It’s been called, “the greatest story ever told”, The Bible. But what is that story?
“The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters – Then God said: ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Six ‘days’ later, the universe as we know it was fully formed.
On the 6th day, God fashioned Adam out of dust and Eve from Adam’s rib. He placed them in the Garden of Eden, a paradise. But Adam sinned so God banished them.
A little later, God chose Abram of Ur to found “a people for himself”. He lured Abram away from his ancestral home and set him up in a tent. To test Abram, God asked him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, which Abram was prepared to do. (However, God spared Isaac at the last minute.)
Generations later, the descendants of Abram (now Abraham) managed to get themselves sold into slavery in Egypt. After a considerable period of time, God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land (modern day Israel and environs). This God accomplished with “signs and wonders”, including the slaughter of the first born of the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea.
God chose Saul, David and Solomon to be Israel’s first three kings and for the most part the Israelites prospered under their rule. Later though, sin dragged the Israelites down so God let enemies overpower them and lead them into exile in Babylon.
Eventually, God used Cyrus, King of Persia, to liberate the Hebrews and return them to Israel to await a promised Messiah. There, by the power of the Holy Spirit, a virgin conceived and gave birth to that Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Thirty years later, Jesus began a public ministry.
Initially, Jesus enjoyed some popularity but ultimately he ran afoul of both the Jewish and Roman elites and he was crucified. Three days later, however, God raised him from the dead. Over the next 40 days he appeared to people a number of times; then he ascended into heaven. At the end of time, he will return to earth “to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end”.
Sound about right? Well, yes, this is the story of The Bible…some of it at least. This telling is based largely on Genesis, Exodus, Kings, the three synoptic gospels, and Revelation. It is the story of God, Hollywood style.
But The Bible tells another, less well known, story – this story presents the same historical (or metaphorical) events, plus many others, but it presents them with a very different tone. This is what I am calling the “Other Bible”.
It includes all of the books listed above, of course, but it includes other material as well: principally, Old Testament ‘wisdom literature’, the Gospel of John, and Paul’s letters, especially his First Letter to Corinthians.
This ‘other Bible’ tells a story of human liberation, social justice, forgiveness, charity and divine mercy. It is a story of profound hope.
Take, for example, the creation narrative. We all know the account given in Genesis (above); but there are at least two other major (and many minor) creation stories.
Gospel of John (1: 1 – 5): “In the beginning was the Word (Logos, Christ), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This is an account brimming with celebration and hope. The account in Proverbs is similar but more lighthearted.
Proverbs (8: 22 – 35a): “The Lord begot me (Wisdom), the beginning of his works…I was formed at the first, before the earth…When he established the heavens, there I was…When he fixed the foundations of earth, there I was beside him as artisan; I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while…Whoever finds me finds life…”
So which is the ‘true’ account? All of them, of course! In the end, they tell the same story but in very different ways. Each reveals a different aspect of a single event (or chain of events). That’s the beauty of the Bible. It tells a single story, the story of God and the world, but it presents it under many guises that reveal its many facets.
In this the Bible is something like a cubist painting (e.g. a Picasso): a particular object may be seen on the same canvass from many different perspectives and in multiple orientations. In this way, we are able to see ‘the whole object’ where a more traditional canvass would leave us seeing just one aspect of the thing,
Another example is Theophany, God’s revelation of himself. First, we have the well-known account in Exodus.
Exodus (19: 16 – 18): “On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar (trumpet), so all the people in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the Lord had come down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.”
One can almost feel Cecil B. DeMille’s presence in the room. But we find a different example of Theophany in Kings.
1 Kings (19: 12 – 13a): “Then the Lord said (to Elijah): Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire – but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound (whisper). When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
Finally, God also reveals himself in his dialog with humanity, most famously in Exodus:
“Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian …He came to the mountain of the God, Horeb. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed …God called out to him from the bush…”I am the God of your father…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…I AM who AM. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” (3: 1 – 14)
These words are echoed by Jesus in the Gospel of John: “Amen, amen I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (8: 58)
One could make a case that the entire story of the Bible is summed up in these 15 verses.
First we learn that God is the ground of all being. While all ‘beings’ are subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), God is not. (The bush is not consumed.) God is the ’being’ that transcends all ‘beings’.
Then we learn that God is Being per se (I AM). Being is what God is.
Finally, we learn that Jesus Christ is God.
All this without a whiff of smoke (the bush did not burn) or a peal of thunder! More like a dull Sunday school lecture, and yet, to quote John Keats’ famous line, “It is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”.
Exodus 3 reveals God as Being per se. In today’s secular, pseudo-scientific world view, Being is thought to be ‘value neutral’. ‘That it is’ (Dasein) is independent of ‘what it is’ (Wassein); but that view is not Biblical. Scripture makes it clear that ‘what God is’ is inseparable from ‘that God is’; and ‘what God is’ is Good.
And what is Good? From our point of view, Good comes in 3 flavors: Beauty, Truth and Justice. John Keats showed us that “beauty is truth and truth beauty” and Pierre Gassendi defined justice as ‘truth in action’. Let’s hear what Scripture has to say:
“The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice; let the many islands be glad. Cloud and darkness surround him; justice and right are the foundation of his throne.” (1 – 2)
God’s ‘throne’, his authority to rule over creation, derives from the fact that he is the ground of all being; but justice and righteousness are the foundation of that throne. There is a connection between Being and Justice.
The Old Testament concept of justice is more expansive than our own. For example, it includes social and economic justice, especially for the disadvantaged and the oppressed. It is also more ‘activist’ than ‘deliberative’.
Psalms (10: 16 – 18): “The Lord is king forever… You listen, Lord, to the needs of the poor… You win justice for the orphaned and oppressed…”
Psalms extends the concept of justice to include other aspects of human experience as well: mercy, compassion and, ultimately, salvation itself.
Psalms (6: 3 – 7): “Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering. My soul too is shuddering greatly… Turn back, Lord, rescue my soul; save me because of your mercy… I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears; I soak my couch with weeping.”
God is our consolation in the darkest of hours. Justice includes compassion.
Psalms (9: 8 – 14): “The Lord rules forever, he has set up his throne for judgment. It is he who judges the world with justice, who judges the peoples with fairness. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed… You alone can raise me from the gates of death.”
This psalm again links God’s throne with justice; but it goes even further. It extends the concept of justice to include salvation itself. It seems to embrace the Biblical idea that death is the ultimate injustice. Consider Ecclesiastes:
“But when I turned to all the works that my hands had wrought…all was vanity and a chase after wind… Wise people have eyes in their heads, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I knew that the same lot befalls both…Therefore I detested life…for all is vanity and a chase after wind.” (2: 11 – 17)
Death is the ultimate leveler. Mortality robs life of all meaning. What gives life meaning are acts of justice and righteousness; so mortality is an offence against Justice, and by extension, an offense against God.
Wisdom is even more explicit: “Brief and troubled is our lifetime, there is no remedy for our dying…For by mere chance were we born, and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been…Even our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will recall our deeds. So our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud…our lifetime is the passing of a shadow…” (2: 1b – 5a)
Yet both Ecclesiastes and Wisdom ultimately discover salvation, triumph over death, in God. In the end, justice wins out.
Ecclesiastes (3: 10 – 15): “God has made everything appropriate to its time…I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever…What now is has already been; what is to be already is: God retrieves what has gone by.”
“God retrieves what has gone by.” By itself, the world is ‘vanity’. Of course it is! What else could it be? Because of time, that great eraser, “we shall be as though we had not been”.
God changes all that. “What now is has already been; what is to be already is.” God gives the world an eternal dimension that runs, if you will, ‘perpendicular’ to the temporal dimension. God IS eternity (perhaps more accurately, ‘the eternal present’: I AM) so with God, everything is preserved, everything is present, eternally. Everything is ‘saved’.
So God is a big deal; in fact, he’s the only deal in town. Without God, there is nothing; with God there is everything, eternally. Old Testament wisdom literature understood this, so did Augustine, so did a 5 year old grandson of mine; most modern philosophers somehow miss it.
Consider another passage from Wisdom:
“Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome. There is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of Hades on earth, for righteousness is undying.” (1: 13 – 15)
“Righteousness is undying.” Eternal life is linked with Justice. Justice is what endures.
“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion that you hate…But you spare all things, because they are yours, O Ruler and Lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!” (11:24, 26 – 12: 1a)
Yet obviously, not all people or events are totally righteous all the time. Nevertheless they are spared because no creature is entirely evil and because God’s “imperishable spirit (Schekinah?) is in all things”.
“But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously…For your might is the source of righteousness; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.” (12: 15a – 16)
Earlier, we read that justice and right are the foundations of God’s throne (his ‘might’). Now the tables are subtly turned: God’s might is the source of righteousness. Which is true? Both! It is we who make a distinction between Being and Justice. For God, might and right are one and the same thing.
Psalms, the ultimate celebration of divine justice, returns repeatedly to the salvation theme:
Psalm 23: “A psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack… He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name. Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… I will dwell in the house of the Lord for endless days.”
Psalm 27: “Of David. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid? …One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the Lord’s house all the days of my life…I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”
Job, another book of wisdom literature, echoes Psalm 27: “As for me, I know that my vindicator lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him…” (19: 25 – 27)
It is not just our objective actions that will be preserved eternally by and in God but our subjective experiences as well: “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living//I will see for myself, my own eyes…will behold him.”
Throughout Scripture we encounter references to God’s salvific role but ultimately it is Paul’s First Letter to Corinthians that sums it up once and for all.
1st Corinthians (15: 20 – 28): “…In Christ shall all be brought to life…then comes the end, when he hands the kingdom over to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.”
Simply put, death is God’s enemy! Sorry death, “though some have called thee mighty and dreadful thou are not so” (John Donne). “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (St. John) God holds all the cards and at the end of the day, God (Being, Justice, Eternity) is “all in all”.
Finally, all these aspects of divine justice are expressed together in Psalm 116: “Gracious is the Lord and righteous; yes, our God is merciful. The Lord protects the simple; I was helpless but he saved me… My soul has been freed from death; my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (5 – 9)
But we needn’t have gone so far afield to find the link between Being and Value. In Genesis 1, the process of creation, six times God reviews his creation and evaluates it: “God saw that it was good,” and “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.”
God is the ground of all being and God is good; therefore, whatever has being is good. Being, Presence (eternity), Good, Beauty, Truth, Justice – in the mind of God, these are synonymous. The Judeo-Christian cosmos is suffused with value.
So yes, God can be found in our favorite Hollywood blockbusters; but he can also be found in ‘a light silent sound’. He can be found in a bush that burns but is not consumed. He can be found in thunder and smoke, but also in a simple, “I AM”.
God can be found in the liberation of the oppressed and in the defense of the rights of the poor. He can be found in the redemption of our lives and in our ultimate salvation from death. He can be found in the Present. He can be found in eternal life!