Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"General Rules" and Bible Stories

One of the things I love about the Bible is how it resists our efforts to tie everything up in neat systematic statements.  Whenever you think you have a "general rule" about something, there's a Bible story to throw some doubt on your carefully constructed thesis.

So, you have a deep commitment to the idea of an unchanging God, perhaps.  And then along comes a story from Exodus -- one where God has decided that God is done with the people of Israel.  They are down there worshipping a Golden Calf.  God is so angry that God is going to destroy the people and start over again with Moses and his offspring.

Moses argues with God and -- guess what?  God changes his mind.  In some versions of the Old Testament, the word is translated "repent".  God repents.

Or maybe you are looking for some 'general rules' about prayer.  For some people, Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane says it all,  "Not my will, but thine, be done."

This is an excellent prayer.  I can't argue with it.  God's will be done.  It's even in the Lord's prayer.

But then I come across the Old Testament reading for this Sunday:  God's decision that he is going to destroy the city of Sodom, and Abraham's conversation with God regarding this decision.

Perhaps this doesn't seem like a prayer to you.  To be honest, it doesn't seem like a prayer to me, either. But if not (I ask myself) why not?  If prayer is, at its heart, a conversation with God, this does seem to fit the definition, although it's a rather cheeky conversation.  Sort of audacious, in my opinion.  Abraham actually bargains with God, tries to strike a deal whereby God will not destroy a decidedly evil city.  (Whatever you think the sin of Sodom was -- there's no doubt about the fact that it was an evil place.)

"What if there are 50 righteous within the city?"  Abraham asks God.  "Will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked?"

(Wait!  Is Abraham bargaining with God?  I thought we weren't supposed to bargain with God.)

"Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"  That's what Abraham asks God.

And God answers, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake."

Amazing.  God and Abraham have a conversation/prayer.  Instead of saying, 'thy will be done,' Abraham actually contends for the life of an evil city.  Other than his nephew Lot and Lot's family, he doesn't know anything good about that city, and in fact, he knows plenty of bad.

Perhaps "general rules" are made to be broken.

Don't get me wrong; 'thy will be done' is still a good prayer.  It's not the only good prayer, and one of the reasons it is good is Jesus' honesty in saying it.

 Perhaps we work too hard sometimes to find "general rules" and "lessons" in Bible stories, instead of reading them for what they are:  a record of the messy, complicated relationship between humanity and a living God.  Perhaps Bible stories are not so much lessons about "what to do" or "what not to do" as they are pictures of what it looks like to be in relationship with God, to speak up and remain silent, to fall down and get up, to make mistakes and be bold and be your whole self in front of the one who holds you in the palm of his hand, anyway.

I'll admit that I love this story because it reveals something I fervently believe about God:  that God is gracious and merciful, despite some of the stories I have heard.  I love this story because Abraham is willing to stake his relationship with God on this.

May my conversations with God be this honest:  and not only on behalf of myself, but on behalf of others, too.

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