A few years ago I was in an exegesis class. I sat in every class period next to an older female student who was a visiting researcher from a large Chinese university. She was not a Christian, though the content of her scholarship intersected with (western) Christian reading practices.
During one class, we were working carefully through the Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32. It was no Sunday school lesson. We were talking technically: about the dating of chapters 32-34; their inconsistencies and repetitions; their relation to King Jeroboam’s calves; their advocacy for one priestly dynasty over another.
Despite this detailed and scholastic treatment, the woman next to me took every opportunity in our working group to remark – with growing astonishment – on the text’s dramatic features. After its detouring prologue, after Yahweh’s prolonged and creation-rocking confrontation with Pharaoh, after the impossible rescue at the Sea and the tortuous way in the desert and the terror of Sinai, after intricate tabernacle instructions to ensure Israel’s habitability to their holy God – the construction of the Golden Calf is unthinkable: a catastrophe like some horrific dark star, blooming out of nothingness to irradiate the fabric of Israel’s relationship to God. Confusion follows, woven into the hiccupping structure of the text: Yahweh’s anger, Moses’ anger, the violence of the Levites. But above the fray, against Yahweh’s threats to consume his stiff-necked people and even Yahweh’s offer to start over with Moses alone, Moses intercedes for Israel.
And, ultimately, Yahweh relents, and shows mercy. Yahweh promises to go up with this recidivist people, and Yahweh even passes before Moses by the recitation of his name:
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.
The woman beside me was impressed. Wide-eyed impressed: at the strange, causeless, devastating idolatry of Israel, ensconced at the heart of their sacred literature; the tangled back-and-forth of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh; Moses’ boldness and Yahweh’s final fidelity.
In fact, she grew self-conscious; realized the kind of raw amaze that she was showing. She turned aside to me and said, explanatorily perhaps: “it’s times like these I wonder if I am…being drawn towards this God. Towards this faith.”
Plenty can be made of such a comment. Another person moved by first exposure to a work of world literature. An archetypical plot of sin and forgiveness pulling on another wounded human psyche. An intense depiction of a personal god enchanting a mind thereunto clear of supernatural clutter.
But I believe that something else was at play there, besides the layers of expectation created by millennia of religious reading or the psychological soothing on offer. I’m not going to get all pneumatological here. But I think at very least that the Bible was standing on its own two legs, as it were: demonstrating its depth and attractiveness and power, quite without dogmatic protections and apologetical reassurances, to one who gave it a considerate reading. I was reminded of this event recently as I read a chapter on the Bible from Helmut Gollwitzer’s introduction to Protestant theology (Westminster, 1982; translated by David Cairns). After rehearsing the dissolving effects of modern criticism on the historicity and doctrinal uniformity of the Bible, Gollwitzer asks: “How can we lose our fear of historical research? How can the Bible, in spite of the disintegration of its former authoritative form, retain its importance for church and faith?” (53). He answers with an anecdote. I will quote at some length:
Würtemberg curates in 1970 blithely declared that the Bible was for them merely one book among others, from which they could draw impulses for their thought and action today exactly as from other books. There was indignation over this. But are the church authorities to say to them, ‘First you must give the Bible a special place, and only then can you be ministers?’ Or can the church dare to say to them: ‘Good, the chief thing is that beside the other voices you should really listen attentively to the voices that speak to us through the Bible, and ask for their possible significance today, then all will be well. For then indeed the voice of the Bible will unmistakably make itself heard, and take precedence over the other voices, and become the standard by which they are judged…
In fact, that is the only way – and it is precisely the same as the way in which the Bible came to have significance in both Judaism and Christianity. This did not happen because someone stood up and declared, ‘Here is a book that has fallen from heaven; you must bow down before it!’ What happened was that the Bible ‘imposed itself,’ as Karl Barth expressed it; it carried the day by its own worth, and made itself the canon and yardstick of all who were not concerned to invent a religion or a Christianity for themselves (54; italics mine).
This will be my last blog entry from Princeton, NJ, before I move to Atlanta this weekend. I wanted to close out this chapter of my life by sharing one important – representative? – story from my time here.