Inspired

I was talking with a minister the other night, just casual conversation, and we got onto the subject of the Bible. I’ve been studying the Bible in terms of how interconnected it is, lately, so I mentioned that. He said that he didn’t believe it was possible for human beings to craft anything as intricate as the Bible, and that it must therefore be inspired by God.

I’ve encountered this idea before and I usually don’t argue, because what value could there possibly be in getting into a disagreement with another Christian over such an inconsequential thing? But I do disagree with that, for one reason on the face of it, and possibly for another.

I’ve read Finnegans Wake enough times to have a little understanding of it, and I’m confident that it is more densely packed with internal and external references than the Bible. James Joyce spent twenty-three years or so working on it, filling it full of allusions to anything and everything in western civilization. The Bible is referenced a lot — especially Romans 11:32 — but so is everything else. It’s also true that every character in Finnegans Wake is also every other character, though this is easier to see when characters are the same gender. The Bible is complicated and richly textured, but the Wake is more so. On the face of it, people certainly are capable of writing something like the Bible, especially if they have a dozen or so centuries to work on it.

The other possible reason why I might disagree with the minister has to do with how one understands “inspired by God”. Many Christians seem to hold the view that the Bible was written directly by God, either by possessing someone or by giving them the exact words He wanted written. People make this claim when they want to give authority to a specific verse that, when taken out of context, seems to say what they want it to say. There is no one — not one — who really believes that every single verse in the Bible is the inviolable word of God.

I believe — and the ELCA approves — that the writers of the Bible were regular people who had insights or revelations, and did the best they knew how to write down what they had experienced. They were, every one of them, limited by their knowledge and language, and influenced by their cultural norms. Reading the Bible responsibly includes learning about the social structures of the ancient Levant and putting the words of the Bible into their proper context. The Bible makes a lot more sense when you take the time to understand what it says.

For example — Psalm 137 provided the Meloians with the lyrics for “Rivers Of Babylon”, a classic reggae song, but they smartly left out the last few stanzas which call for retribution on Babylon, concluding with “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” That is a disturbing image and I’m certainly not the first person who would be happy if it just wasn’t there. I’ve read various attempts to explain it that didn’t convince me. Recently, I did some research and learned that killing babies and children was a standard practice in warfare in the ancient Levant. That knowledge doesn’t make me happy with Psalm 137:9, but it does give me the ability to accept it. The ancient Jews were no better and no worse than anyone else in their time and place.

Coming back around, the ancient Jews who put a lot of work into crafting the Bible — the OT was written over a period of centuries and then edited by an unknown number of scribes in the Second Temple period — were inspired by God in the sense that they were motivated to do the work. And they did not do what anyone would expect them to do, which would be to make their own culture look good. As I said, the ancient Jews, according to the Hebrew scriptures, were no better and no worse than the Edomites, Egyptians or Babylonians. They were God’s chosen people, yes, which is why they were supposed to behave better than everybody else, but they didn’t. The OT is the story of how the Jews failed to live up to their end of the covenant over and over and over, as chronicled by the Jews — or some of them, at least.

People like to make themselves look good. The writers of the Bible, especially the OT, were not so motivated. They were more concerned with recording the truth of the relationship between a certain group of people and God. They were clear-eyed and humble enough to acknowledge that their own people had behaved deplorably throughout most of their history, failing to even come close to living up to the code of conduct given to them by the God they worshiped. They were motivated by — inspired by — something greater than their nation.

The minister and I have different backgrounds and different politics. We have a positive relationship, if not a deep one, and we generally get along. I understand where he’s coming from, and I don’t tell him everything I think — if I did, we might have a more difficult time. He doesn’t think the USA is perfect, or that God has chosen it to be a city on a hill, radiating the pure light of freedom to all the benighted nations, unlike some people I am related to, but he also doesn’t share my view that America is one of many iterations of Babylon. He probably thinks capitalism is good and that the political party he usually votes for is better than the other one. I do not share those views.

In any event, he and I do agree that God wants us to do what we can to provide for the poor. We know each other through our connection to the homeless shelter where I work and usually peck out these rambles. This is one of the main themes running through the Bible. The word “poor” should be understood as referring to anyone who is low on the social hierarchy — “outcast” or “marginalized” might be better. Often, specific groups are mentioned — widows, orphans, immigrants, the sick or disabled. At the time I’m writing, it would be reasonable to add addicts, the mentally ill and the LGBTQ+ community. (Understand — I’m not saying that LGBTQ+ folks are addicts or mentally ill, just that they are marginalized.) Whoever respectable people disapprove of — that’s who the Bible says should be lifted up.

I have been in some of the groups I’ve mentioned — I’m still in some of them. That does not mean I get to give myself a free pass on moral behavior. As a Christian, a member of the group that I consider in a new covenant with God, I have higher standards for myself than for other people — which I fail to live up to. My behaviors aren’t as destructive as they once were, but they could be better. I look at the example set by the writers of the Bible for inspiration to be humble and hard on myself. I also take great comfort in the verse James Joyce threaded all the way through his magnum opus — “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

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