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Archive for the ‘Christian Literature’ Category

Russian Icon of Isaiah, 17th C.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been (all ten of you who read this), two weeks ago I broke my leg and had surgery, and was in the hospital for 6 days.

Since coming home I’ve had a lot of opportunity to read our next work, the Book of Isaiah. I’ve read it three times, and read lots of commentary online. It’s hard going, because I’m trying not to have a flip response to it,  e.g., “Well, that was weird,”.

I’m also trying not to be content to just summarize it. There are real summaries available by actual scholars who can read the ancient Hebrew and who have deeper contextual understanding of where and how this book was written.

They can describe differences in rhetoric between proto-Isaiah and deutero-Isaiah (and trito-Isaiah, of course: most reputable scholars agree that three authors wrote the thing). I can’t do that. I’m trying to learn a little bit about that, of course, but I’m also trying to relate to it as a general reader. And it’s tough. (more…)

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Part of the reason I had such trouble with Exodus is evident once you get to chapter 25. Prior to that, it is this enormous human drama: freedom from slavery, the wrath of God, the doubt and determination of his chosen Prophet, and the birth of a nation that endures to the present day.

Then Moses goes up Mount Sinai and God starts placing catalogue orders.

The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels: Gerard Hoet et. alia., from a 1728 Bible (Wikimedia)

There is an enormous section of Exodus wherein God dictates not just commandments and community laws, but also his instructions for sacrifices and the dimensions, uses, and decoration of the Tabernacle. It’s an unbroken litany of requirements and sizes and color specifications until the end of chapter 31. Like this:

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same.  And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side:  Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick.

And in the candlestick shall be four bowls made like unto almonds, with their knops and their flowers. And there shall be a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, according to the six branches that proceed out of the candlestick. Their knops and their branches shall be of the same: all it shall be one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof: and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it. And the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, shall be of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold shall he make it, with all these vessels. And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount. (25: 31-40)

Then Moses comes down and makes a powdered gold milkshake of the golden calf, and has a few thousand people slain for it, and then– then– we get to read the descriptions all over again in chapters 36-39 when the appointed craftsmen, Bezaleel and Aholiab, start actually making everything. It’s mind-numbing.

Still, I think I get the purpose for this. And I don’t mean for Steven Spielberg’s art directors, who surely found it helpful– I mean for the Israelites.

I can imagine these words being read out to the descendants of the Exodus generation many dozens of decades later, at a time when these objects may still be known to exist, even be on display. The fact that their ancient scripture, handed down from one’s forefathers, describes these precious objects precisely– and marks them out as dictated by God Himself– would be a comforting sign of permanence, a reassurance of the rightness of the patterns of your faith.

And for the Exodus generation themselves, describing these objects to this level of detail offers the practical benefit of providing an inventory, and also a chance to show off a little: see, we are nomads, formerly slaves, and yet we can offer beautiful surroundings to our Lord as a place to dwell among us, with golden candlesticks of marvelous craftsmanship.

However, I’m glad I’ll be moving on to Isaiah soon, once I look in to the matter of the manna.

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Moses by Jose de Ribera (1591-1652). From Wikipedia

I realize that the tools I am equipped with for evaluating a text are woefully lacking. The things they taught me about character analysis in AP English and in my screenwriting courses during college assume certain things about why people tell stories and what an author is “trying to say” through a character that don’t exactly apply, I think, to a work of holy writ.

But, you know, I’ve been stuck here, blogging-wise, for months, and I have to press on. Just take it as read that I’m going to say something stupid, and we’ll all do fine.

So.

If Genesis was the “how people got here” part of the Bible, Exodus is specifically about how some of those people– the Hebrew people– began to become Jews. They enter into a new, sacred covenant with the God who liberated them from Egypt. And He picks a pretty interesting person through whom to work the liberation.

Moses is the most interesting person yet in the Bible. His origin story would nowadays befit a masked comic-book vigilante: born a slave, raised by royalty, he becomes a murderer, a fugitive, a shepherd, and finally, a liberator and prophet.

But the thing about him is this: it takes a really long time before he seems convinced that any of what he is doing at God’s command is going to work. He’s constantly asking questions of God. See the dialogue in Genesis 3-4, where Moses beholds God in the Burning Bush. He asks the following questions:

“You want ME to free my people? But I’m a nobody! Are you sure? What name am I supposed to give them, anyway? And what do I do if they don’t believe you sent me? I mean, the trick with the snake is pretty neat, but this sort of thing calls for an orator and I’m not much of a speaker; couldn’t you send someone else? Please?”

But God is insistent: you’re the man, Moses. So our reluctant prophet is packed off, with the help of his brother Aaron, who eventually ends up acting as spokesman. You probably know what comes next: they tell old Pharaoh to let God’s people go, repeatedly. He refuses them, repeatedly. God sends a number of disgusting and bizarre and finally bloody and vengeful afflictions to the Egyptians, sparing the Israelites. And during all of this, Moses is repeatedly asking: do you really want me to go back there again? Isn’t there a better way?

He does eventually settle into his role. He teaches the people God’s instructions for Passover. He gathers up the bones of Joseph and carries them into the wilderness. He parts the Red Sea. He explains the whole “manna” thing to people. He gets some friends to prop his arms up so he can hold up his staff in order to assure victory for the Israelites in battle. But he is, throughout, nagged by doubt. It isn’t doubt of God that’s plaguing Moses (haw haw), it’s doubt of himself.

Also, he’s an angry dude. Witness him coming down from Mount Sinai after forty days and nights of chiseling instructions about the ten commandments and cleanliness and the entire dimensions of the tabernacle only to find his brethren worshipping a golden calf:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.  (32:19-20)

Did you get all that? He makes them drink a powdered gold milkshake. That is some seriously dedicated anger.

And it gets worse:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.  And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (32:26-28)

So you see, Moses is not a peaceable shepherd of freedom. He’s more like a crotchety midwife for this nation being born in the wilderness. It’s a terrible birth with pain and war, fire and bloodshed. But instead of maintaining love and respect for the birthing process, he constantly loses patience with the entire process, and everyone involved. He second-guesses God, and himself, and his own people.

Ultimately, like a modern midwife, he is there at the start of the family but not of it. Eventually his anger and disobedience proves too much even for God (in Numbers, not Exodus), and he dies within sight, but not within the boundaries, of the Promised Land.

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Oh, hi. It’s been what, five months?

ark of the covenant

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Joseph Jacques Tissot

Reading continues apace, although the blogging is way, way, way behind. This is partly for the usual reasons: work, family, long-distance running, laziness. It’s also because I’ve now embarked on the part of the list that contains holy scriptures, stories taken as dictated by the divine in at least three different faith traditions.

So, I’m trying to engage respectfully with scripture wherever possible. I’m trying to rein in my deeply-ingrained tendency to snark on everything, and make an attempt to learn about the people who believe these stories– and the people who may have written them. As I’ve said before, I come from a Roman Catholic background, and was involved in religious education until I was about 13 years old. Since then, I’ve been more or less unchurched (although I consider myself Quaker-curious).  I’ve had to think a lot, in my recent readings, about holiness.

Getting to grips with the concept of holiness is a tough one for most Western people under 40 or so. We’ve been relentlessly marketed at since our infancy, so we’re cynical and untrusting, and furthermore, we’ve been trained to think that “cool” is best. The problem is that “cool” is not enthused or awed or really even moved by anything, unless it’s, like, a totally sweet Vietnamese place near your girlfriend’s work, or the director’s cut of Blade Runner or an original pressing of Blue Monday or something like that. “Holy” is the thing that Burt Ward’s Robin always said in to Adam West’s Batman: “Holy costume party, Batman!” “Holy haberdashery, Batman!” It’s said, like everything else that smacks of sentiment or passion or sincerity, with a smirk.

I think one of the benefits of my religious upbringing was that it taught me to seek out and recognize the sacred and the holy. It is something I have been trying to do every day, although not in a Christianist or Biblically-focused way, per se. For me, holiness is about something being in a higher state than it can be. In humans, for instance, it means putting others first, rather than reverting to the usual animal tribalism.  It can also refer to places or times when one feels connected to everything, as if one is more than a disjointed collection of thoughts and urges.

So the rough-looking teenage boys helping the old woman at the grocery checkout to see her coins properly yesterday were holy. The light on the hills in the morning is holy, and I am sanctified when I see and feel it. The sound of my husband snoring is holy (okay, that’s a stretch, but I’m trying to be less bent out of shape by it).

It’s a little rusty, this holiness detector, but I’m working on making it function properly.

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Once upon a time I was a public school teacher. When you are a public school teacher, you are generally also what’s known as a “mandatory reporter”. This means that if you suspect child abuse, you are legally obliged to report any evidence to the appropriate authorities.

During this close re-reading of the Old Testament, I am pretty well convinced that if God were the father of one of my public school students, I would be reporting his omnipotent ass to the DCFS ASAP.

Here are some choice nuggets from Genesis:

  • He places his children in a garden, naked and unsupervised. They are to work for Him, tending the garden (2:15)
  • He then leaves a tree in the middle of the garden that they’re not meant to touch; if they do, “[they] shall surely die” (3:4)
  • When they actually eat the fruit, it contains a mind-altering substance (“and the eyes of them both were opened”- 3:7)
  • In return for eating the fruit which He left out in the open, He curses them and evicts them from the only home they’ve ever known (3:16-24).
  • When He gets bored by/angry with his children, He drowns all but a few of them (Chapter 7), who have to build a boat from scratch in order to survive his wrath.
  • To Abram/Abraham, He gives riches, land, and Isaac, a cherished son– whom He then asks Abraham to sacrifice like a sheep. Just before Abraham goes through with it, God says “Psych! I just wanted to see if you’d obey me.” This is sociopathic.

We won’t even get in to Exodus– dicking Moses around for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it is kind of OT God’s “I TOLD YOU NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!!1!!” moment. And we won’t touch the Book of Job here, either, because I’ll be covering it in more detail later.

It’s manifest to me that Old Testament God is not a loving father. He’s a nasty, petty, capricious tribal deity. I’m glad we don’t see much of Him anymore.

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The Creation, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Creation myths are like opinions: everybody’s got one. Every culture, anyway. I’ve been reading two of them in Hesiod’s Theogony and Genesis, which is the first book of both the Christian and Jewish bibles.

I’m thinking of starting a creation myths matrix for the books covered in this blog, since I know there are a lot more of them on the way. Also, it gives me a good excuse to go back through the previous titles (Gilgamesh, Book of the Dead) and see what they have to say about how all this… stuff… came to happen.

So I’ll get started on that, now that I’ve digested all of my Christmas cookies, and post that sometime in the new year.

Meanwhile, I have these two stories to compare.

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The winter solstice is upon us, and Christmas is hard on its heels. So I’m skipping ahead in the list a bit to look at the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. Luke.

If you live in an English-speaking country and have watched any television at Christmas since 1965, you are most likely familiar with chapter 2, verses 8-14, which were popularized here:

Luke’s is the only one of the canonical gospels– the gospels that made the final cut of the Bible– to go into great detail about the nativity. Most of our images of Christ at Christmas, including the manger, the stable, and the shepherds surprised by angels, come from his version of the story.

Mark cuts right to Jesus being baptized by John. Matthew goes at it like a lawyer (or a tax collector, I guess), listing Christ’s forebears and mentioning, in passing, the Magi following the Star of Bethlehem: he’s building evidence to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity. Finally, John is prophetic, starting his account with the thunderous declaration that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” (I dig John; I feel my hair stirring in some divine wind when I read him.)

Only Luke gives us Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find lodging in Bethlehem, and Elizabeth’s child (John the Baptist) leaping for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary. Only Luke gives us the baby:

bronzino adoration
Adoration of the Shepherds, Angelo Bronzino (Florentine, 16th C.)

I am not interested in trying to prove whether or not the story given in Luke is “true”. I’m not a religious scholar or a biblical scholar. I’m just some lady, some bookworm with a blog.

I was raised Catholic, and even though I don’t practice anymore, I can understand that people of faith consider the Bible to be both sacred and literally true. Hopefully they will understand that I, as a de-churched Christian, feel differently.

Anyway: what do we know about Luke’s gospel?

(more…)

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