Monday, 16 March 2015

Lent day 23

"Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25)

The idea of 'the book' as a primary unit of organising written material, regardless of what medium the words were recorded upon, goes back 4,000 years. The impulse to record all kind of things - legislation, history, business, political deals, story, poetry and music, then order them for later reference is a remarkable universal  feature of human creativity. 

The first creation story in Genesis is not as ancient as the second, or other bible texts, but its structure in speaking of divine activity proceeds from simplicity to complex diversity reveals the orderliness of the story teller's mind. God speaks in a coherent way in making all things. Humanity's ability to make meaning and create order by God's gift of life and thought comes into being at the end of a process that begins with nothing but chaos.

"The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep" (Gen 1:2)

Order begins with the birth of light at God's command. All else follows from this First Word.

"And God said : 'Let there be light'; and there was light." (Gen 1:3)

Memory and oral tradition came first and remained prominent. Not all ancient cultures a thousand years before Christ embraced keeping written records.  Yet for many they provide a point of reference in case of dispute. Scribes and priests literate and skilled in the arts of writing had special status and authority in every organised society, even if words retained for many an awesome, magical power.

Hebrew culture was remarkable in the number of people other than scribes that could read the written word for themselves, if not write. The 'Tanach', the Hebrew collection of books which embraced the Law, Prophets, and other Writings, was accessible to those who were not necessarily priests and scribes. Those who read could interpret, express an opinion, debate with others. The words 'it is written' played a special part in all discourse about spiritual issues, most memorably with Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew's Gospel:

Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' (Matt 4:4)

Jesus said to him, "It is written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test'. (Matt 4:7)

Jesus said to him, "Away with you Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'". (Matt 4:10)

This is in response to the Adversary quoting scripture three times putting Jesus to the test. It is a remarkable warning about the need for reality testing in using scripture to make a point. The story of Jesus' ministry and personhood is laced with quotations from the Tanach. In proclaiming Jesus and interpreting his atoning work to contemporaries, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:7

"Then I said, 'Here I am --it is written about me in the scroll -- I have come to do your will, my God.'"

At the heart of the story of their sojourn in the wilderness, the people of Israel, through the ministry of Moses, received the Commandments from God at Mount Sinai in an encounter of awesome majesty, as Moses later reminds them, following a complete breakdown of orderly relationships and the first iteration of the Commandments being broken and lost. 

"The LORD wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me." (Deut 10:4)

There is an element of loss and recovery in this story which is reflected in the later post exile story of the rediscovering of the Book of the Law. In the history of God's chosen people there were period of social, political and cultural decline when reference to their written history all but disappeared from common life, only to be found and revisited as part of their regeneration as God's people

"Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD." He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him ..... he informed the king, "Hilkiah the priest has given me a book." And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king." (2 Kings 22:8-10)

Books here took the form of a scroll of parchment - book and scroll are interchangeable. When the significance of what it contained was realised by the community hearing a public reading, it re-awakened the desire to worship God.

"Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.…" (Ezra 8:5-6)

"He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law." (Nehem 8:5)

Prior to the Exile, Jeremiah recorded his prophetic oracles - words dictated to him by God - divine challenges to the status quo, seen as subversive, to be suppressed. But he knew the power of the written word, he wouldn't give up, and ordered his scribe Baruch to re-publish.

"Take another scroll and write on it all the words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim king of Judah burned up." (Jer 36:28) 

Loss and renewal. Jesus, proclaimed by John to be God's living Word is lost to humankind by his crucifixion, regained by resurrection. The promise of the Spirit will thereafter enable his disciples not to forget him or his teaching.

"But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26)

Even if the books, on which Christian faith relies utterly, are mislaid or lost, as Jesus said with his ministry coming to its climax in his Passion.

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matt 24:35) 

Jeremiah some seven centuries earlier, at a time when the society he was part of was breaking up due to invasion foresaw that, important though the sacred books and the record of truth would always be, a greater more personal bond binds God to his children.

"This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jer 31:33)

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