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Saturday, November 22, 2014

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The Bible is a feast of viewpoints

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Jean Gerber

Picking up my packet for a charity run (well, in my case, walk), I passed two nice young people handing out a small booklet – free of charge – entitled, What Does the Bible Really Teach?

Curious as to the answer, I took one and brought it home to study.

At the same time, I have been reading The Bible’s Many Voices by Michael Carasik. Putting the two together has been an interesting exercise. Not surprisingly, they have practically nothing in common when it comes to Judaism. But they both attempt to help the reader come to terms with the foundational books of both Judaism and Christianity.

Admittedly, the pamphlet was produced by a particular sect and not one of the mainstream churches. Nevertheless, its message resonates within a Christian context.  It looks at the Bible as a monolithic document producing one and only one message:  a divine plan for mankind, beginning with the original failure of people to obey, and ending with redemption and an apocalypse promised in the last book of the Christian Bible.  Thus the entire canon is woven into one seamless garment of truth.

 Carasik’s The Bible’s Many Voices, on the other hand, describes a biblical conversation, sometimes a cacophony, each voice with its own worldview, none offering a simple, single message.

I mean no disrespect toward the authors of What Does the Bible Really Teach? nor to the young people earnestly offering passers-by a hand up to salvation. But I love the sheer variety of possibilities the Bible offers us: legal, theological, feminist, ritual. The texts are a feast of viewpoints, a chorale of voices singing a contrapuntal extravaganza.

An example: the nature of mankind.  “What is man that you are mindful of him?  A little less than God, crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4.) Or maybe not: “A human is in no way superior to a beast; for all this is illusion.  All came from one place; all came from dust and return to dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19)

So what is it that the Bible says? Maybe we are like the animal, but we also retain the ability to act with human compassion and do the right thing, imitate the goodness of God.  Or possibly it asks us to keep in mind at once both conflicting elements of humanity.

Theology, ah yes, there we come to the crux of the matter. As Carasik puts it, “Regrets… God’s had a few.” Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him as king; no hope there for reconsideration, because “the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or have regrets, for He is not a human being, to have regrets.” (1 Samuel 15:24.) But, going back to the beginning of Saul’s dethronement, God himself is recorded as saying “I regret that I made Saul king!” So the nature of God’s “character” is a matter of, well, some debate.

And of course, as one goes into the theological spin in the books of Dvarim through Kings and Samuel, we get a very emphatic theology – if Israel sins, the nation will suffer.  That is a contrast to the priestly view of Leviticus or Ezekiel: the land, the land is holy, Jerusalem the holiest place, the land will spit out a recalcitrant people. Carasik: “sin somehow defiles the land; like a spiritual Superfund site, it must be… purified before it is once again fit for human habitation.”

So, which is more important: land itself or the actions of people? Carasik argues, “These are arguments that are still going on today, not least, but certainly not only, among the Jews.

“This is essentially the difference between [two biblical voices], a theological tension that still animates life in our century…”

Other biblical voices tried to reconcile the contradictions, and the Talmud often goes to extremes to do the same.  For me, these tensions can only enrich our understanding of this, our foundational work.

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