Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Best of Men, the Worst of Men

A lot of Exodus brings back memories of the flood. Countless babies are drowned in the river, Moses rides atop safe in his little ark, and the armies of Pharaoh are crushed under the weight of the Red Sea. At this stage of the Bible, water seems symbolic of both chaos and lethal judgment. Indeed, the harshest judgment an artist can make is to prefer the torn shreds of ripped-up canvas to the painting he had such great hopes for.

The first inclination God had was to trash the whole of creation, but Noah made him think twice. After the flood had destroyed nearly everything, the Lord reflects on what has happened and makes some interesting promises:
I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Why is man’s evil a ground for God not to curse the ground? The logic doesn’t seem to follow. My only guess is that God now knows he can’t expect man in his current state to live up to his calling as caretaker of creation – and he’s committing himself to fix man and maintain creation in the meantime.

The second half of Genesis is much more promising. Abraham shows tremendous faith, Jacob is one who will implacably pursue the Lord’s blessings, and Joseph brings reconciliation to brothers at odds while saving a nation from famine. These people are at least on the way to getting back on track.

But how can God scale this up? How do you create an entire nation of Abrahams, Jacobs, and Josephs? This is the problem begun in Exodus, and, frankly, continued in some sense throughout the rest of the Bible.

It’s a frustrating task from the very beginning, as we see in the Golden Calf incident. Here God wants to fall back on his flood plan – keeping Moses safe while purging the rest of the people. But this doesn’t really get anywhere. It only turns the clock back. Even if he created another nation from Moses, God is going to have to deal once again with the fact that “the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.”

In this sense, Israel is a fantastic representative for humanity. It produces amazing leaders and visionaries who can play on God’s level. If God is going to pull this redemptive project off, he’ll need people like this. But Israel also produces masses of pathetic fickle people that embody the depths to which all mankind can fall. If God is going to be successful with this prototype, he’ll have to prove it can handle even the worse cases.

Exodus ends with God once again rolling up his sleeves and putting his hand to the plow. And apparently the giving of the Law is a key part of what he has in store. How do the commandments, case laws, dietary rules, and sacrificial ritual fit relate to the rest of the story? What exactly is God up to? With these questions, we turn to Leviticus.

Well, after months of trying and failing, I believe I have come up with an ingenious plan for how to get back into this blog: just start reading again. So, I'm back! I hope you're still reading mine!

Where do you get all this artwork, btw?

Most of it comes from the Gustave Dore Bible Illustrations book I'm plugging on the left sidebar, although I normally just find them on the web rather than scan them myself. Sometimes I'll use his stuff from his other works, like Paradise Lost or Dante's Divine Comedy.

It'll be great to have you back around. By the way, the one post I'd suggest you take the time to read is this one. It's probably the best thing I've written so far.

I did read your blog just today as a matter of fact. Perhaps I shall go comment.

Good thoughts on the give and take between God and humankind. Also your thoughts on people who can play on God's level is interesting. And I think you have an important point there. Which certainly carries on today. As well as the aspect of people wringing their hands and not being there.

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