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Sermon—Hearing “Me, too” in the Bible

bathsheba1.jpgFor those of us who spend time on social media, we might have noticed the frequent appearance of two words, “Me, too.” Across age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and cultural background, women throughout the country have been making public their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. To add potency to this organic effort, dozens of women have spoken out publicly about their violations at the hands of one extremely powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I’m here today to shine a light on another voice, another woman, one who was abused by King David, an extremely powerful figure in our history: Bathsheba.

Like so many other examples of abusers throughout time and history, we have to make our way through the minefield of, “But he’s a really good guy.” No doubt. David was and is an important figure without whom, at least according to the biblical witness we have, Judaism would not have survived and then thrived.

First, he is God’s anointed. Today’s passage shows us Samuel, the Moses for a new age, still mourning the fact that God has withdrawn his favor and is selecting a new king who will rise to rival Saul. Samuel is led to the house of Jesse, who has eight sons. Together, Samuel, Jesse, and seven of the sons engage in a ritual sacrifice and purification. God gives specific instructions not to use human standards when speculating about who will be anointed. One by one, the older and physically impressive sons are set aside. Finally, God tells Samuel to have Jesse send for the youngest child who is tending sheep, our David. He is anointed, and thus begins the David cycle of stories.

Second, God forms a covenant with David and the “line of Jesse” in 2 Samuel 7 in which there is an everlasting covenant between the God and this new royal house. This shapes a new theology and a new sense of community hierarchy. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Third, David did some incredible things. He moved the Hebrews away from the loose tribal confederacy. He put national identity over tribal identity by developing a small town run by the Jebusites called Jerusalem as a political and religious capital. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law was tethered to Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant, which had been captured by the Philistines, was brought to Jerusalem, where it remained until lost to history. The Hebrews became Israelites, a vital development in what we now understand as Judaism.

Finally, David secured peace that his son Solomon was able to enjoy and undertake a massive building campaign. He did this through warfare and strategic marriage, taking wives and concubines as the nascent empire grew into power. Women were currency, and David cashed in.

The best example of this comes with Bathsheba. According to biblical witness of 2 Samuel 11, David spies Bathsheba on her roof. Most English translations render this in rather benign terms: Bathsheba is bathing. But Bathsheba is engaged in bathing to become ritually clean after her menstrual cycle. With no mikvah in her house, she goes to the roof, strips nude, and is subsequently viewed by a voyeur who sends for her so that he may possess her.

Here is where disagreement most often gets heated. Was the sex consensual? The scripture simply reports that Bathsheba lay with David, and subsequently becomes pregnant. But we must ask ourselves, could she have declined? David knew that she was married; further, he knew she was married to one of his military leaders. Her objections on these fronts would not have been heeded. David knew what he was doing when he sent for her. Even in the case of genuine mutual attraction, there is not mutual parity. There is no equality in this situation. David sent for her so that he may lay with her. Bathsheba had very little choice.

Let us address the most common objection: cultural context. “Well, that’s just the way things were,” we hear. I argue that we should accept such claims from persons in history to the same degree that we accept it from ourselves. David was king. He could have led by example, at the very least, treating the women around him as more than chattel and incubators. Further, let us stop accepting the idea that men have the right to summon women at will and demand that they submit to sexual acts. If it’s problematic in Hollywood, it’s problematic in Jerusalem.

The biblical story, as many of us know, becomes even more horrific. Bathsheba is pregnant; when she tells David, he unfolds a winding scheme that results in launching a military attack designed simply to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. God causes Bathsheba to have a miscarriage and requires her to marry David. God and Samuel spend a good deal of time showing for David his sins against God. David repents and shows true remorse…to God. Not to Bathsheba. There is no sign that he made any attempts to atone for his horrific actions. Sadly, powerful men seldom do.

Let us hear Bathsheba say, “me, too.” Let us not use her actions after the rape to somehow mollify ourselves, “Oh, she was fine. I mean, her son became KING; she was a manipulator who used royal power to secure the place of her son.” These details are not relevant to the trauma inflicted upon her by a man lionized in popular religious imaginations. Let us not say, “Well, it wasn’t rape-rape,” as though there are only a set number of incidents that deserve the acknowledgment of being bestial violations of human persons made in God’s image.

And God does not get off easy here, either. God causes a miscarriage. God’s law requires victims to wed their rapists. And I don’t have some slick interpretation or word study to do to change the bright light that shines on this part of our sacred tradition. This view of God is the perfect example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. All that matters is the man. It is his redemption that matters. It is his sin against God, not against the ones he violated, that matter. God’s endless covenant is with a line containing sexual abusers.

This matters in the course of religious history. There are billions of women throughout history crying out “me, too.” There are women sitting in pews or reading this online with their own, “me, too” stories. I see the irony of a man speaking about women’s experiences with righteous indignation; it is most certainly not lost on me. But one response to the “me, too” men can have is, “I was him.” I was him who engaged in misogynistic thinking; I was him who enjoyed the patriarchy while comparing to Nazis feminists who sought to dismantle it. I was him who did not heed the first no. There are so many ways.

Sometimes all we can content ourselves with is playing the role of Israel, meant literally as “one who wrestles with God.” As for my own efforts, I am no longer erring on the side of interpreting David with, “Oh, that’s awful, but really he’s a great guy, so I bet he didn’t mean it.” Seldomly do we hold up sexual abuse without trying to explain it away, victim shame, make accusations about the timing of reports or the manner in which they were reported. Let us wrestle with God, constantly hearing the “me, toos” that surround. We must never stop wrestling.

 

Cloudy with a chance of manna

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Exodus is a matter of perspective.

Slavery in the ancient world was not based on race. It was based on the notion that the gods control what happens here, so one’s fate is decided by the stars.

That did not make slavery any less brutal or more humane. It’s just important to know that these religious understandings cannot be gauged through the lens of modern race theory. It takes white supremacy culture to do that.

So imagine if a man with an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from the water” and his brother named mountain put on a spectacular water and lights show, all the while freaking out the earthly representative of Ra, the mightiest god in the known world. And then these two guys say, stop what you’re doin’ ’cause God’s about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.

Everything you’ve known has been upended in a flash. Can you imagine the emotions? How do you think you’d be feeling as you pulled the bread from the oven before it had a chance to rise? Excited? Would you be confused as you threw what you could on your back and started walking forth? Hopeful? Scared? Uncertain? Tired?

And then, the greatest miracle: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters crashing down on the Egyptians, not upon the people whom this new god had saved by besting Ra.

Those two men, Moses and Aaron, along with their sister, Miriam, sing songs to God’s glory. The first night you sleep with a full belly, feeling exhilarated and filled with anticipation as to what comes next.

Now imagine it is a month to the day later. The optimism, like the hearty food, is long gone. You’re wandering. You’ve lost faith in water and mountain, and in the god they proclaim. You’re angry. You feel deceived. Forgotten. Without a place in the order of things. Despite the brutality of the enslaved condition, you start to remember the good things. Consistent food and a place to sleep. A sense of place within the cosmos. Hope.

Exodus is a matter of perspective. The idea of being delivered is powerful, but sometimes the process is brutal. The road to wholeness most often is paved with pain.

I’ve personally had some terrifying depressions that came after a blissful mania. Well, blissful until it wasn’t. This was before being put on medications. It was those experiences that propelled me toward treatment. Some of those walks in the valley of the shadow of death were horrific.

But I have also had horrendous experiences with medications. So bad that I was actually nostalgic about the darkness of my depressions. Why? Because it is a hell I know to survive. I don’t have much control, but I have some. With the wayward meds, I often have no control over my body functions or my mind.

I imagine we all have it in us to a certain extent, a fear of the unknown that can become so stark that we actually prefer slavery or madness to an uncertain tomorrow. I imagine there are not many hearing this who do not have their own version.

Maybe it was or is a job you stay(ed) at because of the benefits, the salary, the flexibility; some reason that you continue to use as justification for doing something that does little more than speed up your journey toward death? Maybe it is a relationship, or a substance, or food? We forget almost everything bad about it, convincing ourselves that this time will be different.

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Murmuring in the desert is natural. Life is difficult when you need a snack and a nap and none are to be found.

mannaToday’s passage features the famous “manna from heaven.” The word comes first from Aramaic (mān hû); in Hebrew, it translates to “what is that?” Our English word comes from the Greek μάννα. Like the Hebrews, though, we wanna know. What is that?

There are two general hypotheses based upon the biblical descriptions. First, the “fine, flakelike frost” like a coriander seed, white of color and tasting like honey points to one or more variety of flowering trees such as Alhagi maurorum (Sinai manna), Tamarisk gallica, or Fraxinus ornus (flowering ash). Each of these has a gum resin.

Which leads us to the second explanation. The Cocidae, insects indigenous to the Sinai desert often called tree louse, secrete a rough, white substance that changes to a yellowish-brown color, becoming sweet with the passage of time. The Bedouins refer to it as “manna from heaven.”

To this day, they rise early in the morning and collect it before the ants wake and the sun melts it. During rainy seasons, one Bedouin can collect three pounds, which is kept in a sealed jar. It can then be made into cakes, bread, porridge, and a variety of other dishes.*

Using mythopoetic language, the author(s) of Exodus describes this as a miracle from God in response to the people’s murmuring. I am not here to deny that; I believe in daily, minute-to-minute miracles.

But I prefer the definition provided by the Dalai Lama: “a miracle is something unexpected.” What is unexpected here? That the Hebrews do not need Egyptian taskmasters to provide them with bounty. God has done it through the natural world. This story, in my opinion, is likely rooted in the historical experience of eureka: “I HAVE FOUND!”

They go from “what is that?” to “I have found.” The act of discovery that one need not go back to those conditions that deny us of our humanity. The realization that many of the solutions to our issues are around us, from the natural world to the people whom God sends.

What God demands is an attitude of gratitude. Toward God, yes. But also toward one another. God tells us to cook and bake and boil for six days, and on the seventh to rest. To be with one another. To connect with God. To appreciate the natural world and the miracle of being an embodied spirit.

God liberates us from that which enslaves our hearts, minds, and souls. May we look around and see what the manna from heaven is within our own lives, and when we find it, let us say “thanks be to God.” Amen.


*Information gathered from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the Lexham Bible Dictionary

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

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What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.

On Jacob, Esau, Momma’s Boys, and Hypertrichosis in Genesis

We don’t like to talk about it, but it happens. A lot. When parents favor one child over the others. Or kids treat one parent drastically different than the other(s). It is so universal the Bible has a story about that, wanna hear it, here it goes!

Last week we left Abraham and Isaac as they walked away from the sacrificial altar.

Today’s passage features a nearly blind, dying Isaac. He and his wife Rebekah have twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who fought in the womb. Esau couldn’t escape the birth canal without Jacob holding onto his ankle, which was interpreted as one baby wanting to steal the birthright of another baby. Esau learned to be paranoid from jump street.

Isaac grew up to be what many consider a “real” man. I don’t know if it has anything to do with being lashed to a rock with a knife held aloft, but Isaac was a rough-and-tumble sort. He enjoyed the outdoors and related to the world on a physical level. So did his eldest son, Esau, who likely was filled with excess testosterone as evidenced by his overabundant hairiness. Isaac and Esau were buddies, it seems. Jacob was different. He was a thinker; some commentators have speculated that he was more stereotypically feminine. He was a momma’s boy–I say this as someone accused of being one myself. The story in Genesis 27 makes it clear that Rebekah prefers Jacob. She encourages him to steal his brother’s blessing of inheritance. What began in the womb is being brought to a head by a mother violating the principles of primogeniture. This is most intense.

Sibling Rivalry

Esau was a big, hairy dumbass. Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and a cunning opportunist. This isn’t a story with one good guy and one bad guy. Esau once returned home from an unsuccessful hunt and alighted upon Jacob making a pottage. Originally, this referred simply to a soup or stew. But through the Jacob-Esau cycle, it can to be defined as selling something for a ridiculously small amount, like giving a birthright for bread and stew. This Esau does, either out of stupidity or just being hangry. He has learned from his Jewish mother: If you’re going to let me starve, I’ll give you my birthright; what good is it if I’m dead?

This action, though, fulfills God’s earlier prophecy to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb…and the older will serve the younger.” Sounds kinda similar to what happened with Isaac and Ishmael, no? The former was the successor to Abraham, the latter the progenitor of the Muslim people.

Again, strife between brothers that is encouraged on some level by parents is a theme. Esau has given away his birthright, but he still has the paternal blessing upon which he can rely to secure his standing.

“Far more important than the birthright, which simply passed on property and titles from father to son, was the blessing of the father. This was an official passing on of spiritual rights, and it designated leadership of the tribe or clan. Beyond this, the Hebrews believed that a father’s deathbed blessing determined the character and destiny of the recipient and that the blessing, once given, was irrevocable. Isaac’s blessing was even more special in that it passed on the leadership of all the people of Israel according to the promise that God had given to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.”*

On the surface, Rebekah’s conniving ways seem untoward and indicative of a horrible mother. How could she do something like that? we might think. But we don’t really know, do we? We don’t know what has happened in the home. We don’t know what Rebekah has seen that might make her fear for the future of the people if Esau is in charge. Maybe she has hopes that her eldest son will be the supreme military commander. Speculation, to be sure. But we should not be so quick to vilify Rebekah.

She is wily, though, ain’t she? That’s a helluva ruse that they put on, ain’t it? Jacob, wearing the clothes of his brother that carry Esau’s scent. Lamb’s wool attached to his hands and neck to simulate Esau’s hypertrichosis.** Isaac, old, blinded, and dying, is confused about what is happening. It is hard not to feel for him. This could be seen as a form of elder abuse. The last thing that he can do for his people is to pass on the leadership to Esau. Have the pair talked about it on those long hunts, sleeping under the stars together and reflecting on how God has selected them to lead God’s people? 

What the selected passage leaves out is that when Esau returns home, he is livid. He has a violent outburst and threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah tells her youngest to flee “until Esau has forgotten the wrong done to him.”

So it is on the flight from his enraged brother that Jacob puts a stone under his head and falls asleep. In his dreams, he sees a ladder with angels of God ascending and descending. Earth to heaven. Heaven to earth. Suddenly, God is there and in language similar to that uttered to Abraham, promises both a bloodline and land. A blessing and an inheritance. An affirmation that while Esau may think he has been cheated, God holds a different opinion.

(Jacob and Esau reconcile twenty years later, and Isaac is still alive. Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, dies giving birth to his second son Benjamin as Jacob is on his way to see his birth family. Esau is extravagant in his welcome, but the brothers soon find themselves burying their father. When they depart, they never see one another again. Esau is remembered as the patriarch of the Edomites, so-called after the Hebrew אדום, ʾadhom, meaning ruddy. Once again, an older brother has an unusual path in living out God’s plan.)

What do we do with this?

Scholars believe that the recurring theme of elder brothers having roles that buck against the principles of primogeniture indicates a rejection of the Arab custom. This is a God who will not be hemmed in by human constructs.

How often do we become upset, even enraged, when we are denied something which we believe is owed to us? Sometimes this is a proper response, such as what is happening right now with NFL and NBA players pushing back against a racist system headed by a racist president.  But sometimes our anger is misplaced. We feel we are owed something, but perhaps our behavior has not shown that we are deserving.

Sometimes we can foresee a potential disaster and we feel that God has led us to avert it. This is tricky, as using “God made me do it” as a reason for duplicitous behavior is problematic.

But this leads us to the crux of what is presented in the story. God’s ways are not our own. My atheist friends object to statements like this, and I get it. On the surface, it seems to be a cop-out. A way to justify horrid things as the will of God, thereby dismissing legitimate objections as evidence of a lack of faith. You don’t understand because you don’t believe.

Buddhism teaches that within us we have seeds of mindfulness and seeds of affliction. What blossoms and bears fruit are determined by that which we water. Do we tend to our afflictions, nurturing them so they become insidious weeds overtaking our entire being? Or do we nurture the seeds of mindfulness, examining our emotions, analyzing the factors that impact us, and tend to that which does not keep us angrily rooted in the past?

Once again, I ask where are you in the story? Isaac? Rebekah? Esau? Jacob? What this story is about depends on the perspective you take–the original authors most likely want us to take God’s side: Everyone has a path. Sometimes thinking that others can define it for you means it might take longer to see where God is leading. Amen.

*Losch, R. R. (2008). In All the People in the Bible: An A–Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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I mean absolutely no offense to anyone who suffers from hypertrichosis; if this posting is insulting, I apologize profusely. I love the D and I have an odd mind; combine those, and you get something like this 😉  

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.

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.