And finally... to Slate. Since September David Plotz, who describes himself as a "proud Jew, but not an observant one," has been "blogging the bible" for Slate Magazine. He brings to the project enthusiasm, a journalist's eye for detail, and no previous exposure to the formal study of scripture, which, in this case, is a good thing. "What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book?" he asks, and his blog is the result.
He's in Isaiah at the moment, following the order of the Jewish bible. It has been fascinating for me. As a Christian I carry with me years of the influence of Handel's Messiah when I read Isaiah... "Comfort ye..." "He shall feed his flock..." "For unto us a child is born..." Plotz's first experience of Isaiah is that he is going to be a real drag to read; he compares him to bloviating talk radio hosts.
In his discussion of chapter I he speaks of God's distress at the Israelites' failing to do good in the world:
...God is particularly annoyed at the Israelites' superficial obedience. They continue to make sacrifices to him and burn incense: "Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."
This is particularly resonant in the holiday season. Here is God not demanding a public display of obedience—in fact, He loathes the Israelites' offerings and festivals. Rather, He is demanding a much more profound reformation. His people must change their hearts and, more importantly, change how they treat others. To regain His love, they must "cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
As far as I can remember, this is the first time that God has explicitly valued good deeds over professions of faith and obedience to the law. Until now, the Israelites only got in trouble for disobeying God's law—idol-worshipping, Sabbath-scoffing, etc. But now, they're dealing with a Good Works God, who requires righteous behavior toward fellow men, rather than disingenuous prayer. The debate over whether God wants faith or deeds still rages today, but I think this is the first time the Bible alludes to it.
Crudely speaking, there are three sides to in this fight:
1) Those who believe you serve God by obeying the letter of His laws—the position generally staked out today by orthodox Jews;
2) Those who believe you serve God best through personal faith, and salvation comes through that faith—the position taken by most evangelical Protestants;
3) Those who believe you serve God best by acting morally toward your fellow humans—the position held by many liberal Catholics and reform Jews.
Till Isaiah, God has clearly favored Group 1, demanding obedience to His law and smiting for mere misdemeanors. So, as a subscriber to Group 3, I'm surprised and rather thrilled to see God endorsing it here. Let's see if He sticks with it.
This is hardly a nuanced position; I can argue that there are people in each of these groups (Jews, Catholics, Protestants) who could find themselves on any one of the "sides." As a liberal Protestant, there is no neat category for me (though my friends will undoubtedly say "Duh. 3."). But, again, Plotz is not going for nuance. He is responding honestly to a first reading of the bible through secularly educated lenses.
At this time I want to recommend Real Live Preacher's recent videos on "How to Read the Bible." These are great introductory videos that tackle the basics of sitting down with this book (or, as he reminds the viewer, collection of literature) so that the first-timer won't be overwhelmed.
So much great stuff out there friends!