Bible Blog 6 – continuing my read through the Bible

 I have read to the end of Exodus and into Leviticus. They smoothly run each to each other, as if written at the same time, by the same author (like the Harry Potter books!) I wanted to know if this was correct, so did some online research. I learned that yes, they had been written, supposedly by a priest, and were therefore labelled by scholars as having been written by the source ‘P’. The first five books of our modern Bible make up the Pentateuch- the first of three divisions in the Hebrew Bible.

Now, what I didn’t know, is that actually, there were probably lots more of these early books. They are full of rules and measurements and descriptions (so I, for one, am not sorry they no longer exist.) However, it would mean that the Jewish religion, which is the basis of my Christian religion (and also seems to overlap hugely with Islam) went through some changes. Initially, it would be very ritual based – all the instructions were clearly laid out in multiple books. Then, in about 600 BCE, the babylonians attacked, and destroyed pretty much everything they could, including all the holy books. At the time of the attack, someone must have grabbed what they could carry, and managed to save the books that exist today. The Jews were taken into exile to Babylon, and their religion would have had to be more in their hearts, and less in their rituals. Those texts that they managed to save would have been incredibly special, and they began to view them as sacred (things always seem more precious when we only have a tiny bit). They would have studied these texts, trying to remember the parts that had been lost, striving to make sense of what remained. It had become a text based religion, but most of those texts were missing.

I found this enlightening. It explains why later Jewish scholars, those who lived hundreds of years later during New Testament times, focussed so much on the letter of the law. Something precious had been snatched from their culture, so they were clinging to the remnant (and had rather lost their focus of what it was actually for along the way.) The books we now have, though incredibly boring to read today, held huge significance. But they were only a fragment. We should remember that, when quoting a few Bible verses to prove a point – we too only have a fragment. They help to point us towards God, they are not the absolute last and complete word of God. Especially when translated into English. God has to be the focus, not our own understanding of the words of our holy book.

But, back to basics. The end of Exodus is full of instructions for the construction and use of the tabernacle. It is not a thrilling read. There’s one part, when Moses finally constructs the tabernacle in Chapter 40, which reminds me so much of camping as a child. We had a big family tent, and we had to all help sort the poles, then my parents screwed the basic shape together. We all had to stand at a corner (except my little brother, who was fairly useless) and when my Dad gave the signal, we raised the tent. When the poles were in place, the canvas was draped over the top. Something similar happened with the tabernacle. (I have no clever message relating to this, it just reminded me of camping as a child!)

The end of Exodus talks again about the cloud being in the tent, and when it rose up, the people packed up and followed it. At night, it was full of fire. I can find no natural reason for this, it was a physical miracle that all the people could see. Perhaps they needed to see, to be sure. They had messed up once, and made a golden calf to worship instead of God. Now God was making it easier for them, giving them something they couldn’t ignore to remind them who he was. I guess he does that with us too. I have (more than a few times) messed up, done things I shouldn’t, lost sight of what I believe. God always made it easy to go back to him, he helps us follow him, if we will let him.

I’ll discuss Leviticus in my next Bible blog. It’s bound to be thrilling…..

Thanks for reading.

Bible Blog 5 – continuing my read through the Bible…

I am still ploughing through Exodus – fairly boring in parts, but there are some nuggets of interest. Here are some thoughts:

Exodus 21 – laws concerning slaves. This bit I don’t understand at all. It seems like God is saying that owning, in fact, mistreating, slaves is okay – as long as you don’t hit them so hard they die. This does not, in any way, reconcile with my understanding of the nature of God (which is why it’s so dangerous to read a snippet of the Bible and then say, “Ah, this proves such and such.” It probably doesn’t!) So, how to make sense of this bit? – I am open to suggestions. All I can think is either we just cannot, in our English version, thousands of years later, really understand what was originally meant by these words. Or, perhaps when they were written, the abuse of slaves was very extreme, and these words were a moderator, toning down the abuse, until such a time as society had progressed enough for everyone to be treated properly. Sometimes God allows people to progress slowly, and maybe society of those days wouldn’t have coped with being told “no slaves”. But I’m clutching at straws, really, I have no idea what this bit means. It seems especially ironic when you consider it was being given to people who, until very recently, had been slaves themselves.

Nor do I understand why they were told not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. I think this is the basis for Jews today not eating cheese and meat in the same dish, but I don’t know why it mattered.

Then we have the details of how to build the tabernacle, a special tent for God to ‘dwell in’. It’s very detailed – not especially thrilling to read. It does however raise some questions. The materials were costly and beautiful – why? God had better beauty in nature: flowers, sunsets, stars, seas. Why would he want a tent, even an expensive one? Obviously the point was that it was not ‘for’ God, it was for the people, so they had a special place to worship. I wonder if we’re missing that today. Perhaps having a place that is special, that’s our very best, is important. Maybe we physical beings need reminding that God is worthy of more than we can offer, and we should designate somewhere suitable to worship him. Yes, when we have no time, we can pray anywhere (when you have toddlers and babies, sometimes the only place you can think for a second is in the bathroom.) But when life is not so extreme, should we be making more effort? If we snatch times to pray when in bed, or at the kitchen table, are we missing something of the holiness of God? I wonder if other religions, such as Muslims who wash before prayer, have something to teach us here. Yes, we need to be careful that the ritual doesn’t become an end in itself, but I wonder if we have lost something by rejecting rituals so completely. Even our churches tend to be a bit shoddy. We have an attitude of “take the cheapest biscuits to have with coffee, it’s only church”. I think we should take more care to only bring the best, because it helps to remind us that the God who we claim to worship is worth our best. Always.

In Exodus 29 we have the consecration of Aaron and his sons. They are told to “…lay their hands on the head of a bull. Then you shall kill the bull…” We often have bulls in the fields near us. They are huge. These instructions are no simple thing. It also means the priests were in essence, butchers. They would smell like your local butchers shop – not especially pleasant. I wonder if they could wash the clothes they were told to wear?

Talking of smells, in Exodus 30 there is the recipe for a perfume. I read this weeks ago, right after I had visited Floris, the exclusive perfumery in London (see blog). So I was extremely interested that there was a special smell used for the place where people were to worship. The part of your brain that deals with smells is right next to the part that stores memory, which is why smells can evoke such strong memories. For me, one whiff of Old Spice aftershave in a supermarket, and I’m a little girl again, being hugged by my Dad. So, for people to have a smell that they associated with worship, would be very special. I guess that’s why they were forbidden to use the perfume anywhere else – it was only to be associated with God. Smells, memories, emotions, would all be intermingled when they came to their special place. I know some people light a candle when they pray. Maybe keeping a special scented one, not to be burnt at other times, would also be helpful. God never forgets we are physical beings, even if we like to sometimes. I’m not sure we should ignore all this as much as we do.

In fact, we tend to see gifts from God in mainly spiritual terms. But in Exodus 31, there’s a chap called Bezalel (unfortunate name) who is “filled with the Spirit of God” and is therefore intelligent, artistic, and a skilled craftsman.

I’ll post more of my notes next week. Thanks for reading. (If you sign up to follow my blog, you won’t miss the other things I discover.)

Bible Blog 4

After the plagues, Pharaoh decides to let Moses take the Israelites out into the wilderness to make sacrifices to God. I found it interesting that Moses was still pretending they planned to return – he at no point told Pharaoh they were leaving for good. Does this mean dishonesty is okay in some situations? Not sure, certainly Moses gave canny answers to people, he was a good politician.

Pretty soon after leaving Egypt, God tells the people they need to celebrate the Passover every year – a festival with special food and rituals, to remind them that God saved them. Sometimes I think Christians today have forgotten the importance of rituals – especially in non-conformist denominations. Other religions are better at this. We are physical beings, we need to do physical things to help us remember. I guess that’s why times like Christmas and Easter are so important, and the sacraments (communion, baptism). I think ‘occasions’ are important. We try to celebrate them in our family, to recognise things like exams, birthdays, graduations, (my book launch!) with family meals. Also important to make spiritual ‘occasions’ I think.

Then we get to the part about the people following a pillar of cloud and fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians. Now, several years ago, I watched a documentary on BBC, which was examining the physical evidence of the events of Exodus. It was very interesting, but I can’t remember most of it now. One thing they said was they thought the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, not the Red Sea (which is possible, if you look at the Hebrew words). They made quite a strong case for the miracles being a result of volcanic activity in the area. If you read the descriptions while thinking about volcanoes, this does seem likely. Movement of the earth’s plates could cause a tidal wave, which would (I understand – I’m not a geographer) first draw the water back, so the Israelites could cross the sea, and then cause a tidal wave which fits with the Egyptians seeing the wall of water that’s described, and being swamped. The Exodus account implies all this happened at night, which would be completely terrifying.

The pillar of cloud/fire also fits with the stuff that’s expelled from a volcano, and certainly the later descriptions of Moses up the mountain are incredibly similar to the terrifying experience of being on an erupting volcano.

The journalists tried to plot the route of the Israelites, assuming they had crossed the Sea of Reeds, and they decided the mountain that most people today think was Sinai was wrong, and it was one in Saudi Arabia – for which they couldn’t get permission to test for historical eruptions. So, what do you think? As I said in a previous blog, I believe God made the world with all its natural phenomena, so it seems logical to me that he would use those. It doesn’t, for me, make it any less miraculous. In fact, if ancient people are describing so accurately what they encounter when a volcano erupts, surely we should also give credence when they describe hearing God speak directly to them.

When God sends the manna for the people to eat, we get another reminder of the law to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest. Interesting to note that the Sabbath was “given to” them – it was a gift. Although Christians keep Sunday rather then Saturday, it seems to be important that for one day we rest, think about God. I have read that in the early days of communism in the old Soviet Union, they tried to introduce longer weeks, but they found that productivity actually decreased. Not sure if that’s true, but there does seem to be some evidence that we are physically designed to need to rest every 7 days. So you might as well enjoy it!

There was lots of moaning from the Israelites. Just 3 days after they watched the Egyptians destroyed, they started to complain. Every time things got a bit tough, they complained. They also tended to blame Moses, even though they surely recognised that he was simply relaying messages from God. Always easy to blame the leader when things go wrong….

One of my favourite parts is when Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law arrives. Moses welcomes him and tells him what’s been happening. Jethro is not a Jew, he doesn’t even believe in the same God (he was a priest of another religion.) Yet Moses doesn’t tell him he’s wrong, he doesn’t even try to persuade him, he simply tells what God has done for him. He then listens. He takes advice from the priest of another religion. This is so rare today, we are so determined to convince people that our way is best, everything else is wrong, that we don’t even listen to good advice when we hear it. There is a time to learn from other people, even if they believe different things to us. It goes well with the verse in Matthew which says, “…be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves..” Sometimes Christians today forget the shrewd bit.

Bible Blog 3

This week I read the beginning of Exodus – the stories of Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues. I guess it makes for an interesting read, and probably most people know the stories because it’s a fun one to teach in primary schools.

The bits I found interesting were:

End of chapter 2, when it’s saying what a rough time the Israelites were having, and it says, “and God knew.” We tend to forget that, when things are going particularly badly, we assume God doesn’t know. But this shows that even if he’s not actually doing anything obvious, there is still a plan, we’re just not privy to it.

There’s a bit in chapter 3, where God says he knows Pharaoh won’t let the people go unless he’s forced. This balances later chapters, where it says “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – which makes it look as if Pharaoh had no choice. But he did, and God knew what that choice was beforehand.

In chapter 4, Moses is told to throw his staff on the floor, watch it turn into a snake, and then pick it up by the tail. The tail bit is important – even I know that you pick up a snake by the head so it can’t bite you. (Well, actually, I think it’s best to NOT pick up a snake at all, but you get my point.) This was a relatively small test for Moses, to show he could trust God. I think God does that today too – he gives us small challenges, before he gives us big things to cope with. God takes us slowly.

However, Moses still doesn’t trust he can do the talking (big lack of self-confidence going on here, which also shows he thinks he can mess up what God has planned, which people never can.) God is angry, but also kind, and lets him take his brother. This bit reminds me of my boys, because they’re very good friends and I think if one had to do something scary, he’d want to take his brother along for support too. I like when we see the ‘human bits’ of the Bible. Moses’ brother was 3 years older, so presumably was born before all the ‘killing of the baby boys in Egypt’ bit.

Then we get to the plagues. The bit I’m not sure about is that, the first couple of plagues (water turned to blood, frogs appearing), the Egyptian magicians could also do. We skipped that in Sunday School when I was a child. What does it mean? Is this ‘proof’ that there are effective evil forces in the world, or that ‘magic’ is real? Not sure what I think about that (if you have a view, write it below!)

One really interesting/funny bit is after there are frogs everywhere (most unpleasant) and Moses tells Pharaoh he can ask God to get rid of them (so presumably the magicians could only produce frogs, they couldn’t then make them disappear). Pharaoh says, “Tomorrow”. Why would he say that? Did he fancy another night with the frogs?! I can think of two reasons.

Firstly, he wanted to see for a bit longer if they would go naturally. Perhaps Moses was tricking him and knew the frogs were about to disappear, so he thought, wait until tomorrow, see if I really need God’s help. I guess people do that today too – they have a problem (probably not frogs, more likely to be an illness or relationship problem) and they think, I’ll wait a bit first, see if it gets better on its own before I ask for help (especially God’s help).

The other reason is simply procrastination. Which again, people do today. They plan, at some point, to think about God, and what accepting him might involve, but not today. They’ll think about it tomorrow.

There does feel like there’s a natural order to the plagues. First, the river turned to blood. That would cause all the frogs to leave it. Then the frogs die, the land stinks, and lots of gnats appear. Then bigger flies came (perhaps they ate the gnats), which wouldn’t be very hygienic, so all the animals dying might be expected. Lots of dead animals wouldn’t make for a great environment, so then people developed skin problems. The hail storm wouldn’t be a result of that, but the hail might well have driven locusts from surrounding places to Egypt looking for food. Then there’s darkness, and finally death, which cannot be explained naturally. But the fact that some can, I think, shows that God sometimes works through the natural order of the world. If God created the world (through evolution or in 7 days, whichever you believe) then he must have instigated the laws of physics/nature that we see today. So it makes sense for him to use those.

My last thought on the story is when the Israelites leave Egypt, they take all their herds and flocks. Flocks. What are these – ducks? Geese? Chickens? I know about herding ducks and chickens. It’s very slow, and they’re likely to run off in all directions. It says they were “on foot”. This was not a quick exit….

I have read lots more – I’m at Exodus 29 now, but to comment on anything more will make these posts more like essays. I’ll continue to write comments as I read, and post them each week – even if my own reading has moved on. I’ll let you know at the end where I’m actually up to. Which will work quite well as I’m guessing some books will simply be endured, with nothing to say at all!


Thanks for reading. I’ll let you know what I discover next.