Monday, April 25, 2011

Bible Study and Discussion for Friends

Genesis 2 - After God rests on the seventh day, we move on to yet another creation story - this one focusing on the creation of man (Adam) and his dwelling place, the garden in Eden. Here man is created separately (and first) and placed at the head of the earthly creation and given the job of caring for it. There are all kinds of trees, but in the middle of the garden are the tree of life, from which Adam may eat, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - from that tree Adam is told he may not eat, "for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die" (2:17).

God then says that "It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate." (Gen. 2:18) God creates the wild beasts and birds and brings them to the man. Adam names them all, but finds none is "suitable" as a helpmate. So Yahweh makes Adam sleep and while he sleeps, God takes a rib from the man and builds it into a woman - bone from Adam's bone, flesh from his flesh (2:23). "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and they become one body" (2:24). They are naked but feel no shame.

Genesis 3 - In chapter 3, the narrative's "conflict" will emerge, the conflict that will create the tension and drama from which the long, big-picture story will flow. There is a serpent in the garden who approaches the woman and asks her about the one thing God told them not to do. The serpent tries to convince the woman that God is really bluffing them, that there's no way they would die from eating the forbidden fruit. He's just trying to keep man from being His equal. The language the serpent uses is important: "'You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil'" (3:5). The woman, using the reasoning power God gave her, ponders all the good things the fruit seems to offer - its pleasing look (beauty), its good as a food (practical usefulness) and the desirability of the knowledge it promises (philosophical wisdom). So she disobeys God, trusts the promises of the serpent and eats the fruit. Her husband, who is with her throughout, also eats and the text tells us "the eyes of both of them were opened" (3:7). They see that they are naked, but of course they always saw that - it's just that now they feel differently about it. They feel shame.

Later, when God comes to talk to them, the shame they first experience in relation to each other now comes between God and them. God sees the change. When he confronts them, they try to obfuscate and conceal what they've done. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent. No one accepts responsibility. But God holds them responsible and all are punished. The offspring of the woman will struggle with evil - it will strike at our heels and "dog our steps" if you will. I will come back to exactly what is said to the serpent by God, for it is one of the most important scriptural lines in the Bible for Quakers and all Christians. But God also punishes the woman but multiplying her pains in childbirth and subjecting her to the authority of the man. And the man is punished by having the soil cursed and making it hard for him to cultivate. And he will suffer a degree of futility in his labors - he was created from the dust and to the dust he will return. The couple are cast out of the garden and an angel or cherubs with a "flaming" or "flashing" sword is posted "in front of the garden, . . . to guard the way to the tree of life" (3:24).

All right - there is a lot here. I think these chapters are perhaps the most important scripture for early Friends - fused with the New Testament passages from John and Paul that "opened" them to Fox and others. But we'll go slowly. Here are the key things I hope we will discuss over the next week or so:

1. What is the nature of the "death" that Adam and Eve suffer as a result of their disobedience?
2. What is the "fallen" nature of our lives on this earth, and do we continue to live in that fallen world/nature?
3. What did Christians and especially early Quakers make of the what you might call God's "Ur-Promise" [original/first promise made] in verse 3:15?

People have argued all kinds of things about these chapters - that this is why human beings die, that God never intended for man to be mortal but that mortality came as a result of this "original sin"; that this is why men dominate and will always dominate women; that women somehow deserve to be subservient because we were the weak ones and caused human kind to fall from grace, etc. I don't really see these things as necessary conclusions. What I think is most important to Friends is the last question and a sense they had that the Christian world had somehow not seen the importance of the promise made by God in these words. We will talk about it next Sunday - if you can come, or you may leave your thoughts on the blog.

Bible Study and Discussion for Friends

What I would like to do here is to have a place where the twice monthly Bible study that we are doing at Westbury Monthly Meeting can be located so that people who cannot come or who miss meetings or who may not even be at our Meeting but would like to be part of a Quaker based Scripture conversation might go to see what is being studied, make comments and enter into dialogue with others. We had a very nice meeting last Sunday, Easter Sunday and we will meet again next week - May 1st. But what we did was share what our experience and feelings about the Bible were, and then we just started out reading Genesis 1. We will discuss it and chapters 2 and 3 as well next time. They are very loaded and important chapters for all Christians but maybe even more especially for Friends. I am trying to do something similar on an internet site called QuakerQuaker, so a good many of the posts here will also be posted there, but I am hoping this will be a more Meeting-based place where discussion can occur. That's my hope. We'll see. So here we go.

OK, so let's get started. I remember the day in 1986 when I stood up before a class of Friends Academy (Locust Valley, NY) 7th graders and started to teach Quakerism for the first time. And since the early Friends writings that had been so critical to me in returning to Christ were so inaccessible to young readers, I decided to just use the biblical narrative to introduce them to Quakerism. We started talking about the Bible as if it were just another book you would take off the shelf, and I surprised even me when I realized that it is a narrative that starts at the beginning of the creation and ends at the end of that same creation. It presents itself as if it were the complete story.
Early Friends did not use this kind of language in discussing the Bible. Like others of their time they did not use that kind of language - describing the Bible as a "narrative" - that language is comfortable to me because of the reading I've done in "narrrative theology" and in particular in reading Stanley Hauerwas. But early Friends did seem to see the book as containing truths that needed to be "interiorized." But we'll get to that as we go.
I think the most important books of the Bible to Fox and early Friends were Genesis and the Gospel of John, so going over Genesis will take a while - especially the first several chapters. The Bible I use is the Jerusalem Bible, but I often check multiple translations when the translation is particularly important.

Genesis 1 - There are two accounts of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. There is so much in the first chapter, that I will just deal with it today. In the first God creates the universe and the earth through the power of his Word, and the first "thing" created is Light - not the light of the sun or the moon - those lights come later, on day four. The separation of the waters below the dome of heaven and above it comes on day two, the gathering of the waters beneath the dome and the proliferation of the earth's vegetation comes on day three, the sun and moon and stars - necessary for calculating time and seasons - comes on day four, the teeming forth of life comes on day five, and then on day six, God creates the human species - both male and female - "in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (27). They are given the power to "conquer" the creation or "subdue" it, an authority early Friends saw as a power to both use and to care for, be responsible for. God rests after man is created.

For me the most interesting insights I've had on the first creation story are the following:
1. The creator in this story is fundamentally "other" that everything we can see. God is not created, not contingent in any way. But we are created and contingent, and there is no other way of our understanding any part of God's nature without accepting the lines that we are somehow "like" Him - male and female, we share qualities with God. Ludwig Feuerbach and later Karl Marx wrote that God was merely our "projection" of our human nature out onto the universe. The Bible supports this, and it will be for us one of the critical ways we come to understand anything about God or ourselves.
2. When you consider how ancient this literature is, it is amazing to me how profoundly "modern" it is - modern in the simultaneity of the creation of male and female, modern in the closeness to what evolutionary theory says about the order of things in the creation of the universe - not exact but close.
3. It gives us a view of "man" that is not easily charicatured. It claims for man a dignity and goodness that defies all that we know of man in the history that will unfold for him, but it shows us God's divine intention, the impetus and engine of the divine determination to redeem what he has created when it disappoints Him, a determination that we will see played out in the biblical narrative
So that is some of what I see in this chapter. I would love to know what others see that is important to them personally.

What does it mean to you that we are "created in God's image"?