Monday, 16 July 2012

A God Too Hot to Handle

They’ve done it again! Like last week, the Lectionary gives us an Old Testament reading with the “nasty” bit left out. And once again, that bit has a salutary and necessary message. 

The story is of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6): an important story, because it is the point at which Jerusalem becomes “The Holy City”. It is described as an occasion of great joy and celebration – except for one thing, the bit the Lectionary leaves out. Uzzah, one of the guardians of the Ark, reached out his hand to steady it as the cart carrying it swayed over some rough ground, and he was struck dead on the spot for daring to touch the Ark of God. 

How many of us, when we hear of an act of outstanding sacrilege – like defacing a grave stone or vandalising a memorial – have not thought, “It’s a wonder God doesn’t strike them dead”? But we know that we wouldn’t really want a God like that, and stories like this belong to a more primitive and superstitious age. And in any case, poor Uzzah wasn’t committing a deliberate act of sacrilege – he only wanted to protect the Ark. We don’t want to believe in a God who could be so wrathful and unfair. 

So does the story have anything to tell us today? 

It could of course be just an incidental tale, originating in the need to explain the place-name Perez-Uzzah. However, in its context it is quite likely to be intended to make a point. It is interesting that there is no reference to the effect of this death on Uzzah’s brother and father, who were there when it happened. Whether he had a mother, a wife or children we are not told. The story is focussed purely on the effect of the incident on David, how it frightened him into temporarily calling off the whole idea of bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. 

What David was doing was a political move. The Ark of God was the most sacred symbol for all the Israelites. In fact, is was often identified with God himself. To have it in his new capital city would unify the kingdom and consolidate David’s power. Perhaps the point the narrator is making is that this incident was a warning to David that God was not there to be used for his political ends. 

That message is as necessary as ever. When Alistair Campbell, in 2003, made the blunt statement “we don’t do God”, some people were shocked. But perhaps after all there was a sound instinct behind it. Whether you are a believer or not, there is something hypocritical and essentially blasphemous about using religion to sanctify one’s policies or to catch votes. 

This applies in other spheres too. Religious people are always tempted to use God: to bring God to their aid when they want children to behave themselves and leave the adults in peace; to talk of “God’s will” in order to justify what they want to do anyway; to bring “the Lord” into the conversation to show how pious they are. Like David, we often forget what a serious and risky thing it is to deal with the real God. So much harm has been done, especially to sensitive young people, by glib evangelism and careless religious talk. In talking of God, we are dealing with people's souls, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. 

When we think about Uzzah rather than David, there is another important point. Uzzah committed sacrilege while trying to protect the Ark. What happened to him seems grossly unfair, but in a way it is symbolic of the wrong that religious people have so often done in their attempts to protect God. 

The central event of the Christian story is the greatest act of sacrilege ever committed, and that too was done by religious people. Yet, in contrast to the story of Uzzah, it is a window into the marvellous reality of the true God: the God whose response to rejection and abuse is expressed in the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Verses the Liturgy Makers Rejected ...

Lectionaries are a mixed blessing. On Sunday 8th July, for instance, the Old Testament reading was 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 9-10. This passage is an important turning point in the whole Bible story: it tells how David became king of the whole of Israel, took over the as yet unconquered city of Jerusalem, and made it his capital. 

The concept of “Jerusalem” or “Zion” has played an enormous part in the tradition of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It has been a hot political issue: the Crusades, Zionism, and the divided state of the city still today. It has also been a powerful spiritual image: Zion as a symbol of the Church, “Jerusalem the Golden” as a picture of heaven, and so on. Many fundamentalist Christians believe that Jerusalem will in some way play a central role in the final drama of the end of the world, and even people of no particular religion sometimes use “the New Jerusalem” as an expression for the ideal society. And it all began with that event recorded in 2 Samuel 5.  

But why verses 1-5 and 9-10? When I see a lectionary passage broken up like this I am intrigued to know what is in the missing verses, and why they are missing. In this case the three missing verses are obscure and rather nasty. They tell us how the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jebusites, said to David “you will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”, but David sent his men up through the water-shaft and told them to attack “the lame and the blind, those whom David hates”. This probably originated as a kind of taunt. The Jebusites were so confident in their impregnable hill-top fortress that they boasted that even the blind and the lame could defend it, and David responded something like: “We’ll soon see how these blind and lame people defend their city!” Somehow the joke got a bit mixed up in the telling, and the final writer of the story rather woodenly used it as an explanation for the fact that disabled people were not allowed to come into the Temple. 

It is obvious why these verses are omitted in the prescribed reading. They don’t want us to read the nasty bits! But this is something that really annoys me about lectionaries. First, there is an element of hypocrisy about it. Why do the liturgists tell us to read a Bible passage in worship and say “This is the word of the Lord”, when they have actually censored it? What are they implying? Are they saying that this bit is not the word of the Lord, or that it is the word of the Lord but the Lord doesn’t want us to hear it? 

Not only is it hypocritical, it also misses an important part of the meaning of the passage. Surely part of the function of this story is to remind us that conquest, no matter how “glorious” it may be, always involves violence, suffering and the degrading of human beings. We need to be reminded that human idealism and glory, even (especially?) in the name of religion, always has a darker side. 

The Bible tells stories of conquests, victories and “mighty acts” that are all seen as part of God’s purpose. God, it tells us, rescued his people from slavery in Egypt: but what about those innocent people who suffered in the plagues? God miraculously led his people safely through the Red Sea: but what about all the Egyptians who were drowned? Then he brought them into the Promised Land and enabled them to possess it: but what about the people who were already there and who (it seems, by God’s express command) were massacred without mercy? 

The theme continues into modern times. The granting of the “Holy Land” as a home for the Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust was hailed by the Western world as a victory for freedom and civilisation, and by many believers as a fulfilment of prophecy. But it involved the displacement of Palestinians who had lived there for centuries, and the conflict and bloodshed still go on. Jerusalem is a “holy” city to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and for that very reason it is a divided, violent city. Surely, rather than sanitising this Bible story by missing out the awkward bit, we should be facing up to the fact that violence, cruelty and degrading discrimination were woven into the story of Jerusalem from the very beginning. 

It is only in the light of this reality that the Bible message offers us real hope: the hope that somehow God works through human beings with all their faults, and human history with all its contradictions and ambiguities. We believe in a God who loves all human beings. But this belief often has a hard struggle to assert itself in the Bible, as it does to this day in the churches and in the world. 

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he accepted the people’s welcome to him as the one who came in the name of the Lord. And yet he wept over the city, and he demonstrated with anger against those who were polluting the house of God. He welcomed the children shouting their Hosannas in the holy place, which the priests and scribes thought was unseemly. And I wonder if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had 2 Samuel 5 in mind when he mentioned that “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them”.