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The Bible—s Human Bridges

by Virginia Smith

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 B.C.E.

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, historically verifiable.

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 Israel.

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) Egyptian years.

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 to Abraham.

Joshua: Get in and Get Organized - c. 1200 B.C.E.

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 B.C.E.

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 B.C.E.

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. 26 C.E.

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.

Virginia Smith, one of the general editors of, and frequent contributors to, Scripture From Scratch, has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University.

Next: The Use and Abuse of the Bible (by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.)

 

 

Living the Scriptures


Who have been the bridge figures in your life? What attributes did they possess that helped you move from one period of your life to the next? How might you be able to do that for someone else? Could you be the bridge leading another to a new and better time in their life or, perhaps, even closer to God?

 

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