Chanukkah sameach !

What Is Hanukkah? Dates, Traditions, Story
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish lunar calendar, and ends on the second day of Tevet, the tenth month.  This year, on our secular solar calendar, those dates correspond to Thursday-Friday, December 7-8 (note that, in Jewish reckoning, each day begins at sundown; see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), and Friday-Saturday, December 15-16.  Although Hanukkah is a minor festival in the Jewish religious year, its significance as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to the Gentile world’s celebration of Christmas.  Beginning this Friday, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah observant Jews will light another candle on their Hanukkah menorahs (these traditionally have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  The Hanukkah story is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61. Its setting is the second century BCE–although the roots of the story extend 200 years further back, to the conquests of a young Macedonian general named Alexander.

By 332 BCE, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the ancient Near East.  His kingdom stretched from north Africa to India. But Alexander died, suddenly and unexpectedly, scarcely ten years later, leaving behind no heir. So Alexander’s four leading generals divided the empire among them. Cassander, who claimed Macedonia, and Lysimachus, who claimed Thrace (that is, Greece and Asia Minor), play no role in Israel’s story. However, the heirs of Ptolemy, who ruled in Egypt, and Seleucus, who ruled in Syria, figure prominently.

Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; compare Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing (ominously named Jason–clearly not a Hebrew name!) in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. This may have been part of Antiochus’ campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion.  Or, he may have sought to control the temple in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury.  But when pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig.

Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live Science

The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” recalls the story:


Let us remember reign of terror, reign of terror
King who murdered, pain forever, pain forever
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

The blood he spilled, Jerusalem, Jerusalem
So many killed, gone all of them, gone all of them
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Our hearts he broke, he burned the torah, burned the torah
Ash and smoke, the crushed menorah, crushed menorah
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Arise our hero, Judah save us, Judah save us
Prize so dear, the vict’ry gave us, freedom gave us
Who then? Maccabeus, Maccabeus.

Oh sing our songs and praise the torah, praise the torah
Right the wrongs and light menorah, light menorah
When then? Chanukah, Chanukah.

Jerusalem was liberated in 164 BCE by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judah Maccabee (likely, “Judah the Hammer”!), or Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, he summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

How to Play Dreidel | My Jewish Learning


The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).


File:Michelangelo, profeti, Daniel 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Much of this history is also related, if symbolically, in the book of Daniel–although with a decidedly different ending!  The conquests of Alexander, his death, and the division of his kingdom are recounted in Daniel 8.  That Greek empire appears to be the focus of the night vision of Daniel 7.   Four chimerical beasts representing conquering kingdoms rise out of the sea— an ancient symbol of chaos (see Isa 27:1; 51:9-10).  The first three at least resemble actual animals: a lion, a bear, a leopard. But the fourth is unlike anything on earth: “terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power,” it has ten horns and iron teeth (Dan 7:7).

In Zechariah 1:18-21 (2:1-4 in Hebrew), four horns represent the four powers “that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (1:19 [2:2]; likely Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia).  So too in Daniel 7:1– 8, four is the number of Israel’s oppressors, although a different four: evidently Babylon, Media, Persia, with the fourth and last being Greece.  This reinterpretation of images is common in apocalypses like Daniel.

Frei Clemente Rojão: O Segundo Anticristo, o Falso Profeta

Readers in later contexts have reinterpreted this vision in other ways; indeed, the first- century CE Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra reads, “The eagle [a common symbol of Rome] you saw rising from the sea is the fourth kingdom. It appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel,but it wasn’t interpreted for him as I now interpret it for you or have shown it to you” (2 Esd 12:11– 12).  4 Ezra and the book of Revelation (Rev 17:9) alike understood Daniel’s fourth beast to be, not Greece, but Rome!

Among the ten horns of this fourth beast, which in the original context likely represented the kings of Alexander’s Greek empire, is a little horn “that bragged and bragged” (Dan 7:8; the Aramaic is milallil rabrĕbān, or “talking big”)–Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see also Dan 8:9-14; 23– 25).  This one, Daniel is told, “shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the ritual calendar and the law” (Dan 7:25 NRSVue)— all of which Antiochus did. But not much time remained to this arrogant ruler: only “a time, two times, and half a time,” or three and a half years (Dan 7:25;  also variously described in Dan 8:14; 9:27; 12:7, 11-12).

Setting aside the animal imagery of Daniel 7–8, Daniel 10:1–11:39  speaks more straightforwardly about Antiochus’ final days.  Antiochus’ terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean animal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” for later interpretations of this Danielic image, see Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14).  Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE.  Daniel does not describe this, nor does it mention the Maccabean revolt: likely because the book was completed sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.  Although Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  As we have seen, later Jewish and Christian readers identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.

Indeed, the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mark 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20) clearly were not realized.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace.  The epistle reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent, declares “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  We are called, not to be clever, but to be ready!

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s faithfulness will prevail over every oppressor.  No matter how powerless we may feel, it is in that same confidence that we can read these passages today, sharing the confidence of John the Baptist:

“One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7-8)

Trusting in his wisdom and might, baptized with God’s spirit, we can face the trials of our time, and of any time!  Chanukkah sameach–a joyous Hanukkah and a blessed Advent to us all!




This Sunday is the first of the four Sundays in Advent, the season of the Christian year devoted to anticipating the coming of Christ–both Jesus’ birth, celebrated on Christmas Day, and his promised return at the end of the age.  For some time, I have used the ancient Christian salutation Maranatha (here, from the medieval Southwick Codex) in this season as a benediction, after prayers, and to close emails.  So, where does it come from and what does it mean?

In the King James Bible, the concluding verses of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth read:

The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand.  If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema MaranathaThe grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.  My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen (1 Cor 16:21-24).

King James’ translators followed the Latin Vulgate in leaving those two enigmatic words in 1 Corinthians 16:22 untranslated,  but few modern translators have done so.  The Common English Bible is typical: “A curse on anyone who doesn’t love the Lord. Come, Lord!”

The first of the two, the Greek anathema, does mean “curse.”  This word appears six times in the New Testament.  In Acts 23:14, Paul’s enemies swear an oath not to eat until they have killed the apostle, calling a curse upon themselves if they fail.  The other five uses of anathema are all in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:3; 1 Cor 12:3, 16:22; Gal 1:8-9). The Vulgate carries the word over untranslated in all five passages, although the KJV follows suit only once, in 1 Cor 16:22.

In the Greek Septuagint, anathema is used 25 times for the difficult expression kherem (or “the ban”) in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Lev 27:28; Num 21:3; Deut 13:15, 17 [13:16-18 in Hebrew]).  This word, sometimes also rendered “curse” (see Malachi 4:6 [Hebrew 3:24]) is often connected with holy war, where the enemy is utterly destroyed as a kind of whole offering to God. But this cannot be the intention of kherem everywhere that the term appears. For example, Deuteronomy 7:2 orders that the inhabitants of the land be hakharem takharim, that is, “certainly (or completely) placed under the ban” (the NRSVue reads “you must utterly destroy them”).  Yet the very next verse forbids intermarriage—difficult to understand if the intent of the text is genocide (see Jerome Creach, Violence in Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013], 108)!  Drawing on Origen’s allegorical reading of the ban as depicting the believer’s spiritual struggle with sin (“within us are the Canaanites; within us are the Perizzites; here [within] are the Jebusites,” Homilies on Joshua, 34; cited by Creach, 102), Jerome Creach suggests that kherem came to be sublimated or spiritualized, so that what had once been a “reprehensible practice . . . close to ‘ethnic cleansing,’ was transformed into a metaphor of spiritual purity” (Creach, 108).

St. Cyril of Alexandria Icon -

In church history, anathema took on a quite specific meaning:

In AD 431 St. Cyril of Alexandria pronounced his 12 anathemas against the heretic Nestorius.  In the 6th century anathema came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic completely from the Christian church and condemned his doctrines; minor excommunications, while prohibiting free reception of the sacraments, obliged (and permitted) the sinner to rectify his sinful state through the sacrament of penance.

Whether Paul intended anathema in this formal (and radical) sense is debatable (and I would say, doubtful).  But likely, this is the reason that the Vulgate did not translate this term in Paul’s letters, and that the KJV leaves it alone in the 1 Corinthians passage.

The second word carried over untranslated from the Greek text, maranatha, is actually not Greek.  It comes from Aramaic: the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  The New Testament preserves numerous words and phrases in Aramaic.  However, Paul typically stuck with Greek–making his use of this Aramaic phrase stand out all the more.

As the Greek text makes clear, Maranatha is actually not one word, but two: μαράνα θά (that is, marana tha).  The Greek letters transliterate the Aramaic מָרַנָא תָאmar, meaning “Lord,” with the first plural pronominal suffix na (hence, “our Lord”), and the imperative form of the verb ‘atha: “come.”  This phrase appears nowhere else in the New Testament.  However, it is found in the Didache, an early Jewish-Christian book of church discipline dating to the late first-early second century CE.  Here, as in Paul, it appears to be a benediction, although in the Didache it comes at the end of the eucharistic prayer: 

May grace come and may this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David.
If any man is holy, let him come;
if any man is not, let him repent. Maran Atha. Amen (translated by J.B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers; in the Greek text, 10:6 [note that in Lightfoot, this passage is 10:11-14).

As an added wrinkle, it should be noted that in Didache 10:6, the phrase is rendered maran atha, rather than, as in 1 Cor 16:22, marana tha.  This may suggest a different assumed meaning: “Our Lord has come.”  As Andrew Messmer notes in his recent article on this expression (“Maranatha [1 Corinthians 16:22]: Reconstruction and Translation Based on Western Middle Aramaic,” Journal of Biblical Literature 139 [2020]: 361–83), that was the meaning assumed by Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Erasmus (Messmer, 362), and it is still, he argues, the best-supported translation (Messmer, 382-83).

Still, while early evidence for the imperative form tha assumed by 1 Cor 16:22 is admittedly lacking, the imperative is certainly found in later Aramaic, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!  Further, I would argue that the translation “Our Lord, come!” is far more likely in Paul’s theology, which looks earnestly and hopefully to Christ’s return, and that it better fits the liturgical contexts, both in 1 Corinthians and in the Didache.  So to you all, in the midst of war and uncertainty, I say in this season of hopeful expectancy, Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus.


Prayers for this season, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 2002. Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

God of justice and peace,
from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness,
that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder
before your marvelous deeds.
Raise our heads in expectation,
that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord
and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

Give us ears to hear, O God,
and eyes to watch,
that we may know your presence in our midst
during this holy season of joy
as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. Amen.



The Day of the LORD

Title: Silence [Click for larger image view]In the alternate Hebrew Bible reading for this Sunday (Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18), the prophet calls for reverential silence, as God prepares to act:

Hush before the LORD God,
        for the day of the LORD is near! (Zeph 1:7; cf. Amos 8:3; Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13).

The day of the LORD is the central theme of the book of Zephaniah.  Beth Stovell and David Fuller neatly define the day of the LORD as “a day when YHWH intervenes” (The Book of the Twelve [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022], 8, emphasis theirs).  In Zephaniah, that day is further depicted as “a day of fury” (Zeph 1:15, 18; 2:2-3).  But this prophet uses the concept of God’s wrath in ways that may surprise us.

Zephaniah 2:1-3 opens a collection of oracles directed against foreign nations, including Assyria, so we might at first think that God directs God’s wrath toward outsiders. But the prophet’s audience is not the nations, but his own people in Judah. These oracles expressly address “you humble of the land who practice his justice” (2:3). Thus, the “shameless nation” in 2:1 is not a foreign power, but Judah.

At the end of this chapter, the prophet moves without transition from an oracle against Nineveh, Assyria’s capital (Zeph 2:13-15), to an oracle concerning the “obstinate one, the defiled one, the violent city” of Jerusalem (Zeph 3:1-8)!  Wrath language, then, serves more as a warning for the faithful than as a condemnation of the faithless.

A Feast for the Senses ... and the Soul - Biblical Archaeology Society

In Sunday’s reading from Zephaniah, the day of the LORD’s judgment is described as a liturgical feast: “the LORD has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7 NRSVue).  But since that day is called “the day of the LORD’s sacrifice” (Zeph 1:8 NRSVue), when the LORD “will punish the officials and the king’s sons,” the nobles and religious leaders seem to be not only the invited guests, but also the sacrifice!  They have been consecrated, not to join in the sacred feast, but for the slaughter.

As the superscription to Zephaniah claims that the prophet is a great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah (727-697 BCE), the prophet Zephaniah, himself a member of Jerusalem’s nobility, is taking his own family and friends to task.  Zephaniah’s own peers are the ones whose religious corruption, cultural impurity, and social injustice will cause them to be sacrificed on the day of the LORD.

Jacob Jordaens Diogenes looking for an honset man Flemish Old Master painting for sale

The LORD says,

At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps;
        I will punish the men growing fat on the sediment in their wine,
            those saying to themselves, The Lord won’t do good or evil (Zeph 1:12)

The apathetic nobles of Jerusalem are content to drink themselves into a stupor, heedless of the religious corruption and injustice all around them. They believe God to be as careless as they are: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zeph 1:12 NRSVue; cf. Mal 2:17; 3:14-15). Yet their declaration of the irrelevance of faith is about to be revealed for the lie that it is.  The day of the LORD, Zephaniah says, will hit them right in the pocketbook:

Their wealth will be looted and their houses destroyed.
        They will rebuild houses, but not live in them;
        they will plant vineyards, but not drink the wine (Zeph 1:13).

In Zephaniah, the message of God’s wrath turns not outward, against the world, but inward, to effect change within the community of faith.  Wrath is God’s response to our unresponsiveness.

Is God indeed a God of wrath?   If, as Julia O’Brien succinctly states, “A moral God cares about what happens to the world” (Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi  [Nashville: Abingdon, 2004], 95), then the answer must be a resounding yes! Rob Bell writes:

When we hear people saying that they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived [New York: HarperOne, 2011], 38).

God’s wrath is not opposed to God’s love; rather, God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice. God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed. That is what the day of the LORD means.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

The language Zephaniah uses for the day of the LORD is typical of both Testaments: “The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and coming very quickly” (Zeph 1:14; e.g., Isa 13:6; Ezek 7:10-12; Zeph 1:7; Mal 3:1–2). Just so, Mark summed up Jesus’ proclamation in a single verse: ““Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).  And Revelation begins and ends with this promise: “the time is near. . . The one who bears witness to these things says, ‘Yes, I’m coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 1:3; 22:20).

In the Revised Common Lectionary, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 is read together with Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the talents, which portrays God’s final judgment) and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, regarding “the day of the Lord” coming imminently and unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.”

First Thessalonians was Paul’s first letter, and so the oldest book (dating to around 50 CE) in our New Testament.  Paul wrote to offer reassurance to a struggling church: the first he had established in Europe (see Acts 17:1-10).  The Christians of Thessalonica were concerned because some of their members had died: perhaps from persecution, but perhaps too from illness or old age (1 Thes 4:13-14).  Believing, as Paul had taught them, that Christ would come soon, they feared that these faithful dead would have no share in Christ’s kingdom.  Paul, however, assured them that, far from being left behind, those believers who had died would have the inside track in the world to come:

What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died.  This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise.  Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.  So encourage each other with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18)

Paul does not describe, as some Christians claim, an escape from this world prior to Christ’s return–often called “the Rapture.”  Jesus is not taking the church up out of the world.  He is himself coming down: descending to rule the world.  Paul writes, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet,” and as he does so, both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around”  rise to meet him in the air.  This isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party!

Also, note the present tense, friends–“we who are living and still around.”  For Paul, as for Zephaniah, John, and Mark, the day of the LORD is not a message for someday, in the indefinite future: it speaks with imminence and urgency, and calls us to action here and now.

Illuminated Lord's Prayer with Christ, large icon - Ancient Faith ...

Jesus taught us to pray daily, “Bring in your kingdom” (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).  What might it mean for us, in this time and place, to live under Christ’s reign?





Happy Hallowe’en

No photo description available.

Here we go again!  The Jack o’ lanterns, spooks, giant skeletons, and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING–after Christmas, “Halloween” is the biggest commercial holiday of the year.  But what many will not realize is that, like Christmas, Hallowe’en is properly a Christian celebration.

No photo description available.

I stubbornly insist on spelling “Hallowe’en” with the apostrophe, to remind myself and others that October 31 is called Hallowe’en for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  It is, of course, the evening before November 1, which is All Hallows Day–hence, All Hallows Even, which becomes Hallowe’en.  All Hallows, or All Saints, Day was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV declared a feast day for all martyrs.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own, and as such All Saints Day was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

When the Celts became Christians, this grim night too was transformed.  As the author of Ephesians affirms,

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, . . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may perceive what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:11-23, NRSVue)

Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin, death, hell, and the grave–so death, and the dead, no longer need to be feared!

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineBecause of its association with Samhain, some Christians argue that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors for treats!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

All Saints Day was John Wesley’s favorite Christian celebration.  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

The separate Roman Catholic celebration of All Souls Day on November 2 is down to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who died 1048. Having remembered all the saints in heaven, Odilo thought, it was only right that on the following day we remember all the faithful dead, and pray for their release from purgatory.   But for me, as for many Christians, All Saints Day celebrates the lives and anticipates the resurrection of all believers.

The Mexican Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), delightfully depicted in the Disney movie Coco, shows some influence from both Celtic Spain, and from the Christian All Saints and All Souls days.  However, its roots are not only pre-Christian, but pre-European, going back to indigenous Meso-American cultures such as the Aztecs.  Significantly, while this festival also involves belief in the dead crossing over to the world of the living, the dead are not feared: their families remember, celebrate, and welcome them.

May be an image of 1 person and textHappy Hallowe’en, friends!  A joyous All Saints Day to you all–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know, a happy 89th birthday too!


May be an image of 1 person and smiling

This year, the departed saint I am remembering in particular is Bishop William Boyd Grove, who died just this past week.  Bishop Grove ordained me, and in my heart has always been, wherever my call has taken me, my bishop.  He was, and now is forever, a luminous soul, a prominent voice for peace with justice in our church, and a mentor to me and to many, many other United Methodist ministers. May light perpetual shine upon him!

A fitting benediction for this season, from Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.  The image is “A Gathering of Spirits” ©

No photo description available.

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.
When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.
When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.
Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall
and how strong what stirs
on the other side,
breathing with you
and blessing you
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.

Justice and Vengeance


In my church, St. Paul’s UMC, pastor Karen Slusser has been leading a study of Jesus’ parables, guided by Amy-Jill Levine’s exciting and challenging book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).  This week’s study was on the parable depicted above, from Luke 18:1-8. Our lead pastor Amy Wagner recently preached on this same passage, and these three woman have shocked me into seeing this passage in a new, and strikingly relevant, way.

My first surprise came when Amy said in her sermon that the Greek phrase from Luke 18:5 rendered “wear me out” in the NRSV and “embarrassing me” in the CEB meant more literally “punch me in the face”–something Levine’s book confirmed.  I went to the Greek myself, and sure enough, hupopiaze me means just that–the judge is afraid this widow is going to give him a black eye! The only other place this word appears in the New Testament (it is not found in the Septuagint at all) is 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul compares his spiritual discipline to a boxer in training: “I’m landing punches [hupopiazo mou] on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.”

The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), After Sir John Everett Millais (British, Southampton 1829–1896 London), Wood engraving; proof

Nearly every depiction of this parable I have found is like this one, or like the one opening this blog: the widow kneeling passively before the unmoved judge, her hands clasped in entreaty, her face piteous.  But a better image might be this:

Another surprise was Amy-Jill Levine’s observation that, while most translations have the widow seeking “justice” (Luke 18:3), hekdikeson me more precisely means “avenge me”!  Therefore Levine suggests a different title for this parable than “The Importunate Widow”:

The parable of the ‘Vengeful Widow and the Co-opted Judge’ is accurate, but doesn’t preach well. Perhaps that very difficulty in making an easy transition from text to sermon should be starting point for understanding a parable. If the parable cannot be domesticated, if it cannot be turned into something that neatly fits our preconceived notions of religion or morality, if it discombobulates us–then we may be on the right track (Short Stories by Jesus, 225-26).

I find this excellent advice for Bible study generally.  The Bible ought to discombobulate us–the last thing our Bible reading should be is “comfortable”!  As Hebrews 4:12 says of Scripture,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.

So, how do we preach this parable?  As the traditional title indicates, Luke uses the parable to call believers to persevere faithfully in prayer while awaiting the consummation of God’s plan for the world (note how Luke frames the story in 18:1, 6-8).  But the story’s details jar with that application: nothing in the parable tells us that the woman’s cause is just, after all!  Levine writes,

The widow’s desire for vengeance will prompt her violent approach to the judge, and the judge, perpetuating the system of vengeance, will prompt violent action against the opponent. . . All the figures in this parable, and we readers as well, have become enmeshed in, if not colluded with, this system set up at best for a “justice” whose legitimacy is never determined, a justice that by any other name constitutes vengeance (Short Stories by Jesus, 244).

Rather than picking a side, the attentive reader will be challenged by this parable to reflect on the broader issues of justice and vengeance, of equity and compassion: “With his story, Jesus forces us to find a moral compass” (Short Stories by Jesus, 245).

Israeli firefighters extinguish fire after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a parking lot in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)Justice and vengeance have been on all our minds this month.  On October 7, terrorists from the militant organization Hamas (the ruling political faction in Gaza) swept out of the Gaza Strip as far as 15 miles into Israel, attacking 22 farms, towns, and other communities;  1,400 Israelis were killed and 200 were taken hostage. More Jews were killed and wounded in this attack than on any other single day since the Nazi Holocaust.

This horrific assault sent shock waves around the world, particularly in the Jewish community, prompting calls for justice.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel and Hamas were at war, and said that Israel would act “without reservation and without respite” to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas in Gaza.

Ayman Nofal, leader of Hamas’s militant activities in the central Gaza Strip, is confirmed as killed in the bombardment that has followed.  Meanwhile, “more than 2,800 Palestinians have been killed and 10,000 others have been wounded in the days since” the October 7 attack.  Now, as Israel prepares a ground assault into Gaza to destroy Hamas utterly, Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world are praying that Israel preserves its moral compass, and remembers the difference between justice and vengeance.

White House protest leads campaign for a cease-fire before Israeli ground invasion

In Washington, D.C., religious leaders and faith-based activist groups protesting outside the White House are calling for a cease-fire.  In Israel, Nir Avishai Cohen, a major in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces and author of the book Love Israel, Support Palestine, writes:

I am now going to defend my country against enemies who want to kill my people. Our enemies are the deadly terrorist organizations that are being controlled by Islamic extremists.

Palestinians aren’t the enemy. The millions of Palestinians who live right here next to us, between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, are not our enemy. Just like the majority of Israelis want to live a calm, peaceful and dignified life, so do Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians alike have been in the grip of a religious minority for decades. On both sides, the intractable positions of a small group have dragged us into violence. It doesn’t matter who is more cruel or more ruthless. The ideologies of both have fueled this conflict, leading to the deaths of too many innocent civilians.

As a major in the reserves, it is important to me to make it clear that in this already unstoppable new war, we cannot allow the massacre of innocent Israelis to result in the massacre of innocent Palestinians. Israel must remember that there are more than two million people living in the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of them are innocent. Israel must do everything in its power to avoid killing innocent people and to focus on destroying the militant army of Hamas.

Sadly, the thirst for vengeance has already prompted violence against Palestinians and Muslims here in the U.S.
“This is reminding me a bit of how it felt post-9/11,” Palestinian activist and policy analyst Laila El-Haddad told Religion News Service on Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 17). . . . In Pennsylvania, a man was arrested after yelling slurs and wielding a gun at a pro-Palestinian protest. In Los Angeles, UCLA students attending a webinar on the crisis in Gaza were reportedly threatened and called terrorists by a small group of unidentified men. In Boston, the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace was spray-painted with the word “Nazis.” 
Mourners in heavily Palestinian Chicago suburb remember Muslim boy killed as kind and energetic

In Chicago, seven-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume, who had recently had a birthday, died Saturday after being stabbed dozens of times by family’s landlord, Joseph Czuba, who was upset over the Israel-Hamas war and attacked them after the boy’s mother proposed they “pray for peace.”


Elsewhere, Jewish students report being harassed by students who, citing Israeli injustices against Palestinians, refuse to condemn or even condone Hamas’ terror.
Did we learn nothing from our own experience of terror, when after 9-11 we forgot our commitment to human rights, engaged in torture, and entangled ourselves hopelessly in unwinnable wars?

In counseling restraint, the United States can point to the lessons of its own recent history. For two decades, America waged a global campaign against terrorism, all too often ignoring international law when those rules seemed inconvenient. In doing so, America weakened the world’s commitment to those rules and helped embolden a new generation of extremists.

Israel finds itself at war because of the depravity of Hamas. Further bloodshed now appears unavoidable, but the way Israel fights will begin to determine what happens next: Defeating Hamas will make Israel safer; showing disregard for the killing of civilians will not.


Perhaps the lesson of the parable of the widow and the judge, friends, is that we need to reject their path of  vengeance.  Jesus surely calls us to eschew violence, weeping with those who weep, Israeli and Palestinian; Jew, Christian, and Muslim.  Jesus surely calls us to pray, and to work, for peace with justice.

Happy (?) New Year

It is now officially Fall: September 23 was the autumnal equinox.  Also, nine days ago was Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the High Holy Days and the Jewish New Year.  That has always felt right to me.  For most of my life I was in school, whether as a student or as a teacher, so even now in retirement, September feels more like the beginning of things than icy January does!

But as Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes, the proper Jewish greeting for this season is not “Happy New Year.”

  • You can say shanah tovah, “a good year.”
  • Some would say: l’shanah tovah.
  • You can say l’shanah tovah tikateivu, “may you be inscribed for a good year.”
  • You can say: shanah tova u’metukah, “a good, sweet year.”
  • You can say, in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Yom Kippur itself and beyond, l’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu, “may you be written and sealed for a good year.”
  • You can say gmar chatimah tovah, “may you be finished and sealed for a good year.”
  • You can say, for the rest of today and tomorrow, heading into and on Yom Kippur, tzom kal, “an easy (and/or meaningful) fast.”

Rabbi Salkin explains, “[O]n the Jewish New Year, there is no mention of ‘happy.’  It’s about goodness. It’s about shanah tovah — a good year.”

Tovah, goodness, is not always the same thing as happy. Tovah, goodness, is mostly about what is meaningful. There is a fundamental difference between wishing that someone have a year of happiness, and the wish that they find meaning.

As I write this, on Monday September 25th, the Days of Awe following Rosh Hashanah have culminated in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  In Judaism Yom Kippur is a fast day–a day to reflect upon the year past, to repent before God, and to resolve to live faithfully in the year to come.

But the day and its significance as they developed in Jewish life and practice are quite different from the ancient rite for Yom Kippur described in Leviticus 16. The centerpiece of that ancient ritual involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as “the sin offering” (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; both the CEB and the NRSVue read “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was for Azazel.  We have no idea what this means!  The goat for Azazel was driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people, so perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places; or perhaps Azazel is simply an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).

File:Benjamin West - Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant - Google Art Project.jpgThe lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.  The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB and NRSVue have it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.  In ancient Israel, the Day of Atonement was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.

For Christians, the Atonement is a fundamental doctrine, linked mysteriously to the cross.  One way to unpack that mystery is to connect Calvary and Yom Kippur, as Paul did in Romans 3:23-25 (NRSVue):

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

Many Christians accordingly understand the cross, and the atonement, to mean that Jesus took our place: as our scapegoat and sin offering, he innocently bore our just punishment, and so satisfied God’s justice and assuaged God’s wrath (an interpretation  called “Penal Substitution,” developed in particular by Anselm of Canterbury and the Reformer John Calvin).

As a young Christian, this was the only way of understanding the cross I knew: that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven.  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All,”  although the language of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s contemporary  hymn “In Christ Alone” may be more familiar today:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Much as I love this hymn, I cannot sing that bold-faced line anymore.  Like many believers, I no longer find this interpretation of the Atonement acceptable.  What does it say about God, if God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Focusing solely on the death of Jesus makes his life, and his teaching, irrelevant.  This certainly does not mean that I no longer believe in the atonement!  But I am persuaded that both the origins of our English word “atonement” and the biblical texts relating to Yom Kippur point us in another direction.

I had long found in the word “atone” an intriguing and deeply satisfying pun–the word can also be read as “at one.”  That, I thought, is surely the result of Christ’s atonement on the cross: God’s wrath satisfied, our guilt paid for, we can now enjoy communion with the Divine.  However, I have since learned that this apparent pun is actually how the word “atonement” came about!

The Oxford English Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”). Sadly, as modern English dictionaries make clear, “to atone” has come to mean “to make amends, restitution, or reparation.”  But the then freshly-minted word was used instead to talk about reconciliation: specifically, the reconciliation of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used to translate the Hebrew verb kipperparticularly in connection with Yom Kippur.  This Hebrew term originally meant “cover,” but kipper came to be used specifically for cleansing and purification–not, note, for punishment or payment.  Certainly, nothing in Leviticus 16 suggests this: the goat for Azazel, note, is not killed, and is not called a sacrifice.

In Romans 3:25, the Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, hilasterion refers neither to the sin offering nor the scapegoat, but to the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation of hilasterion in Rom 3:25 (see also the footnote in the NRSVue) as “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” nicely captures the original meanings of both the English word “atonement” and the Hebrew rite of Yom Kippur.

In  Philippians 2:1-13, the epistle for this Sunday, Paul quotes a hymn of the earliest church:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
 Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
    so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
        and every tongue confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In this hymn, Jesus is neither a scapegoat nor a sin offering.  He is not our replacement, but our representative.  Being at once God and Human, he overcomes in his own Person the gap between humanity and divinity.  But of course, being fully and truly human means being finite: like us, Jesus was born, lived, learned, grew, suffered, and died.  But the specific death Jesus died–that he indeed chose to die–placed him with the shamed and outcast; the scorned and unjustly persecuted. As Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:22-23), Jesus proves God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

Elsewhere the apostle Paul puts it this way:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, the gap between humanity and divinity is bridged: we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

Regarding the Atonement (and that Getty and Townend hymn!) New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes,

 We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.

L’shanah tovah, friends.  A good, and meaningful, year to you and yours, in which you experience daily the power and presence of God.


GPS Malfunction

FOREWORD: I was honored to be invited to preach last Sunday at the church where  grew up, and where my father and sister still worship: Big Tygart UMC in Mineral Wells, WV.  This is the message that I delivered: I pray that it will prove useful.

Last week, Wendy and I were in Swallow Falls State Park outside Oakland, MD.  We spent a delightful morning hiking the canyon trail, viewing four beautiful waterfalls–but then, it was time to go home.  Our car has a built-in GPS (Global positioning system) with our home address programmed in, so we told it to take us home, and off we went.

At first, we were driving on unfamiliar, but decent roads: two-lane highways, with white lines down the sides and a yellow line down the middle.  But then, our GPS told us to turn left: onto a one-lane blacktop road with no lines that reminded me of Sugar Camp Run, where I grew up and where my Dad and sister still live.

country dirt road through the woods Stock Photo - Alamy

Later we turned onto a gravel road, then onto a dirt track that reminded me Sugar Camp when I was a boy–before tar and chip or blacktop.  Still, the GPS said that up ahead we would turn right onto Route such-and-such, so we weren’t concerned.

But then, the road Teed, and to our right was an unused track with grass growing down the middle, petering out at a closed farm gate!  So we didn’t go that way: instead we turned left, down a pretty good gravel road that led us to a paved and lined highway–but with no route signs.  We learned that that road would take us to Terra Alta–good news, since Wendy knew where Terra Alta was, and was sure she could get us home from there.  But then, before we reached Terra Alta, the GPS told us to turn again, onto another one-lane blacktop road.  So, we turned off the guidance, got out a paper map, and Wendy navigated us from Terra Alta to home.

No photo description available.

This week, I have been reflecting on our faulty GPS, and remembering a very different road trip: my own journey of faith, which began here, at Big Tygart United Methodist Church.  From the time I was five, when my family moved back to Mineral Wells, this was our church home.  I gave my life to Christ when I was nine, at a revival at my Uncle Bob’s church (Edgelawn UMC), but I was baptized here by Rev. Seldon Scott, at what was then a deep and wide place in the creek behind the Big Tygart church.

When I was fifteen, there was a revival and a charismatic renewal at Big Tygart, and I was filled with the Holy Spirit.  I found a new passion and zeal in my faith, a renewed love for Jesus, and a deepening hunger for the Word of God.  I pored over my Bible daily, eager to learn more about my God.

And then, my spiritual GPS led me up dead end road.  I read in Hebrews 6:4-6 (KJV):

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Indeed, Hebrews 10:26-27 (KJV) told me,

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

For a terrible few days, I knew that I was damned.  Had I “sinned wilfully” since that night at Edgelawn when I asked Jesus into my heart?  I knew that I had.  Had I sinned since at fifteen the Spirit set my heart aflame?  I knew that I had.  So, as Hebrews 6 plainly said, there could be no repentance for me: it was “impossible.”  I was going to hell.  My Bible said so, in black and white–God said it, I believed it, that settled it.

I remember praying earnestly at the altar that Sunday, with all the saints of the church gathered around me praying for me.  Old Mrs. Deems asked me, “Steve, what is it? What’s wrong?”–but how could I tell her?  How could I tell that dear old saint that I was damned, and that there was nothing that she, or I, or anyone else could do about it?

It took awhile.  But my Dad, my first and best Bible teacher, helped me to see that these two passages in Hebrews were not the whole Bible!  My mother’s favorite passage of Scripture was from 1 John (“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear,” 1 John 4:18 [KJV]), so it may have been Mom who led me to 1 John 1:8-10 (KJV):

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”those words were like cool water on my parched young heart!  Rather than telling me that if I had sinned since I knew Christ then I was damned, this text assured me that if I thought I hadn’t sinned, I was deceived!  And so, God’s love and grace got me back on track.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that the Bible, or Hebrews, was a faulty GPS!  The fault lay not in Scripture, but in my reading of Scripture.  The Bible isn’t easy, friends!  We need to read the Bible, not in small bites, but in big hunks, so as not to miss the connections among texts in Scripture; why, and to whom, these words were said.  It takes hard work, careful and prayerful study, to go from what the text on the page says to what it means, and how it should be applied.

In the case of Hebrews, we need to consider the clues this book offers as to its context and audience.  The community Hebrews addresses is well off: although they have known robbery (Hebrews 10:34), they are still able to help others in trouble, and do so.

In the past, this community had seen signs and wonders–their conversion had been marvelous (Hebrews 2:4)!  But those glory days are long past.  Now, the preacher of this extended sermon (Hebrews 13:22) declares (Hebrews 5:11-14) they have grown complacent and  content.  They are dull of hearing. Although they ought to be teachers themselves, they instead need instruction in the very basics of the gospel.

Some in this community have experienced conflict and trouble because of their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34), but they have not yet known real, bloody persecution (Hebrews 12:4).  Yet, despite their privileged position, the community is weak, ineffectual (Hebrews 12:12).  Their problem is not poverty, or persecution, or even sin, but indifference: indeed, some no longer even gather for worship (Hebrews 10:23-25)!

The author of Hebrews was railing at this community, trying desperately to break through their comfortable, casual Christianity and rouse them again to passionate faith.  The preacher warns them that, if they think they can casually lay their faith aside and then pick it up again at their convenience, they have another think coming!

To understand why those hard, harsh, terrifying words are in Hebrews 6 and 10, and to understand and apply them rightly, we need to read the whole book of Hebrews!

Ohio launches first wrong-way driver detector corridor | Ohio Department of Transportation

How can we know whether we are reading the Bible rightly?  One test of whether our “GPS” is faulty is the one that Wendy and I discovered coming home from Oakland, MD: if our spiritual GPS takes us up a dead end road, then something is wrong!  Just so, if our reading of the Bible leads us to conclude, as I concluded as a young Christian, that there is no hope for us–that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace, then we need to read again!  If our reading of Scripture leads us to conclude that God is a hard, harsh, and merciless judge, then we need, carefully and prayerfully, to read again.  And, God help us, if our reading of Scripture leads us to think that God likes the people we like, and hates the people we hate; that God shares our prejudices and calls us to expel and exclude anyone, then we need to read again.

The best test I know as to whether we are reading the Bible rightly is in the opening verses of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).

In the deepest, truest sense, the Bible is not the word of God.  Jesus is the Word of God–Jesus, the Word who brought the worlds into being; Jesus, who reveals to us what God is like; Jesus, who lived among us, who ate with sinners, who lived for us, died for us, rose again from the dead for us, and will come again for us!  Jesus is the Word of God, and if the words of Scripture lead us to Jesus, and to the God of Jesus Christ, then they become for us word of God for the people of God.  If our Bible leads us anywhere else, then our GPS is malfunctioning, and we need, carefully and prayerfully, to go back and read it again.

AFTERWORD: The icon above, from over the interior doors to Jesus the Divine Word Church in Huntingtown, Maryland, depicts Jesus the Divine Word (CS photo/Bob Roller).





“You were a cherub”?

Angel Cherub on Cloud Image

FOREWORD:  HEBREW GEEK ALERT!  This blog goes pretty far into the weeds of Hebrew translation and text criticism–feel free to skim it, or even skip it if you must!  Still, I have tried to make this post accessible to non-specialists, who I believe do need to have at least some awareness of these issues to read difficult texts, such as Ezek 28:11-19, knowledgeably.  I hope this post proves useful to you.  God bless you, friends!


By and large, working with the still new New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue) of the Bible has been fairly seamless.  Reviewing this revision of the NRSV (it is quite deliberately not described as a fresh translation),  I earlier wrote:

While the RSV remains available, the editors have chosen to let the NRSV go out of print (so, for example, it is no longer available at the Bible Gateway website).  I think this decision is unfortunate: I am certain that, as I use this new Bible, I will find still other places where I prefer the text critical decisions made in that earlier version to those in the NRSVue.  Still, so far as I can now see, in most places the Updated Edition has stayed with the critical assessments of the NRSV, which is all to the good.

I recently encountered a fresh surprise in (and disagreement with!) this fresh revision.  In my most recent Bible Guy blog, I wrote that in his lament over the “king of Tyre” (Ezek 28:11-19), the prophet Ezekiel identifies Eden with Zion. In the NRSVue, the relevant verses read “You were in Eden, the garden of God. . . I placed you on the holy mountain of God” (Ezek 28:13, 14).  But elsewhere in their version of  Ezekiel’s lament the editors of the NRSVue have made significant changes from the NRSV:

You were a cherub;
    I placed you on the holy mountain of God;
    you walked among the stones of fire.
You were blameless in your ways
    from the day that you were created,
    until iniquity was found in you.
In the abundance of your trade
    you were filled with violence, and you sinned,
so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God,
    and I drove you out, O guardian cherub,
    from among the stones of fire (Ezek 28:14-16).

Through these same verses, the NRSV, largely staying with the RSV, reads,

With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you;
    you were on the holy mountain of God;
    you walked among the stones of fire .
You were blameless in your ways
    from the day you were created,
    until iniquity was found in you.
In the abundance of your trade
    you were filled with violence, and you sinned;
so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God,
    and the guardian cherub drove you out
    from among the stones of fire.

Note in particular the highlighted differences between “With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you . . . and the guardian cherub drove you out” (Ezek 28:14, 16, NRSV, compare RSV) and “You were a cherub . . . and I drove you out, O guardian cherub” (Ezek 28:14, 16, NRSVue), which entirely change the meaning of the passage!  For the record, the NRSVue follows here a similar approach to the CEB, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV, as well as the Latin Vulgate.  But before we deal with the reasons the NRSV team made different (but I will argue, better) text critical decisions, we need first to know what a cherub is!

Cherub Choir - Jordan Evangelical Lutheran Church

At the head of this blog, you will find the image that likely comes to the mind of most readers when they see or hear the word “cherub”–a chubby little baby with wings!  We describe adorable toddlers as “cherubic,” and many churches call their preschool music program the “cherub choir.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that use of “cherub” and “cherubic” goes back to 18th century England.

But in the Bible, cherubs (Hebrew kherubim) are  terrible guardian spirits: bizarre semi-divine heavenly beings, represented elsewhere in the ancient Near East as winged sphinxes.  The golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant was molded in the image of two kherubim, their wings overlapping to form a seat (Exod 37:1-9)–a cherub throne, as the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” indicates (for example, 1 Sam 4:4Ps 80:1).

This detail of a 13-14th century BCE ivory plaque from Megiddo depicts such a cherub throne.  In Solomon’s temple, the Most Holy Place held a massive one: two cherubim stood side by side facing the main chamber of the temple with their inner wings touching, overshadowing the ark, and their outer wings stretching out to the chamber walls. (1 Kgs. 6:19–28//2 Chr. 3:8–13).  However, the throne was empty–the LORD was believed to be enthroned invisibly above the cherubim. The Ark itself thus served as the LORD’s footstool, making it the intersection of divine and human worlds, and the place of the LORD’s special presence.

Returning to the NRSVue of Ezekiel’s poem: it must be said that this revision faithfully adheres to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible used in the synagogue, upon which our Old Testament is based. Ezekiel 28:14 does read ‘att-kherub, “you were a cherub,” and 28:16 reads wa’abbedka kerub-hassokek, “I drove you out [i.e., “to be destroyed”], guardian cherub.”  By this reading, Ezekiel compares the imminent fall of the proud king of Tyre to the fall of an angel/cherub from heaven.


Traditional Christian interpretations read Ezek 28:11-19 together with Isa 14:3-23, a taunt song directed against the king of Babylon which alludes to the fall from heaven of helel ben-shakhar, “morning star, son of dawn” (Isa 14:12).  Both passages are believed to describe the fall of Satan (the name “Lucifer,” or Light-bearer, is derived from Isa 14:12 in the Vulgate).  So Tertullian cited Ezek 28 as proof that Satan was created good, but became corrupt through his own choices (Adversus Marcionem 2.10), while Theodoret of Cyrus wrote, “Forcing the text, someone might apply these things even to the historical prince of Tyre, but the text truly and properly corresponds to that demon which produces sinfulness” (Comm. Ezek 28).

Marvin Pope proposed that both Isaiah and Ezekiel referred to the fall of the Canaanite god El, displaced by the vigorous young storm god Baal (depicted above)—a story not told outright in the Ugaritic sources, but reconstructed indirectly (Marvin Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts [Leiden: Brill, 1955], 97-103). A more likely parallel for Isa 14:3-23 is the Canaanite myth of Athtar, an astral figure who claimed Baal’s throne for a brief time before being expelled from the heavens for his overweening pride and audacity (KTU 1.6 i; see W. G. E. Watson, “HELEL,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition, Extensively Revised, eds. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst [Leiden: Brill, 1999], 393).

But there are problems with the NRSVue’s rendition of Ezekiel 28:11-19, and with the “fall from heaven” interpretation of the passage as well.  In Ezek 28:14, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) reads meta tou cheroub (“with the cherub”), which presupposes not the ‘att-kherub of the Masoretic text (“you were a cherub”) but ‘eth-kherub (“with a cherub”), a reading also found in the Syriac translation.

Hebrew Bible and Archaeology – Yeshwanth Bakkavemana

Remember that Hebrew was originally written with consonants only.  In the Masoretic Text (MT) of our Hebrew Bible, scribal families called the Masoretes have added a system of marks above, below, and even within the consonants to record what they heard when the text was read aloud.  This included not only the vowel sounds, but also the voicing of the consonants (as well as doubled letters in spelling), rising and falling inflections, and pauses.

The consonantal text (את־חרוב) is the same for both  ‘att-kherub in the Masoretic text (“you [were] a cherub”) and ‘eth-kherub, assumed by the LXX (“with a cherub”).  But in support of the LXX and the Syriac traditions, it must be noted that ‘att is the feminine form of the pronoun “you,” unlikely to be used either for the king of Tyre or the masculine noun kherub.  The NRSV chose rightly, then, to follow the LXX and Syriac rather than the MT, and read “With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you.”

Similarly, in Ezek 28:16, the LXX kai egagen se (“and he led you away”) apparently reads the consonants ואבדך not (with MT) as wa’abbedka, the first person preterite (simple past tense) of the verb אבד (“and I destroyed you/drove you [i.e., the cherub] out”), but as we’ibbadka, the third person perfect tense: “and he [i.e., the cherub] drove you out,” with the cherub as the subject, not the object, of the verb.

Two features of Hebrew support the LXX reading.  First, in Hebrew syntax, the subject usually follows the verb: so we’ibbadka kherub hassokek would naturally mean “the guardian cherub drove you out” (with the NRSV).  Second, definite direct objects are typically marked in Hebrew by ‘eth, so if the cherub was the object rather  than the subject of the verb, we might expect ‘eth-kherub (we do find definite objects marked elsewhere in the Tyre oracles: see 26:4, 11; 27:5, 26; 28:6).

Since the consonantal text of Ezekiel 28 permits both the Masoretic and the LXX interpretations (with different pointing), we can legitimately ask which reading best explains the other. Here, the LXX arguably represents a more natural reading than the MT. Probably, then, the cherub is a supporting character in this drama after all, rather than the lead.  The NRSV, rather than the NRSVue, best represents the meaning of this passage.

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sistine Chapel Detail

The mention of Eden in Ezek 28:13, together with the “guardian cherub” expelling the addressee of Ezekiel’s lament from that garden in Ezek 28:16, suggests to many readers that Ezek 28:11-19 is a retelling of the Garden story in Genesis 3, or perhaps even its source.  By this reading, the fall of the king of Tyre is compared to the fall of the primal human. Such an interpretation certainly appears convincing. After all, the lament declares, “You were in Eden, the garden of God” (Ezek 28:13). The list of precious stones in that same verse brings to mind the wealth associated with the rivers of Eden in Genesis 2:10-14. Further, the lament goes on to describe the expulsion of its protagonist from Eden for the sin of pride, and specifically, for desiring forbidden wisdom (Ezek 28:17; compare Gen 2:17; 3:1-6). In both stories, a cherub seems to enforce the sentence of expulsion (Ezek 28:14, 16; compare Gen 3:24).

But many features of the narrative in Ezek 28 do not fit the Genesis Garden Story. The protagonist in Ezekiel’s lament is expelled from Eden, not simply for pride or seeking forbidden wisdom, but for unjust trade practices and violence (Ezek 28:16, 18).  Indeed, many aspects of Ezek 28:11-19 do not fit its alleged target, the “king of Tyre,” either. Among the accusations raised against the “king of Tyre” is “you profaned your sanctuaries” (Ezek 28:18). What could this possibly mean, applied to the king of a foreign city? The language used for the expulsion of the “king of Tyre” is also odd: God declares, “I will cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God” (Ezek 28:16). The verb used here, khalal, appears predominantly in Ezekiel (23 times) and in Leviticus (14 times), where it is used for the profanation or desacralizing of a person or thing (for example, Lev 21:12; Ezek 7:21). A better rendering of Ezek 28:16, then, would be “I will deconsecrate you”—language more appropriate for defrocking a priest than for removing a king from power.

Once the referent of the lament has been identified as the high priest in Jerusalem rather than the “king of Tyre,” solutions to numerous difficulties in this passage fall into place. The use of khalal (“profane”) for the “expulsion” of this figure makes far better sense if the passage describes the defrocking of a priest rather than the deposition of a king. It also makes perfect sense for priests to be castigated for defiling their sanctuaries; indeed, Ezekiel elsewhere accuses them of this very offense (Ezek 23:38-39). Nor is priestly involvement in violence and dishonest trade any surprise (Mal 1:6-8, and in the NT, Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:14-22).

Which returns us, once more, to Ezekiel’s cherub!  To understand the role that the cherub plays in this poem, we need to ask about the meaning of another word: the Hebrew sokek , rendered “guardian” in both the NRSV and the NRSVue of Ezek 28:16 (see also Ezek 28:14, where the NRSVue follows the LXX and skips over mimshakh hassokek [“anointed as guardian”?]).  However, sokek is never used for a guardian anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It is used, however, for the cherub’s wings overshadowing the Ark (Exod 25:20; 37:9; 1 Kgs 8:7; 1 Chron 28:18),  So the JPSV of Ezek 28 speaks rather of the “shielding” cherub, while the KJV reads “covering.” Both translations depict the function of the cherubim in the Temple, rather than the guard duty performed by the cherub in Gen 3:24.  But that protection of the sanctity of Temple and Ark makes the temple kherubim the natural instruments of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem’s corrupt priesthood.

Robert Wilson argues that Ezek 28:11-19 is “a dirge which was ostensibly concerned with the king of Tyre, but which in fact was so laced with allusions to the Israelite high priest that the real thrust of the dirge could not possibly be missed by Ezekiel’s audience” (Robert Wilson, “The Death of the King of Tyre: The Editorial History of Ezekiel 28,” in Love and Death in the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of Marvin Pope, ed. John Marks and Robert Good [Guilford, CT: Four Quarters, 1987], 217). Ezekiel declares that because of his pride, greed, and corruption, the high priest in Jerusalem will be expelled from the Temple and destroyed.

I propose that Ezekiel’s priestly editors, unhappy with his condemnation of the high priest, have redirected his lament, adding a new heading identifying its referent as the king of Tyre (not mentioned after Ezek 28:12). Contrary to the NRSVue of Ezekiel 28:11-19, this passage is not about the fall of a cherub from heaven. Nor, however, is it about the first Human, or even the king of Tyre!  It is a judgment oracle against Jerusalem’s high priest.  However, it also serves to clarify both the identification of Eden with Zion, and the iconic function of the Temple cherubim.




Reclaiming Eden


Readings of the Eden story in Genesis 2:4b–3:24 often ignore an important theological concept: the idea of Eden itself, the center of the earth, on the true Mount Zion, from which its rivers flow to bring life to the whole earth.  Within the Hebrew Bible, the identification of Eden with Zion is certainly implied in Isaiah’s famous “peaceable kingdom” texts, which imagine the mountain of God as an Edenic paradise (compare Isa 11:6-9; 65:17-25 and Gen 1:29-30). But in Ezekiel 28:11-19, a lament over the “king of Tyre” that concludes Ezekiel’s oracles against Tyre (Ezek 26:7—28:19), the identification of Zion with Eden is unambiguously made:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering . . . On the day that you were created they were prepared. With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God, you walked among the stones of fire (Ezek 28:13-14, NRSV).

“The holy mountain of God” (Ezek 28:14, 16; cf. 20:40) is certainly Zion, site of the Jerusalem temple. Yet Ezekiel calls this place “Eden.”

The association, and even the identification, of Zion and Eden is found in Second Temple and rabbinic texts as well. In 1 Enoch 25:3-5, the visionary sees the Tree of Life (Gen 2:9) planted on a beautiful mountain, situated among six other beautiful mountains in the northeast. The angelic interpreter Michael tells him,

This tall mountain which you saw whose summit resembles the throne of God is (indeed) his throne, on which the Holy and Great Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit when he descends to visit the earth with goodness.

Zion is clearly the referent, so in this second- or third-century BCE apocalypse, Eden is Zion. On the other hand, in Jubilees 8:19, Eden and Zion remain distinct, although closely associated with one another:

And [Noah] knew that Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the Lord. And Mount Sinai (was) in the midst of the desert and Mount Zion (was) in the midst of the navel of the earth. The three of these were created as holy places, facing each other.

Still, the concept of Zion as “the navel of the earth” also points toward a connection with Eden. As the center of the earth, Zion is the source of life and meaning for all creation.

There are several references in rabbinic literature to Zion as the navel of the world. Midrash Hashem Bekhokmah Yasad ‘Arets declares that the Lord created the world just as an embryo grows, from the navel outward. Another midrash, Tanhuma: Kedoshim 10, cites Ezek 38:12, which says that the people of Israel live ‘al-tabbur ha’arets: literally, “at the navel of the earth.” This demonstrates, according to the midrash, that Israel is the center of the world, just as the navel is the center of a human being. Little wonder, then, that according to Rabbi Eliezar the Great, creation began with Zion (b.Yoma 54b).

May be an illustration of text that says 'GOD IS RED A Native View of Religion VINE DELORIA,JR. R. AUTHOROF uster Died or Your Sins'The importance of place in the Bible’s Eden/Zion traditions, and their notion of the center, is reminiscent of those same features in the primal religious traditions of indigenous peoples. Oglala Sioux author Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote:

Thousands of years of occupancy on their lands taught tribal peoples the sacred landscapes for which they were responsible and gradually the structure of ceremonial reality became clear. . . . The vast majority of Indian tribal religions, therefore, have a sacred center at a particular place, be it a river, a mountain, a plateau, valley, or other natural feature. This center enables the people to look out along the four dimensions and locate their lands ( Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 2nd ed [Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1994], 67).

Cayuse leader Weatenatemany (“Young Chief”), when asked to sign a treaty in 1855 ceding land rights, replied, “I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said?”

Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, It is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them aright. . . . The ground, the water and the grass say, The Great Spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold these names. . . . The same way the ground says, It was from me man was made. The Great Spirit, in placing men on earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm (cited in Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence, ed. T. C. McLuhan. NY: Promontory Press [reprint of Outerbridge & Dienstfrey], 1971, 8).

Such traditions preserve a sense of closeness and kinship with the natural world. In tension with the estrangement from the natural world evident in Gen 3:17, Chief Luther Standing Bear wrote in his autobiography,

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as ‘wild’ . . . Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us.  When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the ‘Wild West’ began (Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle. New Edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2006 [orig. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933], 38).

For Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow, who died in 1932, the indiscriminate slaughter of the buffalo by white hunters marked the end of the world: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” In sharp contrast is the attitude of Native American hunters toward their prey, evident in the Navajo “Stalking Way:”

I am the Black God, arising with twilight,

            a part of the twilight.

Out from the West, out from the Darkness

            Mountain, a buck of dark flint stands out before me.

The best male game of darkness, it calls to me,

            It hears my voice calling.

Our calls become one in beauty.

            Our prayers become one in beauty.

As I, the Black God, go toward it.

            As the male game of darkness comes toward me.

With beauty before us, we come together.

            With beauty behind us, we come together.

That my arrow may free its sacred breath.

            That my arrow may bring its death in beauty (Tony Hillerman, People of Darkness [New York: Harper & Row, 1980], 171).

Deloria proposed that the major difference between Native American and European world views is that, while indigenous peoples think in terms of place, Europeans think in terms of time: “American Indians hold their lands—places—as having the highest possible meaning . . . Immigrants review the movement of their ancestors across the continent as a steady progression of basically good events and experiences, thereby placing history—time—in the best possible light” (Deloria 1994, 62).


Hehaka Sapa, also known as Black Elk, was a famed shaman of the Oglala Sioux who became a Roman Catholic Christian. Regarding the Native American view of time, he wrote:

Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The Sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The Wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves (cited in McLuhan 1971, 42).

Preferencing time over space, Deloria argued, has led Christians to devalue the earth: “The idea of defining religious reality along temporal lines, therefore, is to adopt the pretense that the earth simply does not matter, that human affairs alone are important” (Deloria 1997, 70). Yet curiously, a major consequence of this loss of place is the dehumanization of ethical decision-making: ““Ethics seems to involve an abstract individual making clear, objective decisions that involve principles but not people. Ideology unleashed without being subjected to the critique to the real world proves demoniac at best.” By contrast, “Spatial thinking requires that ethical systems be related directly to the physical world and real human situations, not abstract principles, are believed to be valid at all times and under all circumstances” (Deloria 1997, 72).

How, Willie Jennings asks, has this loss of place affected Christian theology?

How does that removal of true speech, true sight regarding the materiality of the world affect a doctrine of creation? A Christian doctrine of creation is not dependent upon geographical precision; however, it is not wholly independent of geographical accuracy. Belief in creation has to refer to current real-world places or it refers to nothing (Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. [New Haven: Yale University, 2010], 85).


Jennings addresses this question historically, by examining the reasoning behind papal bull Romanus Pontifex, issued by Pope Nicholas V on January 8, 1455. This bull, which gave the prince of Portugal permission to enslave Africans and forcibly convert them to Catholicism, was based on a particular reading of Gen 1:1, specifically, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (Jennings 2010, 27-28): “These actions inscribe the contingency of creation itself within the will and desire of the church and the colonial powers. The inherent instability of creation means all things may be altered to bring them to proper order toward saved existence” (Jennings 2010, 29).

Guest Preacher Willie Jennings This Sunday | Duke University Chapel

Jennings persuasively argues that the loss of place in the Christian imagination has produced our ideas of race, for race becomes a “stand in for landscape in its facilitating characteristics,” a “substitution for place and place-centered identity” (Jennings 2010, 289). In this way, Jennings writes, “we have been transformed into racial identities. Our racial identities enfold imagined connections to land inside our individual bodies and construct racialized boundaries and racial kinship” (Jennings 2010, 289). Rather than building cross-cultural communities, learning from one another and celebrating our differences, we have built walls of isolation and exclusion.

Meanwhile, “colonialism established ways of life that drove an abiding wedge between land and peoples.”

Rather than a vision of a Creator arising through the hearing of Israel’s story bound to Jesus who enables peoples to discern the ways their cultural practices and stories both echo and contradict the divine claim on their lives, the vision born of colonialism articulated a Creator bent on eradicating people’s ways of life and turning the creation into private property (Jennings 2010, 292).

As I write this, we are experiencing record high temperatures worldwide; indeed many scientists are saying “The past three days [July 3-5, 2023] were quite likely the hottest in Earth’s modern history.” Runaway wildfires in Canada have resulted in visible smoke here in Pittsburgh, and difficult breathing conditions, particularly for children and the elderly. All reputable climatologists agree that our climate’s warming is human-driven, caused especially by the use of fossil fuels that have increased the proportion of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” in our atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide. Indeed, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory say that the current heat wave in the South and in northern Mexico, with its triple-digit heat index, is about 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it would have been absent climate change.

Yet we do not even agree that there is a problem, let alone a solution! According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, “About one-quarter (23%) of Americans say that climate change is a crisis and 36% say it is a major problem, while nearly 4-in-10 Americans say climate change is a minor problem (23%) or not a problem at all (16%).”  Sadly, a major predictor of climate change denial is being white and Christian: “White evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other religious group to be climate change Skeptics” (39%) and “are much more likely to attribute the severity of recent natural disasters to the biblical ‘end times’ (77%) than to climate change (49%).”

In a seminal 1967 article that gave birth to the ecological movement, historian Lynn White, Jr. placed the blame for “our ecological crisis” on Christianity: “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” which “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” Science 155 (1967): 1205).

St Francis mural 2

White acknowledged the complexity of Christian faith, including views counter to those he had described:

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it: he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed (White 1967, 1207).

Still, White was persuaded that the crisis remained, at its root, a religious one, requiring (“whether we call it that or not”) a religious solution: “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. . . . We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny” (White 1967, 1207).

Jürgen Moltmann on the Relationship Between Hope and Reality — Curating Theology

For people of the Word, rethinking our nature and destiny begins with rereading our sacred texts, asking humbly what we may have missed, or gotten wrong. Jürgen Moltmann advocates a reading of Gen 1 whereby “the human being is the last being God created and therefore the most dependent of all God’s creations.”

For their life on earth, human beings are dependent on the existence of animals and plants, dirt and water, light, daytime and night-time, sun, moon, and stars, and without these things they cannot live. . . . The other creatures can all exist without the human being, but human beings cannot exist without them (Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril. Trans. Margaret Kohl and Brian McNeil [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019], 18).

Moltmann challenges us to

read the Bible not from the beginning but from the end. . . . The perfected creation does not lie behind us in a primal state, but ahead of us in a final one. We await the consummated creation and, together with the cosmos, we are now existing in its prehistory (Moltmann 2019, 66).

I remember as a boy singing an old Gospel hymn, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ thru. / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” But what if this world is my home, after all? What if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world?  Then, as Moltmann reminds us “Men and women will not be redeemed from transience and death from this earth, but together with the earth” (Moltmann 2019, 19). Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom.  We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation and the completion of God’s creation.


How Do We Remember?

On Father’s Day, I was back home in Mineral Wells, WV with my Dad, reminiscing with my sisters about growing up together.  One story that we nearly always revisit is the time that Tammy ran over me with her bicycle.  We have never agreed on exactly what happened.  I remember playing in the dirt road in front of our house with my G. I. Joe, when suddenly I was hit from behind.  My face hit the dirt–I can still taste the dust, and for a long time, until it was worn smooth, I could feel with my tongue the chip in my front tooth.The bike ran right over my back–it may have actually skidded over me as Tammy tried to stop.

The thing is, Tammy is sure that I dared her to run over me, even lying down in the road so that she could do it!  Tracey was tiny then, and Dee Dee hadn’t even been born, but they tend to side with Tammy (perhaps because they know me so well)–and they may be right.  What really happened?  Who knows?  And why does it matter?  Sharing the story is the main thing!

Much of the Hebrew Bible feels like that: family stories, told and retold, remembered a little bit differently depending on who is telling them!  In Genesis, that family circle includes Jewish and Arab peoples: both alike descended from Abram, whose name means “exalted father.”

In both the Bible and the Quran, Ishmael is remembered as the firstborn son of Abraham and the ancestor of the Arabian people. However, in the Quran, Ishmael is a prophet, and he, not Isaac, is the child of promise (Sura 19:54).

Title: The Macklin Bible -- Departure of Hagar [Click for larger image view]

The Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday in the lectionary is Genesis 21:8-21:

On the day [Isaac] stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet.  Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.

She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.

God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.

In the Hadith (a collection of Muslim teachings and traditions related to the Quran in something like the way that Talmud is related to the Hebrew Bible), the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness is retold:

Abraham brought her and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka’ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water. So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishmael’s mother followed him saying, “O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?” She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, “Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then He will not neglect us,” and returned. . . When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. . . . When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, “O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?” And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it. . . . Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people” Hadith 4:583.

The Kaaba, granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631-32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

In the Hadith, this story is set in Mecca, not Beer-sheba, and connected to the building of the Ka’ba (the destination of the pilgrimage, called the hajj, that all pious Muslims who are able are to make at least once in their lives) by Ishmael and Abraham.  The Hadith also seems a bit kinder to Abraham than the Genesis account!  Arabs and Jews remember their shared past differently–but then, that is how memory works. What we remember, and how we remember it, depends to a great degree on who, where, and how we are.

Joe Biden

Last Monday, June 19, was a relatively new federal holiday, established by the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, signed on June 17, 2021 by President Joe Biden.  Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.

No photo description available.Although denigrated by some as a new, “woke” holiday, Juneteenth has long been celebrated in African American communities, especially in the South, and particularly in Texas!  That many of us white folk had not heard of this day and its significance says more about whose stories we have heard, and how we have chosen to remember our past, than it does about the day or its significance.

Ron DeSantis standing at a lectern with a sign reading, “Freedom from indoctrination.”

Some Americans, concerned that exposure to the darker and more painful aspects of our past will prevent patriotism, have urged that history texts, at least in younger grades, should avoid tragic aspects of our history–particularly regarding slavery. But significantly, the Hebrew Bible never does that! Israel’s past is recalled with clear eyes, and its heroes are depicted in all their humanity: even David, even Moses, even (as Sunday’s Hebrew Bible passage reminds us) Abraham.

Our personal histories, and our own memories, can reflect those same struggles and temptations.  We may pump up our own accomplishments, and downplay our own failings.  That is when we need our siblings, in family and in the faith, to remind us of how they remember our actions—which is bound to keep us humble.

Programs for Veterans With PTSD

However, conversely, we may find ourselves trapped by our memories: unable to escape the trauma of our past. Psychologists now give this a name: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  Although commonly associated with veterans struggling with wartime violence and trauma, painful memories can cripple victims of child abuse, gun violence, or of neighborhood crime, too.

Jesus never promised that all would go well for his followers—indeed, he told us we should expect to be no better received by the world than he was: “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul [that is, a devil!], it’s certain that they will call the members of his household by even worse names” (Matthew 10:25).  Nor does Jesus call us to deny, or forget, our past—as though we could. He does promise that God’s light will reveal all: that God sees all, even those who think that their abusive acts are hidden (Matthew 10:26-27).

Jesus also promises that God, who knows us thoroughly and sees us clearly (“Even the hairs of your head are all counted;” Matt 10:30), also loves us and cares for us. He whose eye is on the sparrow (Matt 10:29-31) certainly watches, knows, and cares for us.

How we remember our past can either bless or curse our present and our future.  But God can heal our memories, too, so that we can face them honestly without being controlled by them.

AFTERWORD:  If you are struggling with painful memories that you cannot escape, please do not suffer alone!  Talk to your pastor or physician for referral, or check out these resources.  If you are a veteran, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a crisis center you can contact for guidance and help.