Saturday, January 02, 2010

Happy New Bible Year!

The story thus far: After creating the world, God focused on a small tribe of people, the Israelites; much of the book of Genesis concerns the adventures of their early leaders. The next four books concern their activities and their laws under the great leader Moses. In Joshua and Judges, they conquer a modest parcel in the Eastern Mediterranean. The books of Samuel tell of the rise of King David, and the books of Kings and Chronicles tell, in separate narratives, of his many successors in two separate kingdoms until the eventual collapse of both states.

Last year, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we read of the return from Babylonian exile of some fairly radicalized Israelites, who impose a strict program of cultural renewal back in the homeland. We read a story about a Jewish queen in Babylon in Esther, and then hit three non-narrative books: Job, a long, abstruse, and not entirely coherent theological conversation; Psalms, a very long series of hymns with moods ranging from ecstatic joy to fierce paranoia; and Proverbs, a minimally structured set of pieces of wisdom -- a sort of biblical self-help text.

So it is here -- in the "Books of Wisdom," the collected non-narrative papers ascribed to David, Solomon, and other First Temple leaders -- that we resume our reading. Ecclesiastes is on deck.

But First....

Reader Elaine lobbied hard for a compare-and-contrast of Psalm 139 and Margaret Wise Brown's charming children's classic "The Runaway Bunny," so after having a copy of the latter out from the library all holiday season, I finally mustered the 45 seconds it takes to read. It's a short dialogue between a restless baby bunny and his mother; the younger rabbit makes up various magical ways he could escape parental control, and mom comes up with responses to the effect that she would always follow and keep tabs on him. The general mood is more nurturing than totalitarian, although with a different set of illustrations a mischievous culture jammer with parent issues could have some fun subverting the text.

Psalm 139 is a prayer from a human to God marveling about the size and scope and all-knowingness of the deity. It is indeed similar to "Bunny" in that the Psalmist lists possible modes of escape -- flying, burrowing, crossing the sea, hiding in the dark -- and confesses that God is going to see right through all of these ruses. There is also an explicit maternal link in Verse 13, which reads: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

Are they the same story? Your answer to that will correspond to how closely you associate divine omniscience with maternal love. If you think those two things are broadly analogous, as many modern liberal Christians do, then the two narratives are all but identical. But I suspect that King David, to whom the Psalm is ascribed, would be horrified by the comparison. For the Old Testament writers, God is less about comfort and safety and more about pure, awe-inspiring power. There is plenty of talk about God's love in the Old Testament, but it is anything but unconditional. God's love, unlike Mother Bunny's, comes with strict rules, explicit contracts, and death sentences for entire populations.

At the end of "Bunny," the baby bunny realizes that he can't get away from mom -- or, perhaps, that she passes his test of her devotion -- and figures he might as well not bother running away. "Shucks," he says, invoking a mild oath that once, I've heard, was actually used in real life. Then his mom gives him a carrot. At the end of Psalm 139, David invites God's scrutiny and guidance -- but not without a quick burst of his characteristic angry paranoia. If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! (19) Personally, I find Ma Bunny's carrot a little more compelling than King David's stick, but then I think that David and I would find a lot about which we'd have to agree to disagree.

Next Time: The Bible is for the Byrds


DrSchnell said...

""Have a carrot," said the mother bunny"
is one of the greatest ending lines in all of American literature, right up there with the end of "The Great Gatsby."

Michael5000 said...

~~The closing line of the book, "'Have a carrot,' said the mother bunny," was added after Ursula Nordstrom, the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls, told Brown that the ending needed work. The line was cabled in to Harper's from Maine, where Brown was on vacation.

--The Wiki