The Bible’s Argument with Itself

He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David


Dear friends-
In the play/movie "The Fiddler on the Roof", Tevye, the beleaguered milkman whose horse has just gone lame at the beginning of his pre-Sabbath milk deliveries, sings of what he would do "If I Were a Rich Man".
“And I’d discuss the Holy Books with the learned men SEVEN HOURS EVERY DAY, [Holding up seven fingers] and that would be the sweetest thing of all.”
That seems like a lot, especially every blinkin’ day. Yet, in the some traditions, while seven hours a day may be a bit of an embellishment, there is a rich history of discussion, conversation – okay, let’s call it argument – about Scripture – the sacred, confusing texts that lie at the roots of our spiritual life. In other traditions… not so much. For many of the faithful, knowledge of Scripture is confined to memory of a handful of stories learned in Sunday school, plus whatever the preacher has seen fit to share in sermons.
I remember a conversation once in which a friend said, “I’ve read the Bible. I get it. It’s pretty clear to me. I don’t understand why we need to keep picking it apart. Just ‘Do what the Good Book says,’ as the old song advises us.”
Really? What the Good Book says, for example, in Ezra and Nehemiah, where these prophets told their people - who had recently returned from exile in Babylon - that their great sin was the practice of intermarriage that was common among the Hebrew people?
Or the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who, after a lifetime of tragedy in Moab, came to her mother-in-law’s native Judea, married a Hebrew man, and became the great – great – etc. grandmother of Jesus? The Book of Deuteronomy – not to mention Ezra and Nehemiah – makes it very clear that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
What about the long, elaborate descriptions in the first books of the Bible about how to prepare and offer sacrifices to the Lord – precise amounts of flour and oil; exacting specifications for the traits of animals to be sacrificed? How do those instructions square with Jesus’ counsel that the poor widow who gave away her only two coins was giving more than anyone else? And Jesus was one of many Jewish prophets who celebrated simple generosity over showy sacrifice.
It’s been said that the Bible is in conversation with itself. An old Jewish joke says, “Three rabbis; four opinions.” There’s a reason that rabbis have argued about Torah 'seven hours every day'; a reason that scholars have given lifetimes of study to a single book of Scripture; a reason that Muslims, who have their own sacred texts, regard the Bible as sacred as well. (Here's a fun fact: one of the most revered Biblical characters for Muslims is Mary, the mother of Jesus. This should scramble our anti-Islam eggs.)
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could really argue about Scripture and depart as friends? How might that change the world? People have been doing it for millennia. And many have departed as friends, despite what today's headlines say. There must be a reason for this.
That reason is mystery – the unutterably sacred work of wondering who God is, and what God asks of us. Not to mention what we ask of God.
We start, or continue, this holy conversation/argument when we worship together. I am as sure as I am of anything that God loves to witness us searching for meaning – in Scripture and in our own lives. The “Word of God”, as the Bible is often called, is the story of our own conversation with God. And as such, it can be pretty bewildering sometimes. But somewhere in that conversation is truth, sought humbly and beloved by Creation and its Creator, for the search itself, as well as for what we find.
And you’ll be glad to know, if you don’t already, that our worship lasts about an hour, not seven. The other six are of your own choosing. Yes, the first hour is at your own choosing as well, but you are warmly welcome to begin there, as one with all who gather. It just might be, as Tevye sang, "the sweetest thing of all".
Sabbath blessings-