The Great Conversation
Isaiah 1:1 – 2:5
. . . seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,plead for the widow.
It was about 800 BC. The Israelites and Judeans had already survived so much. In addition to all the trouble within their respective borders – much of it caused by corrupt leaders – even bigger trouble was brewing outside. The two tiny nations were dwarfed by superpower neighbours, each of which had desires to expand. To the north and east were the Assyrians. To the east were the Babylonians, and to their east, the Persians. To the south were the Egyptians, and to the West, the Mediterranean Sea. How could Israel and Judah, each smaller than present-day Jamaica, Qatar or Connecticut, hope to survive, surrounded in this way?
The northern Kingdom of Israel fell first. In 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded and deported many of the Israelites into Assyria. These displaced Israelites eventually intermarried and lost their distinct identity as children of Abraham. They’re remembered today as ‘the ten lost tribes of Israel’. The Assyrians quickly repopulated the conquered kingdom with large numbers of their own, who then intermarried with the remaining Israelites. The mixed descendants, later known as Samaritans, would experience a long-standing tension with the ‘pure’ descendants of Abraham in Judah to the south.
Judah resisted conquest for just over another century, during which Assyrian power declined and Babylonian power increased. Finally, around 587 BC, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. The nation’s ‘brightest and best’ were deported as exiles to the Babylonian capital. The peasants were left to till the land and ‘share’ their harvest with the occupying regime. For about seventy years, this sorry state of affairs continued.
Babylon, meanwhile, was being pressured by their neighbour to the east, the Persians. Soon the Persians conquered the Babylonians. They had a more lenient policy for managing the nations under their power, so in 538 they allowed the exiled Judeans to return and rebuild their capital city. But even with this increased freedom, the people remained under the heel of foreigners. They had survived, but they still felt defeated.
How should they interpret their plight? Some feared that God had failed or abandoned them. Others blamed themselves for displeasing God in some way. Those who felt abandoned by God expressed their devastation in heart-rending poetry. Those who felt they had displeased God tried to identify their offences, assign blame and call for repentance. It was during this devastating period of exile and return that much of the oral tradition known to us as the Old Testament was either written down for the first time, or re-edited and compiled. No wonder, arising in such times of turmoil and tumult, the Bible is such a dynamic collection!
As the people changed and evolved, their understanding of God changed and evolved. For example, when they were nomadic wanderers in the desert, they envisioned God as a pillar of cloud and fire, cooling them by day and warming them by night. When they were involved in conquest, God was the Lord of Hosts, the commander of armies. When they were being pursued by enemies, God was pictured as a hiding place in the rocks. When they became a unified kingdom, God was their ultimate King. When they returned to their land and felt more secure, more gentle images of God took centre stage – God as their Shepherd, for example. When they suffered defeat, they saw God as their avenger. When they suffered injustice, God was the judge who would convict their oppressors and restore justice. When they felt abandoned and alone in a foreign land, they imagined God as a loving mother who could never forget her nursing child.
Not only do we see their understanding of God evolve under evolving circumstances, we also see their understanding of human affairs mature. For example, to immature minds, there are two kinds of leaders: those who have been set in place by God, and those who haven’t. The former deserve absolute obedience, since to disobey them would be to disobey God. But in the Bible we see this simplistic thinking challenged. Moses, for example, was a God-anointed leader, and people were indeed urged to obey him and they were punished when they didn’t. Yet when Moses made mistakes of his own, he got no special treatment. The same with Saul, and the same even with David.
As their understanding of human affairs matured, their moral reasoning matured as well. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve wanted to grasp the fruit of knowing good and evil, as if that were a simple thing. But as the biblical story unfolded, first it became clear that the line between good and evil didn’t run between groups of us and them. There were good guys among them – including people like Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro, Rahab and Ruth. And there were plenty of bad guys among us – including most of the kings of Israel and Judah. It became clear that the dividing line doesn’t simply run between good and bad individuals, as many people today still believe. Some of the Bible’s best ‘good guys’ – like David and Solomon – did really bad things. So the Bible presents a morally complex and dynamic world where the best of us can do wrong and the worst of us can do right. The line between good and evil runs – and moves – within each of us.
The Bible often conveys this growing moral wisdom by drawing a third option from two irreconcilable viewpoints on an issue. For example, some biblical voices interpreted the move from an alliance of tribes to a kingdom as a tragic sign that the people had rejected God as their king. Others saw the monarchy as a gift from God, a big improvement over the previous chaos. When both sets of voices are heard, it’s clear that each had some of the truth: a strong central government can be both a curse and a blessing, not just one or the other.
Similarly, some biblical voices argued that God required animals to be slaughtered so their blood could be offered as a sacrifice. Without sacrifice, they believed, sins could not be forgiven, so they gave detailed instructions for sacrifice that, they claimed, were dictated by God. Other voices said no, God never really desired bloody sacrifices, but instead wanted another kind of holy gift from humanity: contrite and compassionate hearts, and justice, kindness and humility. When we give both sets of voices a fair hearing, we can agree that sacrifices fulfilled a necessary function for the people at one point in their development, even though ultimately sacrifices weren’t an absolute and eternal necessity.
Meanwhile, many voices claimed that Abraham’s descendants were God’s only chosen and favoured people. Others countered that God created and loves all people and has chosen and guided all nations for various purposes. If we listen to both claims, we can conclude that just as a little girl feels she is uniquely loved by her parents, even as her little brother feels the same way, each nation is intended to feel it is special to God – not to the exclusion of others, but along with others.
From Genesis to Job, the Bible is full of conversations like these – with differing viewpoints making their case, point and counterpoint, statement and counterstatement. Sadly, throughout history people have often quoted one side or the other to prove that their view alone is ‘biblical’. That’s why it’s important for us to remain humble as we read the Bible, not to seek ammunition for the side of an argument we already stand on, but to seek the wisdom that comes when we listen humbly to all the different voices arising in the biblical library. Wisdom emerges from the conversation among these voices, voices we could arrange in five broad categories.
First, there are the voices of the priests who emphasise keeping the law, maintaining order, offering sacrifices and faithfully maintaining traditions and taboos. Then there are the voices of the prophets, often in tension with the priests, who emphasise social justice, care for the poor and the condition of the heart. Next are the poets, who express the full range of human emotion and opinion – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then come the sages, who, in proverb, essay and creative fiction, record their theories, observations, questions and doubts. And linking them together are storytellers, each with varying agendas, who try to tell the stories of the people who look back to Abraham as their father, Moses as their liberator, David as their greatest king and God as their Creator and faithful companion. To be alive is to seek wisdom in this great conversation . . . and to keep it going today.
Could it be that we are doing just that, here and now, walking this road in conversation together?
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about an argument where both sides were partly right.
3. How do you respond to this vision of the Bible as a library full of difference of opinion, yet carrying on an essential conversation about what it means to be alive? Which set of voices do you identify with most – priests, prophets, poets, sages or storytellers?
4. For children: What’s one of your favourite stories – one that you like to hear again and again? What’s your favourite thing about that story?
5. Activate: This week, listen for voices who fit in the tradition of the priests, prophets, poets, sages and storytellers in today’s culture. See if you perceive points of agreement and disagreement with their counterparts in the biblical library.
6. Meditate: In silence, imagine hearing a vigorous conversation going on. Then let the conversation gradually fade away so that silence envelops you. In that silence, open your heart to God’s wisdom.