20 February 2017

Paying attention to the details in a story

At Campus Edge we've just started looking at the Elijah and Elisha stories. These are wonderfully odd texts, so it makes looking at them more closely both useful and interesting. There's much to discover, as was made more obvious when I started reading Thomas L Brodie's The Crucial Bridge, which has pointed out a lot of the details and patterns in the text. I was so excited about what I'd been reading that I shared the insights with Matthijs, and I am looking forward to sharing them in the studies I lead.

It always fills me with delight when I can understand the Bible better because someone passes on what they've learned from paying attention to the text. Alan Jacobs's recent reflections on Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God is another example of someone whose paying attention has filled me with delight and has made me wonder further about what the Bible actually says. Jacobs suggests that, on the basis of what is actually written in the text, Solomon's building of the temple was more his idea than God's. It's a fascinating thought - not one that had occurred to me before, but one that does correspond to the disquiet I've had about Solomon and his holiness: how could someone so wise and dedicated to God spend so much more time building his own palaces than God's temple and be so led astray by all of his wives?

I encourage you to read all of Jacobs's thoughts about the building of the temple - both David's role in it and Solomon's role. He argues that it was Solomon's idea to build a temple, and that the temple was even a misunderstanding of what God wanted. Jacobs notes:
Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.
God wasn't interested in a temple: he was interested in obedience. The prophets would reiterate this idea years later. According to Jacobs, 
Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.
This fascinates me because it echoes the claim that Israel seems to have: You, God must do something for us, at least partly because we have this temple and we sacrifice to you. (Or because we took your ark with us - cf. 1 Samuel)
Jacobs concludes with the following: 
I don't mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at  what I have done for you! Aren't you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since "this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.
I don't think it takes much effort to recognize how we often relate to God in the same way: Look at how good I have been - therefore you must bless me. Fascinating how a close reading in the text can be verified by other texts and can also help us recognize some of our own bad theology.

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