A Song, a Story, and a Standard
To my family and friends, a candid letter of faith and doubt, on the occasion of my 55th birthday:
I plan to share with you some things about myself, things that you do not know but I want you to know, about my faith and understanding regarding life, death, and, yes, God. It is not my intent to convince you or change you in any way, except that I hope you will appreciate my candor and take something away from that.
To not do this, to not attempt to explain myself on these matters, might instead leave you thinking my religious faith is shallow, wishy-washy, or hypocritical. Well, maybe the last one cannot be avoided, for to believe something does not easily translate into always doing the right thing, so I confess, I am a hypocrite.
To do this, I could just blurt out the final conclusion, but I don’t believe in final conclusions. So instead I will share a song, a story, and a standard, from the Bible, because that is where I come from in my religious faith. Before I go there, however, let me say a few words on faith and on the Bible, in my opinion, of course.
Faith in the unknown
My faith is rooted and sustained in the soil of doubt. Now that may seem like a crazy thing to say, for faith and doubt surely can’t co-exist in the same thought, faith is a matter of certainty, right? No. Faith without doubt is a cover for ignorance.
Certainty is a ready refuge for people who fear thought, which is why many people never question their fundamental assumptions about life and death. God forbid! Religious faith without certainty is impossible for them to comprehend. They proudly proclaim their assurance and their allegiance, neither of which require too much thought. Certainty can be very dangerous in the real world, certainty can lead to very ugly results. “Adolf Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler! He who takes an oath to Hitler takes an oath to Germany” proclaimed Rudolf Hess to the believing herd in 1934.
At times in my life I have been certain. My tendency, when I fall in love with a set of ideas or beliefs, is to fall hard. When I was 17, I was certain God didn’t exist, and that lasted for about five years. The certainty came from fanatical commitment to a philosophical cult. I read all the books, changed my tastes in music and literature to be in accord with the correct view, joined the political arm of the movement and spoke passionately on its behalf. Certainty has its benefits, not the least of which is fellowship and friendship with others who share your devotion.
Then, as a Christian I had certainty. I was certain that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that his death on the cross and his resurrection brought salvation to all who were committed to him. Not satisfied to sit in the pew, I became involved in the church through teaching and preaching, and pursued (with my wife and very young children) lofty missionary aims. Again, I had friends, special friends in the churches and in the fellowship groups we attended. But in the end questions and doubts surfaced and haunted me, and no one wanted to hear them. Beware thinking for yourself, it can be very lonely.
Faith, my mature faith, is not a wall, something I erect to keep out questions, doubts, or challenges. My faith is not, as Fredrich Nietzsche once defined faith, “closing one’s eyes to oneself once and for all, lest one suffer the sight of incurable falsehood.” Baruch Spinoza was closer to my understanding of faith: “Faith allows the greatest latitude in philosophic speculation.” This type of faith is a freedom, a choice, specifically a choice to trust in the unknown, the uncertain.
God is the ultimate unknown, the ultimate mystery of the universe, as I like to say. Our possible knowledge of God, whether God exists, what type of God God is, and what that has to do with us, is limited, very limited I would say. I believe more than I know, and most of what I believe has to do with the possibilities of God: I may choose to set aside doubt where something seems possible, even if not proven. There is very little that can be proven about God, other than that many people seem to think they know all that there is to say on the subject! If your faith fits on a bumper sticker, you may be a bit shallow.
The Bible said it
The Bible (by which I mean the Hebrew Bible) is my preferred point of reference, my source for thinking and doing, and thinking about what I do, and I believe the Bible to be a witness to the questions of life, death, humanity and God. I don’t claim it is the only witness, or an infallible witness. The Bible does not always get it right, for it is a human witness and even the most enlightened and inspired humans do not speak infallibly for God. Woo! What am I saying? Kindle the fire and steady the stake, another heretic to dispose of quickly.
I do not believe everything in the Bible... happened. Better than that, I can say with a fair deal of certainty that certain events (and people) did not happen. The narrative part of the Bible is a mixture of fable, historicized fiction and fictionalized history. (The last two terms are borrowed from Robert Alter’s book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, very good reading and highly recommended.)
The story of Adam and Eve is a fable, in my opinion, a very useful fable, and the same goes for Cain and Abel, and Noah and the flood. These stories are told for a reason, to teach something important even if we can’t always decipher their complete meaning. And I would claim that the author did not intend or expect us to take them for historical fact, as many modern literal-minded folk are prone to do. Often the very names of the characters hint that something other than history is being taught: Adam means human and is related to the word for ground (adamah), Eve (actually Havah) is interpreted within the story as “mother of all living,” while the name Abel (actually Hevel) relates to his brief and fleeting existence (compare Psalm 39:4-5 where the NIV translates the same word as “breath”). Likewise, the name Noah is interpreted for us and points to an alleviation of the curse placed on the ground. With Noah we are also given another clue, that in contrast to the rest of humanity who were wicked to the core, Noah was righteous and blameless. Ha! Come on now. This is the hyperbole of fable. Even though these stories appear to be tied to history by way of a genealogical record, otherwise they are presented without any historical context. Another example would be Job, but I won’t go there now.
Other stories seem more like history, they may be set in a historical context (e.g., in the days of....), and be told about (possibly) historical characters, and perhaps the author sincerely believed they were true to fact. Nonetheless, they are still fiction, historicized fiction, and I accept them as such. An example would be the narrative accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Aside from the possibility that these persons actually existed, and I accept that possibility as enough for my faith and understanding, little if anything else that is said about them strikes me as authentic history. Abraham, for example, is remembered as the first of the forefathers of the covenant God makes with the nation Israel. That I take as true, the rest is creative instruction through narrative, and not all of the instruction is easy to absorb (e.g., Isaac’s narrow escape from Abraham’s hand).
Finally, there is narrative of historical events and historical persons that is embellished to make a better story, or fictionalized history. An example would be just about any dialogue between these historical persons, and especially reports of what they were thinking at the time! Almost all history (not just in the Bible) makes assumptions and fills in what is not known with certainty to complete an account. Otherwise the historian would be left with a set of names, dates, and places and not much else to report. In addition, historical fiction (based on “true stories”) is a popular and pleasant approach to telling history, today as in the ancient world, except the ancients may have forgotten to tell us their accounts were fictionalized.
I also don’t believe everything in the Bible... should be obeyed, at least not literally. Better than that, I can demonstrate a number of commands in the Bible no one in their right mind obeys today, not the most orthodox Jew or fundamentalist Christian. Remember, I said in their right mind. Terrorists, polygamists, and television evangelists are excluded here. Jewish tradition has a convenient way of getting rid of commands that shouldn’t be obeyed: simply say the situation that gave rise to the command no longer exists, or never existed. An example of the latter is the “stubborn and rebellious son” (Deut. 21:18-21) for whom the penalty is death. This command is not followed today, and has not been followed at any time in Jewish history. Why not? Because, the tradition says (Talmud Sanhedrin 71a), there may have been a stubborn son, or a rebellious son, but there has never been a stubborn and rebellious son, at least not one that met all the rest of the conditions too. Ha! I prefer a more straightforward approach: just don’t do it. There are commands and precepts in the Bible that should not be obeyed, or at least I don’t consider them mandatory. Engage brain before reading any book of instruction, especially the Bible. And yes, I pick and choose! That doesn’t make me wishy-washy, rather that makes me made in the image of God with both the capacity and the responsibility to reason and distinguish and judge.
I simply find the Bible’s instruction more compelling than self-help books and tabloids, more entertaining than Plato’s Socrates (and that is saying a lot), and more fitting to my Western mind than any text of the Eastern religions. In addition, I really do believe in the God of the Bible, up to a point, of course. Not every action or attribute ascribed to God in the Bible need be believed. But I think the Bible is more on target about human nature and divine concern than any other source I have yet found. Other than Nietzsche (just kidding).
Now of course, I was brought up hearing the Bible taught, and was encouraged to seek answers through the Bible. But not everyone continues to read and study the Bible the rest of their life (so far), just because their parents made it an important part of their childhood. And, beyond that, I learned on my own to approach the Bible critically, not just devotionally, something I have been doing since my youth.
Who is like the Everlasting our God,
who sits enthroned on high,
yet stoops down to look
on heaven and earth,
who raises the poor from dust,
who lifts the needy from ash-heaps
to seat them with princes,
with princes of his people.
I confess that this song is a very special song to me. I first noticed these verses as a song sung by Yosef Karduner, in Hebrew. The words in Hebrew and English have captivated my imagination and moved me to tears for several years. What is God like? What does God treasure? How does God see us?
From this Psalm we learn that God is a Communist. Well, maybe only a compassionate conservative. Not, “God helps those who help themselves,” in any case. Seriously, though, I find in this song an affirmation of a rather peculiar divine concern: God sets aside the glory of the universe for one thing, to exalt the poor and needy as high as princes, the privileged and powerful of the chosen nation. Which is to say, the writer of this song imagines God really notices us, even or especially those who need the most. From reading other psalms and stories and prophecies and commands, you might think that was God’s only concern, or rather the Bible’s only concern. And you would be on to something! The Bible champions the cause of the poor and needy, not for private charity but for social justice and social elevation.
The Bible makes provision for the poor and needy in various ways, some explicitly stated in commandments such as leaving the corners of your field for the needy and the stranger (Lev. 19:9-10), others implicitly understood such as extending the Sabbath rest to the servant in your household and the stranger within your gates (Exod. 20:10). On the Sabbath even the pauper is a prince!
In the Hebrew Bible the concern is not only to “give to the poor” (as in the Christian New Testament) but to enforce their right as members of the covenant (or simply as human beings) to their equitable portion, not as recipients of compassion or mercy but of justice as specified in the Torah law. For example:
Isa. 10:1-2 “Woe to those who decree unjust decrees, and to those who write harmful writs, to subvert the cause of the weak and to rob the right of the poor among my people, so that widows are their plunder, and orphans their prey.”
The specific concern for widows, orphans, and aliens comes from the Torah law and is repeated over and over in the rest of the Bible. Also in Isaiah:
Isa. 11:4a “He will judge the destitute with equity and decide with justice for the poor of the land.”
Likewise, the wisdom sayings in Proverbs address the same ‘right of the poor’:
Prov. 14:31 “He who defrauds the weak insults his Maker, but he who pities the needy honors Him.” (cf. 17:5, 22:16)
Prov. 22:22-23 “Do not rob the weak because he is weak (i.e., defenseless), and do not crush the poor in court, for God will argue their case and will plunder those who plunder them of life.”
Prov. 29:7 “The righteous regard the cause of the weak, but the wicked do not understand such regard.”
Prov. 31:9 “Speak up, judge fairly, and champion the cause of the poor and needy.”
In agreement with these sayings we have this instruction from the Psalms:
Psa. 82:3-4 “Defend the weak and the orphan, vindicate the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Notice that the concern for the poor in all these sayings is not stated in terms of compassion but of justice. That is because such concern is an obligation of the community and an entitlement of the poor spelled out clearly in the Torah law, as the right to (1) equal justice in courts (Exod. 23:3,6; Lev. 19:15), (2) gleanings from annual harvests (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 24:19-21) and from fallow land (every seventh year, Exod. 23:10-11), (3) loans without interest or other hardship (Exod. 22:25, Deut. 15:7-11, 24:10-13,17), (4) payment of day-wages without delay (Lev. 19:13b, Deut. 24:14-15), and (5) cancellation of debts (Deut. 15:1-2) and redemption of forfeited property (Lev. 25:25-31). Simply put, without partiality, God has taken the case of the poor to defend them against acts of oppression, exploitation, inequity, fraud, and extortion:
Psa. 140:12 “I know that God champions the cause of the poor [and] the right of the needy.”
In this way God seeks to elevate the poor and needy, to empower the weak and oppressed, as in the song:
Psa. 113:7-8 “who raises the poor from dust, who lifts the needy from ash-heaps to seat them with princes, with princes of his people.” (cf. I Sam. 2:8)
The story of Ruth can be best understood in this context, for in a sense Ruth combines the big three categories of divine concern for the poor and needy: Ruth is a foreigner residing as an alien in Judah, she is like an orphan (albeit by choice) living apart from her Moabite family, and she is a recent widow. Ruth’s loving commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi brings her to adopt Naomi’s people and God as her own. Ruth places herself in the lowly status of one who gleans the grain left behind the harvesters, and in the process comes to a field belonging to Boaz.
Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi,
Let me go to the fields and let me glean in the grains
since I may find favor in his eyes.
And Naomi said to her, go my daughter.
So, she went and she came and she gleaned
in the field behind the harvesters,
and she happened to come to the section of the field
belonging to Boaz....
She comes to the attention of Boaz, a “man of standing” in his locale, who immediately places Ruth in a higher position among his servants, and after a little romance, takes her for his wife. So Ruth attains a place beside her husband, one of the “princes” of Judah, and becomes matriarch of the line of David!
Nice story, right? Well it is more than a nice story, for to make the happy ending the Hebrew author had to place one principle of the Bible above another: the concern for the poor trumps the prohibition against intermarriage with foreign women, especially a woman from Moab:
I Kings 11:2, as part of a rebuke to Solomon for his love of foreign women, quotes a tradition (found only here): "From the nations which the LORD said to the sons of Israel, You shall not go into them and they must not come into you because they will turn your heart after their gods..." The nations mentioned are: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites (11:1).
Deuteronomy 23:3 clearly excludes two of these nations from any relationship with Israel: "No Ammonite nor Moabite shall enter into the assembly of the LORD, not even the tenth generation of them shall enter into the assembly of the LORD forever." Why? Because they acted in hostility instead of hospitality toward Israel: "They did not meet you with bread and water on the way when you came out of Egypt..." (23:4)
The Rabbis made this rule apply only to men, not women, according to the dictum: "An Ammonite, but not an Ammonitess; a Moabite, but not a Moabitess." (Talmud Yevamot 76b, etc.) As interpretation of the single text in Deuteronomy this may be allowed, but when other texts are considered, the argument of the Rabbis does not stand. Nehemiah 13 refers back to the law in Deuteronomy and interprets it to exclude all foreigners, whether men or women. "On that day it was read in the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and it was found written in it that no Ammonite nor Moabite shall enter into the assembly of God forever.... And it came about when they heard the Torah that they separated all foreigners (a collective noun in the Hebrew, cf. Exod. 12:38) from Israel." (Neh. 13:1,3) And clearly Nehemiah's chief concern was with men of Judah who married foreign women (13:23).
Ezra and Nehemiah both rail against intermarriage, specifically men who married foreign women. Ezra 9:11-12 quotes a tradition (found only here): "The land that you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that fill it from end to end with their impurity. So now do not give your daughters to their sons and their daughters do not take for your sons..." Nehemiah's violent reaction to intermarriage with Ashdodites, Ammonites and Moabites is recorded in Nehemiah 13:23-27, where he repeats the same charge: "You shall not give your daughters to their sons and you shall not take from their daughters for your sons or for you."
Their solution for marriages that had already taken place was harsh: "So now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all of the women and their children... According to the Torah let it be done." (Ezra 10:3; cf. Ruth 1:16)
[Note the Hebrew phrase, here translated, foreign women, occurs only in I Kings 11:1, six times in Ezra 10, and once in Nehemiah 13.]
So my point is? Simply that the author of Ruth disregarded all of this tradition to elevate his unlikely protagonist, a foreign woman, to the highest standing among the people of Judah. In this the author was reflecting an assumed divine concern for the lowest classes of humanity that would not be dissuaded by even the strongest scruples regarding the law against intermarriage.
The Bible contradicts itself in order to make this priority one of its highest priorities. But if all you see is the contradiction, then you miss an important teaching of the Bible.
In Leviticus is found the familiar dictum, “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18 partial) What is less known, and generally disregarded in reading this chapter, is the extension of this same standard of love to the “stranger” or alien:
When an alien comes to live with you in your land,
do not mistreat him.
The alien who lives in your land must be treated
as one of your native-born.
Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.
I am the Everlasting your God.
The very question “Who is my neighbor?” suggests a degree of disrespect toward the manifestly broad application of the commandment to love, which is broad enough to include the alien. Here the resident alien is considered on the same level with the native-born citizen, just as another verse declares that there is “one law” for both (Exod. 12:49).
Contrary to one popular opinion, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (or the alien as yourself) does not have anything to do with “loving yourself first” or other modern pop psychology such as self-esteem. The commandment assumes that you seek what is good for yourself and avoid doing harm to yourself: so in the same way you should treat your neighbor. The question “If you do not love yourself how can you love anyone else?” simply does not capture the intent of this commandment. The commandment goes beyond how you feel about yourself or your fellow man. The commandment is a call to benevolent action and empathetic judgment: care for others in the same way as you care for yourself, and regard others as you yourself would like to be regarded.
The Bible as Critic
I have focused on one theme, divine concern for the poor, to illustrate how the “truth” of the Bible is not found in historicity or consistency or infallibility, all of which may be critically examined and found wanting, but in principles of enduring value and especially in the powerful way the Bible challenges human conceits. We moderns seem to believe in the infallibility of human progress and progressive “open minded” opinions and diversity. We have our own “rules” that go unquestioned, like the trite “God helps those who help themselves.” You won’t find that anywhere in the Bible, and for a good reason: it is wrong-headed in assuming all people are able to help themselves and succeed on their own, or that self-improvement is superior to mutual concerns and obligations enforced in a supportive covenant community.
“An outstanding mark of Biblical writing is its ruthless honesty. None of the prophets is pictured as faultless, none of its heroes impeccable. ... There is neither perfection nor sweetness nor sentimentality in the Bible’s approach.
“We must always remember that the Bible is not a book composed for one age, and its significance cannot be assessed by the particular moral and literary standards of one generation.” (A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, pp. 268, 271)
And with that I rest my case... for now.
© Charles F. Hudson, 2012