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Bible Study, Part Two: Of God the Restorer

Posted on Tuesday, August 22, 2006 at 08:39PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | CommentsPost a Comment

ew cameo.jpg In the second session of our Bible study at Harrisonburg, we turned from the priestly texts of the Old Testament (Genesis, Psalms) to the prophetic texts. This was a real change of pace.

The priestly texts emerge out of a world vision that sees the ideal world as essentially static, following a fixed order laid out by God at the time of the creation, and celebrated in the fixed liturgies of the yearly calendar — the Sabbath day, the High Holy Days, the celebrations of the seasons. The priestly God can be readily visualized as standing outside the universe, as if in another dimension altogether, dispassionately ordaining the world’s Right Order.

hie vahet.jpgThe priestly God, standing outside His creation, giving it form — anonymous artist, from Hie vahet an das Register uber die bibeln des alten testaments (1477)

The priestly view tends to draw us into reverence for the world just-as-it-is; it thus becomes a socially conservative — and ecologically conservationist — influence on our thinking.

The prophetic texts, on the other hand, emerge out of a world vision that sees the world as unsettled, in flux, swinging on the pivot between good and evil. Its great moments are celebrated not in the fixed cycle of the calendar, but in the great turning points of history. The ideal world is, purely and simply, the world that chooses for God and good when its hour comes round, and that choice has to be renewed again and again in each generation.

And the prophets tended to see God accordingly, as one who is always right there in the middle of the creation, shaping the alternatives we must choose between. They looked up at the sky and saw God right there in the middle of the wind, making the clouds boil and the waves arise on the sea; they felt Him shaking the earth beneath their feet (earthquakes were common in that part of the world!); they turned to themselves, and saw God in their hearts, in the middle of their own breathing, making it happen, driving life moment-by-moment into their otherwise lifeless clay, and drawing them toward righteousness and mercy.

chinese moses.jpgThe prophetic God, within the wind, giving re-form — unknown Chinese artist, “God and Moses at Sinai” (n.d.)

If one subscribes to this prophetic view, it draws one to look at the choices people are making moment-by-moment, and to ponder the fact that many people’s choices, including many powerful and influential people’s choices, are in fact knocking the world askew. And the prophets also provide models in their own lives for how one might respond to bad choices.

The prophetic view, accordingly, tends to draw us not into conservatism but into reformism. It holds a special appeal for the dissatisfied and the downtrodden, and has great power to unleash reformist forces in their favor. But it can also draw us, if we fail to listen to it carefully, into giving too-hasty support to badly-thought-out sorts of reforms.

These two bodies of texts, the priestly and prophetic, are interwoven in fascinating ways throughout the Bible. Each of them prompts us to look at the Creation in a different way: the priestly texts, in terms of natural order and intrinsic goodness; the prophetic texts, in terms of the critical choices we make. There are places where they are fused into a single vision, and these places are among the most powerful passages in the Bible.

Our Bible study began with Psalm 18 / II Samuel 22 (it’s basically the same text in both places) — an archetypal portrait of the Lord of Storms and Earthquakes. The portrait of God in this passage is a transitional one — halfway from the tribal God of the Song of Deborah to the universal Restorer of the literary prophets.

From there we turned to Hosea, chapters 1 and 2, which contain what is to me the most fascinating environmental teaching in the whole Bible. Here again, wild nature is not portrayed as a human possession to be “stewarded”; but Hosea doesn’t portray it as a mere possession of God, either: he sees the wild creatures as nations, like human nations, capable of entering into covenants with human nations more or less as equals. (Hosea 2:18)

For the Bible story as a whole, what is interesting about Hosea 2 is the change it marks from the worldview of Genesis 1. In Genesis, the message is that there is a divine order in nature, and all we have to do is hold to it. In Hosea, the message is that we’ve fallen from that order, but that God, working in the universe, will bring about a restoration, and that restoration will include new treaty relationships that make our relations with the wild creatures righteous and peaceable. Presumably, our “dominion” over the creatures will be restored from the fallen type — dominance and exploitation — to the divine type, an exemplary “starring role” in their midst.

And there are other fascinating things about Hosea 2 as well. Our Bible study group was particularly taken with God’s promise that “No longer will you call Me ‘Boss’ (in the Hebrew original, “Boss” is Baal), but henceforth you will call me ‘Husband’ (Ishi).” This change in human-to-God relationship has of course a wonderful resonance with a lot of other things in Quakerism — its social egalitarianism, for example, and its fear of abuses of religious authority. But there is also the hint that the ancient Canaanites who worshipped “Baal” might not have been worshiping the wrong God so much as worshiping the right God but in a wrongheaded, harmful way — Very interesting, that!

And it is significant, to say the least, that Hosea saw this shift-for-the-better in the way people relate to God, as causally linked to an improvement in the way people get along with wild creatures.

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