bible blog 721

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Charles Taylor,  killer, gets justice

Exodus 20 1-20

20Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before* me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation* of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.9For six days you shall labour and do all your work.10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

"For in six days the Lord created the heavens.."

12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.*

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid* and trembled and stood at a distance,19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’21Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

This seems a good point to stop and ask, “what exactly are we reading, when we read this passage?”

We’re reading a story which has been edited a number of times and probably took this precise form in the 4th century BCE. It is however much older, with some elements dating from the earliest period of Israel’s existence as a people. Like other sacred stories of this people, it invents a character called Jahweh and God. I’ll repeat that. It invents a character called Jahweh and God. Yes, doubtless the writers had expereieince of praying and offering sacrifices to this God and had heard traditional stories of his deeds and words, but they were also re- inventing this God for themselves. Am I saying that human beings created “God”? Yes, just as human beings have also created everything we call nature and everything we call science. We are not passive recipients of “facts”: we are active in the “creation” of the world round about us-once we created a flat world and a sun which moved up and down, but for some time now we’ve created a spherical world that spins on its axis. These changing human “creations” don’t mean there’s no universe, but they do remind us that we shouldn’t imagine our latest creation is the final truth.

The invention of God is a response by human beings to their experience. It is as profound and important a response as our arts, technologies and our sciences: just as they explore and develop the experience of being human, so also does our religion. Christian theologians used to claim that all other religions are human inventions whereas Christianity is revealed truth. That’s surely wrong. What it means is that Christians have invented a story of revelation. Of course, Christians will want to say that their story is based on the historical life of Jesus and on the historical message of his disciples, but a talk with a Rabbi or a glance at the Qu’ran will show that it’s quite possible to view those bits of history in a different way. Christians believe that the story they tell about God is the most profound they know and the one that best illuminates their human experience. Even more, they will want to say that their story represents One who is not of this or any universe but is everywhere present as love. Yes, but as these words show, there is no way in which the human story of God can free itself from the concepts and experiences of its tellers.

So what are we to think of the God depicted in Exodus chapter 20?

1. He speaks. Of course, there are all sorts of bits of Hollywood epic-earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, thunder and darkness-whose job it is to remind the reader that we mustn’t think this God is just like a human being, but in the end of day, God SPEAKS.  God approaches his human partners and communicates his nature and his wisdom. The storyteller who is inventing God bears witness that actually God is the primary inventor who talked to his forefathers and created this story.

2. He is not shy: He introduces himself as the God who created the people by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. Whether the readers of the story can remember anything much about Egypt is not important. As a small people amongst great nations they have been conqured time and again: they know what it is to be enslaved and what it is to be liberated: God is the liberator, the one brings freedom.

3. He’s not permissive: he’ll put up with no idols for they are merely bits of the world, whereas he is the God who made the world. He is jealous: he loves the people but he demands its faithful love in return. His jealous anger however lasts only a few generations whereas his kindness lasts for thousands.

4. He has a name (Yahweh): God’s name, which is given to the people as a token of love and intimacy, must never be misused for deception or magic. There is a human tendency to turn religion into magic, worship into manipulation. This is forbidden.

5. He enjoys leisure: he rested from his creative job on the seventh day and so his people must rest every seventh day. This liberating rule for all members of the household including animals, is grounded in the life of God.

6. He respects human discoveries about community living but gives them back to his people as essential expressions of his own nature: honouring parents, abstaining from murder, theft, adultery and false witness, and chasing the desire for the possessions of others from their hearts, these are minimum requirements for maintaining the freedom which God has given.

The picture given is of One who is not at all like human beings and brings terror to them but is intimately concerned for the freedom of his people and ruthlessly practical in his care for them. This wonderful Jewish theology reminds us that the way to God does not by-pass our neighbour and that when we maintain justice with our neighbour we touch the “beyond in our midst.”

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