Monday, 24 December 2012

The Pooverview - Part I

Well, despite all my best intentions, Christmas appears to be happening at me yet again. Joy. Now Christmas, as everyone knows, means gin, and the Doctor Who Christmas special. But is there more to it than that?
Yes, of course there is, and I'm sure everyone and his dog is writing about The True Meaning Of Christmas at the moment. So to liven things up slightly, and to make for more interesting conversations over the turkey, and because I never really grew up, I'd like to offer my own Overview Of The True Meaning Of Christmas, looking at things from a slightly different angle. A sort of bottom-up angle, if you will...
I hereby present:

The Pooverview: An Overview of the Bible in Nine (Bowel) Movements.

(Or: The Meaning Of Christmas Explained Through Several Key Moments In Salvation History Which Involve Human Excrement.)

It's a sort of Nine Lessons and Carols, only the lessons all feature poo, and there are no carols.
Don't worry, in order to raise things above the level of a merely tasteless exercise in scatological humour, I've opted to punctuate proceedings not with the usual pictures of Britney, but with high-brow works of art, carefully selected for their relevance and aesthetic beauty.

Let's go.

1) First Movement - Paradise Down The Pan

Here's what Eden might have looked like,
if it had been in China during the early Qing Dynasty.
Artist: Shitao

The literal first movement is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but I suspect it happens in Genesis 3.

In the beginning, you see, God made the earth. And Adam and Eve. And at this point, everything was good. Adam and Eve and God all lived together in the Garden of Eden. And then, in Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve rebel against God and disobey him.*

God responds by cursing creation. This is known as "The Fall".

Before the fall, work is good, relationships are good, the environment is good.
After the fall, work results in sweat, relationships are broken, we get pain from bearing children, shame at our own bodies, death, and presumably - though the Bible doesn't mention it specifically - poo.

Where it all went wrong.
Artist: Hans Baldung.

Now, we've got a lot of ground to cover in our Pooverview, so we can't go into much detail, but the important thing to remember here is this: We are in trouble. The whole of creation is cursed - we see it everywhere: war, famine, pain, cancer, death, the X-Factor... and, worse, mankind is now broken and failing to do the one thing for which it was designed - to reflect God's image, to live rightly with him. We're shattered mirrors, destined for an eternal scrap-heap.

Bit of a downer for a Christmas post, but Christmas doesn't make sense unless you understand the fall. The fall is The Big Problem, and the rest of the Bible is concerned with finding The Big Solution.

Status at the end of this movement: Mankind is doomed.

2) Second Movement - Digging For Victory

You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14)

We've leaped on significantly in Bible history by this point, but to fill in some gaps: Man's relationship with God has gone from bad to worse, but inexplicably God has chosen a nation to be his own treasured possession. This nation is Israel, and God has promised that somehow, through Israel, he will bless all nations. Israel didn't do anything special to deserve this treatment - they are special because God decided they would be special.

The story of God's relationship with Israel takes up most of the Old Testament, and two key truths are held in tension throughout. This passage neatly illustrates them both:
a) Israel enjoys a unique relationship with God - he walks in the midst of their camp. He fights for them. This is massive. It's like a tiny foretaste of the Big Solution.
b) But a Holy God requires a Holy Camp. Israel's relationship with God depends on their obedience to him - their cleanliness. Which leads to all sorts of problems, of which waste disposal is but the grubby tip of the iceberg. The Big Problem is bigger than ever - how can a righteous God live with an unrighteous people?

Status at the end of this movement: Life is good for Israel, if they can obey God... but the rest of the world is still waiting for a solution to come about, somehow, through Israel.
"Dammit! You've hidden my trowel again!"
Artist: Franz Von Stuck.

3) Third Movement - The Chamber Of Secretions

Moving on in Israel's history, we are into The Time Of The Judges. The Time Of The Judges is a time when Israel was ruled and judged by, er, Judges. You can read about it in the book of Judges.

At the end of the previous movement we were wondering whether Israel would be able to obey God and hence enjoy the blessings of his rule. The answer, in Judges, is a pretty resounding NO. The pattern of behaviour throughout the book is basically an ever-worsening cycle of:

1) Israel abandon God...
2) So God abandons Israel to their enemies...
3) Israel cry out for rescue.
4) God sends a Judge to rescue them.
5) Everyone is rescued, all is good, everyone behaves, until...

6) The judge dies. Back to step one.

Famous judges include Samson - he with the flowing locks, the superhuman strength, and the weakness for seductive-yet-evil Philistine gals. But my favourite judge is this guy - Ehud. Ehud was a left-handed man - hurrah for the left-handers - and he pioneered the whole left-handed hiding-a-sword-down-your-trousers technique for disposing of evil kings:

And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them.When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” And they waited till they were embarrassed. But when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them, and there lay their lord dead on the floor. (Judges 3:20-25)

Status at the end of this movement: Things are not looking great for Israel. What they seem to need is a rescuer who will judge the land wisely, but who won't die...

Winner in the Best-Dressed Judges-With-Swords Category, 1740.
Artist: Jean-Baptiste Van Loo.

4) Fourth Movement - Trouble On The Throne

After The Time Of The Judges, Israel decide they want a King. The model king was King David. God makes some significant promises to and through David - the Big Solution we are looking for will be a King, of David's line.

Unfortunately, a lot of David's offspring were total losers, who abandoned God and led the whole of Israel into deep doo-doo. David's grandson manages to split Israel into two totally separate, and occasionally warring, kingdoms: Israel and Judah - the Northern and Southern kingdoms. While Judah gets to keep the Davidic royal line, both kingdoms suffer from corrupt and faithless rulers.

Corrupt and faithless rulers are a Very Bad Thing, because the fate of God's people is closely tied to the fate of the ruler. If the king is rotten, the country will start to smell pretty bad pretty quickly...

When the crown slips, it'll take more than a giant beard to set things right.
Artist: Julius Klinger.

This was God's verdict against Jeroboam, the first king of the Southern Kingdom:

Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone. (1 Kings 10:14)**

And this is his verdict against Jehoram, the fifth king of the Northern Kingdom, who, amongst other things, killed all his brothers, and "led the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom":

You yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out because of the disease, day by day. (2 Chronicles 21:15)

And, because what God says will happen always happens:

In the course of time, at the end of two years, his bowels came out because of the disease, and he died in great agony. His people made no fire in his honour, like the fires made for his fathers. He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. And he departed with no one's regret. (2 Chronicles 21:19-20)

The lesson is, of course, that God's King needs to be faithful to God - for the good of God's people, and for the good of his own bowels.

Status at the end of this movement: Very bad. Israel desperately need a good king, one who will rule them faithfully, who is completely obedient to God...

5) Fifth Movement - An Enema At The Gates 

And your food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from day to day you shall eat it. And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. (Ezekiel 4:10-12)

By now I hope we've seen the trajectory that Israel is on. So let's skip forward to the time of Jehoram's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, ish. What news? Well, the Northern Kingdom is defunct by this point, having been captured and resettled by Assyria. That's ten whole tribes of Israel gone forever. The Southern Kingdom - Judah - has largely been taken into captivity by Babylon, and the capital city, Jerusalem, is under siege. God has acted just as he said he would all along: after generations of escalating disobedience, God calls time; Israel is sent into exile.

Here's what the sacking of Jerusalem might have looked like if it had been Troy.
Artist: Jacob Willemszoon de Wet.

To make sure his people understand why this is happening, God uses some pretty extraordinary visual aids. In this scene, the Prophet Ezekiel is being commanded to enact the siege of Jerusalem. He has to create a model of the city, complete with model siegeworks, his food is carefully rationed, he has to lie on his side for 390 days, and he has to cook his food on burning poop. (God allows him to use animal poop in the end.) All in all, not a terribly fun time for Ezekiel, but it would be hard to miss the point.

Status at the end of this movement: Disaster. Israel is gone, and with it all hope for The Big Solution. Even God's chosen people, with all their advantages and privileges, have consistently demonstrated an utter failure to relate rightly to God.
This should really be the end of the story - all hopes flushed.
But remember that God made certain promises, and he always keeps his promises, so...

6) Sixth Movement - The Return

Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill. (Ezra 6:11)

Guess what?
Judah doesn't stay in exile.
Remember all the rubbish kings, who should have been leading God's people in a relationship with God, but ended up leading them into exile?
Well, irony of ironies, now we get some examples of foreign kings who totally get it. First of all King Cyrus, king of Persia, sends the Jews home to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Then, a while later, after the Jews hit some trouble with opposition to the rebuilding, King Darius of Persia issues the above edict about anyone who tries to stop the rebuilding. Nice, huh? I would like to hear Sir Alan Sugar use that line on someone.***

Here's what the new temple might have looked like if it had been Notre Dame.
Artist: Frank M Boggs.

So, right at the end of the Old Testament, we get this little glimmer of hope. It's very much like those bonus scenes you get after the credits in a movie, that appear to open things up for the sequel.
Unfortunately the glimmer of hope is pretty short-lived, since the Jews immediately start disobeying God and mucking things up all over again.

Status at the end of this movement: Not even total exile and unwarranted miraculous return has sorted out man's attitude problem towards God. But at least God's chosen people have survived, so there is still some hope that the Big Solution will come along one day...

Getting Ready For The Final Push:

Let's recap...
Man's relationship with God has been fundamentally broken.
This means death - physical and spiritual - for all people.
This is The Big Problem, and the whole of creation is yearning for The Big Solution.

Whose fault is this?
Who can fix it?
Why is the Old Testament so long?
Why is this post so long?

This post is long because it's trying to summarise the whole of the Old Testament. And because I can't write short posts.
The Old Testament is long, because that's how much time we need to learn the answer to the first two questions:

It's our fault.
And only God can fix it.

The history of God's relationship with Israel, with all its ups and downs, repeatedly teaches us the same thing: We are guilty, and we can't put things right. Maybe we just need a new start? Nope - Noah shows us that doesn't work. Maybe we just need a bit of discipline? Nope, it didn't work with Israel. Maybe we'll love God properly if he gives us loads of good stuff? Nope, didn't work with Israel. Maybe we don't love God properly because he hasn't told us enough about himself? Nope, didn't work with Israel. Maybe we just need shaking up a bit? Nope, didn't work with Israel. And so on and so on and so on and so on.

But through all this, God repeatedly drops hints that he will sort things out for us - that The Big Solution is coming. This solution will be a man - he'll be the perfect Judge, as we saw Israel needed. He'll be the perfect King, as we saw Israel needed. And through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

So that, dear readers, is why we get all excited about a poor wee baby in a manger in Bethlehem.

In the second and last part of the Pooverview, we'll look at the New Testament Dung References and what they teach us about Jesus.

Merry Christmas one and all.

Artist: Millard Sheets.

* This was the whole incident with the forbidden fruit. Trivia fans: The Bible doesn't actually say it was an apple, just that it was a fruit. In keeping with the theme of this post, I will reveal my own theory, born from the special insight I received during an eye-wateringly horrible and embarrassing twenty-five-minute-long episode in the smallest room of a vicar's house one Sunday morning following an unwise Saturday night pizza choice: it wasn't an apple, it was a chili pepper.
** I've gone for the King James Version here, because of the charming use of the word 'pisseth'. Love it.
*** Except that would involve me having to watch the Apprentice.

1 comment:

  1. This, sir, is a work of genius. And it's the first time I've heard the Ehud story. There aren't too many laugh-out-loud passages in the Bible, but that one made me silently wee myself - and I was taking a detention at the time and trying to look serious. How about The Top Ten Funny Moments In The Bible That Will Make Teachers Lose Bladder Control At Inappropriate Moments for your next blog post?