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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog  

Judges

First, my thanks to all of you who were able to be at our third meeting this past Thursday! And to one and all, I hope you can make it to the next session, on January 3rd - I know it's soon in the new year, but just think how far along you'll already be on a resolution to read the Bible in 2019...


This week we continue and in odd ways deepen some of the themes we've been talking about, especially - strangely enough - the idea that forgiveness is central to the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Remember the importance of the covenant, now not with any individual but with the people as a whole: keep the commandments, be God's people. Yet the people keep failing to hold up their end of the bargain, and God keeps not walking away but rather giving them another chance. This is central to Judges. Despite the sense of triumph the Book of Joshua conveyed about their entering finally into the Promised Land, Judges is the story of Israel's cycle of apostasy, oppression at the hands of others in the land, return to the Lord, and armed triumph over their oppressors. This occurs over and over again, and shows how unsettled their possession of the Promised Land remains, and how tenuous their hold on it is. These stories, then, are the stories of great warriors – and occasionally great and crafty women as well –  rising up to lead their people, making this book the Biblical equivalent of the Iliad. The same vicissitudes in the attitudes of the Homeric gods and of the people toward them, here about God and God's people, are offered as explanations for failure and success on the battlefield. Enjoy, then, the tales of heroes Gideon, Samson, and the like, along with the gruesome trickery of Jael, as emblems of those vicissitudes. Remember, this part of the early history of the people of Israel reflects the concerns of those who wrote it upon their return from exile some five centuries later, as those later Israelites tried to determine – just as their ancestors newly entered into the Promised Land did – how to choose their leaders, how to resist the lure of strange peoples and strange gods, how to know what God wants of them, and how to live their lives with faith in the God who guides them and upholds them.

Deuteronomy 14 - Joshua 24

Another week of tough sledding – no use denying it. Skim as you need to: read the section headings at least, as you turn the pages; or try reading the first and last sentences of paragraphs - whatever will keep you moving and yet give you a sense of the flavor of these books. We're covering the farewell speech of Moses (Deuteronomy), in which he both repeats much of the history we've read and tosses in many imprecations about what will happen if the people fail to stick with God. We're also covering all of the Book of Joshua, with the entry into the Promised Land accompanied by enormous amounts of slaughter. To give these difficult passages one angle of context: Moses wouldn't need to go on and on about what terrible things God will do if the people stray if he weren't worried about how easy it is to stray and how attractive the more tangible neighboring gods were. And Joshua wouldn't hear God telling him to kill all the neighboring peoples if it weren't for the same problem. Idolatry – understood as worshiping something that isn't really God, but understood also as following a competing god – was clearly the key issue for the writer of this history.


Questions to consider while reading:


- A society does not make laws for situations that have never occurred; thus laws are an historical insight into the workings, and conflicts, within an ancient society. As you skim through all of these laws (many of them repetitions here of earlier versions), what insights do they offer into the functioning of ancient Israel?

 

- Is God made more tangible through the specificity and complexity of the many laws Moses passes on? Or just more difficult to grasp?

 

- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a "spiritual" God who has no corporeal reality and no physical representation?

 

- How do the Joshua stories reflect the unresolvable paradox between human free will and the divine will?

Leviticus 17-Deuteronomy 13

I'm late with my blog post - yikes! Thanksgiving did me in. I hope you're just continuing on anyway...


This is a long reading – half of Leviticus, all of Numbers, a good bit of Deuteronomy – and so our mantra: just keep going! Don't be discouraged by length or repetitiveness or bizarre details – just keep going! Here's where a good study Bible (if you don't have one already, I highly recommend you get one - see the "Suggested Bibles" section on the Home page) can really help: section headings and synopses are useful if you need to just keep yourself moving through much of this section. Just keep going!


And do take the time to work through our focus passages: the story of the spies in the Promised Land (Numbers 13 and 14), and the self-contradicting tale of Balaam and his talking donkey (Numbers 22). One way of looking at these stories, and at much of this section, is through the issue of authority.


Some questions to consider while reading, then: Who has the authority to speak for God? Who granted him/her that authority? How does a person of faith tell if a spiritual leader's authority is authentic or not? Ten of the twelve spies say the people occupying the Promised Land are too dangerous, while Caleb says they're not; how are the Israelites to know whom to believe? Balaam is a foreign "prophet" who is believed to be for sale; how is Balak the king supposed to know that he's actually speaking for the Israelites' God? And what about that strange story of the earth swallowing up the people who challenged Moses' authority (Numbers 16) – is there no right to ask whether Moses is perhaps not understanding God as well as he thinks? This relationship with God is still new to these people, and the question of who speaks for God is a vexing one.

Exodus 21-Leviticus 16

Now we start to see why we are doing this as a group. Chapter after chapter about how to build an ark, how to make a priest's robe, how to sacrifice an animal, how to decide which animals to eat (the kosher food laws!), how to treat a skin disease – it's enough to make us throw up our hands and toss in the towel. No! Don't do it! Now is when you need to commit to just keep going. So skim! Skim to get a sense of what's going on, but remember, this is a group project - you're in it together, so do it for each other. You can literally just keep turning pages and looking at the headings if you're really flagging or running out of time. Focus, though, on the story of the golden calf, Israel's immediate turn to idolatry – this is an important part of the story of the difficulty of becoming a particular kind of people with a particular kind of faith in a particular kind of God. Note that many of the laws about diseases and sacrifices are about how to restore someone to the community. And just take a quick look at all those instructions, all those laws in Leviticus about how to do things: these are records of the development of ritual, the development of the practice of religion among a people still creating their own identity. Finish with a glance at the observance of a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the practice of the scapegoat.


Questions to consider as you read/glance over/skim:


- The people of Israel understood these rituals and laws to come directly from God, lending the practices enormous weight – does the history of the church institution and its traditions lend similar weight and importance to our rituals and our religious laws?

 

- The golden calf is such a tangible image of idolatry – defined broadly as treating anything as God that is not God – how is it that God's people can be so quick to lose track of God?

 

- Why does Aaron acquiesce to the demands of the people for an idol so quickly and so easily? What does this tell us about the difficulties of leadership in a faith community?

Exodus 14-20

And... finally God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt. We barrelled through the plagues last week (just a bit of repetition there, I know!), when suddenly the plot stopped completely while the instructions for celebrating Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread (soon enough these two festivals are combined into one) were given in chapters 12 and 13. Then we got the offhanded 13:17, "When Pharaoh let the people go…," as if after all that we don't need to make anything special of it. So back to the plot! Here we get the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army. Think about the image of water in creation, as chaos subdued by the creator God, and thus the defeat of a so-called god, Pharaoh, by water. Might all that hardening of Pharaoh's heart start to make sense if we see this as a battle between divine forces in which one demonstrates the utter inequality of their divinities? Note that chapter 15, the songs of Moses and Miriam, are thought to be among the oldest pieces of writing in the Bible.


Stunning, then, isn't it, to find the people of Israel in the very next chapter complaining about being hungry and wishing they were slaves again, and God provides miraculous food and water. This contrast between the fickleness of the people and the mighty acts of God establishes the core dynamic of the rest of the Bible.


And then the Ten Commandments. What is it about lists? Everybody loves lists! And the Bible contains lists galore, particularly in the form of genealogies. We've already encountered three distinctive lists: the seven days of creation, the twelve sons of Jacob, the nine plagues. Here we find the biggest list of all: the Ten Commandments. There are actually 613 commandments given in the books of the Torah, but these ten are different. These set out the basic organizational structure that transforms a mass of former slaves now wandering in the desert into the People of Israel. We'll explore this more thoroughly when we meet; in the meantime, see what you make of these familiar-and-yet-not-so-familiar laws. Is it possible to read them in a less punitive and restrictive fashion than popular culture assumes?


Next week's reading is largely for skimming, so focus here - this is good and important stuff!


Questions to consider as you read:


- What do you know about, or imagine to be, the meaning of this Exodus liberation for ancient Israel? Modern Judaism? African American slaves? The twentieth century civil rights movement?

 

- Does the context of the entire narrative arc we've read so far, from Creation to the parting of the Red Sea, change the way we look at the Ten commandments?

 

- The first four commandments focus on the relationship of the people of Israel to God – how do they characterize that relationship? How does that relationship help identify ancient Israel?

 

- The last six commandments are about the relationships of the people of Israel to each other. How do they shape those relationships? How do they connect the Israelites' relationships with each other to their relationship with God?

Exodus 2-13

The transition from Genesis to Exodus involves a significant jump in time, as the people of Israel grow from Jacob's immediate descendants into a vast population who are then enslaved by their Egyptian hosts. This jump leads us then into the seminal event of the Hebrew Bible. The escape from Egypt, and the book telling the tale, both take their name from a Greek word whose roots mean "the road out." This road is clearly understood to be brought about by God directing human history for the liberation of God's people, and thus the story expands upon the developing pictures of God we have received over the course of Genesis. This week we focus on the events leading up to the Exodus itself: the call of Moses to be Israel's leader and God's agent for change; God giving his name to Moses; the showdown with Pharaoh in the plagues; and finally the Passover. We'll get to the actual escape next week.


Questions to ponder while reading:


- Moses' story seems to point to a person of destiny, chosen by God as an infant – yet he is afraid of public speaking, and, shockingly, a murderer and fugitive. Is this just an echo of our problems with the character of Jacob, or do the twists and turns of Moses' life add something important to the story?

 

- Remember that the Hebrew name of God, "Yahweh," is translated in the NRSV Bible as "LORD" - but in the burning bush story it's translated as "I AM WHO I AM." The Hebrew word is a version of the verb "to be," hence the effort to to give it a deeper connotation here. Why does it matter that God has a Hebrew name other than "God"? How will knowing that name help Moses?

 

- While the plagues themselves are quite bizarre, stranger still is the fact that each time one succeeds in convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, God 'hardens Pharaoh's heart.' Remembering that the Egyptians considered Pharaoh to be divine, what sense can we make of this contest of wills, or is it meant to be understood as no real contest at all?

 

- The Passover holiday commemorates this marvelous act of liberation by God – yet the liberation includes the slaughter of Egyptian children in the final plague. How do we reconcile a God who hears and acts on the cries of distress of his people and the degree of violence and vengefulness such actions entail?

Genesis 37-Exodus 1

This week we take on the narrative of Joseph, Genesis' longest set of stories centered on a single figure. Wow, he's really the little brother from hell! Note that the narrative style is very different, with less direct interaction between God and Joseph than we saw in the stories of Abraham and Jacob. God's dealings with Joseph are through dreams and the ability to interpret dreams, rather than direct conversation or visions. One Biblical scholar argues that this change marks a transition to seeing God at work in human history in ways that are "hidden... but nonetheless reliable." (Walter Brueggemann, commentary on Genesis, p. 289.) The end result of Joseph's story is the lodging of Jacob's family in Egypt, providing for the development of the twelve tribes of Israel through his twelve sons, and their enslavement by Pharaoh as described in Exodus.


As always: don't get lost in the repetitions, keep forging onward to get the gist of the narrative arc - enjoy!


And a reminder: we'll be meeting this Thursday, Nov 1, 7:00-8:30pm in the Parish Hall at 157 Montague.


Some questions for consideration as we read:


- Joseph is annoying, and gifted with dream interpretation, and successful - but what is his relationship with God really about? What does his faith look like?

 

- In the arc of stories through Genesis, why are the families so dysfunctional? Sibling rivalries, parental favoritism and/or indifference, etc. Along that line of thinking, the story of Tamar and Judah is a very strange insertion in the beginning of the Joseph cycle - what narrative parallels are there that can help us make sense of it?

 

- Does this God have a plan that Gen 1 to Ex 1 reveals? Or has this just been a bunch of craziness?

Genesis 24-36

These chapters give us the story of Isaac marrying Rebekah, and then of the contentions between their sons Esau and Jacob. Notice the repetitions: first, in the narrative style, for example where the story of the servant going to seek a wife and meeting Rebekah is then repeated nearly verbatim in the servant's telling of the story to Rebekah's family; and second, in the ways Isaac's story repeats thematic elements of Abraham's, particularly in Rebekah's barrenness and in Isaac's deception regarding his wife with Abimelech, the same king with whom Abraham had this trouble! Now see how these elements regarding identity, truthfulness and trickery, and familial relationships become expanded and complicated in Jacob's case. Don't get lost in the details, but do attend to the twists and turns of the plot – these entanglements make a good story, and lead us to new insights into how ancient Israel saw their relationships with each other and with this God character.


Questions to ponder while reading:


- Barrenness and fertility were obviously of great significance in a world that depended on familial connections for stability and potential wealth – but of what significance are they to God's involvement in this story?

 

- Jacob has two extraordinary encounters with God - the vision of the ladder, and wrestling with an angel - what are we to make of them? Can we see them metaphorically, or does their supernatural nature put us off too much?

 

- Why couldn't God have picked a nicer guy than Jacob? Or at least one more honest? What do the twists and turns in these tales of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob say about the idea that God has a plan, and that humanity has a role in seeing the plan fulfilled?

Genesis 12-23

We're just easing our way through Genesis, and we have so many classic stories to encounter in this week's stretch! The transition from Genesis 11 is striking: in the Tower of Babel story, humanity loses the ability to speak to each other with clarity and understanding; chapter 12 opens with God speaking a language of promise to Abraham. We saw the term "covenant" regarding God's promise to Noah never to flood the world again, but here it takes a more usual form: each party promises something. Abraham goes where God instructs, God promises to make him the founder of a people. A covenant is a contract in the ancient Middle East - and the contract is marked by a physical sign - which would be a document for us, but in a largely illiterate world, it's usually a rock or some such visible token. Here we don't learn about the sign of the covenant until the third time the promise is made, and it's circumcision. Why not a rock? Strange choice. But a covenant has, because of these stories, a deeper connotation: it's a sacred contract between God and humankind. God chooses to bind God's self, to be constrained in a contractual relationship. This is understood to be an enormous gift.


This relationship will prove most fruitful, even as it must arise from an erstwhile barren couple. And thus we are launched on the Patriarch cycle of tales, focused on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the fathers of the people of Israel. In these chapters, watch as the initial promise to Abraham deepens into the full covenant, and then is given a wrenching challenge in the near-sacrifice of his only son.


Questions to ponder as we read:


- What does it mean to be called by God? to be chosen to enact God's plan? What sort of person is called? Abraham's behavior in these stories is hardly above reproach; why has God chosen him rather than someone more obviously upright and admirable?

 

- How do the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the angelic visit to Abraham and Sarah promising a child illuminate each other?

And we're off!

Read by Oct. 11: Genesis 1-11


We're off and running! Whether you made it to the opening launch meeting last night (Oct 4) or not, I invite you to start reading now. This will all be easier if you quickly settle into a rhythm of weekly reading. Thus the schedule lists the reading to be done by the following Thursday (since we'll meet on the first Thursday of each month), and this blog will have an introduction each Friday (or by the weekend) for the week's reading (usually shorter than this one!).


This first month we'll be reading all of Genesis. There are so many great stories here, stories both familiar and yet exotic. We all know the Adam and Eve story, right? Well, read it carefully and attend to the details - note that, as I said last night, it never says the fruit is an apple. Nor is the serpent ever called a snake, or Satan. And Adam appears to be with Eve when she is talked into eating by the serpent, and he immediately joins her in eating, so why does she always get the blame? These details can be very important to how we interpret any story's meaning - i.e., what its authors and the people of ancient Israel thought it was telling us about God and us.


As I said last night, all of the Bible is about trying to understand the relationship between us humans and the God who is identified first and foremost as the force/power/will that brought all things into existence. Keep that theme in mind as you read. This week, two creation stories (Gen 1-2:4a ["a" meaning first half of the verse], and Gen 2:4b-3:24), Cain and Abel, Noah and the uncreation and recreation of the world, and the Tower of Babel. Powerful, mythic stuff!


But also confusing and confounding. If Adam and Eve are the only humans created, where do these other people appear from? What's a genealogy for, and why did people live so long back in the day? Why is God so scared of the power humans can attain by working together? So: think about how God is a "character" in these stories, how they are meant to be analogies pointing to God rather than describing God, and see what different facets of God and our relationship with God are revealed in each story.


Quick literary hint/reminder: when you see "Lᴏʀᴅ," it means that the Hebrew word for God's name is Yahweh, and when you see "God," it means the Hebrew word is "Elohim." In Genesis, in particular, there are two narrative strands - one uses "God" ("Elohim") exclusively, while the other uses "Lᴏʀᴅ" or "Lᴏʀᴅ God". These ancient epic strands have been woven together, hence the contradictions (how many days does the flood last? how many pairs of animals?) and the repetitions. The latter, within a strand, also point to the original oral form of these narratives. Just fun things to notice as you read.


Enough for now - start reading! We'll have so much to talk about on November 1!