Regular readers will have followed my reading of the book of Ruth, a subtle short story which brings down all sectarian and racial identity in favour of an identity based on human need and affection, which honours the creator God. It casts a critical light on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The traditional kind of bible reading does not envisage that one book might argue with another. Given that the whole scripture is called God’s Word, how could they argue unless God is schizophrenic? But if you take my view that the scripture is only God’s Word in its human fallibility, then there is room for disagreement.
Since I accidentally chose one of these argumentative books, I’m going to move on to at least two others, Jonah and James.
Jonah is a masterly satirical story of a fictional prophet who is tired of threatening God’s wrath on people who listen, repent and are forgiven. He is disgusted by God’s readiness to forgive. What’s the point of all these divine weapons of mass destruction if they are never used? What’s the point of being a prophet if people actually listen to your message? How much better it would be if the message was rejected and the righteous prophet got to see some serious retribution! With great good humour the author fashions a story that demolishes the notion that God will treat foreign nations more viciously than his own people Israel. Indeed , the very idea of a vicious God is undermined.
Generations of Christian readers wasted this great story by treating it as historical, and misreading its jokes, the best of which is the comic cuts character of the giant fish which swallows the disobedient prophet and boaks him up after three days on terra firma. As a child I listened to Sunday School teachers who wanted me to believe it could have happened. Now perhaps even fundamentalists do not have to treat all scripture as if it were history. This is in fact a dangerous book, because it mocks some cherished theological ideas: that If you think you are chosen by God, you will be favoured above other people, and that God treats unbelievers as enemies.
The book of James is a very loose sermon about individual and communal morality for the assemblies of Jesus. The author has heard some version of the teaching of St. Paul that faith is more important for a believer’s salvation, than obedience to the Jewish Law. Perhaps this teaching had become, or the author imagined it might become, a charter for careless Christianity. And so he gets stuck in with a vengeance, emphasising that ethical commands, including those of Jesus, are an essential part of the gospel. Martin Luther, the great reformation exponent of salvation by faith alone, disliked this book, calling it a “letter of straw” and advising believers not to read it.
I will begin readIng the book of Jonah tomorrow and will proceed from it to the Letter of James.