Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 4:1-11
For 125 years Pullen Church has witnessed to justice, mercy, and the ways of God revealed in Jesus the Christ. Not surprisingly, the witness has fluctuated with changing times and seasons, with the lives and deaths of members, and with challenges of all sorts from the world without and the world within. But I wager that through all the fluctuations, one text and one ritual have endured. The text is the Bible; the ritual is the reading of it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. The presentation of Bibles to the children this morning is yet another witness.
The endurance of this text, the Bible, does not mean that it has remained fixed, static, and unchanging. No, in interacting with congregations, it has moved in meanings and messages. Given, then, its pivotal place in the journey of faith, I think it appropriate, as a facet of this anniversary year, that we reflect this morning on connections between the Bible and its readers.
Let us begin with the world’s first archaeological discovery: a scroll found in the temple of Jerusalem during the reign of the Judean King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE. Scholars tell us that the scroll was less than a century old, it purported to be an ancient document, specifically a copy of the covenant that God gave to Moses on Mount Horeb. Upon hearing the words of this scroll, King Josiah was sufficiently upset to seek assurance that the book was not a fraud.
That assurance came not from the high priest Hilkiah, not from the prophet Jeremiah, not from any other male authority of the seventh century, but rather from a woman – Huldah the prophet. She did it. She authorized the text that during centuries to follow would develop, through a long and complicated process, into the Bible we have now. Never forget: A woman initiated scripture – for weal and/or for woe.
That beginning, the scroll found in the Temple, we now identify as a major portion of the book of Deuteronomy. In it, Israel stands poised between wilderness and land. Egypt, the symbol and site of slavery, is behind. The successive forty years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to a close. On the horizon Moses and the people can see, but do not yet possess, the land of promise. In its content, then, Deuteronomy gives us life on the boundary between wilderness and land.
In the history of its composition, however, this book belongs to other boundaries: first, to the boundary between land and exile. Despite instruction and warning, Israel did not live well, that is to say, obediently in the land. Inwardly the people flirted with the gods of the Canaanites and crossed the boundary to apostasy. Outwardly, the nation, first Israel and then Judah, faced the boundary of defeat as “the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold,” to be followed 134 years later by the mighty forces of Babylon. On this boundary between land and exile, the book we call Deuteronomy (the beginnings of our Bible) began to take shape. The process continued when soon thereafter the people of Judah were taken into captivity. Then they found themselves living on the boundary between exile and return. Can we go home again, they asked? In the present, can we recover the past for a different future?
To these diverse boundaries Deuteronomy speaks. What does it speak? Short answer: words. More than any other book of the Bible, it is a collection of words, not of actions. Fittingly, in Jewish tradition it is sometimes called “the book of words.” And what kinds of words are they? Why, words of command and exhortation, with the explicit intention and purpose of offering life (not death), blessing (not curse) to the community committed to the Lord of the covenant. Moses preaches the teachings of Sinai. Why he must do that? Why this “book of words” when the words are already there in other books, notably in Exodus? Generalized answers can point us in the right direction: Memories are short. New occasions teach new duties. The Bible is never completed and rendered absolute. Boundary situations require new words about old words.
Deuteronomy shows us, then, how to appropriate the faith of our ancestors; how to reinterpret sacred texts formed on one boundary so as to make them vital for later generations facing new occasions on new boundaries. In the process, Deuteronomy struggles with the tension between times and text: the tension between “then” and “now” and “not yet;” the tension between what was said by those old and what is said now by those of faith and what will be said by those to come. Yet in all these interpretive moves Deuteronomy assures us paradoxically that not a jot, not a title, will pass away. This wondrous dialectic, this blending of past, present, and future witnesses to both the stability and the adaptability of the Bible. It endures; it changes. As a community of faith, we are called upon to make the Bible work for us in our time and to make it work for life.
Yet we know, as does Deuteronomy, that the Bible offers more and other than life. It also offers death. It knows of violence and evil, of hurts and anger, of machinations and manipulations. It witnesses to murder and mayhem. (If you think these features belong only to the “Old” Testament, then read the “New” carefully sometime.) Both Testaments teem with multiple voices and views. The Bible comes full of struggles, battles, contradictions, and problems. Within its pages, conflict rages and often goes unresolved. Truly, the Bible is a dangerous and difficult book. It can be used to curse.
It is also a persistent book. No matter how much we try, it does not go away. Just think of its hold on Western civilization in art, architecture, music, literature, ethics, ritual, and public discourse, moving now into a third millennium. Just think of the continuing conversation it holds with generations of readers, for weal and for woe. Just think of all the interpretations that pour forth from the reading and hearing of it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. The Bible never quits – not even on week days.
A Personal Entry
As individuals and communities of faith, we enter conversation with the Bible at different times and places during our lives. For me, one pivotal entry came at the boundary of faith and feminism. I had left the South, specifically this state of North Carolina, to live in the Northeast. (Some say that was my big mistake.) There I found a theological world in ferment. Feminists were faulting the Bible for patriarchy, faulting it for promoting the pernicious paradigm of male dominance and female subordination. I did not have to be convinced. One does not have to look hard for the evidence. It overwhelms. I knew that even before God formed me in the womb feminism was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. At the same time, I also knew – decidedly at variance with many feminists – that the Bible fed my life in rich and beneficial ways; that the book I had grown up with in Sunday School, where sword drills were routine and memory verses mandatory, that book continued to make a positive claim upon me, despite its well-documented and oppressive patriarchy. To be sure, I had learned at Meredith College (through professors identified with this congregation to this day) and later in graduate school that the Bible is rather different from what Sunday School teachers and some preachers had said, but not even critical and sophisticated ways of studying it diminished or supplanted my love for it. There is power in the document, and it need not work adversely for women or for men.
But there was the rub. To know that one is a feminist and to know that one loves the Bible is, in the thinking of many, be they feminists or opponents, an oxymoron. It will not work. After all, if no man can serve two masters, no woman can serve two authorities, a master called scripture and a mistress called feminism. Now if this point of view, this rhetoric of impossibility, were true, then I was of all women most wretched – or whatever adjective seems fitting: confused, schizophrenic, misguided, conservative, or just plain wrong. Hearing the challenge of feminism to the Bible exacerbated my predicament..
As I began to work out a response, it was, perhaps not ironically, the Bible that came to my aid – specifically that single story of Jacob wrestling in the dark with a powerful stranger. Jacob did not immediately know the identity of this stranger. Was it a night demon? his brother Esau? or the God of his ancestors? But Jacob persevered, putting up a fierce defense and declaring, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” That declaration became my challenge to the Bible from the perspective of feminism. I will not let go this book of words unless and until it blesses me. I will struggle with it. I will not turn it over to my enemies that it curse me. Neither will I turn it over to my friends who wish to curse it. No, over against the cursing from either Bible-thumpers or Bible-bashers, I shall hold fast for a blessing. But the blessing may well not come on my terms. After all, Jacob the blessed man limped away.
Returning to the Text
During the years since I first found myself at the boundary of feminism and faith and sought a blessing from this difficult, dangerous, and persistent book, many things have happened in the world, in the life of our nation, our various denominations, and our lives to stir up problems for all who love the Bible, but not uncritically; for all who love the Bible, but find it being used against us or being used against others. More than ever, this book occupies a central role in the cultural and political wars of our time. Take any issue tearing apart our nation or our churches or our world, and you find the Bible being elicited to support, even define, what a given group deems right or wrong. Abortion, race, ethnicity, homosexuality, ecology, immigration, ordination, technology, euthanasia, surrogacy, tobacco, drugs, guns, capital punishment, the economic downturn, 9/11 and the threat of terrorism – on and on goes the list with the Bible-thumpers and the Bible-bashers each lining up ammunition to use against the other from this foundational text of western civilization.
In these wars of words and deeds, the Bible has become captive, indeed double captive, to the self-righteous promotions of the thumpers and the bashers. But subversively, the Bible itself undercuts captivity to simplistic readings and naïve assumptions. Those of us who cannot join, who refuse to join, either the thumpers or the bashers are called upon to engage the book in more excellent ways.
In pursuit of this task, let us return to the text of the morning, to the beginning of scripture, to that boundary book of words called Deuteronomy. But we return not to the early settings of these words – not to the ancient boundaries of wilderness and land, land and exile, and exile and return – but rather to a later boundary faced by Jesus: the boundary between the private and the public, the boundary drawn by baptism at the Jordan when the spirit of God marked Jesus as beloved only to lead him immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. As ancient Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness, so now Jesus, son of Israel, fasts 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. At the boundary of famishing the tempter comes:
- “If you are the son of God,” says the devil, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” This proposal taunts Jesus as it defies his scriptural heritage. The biblical record of the wanderings makes clear that in the wilderness God alone provides food. Though Israel may ask, even demand, only God gives the miracle – and in God’s own time. As the devil sets up the logic here, he would in effect undercut the sacred traditions. He would bash the text. But Jesus, who knew his Bible, now reaches back into Deuteronomy (8:3) to cite a text that dispels the temptation. “It is written,” he says, “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” From the book of words Jesus chooses that word which brings release from temptation. Moving that word from its ancient setting to his own setting, Jesus appropriates scripture to make it work for good, not for evil.
- But the devil is no slouch, especially not an exegetical slouch. If Jesus can quote the Bible, the devil can do likewise. One text deserves another. Modeling yet mocking Jesus, the devil tries again. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple], for it is written ‘He will command his angel concerning you’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'” (Ps 91:11-12). Having at first in effect bashed the Bible, now the devil thumps it for his own ends to defeat the mission of Jesus. But Jesus sees through this ruse, this inappropriate use of scripture. He counters with yet another quotation from Deuteronomy. “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” In this war of words, both the devil and Jesus resort to quoting scripture. The difference between them lies in intention, discernment, and outcome.
- The third time around the devil drops his proof-text strategy to claim his own power and authority. “All the kingdoms of the world I will give to you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me.” This first person word of promise (“I will give”) and its reverential language (“worship”) have a seductive resonance, sounding (shall we say?) “biblical.” But Jesus knows better. In replying he stays the course to draw yet a third time from the book of Deuteronomy. “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only God'” (6:13). Once again Jesus appropriates Scripture to make it work for him as he counters the temptation to acquire power, might, and dominion.
On the boundary between the private and the public, between his life and his life committed to God, between his baptism and his preaching, Jesus encountered temptation from one who would at first bash his tradition, then thump it, and at last mimic it to undermine his mission and his message. Each temptation Jesus answered by turning to scripture and making it work for good. In each case, he chose the text that would liberate him. This process is instructive for all of us who love the Bible and would disavow the bashers and the thumpers.
To love the Bible is not to claim that it is without faults, imperfections, violence, and evil. To the contrary. To love this book is to understand that it sets before us life and death, blessing and curses and that the line between the two can slip and slide. To love this book is to understand that a single text may yield life in one setting and death in another. And to love this book is to understand that it places upon us, readers and hearers, the responsibility to choose rightly. The choice is not made for us; rather, it is made by us, at the boundary of text and readers.
In various ways the world’s first archeological discovery, that boundary book we now know as Deuteronomy (the words authorized by Huldah) travels across cultures and centuries to instruct all of us to be responsible interpreters of the word. If we would shrink from so awesome a responsibility, we learn that we cannot. “This commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut 30:15-30).
For 125 years, Pullen Church has read and heard the word. The word as gift has challenged congregations to work for life, not death, for blessing, not curse. Now on this boundary occasion of an anniversary year – between the then and the now, between the now and the not yet – may the text and the ritual – the Bible and the reading – continue to undergird the church in its witness to justice, mercy, and the ways of God in the world as revealed in Jesus the Christ.