Thursday, 8 February 2018

Understanding Holy Texts: A Curse, A Dead Lion and War in the Bible

Psychological force and spiritual power are not different things.

A Dead Lion


The topic of how to read holy texts, what kind of truth they contain and how to find it, is a difficult one. This is most true of the Bible of course, there is no book more misunderstood nor so misused.

I love that the Bible itself teaches you its nature. The two different creation myths of genesis one and genesis two, written at very different times and in different styles, contradict each other on the order of creation. If you try to read them as historical truth rather than spiritual poetry then they can't both be true. Similarly the two accounts of the death of Judas in the New Testament contradict each other. They can't both be literally true. So the Bible itself teaches that literalism is not where its truth is to be found.

This is the sort of truth I find in the bible. Recounted here without bothering to check any of the details.

I just remembered one of my favourite bible verses. It so applies to the wreckage of my church right now: "Out of the strong comes forth sweetness"

It's from the old testament, from the story of Samson I believe. He's wandering out in the wilderness, as you do. That's as much of that bit as I remember.

And he finds this dead lion. No backstory here as far as I know. Just a dead lion. Inside this corpse (nice story) is a beehive. No idea if that's plausible but that's the story.

So Samson breaks open the hive and eats the honey. And that's what he says "out of the strong comes forth sweetness".

Most bible stories are like that. They don't really make a whole lot of sense. But sometimes they make a powerful point. An image painted in words, long ago, that resonates into our world now.

My old church thought it was so strong, impregnable. And now it's so broken.

But out of it are these beautiful people, some of them so hurt. But many of them have genuinely lived for years trying to love and serve other people. And those of us who went through it together. We've been through so much together, we've seen so much together. We have such a strong faith and such a strong love for one another. And we're all so hurt.

It's so funny. Such a weird unexplainable set of circumstances. So hard to describe and talk about. So bad in so many ways!

And really, some of it so exhilarating as well.

A Curse


The Bible is full of interesting stories, most weird, some terrible and a few really beautiful.

Given my apocalyptic bent I've always been fond of Ezekiel's curse against the city of Tyre. There's nothing quite like a good curse to warm your old cockles. And you never know when a time-tested powerful curse will come in handy.

Tyre was in fact attacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, although historically it's doubtful that the curse was fulfilled exactly as Ezekiel gave it.
Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against you, Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. 
They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord. She will become plunder for the nations, and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.
...
They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets.

If you dig this kind of thing you should check out Lamentations. It's just awful.

"Your own horror take you, your own nightmare devour you" is still the best curse I know. And as the recipient does it to themselves there are no ethical issues with it.


War


The hardest parts of the Bible to draw useful meaning from are the parts that describe the angry, vengeful, tribal war God who seemingly condones genocide and every atrocity to free the children of promise.

I love the work of Steve Chalke in this area, particularly his pamphlet "Restoring Confidence in the Bible" which has done just that for me and countless others in the Progressive Christian movement (Christianity without the awful bits).

However, there is an alternative and darker reading that may still have value. The climax of the Bible is the Revelation, which amongst other weirdness describes the final battle between good and evil and the ultimate victory of good. This theme of us joining a war that is already won is a theme woven all through the Bible. The way of war that fights having already won is The Way of the Risen Lord. Much of the early parts of the Bible are a manual of war.

Jehoshaphat orders the worship leaders to be placed at the front of the army, and the enemy is defeated before they arrive.
After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:
“Give thanks to the Lord,
for his love endures forever.”
As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated. The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them.
Elijah, prophet of God, slaughtering the prophets of the evil religion of Baal.
Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
Isaiah, prophet of God, calls on the Angel of Death and tens of thousands of Assyrians are killed.
That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
Deborah, prophet of God, leads the Israelites to victory.
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’ ”
...
Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.
Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.
Elisha, prophet of God, commands the armies of heaven.
When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
And many more of course. The interesting point I draw from this final story of Elisha is to notice that an army of horses and chariots were the state of the art in military technology at the time. I wonder how the armies of heaven appear now.


"The reality of perfect love is the best possible idea. And therefore it must win, simply because it is better in every possible way than any other idea that might stand against it. If it were even possible to only imagine it for an instant, then it would exist. And then it would have to win. It would have been foretold."

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