And that to, NPR host Krista Tippett, is the charm of the Hebrew Bible.
By Krista Tippett
In a small, captivating essay about Genesis, “Creation and Fall,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer described biblical stories as "ancient, magical pictures that we need alongside modern technical, conceptual pictures if we are to become wise." In England, I began to see in these ancient, magical pictures a response to the deepest real-world confusions of my years in Berlin. I was aching with spiritual and moral questions I could scarcely articulate. I was reading mystical texts and Buddhist texts and they thrilled me. But this Bible on the bookshelf, long unopened, was the foundational text of my spiritual homeland and mother tongue.
The Bible, as I read it now, is not a catalogue of absolutes, as its champions sometimes imply. Nor is it a document of fantasy, as its critics charge. It is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying. In the Christianity of the modern West, we've largely left the vivid storytelling of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in Sunday school. We've consigned it to the world of childhood figuratively and literally. And in our time a superficial Christian rendering of these biblical texts underpins false dichotomies that plague our public life--chasms we've set up between sacred text and truth, between idealized views of the way human beings should behave and the complex reality of the way they do.
But when I came back to read the biblical text after many years away, I began to love the Hebrew Bible fiercely for the fact that it tells life like it is. It has no fairy-tale heroes, only flawed, flamboyant human beings as prone to confusion as to righteousness. Like us millennia later, they had trouble reconciling the political and the private, the sexual and the societal. King David--the forefather by whom the New Testament theologians traced Jesus' lineage--was, as the text tells it, brilliant and charismatic and passionate. He held God's favor. David was at once a great leader and also an adulterer. He was a military hero, and yet he sent the husband of his mistress to the front lines to die. These facts about him stand together and in tension with an air of sadness in the biblical narrative. They are neither reconciled nor do they cancel each other out.
Or consider Lot, who is famous in Sunday school around the world for heeding God's command to leave the sinful Sodomites without looking back, while his weaker-willed wife gave in to nostalgia and was turned to a pillar salt. We've internalized the unforgivable sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as sexual, and contemporary religious voices routinely equate private sexual sin with the moral decline of our nation. But in the Bible itself, that equation is inferred rather than stated. It states that not a single righteous person could be found among the Sodomites, and this was the reason for their destruction. There is one scene in which Sodomite men attempt to lure other men from Lot's household out into the street with them, presumably for sexual purposes. Our hero Lot, offers his daughters instead. But in a later biblical reference and analysis of the nature of the Sodomites' sin--one of very few--the prophet Ezekiel says that they were condemned because they had "pride, surfeit of food, prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." What if, with reference to Ezekiel, we began to understand the depravity of "sodomy" to be about a nation's neglect of its poor?
One of my favorite characters in the Bible is also one of the most human and flawed. Jacob, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, is a quintessential late bloomer, conniver, and egoist. The Bible calls him "clay footed" and yet, through foibles and false starts, God's beloved. He tricks his brother out of his inheritance. He later falls in with another trickster, his future father-in-law, who cons him into marrying the sister of the woman he loves. He works slavishly, marries both sisters finally, and becomes a successful man. In midlife, full of both pride and regret, Jacob heads home to face his demons and past mistakes. He makes his way across the land in which he has spent his adulthood back to the land of his childhood. His sins were great and his absence has been long, and he is terrified of what will greet him on the other side.
Jacob crosses the Jabbuk river. And in a moment cathartic for the sweep of monotheistic spiritual history to follow, he there encounters a mysterious man whom he afterward recognizes as a messenger of God or God himself. The "man" wrestles with Jacob, even putting his hip socket out of joint. Jacob wrestles back. "I will not let you go," he tells this stranger, who turns out to be the very source of his life, "until you bless me." At daybreak, he receives his blessing and a new name. Jacob becomes Israel--a word that suggests one who strives, or wrestles, with God.
This is a story beloved by many who have struggled with the gap between real life and religious ideas. True biblical faith expands and deepens as it incorporates mistakes, questions, catastrophes, and changes of mind and heart. Like Moses who "quarreled" with God, Jacob embodies the tense interplay of devotion and struggle at the heart of Jewish tradition. I've come to find in Jacob's story a model grappling honestly and productively with sacred text itself. It is true of the entire Bible--and perhaps of any sacred text for its believers--that if you sit with these bare-bones stories, pick over them, retell them, they begin to grow--take on nuance and possibility--before your eyes. One layer of meaning is lifted and another reveals itself. You sense that the text would respond to every conceivable question. In other words, if I stick with these texts--if I wrestle with them and insist on a blessing--a blessing will come. The only limitation is my time, my powers of imaginative concentration, and my capacity to listen to the interpretations of others.
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Krista Tippett is the host of the weekly NPR radio show "Speaking of Faith" and is the author of "Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters--and How to Talk About It," from which this essay is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Krista Tippett, 2008.
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