2015 Lent 3

Moses

Deuteronomy 7:12-16

What if Moses really didn’t write the Pentateuch?

In my younger years as a Christian I was taught all that doctrine about the infallibility of the scriptures I mentioned two days ago, in my first post on Lent.

I was also taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible: the books we call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

“But how is this possible?” I asked; “for if Moses indeed wrote the Pentateuch, then he must have written it as a ghost, or at least part of it.  He dies before Deuteronomy is over.”

To which my teachers shuffled their feet.

Later, in seminary, my teachers confronted me with the serious question of redaction.  That is, there is very strong evidence to support the idea that concerned Jews in later years actually went back and rewrote, or perhaps even wrote for the first time, big portions of the Old Testament: they rewrote history from centuries-later hindsight.  Two different points of view come across in the first two chapters of Genesis, arguably.  Portions of the book named after the prophet Isaiah, those portions that predict striking details of Israel’s exile, very probably were not written before the nation’s exile but after, by some concerned Jews–concerned that Israel had not in fact kept its covenant with God and that was in fact why (according to them) the nation was now suffering under the authority of another government.

To which I shuffled my feet.

I don’t like this idea, that my sacred book is subject to human interpretation and error.  I want my Bible to be perfect, infallible, inerrant even; like some kind of reference manual, to which I can turn and, if I’m well-versed enough, find the answer to any problem that surfaces.  I want my faith to be easy, certain, and sure.

But then–if my faith were so–would it actually be faith at all?

Faith, by definition, is wrapped up in hope, not certainty.  Now, we might say we’re certain of the hope we have, as the writer of the book of Hebrews said; but at the root it is still hope we’re concerned with.  Feeling certain of something gives us hope.  Rational certainty is knowledge.  Faith and knowledge are different.

So I have faith in God.  I also have faith that the Bible is God’s Word.  But these are tricky questions that, admittedly, pose challenges to my faith.

But why not?  Why couldn’t there be redaction?  Especially when it comes to the writings of the Old Testament, which circulated around and about for centuries before canonization.

A challenge, to say the least!

So we come to today’s passage, where Israel is told that God is conditionally faithful.  If you keep God’s statutes, they are told, God will be faithful to you, bringing you into and keeping you safe in a land flowing with milk and honey; protecting you from all manner of enemies; and devouring “all the peoples that the LORD your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity” (v. 16).

The other side of the condition, though, is that if Israel fails to obey their God, they will be driven from their promised land into exile, thereby becoming subject to ruling nations.

Which is what happened.

So I ask, frankly, how could they not fail?  As the Kinks remind us, we’re a mixed up, funked up, shook up world (‘cept for Lola, L-o-l-a, Lola).

Now, seen this way, whether shuffling my feet or not, I’m actually kind of liking the idea of redaction.  For my God is not a harsh taskmaster–at least as I understand God.  But here, in this section of the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as conditional and pitiless, my faith in God wins the day over the words of Deuteronomy.  The scriptures do in fact come across to me here as a human document–written by God’s people, yes; but subject to the emotions, irrationality, and even erroneous thinking that so characterizes humanity.

Please understand, I’m not rejecting the Old Testament.  I’m not in any way suggesting that it’s not authoritative for Christians today.  But it is difficult.  Which is why we need to argue with it, like the people of the Old Testament did.

May God bless us as we wrestle and argue our way through it this Lent.

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