Ok, faithful readers . . . now we may be getting into it. Ready?
Here’s what I’ve gone over with you so far: God, the Unknowable, the Transcendent is unreachable directly by the human mind. Even our language is practically useless talking about God. We use analogies because we cannot experience anything from a God’s-eye view: eternal, changeless, infinite. If God were to want us to know anything about what being God is all about, the communication would have to be in terms that we understand (like a mathematician trying to teach calculus to a chimp). God’s self-revelation has been found through our human faculties in the natural world and through history — our own and our collective experience. We have come to know that God (whatever that means) exists and for some reason takes a personal interest in us. God acts through historical events and is therefore not impersonal.
We humans have an unlimited capacity for self-delusion. We see it all around us. People not only believe what they want to believe, they also see what they want to see and ignore what they don’t want to acknowledge. If the human race fails to survive for very much longer, it will be because of self-delusion. Yet, in spite of this, when a community of individuals share a common experience — especially a spiritual experience — the power of self-delusion can be dramatically lessened. We instinctively know this. When something surprises us, we’ll immediately turn to our neighbor (whether we know the person or not) and say, “Did you see that?”
When a whole people or nation shares a spiritual awakening, that community is transformed. Think about it: if you’ve served in the military, there are a lot of things that you can only talk about with others who have served. Civilians just don’t “get it.” Think about the men and women who went through World War II. How about Korea and Vietnam? Just imagine the bond (and the level of communication) that exists among those astronauts who traveled in space. They “get it;” most of us never will.
The Hebrew people experienced such an “event” that created a faith community out of a collection of disparate Semitic tribes. They experienced literally being liberated from slavery by a remarkable series of events above and beyond their power to accomplish or even to appreciate fully. It left them shaken to their core, and provided them with an experiential lesson beyond anything they could have imagined. For forty years (a generation), they went over and over the remarkable narrative. As new members were born into the tribes, they learned of the experience at their mothers’ breasts. They grew up knowing what had happened. Yes, the details of the story got somewhat shifted, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps blurred, but the community knew that was not important. What was important was that in the telling of the story, those who had not been present to experience the events first-hand could still experience them through the community. The details were only of secondary importance (at best); it was the meaning of the events and the transmission of the experience that mattered.
Generation after generation shared the experience — and still do. At the Seder meal, the Haggadah narrative still begins with “We were slaves in Egypt . . . ” Not “they” or “our forefathers”, but “we”! The spiritual experience of the saving God created the community, and the community recreated the experience generation after generation. As they grew and progressed, they began to create written texts: first, secular texts about the administration of their governance, then, soon after, the narrative regarding their seminal experience. These spoken narratives, committed to writing, were recognized by the leaders of the community and the community as a whole as conveying the meaning behind their experience. So, we find four elements that go hand in hand with the creation of these texts: experience, narrative, commitment to writing, and recognition by the community. From king to priest to prophet to scribe to people, everyone could respond that this, indeed, was their story!
“Inspiration” — what does it mean, after all? It means that a piece of the Divinity has been found within humanity and recognized as such. “Inspiration” is always backward-looking. It sees true reflections of the Faith experience in human history and human narratives. Whenever humanity looks at a narrative (whether it be stories told around a campfire or written texts, or sacred songs, or spirited dances, or films, or whatever) and recognizes a piece of its own soul, it instinctively knows that narrative as inspired. Scriptures — even Sacred Scriptures are just a part of the God story uncovered by human communities. This is particularly true when the story that is told is your own story.
Does that mean that God didn’t write the Scriptures? Wrong question. We’re trying to apply the human term “write” to God. It doesn’t exactly work. It’s another analogy. God authors all the Scriptures that human communities recognize as such because there is only one spiritual experience that we share, though experienced in very different ways with wildly varying details. Our job as a community is to dig into the human words to uncover the Divine living within. We honor and preserve the words not on their own account, but because they are our only conduit back to that seminal experience of the Transcendent that transformed our community and has the power to transform us, as well.
The Hebrew people — the people of the Exodus experience — entered into a covenant with their God. Their God revealed to them the Name (Yahweh) that gave them the power to call upon the Transcendent personally. In return, they agreed to subject themselves to a code of behavior that would make them worthy of being God’s people. “I will be your God,” said the covenant, “and you shall be my people.” They therefore recognized and consecrated and celebrated in the Law (including the Exodus event), the Prophets, and the other Writings (the histories, the songs, the wisdom, etc.) their unique relationship to God. These books were called the ‘Tanakh’ by the Masorites (or Masoretes)1 from the first letters of the words for Law (Torah), Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketubim). We call them the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible, then, is the Book of the people; and the people are the people of the Book. The Hebrew Bible was created by the Hebrew people out of their unique religious experience; the Hebrew people, in turn, are defined through human history by the Hebrew Bible.
In Hebrew, the word ‘dabar‘ means both the “thing” and the “word” that names it. As I’ve said before, that brings a whole new dimension to the Name of God (Yahweh) where the Word is the Transcendent Reality. “Dabar-Yahweh” — “The Word of the Lord” — connects the Hebrew people to their God. We Christians live in the Faith tradition of that Hebrew people; however, so many self-described Christians have completely lost that connection. By stopping at the text, without probing to the experience behind it, and by treating the words of scripture as though they were opaque rather than transparent, they have, I’m afraid fallen into idolatry. They’ve made an idol out of the words of God such that they cannot see through to the Word of God (the Dabar-Yahweh). I want to say much more about this later, but, for now, suffice it to say that the transformative experience of the ancient Hebrews still lives in the Tanakh; and we can find if only we read it with the eyes of Faith. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”2