May 13, 2011

That Implied Biblical Meta-story, Part II: Chosen Peoples

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!


At 2:14 p.m., Blogger Larry said...

This is great stuff, Forrest; it's really great to see someone sharing the load of this blog. In my own posts I like to combine my interest in the Bible with a broader viewpoint, as you also are doing here.

Re Chuck Fager: we were fortunate to be in the same Meeting with him: Langley Hill in Northern Virginia. He contributed a lot to the Meeting; he used to pass around buttons like things that said, 'I'm a member of no religious institution; I'm a Quaker'. I used to say that I became a quaker because it has less institutional flavor than any religious body I've encountered.

Another of Chuck's favorite buttons said: "I'm proud to be an humble Quaker"; he was like that. He once invited me to a Bible Conference he conducted at the Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia, which is another story entirely, but I won't pursue it here.


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