The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Writing the Back Story

In what ways are the writings of an ancient people and their perception of God relevant to us?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 1:1-5

For Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012: Year B—Baptism of Our Lord

What a job Moses had.

I mean, can you imagine if you got the job to write the story of creation, the beginning of everything, the world, life, and humanity?

The Whole Enchilada?

I am saying it was Moses who wrote the story because that is what the tradition says. I am sure it probably wasn’t Moses, but tradition says Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

I am sure, one could wonder how Moses was able to conclude his last book with the story of his own death and burial, but that is a minor question, compared to the many others his work brings up.

I wonder—did God ask Moses to write the books? God did tell him to write down the Law, right?  That is, I guess, according to Moses God told him to write down the Law. But, did God ask him to write the rest of it?

“Say, Moses…”

Did God come to Moses and say, “I really like what you did with the Ten Commandments, but I was wondering if you could expand it a little bit?”

Moses says, “Sure what do you have in mind; you want something like the eleventh commandment? We could do, like, an eleven through seventeen, or even twenty-five? Whatever you want, or maybe I’ll go into more detail on one through ten, kind of flesh them out a little.”

God’s like,  “No, I was thinking more along the lines of, well sort of a history, like maybe from the beginning of time until now? I know it’s a lot to ask, but I was just thinking maybe somebody should be writing some of this down. Just give it a shot, write a draft and will see where it goes from there.”

Gets Harder

Maybe at first it didn’t seem that difficult. I can see Moses sitting down to write and the first part coming pretty easily…

“Let’s see, ‘In the beginning….’ Yeah, I like it. In the beginning….”

Of course that’s where it starts to get hard.

“In the beginning…. In the beginning, God…. Yeah, yeah, yeah! In the beginning God was around, right? God was thinking, maybe I should make some stuff.”

Gets Complicated

But Moses had to explain everything. He had to explain, the creation of the world, animals, the sky, the sea, humankind.

You can tell by the time he gets to people, that the responsibility to explain is getting complcated.  It’s not just the reality of the existence of people; but also, how we got to be the way we are.

This brings up, for instance, how humans are different than animals—what is that all about? What Moses comes up with is pretty remarkable or, some might say, unbelievable.

The Hardest Question

Reading the beginning of our Holy Book seems like a good time to revisit exactly what kind of book we think we have. If the Hebrew Bible is the writings of an ancient people and their perception of God’s interaction with them, as well as the ordering and governing of their culture, in what way is it relevant to us?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Jim W says:

    “If the Hebrew Bible is the writings of an ancient people and there[sic] perception of God’s interaction with them as well as the ordering and governing of their culture, in what way does[sic] is it relevant to us?”

    You might proofread this stuff before you post it. Makes it tough to read and lessens your credibility.

    As far as your question goes, it is the history of the world, the story of God and His interaction with His creation. Therefore it is supremely relevant to us. If it isn’t true, then nothing in the Bible can be trusted.

    Why don’t you believe Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible?

  2. THQteam says:

    Thanks for the head’s up, Jim W! We did some surgery on the [sic]-ness.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Jim, didn’t mean to imply that our Holy Book was not true. I was just noting that it is a Holy Book that is adopted. My people are from Northern Europe–even my most ancient relations. I was just posing a question. Do we impose our selves on this Holy Book, which was written for a different people at a different time. As for Moses, there are differing views on the authorship of the Pentateuch. Does the idea that it was constructed by redactors over several centuries change the way you would read it? Or the authority you would give it?

  4. Bruce Case says:

    I didn’t catch where Russell implied that Genesis wasn’t true or that it couldn’t be trusted. I’ll go ahead and say it– I do not believe for a minute that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible and I absolutely love the Scriptures. I wonder, though, if what JimW meant to say was that his interpretation was the only valid one (i.e., if we don’t agree with his interpretation, then we must not believe the Bible to be true. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I’ve seen this line of questioning before, and that’s what it led to. Thanks, Russell! Really enjoy your work, bro’.

How do you read?