“Can the Bible be redeemed? Has it been used as a weapon so much that we cannot redeem it?” These were questions that the Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Friends of Sabeel, asked at the Wide Tent for Justice: Next Steps for Peace in Palestine/Israel conference at the St. James Episcopal Church in Chicago, co-sponsored by AFSC.
I had arrived a little late and slipped into the room where Rev. Naim Ateek was co-presenting a workshop with Rabbi Brant Rosen on liberation theology in the Hebrew Scriptures. I sat on the floor at the back of the full room and listened with my fingers, typing as they talked.
Rabbi Rosen told a version of the story of Abraham I hadn’t heard before. He said this version came from Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner found evidence in Scripture that Abraham’s father had abused him. Abraham heard the voice of God telling him he must sacrifice his son Isaac and he went to Mount Moriah with a knife, laid him on a pile of wood, and readied himself to kill his son. Then he heard another voice, which told him to have mercy on his son, to lay his knife aside and instead sacrifice a goat.
Lerner contends that the voice telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is the voice of human cruelty masquerading as God; the voice telling Abraham to have mercy is the voice of the true God. Abraham, in hearing the voice of the true God in this reading of the story, breaks the cycle of violence. Throughout the Bible, said Rabbi Rosen, the key is to discover whether it is the true God speaking or the voice of human cruelty masquerading as God.
Rev. Ateek talked about the dialogue between these two voices in the Torah; that he finds the voice of human cruelty masquerading as God in calls to kill or drive out the Canaanites, the indigenous people of the land. Then he keeps reading and finds “the true God,” a more inclusive voice, in verses from Ezekiel:
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance.” Ezekiel 47:21-23
Rev. Ateek said, “The Bible is not a seamless work, people who wrote it were living at different times, with different theologies. It is a spiritual enterprise, we have a conversation inside the text, it is multi-vocal. Let us enter into the conversation; which are the true voices of God, which are the voices of tribalism, nationalism? No one comes to the text without their preconceptions. Our values are inclusivity; all God’s children are worthy of dignity and rights. That is going to affect how we read the text, we should be unabashed about that.” This way of reading the Bible struck me as very sympathetic with the central tenets of Quaker faith.
This conversation opened my eyes to how deeply the stories we know and the way we understand them affects how we live.
The truth is that both of these voices, the voice of human cruelty masquerading as God and the voice of empathy, are in each of us. Faithful living is a struggle to listen to the voice of “the true God,” the voice of compassion and love. These stories reside underneath how we live, and they shape how we see. Rev. Ateek and Rabbi Rosen’s conversation was all about rereading the Bible seeking the voice of love, of inclusiveness, of welcome and, thereby, learning to hear that voice in our own hearts.
Rev. Ateek and Rabbi Rosen were modeling engaging in the kind of dialogue that can bring us closer to hearing that voice, a voice of truth that calls us to understand that we are one.
The mindset or belief that only certain people are worthy of compassion and empathy underlies so much oppression in the world.
Rev. Ateek concluded by saying, “Jerusalem belongs to all of us. Jerusalem is the city of God, not only of one people. This lends itself to peacemaking. I reject exclusive theology of God or the land. I’m here to testify to the power of the world of God.”
I heard Rabbi Brant and Rev. Ateek conclude that it is possible that, in uncovering this voice of compassion, Scripture can be redeemed—a living voice that requires discernment to hear and heed.