Sunday, February 22, 2009

Peter on Exodus: Part IV

Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words

A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words

What is a “graven image?” Why are they forbidden, not just in the arcane dictates of the Mosaic Code but front-and center in the Ten Commandments themselves? And, given that, why do so many Christians today and throughout history flat out ignore the commandment?

What it says is:
You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (JPS, Exodus 20:4-6)
Murder, adultery, and stealing He let go with a simple statement. For graven images, He goes out of His way to promise punishment down to the great-grandchildren. And it's not just idols, not just images of God(s), it's images of anything. What's up with that? And, given its prominence in the Law, what's up with all those crucifixes in churches?

Marshall Massey, in a comment on an earlier post, says:
Well, if you know your religious history, you know that there have always been some Christians who understood this as being more and deeper than a "tribal taboo", and honored it accordingly. Thus the first generations of Christians made no images, which is why we don't know what Christ looked like. In Byzantium, a few centuries later, there were pitched battles between the iconoclasts, who wanted to destroy all graven images of holy things, and the iconodules, who liked having them as objects of veneration. The iconodules won, but it was a near thing.

In Puritan England, at the time that the Quaker movement was beginning, there was a widespread feeling that the victory of the iconodules had been just one more instance of the general apostasy of the church; a new wave of iconoclasts arose and invaded the churches and cathedrals of England and Scotland and destroyed countless works of art, some of them great. Early Friends joined with the Puritans in rejecting crucifixes and stained glass portraits, not just on the grounds that these were forbidden in the Bible, but because their own hearts affirmed that an image is a vanity, i.e. something empty, and as such a distraction from the true God.

Even today, many Protestants uphold the ban on images; I've heard of one Scottish preacher, invited to preach in a church of a different denomination at Christmastide, who began his appearance by taking off his frock and throwing it over the crèche on the stage, so as to cover the blasphemy of that image, and its power to distract from the true God, for at least as long as he was there.

The Jewish temple was of course devoid of graven images; the Holy of Holies had no image in it. Islam makes no graven images, because it recognizes the truth of that commandment; all its art is abstract.

And the thought is hardly restricted to the so-called Abrahamic religions. The Taoists make no images of God, you know; they see God as beyond all such. The early Buddhists made no images either; all the images you've seen of the Buddha date from after the incursion of Alexander the Great. Some of the greatest Zen teachers were notoriously scornful of images, one of them even to the point of burning one.

Tribal taboo, then? Or separate discoveries of the same truth, which is that the Infinite and Uncreate cannot be contained in a form?
As always, Marshall is very thought provoking and has a depth of historical and scriptural knowledge that makes him impossible to simply dismiss. But, as is often the case too, Marshall's comment leaves me feeling that there is something wrong in what he said that I just haven't been able to put my finger on yet.

Yes, there have been iconoclastic sects within Christianity, including the forebears and early roots of our own Quaker tradition. And I'll take Marshall's word for it that the early Christians made no images. But even at their most extreme. Christian iconoclasts have only objected to religious iconography. Islam is the only Abrahamic religion I know of that avoids all representational art of any kind. I don't draw any great conclusions from this. It just puzzles me. This one has always puzzled me, ever since I was a child turning the pages of the big black King James we had from the Reader's Digest Press.

For that matter, what about the golden cherubim that ornament the Ark of the Covenant? *shrug*

Where I sharply disagree with Marshall's comment is when he compares the Hebrew injunction against images to the attitudes of the Taoists and Buddhists. He's very right in describing the Taoist conception of “God as beyond all such.” But that's not what the Hebrews were saying.

Lao Tsu tells us:
Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
Without words, the Tao can be experienced,
and without a name, it can be known.

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, Stan Rosenthal trans.)
This stands in direct opposition to:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

(RSV, Gospel of John 1:1)
The Hebrews forbade sculpted images, and Hebrew culture never did much with the visual arts generally, but with their words they painted pictures that could make your hair stand on end or your spirit soar.
I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam of amber. In the center of it were also the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance:

They had the figures of human beings. However, each had four faces, and each of them had four wings; the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were like a single calf's hoof; and their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze. They had human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four sides. Each one's wings touched those of the other. Their did not turn when they moved; each could move in the direction of any of its faces; they went wherever the spirit impelled them to go, without turning when they moved.

(JPS, Ezekiel 1:4-12)
The description goes on for another two pages, and it is some of the most visually intense writing I've ever read. They did make pictures of their God. It's not sculpted, but there's no way you're going to tell me those words don't make an image.

So I'm still just really puzzled by what the second commandment means. To us. To them. To anybody.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Bother With the Bible?

For the past two years (approximately), Peter and I have been, in our own different ways, reading and thinking about the Bible.

Our ways are different--Peter says that he is attempting to read the Bible as a writer, and, in order to do justice to the original authors, he works to squirrel out as much information on translations and the evolution of the texts he reads as he can.

I don't have much use for that approach. To me, the books of the Bible are much too much like a centuries old game of telephone, and the version that is on any of the printed pages we have tells me little or nothing about the men and women whose ideas may have been the original seed for the words. I just can't bring myself to trust the ideas that far back.

As for any original divine intent... lets just say that I find myself comfortably one of those Quakers who regard the Bible as words about God rather than the word of God.

But I am reading the Bible, and trying to take it seriously as a body of literature.


Without going into detail, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the uses that book has been put to over the millennia have been "bad for children and other living things," as the slogan goes. So why should I, a non-Christian Quaker, even bother with it?

It has to do with goodness.

Let me be clear. I think that anyone who offers a claim that the People of the Book have a unique claim on goodness are pretty clueless. Setting aside whatever wrongs have been propped up by Biblical argument, the Holy Spirit clearly is multi-lingual, and can speak as fluently in Sanskrit as in Hebrew, in Xhosa as in Greek. Goodness of the sort I wish to speak about is not the exclusive domain of any religion, any language, or any body of humans on earth. And this is because the sort of bone deep, reverberant goodness I am referring to is not (I believe) simply a product of humanity at all, but rather reflects a partnership of humanity and Spirit that transcends anything we homo sapiens sapiens have ever thought or planned or built on our own. And what limits we have to our understanding or availability for this partnership do not apply to the Spirit.

We don't own God, and no religion gets to slap a brand name on Her. Period.

She goes where She wants to go, and those of us who are wise will take notes and try to keep up, not pretend we understand Her limits in terms of human institutions, cultures, or languages. That's just bosh.

And one of the places I see God is in the eyes of a very few deeply good human beings I have known in the course of my life.

I'm not talking, at the moment, about ordinary goodness: people who resolve to live honestly and with integrity, whose words and actions are ethical and kind on a routine basis. I've known a lot of people like that, and I'm grateful to be able to say so, too. I'm also grateful for the things that have brought me to a place where I think I can describe myself this way: an ordinary person, who lives a life of ordinary goodness.

However, I have known personally at least three people whose goodness is of a different type somehow. (There may well have been more, of course. I do not take my lack of vision for a lack of something to see.)

The fact remains, in at least three examples of the people I have known personally in my life, I have encountered something rare and extraordinary. It's not so much any particular thing they have done or neglected to do--but something in them is more fully awake and open to Spirit than is the usual thing.

In them I think I see reflected something I will call the face of God; these people have each been, I think, in partnership with the Holy Spirit for a significant part of their lives.

The first of the three was an agnostic college professor, whose eyes, whose whole being, was nonetheless suffused with an uncommon sweetness and joy that I truly believe was holy. He did not pray, and he did not preach--in any commonly understood way, at least. But he had a deep and overflowing love for the mysteries of science, and he approached the intricacies of his discipline with the gentleness of a father taking up his newborn child. His passion for teaching and learning and experimentation went well beyond an intellectual pleasure--and it extended to other parts of his life as well. His mind and his heart was always open, and I cannot think of a man possessed of greater compassion than his. I met him when I was seventeen, and came to know him well. I'm grateful for a lot in my life, but knowing him is very high on the list, because if I had not known him, I might never have known what goodness a human being could manifest.

I believe that, for that man, the mysteries of the natural world were the shape which Spirit took when She partnered with him to create a kind of holiness. Science has never called to me in this way, but I know that it can, because of the reflected glory I saw so often in Earl's eyes.

The second two men I know who carry that unusual holiness are Quakers.

One certainly was Christian at one point in time, but I'm not sure exactly what he believes about God right now.

I think this is at least partly due to a humility about God, and that that's partly what allows Spirit to be so close to him. I know he knows his Bible; he has helped both Peter and me to find passages we had only vague memories of, but which were tickling our brains. But I do not know what his theology is.

What I am sure of is that he lives his life as though he were a summer cottage with all the doors and windows flung open, so that the slightest breeze of Spirit passes through the whole frame.

I've heard him speak of how rarely he gives vocal ministry in meeting. I am not sure he knows that his silent presence in meeting is a ministry, a silent ministry, that is far more potent than most spoken messages.

I don't know if he believes in God. I know he walks with God.

Finally, I know a third man, another example of this kind of holiness. He is also a Quaker, and like the man I just described, his witness from silence is more potent than the vocal ministry of all but the most inspired. There is a warmth that comes from his silence that is not his alone, but is a reflection of that Holy Spirit. Just to worship in company with this man is a gift.

He is Christian. Explicitly so, and the rare vocal ministry he gives is often couched in scriptural language.


I have been lucky enough, in my life, to have known three people who live in nearly constant communion with the Holy Spirit. Two of them are Quakers; one of them is Christ-centered, and understands his spiritual encounters in scriptural terms.

If I know three paths to holiness, and one of those three paths is explained in Biblical language, why would I not try to learn this tongue?

Though I did not become a scientist, I most certainly studied science more seriously and more deeply in order to converse with Earl.

Though I may not ever become a Christian, I would be a fool not to study the Bible, in hopes of better understanding the voice of God when it speaks through Friends.

Is the Bible the only language God speaks? One out of three encounters with human holiness say, no. Is the Bible capable of yielding more bitter fruit than my Friends have taken from it? Experience of the world's Christians says, yes. But it's not the Bible I'm interested in, but the relationship with God that, at least sometimes, has been mediated by it.

My desire is the poet's desire, the mystic's desire. I'm much less interested in the archeology and history and ideas of people long ago gone in the Middle East than I am in the stirrings of God within Friends I know in worship. I need to understand imagery and the metaphors of deeply lived spiritual lives. I want to come closer to the deep, still waters I know these Friends drink from.

Maybe I'll get to drink from them, too--and maybe not.

But I'm certainly willing to try.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Peter on Exodus: Part III

Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words
Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live

Judy Harrow, a Wiccan author and teacher who has been a friend of mine for many years, took me to task in a comment on my last post for quoting without comment a particularly notorious passage from the Bible: Exodus 22:17 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

There are several reasons why I didn't make a fuss about it. First, and most important, the best way to fight prejudice against Pagans and Witches is to be one, openly, and to be a visibly grounded and decent human being. I am.

Second, “proof-texting” in general is a really bad approach to trying to support any argument for anything. I have read a lot of scripture-based arguments in favor of gay rights (for example). Some of them are even convincing. But the Bible has plenty of hate and intolerance in it as well; more than enough to support the likes of Fred Phelps and the God-Hates-Fags Church. Phelps isn't wrong because one passage in Matthew supersedes another in Leviticus; Phelps is wrong because he's an evil hatemongerer. To debate him on the scriptural merits of hate vs. love is to lose the debate at the outset.

Third, as Alexei Kondratiev shows in very convincing detail in an article that Judy linked to from her comment, it's not a mistranslation. Wiccans will often tell you the passage really says “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.” And its true that in the Septuagint, the Greek word is pharmakos, meaning an herbalist capable of both poisoning and healing. But Alexei himself tells us that:

In its original Hebrew text the verse reads: M'khashephah lo tichayyah. Literally this means: "May a m'khashephah not live" or "You will not keep a m'khashephah in life." M'khashephah is the feminine form (although it also has a collective meaning) of a term which can also be used in the masculine m'khasheph). It means someone who practices k'shaphim, a magic characterized by spell-working that aggressively makes changes in the environment.

The Anchor Bible states:

The Versions vary on the number and gender of the enchanter(s). … Our sole extant Hebrew reading, however, is MT-Sam, banning only the mǝdaššpēpâ 'sorceress (fem. Sing.),' the lectio brevior et difficilior. The other translations appear deliberately to broaden a narrow statute.

A fourth reason for not commenting on the passage is just that it didn't seem all that shocking, perched as it was between how to sell your daughter into slavery and thou shalt put to death anyone sacrificing to other Gods. There's some really bad stuff in the Bible.

In fact, the only reason I quoted the passage at all is because it was a familiar phrase but I hadn't known before exactly where it came from. It was just one in a surprisingly long list of commandments. Some of them are fine and good, some are just odd, and some are downright horrifying.

But that's news?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Peter on Exodus: God Becoming God

Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words
When I began blogging about Genesis last summer, my plan was to plow through the whole Hebrew Bible, keeping up a lively commentary the whole time. But I’m a slow reader, and every door I open leads onto four or five more corridors that need to be explored. So, my apologies to readers who’ve been waiting with baited breath, but further commentaries on my biblical odyssey will be a bit sporadic.

Tonight I’m just back from a weekend workshop on the Hebrew Bible with Quaker author and curmudgeon Dick Kelly. It was interesting, and added a little breadth to what has been a fairly laser-focused study of the Bible so far.

Exodus is giving me fewer surprises than Genesis did. Genesis was such a mix of the very familiar and the utterly odd that I had to keep stopping to say, Holy cow! Did you see that? Not so with Exodus. One reason is that Cecil B. DeMille’s adaptation of the book was really surprisingly faithful. (“Of course it was,” said one Jewish friend of mine. “He knew who his audience was.”) Though the scene where the people are gathering around the foot of Mount Sinai and the priests are setting up a perimeter in preparation for the big appearance reminds me of another filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. I wasn’t familiar enough with scripture to pick up on the biblical influence when I first saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but reading the book now and looking back at the movie, the archetypal imagery is unmistakable.

One of the few actual surprises for me in Exodus is how verbose God is in that scene on the mountain. We all know there were ten commandments on those tablets, but seriously, between “I am the LORD your God…” and “…he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God,” I count at least seventy nine separate commandments spanning almost a dozen chapters.

The eleventh commandment: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” (!)

And the twelfth: “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. …”

The thirteenth: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. …”

The twenty-first commandment is one specifically rescinded by Jesus: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

It goes on and on and on. Here are commandments 33-36: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death. Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Number 54 is the injunction, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.”

After the first sixty or so, Moses takes a break. He “came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.” I get the image of Moses frantically trying to take dictation on—what? Papyrus?—until finally God takes pity on him and offers to give him hardcopy. “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

And this is where we get the Close Encounters imagery. “The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”

Now the instructions get much more detailed. We get plans for the Ark of the Covenant, blueprints for a tabernacle tent with patterns for curtains and designs for candlesticks, carrying handles for a portable altar, and robes and headdresses and jewelry for the priests. The robes have to have bells sewn onto them so that “its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, lest he die.” There are recipes for incense and instructions for butchering bulls and rams for an ordination ceremony. God concludes by referring Moses to a few craftsmen He trusts to be skillful enough to carry out the instructions, and only then does He hand over the tablets “written with the finger of God.”

So what was written on those tablets? The original Ten Commandments didn’t come up in this last set of instructions. And, when you think about it, “Thou shalt not kill” is something you could probably remember without having to write it down, but “for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework; it shall have four pillars and with them four bases…” For that you might want to jot down a few notes. So it’s no surprise that the tablets “were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.”

But that’s not the really interesting part. The really interesting part is that it all changes later on.

After all these detailed instructions, and more, and then still more, and after the whole book of Leviticus with all its proscriptions and prohibitions and its picky, prickly, legalistic and closely worded rules and rules and rules—after a couple of centuries God is ready to chuck it all out the window. And I’m not talking about Jesus here; I’m talking about Amos. The God who begins in Genesis and Exodus by laying out a meticulous code of conduct to maintain the purity of his people, has found by the time of the prophets that it does not satisfy. In Amos, he loses all patience with empty ritual. “I hate, I despise your feasts,” he says, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” What does he want instead? “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We also begin to see a truly universalist God in Amos. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,” he asks, but then he adds, “and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”

The God who began as a jealous and insecure minor tribal deity is evolving into something really universal. He’s no longer a God who can be mistaken for a man in a chance meeting on the road.

Cool stuff.

Monday, February 02, 2009

For the Brigid in the Blogosphere Poetry Slam: Walt Whitman

In honor of Brigid, Lady of purification, creativity, and healing, I offer this favorite poem by one of the best, Walt Whitman. This comes from the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown
or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons
and with the young and the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air
every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told
at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul
and your very flesh shall be a great poem.
Hard words to improve on, in any century.

Blessed be.

(You can find more poetry in honor of Imbolc at MetaPagan or at Branches Up, Roots Down. It's not to late to participate! Directions at both sites.)
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