Rob Bell podcast: Enough earth for my mule

The following is a transcript of the first 18 minutes or so of RobCast episode 34, which focus on the fact that the bible was written from the perspective of the oppressed people who were under the control of the empires.

RobCast episode 34 – Enough earth for my mule

This story comes from 2 Kings chapter 5. “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master, and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.” Now “leprosy” is… that’s the English word which is translated from Hebrew – probably it’s less like fingers and toes falling off and more probably it’s some sort of an infectious skin disease.

The storyteller wanted you to know right away that we are dealing with a great man, a powerful man, a strong man, a man who knows how to win – this man is a “winner”. But, he has a problem. He has some sort of skin disease.
“Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

Now, when you read the Bible, remember that the Bible was written by a small group of people, a minority living under the oppression and rule of the larger, global military superpowers. So, whether it’s the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans… the writers of the Bible were part of a tribe – a small tribe – that has been knocked around, conquered and crushed time and time and time again.

And one of the reasons so many people completely misread the Bible in our modern world is this: you read this book and you are a citizen of an empire – a big, “successful”, heavily armed nation. You are going to miss some of the central themes because this book is written by the underdogs. This book is written by people on the underside of power, people whose nation has been invaded, people who have been crushed, who have their kins’ eyes gouged out, who have been dragged away into exile actually. The Hebrew scripture was really compiled into the Bible that we know to be the Bible in Hebrew, the old testament especially until the Babylonian exile.

So it wasn’t until this group of people was conquered, their temple was crushed in Israel and they were dragged miles away to a foreign land, foreign stories, foreign gods, foreign power, and they found themselves in exile miles from home, and they even began to compile a book, that is sort of a book of their people. Why? Because when you find the various existences of your tribe… what do you do? You access evidences of their stories that might give us some sense of cohesion, some identity, some glue, a narrative, something that hold us together.

The Bible was actually written and compiled and edited as we know it, in response to persecution, hardship, suffering, oppression, and essentially what do you do when a massive army strides in to your village, kills half of the people, gouges out the eyes of some people, and then a few people remain in captive in shackles and march with you hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles away to a foreign land, where they don’t speak your language, they don’t worship your god, they don’t have your currency, they don’t have your education, they don’t have … and nothing is familiar. So, when you read this book, one of the questions the writers keep bringing up is: what do you do with your power?

And the Bible offers again and again and again a pointed, brutal critique of those who use their power, wealth and resources to build their own empire bigger at the expense of others. They basically increase their own power and wealth while stepping on anybody in their way. And this critique of power is a theme that comes up again and again and again and again.

So, you notice even here in the story right away, we are told about a very, very powerful army general in a neighbouring country, but he also has a weakness; he also has a problem, and the context (or contract?) is his country has got some raiders who has gone out and kidnapped a young Jewish girl, who has had essentially no rights in that day, and yet she is the one who says about the military general: “Actually… I think there’s somebody who can help heal you.”

So, what you have again is this very subtle story telling us – it’s always poking holes in the one in power, whoever is powerful again and again and again – the scripture writers mock them, ridicule them, point out where they have gone wrong, utter incredibly harsh critiques of their use of power and violence and coercion. And in this story, there’s this jab, right away in two paragraphs, apparently the most powerful man here, a commanding great army general, has a problem and he doesn’t know what to do with it. But there is a helpless captive, kidnapped, young Jewish slave girl, and she is the one who actually knows what he should do. Once again, turning stories upside down, showing how power is frail, is temporary, no matter how strong it appears, there is always something fragile in whatever power structure seems to be dominating in the moment.

Now, “Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.” So here you have the most powerful man in the land – the king – talking with the other most powerful man – his general – about what a powerless captive slave, kidnapped, young Jewish girl has to say. So, he tells him what the girl from Israel said.

“By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow (he’s talking about the neighbouring king, by the way) send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”

Once again, the storyteller shows these leaders like this king of Israel to be just as completely… what would you say? He’s like kind of out of his mind. He’s like he received this generous gift as a request to help this man be healed, and he’s like “What is he doing? Trying to pick a war with me?”

“When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”” Now, how badass is that? Elisha is a prophet; he sort of… is pretty close to who I am, a simple man with great power; he hears the king of Israel with his mind – “Now send that general to me. I will show him that I am a prophet in Israel.”

“So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.”

So, picture (it) like a little hut, a little house, probably very simple. You know, the prophets, they live very close to the land… and the prophet is the one who speaks truth with power, the prophet is the one who isn’t intimidated by whoever is on the throne, the prophet is the one who says “Wait, wait, wait… you’re telling that during the massive economic recession in 2009, the CEOs of those companies – actually their salaries went up, while regular people lost their homes and lost all their savings? Wait, wait, wait… that isn’t right.”

The prophet is the one who is fearless. The prophet is the one who lives close to the land. The prophet is the one who speaks up on behalf of everybody who has ever been screwed by the system. The prophet points his finger at the one in power and says “You have a responsibility to use your power and wealth and resources to bless those on the underside who need a helping hand.” The prophet is this fearless voice of social justice who confronts oppression and confronts greed.

So, picture the prophet in probably a very simple sort of little house and upholds this motorcade, horses and chariots with this neighbouring nation’s most powerful military commander.

“Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Elisha doesn’t even go out to meet him. He loves it; he sends some sort of messenger or servant and says “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

“But Naaman (the commander, the state’s powerful man) went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’! So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”

By the way, also really interesting: all Elisha says to the military commander Naaman is “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan”, and the man was offended… he wants something a little bigger.. By the way, the number of people I have met, who are doing really, really great things, and when I get to talk to them about the amazing things that they did, and how they get started, and how they think about their work each day, they always talk about the small things. They always talk about the small things. And the people I know who have massive egos and assume they are… superstars… they are always people who don’t do the small things. They don’t just humble themselves and just do the simple, straightforward thing that is right in front of them every day. So here is this really powerful man – he desperately wants to be healed… and all the prophet said is to go to the river and wash himself seven times, and he leaves in a rage. He can’t do the simple thing. And the servant realises: “Wait, wait, wait… if the prophet were to tell you to do something really great, you would have done it. So just do the small thing. So, just go, wash and be cleansed.” “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”

“Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.” The prophet answered, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.”

Now, there is something really subtle going on here, but it is massive. Remember that this is what 3,000 years ish ago, and that at that time, people had what I call “localised deity”. So if you are in Aram, there was the god of Aram. If you live in another country, there was that different region people worshipped different gods. And so, when you went into battle – because everything is tribal consciousness – your tribe is your tribe, their tribe is their tribe, and when your tribe went into battle against their tribe, it is essentially your god, the god of your tribe, your soil, your nation going into battle against their tribe, the god of their nation. So what you have is each area, each group of people, each section of land has a particular god.

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