Jul
2023

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).

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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).

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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.

Jun
2023

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.

May
2023

Adam’s Name (and “Rib”!)

Hebrew has no capital letters–which makes recognizing names a bit of a problem.  As a beginning Hebrew student, I still remember doing what many of my own beginning students did later–failing to recognize that a name was a name, and laboriously trying to translate it.  In my case it was David’s home town, “Bethlehem,” which I dutifully rendered as “house of bread”–until I pronounced the Hebrew aloud and realized what I was seeing.

The proper name “Adam” is of course used for the first man.  However, in Gen 2:7, we find not a name, but the word ha‘adam (that is, “the human”), translated “human” in the CEB, but “man” in the NRSV.  In the Hebrew text, ‘adam is not explicitly a name (presented without the article ha [“the”]) until Gen 4:25: “Adam knew his wife intimately again, and she gave birth to a son. She named him Seth.”  However, in the Aramaic Targum, Adam is a name from Gen 2:7 on, while in the Greek Septuagint and the Vulgate, Adam is a proper name beginning with Gen 2:19, as the KJV reflects.  So, what is the significance of this variation?  Just when does ha’adam become Adam?

The creation of the Human is the first explicitly described creative act of God in this second creation account. Having first moistened the ground, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7 NRSVue).

The Potter's Wheel - Biblical Israel Tours

There are several key terms to unpack in this verse. The verb translated “formed” in the NRSV is the Hebrew yatsar, the term for what potters do (for example, Isa 64:8 [7]; Jer 18:11). The Lord God is working in the wet soil, fashioning the human the way a potter fashions a pot on the wheel, or a sculptor fashions a statue from a bit of clay. In this story we are formed, intimately and intricately fashioned by the Lord God’s own fingers.  However, the Lord God fashions ha’adam, the Human, not from potter’s clay, but from “the dust of the ground” (aphar min-ha’adamah).

“Dust” (Hebrew aphar) suggests a dryness and sterility in curious contrast to the description of the now-moistened ground. In the Hebrew Bible, the word aphar can connote human fragility and mortality (for example, Pss 119:25; 7:5; Dan 12:2), particularly in the phrase aphar we’epher, “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6). Likely, that usage derives from Gen 3:19:

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return (NRSVue).

Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden Part 2 - Small Farmer's JournalSmall Farmer's Journal

But in Gen 2:7, the dust is specifically “the dust of the ground” (aphar min-ha’adamah), or better “the soil;” the Hebrew word ‘adamah is used in particular for arable land. Here, then, aphar would appear to refer to the loose dirt at the surface of the ground that is plowed and planted—that is, the topsoil (see the CEB of this verse: “the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land”). It is this rich dirt, moistened with the water from beneath the earth, that is molded into ha’adam, the first human.

The Hebrew text deliberately puns on the words ‘adamah and ‘adam.  Adam, we might say, is the mud man, fashioned from the soil. To capture that pun in English, we may think of ha’adam as the human made from the humus, or the earthling made from the earth.

RCIN 405512 - Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

The Human lives in the beautiful garden of Eden, with access to all the fruit ha’adam can eat, surrounded by beauty, and with fulfilling work to fill the Human’s days. Yet, there is something missing, and God Godself recognizes the problem: “Then the LORD God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him” (Gen 2:18).

The Hebrew phrase rendered “helper that is perfect for him” is ‘ezer kenegedo. The word ‘ezer simply means “helper,’ which could perhaps be understood to mean something like “assistant.” But in the Hebrew Bible, ‘ezer is most commonly used for God (half of its citations: see Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7, 29; Pss 20:2[3]; 70:5[6]; 121:1-2; 124:8; 146:5), so subordination is unlikely to be the point. The fascinating expression kenegedo means “corresponding to him; in relationship to him.”

Should You Be Like an Old Fashioned 1950s Housewife?

The KJV famously renders ‘ezer kenegedo as “an help meet”—that is, fitting, or appropriate—“for him,” which unfortunately spawned the term “helpmeet,” or “helpmate,” for a housewife duly submissive to her husband. The NRSV rendering “a helper as his partner” appropriately recognizes that the LORD God does not aim to find a subordinate, someone less than or under ha’adam.   The Human is alone, and the quest is to find a being corresponding to ha’adam, with whom the Human can be in relationship.

The LORD realizes that a being truly corresponding to ha’adam must be fashioned from ha’adam’s very being; out of ha’adam’s own stuff:

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man [ha’adam], and he slept; then he took one of his ribs [‘akhad mitsal’ohaw] and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib [tsela’] that the Lord God had taken from the man [ha’adam] he made into a woman [‘ishah] and brought her to the man [ha’adam] (Gen 2:21-22 NRSVue).

While most translations render the word tsela’ as “rib,” in the Hebrew Bible this word always means “side” (for example, the side of the Ark in Exod 25:12; the side of the Tabernacle in Exod 26:20; a hillside in 2 Sam 16:13; one of two double doors in 1 Kgs 6:34). Accordingly, in Bereshit Rabbah 8.1, R. Samuel bar Nahman says, “When the Holy One, blessed be he, created the first man, he created him with two faces, then sawed him into two [!] and made a back on one side and a back on the other.” When some objected that God had taken only a rib from ha’adam, “He said to them, ‘It was one of his sides, as you find written in Scripture, ‘And for the second side [tsela’] of the tabernacle’ (Ex. 26:20)’” (translated by Jacob Neusner). Rather than the Woman being made from a relatively insignificant portion of the Man, as is often held, Gen 2:20-21 describes major surgery: the Lord God uses one entire side of the original Human to fashion an ‘ezer kenegedo, basically splitting ha’adam in two!

That mutuality is the point of this narrative is underlined by what ha’adam says upon meeting the Woman:

“This one finally is bone from my bones
        and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman
        because from a man she was taken” (Gen 2:23).

Here at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! At last I have somebody to talk to. At last I have someone who is like me and yet unlike me, with whom I can be in a relationship of equals.

Renita Weems | hopehappenshere

In the PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation, scholar and preacher Renita Weems says, “What do I think when I hear the phrase — ‘bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh?’ This is the first love song a man ever sang to a woman.”

Here for the first time in this narrative (although most English translations obscure this), we find not ha’adam, the Human, but ‘ish, Man. Once more the Bible makes a point with a pun: just as ‘adam was taken from the ‘adamah, so ‘ishah has been taken from ‘ish. We should note that there is actually no etymological relationship between the words ‘ishah and ‘ish; they come from different roots in Hebrew. But just as the Human is inexorably bound up with the earth, so for this writer Man and Woman are inexorably bound up with one another.

The Greek and Latin versions, followed by the KJV, introduce the personal name Adam at the point in the narrative where the Woman’s origin story begins.  The generic Human becomes a very specific person, with a name, once relationship with another created person comes into play.  That’ll preach, friends.

May
2023

Which Commandments?

 

The Texas State Senate has just passed a bill (Senate Bill 1515), now before its House, requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom in the state. The author of the bill, freshman Senator Phil King (R-Weatherford), said that “the Ten Commandments are part of American heritage and it’s time to bring them back into the classroom.”

According to the language of the bill, the Ten Commandments, taken (with, as is observed below, some significant exceptions) from Exodus 20:1-17 in the King James Version, are to appear on a poster, at least 16 by 20 inches, readable by “a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom.”  The poster, the bill states, “must read as follows:”

“The Ten Commandments

I AM the LORD thy God.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.

Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”

Evidently, the bill and its sponsors envision something like the old commandment boards pictured at the head of this blog, from the original Anglican Church (built 1752-3) of Trinity-on-the-Green, New Haven, CT (photographed by John Wallace).

But the Ten Commandments are not as simple and straightforward as Sen. King and his colleagues evidently believe.  Quite apart from the very legitimate concerns about the separation of church and state and the establishment of religion raised by Texas Senate Bill 1515, there are at least two practical problems with its implementation.

First, the Ten Commandments are recorded twice in our Bibles: not only in Exodus 20:1-17, the version whose wording appears in the bill, but also in Deuteronomy 5:1-21.   Indeed, one reason that the fifth book in our Bibles is called “Deuteronomy” (“second law” in Greek) is that this second account of the commandments is found there.

While the two versions of the Decalogue are over broad swaths identical, there are important differences.  The priestly Decalogue in Exodus 20 says,

Remember [Hebrew zakor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. . . .  Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:8-11). 

Kiddush - Wikipedia

In this priestly version of the Decalogue, the Sabbath commandment not only alludes to the six days in the priestly account of creation (Gen 1:1–2:4a), but uses the same key words: “bless,” “sanctify,” “work” appear in both texts (compare Exod 20:11 and Gen 2:3). Still today in Jewish liturgy, Genesis 2:1-3 introduces the kiddush, the prayer over wine to sanctify the Sabbath, and is recited on Friday night, before the first Sabbath meal.God’s rest, together with God’s blessing and sanctification of that rest, is in priestly tradition the reason for remembering and sanctifying the seventh day–yet, according to the Texas bill, the reason for remembering the Sabbath is not to be on the classroom poster.

Crossing the Red Sea | The Bible Through Artists' Eyes

The Deuteronomic version reads,

Keep [Hebrew shamor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy . . . Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day (Deut 5:12-15).

Here, Sabbath is labor legislation, grounded not in theology but in Israel’s remembered history.  Remembering what it was like to be forced to labor without rest, you are never to do the same to anyone ever again–not even to yourself!

Busy Housewife Vector

Which version of the Ten Commandments we are reading makes a particular difference in the last commandment.  In the priestly Decalogue (the one the Texas Senate wants posted on every classroom wall),  Exodus 20:17 states,

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.  

Here, your (explicitly male) neighbor’s house–that is, all that he owns–is placed first, followed by a list of its contents.  His wife, like his slaves, his domestic animals, and everything else included in his house “belongs to your neighbor,” and his ownership is to be respected: the same verb (khamad) is used both times in this verse (the KJV simply has “covet”).  Other texts–most notably, the priestly account of creation to which the Sabbath command alludes (Gen 1:27)–challenge this idea, but in the priestly Decalogue, women are property.

Women's rights have gone into reverse. But wait, look who's driving | World Economic Forum

However, Deuteronomy 5:21 reads:

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

The change in the order here, the break in the middle of the verse, and the different verbs used with regard to the neighbor’s wife (Hebrew khamad) and the neighbor’s property (Hebrew ‘awah) are all accurately rendered features of the Hebrew text.  The perspective is still masculine.  But Deuteronomy puts the neighbor’s wife first, and makes a clear distinction between her and the neighbor’s house.  In Deuteronomy 5, women are not property!

In short–the two versions of the Ten Commandments are not the same.  We need the breadth, and the mutual correction, that reading both affords.

The second practical problem relates to the numbering of the commandments.  On the poster mandated by SB 1515, the heading reads “The Ten Commandments,” but the commandments are not numbered–and there are twelve sentences.  The Hebrew Bible refers to this passage three times (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4) as ‘asheret haddebarim (that is, “the ten words”).  But depending on how–and where–we read, the commandments can be numbered in different ways, with different emphases.

The Texas Senate’s decision to use the traditional King James Version of Exodus 20 avoids concerns about the accurate translation of this text by ignoring them.  However, as Cantor Sheri Allen, co-founder of the Jewish congregation Makom Shelanu in Fort Worth observes, differences in translation are not the only problem involved in privileging King James’ English over the Hebrew:

“I read and I chant the Ten Commandments in Hebrew — the original language — every year,” said Allen, who pointed out that Jewish traditions typically don’t number the edicts the same way as Christians.

The Ten Commandments

This stained-glass window from the Plymouth Synagogue (built in 1762, it is the oldest synagogue in England; indeed in the English-speaking world) shows the ‘asheret haddebarim in the abbreviated form typically found in synagogues.  The first commandment begins ‘Anoki Yhwh: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6).  That makes the second commandment the one that, as a young United Methodist, I learned to call the first: “You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7)–in Hebrew, Lo’ yihyeh-leka ‘elohim ‘akherim ‘al-penay.

In Judaism, the “first commandment” doesn’t appear to be a commandment at all!  Recall, though, that the Hebrew expression for this passage, ‘asheret haddebarim, actually means not “the Ten Commandments,” but  “the ten words.” Similarly, “Decalogue,” a title often used for this text, literally means “ten words.”

In the first of these “words,” God introduces Godself, by name, as Israel’s deliverer–yet significantly, the mandated wording of the Texas poster does not include the words “which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  In Hebrew, God’s name is YHWH.  Pious Jews, out of respect for the Name (see Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11), do not attempt to pronounce it, but simply say “Adonai,” or “My Lord;” most English translations (including the KJV) accordingly render YHWH as LORD in all capital letters.  In Judaism, God’s self-identification becomes very appropriately the first “word,” on which all of the words that follow depend.

Should you bow or look up at the elevation at Mass?Not only do Christians and Jews read and number the commandments differently, but different traditions within Christianity do as well.  Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, following the version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5, appropriately regard coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting a neighbor’s property as two different commandments: the ninth and the tenth, respectively.  They avoid having eleven commandments by, with Jewish tradition, reading the prohibition of idols (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10, which I learned to count as the second commandment) as part of the command to have no other gods (commandment number one in my Sunday School class–but, remember, the second of the ten words in the synagogue).

By specifying that it is Exodus 20:1-17 that is to be posted in every Texas classroom, numbered according to particular Christian traditions, this bill privileges, not merely Christianity, or even (as Cantor Green argues) Protestant Christianity, but a few specific Christian traditions.  By requiring that the Commandments be posted in the King James Version, but with all references to Judaism removed, the bill further privileges extremely conservative groups within those traditions.  As Andrew Seidel, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the Jewish Daily Forward, this is “very clearly an attempt to codify white Christian nationalism into the Texas law.”  As such, this bill has nothing to do with the Bible, or with Christian faith, and everything to do discrimination.

 

Apr
2023

Facts Matter

 (Ingus Kruklitis / Shutterstock.com)When I was a young Christian, I remember reading, and sharing, a mimeographed sheet (in the days before the internet, that was the way that such rumors were spread) quoting Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore and consultant to NASA at the the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Mr. Hill claimed that NASA’s calculations of the location of objects in space, necessary for placing satellites and people in orbit, had revealed a lost day in time:

Finally, a Christian man on the team said, “You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still.” While they didn’t believe him, they didn’t have an answer either, so they said, “Show us.”

He got a Bible and went back to the book of Joshua  . . . Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy and if darkness fell they would overpower them. So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That’s right — “The sun stood still and the moon stayed — and hasted not to go down about a whole day!”   (Joshua 10:12-13)

The astronauts and scientists said, “There is the missing day!” They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua’s day was 23 hours and 20 minutes — not a whole day. . . . Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits.

As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went BACKWARDS. The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but they got out the Book and read these words in 2 Kings that told of the following story:

Hezekiah, on his deathbed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him that he was not going to die.

Hezekiah asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said “Do you want the sun to go ahead 10 degrees?” Hezekiah said “It is nothing for the sun to go ahead 10 degrees, but let the shadow return backward 10 degrees.”

Isaiah spoke to the Lord and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees BACKWARD!

Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes! Twenty-three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in Second Kings make the missing day in the universe!

According to the Goddard Space Flight Center, nothing like this actually happened.  While Mr. Hill was indeed president of the Curtis Engine Company, and while he was indeed employed for a short time at Goddard as an engineer, he was never a NASA consultant, and was never present when launch trajectories were being calculated.

Further, a bit of thought should have revealed the problems with this still-circulating bit of misinformation.  Why would anyone dealing with satellite trajectories need to know “the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1000 years” into the future–satellites don’t last that long!  Why would they ever need to know those positions in the distant past?  Indeed, if time was “missing,” how could that be discerned?  What evidence could possibly reveal it?

Of course, it did not occur to zealous, teen-aged me to ask such questions.  All I needed–or wanted–to know was that science had proven the Bible to be true.

Sadly, this was far from the only time that I, as a young Christian, trafficked in misinformation.  In high school, I did a science fair project “debunking” the theory of evolution, citing in particular the absence of transitional forms.  If, say, whales had developed from land animals as scientists claimed, then where were the transitional forms in the fossil record?  Why were there no fossils of whales with legs?

The answer, of course, is that there were.  Transitional forms for the evolution of whales are well documented.  However, the Fundamentalist sources I was using back then were either ignorant of that evidence, or chose to ignore or deny it–and some are still denying it.  I, on the other hand, no longer see any conflict between evolution and God’s creation of the world.  Indeed, I have written:

There is a consonance between Genesis 1, where God empowers the world to bring forth life [Gen 1:11, 20, 24], and contemporary evolutionary biology.  Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.

 

Abortion pill order latest contentious ruling by Texas judge | AP News

These cases came to my mind as I read of Texas Justice Matthew J. Kacsmaryk’s ruling on the commonly prescribed abortion drug mifepristone:

“The court does not second-guess F.D.A.’s decision-making lightly,” the judge wrote. “But here, F.D.A. acquiesced on its legitimate safety concerns — in violation of its statutory duty — based on plainly unsound reasoning and studies that did not support its conclusions. There is also evidence indicating F.D.A. faced significant political pressure to forgo its proposed safety precautions to better advance the political objective of increased ‘access’ to chemical abortion.”

The issue here, friends, is not the morality or ethics of abortion, allegedly not at issue in this case.  Justice Kacsmaryk claimed to rule, on scientific and medical grounds, not only that mifepristone is unsafe for the women taking it, but that the Food and Drug Administration and the doctors prescribing that drug have known it to be unsafe, and have pushed it anyway, for political reasons.

That claim is patently false.  More than a hundred studies of mifepristone have been performed over the past thirty years, not to mention the evidence of the many thousands of women to whom the drug has been given since the FDA approved it just over twenty years ago: “All conclude that the pills are a safe method for terminating a pregnancy.”

“There may be a political fight here, but there’s not a lot of scientific ambiguity about the safety and effectiveness of this product,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.

It is worth noting that the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is certainly sympathetic to Justice Kacsmaryk’s views, did not uphold his ruling blocking the FDA’s approval, although “a divided three-judge panel still reduced the period of pregnancy when the drug can be taken and said it could not be dispensed by mail.” In response to the Department of Justice’s appeal, the Supreme Court has stayed that order until midnight on Wednesday April 19th, while the justices study the briefs and lower court rulings.

 

Whatever the outcome of this legal case, the issue I want us to consider right now is how ready many Christians are to embrace disinformation–as I was with the “lost time” legend, or concerning the fossil record.  Far too many people of faith today seem ready, even eager, to believe the worst of their adversaries (of course the FDA and the medical establishment are deliberately poisoning women!), and to embrace flimsy, even false arguments if they confirm their beliefs.

Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at Capitol

As a result, Christians–specifically white Evangelical Christians–have proven all too willing to be caught up in lies, from anti-vaxxing to “election fraud.”  In a survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center, one statement to which participants were asked to respond was, “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites”–a central claim of QAnon.  Among those who regarded that bizarre statement as mostly or completely true, 27% were white Evangelicals.  Evangelical leader Eric Metaxas has claimed, without any evidence at all, that Donald Trump won re-election “in a landslide,” calling the attempt to “steal” the election from Mr. Trump “the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.” Indeed, Mr. Metaxas compares faith in Mr. Trump’s stolen election to faith in Christ:

It’s like somebody saying, “Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.” We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it.”

 

To be sure, the role of science and evidence, of proof  and facts, is limited–truth is larger than fact.  As Christian author Frederick Buechner (may light perpetual shine upon him!) wrote in Wishful Thinking,

I can’t prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it. When I don’t experience it, no proof will do. If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing. So it is with the Godness of God. . . .
Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove that the world is round if I’m clever at that sort of thing—that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful.

 

We are saved, not by demonstrable facts, but by faith.   However, faith does not mean, like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, “believing six impossible things before breakfast.”  Facts matter.  We cannot advance the Gospel by deception, of others or of ourselves.  I wish that I had understood that sooner.

Apr
2023

Christe anesti!

Pin on Εικόνες Αγίων

In the early church, when believers met one another in the holy season of Easter, they would not just say “Hello.”  Instead, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”  On this boisterous, rollicking, joy-filled day, it is surely appropriate to do a bit of shouting!

In celebration of this holiest of holy days, St. John of Damascus wrote the glorious hymn below.  Have a joyous Easter, sisters and brothers and friends: Christe anesti!

Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.

crocuses

’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.

Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet again
to the Spirit raising.

AFTERWORD:

The above translation of John of Damascus’ sixth century hymn is by John Mason Neale: likely better known for his Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas”!  I have usually sung this to St. Kevin, a tune by Arthur Sullivan.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

Apr
2023

Nailed to the Cross

This past Saturday I was visiting my Dad, and the two of us were sitting in his living room, having our morning devotions together.  I was reading the Palm Sunday texts for the Liturgy of the Passion on my iPhone, when suddenly, I realized that in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, nothing is said of his being nailed to the cross!  Stunned, I did a quick search on my phone for mentions of nails in the Bible and found that nothing was said of Jesus being nailed to the cross in any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.

I have often said that I learn something new every time I open my Bible–that sometimes, even a familiar text will  reach out, grab me by the throat, and show me something I have never seen before.  You would think that, by now, the Bible’s unceasing newness would no longer surprise me–but it still does, every time.  Please note, friends–this does not mean that Jesus was not nailed to the cross.  But it is a reminder that what I have always assumed the text says and what it actually does say are not the same.

Our word “crucifixion” comes from the Latin words for “cross” (crux) and “fasten” (figere, from which we also derive our word “fix”).  The Romans fastened naked victims to a cross, usually with ropes, but sometimes with nails, then left them to die from pain, exhaustion, and exposure: an end that usually came only after hours, even days, of suffering.  Sometimes (as in John 19:31-37), death was speeded by breaking the legs of the crucified; the victims, no longer able to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, would soon suffocate.

The  Gospel account that comes closest to specifying how Jesus was crucified is John 20:25, where Thomas (having missed Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples), says “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”  Likely, it is this passage that leads to the universal Christian tradition that Jesus was nailed to his cross.

Outside of the Gospels, two passages may support what John’s account of the wounds on the resurrected Jesus confesses–although that evidence is uncertain.  The first is Peter’s Pentecost sermon, where he accuses the religious leaders in his audience,

In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross (Acts 2:23). 

The Greek verb prospegnumi (apparently meaning “fix, or fasten”), it must be noted, occurs in the New Testament only here, and while the NIV agrees with the CEB’s reading, many other translations do not: the ESV, the NRSVue, and even the KJV say here only that Jesus was crucified–not that the means of his crucifixion involved nails.

The second passage is Colossians 2:13-14:

When you were dead because of the things you had done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you had done wrong.  He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross.

This time, the Greek for the phrase “nailing it to the cross” is proselosas auto to stauro: a phrase used for crucifixion by a variety of writers in late antiquity, including the Greek physician Galen and the historians Diodorus Siculus and Josephus (Jewish War 2:308)–although again the use of nails is not always explicit.

The verb proseloo occurs nowhere else in the NT.  Although the BDAG lexicon proposes the translation “nail (fast),” the verb is used in 3 Maccabees 4:9-10 for deported Jews fastened into their shipboard berths with chains:

They were driven like animals, constrained by the power of iron chains. Some were fastened by the neck to the ship’s benches; some were secured by their feet with unbreakable shackles. Moreover, they were plunged into total darkness due to thick planks positioned above them so that they would receive the treatment due traitors throughout the entire voyage.

Surely, this passage is a grim reminder of the slave ships in our own nation’s history.

Slave Ship Diagram | Smithsonian OceanIt is clear from Colossians 2:14 that our debt is cancelled–put to death–on the cross; however, that this passage supports the use of nails in Jesus’ crucifixion is less clear.

We know about the Roman practice of crucifixion from contemporary accounts:

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote in 40AD that the process of crucifying someone varied greatly: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in different ways: some have their victims with their head down to the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms.”. . .

The Roman orator Cicero noted that “of all punishments, it is the most cruel and most terrifying,” and Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.”  

Ecce Homo: A day with El Greco's Christ on the Cross – Ampersand

Rome didn’t inflict this humiliating and horrifying death on thieves, or rapists, or even murderers.  It reserved  crucifixion for slaves, and for insurrectionists–those who rebelled against Roman authority.  The words posted above Jesus’ head on the cross, then, were not an epitaph, but an accusation– the accusation that brought him to the cross: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”

When Christians reflect on the cross, we cannot forget this obvious truth: Jesus was a political prisoner, executed by the Roman state on the charge of insurrection.  The Jews did not kill Jesus, friends– Rome did.  Or, speaking theologically rather than historically, since Jesus died for your sins and mine, we killed Jesus.  In her powerful devotional book God Is No Fool (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), Lois A. Cheney writes:

Would we crucify Jesus today? It’s not a rhetorical question for the mind to play with.

I believe,

We are born with a body, a mind, a soul, and a handful of nails.

I believe,

When a man dies, no one has ever found any nails left,

            clutched in his hand

                        or stuffed in his pockets  (Cheney, 40-41).

"Who bears the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus?" Courtesy graphic

Thankfully, a survey of Roman Catholic Christians conducted by St. Joseph’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations in July 2022 with SurveyUSA determined that “Catholics were significantly more likely to affirm Catholic teaching regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”

Nearly 70% of respondents blamed “the sins of humanity” (41.6%) or Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate (28.2%).

Even so, the scholars seemed unsettled that roughly 30% of U.S. Catholics didn’t know (9.6%), thought no one is to blame (9.6%) or openly blamed Jewish people (11%).

Given the sad resurgence of antisemitism in contemporary American politics, I wonder what a similar survey of Protestant Christians would reveal?

Although the Roman practice of crucifixion is widely attested in texts, archaeological evidence is scant.  This is because the bodies of crucifixion victims were customarily left unburied, to rot in the open and be eaten by scavengers (Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999], 89).   That is why, in John’s gospel, the religious leaders ask for a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers–not out of mercy or pity, but because unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23; for Paul’s use of this passage, see Gal 3:13).  It was important for these leaders that the condemned men died before sundown, so that their corpses would not defile the Sabbath–particularly that Sabbath, of Passover.

That is also what makes Jesus’ burial, and Joseph of Arimathea’s request for his body, so unusual–although all four gospels agree that this was done (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51; John 19:38).  However, we do have evidence for the burial of another crucified man, which also provides our only material evidence for someone nailed to a cross:

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated some tombs in the northeastern section of Jerusalem, at a site called Giv’at ha-Mivtar.  Within this rather wealthy 1st century AD Jewish tomb, Tzaferis came across the remains of a man who seemed to have been crucified.  His name, according to the inscription on the ossuary, was Yehohanan ben Hagkol.  Analysis of the bones by osteologist Nicu Haas showed that Yehohanan was about 24 to 28 years old at the time of his death.  He stood roughly 167cm tall, the average for men of this period.  His skeleton points to moderate muscular activity, but there was no indication that he was engaged in manual labor.

Drawing of the calcaneus of Yehohanon along with a reconstruction of the fleshed and defleshed foot skeleton. (Public domain image by S. Rubén Betanzo via wikimedia commons.)

Of course, the most interesting feature of Yehohanan’s skeleton is his feet.  Immediately upon excavation, Tzaferis noticed a 19cm nail that had penetrated the body of the right heel bone before being driven into olive wood so hard that it bent.  Because of the impossibility of removing the nail and because the man was buried rather than exposed, we have direct evidence of the practice of crucifixion.

I see no reason to question the tradition that Jesus, like poor Yehohanan ben Hagkol, was nailed to his cross.  Nor do I doubt the witness of Thomas, whom Jesus invited, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” (John 20:27).  But I am, once more, astonished by the Bible’s continual capacity to take me by surprise, and reminded how important it is to consider what the text actually says, rather than what I have always assumed it to say.

In this Holy Week, may Jesus’ suffering for us shame our pride, and challenge us to bear witness to his life, death, resurrection, and coming again.  This prayer for Holy Week comes from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, Consultation on Common Texts (Augsburg Fortress, 2002):

Almighty God,
Your name is glorified
even in the anguish of your Son’s death.
Grant us the courage
to receive your anointed servant
who embodies a wisdom and love
that is foolishness to the world.
empower us in witness
so that all the world may recognize
in the scandal of the cross the mystery of reconciliation. Amen.

 

Mar
2023

The Way of the Servant

This Sunday, Palm Sunday, is also called Passion Sunday, as it marks the  beginning of Holy Week. Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-949:1-750:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, are called the Servant Songs.  All deal with the Servant of the LORD, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world.  Appropriately, the Hebrew Bible reading for Good Friday’s remembrance of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, death, and burial is the fourth Song,  Isaiah 52:13—53:12: the song of the Suffering Servant.

The suffering of the Servant is a common theme in the Songs, from the first Song, where the world threatens to crush the Servant (Isa 42:4) to Isaiah 50:6, where the Servant bares his back to the smiters, and offers his cheek “to those who pulled out the beard.”

However, the Servant’s suffering is the major theme of the fourth and final Song:

He was despised and avoided by others;
    a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces,
    he was despised, and we didn’t think about him (Isa 53:3).

The Servant’s suffering is never accidental, or incidental. Rather, the Servant suffers deliberately, purposively: in solidarity with others. So, the vindication of the Servant becomes their vindication as well; when the Servant is strengthened, his fellow-sufferers too find strength.

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Christian readers have long seen Jesus in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the LORD.  So, in Acts 8:26-38, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks if the prophet speaks in Isa 53 “about himself or about someone else,” Philip wastes no time in sharing with him “the good news about Jesus.”

In 1 Peter 2:21-25, that writer, alluding to Isaiah 53, declares of Jesus

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

We Christians still cannot help but see Jesus in Isaiah’s Servant.  But that does not mean that we must, in triumphalist fashion, see Second Isaiah as predicting Jesus’ coming; as though the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people.

Authors & Artists | Voices & Visions

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229).  The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering deliberately chosen, which will render the tangled history of God’s people meaningful.  Jesus, we can certainly say, deliberately set out to follow that way, which led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus has been linked to Isaiah 52:13—53:12 in particular, not only because of the Servant’s innocent suffering on behalf of others (Isa 53:4-6), but specifically because of Isaiah 53:10, where many English translations read that the Servant’s life has been made (or will be made) “an offering for sin.”

Christians have often understood Jesus’ death on the cross in just this way: as a sacrifice for sin.  In our New Testament, the book of Hebrews understands Jesus as at once high priest and sacrifice, offering himself as a sin offering for the world (Heb 9—10).  There are some indications that Jesus may have thought of his own death in that way.  So, in Matthew’s account of the Last Supper.

He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28, CEB).

Notice, though, that this passage uses no sacrificial language, saying only that it is now, in his death, that Jesus fulfills the meaning of his name: Yeshua, that is “savior,” for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Yom Kippur - Wikipedia

Similarly, it is unclear that Paul intended us to see Jesus’ death as a sin offering.  That may seem a strange claim, in light of Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV):

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.

But the Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  This Greek word is used in Leviticus 16, the biblical description of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It refers, however, not to the sin sacrifice or to the scapegoat in that ritual, but rather to the lid of the ark, where the blood of the sacrifice is applied (Hebrew kapporet).  At least in this famous passage, Paul refers to the cross not as a sacrifice for sin, but rather as the place of atonement (see the NRSV translator’s footnote on this phrase), where God and humanity are reconciled.

Another translation problem occurs in Isaiah 53:10. Although several English translations have “offering for sin,” the word “sin” does not appear in this verse, and the Hebrew word for the offering is not khattat (Hebrew for the sin offering), but ‘asham: used in Leviticus 5:14-26 for what is commonly called the “guilt offering.”

While ‘asham is often translated as “guilt,” it more precisely means “to incur liability,” and is used for payment of damages. This is the only offering in ancient Israel’s sacrificial system that involves a fine as well as a sacrifice–indeed, for which a fine can be substituted.  Jewish scholars Baruch Schwartz (in the Jewish Study Bible) and Jacob Milgrom (in the HarperCollins Study Bible) both propose “reparation offering” as a better translation.   In the NRSV and the NRSVue, this section of Leviticus carries the heading “Offerings with Restitution.”

the scream

As the ‘asham is described in Leviticus, it is an offering to be made when an act has been performed, even accidentally, that brings defilement upon the community or upon the holy things.  So, this is an offering for when you suspect you have done something wrong, but do not know what–making the traditional rendering “guilt offering” fitting after all!  An ‘asham is offered when something isn’t right, in my life or in my community, but I can’t say what it is–so, perhaps I have somehow, inadvertently, brought defilement upon the community and the holy things. The ‘asham, we could say, addresses free-flowing Angst!

What might this mean in the context of our Song?  First, whatever else Isa 53:10 may mean, it does not mean that the Servant is a sacrifice for sin.  In the CEB, this verse is translated “his life is offered as restitution”–a more accurate rendering, but what might that mean?  Translator’s notes in the NRSV and NRSVue acknowledge, “Meaning of Heb uncertain.”  Perhaps the point, as the Song as a whole implies, is that by identifying with those who suffer guilt, pain, and shame, the Servant eases that suffering, mysteriously shifting it onto himself.

Perhaps this is a better way of thinking about the suffering of Jesus, too.  The Oxford English Dictionary dates our English word “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum  (“unity”), and an older word, “onement:” from the obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite.”  The word was particularly used to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity through Christ.  What “atonement” originally meant was not the assuaging of divine wrath with a blood sacrifice, but being reunited (“at one”) with God.  As the apostle Paul writes:

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, we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  The gap between humanity and divinity is bridged.  In Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, God experiences all that being human means, in joy and in sorrow.  Life learns what it is to die.  Absolute power learns what it is to be weak.  God Godself experiences God-forsakenness.  In Christ’s resurrection, we mortals 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.

Of course, if Isaiah 52:13—53:12 cannot be safely restricted to a sacrificial act which Jesus alone could, and did, do, we are brought back to asking what this passage may mean for the living of our lives.  But after forty days of penitential Lenten reflection, we are likely eager to move on.  Palm Sunday leads to Good Friday, of course, but that in turn leads to Easter–and we are naturally eager to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and the promise of our own!

But, let us not hurry to the empty tomb too quickly, friends. Let us stay with the cross awhile, and ask what it might mean for us to follow Jesus on the way of the Servant; to surrender authority and privilege, and stand with the suffering and oppressed.  After all, did Jesus not say, ““All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24)?

Footprints in the Sand" Poem Meaning & Biblical Hope

1 Peter definitely sees the cross in Isa 53, but does not therefore think that we are relieved of the responsibility to walk in this way ourselves. Indeed, this Christian writes, “You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).

So too, the writer of Hebrews calls Jesus “faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Heb 12:2).

What might it mean to follow such a pioneer—to, in the words of the old Gospel hymn, “go with him, with him, all the way”? What might it mean to say, with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20)?

 

 

Mar
2023

The Strong Name of the Trinity

Friday March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation–as in the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity.  Of course, as a metaphor for God’s unity in three persons, the shamrock has its problems!  But then again, perhaps every metaphor for the Divine life must fall short.

This week, I have been remembering the controversial depiction of the Trinity in William P. Young’s novel The Shack.  My covenant group at St. Paul’s UMC read this book, but I honestly do not believe I ever finished it.  Wendy reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and its theological shortcomings.

Then, on March 9, 2017, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and by a young man, a Palestinian carpenter.

The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The film, like the book, was harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert wrote,

The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.

Pastor Jack Wellman concluded,

Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.

Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere wrote,

I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack  really boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion, “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor Jesus a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4), nor the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time?

In a column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  How winsome can our faith possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

Trinity Knot or Rings (Triquetra) | City of Grove Oklahoma

What, after all, does the Bible say about the Trinity?  The truth is–not much!  Indeed, it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas in the classical creeds of the church.  Christianity’s first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, met in 325 CE.  Particularly at issue for this gathering was how to speak meaningfully about the relationship between the Father and the Son.  According to Arius and his followers, Jesus was a creation of God–the highest creature to be sure, indeed the first-born of all creation, but still distinct from the one God.  Jesus and God are therefore homoiousias: of like substance or essence.

To be fair, this kind of language is used in Scripture. Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the one who is first [Greek prototokos, “firstborn“] over all creation.”  The Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says that

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 (Phil 2:6-7).

The Council, however, wound up affirming that Jesus and God were homoousias: that is, of the same substance, or of one substance.  The Nicene Creed accordingly confesses,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being [Greek homoousion] with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.

So, why did the Council at Nicaea insist upon this confession?  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him. Hence, the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - WikipediaWhile full-blown Trinitarian language is wanting in the texts of Scripture, the Gospel of John comes very close.  John 1:1 affirms,

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

Indeed, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.”  In John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.

This language in turn reflects the struggle of the sages of ancient Israel to find a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Best of Frenemies: Unexpected Role of Social Networks in Ecology | UC DavisLady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me [Hebrew qanani; perhaps better “acquired me,” that is, as a wife] at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.

I was formed in ancient times,
    at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
    before the hills, I was brought forth;
    before God made the earth and the fields
    or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
    when he thickened the clouds above,
    when he secured the fountains of the deep,
    when he set a limit for the sea,
        so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
    when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Prov 8:23-31).

Christian readers will be reminded, again, of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God who is God, through whom the world was made. This is a Wisdom Christology: a way of talking about Christ drawn from the language of Proverbs 8!

1 John 4:8 gives us another way to visualize the Divine life: “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is at once the Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.  It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this.  As the Council at Nicaea affirmed, it is true that God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; yet it is also true that God is one.  That may seem nonsensical–but the Trinity is not a logic problem for us to solve!  We come to the paradoxical language of Trinity because we are driven to it by the shape of our experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is, and what God is up to in our world.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”

AFTERWORD:

St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is a classic expression of Celtic spirituality (perhaps best known from this familiar hymn), and a full-throated celebration of the Triune God.  Here is the prayer in full, translated into English verse by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1889:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Feb
2023

All Along the Way

Title: St. Savin - Calling of Abraham [Click for larger image view]

The Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday is Abram’s call (Genesis 12:1-4a).  It is tempting for us, with the benefit of biblical hindsight, to think that this passage marks the beginning of Abram’s singular, goal-oriented pursuit of God’s promises: that he would find a homeland, become prosperous, and have many children. But our text cannot support such a reading. What Abram is leaving behind is defined, clearly and repeatedly: “Go from your country and from your family and from your home” (Gen 12:1, my translation)—leave, in short, all that is familiar. But as for where he is going, God says only that it is “the land that I will show you.” Abram sets out for—wherever. He and Sarai are given no map, no specific heading. Instead, they are required to be open to God’s direction and guidance all along the way.

We should not expect our own path to be any different than theirs: whether as individuals, as congregations, or as the church. We as well cannot know what the future might bring—and so, to limit our planning and dreaming to a simple extrapolation of what we now know may be to dream wrongly, to plan awry. Like Abram, we are called to lives of open expectation and radical trust in the God who goes before us.

The Cloud of Unknowing - DAM MUSEUM

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic of Christian spirituality, puts it this way:

Your whole life must be one of longing, if you are to achieve perfection. And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent. But, a word of warning: he is a jealous lover, and will brook no rival; he will not work in your will if he has not sole charge; he does not ask for help, he asks for you.

While Abram and Sarai are given no specific goal, they are given the assurance of God’s good intentions for them. God declares, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). However, God’s blessing is not given to Abram for his own sake: to enrich Abram, meet his needs, and make his dreams come true.

This is particularly clear in the Hebrew of Genesis 12:3. While the NRSV of this verse reads, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”—implying that the blessing on Abram is primary, and that the blessing on the “families of the earth” follows from it—the Hebrew reads, wenibreku beka: that is, “they will bless themselves by you” (see the text notes in the NRSV, NRSVue, and CEB). The point, it seems, is that others, challenged and motivated by what they see in Abram and his heirs, will say to one another, “May life be for you as it has been for Abram.” Abram is blessed for the sake of others.

For us as well, the purpose of God’s blessing is “so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2, NRSVue). If our planning, as a church or as a denomination, is solely about our survival, our goals will be far too small. If we seek a future that will bless and enrich us, then even if that dream is realized, we will find it to have been the wrong dream!  Better questions, which will guide us into God’s dream for us, are:  How can we be a blessing to others? How can we be used by God in the continual reformation of Christ’s church? How can we be agents of God’s kingdom in the world?

Painting With Penicillin: Alexander Fleming's Germ Art | Science| Smithsonian Magazine

The story of Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, dramatically demonstrates the limitations of a focused, goal-directed approach to life. Fleming discovered this marvelous antibiotic in 1928, when bacterial cultures growing in petri dishes in his lab were contaminated by mold spores. As the mold spread, the bacteria died. Penicillin was discovered, not as the end of a deliberately focused research program, but by accident!

But then again, “accident” may not be the right word. Much like Abram and Sarai, Alexander Fleming was heading toward a goal he himself did not choose and could not have foreseen. He discovered penicillin, we might say, because he was open to discovery, and so found himself in the right place at the right time. We Christians call this “providence.”

A story is told about Sir Fleming that may not be true, but deserves to be. Late in his life, he was given a tour of an antiseptic, gleaming, state-of-the-art medical lab. Someone said to him, “Imagine what you could have discovered if you had had all of this at your disposal!” Fleming sardonically replied, “Not penicillin.”

This Lent, as we reflect on our calling and look into our futures, God grant that we might not be found focused on our goals and the pursuit of our dreams. May we instead discern God’s dream for us, by asking how we might become a blessing: to our church, to our city, and to our hurting world. May we be, not cold, antiseptic, and closed-minded, but like Abram and Sarai open to God’s unexpected gifts of grace and direction all along our way.

AFTERWORD:

The fresco at the head of this blog depicting Abram’s call is from the upper south register of the nave of Abbaye de Saint-Savin in Vienne, France.  It is taken from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=33460 [retrieved February 27, 2023]. Original source: image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.

The digital artwork for “The Cloud of Unknowing” is by Roman Verostko.