Bible study, 1 May 2016

From Deuteronomy and the Psalms

Background:

This Bible Study took place in church in Chitterne on 1st May, Rogation Sunday, after we’d walked from the four villages to the cross tracks in the middle of the Plain where the four boundaries meet, said a prayer or two, then walked up to Copehill Plantation and held a picnic there of tea and coffee and cake and whathaveyou. Once that was over the Orcheston contingent set off northwards and beat their bounds (or most of them – we try to avoid the northernmost tip in the Royal Artillery’s impact area). A good time was had by all. Those who attended the bible study later that afternoon were given permission to fall asleep if they had to…screenshot 542

The Rector writes:

These two passages (below) are ‘proper Old Testament stuff’ and I chose them partly because of that and partly because they come from the readings set for Rogation. Right now we are in the few days which are call ‘Rogation Days’ in the church calendar (2-4th). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the background, Rogation is the time when the priest and the people would go to the boundaries of their parish and beat the bounds with a stick, praying for prosperity and a good harvest. ‘Rogare’ comes from the Latin to ask. You will find, if you read Wikipedia, that the processions associated with Rogation were often a jolly good excuse for a party and a bit of revelry!

But what is at the heart of rogation?

An acknowledgement that we people are bound to the earth on which we have been placed.

A desire to maintain stability and social structures by identifying our boundaries and limitations.

An understanding that we thrive by God’s hand.

And it is in that context that we come to explore our two passages. I’m not going to spend a long time on the specifics of Deuteronomy. The story is pretty straightforward, so I am going to give a short summary of what is going on here and then move on to Psalm 104.

People often find it confusing that Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers present a series of laws, and then you find yourself with Deuteronomy – more laws! In fact, if you look at the title of the book you will see it is called the second law (not in Hebrew, in Greek). In Hebrew it is simply called spoken words.

Leviticus is about ritual and observance, Deuteronomy is Moses summing up and giving his teaching as he prepares to leave his people before they enter the Promised Land.

Date: thought to have probably been laid down in current form around 6th Century BC; looking back and considering the type of shape of society given the law code that has been laid down- 2 Kings 22 (finding of the book of the law in the Temple- time of great conflict and difficulty).

What does this particular passage say to us?

The God of Deuteronomy is a God of Love and a God of Jealousy. He will bring the people prosperity, but at the expense of those currently living in the ‘promised land’. They will be destroyed and cast out. Further, God has tested his own people- v. 3 ‘he humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna’.

(note- one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord- who thought that was something Jesus said?!)

You will live and increase, and receive good things if you ‘keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.’

There are two things I want to tease out of this passage now, neither of which we can give more detailed attention today.

  1. The tension for us as 21st Century Christians in the feeling of a transactional relationship with God. If you do this for me, then I will reward you. And further, the tension with the idea that God has manipulated his people to teach them lessons, and will allow them to destroy other communities for their benefit and in his name. This latter idea is put across by some scholars as the first development of the concept of a holy war. Rogation is not about getting a bigger slice of the cake because we have picked the right team. But we must remember that in the context in which the writer was living, the ancient Near East, the idea that gods were honoured by the removal of the enemy, and that destruction was carried out in their name, was common. And frankly, it explained a great deal about the challenges of life. Crops have failed because we have failed God. Those who also fail God by their idolatry and failure to lead lives according to His Law must be removed so that good life can flourish.
  2. This leads us on to our second theme. The people of the Old Testament are completely bound to their land. And life, and land are inextricably bound to the relationship of the people to God. We are less connected to this idea in the 21st century. Or are we? What about the prosperity Gospel? Do we know about that? If you are good and faithful then you will be rewarded. If you are unwell, or blighted in some way by loss/grief/poverty, then it is something you have done. This culture exists, in the church, even in the light of the challenging teaching of Christ and his model, which is of self-sacrifice and incarnation, rather than of transaction, and quid pro quo.

Some challenges for us today then. My final word before moving on, is to say this is not the sole image of God that we receive from the OT. So don’t let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Psalm 104

I wanted to look at the entire Psalm 104 today. In fact only verses 21-30 are ‘set’ for the day. But this denies the whole picture.

First, a bit about Psalms.

The Psalms are written as hymns- songs, to be used in worship. Sometimes at the start we see a musical note (to be accompanied by certain instruments) or an attribution. But attributing something to the King doesn’t necessarily mean he wrote it! A bit like Politicians speeches…

Hebrew poetry, like the poetic form in all languages, has its own particular patterns to follow. The language often moves between the psalmist- you and I- and God. And Psalms show a progression in thought. Both blessing, and praise, and lament, even rage can be expressed. And this is a GOOD thing. They give expression to true emotion and the tensions of faith. We can’t spend a lot of time on this today but I’ll draw your attention to some of the language details: alliteration is common. So is repetition for emphasis. People often think ‘we’ve just said that!’ but YES, that is the whole point. And then you get stepping- so half a phrase is picked up and used in the next sentence, and so on. And how about this (Psalm 29):

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,[a]
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,[b]
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

That particular psalm is fantastic because you can still pick up the poetry even in English. I’ve often thought that English is a great language to mirror Hebrew. But that may just be because I’ve never really engaged with Hebrew poetry in another language!

Moving back now, to Psalm 104.

Firstly, a very quick word about the shape of the psalm. It is in fact one where the pattern of the themes is laid out in the framework…I have tried to show this on the passage itself.

it is obvious why this passage is set for Rogation. Again, it deeply binds us to the sense that we are entirely dependant upon God for life and for the flourishing of that life. This psalm is, in effect, a creation account, and has strong parallels with the Egyptian hymn to Aton, the Sun. But further, if you look at vv. 27-30 we are reminded that creation is not a one-off event. Our connection with life is entirely dependent upon the presence and interest of God. Here we see parallels with the message we were exploring in Deuteronomy: we depend upon God’s interest and will to survive. But further, in verse 30, that word ‘spirit’. When you send forth your spirit they are created. Spirit ‘ruach’, is the word used for breath and spirit- God’s ruach moves on the face of the waters. God literally gives life from within himself.

27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

If you want to know date: take your pick, some say post-exile but it’s resonances with ancient texts would suggest earlier. I’m not going to spend an enormous amount of time on the detail of the psalm because it doesn’t say anything which is particularly unexpected. It lists all elements of the known world, and it acknowledges that God’s hand is in all things. The final section sums up the pattern I referred to earlier for a Hebrew psalm. Praise to God, a benediction, and a request (v.35). Sometimes in the Christian community we try and slice these little sections out of our psalms. They aren’t nice. They imply something of the transactional relationship with God again. There is no sense of restorative justice. But sometimes to rage about wrongdoing is a very positive thing to do. We pray for peace, for justice, and for wisdom for the leaders of the earth. In our biddings we sometimes try and tell God what to do: heal cancer, mend broken communities etc. That is what is happening here. The psalmist is being prescriptive. And we do it all the time. Whether we should or not, is really dependent upon how we view prayer and our relationship with God. Do we tell him about the problem and rage- if necessary- about how it feels, but leave him to solve it. Or do we try and proffer a tidy solution. What about terrorism? Consume it from the earth and let terrorists be no more. Sounds plausible as a prayer doesn’t it? Or does it?!

33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,

for I rejoice in the Lord.

35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,

and let the wicked be no more.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Praise the Lord!

In summary, our two passages provide us with an image of God which may not sit comfortably either with our world view in the modern age- that God is inextricably bound to the workings of the earth and its people; or with our understanding of God himself- that he has the capacity to behave in a very human way, expressing judgement and jealousy according to our rules, and becoming a justification for ethnic cleansing and empire building. But they also provide us with another idea, which is something perhaps we lack in 21st century life: God is bound to us, not simply by his interest in our eternal soul, but by our daily life as it is expressed in myriad different ways. And by extension, we are bound to him and to one another, in the way in which we use and share our many resources, in the way in which we care for and sustain our own environment- material and emotional, and spiritual. When we beat our bounds, we are saying ‘we’re in this together, we depend upon you, we flourish through your presence and your life-giving spirit.’

Deuteronomy 8.1-10

8 This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Psalm 104

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15     and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. [see Note below]

19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

Key:

Blessing

Sky & heavens

Earth

Creation

Stars

Sea

Life and Death

Glory and joy

Blessing

 

Note: for the uninformed (which was us, or most of us) a Coney is a Hyrax, very similar to a rabbit, although they live amongst rocks rather than burrow in the ground. See https://www.pinterest.com/underwraps4/cape-hyraxrock-hyrax/ and http://biblehub.com/topical/c/coney.htm