Sunday, 7 June 2009

This one got to me!

In my reading of the Bible from the beginning, the first time I really felt emotionally grabbed was at Genesis 22. This is the story of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac.

On one level it is an appalling story. Would God be so cruel? Moreover, we are not told whether Sarah, the boy's mother, was consulted - probably not. Isaac certainly wasn't. He is treated as a thing to be sacrificed rather than as a person in his own right. My interpretation of this story, if it is an actual event, is that Abraham thought he should sacrifice his son. To sacrifice one's firstborn son was the most pious action imaginable in the culture of that time. Perhaps Abraham, aware of being chosen by God for some holy purpose, reasoned that he could not do any less than what other holy people did. Perhaps he was agonising in his conscience for years about this, and ultimately decided it had to be done. Then he experienced a sign - a ram caught in a thicket - which convinced him that God was telling him not to do it.

This in itself is suggestive. Often the only way a religious taboo is broken down is by some undeniable sign - some personal experience, or amazing coincidence, that convinces us that a moral taboo or "law" that we have questioned for some time is really no longer applicable. Peter had that kind of experience at Joppa. People today too are often changed by overwhelming experience, so that they feel at ease about setting themselves free from what they thought was an absolute prohibition - e.g., saying "yes" to a loving homosexual relationship.

But to come to the point of my finding myself emotionally involved - it is something about the way the story is told. It is a real human drama, understated (like all good stories) but saying enough to draw you into the situation. Reading it, I could feel the unbearable tension in Abraham, the innocent puzzlement of Isaac, and the appalling thing that was about to happen. Then the climax, when Isaac's life is saved at the very last moment, and God praises Abraham for his willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice.

Misguided it may have been - cruel by our standards today - but within the limitations of his culture and his understanding Abraham was willing to do the right thing no matter what it cost. That has to be admired, and we have to ask ourselves: how much am I willing to sacrifice for what I really believe in? What does God ask of me, and am I willing to give it?

Friday, 5 June 2009

A Disreputable Incident - in Triplicate

In Genesis 12 there is a story about Abram and Sarai (as they still were then) going into Egypt, and Abram passing Sarai off as his sister because she was so beautiful that he was afraid people would kill him if they knew she was his wife. This is already a bit strange, considering that she was at least 65 by that time (cf. Gen.12:4; 17:17). Pharaoh takes her into his house (presumably as one of his harem), and the whole household is afflicted by plagues because he has committed adultery. He finds out the truth, hands her back to Abram and sends him away. Pharaoh is punished for something he did in all innocence, while Abram, having been a coward and a liar, goes away vastly better off because of all the gifts Pharaoh showered on him when he thought he was his brother-in-law! In the words of Abraham a little later on: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

Later on, in chapter 20 (by which time Sarah is at least 90!), Abraham plays the same trick again, this time on Abimelech, king of Gerar. In this case insult is added to injury. God tells Abimelech that he will die unless he takes Sarah back to Abraham and asks Abraham to pray for him to be forgiven! Abimelech willingly does this, taking with him a present of a thousand pieces of silver and numerous cattle, sheep and slaves.

Then in chapter 26 Abraham's son Isaac tries the same trick again with Abimelech, but not so successfully. Nevertheless, Isaac is blessed by God.

Again, what kind of God is this?

God and the Flood

As I was reading the Flood story, two things struck me.

The first was the extreme unlikelihood of it. My mind is not closed to miracles, but really! Can we believe that "all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered" (Gen.7:19)? In order to cover Everest the water would have to be more than five miles deep. There isn't that much water on the planet! And where did it all drain off to afterwards? And how could all species that live on the land be accommodated in the ark, including all the food they would need for 120 days, bearing in mind that many animals can only survive by eating other animals? There would need to be a lot more than one pair of some species, or even seven pairs.

The other thing that struck me was: what kind of God is this? He creates the world and the human beings in it. He then regrets creating them (does God change his mind?), so he decides to send a flood to destroy them all, and to destroy all the animals, reptiles and birds at the same time. What wrong had they done to deserve this? And what makes the fish so innocent? Then, when Noah comes out of the ark and offers a burnt offering of some of the birds and animals whose lives he has saved, God smells the pleasing odour and says "I won't do it again". The reason he gives is that "the inclination of the human heart is evel from youth" (Gen.7:21). Didn't God know that already? The story sounds like the experience of some abused women with their husbands - he's got a vicious temper, but the smell of a nice dinner in the oven soon cools him down! Is God really like that?

No doubt conservative Bible believers will think I am just a scoffer. But not so. My point is that if we tie God's authority to every story in the Bible we are idolising the Bible at the cost of belittling and insulting God. The Bible is a very mixed and earthy collection of writings, some of them by people whose view of God was rather primitive. If it is in any sense the word of God, it must be because God in his grace is able to use even wrong ideas to serve his purpose.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Reading through Genesis

I've just set myself the project of reading right through the Bible. I have done this once or twice, a long time ago, but this time I'm determined to enjoy it! Never mind about puzzling out its meaning or consciously asking "what God is telling me". I'm just reading it as a book, and letting myself react to it in a natural way. At the same time, I am sure God will tell me lots of things through it.

I'm actually reading it in Welsh, partly because being a late learner of Welsh I want to familiarise myself with the Welsh Bible, and partly because it means reading a version I have never read before. It comes very fresh in this way. I can recommend that if you have a second language you try reading the Bible in it.

One thing that jumps out of the page at me in the early chapters of Genesis is the obvious inconsistencies. The second chapter is quite incompatible with the first. In Genesis 1 God creates plants on the third day, birds and reptiles on the fifth day, and animals and human beings on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 he creates a man before there are even any plants. He then plants a garden for him, then creates the animals, and finally a woman. They are quite obviously two different stories, each beautiful in its own way, and we ruin them by trying to interpret them as literal.

Other inconsistencies are obvious too. Where did Cain find a wife? How could Cain's descendant Jabal be the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock, and Jubal the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe, when the whole human race except Noah and his family was wiped out in the Flood?

After generations of people who lived more than 900 years, we read in Genesis 6:3 that just before the Flood God determined that from then on no-one would live more than 120 years. And yet in Genesis 11 we find the descendants of Noah for several generations living for more than 400 years, and for a few more generations at least 200.

All this makes it quite incredible to me that anyone can interpret the Bible as literal history. It is a huge collection of stories, and we enjoy them best by reading one at a time.