Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Bible Revisited

Is the Bible the Word of God, or the words of God?

‘The first three chapters of Genesis contain two stories of creation, written about four hundred years apart.’ – Marcus J. Borg

My goal in writing this series of articles is to demonstrate how little we understand something that we feel we understand so well.

In broad strokes, let me begin by simply saying that the Old Testament presents God’s chosen people as being enslaved to the Egyptians. Marcus J. Borg* puts it more eloquently: ‘Israel is enslaved by imperial power.’ Then, when we reach the New Testament, Israel is once again enslaved by imperial power, this time the Romans. Cut to the present. Israel, having dodged a holocaust, is no longer enslaved by imperial power, but I’m not sure if it’s fair to say they are presently living Happily Ever After in the Promised land. It’s important to take this holistic view, in light of the prophesies and promises made by God to Moses, Abraham (Father of All Nations) and others several centuries ago.

It’s also important to remember, that for Christians, the Bible is seen as consisting, basically, of two books. To the Jews, the Old Testament is The Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Bible is a combination of hundreds of letters, songs, laws, genealogies etc written over centuries and put together in different combinations at different times. I don’t know how long the Bible, in its present form, has existed, but it is probably not more than 1000 years. Once publishing came along, about 400 years ago, the Bible became essentially fixed code, meaning it could no longer be changed or its books rotated (Revelation was at one time left out, and another appeared in the middle of the Bible). Now, while the contents remain the same, churches of every permutation have emerged that focus on those fragments of the whole they wish to focus on. First the Bible was adapted, now churches do the adapting, and congregations flow to where they feel comfortable.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Scholars believe Genesis 1.1-2.3 was written around 500 BCE. Let’s be clear that by the time the creation story was written language first had to develop, and then writing. These two technologies took enormous stretches of time to become sufficiently sophisticated to contain plurals, metaphors and other basics we now take for granted. People were around long before language as we know it, and talking for a long time before they started writing anything that made sense. So by the time people got around to writing creation stories, the world had pretty much been formed, and animals and tribes of people had run around for some time.

Genesis begins with the Earth as formless void, and finally portrays mankind as the climax, the pinnacle of creation (we’re created last).
But there is another story imbedded right here, and it starts at Genesis 2.4 and ends before Chapter 4. Borg writes: ‘It focuses on the creation of humankind and barely treats the creation of the world. It does not mention the creation of light…it begins with the creation of humankind, of adham, a Hebrew world meaning “humankind”, and often translated “man”…The story…gives priority to humankind by having people created first.’ In the one story, men and women are created simultaneously, in the Garden of Eden version, woman is created much later. The much longer story (from Genesis 2.4 – end of Genesis 3) was also written much earlier, probably 900 BCE.

Jewish history provides an interesting background to how the above stories came to be written. In the 500 BCE’s the Jews went into exile (due to the rise of Babylonia – present day Iraq). It was a fifty year exile that included the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. When the Jews returned, it was under the stern visage of a new Imperial Power, the Persians.

It’s important to remember also that the Jews recognized the Sabbath before they went into exile, and thus the observance of the Sabbath also predated the writing of the creation (as having occurred over 6 days). Borg writes: ‘Rather than being intended as a literal account of how long creation took, the six-day creation story was meant to reinforce the importance of the Sabbath.’

‘God said, let there be…and it was so…And God saw that it was good.’ This refrain is repeated numerous times, and it must be noted that the writing in this section of the Bible stands out as being uniquely phrased. There are six days, six stanzas, and each stanza ends with: ‘Morning came and evening came…’ Scholars believe this section was originally a song, or a chant. The section of Genesis that deals with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is a story Israel told itself, based upon its own expulsion, based on an invading Imperial army in the 50 years after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

‘I see the Bible as a human response to God.’ – Marcus J. Borg

Like Mr. Borg, I disagree with Christians who hold the Bible as the inspired word of God. I don’t doubt that it is an exceptional and valuable book, but that it was constructed by human beings, and are their words – and not God’s – is not difficult to see. A useful way to approach this issue is the familiar refrain that the Bible is: The Word of God. Not God’s words, but the Word, in a metaphorical sense. And it must be.

Borg rightly points out the horrifying tendency preachers and Christians have to quote from the Bible, saying: ‘Let’s see what God says about that,’ and then select something that makes sense as coming from God. Borg writes: ‘Does a passage from Paul tell us what God says or how Paul saw things?’

It is also obvious that the Ten Commandments are not really earth shatteringly wise, but a set of obvious guidelines for any community. Honor your parents, be honest, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet your neighbors wife (and her husband?) etc. They’re also obviously written by a man, and not a woman.

There are other laws in the Bible, and commandments, including that certain foods not be eaten, two types of seed are not to be planted in the same field, and homosexuality is described as an abomination. These laws were the laws of ancient Israel. The age of consent today differs in Peru (where I think it is 12), while in some countries it is much higher (as high as 20 years). Now if we in South Africa begin to chose to follow the laws of another country (which is as good as the laws of another time), based not on a firsthand approach to values and the experience of our own community in our present circumstances, but a tethered approach to being traditionally-minded, well, you can see how that can create unnecessary conflict. It’s reality versus belief.

I see many Christians, in fact most people, uncritically accepting other people’s ideas about how to live one’s life. Borg calls it: ‘leaving it to the snake’, and describes this human problem as heteronomy: ‘living the agenda of others.’ The world, for all its Christians, remains profoundly unconscious. The brokenness we see in the world is blamed on the unbeliever, or on Satan, but actually, it is our own failure to see ourselves in the real world, and our failure to be connected, to be part of this world. We put God in the place of what needs to be our participation in the rescue of both ourselves and others.

*Reading the Bible again for the first time, Marcus J. Borg, Harper San Francisco.

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