Days 15-22 editorial comment

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Day 19 has brought us to end of reading Genesis. We have encountered some rip-roaring yarns that put a lie to the assertion that the Bible is a book of cozy family values. The Genesis stories provoke a range of emotional responses in us from delight through incredulity, to horror and disgust. It’s important that we note the personal impact as we engage with these mythological stories. Remember that myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. A myth is a once-upon-a-time story and is, in this case, the product of later editors recording in written form much earlier oral memories. I call them editors because they edit and arrange the stories to convey a contemporary message.

  1. The complex recital of genealogies has the purpose of creating continuity for later readers and the authority for later political and national aspirations.
  2. The descriptions of which sons’ fared well and which were rejected by God carries the message for later readers that explains how the Israelites are the descendants of those Genesis figures favored by God.
  3. We read into this a justification for the confiscation of other people’s lands. We also find a treasure trove of anthropological material concerning the tensions between farming and herding societies in the Bronze Age.
  4. Stories and events are given a theological meaning as we find over and over again God favors shepherds over farmers, a favoritism that resulted in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The message for a later time is that God favored the herding nomadic Hebrew tribes over the agricultural Canaanite farmers on the plain.
  5. In the stories of the Joseph cycle, we catch the echoes of famine induced migrations. We have hints about the arrival of new groups of economic migrants and refugees and how existing peoples struggled with their assimilation. We read how Joseph during the years of famine not only saves his own tribal group but engineers the gradual loss by the Egyptians of their individual land ownership to the overall control of Pharaoh. We can see a familiar process of feudalisation taking place, whereby small farmers are reduced to servitude and serfdom on large landed estates – representing the triumph of the elite 1% of the day at the expense of the 99%.

Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and the flourishing of Joseph. Exodus begins with the death of Joseph and the social upheaval in Egypt that resulted in the enslavement of the Hebrews, who over time had grown from a privileged ethnic clan to a national group that threatened the stability of Egyptian political society. With Exodus, we move from myth to epic stories. Epic is a story written across historical time, growing and changing, developing within the events of historical time. With the Moses cycle, we are now introduced to a series of events out of which the Hebrew Epic is born. Here the Israelites begin to identify as a nation who enter into a turbulent relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Hebrew Epic begins with a God who hears the cries of his enslaved people and comes to their aid as a liberator. So starts the great central motif of the Judao-Christian Epic – God is one who hears the cries of the oppressed and frees them from captivity. Everything after this is history, as they say.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, in particular, is set against the backdrop of the Jewish Law. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Evangelists, writing for a Jewish Christian community still smarting from their expulsion from the synagogues as a newly emerging Rabbinical Judaism seeks to establish its boundaries. His anger with the Pharisees and Rabbis makes us uncomfortable as we read him following centuries of antisemitism in the Church and within living memory of the Holocaust. So it is important to understand that Matthew’s anger is a reflection of internal family conflict, as synagogue and church face one another from opposite sides of the street.

Reading Matthew these last three weeks has felt to me like running a breathless race, as he moves without letup from one difficult teaching to the next. I say difficult teaching because Jesus is opening up the inner meaning of the external regulations of the Law. External regulations are easy to fulfill in the sense you know when you have met the standard and when you fall short. Jesus’ teaching is more challenging because he is rooting behavior in the inner disposition of the heart. We can fulfill the external requirement, but where is our heart? Is it in alignment with the deeper spirit of Gods desire for us?

We have now read 19 Psalms. Have you begun to notice that many follow a three-fold structure? In part I, the psalmist will open with a line of praise before making his complaint to God. In part II he launches into an unabashed condemnation of his enemies. In part III he moves into a new tone of praise. For despite all his difficulties, God is there with him and for him.

In the Psalms, we find the mirror for every human condition and experience. No emotion of ours is alien to God. We need not hold back with our voice of complaint. After the catharsis of letting rip, we calm down enough to begin to experience the balm of God’s love for us.


Days 1-7 editorial comment


Why read the Bible in 21st Century America?

Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:

I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Paul D Hanson in A Political History of the Bible in America has commented:

To gain a solid footing for understanding the mixed legacy of American political history, it is necessary to turn to the more ancient epic from which the leaders of our nation, from colonial times to the present, and for better or for worse, derived justification for their actions. That epic is the Bible.

So a further question is Why read the Bible at St Martin’s? Walter Bruggemann in his reflection for Day 6 of The Bible Challenge says this:

In our society where we imagine we may be or must be on our own, prayer is the core acknowledgment that in fact our lives are referred beyond ourselves.

We are a society that must reclaim a civic conversation that is both communitarian and inclusive. Personal and public attitudes and actions result from identity shaping stories. Small stories dominated by bigotry and violence have a harm upon our civic conversation. Stories of healing and liberation shape ideas of virtue and civility. Sharing such stories strengthens the moral capital of a society. I return to Bruggeman’s concept of prayer referring us beyond ourselves. Reading it, we can experience the Bible as an anchor point for an experience that cumulatively builds up in us, the more we read. This experience refers us beyond the circularity of our own small conscious stories of God or other, expanding around us the richness and texture of a larger story against the backdrop of which we become aware of our lives being lived.

Daily Bible reading is not transactional. We cannot predict the effect as if we could produce a predetermined outcome. An analogy here might be the build up of minerals in the bloodstream as the result of daily intake.

Walter Bruggemann in The Prophetic Imagination contrasts the power of prophetic imagination against that of the imagination of empire:

It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.

Reading history through a later lens

Much of the material in Genesis is technically myth material.  Myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Myth is a once-upon-a-time story, e.g. Genesis 1 – 3 and is frequently misunderstood in two ways:

  1. Taken literally –as concrete truth- and imposed upon contemporary context e.g. creationism
  2. Taken as fairy story – i.e. not true –and having no application in a contemporary context

What we read in Genesis is the later written recording of ancient oral tradition stories. The stories in Genesis can’t be read literally because we receive them through a reading of history through a later lens. The oral tradition stories date from around 2000 B.C. What we read is the recording of these stories beginning around 1000 B.C. for the purpose of creating a national history for David’s unified Kingdom of Israel so that it might be a nation like other nations around it. We see the same process in our own recording of our national history. We tell our history in order to challenge but more commonly justify our current status quo of national attitudes and worldviews shaped by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The unified Kingdom of David was the end result of centuries of conquest and assimilation. Reading through the Davidic lens we read the story of Cain and Abel as a story about the conflict between herding and agrarian societies. The Israelites were a shepherding people, while the Canaanites were a farming people. Ergo, the story tells us that God favors herding activity over that of growing things. Noah curses his son Ham for beholding him while in naked, drunken stupor. Who are the children of Ham? Why none other than the Canaanites. In both stories, we see the later justification for the Israelite’s conquest of their neighbors and confiscation of their land.

In The Bible Challenge book, each day questions are posed following the daily commentary on the texts read. After the first week of The Bible Challenge here are some points we might focus on:

  • Gen 1-18 covers 4 creation stories: Gen 1 & 2, Gen 3-4 (The Fall and the fist murder) and Gen 6-8 (Noah). Gen 9-11 deals with the sorting out of the Canaanite nations as a preparation for the call of Abram in Chpt12 and the creation of the Israelite people. What’s the highlight or the nadir for you?
  • Note how Matt begins in true OT style with a genealogy – why?
  • Matt 5-8 has a particular name – what is it? How do you feel about Jesus’ teaching here?
  • How has the first week of The Bible Challenge affected you?

The Bible Challenge

Useful links:

The Bible Challenge as paperback or Kindle book



An introduction to The Bible Challenge

The Bible Challenge experience

Recommended Bible translations:

New King James NKJV, New International Version NIV, New Amercian Standard Bible NASB, New Revised Standard Version NRSV, New Jerusalem Bible NJB. We recommend an electronic version of the Bible which gives the option for listening as well as reading. Audio versions will be helpful if you want to listen to the daily readings while commuting or maybe before bed.  Recommended Bible App for smartphones and tablets  or Desktop Computer Bible access





Treasurer’s report and 2017 budget


Thanksgiving 2016

This year St Martin’s will host the annual St Martin’s-Temple Beth-El Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Tuesday, November 22nd at 7.00 pm. This year our speaker will be Kathy Cloutier, CE of Dorcas International of Rhode Island – a nonprofit dedicated to the resettlement of refugees. Thanksgiving highlights our collective experience, as a nation comprised of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, among whom a good number were refugees fleeing discrimination and violence.

Temple -Church Thanksgiving Message – also appeared as an Op-ed in The Providence Journal, Wednesday 22nd November.

On Thanksgiving Day, we will offer our usual Thanksgiving meal for those who don’t have anywhere more pressing to be. If you are coming to this and have not yet let the Office know please RSVP ASAP.

Community Carol Sing


Temple-Church Conversation – First Presentation

Here is the link to download the full PowerPoint presentation