Tuesday, June 25, 2013

God's Little Instruction Book

This is a post on today's (6/25/13) reading from the Old Testament, but it was also published as the cover article in our parish's weekly newsletter.

I knew a man who liked to boast that the bible was his “little instruction book for life.” I think he meant that primarily as a way of saying that he took scripture seriously, but his proclamation also seemed to suggest that others (probably meaning me) did not take the “good book” as seriously as we should. Whenever confronted by a challenge of faith, he would hold up his bible, which he almost always had in his hand, and say, “The answer is in here. This is my little instruction book for life.” I wonder how he made sense of passages like today's reading from 1 Samuel 6.

In a battle that saw the death of 30,000 foot soldiers of Israel, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. In the Daily Office, we have been reading from 1 Samuel for a while now and have seen how the wickedness of Eli’s sons was bound to catch up with them. Sure enough, Hophni and Phinehas were killed in that battle, and, when Eli heard that the ark had been captured, the ninety-eight-year-old priest and judge fell over backward, broke his neck, and died. Adding pain upon pain, Phinehas’ wife, who was pregnant, went into labor upon hearing the bad news, gave birth to a son, and named him Ichabod, exclaiming, “The glory [of the Lord] has departed from Israel!”

Things did not fare any better for the Philistines. Proud of their booty, they set up the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Dagon, but, when they went in the next morning to admire their prize, they discovered that the statue of their god had fallen over “face downward on the ground in front of the ark.” Suspecting an odd coincidence, they set Dagon back up again only to find the next morning that his hands and head had been mysteriously cut off in the middle of the night. The strange and mighty power that emanated from the ark spread throughout the community, infecting everyone with tumors.

After seven months of suffering, the Philistines gave up and sent the ark back to Israel. Having consulted with the spiritualists of the day, they decided to send a guilt offering along with the ark in the hope that the God of Israel would stop punishing their people. So they made five golden tumors and five golden mice and placed them in a box on the cart next to the ark, yoked some cattle to the cart, pointed them down the road, said a prayer, and hoped that it would work. And it did.

The bible is full of bizarre stories like this one—stories we hardly ever read in church but that we still believe is God’s holy word. Our job as people of faith is to try to make sense of them, and I will suggest that anyone who thinks that the right way to overcome cancer is to make a golden tumor and offer it to God is crazy. Instinctively, we know that this passage is not intended to give literal advice but instead is pointing us to God’s power and justice without telling us exactly how to honor them. The same is true of countless passages in scripture. In order for God’s word to speak clearly to twenty-first-century Christians, we have to go beyond the surface and dive deeply into the text.

If the bible really is our instruction book, it contains the kind of instructions needed to build an aircraft carrier rather than a swing set. I remember being asked to assemble a new gas grill for my father. Intimidated by the myriads of small pieces contained in a dozen plastic bags, I cleared out the garage and laid all the pieces and parts out on the floor. I read the instructions all the way through twice, picturing in my head how I could make the objects in front of me look like the pictures in the booklet. With care and tentative precision, I slowly began to put things together. When I think about the bible and how it might be informing my daily life, I try to remember that experience of checking and rechecking the text, always asking myself whether I was making sense of what was in front of me. Reading the bible—even the strange parts—is a wonderful way to shape our lives, but there is nothing about that process that is simple.

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