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When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

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The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give. 

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.

Living with Phantoms

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There was a ghost haunting my crib in the winter of 1977. The year of the blizzard. The Big One Ohioans all over the state still talk about; statewide, and we’s a big state. Everyone, even those in cribs, has stories about the blizzard of ’77. Hundreds of miles away in a motel room in Minnesota my paternal uncle lay dead in a bathtub.

There’s one picture of us. He’s holding me in swaddling clothes. There’s no mistaking the family resemblance that I would grow into during the years that he was not there. I’ve stared at that picture for hours, wondering if in a cosmic moment something passed between us. And whether before my uncle left this realm, God laid down snowfall to make the Finnish spirit more comfortable for his journey? I’ve projected upon that picture a meaningful look, a recognition of what it means to live with phantoms. My brother, who was not of my uncle’s blood, was brought into the fold by his own suicide. I’ve long lived with phantoms.

There are new ones, though, that come only when you are diseased of mind. Only when you are touched in the head, only when God gives you a double-portion, only when you no longer can tell what is real and what is of the phantom.

From the Greek φάντασμα, the Latin fantauma, phantoms have been with us for millennia. Like the fourth rider in Revelation. Ring wraiths. Dementors. The Grim Reaper. They secret themselves, you see. That’s what you must understand: their horror is not in the terror you feel upon seeing them suddenly, it is in the horror of realizing they have been with you all along.

The new phantoms are ones I did not see coming. Ones that are taking over my body, making me question my sense experiences. If you were to ask me how I feel, I would say like a can of paint on a mixing machine, but my body betrays no such state. My hand might shake a little, but nothing like it feels insideIs it the disorder? Is it the meds? Is there something else going on?

Living with phantoms is never easy. They pay no rent but take up too much space.

Bad Puckles: Bee-Dee Part Deux

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When Miriam was a child, she used to communicate that she was not feeling well by claiming she had “bad puckles.” This has become a shorthand for us when one or the other is ill; overwhelmingly, that person is me.

I got bad puckles, mama.

Here we are again. My life has come to a screeching halt. All the usual suspects are present: Dizziness, difficulty speaking, lost time, nausea, exhaustion. Tinnitus is a one-man-band that could fill Radio City Music Hall with whooshing, chirping, and feedback. Relative newcomers palsy and muscle spasms love their new playmates. Of course, insomnia is always the ring-leader. Y’all gonna make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here. 

This morning we can add stress and anxiety, those old standbys that make a bad situation that much worse. Feelings of incompetence, weakness, confusion, panic, and desperation don’t do much but push me back every step or two. This is happening more often, Aaron. You know that right? Symptoms are becoming more pronounced and appear with frequency. You are realizing that, right? Right? 

Right.

Today I am supposed to go to a bi-monthly meeting. I missed the last one because of my health. There is no way that I can drive an hour to go be around a few dozen people in a sanctuary when I am in this condition. I would have a complete breakdown. But I am so tired of sending emails, apologizing for my illness, assuring people that I will be at the next event. I recognize that some of that neurosis comes from me, but not all. It’s hard to have an invisible illness because there is always that sense from others that I might just be making this up. Or exaggerating. Or using it as an excuse to get out of things.

You forgot to mention that you can’t handle being touched, that your skin is on fire, and that your muscles are so fatigued from spasms and clenching that you feel like you’re back in your powerlifting days.   

I tell you, I would attend big, loud meetings every Friday for 8 hours until I die if it meant that I could be loosed of these conditions. I feel so helpless when that which opposes me comes from inside my very cells; there is not an opponent I can see, can identify and deconstruct. There are no rational arguments that can be issued that will break down bipolar disorder and my other conditions. They rest right under the skin, they pollute my blood, they distort my sense experiences.

I write because that is what I’ve been told to do. I am now exhausted. Sweat is running down my face but I am cold. It has taken me 10 minutes to write this sentence, which is a sentence about writing a sentence that I cannot write, yet I write to prove that I can write so, therefore, I guess I’m still a writer. Got that?

I have therapy tomorrow. A message is in with GP, although there is not much that can be done. Maybe a med tweak or something to help me sleep, as very little does.

I think I have met all the major deadlines, so today I will be relatively off-grid and be trying to sleep and recover. I’ll check in within 24-hours. If I’m forgetting something, let me know and I’ll address it as quickly as I can.

Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

Genesis 1: Natural disasters are consequences, not judgments

 

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In the late 19th century, the Babylonian creation story in the epic Enuma Elish was published, sparking a new era in biblical studies. Scholars often fretted not only over the perceived similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 but also the connections with myriad others ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian accounts.

Are we dealing with a second-rate knockoff?

Putting yourself there

Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be alive 5,000 years ago? It is almost unfathomable. Births were often followed quickly by funerals. Life expectancy was maybe 40 years. Food, shelter, safety: all were accomplished only through violent, exhausting processes. Natural disasters would arrive quickly and with little warning. Life is certainly beautiful, but it is also brutal.

So it makes sense that creation epics would reflect this violent brutality. In the aforementioned Enuma Elish, the created world only arises as a result of the struggles between Marduk and Tiamat. Violence is in the very DNA of all creation.

Not so with Genesis 1. God begins the act of creation (in Hebrew, bā-rā בָּרָ֣א) with a mighty wind (in Hebrew, ר֣וּחַ or ruach). There is no inherent violence here; it is the original breath of life. Across the churning waters of chaos, God begins to bring order.

Genesis 1 is the ultimate click bait: you won’t believe what happened next!

Does God actually create anything? 

Of course, the answer is yes; the Hebrew text is clear that God engages in acts of creation. But what exactly is going on here? Is God bringing into existence something new, or is God providing permission for already existing things to make themselves known?

Twice the Hebrew word יְהִ֣י is utilized, which Strong’s Concordance translates as “to exist” or “to be.” When God declares “Let there be light,” is this an act of creation or of permission? Is Genesis 1 showing us the totality of creation or just a glimpse? Perhaps is both/and rather than either/or?

When God says, “Let there be light,” is this the first time God is seeing light? Is the declaration that light is good an evaluation made in the moment, or the expressing of an a priori reality? Is it like declaring a pizza “very good” because you have tasted it, or declaring pizza very good because, in order for there to be Good, pizza much exist? We could ask similar questions regarding the other days of creation: was the land already there under the water? Did God bring into existence something new, or simply grant permission to that which was dormant under the chaotic waters?

In one sense, these are perhaps just entertaining exercises in semantics, but in another more real way, these questions get to the heart of our understanding of theological ecology. How is God present and accounted for in the natural world? Does God act alone or in cooperation with creation itself, therefore passing responsibility to us?

Most other creation epics have male and female actors, generally Father Sky and Mother Earth. And we have a titillating possibility in Gen 1:26-27 in which the plural is used: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Male and female God created them, the text says.

It is the land that brings forth vegetation, that provides the seeds and the fruits. Yes, God is active, but this is an act of cooperation. God is present, in our realm, establishing our human time with evening and then morning, a full day.

God is an active creator, but God also bestows the power of creation upon the created.

The concept of time

God either orders the world or allows for the intrinsic order to come forth. Regardless, God is intimately involved and experiences time in the way that we do. In each of the days, God experiences evening and morning. From the outset, the Abrahamic religions have a bifurcated sense of time. First, the timelessness of God that stands outside the act of creation, called καιρός (kairos) in Greek. Second, the time by which we chronicle our lives, χρόνος (chronos) in Greek.

This is an important point. If we take this passage literally, which I do not suggest, it still points us to the same reality as does a figurative reading: God experiences temporality with us. We need not think of God as being remote and distant from us. God’s life is marked by the six days of working such that a day of rest is needed by God. We can ask all sorts of metaphysical questions like, did God need a nap? Does God drink coffee and if so, where can I find the brew because if it’s good enough to get God up in the morning I think it’ll be just fine for me?

But these would be the wrong questions to ask. Notice that God rests, but nowhere in the text does it say that creation itself rested with God. While God rests the waters lap the shores, dew forms on the fruit trees, birds chirp as the sun launches from the horizon. God creates a day of rest to marvel at creation, and we may speculate, to refill God’s own well. Regardless, this is not a God unaffected or disinterestedly involved in creation.

God in the storm

I wrote yesterday about the absurdity of claiming that the recent onslaught of devastating storms is somehow the harbinger of the Parousia or the Day of the Lord. What the Genesis 1 narrative shows us is that if we are looking for a text that suggests God sends storms or is in control of them, this is not that text. God has a relationship with creation, but creation functions by itself while God rests. That is literally on page 1.  

God gives human beings יִרְדּוּ֩ (literally “let them have dominion”) rule over the created world. Sadly, this continues to be interpreted by some as human beings have mastery, and God will not let the natural resources run. I think we have seen where that has gone. Yes, there are natural cycles for storms, but there is no doubt that the rest of creation is feeling the impact of our poor dominion.

I reject out-of-hand the idea that God sends storms to punish people for sins. But it seems to me, in reading Genesis 1, that God is also going to let the natural world do what it needs to do. These storms are not judgments, they are consequences. We cannot think that what we do as individuals does not have communal repercussions. Certainly, human activity is not responsible for every single storm that occurs; hurricanes existed long before we did. What we can see is that there is a delicate balance within creation that allows it to function as it should. This includes the good and the bad. Hurricanes are part of the natural order. But perhaps the frequency and ferocity of these storms are the words of God’s partner in creation crying out in anguish and pain?

If we seek to find God in these storms, let it be in the actions we take and the changes we make as those charged with dominion over the natural world.

 

 

No, the end-times are not coming and stop saying so

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Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Mark 13:5-8

As millions of people are displaced from Harvey and are fleeing from the path of Irma as Jose is poised to strike the same areas, we see once again a parade of religious charlatans declaring these natural disasters to be evidence of God’s wrath against gays, or liberals, or pescatarians who secretly go to the Long John Silver’s three towns away every other Tuesday.

I just spent the last month preaching on Revelation; click here to read the first installment in the series. Apocalyptic literature such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, and Revelation, are not meant to be read literally. This is not a heretical or even a mildly radical statement. By design, the literature type plays with storytelling conventions, presents seeming contradictions, uses coded and unsettling language to describe how one survives calamities. The basic message always is, no matter how bad it gets don’t stop being a good person. Don’t stop loving, seeking justice, and taking care of one another. There will be lots of distractions, but don’t be fooled.

I wear many hats, but the one I have worn the longest as a person in the field of theology and religion is that of a Markan scholar. Mark 13 is errantly called the little apocalypse, but the chapter perfectly reflects ancient wisdom about what to avoid when disaster has struck, as was the case in 70 CE, the year when the Romans razed the Second Jerusalem Temple and expelled Jews from the city. Jesus followers gathered around the Markan narrative were a mixed lot, meaning there were Jews and there were Gentiles. They heard the promises of safety and comfort from the religious establishment and the Roman government. Beware, the Markan Jesus says, of those who come with motives other than the love of God.

These hurricanes are unimaginably awful. They are powerful, destructive, capricious, and uncaring. They do not have in them motive or judgment, but if we are to perhaps take one away let it be this: we are seeing the ravages of climate change faster than predicted. The continued assault on reason and cooperative action must stop. These storms will keep coming, not as a result of God’s wrath, but because of our own intransigence and capitalist greed.

So to all those saying this is an act of God, I say: Keep Jesus’ name out your mouth.

 

Facebook is Failing: Blood Curse, Blood Libel, and Trump’s America

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Background

While the newest manifestation of white supremacism has traded hoods and burning crosses for khakis and tiki torches, the tropes and mendacity they utilize go back to the 3rd century C.E. As organized Christianity continued its stumbled towards Rome and away from Jerusalem, followers of Jesus did all that they could to separate themselves from Judaism. This included developing the so-called blood curse, an interpretation of Matthew 27:25 that lays perpetual “guilt” upon the whole of the Jewish people for killing Jesus.

This is a faulty interpretation for a wide variety of reasons, but it remains potent to this day. Early in Christian history, there is a connection between the Jewish people and Christian blood, which eventually manifests in the so-called blood libel. This outlandish contention held that Jews collected blood, particularly that of children, for Passover ceremonies. Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, these same sorts of stories were levied against Christian groups that dared step outside the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a propaganda tool meant to incite the passions of people who were largely ignorant of Jewish law and practice.

I first learned about antisemitism from an episode of Little House on the Prairie called “The Craftsman,” in which Albert Ingalls thought the kindly Jewish craftsman named Isaac wore a hat because he has horns on his head. Of course, Albert is shown that such is not the case, intimating that neither do the Jews who live around the present viewership. My senior year in high school, I was in a production of Diary of Anne Frank as Mr. Van Damm, who steals food from the children. We also went to hear Elie Wiesel speak, which led to me taking classes on Judaism when I was at Kalamazoo College.

Fast forward about 8 years. When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Healing Deadly Memories.” It focused on perceived antisemitism in the Christian scriptures and traced the misuse of biblical traditions to justify horrific violence against the Jewish people. James Carroll’s incredible book, Constantine’s Sword, was our main text for a six-week intensive. The class changed my life, in that I have since never remained silent about the ridiculousness of both the blood curse and the blood libel.

Why I Wrote This

I recently helped put out the call to report the FB page pictured above because even a cursory glance at the posts revealed the recycling of debunked, outlandish, fantastical stories about ritual murders of Christian children. The posts present themselves as researched and documented, offering readers an insider’s view of horrific atrocities. But they are malicious fictions, repackaged and presented to new audiences who wish only for supposed proof of their tribalistic assumptions and prejudices.

Facebook did not agree.

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Too many people continue to think that stories such as those on this page are harmless. It is simply a new iteration of a very old tale. The Protocols of the Elder of Zion are a perfect example. Each generation it reappears, often regarded as truth by people will considerable influence, like Henry Ford.  And the most recent propagators seem intent on crying freedom of speech, even though history shows, again and again, that tolerating claptrap such as that peddled on the aforementioned FB page has a direct link to lives and communities being destroyed.

Facebook has made it clear they don’t care about two millennia of antisemitic malarkey has a well-documented kill list. As a society, we have devalued the expert so much that all opinions must be respected; we’re told to agree to disagree about facts.

I say bullshit.

What We Can Do

Our culture has fallen into the shorthand of using the term “snowflakes” to disparage people who need safe spaces. It is difficult to find a single comments section on a public page–even if the topic is grooming Siamese cats underwater on the full moon–that won’t have at least one angry white dude picking the wrong homonyms to insult anyone who does not accept the claim that he’s the victim of cultural genocide. They dismiss real history–such as I write about here–pertaining to the actual genocide of the First Nations and the centuries of inhuman enslavement perpetrated upon Africans. They’ll instead arrogantly argue that anyone who does “research,” which as someone with going on five advanced degrees I can say would not have passed muster when I taught research writing, will know that Africans enslaved one another much more than did Europeans. This is demonstrably false. Also false is the claim that Irish were enslaved in the colonies.

They do this with impunity, and it’s dangerous because the internet allows nonsense to be presented as “truth” that the communist, Nazi (right? like, how does that work?) lib-ruhls are trying to destroy in order to exterminate the white man. It is read and believed by more and more khakis-wearing kids who think they are tough until their faces are posted all over the internet.

We are not going to make one iota of difference if we do not take serious steps to address the myriad and egregious historical wrongs that have been perpetrated in the last 500 years. We are a terribly racist country. The “live and let live” philosophy cannot prevail, as we can not tolerate speech that has literally two thousand years of violent history. We know how this story goes. “Never again” doesn’t start at the ovens, it ends there.

Please, continue to report pages such as the one under discussion. If you see people posting antisemitic memes or articles, please take the time to link to this blog or one of the sources embedded herein. I know that we are all fatigued, that there are endless battles, and this might seem small, but as a pastor who has written books on World War !! and the Holocaust. I can assure you it does not end small.

 

After the Sermon: The Revelation Abomination

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In grad school, I took a course called “Women and Sacred Language.” We visited various houses of worship. I remember being in a mosque with someone who went on to become one of my closest friends. We were washing our feet, and I was being a tad obnoxious. A broken engagement has followed too quickly on the heels of a divorce and an ill-advised, reckless relationship. I was at peak bipolar but was a good five years and fifty gallons of whiskey away from diagnosis.  I was dreadfully insecure. I couldn’t hack it at a premiere New Testament Ph.D. program, and after earning my second master’s degree I would also fail at another, not-so-prestigious doctoral program. I was trying to define myself as a scholar, and it sometimes made me a bit unbearable.

So there we were, washing our feet, and I made some quip about the seven horsemen of the apocalypse. My friend, who has a rapier wit and sarcasm like a cobra’s bite, said, “Did they add three? I thought this was your area, dude?” Everyone in the room began to laugh, even those who were not in our class. Peak bipolar means peak paranoia. I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia on both sides of the family, each one ending in suicide. I stammered out that I was a Markan scholar–which was and is true–and buried my shame. As I said, he and I are very good friends and I know that he did not mean anything by it. But ever since then, thinking about the four horsemen has elicited feelings of embarrassment.

A Horse of White

Last week we established that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych, meaning that they cannot be understood one outside the other. Today’s passage from Revelation 6 and 7 pick up where they left off, with the slaughtered Lamb standing upright, about to take the throne and open the seals of the scroll with writing on both sides. One of the four creatures that both comprise the throne and stand in guard of it speaks amidst thunder, a common accompaniment to God’s workings. “Come!” the voice bellows with the breaking of the first seal. A white horse appears.

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Some interpreters have argued that the rider of the first horse is Christ. The description is intriguing. White is a color of purity and is associated with Christ in both the Transfiguration (Mark 9) and his resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke, and John. He is not so much wearing a crown as he is a wreath–in Greek, στέφανος, or Stephanos, from which we get the name Stephen–and in his hands is a bow.

These are potent symbols, and I will once again recommend in the highest possible terms the commentary written by Dr. Ian Boxall. The bow seems designed to elicit memories within the original audience. At the time scholars believe Revelation was written, late 1st/early 2nd centuries, the Romans were being challenged by the Parthians, who were known for their power and prowess with the bow. Further, Nero, who had died, was rumored by some to still be alive and collaborating with the Parthians to reclaim his empire. Perhaps even more potent is the similarity between this image and the god Apollo, who carried a bow and was known to be a seer of futures.

This image, Boxall argues, is a reference to Jesus’ words in Mark 13, known as the Little Apocalypse. The words are not Jesus’ and the apocalypse is not really an apocalypse. You know what to do.

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So what is being referenced here are the false prophets and messiahs that will come in Jesus’ name. The first horseman looks like Jesus and can be mistaken for God’s agent, but such is the nature of evil: it appears enticing even as it destroys everything around it.

A Horse of Red 

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The second horse is a fiery red, symbolizing the blood that soon will spill. There’s a curious line in 6:4, that the rider is permitted by the Lamb to remove peace from the earth. We must ask, can the possibility of God’s peace be absent, even for a moment, and God still be God? Paul especially links divine peace to human hope, so what seems to be at play here is the false peace that humans manufacture through agreements they know full well they do not plan to honor. Much like how the current occupier of the Oval Office is threatening to back out of myriad agreements. Human peace is disingenuous when it is brokered by charlatans and fools. Violence breaks out in the most unlikely of places, like schools or a Wal-Mart.

A Horse of Black 

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We often associate scales in iconography as representing justice, such as Lady Justice outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here they represent the opposite, the lack of justice will manifest itself in myriad ways, including outlandish prices for necessary goods. Kind of like charging $15 for a gallon of gas in the midst of devastating calamity.

What’s especially interesting, though, is the reminder that the Lamb is still in control. Notice that it is not the third living creature that calls out; nay, it comes from the throne itself. Olive oil and wine will not be touched, which can mean a variety of things. For now, let it suffice to say that both wine and olive oil take a great deal of time and patience to fashion and were vital to first-century life.

A Horse of Puke Green 

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The fourth rider is upon a steed of pale green; the Greek word for pale is χλωpός, chōros, from which we get our word chloroform. The rider provides the popular imagination the Grim Reaper. Death–in Greek, θάνατος–is accompanied by Hades, who we will remember is a deity before becoming a location name. Hades, or the underworld, was akin to the Jewish concept of Sheol.

This rider is given even more territory; as he rides, those not killed are made sickly, turning green from illness, malnutrition, and lack of compassionate responses.

A Horse of a Different Color 

Revelation 7:9-17 envisions something different. A great multitude has gathered before the Lam’s throne, and they are waving palm branches. This was a practice during Sukkoth, the last harvest festival of the year. What was harvested, you may ask? Grapes and olives. The wine and olive oil the Lamb decreed be untouched are now symbolized by a great multitude that has within it authentic diversity.

For too long the Book of Revelation has been used to frighten people into compliance with religious decrees and requirements that have nothing to do with the love of Christ. What Revelation actually offers us is a heavenly, unsettling glimpse of the relationship between God’s realm and our own. We are assured that the Lamb–slaughtered, yet standing–remains in control. Human beings will continue to slaughter and kill as long as selfishness and avarice are tolerated. When we revision our notions of love and power–again, the Lamb slaughtered, yet standing, who is animated by love, not the cravings of Caesar–we understand why our hearts should be directed toward God is we ever want to achieve peace.