It’s not easy to read the Bible. It’s not the kind of book you pick up and read cover to cover. The Bible is an anthology of writings about human experiences of God from a particular group of people who believed themselves to be chosen—to be special. There are different genres in the Bible: history, poetry, songs, parables, narratives and letters—written and edited by a host of individuals. The Bible chronicles the growing understanding of God by the Hebrew people. We have read it literally since the Enlightenment which means that we have tried to make all the disparate pieces fit together into one cohesive whole, and we have tied ourselves in knots trying to make sense of it. I would tell you that the Bible is a faithful account of the many ways that people have experienced God and interpreted their encounters. The stories may or may not be factual, but they try to speak truth in the narrator’s eyes.
Some of the stories and interpretations are downright ugly—for instance the words of Moses that Dick read this morning. Jacob’s family left Canaan for Egypt looking for food when they were a clan of about 70 people. While they were in Egypt, over many generations, the Bible tells us that they grew to about six hundred thousand men plus women and children, enough to make the Egyptians fear them. After wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites discovered that the vast grazing territory Jacob once called home was now inhabited by seven different tribes, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than they were. According to scripture, Moses believes that God is giving the land of these seven “nations” to the Israelites with the stipulation that the Israelites will wipe those seven nations off the face of the earth showing no mercy. We don’t have to go all the way to the New Testament to see that Moses’ instructions contradict an understanding of God’s will. We only have to look at the covenant God made with Abraham; that Abraham would be blessed to be a blessing to all nations.
The Hebrew scriptures witness that we seek, and hear, and experience God through very human lenses. How many times do we make our own plans and then ask God to bless those plans? Individuals and even church councils, including our own council on ministries, pray for inspiration and sometimes have flashes of divine inspiration. But other times we just get busy doing business as usual and ask God to bless our working agenda, hoping for the best. We have experiences that are good or bad, sometimes even life-changing, and we make meaning the best way that we can; we interpret the experience trying to find God in it. Sometimes our theological reflection is helpful, sometimes barely adequate, and sometimes it is as ugly as what we hear Moses say on behalf of God. From the histories through the Psalms, people interpret God’s will through the lens of their own joy, heartbreak, anger, fear, or desires for revenge. Sometimes we see glimpses of God and sometimes we hear only the reality of human suffering trying to make meaning. That’s where our discernment is essential.
Brian McLaren paired the reading from Deuteronomy with another reading that didn’t make it into the revised common lectionary, the feeding of the four thousand in Matthew. Maybe we don’t read it because it follows shortly on the feeding of five thousand and seems redundant. But McLaren has wisely chosen to include the arc of narrative that begins with Jesus taking his disciples into foreign territory so that they can be alone to pray. There he encounters a Canaanite woman whose daughter is ill. First century hearers would have recognized Canaanite for the anachronism that it is. It would be like saying in our time that she was a Viking or an Aztec. So our ears should perk up. Jesus is in conversation with a woman who in the story is made to represent an ancient enemy of the Israelite people and he likens the woman and her daughter to dogs (hear “utterly destroy them; show no mercy”). But she is a human being and her daughter is sick. Jesus reaches out in compassion to heal the woman’s daughter. Then Jesus preaches and heals in her neighborhood (remember from a recent sermon that we know that Jesus is preaching to gentiles because they don’t praise God, the praise “the God of Israel”). Finally Jesus feeds the four thousand men plus women and children with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. This time, instead of twelve baskets of left overs as in the feeding of the five thousand, seven baskets are collected from what is left. McLaren argues that the twelve baskets in the first story represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the seven baskets represent the seven tribes or nations that the Israelites conquered showing no mercy: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Instead of destroying these people as Moses ordered in God’s name, Jesus had compassion on their descendants and fed them. McLaren says that out of ugliness, a beauty emerges.
It seems to me that faith development for individuals and communities mirrors human development. It moves from self-centeredness and disregard for others, toward rules that help us live in community, to compassion and genuine care. We try to understand and interpret God in all of these stages of development. And our interpretations are always more or less adequate because, as the apostle Paul wrote, “We see through a glass darkly.” Jesus saw more clearly than his forebears and always chose to seek God through the lens of love. He had a better vision. If we think reading the Bible isn’t easy, it’s almost impossible to always look through the lens of love. We cannot escape the limits of our humanity. We will always seek God through very human lenses. But we can choose, as Jesus did, to spend time in prayer and to read scripture through the lens of love. We can choose love, even when we don’t feel it. We can choose compassion because we remember our own pain. Our images of God can mature as we do. That’s part of the adventure of living: seeing God more clearly as we learn to love more completely.