Chapter 5: Reading the Pentateuch Again

The way that she told it was that two years before I was born, the year my parents married, my dad volunteered to precariously hang beneath the Redwood Street bridge and set explosive charges to loosen an ice flow that threatened to flood Winnipeg’s core area. Just before I was born she had prayed that if they had a healthy child they would dedicate it to God’s service. She also told me that I was born at the Health Sciences Centre’s Women’s Pavilion, weighing only three pounds, four ounces, just after she flew in a small, puddle-jumping Cessna plane from an isolated northern Manitoba town called Sheraton. I lived in an incubator for three weeks. My mom told me that I was welcomed into the world and, despite a precarious start, managed to survive and thrive. There was a spiritual purpose for my life; even my name had been reconsidered for spiritual reasons, changing from Mark Arthur Patterson to Arthur Paul Patterson.

My grandmother and friends of my parents told me other versions of my story, far less heroic, biblical and dramatic. But my mom’s version was the myth I lived by all my life. I was formed by it. I was convinced that I had a purpose. I was protected in some way from having that destiny thwarted. I was in some way special. The effects of having such an originating story, for better or worse, have pursued me all my life. Upon hearing the counter-stories I often wondered which version was historical or factual. Was my dad a hero who jeopardized his life for others? Was I welcomed into the world and sent here on a prayer and the best wishes of my parents? Was I destined to become a Christian and have a spiritual vocation? Even more striking was the realization that, whether factual or not, this story was my story and I am the product of it. The person I have become living my foundational narrative is very real, quite factual regardless of the tale’s facticity.

Marcus Borg’s recounting of the originating stories of the people of Israel is similar to my personal story. The way they tell the story is that they were given a promise, the promise was threatened by a variety of dangers internal and external, and they had a unique relationship and vocation to God. That’s the way they tell it and that narrative formed them. Did all of it happen exactly as they told it? The chances are slim, as slim as any story retelling the past. Even more difficult is that the Bible is a library of books written, edited and copied by writers and groups of collaborators who had different, even contrary agendas from one another. Who plays the part my mother did in the transmission of the biblical tale? Who was most convincing and how were their words received?

The fathers and mothers of Israel’s faith consolidated the story during two distinct historical periods, the tenth century BCE and sixth century BCE. A story to live by is crucial when your world is changing drastically or when it is apparently about to be destroyed. In the tenth century Israel’s society was transitioning from a tribal confederacy on its last legs to a stable monarchy. How did they recall themselves and their purpose in this time? They needed national centering and kingship, although kingship with a proviso became the authentic story. God was the king, he was their centre but through disobedience they had lost their centre and needed a mediator of God’s rulership in the form of a dynasty. During the Exile and Post-Exilic periods the story of Israel underwent a major consolidation of its metaphorical narrative stressing the pattern of Promise, Threat and Fulfillment. The primordial story of the Exodus provided the spiritual resources to sustain the exiles and the covenantal memory with which to remain faithful in the post-exilic period.

Borg’s historical-metaphorical interpretation of the Pentateuch allows the reader to experientially enter the same story as the ancient Israelites. Apparently the same elements of promise, threat and fulfillment were very much alive in my mother’s account of my own early life, and whether factual or not formed me and aligned me with the Bible’s fundamental identity stories. This method reminds me that people of faith are not dependent on historical reconstruction or veracity of precise events but rather are called to identify with the canonical good news of God’s accompaniment in their lives. Too much reliance on the historical critical method results in an obscuring of the clear outlines of the story of God’s continuing action in, through and among his people.