I asked Martin Kelley about moving the 'friendly scripture study' discussions here. He's fine with it; one friend wants to keep it there; cross-posting is evidently okay to all.

So here's one from a few months back, what I was thinking then. (A few like this to start, then some actual scripture...)


Bad News and Good

 I drifted away from this study over a year ago, because it was getting very hard to find the God I know amid all the theological rants of 'John'. I've got a longer love/hate relationship with that book than my similar relation to computers!

Somewhere in the intervening time, I read 1) several of NT Wright's series on Jesus ("Christian Origins and the Question of God") plus 2) The Secret Origins of the Bible, by Tim Callahan. Both efforts have been illuminating, though in different ways.

First of all, the Bad News. There's nothing "secret" about what Callahan has to say. Much of it has been known for a very long time; and what I really like about his book is his talent for clarifying how we know it, what evidence has led modern scholars to certainty, not just that "It ain't necessarily so" but that often it certainly ain't so at all!

Wright, on the contrary side, chews up a lot of what modern scholarship has "proven" via atheistic assumptions, and makes a good, long argument for an underlying story behind the Bible that turns out to be true, after all.

So I'll get this posted, and wait for the dust to settle in my poor mind... and see what more I can say... soon!

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Hi Forrest, glad the technology behind QQ seems it will work better for you. Glad to see you here in this extended capacity! Good bless, M
Many people set out to "read the [Christian] Bible," to "start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop." I've almost made it, a few times, though Paul usually defeats me!

Anyway, there's this rough chronological order through most of these books... getting confusing when one reaches the prophets (whose material was, if I have this right, arranged in "longest first" order-- not chronological-- as a way of conserving space on long, expensive, scrolls.)

But most of the time there seems to be a clear story line... There are non sequiturs, loose ends, a multitude of unfamiliar names-- But one's mind works through this material, assuming that one big series of things has happened, and that what we're reading is a somewhat bewildering account of it.

It isn't there!

What is there... is something more like William Burroughs' old literary cut-ups. Several texts (including oral works) that went through a blender. Some places, you think you've got one story with discrepancies... and it turns out to be a mixture of two or more.

It's a lot like what Christians have done with the nativity and resurrection stories from the Gospels: One takes a little from Matthew and a little from Luke... and one gets one story with angels, shepherds, visiting Persian astrologers and an urgent flight to Egypt followed by a massacre of all the children of Bethlehem-- plus a leisurely trip directly to Jerusalem & on to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph either eventually settled down, or had been residents all along. Given two stories, both considered sacred, both differing greatly on details like where the parents lived, why they were in Bethlehem, what happened there and what they did afterwards, we mentally construct a history containing an impossible mixture of both. People have written & performed such composites many many times, never seeing any contradiction until they find some reason to carefully compare details.

Even then, if they tend to believe that both stories are "The Word of God," must necessarily be error-free, etc... they are likely to construct a really elaborate story that "explains" the contradictions--something only a Believer could find plausible.

Every week, I and a few friends have been reading our way through some pretty cogent analysis of Biblical stories, and everywhere we find: 1) The same things keep happening to the same people in different places, or to different people (as you've no doubt noticed) in a manner that strongly suggests that the tellers have recycled traditional stories more than once, filling in the blanks as needed. 2) The customs taken for granted in these stories are space-alien weird much of the time, when they aren't just savage and ugly. 3) What looks like simple redundancy is often the alternation of two or more accounts of one incident, each account reflecting the tribal patriotism or institutional politics of a different group. 4) Comparison with archeological finds, mythologies & records from neighboring peoples (written on more durable materials) shows up much of what was supposed to be Biblical history as legendary at best. The Exodus goes through places that didn't exist at the time, as if we told stories of General Washington fighting the British at Hollywood. Signs (that ought to be there) of an immense multitude traveling from Egypt to Israel... aren't there. We have one tribe (the Levites) with Egyptian names; the other tribes seem to have adopted and improved that tribe's history when they formed a loose alliance against Egyptian domination of Palestine. No doubt those Levites had some miraculous good fortune in the course of their escape... and to that extent, what we read in Exodus is faithful to the meaning they saw in those events. But it's all stories-about, not factual accounts.

So. Why have people throughout subsequent history-- read this highly inaccurate book to find out what God is like, what God is doing with the world, what God wants of us?

Should we, can we still, read it for those purposes?

I believe we can, but it isn't the blithe and simple enterprise we've been told-- and I'm having a little trouble justifying the effort.

Next post...
Being able to post "in order" is good!

The Setting of the Bible Story We Live in:

 The Universe exists within a natural (& spiritual) order; it has a consciousness (aka “God”) immanent within (and transcending) each sentient being.

Although there is no external limit to the power of that Consciousness, it is self-limited by its own coherence and wisdom, as well as its love for itself and the myriad incarnations of itself throughout the universe.
By embedding itself within each human being, it consequently limited the power, understanding and wisdom that any person, as an isolated being, could manifest. Simultaneously it expressed its love and wisdom in the freedom and limitation of each person within its divine order.
Our alienation from the divine order (as it appears to be, from our limited perspectives) constitutes an unsatisfactory condition which God intends to rectify, and has been in the process of rectifying within the natural working-out and development of its own 'Creation' (aka “universe”).
[Anyone who has practiced any art form... has experienced the value of working within well-chosen arbitrary constraints and forms, in that the struggle between an intended form/concept and the resistance of the material provides an intrinsic interest to the process. It is not that the final result is necessarily unknown to the artist, or contrary to his intention, but that the effort of its production is what makes the practice meaningful... It is not clear that the creation of an eternal Artist would necessarily be either a “final result” or an endless process; either possibility simply eludes my powers of imagination/comprehension, at this point!]
God's communications with the human race have been necessarily metaphorical, and formed-by/limited-by the available forms of political interaction familiar to each person addressed, from family relations to tribal institutions to centralized monarchies and democracies. Within the Bible, we find people conceiving of God differently depending on whatever sexual and/or governmental and/or economic and/or religious forms of authority they lived under. There were drastic, ongoing changes in all of these from the beginnings of the Biblical writings until their conclusion (and their later interpretation/development.)
God creates the world, and sees that it is good, humanity included. Humanity, meanwhile, imagines itself caught-up in the struggle between Good and Evil; each person strives to control his/her life to its own (apparently isolated) advantage, and necessarily fails, finds whatever he/she accomplishes unsatisfactory. So far as people fail to recognize our kinship with one another, there is no bar to envy, greed, domination, and violence. And so, early in Genesis we have our first murder. The murderer flees the Wrath and retribution he expects, and bands together with like-minded people to build the first city. As people become hopelessly lost in the chaotic state of violence that results, God wipes out the bulk of them and starts over-- with people who'd at least been listening (enough so as to build a huge boat on dry land, when so instructed) but who otherwise weren't much improvement. Soon their descendants have formed a huge tyranny, devoted to reaching Heaven by combining their collective (but isolated, finite, physical) wisdom and strength. And God saves them from this state by spreading confusion and misunderstanding between them.
And now, having gone beyond the most symbolic and legendary tales, we come to Abraham. He hears God calling, telling him to leave home for a new place, where God has plans for him... We aren't told, at least at first, why God would be doing this. But previous stories have shown us why God might want to make some changes in human life-- and that's the direction the story takes, beginning here.

The Story Continues with a Chosen People

 You may well enjoy Chuck Fager's excellent piece on this subject, as it applies specifically to Quakers and a self-definition once influential among us. Among other things, Fager considers that God might, and probably has, chosen various 'Peoples' for various Inscrutable Purposes.

And of course there are Ogden Nash's deathless lines:
“How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews”
although it isn't odd at all, given the need to start somewhere-- and also considering the unique style they've acquired among God's remarkable human creations. The Dalai Lama, according to Rodger Kamenetz, once invited a delegation of rabbis, led by Rabbi Zalman, to visit him in India and advise him on Survival as a Sacred People in Exile-- having concluded there was much of value the Jews might teach his own People.
But God's purpose, in choosing Abraham's descendants, may not be as inscrutable as it seems. In the Biblical context, Abraham comes after a series of legends illustrating what Christians generally call “The Fall”-- the alienation of God's creatures from God. The logic of the story points to one specific and highly scrutable purpose: God chooses Abraham as a means of overcoming that alienation.
Initially, starting with Abraham, we find the Jews as merely one People among many similar tribes, all loosely held together by relationship to certain (possibly mythical) ancestors and the services of their various patron gods.
We don't have much hint, at that point, that there is anything unusual about Abraham's god, that this is actually God at work incognito, intending to make use of Abraham, not merely to form “a great nation” but to make that nation a blessing “to all the families of the Earth.”
We can't conclude much at all about Abraham's theology, as we find it filtered through a long series of commentators, each busy sharpening his own ax. It seems plausible that the first people intuited a kind of tacit monotheism, an implicit understanding that we live within a spiritual and unified creation-- but that they lacked the complex social structures that give our own religions such a wealth of fruitful (and misleading) metaphors.
And then... populations grew, and encountered one another, and various limited resources became objects of contention... Cain founded a city. And the leaders of that city pillaged & oppressed everyone willing to scratch a living from the Earth which they themselves had no love for. And populations grew, sought divine help against enemies and the sheer difficulties of life in an alienated universe. 
Peoples had gods, when we reach Abraham's day. These gods were political, national gods, devoted exclusively to the fortunes of their particular followers. Many of the voices of the Bible seem to envision their deity as a god of that sort, only (of course) stronger.
Before the monarchy, we find Hebrews living in the Canaanite hills, living much like their neighbors (except for no pork bones in their trash.) It looks like they worshiped more gods than one, and generally ignored any tradition that might have forbidden that.
After their nation was first conquered... it was an elite group in exile who compiled, assembled, edited the bulk of the Bible. It was their view of Hebrew history that prevailed-- and yet even in the writings they approved we find hints that the unified worship they favored had been the religion of a select few, never the norm for the people as a whole. The people hadn't so much "fallen into idolatry"; they hadn't entirely given it up in the first place.
Once this collection of books was finished, circulated... once it became the official liturgy, lawbook, and literature of a national Temple state under Persian rule... they developed a national religion based on those books, became a People defined by their devotion to God as described in those books. The People those books described... had been created!

All Right, Where's This Going?

 The Bible provides a true story about God's ongoing effort to establish communication/communion/interaction with all human beings.

Many of the purportedly "factual" elements incorporated in the story are mistaken; so are many of the human ideas quoted about God.

Many ancient Jews thought this story was about God's preference for Jews; and many did not.

But they agreed they'd made a deal with God. A very advantageous deal, but one which their ancestors had broken, one which only remained in effect through God's mercy and patience. His continuing intention-- was to let them live in a perfect land set aside for them, under His rule and care. If they followed His commands... that land would provide everything they needed for a free, generous, happy way of life.

What they saw happening instead was too much like the bad parts of Deuteronomy 28:15-- "But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you...."

They'd been conquered, their Temple destroyed, their rulers taken off to Assyria & Babylon. Allowed to return and rebuild under the Persians, they remained under the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great conquered that.

Judea rebelled successfully against Alexander's heirs, with heroic efforts-- and then the Maccabee leaders of that revolt established a new regime, equally cruel, oppressive & corrupt.

The Romans... invited in to settle the dispute between rival claimants to the Maccabees' throne-- were as pagan as the Greeks, even more cruel in enforcing their "order", tolerant but often contemptuous toward Jewish religious practice. The weight of Roman tribute, taxes of local rulers like Herod, plus the claims of their religious leaders... could not be borne by the Jewish peasantry, who were losing their land to larger landowners, often having to survive through harsh temporary, seasonal labor-- and through begging, when agricultural workers weren't wanted.

Every year, pilgrims from all over the country, as well as foreign countries where Jews had settled, came to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover-- that is, the time when God had liberated their ancestors from slavery in a foreign, pagan land, and guided them to Israel to live happily under God's rule. For this the Romans would bring the High Priest's ceremonial robes out of storage, let him officiate, demand the robes back again.

This was not an idyllic country, not the place described by "If you do all these things, you shall have no poor among you."

"The Kingdom of God"-- was to have been the establishment of God's rule as promised: peace, a prosperity that nourished even the poorest, the ejection of pagan overlords (& in some interpretations, their subsequent conquest.)

If this was "God's Plan", it was a confusing one. But there's a difference between a plan and an intention. The intention remained in effect, and Jesus said he was carrying out that intention.

Which intention?-- a paradisical  Jewish state? Or mankind's reconciliation with God? It's that reconciliation theme that's been most popular, that seems to be the point of the whole sad story. A time "when no one will say to his neighbor, 'Know the Lord', for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of God."

I don't see us ready for that soon, but if we are, it can be a surprise!

Still Wrestling With This


God creates a world that has creatures embodying God's own life. Unlike the angels, these creatures are created incomplete, designed to start out under extreme limitations and develop in an open-ended, variable way, into greater stature. I can't imagine how many times God may have done this...

Somewhere in that process there needed to be a "disobedience", some chance for these creatures to test their power and learn the word "trouble." The necessary tree was provided, and since the humans weren't taking the hint, the Serpent was sent in to talk them into it (and to take the blame, blame being an unfortunate side effect of said tree & its fruit.) Exit humans, weeping & kvetching, into great adventure and ample opportunity for learning (including the aversive sort.)

If God didn't give humans enough scope to bruise themselves against the world, how would they develop interesting scars and personality traits? So God leaves them largely to themselves, just observes, and soon they invent murder, agriculture, and civilization.

God feels for these creatures, much as we feel for a baby undergoing some unavoidable inconvenience. And like an inconvenienced baby, humans feel their suffering to be intolerable, unfair, and endless.

Humans develop 1) an insufferable amount of personality 2) great fear of God, the world, and themselves-- understanding none of these but inclined to suspect the worst.

They aren't prepared "to walk humbly with their God". They've tied knots in their minds that make them tie knots in their minds... I don't need to describe typical human behavior; we've all done it.

One way God acts to deal with this is by choosing a People, offering them a great destiny and a list of responsibilities that would require them being "Good". They fail, like any People, but they make and keep an account of their efforts, of what they thought God was asking, what they thought God was offering, how it felt trying to do right, hoping for God's triumph and blessing, frequently suffering instead.

That account constitutes the Hebrew Scriptures, which the Christians rearranged slightly and reinterpreted to support their own claims: That one Jew named Jesus had fulfilled God's purpose for his People, that you didn't need to become Jewish to benefit, that Jesus would soon take charge of the world on God's behalf, and people needed to know! Great blessings if they believed, Wrath if they didn't.

While all this was going on, while God (presumably) didn't change, our understanding of God varied wildly, changed quite drastically depending on who interpreted His purposes and how they lived:

1) Early pastoral nomads: God behaving much like the gods of neighboring Peoples, no known criteria re who could sacrifice to him or where it could be done.

2) Levites & whoever came out of Egypt with them: God favoring the Jews, hating slavery, giving them much but demanding much in return. Violently dangerous if approached too closely by unauthorized persons.

3) Early Hebrew farmers in Canaan: God evidently accepting sacrifices by local worthies, not necessarily priests, on any properly made altar, any suitable place. He doesn't call for human sacrifice, but at least one follower vows and carries one out. God as a military god, inspirer and guide of local war leaders against pagan raiders & invaders. Wants people to put trust in His power, not in centralized human leadership-- but when people lack confidence, call for a king, God has got one in mind.

4) Retainers of the monarchies: God now likes kings! Wants to keep David's descendants ruling forever. The kings behave badly; half the nation revolts when Solomon's son is unwilling to drop the forced labor his father had imposed. God suddenly wants a centralized Temple to be the one and only authorized site for sacrifices-- although a lot of residents of the northern kingdom of Israel don't see it that way.

5) Priests: God wants only priests of the right lineage performing sacrifices. God is very particular about having religious ceremonies properly carried out and priests well supported.

6) Prophets: God wants the kings of Israel & Judea to trust Him for protection-- much as God previously had wanted the Israelite tribes to trust Him (rather than a king.) God watches kings & people behaving unjustly, depending on seemingly practical stratagems which will only fail them. If this goes on

7) Prophets after foreign conquests: Widespread misconduct had roused God's indignation, but God still loved a few (worthy) Israelites and intended to return them to a new, repentant Israel..

8) Prophets after the return: God wants worshipers married to foreign wives to send them away, doesn't want Samaritans helping rebuild his Temple. God loves Cyrus of Persia and the religious leaders he's authorized to govern Israel.

Most of the time, the powers that be... see God as favoring the powers that be.

Not only that, but the way people understand God as acting-- seems to depend on the form of government they live under. Monarchies put God on a throne... and in modern democracies... it almost seems like God gets reduced to "just another opinion."

But all the forms of government we know seem to be based on violence and coercion. The Jews of 1st Century Judea were expecting another king ("A good one, this time, okay?!") And they were given a nonviolent king. One who washes people's feet, not as a pious gesture, but as a sign of the proper relation of rulers to their people.

That's pretty radical, as a form of earthly government.

But this happens in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is often portrayed acting and speaking as a stand-in for God! Not only does he wash Peter's feet; he won't let Peter stay his disciple unless he lets Jesus wash his feet.

"Get out of the way and let God help us? Let God do the things we thought we could accomplish ourselves?"

Personally, I think people get too hung up on the "facts".

I heard that someone (presumably a well educated, white person) asked Black Elk if he "really believed" his people's creation stories. The obvious, though unstated question, was "are you really that ignorant?"

Black Elk responded, "I don't know if these things actually happened, but I know that they are true."

Aside from us having that level of sophistication... There is, after all, a desire to know "what really did happen?" The Bible, much of it, purports to be answering that sort of question. Therefore its falsity at a physical-truth level does call its larger validity into question!


Black Elk's stories (like Thurber's  Fables, or the story of Adam, Eve, and That Bad Snake, etc) are true on an abstract level. Cognitive psychologists would say ~"There's a metaphoric mapping from any of these stories into significant aspects of the world we live in."


But the significant truths of the Bible aren't just more abstract... They're about Divine Intention-- or at least, human interpretations of 'What did God mean to accomplish by ___?'


They are less 'abstract theology' than 'examples of Divine/human interaction.' From the human side of the transaction, at that! (But if we were getting The Straight Poop of it from God, would we understand that better?...)

Oh, I'm not saying that the wisdom in the Bible is abstract theology. I do think that we can get to hung up on the intellectual analysys, only to miss the deeper Truths.


To quote Fox:"I saw also how people read the scripture without a right sense of them and without duly applying them to their own states...They could not know the spiritual meaning of Moses', the prophets', and John's words, nor see their paths and travels, much less see through them to the end of them into the kingdom unless they had the Spirit and light of Jesus."


Don't get me wrong, I read my share of scholarly tombs. But in the end, I find the greatest benefit when I read the Bible as if in meeting for worship. A kind if Quaker lectio divina if you will.



That's pretty radical, as a form of earthly government.

But this happens in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is often portrayed acting and speaking as a stand-in for God! Not only does he wash Peter's feet; he won't let Peter stay his disciple unless he lets Jesus wash his feet.

"Get out of the way and let God help us? Let God do the things we thought we could accomplish ourselves?"


Well said! I would add: let God use us instead of us trying to use God.

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