Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Daily Old Testament: Nehemiah 9-10 and My Own Article on "Friends and Scripture" (Part 13)

Nehemiah 9 – Still assembled, the people fast and are in a repentant spirit. Those of Israelite descent separate themselves from all foreigners, confess their sins and the sins of the ancestors as well. They stand and read from the book of the law for a quarter of the day, and spend another quarter confessing and worshipping: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed by your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise” (9:5).

Ezra gives this lovely prayer: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the stars and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you” (9:6). He repeats the story from Abram—“you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites . . .and you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous” (9:7-8).

He recounts Moses’ part and the exodus of his people, their unfaithfulness and all they have been. The prophetic voice of the deuteronomic writers is in his words. “Many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your spirit through your prophets; yet they would not listen” (9:30).

He tells of God’s goodness in bringing them into the new land and providing them with everything; “and they were filled and became fat, and delighted themselves in your great goodness” (9:25). Nevertheless they were disobedient and “rebelled and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets . . .Therefore you gave them into the hands of their enemies, who made them suffer” (9:26-27). Their suffering made them cry out, “and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hands of their enemies” (9:27).
“Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts” (9:36). Because of all this “we make a firm agreement in writing, and on that sealed document are inscribed the names of our officials, our Levites, and our priests” (9:38).

Nehemiah 10 – The names of those who signed are listed, all of those who separated themselves from foreigners, entering into “a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God” (10:29). They agree to keep the Sabbath holy, to forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt (10:31). They agree to levies for upkeep of the Temple, to bring the first fruits of everything they have.

"Friends and Scripture"
Part 13
I spend this amount of time describing Fox’s understanding of the redemption process as paralleling the scripture story because most modern Friends do not attach much importance to these scripture-based “ministrations.” They prefer to pick out of Fox’s account isolated insights or “openings” and then treat these insights as if they were philosophical premises from which the distinctive Quaker practices or testimonies were developed.  But this was not the way Fox’s mind worked.  He believed that if one was being led by the same light that had led the holy men and women of God in history, one’s journey would of necessity be similar.  It was the similarity of the journey that let you know you were on the right path.  God’s truth is not changeable.

And I mention it too because my own response to Friends’ biblicism was fascination.  Something in their approach just struck me as remarkably contemporary and relevant, like Freud’s use of the ancient Oedipus story as a prototype to describe certain stages in human psychological development; or the idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—that the development of an individual organism recapitulates the development of the whole group of related organisms.  This last reflection is very likely not true or so I have read, but in my college days the idea had many proponents and I found the comparison interesting. 

Why couldn’t the scripture narrative be an archetype for the experience of redemption? If God was the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; if God did exist and did work to redeem His creation, then why should his way of working that redemption not be manifest both in history and in the inner lives of people who opened themselves to him.  The fact that the historical accounts of scripture were not exactly the kind of history modern secular historians would produce, or the fact that there were undoubtedly elements of myth or legend mixed in with these accounts did not interfere with their archetypal value.  Even those parts that were strictly literature might be true in that sense. 

Once I started to consider scripture this way, it wasn’t long before I found myself liberated from the skepticism, standoffishness and doubt that modernism had nurtured in me towards the holy books.  I could never prove that the events of scripture were historically valid or accurate in a scientific sense, but the interior dimension of truth I found there was trust-worthy.  This I was learning “experimentally” as Fox had said, and the more I studied it and meditated upon it, the more I came to trust it and look to it.  As I see it now, the very fact that the scripture exists as it does and has such continuing power to open God’s presence and nature and work among us as it does, makes it something commensurate with the greatness we ascribe to God. 

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