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Rowing with Michael

A Voyage through the Hebrew Bible in Rhymes and Commentary

by Jack Hartjes

(Read–or sing–the verse about a Bible story. Try to answer the question. Then click on the question for commentary.)


‘Michael,’ of course, is the famous oarsman who never stops rowing the boat ashore in the song. It was a light-hearted moment when I decided to write some new verses to go with various Bible stories and entertain my Catholic grade school choir with them. Singer Harry Belafonte did it first many years ago with a verse about Daniel in the lions’ den and others that I don’t remember. My verses began piling up while I was sitting on a deer stand with no deer in sight. Later I decided to write some commentary on themes suggested by the stories.

The commentary is meant to be a way of thinking about the Bible with some challenging questions in mind. These are questions that I imagine readers might ask if they take seriously the modern scientific worldview, the need for a new environmental ethic, the moral claims of the world’s many and diverse cultures versus cultural imperialism, the claims of the poor versus economic imperialism, women’s issues, the issues of color, war and peace, and so on. Does biblical religion have any relevance? Is its contribution positive or negative?

The negative answer to that last question is more likely if one ignores modern Bible scholarship. My acquaintance with this kind of study is very much that of an amateur, so I necessarily risk mistaking a minority view for a consensus. I ask pardon further for compounding the risk by occasionally offering my own untested ideas. The kind reader may finally wish to decide whether the intentionally quirky verses of “Rowing with Michael” or the attempt at serious commentary has the more lasting value.

By way of a Table of Contents, I present here the song with all verses and links to the commentaries on the Bible stories represented. You might try to answer the question (usually about the literal meaning of the story) first before going to the commentary.

Michael, row the boat ashore. Alleluia.
Michael, row the boat ashore. Alleluia.

1. A mighty wind on the waters blew. Alleluia.
Soon a whole world stood shiny and new. Alleluia.
Planets and stars in the spheres above, Alleluia.
Mark the times and show God’s love. Alleluia.

1. Which did God create first—light or the sun and stars? (Commentary) 

2. Eve and Adam made some clothes. Alleluia.
God walked by and said, “What are those?” Alleluia.
“Now you have to work until you die.” Alleluia.
“Pretty big price for some apple pie.” Alleluia.

2. How did God know that Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit? (Commentary)

3. God looked down on his servant Abel. Alleluia.
Said, “I like what you put there on that table. Alleluia.
“You better not brag to your brother Cain, Alleluia.
“If you want to live to make an offering again.” Alleluia.

3. How did God help the murderer Cain (Comentary)

4. How many years before you’re dead? Alleluia.
Three score and ten years, somebody said. Alleluia.
Folks of old lived a whole lot longer. Alleluia.
Was the world so much nicer or the people stronger? Alleluia.

4. Who was the world’s oldest person, according to the Bible, and how many years did he live? (Commentary)

5. God told Noah, “Build an ark,” Alleluia.
“Before this world is a water park.” Alleluia.
Noah’s ark is a rescue boat, Alleluia.
Crammed so full it can hardly float. Alleluia.

5. How many of each kind of animal did Noah take on the ark? (Commentary)

6. The Tower of Babel was climbing high. Alleluia.
People bragged they would reach the sky. Alleluia.
All at once the Lord came down, Alleluia.
Scattered those babblers all around. Alleluia.

6. Why do we call a baby a “baby”? (Commentary)

7. Abraham was as good as dead. Alleluia.
Still he believed what the Lord had said. Alleluia.
Sarah laughed when she heard the news: Alleluia.
“We’re gonna need diapers and baby shoes”. Alleluia.

7. How old was Abraham when Isaac was born? (Commentary)

8. Joseph wanted to weep and wail. Alleluia.
First in the pit and then in jail. Alleluia.
He knew what Pharaoh’s nightmares meant. Alleluia.
Next thing he’s practically president. Alleluia.

Name at least one thing to dislike about Joseph. (Commentary)

9. Another Pharaoh had a heart of stone. Alleluia.
Worked God’s people to the bone. Alleluia.
He should’ve listened to Moses’ plan. Alleluia.
Ten plagues later he’s a wiser man. Alleluia.

10. Across the sea on a bed of sand, Alleluia.
Forty years journey to the Promised Land. Alleluia.
With manna and quail to eat their fill, Alleluia.
And tablets of stone to know God’s will. Alleluia.

9. In the story of the Exodus, who was the only one besides Joshua of the original escapees from Egypt who made it to the Promised Land? (Commentary)

11. The River Jordan was deep and wide. Alleluia.
Milk and honey on the other side. Alleluia.
The river was chilly and the river was cold. Alleluia.
But the waters parted, so I’ve been told. Alleluia.

10. I changed a few words in this verse. What was the last line in the original? (Commentary)

12. When Naomi was grieving inside, Alleluia.
The Moabite Ruth stayed by her side. Alleluia.
She’d lost her man, but she found another. Alleluia.
Now she’s King David’s great-grandmother. Alleluia.

11. How many women are listed as ancestors of Jesus in Matthew, Chapter 1? (Commentary)

13. Mighty Samson had lots of hair, Alleluia.
Until Delilah shaved him bare. Alleluia.
When that hair grew back again, Alleluia.
What a ruckus he raised then! Alleluia.

14. Goliath was lookin’ for a fight. Alleluia.
Finally young David said, “Well, alright!” Alleluia.
Five smooth stones but just one shot. Alleluia.
Scared of that giant……Not! Alleluia.

12. Who were the enemy in these stories about Samson and David? (Commentary)

15. A far off queen came to see a king. Alleluia.
Was Solomon’s wisdom the real thing? Alleluia.
He had enough gold for ninety-nine lives, Alleluia.
And too darned many girlfriends and wives. Alleluia.

13. What happened to Solomon's kingdom after he died? (Commentary)

16. Israelites living in a foreign land, Alleluia.
Won't bow down at the king’s command. Alleluia.
“There’s just one God over earth and sun," Alleluia.
"And, Nebuchadnezer, you’re not the One.” Alleluia.

17. So in the furnace three must go: Alleluia.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Alleluia.
The king comes down to see the show: Alleluia.
Four  just singing in the fire’s glow. Alleluia.

18. Job had money and life was good. Alleluia.
Surely he was living the way he should. Alleluia.
Then he lost it all so they said he’d sinned. Alleluia.
But the answer is blowin’ with the wind. Alleluia.

Who was the fourth in the fire along with the three Israelites? AND

What Bible passage did Bob Dillon have in mind when he wrote "Blowin' in the Wind"? (Commentary)

19. Jonah was not a tasty dish. Alleluia.
Didn’t sit well with a hungry fish. Alleluia.
Finally he obeyed the Lord’s command. Alleluia.
Then sat and pouted on the desert sand. Alleluia.

20. Ezechiel got a big surprise. Alleluia.
He didn’t think dry bones could rise. Alleluia.
If God could do that for those dead men, Alleluia.
Surely Israel would live again. Alleluia.

Why was Jonah upset with God? And Why did God choose Israel? (Commentary)

 On to The Creation