Digging in for a little added argument

Considering the landscape of these opening books of the Bible, I’ve long been uneasy about the stories of moving from Canaan to Egypt and back. Some of the events make it sound like a short hop down the road, yet Moses is required to pack his 600,000 men and their families into the same short arid space for forty years. OK, they aren’t so far apart on the map, and it’s obvious Moses must be taking a sharp right-hand turn down into Saudi Arabia, but still? (As for the Reed Sea crossing, was it across the whole width or maybe just an inlet? Let’s allow for the possibilities.)

Poking around online I’ve found suggestions for an alternative perspective. Records from non-biblical sources rather than Biblical, that is, archaeological and Egyptologists, suggest that Canaan was a colony of the New Kingdom of Egypt (16th-11th centuries BCE), or shortly before the emergence of King David circa 1000 BCE. Thus, rather than journeying to the Nile region, going to Egypt could mean crossing into the Egyptian-held portion of Canaan, the southern Levant, the future site of Israel and Judah. This would turn the focus of the action to creating a unified people within an existing region. Rather than invasion, it’s internal change. Rather than civil war, it’s culture war.

It would also harmonize the two Goshens where the Israelites lived (Genesis chapters 45-47 and Exodus 12 in contrast to Joshua chapters 10, 11, 15).

One additional take would have “Pharaoh” as the Egyptian representative in the colony, more akin to Uncle Sam, and Joseph rising in that palace.

For me, at least, it’s a much more palatable possibility than the usual expectation.

Bloom, meanwhile, adds his own twist, that Judaism is not about blessing in a spatial context but over time, “in the vicissitudes of descendants.”

And so the story continues, all the more complicated on this second-round of reflection.

Agnolo Bronzino’s “Crossing of the Red Sea and Moses Appointing Joshua,” fresco painted 1540-1545 at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

While we’re at it, I keep seeing one of the ten commandments sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s the one about honoring your father and your other.

It’s the most problematic commandment, the only one with an implicit reward, for that matter, and the only one without the “Thou shalt not” line of thinking. Yet it also neglects the parents’ obligation in the relationship, and it fails to acknowledge abusive or even evil parents.

Does this point more toward forgiveness, as in “Forgive your father and your mother, they did what they could?”

What’s your take?

Wandering through Exodus with Moses

With his notes on the character of Moses/Moshe being a composite of earlier mythological heroes, along with the lack of independent historical corroboration of such catastrophic events — in fact, the story is riddled with its own conflicting details — Everett Fox raises the question of whether we’re dealing primarily with fact or fiction. Most of the text wasn’t compiled until centuries later, so what we have may even resemble the ways fish stories grow, as I’ve previously suggested.

Yet what a compelling story, this sweep out of slavery into a vision of freedom for an entire people, not that they’re yet ready for their roles. In his translation and notes, Fox embraces the emotional intensity with which the story is told and retold over the centuries, acknowledging an underlying truth that resonates.

After the fleeting developments of Genesis, the pace now slows into the enslavement in Egypt and the emergence of Moses/Moshe and his eventual victory over Pharaoh, which in turn leads to the wandering in the desert, each stage open to extensive commentary.

What can be more dramatic than a moment like this? OK, the story itself doesn’t have trumpets, even if the mountain’s rumbling.

In my straight-through reading, I had to reconstruct my understanding of how the Israelites received the Ten Words, or Decalogue, which Fox prefers to “commandments.” (As Fox remarks, rather scathingly, this is hardly the widely known movie version.) Instead of having their leader come straight down from the mountain with the tablets in hand, the people assemble around its smoking and quaking base and then hear the voice of YHWH directly! And yet, despite what should be a life-changing encounter, they quickly splinter away into idol worship, once Moses is out of their vision.

Try, try again.

Crucially, these laws are not imposed from above, the way a dictator would, but are instead freely accepted. Once in place, though, the people must learn the consequences. Moses has to return to the mountaintop repeatedly before getting the words carved in stone.

I read the passage with a degree of humor, thinking of our Quaker process in conducting our congregational business, where we seek divine guidance in our decisions so far from any smoking, shaking mountain or rumbling voice overhead. It’s not always easy. How could the ancient Israelites, then, fail to get it right?

Moses emerges as a pivotal figure in defining the Israelite people. He’s not just their leader or their priest, but more important, he’s their first prophet, one who not only meets with YHWH but is empowered to speak on the Holy One’s behalf. In addition, apart from David, no other Biblical figure is etched as fully as a character. And, with an openness not always seen in other sections of the Hebrew Bible, Moses imports from surrounding cultures and religions through his wives and, especially, father-in-law.

When the dramatic action of Exodus halts in elaborate instructions for erecting a dwelling for the Holy One and maintaining a cult in its support, I slip over into a sense of artistic achievement rather than ongoing religious growth itself. Is it that their deity insists on such ritual sacrifices, or is it more a matter of defining themselves as separate from others. It’s a lot of detail, all the same.

Numbering and counting, plus accounting and recounting, not exactly as mathematics

Already I feel the need for an aside. It’s about those absurd numbers we run up against in much of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible, at least once we get beyond the first seven or eight days.

You know, things like the ages of the patriarchs.

As kids in Sunday school, especially, we could get really hung up on these.

That part’s kind of funny for me now, considering how naturally children turn to hyperbole in their stories, in the manner of legendary fish stories told throughout time.

(In general, the further back in time they were, the bigger their lifespan. It’s great storytelling, in its own way. Remember, to tell a story is to recount an event, real or imagined — no pun intended.)

Maybe in our materialistic world we lose sight of the ways we can have numerical figures that carry something other than quantitative meaning. But for many ancients, this would point toward what is now categorized as numerology — including the Jewish system of gematria. Without delving into arguments over the occult meanings of these numbers, let me acknowledge each of the ages of the patriarchs does carry a unique set of mathematical relationships, as does their placement in the chronology of the ten patriarchs from Adam to Noah, and the ten from Noah to Abraham.

So for starters, let’s assume many of those numbers aren’t what we think they are.

Aaron’s rod changes into a serpent in this dramatic scene. We’re definitely in a different reality.

If you’re going to insist that human bodies really did age differently back then, that God suspended the laws of nature, well, I’d say you’re missing a much more intriguing set of possibilities.

Think of this when asking whether the desert could support that many people. (That, by the way, could be the result of mistranslation … units rather than thousands.) Or in the accounts of genocide that follow, contrary to archeological evidence, think of sports-page bravado — the Red Sox bury Yankees sort of headlines. (My apologies for inflicting my New England loyalties here.)

So these numerical figures can serve as something other than quantities or time as we know it. Think of postal Zip codes or phone numbers. The implications of symbolic figures that are largely lost on us. Threes, fives, sevens, tens, prime numbers all have lost significance. These could be representations of qualities instead. Fantastical elements. Forty days of rain for Noah, forty years of wandering in the desert for Moses. Or 600 units rather than thousands as one example. This would also allow for a much different timeline than one built on individuals reputed to live hundreds of years, and it’s more supportable.

When do these figures begin to take on meanings that fit our own understanding? Sometime around the time of Solomon, I’d venture. But even within the New Testament we’ll be finding figures that fit more symbolic interpretations.

I hope it all adds up in the end.

It starts with Genesis, of course, but this round has a twist

Imagine experiencing the opening book of the Bible without having any familiarity with the characters who spring from its pages. From early Sunday school on, though, many of us assume we already know these archetypes of humanity, at least in some comic book dimension. What I’ve come to argue, however, is just how remote these sanitized children’s book versions stand in contrast to the gritty X-rated realities embodied in these flashes of flesh and bone, and how unjustly the shallow brushes all too quickly dismiss these endlessly provocative portraits from consideration.

In my straight-through reading, I’m surprised by how quickly the succession moves along — Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, the steamy soap opera of Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, the move to Egypt. Or, as my translation presents them, Adam/Havva, Kayin/Hevel, Avraham/Sarai, Yitzhak/Yishmael, Yaakov/Esav, Lea/Rahel, Yosef.

And yet, how packed with controversy is this X-ray of the human condition, then and now. For a sense of the range of insight and comprehension that emerge from a close reading of these texts shared by the three major religions “of the Book” — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — let me suggest Bill Moyers’ Genesis: A Living Conversation, in either its 10-hour public television version (available on DVD) or the book transcript. Each participant in the passionate discussion unleashes vital details, often from conflicting perspectives, and we’re soon in the struggles of life itself. Just where do you stand in the action, anyway? And just who is telling this story?

Fitting into my desire to hear the Bible free from the familiar cadences of the King James setting, translator Everett Fox approaches the Five Books of Moses by seeing the text as literature, first and foremost, and then applying an eye for the role of structure and later editorial layering, along with the stress on repeated words, even before we consider the elements of interpretation and meaning.

In Genesis, he sees seven central themes at play: origins, of humanity and of the people of Israel in particular; order and meaning in history; blessing; covenant between God and human beings; punishment of evildoing; sibling conflict, with the younger usually emerging the victor; and testing.

The great drama is cast, setting up a human line to follow through the land.

Lucas Cranach the elder captures Adam and Eve as adolescents awakening to sexuality. Here’s one version.

 

And here’s another, where he captures a sense of their togetherness and complicity.

And now, having finished the straight-through reading, Genesis to Revelation, in a two-month immersion, I return to the pages to revisit my host of underlining and marginal notes. There’s plenty to examine within many of the short sections, but that’s not my intent in what I hope to share in these posts. Rather, I’m looking for a clearer understanding of how these disparate scrolls and manuscripts fit together, how their understandings evolved, what joint meaning they might have for today. I want to take nothing for granted.

Read more

Which Bible? Not just which translation, either

To say you’ve read the whole Bible can raise the question of whether you’re including the New Testament, in contrast to the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) alone.

But the Hebrew canon itself lists just 24 books, seven of them encompassing 20 books listed in the Christian Bibles, and Chronicles moves to the end of the Jewish collection, where it serves as a reprise to the forgoing stories rather than having the events fade out as they otherwise do.

In contrast, the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, based on the Septuagint collection translation from Hebrew into Greek and completed by 132 BCE, presents 45 books, which adds seven (sometimes known as the Apocrypha) not included in either the Jewish or Protestant versions.

So what initially appears a clearly understood matter has its complications from the outset. I can’t even say “Hebrew Bible” in discussing the books it omits before getting to the obvious exclusion of the New Testament itself; for those seven, I’ll try to use Septuagint.

Since my straight-through reading was intended as an overview of the entirety, I chose to include those books of the Apocrypha, some of them altogether new to me.

~*~

My decisions on which translations to use for my straight-through reading fell into place rather easily. One goal in this project revolves around the question, “How do we hear this for the first time again?” (It’s a common approach to classical music, too.) I’d been waiting for the right time to tackle The Five Books of Moses straight-through in Everett Fox’s astonishing translation — an elegant edition with refreshing introductions, commentary, and notes (Shocken Books, 1995). So that would take care of the start.

Fox set out to cast the text as close as he could to the Hebrew original, and that meant recognizing that it was intended as an oral document rather than one to be read privately on a page. As a result, the reader is freed from any impression that these books were written in King James English. This rendering is gritty, for one thing, and more muscular and tactile than the other translations at our fingertips.

We have, for example, fresh implications in his choice of “God-oracles” rather than “judges.” Or “hemorrhoids” instead of “boils.” The details, I find, a more vivid.

Also of value are Fox’s footnotes and side panels, which often draw on rabbinic lore few Christians are familiar with. As I moved on, these cast the translations into a fresh perspective, by default. I soon wished he had translated more of the Hebrew canon.

This points to another consideration. I wanted scholarly translations that stuck close to the original text, and wherever possible I wanted to hear these from a fresh perspective, free of the familiar phrases of the King James (or, more formally, the Authorized Version) and its more modern parallels, including my fallback New International Version.

For the other end of the read-through project, I chose to survey the New Testament through a translation from Aramaic, which was the native language of Jesus, rather than those based on the more common Greek and Latin texts. Here I relied on Glenn David Bauscher’s The Original Aramaic New Testament in Plain English With Psalms & Proverbs, 8th edition with notes, Lulu Publishing, New South Wales, Australia, 2013. I’ll ignore the arguments of whether Aramaic is the more “original” or “authentic” source to draw from, but will say rather I find its alternatives delightfully stimulating. In it, for instance, in the first chapter of Matthew, the New Jerusalem couches Joseph’s relationship with Mary as “before they came to live together she was found to be with child” and, later, when “he took his wife to his home, he had not had intercourse with her,” while Bauscher more directly has “when Maryam his mother was engaged to Yoseph before they would have conjugal relation she was found pregnant” and “he did not know her sexually until she had delivered her firstborn son.” (“Firstborn” in itself is telling.)

I was hoping Bauscher would hold to George M. Lamsa’s alternative reading of Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25 by having Jesus say it’s harder for a rope (gamla) to go through the eye of a needle, rather than having a camel (gamala) try to do that, but somehow in Bauscher’s translation the camel becomes even more striking an image. Nor does Bauscher use Allah for God, unlike earlier Aramaic translations. In this decision, we lose a connection with Islamic sensibility, I think.

In addition, the Aramaic original is missing 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation, which Bauscher translates from other sources.

For most of the rest of the Biblical canon, I used the 1985 New Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic rendering I’ve heard praised for its accuracy and, from my perspective, freed from many of the familiar phrases I treasure in practice. Yes, in some celebrated passages I did miss the accompanying music by Handel — I’ll revisit other translations to rejuvenate that awareness — but what I gained in exchange was a better understanding of the broader structure and its impact. The New Jerusalem, of course, also includes the Apocrypha that were to be part of my overall reading.

Now, where did I get the idea that what we’re looking at is a history of God? Or at least, an overview of an evolving understanding of the Holy One?

I was looking for the big picture in the continuous narrative

Although I’d read the Bible in its entirety more than 30 years ago, my approach at the time juxtaposed its books in no particular order. And then, late one night as I checked the table of contents in my still fresh New International Version, I was startled to find that nothing remained unexamined and, in reaction, I burst into laughter. My apologies if that roar roused anyone in surrounding apartments.

Over the years since, I’ve focused mostly on comparing multiple translations of relatively small sections of text rather than long narratives; it’s what you might expect a poet to do, actually. You can see some of the results in the Daybook published over the last year on this blog.

In addition, my take on Eden Embraced (now out of publication) is an example of a close reading of the Garden of Eden passage — there’s far more in that compressed creation story than we ever dare teach small children.

In recent seasons, though, I’ve felt a need for a refresher course — one accompanied by a banked desire to read The Five Books of Moses straight-through in Everett Fox’s astonishing translation — an elegant edition with refreshing introductions, commentary, and notes (Shocken Books, 1995).

And then, a few winters ago, after an intense revision of my big novel What’s Left before its publication, I was ready for a break and decided to take up with Genesis, not knowing that my wife and elder daughter had both independently resolved to read the Bible from front to back in the new year. As we say, one thing leads to another, and so here we are, mission accomplished, right through to the Revelation to John.

Michelangelo’s iconic moment of the origin of mankind, the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, is a visual moment of genius. I expect a spark of electricity to flash between those fingers. The Biblical moment, however, is even more tactile and nothing like this. God shapes the human from mud and then blows into his mouth or nose.

~*~

This time my focus was on the big picture rather than closely investigating the amazing openings that can spring from within details of a passage. As I’ll relate in subsequent postings, much of this now profoundly troubled me.

How this straight-through Bible project unfolded

Despite growing up in an actively Protestant household, little of the Biblical message was imprinted on me. As a young adult taking up yoga in its seeming freedom from religious constraints, though, I was perplexed by a neglect of the ancient scriptures in the underlying Hindu and Buddhist streams, which instead relied, as far as I could see, on commentaries by later masters. What I did encounter there had none of the ongoing evolution of understanding I vaguely sensed in the Judeo-Christian canon, meaning the ancient texts of Asia sat without a broader context of developing wisdom and insight. My appreciation of the Biblical content would have to wait until I’d become deeply involved in radical Western faith. Indeed, I could say that before that turning point, the Bible was a closed book to me, especially in its King James ornamentation.

Slowly reentering Christian practice, though, I came to the Biblical texts anew, with a much different perspective from what I’d heard from our pulpit or Sunday school. Quite simply, I was now hearing them as experiences of faith rather than as laws to be followed (or else!).

Please note that my approach to the Bible is generally free of dogmatic and creedal constraints many believers face and engages a Jewish tradition of questioning, “God-wrestling,” that encourages the reader to ask if there are other possibilities for the story at hand, including the chance that either God or the participants are out-and-out wrong in the decisions and outcomes. Thus, I approach these as narratives of individual and then communitarian encounters of the Holy One and holiness itself, the way I would read poems or personal journals, rather than textbooks dictated by God directly or the enactment of law with its rewards and, more often, punishments. (The notorious “Thou shalt not.”) For me, these texts are principally about core issues of life itself rather than events far away in the past or in some future eternity.

Gaining familiarity with these passages, paradoxically, has left me baffled by their general neglect in American consciousness, even among those committed to religious congregational practice.

Quite simply, they’re central to the framework of our thinking and social interactions, even when we’re ignorant of their existence.

Let’s open a new project with a confession

Even though I grew up in a household quite active in our mainstream church, by the time I reached college, I had rejected all of its teachings — or so I thought.

If our Sunday school teachers had tried to get us to memorize chapter and verse, none of that took with us. In fact, I emerged from all of that experience pretty Bible illiterate and for the first decade and a half of my adulthood, the book remained closed to me. No matter how I tried from time to time to engage Scripture, the language, thought, and experience remained foreign.

Sound familiar?

And then a few turns and upheavals in my life changed everything.

For one thing, my career had returned me to the Rust Belt, where I also found myself worshiping nearby with old-fashioned Quakers whose mostly silent worship was punctuated by brief but strong expressions of their Christian faith. Among them was Myrtle Bailey, who could always recall an appropriate verse for the occasion at hand.

My next career relocation added Mennonites and Brethren to the mix.

These were all people who knew the Bible language and stories as part of their own daily existence, not just as something that happened “back then.”

I was also introduced to Rabbi Arthur I. Waskow’s Godwrestling, a book describing a Jewish tradition of challenging the texts themselves — did the people, prophets, or even Holy One get it wrong in the example at hand? Where do you stand in this particular story? What about other positions presented? How would they feel?

This was all so revolutionary, especially for a published poet like me.

For one thing, it was no longer a book of law (and punishment or heavenly reward) but of personal encounter. For another, it was also the language of metaphor, which can never be nailed down to a simplistic moral or formula.

The daily postings through the previous year on this blog largely reflect that time of engagement in my life.

This year the pace will slow a bit, featuring weekly posts instead of daily, each one advancing my reflections during a straight-through reading of the Bible.

Maybe a similar project is among your New Year’s resolutions, or maybe you’re just curious about how these admittedly strange books come together in the Big Book.

Please stay tuned! But first, a few general guidelines in the days ahead.

Closing the Daybook

The Daybook project now officially comes to a close. It’s been an intense and enlightening enterprise, but for me now comes a time of moving onward on other fronts. Since the entries remain posted in the archive, you are certainly invited to call them up through the year – especially if you came aboard once we were well in progress.

One of the biggest surprises for me has come in the participation, as it were, by Elizabeth Bathurst, a brilliant though little known Quaker from the early days of the movement. Setting up the daily presentations in their three-part format and leaving the third one to her, they often seemed to pop up as a mini-Quaker Meeting for worship, with messages that were not intended to flow neatly one into the next but rather bounce off each other, the way the Spirit often moves in our gathered silence. I hope Elizabeth has found an appreciation and welcome in a new circle of Friends today.

Thank you for sitting with me through the past year. Let’s see what else develops.