Which god? Multiple understandings of this deity

Among its goals, my straight-through reading of the Bible sought to trace a clearer understanding of the evolving definition of the deity itself. We have many ideas about what we expect God to be, many of them contradictory or paradoxical, but just where do these originate in our common thinking? How many can we see as coming down from the Holy One’s own instruction and how many arise in enlightened individuals’ spiritual experiences? How do these teachings shape our own often vaguely shaped expectations of divinity?

For Christians, this can extend through the New Testament when we examine what Jesus says about himself and his relationship to the Father, as well as what his disciples and Paul, especially, say about Jesus and/or Christ. (There are differences.)

Surprisingly little of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha address this matter of definition directly. Far more is focused on matters of living within this faith, from instructions on sacrificial rites to finding favor in combat to ethics of living honestly and justly. And that’s before we get to the books where the Holy One is not even mentioned. As for the histories? I was amazed how political these Scriptures are — how many bumper stickers you could glean for use today.

Bodies before the fallen Ark.

Sometimes this Holy One is revealed by what it does. Creating the cosmos and walking in the Garden of Eden are two examples.

Sometimes, by what it says directly. Again, in the Garden to Adam and Eve and the Serpent, as well as at Mount Sinai to the people gathered at the foot or to Moses above or later to Job or the prophets.

More often our definitions come through others, with a range of human understanding and misunderstanding.

As I’ll argue, there are reasons we often perceive this Holy One as a bearded male, no matter the counter arguments.

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Pausing at a fork in the route

Anyone else feeling battle fatigue by now?

My straight-through reading of the Bible took less than three months, much of it with that can’t-put-the-book-down intensity of a bestseller. But then there’s the rough sledding of Kings and then, in the Christian arrangement of the books, Chronicles. The Hebrew Bible wisely saves that for the finale.

It also moves Ezra/Nehemiah to the back, after material arising before and during the Babylonian captivity.

My Christian background had always made me view the captivity as an interruption in the Jewish story, but in this review of my read-through, a comment by Herbert Tarr in Congregation now has me seeing something quite different. The captivity becomes a fertile opportunity in the refining and definition of the faith. “So the devastating Babylonian conquest, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of Judeans to Babylonia were followed by an unparalleled development — a miracle wrought by the Judeans themselves. … All other peoples assimilated, as did the ‘Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.’ The Judean captives, in contrast, developed a cultless religious community: no new temple was built in Babylonia and there were no new sacrifices, but there were more prayers and confession and fasts and worship in the incipient synagogue, and concentration on the Sabbath and other hold days continued. Then, still another miracle: in response to King Cyrus’ edict, a substantial number of Judeans, though established now in Babylonia, did return and erect the Second Temple.”

Vintage engraving of Israelites going into captivity. After the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuzaradan was sent to destroy it. The city was plundered and razed to the ground. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. Only a small number of vinedressers and husbandmen were permitted to remain in the land.

In the Hebrew Bible, the sequence of the books after Kings plunges straight into the materials that sustain the evolving thinking and experiences of exile — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, the Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi), Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.

The Christian ordering, in contrast, begins wandering through those and even more — the Roman Catholics having six more books than the Protestants. (Do we dare joke that there’s the reason fewer Catholics read the Bible than do Protestants?)

Alas, my road map included those six chapters — some of them welcome, but a few, well, tedious. For individuals setting forth on a read-through, I’d suggest sticking to the Jewish ordering and adding in the others more judiciously.

In my review of my reading, I have to admit how helpful Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has been. I hope what I’m distilling from this anthology gives you a taste of their own thinking and the underlying richness of the rabbinical tradition. As we move ahead, we’ll encounter books that aren’t in the Jewish Bible and thus have no commentary from Congregation. I miss their companionship!

The scribe and the general and a new Judaism

The leap in sequence to Ezra and Nehemiah — a single book in the Hebrew Bible, but separate ones in the Christian editions, where it immediately follows Chronicles — comes as a jolt. We’re suddenly back in the land of Judah, roughly six decades after its leaders and many of its people have been marched off into captivity. Jerusalem is in ruins, and Ezra and Nehemiah are intent on rebuilding. (Many scholars, by the way, believe the history would have Nehemiah arriving first, perhaps never even meeting Ezra in the flesh.)

Ezra reads the law, as if he’s been caught in some clandestine activity and is trying to excuse himself.

Much of the text is dry detail that slides over a general reader — passages that Jay Neugeboren (“A Samaritan at Camp Winsoki” in Congregation) admits “might have been set down by an earnest CPA … lists and decrees and genealogies and catalogues and inventories and memoranda.” Only after revisiting the text at his urging do I find a deeper “voice that is individual and passionate and exacting … passages of the deepest personal feeling” that transform this into “a fascinating and compelling tale of exile and redemption,” mostly in the last two chapters of this short book of Scripture.

Up to this point of a straight-through reading of the Bible, one hears little or nothing of the utter angst of the Babylonian catastrophe or of the radical transformations occurring during the exile. For these insights we have to wait for the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Baruch to return us to those decades of anguish and reformulation. Would those books fit into the sequential presentation better if they were placed just before Ezra/Nehemiah? The overall story in this period would be difficult to present no matter how the various components were arrayed.

A general reader probably approaches Ezra/Nehemiah with an assumption that we’ve been following the Jewish people from Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses — and no other peoples — all the way up to the events at hand. The division of the Promised Land into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon leads to confusion (What? Jerusalem isn’t in Israel but in Judah?), and the antipathy toward the mysterious Samaritans in the New Testament draws a Sunday school teacher’s response, “They were kind of like the Jews.” Except they’re not, and Christians are left wondering just why the blackballed Samaritans get the short end of the stick in the New Testament, at least before the Apostle Paul’s message finds a welcome among them.

In this more public rendering, Ezra proclaims the law, causing weeping and moaning and breaking up families.

The idea that Judaism itself isn’t established until Nehemiah 8 (sometime more recent than 444 BCE?) more than five centuries after King David feels incomprehensible. Just what have we been following up to this point? (Drawing on a little forewarning, I’ve been using “Hebrews,” including places before Solomon where “Israelites” would have fit.)

One thing that becomes clear is that Ezra and Nehemiah have set out to do something beyond rebuilding the temple and the walled city. Most dramatic in the text is the implication that leads to the dissolving of marriages to “foreign” wives. (Note, once more, the male fertility line here; Jewish women married to husbands of other faiths are apparently already considered beyond the pale, no matter how much they raise their children in the faith they know and practice.)

There’s no evading the cruelty of the decree, which implicitly acknowledges these marriages to be the source of the idol worship that has plagued the Hebrews throughout their troubled history. Would this be sufficient?

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In the stained-glass view of Chronicles

The second scroll of Kings is tedious enough reading, but Chronicles stands largely a bad case of cut-and-paste. Long passages are drawn word for word from the books of Samuel and Kings. As you plod along, it’s fair to ask just what Chronicles adds to the whole. Placed right after Kings in the Christian Bibles, it’s deadly repetition. At least the Hebrew ordering puts it at the end of the canon, as a kind of musical reprise.

Chronicles quickly becomes tedious, beginning with its overview of the faith from Adam to the return from Babylonian captivity. There are the long genealogies focused on David’s line and the sanitized retelling of his life and Solomon’s, along with the recasting of David as a prophet of equal stature to Moses and Elijah.

One touch I appreciate in the emphasis on music — cantors along with harps, lyres, and cymbals, or later with choirs of “singers singing, and the trumpeters sounding their trumpets.”

There is a telling note, 2 Chronicles 2:4-5, where Solomon admits, “The house [temple] which I am building must be large, for our God is greater than all gods; even so, who would not find it an impossible task to build a house for him, when the heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain him?”

Again, I’m left wondering just who he’s trying to impress.

King Solomon in a Tiffany Studio stained glass setting circa 1900.

 

At the dedication of the temple, we have repetition of Elijah and David’s fire coming down from heaven to ignite the blaze that consumes the sacrificial offerings (2 Chronicles 7:1).

And, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, we have our first reference to Satan as such.

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