Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Scarlet Thread

I wanted to write about something that is becoming a growing conviction as I look at the way in which we commonly read the holy scriptures, especially the books in the Old Testament, and even more so the Torah. It seems that there is an overwhelming tendency to draw out universal moral principles and doctrines at the expense of the narrative. We are told that God does not change, nor does his law. The Old Testament law is then chopped up into neat categories of moral and ceremonial, the latter ending with Jesus sacrifice on the cross, the former continuing its applicability to all times and all nations. So when we come across things that seem a bit hard to swallow from our New Testament perspective, particularly those passages that make God out to be a bloodthirsty warrior who commands his people to slaughter mercilessly, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we discard the Old Testament God altogether, like the Marcionites, do we divide the story up into "ages", like the dispensationalists, or do we embrace this bloody God with relish, as in classic reformed theology?

I am not willing to take any of these views. I don't have a perfect alternative, but there appears to be a tunnel opening in some unexplored territory when we begin to read the scriptures from a narrative perspective. Let's ditch classical Greek categories for a change, and try to look with the unscientific eyes of an ancient. I am far from being an expert on the ancient mind, but I would like to share just a few observations I've picked up on.

There is something in the language of symbols and the way they are strategically placed in the text that reminds one of more primitive forms of "writing". The repetition of certain themes, which are woven throughout, points not only to convenience for the accurate preservation of oral traditions, but to a way of thinking "in pictures", rather than abstracts. Sort of a mental hieroglyphics, you might say.

One of these themes is the way "blood" and "bloodshed" is spoken of alongside "ground" and "curse". In the story of Cain, Abel's blood cries from the ground, which is then cursed again for Cain so that it will not produce at all for him. Then there is Noah's sacrifice, and God's promise to never again curse the ground because of man. It is in this context that the blood theme continues. Men can kill animals for food, but may not eat the blood. Neither animals nor men can shed the blood of other men, for God will demand an accounting. He places a curse on the shedding of man's blood, those who do so will end up with the same fate as their victims. When we come to the part of the story when Israel is to posses the land God promised to Abraham, the same symbolic language is employed. The land is cursed by the wickedness of its inhabitants and must be cleansed before the holy people can inhabit it. This was accomplished by shedding their blood and burning everything. Once it was inhabited, everything that would contaminate the holy land and the holy people had to be dealt with in similar fashion. The people were already marked as holy through circumcision, involving bloodshed. The Mosaic law provided further means of preserving purity through certain sacrifices and through certain penalties, most involving bloodshed, either animal or human. So then, murder, seen in this context, is not a crime against society, as we view it today, but a contamination of the sacred. A cleansing sacrifice is called for, the murderer's blood is shed, however, if he were not found, an ox would be killed instead, so the land would be purged. There are no false divisions here between the moral and the ceremonial. All morality was seen in the ceremonial sense of curse and blessing, clean and unclean, it was never perceived as an abstract, universal virtue.

And now, to finally wrap up this longish post, we come to the best part of the story, or rather, we come to "Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel." (Hebrews 12:24) I'll leave you to consider the implications of this statement in light of the scarlet thread of blood, sacrifice, curse and cleansing.

No comments: