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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Love for the Hebrew Bible

This will be a considerably longer post than more recent posts.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

The leprous Naaman learns of a prophet in Israel who might be able to heal him from his disease.  He secures a letter from his own king in Damascus, and embarks on an envoy to Israel's king so he might meet this prophet.  What ensues is a telling misunderstanding, which has a hint of Shakespearean comedy.

The king of Israel meets the prominent visitor from a sometimes enemy nation and, reading the letter from his counterpart in Damascus, promptly rips his garments in anxiety.  It is a trick, the king thinks, but what the trick is he can't imagine.  The misunderstanding is this.  The Arameans from Damascus assume that any prophet so powerful as to heal leprosy would naturally be a court prophet, in the employ of the king.  Elisha, as we reading the story know, does not serve at the pleasure of the king, but serves God.  Furthermore, as Naaman would understand it, the king is somehow a representative, a regent, for the divine world on earth.  Two thousand years before the magna carta, a social-political reality where a free agent like Elijah is able to act independently of the structures of royal power is inconceivable.

I delight in this lesser celebrated part of the Naaman story.  In subtle ways, the text identifies how the practices of the Hebrew people depart from those of the nations around them.  The Hebrew Bible reflects an astonishingly unique understanding of life, God (or the gods), politics, culture, and human society, from what had been known in the ancient world prior to the emergence of Israel.  From our perspective now we take much of this radical understanding for granted, almost ignorant that the source of our worldview is the Hebrew Bible.  Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton observes this fact in his satisfying polemic Reason, Faith and Revelation:  Reflections on the God Debate (I love it when a Marxist, agnostic, English literary critic defends the relevance of scripture).

The existence of the Hebrew people is a remarkable fact.  Buffeted for centuries by the great empires of the ancient near east, this virtually inconsequential people (in the scope of ancient geopolitics), emerged from exile with a vibrant religious, cultural, and social life in tact, fundamentally unique from the "great" imperial cultures of the time.  The most remarkable fact is the Hebrew Bible remains a living book of faith, nurturing the faith of billions, while the ancient empires in whose shadow the Hebrew people emerged are a memory.

How did this happen?  Many theories have emerged to explain the existence of the Hebrew people.  One such theory is religious evolution.  The innovations of the Hebrew people were as inevitable as technological or political innovations, such as developments in weaponry or the emergence of complex political institutions like monarchy.  Norman K. Gottwald outlines a theory demonstrating how groups of Canaanites on the economic and social margins of the city-state societies merged with a group of people coming out of a similar marginal place in Egypt, to form nascent Israel, hence the unique political and religious perspective of a marginal people (Nietzche's "slave religion").

My mind goes in a different direction from these theories.  I ask myself, how is it the Hebrew people took the great epic stories of Babylon which so shaped life in the ancient near east and turned them into raw material for very different kinds of stories (cf. Genesis 1-3, and Genesis 6-9)?  I ask myself how is it that a vital and independent prophetic vocation emerged and survived among the Hebrew people?  I ask myself why the Hebrew people came to a groundbreaking view of law and justice, in which identity of person and people are radically different from anything before it?

As a person of faith I believe the Hebrew people had a profound and transforming encounter with God.  This is the story told in scripture, and which inspires scripture.  In this sense the scriptures do not necessarily record historical dates and facts, but reveals God to us, and in its pages unfolds the story of the Hebrew people's encounter with God.  And in its pages, I meet God and pray that my life to is changed by the encounter.

As a Christian, I love the New Testament as well, which will be another blog post sometime soon.