What is the Bible by Rob Bell – Part 12
What is the Bible?
Part 12: Tribes and Violence
The LORD had said to Abram Go…
So Abram went…
Let’s talk about tribes. In the ancient near east, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity-your tribe was everything. And everyone belonged to a tribe.
You worked for the well being of your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.
Now, to Genesis 12. According to the story, God calls a man named Abram to be the father-the leader-of a new tribe (Abram later had his named changed to Abraham, and he had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham, and I am one of them, and so are you…)(I couldn’t resist.)(If you missed that moment of sheer unadulterated hilarity, that’s a line from a song in which you repeat that line over and over and over again, faster and faster, until everyone passes out. Good times.).
But then added to the promise to Abram is
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Tribes (also called nations in the Hebrew Scriptures) at that time existed for their own well being and preservation. This tribe, the one that Abram would lead, would be different. This tribe would exist to bless all the other tribes.
This was a brand new idea.
As this tribe of Abram’s kids grew, they carried with them this sense of calling, this sense that they were different, that they had a unique role to play in the world.
Remember, in the Genesis story, in the chapter before we meet Abram, humanity had lost its way to such a degree that they were building a tower to be gods themselves. So if humanity had gained a head of steam in the wrong direction, how do you change things? You start a new tribe, a new humanity, a tribe that would move with, not against, God.
Now, a bit more about tribes.
Tribes had gods and goddesses, forces they followed and worshipped who they believed protected and guided them. So when you went into battle against another tribe-usually for land or access to resources or wealth-you were doing battle with them but at the same time your god was confronting their god. (That’s the subtext to the David and Goliath story.) And when you won, you wiped them out and took all their stuff. Why? Because what if you left some of the men alive, and then later they banded together-maybe the son of the king you killed was their leader-and came to get their revenge? You couldn’t risk it. Or maybe you killed the men but took the women for yourselves. And the donkeys, and whatever else you wanted. Those were called the spoils of war. There were rules about how this worked, because tribes had been doing it this way for a long time.
You tribal identity wasn’t just about your bloodline and your gods, it was about safety. The world was extremely dangerous, and without the protection of a tribe you could easily find yourself enslaved or worse by another tribe. This was not like picking a modern political party or religious affiliation-your survival was at stake. When you read those Old Testament stories about so and so accumulating so many fighting men and a certain amount of swords or horses or camels or making an alliance with king so and so, this wasn’t a hobby. This was life or death. Kill or be killed. And no matter how many battles you’d fought and won, you were always one battle away from the enemy crushing you and wiping out your entire tribe, or killing some of you and taking the rest back to be assimilated into the conquerors’ tribe. (This is why hospitality was so important-when strangers wandered into your camp you invited them in and cared for them and made sure they were treated well because the slightest snub or inhospitality could set off who knows what kind of inter-tribal conflict violence. Which is what is going on in the story about Sodom and Gomorrah…)
Imagine what would happen if the tribe next door obtained a new technology, like iron or bronze. It would be terrifying, knowing that if there was battle, you would be outgunned. Your entire way of life would be at stake (That’s the tension between the Philistines and the Israelites during the David and Goliath story).
It’s in this world at this time that we read the story of a man called to be the father of a new nation, a new tribe, one that would exist not just for its own self preservation, but for a much higher purpose-to bless all the other tribes.
This is the story of Abraham’s tribe, also called Israel.
Can you see how radical this idea was?
Can you see how this idea would have taken a while to catch on? (And can you see why Jesus keeps reminding his people of their original calling?)
Can you see how difficult it would have been to make this kind of leap in a culture in which tribal affiliation and preservation was the highest value?
Can you see how no matter what you’d been told about who you are and what your calling was, you would still have a filter, a lens, a way that you saw the world?
Can you see how easy it would have been to win a battle and slaughter everybody in the tribe you defeated and then give your god credit, later telling stories about how your god told you to do it?
We’re just getting started.
Next – What is the Bible?
Part 13: Consciousness and Violence