Wednesday, 20 February 2013

God, Egypt and nature... some follow up thoughts

Time off this week has offered a welcome opportunity to catch up on viewing and reading, and a couple of items have caught my attention, provoking further thought about a subject we reflected on in YWBC a few weeks ago.

One of the concerns expressed by a number of people in our discussion on the plague stories of Exodus was the suffering experienced by nature and animals during the sequence of afflictions which befell Egypt. For example, animals, as well as humans, are afflicted by gnats and boils, the land is ‘ruined’ by flies, trees and plants are ‘shattered’ by thunder and hail. And, of course, even the firstborn of all the livestock, as well as humans, are struck down.

When we discussed this in church a few weeks ago, I made the suggestion that nature is caught up in the suffering which results from Pharaoh’s intransigence, but also as part of a process by which God will eventually secure for it a better future under the protective care of the people of Israel. At the time of the Exodus, Egypt was regarded as the ‘bread basket’ of the world, a thriving economy that provided food to the surrounding region. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think about the intensive farming methods that would have been employed by Egypt. In contrast, the new order planned by God for Israel is one where the land lies fallow for recovery every seven years and donkeys get to rest on the Sabbath (Exod 23:10-12).

I’ve been reminded in recent weeks how we read the Bible from a very human-centred perspective, which can blind us to the bigger story God is unfolding, a story of freedom for all creation, for which it longs, groaning as if in labour (Rom 8:22). Over the weekend, we spent an hour enjoying the ‘last chance to watch’ the BBC’s wonderful documentary Africa, on iPlayer. One of the most moving lessons of Africa was the way it demonstrated the terrible hardship, a daily battle for survival, which is experienced by so many animals in our world. Watching Africa, and its account of elephants and zebras walking for days on end in a search for water, I was reminded of God’s words at the end of Job 38:

39 ‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
   or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 
40 when they crouch in their dens,
   or lie in wait in their covert? 
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
   when its young ones cry to God,
   and wander about for lack of food? 

It seems that part of the lesson God is trying to teach Job is that there is work that he is doing in our world, a work of care and provision for his creation, that humans are often oblivious to.

A second point which emerges from Job is the way God is portrayed as wrestling with his creation, seeking to bring order to a world which is beset by chaos. This is an issue which has wider implications for how we understand God’s relationship to our world. Is creation perfectly ordered, a clockwork universe which has been set in motion by a God who now regulates every tiny event of every life, or is God still seeking to lovingly assert his authority on our world, a process only to be completed at the eventual moment when all things are made new? This brings me to the second article I came across this week, the news that the cosmos may be ‘inherently unstable.’ You can read the full story here, the suggestion that research on the properties of the Higgs boson is reviving an ‘old idea that the Big Bang Universe we observe today is just the latest version in a permanent cycle of events.’ Reading Scripture, in light of these new scientific discoveries, seems to me to provide further support for the idea of viewing creation as untamed, and God as one who is lovingly working to bring about its deliverance, as well as ours.

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