Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Tribes of Israel

The foundational story of the people who came to be known as Israel begins with the story of Abraham’s family. His only son Isaac (“he who laughs”) was the father of Jacob, who in turn was the father of twelve sons whose names became the identifying names of the twelve tribes of Israel:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.

Of course, we are omitting two things.

First, Isaac’s other son, Esau, the twin brother who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage (Gen. 25:29–34). Again, a patriarch must connive to succeed, he must have in mind his destiny. One of the meanings of Jacob’s name is “leg puller.”

Second, Jacob had two wives at the same time; in fact, they were sisters. One was Leah, who had tender eyes, the other the younger sister Rachel, who was “lovely in form and beautiful” (the full story is in Genesis 29); and at least one daughter. Leah gave him the first six patriarchs, Rachel the second six, plus the only daughter mentioned, Dinah, who is not deemed a matriarch of a tribe. Indeed, Dinah is raped and her brothers avenged her by the sword.

Side elements of the story support the modern scholarly speculation that, contrary to the worst of European prejudices, the people of Israel were a multiethnic nation from almost the very beginning. Dinah’s rapists were men who wish to join the tribe and the brothers set upon them when they are recovering from circumcision.

The story, of course, anticipates many lurid stories of rape and abuse against women, who were essentially chattel. Jacob had to work for Rachel’s father to be able to effectively buy her and marry her. This is, of course, the pre-Mosaic faith before the Ten Commandments.

These are sometimes shocking stories. My own grandmother exclaimed that the Bible was far too lurid a book for a child of 11, the age at which I first received a copy of my own. However, the stories have a common theme found in the name Israel, which means “persevere with God.”

Friday, August 9, 2013


Any summary of the story of the Chosen People has to begin, necessarily, in the Chaldean city of Ur, located in the Mesopotamia (or land between two rivers) in what today is Iraq. In that city lived a man named Abram who struck God’s fancy, so to speak.

At the time he was chosen to be the father of a great people, his wife was beyond childbearing age. One of the great wonders sealing the pledge, the “testament” or pact, between Abram and God, was the birth of Isaac to Sarah. The story is prototypical of many of the great “patriarchs,” or fatherly leaders in the Hebrew Bible.

Abram is renamed Abraham, in consonance with the importance of naming as a sign of power and submission. Parents name children. God names Abraham when the patriarch is chosen for his singular mission.

The power of naming is why the name of God—the Tetragrammaton or four-letter word (transliterated from Hebrew as YHWH)—was held to be sacred, unwritable, unspeakable unless absolutely necessary. To use it would be to assume undue power and familiarity with God, according to the rabbis.

Beyond the naming, there were a set of singular signs of the special relationship. For example, the command to circumcise all males.

There’s also the moral test: Do you obey God so thoroughly that if God tells you to do something unthinkably painful and repulsive you will do it anyway? God asks Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, the beloved child of his old age. Abraham gets to the point of complying when God stops him.

The story is about obedience, but it had an additional message for the people who first heard it and retold it. They were, after all, people familiar with human sacrifice in the religions and cults around them. In the Genesis story of Abraham, the Bible teaches that the one true God does not demand human sacrifice; God ends them with the order to Abraham to put down his sword.

Leonard Cohen composed a beautiful song about it, “The Story of Isaac.” Click here to hear and see a video of it performed by Cohen himself.

God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a nation more numerous than the stars. Then God takes up a plan Abraham had been hatching with his father-in-law, to move to a new place, and transforms it into the quintessential journey to what would become the Jewish ancestral home.

Friday, August 2, 2013

History of the Chosen People

The next large body of biblical writings are the historical books. These are, with variations according to the collection: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1-4  Maccabees.

These books of the Bible tell the ancient history of the Chosen People, the Jews, as collected by scribes and editors through the second century BCE.1

You may ask what any of this has to do with thee and me. To the Jewish faith it enshrines key elements in the history of the collective relationship of Jews with God. To modern Gentile Christians it provides historical context to what the Galilean carpenter was talking about; he wasn't talking about our modern culture, he was talking about the received faith story of his hearers and his people.

Biblical faith stands out in that it is mostly a story with implications. In the next few posts, I'll try to summarize it, to provide an overview that you are invited to explore on your own.

1. BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) are the modern and tolerant form of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, or year of the Lord), that is least offensive to any religion. Oddly enough, modern biblical studies tend to place the actual birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the summer of the year 6 before our era, which makes BCE a more reasonable nomenclature.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Law

Aside from the ten commandments, you won’t find much divine lawmaking in the books of Genesis, Exodus or Numbers.

There’s the occasional suggestion (be fruitful and multiply) and the odd prohibition (don’t eat from that there tree) and stage directions (go tell him, “Let my People, go”). There are, of course, the grand cosmological explanations and an easy banter between the Patriarchs and God. Of course, there is the implied good behavior (faithfulness), but not much real law as such.

The real law begins with Leviticus, which is the largely ritual law, addressed to the Levites. These folks were members of the tribe of Levi, a priestly tribe assigned to care for the Tabernacle, discussed later.

It continues with Deuteronomy (or second law), which contains a series of discourses ascribed to Moses.

These two books form the core of the Law referred to by the Jews. Not all of it applied to everyone.

The Law covers nearly every aspect of life. Initiation of males into the community (circumcision), dietary rules (no pork, no mixing of dairy and meats, etc.), prayer, marriage, business and so on.

Modern Judaism does not literally demand the observance of all of the Law, although certain Orthodox strands of the religion attempt it. In fact, Judaism became a religion of another collection of writings, the Talmud. This very complex collection, written between the second and fifth centuries of our era, contains a wide range of rabbinical teachings, rulings and interpretations of the original, biblical Law.

Much like court rulings on the U.S. Constitution form the body of constitutional law, the Talmud’s interpretation and application of the Law is also regarded as the Law by extension.

Christianity stopped regarding most of the ordinances, particular those having to do with ritual and dietary rules, as normative for Gentiles at the urging of Paul of Tarsus, and later relieved all Christians—including Jewish followers of Jesus—from their observance.

There remain some very literal-minded Protestant readers who take some, but not all, ordinances very seriously. For example, many Evangelical Christians regard Hebrew Bible injunctions against homosexuality as in effect; however, they have no problem having bacon with their eggs in the morning.

The Law is important if you are Jewish or interested in Judaism. It is also important for Christians who wish to understand the New Testament better. It is what Jesus, and later Paul, were talking about.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Hebrew Bible

The Bible is not one book. Indeed, the Greek word byblos, from which we get Bible, means simply “books.” The Christian collection of books is divided into the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is roughly what Judaism today calls the Tanak, also often called the Hebrew Bible.

Jews and Christians disagree on the number and order of the books that belong in the Hebrew Bible, as do Christians among themselves. The differences affect only small portions of the collection, which as a whole can be broken up into three groups.

One way to remember the groups is using the word Hebrew word Tanak, which is an acrostic of three groups of books in the Hebrew Bible. Since ancient Hebrew had no written vowels, the word is TNK, from Torah (the law), Nevyim (prophets) and Ketuvim (“writings”). In the Christian usage, which draws the names of the books from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, the groups are commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (literally, “five books“), the histories and the third group, composed of wisdom books and the prophets.

The Pentateuch is the foundational collection, offering in narrative form answers to how everything we know came to be, the origins and basic bond of the Chosen People with God, and sprinkled throughout with what rabbis count as 613 divine laws, ordinances or commands.

The histories at some points retell some of the earlier story, then proceed with the long tale of the Hebrew people, from their return to the Promised Land led by Moses to their rebellion against Greek conquerors just a few centuries before Jesus.

The wisdom books include collections of wise sayings, a long romantic poem, a collection of 150 hymns called psalms and little treatises about essentials, marriage and other topics.

Finally, come the stories and preaching of certain men called prophets. Prophecy in biblical terms does not mean fortune telling, but rather a way of telling forth, retrospectively as well as prospectively, key events in the history of the Chosen People as seen from the divine perspective, but revealed by the prophets. They interpret history, if you will.

Anyone new to the Hebrew Bible needs to know at least two basic things about the Bible, before cracking the spine of a modern book-form edition.

First, the books of the Hebrew Bible were not written as we compose books today.

Almost all the contents composed from about 1800 BCE (before the common era) to about 1000 BCE were either in the oral tradition of the Hebrew people or in the oral and written traditions of neighbors who lived between the Asian Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) or in the Nile River basin in Egypt. Between 1000 BCE and about the 5th century BCE, the oral traditions began to be written down. At that point, upon returning from the Babylonian exile, rabbis and scribes began to assemble most of the books much as we know them today.

These texts were written in various forms of ancient Hebrew, on papyrus scrolls. In the absence printing and word-processing technology, they were copied repeatedly over and over and over, for  many years, by hand.

We do not have any likely original text written in the hand of the original human author; although, as just noted, most of the books were not originally written but transmitted orally. Thus, ancient copying errors explain some, but not all, problems of consistency that arise in reading the Bible.

It was not until well after the expulsion of the Jews from Roman Palestine in 70 CE that anyone thought to put together a precise list and order of the books that belonged in the collection—known as a canon. This process yielded the rabbinical, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant canons.

The earliest texts that survive today are mostly in Greek or Hebrew. The organization of the books into chapters and verses did not occur until the Middle Ages, which is when the Masoretes, or rabbinical school of Moses Maimonides in Spain, inserted vowels into the Hebrew text.

Second, the modern understanding of authorship and fact were unknown to the people who composed, transmitted and wrote down the books of the Hebrew Bible.

Most books are known as linked to a particular human being. The Pentateuch, for example, are given as books “of Moses.”

That does not mean that Moses sat down and wrote them in the evenings of wandering through the desert. Rather, it means that the people who repeated, wrote down and copied the books, as well as the people who edited and collected them, thought that they represented the teachings and stories that represented Moses’ school of thought, so to speak.

To confuse the modern reader even more, much of the Hebrew Bible contains narration about events that occurred long before even the storytellers and writers of the texts. The editors, most of them around the fifth century before our era, held a rabbinical understanding that each version of the same event that had survived represented a received truth that had something important to teach. They refrained from eliminating versions, but rather melded them and sometimes the results were awkward or confusing (why two creation and flood stories, for example?).

The modern idea of fact comes from a scientific understanding of the Latin term factum, meaning roughly something that has been done or has occurred. Scientific facts are verifiable, conform to experience and can be reproduced in demonstration.

Modern science was completely unknown to the ancients associated with the Hebrew Bible. Instead, they knew of truth, which was shown to them by direct experience, perception or imagination. Lacking a scientific explanation for rain, for example, they thought some unseen living force decided to make it rain from time to time.

They treated all stories, factually true or not, much the way we treat novels, not the way we treat newspapers or news bulletins. Whoever wrote the creation story obviously was not there, for example; no one believed this came from an eyewitness, much less that the detail was accurate to a microscopic or astronomic level.

Although I will attempt to provide an overview of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, anyone wishing to go into more detail could start with the Wikipedia's article on the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps the best contemporary scholarly introduction by a Christian (a Methodist in this case) is Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard Anderson, long used in many seminaries, divinity schools and the best universities.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Yeshua’s People

Most likely, as I have noted, the famous young woodworker from Nazareth at the heart of the Christian faith was known as Yeshua ben Yosif (Joshua son of Joseph). I repeat this to emphasize that one cannot even begin to understand the Christian “good news” without reference to the pre-Christian story of the Jews.

These summaries cannot possibly substitute for reading the stories of the Hebrew Bible, which Jesus, the apostles and their hearers knew as the context for what was said among them. Instead, perhaps it would be helpful to begin with a few main themes.


The story of the relationship between the descendants of Abraham (variously called the Jews, the Hebrews or Israel) and their God is narrated poetically by prophets and psalmists as the tale of a marriage between of an often wayward and unfaithful wife (Israel) to a reliable, faithful and ever-forgiving husband (Jehovah or Yahweh, as God is called), who has chosen her for all time.

Many of the principal figures of the Hebrew Bible are unsavory and rebellious. Some slay entire towns upon receiving what they perceive as a divine command. Others try to deceive God. Some get drunk and commit incest. But they are heroes and heroines because they keep coming home to faith and are ultimately faithful to God.


From Moses’ Ten Commandments on, the Hebrews are bound by a set of ordinances of divine origin—613 in the modern rabbinical count. These are found in the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, or Torah. They encompass every aspect of the “good life” a Jew must lead.

The rabbis did not write the law; none would dare usurp the divine prerogative. However, rabbis, teachers and erudite students of the law, often were called upon to apply the law to circumstances; sometimes they disagreed. They wrote endlessly, attempting to help the God-fearing Jew. Some were inspired in teachings of pre-Christian rabbis such as Hillel, whose sayings are found in Jesus’ teachings. All of the principal rabbinical writings are collected in the Talmud, a book that is not in the Bible, compiled or written between the second and fifth centuries of our era.


In the course of roughly two millennia before Christ, God sent certain individuals (they are mostly men but a few women stand out, too) who discern the divine will for the Chosen People at critical times. Some of these are formally known as prophets, although some stood as judges and kings over the blessed nation.

Prophecy is not a matter of magic, not foretelling but forth telling. The person chosen to speak the divine command decisively to the people often warns about the future. Often the stories told about them in this regard are retrojections of after-the-fact biblical writers who no doubt realized the truth of the sages’ dire words: they warned us we would be conquered if we didn’t change our ways and we were!

The person sent to lead and speak is often an unlikely candidate. Moses grew up a comfortable Egyptian prince in the royal household. Jeremiah complained to God that he was to young, no one would listen to him. David was a king and an adulterer before he penned many of, but probably not all, the psalms.

In sum, the biblical story depicts a Chosen People, the ancestors of Jesus, as ultimately and courageously steadfast, obedient and prophetic. The gospels constantly insist that Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burning Bushes

Somewhere in the created, humanly miscued world, there arose people who somehow managed to hear the voice of God. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, the patriarchs and prophets, Jesus, the apostles and various people deemed to be in the presence of God after their deaths.

I seize on the image of the burning bush from which Moses heard a voice that said it was that of God because, to me, it offers a fitting metaphor of what hearing and talking to God is all about.

Yes, I know the joke: talking to God is prayer and hearing God is a symptom of schizophrenia. I am a modern man and do not disdain science; I only propose that science does not yet know everything. Scientifically, God is profoundly unobservable and as a result nothing pertaining to the divine can be the subject of empirical analysis.

Thus, I welcome you, as Rod Serling might have, to the twilight zone of faith. I find it difficult to grasp that Abraham, Moses, Jesus and their pals heard the voice of God like you and I hear the voice of a friend on the telephone. Note that none of them even knew what a telephone was.

Parascientists such as Erich von Daniken have proposed pseudo-explanations that sound like science fiction: for example, the Tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews, from which the supposed voice of God was heard, but only by priests and rabbis, was really a radio left behind by extraterrestrials.

Let us consider something different.

Abraham, Moses, Jesus and company, like Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Lao-Tse and so forth, all ancient men in robes who spoke with wisdom that seemed divine, were men of prayer and deep, deep meditation. Men who were somehow distinctive for seeking an intuitive path to truth at a time of great empirical ignorance.

Is it impossible to imagine a spiritual search (yes, a clash of created chemicals in their created minds) resulting in an ineffable experience that communicated a goal, a command, a feeling of peace, a certainty that defied explanation (other than it was God speaking)?

God came to Samuel and Daniel in dreams, to Moses in a burning bush, to Jesus at his baptism as a voice heard only by those who were listening for it, to saints and apostles as apparitions. Elijah discovers that God is in the quiet hush of wind. Jeremiah cannot dissuade God that he is too young and awkward to be a prophet.

The consistent thread is an ineffable, life-transforming communication that is recognized as divine and beyond appeal. When God speaks, you can only follow or disobey. You cannot see God's face and you must only believe through God's wonders (or even without them).

God speaks in riddles sometimes, makes absurd and curious demands (or maybe the human hearing is off).

God often speaks what is already in the person's mind, almost confirming a chosen path. Abraham’s father is the first to come up with the idea that he and Lot and their wives are to go to Canaan. Then God calls upon Abraham to do so and makes his covenant. (See Genesis at the end of chapter 11 and beginning of 12.)

It is not magic. It is not delusion. It is the voice of God.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Out of Eden

Whenever the subject of the moral significance of Eden pops up, I am drawn to a poem by James Joyce that, in part, says
    Of the dark past
    A child is born;
    With joy and grief
    My heart is torn.
Isn’t that the truth of all births? We don’t begin as blank slates, “innocent” as popular lore has it. Babies are profoundly selfish, by necessity some would argue—but there you have it.

The second part of the creation story in Genesis attempts to explain why things around us are a moral mess, especially given that when all was created “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10).

The problem of evil haunts all faith. How can there be X evil if there is a good God? “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God demands of Job in response (Job 38:4).

St. Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo, North Africa, and the first major Christian philosopher, described our personal problem of evil with the word “concupiscence,” from the Latin for “with desire.” This is what came to be known by the hoary traditional term of “original sin” (please check out a humorous take in Tom Lehrer’s song “Vatican Rag”).

The idea is really roughly similar to the view of Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha (ca. fourth century BCE) concerning life and enlightenment. Put simply, in the earthly life we know we are caught in Samsara, a perpetual and cyclical wandering that, in the Hinduist roots of Buddhism, goes through death and rebirth. We are trapped in this cycle because of desire. Bingo! Concupiscence!

Although neither the kin religions of Islam and Judaism have a teaching of original sin, both share with the Christian faith the notion of a human status quo ante, before evil, in the story of Eden. Hinduism has a more complicated, more spiritual, version.

The point, alluded to by St. Ireneaus (130-202), bishop of Lyons, in disputes concerning this teaching, is pretty much what the Joyce poem puts forth: we start out with ancestral or inherited wrongs.

Some of us are born in mansions, built and maintained by the accumulated sweat and suffering of others, transmuted into profits and money. Some of us are born in hovels, like Jesus, without a sou to our name. Some are born from married ladies who primp for church every Sunday, others fight our way out of drug-addicted whores in alleyways.

This is not the divine order: this is the human injustice and error we have wrought by deceiving ourselves into thinking we are moral arbiters as powerful as the Creator.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

God Created

The words of Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God created heaven and earth”—did not quite mean to the unknown biblical writers several thousand years ago what we argue about today.

When I say “biblical writers,” I am referring to the people of faith who developed an unproven, unprovable understanding of Someone they believed, in the words of Paul Tillich, to be the grounding of their being.

There’s lightning? That comes from God. There are plains and mountains and rivers as far as the eye can see? God’s gift.

God is mentioned but never described in the Bible. No one has seen the face of God, the Bible states repeatedly.

Philosophers have various versions of God: creator, prime mover or nonexistent.

People of faith have had gods and eventually God, whom they have not known, but whom their intuition told them was always there. In some ancient religious stories, the world is a dream of the Godhead, in others a secretion, in yet others dismembered parts of God dispersed in an early Big Bang-like event.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, God is the eternal necessary being, indeed the only one whose essence is existence. God is. Period. God is the One who caused everything and everyone else to exist. Without God, nothing.

In Genesis we find one answer to the question of how God made something out of nothing, which is the correct and original English meaning of “create.”

We forget that. We pleasantly engage in a romantic poetry of thinking of ourselves as little gods, going about creating things, especially in art, music and literature. At best, if we are lucky or gifted, we reassemble things and ideas we have seen or heard of in an original way.

As to heaven and earth, to the ancients they were pretty a much a snow globe, or perhaps a water globe. There were the waters of the sea and by them the earth and the waters of the dome of the sky, from which hung stars, heavenly twinkling ornaments at night.
“And God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters: and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament, and it was so.  And God called the firmament, Heaven; and the evening and morning were the second day. God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven, be gathered together into one place: and let the dry land appear. And it was so done. And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:6-10)

Let’s not impose centuries of philosophies or 21st century science on authors who did not know either. Belief in divine creation need not be literal acceptance of the precise words of Genesis, whatever the original said.

The creation story is a myth. This does not mean it is false, but that it uses literary tools to convey beliefs that the storyteller holds dear for reasons that, at heart, can't be explained. That's why it's called faith.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Story of the Christian Faith

A friend who is preparing for confirmation as an adult wanted to hear the outline of the Christian story in order, so that the stated Christian beliefs, morals and rituals become clear. It’s a tall order and it will take some time, but here’s a beginning.

The Christian story begins with a Galilean woodworker who preached certain things, did certain things and died in a certain way, only to—surprise!—rise from the dead. What we know most unquestionably about this man and his followers is that they were Jews and they assumed their hearers were Jews.

This is why the gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus (Matt.1.1-16). To Matthew (and, yes, his committee of scribes and redactors associated with the church at Antioch) the important thing is to show that Jesus (Yeshua? Yehoshua?) was as Jewish as Jews come.

The evangelist therefore traces forward from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, and unquestionably still held out to be a real actual historical figure (whether or not his paternity applies to all present day Jews). Abraham begot Isaac, who begot Jacob, who begot Judas (not Jesus’ Judas), who begot Phares ... all the way to Jacob (not Isaac’s Jacob), who begot Joseph the husband of Mary, “of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

Christ is simply Greek for the Hebrew Messiah, or Savior—not Jesus’ last name. Jesus may have been called Yeshua ben Yosif, Jesus son of Joseph.

The evangelist Luke, thought to be one of Paul of Tarsus’ converts to the faith, and also a doctor, takes a different tack. Luke, a Gentile, wants to convey Jesus’ humanity so he goes back all the way to Seth and Adam.

Both Matthew and Luke, although they differ in parts, go through David to Abraham. Jesus has to claim not only Jewish roots, but a royal ancestry.

The gospel of Mark picks up the story much later, when John the Baptist and Jesus are grown up men going about saying unusual things in public.

John, the last canonical gospel, that is, the last one traditionally accepted as reflecting the teaching of the original followers of Jesus, skips much further back than even Luke to the beginning of everything: “In the beginning was the Word.”

John, the youngest of Jesus’ close disciples, who probably declaimed his version to church scribes in the island of Patmos decades after the events, was cutting to the chase, to the very beginning, Genesis 1:1, the first sentence of the entire Bible: “In the beginning God created heaven, and earth.”

John makes the point of telling us that Jesus, as the Word, was there.