A Lesson in the Margins

He made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down.
Exodus 38:4 (NRSVCE)

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One of the things I’ve observed along my life journey is what little appreciation I often have for how good I have it, and how different (i.e. comparatively great) life is today compared to the other 99% of human history.

Those who read the text version of my posts may notice that I will often quote different verses from different English translations and paraphrases. I typically will put a little parenthetical acronym behind the reference to let those who care about such things know which translation or paraphrase the quote is from. And, those who care about such things may have noticed that these chapter-a-day posts from my current journey through the Exodus story have come from the NRSVCE which stands for New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.

What’s strange about that?

Well, I am not, nor have I ever been, Roman Catholic (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! [cue: rimshot]).

I have been reading the chapter each morning from the St. John’s Bible, which happens to be the NRSVCE translation. (Stick with me here, there is a point to all of this.)

The events we are reading about in Exodus happened somewhere roughly around 1500 BC/BCE. It was roughly 1500 AD/CE when Gutenberg and his printing press created the first mass-printed copies of the Exodus text. That means for 3000 years the only copies of Exodus were those which were copied by hand using whatever utensils and materials were available. For roughly a thousand years, followers of Jesus painstakingly copied the texts of the Great Story and added to their handwritten copies beautiful calligraphy, ornate illustrations, and artistic flourishes. These have come to be known as “illuminated manuscripts” which now are typically only found in museums and rare book shops.

After mass printing became available, the art of illuminated manuscripts became obsolete. But in 1998 Queen Elizabeth’s calligrapher, Donald Jackson, in conjunction with fellow scribes and some scholars from St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota, began work on a handwritten, illuminated manuscript of the Great Story. It’s the first one of its kind in 500 years. The combination text and artwork have been published in seven gorgeous volumes that Wendy and girls have gifted to me over the years. So each morning of this journey through the Exodus story I have come to the quiet of my office and read the chapter in the beautiful calligraphy of the St. John’s Bible.

This morning, I encountered something unusual. Donald Jackson and his fellow human scribes made an error. They left out the first half of verse four. Ugh. I can imagine when you put in countless hours of painstaking, intense artistic labor you don’t simply just scrap the page and start over. So what do you do?

In the margin of today’s chapter, the scribes drew a beautiful eagle holding a rope in its talons and its beak pointing to the space between lines where the missing text was supposed to go. The rope in the eagle’s talons descends all the way to the bottom of the page where I found the first half of verse four inside a text box around which the eagle’s rope appears to be hand-tied and knotted.

Brilliant, and beautiful.

In yesterday’s post, I noted that sometimes with the seemingly boring and rote information in certain chapters of the Great Story I have to look outside the text in order to find what God’s Spirit has to teach me that day. It’s always there if I’m open to it, and it’s taught me an important spiritual lesson: In God’s creation, everything is connected. Yesterday it was in the meta-communication of repetition that I found meaning. Today, I find my lesson in the human error of the handwritten text.

The scribes of the St. John’s Bible made a mistake. I wonder how far along they were on the page before they discovered it, or had it been completed before an editor discovered the bad news? I can only imagine the guttural groan of the calligraphers, the agonizing team meeting that may have taken place, and the depths of artistic shame and despair that may have accompanied the moments the oversight came to light.

This life journey is filled with human mistakes. Buy me a pint and I will give you an entire list of mistakes I’ve made along the way (it might cost you two pints, there are a lot of them). Mistakes that, when they came to light, created all sorts of groans, agonizing, shame, and despair for me. But, I’ve discovered through those stretches of life’s road that God is not a God of condemnation and shame. That’s just human experience projected on the divine or the enemy twisting the truth and passing it off to those who have no desire to ask, seek, or knock. God does what the scribes of the St. John’s Bible did. He takes my failures and shame and does something artistic with it. He molds the old mistakes into a new creation. He redeems it.

In the quiet this morning, this ancient lyric from Psalm 30 (MSG) rose from my memory bank. It’s written by King David (who had a boat-load of his own failures and shame):

I give you all the credit, God—
    you got me out of that mess,
    you didn’t let my foes gloat.

God, my God, I yelled for help
    and you put me together.
God, you pulled me out of the grave,

    gave me another chance at life
    when I was down-and-out.
You did it: you changed wild lament
    into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band

    and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
    I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
    I can’t thank you enough.

If you find yourself staring at the consequences of your own mistakes and failures, trust that God wants to make something beautiful out of it. As God put it to the Hebrews after delivering them out of Egypt: “I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

2 thoughts on “A Lesson in the Margins”

  1. I suspect the errant scribes were dealt with compassion and love. NOT! Some floggings or firings surely ensued.

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