For many people, the Bible is a source of discomfort, even pain. After reading the book of Genesis, the stories of trickery, divine temper tantrums resulting in floods, stories of abandonment and incest, the members of my class asked, “What is there here of value to us? Who would want this sort of God?” The book we are using to help us is called “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals.”
Long ago, in a land far away, a man sat at the gates of his city. Another man came up to him, his family in tow. They looked weather-beaten and tired. The father addressed the man by the gate, saying, “You there! My family and I have come from a town far away. We had to move because people there were so cruel, stingy, and greedy. We decided to live here, but tell me, are people here like the people there?”
The man at the gate replied, “Well, I think you will find people here much the same as you found people there.” The father looked disappointed, but his family was clearly too tired to keep going. Without another word to the man at the gate, he sighed, shrugged and helped his family gather their belongings, and they entered the city.
Shortly after another family arrived. This time it was the grandmother who addressed the man at the gate. She said, “Excuse me. My family has traveled a long way. A famine in our country left no food for us. We had to leave all our dear friends. People there and along the way were so kind, so generous, so thoughtful and good. Tell me, are people in this city like that as well?”
The man at the gate smiled and replied, “Well, I think you will find people here to be much the same as you found people there.” The woman and her family thanked the man and seemed to find new energy as they took their belongings and entered the city.
This spring at Unity Church I am teaching a Bible study class for Unitarian Universalists. For many people here, the Bible is a source of discomfort, even pain. After reading the book of Genesis, the stories of trickery, divine temper tantrums resulting in floods, stories of abandonment and incest, the members of the class asked, “What is there here of value to us? Who would want this sort of God?”
The book we are using to help us is called “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals.” In it, John Buehrens, a former president of our denomination, reminds us that the Bible is not divine literature about humans, but human literature about the divine. Folks who believe the Bible is the literal truth dictated by God will take offense at this notion, but those who can find truth and value in the Bible even if it is not literal or divinely decreed may take some comfort in it.
Buehrens explains that many biblical scholars believe the first books of the Bible were composed from four different oral traditions, stories passed down for centuries before being written. It seems the compilers often could not decide which version of the story to include so they put them all together. Whose story could you leave out?
For instance, there are actually two creation stories – one where God speaks the world into being “Let there be light,” (Genesis 1 and 2:1-4.5) and one where God shapes Adam out of earth and water and breathes life into him (Genesis 2:4.5 on).
This source theory holds that the different original oral traditions saw God differently. We all are familiar with the “smite-y” God who lives far from us, up in heaven, judging us. This image of god comes from the priestly source that portrays God as all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). This is the source of the first creation story where God speaks the world into being. Words are important to clergy! It is this picture or notion of the divine that troubles many of us religious liberals.
The source of the second creation story (called the Yahwist source) understands the Divine very differently. It portrays God as in and around the created world rather than up on high. In Genesis 3:9 God walks through the Garden of Eden calling out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” This God does not know everything! This God comes to visit Moses in his tent speaking “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). This is the deity of my belief and experience, who is among us and talks to us like a friend.
People often think we either have to accept or reject the Bible as a whole. At one point I had rejected it, but in seminary I had to study and struggle with it. To my surprise I found much to love in this old collection of books - stories about heroes like Moses who are so very human, beautiful poetry, inspiring prayers.
There is much that I dislike and reject – usually the parts of the bible that some use to oppress others, but I cannot reject it all. So I take what is liberating and useful to me and reject the rest.
Some people have trouble with “cherry picking” the parts you like and leaving those you do not like. The thing is, everyone does this. People choose what in the Bible to believe, which theology to emphasize. Everyone will find things in the scriptures which, if taken seriously, will be a source of struggle. The name “Israel” given to Jacob and his people means “one who struggles with God,” so really this is nothing new.
Sometimes I wonder if the way we encounter the Bible isn’t like in that old story of the man sitting at the gates of the city. The people who expect the smite-y God find that deity there and either reject or accept that theology. The people who expect the kind God who walks with us through deep valleys and talks to us in our desert times, as to a friend can find that God in the Bible as well. What you expect may be what you find.
My point is this: Struggling with and through the texts to an understanding of the Divine that heals and nurtures can ultimately be an act of mercy for ourselves. That notion of the Sacred can be, for many lonely seeking souls like rain upon a dry land, like warm sun after a long winter. If in our struggles with these ancient texts we find a Comforter and Companion, we can perhaps act in that way toward others.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information and links to this and other Unitarian Universalist churches, please visit www.uua.org. She can be reached at Easton@cnc.com.