1 Samuel 1-3: Barren women

Here we come once again to another barren woman. This time, Hannah, who weeps bitterly and prays to the Lord.

It’s always the barren woman, isn’t it?

I suppose in some ways, this is the ultimate test of faith.

Because some things you can make happen by force of will. You can make yourself work harder, get stronger, plan smarter. You know the steps, you just have to figure out how to reach them.

Some things are out of your control.

Having children, in many ways, is one of those things.

Sure, you can have an idea and a plan, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. Even taking our modern concerns of things like love and timing out of it  — a woman in Biblical times would not have approached marriage in any way resembling the love based way we do, nor would she have been concerned with balancing a baby with her career — there is only so much you can do.

You get married. You try. You hope. You pray.

Then you have to let go because it’s no longer in your hands.

Whether you believe the outcome is in the hands of God or biology or both, the reality is that it isn’t in human hands, not really.

So you have barren women who pour their tears out to God and ask for a child. Who bargain and pray and don’t let up hope that their prayers will be answered.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty big act of faith.

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Ruth 1-4: Loyalty and Desperation

Well, I am moderately less delayed than before so I am going to consider that a success.

The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that I am not as familiar with, but have heard quoted, mostly in feminist circles. Reading it, though, I found I was moved far more than expected.

Left to their own devices, Ruth and Naomi had nothing. In that time and place, without male relations, they were nothing.

The risks they took were huge. Ruth could have easily been raped. With no relatives (Naomi would not, being a woman, count in any meaningful way) there would have been little recourse for her. If there was any at all.

It’s especially sobering to read in light of what is going on in the world today.

I don’t want to turn this blog into politics, but when politicians drag religion into public discourse I can’t help but make connections.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what some conservative leaders would like. To return to an age where, like Ruth and Naomi, women without men are nothing. Where we beg for scraps, glean from the fields, throw ourselves on the ground before men of power and beg for mercy and help.

I admire Ruth and Naomi. I admire their loyalty, their deep love for each other, their unwavering dedication their faith.

But I don’t want to be them.

I don’t envy a faith born of desperation. I don’t envy a world where you cling to all you have and that, to the wider world, is still nothing. I don’t envy a world where women must scheme and beg and pray for the mercy of men in their lives.

Ruth and Naomi were intelligent, faithful, dedicated women. Imagine how much more they could have done, if they had not been left to glean from what men left behind…

 

Prolonged Absence

I have been away.

For good reasons- I started a new full-time job, and I’ve been out of town several weekends. My husband and I have been figuring out how to balance having us both employed full-time (previously it’s only been one of us- who it was shifted, but we’ve never both had 40 hr/wk jobs).

And so, the blogging has fallen by the wayside.

Joshua… is perhaps not the place I would choose to leap back in. In many ways (and I know, because I’ve read this before), Joshua highlights the worst of humanity. Tribal warfare, wholesale slaughter of “enemies”, the displacement of neighboring peoples, etc.

And yet, there it is. Waiting for me. In my spiritual corpus, no less. What to do?

Blog again, I suppose. Starting tomorrow. 🙂

Your patience is appreciated.

A sense of place

I am horribly behind here, and I apologize. I didn’t mean to stop blogging, but my life turned into a series of small but time-consuming explosions and everything just got away from me.  I kept reading but ran out of time to write.

It was a couple of difficult sections to slog through — less narrative, more history and geography of places that don’t sound at all familiar.

It’s interesting to read that way, with such a strong sense of place. Growing up in a predominantly Christian society, God becomes universal. Yaweh is THE god. The only one, for everyone. Now obviously practically speaking, this is not true since we do have many religions, but it’s the undercurrent that runs through it all. When you say God, nobody is going to mistake you for meaning Zeus or Odin or Olodumare. The default, unless you specify otherwise, is Yaweh.

But reading Joshua in particular drives home that this wasn’t necessarily true. Yaweh was the God for Israel, and as such was bounded by a place and a people. It’s intensely tribal, which historically and culturally speaking makes sense.

But it’s very different from the experience we have growing up. Tribal religion are seen as relics or less-than; the Bible as universal. I realize that a lot of that has to do with the New Testament, but I also think there’s a lot of value in looking at the roots in a tribal religion that get missed.

Deuteronomy 28-30: Choices

A short post for today, I think.

As I continued reading Deuteronomy I was struck by two things.

The first is the continued sorting of things. So many of the laws are so very binary in nature. Things are this or they are that. They are clean or unclean. Good or bad. While I can see the value in these distinctions when one is in a scenario where obedience is key — which a harsh, difficult-to-survive environment is — it still seems so very rigid.

The other thing is the theme of choice. Very often monotheism paints itself as self-evident. There is only one God, and that everything else is fake. But that isn’t what’s said here, not really. The existence of other gods is acknowledged but it’s made clear that they are not the gods of Israel. That there is a choice for God’s people. It makes sense, in a way; if you work with different deities it’s easy to find that no matter how much you bat your eyelashes at them, if you are not theirs, they will not have you and will not show you favor. And yours will find you. Even if they aren’t what you expect.

Jumping forward a bit, it strikes me as I read these laws, these divisions, how radical Jesus really was. Living in a time when Christianity is the mainstream, establishment religion, it’s really hard to think of it as radical. Like any religion practiced by the dominant culture, leaders and public figures twist and seek to use it to their own ends — and in this case they have succeeded quite admirably.

But looking at Christ’s teachings in the context of this system, I see how radical they really were. That they blew these distinctions and frameworks and divisions out of the water and opened up this whole messy world made up of shades of grey. Living in uncertainty is an incredibly radical (and uncomfortable) act and it seems to me that we often forget that. Because it’s tempting to look back at these divisions and find ways to pull them forward again; it gives the illusion of certainty and being right. But that’s all it is, an illusion.

At any rate, it’s an interesting experience to look at the sorting and division; to try to see where it would have provided safety and also where it would have created pain.

Deuteronomy 22-24: Morality and need

I’m back! Again. So, a lot of stuff packed into these bits.

First, we come to one of the most perplexing laws to me. Not wearing fabric woven of linen and wool. I know it’s really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but this one has always bugged me. Why? What was the rational? I feel I really must know.

Then we have a whole section on laws around virginity, adultery, rape and divorce. There are a lot of things in here that are problematic and I’m still sorting out. The physical evidence of virginity, for one, since that is not universal. (For any number of reasons.) The distinction between rape where there may be witnesses and rape where there is not — coming from a perspective where there is much more awareness around intimidation, coercion, etc. and sexual assault, that makes some of that just appalling. On the other hand, rape (at least with no witnesses) is treated as a crime on par with murder which, frankly, is doing a heck of lot better than our legal system.

I’m not even going to talk about the idea of a woman forced to marry her rapist. Cultural and historic awareness aside, the thought turns my stomach. I just can’t.

But then we move into things that get really interesting. No charging interest on loans. The ability to take what is needed to meet an immediate need from a field (but not enough to profit from or save). Leaving the gleanings for the poor.

On the one hand, I find a great sense of validation in these, as someone who takes a decidedly social justice bent to faith. Caring for the poor is part of faith, it’s just the one that we like to conveniently forget first. Financial ethics is another — I can’t imagine any of the religion spouting politicians running on a campaign of outlawing interest, can you?

But on the other hand, a closer reading leaves me feeling unsettled. Because while these things treat the immediate problem, they don’t do a whole lot to address the underlying cause. Take the example of the commandment that a man may take from his neighbor’s vineyard what he can eat, but not carry it out. This addresses hunger, so good on that. But it doesn’t do anything to address the starving man’s next meal, to provide that security.

Same with leaving the gleanings for the poor or widowed. Yes, that may provide a subsistence level to meet immediate needs. But that’s not really living, is it? It’s not giving any help to move people out of poverty,

Which just goes to show, I suppose, that the issues we grapple with today are not new. We can struggle day in and out with this, on many levels. How do you tackle systematic structural disadvantages? Is it better to put resources into meeting the immediate needs of a few or do you try to solve the bigger problem for many?

I know there aren’t easy answers to these questions and I’m not sure there ever can be. But part of me wants to find them — to turn to a sacred text and find a great sweeping vision, a bold plan, a concrete answer. Realizing that there isn’t leaves me feeling a bit unsettled.

 

Deuteronomy 7-9: What is given

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Oh, dear. This passage is one of those that strikes me as particularly problematic, and even more so as we embark on an election year.

See, sometimes I think we take this idea and run with it just a little too far. You hear it all the time, but especially when anyone is running for office — the thinly veiled (and sometimes not at all veiled) undertones of morality and virtue related to wealth.

That those who have risen are wealthy and powerful because they deserve it. Because they are rewarded for morality and piety, virtue and obedience. It’s the Puritan work ethic, all with the unspoken other side of the coin — that those who suffer do not deserve better. That illness or poverty is an outward sign of an inner moral blemish.

Of course, that’s entirely untrue but that’s done nothing to eradicate that kind of thinking from our culture.

Now, things would have been different when this was written. For one, success WOULD have been much more dependent on things out of one’s control. A livestock and agriculture based society is subject to the whims of nature — a heavy rain or prolonged drought may wreak havoc. A tribal society is at the mercy of many things outside of control; contact with other groups, availability of land, nature. In a very real sense, then, one would feel that success and wealth were a gift from God.

But we don’t live in that society. We live in a culture with an entirely different economy, one that has structures and systems that can create success or make it far more difficult based on the circumstances of one’s birth. Despite the high-minded rhetoric we use to surround them, these systems are not natural. They are not unalterable. They are not, in fact, the work of God but of man.

Yet we cling, on some level, to this idea even unspoken. That wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

So things like this give me pause. Because I think of the way they underlay our assumptions and attitudes. About who has what, and who is worthy. And how that all distracts us from looking at what is really going on.

Deuteronomy 4-6: Doorposts and gates

I have been behind on blogging (there was a painting experiment that…well, took more of my time than expected, frankly) and I thought about trying to catch up but then decided to just pick up here in the interest of not going insane.

So here we are in Deuteronomy. And we come to this:

Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Fascinating.

Bind them on your hands and foreheads. Interesting here — I know this is the origin of tefillin in Jewish tradition, an actual binding of words to the forehead and hand. Though of course I see metaphor — that this may be a guide to thought and action> Our minds that decide and our hands that do.

Then we come to doorways and gates. Magical places, those. Doorways and gates are how we go from one state of being to another. From home to public. From holy to mundane. From life to death. To move from anyone place, any state of being to another, we must move through a transition. We must pass through a gate, a doorway.

When I think of doorways I first think of protection. Because magically, there is a lot of protection lore around them.  Sheela na gig figures over doorways in the British Isles are thought to be protective figures that guard the space of transition. For folk magic — my particular bent lately — there is plenty too. Hang a broom above the door to ward off bad energy. Hang a horseshoe above the door for luck (but make sure it’s been used and points up please, so the luck doesn’t run out). Hang rosemary by the door for protection.

Because that’s the thing about doorways. They are spaces we can move through for transition, but they are also access points for things to come in. Things that may be bad as well as good. They’re vulnerable, just as we are in a state of transition. So that is when we look to the fixed points in our life. When everything is changing, we look to the base on which we build ourselves, the fixed points that are the guideposts life moves between.

Perhaps, then, we bind it to doorways to remind us.

Numbers 25-27: Inheritance

I have the distinct impression that I am going to be very relieved to leave Numbers behind, because there are large sections about which I have nothing to say. Though I may mumble something about names while growling incoherently.

But! Inheritance! The daughters of Zelophehad who have no brothers step forward to demand their inheritance.

I will assume from this, then, that a woman would not typically have been able to have property on her own. Which is a generally horrible state of affairs, but also not one that would have been uncommon in the ancient world.

I do find it interesting, however, that the daughters are placed above other male relatives. A man’s inheritance passes to his daughters if he has no son. But it only passes to his brothers (or other male kinship along the line) unless he also has no daughters.

So I wonder; were there then more women independent? If a man had sons and daughters, presumably her a woman’s brother(s) would care for her in her father’s absence. But does the fact that she might inherit mean she wouldn’t pass automatically into the custody of an uncle or other male relative in the event of her father’s death?

If not, I’m not really sure that would have been a good thing. My feminist mind, of course, says independence is awesome! But at the time, a woman without the protection of a male head of family would have been at risk; she lacked the protections afforded by that. So would have been a blessing  or a burden?

On the other hand, I can’t help but imagine how sweet that victory would have tasted to women who might be facing a great loss; either destitution or at the very least seeing their family’s inheritance given away while they grieved. How validating it must have seemed to be recognized even in some small way. Because we look at how far they could go, but I wonder if they had any time to savor the step that was won.

Numbers 22-24: Oracles

There’s probably a lot of layers here I could be trying to parse, but I’m going to be perfectly honest and say that I’m far too tired to attempt it. I’ve had a few unexpected late nights at work, so I’m pretty wiped out. That’s also why this post is going to be short.

But, there is something here in omens and oracles. I gotta say, for a book that is routinely used to decry magic and divination, the Bible certainly has a lot of it.

At any rate. So there’s smoke and oracles and I find myself wondering, just what is in that smoke?

Now, I’m not saying that you couldn’t receive answers from smoke alone. Smoke scrying is a non-unusual divinatory tool, and actually a pretty cool one. But oracles also would often burn incense that might induce altered states.

The Oracle at Delphi, for example, is supposed to have used a blend of bay leaf and cinnamon. And I’m not advising anything one way or the other, but I’m just going to suggest that if one were to try burning such a blend in a small room, one might experience some interesting sensory experiences.

Hypothetically, of course.

At any rate, it makes me wonder about the oracles. Are they uniquely from God? Are they aided by divinatory tools or hallucinogens? All joking aside, I’m typically wary of any mind-altering substances. But I do have a belief that other tools — like scrying, dowsing, signs, omens, dreams, cards, shells or what have you — can be a legitimate channel to the influence of the divine. Especially in modern times as we are more removed from a sense of awe and wonder. How does the divine speak to us? How can we tap into that line of communication?