Bridges rank right up there with the wheel and
sliced bread on the list of eminently useful inventions. They
convey us safely across treacherous chasms and span bodies of
water from brooks to bays, depositing us dry of foot on the
opposite bank. Some become famous (Golden Gate Bridge, Tower
Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs). Some are immortalized in literature
(The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Bridge of San Luis Rey).
For the most part, we think of bridges in terms of steel and
stone. Rarely, if ever, do we think of them as people.
The Bible, however, is full of human bridges,
and given two millennia (plus or minus) of biblical history,
I for one give humble thanks for the presence of these helpful
souls along the way. Like their structural counterparts, some
have become famous (Abraham, Moses, John the Baptizer). Some
have graced the pages of countless literary works, notably Jesus.
And, while flesh and bone like the rest of us, these great connectors
often were characterized by steely resolve and stone-like immovability.
Positioned strategically throughout the biblical
narrative, these stalwart figures stand with one foot in the
time period drawing to a close and the other in an era just
beginning. They help us make the transition effortlessly without
either falling into the abyss or getting in over our heads and
drowning. So smoothly do they accomplish their mission that
we are rarely aware of it.
What is also fascinating is how different they
are...and how human, dealing with the same blend of virtues
and vices, strengths and weaknesses, wisdom and folly that characterize
the rest of us. The more I read about them, the clearer it becomes
that there is no single mold to which every godly person must
conform. Rather, each person uniquely models God to others by
working with and through the circumstances presented, using
the tools at hand. Let—s meet a few biblical bridges and see
how they work.
Abraham: From Prehistory to History - 1850
A modern engineer would find structural deficiencies
in the bridge that is Abraham. While one foot is planted firmly
on solid ground, the other keeps trying to find a footing. Abraham
carries us from the epoch termed in most Bibles prehistory or
primeval history to the patriarchal age which is, to some extent,
Genesis 1:1—11:26 frames the eons from creation
to the Tower of Babel and records them via such devices as myth,
legend and allegory, literary forms used to convey great truths
when data-based information and eye witnesses are lacking.
The patriarchal age began with Abram (Abraham)
probably around the middle of the 19th century B.C.E. and continued
for 200 years or so through his descendants: Isaac, Jacob (Israel),
Joseph and his 11 brothers. At this time, relationships with
God began in earnest: first with individuals, Abraham and Israel,
then with a people sprung from them, the Israelites. First to
encounter this God, Abraham had no history or tradition to draw
on, only his remarkable faith which served him well. This earliest
period of biblical history saw the scene shift from Abraham—s
hometown of Ur in modern Iraq to the land of Canaan, today—s
Joseph: the Reluctant Egyptian - c. 1650 B.C.E.
Joseph was born and grew to his late teens in
Canaan. His early history is recounted in Genesis 37 if you
need to brush up on this early version of "Family Feud." Beloved
(and spoiled rotten) by his father, hated (and fittingly scorned)
by his brothers, Joseph found himself with a one-way ticket
on a camel caravan. Destination: Egypt. Prospects: slim to none.
Joseph became the unwilling bridge closing the patriarchal saga
in Canaan and opening the Israelites— (descendants of Jacob)
Against all odds, Joseph thrived in Egypt and
became a highly responsible, truly likable person of integrity
in the process. In due time, Jacob and the rest of the boys
joined him, living high, though not off the hog, on Egypt—s
lushest delta land, courtesy of Joseph—s position at Pharaoh—s
right hand. But sometime during their four-century stay, everything
went sour, reducing the Israelites to slavery and subjecting
their male newborns to infanticide. Emigration was highly desirable
but extremely difficult, given their social status. Someone
with clout at court would literally be a God-send. Enter...
Moses: the Egyptian Israelite - c. 1250 B.C.E.
Born into an Israelite family of Levites, Moses,
like his ancestor Joseph, made his way to the Egyptian court
by most untraditional means, floating away from almost certain
death into the arms of an Egyptian princess (Exodus 2:1-10).
Returned to his own home under royal guardianship, Moses learned
the traditions of his own people before moving to the palace
where he was steeped in Egyptian lore. That he became conflicted
about these cultures became evident when he killed an Egyptian
overseer for beating one of his Hebrew relatives. That cost
him a trip into the wilderness to save his neck.
Even so, a man who alone possesses the background
to be credible in both Israelite and Egyptian circles and thereby,
a bridge between the two, surely must be the person to effect
the longed-for exodus from Egypt. God evidently thought so,
sending Moses back to Egypt on just such a mission (Exodus 3).
From Moses— perspective, this wasn—t the greatest idea. He didn—t
see himself as the man for the job, and then there was that
little matter of a pending death sentence.
It wasn—t an easy assignment (Exodus 5—12), but
in the end Moses proved to be the ideal bridge, closing the
Israelites— Egyptian stay and opening the years of the desert
experience. The forty-odd years the Israelites spent wandering
the Sinai Peninsula were hard on the people and particularly
hard on Moses who didn—t live to see the end of the venture,
dying just short of entry into Canaan and passing the torch
to Joshua, who would actually set foot in the land promised
Joshua: Get in and Get Organized - c. 1200
For all that he had long been Moses— right-hand
man, Joshua was a different personality, possessed of skills
and attributes needed at that historical juncture. Militarily
trained and highly organizational, Joshua was ideally suited
to the tasks before him: (1) to move the tribes of Israel into
Canaan, often over the strenuous objections of the Canaanites,
and (2) to distribute the newly acquired land among them. With
one foot planted on the east bank of the River Jordan, effectively
ending the Exodus, and one on the river—s west bank, launching
the settlement in Canaan, Joshua is one of the Bible—s most
obvious bridges. Accomplishing those two assignments took up
most of his life, a life we read about in some detail in the
biblical book bearing his name.
Joshua—s demise left a yawning leadership gap.
There was, in fact, no centralized leadership whatever. When
problems arose among the fledgling settlers, hero figures arose
to deal with the situation, and having accomplished that, typically
disappeared. Known as the Judges (although they bore no resemblance
to presiders over courts of law), these interesting figures
put out fires in the Israelite ranks for some two centuries,
but this state of affairs was far from ideal.
Samuel: Be Careful What You Ask For - c. 1020
The last and greatest of the dozen or so Judges—Samuel—became
a towering bridge. Not only a judge, he was a prophet as well.
Like most prophets, Samuel wasn—t afraid to say what he thought
and, as was the experience of many prophets, the people weren—t
afraid to ignore his warnings.
Inasmuch as the Judges form of "government" wasn—t
yielding much success, Israel—s tribal leaders came to the collective
conclusion that what they needed was a king like other folks
had, someone to rally the tribes and drive off the bad guys.
So, because they held Samuel in such high esteem, they asked
him to talk to God about it and anoint a designated ruler.
The Bible makes no mention of Samuel rolling his
eyes, but surely he must have. Patiently, he explained the down
side of having a king (1 Samuel 8:10-22), how adversely they
had affected nations who were stuck with them. Persuaded that
they would be the exception to this long-standing rule, the
Israelites— reply came down to, "Do it anyway."
So Samuel did it anyway (1 Samuel 9:26b-10:1),
thereby inaugurating the period of the monarchy and ending the
cycle of the Judges. Samuel—s first choice, Saul, started well
but ended badly (1 Samuel 10-31). Next came David, followed
by Solomon, followed by Rehoboam whose flair for leadership
resulted in an irreparable schism of the kingdom in 922 B.C.E..
From that point on, there were two sets of kings, one for Israel,
one for Judah. A few were illustrious; many were mediocre; some
were ineffective; and several were downright detestable. But
rule they did: in Israel until 721 B.C.E. when Assyria—s war
machine blew through; in Judah, until 587 B.C.E. when Babylonia—s
armies did the same.
Jeremiah: Please, Please, Please - c. 627-587
To Jeremiah, one of the most beleaguered figures
of the Bible, fell the dubious honor of watching the disintegration
of Judah—s remaining monarchy and viewing the sad procession
of Judahites into a half-century exile in Babylon.
Unlike Abraham, Moses or Joshua, Jeremiah does
not provide a bridge to greener pastures. Quite the contrary.
Poor Jeremiah, no matter how hard he strived to prevent it,
became the bridge to the Chosen People—s unhappiest chapter,
and he paid dearly for it.
Realizing how far God—s people had strayed from
their sacred covenant, Jeremiah used every literary device he
could muster to make them see what the inevitable consequences
of their actions would be. Turn around! Come back! Listen to
me! Jeremiah thundered through the reigns of five Judahite kings,
and for his trouble, got dumped into a muddy cistern, imprisoned
and roundly ignored.
The words of Jeremiah often seem surprisingly
contemporary, leaving the reader to ponder whether there might
be unwelcome bridges looming ahead for us or for our society
if we, like the people of Jeremiah—s time, continue to turn
a deaf ear.
Ezra and Nehemiah: Restoring Judah - 538 B.C.E.
Turning Ezra and Nehemiah into bridges is something
of a stretch. Their metaphorical legs will have to cover a much
longer and less well defined time period than the others. These
men stand with one foot shaking off the dust of the exile and
the other seeking a foothold in the restoration.
The biblical period of restoration resembles in
some ways the American period of reconstruction following the
Civil War. In both cases, a tremendous amount of rebuilding
lay ahead, but the resources needed were in short supply. Additionally,
smoldering animosities remained: in America, between North and
South; in Judah, between Samaritans and Jews. Leaders in such
circumstances often have no easy time of it.
Exactly when Ezra and Nehemiah piloted the people
into this new age is unclear. What can be said is that again
God provided the right people with the right skills to meet
the needs of the moment. Ezra, a priest who traced his lineage
to the original high priest Aaron, led the reform of post-exilic
Judaism. He and Jeremiah are virtual bookends, preaching much
the same message from opposite sides of that defining trek to
Babylon. Nehemiah was the "doer" with a thoroughly pragmatic
approach, a rebuilder in the most literal sense.
Between the two (and with the considerable assistance
of many others), Ezra and Nehemiah restored the people to the
land and to the covenant of their God. Recovery is a long process,
especially when interrupted by incursions of foreigners such
as the Greeks and the Romans. The restoration stretched nearly
to the time of Jesus.
John the Baptizer "I must decrease..." - c.
As the dawn of the Christian era topped the horizon,
an unforgettable bridge took his place to assist the People
of God in making one of the most daunting crossings of all,
that from the period of the First Testament to the Second. John
the Baptizer is the only figure aside from Jesus to figure prominently
in all four New Testament Gospels. Though sometimes rough and
abrasive, John seemed to collect in himself many of the sterling
qualities of earlier bridges. Like Samuel, he rallied the people
around him. Like Jeremiah, he spoke fearlessly disregarding
consequences (as Herod Antipas discovered - Mark 6:17-29). Like
Ezra, he looked to the restoration of the ancient faith but
with a distinctive future stance.
Unlike any of his predecessors, John saw that
future standing before him in flesh and blood. As his own followers
became disciples of Jesus, John stepped back, saying, "So this
joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must
decrease" (Jn 3:29-30).
Jesus: the Bridge Leading Home
The story does not end when the Scriptures close.
Possessed of a unique dual nature, Jesus as man stands with
one foot firmly planted on the earth while Christ as God awaits
us on the far side of this final bridge, his eternal foothold
established in that paradise into which he hopes to usher us
all. There we will need no more bridges, for we will at long
last be home.
Next: The Use and Abuse of the Bible (by Ronald
D. Witherup, S.S.)