Bible For Beginners

Bible For Beginners          Part One (with Part Two now added)

When we look at the big story which runs through the many and varied pages of the bible, we find that it is something of a love story.  Well we probably know enough to realise that it is not the story of a simple relationship where everything goes smoothly.  There are plenty of ups and downs among the pride and passions, as well as many breakups and make-ups in what turns out to be a rather turbulent relationship.  It is certainly no ordinary love story, with little in the way of romance.  It's the story of God's relationship with us, with humanity, which makes it, in a sense, our story.  It is therefore perhaps, the greatest love story ever told,

So where did the relationship begin?  Where did we first meet?  In a garden, says the book of Genesis.  Not just any garden but Eden, the most perfect garden ever created.  God makes a man, Adam, in his own image.  Like most relationships it starts off smoothly, but that appearance, we soon discover, is rather deceptive.

The initial encounter between God and humans is described in two different ways, which are rather different from each other.  Genesis chapter 1 presents one type of relationship where you have a very transcendent god, a god who is very far away from the earth.  This being seems to sit up in heaven and his word enough to make everything happen.  Genesis chapter 2 on the other hand, presents God as one who comes down to earth, a character who comes and walks in the garden with human beings.  These are two different stories which come from two different traditions, and both were kept when the tribes which had cherished these stories came together to form one nation.  They were not seen as being in conflict back then, and there is no need to think so today.

In any case, the story quickly moves on.  In chapter two, God forms a companion for Adam, and she gets called Eve.  For a brief moment all is in harmony, but the beauty of this situation is not going to last.  Disobeying a key instruction; they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, creating the first big rift in a human relationship and in the relationship between creator and created.  It was to be the first of many.

Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, kills his brother Abel, though God himself seems to be implicated in the dispute which led to the murderous jealousy.  Humanity seems to be getting harder and harder to live with, but God sticks with a relationship, at least for now.  Generation after generation, the family of humankind goes forth and multiplies, it grows and spreads; but increasingly it turns it's back on God.  Nine generations on from Adam and Eve, nine generations of murder, betrayal and general wickedness and God has finally had enough.

There's only one good man he can find in the world, only one who stayed loyal to his creator and has done no wrong.  So God decides to start again.  He sends a massive flood destroying every form of life, but before it started he's told this one good man, Noah to build a boat.  What follows is a familiar story: the ark, the animals, the rainbow and all that.  What's less familiar, but much more important, is the deal God makes with humanity after the flood.

After such a terrible, almost complete breakdown in the relationship, God says to mankind through Noah, I'll never send a flood like that again. From now on will stick together through thick and thin.  Noah is the person chosen by God with whom he forges a covenant, saying - you know I'll be your God and you have to be my people.  God has made a covenant, an agreement, with the whole of creation, and that is what the Noah story is really there to tell us.

It is a new beginning, and as the earth is repopulated by Noah’s three sons and their wives, there is the hope that this time all might be well.  God keeps his side of the deal but in time, humanity once again drifts away.  People invent their own gods, they create idols and worship them, they worship the idea of wealth and power and fight over it.  At one time, to symbolise their success they build a huge tower in a city called Babel.  God responds to this act of pride by making people speak multiple languages and scattering them across the earth to try to confound their megalomania. That tactic works, but the relationship again appears to be in crisis.

This is when God tries what is really a remarkable change of tactic, and he goes for it - all or nothing.  He decides to focus the relationship on one man, and to try to rebuild it through that man and his descendants.  He chooses - a sheep farmer from Mesopotamia.  On the face of it he's an unlikely choice.  He's married to a woman called Sara, but he's old, very old, and has no children.  His name is Abram.  God speaks to Abram and makes an extraordinary promise - but it's also a challenge.  God said to him: go from your father's country and your kindred and your father's house, to the land that I will show you, and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.

In their old age this couple are being asked to up sticks, to leave behind family, possessions, comfort, safety; and to travel from home somewhere in the region of Southern Iraq, to the land which today we call Israel.  It's a tough call for Abram.  When there were so many gods, why should they trust this one alone, why should they believe that only this one was a true God?  He doesn't know this god by name.  He is given no signs or miracles.  He has no scriptures to turn to;  all he has is a stark choice to do what this god asks and risk everything; or to stay put and see out his retirement in peace.  Perhaps there is no greater faith than that which allows us to move away from that which defines us.

I guess he must have believed the story that there was a bright tomorrow for a people that would be as many as the grains of sand on a beach.  God gives Abram a new name: Abraham, meaning father of the people, and his wife Sara is renamed Sarah.  As he previously did with Noah,  God seals his new relationship with Abraham with a covenant, a set of three promises.  Abraham is promised land, numerous descendants, and the loyalty of God forever.  In return Abraham has to make his own promise and to mark the agreement by the circumcision of all men and boys in his family.  (This may have been a difficult thing for him to explain to the people around him, but that challenge is not explored in the story.)

The love story at this point is about as fragile as it can get.  Abraham does indeed demonstrate great faith and trust, but his family is becoming a worry as the decades pass and Abraham and Sarah remain childless.  How can their descendants continue the relationship with God if they have no descendants?  Sarah has an idea.  She suggests that Abraham should have a child with their maid – Hagar.  Hagar agrees, and they have a son called Ishmael.  Perhaps they thought that the problem had been solved, but if so, they are in for a shock.  According to the story Abraham receives a visit from three mysterious strangers.  He makes them welcome and they sit in the shade of the great oak tree.  Gradually it dawns on him that these are no ordinary travellers.  They are messengers of God, perhaps even God himself.  Then one of them says, “when I come back to see you in the spring, Sarah your wife will have a son”.  Not surprisingly, Sarah laughs out loud.  But God was not laughing, and sure enough she falls pregnant and Isaac is born.

The relationship between Abraham and God now seems a bit more solid.  God keeps his promises to Abraham, however unlikely they may be, and Abraham stays loyal to God.  But what kind of relationship is it?  Is Abraham simply obedient or is there a bit more giving take?  Well, when those three strangers finish eating they head off to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham is not keen on that idea and so he argues with God about it.  He tries to strike a bargain that the cities will be spared if there are enough good people in them, and he bargains with God over the numbers.  “Will you spare them if you find 50 good people?” “Yes”.  How about 40, 30…?  Clearly, Abraham is no weakling.  He's not crumpled and submissive in front of God.  He has got questions, he is ready to enter into dialogue with God, and wonders whether God really means what he says.

However, the strong open relationship between Abraham and God has yet to face its toughest test.  When Isaac was still a young boy, God made a shocking and inexplicable request of Abraham.  He was to tie him up and kill him with a knife, and then burn his body as a sacrifice to God.  You don't have to be a father to imagine how Abraham must have felt, yet astonishingly, he cut firewood, took a knife and rope, and climbed the mountain with his beloved son.  At the summit he tied Isaac, laid him on the firewood and lifted the knife.  At that moment, at the last moment, God cried out and stopped Abraham.

It had been a test of Abraham's love and loyalty to God.  Isaac born to a geriatric mother, nearly killed by his own father, goes on to lead a quiet and perhaps rather sad life.  He grows up to marry Rebecca and they have two sons called Jacob and Esau.  On the whole Isaac is faithful to God and God protects him but his youngest son Jacob is a much stronger character.  Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessings of the firstborn son, effectively stealing the inheritance from his elder brother.  Part of that inheritance is the heavy responsibility for maintaining a family relationship with God, but Esau, not surprisingly, resents his brother taking his place.  He wants to kill Jacob, so Jacob goes on the run.

Jacob is now in deep trouble because of what he's done.  Now he is in the desert, in a desolate place.  Everything's gone wrong with all his schemes and he lies down to sleep under the stars.  Then he dreams that the stone his head is resting on is the foot of a great staircase stretching all the way up to heaven.  There are angels coming up and down the stairway, and then at the top is the great brightness of God himself.  The dream is so powerful and so overwhelming he wakes up from it and he says “surely god is in this place and I didn't know it”

While Abraham had a visit from God, Jacob has to communicate through angels, but even they don’t seem to intimidate this strong character.  When he meets one face to face – they end up fighting, wrestling in the dust.  Indeed Jacob wins the fight and the angel has to dislocate his hip to get away from under him.  In honour of Jacob’s courage and strength the angel gives a new name: a name that will resonate throughout human history - Israel.

Now God's relationship with one particular family begins to open up.  It is still one family line from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, but Jacob is not the most monogamous of men, and by the end of his life he had twelve sons by four different women.  Since he's been renamed Israel, the descendants of these sons become known as the twelve tribes of Israel.  The relationship between God and humanity is shifting from one man to a family, to a people.

Since the first move was made by God, we might wonder what qualities he was looking for in the people he picked.  In the story so far they have been real, warts and all men that have cheated, lied, been unfaithful and argumentative.  They're not particularly pious.  If this relationship has been rather complicated up to now the next major character in the story is perhaps the most fascinating one so far.

Joseph is Jacob's favourite son.  His 11 brothers resent the attention of the old man lavishes on the boy, particularly when he gives him a rather stylish decorated coat.  Joseph makes things worse by being very precocious, telling his brothers what a great future awaits him.  Enraged with jealousy they sell them spoilt brat into slavery to work as a skivvy for wealthy Egyptians.  Yet Joseph, it turns out, is made of stern stuff.  Despite major setbacks such as being falsely accused and imprisoned for rape, he rises to the top of the most powerful Empires of its time and becomes effectively governor of all Egypt.  Yet the story makes it clear that while he was a remarkable character in his own right, he couldn't have done it without inheriting the family relationship with God.  Joseph is a faithful believer all his life, and unlike his forebears who glimpse that called in a few dramatic turning points in their lives, Joseph seems to know God to talk to him regularly and God helps him in many ways, not least with a rather impressive gift for interpreting dreams.

Yet he is a difficult character, arrogant and able to rub people up the wrong way.  Nonetheless when his brothers turned up in Egypt fleeing famine in their homeland, he takes them and their families in, gives them what they need and makes them welcome.  He explains that although they had done terrible things to him, God had used it for good.  So, God’s new try at a relationship with humanity has grown from focusing on one man to a nuclear family to an extended family.  Now, over years in exile in Egypt that family will grow into a people.

Of God’s three promises to Abraham:

  • a continuing relationship,
  • many descendants,
  • and the land to live in;

the first of then appears to have been kept, as does the second.  The third, the journey to the promised land, well that will be part of next week’s story, in which will meet some more remarkable characters.

We can't leave Abraham without a word about his legacy.  He is the father of the three great monotheistic religions of the world.  Christians believe that he stands at the beginning of a tradition that culminates in Jesus, the fulfilment of all that Abraham represented.  Muslims believe that Abraham's first son Ishmael was the son he took to the sacrificial mountain, the son who kept the family line, and they trace their ancestry from him.  Jews believe that the Covenant God made with Abraham was made with them, the descendants of Isaac.  So today, 4000 years after he would have lived, he still finds himself at the centre of many of the isuues facing our world.

It is a love story, but not a simple one, and there is still much to come…


 Part Two

The first chapter of the great and epic love story between God and humanity was nothing if not turbulent.  Since God and humanity first met in that unique garden we’ve had a series of rows, walkouts, betrayals and breakups; but somehow the relationship has survived through it all.   So by the end of the Book of Genesis the tribes of Israel find themselves living safely in Egypt under the protection of the influential Joseph - their own rags to riches hero. 

Of the major characters in the story so far, Joseph has had the fullest relationship with God.  His predecessors Abraham, Noah and Jacob were faithful to God, but only met him on rare and dramatic occasions.  Joseph, by contrast, was in daily contact with God and his extraordinary life reflected that, but by the end of the book of Genesis Joseph is dead and as the story moves into the book of Exodus things are looking bleak again.

Four centuries have passed and the marriage between God and his people has become quiet and distant.  It was a Pharaoh who had recognised Joseph's gift and allowed the people of Israel to settle in Egypt to escape famine, but not all rulers were like him.  At the beginning of the book of Exodus there is a new and altogether different Pharaoh is on the throne.  No longer guests in Egypt - the Israelites have effectively become slaves, or at least second class citizens.  Yet they have gradually grown in number and have come to be seen a problem, or even a threat.  To avert this threat, and perhaps to appeal to popular support among his own people, the Pharaoh gives a savage order kill every boy born to Hebrew parents.

These are desperate times.  God has travelled so far with his people.  He has nurtured and protected them and promised them his love and loyalty, but now they are suffering in a foreign land with a knife at the throats of their children.  Where is God?  Has he abandoned them?

In the middle of this nightmare an Israelite slave gives birth to a baby boy.  Naturally terrified that her son will be killed along with so many others, she hides him for three months.  Then when she can hide him no longer she lays him in a basket made of bulrushes and leaves it at a shallow edge of the River Nile.  What happens next could be seen as the most astonishing coincidence, or as evidence that God had not entirely abandoned the Hebrew people after all.  The basket, complete with baby, is found in the river by a woman.  It turns out that she is not just any woman but the Pharaohs daughter, and she immediately warms to the innocent baby and brings him into her household.

So it is that the homeless baby of a foreign slave comes to be brought up in the royal palace as a Prince of Egypt.  He is even given an Egyptian name – Moses.  A couple of decades on and the young man Moses emerges with all the benefits of his palace upbringing: fine clothes and good manners, a top education and a taste for the trappings of wealth.  His future looks bright as he goes out to look for his friends one day, but in a single dramatic moment he switches from pampered prince to hunted killer.  He sees an Egyptian man beating up a Hebrew man, and in a fit of righteous rage he beats up the Egyptian man – and kills him.  When he saw injustice something in him rose up against it and that becomes the characteristic turning point in his life from being a pampered part of the hierarchy of the Egyptian Court to identifying with the oppressed people, who we the readers know, happens to be his own people.

What Moses knows is that having killed a slave master the punishment for him would have been death, so he goes on the run to a place called Median.  Here he settles into the local community, marries a woman called Zipporah and lived out the rest of his life quietly as a shepherd.  At least that's what he thought would happen, but at the age of 80 he meets God in the form of a burning bush.

God tells him to go back to Egypt and rescue the Israelites slaves.  Like Abraham before him Moses is old and tired when God gives him the most important job his life.  Moses actually gives 5 excuses but why he shouldn't be the person who God calls: from - he has never done it before, to the fact that actually not very good at speaking, to - he thinks God should choose somebody else.  It is a familiar part of the story of the bible that God never seems to choose his leaders from the usual suspects.  In the end God brushes aside Moses excuses and won't take no for an answer.  He has Moses travel to Egypt the Pharaohs palace where he was brought up, and where he is now a wanted criminal.

His task is no less than the liberation of the entire Jewish people; those people have now been suffering for decades, crying out for God to deliver them.  It's a major challenge to their relationship with God.  How could you promise undying love to their father Abraham, then seemingly abandon his descendants to slavery and persecution.  By the time God finally answers their prayers by sending Moses they must have thought help would never come.  The story tells us that the people's cry came up to God and it's almost as if that cry reminded God of his responsibilities towards the people, almost as if the crying for people can change God's mind.

When Moses reaches Egypt, he finds the Pharaoh rather reluctant to free all his slaves, but Moses has God on his side and unleashes a different plague on Egypt every time the Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go.  When blood, frogs, gnats, flies, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and animal diseases all failed to change the Pharaohs mind, God tells Moses to prepare for the worst punishment of all.  Moses asks the Israelites to eat a meal of lamb on a particular night, and to paint the blood of the lamb on their doorposts.  The arrangement is that God will see the blood and pass over the Jewish homes, but will cause the death of the firstborn sons in all the other homes.

The carnage of that terrible night finally breaks Pharaoh.  He gives in and agrees to free the slaves.  The Israelites relationship with God has finally delivered the liberation they longed for.  To this day Jewish families eat a ritual one meal once a year to mark that night of Passover.  It is a night that God will frequently remind them of as the story unfolds.  As the Hebrew people, led by Moses, are about to leave, the double-crossing Pharaoh sends an army to trap them on the shore of the Red Sea.  It seems like a dramatic turnaround, but Pharaoh has made a bad mistake.  Moses has now learned that when he call for help God answers, but even his jaw must have dropped as the water parts and a dry path opens up before him.   The Israelites rush across and the sea closes on their pursuers.

At last the Hebrew people are free.  Moses has fulfilled the mission God gave him, and God has shown himself again to be faithful to his promises.  The people led by Moses are now in the wilderness, but they have a destination in mind.  Generations back, when God and Abraham had made their pact, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would have some territory to call their own.  Now the people feel, it is time for God to deliver the land he had promised.  However it is not going to be as simple as that, for between them and the Promised Land lies hundreds of miles of desert wilderness.

Moses has a job on his hands, leading an entire nation across a desert with no access to food or drink.  The people are not exactly giving him an easy ride either.  They expect a lot from God and Moses, and in return they get thousands of plump quails covering their camp, the get miraculous water from a rock, and best of all they get manna.  As the morning dew lifts it leaves fine white flakes like frost on the stony ground.  Moses tells the people this is bread from heaven, just enough to feed every man woman and child.  Moses warns his people not to hoard the food until tomorrow, but some do, only to find it rancid and riddled with worms.  It seems that God wants them to trust him to provide enough food day by day.

However wonderful all of that might seem, even manna doesn't silence the moaners for long.  Moses has constantly to deal with what today might be labelled “remoaners”, and even though they had been delighted when he led them to freedom, there were some who wanted to go back to the way things were.  That might sound hard to believe, but churches have harboured such characters ever since!

Some weeks into the journey, God makes a move so radical that it redefines his relationship with people and changes the world forever.  He asked Moses to meet him on top of a mountain, face-to-face.  So Moses climbed Mount Sinai and he meets God.  He spends 40 days up there, and the sheer power and glory of the encounter leaves its mark on him.  In the words of the book of Exodus, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God, so much so that when the people of Israel so Moses they were afraid to come near him.  When he returns to his people Moses has a set of moral laws to give them.  It is not just the well-known Ten Commandments but a whole catalogue of guidelines governing all aspects of life.

Now the relationship becomes fully of two-way relationship.  God will be their god they will be his people and significantly as his people they have obligations to keep certain commands in order to be able to maintain this relationship with God.  The commands that they are to keep up two-fold: the first one is that they are to love God, the second is that they are to love their neighbour.

So it is that Moses, this reluctant, flawed, reluctant old man, this slave and prince turned murderer and then shepherd,  becomes perhaps the most important figure in Judaism and one of the great iconic leaders of world history.  His epic story is told in no less than four books of the Bible: Exodus Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The Commandments he brought forth become the model and legal foundation of all western and Middle Eastern societies.  Yet this great leader never does get to taste the milk and honey of the Promised Land.  He gets close enough only to see it in the distance from a mountaintop, his vision still untainted and undiminished by the harsh reality that is going to be revealed.  For the reality is that the Promised Land is already occupied by the Canaanites, so entering it will be a job for the military.

With Moses off the scene, his deputy Joshua takes over.  The book of Joshua and the book of Judges give different accounts of what happens next.  The book of Joshua has Moses heroic right-hand man with God on his side, winning a series of dramatic victories, culminating in the conquest of the great city of Jericho just north of the Dead Sea.  In this story Joshua's soldiers circle the city walls blowing their trumpets, and the walls come tumbling down.  The book of Judges however tells of a much slower invasion marked by continued skirmishes with Canaanites and Philistines, and the struggles of Israelites to organise occupy and rule.

One way or another the Israelites do enter their promised land.  So what happens next?  Do God and his chosen people settle down and live contentedly in the land of milk and honey?  Not according to the book of Judges.  The human side of the relationship is somewhat erratic, drifting into unfaithfulness with other gods or inventing new gods.  A pattern begins to emerge as the people drift away from God, God lifts protecting hand and allows their enemies to attack them, they turn back to him and cry for help.  Then finally God sends an inspirational leader to rescue them.  These leaders the bible calls Judges, and they are a motley crew.  There is a story about a woman called Jael who put a tent peg through some poor soul’s skull as he slept; a story about Ehud who is a left-handed man who put his sword through the belly of a big fat king called Eglin.  Then we have Samson who we fondly remember as a victim of bad hairdresser - he became strong boy who managed to bring down a building and top of his enemies; perhaps one of the first accounts we have of a terrorist suicide attack.

Through all of this, somehow the purpose of God manages to go on.  As we move out of the period of the Judges, we can see that God has fulfilled all three of the promises he made to Abraham.  He has remained loyal to his people - but his people keep drifting away from him, and with the constant military threat from all sides, this fledgling nation start to crave leadership.  What they appeal for is not the leadership of prayer and manna and trust in God, but a flesh and blood King like the foreign nations had, a strong figurehead to lead and defend them.

The last of the Judges, a wise prophet called Samuel, feels the kingship will be a step away from God.  He argues that God is the only King Israel needs, but Samuel is under growing pressure to find a man to be king.  The story is about to enter the critical new phase.