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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not Idiots
distributed 1/30/04 & 5/8/09 - ©2004, 2009

The folk who compiled the Bible were not idiots.

That is one of my working assumptions when I study scripture. Keeping that principle in mind makes me think harder and dig deeper when a text seems to make little sense.

If a biblical passage appears disoriented, jumbled or confused to me, there's a very good chance that I'm not seeing a theme that was perfectly evident to the editors, and to earlier generations of readers. It is likely that my own cultural and theological lenses keep me from seeing a simple reality.

In the many stages of compilation and redaction that have led to what we now know as the Bible, wise and faithful people worked very hard to convey a message that they found to be of ultimate importance. In a multitude of literary forms, they did their best to point to God's active presence in their community. It was not a task undertaken lightly. They were not likely to be sloppy or careless in expressing that message. Discerning their organizational themes can add greatly to our understanding and insight.

(If your theology says that the Bible is the directly inspired word of God, and not an edited collection of texts which emerged from faithful human communities, then the "not an idiot" description of the author is even more evident, and the incentive to find subtle meaning is even greater.)

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At a pair of workshops this week, we used an exercise that looked at one of those "jumbled" passages, and tried to discern an organizing principle.

We read through Exodus 23:1-12. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible put these verses into a section headed, "Miscellaneous social and cultic laws." So maybe they are just the odds and ends of community rules, dumped here without any common threads. Or maybe not.

In those 12 verses, there's a piece about how to behave in lawsuits and when presenting legal testimony. There's some stuff about how to treat your enemy's livestock, then more about lawsuits and not taking bribes. It flips again and talks about not oppressing a resident alien. Then it goes into instructions for a Sabbath for the land (on a seven year cycle), and the weekly Sabbath as a day of rest. On the first reading, "miscellaneous" seems to be an appropriate adjective.

As the workshop participants talked about what a common theme might be, they started to see recurring words and ideas. There's a lot dealing with justice concerns. There are points about putting yourself at some risk or disadvantage for the sake of doing good.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that all of these "miscellaneous" laws have to do with appropriate relationships with those on the margins of the society -- with the accused, the poor, the aliens, and with non-human parts of the community, too.

What made that theme so hard for us to see? The ancient Hebraic sense of the community covers far more territory than our modern understandings. For them, the poor and the aliens are not the only community members who are voiceless and marginalized. The livestock, the wildlife and the land are counted as part of the extended community, too. If we have to struggle to see the coherence in that group of laws, it is because we don't recognize all of those subjects as part of the immediate community.

3,000 years ago, including such a wide range within the community life seems to have been taken for granted. It was necessary to have instructions and admonitions about acting justly toward all of those parties. But, apparently, it wasn't necessary to tell people that the donkeys, birds and soil were part of the community.

The editors of Exodus were not idiots. They were not listing miscellaneous laws. What looks to us like a scattered, disconnected set of instructions hangs together perfectly well when the community that deserves justice is expanded to include the non-human.

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During Tuesday's workshop session, one person made a comment about how "eco-justice is not a big thing in the Bible." (What a great lead-in that was to the exercise!)

The Bible may not have a lot of passages giving explicit definition to what we think of as eco-justice. At that level, her comment was accurate. But at a deeper level, large sections of scripture carry assumptions and values which are foundational for our eco-justice ethic. When we come to the Bible with our eyes, ears and hearts open to a larger sense of community, and a more encompassing sense of justice, we discover a rich and faithful grounding for addressing today's most urgent issues.

In the wonderful little booklet, "And the Leaves of the Trees are for the Healing of the Nations", Carol Johnson writes of the joy in finding that persistent theme in the Bible:

To our astonishment, what we find is far more than a smattering of relevant texts. From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation, the biblical witness consistently and frequently affirms God's care for creation and each creature, especially the most vulnerable -- both humans and non-humans. Both covenantal and sacramental readings include provisions for economic justice and environmental integrity, in a consistent ethic of wholistic life.
May we be open to finding that consistent ethic!

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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