Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading the Bible in 20 months: cowardice and peace

One of the things that can clear to me while I was reading the Bible straight through was the hierarchy that emerged. By this I mean that some forms of social organization worked better than others. I never "got" this big picture context when I jumped in and out of stories.

Every so often during the last decade an e-mail has circulated ( now that mass e-mails seem to be out of favor, maybe not anymore) in which a person, with feigned naivete, asks if he can enact various elements of the Mosaic law, along the lines of, do I really have to kill my neighbor for wearing clothes woven of two different fabrics, do I have to stone my neighbor for planting on a field that should have lain fallow or can I just kill him another way, and since I need to sell my daughter to raise money into slavery, what would be a fair price to ask? These e-mails are obviously meant to ridicule people who claim to be Bible literalists. They also carry the subtext of who would ever want to follow this faith other than an irrational nut?

Context is everything. Taken out of context, these laws do seem irrational and barbaric. And while I was reading the Bible straight through, the strictness of the law in the early days and the severity of punishment caused a few shocks to my system. ("my nerves, my nerves" as Aunt PittyPat would say.)

As I continued reading, however, my view began to shift. After the early days, Israel rises to greatness under David, an ascent that probably reaches its pinnacle under Solomon, who is both wealthy and wise. (At least this is impression you get from the Bible itself; the scholarship may disagree.) Solomon constructs the costly temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish people seem to enjoy prosperity and peace.

At the same time, however, that Solomon is building the temple, he is sowing seeds of Israel's destruction by marrying a multitude of wives, apparently to solidify relationships with neighboring tribes. These wives lead Solomon in the direction of moral relativism, and introduce other forms of worship--including hill shrines to Baal--into the nation.

After Solomon dies, the country is ruled by a succession of weak kings and begins its slow, sad decline into dissolution. It loses it's moral center as people move away from strict adherence to the Mosaic law and into more and more desperate attempts to appease the gods as their political situation increasingly unravels. More hill shrines spring up, child sacrifice appears, wooden idols are worshipped and a statue/pole (?) dedicated to Baal is actually erected in the temple. This is a depressing section (mostly Chronicles if I remember correctly), and not the stuff of standard Sunday School fare. In fact, although I have spent a great deal of time reading the Bible, there were sections here in Chronicles I had never read. And as I read, I found myself wishing God would appear in the middle of all this with a miracle.

Because clearly, Israel is doomed. It's surrounded by increasingly powerful enemies and seems to have lost, along with its faith (of course, a few do keep the faith) its basic common sense, cohesion and courage. I found myself saying, no, no, no, what on earth can you be thinking? when the Israelites melt down the gold and silver implements in the temple and strip the gold and copper from the walls and send these to more powerful rivals to the buy them off from invading the country. Of course, once Israel has made itself poor and helpless, what's to prevent the invasion?

Anyway, the point is, I found myself, as I was reading, looking back with nostalgic longing to the days of the strict interpretation of the law. My view of those early days changed. Yes, at that early point the group might have been stoning people and casting them out for seemingly minor infractions, but they were a cohesive community with a moral center and a strong sense of purpose. Their acts of aggression against their enemies were hair-raising, but somehow not as bad as the slothful child sacrifice practices (victimizing the innocent) of the later years. At least, in the early years, a group that felt beleagured and threatened on all sides hung together and did what it believed it needed to do to survive, not just for the day but into the future generations. The later Israelites seem a more contemptible lot, willing to sell off the fate of their descendants for a few years of immediate comfort. And this sounds uncomfortably like elements of our current society.

So the story as a whole left me pondering the hierarchy of social organization. While a peaceable kindgom ruled by God through his priestly emmisaries (or today, through the direction of the Holy Spirit written onto hearts without need of priests) might be the ideal, and a military king something that brings its own heartache and sorrow to the people, the story as a whole tells us that a strong warrior state centered around serving God (even if the people are misinterpreting how best to serve him) is preferable to a state whose center has collapsed into cowardice and moral confusion. This the hierarchy I came away with: Best: Peaceable kingdom centered on faith in God, not carnal weapons. People willing to die courageously rather than kill others. Not too bad: a strict military regime creating a cohesive community centered around following God's law and fighting to preserve themselves as a people of God, Questionable: a military state led by a warrior king who is partially following God's will and partially following the leader's (or the world's) own will and passions, Poor: a cowardly, slothful, uncohesive, morally relativistic nation state narrowly focused on preserving it's own comforts. Cowardice parading as peace.

As a pacifist myself, I was able to modify my views a bit to see militarism as not all bad. This helps me with things such as the totalizing debate over World War II. Going to war with Hitler might not have been the best thing, but it was hardly the worst thing. However, the challenge becomes how to develop past the warrior state to aim for the peaceable kingdom. And of course, we can't do it on our own.

Also, I am open to my "hierarchy" being amended. It's the result of a raw read of the Bible and a stab at seeing the world through God's eyes. What do others think?

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