July 11, 2007

The Bigger Picture (Part I)

So often we want to call scripture one thing or another; it's poetry, or metaphor, or history, or prophesy, or scientific account, but only one thing at a time. It seems we always have to dissect it into little pieces to understand it, to "deconstruct" it, but in doing so we tend to forget to "reconstruct," and lose sight of the bigger picture. Scripture is a lot of things all at once, its whole greater than the sum of its parts. As Rob Bell says, "this is about that."

For example, take a passage in
Joshua, a passage that is, strictly speaking, historical in nature; it is written in the style of a piece of history. Joshua 3 describes the nation of Israel - a shepherding, migrant nation after it left the slavery of Egypt under Moses - as it passes across the Jordan river into Canaan. But the chapter is more than just part of Israel's history. Like so many places in scripture it is filled with symbolism and metaphor built on events that actually seem to have happened.

Joshua, newly-appointed leader of the Israeli nation, is told to lead his people into Canaan. In order to get there, Israel must somehow get across the Jordan river, a dangerous river at the easiest of times, and, this being the season of the annual flood, is treacherous at best, deadly at worst. To cross this river, especially for a large nation from the desert, spells death.

But Joshua knows that God is up to something, that God will keep the promise he made to Abraham and to Moses, that Israel will have its own land in Canaan. Per God's instructions, Joshua tells the priests (from the tribe of Levi) to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the river ahead of Israel and to wait until Israel crosses. I imagine that this fills them with a certain fear; stepping out in faith is never easy, after all. As they do so, the river slows down, and eventually stops altogether, and begins flowing backwards far upstream. Israel works its way across the now-dry river-bed and into Canaan, no worse for wear.

That's the historical bit. What's interesting is that the author of the text chose to include a number of details that most of us wouldn't think were important at all for a historical account. Sure, it's miraculous that the river dried up, but if that were so, why include all this other information? The answer lies in Israel's history. The book of Exodus is a major focal point for the Israeli calendar; the story of God's mercy, of his Might in saving the nation from slavery in Egypt and leading them into the freedom of their own nation is one remembered to this day in many festivals. By the time this text was in circulation, every Jewish child would know this story, and every adult would, upon reading a text such as Joshua, pick up on key details.

For example, the tribe of Levi is told to carry the Ark ahead of Israel, in essence, to lead the way, harkening back to the Exodus through the desert when God's pillar of fire moved ahead of them, guiding them to Mount Sinai. Next, the Ark moves into the river, and at its presence, the waters recede. At this, the Jew would remember Moses and the Red Sea.

But here the author includes some seemingly trivial information. First, we're told that the water recedes all the way back to a town called "Adam." This is an odd detail in and of itself, but the next seems nearly pointless: it says that the water is not allowed to flow into the dead sea. Now, anybody is smart enough to know that if you stop a river upstream, the places downstream don't get any water; it's enough to leave it implied. But the author feels the need to leave it there, to let us know that the river no longer flows from the town of Adam all the way to the dead sea, known for its extremely high salt content and (thus) lack of life.

If God uses history as metaphor, then this is a pinnacle story, the essence of the gospel found buried deep within the old testament.
Over and over again, Israel was told that they were to be humanity's representatives for God, a "priestly nation" in which God will tell the story of the world. The water was death for the Israelites, but into the middle of it, God (symbolized as the Ark) enters and works a miracle. Death stops flowing, and in fact, flows backwards all the way to Adam, recorded as the first human in Genesis 1. The author then tells us that death stops flowing all the way to the sea of Arabah, the sea of death.

For the Hebrews, deep water was known as a symbol of death, of the demonic, and of hell. Stories are told of the many sailors and fishermen who perished on the sea of Galilee, and popular mysticism attributed this to demons "rising from the deep" to claim their lives. This is probably why it freaked out the disciples so much when Jesus walked along on top of the deep, and then commanded the storm - the very instrument of the death of so many sailors and fishermen - to cease, to calm. How can anyone but worship He who commands death to cease?

(to be continued)

3 comments:

Joyce said...

Hi, Chris. Hope all is going well. Pretty deep thinking from you. Thanks for your thoughts. We are secretly looking for ma and pa Paine's anniversary date. Know you had a big party, but think the date is later this fall. Do you know? Have a great week! Love, Joyce

Joyce said...

Me again. Great pics of the baby. What a beautiful girl!!! Enjoy!!!

Welcome to Our World said...

so I guess when you have a baby you cant blog anymore. Whats the deal with that?