A Banquet of Meanings

The eminent rabbi, Lawrence Kushner,  wrote an interesting volume entitled, “God was in this place and I, I did not know”.   It is a verse from the biblical book of Genesis (chapter 28, verse 16), and it comes at the end of that section of Genesis in which Jacob has his famous dream about that ladder connecting heaven and earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it.  Within the context of the dream, Jacob hears the voice of God, and when he awakes, he is astonished by his night visions and he utters the verse that is the title of Rabbi Kushner’s book.

What is especially interesting about the book is that in it, Kushner presents seven different rabbinical interpretations of what exactly is meant by this verse, which in the original Hebrew consists of only eight words.   Eight words that give rise to seven different meanings!   While Kushner expresses his surprise at how much debate there is within his tradition over this particular verse, his book taps into a long and venerable tradition within Judaism of debating the meaning of biblical texts.  One of the things I have come to admire about that tradition is how comfortable Judaism is with allowing different interpretations and different meanings to coexist side by side.   The Jewish people admit that the Bible is complex, and that when anyone approaches any particular text, the meaning that comes forth for that person may  not be the meaning that comes forth for someone else.  Rather than give in to the temptation to figure out which meaning is correct, the Jewish tradition simply allows them all to stand together, placing the responsibility on each person to engage with the text and with the differing interpretations.

I have often found myself wishing that the Christian tradition could be as generous.  We have a long history of trying to discover what the “true” meaning of a given text is, and we love to convene councils to determine exactly what the truth is so that we can enforce it on everyone and condemn as heretics those who refuse to submit to it.  We have somehow gotten it into our heads that being correct is somehow essential to our salvation, and that if we get it wrong, God will condemn us.

Such an approach, however, violates the very nature of the biblical text itself.  The Bible is not a book that fell out of heaven, written personally by God.  It is a collection of writings that seek to express and proclaim the experiences of a multitude of people and peoples with God.  In the case of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), these experiences are anchored in the ancient history of the Jewish people.  In the case of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), these experiences are anchored in the person of Jesus and the history of the earliest Christian communities.  But no matter what part of the Bible we are talking about, we are dealing with the experiences that other people had with the divine.  And that means that we are not dealing with objectivity, but with subjectivity.  And THAT means that when we encounter any biblical text, we are encountering differing degrees of two things:  artifacts of human culture and prejudice, as well as elements of the divine.

For example, one of the human artifacts we encounter in the Bible is an unsettling degree of comfort with the institution of slavery.  While the Hebrew Scriptures offer rules meant to ensure that slaves are treated with a kind of minimal level of care, neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Christian Scriptures contain any explicit condemnation of slavery.  For centuries, Christians quoted the Bible in defense of keeping people enslaved.  Yet, we eventually reached the conclusion that the Bible was wrong about slavery.  To put it another way, we concluded that tolerant attitudes toward slavery found in the Bible are artifacts of human prejudice and culture — not a manifestation of divine truth.

On the other hand, we also detect across the whole spectrum of the Bible a consistent concern about vulnerable people, and about the importance of serving those people and seeking justice on their behalf.  This concern manifests itself in different ways in the regulations offered in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures), in the witness of the prophets, in the teaching and life of Jesus and in the life of the early Christian communities.   The persistence of this concern has led most Christians to discern that this is of God, and that when we align ourselves with this concern, we are aligning ourselves with God (even if we do not always agree among ourselves on exactly what this alignment demands from us).

For me, this way of approaching the Bible both honors the texts that comprise it and open us up to a creative and dynamic engagement with these sacred writings.   Yet, many seem unable or unwilling to entertain this approach.   I think that many people find that this approach places too much responsibility on the individual to discern a meaning for him- or herself.  It also brings us back to this Christian pre-occupation with being correct, and this responsibility of individual discernment leaves too much room for getting it wrong.  We don’t like it when Christians reach different conclusions about something.  We carry with us this belief that only one view can possibly be right, and then we embark on a bit of a fool’s errand to try to figure out who that is.  And when, inevitably, we can’t, we split up and go our separate ways rather than risk being in community with someone who might be wrong.  Of course, it never occurs to us that we might be wrong!

Would that we could embrace the generosity of the Jewish tradition, and simply allow our differing interpretations to coexist.  What a powerful witness it would be to gather around the Communion table, the great Banquet of Christ, with all of our different points of view we each bring right there on the table with the bread and wine,  giving thanks that we have transcended the need to be right, having the humility to know we could be wrong, and simply celebrating the relationships between us.

Of course, in a sense, this witness does happen, but it often happens secretly.  I have been a priest long enough to know that in almost every congregation, there is a far greater diversity of interpretations than many folks in the pew are aware of.    I knew someone once who said that she would have a hard time worshiping with someone who couldn’t fully embrace the Nicene Creed.  I, of course, never told her that, in fact, she was worshiping with such people.  I knew the secret of our community’s theological diversity, but she either didn’t know it or didn’t want to know it.  And that is unfortunate, because again, the opportunity of creative and dynamic engagement is missed, and we deny ourselves the chance to celebrate a great banquet of meanings.

Rabbi Kushner begins his book on that verse from Genesis by telling the story of a group of children, to whom he had been giving a tour of the synagogue’s prayer hall.  He had not had time to show them the Torah scrolls located in the ark behind a curtain at the front of the hall, and promised that he would show them what was behind that curtain the next time they met.  The teacher later informed him that this led to much speculation among the children about what was back there.  One child said there was nothing there, another suggested that there was a new car — like on a game show.  One child did correctly guess that the Torah scrolls were there, but another insisted that all of them were wrong.  Behind that curtain, he said, is a mirror.  And perhaps that child is right — for when it comes to interpreting the Bible, perhaps what we learn the most about is not God, but ourselves, and the own deep need we each have to encounter God not in the pages of a book, but in the depths of our own hearts.

One thought on “A Banquet of Meanings

  1. It seems to me that much of the Bible- both the New and the Old Testament- is concerned with humankind’s relationship with God, and concern that we not behave in a personal way that is offensive to God. It seems that even when we follow Christ’s admonitions in relating to one another that the purpose is to make OURSELVES more in tuned to God’s vision for our personal conduct, than it is to effect others with whom we are interacting. Perhaps this reflects the very short and transitory time we spend in this mortal life.

    It makes one wonder the distinction that God makes between our personal obedience to Him, and the effect of our obedience- or lack of obedience- on our fellow human beings.

    The issue of slavery in the Bible perhaps highlights this question. It seems as though God was silent on the institution of slavery itself- as well as other realities of life- but required specific behavior as individuals- not for the effect that the behavior had on other people, but on the act of obedience itself.

    It is impossible for us to understand EXACTLY what God wants from us, and God seems to recognize this in Isaiah 55:8-9. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

    We all strive for understanding the Will of God, but perhaps it will always be a little beyond our grasp.

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