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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The author of the book of Hebrews gives his take on serious Bible study when he says, "Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." This statement comes at the end of a passage in which he criticizes his audience for failing to advance far enough in the Christian faith to be able to teach anyone. In fact, he says they need to be taught the elementary truths of the faith all over again. He uses the contrast between milk and solid food as an analogy for the difference between a mature and skilled handler of the faith and an initiate. The study of the Bible forms a large part of what the author considers "solid food," as he just interrupted a detailed discussion of the story of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 to make this criticism. It is very interesting that he regards Bible study as a potentially "stretching" exercise. Obviously, an infant's digestive system can't handle a steak dinner. Likewise, the author suggests, it takes a contracted period of living with Christian faith before one can fully profit from Bible study. It takes awhile for Christians to be able to properly distinguish good from evil.

Now, the way the author applies this approach to handling the Bible fits in with an approach to the Bible he shared with Jewish and early Christian interpreters. Not only did they approach the Bible as the very word of God, but they believed that every detail of that word potentially held tremendous significance and had to be attended to very carefully to discover the depths of the message God had to convey. Another common belief they shared was a tendency to regard the "heroes" of the faith as models for behavior in every detail of the activities recorded about them in the Bible. Of course, the stories in the Hebrew Bible do not always depict the "heroes" of the faith in a positive light. To the author of Hebrews, the mature handler of the Bible is able to glean from careful attention to the details of the text the clues necessary to show how an apparently bad example set by a "hero" is actually a good example. This is what he means by distinguishing good from evil. The rabbis whose ideas are preserved in the Mishnah were skilled at this, as were the authors of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books. If you want a fuller exposition, see James Kugel's The Bible As It Was. For a quick example, consider the author of Hebrew's comment on Moses' decision to flee from Egypt after it was discovered that he had murdered another Egyptian to stop him from harming an Israelite. According to Exodus 2:14-15, Moses became afraid when he found out that his deed had beome public knowledge. Pharaoh tried to kill him, but he fled to Midian. What role his fear had to play in this flight is not specified in the text, but the natural interpretation of the text is that Moses fled because he was afraid for his life. The author of Hebrews does not accept this interpretation (Hebrews 11:27). Apparently, he regarded it as a shameful blot on Moses' character that he would run from Pharaoh out of fear. He's not the only one to dodge the natural interpretation of Exodus 2:14 either. In Acts 7:23-29, Stephen's speech implies that Moses left Egypt because he realized that the Israelites were not willing to let him lead them out of Egypt.

Whatever the merits of these interpretations of Exodus 2:14-15, I think the author of Hebrews is right about the nature of Bible study. Distinguishing good and evil in the Bible is not always easy. It takes training. It is not that people are ignorant of what is basically good and evil; it is recognizing specific examples of each in particular situations. I had an epiphany of sorts about this during a study of Exodus 32:1-14, the story of the golden calf. While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai with the Lord, the people lose patience and incite Aaron to manufacture an idol which they then worship. The Israelites had just entered into a covenant with the Lord, and its first stipulation was that they would worship him alone. God was about to send Moses down the mountain with the tablets holding the Ten Commandments when he informs Moses that the people have fallen into idolatry. Then the Lord says, "I have seen these people, ... and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." (Exodus 32:9-10) What is one to make of this?

First, it's a word directly from the Lord, not from a spokesperson or someone disguising himself as God. Second, it contains a direct command to Moses: Leave me alone. Don't argue, plead, beg, remonstrate, etc. There is nothing in the form of the command or the context to suggest that this is different from the Lord giving a command to the Israelites; he speaks as divine Master to human servant and expects obedience. Third, it appeals to Moses' vanity or self-interest. Finally, it nullifies the promises the Lord made to the Israelites through Moses. This last point is the stickiest, because technically, a nation formed from Moses could be considered Israel genetically (but not, as the Lord hints, spiritually. Moses' descendants wouldn't be so stiff-necked), for whatever that's worth. It wasn't worth much to Moses, because he immediately pleads for the Lord to reconsider.

Moses disobeys the Lord's command, and is not punished, threatened with punishment, rebuked, or even subtly criticized by the narrator. In fact, he's rewarded with a vision of God's glory (Exodus 33:12-23). He argues with God about the wisdom of his stated plan and wins the argument. What's going on here? To a reader of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it's clear that the stated plan to destroy the entire nation, except for Moses, does not fit with God's intention for Israel. It cuts against the grain of his own self-description: "The Lord, The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7). So, does idolatry make God so angry that he loses control of himself? Is God pleased with Moses because he talked him out of doing something that would have embarassed him in front of the whole universe?

I'm inclined to think that the command is a test of Moses' fitness as a mediator. To acquiesce in the Lord's command would have been a failure, a sin. This raises a huge question about the ethical character of the Lord's words. Many people view the Lord's words as a legitimate pronouncement of judgment. Had he been determined to do so, the Lord would have been within his rights to destroy all the Israelites, regardless of what Moses had to say about it. If this were so, Moses sinned when he refused to leave God alone. Look, you can argue until you're blue in the face about God's freedom to do as he pleases. The problem is that God COMMANDS Moses to keep quiet. The only circumstances under which one can disobey a command from a legitimate authority without blame is when the command itself is illegitimate. Moses was right not to leave God alone because God's stated plan was wrong, wrong, wrong!

Here's the rub: God himself gives an immoral command to Moses. Moses is left to decide whether to obey. This was my epiphany. If God can give immoral commands to test someone, what prevents Biblical authors from attempting to deceive us or incite us to do evil? Christians should not expect to close an argument about the truth of a Biblical text because the Biblical author said it was so, or about the goodness of a Biblical command because the Biblical author told us to do it. Distinguishing good from evil in the Bible is not a matter of figuring out how things we suspect are wrong are really right. It is being able to stand up for what is right even when pressured to support the wrong by friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, governing authorities, Biblical authors, and even God himself.

1 comment:

Patrick Moore said...

Reading this for the first time some seven years after you posted it. Brilliant.