the end of the day, it is possible to gain instruction from both interpretations of the parable and that probably depends to some extent on how willing one is to open one’s mind to new information and different ways of thinking, comparing it with what one has already been taught.  If one chooses one interpretation over the other, one needs to be careful not to be dogmatic about the correctness of one’s choice.

 

This, I believe, is the dilemma we find ourselves in with quite a bit of biblical material. With such significant cultural difference between the modern western culture and the 1st Century Mediterranean culture, when confronted with biblical material, I have to ask myself, “How can I understand what the speaker or writer originally meant?   How can I appreciate what the 1st Century middle-eastern peasant audiences or even educated readers understood, regarding what they heard or read?”

 

A significant starting point is to at least ask these questions of ourselves and then try to find some helpful guidance in answering them.   I believe church-goers need a lot of helpful teaching on such matters.

 

 

 

So what more for me now?

 

With these seven areas of ‘faithful questioning’, where does this all leave me regarding the bible?

 

For me, using the traditional words, the ‘Word of God’, it is never static. It is dynamic, on the move.  Some old things I need to retain because, for me, their wisdom endures over time.  Some other things need to be discarded because they are out-of-date and unhelpful.   The ‘Word of God’ can never be tied or limited to one generation, one period of time, to one culture or tradition, or even to one book.

 

I have made many ‘faithful affirmations’ and I need to articulate these loud and often.  However, all the ‘faithful rejections’ and others not mentioned here, worry me greatly, but having done them I feel that what is left, together with the re-constructions and replacements I have made, I have guidance and inspiration far more in tune with Jesus and his teachings as I understand them now.

 

I am thankful that we have written material in the teachings from Jesus, other great religious and secular leaders still preserved.  Yes; used for guidance in making moral decisions – Yes; used for searching the depth meanings of humanity and divinity – Yes; used to challenge people in high places, in positions of power – Yes; used to point in the direction of how to make the world a better place – Yes; used to bring people together in mutual respect – Yes; used for exposing violence for what it is – Yes; used to teach the importance of inclusivity, equality, hospitality, grace, forgiveness and love – Yes. Yes. Yes!   And the Bible has loads and loads of this as I have already stated.

 

Properly used, passages in the Bible can be and have been a source of great wisdom, great guidance, great inspiration, great assurance and help in life.  They have prompted me to live abundantly.  Passages can and have stimulated wonderful, positive change.  They can and have been used to challenge leaders in our community.  Passages can and have given hope to those without hope, confidence to those who think they are worthless, purpose to those who think they have none, encouragement to those who are timid and they can speak and have spoken of acceptance and love to all of us.  After all, the Bible has the life story and teachings of Jesus.    His story and teachings are essential reasons for keeping the Bible.

 

To conclude this section of my ‘faithful questioning’ on the reverence and authority I give to the Bible, is it a case that I have to ‘Start all over again’?   I must keep ‘faithfully rejecting’ as well as ‘faithfully affirming’.  I think I have been doing this subconsciously and even consciously for years but maybe not admitted it.   ‘Start all over again?’   Not sure!  The Bible is still the most important source of guidance and challenge for me but I don’t think I can call it, as for any other book, ‘sacred’.   There are, for me, many sacred sayings in it but, for the whole book, I must find another word than ‘sacred’.

 

 

[1]  Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 89

[2] Brueggemann, ‘Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today’, Session I, ‘The Way out.’

[3] Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 122.

[4] Flood, Disarming Scripture, 42- 43

[5] Tinker, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 175.

[6] Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology, 82

[7] Ibid, 85

[8] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 93-94.

[9] Ibid, 94.

[10] Ibid, 93.

[11] Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 Speech.

[12] Internet website on Taussig’s book, A New New Testament.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Haussig, A New New Testament, 225.

[15] Ibid,219

[16] Ibid, 218.

[17] Ibid, 466.

[18] Ibid, 228.

[19] Ibid, 228

[20] Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 speech.

[21] Gandhi, Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, 11-12.

[22] Internet website, https://www.passiton/…/7395

[23] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, 73.

[24] Internet Google search, Jobs, The World’s six best doctors.

[25] Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, 453.

[26] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 48.

[27] Ibid, 49.

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My sixth area of questioning

6.   The emphasis on the church’s teachings ‘about’ Jesus compared with the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.

As a child and a young person I was presented by the church with a Jesus who was essentially different from every other human being.

What have I been taught ‘about’ Jesus?   A short picture.

Jesus may have looked like a Jew, but he was a lot more than human.   He was a visitor from Heaven.    God sent him to Earth and he lived here for about 30 years before he went back to Heaven.  He will come again from there, to judge all human behaviour and separate ‘the sheep from the goats’.   He had supernatural powers; walking on water, controlling the weather, knowing the future, raising people from death.   He was perfect in every way; knowing everything, never sinning, always in control, knowing what to do and how to do it.  He knew God’s will and always obeyed it.  He had a miraculous birth.  He died like a human and he rose again from the dead and a little later ascended back to Heaven.   He died for my sin because that was what was necessary and required by God, enabling God to forgive sin.   His death brought about a cosmic change in the relationship between God and humanity, reconciling us both.    He is now and has been, since he ascended, at the right hand of God interceding before God for me and all humans, for God to forgive our sins and make our lives as good as possible.   He loves me and all humans and wants the best for all of us.  He gave me an example by which to live abundantly; how to be truly human.   He taught me, by word and example how to love others, how to strive for justice and how to practise mercy.    He sits on his throne in Heaven.  Jesus Christ is his name.    He always has been, is and always will be God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Most of this, not necessarily in those words, is the continuing teaching I receive from the church.  This teaching is what I hear in the two main creeds of the church, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.   These creeds instruct me ‘about’ Jesus.   They give me no information about, nor any challenge contained in the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.    These creeds have the words, ‘I/We believe in Jesus Christ ….’ and they go on to speak ‘about’ Jesus.  I realise the creeds are statements, defining the orthodox Trinitarian faith, and as such are not meant to be guides for, or challenges about human behaviour.   However, they seem to make belief in doctrine, primary.  This is what a Christian is – one who believes these things.   If you don’t believe these things then you are probably not a Christian.   Most of this is what I hear in most liturgies and many sermons in church services.   It is consistent with most of the theology of the hymns I am requested to sing in church services.
All this can be taken metaphorically and not literally.  If this is done the meanings can change considerably.  Over the years it has taken me a long time and a great deal of ‘clearing out’ to arrive at where I am today.   Parts of the church have encouraged me in this journey but the major thrust I have felt is that I should not question and certainly not reject what I have been taught, particularly about Jesus.

So is it a case to ‘Start all over again’, concentrating very much on Jesus’ own teachings and not on the church’s teachings about him?  I think so.

I can remember in my early church instruction, I was required to learn off-by-heart such verses as,
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.   (John 3:16.)

Most of the verses I had to so learn were all ‘about’ ‘Jesus, who he was and how he fitted into God’s Plan of Salvation; not that they were explained to me in that way.  However, this apparently is what was important; statements of belief about Jesus; not his own teachings.  This is what I remember.  I believe this experience has been similar for many other regular church-goers.

Most of that which I have been taught ‘about’ Jesus makes little sense to me now.  Most teachings are attached to the dualisms I reject and also to the supernatural, which I also reject.  So the church teachings I have received ‘about’ Jesus are by-and-large irrelevant to me whereas the teachings ‘of’ Jesus are so relevant because they have to do with my everyday living.  I deal with these later in some detail.

So what for me now?

My belief now ‘about’ Jesus is very different to what I have ‘cleared out’.

I now believe that Jesus was a Jewish, charismatic teacher/healer.  He is one of those shining human beings in history who has left a legacy of human thoughtfulness which inspires, and of human imagination which challenges those who take notice.    He lived on Earth about 2000 years ago for about 30 years and he was crucified as a middle-aged religious rebel who was perceived as a threat to Rome and the Jewish religious leaders of his day. I believe his birth and death were normally human.  I do not believe he rose physically from the dead.  I do not believe his death was a vicarious sacrifice for my sin but he died as he lived, living with deep human integrity faithfully, right to the end.    I dismiss all mention of Heaven and his Heaven citizenship.   I do not believe he had supernatural powers, knowing everything, controlling the weather and raising people from death.   I do not believe he was perfect in every way, never sinning.    I believe he had his inadequacies and that he made mistakes but I believe he was always in touch with the godly spirit within him and constantly and consistently cooperated, right throughout his life, with what he believed was his godly calling.  His life and teachings tell me about love.   He gave me an example by which to live abundantly; how to be truly human.  He taught me by word and example how to love others, how to strive for justice and how to practise mercy and forgiveness.   His name is Jesus and the teachings ‘of’ this man are paramount for me.   He points me to ‘the Christ’, a human theological expression for God.

A quick comparison between these two statements of my belief, the one from my past and the other from my present situation, highlights the drastic change that has come about by rejecting the two dualisms and supernatural activity.  Without these past basic fundamentals, the different emphases of Jesus’ divinity and his humanity, becomes crucial.

For me, much of the gospels paint Jesus as a normal human being, which I find refreshing.  I know there are stories of his supernatural powers, which, unfortunately are well remembered by regular church-goers and non-church-goers alike, but there are very many stories associated with Jesus that show him behaving very much like an ordinary human being; tired, angry, needing help from others, getting cranky, grieving, etc., etc.
Nevertheless the overall impression given to me by the church ‘about’ Jesus that stays with me is that he is God but becomes a human being for a very short period of time.   Thankfully, scholars associated with the Progressive Christianity movement have revitalised for me, the humanity of Jesus.   All the teachings and my opinions ‘about’ Jesus are not nearly as important to me now, as the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.  However, continuing with my beliefs ‘about’ Jesus, I see him as the picture of continuous cooperation with and exposure of God Within.

I am trying to echo what Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar, states.
We must begin by giving Jesus a demotion.  He asked for it; he deserves it; we owe him no less.  As the divine son of God, coeternal with the Father, pending cosmic judge seated at God’s right hand, he is insulted and isolated from his persona as a humble Galilean sage. ….  A demoted Jesus then becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement.   With his new status, he will no longer be merely its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ascending, dying/rising lord of pagan mystery cults, but of one substance with us all.  We might begin by turning the icon back into an iconoclast. [1]
On first reading this, I was shocked, taken-a-back a bit.  A demotion!?   He can’t mean that!   However after more reflection I find this re-picturing of Jesus essential for me.
Funk’s comments led me to make a vital rediscovery of Jesus when recovering his humanity. For me, concentrating on Jesus’ humanity instead of his divinity is, for me, a fundamentally significant positive change of direction.   If Jesus is not God he must be less, so I have been told.  He must have a demotion.  However, not believing in supernatural, biblical theism and the dualisms which prompts this divinity emphasis, I do not find the word ‘demotion’ worrying.    I also now think of Jesus as an iconoclastic icon.    He is still an icon, but an iconoclastic icon.   For me, being a radical, a non-conformist rebel, does not prevent him being an icon.

Without the dualism of the separated Heaven and Earth, I am released from the ‘coming and going’ Jesus.   I am released from all talk of God ‘sending’ God’s son.  If I discard biblical theism, its dualisms and its accompanying supernaturalism, I can then approach Jesus as a human messenger of peace and love on earth, peace and love which can be accomplished by human beings like Jesus, like you and me.   Jesus, for me, is a human person who points to a sort of life that is really worth living, a liver of love that makes a difference, a human teacher who calls it as it is and a person who is made of the same stuff as you and me.  He wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He loved children.   He needed his friends’ help when he faced desperate decisions, as in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He got frustrated and disheartened with his disciples and the general public on many occasions.  He could have well experienced fits of depression.  He didn’t flinch from arguments with his opponents.  He called them for everything!   He drove cattle and the money-changers from the temple with a whip!   Could he have, on some occasions, lost control?   Yes, of course he could.  I’m pleased at the possibility of him having mixed-up emotions as is stated in the Good News Bible.

Jesus was angry as he looked round at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong.   (Mark 3:5.)

Jesus was so human.   I too, often have these mixed-up emotions when looking at the behaviour of myself as well as that of others.

I have been told in the past, that Jesus’ violent behaviour, when he drove the money-changers out of the temple, was not a loss of temper but a show of ‘righteous indignation’.  This comment was of course, seeking to downplay the humanness of the action and absolve Jesus of any wrong doing, wanting to uphold the biblical comment,
…because of his likeness to us, has been tested in every way only without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15.)

For orthodox theology, this had to be so, because of biblical theism and the ‘unquestioning obedience’ to the Judaist sacrificial system.   Jesus had to be the perfect, sinless sacrifice.
I believe that we might think Jesus had more respect for the Judaist sacrificial system than he actually had.   Most times in the gospel stories when Jesus forgives sin, he does so without even asking for repentance.  Seldom does he suggest that the person being forgiven make an offering/sacrifice or comply with temple observances/regulations.  This, I believe, forms the basis of a very significant argument Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day.   He was by-passing the Temple and its sacrificial system.  Jesus rarely referred a person he healed, to the religious temple system of his day.  In the story in Mark 1:40-44, I believe this referral had more to do with the public recognition of their cleanliness, rather than Jesus’ own belief in the efficacy of the sacrificial system itself.  The gospel writer states,
…show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people…   (Mark 1:44.)

The story with this last phrase about ‘proof’, is repeated in the Matthew and Luke gospels.
The only other time in the gospel story of Jesus where he refers sick people, whom he healed, to the religious authorities, is recorded in Luke 17:11-19, when ten lepers come to him for help.   I believe this story is told to counter racist attitudes, in that the only one who comes back to thank Jesus is a Samaritan and is identified as such; a hated foreigner.
Was Jesus in fact disassociating himself from the sacrificial system?  In Matthew there is a close link made of the Temple with sacrifice.  When arguing with the Pharisees, Jesus says,
…  Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?  I tell you something greater than the temple is here.  And if you had known what this means ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless…  (Matthew 12:5-7.)

Blood sacrifice in the context of forgiveness of sin is anti-gospel for me and points to a punitive God, a God who is prisoner to a sacrificial system invented by humans.  This understanding of the Cross points me away from Jesus.  Even put into the context of biblical theism and its dualisms, the sacrificial system negates the unconditional love of God.  If Jesus could forgive sin on the spot, if you and I can, why can’t God?  Doesn’t God love as much as Jesus or as we do?

Dealing further with the humanity of Jesus, I can imagine that he, in quiet private moments of reflection, may have thought that some of the names he called the Pharisees could have been a bit less damning and maybe he could have dealt a little less violently with the money-changers in the temple.  We are not told of course, but I can imagine that Jesus may have sometimes regretted what he did or said.  Was he a human being or not?
Another citing of Jesus possibly losing control momentarily, could be the saying in Matthew and Luke when Jesus rebukes Peter.  Peter expresses concern about Jesus dying in Jerusalem and urges him not to go to that place and such a horrible death.    But Jesus will have none of it.
Get behind me Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.   (Matthew 16:23.)

If Jesus had said this to me and I took it seriously, I may have thought that I should leave Jesus, then and there, and not continue to be a hindrance to him.  This temptation, to change course and avoid confrontation and thus avoid his death, I can imagine, was a continuing struggle Jesus had, during the whole of his ministry.  In the end he sweated blood over it.  This embodied the influence that ‘the Devil – Satan’ tried unsuccessfully, to have over Jesus.  He certainly did not need one of his closest disciples urge him to give in.  Did Jesus suddenly blurt out in frustration, in disbelief, in desperation, maybe even in fury?  Was he a human being or not?  Are we willing to give him that privilege?

Perfection is the enemy of greatness. I learn nothing from perfection but greatness is my inspiration.  Perfection de-humanizes greatness.

I have taken the gospel readings as they are in front of me.   I do not have the skills or the historical and linguistic knowledge of the languages used and I do not have the knowledge of Greek, sufficient to argue this way or that, about the finer points of the text.  I think I am in the same situation of all other regular church-goers who are just trying to make relevant sense of the stories.  I continue on in this vein knowing full well that I may need correction in some instances.

Having shared something of what I believe and do not believe ‘about’ Jesus, I now wish to concentrate on what I have learnt from him; what I believe he teaches me.  I wish to concentrate on the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.

Rejecting what is written ‘about’ Jesus is not the same for me, as rejecting Jesus himself and his teachings.  I quote from a paper by Lorraine Parkinson given to a Common Dreams conference recently.

The teachings the church forgot – the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about justice, compassion, inclusiveness, non-violence and forgiveness and so on, were not given to the world by Christ!   They are the vision of the God-soaked human being – the disturbing visionary teacher of the Law, called Jesus of Nazareth.  Added together, his teachings illustrate the ultimate ethic for life.  We call it love.   And that’s why many of us want to say that Love is God.   In that lies an unlimited height and depth of spirituality for an evolving Christianity. … We can only be grateful that along with the religion about Jesus Christ, the timeless teaching from Jesus of Nazareth has also been preserved.   We can only be grateful that when it has been remembered, it has shed light and hope and love in the world. …  It’s time to turn fully to the God of love revealed through the teachings of Jesus. [2]

Jesus is a vehicle giving passage to a message of love.  He is a vehicle that transports us to see what difference love can make.  Jesus is a set of wheels carrying us to a vision of love.   Yes – to a vision of God.    I believe my problem is that I have been taught by the church and directed by its liturgies to worship the vehicle.  The message is always more important than the messenger.  Marcus Borg speaks of Jesus being, ‘the lens through which we can see God’, and he goes on to say that we have mistakenly come to worship the lens.   I think I am saying much the same thing.  So what do I learn when looking through the lens?  Funk asks a few questions in his Epilogue in ‘Honest to Jesus’,
What interests me about Jesus is not so much what Peter and Paul thought of him, or even what Jesus thought about himself, but the call to which he was responding.  To what divine manifesto did he succumb?  By what vision was he both captivated and liberated? [3]
I am not primarily interested in affirmations about Jesus but in the truths that inspired and informed Jesus. [4]

These questions arise for me. What are these truths that inspired Jesus?  What are the truths that informed him?  What was his vision?   The answers I believe are not all that self-evident.  Identifying what the teachings ‘of’ Jesus are, and separating them from the teachings of his early followers contained in the biblical gospels and the early traditions of the church, is a matter about which I need the guidance of scholarly historical and literary research.   I cannot take everything, all the sayings, all the injunctions, all the teachings and all the challenges of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, as being equally authentically those ‘of’ or ‘from’ Jesus.   They all need scrutiny.

There is probably no more radical, critical scrutiny given to the sayings/teachings of Jesus in the gospels, than that given by the Jesus Seminar, a group in the 1980s & 1990s of about 200 biblical scholars, including many professors.  This Seminar was set up by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan with the aim of deciding the collective view of the Fellows of the Seminar, regarding the historical connectedness of the deeds and more particularly the sayings/teachings/words of Jesus of Nazareth, to him.  Even though the strategies, processes and membership of the Seminar have come under considerable serious criticism from other biblical scholars and theologians, I believe the Seminar’s work cannot be ignored.   In their published book, ‘The Five Gospels – What did Jesus actually say? – The search for the authentic words of Jesus’, the hundreds of sayings, and thus the teachings of Jesus as stated in the four biblical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas, have been catalogued.  After deliberation the Fellows, by a system of voting, designated each saying with a colour.

Red designated ‘Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.’ or ‘That’s Jesus.’
Pink designated ‘Jesus probably said something like this.’ or ‘Sure sounds like Jesus.’
Grey designated ‘Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.’ or ‘Well, maybe.’
Black designated ‘Jesus did not say this.  It represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.’ or ‘There’s been some mistake.’ [5]

Of their voting system on each saying, the Seminar states that,
..this…. seemed consonant with the methodological scepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar; when in sufficient doubt, leave it out. [6]

Of the approximately 1100 sayings listed in their book, some have only two or three words in them and form only part of a longer conversation, while other sayings are long monologues by Jesus, particularly from the middle or later chapters of John’s gospel.  Most of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels are given the notation of Black, particularly in John, with a comment such as,
In this form, the saying is the creation of the fourth evangelist. [7]
For the most part, the words in these two sections are a pure reflection of the evangelist’s theology. [8]
The speeches of Jesus in this narrative are all the creative work of the evangelist. [9]
This way of thinking is completely alien to the Jesus of the synoptic aphorisms and parables. [10]
All of this reflects the special interests of the fourth evangelist. [11]
Comments for other gospels given by the Fellows include,
Such statements… were undoubtedly the creation of Matthew or his community. [12]
Most Fellows were persuaded that the saying was a common proverb that the evangelist had adapted to the situation of the early Jesus movement. [13]
….is therefore the creation of the Christian community. [14]
The words ascribed to Jesus are best understood as creative elements provided by the storyteller. [15]

I contend that these reasons, for giving the Black notation, do not necessarily point to a contradiction with Jesus’ teachings, but they are a refutation that Jesus actually said them.   I think there is a difference.  Even though Jesus may not have said the sayings questioned, the content could still have been a reasonable extension or a valid and helpful interpretation of what he did teach.

However, there are some comments, but not a large number, like,
It could not have originated with Jesus. [16]
Matthew, like many in Jesus audience, is misled. [17]
None of this stems, of course, from Jesus of Nazareth. [18]
…together they distort who Jesus was. [19]

So, for me, this all represents a continuum from ‘Yes definitely.  This is what Jesus taught’ to ‘No. This is contrary to what Jesus would have taught.’   I believe this gives a degree of freedom to me to make my own judgements about what sayings of Jesus in the gospels are likely to be authentically from Jesus and what needs to be questioned, maybe very seriously or even rejected.   I believe the Fellows of the Seminar sometimes give me unambiguous and definite directions as to what sayings are consistent with Jesus and what are not, but this is not always the case.   Then I have to make my own assessment.  Somewhat dangerous but I have to do it.   I have my study behind me and the text in front of me and if I am going to make any response to Jesus, I must work with these, knowing full well that my assessments must always be open to change if I gain further and more substantial information.    Can I guard against my own prejudices, etc.?   I try very hard to.
What the Fellows have given to me, I believe, is freedom from my previously held certainties.  The work of the Seminar has released me from the attitude that, ‘It is in the gospel and it says that Jesus said it so it must be true and I must obey it and not question it.’   Instead, I have been given permission to question.

I will be using many of the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions/resolutions because I believe that if this group of scholars, of all people, come to the conclusion that something actually came from the lips of Jesus or at least the saying was consistent with what he taught, I have a solid basis, a firm recommendation for believing just that.

However, in my exercise when I look at what I think motivated Jesus’ teachings, I will go beyond the Seminar’s conclusions and take the risk that such a ‘later or different tradition’ is still connected to Jesus sufficiently and so not discard it.  I use quotes from the gospels which the Seminar thinks are historically suspect, regarding their connection to Jesus himself.   I can live with that.  I exercise a bet-each-way because not all biblical scholars agree with everything the Seminar states anyway.

Available to every Bible reader and in a less academic study of Jesus’ sayings, some passages come quickly to mind.  The Good News Bible is helpful in this regard.  In it, John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, is printed with brackets around it.  (I find it interesting that the story centres on the woman.  She is the sinner.  The man involved seems to be invisible.  I thought it took two to tango!)  This short passage being bracketed and having comments at the bottom of the page in the Good News Bible, could be somewhat confusing to those who do not study the biblical texts deeply and thus be unaware of situations regarding ancient documents.  However, it is stated of this passage at the bottom of the Good News Bible’s page that,
Many manuscripts and early translations do not have this passage; others have it after John 21:24; others have it after Luke 21:28 and one manuscript has it after John 7:36.
Of this story and the sayings of Jesus within it, the Seminar Fellows state,
While the Fellows (of the Seminar) agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done. [20]

I find this a very interesting comment.   It is as though the Fellows are somewhat reluctant to be bound strictly by their historical research model.   What is at play here?  They ‘wish’?    I think the Fellows in this instance, as with others, might be pointing to what they think Funk asks about ‘the truths that inspired and informed Jesus’ and ‘the vision Jesus had.’   If the Fellows of the Seminar ‘wish’ that Jesus had said these sayings, then I am confident that the saying/teaching is not contrary to what Jesus actually taught by his words and actions.  I am personally very pleased this story is included in all the Bible versions I possess.

Another passage that comes to mind, is a saying of Jesus from the Cross in Luke 23:34, “Jesus said, ‘Forgive them Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”  The Good News Bible states in a note at the bottom of the page,
Some manuscripts do not have this saying of Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar states that because,
it is not found in a number of important manuscripts and so probably does not belong in the original text of Luke. [21]
they did not include it in their translation at all and thus make no comment about it.  Pity!  The Fellows of the Seminar could well have said that they “wish Jesus had said….”   Who knows?   I am personally very thankful this saying of Jesus is also included in all the Bible versions I possess.

I will be doing much the same thing when I quote events and/or sayings of Jesus which the Fellows may have resolved to be not directly linked with him, but about which, I ‘wish’ they had been.  In working this way, I realise I am using a different model of operation from that used by the Seminar, in that I believe the Seminar begins its deliberations with the premise that a saying should NOT be included in those directly attributed to Jesus unless evidence is produced to substantiate that it should be included.
…consonant with the methodological scepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar: when in sufficient doubt, leave it out. [22]

Rather, I am working on the basis that if a saying or event is recorded in the gospels, then it is OK unless I think it is contrary to the core and general thrust of Jesus’ message.   I realise that’s taking a big and maybe an uneducated risk; nevertheless I proceed this way.    In this regard I intend to use John’s gospel because it is a book of the New Testament we often use in church services and it is very familiar to regular church-goers.   I am not going to be restricted by the Fellows of the Seminar because of their 98% Black (There’s been some mistake.) designations for the sayings in this gospel.

.in the Gospel of John. The Fellows of the Seminar were unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus. [23]

So I need to identify what I am being faithful to when making decisions as to what I think belongs in the teachings of/from Jesus.  Being in the Gospels is extremely important to me, as is obvious from the constant references I make to them later, but it is not the only criterion for making such decisions.

The limitation we experience is that if we wish to scrutinise the life and teachings of Jesus then the main source we have is the New Testament itself and particularly the gospels.  Unfortunately there are only passing references to him in the secular literature of his time, and many of the non-canonical gospels are there but are somewhat unknown to me.
Greg Jenks in his book, ‘Jesus Then and Jesus Now’ has commented on many non-biblical sources of information about the ‘Jesus Then’, however the gospels not in the New Testament he refers to, are never mentioned in church services I attend. They are certainly not known or considered by ordinary church-goers.   Generally speaking they know nothing of any gospels other than the four in the New Testament we currently have.
However, the fact that we have four different gospels, each with their own agenda, and that in these gospels there seems to be quite divergent emphases both about Jesus’ mission and his teachings, makes it clear that there was not just one single memory or report about him.  What seems to be contradictory teachings of Jesus are occasionally recorded, and that lends weight to the idea that the text was not censored to such a great extent that only one unified, totally integrated story is presented.

The writers are not writing a factual history of sayings or events in Jesus’ life but are telling their story for a reason and telling it from the resources of the individual and collective memories of followers of Jesus as well as oral and a few written early traditions they had.   The writer of John’s gospel states the reason for writing, quite plainly.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name.   (John 20:30-31.)
This, I believe, announces for each of the gospel writers, their purpose for writing.
So, as Funk asks,
To what divine manifesto did he succumb?  By what vision was he both captivated and liberated? ….. What were the truths that inspired and informed Jesus?  [24]

To begin with, I invest a lot in the Two Great Commandments that are recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in difference contexts, but in all three gospels.    We know that both Matthew and Luke used Mark very extensively but the fact that they both chose to use what was in Mark in this instance, says something.  In these cases the Fellows of the Seminar, by a large majority decision, state for Mark 12:29-31,
that the ideas in this exchange represent Jesus’ own views. [25]
And for Matthew 22:37-40,
There is certainly nothing in Jesus’ words that is inimical to what he says and does elsewhere in the tradition.  [26]
The teachings of a famous contemporary teacher of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, came into the Fellows considerations regarding where the saying originated.  For Luke, Jesus does not actually say the words so the Fellows make no comment.  John does not come into the picture at all.

Partly because of this positive but scholarly critical appraisal by the Fellows of the Seminar about these two commandments of Jesus, I am encouraged to give them much weight as being the basis and core to his actual teachings. If this radical group and, as some would say, “This biased group who are against Jesus”, decided that the Mark saying is,
…. the ideas in this exchange represent Jesus’ own views,
that is significant for me.

I do realise that these two commandments are open to a wide variation of interpretation but for me they form a good foundation for deciding what Jesus taught.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him,

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’  The second is this ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31.)

Regarding the many other teachings of Jesus I need to ask, “What else do I rely on as being the truths that inspired and informed Jesus?”

From my lyrics  No. 17.
Jesus – Teacher, Carer, Rebel
Tune    Battle Hymn

The Lord, a wondrous teacher, brought a challenge when he spoke;
His authority was welcomed by the poor and simple folk;
Yet, the truth he taught and lived was calculated to provoke.
His wisdom guides us on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah
His wisdom guides us on.

The Lord, as teacher, carer, rebel calls to everyone;
There are conflicts to engage and there is work that must be done.
For in him we have assurance that the victory will be won.
His triumph drives us on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah.
His triumph drives us on.

I begin in a different place to many others, in that I commence with material not tied to the Bible.  I begin with the cross-cultural, cross-religious, nearly universally held human virtues/attitudes that are stated by Gretta Vosper in her book, when she lists
what a group of clergy and laypeople, using non-religious language, considered to be of utmost importance in life, what they would not want to risk losing, what they hoped their great-great-grandchildren would still be living by. [27]
The list includes,
hope, peace, joy, innocence, delight, forgiveness, caring, love, respect, wisdom, honour, creativity, tranquillity, beauty, imagination, humour, awe, truth, purity, justice, courage, fun, compassion, challenge, knowledge, daring, artistry, wonder, strength, and trustworthiness. [28]

From my own perspective I wish to add some;
patience, acceptance, tolerance, freedom, humility, kindness, gentleness, integrity, generosity, non-violence, non-vengeance, equality and hospitality.

These lists are the lists I work with but I have little doubt that you might add others and maybe delete some as being redundant, having been covered by others.   I believe that if these virtues/attitudes were embraced and practised by all humanity, we would be experiencing God’s Domain, the realisation of the vision Jesus had for the world, the truths that inspired and informed him.   As you read through the lists, I would not be surprised if you had an increasing feeling of optimism.

Together, they also help me to understand a little better what the first of Jesus’ two commandments might be about.   To be consistent and honest, I have always been bewildered with this first, loving God commandment.  I have never found a satisfactory answer to my questions, “How do I demonstrate this love for God?  Do I sing praises to God silently all the time?  Do I study the bible at every possible opportunity? Do I put a lot of time into church work?  Do I spend hours in prayer?  Do I concentrate more on my sinfulness and ask God’s forgiveness?  Do I keep telling God how much I love God?”  I just don’t know.   Having rejected the belief in an outside separate and distinct God, none of this makes sense to me anymore.   However, when contemplating the lists of virtues/attitudes, I think that if I concentrate on these in my daily living and try to live by them all the time, then I might be loving God.  But if I do this, most of my demonstration of loving God has to do with loving others, my neighbour.  This makes sense and fits very comfortably with my panentheistic beliefs.  If I am on the right track I think this may be why in Matthew’s 22:39, the words, ‘And a second is like it’ are inserted.   I nearly think that the only way I can demonstrate to myself that I love God, is by loving others.
Regarding the teachings ‘of’ Jesus, I am NOT asserting that something is made good because Jesus taught it.  I AM asserting the teaching is good and it is good that Jesus taught it.   It’s not good ‘because’ Jesus said it.   It’s good ‘that’ Jesus said it.   Jesus did not invent or discover these values/attitudes but, as I remember from my Christian education, these were given top priority in his life and teachings.

Using these lists of virtues/attitudes I seek to make, for each, connections with Jesus in his story as presented in the four canonical gospels and occasionally the Gospel of Thomas.  I try to make a case for thinking that Jesus was motivated by the above lists; that these were the truths that informed, inspired and liberated him.  I make comment on each individual word.

There are quite a few; 43 in all.   Isn’t that interesting?   I did not deliberately organise it so, but I have been told that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of the universe.  I have gone one better!   Surely that must be a sign that I am on the right track!

I look at each of these virtues/attitudes in turn as listed.  Some quotes from the gospels are used more than once because they are important to more than one of the virtues/attitudes in the above lists.   You may also be able to think of other, more suitable gospel quotes.  Go for it.  For some quotes, I have not given the Bible quotes in full so I hope you have your Bible handy if you wish to follow the full text.

As my mentor and confidant, Rev Alan Stuart, who also happens to be my elder brother, writes on the subject,
Sometimes it is difficult to decide which virtue is illustrated in a story.  One might see strength and courage, while another would see merely bravado.  Some might see compassion, others might label it simply consideration.  …  One person’s interpretation may well be rejected by another.  …  There are some stories depicting much more than one virtue.  The woman taken in adultery John 8 shows courage, discernment, knowledge, compassion, forgiveness etc.

So I proceed somewhat tentatively, with each from the list from Gretta Vosper’s book and then my additions.

1. Jesus and Hope.

In Matthew 5:3-11, we have the Beatitudes.  These speak to me of hope; hope, that the sorts of behaviour mentioned will bring about the stated results.  I do not believe these stated results are necessarily guaranteed, even though some speak of certitude.  I believe Jesus is teaching disciples to act in these ways because they are important and also in the hope that the said outcomes will eventuate.

I would say the same thing about Matthew 7:7-8, when Jesus is speaking about asking, looking and knocking.  These teachings are future oriented.  That is what hope is about; the future.  These teachings are again given with certainty but I believe Jesus is encouraging disciples to act in these particular ways, hopefully.   I don’t think Jesus is saying that receiving automatically always follows asking.  This is what verse 8 seems to say.  But if we don’t ask, it will not be known what is being requested.  I don’t think Jesus means that finding always automatically follows seeking.   However, this is what verse 8 seems to say.  But if we don’t seek there will be no finding.  From the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.” (Saying 77.)
I think this is more realistic.
I can imagine that if some asylum seekers were confronted with these verses they might respond by saying, “We have being knocking on Australia’s door for years but the door remains shut.  What does Jesus mean?”  While that is a totally understandable position to take, with the continued knocking, the door maybe becoming just a tiny bit opened.  If they and many other sympathisers don’t keep knocking and knocking loudly, the government will not even think of opening the door.  No need to.

When these verses of Matthew in chapter 7 are taken with the next few, continuing to verse 11, then a context of asking, seeking and knocking is created and as such qualify them to an extent.    Even if we ask for good things, verse 11, life as it is, does not confirm that certitude is the case; that after asking, receiving always happens, that after seeking, finding always happens and that after knocking, every door is opened.  Not at all!  I believe these teachings are all future oriented and are speaking about hope.
So for the beatitudes, they speak to me in this way: ‘Be meek so that you might inherit the earth.  Do hunger and thirst after righteousness and hopefully you will be satisfied.  Be a peacemaker and you might be called a child of God.’

I think Jesus teaches the importance of living with hope, not passively but intentionally, helping to realise our hopes.   Hope is important.  Let it flourish.

2. Jesus and Peace.

This is a difficult one.
In Matthew 5:9 Jesus talks about peacemakers being called sons of God.   What a high commendation.   This is just what children of God are, or at least should be.  They are peacemakers.  In Mark 9:50 Jesus teaches us to “Live in peace with one another. “
However, there are quite a few other passages that could be quoted, offering an opposite view of Jesus’ teachings, as in Matthew 10:34-36, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” and repeated in Luke 12:51-53, “Do you suppose that I have come to bring peace to the world?  No, not peace but division.”  Unfortunately such texts have been used as justification for war.  I personally, do not believe that was what Jesus had in mind.    It doesn’t fit with the main thrust of his message.    Jesus preached ‘enemy love’.      This was not the way of Rome.  It was the way of Jesus.  However, it can be said that when looking at lots of Jesus’ activities, they were anything but peaceful.  Often he did not act as a peaceful man.   He certainly did not have a peaceful death.

Peace and a peaceful approach is not always the most appropriate approach to issues of justice and Jesus was really on about justice.  There surely is a place for protest in an unjust world.     Where there is conflict, it is not necessary to resort to violence because there is a way to non-violently protest.  Many protests today are conducted in such a way.    Sometimes it is most appropriate to stand firmly against wrong.  Sometimes it may even be necessary to initiate conflict.   That need not include violence.  Matters can be resolved peacefully.  This, of course, is not always the case.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an ardent non-violent advocate, was executed for being involved in an assassination attempt on Hitler.    Such can be the way in an unjust world.

Many of Jesus’ teachings were so revolutionary, so confronting, so challenging of the status-quo that they could be said to engender anything but peace.   They kindled, even incited conflict.   At the end of the parable in Matthew 21:33-43, it is stated in verse 45, ‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was talking about them.  But when they tried to arrest him….’

Not every human encounter requires a peaceful reaction.     Where peace is appropriate to pursue, I believe Jesus teaches it.  I believe Jesus worked with the dilemma of peace and conflict and got the balance right.   The teaching of Paul is I believe a testimony to Jesus.  Romans 12:18 states, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

I think Jesus teaches us to live in peace.  But not at any price!   Peace is important.  Let it flourish.

3. Jesus and Joy.

I cannot remember any specific teaching of Jesus exhorting us to be joyful, however he makes reference to joy in some of his parables.  The parables of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7, the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10 and the Two Sons in Luke 15:11-32 are prime examples.  Joy is not only appropriate but the prized result in these stories.   In Luke 6: 23, joy is often connected with Jesus’ promise of rewards in Heaven.  I’m not sure what to make of this.

I think Jesus teaches that it is important for us to generate joy and also to enjoy joy.   Joy is important.  Let it flourish.

4. Jesus and Innocence.

Again I cannot remember Jesus teaching anything specifically about innocence.  However, I believe it is quite possible to link the idea of innocence to Jesus’ love of children and his comment in Matthew 18:3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  I think Jesus could have been referring to the innocence of children, the trusting nature of children.

With another meaning of the word innocence, I think that to be innocent of wrong doing was central to his teachings.  He is even quoted as saying in Matthew 5:48, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Not much room for wrong doing!   Disciples must be innocent.

I think Jesus teaches us to strive after innocence.   Innocence is important.  Let it flourish.

5. Jesus and Delight.

Yet again, I cannot remember when Jesus actually taught something specific about delight.   I cannot find a reference to the word in the gospels.  However, delight can be linked with joy and happiness.  I find it interesting to see that the Good News Bible begins the beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-11 with, “Happy are those….”.  Maybe another translation could have been, ‘Delighted are those who…..’.  If so, there is certainly encouragement from Jesus to experience this emotion as a result of discipleship.

I can imagine that from Luke 15:6b, the one searching was delighted when he found the lost sheep; that in Luke 15:9, the woman was delighted when she found the lost coin; that in Luke 15:32, the father was absolutely delighted when his wayward son returned, and that in Matthew 13:45-46, the man searching for pearls was surprisingly delighted when he found his prize.   I could go on.

I think Jesus teaches us that delight can be an appropriate outcome of discipleship.   Delight is important.  Let if flourish.

6. Jesus and Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a major sign of discipleship and a major teaching from Jesus.   Matthew 18:21-22 states that disciples are to forgive ‘seventy times seven’, in other words, without limit.  Luke 23:34 tells of Jesus’ example, practising extreme total forgiveness from the Cross.  In Luke 15:20, the parable of the Two Sons has the theme of forgiveness, with the father embracing his wayward younger son when he returned.

I know that love and forgiveness are very closely aligned to one-another and that one can generate the other.   However, I think that love is that which usually takes the initiative and forgiveness is often a result of this initiative.   I’m not sure that forgiveness necessarily gives rise to love but most surely, if accepted, it generates thankfulness and gratitude, particularly if it restores a broken relationship.

However, when Jesus in Luke 7:40-48, was invited by a Pharisee to a meal and was not accorded the required welcoming gestures, water to wash his feet, a kiss of welcome and anointing his head with oil, he told a parable about the creditor who had two debtors, in which one has a small debt while the other has a very large one. They were both forgiven and then Jesus asks who would love the creditor the more.  I personally think a more appropriate question would have been, ‘Who would be the more grateful? Who would be more thankful?’

Jesus’ teaches forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matthew 6:12. “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  I note that in this prayer, if Jesus actually taught it, that forgiveness is reciprocal, as in the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:23-35.   It seems on the one hand that forgiveness is dependent on the person receiving the forgiveness, to forgive in the first place.   On the other hand Jesus hardly ever asks the person whom he forgives, whether or not they have forgiven others.   Funk states in his 12th thesis,
Jesus made forgiveness reciprocal.  Jesus tells the paralytic, the blind and, the adulteress that they are forgiven, without exacting penalties or promises from them.  Jesus forgives because his Father forgives and on the same terms: without penalty or promise.  The only requirement is reciprocity: one is forgiven to the extent that one forgives.  Thus, one can become the recipient of forgiveness only if one first becomes the agent of forgiveness.  By acknowledging that forgiveness is in the hands of the humans agents, Jesus precludes the possibility of vesting the matter in the hands of priests of clerics or even God. [29]

In a few of the parables of Jesus, I think Funk is correct but many times, gospel stories about Jesus forgiving, reciprocity doesn’t seem to come into the picture. In many cases he doesn’t say, “You now go and forgive others.”  A bit confusing.  My understanding of forgiveness is that, for it to be genuine, it has to be unconditional; like love.   As Funk says above, it flows without ‘exacting penalties or promises’ from the recipient.  I think reciprocity comes into the picture because if one does not forgive then, I believe, one has not understood forgiveness nor is really able to accept it.

What a privileged place we hold when we can forgive and what a profound responsible privilege to do so.

I think Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is at the centre of discipleship. Forgiveness is important. Let it flourish.

7. Jesus and Caring.

Caring is another central feature of Jesus’ life and teaching.  Caring is one expression of love.   By example Jesus taught disciples that caring was central.   In Matthew 11:28, Jesus spoke of his care to all, giving rest to those who carry heavy loads, and in Matthew 20:29-34, to blind men who called to Jesus and whom the crowd in verse 31a, told to be quiet.   Jesus ‘stopped and called to them’ in verse 32 and asks them “What do you want me to do for you?”  He cared!   I could go on.

Jesus teaches that to be caring is what his disciples do.  In Luke 10:36-37, one of the meanings drawn from the parable of the Good Samaritan, is caring for those who are in need.

I think Jesus teaches us to be caring. It is essential in our discipleship.  Caring is important. Let it flourish.

8. Jesus and Love.

Love really needs no comment from me.   It is obvious that this is what Jesus and his teachings are all about. He certainly felt this human emotion, when in Luke 13:34 he wanted to embrace Jerusalem, in John 11:33 where we are told that Jesus ‘was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’, and later in John11:35, where it is stated that ‘Jesus wept.’ at the news of his friend, Lazarus’s death.   Many times grief is born of love.

Jesus’ two great commandments in Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, about loving God and neighbour, make abundantly clear that love is the core of his teachings.  John’s gospel gives a well-known statement of Jesus’ teachings about love in John 15:12, “Love one another as I have loved you”.  Jesus shows forgiving love when he washes Judas’s feet because in John 13:2 and 13:11 we are told that Jesus ‘knowing’ that he was going to betray him.   In Matthew 5:43-44, and in Luke 6:27-31, there are teachings of Jesus about enemy love going as far as turning the other cheek when struck.  He teaches about being generous which is born of love; “and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold you coat as well”.  In Luke 6:31, Jesus then finishes with a short version of the Golden Rule.  In Matthew 5:46-47, Jesus askes some piercing questions about love, for example, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

In John 13:15 Jesus teaches in word and by example.  Jesus teaches us that love is the essential attribute of disciples and love is to motivate our actions and our interactions with others.  Love is important. Let it flourish.

9. Jesus and Respect.

Regarding respect, I don’t find this specially mentioned by Jesus in his teachings.  But Jesus respected most people with whom he came in contact. His relationships with scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders of his day, cause a question mark.  But his deeds showed and taught respect.

Jesus gave respect to many who were not respected by his society.  Jesus gave respect to the unclean woman of Samaria by speaking to her, in John 4:7 saying “Give me a drink.”, and the disciples, being stuck in their culture and tradition, John 4:27, ‘marvelled’; in Matthew 8:1-3 Jesus gave respect to the sick, unclean and even lepers by touching them, which according to the law, made Jesus unclean as well, and in Luke 19:5 he gave respect to Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, by asking to go to his house, thus demonstrating that he was a friend to him.

I think Jesus teaches us by his own behaviour, to respect all others.  Respect is important. Let it flourish.

10. Jesus and Wisdom.

In Matthew 7:29 and Mark 1:22, wisdom was certainly attributed to Jesus, ‘The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.’    We are told in Luke 2:40 that Jesus ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom…’

The parable, attributed to him in Matthew 25:1-13 is about ten maidens, five who were wise and five foolish, implying that preparedness is crucial and wise when taking hold of opportunities if and when they present themselves.

When Jesus sends out his disciples on mission he tells them in Matthew 10:16 to be, “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” probably pointing to ill-advised acceptance of first impressions.   Be discerning.  In Luke 21:8a, I think Jesus taught us that it is wise to be careful, not to be led astray by people’s claims.   From Thomas, part of saying No. 39, Jesus points in the same direction.  “As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves.”

I think Jesus taught us to pursue wisdom and to cultivate it.  Wisdom is important. Let it flourish.

11. Jesus and Honour.

Honour is given and received.  I love birthdays.  In our family, they are important.   We all get together, usually about 15 or 16 of us to celebrate them.  Birthdays give us a chance to pay honour, more than respect, to each member of the family just because they are a member of our family.

There are honour boards in schools and sporting clubs to honour high achievers.  In Australia we have the Queen’s honour list every year.  We give honour to the generous donations that philanthropists give to universities for research.  One could go on.
I believe these affirmations are all important.   We might even learn a lot from team sports-people about affirming good achievements by a particular team member, paying them honour.

This is all good but Jesus, to an extent, turned honour on its head by honouring those who may not have deserved it; in Mark 12:44, Luke 21:1-4 where a widow who made an offering of only a mite to the temple, in Luke 19:9 where Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector is called by Jesus a Son of Abraham, and in Luke 13:10-17, particularly verse 16 when the woman, who was ‘bound by Satan’, is called by Jesus, “a descendant of Abraham”.  Being spoken of as a son or descendant of Abraham was the highest honour that could be given by a Jew.
Jesus words were accompanied with actions.

Honour to be real honour needs more than words. Matthew 15:7-8 is when Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes, using an Isaiah prophesy, saying, “This people honours me with their lips but their heart is far from me”.

I think Jesus teaches us to give honour.  Honour is important. Let it flourish.

12. Jesus and Creativity.

My eldest daughter, Cathy, created an impressive bridesmaid’s dress, made out of plastic bags. I doubt whether anyone will be courageous enough to wear it at a wedding but that rather outlandish creation has no doubt given rise to many more practical creations.
I don’t think this word ‘creativity’ appears anywhere in the Bible but that does not mean the concept is absent.  I think Jesus was incredibly creative, maybe not as a sculptor or a wood carver or even an artist, but very creative in the way he went about his ministry.   Fancy in Mark 14:22-25, using a normal everyday experience of ordinary people, like eating and drinking together, to create the most significant sacrament for the Christian church for the next 2000 years – the Eucharist.  Fancy, in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus giving 12 rather uneducated and unsophisticated men, many of them fishermen, the responsibility to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”, helping to start the Christian movement.   In Acts 4:13, we have ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered…..’  The ‘they’ in the text were the priests, the captain of the temple, the Sadducees, the rulers, the elders and members of the high priestly family, and ‘they’ wondered.

In Luke 13:10-17, we are told that in the synagogue Jesus was not afraid to argue with officials of the synagogue about what is permitted on the Sabbath, and at the end of this occasion it is stated in verse 17 that, ‘..all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.’  I believe this shows how clever Jesus was, how creative he was, to take on his opponents in their own territory, the temple, when in Mark11:18 we are told that, ‘For they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.’

Jesus expects us to be creative in how we exercise our discipleship and how we are involved in the church’s mission, to find ways that are not the usual.

I think Jesus teaches us creativity by being creative himself.   Creativity is important. Let it flourish.

13. Jesus and Tranquillity.

I am not surprised this is in the Vosper list.  Given the pace of life today, I can image that many people have nearly lost this concept altogether.   Jesus certainly sought it at times of decision or at times when he needed a rest.  Tranquillity is often associated with solitude and Jesus needed this in times of prayer.  Matthew 14:23, Luke 6:12 are examples.   In Matthew 6:6 Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in private and not make a show of it. He sought peace, even tranquillity in the Garden of Gethsemane but I don’t think he found it.  In Luke 4:42 Jesus wanted solitude but it was denied him.

I think Jesus taught by his behaviour that tranquillity is important when life is demanding.  Tranquillity is important to regain inner strength.  Let it flourish.

14. Jesus and Beauty.

Jesus seemed to be far more interested in inner beauty than outward appearance. In Matthew 23:27, he describes the scribes and Pharisees, “as whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful”, for their hypocrisy.   In Matthew 6:25 he criticised those who paid too much attention to outward appearance.   In Matthew 6:28b-29 he took notice of and appreciated simple beauty, comparing lilies favourably with “Solomon and all his glory”.

I find it a pity that we are not told that Jesus said more about beauty and how we can appreciate it in so many ways.

However I think Jesus teaches that beauty is more than skin deep.  Beauty is important. Let it flourish.

15. Jesus and Imagination.

Have you ever been told, “Use your imagination?”  Sometimes this suggestion can be issued when logic and rational thinking do not produce helpful results.   I think using one’s imagination includes thinking outside the box, thinking that is not bound by factual information.   My wife does cryptic crossword puzzles.    The only way I can help, and it is very seldom, is to use my imagination!

Dr. Walter Brueggemann often uses the term ‘faithful imagination’ when speaking about the Bible, its contents and its authors.   When Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his inspiring homily, ‘I have a Dream’, to America, I believe he was driven partly by his hopeful imagination.

I think the many parallels that Jesus drew between ordinary material things and those of the Kingdom of God were very imaginative.   He made connections that most of us would never think of.   He compared the Kingdom of Heaven with sowing a mustard seed, in Matthew 13:31-32; yeast, in Matthew 13:33; hidden treasure, in Matthew 13:44; fine pearls, in Matthew 13:45-46; fishermen throwing out their nets, in Matthew 13:47-50, and so on.  His numerous parables demonstrate his vivid creative imagination in the way he taught.   Many of his aphorisms were very imaginative.  In Matthew 5:13-16 he used salt, a city set on a hill, a lamp upon a stand as metaphors of discipleship.  Very imaginative.
Metaphorical thinking often requires exercising the imagination.  Jesus has not been reported as ever saying, “Use your imagination.”, however, I think imagination was part of his ‘modus operandi’.  He wanted his disciples to exercise their imagination. They had to, because his message was so far outside the normal traditional religious teaching of his day.  They had to think outside the pharisaic box.

I think that Jesus teaches, by his own example and by how he himself taught, that the use of human imagination is very significant for us as disciples.  Imagination is important. Let it flourish.

16. Jesus and Humour.

Humour is cultural.   A good example of this is the film, ‘The Castle’.   It is an Australian classic and many of us Australians enjoy watching it again and again, each time bursting into laughter many times.   However, I have been told that many Americans see very little that is funny in it.  That is a comment, not about Americans and Australians, but about cultural nature of humour.

Jewish, Hebrew humour is born out of its culture like all other forms of humour.  It has been suggested by some commentators that the mention in Matthew 10:30 that the “hairs of your head are all numbered”, in Mark 10:25 of “a camel to go through the eye of a needle”, in Mark 10:30 of having “hundreds of houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” as a reward (I have had said to me that having one sister, three brothers, one mother and one father is quite enough thank you very much!), are all examples of what could be regarded as humour in the gospels.

It seems that humour was not important to the authors of the story of Jesus in the gospels but I don’t think means that he had no sense of humour.   I do not see humour as significant in Jesus’ teachings.   But humour is important. Let it flourish.

17.  Jesus and Awe.

The Bible has numerous pointers to awe.   Even though the actual word is used rarely, the Psalms often speak of the feeling of awe.  Close to this feeling maybe in Matthew 6:26-30, when Jesus contemplates lilies of the field and the grass.   Maybe stretching it a bit!   The end phrases of the Lord’s Prayer also might point towards awe.

With the explosion of scientific knowledge about the cosmos, the intricate workings of the micro universe and the complexity of the human species, as well as other research findings, awe is a universal feeling today.

For me, awe is not one of the core emphases of Jesus’ teaching but I think it is there.   Awe is important. Let it flourish.

18. Jesus and Truth.

Some, but very few people refuse to take an oath in court.   They sometimes refer to Matthew 5:33-37 about swearing oaths, saying that, as disciples of Jesus, they need take no oath because they will always tell the truth.  Telling the truth is a ‘given’ for followers of Jesus.

John 1:14 asserts that the Word that became flesh was ‘full of grace and truth’ and in John 1:17 that both ‘grace and truth came

One of the famous ‘I am’ sayings by Jesus in John 14:6a is “I am the way, the truth and the life”.   I think that being truth means that Jesus embodies the truth.  I think it would automatically follow that Jesus requires all his disciples to always tell the truth and live by it.

When Jesus was arguing with the Jews, whom Jesus accused of wanting to kill him, he speaks in John 8:44 of the devil who “has nothing to do with the truth” and also says “He is a liar and the father of lies”.    Jesus embodies the opposite, the truth.

By inference, Jesus teaches that the truth matters.  His is the way of truth.  Truth is important. Let it flourish.

19. Jesus and purity.

Purity in the time of Jesus, was spoken of mostly in terms of the purity laws, like in Matthew 15:1-2 which tells of washing hands before eating, etc.  This is not, I think, what purity in the list above is concerned with.  The purity listed, I presume, has to do with innocence, chastity and freedom from evil and guilt.  Matthew 5:8 Jesus comments that, “the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  Sometimes people narrow the meaning of purity down to matters of lust and sex. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus, being male, does talk about one who “looks at a woman lustfully” but I think he has a broader interest in purity than this.  Purity in relationships has to do with honesty, openness, respect and truth.  Purity of act and thought is the issue and it has to do with being clean, being free from anything that debases, defiles or contaminates.   The application of purity is far wider than sex and lust even though these are included.  In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus speaks about purity of thought when he lists the impurities which, coming from inside the heart of a person, defile the person. He says “..come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolhardiness. All these things come from within, and they defile a man”.   Purity does not entertain any of this.

Jesus makes little specific reference to purity in his teachings, but I believe it is clearly implied.   Purity is important. Let it flourish.

20. Jesus and Justice.

One of the serious continuing arguments Jesus has with the Pharisees is about justice.  Amongst many other quotes, Luke 11:42 has Jesus accuses them of neglecting justice.  By inference, this makes justice and the practise of it, a significant aspect of Jesus’ teachings.
I often go back to the Old Testament prophets of Micah and Amos when thinking of the biblical injunctions to seek justice and I nearly forget that this was one of the main issues Jesus had with the religious and other leaders of his day.   One of the significant arguments Jesus’ has with the Pharisees is about Sabbath keeping.  In Mark 3:4 he asks, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”, and he criticises a ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13:15-16 for untying an ox or an ass and leading “it away to water it”, but not condoning a healing.  These arguments have to do with justice.  Jesus berates the lawyers of his day in Luke 11:46 for loading “man with burdens hard to bear”, and in Luke 11:52 for not doing their job in prosecuting justice but taking “away the key of knowledge”.

One of the tragedies of today is that it seems revenge and punishment is what people are really talking about when they say, “I want justice”.

Again Jesus is not recorded in the gospels as having given any direct specific teaching about justice but by his actions, his example, his conversations and arguments as well as by the main thrusts of his message and ministry, Jesus, I believe, teaches his disciples to act justly and to pursue justice at all times.

Biblical scholars I have read more recently, speak of ‘distributive’ justice and I think this is what Jesus was on about.   I don’t think he was on about ‘retributive’ justice.

I believe Jesus lived justly.  I believe he teaches and argues for justice.   Justice is important. Let it flourish.

21. Jesus and Courage.

Many times Jesus himself demonstrated courage in the face of personal threat and possible danger, in Matthew 8:28, confronting two demoniacs, ‘so fierce that no one could pass that way’, in Mark10:33-34, confronting death in Jerusalem; in Luke 4:29-30, as a result of his courageous preaching all the people of the synagogue, ‘led him out of the city and led him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built that they might throw him down headlong.’, the outcome being in Luke 4:30, ‘But passing through the midst of them, he went away.’  There are many other passages I could quote about the courage of Jesus.   There is dangerous conflict with the religious leaders of his day that goes right through the Jesus story as presented in the gospels.  He courageously confronted his opponents.
Thomas, the disciple, possibly catches some of Jesus’ courage when he said to his fellow disciples about going to Jerusalem.  In John 11:16, he says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.

When commissioning his disciples for mission Jesus obviously implies that they would need courage. It states in Luke 10:3 that Jesus is sending them out “as lambs in the midst of wolves”.  It does take courage to stand up to the world and conventional wisdom and Jesus exhorts his disciples to have it and act with it.

Jesus lived courageously and by word and example he teaches us that courage is necessary in the exercise of our discipleship. Courage is important. Let it flourish.

22. Jesus and Fun.

I think that Jesus and his disciples must have had many times of fun together.   People do not continue to belong to a group unless they have some fun and enjoyment with other members, and Jesus and his disciples were fairly much together for at least 1 year and maybe 3.   I’m sure fun was experienced by them all from time to time, maybe even at each other’s expense.  That’s what fun can be about sometimes.

However, in all the 89 chapters of the four gospels no mention is made of fun.  I cannot find any gospel evidence that Jesus was a funny man.  This does not worry me much.  And again this does not mean that Jesus and the gospel writers could not have enjoyed a good joke.

I have been told that the writers of the gospels were not interested in fun.  I realise this but fun, even if thought of as shallow, still has its important place.  Jesus and the disciples were on about very serious matters and fun didn’t really fit into the story.  I personally find this disappointing.  It does not make his teachings deficient but I think the Jesus story is the less without it.

Even though I believe it is absent from the Jesus story, fun is important. Let it flourish.

23. Jesus and Compassion.

Like love, compassion is central to Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching.   Compassion seems to me to be a little more specific in its meaning than love.   For me, its emphasis is on action.   It certainly involves feelings and emotions when Jesus had compassion on the crowds in Matthew 9:36, with the crowds being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ and in Matthew 14:14, just when they followed him; in Mark 6:34, and again ‘like sheep without a shepherd’.  We are told in Luke 7:13 Jesus had feelings of compassion for a grieving mother, saying to her, “Do not weep”.   Jesus, in his parables, praises the action of people showing compassion to others.  In Luke 10:33, in the story of the Good Samaritan and in Luke 15:20 when a father welcomes home his wayward son are just a few examples.    Each time these human emotions/feelings led to immediate action.

Jesus does say “Love one another.” and by this it is obvious that he teaches his disciples to be compassionate. He also teaches disciples in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful”.   Mercy can be a product of compassion.

Like love, compassion is central to Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings.  Compassion is important. Let it flourish.

24. Jesus and challenge.

Life has many challenges and they are different for each of us, however challenges are encountered by everyone most of their lives.  There are challenges in marriage, parenting, careers, doing homework, paying the home mortgage, staying on track, winning a race, etc.  For some, getting up each morning can be a real challenge.

Jesus just adds to all this.  No one can read the gospels without being confronted by the challenges Jesus gives.  Sometimes these challenges seem extreme.  Luke 9:57-62 pulls no punches, when Jesus says that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”, after which he deals with delaying tactics of would-be followers.   In the Revised Standard Version, Matthew 5:48 Jesus gives the ultimate challenge, “You, therefore be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”   I’m not sure that this challenge is very helpful because I think it will only engender guilt.  How on earth can we be perfect?   We know that discipleship was never going to be easy, but being perfect?!

Jesus faced challenges all through his life, sometimes from his closest followers, when Peter rebuked him and Jesus had to say in Mark 8:33, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Jesus’ three temptations related in Matthew 4:1-10 were also symbolic of the challenges he had to face all his life.    Probably the story which demonstrates his most serious challenge is his struggle in the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, related in Luke 22:42, when he prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”, and then he sweated blood, Luke 22:44.  As he did throughout his life, he met his challenges with strength, courage and integrity.

Life is a challenge and I believe Jesus gives us more of the same.  He had plenty and he came through.  Challenge is important. Let it flourish.

25. Jesus and Knowledge.

Because of the 2000 years since the gospels were written, knowledge has now taken on different significance.   Research today, compared with years ago, flourishes and in so doing gives rise to more information, more knowledge.   Increases in information/knowledge is seen as essential today.   I don’t really think that knowledge is as important as wisdom.

However, Jesus does speak of doing some investigation to gain knowledge about the costs of building a tower and in Luke 14:28-31 knowing the strength of an adversary.  Only then is it appropriate to plan what action might be taken.  From Thomas, saying No. 35, Jesus says, “One can’t enter a strong person’s house and take it by force without tying his hands.  Then one can loot his house”.  Maybe not a good example but the teaching is to gain knowledge and only then, act.

Jesus also condemns the unconscionable behaviour of lawyers who in Luke 11:52 “have taken away the key of knowledge”, and also have prevented others from gaining it, thus preventing justice being achieved.  Jesus links his condemnation of lawyers with the Pharisees’ serious neglect of justice.  Jesus also warns about being led astray by false prophets.   He says in Matthew 7:15-20 to “Beware of false prophets”.  Obtain knowledge of their activities/fruits.  “You will know them by their fruits”.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus requires us to use our common sense because in a part of the saying, No.45 Jesus says, “Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles”.

Although knowledge does not seem to be a central theme of Jesus’ teachings, he certainly teaches disciples to seek it when appropriate.   Knowledge is important. Let it flourish.

26. Jesus and Daring.

Acts of daring as such, are not specifically mentioned in the gospels but daring is constantly there in Jesus’ actions and his behaviour, especially when confronting his adversaries.    I have mentioned this when speaking of creativity.  His uncompromising message and the way he presented it, led him into daring activities very often.  He had his particular way of influencing people but I don’t think he was into ‘winning friends’.
In the synagogue, Jesus was not afraid to argue with officials of the synagogue about what is permitted on the Sabbath.  Luke 13:10-17 shows how clever Jesus was, how creative he was, in taking on his opponents in their own territory.  As well as Jesus being clever, it surely demonstrates his daring.   By his example Jesus shows that taking a risk, even daring, is sometimes necessary in the exercise of discipleship, but it may have dire consequences sometimes.   It certainly did for him.

I think he may have been acting in a daring manner when he, in the Sermon on the Mount, said a number of times in Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44, “But I say unto you….”   Was he virtually declaring that the religious     teachers of his day did not really understand the import of the 10 Commandments?   How daring can a two-bit Rabbi be?
One could even ask the question, “If a disciple does not act daringly on some occasions, can he/she really be a disciple?”  Depends, I suppose.

I think Jesus, by example, teaches that daring is important, that taking a risk is sometimes necessary in the practice of discipleship.  Daring is important. Let it flourish.

27. Jesus and Artistry.

Artistry does not seem to come onto the horizon in Jesus’ teachings.   He was on about things other than art and the practice of it in artistry.   He certainly appreciated beautiful creations.

He also demonstrated his artistry with words and images in his many aphorisms and parables.   But teaching about artistry, I think not. Not for me anyway.
However, artistry is important. Let it flourish.

28. Jesus and Wonder.

The word ‘wonder’ is not used much in the gospels but the concept is surely there.  For me, one meaning of it is closely connected to awe.   When contemplating the mystery of life and the cosmos, wonder is a natural human reaction.  I have already mentioned Jesus’ comparison of the lilies to the glory of Solomon.

Wonder can also be associated with thinking, bewilderment and even curiosity.   In Luke 2:18 people wondered at the shepherds, when they told of the birth of Jesus.  In Luke 4:22 we are told that people wondered at Jesus’ gracious words, when he spoke in the synagogue, ‘They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” ’ In Luke 24:41, the disciples wonder at their experience of Jesus in an appearance after the resurrection. Many quotes suggest that wondering has an element of disbelief, or at least bewilderment, in it.  Sometimes the challenge from Jesus is not to wonder but believe.

Although maybe not greatly connected to the Jesus’ teachings, wonder is important. Let it flourish.

29. Jesus and Strength.

Is there gospel teaching about physical strength?  No; not for me, but maybe it is sometimes hinted at as being helpful.   Luke states in 1:80 and 2:40 that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’ and in Luke 1:80 ‘strong in spirit’.  We can associate different things with strength.   In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake and pray with him and they don’t or can’t. In Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38 Jesus says that “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.  They apparently needed a bit more physical, emotional strength.   Physical strength came into play when Simon of Cyrene carried the Cross for Jesus, mentioned in Luke 23:26.  Apparently Jesus may have lacked the physical strength.
In John 9:4, when Jesus says he must keep doing God’s work, strength of purpose is certainly the implication. This strength is constantly present in Jesus’ ministry.  Luke 9:51 indicates this strength of purpose, ‘made up his mind and set out on his way to Jerusalem’, as the Good News Bible states it, when Jesus quite predicably knew there would be trouble.   And again in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus displays his strength of purpose.  He says in Matthew 26:39, “Yet not what I want, but what you want”.  Numerous other quotes could be used to point to Jesus’ strength of purpose and this, very often, I believe, would have stretched his physical as well as emotional strength.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to give strength to the weak.  Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-55 points to a similar song of praise in 1Samuel 2:1-10; Hannah’s song.  Reading these, at face value, it seems that God is doing a new thing, turning things upside-down.  1 Samuel 2:4-5, ‘The bows of the mighty are broken, and the feeble gird on strength’ and verse 8 ‘He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.’ as well as in Luke 1:51-53, ‘He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’   These resonate with me regarding the broad sweep of Jesus’ message and his teachings in that he sought to give strength to the weak and question the status and strength of the strong, and particularly how they exercised these.

Strength/power is important and when disciples have it, Jesus teaches it must be exercised in loving service.  He makes this very clear in Matthew 20: 25-27, “but whoever would be great among you must be your servant”.

In his life and ministry Jesus teaches by example as well as in plain teaching how strength is to be exercised by disciples. Strength used appropriately, is important. Let it flourish.

30. Jesus and Trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness in human relationships is related to reliability.   If I am reliable, to an extent I am trustworthy.   Trustworthiness obviously points also to the wider human virtue, of being able to be trusted, of being one in whom others can have confidence.   Jesus in Luke 16:10-12 when saying, “He who is faithful in very little is faithful also in much…” , opens up this issue by using the word ‘faithful’.  In other words, ‘He who is faithful, who can be trusted even with little things, is trustworthy.’

A number of times in his gospel, John has Jesus using the words, “Truly, truly I say to you…”, or in the Good News Bible, “I am telling you the truth….”  In John 10:1 and 7, 13:16 and 38, etc. the gospel writer is saying to his readers, “Jesus really can be trusted.  He is trustworthy.”   Jesus claims to be so.  All his behaviour deems this to be the case.   There is no gospel account where Jesus can be shown to be deceitful, unfaithful or untrustworthy.  Even his adversaries do not accuse him of being so. They can’t.   Jesus again teaches by his example.  He could be trusted.   He was trustworthy.

In some of his parables Jesus refers to trustworthiness as being the sort of behaviour that brings rewards; as in Matthew 25:14-23, the parable of the talents.  A somewhat difficult parable for me, but according to the master, the two of his servants had been trustworthy.

Nevertheless, trustworthiness was essential for Jesus and he teaches as much to his disciples. Trustworthiness is important. Let it flourish.

Now to my extra list.

31. Jesus and Patience.

In explaining the parable of the Sower, Jesus in Luke 8:15 teaches that the “good soil” represents those who hold the word and “bring forth fruit with patience.”  Sometimes good results take time.  Patience is required.

Jesus showed great patience with his disciples.  When reminding them about the feeding of the crowds, he asks them in Mark 8:14-21 why they don’t understand, particularly verse 21, “Do you not yet understand”.  This was after they had been with Jesus for some time.  Jesus persevered and I think exercised great patience with them.

When in his own home town, where he would have known people and maybe had friends, he was rejected.   He does not rail against them or treat rejection in like manner, with rejection of his own.  The text in Mark 6:6 just says ‘He was greatly surprised.’ and that was it!  He just went on to other village in Mark 6:6.  Patience?  I think so.  In Thomas, saying No.31 Jesus says, “No prophet is welcome on his own turf” and no further comment is made by him.

Jesus teaches patience both by his example and in his parables.  Patience is important. Let it flourish.

32. Jesus and Acceptance.

Acceptance is, I believe, probably the most demonstrated attitude by Jesus in his life and ministry.  In Luke 15:1-2, outcasts and sinners; in Luke 19:5, Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector; in Luke 7:37-38, a woman of the city, a sinful woman, in Mark 7:29-30 in the case of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (indirectly called by Jesus a ‘dog’), in Matthew 8:10, a centurion, a master within the hated oppressive, cruel Roman regime, who had his faith strongly commended, “Truly I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”, in Luke 8:2-3, women who travelled with the disciple band, and who ‘provided for them out of their means’; in Luke 7:36, a Pharisee who invited Jesus for a meal, in John 3:1-2, Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.  All accepted.  I could go on.   In Luke 14:15-24, his parable of the Great feast and in his teaching immediately prior to telling the story in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus includes the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame in the people who disciples are to invite to a party. In the parable, in Luke 14:21, the poor are again those are the specially invited guests.  All are accepted by Jesus.

In Jesus’ day, allowing someone to come into your house or inviting them in and especially having a meal with them, was a sure sign of acceptance, even friendship.

In Luke 9:48, Jesus likens accepting, receiving, welcoming a child, to accepting, receiving, welcoming himself and the One who sent him.

I must ask the question as to whether or not Jesus’ acceptance was universal. I certainly want to think so, however I need to ask the question, “Was his message to be given to the Jews only or to all nations?”   This is still a hotly debated question amongst biblical scholars.  There are several sayings of Jesus which point in the direction of excluding non-Jews.  In Matthew 10:5 we are told, ‘These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but rather go to the lost sheep of Israel.” ’, and again, in Matthew15:24, when a Canaanite woman came to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” and yet again in Matthew 7:6 where Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is holy and do not throw your pearls before swine…”  Dogs and pigs were both unclean animals and so these words were often used as derogatory terms for gentiles.   It needs to be said that Jesus healed the daughter of each foreign mother mentioned above.

Geza Vermes makes a strong case, when considering in detail many more gospel texts than those quoted above, for believing Jesus thought and acted accordingly, in preaching and teaching to Jews and only Jews.    He states
In short, the view that Jesus ministered only to the lost sheep of Israel and instructed his disciples to do the same is the historically correct alternative. [30]
However the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar think differently.  Two of the statements above, Matthew 10:5 and 15:24, are both given a Black designation.   In other words,
Jesus did not say this.  It represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.
The Fellows do not believe that these statements are in line with the general thrust of Jesus’ understanding of his mission.    Of Matthew 7:6, the Seminar gave a Grey designation.  In other words, ‘Well maybe.’    In their book ‘The Five Gospels’, the Fellows, regarding this saying, state,
To most Fellows, the sayings in Matthew and Thomas seemed inimical to Jesus.  The immediately preceding context in Matthew calls for self-criticism rather than the slander of others. [31]
I believe this means that the Fellows do not think this is a statement by Jesus is about gentiles, as Vermes claims.
Vermes, in his analysis, looks also at texts like Matthew 28:19, the commission to the disciples to go into all the world, so he works diligently to avoid ‘cherry-picking’ only the gospel texts that suit his case.
Taking a wider view, I agree with the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar who state in their book, ‘The Five Gospels’,
The fellows of the Seminar are overwhelmingly of the opinion, however, that a restricted mission was not characteristic of Jesus (He apparently had considerable contact with gentiles and went through foreign territory on occasion) but reflects the point of view of a Judaizing branch of the movement. [32]
This debate is certainly not new because Peter and Paul had very different views on the matter and it was the cause of great dissention in the early Jesus movement.
Whatever the truth, there are some texts that are difficult to retain when arguing for Jesus’ universal acceptance.  I would add however, that for me, Jesus’ universal acceptance does not totally depend on whether or not Jesus saw his personal and his disciples’ mission was to Jews only or to the whole world. It may have been a matter of pragmatic priorities.   Even if one’s mission is limited, that does not mean one’s acceptance has to be.

So with regards to acceptance, I believe Jesus teaches acceptance in word but more, by example. Acceptance is important. Let it flourish

Note.

I have not gone into this detail regarding many others of the gospel quotations I make.  I am not qualified to do so nor would it significantly assist my present endeavour as well as multiplying greatly the time and effort needed to bring this whole endeavour to completion.   I have done it with this question because I think it is a very important issue.
For all the other quotes, I have taken them at face value as I read them in the gospels.   I realise this is rather dangerous but I think this is the situation that most regular church-goers are in.   They are not privy to the latest biblical scholarship and may not be that interested anyway.   I still believe that the very large majority of the quotes I make are most probably consistent with what Jesus and his early followers believed and taught.   I do realise there is a great deal of debate about the authenticity and the historical connection between Jesus and the gospel records about him, however, the complex of the historical Jesus and the reports, stories, memories and  interpretations of his message in the gospels are what we have and I am content to work with them. I am happy to move on, albeit not with 100% confidence.  Can one ever be 100% confident?   I can’t.

33. Jesus and Tolerance.

Tolerance, for me, seems to require an act of will; that it doesn’t come naturally to many people.  It could need a deliberate push.  The Macquarie Dictionary gives such meanings to tolerate as
to allow to be, permit, to bear without repugnance, put up with. [33]
It does not seem to be much of a spontaneous loving action.  It often requires patience.  Yet I believe it is one of the qualities of love.
Although not specially mentioned in the gospels, I think Jesus sometimes had to be tolerant of and patient with his disciples.  In Mark 8:21 we may have a hint; “Do you not yet understand?”

Many questions could be asked about his tolerance or lack thereof, with his enemies, the scribes and Pharisees.    Maybe there are situations when intolerance is appropriate.    Very tricky!

This is a case where I must exercise serious scrutiny on what Jesus said and did.    I have to be honest and say that some of the gospel stories and sayings/teachings of Jesus leave me confused as to what is appropriate in my discipleship.  Many of his accusations I find troublesome!   But then, I must say, “Who am I to judge?”   I still have to do a lot of ‘faithful questioning’, maybe even a bit of ‘faithful rejection’!

For instance, we read that Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you speak good, when you are evil?” in Matthew 12:34, and “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! Because you shut the Kingdom of Heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor would enter to go in.   Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you transverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” in Matthew 23:13-15.
The vast majority of Matthew chapter 23 is full of this invective of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees.

These are damning words, strong accusations against the religious leaders of his day, those who had given their lives to religion and its teachings, studying and proclaiming them.  If it is historically true that Jesus actually said these things, is it any wonder they wanted to get rid of him?  And is it any wonder that I have questions about this behaviour?  I mention a little later the Jesus Seminar’s summation of these sayings of Jesus, but nagging questions still remain for me.   And even if it is historically true that Jesus behaved this way, I do not believe it gives me the right to act in the same manner.

If I take these sayings at face value, does it give me permission to go to people who preach Prosperity Theology, i.e. If humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity – and call them sons of vipers, and only fit for hell?   How passionate can I be about my beliefs when I think others have got it all wrong and are teaching the antithesis of what I believe Jesus was pointing to, and doing this teaching from within the church?
Of the section from Matthew above, I would say that it is Matthew speaking to his audience in his particular historical situation about 60 -70 years after Jesus.  These words do not sit comfortably for me, with the total ministry, attitude and teachings of Jesus.   For me, Jesus being so vindictive doesn’t sit at all well with the rest of the Jesus story!  But for the regular church-goer, these gospel passages are still there to be read and maybe taken on board.    Quoting again from that radical group of Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, they ask,
Is the level of invective manifest in these condemnations characteristic of Jesus, or does it belong to a later period, when Jews were excommunicating Jewish Christians from synagogues and hostility was running high? [34]
Their answer –
In the judgement of the majority of scholars in the Jesus Seminar, both the detailed knowledge of the Pharisees argument and the level of invective in many of the sayings recorded in Matthew 23:1-36 reflect the later historical context, not the public life of Jesus.   As a consequence, these sayings grouped in 23:15-22 were declared Black by a wide margin. [35]
If this is what such a radical group of scholars say, I can say, with all my personal, positive, prejudicial preconceptions in play, “Thank goodness”.  As you might predict, I really don’t like to think Jesus was like this! This is not the Jesus I see in the rest of the gospels’ picture of him.

So I don’t think I have the right to say such things to the preachers of Prosperity Theology even though I think they are very wrong.

I’m pleased there are available, helpful explanations about this sort of gospel stuff because there are more of these sorts of sayings of Jesus to contend with.   I am pleased that there are a great variety of scholarly commentaries on these issues so I have to exercise my ‘faithful questioning’ very carefully.   I suppose some may think I am easing myself out of a difficult situation.   Maybe this could be said of all my ‘faithful rejections’.  So to be consistent I need to say that even with some of the gospel records of what Jesus said and did, I make some, but very few ‘faithful rejections’.   After serious ‘faithful questioning’ I encourage others to do the same if they think it is necessary.

Jesus never actually says to us that we should tolerate one another.   He goes much further and says we are to love one another.   However, tolerance is important. Let it flourish.

34. Jesus and Freedom.

Jesus was on about freedom.  Luke has Jesus announcing his ‘call’ early in his ministry.  In Luke 4:18 Jesus say “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… to set at liberty those who are oppressed”.   A major part of his ministry, without using the Jesus story in John’s gospel, seems to be directed to the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the outcasts, the unclean, the sinners and those who had little to no hope in life.  I understand his message to be one of freedom from exclusion, from oppression, from pain, from injustice, from misery, from exploitation.   He taught by word and example that the power of leadership should be exercised in service.  It should be used to set people free, not enslave them.  In Matthew 20:25 Jesus teaches that “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise their authority over them.  It shall not be so among you;…”

I can never imagine Jesus owning a slave.   It was not uncommon nor frowned upon in his day.  But it would have been contradictory to his message.  I am somewhat surprised there is no record of him speaking out against slavery, and vehemently.   He certainly spoke against many social boundaries, barriers and customs.   Why not slavey?  Of course he may have said something about it but it is not recorded so we don‘t know.

He spoke of truth giving rise to freedom.  In John 8:31-36 he links true freedom to knowing the truth by being his disciples.   Jesus states in verse 36, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

I believe Jesus teaches us to work for freedom for others by lovingly exercising what power and influence we have.   Freedom for all is important. Let it flourish.

35. Jesus and Humility.

The writer of Philippians states that Jesus humbled himself, Philippians 2:5-8.  I understand this is set in the dualism of the separation of God and humanity, Heaven and Earth, but humility is still the theme of this passage from the writer.

It could be said when reading sections of John’s gospel that Jesus did not suffer from humility at all, however there is, for me, a classic example of his humility is in that gospel in John 13:3, when ‘he knew the Father had given all things into his hands’, we are told in John 13:4-5 that he washes his disciples feet!.  Peter can’t cope; so we are told in John 13:6.  This, for me, was an act by Jesus of true humility.  In Matthew 20:25-27 Jesus teaches that humility should be exercised in leadership and authority.  Sometimes Jesus states some possible results of not being humble and also of being humble, as in Luke 14:11

Yet again, I think Jesus teaches humility by both word and example.  Humility is important. Let it flourish.

36. Jesus and Kindness.

1 Corinthians 13:4 states that being kind is a demonstration of love.   It involves benevolence, consideration and being helpful.   In Mark 5:24-34 Jesus was kind to the woman who wished to remain anonymous for fear of what might happen to her, so he just said to her, “Go in peace.”

He did not like the disciples preventing children coming to him.  In Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 10:13-14 he wanted to show them kindness.  In Matthew 14:15-16, 15:32 he showed consideration/kindness to the crowds. This sort of kind behaviour happened all through his ministry.

Jesus lived and teaches kindness.    Kindness is important. Let it flourish.

37. Jesus and Gentleness.

As a child I learned a rhyme that began, ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild; Look upon a little child…..’.   Much of the gospel narratives paint Jesus as anything but.

However when the occasion arose, he demonstrated just how gentle he could be.   In Mark 10:16 he took children in his arms and blessed them.   It is my experience that children don’t allow adults to take them in their arms unless they perceive the adult to be kind, gentle and non-threatening.

Jesus was also gentle with adults.  In Matthew 11:29, the gospel writer has Jesus saying that he is ‘gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest’.  In Matthew 20:20-22, Jesus could have reacted very differently when a mother came and asked for privileges for her sons.  In Luke 7:13, in the story of raising the widow’s son, Jesus says, “Don’t cry.”   I can imagine his tone of voice would have been very gentle, as also in John 20:16 when Jesus, after his resurrection, said to Mary, when she had been weeping, “Mary”.  In raising of Jairus’s daughter, I perceive Jesus demonstrated gentleness, in Luke 8:52, saying, “Do not weep.” and in verse 54 ‘taking her by the hand….’   Jesus was a toucher.   Used appropriately, touching can be a sign of gentleness, even tenderness.

However, one might say that Jesus was not gentle with his opponents, chiefly the Pharisees, scribes and priests, lawyers and religious leader of his day.  He seemed to argue vehemently with them on many occasions.   He certainly did not back away.  Maybe being gentle is not always appropriate.

Jesus was gentle at appropriate times, particularly with the vulnerable.   Gentleness is important. Let it flourish.

38. Jesus and Integrity.

Although the word integrity is not used of Jesus, his life and actions demonstrates a human life full of it.  Jesus taught honesty, which is a mark of integrity, when in Luke 3:12-14 he spoke about collecting the correct amount of tax and not robbing to augment wages earned.   He resisted temptations by ‘the devil’, in Matthew 4: 4, 7 and 10, to be side-tracked from his mission and ministry, and by Peter in Matthew 16:21-23, when he felt it necessary to call his friend Peter, Satan.    Jesus lived and died doing his Father’s will, stated in Mark 14:33-36, “..not what I will but what thou wilt.”  He died as he lived, with integrity.   I think this is a positive aspect of Good Friday messages that is sometimes not highlighted.

Jesus teaches and he lived integrity right to the end.   Integrity is important. Let it flourish.

39. Jesus and Generosity.

Jesus taught his disciples to share generously in Luke 3:10-11, by giving a spare coat away and also food; in Luke 6:29b-30, by giving to those who beg and not to require back what has been taken from you; in Luke14:12-14, by giving to those who don’t or can’t repay.  He urged his disciples in Matthew 5:42, to be generous with money, by giving to those who beg and by not refusing anyone who would borrow; in Luke 6:34-35 by loving and doing good.   In Thomas saying No. 95 Jesus says, “If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back”.

Jesus teaches generosity.  Generosity is important. Let it flourish.

40. Jesus and Non-violence.

Jesus was non-violent; well almost always.   From Matthew 21:12-13, it could be suggested that he was violent when he drove the money-changers out of the temple; with good cause, mind you.

I find it interesting that, as far as we are told in the text, Pilate did not try to round up Jesus’ followers.   One would have thought this would be necessary if Jesus, who had been around for at least a year, had been a violent revolutionary with followers willing to do his bidding, as he said.   This rounding-up strategy by Pilate is not reported.  One would have thought also that Pilate would have known about Jesus’ activities if they had been violent, but he says in Luke 23:22, “I have found no crime in his deserving death.”  It only stands to reason that under such an oppressive Roman occupation, the authorities would have had a strong security system to discover, investigate and prosecute any violent subversive activity.  Crucifixions were common.   In fact Jesus says to Pilate in John 18:36, that if he had been an earthly king, given to violence, his “servants would fight”.   Jesus was non-violent but he was still perceived as a threat.

Jesus makes no use of the Exodus story in his ministry.  Not a mention of it.   I contend this was deliberate, because that story is just too violent.   Jesus avoided other Old Testament texts which speak of God’s violence.

In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus teaches disciples to have non-violent enemy love.

His way is the way of non-violence and he teaches his disciples that way.   Non-violence is important. Let it flourish.

41. Jesus and Non-vengeance.

In Matthew 5:38-41, Jesus teaches non-vengeance by turning the other cheek and when sued, give more than you are being sued for; in Luke 6:28, by praying for those who abuse you.   In Matthew 18:21-22 Jesus teaches disciples to forgive without limit, forgiveness that is born of an attitude of non-vengeance.

There is a lot of vengeful violent activity in the Old Testament but in Luke 9:54-55 Jesus turns his back on it by rebuking James and John when they want to pay the Samaritan village back for not welcoming Jesus, obviously referring to the violent activity sanctioned by God, in the days of Elijah (Some ancient manuscripts actually mention Elijah in this verse. It is in the text of the King James Bible.). Jesus will have none of it!

Jesus teaches non-vengeful attitudes and activities.  Non-vengeance is important. Let it flourish.

42. Jesus and Equality.

Jesus was consistently on the side of the poor and the outcast, at least in the first three gospels.  He wanted these people to have their fair share and to be accepted. Luke 6:20, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”, needs good interpretation to be understood but I find nowhere in the New Testament where Jesus says, “Blessed are the rich”.  So much for those who preach Prosperity Theology.

In Luke 6:24 Jesus gives little future to the rich.   In Luke 16:13 Jesus states that a person cannot serve two masters and the Good News Bible states that one of these ‘other masters’ is money.   In Mark 10:17-23 in the story about the rich young man, Jesus talks about the difficulties that rich people face regarding discipleship, and in Matthew 19:24 he likens a rich man entering the kingdom of God to that of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  In all of these teachings, I think he is pointing to economic equality.

Important to Jesus, there is also equality of opportunity.   Even though he heals many unclean people in the temple, there is no account of him upbraiding them for being where they were, in the temple.   They should not have been there because they were unclean!  In Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector in the parable, probably should not have been in the temple either, even to pray.    This parable also speaks to me of Jesus looking into the hearts of people rather than taking notice of their status.   He was not into status.  In Luke 15:1 he attracted those who had none. In Luke 15:2 it states that those with status did not like it.  Equality was not on their radar!

Matthew 11:18-19 he was even numbered with those whom the elite looked down upon.   I can imagine Jesus may have sometimes smiled at this sort of accusation by thinking, ‘Well it’s nice to be noticed anyway!’

Jesus was a voice for those who had none, pointing to the need for an equality of advocacy.   In John  8:1-11 he spoke up for the woman caught in the act of adultery, (Notice that Jesus did not say that she was not guilty of the accused offence.); in Luke 6:41- 42, for those who are judged by others as sinful; in Luke 18:10-14, for the tax collector in the parable and more generally in v 14; in Luke 7:44-46, for the woman who anointed his feet, as well as in Mark 14:3-9, especially v6 with, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”; in Luke 10:38-42, for Mary, when she was criticised by Martha, especially vs 41 and 42; and in Matthew 21:14-16, especially v16, and Mark 10:14, for children.   I could go on!

Equality in its many applications, is important to Jesus.  He urges it.  Equality is important. Let it flourish.

43. Jesus and Hospitality.

One cannot always be sure what the outcome of hospitality will be.   It may be wonderful, as in Luke 19:1-10, the case of Zacchaeus, when a change of heart occurs, and the encounter after the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:28-32 when the disciples recognise Jesus.
However, I remember when my wife and I gave hospitality for a night, some time ago, to some strangers, I requested that they not smoke inside and not leave the electric radiator on all night. It was a cold night so we showed them where extra blankets were, if they needed them.  The following morning they had left before we rose from sleep and to my dismay there was a stubbed cigarette butt on the carpet next to the bed in which they had slept and there was a note from them saying that they had deliberately left the radiator on all night to keep warm.  The note also made nasty comments about our home.  Thankfully nothing was stolen.   Sometimes a challenge accompanies the exercise of hospitality.

The parable of the Great feast in Luke 14:15-24, when Jesus talks about hospitality, is both sad and joyful. Just prior to this in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus gave some of his teaching about hospitality.  In Thomas saying No. 64, Jesus says, “Go out into the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.” In Luke 15:1-2, account is given that Jesus is always hospitable to sinners and outcasts, much to the displeasure of the Pharisees.   Mark 2:15-17 states that Jesus embraced the open table fellowship.

Jesus practised hospitality, he teaches it and challenges disciples to practise it.  Hospitality is important. Let it flourish.

So what for me now?

I have tried to do justice to the 43 human virtues/attitudes, linking most of them to Jesus’ teachings, both by word and example. Some of these links have been somewhat superficial and too short.   On some occasions the links have also been somewhat tentative, but I have done the work with sincerity and I think, with quite a degree of validity.  I believe these values/attitudes are good and I have endeavoured to show that it is good that Jesus taught them.

I have obviously given the 43 words my meanings.  Others may see it differently but I have tried to take care in my understandings.  Having gone through all these virtues/attitudes which I hope my great-great-grandchildren will live by, I suggest that Jesus lived and taught most of them by word and/or by example.   I believe, together these 43 virtues/attitudes gave to Jesus his vision of the world, the divine manifesto by which he was liberated and to which he succumbed.   They point me to God’s domain.  By teaching them, I believe Jesus points to that domain.

I have approached this exercise with a regular church-goers’ situation in mind.
Our life experiences are different, unique.  All our parenting or non-parenting and family experiences are different, unique.  Our career, employment or non-employment experiences are different, unique.   Our leisure or hobby experiences are different, unique.  We are all unique!  As such these 43 virtues/attitudes will have different, unique meanings or lack of meaning for each of us.   However, I believe they point the way to make this world a better place and I think this was basic to Jesus’ vision.

The well over 100 references to the gospels I make, are not used as ‘proof texts’ but as a means of linking the 43 virtues/attitudes, sensibly I think, to what motivated Jesus, his life and his teachings.

Together, I believe they can be summed up by Dr. Lorraine Parkinson in her paper already quoted;
Added together, his teachings illustrate the ultimate ethic for life.  We call it love. [36]

I need no biblical theism, dualism or Fall/Redemption theology to aspire to all of this.  Jesus is the One who I know a bit about and I connect with the teachings of this man, as being worth following because they mirror what is of human value and human worth.  I believe that all-together they form part of ‘the truths that inspired and informed Jesus’.  They lead to abundant living.

Regarding the Two Great Commandments of Jesus – In loving a non-theistic God non-theistically, I chase after the godliness, the goodness of the lists of human virtues/attitudes above and in loving my neighbour as myself, I try to live by these same virtues/attitudes in my relationships.   As far as understanding ‘loving’ is concerned, I find 1 Corinthians chapter 13, as quoted previously, a very helpful beginning.   From the New English Bible,
Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat of another man’s sins, but delights in the truth.  There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  New English translation.)

I could quite easily substitute the word ‘Jesus’ for the word ‘love’ and the passage would be great. Substituting the word ‘George’ for the word ‘love’ presents me with the real challenge of being a faithful disciple living by the teaching ‘of’ Jesus.

I take the gospels’ story of Jesus, which obviously includes the resurrection appearance stories, and I highlight ‘Love keeps no score of wrongs’ from I Corinthians.    In none of these post-resurrection stories does Jesus criticise the disciples for their behaviour during his arrest, his trial and crucifixion, even though they all ran away and left him, even denying him.  It is as though that behaviour never happened.  Not a mention!    One might have thought that Jesus could have said something like, “Well I thought you lot could have done a bit better for me when I needed you most.”  But no.   Nothing!

In these stories I am taught that Jesus ‘keeps no score of wrongs’.   Love doesn’t.   Jesus doesn’t.

So, with all these teachings ‘of’ Jesus, I don’t believe I am throwing the baby out with the bath water even though a lot of the water has been discarded in my venture, thus far.  And the baby may look different. Could I suggest it may be because he has grown up?  Maybe a mature Jesus needs a mature response.

For me, I have ‘faithfully replaced’ the supernatural theistic, dualistic side of the church’s teaching ‘about’ Jesus with the down to earth teachings ‘of’ a most remarkable, unforgettable, profoundly wise Jewish teacher from Nazareth.  As Dr. Parkinson says a ‘God-soaked human being’.  And as I have previously said,
He is the one who defines what a human life looks like when there is total cooperation with God Within.

I believe Jesus was a God-soaked teacher of alternative wisdom, one who continuously cooperated with and uncovered God Within, one who lived a love that made a difference and one who teaches me how to live abundantly.

With all this considered, do I need to start all over again regarding my understanding of Jesus?   No, but I now have a very different basis on which to build my approach to him and his story.  I realise that this Jesus is somewhat different but I believe he does not need the biblically theistic, dualistic, supernatural royal robes he has been given by the church over the centuries and is still given today.  I believe he needs only a pair of thongs, a pair of torn jeans and a second hand shirt.  He is certainly worth trying to follow.   What a guy!
I reiterate,
Perfection is the enemy of greatness. I learn nothing from perfection but greatness is my inspiration.  Perfection de-humanizes greatness.

I cannot accept that Jesus was perfect but I personally accept the gospels stories about him which point to him as being the greatest of human beings.

Jesus did not invent human virtues but I believe he gave a different sort of urgency to many of them, but few, I believe, originated with him.  “Love your enemies” may be an exception.   I believe he re-prioritised and expanded many human virtues in a very special way.    But they are not good because Jesus said them.   Jesus is good because he embraced them.   Jesus is authentic because he lived them.

His humanity is so important because it shows us that these virtues are not out of reach of other human beings, even me.

From my lyrics  No. 18.
Jesus is Our Friendly Teacher
Tune    Converse/Erie

Jesus is our friendly teacher,
Giving guidance as we grow;
We are happy that we know him;
Though he lived so long ago;
When we listen to his stories,
Look at all his healing care,
We can see him loving others
With a love beyond compare.

Jesus is our daring teacher,
Leading in a dangerous way;
We are confident we know him,
Through the conflicts of his day;
He could often get quite angry
When the rulers were unjust;
He spoke up for all the needy;
He was one whom they could trust.

Jesus is our special teacher;
We will follow where he leads;
We are blest because we know him
Through his words and loving deeds;
As we think about his message,
How he lived and why he died,
We will try to love each other
With a heart that’s open wide.
[1] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 306.
[2] Lorraine Parkinson, from her paper given to the Common Dreams Conference in February 2016.
[3] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 309.
[4] Ibid, 304.
[5] Ibid, 36-37.
[6] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 37
[7] Ibid, 416.
[8] Ibid, 422.
[9] Ibid, 439.
[10] Ibid, 444.
[11] Ibid, 459.
[12] Ibid, 204.
[13] Ibid, 214.
[14] Ibid, 234.
[15] Ibid, 259.
[16] Ibid, 172.
[17] Ibid, 219.
[18] Ibid, 247.
[19] Ibid, 255
[20] Ibid, 426.
[21] Ibid, 397
[22] Ibid, 37
[23] Ibid, 10
[24] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 309, 305,
[25] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 104.
[26] Ibid, 237.
[27] Vosper, With or Without God, 32.
[28] Ibid, 32.
[29] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 310.
[30] Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 380.
[31] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels,155
[32] Ibid, 168.
[33] Macquarie Dictionary, 2225,
[34] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 242
[35] Ibid, 242
[36] Lorraine Parkinson, from her paper given to the Common Dreams Conference in February 2016.

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