Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Searching the Scripture for Meaning

[note: this is not part of the promised series on attachment in religion. The next post, which will deal with a Buddhist issue, will resume (and conclude?) that possibly-very-short series.]

A reader recently asked (privately - yes you can send me an email instead of leaving a comment if you wish to remain completely anonymous and/or private) me to explain the way in which I approach the scriptures. They were troubled by the fact that I sometimes treat Biblical characters as though they were historical figures (or, as the reader eloquently put it, "real, living, breathing persons") but at other times I treat them as mythological figures. Our discussion on this issue reminded me of the great distance between the classroom and the congregation.

When I was a pastor I was told by my congregation that they had never seen anyone dig as deeply into a particular passage as I did. Yet in my one scripture course in seminary (and, yes, I would have had to have taken more than one if I'd stayed in seminary - don't worry, they still make seminarians study scripture!) my professor told me that while I was doing adequate work I would eventually have to learn to dig deeper into the text.

I say that to say this: There are a number of different ways to approach and interpret a Biblical text, but all of them may fall into two broad categories:

1. You can approach a text from within a religious tradition, accepting the assumptions of that religious tradition, and interpreting the text for others within that religious tradition. While I have attacked this approach before, it is a perfectly valid and worthwhile way to approach and interpret scripture. But it is also a limited approach, and those who use it are often not aware of its limitations.

It is limited because, as it operates within a particular religious tradition, it can only speak to those within that tradition, who grant the assumptions of that tradition. Those who, for instance, hold that the Bible is the totally inerrant Word of God, to be read literally and interpreted literally, as literally true; cannot, in their Biblical exegesis, really speak to anyone who does not grant those assumptions about the Bible. But because they believe themselves to be in possession of "Absolute Truth," they are not aware of the limits of their perspective, and impose that mode of viewing scripture on everyone else.

2. You can approach the Bible from a scholarly perspective, as an ancient book best understood within its historical and cultural context. I have often advocated for this kind of approach (though it is ultimately many different approaches lumped together under a single heading), but I must admit that it, too, is limited.

Is it real possible to understand the way in which a passage of scripture speaks to those within a particular religious tradition if you are outside that religious tradition? Some scholars will answer "yes" to this, and to a degree they are right. We can certainly understand something of the way in which scripture speaks to a religious community without being inside that community. We can certainly understand something of the power that that community's interpretation of and love for scripture holds over the community without being a part of it. But we cannot understand it fully. We cannot understand the experience of being within that tradition, under that interpretation. We can articulate what it might mean, we can express what we observe; but we cannot actually experience that existential meaning.

I am neither a pastor nor a scholar (though I once sought to be both), but my approach to scripture combines both of these broad approaches. I am within a religious tradition, a religious community, and so that community, that tradition's approach to scripture colors my experience of scripture. But, aware of the limits of my own tradition I also seek out the insight that scholars can bring to a passage.

I approach scripture often as the intersection between myth and history. That is to say that while much of scripture seems mythological in nature, it represents and reflects the history of a people who helped shape my religious tradition.

For me, the least important question to ask a particular passage from the Bible is, "Did this happen?" A much more important question is, "What does this mean?" When we ask that question, concerning meaning, we are asking both a historical and a contemporary question. We are asking both "What has this meant?" and "What does it mean today?" In fact, to understand that second question (concerning meaning today) we must be able to answer the first question (concerning meaning in the past).

In my ill-fated seminary course on scripture (which, for me ended the moment I left the pastorate - I was serving a student appointment to pastor a United Methodist church, and when I decided to leave that pastorate I also decided to leave pastoral ministry as a career, and to leave the seminary which was preparing me for that career) I wrote a paper which, in its treatment of a passage from scripture, best served as an example of my approach to scripture. For those of you who just can't get enough of this sort of thing (both of you!), here is that paper (with footnotes, references, etc. removed because, come on, this is a blog!):

Exodus 17:1-7
The story of Exodus is in part the story of a group of people, alienated, oppressed and enslaved in Egypt, who in some way depart from Egypt to make a new life. Whoever these people may have been historically, they have come to be associated with the ancestors of ancient Israel, and their story was, at the very least, adopted by ancient Israel, and held with such significance by ancient Israel that it is part of the sacred texts of that people.
As we consider the historical context of this great Exodus story, then, we must consider several different historical contexts. First we must consider the historical contexts of the events described within the story. In doing so, we will particularly focus on the major differences between the Egypt that these wandering people left, and the desert in which they wander. The next historical context we will focus on is the context in which the story may have been finally written down, during the height of the ancient Israel which so identified with this story. In looking at this historical context we will see what meanings this story may have had for the people who finally recorded it, and what needs they may have brought to the story as the recorded it. Finally we will look at the historical context in which this story was probably gathered up with other stories to make the broader story which we now see as the book of Exodus, and the Torah in which that book is found. These people also found meaning in this story, and also brought their own needs into their treatment of this story.
The story itself describes this wandering group of former Egyptian slaves wandering in the wilderness of desert of Sin, without water. They fight with Moses, their leader, wondering way they were brought out of Egypt to this place, to die of thirst. The miracle of the story is that Moses uses his staff to get water out of a rock, to quench the thirst of these wandering, homeless people. As we place this story in its various historical contexts, we will focus on these events, and how they might have been seen in the various contexts we will discuss.
The first context is the time which the story itself represents. As the story is more myth than history, it is difficult to say exactly when it, or something like it, might have taken place. It could have been somewhere between the Middle and Late Bronze Age, between 2000 BCE (which is far too early) and 1200 BCE (which is probably too late). This is, of course, a roughly 800 year window, which isn't very good if you're looking for history. But here we are not as concerned with history as we are with the meaning that historical context brings to our reading of a story. Even within such a broad window of time we can find some important context.
Egypt during this time was secure in a way that the wilderness of desert of our story would not have been. According to Victor H. Matthews, "Egypt benefited from encircling natural formations," such as the Sahara Desert, the Nile River and the Red Sea. "Only a narrow bridge of land connected Egypt to the Sinai," and so it was on this bridge of land that Egypt concentrated its defenses against possible enemies. This meant that Egypt was, at this time, a relatively safe and secure place, at least militarily. Therefore, one could feel a degree of safety in Egypt which would not have been felt outside of Egypt.
More important to our story, however, is the water. Egypt had the Nile River, which provided it with a rare and precious resource. Because the Nile often flooded, from a very early time Egypt had a relatively easy time growing food, and often had a grain surplus. This combination of fertility and security inside Egypt can be contrasted with the condition the wandering former slaves must have found in the desert wilderness outside of Egypt. They have left one set of problems, their state as oppressed and alienated slaves, for another, more vital set of problems. Say what you will about their former living conditions, it must have been much better than slowly dying of thirst, starvation, and exposure to the elements outside the security and fertility of Egypt.
But while the Exodus story may refer to events which happened in and around ancient Egypt, it was written many generations later, by people in ancient Israel who associated these former Egyptian slaves as their ancestors. These new people, and this new time, brought their own concerns to the story.
It is difficult to know when this story was actually written down, because no original documents have survived. There is, however, a theory that the Torah was compiled from several sources, and that the source most likely to be responsible for the contents of this particular story is the J Source, which dates to the ninth or tenth century BCE. If this is true, then this story was written down in something similar to the form we now have for it inside ancient Israel during its height as a people/nation. Even during this time of success, however, survival was a serious issue. One of the key concerns of ancient Israel, even and especially at its height, was water. There was always the threat of drought or famine looming overhead. As such, the miracle of the water supply in this story would be extremely important to the people who wrote it down.
But, if the story was written at the height of ancient Israel, it was still not compiled until after the fall of Israel. Like the wanderers in the story, the people who compiled this story in perhaps the fifth century BCE were without a land to call home. They were scattered in a land ruled by the Persians. It is in this context that several possible meanings of the story begin to take shape.
One of the problems of being a group that associates itself with a land, and then loses that land, is a crisis of identity. Ancient Israel viewed itself and its history in terms of a relationship with a God who provided it with a land, which in turn provided it with an identity. Under Persian rule that sense of identity must have been disappearing. This story, with its connection to a great past leader (Moses) who, with God's instruction performs a kind of miracle which ensures the survival of the group (bringing water out of the rock) must have spoken to the identity of the group.
Another problem with losing a land that is so associated with the group identity is losing a sense of "home," which is tied to the land. This story speaks to a conflicted sense of home, as it points both backward to Egypt (the former land) and forward to the Land of Promise. Which place, for the people in the story, is home? Is it Egypt, with which they could not identify but in which they could ensure survival? Is it the desert in which they now find a kind of self-directed independence, but no water, food or security? Or is it the Land of Promise, which they have not seen, and may never see? This conflict would speak to a group that has the same sense of alienation from home.
The story would, for these people who may have compiled the story while under Persian rule, also serve as a kind of an explanation for their current situation while providing hope for the future. Most of the people in the story grumble, lack faith, and are at least disrespectful if not outright disobedient. They certainly frustrate Moses, who shares his frustration with God. This situation would speak to a people who at times see their current situation as being brought on by their own disobedience. But the story does not end with them dying of thirst in the desert, and the broader Exodus story does not end with the group as a whole still homeless in the desert. The act of drawing water from the rock provided the doubting wanderers with what they immediately need to ensure their survival, and reminds them that God has not forgotten them. This must speak to a group who may be tempted to see themselves as forgotten by God.
The story has not stopped speaking to people, and, in fact, speaks to me in a powerful way. The main characters in the story have been brought out of one problem and into another. They were enslaved in a foreign land, but God, through Moses, brought them out of that situation. However, they now find themselves in a potentially even worse condition. They are wandering in the wilderness, dying of thirst. This speaks to my own doubt in the God who has delivered me from my past. I often wonder how it is that God could have led me here, to this place where I feel out of place, without a sense of home, and figuratively dying of thirst. The condition of the characters in this story speaks to my own condition, and their doubt and frustration speaks to my own doubt and frustration. But the God who brought them out of Egypt also, through Moses, provides them with water - exactly what they need at the moment. They did not exactly ask for the water, and they certainly weren't very nice about communicating their need. But, despite their behavior, their need was met anyway.
What is particularly interesting to me about this story is that the thirsty wanderers in it look back to Egypt, the land in which, according to the story they were enslaved, with such relative fondness. They have, at least for the moment, forgotten the problems which they had in Egypt, remembering only the water. Their momentary thirst blinds them to their former condition, and causes a longing for that former condition. This speaks to something I experience often; a kind of idealization of the past when faced with present hardships. That is why it is crucial that we see our present condition, whatever it is, as a temporary condition, one of many points on a long journey guided by the God who, through Moses, both delivered us from an oppressed condition and pulled water out of a rock to meet the present need.


Brian Beech said...

This blog wrapped up nicely with a good message that I think is communicated nicely through that 'story'. I don't think it really wrapped up showing me that looking at scripture, the way you do, has given you a different message.

I believe that story literally because, as I'm sure you know, I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. But, just because I believe those events took place does not mean that I can't/don't look at the story metaphorically also. I think that many of the 'stories' in the Bible communicate many things. One time I read a passage I may get one meaning out of it and the next time I read that same passage I may be in another area in my life where that verse/passage may speak to me differently.

Does this mean that I am chaning the meaning for my benefit? I do not think so. I believe that God speaks to us perfectly, exactly how we need to have it. I think he opens our eyes to things when we are in need of them. Of course, I think there are absolutes in the Bible, but even those absolutes tell us other things about how we should act/live/love.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian, you are right when you argue that someone may be a literalist and yet still draw "meaning" out of scripture, and I hope I didn't imply otherwise.

I don't see any reason to hold that the Bible is either inerrant or literally true, and a whole host of reasons to believe that it isn't. My point with this post is that my position does not undermine the role of scripture in my deveotional life, nor does it keep scripture from being the foundation of my religious life.

For me the ultimate concern of scripture is meaning rather than truth value, and that meaning does not depend on truth value. So, in losing the literalist position (I once was a literalist, and for many reasons I now am not) I have lost nothing of value to my religious life. If you wish to remain a literalist (though I don't recommend that you do so) that does not make your approach any less religiously valuable than mine. I just don't think that it is intellectually sustainable.