Monthly Archives: March 2012

A wandering Aramean…

I am leaving Genesis, not because it does not still have plenty to challenge, enthral, exasperate and delight, but because there s still a heck of a lot of the Hebrew Scriptures needing some kind of an over-view.
The end of Genesis explains that the Hebrews fled famine in Egypt, where they ended up in the kind of slavery. They were rescued by a great leader, a man with an Egyptian name, Moses.
He took them over a sea, a sea of reeds, into the wilderness, and there, they wandered. It is commonly claimed that one of the most reliably ancient parts of the New Testament is the song of Miriam after the sea-crossing, and readers with a taste for my fiction will find my take on it here.
What we have in the four books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the ‘takes’ of various sections of the later Israelites and Jews on what appears to be this very ancient tradition of their peoples, encapsulated thus.
‘‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut.26. 5b-9)
Another ancient tradition is that while they were in the wilderness, the people of Israel got a set of laws from Yahweh. The different sections of the tradition have different ‘takes’ on the contents of the law. The tradition of our ‘Ten Commandments’ given at ‘Sinai’ appears to be (and not my caution here) appears to be among the later traditions.
But I do not write this because I particularly detest the ten commandments. Will they ever set one on fire? No. Will they tend to lead to a sane society? Yes. They seem to me a pretty sensible set of rules. It must be admitted that they are expressed negatively but what they teach is good sense. Be honest, be true, be kind to those of your family and to your god. What’s not to like?



After the night of giddy exhilaration when I realised I had an owl back in the owl box, I have been up and down over the owls, cursing myself for getting so emotional over things I can do little to influence.

I heard the female calling from her box, and hoped I had a pair of owls. The next morning I saw a female barn owl. That night there was total silence. No owl. Not nowhere. Despair.

Two owl-less days. Then a single owl sighted but little or no owl noise. Owls are silent fliers, but highly sociable with their mates. Where you have two owls they chat a lot, in the case of barn owls, in very breathy voices. I saw the female owl several times.

Sadly, I was forced to the conclusion that I had just one owl here, a female, who had a box and no mate.

Then on Wednesday night, I heard a great deal of owl noise. I stopped, froze, more like, and listened. Two owls in their favourite trees, ones which give a good look-out. An owl repeatedly flying into and out of the owl box, and back to the trees and into the owl box. Later in the evening, two owls, hunting, calling to each other. I think, indeed I am sure, that my female has found her mate.

The long journey to understanding

The story of Jacob is every bit as beautifully written as that of Abraham, and even more subtly. Jacob is the younger of a pair of twins, and he deeply resents the fact that his brother is to inherit. With the help of his mother, he cheats his brother out of his inheritance. His brother is furious and Jacob runs for his life. Alone and sad, he lies down to sleep. He dreams that he is next to a ladder, and angels are climbing up and down it, to where God (and once again, it is God) is enjoying the cool of the roof of the world, just like a rich town dweller with his summer room on the roof of the house to catch the breezes. Jacob is comforted to know that this world connects with God’s. He goes on his way to find his uncle, where the trickster is tricked. He works for seven years to earn the woman he loves, and finds he has been married to her sister. It takes another seven years to earn his true love, and then he finds that being married to sisters, jealous and competitive, is not all it is cracked up to be.
When he has worked his way to a fine family, and is rich in flocks and herds, he sets off home. He is almost there, very near the place of his dream of ladder and angels, when he hears his brother, the brother he wronged, is coming looking for him. He trusts in his brother’s mercy to women and children, and also in his brother’s desire to break Jacob’s neck before wrecking vengeance on anybody else.
Once again, he is alone and afraid, just much older and with more to lose. He goes into the wadi. It is night. A stranger comes and wrestles with him. The stranger can hardly get the better of Jacob, until he puts out Jacob’s hip. Dawn is coming, and beginning to guess who the stranger is, Jacob demands his name, and a blessing from him. He gets the blessing, but rather than telling his own name, the stranger re-names Jacob ‘Israel’ which means ‘Strives with God’. Then the stranger goes, and Jacob calls the place ‘The face of God’ for he knows with whom he has fought.
See how Jacob’s understanding of God has grown: no longer a rich man sitting on his roof enjoying the air, now he is a person who is in the depths of a ravine, wrestling in the water and mud. It is a huge leap in understanding. Yet the most astonishing thing, the apex of the story is still to come.
The wronged brother Esau arrives. He is a much bigger man than Jacob has given him credit for being. Jacob starts off with propitiatory bowing, but Esau, the disinherited, wronged Esau, falls on his neck, weeping and embracing him. And then Jacob , who has spend the night with God, who glimpsed the face of God in the half light before dawn, Jacob says to the brother he has wronged: ‘Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.’
Each time I get to this point I sit back and consider how astonishing this insight is. I suppose it is not so very old. Depending on which theory you follow, it might belong to about the time of the Buddha, of Confucius, of the wonderful religious and creative flowering that still amazes with its depth and insight. It strikes me that this particular story equals most others. It is a deep creative story of a man learning to see ever deeper where he may find God: close to earth, in a desperate struggle in its darkest places, where he finds a God he can neither beat or be beaten by, and then, not in the faces of those who have wronged him, but in a harder place, the hardest place. He sees God is the person he has wronged. And this is the part of the Bible I am so often told is full of a God of wrath.


Last night I had at least one barn owl back. Joy so great I dare not really believe I have a pair or that they will be there tonight – but I think I do, and I really hope they will be.

I went outside as usual about 8pm and I heard it. A long rhythmic wheeze. It is a version the typical food-begging cry of a young bird. It is the cry a female barn owl gives so that her mate will come and feed her: a pair-bonding thing which also improves her bodily condition so she can breed successfully. it was coming from the barn-owl breeding box. it stopped when the beam of my head-light hit the box, and started as I tactfully looked away.

I was overcome with joy, and rushed straight into the house, where I walked straight into the newly painted cupboard. I then got the paint off myself and back onto the cupboard, and went to feed the ponies – still with my mind wholly on the barn owl, so the little mare took full advantage and went into the yard (forbidden territory) and took some persuading to come back in. Sometime later I realised that I had also left the pony feed for today to soak with the tap running full, and by that time I had a sizeable flood and feed flotsam and jetsam.

But who cares?It looks as,it looks very much as if, the barn owls have arrived.

No more meaningless sacrifice

And now the terrible story of the ‘akedah’ the binding of Isaac. I’ve linked to it so you can read it, but I will briefly re-tell it so we are all on the same page, as ‘twere. God (it is not Yahweh here, this is not a Yahwehist story at all) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain top and Abraham sets out to do it. He travels two days, and then leaves the servants and the donkey and he and his son set off for the final climb. Isaac sees there is no sheep. ‘God will provide the sacrifice,’ says Abraham, to whom God gave Isaac. It is only when Isaac is bound ready for sacrifice that God stops Abraham, and points him to a ram caught in a thicket. God does not in fact wish Isaac sacrificed.

It is a terrible story, wonderfully well told. It must be said at once that from quite an early period the people of Israel came to realise that child sacrifice was an abomination, demanded by the Gods of Canaan and abhorred by Yahweh. The Bible as we now have it is loud in condemnation of the idea.

The Rabbis, who made such a thoughtful set of reflections on their traditions, often suggested that Isaac was an adult at the time, and that he consented to the whole thing. It was not a helpless child, horrendously bound and in terror, but an adult, submitting to what he thought was the will of God. It only helps a bit.
Let us concede that Isaac is adult, and that he consents, and that God never intended to go through with the sacrifice. Because he has not withheld ‘his only son’ Abraham is blessed. It is still horrible.

I think it is horrible for this reason: the sacrifice is meaningless. It is only designed to do one thing: to prove that Abraham is willing to give up everything for God. And I do not believe that is how God works.

Oh yes, I do believe that we should always and in all things put God first. But I do not believe he ever would and ever will put us through surrendering things which impoverish us without enriching others. He might well ask us to give up our lives, if by risking them we can save another. He would never ask us to give up a bar of chocolate just to show we loved him more than chocolate. He is not so needy.

Moreover, I believe that thinking God would do such a thing, ask us to give up things just to prove we put him first, leads to a simply terrible view of vocation, in which God asks people to do things which are death to them as people. I believe God only calls us to do things which, however costly they may be, lead to our ultimate health.

I think the story of the akedah only gets it right to a point: because we may have to give up everything, and God does indeed expect us to be ready to do that, but never, ever just to prove we will.

The silence of the guineas

I just really needed a day off today – a day off from worrying about the the guinea fowl. They stayed in so that I could stop worrying about them for 24 hours. Yesterday, a beautiful day of sunshine, I went out in the afternoon and heard – nothing. Well, heard some bird-song, some wind moving in the bushes, the odd chicken talking about some tasty insects, a plane coming in to land at Prestwick Airport, and a distant (and highly-regretted) growl of traffic. What I expected to hear was a sort of burbling cheep, a soft, conversational contact-maintaining call. From time to time the burble ought to have been cut into by urgent injunctions to ‘get-back, get-back’ and an instantly-recognisable alarm call. The absence of these things only meant one thing. The guineas were not there.

Gentle reader, I hear you ask: ‘But were they only just round a corner, maybe? Or silent?’ No. they are never silent, even at night they tend to mutter. Also, one can hear them from at least half a mile away. They are birds who are deeply unhappy unless constantly reassured that they are with other guineas, and who are designed to live in places where it is terribly easy to loose sight of each other. If I could not hear them they were probably getting on for a mile away. And I had no idea at all in which direction that might be, or if they still knew the way home. Twice before I have lost an entire batch of guineas, and I never ever know what happened to the first batch.

You are entirely right – by this tie I was panicking almost as much as the guineas do. In then end I located a distant ‘go-back’ which was coming from the nearish-by wood. they were heading home and were now about half a mile away, and down in a crevasse, which swallowed the sound. In a mere half-hour their voices were audible and eventually they made it home, neurotic as ever.

Today, a wild, wet day, they have been in their little shed. It is light and there is enough space to fly and walk. It is about the size of a bathroom in a modern house. I would guess there is about twelve times as much space per bird as in a modern intensive unit. They are not impressed. But I must say, it is a very good feeling knowing where they are.

Founding father

Abraham’s stories are the first in the Bible which are presented as belonging specifically to the journey of faith of the people of Israel. Muslims and Christians also claim him as their founding father.
His story is essentially very simple, although one can see the swirls and eddies of different versions of it in the texts we now have. Yahweh promised him that if he left Tehran and settled in the land promised to him, more-or-less in modern Israel/Palestine, he would be made the father of a great nation. He was a nomad already, and he set off. He adored his wife, but she had no children. Instead, she gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and with her he became the father of Ishmael. You don’t think that relationship is likely to work out, do you?
Sarah was past the menopause when mysterious strangers arrive in the wilderness and tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child. Sequestered like a good wife, Sarah hears them, and laughs. Nine months later her only child, her son Isaac (Laughter) is born.
Sarah cannot keep Hagar properly in her place, and Ishmael stands to inherit alongside Isaac. It is in fact when she sees the children playing as equals that Sarah snaps, and demands that Hagar is driven into the desert to care for her son with just a jar of water. When, water exhausted, Hagar sits down far enough away from her son that she does not have to watch his death, an angel comes to her, and shows her an oasis. She and Ishmael are saved. Muslims trace their descent from Ishmael, and I rather wish Christians could, too. There is no doubt the Biblical writers see just how far beyond the pale Sarah’s jealousy is.
The next story is, to me anyhow, just about the nastiest in the Bible. But I think it deserves a blog of its own.