Ancient Answers

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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).


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.


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! 


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.

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Elevation of the Cross

The feast of the Universal Elevation of the Holy Cross was originally an immensely political feast-day in Byzantium. It is clearly seen in the Apolytikion of the day: Σῶσον Κύριε τὸν λαόν σου καὶ εὐλόγησον τὴν κληρονομίαν σου, νίκας τοῖς Βασιλεῦσι κατὰ βαρβάρων δωρούμενος καὶ τὸ σὸν φυλάττων διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ σου πολίτευμα. This is a victory song and a prayer for the Byzantine emperors to conquer the “barbarians” by the power of the Cross – the same Cross which was also to guard and preserve their political apparatus (politevma).

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross (click to enlarge)

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross

This was the original purpose of this great feast day. But for us today it takes on its proper biblical and spiritual meaning. The lowering and elevation of the basil-decorated Cross at the four corners of creation signifies for us the sanctifying power of Christ’s Cross on all creation – everything and everyone! Christ did not die “for me” or for you or even for us, but for all, for the entire world. The Cross has power to heal every division, every hatred, every sin. Let us elevate the Cross in our hearts and let us march by the power of the Cross – not to vanquish our enemies, but to win them over with our love, compassion and efforts at dialogue. This meaning of the feast is clearly announced in the three Old Testament readings that are part of the Vespers service. Exodus 15:22-27 is a message of  healing, of turning bitter water into sweet. How the Byzantines could turn the sweetness and healing of the Cross into a weapon of war is difficult to understand, though the hymns of the day do refer to the Cross as Christ’s weapon of peace – but only Christ’s weapon of peace, not the people’s who are called by his name? There’s a good question to reflect on.

The Cross as Tree of Life

The Cross as Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The second reading of Vespers from Proverbs speaks of the “tree of life,” and this too is an image of the Cross. The third reading from Isaiah mixes images of co-existence with language of subjugation – the usual mixed signal that we get from the prophets of the Old Testament, less a message of healing than the previous two readings. In the first two of these readings from Vespers we see images of healing trees. In the Orthodox church the Cross is most often referred to as the Tree of the Cross. The reasons for this are many. On a practical level, of course the Cross was made of wood, and wood comes from a tree. But on the spiritual level, the Tree of the Cross is a reference to the Tree of Paradise that was the cause of the exile of Adam and Eve. Then we have the healing references to trees in the readings from Exodus and Proverbs mentioned above. The Tree of the Cross is the reversal, the forgiveness of what the Tree in Paradise caused. And the Tree of the Cross is a healing tree, like the tree of life in Proverbs, and a tree that turns bitterness into sweetness. Powerful symbolism all around.

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The hymnography of Sept. 14th is extremely rich with messages of peace, healing, salvation, sanctification – the entire panoply of Orthodox theology and spirituality. So let’s ignore how the Byzantine emperors saw the Cross. The Cross is called Christ’s weapon of peace in the hymns of the day. Let it also be our own weapon of peace: peace in our bodies and souls, as we seek to be whole; peace in our relationships with others; peace in how we view the world and what kind of politics and social agendas we prefer to follow or vote for; peace in our relationship with nature and non-human life… And peace with God! There is nothing to fear in our relationship with God, nothing to waste our energy on. Just relax and allow grace and sanctification to work in your life and carry that sanctifying power to those around you. It’s wonderful and traditional for people to bring basil on Sept. 14th to those who are not able to attend Liturgy. Let’s not just bring basil; let’s bring the fullness of Christ’s powerful love, the love that heals and raises our lives to a divine level.

Have a blessed feast day of the Cross. Give glory to Christ the Lord of life.

Some profound resources and thoughts at this website: