Before Whose Face the Generations Rise
Before Whose Face the Generations Rise
September 17, 2017
Numbers 21:4b-9; John 3:13-17
When you build a house, you start with the foundation. You create a firm place upon which to build: flat and straight, strong and level. If the foundation is indeed good and firm, the house we build will stand the test of time. If it is not so, well, the house will have problems standing at all.
Religion is much the same. It has to be built on something; built on some event or some book, some person or some people, some traditions or some disciplines. This varies from religion to religion, but generally speaking there are some foundational matters or practices to be considered. What would Buddhism look like without meditation? What would Islam mean without praying?
In the Jewish tradition, the cornerstone is the Torah, the Law with a capital “L.” If I ask what are we supposed to do, the response will generally be what does the Torah teach us? Customs and behaviors will evolve to be sure. Things will shift over time. But in the Jewish tradition the Torah is always the starting point.
The five major books of the Torah are Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and finally Numbers from which we read this morning. These books are foundational but that by no means should suggest that these are simple or straightforward ideas. These books are not an ancient “do it yourself project,” not a millennia old “how to do it checklist.”
It is no easy task to grasp what is intended by these five books of the Bible, let alone in the two dozen total books in Hebrew Scriptures. And, as we consider the sheer amount to be read and understood, it is worth noting something else. Some of the stuff in the Bible is pretty weird.
Take for example the story of the journey to the Promised Land. We are told in the Bible that it took forty years to complete the journey from Egypt to Israel. That is a long time. If a two hour car ride will get the kids in the back seat complaining, imagine spending forty years listening to someone say “Are we there yet?”
Out of curiosity, I decided to go onto Google Maps to check how long it would take to travel from Egypt to Israel. Specifically, I looked at a trip from Cairo to Jerusalem. It would be a 9 hour car ride, I would guess without traffic. Walking the 450 miles involved, it would take 144 hours, or 6 full days. We probably would not walk straight without stopping. There being about 600,000 of us, us being men because those were the only people counted in the Bible. Triple that number, say, and add a similar number of sheep and goats. Quite the road trip. I find it stressful trying to follow one person through traffic. Imagine.
So being a group on the largish size, we would hopefully pace ourselves. Stretch out our hamstrings, keep the goats from getting stressed out. We’ll be leisurely about it and plan for a month or two of walking and stopping and camping.
Bear in mind that all of modern Israel is the size of Vermont. Even if we multiply the travel time 100 times to 600 days, it would still be shy of two years. Why then did it take forty years to travel less than 500 miles?
Because none of these people, none of those following Moses and Aaron through the desert were intended to get there during their lifetimes. The Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt were never supposed to make it to the Promised Land. That generation was to be saved from slavery, yes, but none of its members would be allowed to enter into the lands promised in the Bible. Even Moses did not make it. He died and was buried in the land of Moab on Mt. Nebo overlooking the land of Canaan. So close and yet so far.
I was in the Holy Lands during my sabbatical. Along the way from Egypt to Israel, the Hebrew people passed through the hostile land of the Edomites – I visited the land of Edom, now southern Jordan. I then traveled to Mount Nebo, to visit Moses’ tomb, north in the land of the Moabites, now the middle section of Jordan. By the way, the land of the Ammonites is to the north, around Amman, the capital of Jordan.
Back in Edom, the former Hebrew slaves were becoming impatient. They complained about there being no food or water. They say to Moses “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They complain to Moses but they also complain to and about God. And in response, we are told in the Book of Numbers that God sent out poisonous serpents. These serpents bit the people and many of them died.
The people quickly repented their sin of complaining and asked Moses to intervene. Moses prayed to God and God in turn instructed him to raise up a poisonous serpent. Moses made a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole. When someone would get bitten, they were supposed to look up at the bronze serpent so they would not die. God does not take away the snakes, according to the Book of Numbers. Instead, God gives those afflicted a place to look for comfort – an unexpected way to face suffering.
The story of fleeing enslavement in Egypt, including journeying for forty years in the wilderness and finally coming to the Promised Land, is the foundation upon which Judaism is built. This is the story that sets the pattern to be followed, even if that pattern involves sin and punishment. God will deliver us, God will guide us, and God will provide for us…and then we will fall away from God, face troubles and suffering, and return to God through repentance. Through generation upon generation, these stories have been the basis for Jewish life, the firm spot upon which a faith was built. Even the part about failing to live up to the expectations of God; perhaps especially that part if we are to be honest with ourselves about the nature of humanity.
But let us be historically minded for a moment. Did any of this happen? By happen, I mean as it is described, the specifics rather than the generalities. Did 600,000 men plus women and children of an unknown number wander in the desert for forty years without water or food, fighting enemies all around them, like the Edomites, the Moabites and the Ammonites – did that happen?
And, for that matter, were they being bitten by snakes, snakes sent by God? Were they cured of snake venom by staring up at a bronze serpent? What are we to think about all that? Did all of that actually, historically, factually happen? Put another way, did the story need to happen in that exact way for us to care about it so many centuries later?
Strangely enough, this anxiety over history is a modern preoccupation, a late breaking concern over the details of the Bible, the literalness of the scriptures. The ancients cared deeply about the Bible, the Law itself, but whether one thing or another in the Bible was a fact was not so much of an issue. That something was, or is, a fact is not nearly as important as whether something is true. Truth was more important than fact. I will get back to that distinction in a minute.
The generations kept rolling along. Changes came and went. After wandering around for forty years, the Israelites, as they were then called, decided firmly that they would never have a king. Nope, never. God said to them again and again, no kings, no how. And if God says it, you are supposed to listen, one would think. But, they really wanted a king. They beg and plead. God says “whatever” – it is all just going to end in tears.
The Israelites start off with King Saul. That does not go very well, as God notably predicted. Then there was King David. He started off fine: young, brave, and handsome, playing a mean harp.
But then came Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. David used his power as king to get what he wanted, meaning Bathsheba, and to get rid of what he did not want, meaning Uriah the Hittite. He did all of this rather than concern himself with what was good for the people of Israel. God did not want there to be a king because that would mean the people would place their faith in a king rather than in God. And, as it turned out, that was true.
The ups and downs of having kings continued on for a few centuries. Some kings were good, some not so good. Some were successful against their enemies, yet they were not good. Some were good, yet not ultimately successful against their enemies. And those enemies over time destroyed Israel, piece by piece. Having a kingdom to defend was far different than relying upon faith in God regardless of the borders of a kingdom.
Looking back over the long timeline of the Bible, at what moment should we stop? When could we freeze the video feed, let the scrolling images of time pause and finally zoom in on what was the perfect moment? To use an analogy to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, when was it not too hot and not too cold but just right?
Maybe right before Adam and Eve ate the apple, taking the story at its literal word? But that sets up a rather difficult proposition. If we try to use the Bible as history, gazing wistfully back to the Garden of Eden itself, then it would strangely have been far better if the Bible had never existed. Adam and Eve tempted by the apple but they just say no. No, we are going to hang out in paradise, for all eternity. All the subsequent generations of humanity arising from that fateful moment? They were one giant mistake, not even helpful as a thought exercise. I personally find that is not a helpful way of thinking, even theoretically.
If, however, we turn to the Bible seeking what is truth, what is deeply and inherently important to us and to all, these stories take on a different character. Adam and Eve would always have fallen from grace. Why? Because the fundamental condition of humanity is that are struggling with our choices, good and bad, as embodied in the example of the Garden of Eden. We unknowingly choose to leave paradise, to live selfishly, to make mistakes, and to sin again and again.
The truth is not to be found in the apple or the snake or one bad decision dooming all of humanity. The truth of this lesson resonates in our experiences in life. The truth is uncovered for us in the pattern of these stories presented in the Bible. Truth in this sense is far more important than focusing on any one fact. Facts were never the point.
The Israelites would always have been wandering through the desert, hungry and thirsty, angry and afraid, waging war yet seeking peace because they knew hunger and thirst, anger and fear, war and peace. The Bible as a source of truth reflects what it means to be human. We never fell from grace. We could never have fallen from a place we were never intended to be, a state of theoretical perfection that defines who we must strive to be rather than who we ever were. These stories remind us of what is important, not what might have been.
Did you ever wonder why it took forty years? Forty years to go such a short distance? Because forty years is a generation, representing a cycle of change from the past to the future. The slaves in Egypt could never be the people of Israel. Even Moses. Even as the generations rise and pass away, age after age. Children learn from their parents, but they can never be their parents. They will struggle in their own ways and in turn will become different parents to different children. Even the most treasured stories from the Bible are understood, or misunderstood, differently across those generations. We are creatures of time and time does not stop.
And over time, the religion of Israel splinters into other groups. The Jewish people continue using the Torah as their Law, evolving new traditions and customs because of radical and tragic changes to their world. The generations that follow have no choice except to change.
Another group of upstarts, born of the same law, sharing the same basic beliefs, comes along. They do not set out to be terribly different, just adding one more teacher into the mix. Judaism has a long history of prophets coming along to explain and to guide. One more prophet would not typically have led to a dramatic shift. But that one prophet happened to be Jesus of Nazareth.
During his life, Jesus was a beloved teacher, offering lessons to his followers and prophecies to the people. Prophecy does not always mean predicting the future. It also means teaching and guiding, challenging and criticizing. Even as the Messiah, Jesus would have been a recognizable figure in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pivotal of course, but still understandable, still familiar in the cycle of generations, as the people wander from God and then return to God. Again and again. What changed?
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
If Judaism is said to be founded on the Torah, Christianity is built on faith in Jesus. Faith in who Jesus was. Faith in what he represented. Faith that Jesus was the Son of God and no merely the Son of Man.
I attended a Bible study group the other day among colleagues. Our leader was explaining the problem faced by translators of the Bible. He used the example of the Hebrew word ruach. It appears frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures but it can be tricky to translate because it has many meanings. It can mean wind or breath or spirit. And spirit can imply the spirit of life or desire. It can suggest energy or even represent destruction. When you take a word with multiple ancient meanings and chop it down to size to fit into a modern English translation, you lose all those implied meanings leaving only the one you intended based upon your moment in time, your personal preferences, and your desired theological outcome.
The Spirit of God was therefore intended to include many things, but we have come to understand it in a far more narrow fashion. The poetry is lost, the depth of meaning replaced with the shallowness of expedience.
What then can it possibly mean to speak of facts when so many possibilities exist within those original, ancient words? Over the centuries, as we moved away from these inherently complicated concepts, we may also have begun to lose a sense of what is true in scripture. Truth, as what is deep and meaningful. Truth, as what lies at the mysterious core of faith.
In our study group, we also discussed another example of this tricky nature of ancient languages. The letters of Paul are undoubtedly the oldest parts of Christian scripture, older than any of the four Gospels. It is said that Paul early on after the death of Jesus began to shift away from having faith in the Law, meaning the Torah, toward having faith in Jesus.
In translation, however, it is not always clear what Paul intended to say. Why? Because the phrase “faith in Jesus” can also be translated from the original Greek into “the faith of Jesus.” Of Jesus.
Is there a difference between saying I have faith in a person and saying that that person has faith? Yes, there is potentially a big difference.
So should I have faith in Jesus, meaning should I focus on who he was and what he represented? Or, should I look to Jesus’ faith, meaning what he believed, what he taught, what he cared about? Do I worship Jesus or should I follow Jesus? Paul’s terminology would not have forced that choice. It would have left an understanding of the significance of Jesus and the significance of what Jesus believed. Focusing on one part versus the other destroys the complexity of what Paul wrote and the greater truth he was trying to offer.
In case you were wondering, the distinction between having faith in Jesus and following the faith of Jesus is one of the foundational elements of early Unitarianism. Those Unitarians built their own faith in this way, turning to the moral teachings of Jesus’ faith rather having faith in the divinity of Jesus. On that distinction, in part, these very walls were built. And so the generations rise and pass away only to rise once again.