Tag Archives: biblical

Martha’s work

Clearing up after a meal like that – well it is not the work of moments. We are all in a strange mood, too, which seemed to slow everything down. The Rabbi and the New Israel had gone out suddenly, unexpectedly. A group of the others had gone too. Young Mark was one of them. Not grown up enough to be a man, too adult to be a child.

I was organising the clearing, the scrubbing. Pots, dishes, the big wine mixer. An undercurrent of apprehension, of worry, ran like dregs of the cups, put to drain. A sluggish ooze.

Like I say, it was a lot of work and we wanted everything perfectly clean. Then Mark ran in, mother naked except for a scrap of cloth clutched over his privates. He was wide-eyed, terrified, horribly clear and coherent. And we all gathered round to listen.

You know what we heard. The aching sorrow of it. The pitiful betrayal. Judas. I had served that meal. Put the pot of bitter herb before Judas.

Mary went into a corner and rolled herself up into a ball and rocked, dry eyed. I cannot remember now what Joanne did. Somebody went to tell the Rabbi’s mother. Perhaps it was her.  I finished the dishes. Then I took lye and I went into the upper room and I scrubbed and scrubbed the dining bench where Judas had sat until my hands started to bleed at the knuckles and I knew I had to stop.

So I started to clean the whole house. It had just been cleaned for Passover but that did not stop me. I scrubbed the floors. I washed the tables. I was just wiping out the corners with a damp cloth, hoping to catch some new speck of dust, when Peter burst in. He was red eyed, incoherent, but we made out that they were torturing and mocking the Rabbi and some kind of trial had been put on.

It was full day when John came back. I was rubbing over the ceilings with a cloth wrapped round a broom although I had done that an hour earlier. He said: ‘He has been condemned. We cannot let him die all alone. I will fetch the other women. Come, we will go and stand and watch.’ He looked no more than a child to me, a solemn, wise child, full of the childish certainty about what was right.

I touched Mary’s shoulder, daring for the first time to break into her grief, and she touched my bleeding hands, daring for the first time to break into mine. Then we went side by side to do the hardest thing we had ever done.



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?

Faith: ways of creating

So, I sit lightly to the Bible – I am most definitely not going to believe something just because it happens to be written there. I am however equally certainly going to give it an attentive hearing, for there are the most amazing things in the Bible. Anybody who knows some of the really astonishing ideas in it is going to give a fair hearing to the rest.
Of all of it, the Hebrew Scriptures are probably the least known and the most understood; that is to say, the writings of the peoples of Judah and Israel, which was the Bible to Jesus, and which we also know as the Old Testament.
I cannot give a full, proper introduction to them; for one thing, to do so would be a full book in itself, and for another I am not qualified so to do. What I can do is to offer a taster, and to blow away some misconceptions. So here goes (and apologies to theologically qualified readers who know this like the backs of their own hands).
The Hebrew Scriptures were not written in the order we now have them. A lot of them were written down either in the time the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, or in the time afterwards when many returned to Jerusalem, or in the time when the Persians were the overlords of the country.
Probable exceptions to this include some of the stories about the Exodus, some of the stories about King David, some of the history of his successors, and some of the so-called prophets, who were active in Israel and Judah before they fell.
I think it is possibly easier for my readers if I tackle the bible in the order we now have it.
So – the story starts with an account of the creation. This was almost certainly written in and/or after the Exile. It looks as if the writers know the Babylonian creations myths, in which one God (Marduk) battles the Chaos Monster to create order and the world. I say writers, because the English translations partially hide the two names given for God: Elohim (God) and Yahweh (translated is the LORD). Here, as in many other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, original texts have been put together later to make the work we now have.
What both writers have in common is a desire to show God as creating the world, and the world being good. It is not a matter of Good and Bad battling it out, and Good coming off best: the whole thing is a carefully constructed whole. Interesting.
But as so often with the Bible, not a unanimous verdict: in other places (eg Isaiah 51:9–10) there are traces of a creation in which God hacks the Chaos Monster Rahab to pieces and makes order that way.
Welcome to the world where the Bible argues with itself, and produces insight that way.
Next time? The surprisingly sophisticated theology of the Patriarch stories.

A wandering guineafowl was my father

On getting home this evening all the guinea fowl had gone to bed in the open barn. At first I thought they had all vanished, again. But no, they had just decided it would be safer to move home. This seems to be a guinea fowl thing and the worst of their habit. However they usual shed is reasonably warm and perfectly safe, so fearing foxes, I decided to move them. Big mistake – five now where they should be, safe and warm. One on the stable roof, safe but not warm, and one totally missing, and possibly not going to turn up tomorrow. IF I manage to relocate the missing one and reunite the flock, they are spending a couple of days indoors. They I am once again clipping flight feathers. Then a couple of days to calm them and centre them. Then, maybe, freedom again.

I must, must get to the spring with a male and a female. Then I can hatch some under calm and helpful hens, who can, I hope teach them a less nomadic way of thought.

And for non-biblically trained readers, the original phrase is ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’ and it is the start of a rehearsal of the story of the exile in Egypt, god’s rescue of his people from there, and their being placed in a land flowing with milk and honey. Then the first fruits are offered. I wish the guineas had less enthusiasm for wilderness wanderings.

Meeting the judge

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I were pondering the Sunday gospel reading, Luke 18-1-8. A widow besieges an unjust judge, who finally caves in. In the conventional reading, it is about keeping on asking for justice, which God will grant. Only two things wrong with it. Firstly, he usually doesn’t. Secondly, in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, it is usually God demanding justice. Then I found a good article supposing that perhaps God is the widow. Shocking, in the kind of way Jesus tends to like. So, what follows below is my retelling of this parable in that way. I think the power of the story and the easy with which it works, makes this ‘reading’ of it more probably. No actual judges were harmed in the making of this story.

The Judge.

And there she was, in my face again. I was having a quiet chat with Jim, and she was there shouting at me again. It was a dispute over a field, and frankly she was not being realistic. That of course is the trouble with these people. Nothing to offer, no place in the scheme of things. They don’t accept reality. Which was that Jud needed a bigger plot to make the development he had on worthwhile, and her field got in the way. That is how it is. I was the judge and she needed to accept that.
But she didn’t accept it, and there she was, in my face at every turn. I was furious. Jim was laughing of course. ‘It’s not like she can DO anything, is it?’ he said. The trouble was that to ignore her was one thing, but to take action against her would cause the wrong kind of talk.
First, she caught me at the gates, where I sat with the other elders. She stood there crying out about the Law – and what it said about widows, and fields, and justice. And I made a joke of it. I turned to Jim and said: ‘She got a right good education, didn’t she?’ and that turned it off.
Then I was in the market place and it was the prophets. I got Amos, and his comments on selling the needy for a pair of shoes. I got Micah, and the Lord requiring justice and mercy. I raged inside. But I said: ‘I’ll prophesy then, that you will lose your voice if you keep on blabbering like that, hen.’ And that again made a joke of it, and John thought it quite funny.
I mean, I wasn’t selling her into slavery was I? Or beating her up? All I was doing was ensuring that a much-needed development went through, and that those who ought to benefit from enterprise did.
And then in an alley way. I was alone, except for the nonentities around me. And I looked right into her face. For the first time I saw the anger. Her eyes held mine, and time and place swung away. Her face, the sexless ageless face of a woman past child bearing, was now crowned with gold, and light and fire played in the gold. She grew, and now she was three, four times my size, and she moved back, and I saw robes flowing around her, embroidered, coloured. I was no longer sure if she was man or woman. This regal figure stood on the warm fiery backs of two immense creatures, like female sphinxes, whose wings bore the monarch aloft. Around the figure were others. Those who looked as I expected angels to be. Then there were wheels on fire, dragons, a monstrous bull, an eagle. There were dark figures which filled me with fear, and bright ones even more terrible.
Then I saw, around this throne, the figures of men and women. They were dressed in rags, and robes, and clothes I cannot describe. They all turned to the throne, which now filled the whole of the sky and they cried out, ‘How long, Oh Lord, how long? We hunger and thirst to see right prevail. Fill the hungry with good things!’ I could not count them, and I could never describe the longing and the anger of their voices.
The figure on the throne turned to me, and still with the face and the voice of the widow thundered: ‘Grant me justice!’
I wet myself.
I was suddenly standing in a dark alley, and I stumbled home and the slaves got me to bed.
The next morning, I went to the gate. Jud was there. I sat down. The widow came forward. She did not say anything. She looked at me. I gave her justice. I heard the disgusted comments of Jud, Jim, John. I cared. Oh, yes, I still cared. But caring or not, I had set off in a different direction.
It is an easy thing to say you do not care for God or humankind, isn’t it? It is different when you meet them.

… as it is written

Recently there has been a move to actually read the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Not to read what should be written, or might have been written. Not, and this is important, to read the simplest possible interpretation of what is written, but to read the thing intelligently, as though reading Middlemarch. To assume that those writing it, while inspired, were also not fools. To assume that God, in picking them, might actually have had some sense, and picked people who could write.

The results of this are incredible, impressive. I think particularly of Alan J. Hauser, and I am grateful for his From Carmel to Horeb: Elijah in crisis (Sheffield, Almond Press, 1990). In it he argues that the text shows that Elijah is actually told by God to appoint his successor, Elisha. Elijah is, effectively, dismissed. True in due course the blow is softened by his amazing ascent in a fiery chariot. But he has gone fatally wrong somewhere. It set me thinking: where? I have come to believe it is in slaughtering the prophets of Baal. When one reads the story in a continuum with the Elisha narratives, this makes sense. There is much in Elisha about the need to tolerate foreigners and foreign worship. There is much that is gob-smacking, as AKMA points out.

Joep Dubbink, ‘Getting closer to Jeremiah: the Word of YHWH and the Literary-Theological Person of a Prophet’, Readings in the Book of Jeremiah, A Search for Coherence, ed Martin Kessler (Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004) does something almost equally astonishing with the book of Jeremiah. The pinacle of Jeremiah’s understanding, he says, comes when Jeremiah realises that God’s suffering in pulling down Israel, is so much greater than that of the faithful old man, by now skin and bones, who has been persuced by his countrymen and lived through a horrific seige and seen his countrymen slaughtered and now must live out what is left of his life in a foreign country. That’s right YHWH has it worse.

Or Jacob, coming back from his night-long crippling struggle with God, and seeing God’s face in that of the brother he has wronged. Or …

Look, any one of these might be wrong.

But what I would like to know is why many who allegedly hold the Bible in the greatest respect, refuse to read it as though it was a great complex book ?

… in spite of that

A strange chapter of accidents means this is the first Good Friday in years I will not be in church. Idiocy and poor planning and other accidents. But there you go.

So, after the heart wrenching grandeur and demands and sorrow of last night’s service at St Mary’s, and the very real sense of being part of the living church – today is about how to keep this day alone.

And maybe that is fitting.

Jesus’s woman followers stood together, watching his death. Less at risk of capture by the authorities of course, because what can women do? Not even reliable witnesses, not under Jewish law. Just as today we find it hard to believe the words of abused children. So they were free to be together, some of them, and dear knows what kind of support you give to each other as you watch somebody so so dear to your heart tortured to death. And John – not the apostle John, but a younger man with the same commonly given name. He must have been young enough not to be a real threat. He was with them, or perhaps Mary and he and a few of her closer friends and female relatives were together, apart, nearer the cross.

The others scattered, afraid and ashamed. As we so often are.

And today, we, men and women, are sometimes together, watching, helpless as Christ again suffers in the oppressed and powerless, and sometimes in horrible isolation. And, man or woman, both will at times be our experience.

So, I hope it is not unfitting if I largely keep this terrible day, this awe-ful day largely apart from my fellow Christians.

For keep it I will. Not quite in silence (life demands some speech) but much of it so. And I plan to spend time in a kind-of company. I am fortunate that my bibles have been gifts. My NEB from my father, my NRSV from a life long friend, and my endlessly-useful parallel Greek/English from another dear, dear friend. I always feel as though I read these bibles in company. I hope to spend most of the time from 12 to 2 in prayer, of one kind or another, and the last hour, which is a heavy burden alone, reading in just that invisible company. And in the company of weeping angels.

In spite of that, we call this Friday, Good.

I do love St Mary’s …

… and many of the reasons do not relate to the bedrock of liturgy and music and preaching for which it is so deservedly known. Or rather, the other things are (perhaps to be expected?) spin-offs.

I love feeling free to wear my hats – I am pretty sure that here most people will just take my assorted head gear in their strides, and not read too much into it. The varying degrees of formality, conventionality and eccentricity demonstrated will just be written off as Rosemary wearing another hat.

Equally, when they make their way here from Glastonbury (discovering the actual shop had sold my boots, I went on line to track them down, and the fact they were found in Glastonbury I cannot but feel that tells you too much about them), the new pink boots will be rejoiced over.

And conversations. Good conversations are haveable at St Mary’s. I had an excellent one today – though it did lead me to remark that there is too much of Shrek’s Donkey in me. The trick is not to get me to talk but to shut up. Anent this conversation, I am posting links to two books I think somebody finding their way into discussion of the root ideas and values of the Bible. My problem was finding something readable, and moderately well balanced and positive. I fear what I suggest does not really answer the questions raised. Does anybody know of a really good and readable account of Deutero-Isaiah? I could do it for Jeremiah….

The problem also is that one book will never cover systematic theology, Biblical theology, and commentary on the Old and New Testaments.

So here goes – for those interested in what has been or is going to be read in church, a wide variety of articles often ‘preaching’ but also helpful academic notes, will be found on-line at the unpromisingly named Text This Week. Yes it is aimed at worship leaders, and probably all of them know about it, but general enquirers will find it interesting.

The most interesting book on NT authorship and composition (in my opinion) of recent years is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eye Witnesses. No I don’t believe every word he writes, but yes, I do feel that, at the very least, his comments on the methodology and weaknesses of some modern scholarship will need to be taken seriously.

Much older, and quieter and thought provoking is the work of Kenneth Bailey. His ‘Poet and Peasant’ and his ‘Through Middle Eastern Eyes‘ are books which open minds.

I know we have done this before on other blogs – but suggestions even if repeated are welcome.

The core of the Jesus’s message

Long before the Reformation, a belief arose that if you put the Bible into the hands of ordinary people they would read it and make sense of it. Yes the Reformers also bought into that idea.

That it failed is only too apparent this week.

The core of Jesus’s message is a demand for forgiveness from person to person. You hardly need me to spell it out further. It is there in parable after parable, in his teaching, in his own life and his horrible death. Every Christian, even the most nominal, is surely aware of the one prayer he taught: ‘And forgive us, in the same way that we forgive others.’

It is hard to do, but that is no excuse for not trying. If we fail, sometimes, to get our hearts and minds to drop the grievances (which so damage us) we have no excuse, none at all, for making an attempt to follow that action in our public lives and our actions (and praying for our hearts to be converted).

There is no excuse, none at all, for anybody who loves the Lord, or indeed, anybody who thinks he was an enlightened moral teacher, baying for the blood of those who chose in an act of mercy to release a dying man.

Go read the gospels if you doubt this.

Still your storm

What made me so angry was the sense I had let them all down when I took that boat out in weather I knew might turn nasty that. He lay with the spindrift soaking his clothes, and his eyelids twitching with the dream which was lifting his mouth in a half smile, and I shook him awake. Andrew was shouting at him: ‘You really don’t give a toss, do you – it’s all words. We are doing down, and you don’t give a toss!’

He sprang awake as you do from deep sleep – disorientated, I thought. On his feet before my hands were off his shoulders, and real anger blazing in him. Not shouting, he was far too angry for that. But his words filled the howling air.

‘Peace. Be still.’

Look, at first I thought he was speaking to us, and he did get like that, sudden flashes of, well, he was scary when he was like that. But as, as, the thing happened, as the wind dropped and the waves stilled, I realised they had heard him too. They did not dare disobey him.

You think you’d like that? Somebody to still your storms? Just think about it – no, if you was there, I reckon you’d be as terrified as we were. You run away from what you fear, sure, but you find yourself with a bigger terror.