Bible 101: Voice
-Rev Melissa Fain-
If it's visual, we get that time changes things. Have you ever walked into one of those homes that haven't been renovated since it was built in the early 1970's? The bold but pointless design choices, and mustard yellow shag carpet are reminders why we let many of those elements die in their created decade.
Another example: Have you ever seen those eerie pictures of Chernobyl 30 years after the accident? Since everyone just got up and left, it's a time capsule to 1986. Nature is slowly reclaiming the city, but their is no doubt about the era.
We also understand visual differences in culture. When we see those helmeted cupolas, we know we are look at something influenced by Russia. In the same way, if we see columns with fluting and embellished cornices, we are looking at a Greek design.
Language is the same way. What we say, and how we say it is greatly influenced by time and culture. I speak differently than many of the people around me, because I was born in Kansas City. I also speak differently than my son and daughter because there are decades of time between when I learned to speak and when they learned to speak.
Biblical Scholars use voice to understand the Bible
One of the tools Biblical Scholars use to understand the Bible is voice. Since we can't carbon date a text that no longer exists, they look for certain words or names that help.
I'm going to pull from one of my old Introduction to the Bible studies: "Introduction to the Bible Using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." It does go through many of the things I'm doing here, but you use the Wizard of Oz as a companion piece. It's in the Bible Study tab if you want to download it.
Based on machines, and archaeologists, linguists, and people way smarter than me, it is understood in educational circles that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible have four types of writers. This is a big deal when you consider it in context of the writing. First, let me share what these four voices are and then let me explain how it plays out on a biblical level.
The four types of writers are commonly known by four letters.
These letters are, JEPD.
J: These writers name God as Yehweh. (Ya-way) The 'J' is used because the first translators who wrote the Hebrew into a western alphabetic symbols were primarily the Germans. The Germans spell Yehweh, Jahwe. In J material, God is close and relational. Example: God walks in the garden with creation in Genesis 3:8.
E: For the same reason, these writers are called 'E' because their chosen name for God is Elohim. Elohim is kinda the generic word for God or gods in general. In E material, God is distant and communicates through dreams or secondary sources like messengers or prophets.
P: These are the priestly writers. They are very concerned with boundaries and rules. (Genesis 1 is full of them.) They are also concerned with the right of the priestly family of Aaron.
D: These are the Deuteronistic writers. These writers consider God to be so distant it is only a voice. God, according to these writers, communicates through forms like burning bushes. One could gather from the name, most of the writings from these writers can be found in the book of Deuteronomy.
-Introduction to the Bible using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, M. Fain, pg 17
If you are still around I've kept everything understandable enough. JEPD can blow all of that out of the water. Also, I can hear some of your voices in my head. "Don't mess with my Moses." If you don't know what I'm talking about, you are probably in the camp I was in when I learned about JEPD. There is a long tradition of saying the first four books of the Bible were written by Moses. No one ever tried to teach Moses authorship, probably because they knew what I'm going to share below.
If you are not in the Moses Camp thank your lucky stars. This meditation is going to be way easier for you digest. If you are in the Moses camp, this next paragraph is for you to help you release that death grip just a little for what I'm going to write.
Moses did not write the first four books of the Bible, and that's a good thing. Remember week one where I pointed to God? God is in the event, and the writing of the event was a shock wave. If Moses wrote the first four books of the Bible, then the Bible does not begin at the beginning of time. The Bible begins in the Exodus, with Moses telling about the beginning of time. The power of the initial event is no longer important. (I'm actually going to push back into this a little, but that's for next week.) When we put the entire story on the shoulders of one man, we have the Mormon Problem. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, had a Moses event. He was given a new testament, he translated that testament, and no one else touched it. That moment is a moment Mormons are ruthlessly mocked. You want a group of people coming with the same story, because it gives authenticity to the story. More than that, saying Moses wrote all of the Torah (minus his death) suggests there was no story before Moses, or the story wasn't Moses, just transcribed by Moses. The oral story was either part of the community, or there was nothing. There is no in between when you give complete authorship to Moses. In other words, Moses is part of the story, but Moses isn't the entire story.
Okay, that out of the way let's dig into these four voices.
J and P- Dueling Banjos
There are no doubts that the Gospels were written by multiple people. Generally: they are separated. They are given their own book title. Because of the separation, we get the purpose of the writers. The Gospel writer of Matthew wants to connect the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. The Gospel writer of Luke makes the purpose blatantly clear at the beginning by stating it to Theophilus. He wants to collect the stories to get to the truth.:
1 Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. 3 Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. 4 I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received. Luke 1:1-4 CEB
The same thing is happening in the Torah (or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), but we don't have the luxury of book headings. More than that, we have complete stories in the New Testament, but fragments in the Hebrew Bible. That's what makes this so difficult to digest. Two fragmented stories can look like one complete story. Without knowing what is going on in the language, or who is saying what, most would never consider the story changed narrators.
The Yehweh texts are old. They might be the oldest words written in our canonized Bible. Basically, in the beginning we wanted to know God, and how our world worked. We end up with God in relationship, and us moving away from that relationship. Genesis 2:4b-25 is one voice; the Yehweh voice. The second voice is at the beginning.
That's right, friends. Gen 1:1-2:4a is epic. It stands as a completely different story. This is the most clear cut place where we can see two stories side by side, and each one has its own purpose, and tells its own version of the events. In P, the waters are separated above and below. Above it was placed above a dome, and on the earth. They would later be pushed away so the earth could exist. In J, the earth already existed, and the waters came up out of the ground. In P, humanity is the very last thing that was created before God proclaimed it was "Very good," and rested. In J, the trees and animals hadn't been created before God breathed life into Adam- which literally means, from the earth, from the Hebrew word, "Adamah."
Before I continue, take two bibles (or pull up BibleGateway.com on your computer, and your bible in front of you) and read each account like a standalone reading. They clearly don't belong together, and trying to put them together is quiet impossible.
Why it's okay that each voice focuses on a "different" God
Please see the quotation marks. They are vital.
Last week I was thanked for showing kindness. My son saw the card and quipped, "They know you're mean too, right?"
I am not magically a different person because my mom hat looks different than my substitute hat. What I write here looks radically different than my open letter to the school board.
Those are all images of me. Depending on who is talking about me, will change how I'm viewed. There are people who think I'm scatter brained and left field. There are others who think I'm very grounded and centered. Depending on who is talking about me, they are right. I am all those things.
This is true of God as well. We each have a view of God, and none of those views are complete pictures at all. I had a colleague described it this way. It's like looking at a Van Gogh painting by holding a piece of white paper in front of it, restricting our view entirely. Then, we punch a pencil through the paper, allowing us a tiny view of the picture. What we can see is truth, but such a small piece of truth. We seek the truth of others to gain a fuller picture.
Where we fail is when we take people's interpretation of their view as Gospel. What they saw might be truth, but how they interpreted it, might be false. The truth might be God gave us dominion, but that's in light of caretakers, not overlords. The truth might be that God created us equal and different at the same time. When we focus only on the difference to suggest power only can be held in the hands of certain kinds of differences... well, then are we talking about interpretation issues? I think so, but that's something I've explained in depth on multiple other posts.
To bring home the point again: If we are aware of the voices in the texts, we have a better understanding of what those voices are trying to say, and why they are saying it. God is Truth, and the interpretation of that Truth isn't always Truth.