Thursday, June 12, 2014

Belonging(s) and Barbecues:
Irreverent Reflections On An Old Testament God

I'm reading the Bible in 90 days this summer with 75 of my closest friends, enemies, and distant acquaintances. The adventure's daily discipline has been - all of 12 days in - equal parts gratifying, confusing/utterly foreign, encouraging (especially the running blog commentaries of my friends), and hard as hell. 

Yesterday, I trudged through a day and a half's worth of Numbers (making up for my inability to stay awake the night before - my only compelling resemblance to the lives of the first disciples). Rough. 

As a preacher, I've always found resonance with Moses, putting up with a stiff-necked and grumbling people. (I'm looking at you, Church.) Moses: "God, if you're not gonna take this burden of a people from me, shoot me now. In your mercy." Been there. 

But now, trudging through Numbers, I *am* the grumbling people. Hell, reading the eighth iteration of Israel's troops, their placements and lineage - to say nothing of the CTRL+C/CTRL+V account of their eventual offerings to God at the tent of meeting - I find myself siding with Israel, wondering if the people wouldn't have been happier in Egypt, too.

Freedom from Egypt had looked good on paper. 


Well, there's the constant attention to what is becoming an all-consuming relationship. Endless, unexpected sacrifices (1). Tedious requirements with respect to physical space and material things. Hidden, fine print the people didn't see coming and which is becoming increasingly easy to resent.

It's all so much like parenting. Or marriage. Or pretty much any other relationship with the power to transform/destroy a life.

We thought, perhaps wishfully, that God would save us from sacrifice, not require it. So this is all a bit disappointing.

And before we skip to how Jesus - say Christians - has saved us from our desperate attempts to produce sacrifices that will (we think) save us - war, for example - I find myself needing to stop and confess that this is not the life with God I wanted, for the Israelites or myself. 

For example, one of the especially compelling challenges I find in these first of the Old Testament books is the significant counter to conventional (21st century American) notions of property rights. The permanence of property rights - and so also of socioeconomic divisions - is challenged clearly by the Jubilee (which some scholars wonder if Israel ever observed), and also by the limits God places on the allowable possessions of the Levites. The worst part is, Jesus will, in Luke's gospel, call himself the Jubilee, and the early church of the book of Acts will "hold all things in common." So we can't even call this an Old Testament flub to which the Gospel provides a corrective mulligan toward greater respectability. 

Additionally, while my wife finds the concept of sacrifices offered for unintentional sins problematic, it seems to me of one piece with the growing case of the Hebrew Scriptures that I am not my own, insofar as I need others even to see my sin. The assumption that I need others to see my sin connects, in my mind, to the South African ubuntu Desmond Tutu describes as the idea that "a person is a person through other people" - in this case, the people of God, with whom I share all things and discover 1) who I am as a beloved child of God and 2) how my life is *actually* oriented relative to this truth.

All of this rubs against everything I've been raised to believe being a human is about, namely a) sacrificing as little as possible and b) being in charge of the sacrifices I make. So while I pretend to be offended at the barbaric, unpredictable, and offensive Deity of the Hebrew Scriptures, now you know better. Even my disgust at the crude and vulgar God of the Old Testament can't be trusted. I've got too much at stake to simply be truthful. So alongside my true questions I mix in my elaborate effort to keep at arm's length the One who would dispossess me, in the end, of both the things I possess and my attempts to build an identity out of the things I possess - belongings, reputation, even my humility. Nothing is safe. Everything is threatened. 

The only lasting thing is
the identity that bubbles  
up like water from the ground, 
springs out as river from the rock, 
comes as gracious gift of God. 


(1) To be fair, the endless barbecue commended throughout the Pentateuch is more than a little appealing to this Texan. I mean, who doesn't go to Rudy's Barbecue in part for the "pleasing aroma" that will cling to one's clothes for days after? I get it, God. I do.

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