Tuesday, June 15, 2010
While hindsight can reveal the past more clearly to people, sometimes it can limit the ability to understand what was happening during a given event. It is easy to take knowledge learned later on and examine the past. Many times this can be a fruitful study, but other times this knowledge can block insight into how the people within the events understood what was taking place. Such is the case with the story of Abraham1 in Genesis 11:27-25:11. It is a familiar story to many Christians. But what was going on for Abraham? Setting aside the revelations of the later Old and New Testaments is not easy, but doing so enables the reader to understand Abraham’s perspective. Reading the text on its own reveals the growing personal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham over a span of approximately 100 years. This essay will examine how that relationship grew from a general deity-human relationship into a deep, personal relationship of faith, trust and covenantal connection.
When Yahweh first speaks with Abraham, Yahweh gives a command and a promise to Abraham. Yahweh commands Abraham to leave his father’s household and go to another land, which Yahweh will show him. Yahweh also promises that Abraham will be made into a great nation (12:1-2). It is striking that Abraham does not seem surprised that God is speaking with him with commands and promises. Without any apparent hesitation, Abraham leaves. When he reaches Shechem in Canaan, Yahweh appears to Abraham and promises him that this land is meant for his descendants (12:6-7). Abraham builds an altar to Yahweh there and at each of the next few places he stays. This is likely an automatic ritual response to Yahweh’s words and appearance - he obeys Yahweh and builds an altar to worship him. The relationship is a distant deity to human relationship, which was common in the Ancient Near East culture. Yahweh speaks, and Abraham obeys, but never verbally responds to Yahweh.
The relationship between Yahweh and Abraham begins to deepen after Abraham has to rescue Lot from his kidnappers. On his victorious return, Abraham meets Melchizedek, the priest of El Eleyon, God Most High, and they break bread and take wine together. Abraham seems to learn from Melchizedek, who calls Yahweh Koneh shamayim va-arets, “acquirer” or “possessor” of heaven and earth (14:18-19). Abraham then uses this title when rejecting the king of Sodom’s offer of the spoils, saying he is sworn to Yahweh, Koneh shamayim va-arets, and will not be made rich by any man (14:22-23). This is the first time in the narrative that Abraham verbally declares his allegiance to Yahweh. With this statement, Abraham sets himself apart from the Canaanites as a follower and worshiper of Yahweh, instead of the Canaanite gods.
It is no coincidence that after this declaration comes the relationship’s most significant event - the covenant. The covenant is a crucial part of Ancient Near East culture, and Yahweh uses the covenant to deepen his relationship with Abraham. Even before the covenant is formally enacted, however, the relationship between Yahweh and Abraham has changed. Abraham is no longer a passively obedient worshipper of Yahweh, but is an active participant in the relationship, conversing with and asking questions of Yahweh, whom he calls Adonai (“Lord”) (15:2-3,8). Yahweh’s responds to Abraham’s questions with promises, commanding Abraham to look at the stars, saying his descendants will be that numerous. Despite all natural circumstances being against the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises, Abraham believes (15:4-6). When faced with the question of how Abraham will possess the land, Yahweh commands a specific kind of sacrifice from Abraham (a heifer, goat, ram, dove and pigeon) and then, in the symbols of a smoking firepot and blazing torch, passes between the halves of the sacrifice, cutting a covenant with Abraham to demonstrate his commitment to his promises (15:9, 17). The personal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham now includes the legal aspect of the covenant, when the sovereign power (Yahweh) cuts a covenant with the subordinate person (Abraham).
Years pass before the narrative returns to the relationship between Yahweh and Abraham. There is no indication of whether Yahweh and Abraham have spoken since the covenant was cut. When Yahweh appears, saying that he is El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) and commands Abraham to walk before him and be blameless, Abraham falls facedown (17:1b-3a). Abraham’s reaction is intriguing, as he has never before fallen facedown when Yahweh has appeared to him (12:7). Why is he falling facedown now? Perhaps the covenant has changed the relationship, but the text is not clear why Abraham falls facedown here. At Yahweh’s appearance, he commands Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household as a symbol of their covenant (17:10). Circumcision was not widely practiced in Canaanite culture, and would likely set Abraham and his household apart from the Canaanites. Abraham obeys the command, but before doing so, questions Yahweh’s promise to give him a son through Sarah and begs Yahweh to give Ishmael his blessing (17:17-18). The reader is left wondering whether Yahweh and Abraham have continued to speak with one another, or if this is the first time in thirteen or more years that Yahweh has spoken with Abraham. Abraham’s request that Ishmael receive the blessing seems like an old argument between Yahweh and Abraham.
In the next part of the narrative, Yahweh arrives at Abraham’s tent in the guise of a man, accompanied by two other men. Abraham seems very aware that it is Yahweh who is visiting him, though it is not explained how. It simply describes Abraham’s low bow and hospitality (18:1-8). After the three men have eaten, Abraham walks with Yahweh and bargains for Lot’s life (18:16-33). Abraham is asking a favor of his God and sovereign, and he does so in a hesitant fashion. He never directly asks Yahweh to spare Lot. Abraham is close enough with Yahweh to walk and talk with him, yet he never forgets his reverence and respect for the one he calls Shophet, the one who judges (18:25).
As much reverence as Abraham has for Yahweh, he never loses his awareness that the Canaanites have no like reverence (20:11). Despite Yahweh declaring himself as Abraham’s shield (15:1), Abraham lies to protect himself. Ultimately Yahweh proves he is capable of protecting both Abraham and Sarah (20:3-7). Yahweh’s speech and actions to Abimelech and his household cause Abimelech to acknowledge and fear Yahweh, but he does not begin to serve and worship him. Instead, Abimelech makes a treaty with Abraham, so that Yahweh will have no reason to punish him (21:22-32). This emphasizes that, despite the appearance of Melchizedek, Yahweh is Abraham’s God, not a god of the Canaanites. His commands, promises and covenant deal with Abraham, and therefore Abraham’s household, alone.
The first promise of Yahweh is fulfilled when Sarah gives birth to Isaac when Abraham is a hundred years old (21:1-6), twenty-five years after Yahweh’s promise to make him into a great nation (12:1-2). After Isaac’s birth, Abraham never questions Yahweh again. Even when Yahweh commands Abraham to listen to Sarah and send away Ishmael, his son by Hagar, Abraham does not ask why or even bargain for Ishmael to stay (21:11-13). The birth of Isaac is a significant event in the life of Abraham, because it is the fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenantal promise to give Abraham an heir of his body by his wife. This is the first promise of Yahweh to come to complete fruition. It confirms the faith and trust that Abraham has in Yahweh.
While Abraham has questioned Yahweh, he has always followed Yahweh’s commands. After Isaac was born and Ishmael sent away, Yahweh commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering at Moriah (22:2). Abraham shows his faith in Yahweh through his obedient and unquestioning response. Yahweh responds to Abraham’s faith by commanding him to stop and gives him a ram to sacrifice instead. Why does Abraham not protest the sacrifice of his son? It is perhaps because the personal and covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Abraham has solidified into a deep, true and faithful understanding. Yahweh’s promises have been fulfilled. He has been a shield to Abraham and his household, and he has given Abraham a son through Sarah. Abraham trusts Yahweh so much he does not hesitate to sacrifice Isaac at Yahweh’s command.
The sacrifice is the last direct encounter Yahweh and Abraham have within the text. Although Abraham speaks of God as “Yahweh, God of heaven and God of earth” to his servant, and the servant prays to Yahweh, his master’s God, while seeking a wife for Isaac, Yahweh does not again appear in the text. Abraham continues to worship and trust Yahweh, and Yahweh continues to bless Abraham (24:1-3).
Throughout the story of Abraham, the relationship with Yahweh has grown and changed. This was not an instantaneous transformation but took many years to develop. By the end, Abraham does not need an explicit promise from Yahweh to know that Yahweh will help his servant find a non-Canaanite wife for Isaac (24:7). Abraham’s faith in Yahweh is complete. What began as a traditional relationship between god and man, filled with the rituals of Abraham’s culture, was transformed into a deep personal and covenantal relationship between Yahweh, Sovereign Lord and Eternal God, and Abraham, faithful and righteous man.
Monday, March 15, 2010
One thing a lot of people may not realize is that the Hebrew Bible has a different organization of the books of the Bible. It goes as follows:
Torah - what Christian Bibles have as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Prophets (Navi'im) - this is split into the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve - Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
Writings (Kethubhim) - this is Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles (Song of Solomon or Song of Songs), Ecclesiastes, Threni (Lamentations), Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles
Looking at the books in the order the Hebrew Bible puts them in can offer some addition insight into the books. For example, Ruth. When we look at it in our Bibles, it fits neatly into our historical books. In the Hebrew order, when Ruth follows the book of Proverbs, the last verses a reader would have read would be Proverbs 31... the chapter with the acrostic on the virtuous woman. In his book on OT Theology, John Sailhamer points out that the acrostic begins with "A virtuous woman, who can find?" (verse 10) and ends with "her deeds will praise her in the gates" (verse 31). If we immediately read through the book of Ruth, we find that the climax of Ruth comes in 3:11 (the words of Boaz to Ruth) - "All those in the gate of my people know that you are a virtuous woman." This not only identifies Ruth with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, but also connects her and her story with the wisdom theme of the book of Proverbs. It is not only due to Ruth's virtue, but also to her wise decisions, that bring her story to a happy and blessed conclusion.
You may also notice that the Songs of Songs follows Ruth, but I'll leave that potential connection for you to ponder...
Monday, March 8, 2010
We're all used to the translations of Genesis 2:9 which says, "the tree of knowledge of good and evil." However, in class, we talked about what a more accurate translation would be. First, the second "of" in the phrase is inaccurate. If we take it out, that leaves "the tree of knowledge, good and evil." Second, we have to understand what tov and ra means in Hebrew. Truthfully, translating those words as "good and evil" isn't accurate. When we translate them as such, we think in terms of morality or in cognitive terms, when they are actually experiential terms.
Tov can be thought of as positive or pleasurable experiences. It involves an aesthetic that is good in the eye (and experience) of the beholder and experiencer. "And God saw the light and it was good" - meaning, he experienced it and it was pleasant to him.
Ra can be thought of as a negative or painful experience. It is undesirable and injurious to the person seeing or experiencing it.
We also have to look at how the phrase itself functions. This phrase is most likely a merism, which is an expression which takes the beginning and ending of a series and uses it to denote everything in the middle. We use merisms when we say "A to Z" - we mean the whole alphabet. As a merism, this phrase "good and evil" means the range of human experience, from positive to negative, from pleasing to injurious, from pleasure to pain. This is the entirety of human experience.
"the tree of knowledge, pleasurable (experiences) through painful (experiences)."
This is not a tree of moral observance. Eating of this tree gave Adam and Eve the change to experience everything humanity could experience, from pleasure to pain.
So what does this mean when we're talking about the tree of life versus the tree of knowledge, and how does this affect what the Fall means?
The choice for Adam and Eve was whether to trust God or to experience the world on their own. God put the choice out there because obedience cannot be based on having only one option. Adam and Eve sinned by choosing not to trust God, but to go their own way and experience human life on their own. To experience pleasure and pain and everything in between. And everything included death.
We can choose to trust God and receive life, or we can choose to experience things on our own and receive death. What will our choice be?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I asked my professor whether this could possibly be translated simply as "planted a garden in joy" and he said that it was clear from Genesis 2-3 that Eden is used as a proper name. However, names are significant in Hebrew, and it is clear that the name itself is derived from joy, rapture, luxury and pleasure. This name, Dr. Stone said, "captures the essence of this garden."
I am continually amazed by what I discover in my translations and study. It is an amazing thing that God created humanity and then immediately created a garden named Eden (joy) as a place for Adam to live. To me, this makes the creation story even more personal and moving. It is sometimes too easy to see God as a distant Creator, one who makes something and then calmly declares it good. But I think this passage - once we know the meaning of Eden as joy - makes the Creator more personal. I also don't think it's a coincidence that this is the passage that begins using Yahweh (the proper name of God) rather than the more distant Elohim. We use someone's name when we're in relationship, and it seems that this passage is starting to introduce Yahweh and show the relationship with his created people. This passage begins to show the reader the joy that God found in creating and breathing life into humanity, and how he desires everything good for us to the point of creating a garden named joy. It almost feels like God was so excited about the person he had created that he desired to make a special home for him.
One could go negative with this and think of how humanity then ruined the garden through sin... but ultimately the Bible says that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth for redeemed humanity to live in.
I wonder if it will be named joy.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Before I begin, I want to point out that I am still very much a student. I could be wrong. I'm tossing out my ideas here to hopefully inspire discussion – or at least make you think a little. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong. One thing I do know is that God honors our search for the truth, though we may wander along dead ends from time to time.
So that said, here are some things I've learned from the first 13 verses of Genesis.
1) Despite most translations saying "In the beginning," Genesis 1:1 is more literally translated "In a beginning, God created." Some (including my professor, Dr. Lawson Stone) have suggested that this could be turned into a temporal phrase, "When God began to create." Either way, I wonder why translations added a "the" which wasn't there. Maybe I'll learn that in class tomorrow.
2) When God creates the light and separates it from the darkness, there is a strong sense of naming in Genesis 1:5. In many translations of the English, it comes across somewhat weaker than in Hebrew. Compare "And God called the light 'day'" with "And God called to the light, 'Day." Ditto with "Night" and with "Sky" (Genesis 1:8) and with "Land/Earth" and "Seas" (Genesis 1:10). I could be wrong, but I get the feeling God didn't just casually call them something; he was giving them their names. God also named Adam (and Adam was given the high privilege of naming the animals). I don't think this in any way implies that creation (day, night, sky, earth and sea – or animals) is equally important to God as humanity, which is created in His image. But that doesn't mean the earth is unimportant either. He created it and it was good. It's important not to forget that – and that we are called to be stewards of this world.
3) Based on which verb forms the Hebrew uses, different nuances can be understood. A really fun one appears in Genesis 1:11. I won't go into all the gory details of conjugating the verb, but in the Hebrew there is the understanding that God did not cause the green plants (grass, etc.) to grow. He commanded the earth to do it. A very literal translation might be, "Let the earth cause itself to be green [or to sprout]..." I suppose it shouldn't surprise us that the earth was created to bring forth life. Do we really think that God causes every flower to bloom and every seed to fall and every plant to grow? Dr. Lawson Stone said something very interesting last semester: "Who is the better "programmer"? The one who can create something or the one who can create a world that can create or rewrite itself?" God created a world that can create. Not that the world is sentient or divine – I'm certainly not advocating pantheism – but I believe that looking at the world around us, and seeing the amazing things that the world produces and creates, shows us how wise and amazing the Creator is.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
In my posting of the briefs on prayer that I did last semester, somehow I managed to miss the final one. I suspect it had something to do with the madness that comes around finals time. So here it is, only a month or so late...
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
These verses come in the context of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a series of sections that begin with Jesus saying "You have heard it was said… but I say to you…" In these sections, it appears that Jesus is attempting to revise his listeners understanding of certain issues, including that of loving your enemies.
The Jewish New Testament Commentary points out that nowhere in the Law does it say to hate your enemies, though it does specifically say to love your neighbors (Leviticus 19:18). It may be that the commendation of hating your enemies was a misinterpretation of the Law, taking it too far. The IVP Bible Background Dictionary says that hating God's enemies was considered a pious thing, though the Law did not explicitly teach hatred for one's own enemies. Some Jewish groups, such as the Essenes, did emphasize hatred for those outside the covenant. It's important to note that loving one's enemies has nothing to do with one's feelings toward them, but deals with wanting good for them, doing good for them, and praying for them (Jewish NT Commentary). "Praying for one's persecutors (except that God would strike them dead!) had not generally characterized even the most pious in the Old Testament" (IVP Bible Background NT).
In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay calls this section the most "concentrated expression of the Christian ethic of personal relations." He says that if we are required to live this out in our daily lives, we must understand what it means to love our enemies. This love that Jesus is speaking of is agape love; this is a love that is not a feeling of the heart that we cannot help, but is a determination of the mind where we have goodwill toward others that is not defeated by anything, even what that person may do to us. This does not mean that we let people get away with anything. What it means is that even when we have to punish someone (i.e. time in prison for murder, etc.), our motivation is not revenge. Barclay also points out that this commandment to love is not only passive, but is also active. We are not just to have determined goodwill toward others, but are told to pray for them. Why pray for them? Because it changes us. We cannot retain life-damaging bitterness when we pray for someone. In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Wright calls this a new kind of justice, one that creates, heals and restores. It is infinitely better to reflect the patient love of God than to seek our own vengeance.
Another question that arises is why we are to have this kind of love. The answer is simple: because it makes us more like God, and in all things we are to strive to imitate him (Barclay). Here is where the call to be perfect enters in. Barclay says that the Greek idea of perfection is about function; something is perfect if it fulfills the purpose for which it was made. Therefore a man is perfect if he achieves the purpose for which he was made, and man was created in the image of God. To be perfected, we must be like God, and that includes determined love for our enemies. Wright agrees that we are told to watch what our heavenly father does and to imitate him. God loves – indeed, God is love – and we are called to act out that love in our own lives toward all, including our enemies. An anonymous author in an incomplete homily on Matthew said, "… he who loves his enemy loves not for his own sake [as he would friends] but on account of God" (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Chrysostom said, "… the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies… Thus we may imitate the example of true piety and our Father's goodness."
Even today this is not an easy message to hear or read. When we have been harmed, our first temptation is vengeance, bitterness, and anger. Yet even secular psychologists tell us that this inner bitterness and anger harms us more than it harms our enemy. But we Christians are called not only to release that bitterness and anger, but to love with a determined love that voluntarily offers goodwill and unhesitatingly prays for our enemies. Jesus did not call us to an easy life or to simple actions, but he does not ask us to do what he has not already done himself. How many people could speak words of forgiveness to those who crucified them? Not many, I would say. We are called to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. This perfection in love, where we release bitterness and offer agape love, is one that takes time and effort. It is not easy, but it is part of our calling as Christians. May each of us continue to reach for that perfection in love as we strive to be in the image of God.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
and we are a people with many secrets,
that we want to tell for the sake of our lives,
that we dare not tell because they are deep and painful.
But they are our secrets… and they count for much;
they are our truth… rooted deep in our lives.
You are the God of all truth,
and now we bid you heed our truth,
about which we will not bear false witness…
The truth of grief unresolved,
the truth of pain unacknowledged,
the truth of fear too child-like,
the truth of hate, as powerful as it is deep,
the truth of being taken advantage of,
and being used,
and being manipulated,
We trust the great truth of your wondrous love,
but we will not sit still for it,
UNTIL you hear us.
Our truth – heard by you – will make us free.
So be the God of all truth, even ours,
we pray in the name of Jesus,
who is your best kept secret of hurt. Amen.
~ Walter Brueggemann