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Chapter #06 Exod 1-12: Murder on the Nile

The importance of this story for Israel is impossible to overstate; that it was God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt was absolutely foundational to Israel’s national identity. In fact, this story is crucial for us to understand how Israel understood itself.

Three things from this story would shape Israel’s character: oppression, liberation and exclusion. Firstly, Israel was an oppressed people. Hundreds of years of slavery had understandably forged a kind of persecution-complex amongst the Hebrews, which they would never really shed. As a fledgling nation in an unfriendly world, they had every cause to be scared. Bigger and badder bullies than Egypt lurked at their borders; feeling small and vulnerable would be inevitable. But the Israelite sense of oppression goes deeper than just feeling intimidated; the Egyptian experience would come to characterise their religious complaint. Israel, once exiled and subject to foreign rule, would long for a Messiah who could once again ‘release the oppressed’ and spread Jewish faith by decree. The problem, of course, with oppression is that it often breeds clones. Israel would itself become the oppressor and have to face the prophets' wrath.

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Chapter #05 Job 1-42: God in the dock

Job is a script. Imagine a West-End stage. At the front right sits the Lord, high up on his throne beside a courtroom dock. The Satan (the Accuser – or in our terms, the council for the prosecution) presenting his case before the Judge of all. In the centre of the stage will lie Job, broken and ravished, lit only by a single white spot; the place from where he’ll argue his case. And from the shadows on either side will emerge his council, a cowardly defence, urging an early out-of-court settlement to save embarrassment. What will the verdict be? Job refuses to admit defeat; he will have his appeal heard, yet he has no support from witnesses and the Judge remains silent.

And so Job explores what all men and women across time and space have asked: Why is this evil come to us? This is not a treatise on ‘why does God allow suffering?’ It is a full-on rant entitled ‘why me?!’

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Chapter #04 Psalms 1-41: Hands off my God!

The Psalms, for me, represent a much more personal element of the Israelite scriptures. Written often in the first person, they relive great frustration, deep anguish, fervent hope and the ecstasy of military victory. But what do these songs and poems, penned thousands of years ago, do for us?

Firstly, they tell us a great deal about the culture of ancient Israel, which in turn will help us when we come to interpret many of these other less emotive texts. The vast majority of Psalms 1-41 speak in some way of military engagement, either in victory, or defeat. Always there are enemies closing in, trials of disaster round the corner and appeals to God for deliverance. Of course, in the wake of victory the credit goes to God for routing the enemies and preserving the life of the psalmist.

In the majority of these Psalms, God is the judge and the deliverer; redeemer of the oppressed and liberator of his people. Perhaps inevitably, David and his Israelite kingship always come out as righteous, his enemies inevitably ridden with disgrace and so his God is also somewhat tribal. David, it appears, is convinced that God is perpetually on his side and bent, with him, against his enemies. But who is there to give check to David and his military advance. Not the God of these Psalms, that’s for sure!

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Chapter #03 Gen 36-50: Any dream will do?

I have to say that of all the stories in the Old Testament, this one gets to me the most. An epic tale of dysfunctional brotherhood and the anguish felt by the now elderly Jacob, juxtaposed against an unlikely front-runner: the unstoppable Israelite prisoner. Crafted to literary perfection, I seriously recommend reading this whole section in one go; feel the ebbs and the flow; grasp the literary tools and themes: cloaks (Jacob’s gift to Joseph, Jacob’s payment to Tamar and Joseph’s unwitting incrimination in the hands of Potiphar’s wife); dreams (Joseph’s, servant’s, King’s); being true to your word (Judah fails Tamar, the Cupbearer fails Joseph, Joseph keeps true to all his promises – though not without playing with his brothers’ honour!) In my opinion, this is the section that, out of the whole Bible, most reflects the feel of a contemporary novel. No wonder it makes a great musical!

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Chapter #02 Gen 12-35: The power of belief

I hope you’re enjoying reading these brilliant stories. We are going to look at the readings for Jan 6th – 17th; the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I love the beginning of this story. God just says to Abram ‘go!’ and Abram goes. He just gets up, takes his family and heads off into the great unknown. No guarantees, just belief.

My friends and I are trying to plan our annual Lord of the Rings-watching weekend. We love the story so much that we decided we’d watch all three films (extended editions) back to back, once a year. It’s a twelve hour epic, and it’s great! The thing that most captivates me about Lord of the Rings is the constant conflict the hobbits’ face between the need to journey on through great peril and discomfort to destroy the Ring and the desire to be back in the Shire, their idyllic homeland. I resonate so much with that internal conflict. On the one hand I want to be changing the world, whatever the cost. On the other, I’d rather sit at home with a cup of tea and cocoon myself away from the problems of life.

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Chapter #01 Gen 1 - 11: A whole new world

Creation, Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel: Heard it before, right? Me too, about a bezillion times! We're starting off this quest with some of the most famous passages in the whole Bible. And yet, I don't know about you, but I've still not tired of them. The reason is that, for me, they are some of the most brilliant pieces of theological writing ever penned. So creative, so inspiring, so liberating! Let me tell you why.

We need to take a little journey back to the ancient history books of the Middle East. You may never have heard of the Epic of Creation, or the Epics of the infamous hero Gilgamesh and the immortal Atrahasis, but by the time the Israelite exiles were in Babylon, (when most of Genesis began to be compiled) these were the local smash hits. They contain elaborate stories about local heroic kings, their victories, quests and their interaction with the various gods that were believed to rule over the region of Babylon. But for the early Israelites these Epics just didn't fit with their experience of the God who had brought them out of Egypt and established them as a new nation that was supposed to be different from the others. So they changed them.

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Reading the Bible in one year... some tips

Reading the whole Bible in one year is not easy. But it definitely is doable. Here are some tips from my experience. Please feel free to comment and add your own.

I've read the Bible in one year twice before. The first time I found a regular time for reading which became part of the rhythm of my day. The second time I decided to carve out chunks of time to read each book as a whole (although some of the bigger OT books defeated me in one sitting!) Whether you're planning to read the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, finding time to read and sticking to it will be the biggest challenge. So if you haven't already, I'd suggest having a think about when you will do your readings so that you don't get overwhelmed after a few weeks and give up.

You might be used to reading the Bible in small chunks, reflecting on each verse, or word, and meditating on how God might be speaking to your life. That won't work with so many verses to get through - it just won't. This is especially true if you are reading the Old Testament. Parts of it are duller than watching paint dry, and others are utterly incomprehensible. In order to make it, you just have to keep reading and worry about meaning later. I found that the dull bits and the confusing bits came alive in the end, but only because I stuck with it and could look back on them afterwards and see where they fitted.

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Reflections on 2009

Congratulations! You've made it through 2009 and a whole year of reading. How was it? What did you enjoy / dislike? What did you see that you've never seen before? Did you make it, or flounder back in January? Whether you read the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both: please share your experiences here.

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Writing the Word on John

If you've read my post What's the Word? you'll realise it's a bit different to some of the others. I've gone for a more creative re-reading, so this is my chance to explain what on earth it's all about.

I'm a passionate believer in the importance of history. Knowing the past unlocks the future; we gain insight and clarity from the lessons of experience. And I love reading the Bible with an eye closely pinned to the historical story behind the text, the context each writer or editor faced, the events to which they respond. I love it because it brings the story alive. But ultimately that's not enough.

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A matter of perspective

I love using Google Earth. The image of our rotating planet is mesmerizing, so tranquil in the vacuous oceans of Space. But what I enjoy most is the visual journey down to a specific location. The globe rotates as the camera angle swings down at lightening speed towards the ground and a tiny space on the surface of the earth. I can even see my own house and the cars parked in front. This is my world.

Which is my world?

My planet or my house?...