The Whole Bible in (About) Half an Hour
Texts: (References within the text)
You may notice we don’t have any scripture reading this morning, but I assure you the sermon will have plenty of scripture. The Bible is a big book, more like a 66 book library, written down by many authors and edited over a span of 1000 years, give or take. Remarkably, it does contain a cohesive story, beginning to end. There are many ways to condense that story down to half an hour, many ways to pick and choose what gets highlighted and what gets left out. This is one of those possibilities. A heads up: The Old Testament is about three time longer than the New Testament and this roughly keeps that proportion. So here goes:
In the beginning, the world was made with words. The Divine spoke, or sang, and the words took their shape. Light. Sky. Land. Fruit. Bird. Cattle. Humankind, created in the image of God. Our words too make worlds. All this was very good. Original goodness, with cycles of work, and play and Sabbath rest. (Genesis 1)
In the beginning, there was earth and water and a garden and the Tree of Life. And the god formed from the earth a human creature, and then another human, and other animals and placed then in the garden as caretakers and learners of the good way of life. In their freedom, the humans discovered other paths, those that lead to harm, and the earth responded by hardening the ground and the garden was closed off to them. (Gen. 2)
The first human couple, Adam and Eve, had children. And the older, Cain, killed the younger, Abel. And their children and grandchildren and following generations continued their warring ways until the whole earth was filled with violence and the god was sorry they had formed the human out of the earth. And so god caused the waters of life to become waters of destruction, sending a great flood over the earth, to start anew. But Noah and his family, and two of every creature, were saved aboard an ark. (Gen. 3-7)
After the waters subsided the earth was again filled with life, and the people all spoke one language and gathered together to build a great tower, Babel, to make a name for themselves. But god came down and caused the people to speak many languages so they couldn’t understand one another, and they scattered across the earth. (Gen. 11)
And so it was, of the many peoples and many cultures of the world, our story focuses in on one couple. Abram and Sarai. They came out of Ur of the Chaldeans, the early city-states of the east, migrants, perhaps exiles. The Lord told them “through your offspring I will bless all peoples” and promised them a good land. (Gen. 12:3) They settled in the land of Canaan, and though she was well past child-bearing age, Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac. Isaac married Rebecca, and they had twin sons. And the younger, Jacob, tricked the older, Esau, out of his birthright, and fled for his life. Jacob wrestled with an angel and was renamed Israel, which means God-wrestler. (Gen. 32) And unlike those first brothers, Jacob and Esau were reconciled, embracing at last (Gen. 33).
Jacob/Israel had children by four women, including Leah and Rachel, 12 sons in all and at least one daughter, Dina. (Gen. 30, 34) One son was named Judah, another was named Levi, another was named Joseph. Jacob treated Joseph as a favorite, and gave him a beautiful coat of many colors. Joseph had dreams of greatness and told his brothers. His brothers grew jealous, and sold him into slavery in Egypt. And there Joseph prospered. He interpreted the dreams of others, including Pharaoh, who dreamed of seven skinny cows swallowing up seven fattened cows. Joseph said this meant Egypt would have seven prosperous years followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing for the famine by building great storage barns during the years of plenty. (Gen 37-41)
When the famine came, it affected Canaan as well, and the sons of Israel, went down to Egypt to purchase grain. And there they met Joseph, who revealed himself to them as their brother, and these brothers too were reconciled. And Joseph moved his whole extended family down to Egypt and there they settled. (Gen. 42-50)
And that’s just the end of Genesis but the story moves more quickly now.
A Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. He saw that the children of Israel, the Israelites, were becoming numerous and powerful in his land, and he enslaved them. And they cried out to their god, Yahweh, who raised up a leading family, descendants of Levi: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart. Yahweh wreaked ecological havoc on Egypt in a series of ten plagues, until Pharaoh let them go. As the people traveled out of Egypt Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. They came to the Red Sea and the Lord parted the waters for the Israelites to walk through, but the entire Egyptian military pre-industrial complex was drowned in those waters. And Miriam led the people in a song of liberation in what is one of the oldest preserved fragments of Hebrew poetry: “The horse and rider thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 1-15)
After 400 years of enslavement, the people were free. It took a day to get the people out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of the people. That’s how long they wandered in the wilderness, dependent on daily manna and water that flowed from rocks.
It was during his time that Yahweh gave the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai, the Ten Words in Hebrew. Each word was an alternative creation to the world of Pharaoh, a different way of being community. No theft, no murder, no coveting, gifted with Sabbath rest, each generation honoring the previous. (Ex. 20) They were given other laws which could be summarized in this simple teaching: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) They built a tabernacle as the center of their worship life, with Aaron in charge of priestly duties. These ordinances also established an annual cycle of feast days, like Passover, to remember their deliverance from Egypt. And larger cycles like the Sabbath year, when Hebrew slaves were released every seven years; and the Year of Jubilee, when debts were forgiven, every 50 years. (Lev. 23-25)
Moses and that entire generation died in the wilderness. But Joshua lived on and became the next leader as the people approached the land of Canaan where their ancestors had settled as migrants.
There were people living in the land of Canaan, and the Israelites formed a great army and conquered many cities, including Jericho, where they were assisted by the prostitute Rahab. Sometimes they slaughtered everyone. They did this in the name of their god. (Joshua 6)
The land was distributed on both sides of the Jordan River between the 12 tribes. (Joshua 13-19) Unlike the nations around them, there was no king in Israel, but different tribal leaders would rise up as judges and military commanders. People like the left-handed Ehud, and Deborah, and Gideon, and the long-haired Samson. (Judges)
It was during this time of the judges that there was a famine in the land and Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons went over to Moab for bread. The sons married, but they died, along with Elimelech, and only Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabitess returned to Israel. Ruth, gleaned barley in the fields of Boaz, and they married, and she, a foreigner, became an ancestor to kings. (Ruth)
Later, during the time of the judges, a woman named Hannah came to the temple at Shiloh and prayed for a son, which she was granted. She gave birth to Samuel who grew up in the temple. Samuel embodied within himself two streams that would soon split and forever be in tension with one another. He was the last of the judges and would anoint the first kings of Israel – the royal tradition. And, after Moses, he was the first of the prophets who would hold up a moral critique of the people and their king – the prophetic tradition. (1 Sam. 1-2)
It was the people who demanded a king like other nations. And though they were warned by the Lord that a king, like other nations, would claim their wealth and land and children for his service, they still wished for a king. (1 Sam 8) So Samuel anointed the tall and handsome Saul, son of Kish, as the first king of Israel. Saul was a mighty warrior but he went mad, even trying to kill the young man who comforted him by playing the lyre - David, son of Jesse, the great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth the Moabitess. (1 Sam 19)
This same David was anointed the next king of Israel around the year 1000, BCE, approximately 1000 years after the death of Abraham. David’s son Solomon continued the lineage. David was a mighty warrior and it was under David that Israel captured the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, which David established as his capital (2 Sam 5), and where Solomon built the temple. David was a poet, and a musician and many of the Psalms are attributed to him. Solomon was known as a wise and complex man. Many of the Proverbs, and the troubled reflections of Ecclesiastes, and the erotic love poem Song of Solomon were attributed to Solomon or written in his honor. Under David and Solomon the kingdom of Israel gained land and prestige.
But they were also flawed, at times abusive, leaders. David committed sexual violence, forcing himself on Bathsheba, after which he had her husband killed. (2 Sam 11) Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11) and did all the things the Lord had warned the Israelites a king would do – claiming land and enlisting Israelites into his armies, conscripting 30,000 Israelite men into forced labor to build the temple (1 Kings 5:13). Solomon’s sons and advisors battled for control of the throne, and the kingdom was split in two: A northern kingdom of Israel that became centered in Samaria. And a southern kingdom of Judah centered in Jerusalem, which continued the line of kings through David and Solomon. (1 Kings 11-12)
This concentration of political power in the kings – the royal tradition - was met with a concentration of moral power in the line of the prophets, which had formerly been called “seers” for their ability to see and speak the truth - speaking truth to power we might say.
Two of these early prophets were Elijah and Elisha. Elijah lived during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He predicted a famine and was fed by ravens, and then by a foreign widow in Zarephath, whose little jar of meal and oil never ran out. (1 Kings 17) The powerful Ahab couldn’t even control the weather, but Elijah defeated the prophets of the storm god Baal and had his prayers for rain answered, after which he fled from Ahab and Jezebel and went up Mt Horeb, another name for Mt .Sinai, where he encountered God as a still small voice. (1 Kings 18-19) Elisha was Elijah’s student and he too performed many wonders, like curing the foreign army commander Naaman of leprosy. (2 Kings 5)
Other prophets arose. Amos was a sheepherder who railed against hollow religious practices that failed to address injustice. As the prophets would do, he spoke as if being the mouth of the Lord: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21,24). These guys weren’t exactly subtle. The First Isaiah called out economic disparities of his time. “Ah, you who join house to house and add field to field until there is room for no one but you.” (Isa 5:8) Prophets would both critique injustice and energize with an alternative vision, just like Moses had done in teaching an alternative to Pharaoh’s ways. Micah spoke of a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares, and everyone would live under their own vine and fig tree and be unafraid. (Micah 4:3-4)
But the land had always been contested territory, and great empires beyond just Egypt sought to control it. It was the Assyrians who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the year 721. They swept in from the East and North and carried the people away. The prophet Jeremiah warned that the same fate would meet the southern Kingdom of Judah, which it did in the year 597, carrying the leading figures off to Babylon in exile, destroying the Jerusalem temple 10 years later.
It was a crisis not just of survival, but of meaning. A nation that had been built on a homeland, a king, and a temple, now had none of those. This is the setting that brought about laments like Lamentations, and Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion….How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
There had been a strong tradition, a predominant way of viewing their story, which said that if they were faithful to God then they would be blessed and prosperous and safe. Was this the price of unfaithfulness? Yes, said some. But there were other ways of understanding why things turned out like this: Like the story of Job, who was a righteous man and yet still suffered for no logical reason. And there were reminders that the people were still called to be a blessing to all nations, just as the Lord had said to their father Abraham. Like the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, whose words saved those awful Assyrians from destruction – a reminder that even the worst enemies are not beyond the stretch of God’s mercy.
In fact, these stories, Job and Jonah, and many others started to form the core identity of the people. It was likely during exile that these stories, and their laws and practices, were gathered and edited. And the people of the land who no longer had a land, started to become the people of the book. A kind of mobile, transportable identity, a peoplehood, one that would learn to sing even in a foreign land, a diaspora.
When the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, many of the people did return to their homeland. This was celebrated by prophets like the Second Isaiah who declared “a highway for our God” straight through the desert leading from Babylon back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:3). Nehemiah was a leader who helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Zerubbabel laid the foundations for a second temple (Ezra 3). Ezra was a great priest and scribe who reestablished worship and Torah. But the Judeans were forever changed by their experience of exile. As Torah observance and the creation of synagogues as places of teaching took a more central role, they told stories of what it might be like to live faithfully wherever they may be. Like the story of Esther, a Jew who became queen in Persia - who rose to power, as the story says, “for such a time as this,” (Esther 4:14) to save her people from genocide.
And the story of Daniel, set in Babylon, but likely written and told much later, one of our best links between what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament. Like Esther – and Joseph, for that matter - Daniel was a Jew in a foreign court. His method of opposition to the power of empire was one of nonviolence, emphasizing wisdom and patient resistance. His three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to a golden emblem of imperial power that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. They were thrown into a fiery furnace, but survived (Dan 3). Daniel refused to pray and give honor to the gods of Babylon, and so was thrown into a den of lions, but survived (Dan 6). Daniel had a vision of four beasts, each representing an empire that had oppressed his people. And after the beasts there appeared someone like a son of man, a human one, who ruled like a human rather than a beast, and was given everlasting dominion (Dan 7).
One hundred and Fifty years or so after these stories of Daniel were compiled, a young woman named Mary, Miriam, gave birth to a son, Jesus, in the town of Bethlehem. And again our wide story, comes to focus on one family. This was when Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome, and the Herods ruled Judea and surrounding areas (Luke 2). Like her ancestor with the same name, sister of Moses, this Miriam sang songs of liberation. “The Mighty One has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Her husband, Joseph, like his ancestor with the same name, was a dreamer. And because of his dreams, the family went down to Egypt as refugees from Herod (Matthew 2).
Jesus returned home and grew up in Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. He began to proclaim that the kin-dom of God, the good road laid out from creation, revealed through Torah, kept alive by the prophets, was here. Now. He went to his hometown and used Isaiah’s own words as his own: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). The year of Jubilee. He forgave debts and taught others to do the same. He healed the sick, caused the blind to see, and dismissed harmful spirits out of people’s bodies. He taught in parables about seeds multiplying into an abundant harvest, prodigal children being welcome back home, and foreigners like Samaritans demonstrating God’s good way. He ate with the poor and the wealthy. And crowds. He multiplied loaves and fishes such that everyone had enough, with plenty left over. He called people to follow after him. Some were fisherman, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Some were Roman collaborators like Matthew the tax collector, and Zacchaeus. Some wanted to overthrow Rome, like Simon the Zealot. Imagine those dinner conversations. And the whole traveling band was supported by wealthy women who also went with them - like Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and others who don’t get named (Luke 81-3).
Jesus’ favorite name for himself was “the son of man,” which can simply mean “the human being,” as in, the one who demonstrates how to be human. It could also refer to Daniel’s vision. As in the one who embodies the only way for people to live together in community amidst the beasts of our own creation.
None of this went over well with Rome, or the religious authorities. They did to Jesus what they had done to criminals and slaves and enemies of the state before him. They crucified him, making a public display of their violent power, with the not-so-subtle subtext to all who passed by: “Don’t let this happen to you.”
Humanity has been plagued with violence ever since those first two brothers. But creation is charged with original goodness, a beauty, harmony, and power deeper than any emperor or religious decree. Brother and sisters, siblings all, can be reconciled.
On his final night with his closest companions, Jesus had shared a meal with them, asking them to eat the bread and drink the wine which were like his body and his blood. His life force becoming part of them. Early in the morning after the Sabbath, after Jesus had been crucified, it was a group of women, Mary Magdaline among them, who went to the tomb and discovered Jesus had been raised up (Mark 16). It was these women and other disciples, including, later, Paul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus except in a vision, who spread out and formed communities that sought to live the Jesus Way. They broke bread together. They shared resources. They prayed and worshiped together. And they argued, and sometimes went their separate ways (Acts)
Paul would write that these communities were the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) - the living, breathing embodiment of the kin-dom of God which no empire could silence. Paul also taught that anyone, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, could be incorporated into this expanded understanding of Israel – a blessing to all nations. Because of the faithfulness of Jesus, he taught, we are all children Abraham (Gal. 3:26-29). In other words, this story, the story of scripture, can be your story too, regardless of who you are or where you come from.
The church has had its own prophets and seers, and the Bible ends with one of these, the Revelation of John. In Greek, the apocalypse, the unveiling. It’s a vision in which the Human One is revealed as holding the meaning of history (Rev 5). Rome collapses in on itself and is destroyed (Rev. 18). There is a renewed heavens, and a renewed earth, a renewed city of Jerusalem where all people are invited to dwell (Rev 21). The Bible starts in a garden whose entry is closed off, and ends in a city whose gates are always open. This city contains the Tree of Life, the beginning and end of this story. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2). It even says “mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
That’s the end of the Bible, but for communities who tell it, the story is always To Be Continued…