I’ve been reading the Bible lately and it’s been giving me some trouble.
To put it mildly.
I’m going to blog about this more over the next couple of weeks (at least I think I am) but here’s the short version: last spring, having utterly failed in my attempt to memorize the book of Philippians, I decided that if I can’t memorize the Bible, at least I can still read it. So at the end of May I embarked on a one-year read-through-the-Bible program, which I am about 3/4 of the way through now.
This particular reading program mixes things up so that on any given day you may be reading a chapter from the Psalms or other Writings, a chapter from the historical books, a chapter from one of the Prophets, and a chapter from the New Testament. Most of the time, the New Testament passages have been the only thing that kept me from losing my religion altogether, although sometimes even they are problematic. I know I’ve raised the question before of whether anyone who professes to believe and love the Bible actually reads it all the way through, but man, this stuff has been slamming me hard lately.
I have read the Bible through before, probably when I was a teenager. Ever since then I’ve pretty much stuck to reading bits that were pre-selected, either by someone else (for a Sabbath School class or Bible study, or the pastor’s sermon) or by myself (for a writing project I was working on, or just for my own devotional reading). When I was left to my own devices this largely meant reading the Gospels, the Epistles, Psalms and a few later bits of Isaiah. I think to some extent we all create our own edited lectionaries of bits of the Bible we’re comfortable with, like we’re all little Thomas Jeffersons attacking Scripture with scissors (even though we would claim we believe and follow the whole thing).
This allows us to say things like I used to say, up till this year. Comforting things like: “Yes, there are some troubling passages in the Old Testament, but when read in context of the entire Bible … blah, blah, blah, it’s all good and God is love.”
Whoa. Yeah. Now that I’ve been immersed in the whole book, no word left out, for the better part of a year, I’m starting to struggle more with that. Read in context, sometimes it almost seems like the “God is love” bits (including the whole story of Jesus) are the outliers, whereas “read in context” God can come across as brutal, violent and angry about 89.63% of the time. (Ok, that’s a random number. But I did say “about”).
This is something I’m struggling with quite sincerely, and I’ve mostly kept quiet about it except for the occasional comment to Jason, but in the home stretch of this reading program I’ve decided to start journalling privately and, on occasion, blogging publicly about the things that trouble me, trying to pull apart what exactly is happening in Scripture and what reading it does to my faith.
So the other night I’m there in 2 Samuel 6, which contains one of my least-favourite and one of my most-favourite stories in the Old Testament, back to back. My least favourite is the story of Uzzah getting struck dead because he dared to touch the Ark of the Covenant when it almost fell off an ox-cart. Poor old Uzzah, faced with a possible disaster (“The sacred Ark which contains God’s very presence is about to fall in the muck!!”) makes a split-second decision, clearly with the best of intentions, and — gets fried for it. Seriously, what kind of God is this?!?!
An immensely holy God, whose very presence is so powerful that you have to be careful around Him, people have told me in the past when I mithered on about how unfair this story was. Think of God’s awesome power like lightning, or a volcano — it’s not out to get you; it’s just so intense you can’t touch it without dying. Well, that’s all very well if you think of God as an impersonal force, but the Bible is ALL about God as a personal being who wills and does and cares. Nobody is trying to convince me that a volcano has a choice in whether or not to smother people in burning lava. Worse, no-one’s trying to convince me that the volcano LOVES me, loves everyone, except for the unfortunately large number of people it chooses to immolate.
The other answer I’ve heard trotted out to let God off the hook on the Uzzah story is that God is extremely, intensely concerned about being worshipped properly, with holiness and reverence, and you’d better not mess around with Him or do anything potentially dangerous like bring a drum kit into the sanctuary, because you just never know when that might be your Uzzah moment and you might be the one lying in the road (or on the platform at church) wishing in your dying seconds that you’d been more careful.
But then apparently Jesus came to reveal what God is like, and when a Samaritan woman asked Jesus if God had a preference for whether He was worshipped in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan’s holy mountain (a detail which was apparently a hangin’ offense back in OT times, if you set up an altar anywhere other than at the approved site), Jesus is all like, “Hey girl, God wants you to worship Him in spirit and in truth, that’s what matters,” sounding like some laid-back 60s hippie and not at all like the same God who fried poor Uzzah for trying to prevent a catastrophe.
I’m not trying to be flippant or troublesome here: this stuff really bothers me.
After Uzzah is off the scene, comes the good part of 2 Samuel 6. King David finally gets the Ark back to Jerusalem (in a careful no-touchy manner, so nobody dies this time) and he is so happy and excited and filled with the Spirit of God that he, the King of Israel, goes dancing around the street wearing only his linen ephod, which I take to mean, pretty much, his underwear. I take it to mean this not because I really know what an ephod looks like, but because of the way David’s least-favourite wife Michal freaks out when she sees it, and tells him he’s making a fool of himself dancing half-naked in front of the lower classes and his enemies and random servant girls. And David says he has absolutely no problem being a fool of God, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
I love this. I love the abandoned frenzy of David’s celebration and the idea that if we are truly filled with the Spirit, what the neighbours think will be the last thing on our minds.
(BTW, the image above of David dancing before the Lord comes from the website of a very talented, very funny, very angry-sounding atheist called Barbara Griffiths. The fact that I’ve used her illustration does not mean that I in any way endorse her views, although, as I’m trying to convey here, there are times when I sympathize with her view of Scripture, which is not so much warts-and-all as it is warts-only).
Of course, after Michal complains and David tells her off, the Lord, for good measure, curses her with infertility (at least that’s implied by the placement of the footnote that she never had any children, although I suppose it could just as easily be the author’s way of telling us that after this incident, David just didn’t sleep with her anymore, if he ever did). It seems God is back to his nasty, blasty self here, quickly smacking the woman into place when she dares express her opinion or question her husband’s judgement.
Wow. This is a lot of stuff to handle, all in one chapter. And it seems every day I read the Bible (which is every day) is like this — fantastic, wonderful stuff cheek by jowl with stuff that makes me go, “Really? This is what I believe? This is my holy book?”
Everyone picks and chooses even if they claim not to, but how do you pick and choose when it’s all tangled up like this? I can’t even pull apart this one chapter in a way that makes it acceptable. I can’t throw out 2 Samuel from my Bible, or even 2 Samuel 6, without losing that great story of David’s royal underwear dance, but it comes trailing the death of Uzzah and Michal’s curse of infertility in its wake.
Also, I find it hard to get into the heads of the people who wrote this stuff. What is it about this God who randomly strikes well-meaning guys dead for simple mistakes, that makes people want to dance and sing and tear off their clothes in ecstasy? The stories are so closely woven you can’t get one without the other, and yet to me they seem disjointed, as if they’re about two different gods.
I’m struggling, is all I’m saying. Struggling to make sense of what I’m reading, and wondering why the pat answers that seem satisfying to 95% of the people I go to church with don’t console me. If there are any spiritual teachers out there with great insight for me, I’m open. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to my reading plan, open up a few more chapters tonight, pray for discernment and see if any of it makes any sense.
Watch this space for further reports on the great midlife Bible-reading experiment.