The Bible As Sacred Commons

I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred commons.download

In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”

The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.

Over time, the purpose of the commons changed. The footpaths through the commons might become roads, dividing the commons into pieces. As New Englanders adopted different denominations of Christianity, some town residents sought to build new (and competing) churches on the commons, or abandoned the commons to build their churches elsewhere. The commons was not always thought of as a good thing. Some commons were neglected and fell into disuse. The town might sell off pieces of the commons for private development.

Today, the commons is a proud part of New England’s heritage. The commons serves like a public park, but not so much in the sense of a place devoted to “recreation” or encountering nature. The commons is more of a place to go to be with others. It is a place of summer concerts and political speeches. Parades go through or pass by the commons. It is a place of commemoration, where we place the Civil War cannon and the memorial to the soldiers who fell in European and Asian wars; this is where we might shoot off firecrackers on the Fourth of July, or where we might spontaneously gather during times of national tragedy or celebration.

While the “commons” is a feature of New England towns, many towns worldwide contain a feature like a commons. Elsewhere, an area like the commons might be called a “village green,” or a town plaza. In the cities of ancient Israel, the area just inside the city gates served as a communal area for meetings and public justice. Today, the idea of a “commons” has spread. It is used to describe ways to share electronic information (for example, the “digital commons”). “Commons” is something of a metaphor used by those promoting development of communal and collective goods. And ironically, it’s also a popular name for shopping malls and housing developments. The U.S. National Institutes of Health uses “commons” to describe its computer system, “which may be accessed and used only for authorized Government business by authorized personnel.” Clearly, the concept of a “commons” is lost on some people!

download (1)To avoid confusion, let’s think of “commons” simply in terms of that grassy square at the center of the traditional New England small town. There’s something about the image of these commons that appeals to me: in their initial development and subsequent repurposing, in their cyclical abandonment and rediscovery, in their sense of history. And when we visit a commons, we are aware that others have walked its paths before us, met neighbors there, and discussed things of import and no import there. The memory held by the commons is not always pleasant! We know that the commons holds dark secrets. Merchants met there or nearby to buy and sell African slaves. The “wrongdoers” whipped on the commons included those who sought to worship G-d differently, or not to attend church at all.

The commons retains its secrets. It is both a specific space we have marked out to encounter each other, and a dim repository of these encounters.

I am thinking that the Bible is a sacred commons.

We spend time here talking about what the Old Testament says and what the New Testament says. I don’t think I have devoted enough time to talk about what the Bible is. The Bible is something more than words. It is also a space, a place, where Jews and Christians come when we seek to encounter the sacred. We have used this space to collect our sacred stories and record our sacred poetry. We have placed all manner of things in this space: collections of laws, our ancient battle strategies, land claims, genealogies, even construction plans.

Like a town commons, the Bible is a place where many have walked before us, and made their mark. We can regard the Bible as a writing, but it might better be regarded as a collection of writings, with many authors. Really, we should imagine the efforts of many people behind each story we find in the Bible. Here’s an example of what I mean. The book of 1 Kings describes the division of Israel after the death of Solomon into two kingdoms: a Northern Kingdom (confusingly also called “Israel”), and a Southern Kingdom of Judah (sometimes called the “House of David”). The division took place at around 930 BCE, and lasted some two hundred years, until the Kingdom of Israel was finally conquered by the Assyrians in 720 BCE. The Bible’s description of the division of Israel and Judah concludes with these words:

Thus Israel revolted against the House of David, as is still the case. [emphasis added]

WOW! Who wrote these words? We can imagine that the Bible’s account of the division of Solomon’s kingdom was based in some part on contemporaneous oral and written accounts. 1 Kings frequently refers to events and actions “recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Judah” and “recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Israel.” Scholars seem to think that these books once existed (if so, we no longer have them), and that they were written or based upon chronicles written by the scribes of these kings. So in the passage above, the conclusion “Israel revolted against the House of David” might go back to the time of the revolt, but the phrase “as is still the case” must have been written later, at some time after the revolt and before the conquest of the Northern Kingdom. More interesting still: scholars believe that 1 Kings is part of a collection of writings, the Deuteronomist Collection, which was not finally written and edited until the time of the conquest of the Southern Kingdom in around 586 BCE. So we might identify three authors (or sets of authors) responsible for the little passage I quoted above: chroniclers contemporary with the division of the kingdoms, editors/redactors some 400 years later … and at least one other voice writing at some time in-between, to tell us that at that in-between time, Israel remained separate from Judah.

All of these writers, these editors, these voices, have walked through the sacred space of the Biblical commons. And I think we’d be remiss if we limited the commons just to the Bible’s authors and editors. We must also take into account all those who’ve commented on the Bible, from Rashi to John Steinbeck. Our preachers and teachers have worked in a collective jumble to create the lens (more accurately, lenses) we use to view the Bible. They too, have walked the sacred commons, and their voices resonate there. We can encounter them there, if we’re sensitive and aware enough to recognize this space for what it might be. And, if you’re like me, you will take your idea of G-d (or if you prefer, the divine, or the eternal, or the Holy Spirit, or the Shekhinah—whatever image you prefer), and imagine that this image also walks through the sacred commons, and speaks there.

The Biblical commons is a space crowded with living beings and ghosts, with words remembered and words not entirely forgotten. Some of what we hear here inspire us, some appall us, some leave us scratching our heads. But ignore for the moment the words that have been spoken there, and consider only the past and present presence of those who have walked through this space. They did not come here for the same reasons we do, but we do share this space with them, and perhaps in our presence here we share something else with them: a desire to encounter the sacred, and perhaps to help create, preserve and enhance/modify a space where such encounter is possible.

I’ll pause here, to catch my breath. To be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the Bible as a sacred space, and not the actual or purported word (or Word) of G-d. Might I return to this idea in a few days, and wonder why I thought it was worth writing down? You betcha. Maybe the idea is to think of the Bible in both ways, as “word” and sacred space. But I want to muse on this further.

Before closing, I want to acknowledge my debt to my commenters, in particular robrecht, David and Bob MacDonald. What I’ve written here is primarily an effort to synthesize their comments into a single approach I might try to bring to problem Bible texts.

While I puzzle this out, post more comments! Do you think that thinking about the Bible as a space or place is likely to get us anywhere?

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    a fascinating and rich metaphor. And one that is itself resonant historically. Here’s someone else who understood the space you are talking about:

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
    and rightdoing there is a field.
    I’ll meet you there.
    When the soul lies down in that grass
    the world is too full to talk about.

    Rumi

    • That’s eerily the kind of thing I have in mind.

  • robrecht

    I like the idea of the bible as a commons, which ironically perhaps, is also a sacred space, both common and sacred at the same time. Reminds me of the use of המקום (hamaqom, the space) as a circumloqution for G-d.

    • rob, I hadn’t thought about the contrast between sacred and common, or that a commons is like a “makom.” Terrific points. Thanks for making them.

      I’m not much at theology. The idea that G-d can be viewed as a sacred space seems right to me, a bit like the Jewish mystical idea that G-d created the universe by contracting G-d’s self to make room for creation. But perhaps the commons space I’m imagining is itself a G-d creation that we have filled (perhaps in some partnership with G-d) with sacred stuff. I love mysticism but I don’t have the education to even dabble in it! So I think I’ll try to keep from going out much further on this particular limb. But I do want to think more about how this idea affects our thinking about problem Bible texts.