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Not a Fib

“The divine name that is explicitly associated with [the Abrahamic covenant] is ‘êl šadday. Its sign is the circumcision” (The Oxford Study Bible, page 154).

Does not the word Shaddai mean God’s breast? How strange that God would give Abraham this explicitly feminine name to call her, and then ask him to respond with an explicitly masculine sign. I don’t know, maybe not so strange. It’s a fairly reasonable exchange; it just happens to be a sexual one: she promises he will have her breast to nourish him; he dedicates his penis to her.

In any case, I find this article – “Torah and Covenant” by Richard Elliot Friedman – to be a fascinating one, exposing the fact that the three principal covenants of the Hebrew Bible are written in the standard legal form of the time. Of course, I’m familiar with the notion; I’ve heard I don’t know how many preachers mention it – but somehow, it hits home in a different way when the actual legal contracts of the day are named and described, set out in parallel to the familiar biblical text.

As I read, the thought that I can’t shake is this. They keep talking about the agreement being forged between “the deity” and his respective recipients, and I just keep wondering, “How?”

I mean, when these legal agreements entered the story of human history, when they happened – which they did; at some point in time, something took place and these agreements were forged – what did that look like? Despite my efforts to resist making religion the handmaiden to science, I can’t help but wonder: did someone make it up? Did a flaming torch actually proceed between the opened halves of the sacrificial animal? What did Abraham see? What actually happened on that day?

Somehow the Abrahamic covenant is the one I keep coming back to with this question. Somehow, it’s easier to imagine a flaming mountain (the Israelite covenant) or a comprehensive deluge (the Noachic) “actually happening.” But Abraham was one man, not a nation assembled before their leader at the foot of Sinai, not a family struggling to survive a disaster. He was an individual who went outside to talk to God, with no natural chaos or social pressure to cloud the moment, and he came back with a contract.

Unless of course that’s just the story that got told about him. But even then, where did that story originate? These people didn’t write novels. They didn’t base their societal safety and vows upon known fictions. I wish I could look back in time.

But as I said, that’s science in me speaking, asking if God is real, if myth is fact, if any of this actually happened. Somehow I sense that the question itself is mistaken. I know I’m dissatisfied with the answer, “No, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay and it doesn’t diminish the importance of the fib.” Because even though that answer tries hard to respect the story while disbelieving it at the same time, it still reduces it to a fib.

Yet it’s awfully difficult for us, this day and age, to swallow the idea that it’s not a fib, that it happened in real life just as it says. That would require believing that way back when, God interacted with humanity in a way God has since given up.

I actually like the idea that God isn’t the same person today as God was before. That God is learning and growing. That God’s psyche is linked to ours, that we are how God experiences the world, and our perceptions are thus personally invaluable to the divine. In that framework it wouldn’t be impossible for God to have had a habit of turning into torches once upon a time. Still, it’s hard to swallow, that last part at least. As ideas go, it’s a bit of a chicken bone in the gullet.

Anyway, I do think the question is mistaken, but I’m not sure why. Certainly not just because I don’t like the only possible answer, right? (Sorry: “It’s a miracle,” is another possible answer, but to cut off the question there seems just a little glib.) I’m not intellectually dishonest, as far as I know. Maybe the question is mistaken for the same reason it’s not wise to intellectualize a koan – you can do it, but it misses the point (Zen Ghosts, afterward).

I guess I’m trying to say the stories are real, and you have to take them on their own terms; you have to suspend judgment and forego the “fact” question altogether. I know no better way to participate with these stories with respect, or to place myself in a dialogue with them that opens the door to receiving the tremendous good they have to offer.

It’s not fib. It’s story – and in my worldview, story is an inestimable, sacred thing. To ask its credentials all the time is to miss the opportunity to fall in love and start a boys’ band. Better yet, it’s like correcting someone’s grammar when they’re giving you directions to the post office, or interrupting someone’s confession to inform them they have a crumb in their eyelash.

I don’t know. That’s the best I can do right now.

In any case: “By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in process of making those contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. … Law, theology and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal” (Oxford, pages 160-161).

Maybe that’s why the previous question misses the point. This account is a merging of disciplines. It’s history, but more than history; it’s law, but more than law; it’s theology, but more than that too – and in being all of them at once, it’s also none of them in isolation, and can’t be held to the standards of any one of these disciplines entirely.

Or is that just an interesting justification for falsehood?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s an attempt to reconcile our current epistemology with their ancient one. Something is always lost in translation. Yet there is something in their way of knowing that is worth braving the murkiness of the cognitive dissonance that exists between us, in order to retrieve it.

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