In the first post in this series I laid out the origins of my search for an alternative understanding of “inspiration” as it pertains to our Holy Scriptures. And they are holy. So much so that I must admit to being obsessed by them and the risen Christ to whom they piont.
That first post briefly criticized the two notions of inspiration exemplified by the portraits of Matthew and the angel by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, both of which suppose that God actually transmitted language in some form to the authors, who either wrote it down verbatim or translated it into their own styles. All four of the options I set forth as working understandings of “inspiration” have that in common: God gave humans language that he intended them to write down, in one way or another.
I wish now to set forth a fifth possibility, the one that intrigues me the most and seems to be most consistent with the nature of the text, and in particular, with the Old Testament text. (The OT dominance of my current thinking should come as no surprise; I am currently reading Brueggemann’s magnum opus, Old Testament Theology: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. So, to foreshadow an idea I hope to develop further as we go, Brueggemann has inspired a great deal of my thinking along these lines.)
BTW, all of the caveats that I invoked in the first post are still in force…and even more so here, for I will be treading out some pretty heterodox pathways for my readers (both of them) to follow.
Let’s begin by letting Brueggemann himself prod us to conversation rather than pitched dispute. The following is taken from the foreword of his The Book that Breathes New Life:
In the end, scripture is not a contest to see who can prevail in interpretation. It is, rather, an address that offers a “newness” and a “strangeness” that are out beyond all our pet projects. It is urgent, even if difficult to remember, that it is “The word of the Lord” and not our word. The “world” given us in the text, moreover, is not our world but God’s new world into which we are ourselves invited as sojourners and eventually as citizens. The offer is a homefulness amid our deep, shared homesickness. It is, however, home on terms other than our own!
If you have persisted this far, dear reader, with the first post in the series and to this piont in the second, I plead with you to walk and converse with me, not to judge me and write me off as the infidel. I seek truth, not power, and not self-satisfaction. Or at very least I hope I do.
Can we agree on the basis of Brueggemann’s words above that we are dealing with this subject on the basis of an implicit commitment that each of us has already made, in a confessional posture, to the Jehovah revealed in Scripture?
So I understand that we are here opening many fresh wounds and dealing with ultra-sensitive matters of faith that are so close to the core of our various identities as Christ-followers that they cannot even be mentioned without the embedded nerve endings shrieking in revolt, like the epileptic demons before Jesus in the trans-Galilee. Or to change the metaphor, we are circumcising ourselves anew. Nothing can be the same after such an operation, and we know it.
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Genesis 2:7 (NASB)
I’m no Hebrew scholar, so take what follows with a grain of salt.
The breath of the LORD God (vai·yip·pach Yah·weh e·lo·him “the LORD God breathed;” nish·mat chai·yim “breath of life”) was into man’s nostrils (be·’ap·pav): not his ears (ve·’a·ze·nav), and not his mouth (pi·hu).
The result of this operation was not that Adam spoke, nor that he wrote. The result, we are told immediately, was that Adam lived. The breath of God gave life to man. Eventually, we would reach a piont at which Adam’s seed would feel compelled to write and to speak of Yahweh elohim. But to write and to speak were secondary. At the outset, the need was life: vibrant, mysterious, ambiguous, tragic life. Adam owed to YHWH not his words nor his pen, but his chaiyim. From the very beginning, Adam could not turn his head or take a step without being confronted with the fact that but for YHWH, he would not be. At every moment, Adam had no choice but to deal with YHWH. The psalmist would later take up this idea in the famous doxology of Psalm 139:
You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
The central idea I wish to highlight here is that according to the canonical testimony YHWH’s primary interest has always been to possess his people. Thus: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” And the climactic judgment on Gomer’s children? Lo-ammi, “not my people.” Israel’s identity would always be framed in the most painful terms of God’s possession – or not.
Genesis 2 is not the only place we encounter the “breath of YHWH” in conjunction with man’s “nostrils.” We’ll have to explore that in the next post. For now, it is enough to suggest that from the very earliest piont in the historical chronology of Israel, the creation accounts, God’s breath has been not a source of words, but a source of life; and that life is lived by Adam as a gracious, revocable, contingent gift, the Giver of which is never out of sight or out of mind.