Ancient Answers


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Revolution thwarted – but not dead

It is a fact of human history that revolutions almost always end up as something other than originally intended. The revolution of faith that God initiated in chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abraham obeyed God’s call in faith and moved from the land of his father to the land God chose for him, that revolution of faith has led to four thousand years of conflict in that land that we have mis-labeled “holy land.” What is holy about a land that has caused more bloodshed, more hatred than any other land on the planet? Already in chapter 13, we see the beginnings of what is to come, when Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to a parting of ways to avoid fighting over land.

But our lectionary reading for today, Genesis 13:12-18, avoids the reason for the separation of Lot and Abraham and jumps directly to God’s promise of the land that will be the source of so much conflict. Did God not know that this land would become the source of so much ungodly hatred? But that’s to ask the question from the wrong perspective. God did not write Genesis, people wrote it – people who had a vested interest in pressing claims on the land and the various promises God made. God has his own purposes; how those purposes are interpreted by humans and how they are put down on stone and paper is another thing.

Or are we to take the promises to Abraham and his descendants as another test, like the test in the garden? If it was a test, then we have failed royally, for 4,000 years! And we’re still failing, as the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu clearly shows. One of the hymns of the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, has these words:

Come, all you kindred of the nations (αἱ πατριαὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν), and let us honor the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in you, our faithful kings laid low by your might the people of Ishmael.

These are the words of an imperial Orthodoxy facing the threat of Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) in the Middle Ages. Today the land is the place where apocalyptic violence by followers of the three Abrahamic religions feed into dreams of “armageddon” that extremists in all three religions promote as literal interpretations of their “scriptures”!

Today’s reading from Isaiah 37:33-38:6 certainly does not help: “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (verse 35). The problem arises when scriptures are given a political spin that they don’t originally possess. God defends the city because of his own commitment to it and to David. But God also does not hesitate to destroy the city or hand it over to enemies of David. And we see this ambivalence throughout the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The bottom line for God is not the political meaning of Jerusalem and the “holy land” but the presence of justice and righteousness.

The Hebrew word for justice is the same word for righteousness: tzedakahצדקה. It is the same in Greek: δικαιοσύνη, one word for both concepts. In the mind of the biblical writers, justice and righteousness are two sides of the same thing. It’s only in the minds of some Christian interpreters of Paul’s letters that “righteousness” has become something narrower, defining a particular view of salvation. In interpreting Paul’s statements that we are not “justified” (=made righteous) by the “law” but by faith alone (Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere in Romans and Galatians), it seems to me that some Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and have lost the double meaning of the one word in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Throw out the “justice” meaning out of some dogmatic concern not to do “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16 again) and you’re left with an inward-looking, one-on-one version of faith that has nothing to do with God’s abiding concern for social justice throughout the scriptures.

That’s also the danger with how we usually translate the 4th and 8th Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In both, the word in the original Greek text is δικαιοσύνη. When “righteousness” is only a personal virtue characterizing one’s relation to God, I can’t quite see how one might be “persecuted” for it. But people who hunger and thirst for “justice” and work for it might very well be persecuted, even in our allegedly enlightened modern age. They are the same people who are also “merciful” and “peacemakers” in the 5th and 7th Beatitudes.

In these Lenten Reflections I have not often referred to the daily readings from Proverbs, but today I choose to do so. Consider these assertions from today’s reading:

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
    but he who is kind to the needy honors him.
The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing,
    but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.
Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding,
    but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin is a reproach to any people.

God’s view of righteousness is inseparable from acts of justice, both on the personal and national level.

The call to us today is the same as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But for us, the calling is not so much to leave our homes, but to leave our inherited thoughts behind, to encounter God with open minds and hearts, to learn anew the meaning of promises and to renew the revolution that has been thwarted. The abrahamic call to us is to join God’s revolution of faith and righteousness and justice! The revolution has been thwarted, but it is not dead or buried. As long as we can honestly encounter the scriptures as if for the first time, the revolution can happen again – a revolution of faith, a revolution of the renewed heart and mind that God seeks to cultivate in us. May Lent always be a time to pause and open our hearts to God’s renewing spirit.

 


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The Root of Religious Conflict

The daily lectionary of Lent continues with three readings from the Old Testament: Genesis 3:21-4:7; Isaiah 4:2-5:7; Proverbs 3:34-4:22. For the most part I continue to use the Revised Standard Version as my basic English translation of the Bible. Occasionally I use the New Revised Standard Version when I want more inclusive or contemporary language, but I grow weary of the NRSV’s frequent sacrifice of good English on the altar of political correctness.

The Isaiah reading is interesting for the parable of the vineyard – a parable that became a model for the many similar parables that Jesus told. The language is beautiful, indeed the parable is a “love song”(Isaiah 5:1). The harsh judgment on Jerusalem and its inhabitants comes precisely because God poured so much love on the vineyard! It is a counterpart to the judgment that was passed on the first man and woman.

It is indeed the Genesis reading that must again grab our attention. Our reading begins after God has pronounced punishment on the serpent, the man and the woman (Genesis 3:14-19). The man was first called “Adam” in verse 17. But, of course, the word had already appeared in the narratives, not as a proper name but simply the noun for “man”: אָדָם ( ‘adam ) has been used for humanity collectively (1:27) and for a man individually, specifically a male individual (chapter 2). But note also Genesis 5:1-2, where the noun stands for both male and female, a return to Genesis 1:27. In verse 20 the woman is given the name Eve by Adam, to signify her role as “mother of the living.”

So now, as a couple with proper names, Adam and Eve enter history. God makes garments of skin to clothe them (verse 21) – again, anthropomorphic, mythological language. Why skin? one might ask. There are spiritual interpretations – such as those offered by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and recent Greek theologians like Nellas, and I’m sure the ancient rabbis had their interpretations as well – but perhaps it’s best to accept that these garments were made from animal skins because animals were close at hand; and certainly these garments offered superior protection than the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness (3:7).

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God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden lest they eat from the tree of life and become immortal. God’s self-reflection is fascinating for its utterly mythological construct: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” So was the serpent right after all? Was God’s greatest fear that the humans would become “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5)? And now that they know good and evil, they must be kept from eating from the tree of life – a tree from which they originally were allowed to eat! So is that all there is to being “god”? Knowing good and evil and living for ever? It’s rather mind-numbing, to be quite honest. Is this the same God who will send his son to become human millennia later? Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden and cherubim guard the tree of life with their flaming swords.

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Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. The story of the two brothers is split between today and tomorrow’s reading, which is unfortunate. But the opening section we read today tells us the most important thing we need to know about these two brothers: their murderous rivalry. And this rivalry between brothers will manifest itself elsewhere in Genesis and in the subsequent history of the twelve brother tribes of Israel.

But what is the cause of this rivalry? Why, what else? Religion, of course! The fellowship of humans with God does not vanish after the exile from Eden, but it becomes something else. No offerings to God were needed in the garden. But now offerings become part of the human response to God. And the first conflict in human history arises from two competing offerings! And it seems that God stoked the fire. God preferred the offerings of Abel to those of Cain. And is that really God speaking in verses 6-7, or just a psychotic projection of Cain’s own conflicting affects? The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Easy for God to say, after he has shown favoritism! 

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Well, there you have it, religious conflict at the very origins of human existence. Is it any wonder that religious conflict is still the number one cause of human suffering? My long-distance friend and fellow blogger, Mike Mair, in his blog dealing with the story of Cain and Abel included a humorous anecdote about Nasruddin, a favorite character for preachers and one whose exploits I have sometimes used in my sermons and writings. Here is the Nasruddin story Mike used to illustrate the Cain and Abel story:

There is a wicked story about the mad mullah of Arab legend, Nasruddin. One day two boys approached the mullah and told him they had found twelve glass marbles in the street and were wonderng how to divide them fairly between them.

“How do you want me to divide them?” Nasruddin asked, “According to my justice or to Allah’s”

“According to Allah’s of course,” they answered.

So Nasruddin gave 11 to one boy and 1 to the other.

Doesn’t this sound like Yahweh as well? Doesn’t God show favoritism in the Cain and Abel episode? Did God set up Cain to murder Abel? Or was the voice that Cain heard simply the projection of his own fears? Could it be that religion is nothing else than the projection of man’s own fears and convoluted moral codes? I prefer not to reach such a conclusion – though certainly “religion” is a word loaded with both positive and negative connotations. So I’m going to continue reflecting on Genesis during this Lenten season, hoping that Isaiah will shed some occasional light as well. Proverbs is not crucial, but I’m ready to receive any “wisdom” that book might provide. The God question continues to be the central question for many people, myself included. And the events of Genesis chapters 3 & 4 certainly are problematic.