Biblical marriage- but not as we know it…

In response to my previous post on gay marriage,  Sam Dawlatly (who has a book of poetry out on Proost soon by the way!) had this to say;

So here’s another point of view: the Bible doesn’t advocate monogamy… David had 8 wives and Solomon had more. Then at some point between then and a time perhaps before Jesus it was decided that marriage was between one man and one woman. Now the Law was given to Moses, so as far as I can make out there are no Laws that state explicitly that marriage is for one man and one woman. I am prepared to be corrected, as I am not a theologian. However monogamous marriage seems to be the norm in the New Testament.

What led to this change? It seems to me that “Christian monogamous marriage” as we accept it to be is not, in fact, biblical, but more cultural. I’m not advocating polygamy, but if the basis of marriage is more cultural then perhaps we shouldn’t use the Bible to define it and criticise those who seek to alter the definition according to modern culture?

He has a point you know. Deuteronomy is the scourge of all fundamentalists, who have to resort to immediate dispensationalist contortions every time. Check out chapter 22 for a case in point.

Or (with tongue in cheek) I offer you this;

marriagechallenge

Significance- lessons from Ecclesiastes…

I am 45 years old. My first career is possibly over, my second uncertain. Any hopes I had of making a way for myself through music of some other public magnificence are long gone.

In many ways, particularly for blokes, life is about a search for significance, ascendancy, personal power and the recognition of our peers.

Sooner or later (no matter how much of the above list you manage to manufacture) we all come to the conclusion that this is futile. Success is fleeting and always nuanced, and the pursuit of power extracts a price from our humanity. ( I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 4:4)

So in the wreckage, what still stands?

This is the big question of those of us entering the second part of life. It is all too easy to fall into the way of Ecclesiastes chapter 1;

1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

The book of Ecclesiastes plays with these themes constantly- the meaningless futility of life, and the inevitability of death. The success/failure of the wicked, and the success/failure in equal measure of the devout. The limitations of wisdom, and the fickle search for success.

If the words were authored by Solomon (as traditionally held to be the case) they seem all the more poignant. They are the words of a 4th C BC King of excess, who had it all, turning towards the end of his living, confused still about the worth of a life. Not all the monuments or pyramids or songs could convince him that his life was worth anything more than that of any other animal.

Reading this as a young man, I wanted to rebel at the cynical emptiness of it all. Surely God has a great purpose for me- am I not part of his great plan? I am not the great part of his plan?

Now I find myself relaxing into it as truth- although like all of these things, only a partial truth.

Because if the legacy we leave on this earth is not about our youthful appetite for stuff, for power, for significance; if it is not about hard measurable, visible outcomes- a deeper, less quantifiable legacy might still be possible.

The measure of grace that we stain our situation with.

The love that we give and receive.

And for this, I turn from Solomon to Micah, chapter 6;

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walking humbly with God- this is the journey I now try to make.

Significantly.

The wisdom about Solomon…

 

Old Melvin Bragg did it again this morning- great discussion on what we know (and don’t know) about King Solomon. You can listen again to this programme (and all sorts of others spanning years and years) here.

Solomon- the archetypal enlightened Oriental monarch, the nearest thing we have in our adoptive western tradition of a Sun King. He is said to have lived in relative peace, accumulated great wealth, a vast harem of wives and concubines, built temples and palaces and a network of ‘chariot towns’ in an expanding Kingdom. He was said to have been visited by great Queens, and to have ‘satisfied’ them. Along the way, he asked God to grant him wisdom, and is accredited with authorship of several books in the Bible- Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Songs. He is revered in Hebrew tradition as presiding over a golden age, and in the Islamic tradition as a prophet.

The truth of all this is in the dust. No certain evidence of his existence, or that of his great building projects, has been found. Authorship of his books in the Bible are almost certainly more complex. Having said that the written record of the minutiae of his life in the Bible are beyond almost any other comparable ancient figure. There is no doubt that Solomon is a dominant Icon in the history of us.

He is also a flawed figure. The Bible story talks about his enslaving of the people, and his descent into the paganism of his many wives. He accumulated vast wealth and thousands of horses- all on the back of slavery. According to scripture, God was not pleased, but rather than destroy his Kingdom in Solomon’s lifetime, God decided that the Kingdom would not stand. Solomon’s sons fought, argued and it all fell apart.

The interesting thing is that despite the obvious flaws that the Hebrew tradition records in this great leader, we remember mostly the wisdom and the glory. We somehow root for Solomon- we envy him his achievements- his wealth, his women, his worldly wisdom.

This led me to wonder what wisdom might these stories communicate to us, here, now? Why are these stories so central to the Bible story? Whatever the historical truth of these stories, what truth do they have to our spirits?

It is all there I think- the pursuit of a nationhood of conquest and empire. The accumulation of wealth and fame. The exploitation of women and sexuality. The enslavement of the powerless individual towards the wealth of the few. The demonisation of those outside the boundaries as less-than-human.

Then there is the rise and inevitable fall. Like boom and bust economics. And at the core of it all, the loss of the core of things- the turning from what is good and pure towards idolatry.

I look at this story through what we know of the journey that was to come, and perhaps most of all through the person of Jesus; who had no stately majesty, no wealth, no interest in power, other than power-to-save. Jesus who came to proclaim that other word that we have heard too much of over the last few days in the UK- Jubilee.

Jubilee not in the sense of a celebration of wealth and pompous privilege. Jubilee that had nothing to do with looking backwards towards an empire now gone, and had nothing to do with jingoism or nationhood. Rather it was about this;

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

(See Luke 4 and Isaiah 61)

The focus shifts to the little people like you and me.

Solomon has had his day. May all Kings and Queens take note.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and ancient scripture…

gilgamesh_louvre

I have been thinking a little about ancient times recently- so humour me while I scratch a familiar itch- that of the relationships between culture, history and the formation of faith through the interpretation of Scripture.

I heard some of the ancient poetry from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out on a TV programme recently. It was beautiful…

‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find the life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man
they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh,
fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry,
feast and rejoice.
Let your clothes be fresh,
bathe yourself in water,
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
for this too is the lot of man.’

But Gilgamesh said to Siduri, the young woman,
‘How can I be silent,
how can I rest,
when Enkidu whom I love is dust,
and I too shall die
and be laid in the earth for ever.’

One translation of the full text available here.

A summary of the text, and discussion about some of the themes is available here.

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh -Nineveh 7th Century BC

I had heard of this ancient writing before, but knew little of it, so set off to find out more. It interested me for several reasons-

  1. As far as I can understand, this poetry is amongst the earliest literature known to have been written down, emerging from a little known civilisation that pre-existed the Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires- back to the earlier Sumerian peoples.  The poetry was held as significant to cultures for the next 3000 years, before being lost into history until tablets telling the story began to be unearthed in the 19th Century AD. The amazing endurance of the story, and it’s survival on tablets of stone is fascinating and intriguing.
  2. These civilisations occurred in the middle east, in the areas now known as Iraq and Iran, and the more understanding we have of middle eastern culture in this time of war and the ‘demonisation of the other’ the better.
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poetic recording that pre-exists the recording of the oral tradition that became the Hebrew Bible. There are many parallels between the creation stories in Genesis and those described in the Epic, as well as an account of a great flood. Clearly there are many differences too, but I find myself once again interested in the origins of Scripture- and its relationship with the culture and context that it was inspired within.
  4. There are also echoes of what appear to be perennial human pre-occupations- the origin and meaning of life, friendship, courage, and the approach of death. Consider again the poetry of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes- and compare this with the words from the Epic above…

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [c] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

11 I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so men are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

(Ecclesiastes 9, NIV)

King-Solomon-Russian-icon

So the question on my mind, is whether this has any significance for how we Christians might engage with ancient Scripture, and in turn, encounter the Living God?

I have written some things before about my own struggles with these issues-  I asked a series of questions, which I tried to give my own incomplete answers to here.

But I find myself increasingly divorced from the way of understanding scripture that I grew up with in the left-of-centre-charismatic-evangelical-fundamentalist churches that gifted me with faith.

This is because the assumptions through which they appeared to approach scripture no longer make sense to me. They seem to include these-

  • The Bible is complete, sufficient, without error or contradiction, and was given to the Church complete as a gift from God.
  • Any challenge to the absolute authority of the Bible has to be resisted at all costs.
  • Any sources outside the Bible- be they writings of other early Christians, or the spirituality of other cultures- all these things are at best dangerous, or at worst, deceptions of the devil.
  • Appreciation and interest of history is highly selective, and should be focussed on the agenda and issues emerging in the 200 years following the Reformation.

I now find myself drawn into new areas of adventure- based on a new set of questions and assumptions. These are not my own, but rather ones that have ‘emerged’ into my experience of faith through a process of re-engagement. They include some of these things-

  • We stand on the shoulders of many other people of faith, who have been drawn by God into incomplete but inspired understandings.
  • Some of this was written down, and some of this writing survived and endured.
  • Over the period of one and a half thousand years, and after much deliberation, some this has been gathered together to form what we know as the Bible.
  • The original meaning of some of these words is lost to us.
  • But the words are still an amazing gift to us, as the Holy Spirit makes them sing again in our context.
  • Let us never pretend to understand fully or finally, or to restrict God to our narrow context or viewpoint.
  • Our ultimate engagement with the God is through the person of Jesus, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • But we too will fall short.
  • And others  that follow us will need to find their own adventure.

God bless them as they write their own Epics.