Over the weekend the Continuing Education Program group I’m studying with returned from a trip to Southern Israel and Egypt. We travelled to four desert regions: The Negev and Judea, the Arava and Sinai. I had a personally profound experience in that wilderness, one made possible because of something that I heard only a few days after arriving at Tantur when one of our guides suggested a possibility that seemed pretty radical to me.
Jared is smart, engaging, married with kids, and very faithful. He was born to a Jewish family in New Hampshire, a place where, as he says, “there weren’t many Jews.” He went to college in Boston, where, he says, “there were a lot of Jews.” While in Boston he fell in love with the roots of his faith. Jared moved to Israel more than 25 years ago, learned biblical Hebrew, speaks modern Hebrew fluently (of course), to me manages Arabic quite well (“my Arabic sucks,” he says), studied the Torah and history and now works as a brilliant teacher and holy land guide. Jared’s witness and vocation is inspired – his faith and hope are contagious – and one day while standing inside the Temple Mount near the Southern Wall and explaining the discovery of Robinson’s (fallen) Arch, he concluded the day’s remarks by suggesting that because archeology is so hopelessly inadequate (and in Israel nothing if not politically motivated) in terms of determining facts in regard to the narratives in the Hebrew Bible or the history of the ancient Israelites (from the days of Abraham to the City of David), one could wonder if the ancient Hebrews might have actually been Canaanites: a religious sect from the land of Canaan that needed, and so created, a myth that would serve as a narrative to support their particular ideology and the means for establishing their particular identity; their right to the land and their exclusive status as the chosen people of God (YHVH; ‘El).
Later in our course of study one of our lecturers, Jesuit scholar David Neuhaus (who was born in South Africa and is now an Israeli citizen) began a fascinating lecture by acknowledging something we all know: “History is written by the winners.” To the Americans in the lecture hall David told a funny story about how his own children, who were born and educated in Israel, learned in school about a particular bumbling revolutionary who occasionally “did a few clever things…” and went by the name of George Washington.
I can remember being in my twenties and being fascinated by the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which I read after watching the PBS miniseries about him called “The Power of Myth.” The 1998 series remains one of the most popular in PBS history and Campbell’s explanation of mythology – given to host Bill Moyers in a series of interviews – as the principle source for the cultural and religious frameworks in societies and which function (among many other ways) as a means for the education of children and as a way for people to cope with the stages of life from birth to death – was exhilarating to me at the time.
Campbell’s work invited me to understand religions, especially those other than the one I inherited, as having their own validity (truth?) but more important his writing helped to set the stage for me, many years later, to read and take the word of sacred scripture quite seriously but also to interpret it generously and creatively. In doing so, I would later come to learn, I was reading the bible with a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Biblically speaking, hermeneutics is “the art of reading scripture,” a wonderful phrase that illustrates the fact that reading the bible is an art and not a science (add a respectful and dutiful bow to theologian John Polkinghorne)! So reading the bible with a hermeneutics of suspicion is reading it, and trusting it, while simultaneously not being afraid to question what the texts are implying, and why before beginning his lecture – which was largely an exegetical reading of portions of the bible – David Neuhaus told us that story about the “history” his children learned in Israeli schools. To flesh this out just a tad more, one could say that reading the bible suspiciously is to understand that what the bible doesn’t say is sometimes every bit as important as what it does say.
I wonder how challenging, inviting or repelling any of the above may be to readers. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the suggestion that some/part/all of the books of the Old (and New?) Testament(s) might have been “inspired” by the need of one religious sect to claim a particular identity over another through an imagined history wasn’t at least a little bit upsetting or unnerving, if not blasphemous.
Having said that, a funny thing happened to me on the way to/through the desert…
In the First Book of Kings (1 Kings 19), the prophet Elijah flees to the desert in fear of his life. In that wilderness Elijah lives in a cave on a mountain and with the help of an angel survives for forty days with just a jar of water and a cake baked on hot stones. While on that mountain Elijah has a theophany and experiences the presence of God as a great and strong wind which rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before him, “but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice. And when Eli’jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him…”
Elijah had his theophany on the mountain of Horeb. Mount Horeb is the equivalent of, or the same as, Mount Sinai. Nobody knows the location of these biblical mountain(s), as is true for most of the Holy sites that pilgrims of many faiths, for centuries, have visited and venerated through prayer. And while the exact locations are unknown they are often marked by churches, mosques, synagogues and monasteries; they are made holy by prayer and faith, not by geographical coordinates.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saints George and John Jacob of Choziba is located in the Wadi Qelt. The Wadi Qelt is a rocky valley with breathtaking cliffs, and caves. The valley originates near Jerusalem and extends to Jericho, the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. St. George’s is literally built around a cave attributed to the prophet Elijah.
When visiting the monastery and finally entering the cave I was awestruck. I lingered for awhile and then turned to leave but before exiting I was drawn back. I turned around and sat in silence. While sitting I was overtaken with deep emotion, the feeling quite like one that I often get when seeing great art in Museums. As I sat, I prayed, and while praying heard my own still small voice. What I “heard” was the “voice” of Jesus in the Gospels:
“But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli’jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli’jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar’ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” Luke 4.25-26
If it’s not readily apparent, what I heard was my head and my heart in dialogue with one another, dancing, maybe. My head, you see, is comfortable with the notion that much of the biblical narrative is imagined history. My heart, on the other hand, was reminding me that the one I consider to be the savior of the world, while standing and teaching in the synagogue, quoted the prophet Isaiah and spoke of the “days of Elijah… ” not as imagined history but as truth. Truth that both defies and yet defines history itself. Even as I write this I can sense a profound shift within; a shift toward the kingdom of God, however brief, and elusive.
After leaving the monastery we hiked the Wadi Qelt to Jericho. Along the way I stopped to lean over a rock and scrawl down thoughts in my notebook. The overwhelming thought was this: Both are true: The bible is the record of people in search for a story… and a story in search of a people, thanks be to God…
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.