Notes on the Bible and Religion

A Column Appearing in the Newspapers of Coastal Bend Publishing

I welcome questions for possible comment in my column.
Online content may differ from what appears in newspaper editions.



Ladies First

It was once expected in many circles that a man should stand when a woman entered a room, or that a man on a bus should give up his seat for a lady or hold open a door for her.

Some twenty years ago, a young man said to me that he didn’t know if he should hold a door open for a lady anymore. Some doorway event had taken place, he said. I didn’t know what to say, but I continue to hand over an opened door to any approaching person. It seems most people extend that courtesy.

You’ve probably heard the saying “women and children first,” which is a bit of lingering chivalry. Evidently, the phrase is first attested from 1840, when a ship was afire and in danger of sinking. This chivalric ideal was popularized in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

Statistics show that in custody battles, mothers are more likely than fathers to win custody of their children. According to 2018 US Census Bureau data, approximately 80% of custodial parents were mothers. At least in some aspects of life, women continue to receive preferential treatment.

Mother’s Day was a few days ago. In honor of mothers, here are some “ladies first” from the Bible.

In the story of the Garden of Eden, Eve is described as the “mother of all life” (Genesis 3:20). That’s quite a first, but there is at least one other significant first that she holds. She was the first to have an understanding of morality, having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v.6).

Setting aside matters of transgression, for a time the woman had a moral wisdom that Adam, the man, did not have. Of course, she shared this fruit with Adam, bringing him up to speed.

The virgin Mary also had a first. She was first to experience Jesus. In utero. A babe growing within her! There must be some preciousness of pregnancy unbeknown to any man. Mary’s womb held Jesus. 

And now from a womb to a tomb. A burial. Last month was Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. With a tomb door rolled open, it was women who first saw evidence of a resurrection (e.g., Mark 16). And it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who in the tomb garden first encountered the risen Christ (John 19:41; 20:14-16).

And so, it was a female in a garden who first comprehended morality. A female who first experienced the physical presence of Jesus. Females who first saw evidence of the resurrection. And a female in a garden who first experienced the risen Christ. These are major moments in Christian theology! And in each of these, ladies have pride of place.

Happy Mother’s Day!


Looking to the Heavens

Remember the original Star Trek TV series? As a boy, I’d huddle close to my twelve-inch black and white television screen and watch the reruns.

Just a few months ago, William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the series, took a short hop into space at the age of ninety! I watched that too.

In his near Zero-G moments, Shatner spoke few words. “Weightlessness,” he said, followed by light laughter. Then, staring through his window into space, he declared quietly, “No description. . ..”

Another crew member, Audrey Powers, stated, “God” and “Holy hell” as she looked out her window.

The event had a profound effect on Shatner. After returning to earth, he made clear the need to protect our little, fragile blue marble that we call home.

Shatner also reckoned with the blackness of space. “Is that death?” he asked. “Jesus,” he added, with hands upon his face. “It was so moving to me.”

Did you know that from beginning to end, the Bible makes note of the heavens? Literally, beginning and end. In the first chapter of the first book, lights and stars in the night sky are created. They will be for signs and seasons (Genesis 1:14, 16).

The heavens are also mentioned in the last chapter of the last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is full of symbolism. Around the throne of God, no light from the sun shall be needed and there will be no night (Rev 22:5).

And the heavenly bookends don’t stop there! Setting so-called “deuterocanonical” issues aside, in the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament we find that a “sun of righteousness” shall arise (Malachi 4:2). And In the Jewish arrangement of the same books, the last chapter of the last book makes mention of “the LORD, the God of Heaven…” (2 Chronicles 36:22).

The New Testament begins with an account of the genealogy of Jesus and a story of wise men following an astrological sign to his birthplace (Matthew 1; 2:1-2).  

Clearly, the writers of scripture took an interest in the heavens. And surely, people from time immemorial have huddled on dark nights and gazed up in wonder.

In what one of my professors called the “Buck Rogers” psalm, we read: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars… What are human beings that you are mindful of them? ...You have given them dominion over the works of your hands… (Psalm 8:3-6).

And so, the Bible both reflects the wonder of space and makes clear that we are caretakers of creation. And whether caretakers here and now on this fragile blue orb or upon other worlds in times to come, the Bible challenges us to be good ones.     


Can You Yell at the Lord?

Recently, I was asked to talk with a Sunday School class about Jesus’ loud cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (e.g., Matthew 27:46). Jesus appears to be quoting Psalm 22, which includes the phrase. The Hebrew word translated as “forsaken” in the psalm has a connotation of being forgotten or being left behind and abandoned. It is a word of desperation from some remote place.

I was asked to assist in the discussion of whether it’s okay to yell at God during times of seeming God-forsakenness. Some people think it is inappropriate to talk angrily to God. “Lightning might strike you,” one person half-chuckled.

I am reminded of the movie “The Apostle” (1997). Robert Duval plays Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, a Texas preacher. He is devout and far from perfect. When alone, he makes clear in a middle-of-the-night shouting prayer that he is angry with God. You might want to search YouTube for “The Apostle - Yelling at the Lord” to see what I mean. He’s honest and direct with God. He’s talking to God, not about God. And he’s not struck by lightning.

The Bible recounts much of this kind of talk. For instance, there’s this guy named Job, who was upright and blameless. He comes to suffer so greatly that he accuses God of being his enemy more than once (Job 13:24; 33:10).

The prophet Jeremiah had similar accusations (e.g., Jer 15:18; 20:7). Psalm 73 is perhaps the best example of a psalm with the theme.

When harsh reality crashes against belief, the faithful cry out for change.

In the book A Whirlpool of Torment, my teacher James Crenshaw writes, “The freedom with which believers speak their piece within the Hebrew Bible is remarkable.” Read that again. That’s simply and profoundly true.

It is the attempt to silence language coming from the depths of despair or from unjust injury that is irregular in the Bible. The believer resists being silenced.

There is a tendency, I believe, for people to build a fence around what we find precious or holy or dangerous.

Consider the first prohibition in the Bible. God states that Adam shall not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). It seems that Adam shares this declaration with Eve. But has he added to it? In Genesis 3:3, she states that one should not even touch it! Who said they couldn’t touch it? God didn’t say that! Some human added that fence. And soon after, they hid from God (3:8).

And so, straight away the Bible shows how we put up fences around the holy even though we are free to confront God honestly, directly, and sometimes, like Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, even angrily. God’s tough enough to take it.


The Reading of Banned Books

Have you seen an uptick on social media about the reading of banned books? I have. Some of my Facebook friends have recently shared or commented on posts advocating the reading of banned books. Some have even suggested prioritizing the reading of them. Okay. Great. Read.

One of the most controversial books in the United States has been J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It was banned from numerous public schools, although not from the free market, of course. I think I read it in high school, but just last week I read it again, because I thought I might mention it in this column. Its main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon of teenage angst and rebellion.

Rebellion against the establishment is a common theme in storytelling. According to myth, Zeus rebelled against his father, Kronos, who, by the way, rebelled against his own father. Rebellion against leadership and authority is an archetype, an ancient pattern. And that’s rather ironic, because “archetype” basically means “leading pattern”. Rebellion is a leading pattern in human stories! 

In any event, the most banned book worldwide is the Bible. Today, dozens of countries ban it outright. In some countries, getting caught with a Bible could get you imprisoned. Or worse. Many oppressive societies want to suppress its message. Others have manipulated its message for harm. In this regard, it may be considered a dangerous book—although hardly an evil one.

Written over many hundreds of years, with some of its earliest portions perhaps over three thousand years old, the Bible is made up of several dozen smaller books. It contains a wealth of ideas.

Peculiarly, the Bible is both the most published book and the most banned book in history!

C. S. Lewis wrote that we have entered the post-Christian era, a cultural period in which a smaller and smaller percentage of the population of the Western world identifies as Christian. For Lewis, Christian theology remains true, yet the culture is increasingly less identifiably Christian. As part of this, the Bible is losing its authoritativeness for many people. I know many people who reject both organized religion and the Bible. Some can articulate several reasons why they do so. Others cannot or do not.

There is an impulse in humanity, I believe, to reject old, established ways. Whether with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or with Zeus against Kronos, rejecting leadership is not an uncommon theme. These are rebel stories that continue to be told.

And so, perhaps this theme bodes well for the Bible! If it’s trendy to read banned books, then why not read the most banned book of them all? Pick up a Bible. You might be surprised by what you find.


Fragments of Truth

Whether as an instructor of religion classes at the college level or as a Sunday school teacher, I have often been asked, “How do we know that the biblical text we read is the same as when it was first written millennia ago?” It is an important question.

A related concern is that many people seem to be under the impression that much of both the Old Testament (also referred to as the Hebrew Bible and, in the Jewish tradition, the Tanakh) and the New Testament have become corrupt over time.

It is true: we do not have the original texts. But we do have thousands of early fragments and many early copies of books and even larger portions of the Bible that we can study. And the wealth of data can give us confidence that today’s copies reflect the original text.

I had an opportunity as a graduate student to compare selected biblical psalms (Old Testament worship songs) with some of those same psalms found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are ancient texts that were hidden away in caves in Israel and only discovered about seventy-five years ago. I was surprised at how very few differences were to be found! Line after line after line went by, usually with no difference whatsoever.

From before the time of Jesus, through the entire rabbinic and Christian scribal traditions during the Middle Ages, and all the way to the invention of the printing press in about the year 1440, biblical copyists have taken great care of the text. Their work was important.

Of course, scribal error occurred from time to time. Even so, when existing copies differ in a word or two—or even a sentence or two or more—the evidence available typically points us toward a more original reading. Most every modern version of the Bible takes this wealth of evidence into account. This area of study is called biblical textual criticism, and it is a helpful tool.

In short, your modern version of the Bible likely reflects the original text. Of course, the biblical texts were not written in English, so translation is also important. But that topic must be saved for another day!

In closing, I leave you with a so-called “Fun Fact”. The earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament is known as the St. John Fragment (Rylands Library Papyrus P52). It is delicate, written in Greek, and only about three inches by three inches in size. The fragment includes on one side only fourteen or so words from the Gospel of John 18:37-38, which is part of the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion. One of those fourteen words is the Greek word for truth, and it is spoken by Jesus (see v.37).

And so, in the earliest surviving New Testament fragment, “truth” is found. I find that interesting. 


The Rainbow: A Beautiful and Dangerous Sign

Have you seen any of those YouTube videos in which a person with red-green deficiency (“colorblindness”) is given a special pair of glasses that can help them see more colors?

Often, the person’s eyes will well with tears upon seeing colors that until then were unseen! I remember one youth putting the glasses on and asking as he started to sob, “Is this what the world looks like?” Another pointed to something pink and asked in sudden wonder, “What color is this?”

Oh! Imagine someone seeing a rainbow’s glorious spectrum of color for the first time. What a heavenly sight!

Chapters 6-9 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is sometimes called the Flood Narrative. In this story of “Noah’s Ark”, a flood destroys the world population, although Noah, his extended family, and mating pairs of all the critters of the earth are saved. A rainbow appears in the sky as the sign of God’s covenant with Noah that never again will the entire world be destroyed by flood (Genesis 9:7-17). What a pretty thing for a sign: a water-and-sunlight symbol that a global deluge need never be feared!

But there is more to this sign than might meet the eye. In Biblical Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), the word qeshet is used both for “rainbow” and for “bow”—as in bow and arrow. This “bow” is the sign of the covenant.

Covenant is another word for treaty, and in the ancient world, like today, treaties were used to establish the expected behaviors among treaty members and the consequences if those behaviors were not carried out, that is, what would happen if the treaty were to be broken. In the ancient Near East, from which this story emerged, the sign of the treaty often included the ritual destruction of animal life. We know this from numerous Assyrian and Aramaic texts from over 2,600 years ago! We also have evidence of this in scripture (see, e.g., Genesis 15:7-19; 17:11; Exodus 23:5-8; cf. Matthew 26:26-28). The sign became a threat of death, a warning not to break the covenant.

Consider again the bow of the Flood Narrative. Who is threatened if God breaks his promise never to destroy the whole earth through flood? If an arrow were shot from that bow, where would it go? Not toward someone on earth! The bow points to the heavens, to the very place that the ancients would understand God to reside! The consequences appear dire for God if he were to destroy the world through flood again.

And so, by the end of the Flood Narrative, we have one story among many in the Bible in which God is portrayed as limiting God’s own freedom and power so that his creation might be preserved. Beautiful.

1-On-1 With Jason C. Dykehouse

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