Joseph W.H. Lough
Why can’t we have a clean, crisp, antiseptic, hypoallergenic, meditative, calming religious text? I want to write my own Bible.
We have written our own Bible. That’s the Good News. But, that’s also the bad news.
In today’s readings, the psalmist is dead set upon resting completely on God‘s “promises,” God’s “word.” For, the psalmist is certain that relying upon God’s promises, observing God’s statutes, and being surrounded by others who do likewise is a blessing. So far, so good.
And then we get to Deuteronomy and the stones begin to fly.
Let’s say we happen upon a dreamer or a prophet who tells us things that are actually true or that turn our to be true with uncanny predictability. And, let’s say that this dreamer or prophet tells us, “Look. I don’t know what you believed before or why you believed what you believed. But this is some pretty darn solid empirical data I’m placing before you. So, why don’t you forget about everything you’ve known or believed up until now and follow my gods, my truths, my way.”
Here’s what the Deuteronomist says: “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil1 from your midst.” Woe. That’s a little harsh.
But it gets better because you might be thinking: “Ok. So the Deuteronomist doesn’t want me to abandon my wife, children, husband, brothers and sisters to follow some lunatic. This is really a passage about keeping the family intact. Right?”
Wrong. “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 some bof the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. 9 But you shall kill him.”
Ouch. So, its not about keeping the family intact. That’s brutal.
So, how are we supposed to process passages like this; passages that seem on their face to be so contrary to good sense and good judgment?
What or Who is God? Is God the brilliant seer who with uncanny accuracy or insight correctly interprets events and even predicts events accurately 100% of the time? (“Hey. Sorry about the Flood. My bad.”) Evidently not. Well, then, is God my people, my clan, my family, my parents or grandparents, or children, or brothers and sisters, my community – right or wrong – I don’t care? No, evidently not.
So, what or Who is God? God is the One Who promises and fulfills not any old promises never mind their content, but highly specific promises concerning justice, life, emancipation, redemption, and faithfulness. And, when the God we hear and follow is not this One, we and everyone who relies upon us go astray, with terrible and terrifying consequences.
To be sure, neither the psalmist nor the Deuteronomist is suggesting that when we listen to and follow this God all will be well. Its not that simple or simplistic. There are some shamans, some interpreters, some critics who are extremely good at what they do. They are very accurate in their predictions. They may even provide really good insights into how we can stay healthy, eat right, live long, and live well. They might be very good people, these dreamers or prophets.
You might even be healthier, more fit, more knowledgeable, more friendly, calm, and peaceful doing as they tell you.
But, in effect, what they are asking you to do is an extremely selfish, self-centered thing. They are asking you to ground your most basic posture toward others and toward the world on a data-point that extends no further than your nose. And, of course, we all know not only that our noses differ from one another, but that, as we move from one place to another, so too do our noses.
What the psalmist and Deuteronomist are inviting us to consider is that there is something more reliable, more secure, more trustworthy, more faithful and good and true than the words or predictions of any dreamer or prophet who chances to pass along.
All of us want health and life and truth. What the psalmist and Deuteronomist are reminding us is that health and life and truth cannot be obtained in a moment, in one place, at one time, in one experience, in one insight, in one practice, in one truth, or in one display of power or light. Health and life and truth appear over the course of generations, centuries, and millennia.
So, if some dreamer or prophet passes by with a really good insight, thank them for their trouble. It may be a really good insight. But, if they then invite you to abandon the insights of generations, centuries, and millennia in exchange for their insight; run the other way because they are selfish, self-centered bastards who are incapable of seeing beyond the tip of their noses.
That’s the first point. The second point is this. We ourselves are those selfish, self-centered bastards; maybe not yet, but we will be. We all see through a glass darkly. None of us yet sees face to face. So it was with the Deuteronomist who counselled us to stone those who ask us to abandon our faith.
Stone them? Really? No doubt, the Deuteronomist felt quite strongly and secure in his or her belief that stoning was the right course of action. It wasn’t. It was instead short-sighted and, in its own way, quite selfish and self-centered.
Which is why I am quite certain that my own insights (should they survive more than a day following my death) will strike those who come after me as narrow and self-centered; which of course they are.
So, how do we step outside of this narrowness? How do we get beyond our noses? How do we escape the barrage of stones?
Your statutes have been my songs
in the house of my sojourning.
I remember your name in the night, O Lord,
and keep your law.
This blessing has fallen to me,
that I have kept your precepts. (Psalm 119:54-56, ESV)
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