Does Common Ground Require Agreement?

Sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share stories and ethical teachings. They follow many common themes. The first three posts in the CBB’s wilderness text study, in fact, focused on Jewish texts with parallels in other Abrahamic traditions.

Despite commonalities, however, our traditions are not identical. And sometimes a common theme — the need for water, for example, in both physical and symbolic terms — serves to highlight our differences.

For example, last week’s portion in the annual cycle of Torah readings (“Chukkat [statute],” Numbers 19:1-21:35) includes the famous story of Moses striking a rock to produce water for the Israelites. Having just completed the “Building Abrahamic Partnerships” program (BAP) at Hartford Seminary, I was struck (no pun intended) during this reading by some of the obvious, and not-so-obvious ways, our readings of scripture differ.

Variety among us is, as discussed in CBB’s second “Wilderness” text study, a great virtue. But it’s also a challenge, even — or maybe especially — when considering apparently “common” stories and concepts.

Uncommon Background

Moses Strikes the Rock
In the Torah story of Meribah (Numbers 20), after nearly 40 years in the desert, the people are protesting once again, this time about a lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron how to respond. When the brothers do not follow instructions, God declares that neither prophet/leader will reach the Land.

Aaron and Moses receive direct communication from God but don’t carry out instructions as commanded. Jewish commentary over the centuries has offered many explanations for how and why this lapse occurred; it is widely accepted, however, that the prophets did fail to carry out God’s instruction and are punished by God. The previous installment of this series explored another text in which prophets sin and are punished by God.

Aaron, Miriam and Moses are not alone among biblical characters — including those identified in both Judaism and Islam as prophets — who behave badly. Jewish views vary as to the degree to which biblical characters are seen as role models. But there is no getting around the fact that prophets in the Torah regularly behave in ways which are far from exemplary….

…And this, for readers used to less fallible or obstreperous prophets, can be somewhat disorienting.

Job (Ayub) Strikes the Ground
The Qur’an also contains a story of a prophet obtaining water by striking, at God’s instruction, an apparently dry spot. In the Qur’an, as in the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the prophet Job (Ayub) endures many afflictions without losing faith; in both texts, his faithfulness is eventually rewarded. According to the Qur’an (38:41-42), his sufferings come to a close with a brief tale not included in the Bible.

As I understand it — and I hope Muslim readers will correct any misunderstandings — Job does not challenge God in the Qur’an and Hadith. In the Hebrew Bible, however, Job’s challenge — demanding that God outline charges against him to justify the suffering — is a major element in the story.

In the Qur’an, when God tells Job to strike the ground, he does so without comment or further argument….

…And this, for a reader used to a different God-prophet dynamic, can be very confusing.


Jesus Teaches at the Well
Another story about obtaining water in unlikely circumstances appears in the Gospel of John: Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to draw water for him from a nearby well, but she protests that this is not possible: “…you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.” (John 4:11). Jesus replies promising water that “will become in [the drinker] a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

In another scripture (also below), Jesus uses a similar image adding that “whoever believes in me” will have access to the spring.

The Job and Meribah texts only hint at the connection, but Islam and Judaism are filled with metaphors linking water with God, spiritual sustenance, and eternal life. Moreover, “belief” is an important element in the stories of Job and of Meribah, as well as in Jesus’ teachings about the eternal spring. The Gospel text seems to make — and I hope Christian readers will correct any misunderstandings — a more explicit connection between eternal life and specific belief (“in me”). But it seems unclear whether “belief” denotes the same state of being in all three texts.

…And this adds yet another layer of puzzlement for readers in an inter-religious context.


Can we have a sensible conversation without agreeing on the meaning of concepts such as “prophet” or “belief”? Is it enough to put our differences (if we realize them) on the table? How can we learn more about our differences without letting them divide us?

Comment here and/or JOIN CBB’s MAILING LIST to continue the conversation.



The Texts: Striking Water in Torah, Qur’an, and Gospel

Torah

וּAnd the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink.’

And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He commanded him.

And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: ‘Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?’

And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.

And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’

These are the waters of Meribah, where the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and He was sanctified in them.
— Numbers 20:11-13 (old JPS translation borrowed from Mechon-Mamre)

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Qur’an

And call to mind Our servant Job, [how it was] when he cried out to his Sustainer, “Behold, Satan has afflicted me with [utter] weariness and suffering!” (41) [and thereupon was told:] “Strike [the ground] with thy foot: here is cool water to wash with and to drink!” (42)

…Let [all] this be a reminder [to those who believe in God] – for, verily, the most beauteous of all goals awaits the God-conscious” (49)

FOOTNOTE: According to classical commentators, the miraculous appearance of a healing spring heralded the end of Job’s suffering, both physical and mental.
–38:41-42, 38:49 from the M. Asad translation

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Gospel

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
–John 4:13 (NIV translation)


Jesus offers a similar teaching at the close of the Festival of Tabernacles [Sukkot], a day associated with rain in Jewish tradition:


On the last and greatest day of the Feast [Tabernacles or Sukkot], Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow within him.”
–John 7:37-38 (NIV translation)

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(Virginia A. Spatz, 7/4/2011)

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