Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Gospel according to Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, or: Moses and Monty Python

[from a Sermon on Numbers 21, given at the Trinity College Chapel, Lent 4 2013]

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life includes a scene set in a chapel not unlike this one, where a headmaster is reading from what purports to be scripture:
...And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots."
This bizarre and hilarious narrative obviously reflects boarding school chapel services endured by the group, and which we would like to think were hopelessly caricatured; the reading tonight from Numbers was however a bit Pythonesque - Oboth, Iye-abarim, and the Wadi Zered are not major tourist destinations, nor is Sihon King of the Amorites a household name. If you listened closely, there was at least a place called "Beer" where you could get a drink.

Choral Evensong involves reading the Bible - the actual Bible, not just bits of it from here and there, that is, but the whole thing. The first Books of Common Prayer compiled in the 16th century from which this service is taken included a daily lectionary - wherein the whole of the New Testament was read through twice a year, the Old Testament (which is longer) once, and the Psalms every month. The idea was that clergy and people, or at least some of them, would gather day by day in Church and that the whole of scripture would be heard by them as a sort of grand narrative accompanied by prayer. In reality of course most people get to Church less often, and even those who attend regularly on Sundays could sometimes find themselves confronted, seemingly out of nowhere, with texts which may seem puzzling, unedifying, or just boring.

This is because the Bible - the real Bible - was not assembled as a self-help book or philosophical text or historical novel. As a varied collection of documents, written over centuries in different languages for different purposes, its beauties and profundities are complex, and not always self-evident.

Because of this it is tempting to read the bits we like, or which are more accessible, or if all else fails then at least to read passages that are shorter. The pattern of readings at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the sacrament itself is the focus and therefore it and the readings are intended to interpret each other, is closer to that. It's ironic though that Churches that claim the highest and most uncompromising view of scriptural authority usually don't read it liturgically in great quantity at all.

The truth is that reading the Bible - actually reading it I mean, not picking at its more appetising bits for spiritual nourishment or mining it as a source for your own agendas - is often a difficult thing.

The Book of Numbers can exemplify this. Numbers - which gets the name we use from its inclusion of various numerical lists - is the fourth of the five so-called books of Moses, the first books of the Bible, which begin promisingly enough back in Genesis with engaging mythology and stirring epic, but then seem to get bogged down for chapters at a time, maybe in the second part of Exodus, with legislation, ritual instruction, or, as today, obscure quasi-historical details of a community long gone. Numbers in particular seems to be a grab-bag of traditions and stories which, taken up close such as we do even reading a whole chapter, are confusing.

But there is a grand narrative on which these details hang; Numbers tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert - the Hebrew name of the Book is not "Numbers" but "b'midbar", "in the wilderness" - after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and sketches a pattern of failure and redemption that besets them until they reach the promised land. The passage we have heard is late in that story, and actually depicts some turning points in the Israelite refugees' quest for a safe home.

But so what? What can or should we glean from this ancient narrative of redemption? The question is not new. From 1800 years ago, in the mid-third century, we have a series of homilies on Numbers given by Origen of Alexandria, who while not a household name today was arguably the most influential interpreter of scripture in the ancient Church. Origen was preaching along with just such a chapter by chapter reading as that of the Book of Common Prayer, his congregation enduring the verbal journey through the scriptural wilderness with him; and clearly he and they asked some of the same questions about "why" and "so what." Parts of it, he says, are "so difficult that we can hardly arrive at a coherent explanation of the historical account" (Homilies on Numbers 13.3.1)

He answers the question in a way I have already hinted at - we have to read the story as in some sense our story too. Of this chapter "the history" he says "is clear, but let us ask the Lord to enable us to discern something worthy in the story's inner meanings" (1.4.2).

Part of that is personal; as Origen says "we are those who want to pass through this world so that we can come to the holy land which is promised to the saints" (12.4.5). The experience of Lent and Easter is also intended as a means of engaging in that same narrative, of seeing ourselves as people given the freedom to seek truth and life. Part of that is Christological; that is, Christians see these stories also as interpreting and interpreted by the struggle of Jesus and his triumph over sin and death. Part of it is social; a recognition that there are other asylum seekers, other refugees, and that homelessness, want and oppression are part of our world too.

None of these readings are self-evident; you have to choose to find yourself, or Christ, or today's wanderers and refugees, in the text. This is called "faith". A faith of sorts is necessary to read any kind of literature; a reader has to be open to seeing her or his life and world in a poem or a novel when opening the book, because that openness is a condition of reading and hearing what the text may have to offer. This is no less the case, and indeed more so, of the Bible. "Faith" here does not mean first subscribing to doctrines that others have drawn from the text; it means being willing to be a reader and hearer of the Word that is spoken in it.

Like our story, this story has its dry moments, its confusing parts, its repetitive cycles, its disjunctures. Like our story, however, it has a structure and meaning. Lent and Easter are themselves ways of re-telling the same story, of wandering and temptation and failure, followed by redemption and fulfilment. So is scripture.

Quotations from Origen, Homilies on Numbers. Edited by Christopher A. Hall. Translated by Thomas P. Scheck. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009.