Friday, January 28, 2011

The Fall: Ad Nauseum

There is a lot that can be said, all negative, about the story of Aaron, Israel, and the golden calf, but honestly, what caught my attention on this read through of Exodus was a feeling of familiarity about what is going on in this story.  I don't mean the sense of familiarity about Exodus 32, but rather a sense of familiarity caused by a repeating pattern we read over and over from Genesis 1 up to Exodus 32.

Genesis 1-3: God makes all things good.  He makes Adam and Eve to be his stewards.  All is well and good, until Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.  They discover shame.  They discover fear.  They discover the idea of consequences.  They hide from God, and when he asks them what has happened, Adam points his finger at Eve while she points her finger at the serpent.  The serpent has no fingers so looses out in the exchange.  In the end, God provides for humanity anyway, but what they broke is still broken.

Genesis 6-9: Creation's derailing has reached critical mass, all except for one man and his family.  God makes Earth 2.0 through the flood, saving Noah and his family to repopulate the earth (a repeat of Adam and his family).  However, a short time passes; Noah gets drunk; his son rapes him, and Earth 2.0 goes down the tubes.  God, once again, continues to provide for Noah and his family, and humanity presses on.

Genesis 11: Humanity is thriving, but refuses to do as God has instructed them, which wasn't a bad gig considering all God asked them to do was enjoy the act of reproduction and fill the earth.  Instead, humanity bunkers down at Babel.  God forces them to leave and populate the globe, a.k.a. helps them to be fully human as they were meant to be.

Genesis 12-23: God calls Abram and tells him he will make a great nation from his descendants that will be a blessing to the rest of humanity.  Abram trusts in God and leaves, journeying into the unknown.  However, fear soon sets in and he asks his wife to pretend they aren't married so that no one will try to kill him to get to her.  She agrees...twice.  God promises Abram and Sarai a son.  They wait, but waiting gets old, and so Sarai convinces Abram to take another wife, which he does.  Hagar, wife two, then has Ishmael.  Sarai becomes jealous of the way Hagar now treats her and kicks Hagar out of the family.  Abram and Sarai, now Abraham and Sarah, then have Isaac.  Long story short, Abram and Sarah have a roller coaster life full of a great many successes as well as a great many failures.  Final word: God provides for them either way.

Genesis 24-26:  Isaac and Rebekah's story is basically a retelling of Abraham and Sarah's story, including the 'let's pretend you're not my wife' part.  The only twist there is that Isaac forgets not to fondle said  'not' wife in public, which blows that plan.  God provides for them anyway.

Genesis 27-Exodus 32: The names change (Jacob, Jacob's sons, Moses, Aaron, the Israelites led out of Egypt), but the story doesn't (with the possible exception of Joshua).  God gives people blessing and freedom and goodness, and in return they reject it or take it for granted or complain about it the whole time.  They then, at some level or in some way, turn their backs on God and make messes of their lives.  The Israelites in Exodus 32 with their golden calf aren't doing anything original.  The problem is that they aren't doing anything new.  Staying faithful would be the exception to the rule so far.  Had they not worshiped a false god after seeing what the real presence of God was that would have been something original.

And yet, what do we find?  In tomorrow's reading we see that God continues on with his people anyway.  Creation, fall, providence, that's the story of Genesis and Exodus.  That's the story of the Bible.  That's the story of God revealing himself to humanity, and as irritating as it is to see the Israelites make fools out of themselves in Exodus 32, I'm glad God continues to respond as he does.  Because, of course, I have never made a fool of myself before God...

Stopping point: Exodus 32


The religious tribe I grew up in (Churches of Christ) tends not to touch the idea of ordination with a ten foot pole.  Things have changed a bit in the last decade or so as far as language about ordination goes, but Churches of Christ still do not practice ordination.  This is sad to me.  Let me attempt to express why, and again, understand that these thoughts are coming from a person who grew up in a denomination that disdained the idea of ordination.  To use a phrase I heard often growing up, "That's what Catholics do."

1) First, by distancing ourselves from ordaining individuals, we fail to acknowledge that God calls people to different functions.  Churches of Christ, as they formed on the American frontier, tended to be very anti-institutional, which played itself out in a fear of hierarchy (this has ironically led to an even stronger unofficial hierarchy because many people refuse to acknowledge it exists in the fist place).  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old cliche goes.  So, by doing away with anything resembling hierarchy, the goal was to do away with abuses of church power and the division they caused.  There is, however, a fundamental flaw in this logic.  Calling to a function does not automatically imply authoritative power over another.  Not only that, but Christian 'authority' when it is given shows itself in service.  If it shows itself otherwise, the individual abusing his or her Christian authority should have it removed.  Paul told the Ephesians that God gave gifts to some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists or pastors or teachers, but all for the building up of the body of Christ.  All these different gifts are a reflection of the same Spirit.  Ordination is the community's way of practicing discernment and acknowledging that one among them has been gifted by God to perform a certain function.  This is not an abuse of power or position, but rather an acceptance of God's power and position over us all.  He gives gifts as he sees fit.

2) Another thing that bothers me a great deal about my religious tradition not ordaining individuals is that it has fostered a lack of appreciation for the sacrifices people make to try to listen and respond to God's call.  My brother-in-law likes to call graduate school the snooze alarm on life, and I hit that button hard while earning my Master of Divinity.  Also (and my thinking is shifting to the calling of congregational ministry now), there are emotional costs that come with a life in ministry.  Ministers must sacrifice time with their families, which we know going into ministry, but minister's spouses and children must sacrifice time with their fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives.  They typically have no say in this.  Ministers are constantly critiqued on how they perform as spouses and parents, how they perform as community leaders, public speakers, teachers, etc.  That is not a 'normal' life.  Very few professions, outside of the political arena at least, come with the same pressures and expectations.  Let me be clear, even though I'm obviously complaining about this, it does come with the territory.  Every minister commits to this life or leaves ministry.  That's just the way it is.  So don't read this and say, "Stop whining.  If you don't like it, quit."  I agree, although I hope I would say it a little more gently.  However, people who are not in ministry shouldn't abuse or take advantages of the sacrifices their ministers make, or worse, pretend sacrifices weren't made to begin with.  That is exactly what has happened in many Churches of Christ, not all, but many.  Ordination acknowledges the sacrifices that have brought an individual from point A to B.  It acknowledges that the individual is doing exactly what the Church says he or she should.  When Jesus said, "Follow me," that's what the person did.  Ordination is not just an act of acknowledgment; it is an act of appreciation.

3) Support groups are great, and I honestly mean that.  Groups for young marrieds or for families with small children or for individuals who have lost a loved one, these are all good things.  They have their limitations, however.  I have a friend who laughs at the idea of groups for families with young children, specifically if they're composed of only people with small children.  He astutely pointed out that the group was mostly accomplishing the goal of swapping ignorance.  The support such a group provides is good, but as far as helping the participants know what to do about the challenges young families with children face, well, they are all equally clueless.  This can happen on a much grander scale in a congregational environment.  I am a strong advocate for the idea that we, as Christians, are a priesthood of all believers.  I am very uncomfortable with the words "you can't" when they're told to someone who wants to serve.  At the same time, sometimes a congregation wants to do something and doesn't know how.  This is where the ordained minister can be of great service.  There are requirements that come with ordination, educational and experiential.  When I'm sick, I'm not angry at my doctor because she knows more than me or has worked hard to put tools in her toolbox that I do not have.  I want her to help me.  That is the role of an ordained minister in a congregation.  Through work and sacrifice, the ordained minister has hopefully added some tools to his or her toolbox that others do not have.  This does not give the minister the authority to say, "My way or the highway."  It does mean, however, that the minister might actually be able to provide essential insight into a situation so that the whole congregation can move forward.  What I have seen in far too many congregations is a mass of people swapping ignorance.

God told Moses to ordain Aaron and his sons for a specific function.  This gave them a unique role among the Israelites, and yes, there were some who resented this, violently.  Who was Moses to say that Aaron's family could be priests and others couldn't?  The problem with the complaint is that Moses didn't call Aaron and his family.  God did...not to give them power, but to call them to service.  Ordination has never changed in that sense, and it's sad to me that my religious tradition threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Stopping point: Exodus 29

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

God With Us

I'm to the point in Exodus where God is instructing Moses on how he wants the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant made.  In all honesty, my brain starts to go fuzzy when cubits get mentioned.  Although, if I were an interior designer I would probably appreciate knowing how many rings and golden clasps it takes to properly close and secure a 28 cubit long curtain (50, if you're curious).  But joking aside, Exodus' discussion on the Tabernacle and the Ark is yet one more example of where what seems to be the focus of the story isn't really the focus.  Exodus seems to be talking about a tent and a fancy box, but what it is really talking about is the fact that God is going to be traveling with his people.

This may seem unimpressive to us, who as 21st century Christians already assume that, but to an ancient Hebrew this was a pretty big deal.  Gods didn't go with their people; people went to their Gods.  The ancient world had holy places: holy mountains, holy temples, holy trees, etc.  If a person wanted to be in the presence of the god or goddess, the person needed to find the place that god or goddess was and then go worship there.  On top of that, the ancient world was largely pantheistic.  In other words, the god or goddess and natural material were the same thing.  The god or goddess was the thing.  For example, when Moses saw the burning bush, a pantheistic Canaanite would have assumed the bush was a manifestation of the god.  The bush would have been god, not a god speaking from a bush.  That's why idols were so prevalent in the ancient world.  By making an image in the form of a god or goddess, that idol became the god or goddess.  I'm not sure how to make that idea clearer, but the point is the Hebrew God was a very different animal.  The Tabernacle was not God, it was God's tent, just like the tents the Hebrews were living in.  The Ark was not God, it was God's throne, the ultimate seat of justice, much like the throne Moses sat in when he judged over Israel.  The God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a god merged with a place or thing, but a dynamic God who had chosen to travel with this people.  I would imagine from what the Hebrews were used to, that would have scared the bugeebees out of them.  At the same time, it would have been a life changing, world re-framing event.  The Holy One of Israel was in their midst.

Stopping point: Exodus 27

Follow Up, the Source of Ethics, and the Reason for Sabbath

Let me begin today by following up from yesterday.  In one of my posts yesterday I was thinking about the nature/purpose of the Law.  The point I was trying to get across was that the Torah is about developing character, not following rules.  I'm afraid some might read my post from yesterday and think, "He's one of those liberals that think rules are pointless."  Well, in some areas I may be liberal, but I do value the place and purpose of rules.  N.T. Wright wrote a book last year titled After You Believe.  I just got it over Christmas and I'm not very far into it yet, but you can listen to a lecture given on the same content of the book here.  The point of the book is Christian development.  He begins the book by discussing two myths Western culture seems to hold about the nature of good/valuable behavior.  One myth is the myth that being a good person is about following the rules.  The other is the myth that being a good person means being genuine.  Both of these myths miss the mark because both of these myths actually fail in forming individuals into better people, or in a Christian context, helping individuals form into the image of Christ.  An obsession with rules shows a valuing of framework over function.  An obsession with being genuine or "being yourself" assumes that there is no need for growth or change.  Neither is acceptable because what God seems to be up to in his interaction with humans is helping us develop our nature and character.  What God is focusing on is developing Christian virtue.

That having been said, here's a few musings from yesterday's reading (sorry on getting this out a day late).  Exodus 22 continues on from chapter 21 with more instruction from God.  Part of the chapter deals with social expectations.  Specifically, I appreciate this:

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.  If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans."

I love how God roots the source of Hebrew ethics in what he has done for them.  Why uphold the rights of the resident alien?  Because you were resident aliens.  Why protect widows and orphans?  Because I protected your widows and orphans.  Ethics cannot exist without a standard of comparison, and God does not provide that standard willy-nilly.  His behavior is the standard.  God is not asking the Hebrews to do anything he has not already done for them.  Which brings up another interesting point: rescue comes with responsibility.

Christianity has lost a sense of this, I think.  We focus on salvation as gift so much that we refuse to think that God might actually expect a response for saving us.  Is salvation a gift?  Absolutely.  I have done nothing to earn it; however, that doesn't mean God doesn't then say to me, "Great!  I saved you!  Now go act like it."  Or to use Jesus' words to the woman caught cheating on her husband, "Has no one condemned you?  ...Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."  Gift, yes.  Grace, yes...but with an expected response.  My rescue comes with responsibility.

 One last thought, in Exodus 23 God repeats his desire for the Hebrews to keep the Sabbath, including a Sabbatical year every seventh year.  What I find interesting about this is his reason why.  Every seven years the Hebrews are not supposed to farm their fields so that "the poor of your people may eat.  ...You shall do the same with your vineyard and with your olive orchard."  As far as a Sabbath day, the purpose is related, "so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed."  For the most part, when I hear people discuss the idea of Sabbath, it's mostly in a self-centered way.  I am very guilty of this.  I'm stressed; I'm tired; I want a break.  And don't take my rhetoric too strongly, I believe I do need a Sabbath.  It does have personal value.  At the same time, where does God place the focus of his Sabbath?  He says the purpose behind the Sabbath is for the other.  Sabbath is for other people.  Part of keeping the Sabbath means letting go of our expectation that others serve us.  The purpose behind letting the fields go fallow for one year wasn't to let the land rest, but rather, in a time when seeds weren't hybrids and germinated, the poor who had no food source would have a feast year.  The Sabbath, both as a year and as a day, forced people to stop thinking in economic terms and start re-humanizing the people around them.

When's the last time your prayed Walmart would be closed on Saturdays so those workers could rest too?

Stopping point: Exodus 24

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Nature of The Law

First, let me say, what must it have been like to see God descend on Sinai, to feel the ground shake, to see a mountain that is not a volcano suddenly covered in fire and smoke, to hear an ear-piercing trumpet blast even though there were no trumpets to be found, and think, "Oh crap, this is who I've been constantly complaining about."?  The hen came home to roost.

But enough about that.  I want to focus on the nature of the Law.  Our modern ears hear "rules" when we hear the word law.  We can't seem to help it, and rules are very unpopular in our personal rights, individual freedom culture.  Therefore, we miss the whole point of God's 'commands.'  Frankly, I wish we could scrap all Bible translations that use the world "law" (which would be all of them...) and begin with translations that use the world "instruction," because that is, in fact, what torah means.  What God is doing in Exodus chapter 20 and 21 is providing this fledgling nation with instruction.  The issue is not keeping God happy by crossing all the T's and dotting all the I's.  It's about being transformed and shaped into a specific type of nation and a specific type of people.  What God is doing here at Sinai is letting the Hebrews know, from the very beginning, what type of people he expects them to be.  God's instruction is about formation, not just following forms.

So, who does he want them to be?  First, he wants them to be a faithful people, and faith here is not defined as an intellectual nod toward certain statements.  It is the faith that exists in a good marriage.  It is the faith embodied in a commitment toward another.  It is the choosing to be steadfast toward one while rejecting other options.  That is the faithfulness the Hebrews should exhibit.  Flowing out of that faithfulness, God wants this new nation to be a nation built on respect, on the honoring of life, on the honoring of one's neighbors.  God wants this new nation to be altruistic, which is the exact opposite of everything it had experienced in Egypt.  God wants his people to trust in him economically.  This may sound strange, but you can't discuss the freeing of all slaves every seven years and not think about the economic impact of that (and remember, Pharaoh's biggest beef with the Hebrews leaving was the fact that they were his biggest labor force).  And speaking of those who serve you, God expects the Hebrews to be a people who care for those in the economic, political, and social levels beneath them.  Finally, God wants his people to be a people of fairness and justice.  All the discussion about what to do if a bull gorges someone is really about justice and fairness and doing right toward another human being.  I sometimes think that message gets lost because in a few thousand years our culture has shifted so much we have a hard time connecting with the language of torah.  We miss the forest for the trees, so to speak, but ultimately all of God's commands come down to character development.  What type of people does God want the Hebrews to be?  What is he trying to transform them into?  We get caught up in rules and regulations, and stop there.  In so doing we miss the point behind it all.

Shepherd is three months old now.  When he gets older I'm going to tell him how to treat women.  Will "rules" be involved?  Will I ever tell him, "Don't do..."  Absolutely, but my goal is not that he learns rules.  My hope is that he is shaped into the type of man who treats women with respect and honor.  On a much grander scale, that is what God is doing with this people in the wilderness.  That is what he is trying to do with me now.  It's not about commands and laws; it's about instruction.

Stopping point: Exodus 21

Massah and Meribah: Test and Quarrel

"Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?"  That's what Moses asks the people he's leading.  Man, I feel for Moses.  God frees the Hebrews from Egypt; Pharaoh's chariots arrive, and what do the Hebrews say?  "We're all going to die!"  God opens a pathway through water; leads the Hebrews to safety, and what do the Hebrews say?  "We can't drink the water.  We're all going to die!"  God shows Moses a way to make the water drinkable, but a short time later the Hebrews begin to run short of food supply.  What do they say?  "We're all going to die!"  So, God brings them not one, but two sources of food: meat and bread.  The camp moves further into the wilderness, leaving their water source behind, and what do they say?  I'll bet you can guess.  "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"  I love Moses' venting to God, "What shall I do with these people?  They are almost ready to stone me."  My venting would have gone a little different, "What shall I do with these people?  I am almost ready to stone them."

I hate complaint.  Now in the name of transparency, I spend a lot of time complaining, so who am I to talk.  But seriously, I hate complaining.  If there is a problem, step up and try to find a way of addressing it.  Don't just complain about it.  Especially don't complain about the people who are trying to do something about it, and even worse, don't complain anonymously.  But anyway, I'll get off my soapbox.

Test and quarrel, what is it about we humans that we can't seem to get out of this self-defeating cycle?  And, like I said, I am not immune to this.  Why is it that no matter how many times God comes through for us, all we can say is "Is the Lord among us or not," just as the Hebrews did?  God can't win.  It doesn't seem to matter what he does.

So what can we do?  Moses gives us an example.  First, he realizes there is some distance between the complaint being directed at him and where the complaint is really going.  God is who the Hebrews have a problem with, and so Moses can differentiate himself from his people.  Second, he serves his people anyway, just as God does.  We cannot fight testing and complaint with more testing in complaint.  Trust me; I've tried.  However, that having been said, Moses does hold the people accountable for their actions.  He names the region where the Hebrews complained Massah and Meribah for a reason.  Every time the Hebrews traveled through there for the rest of time, they would be reminded of who they showed themselves to truly be.  Hopefully that would be a humbling experience, a reminder that God does provide and so we need to trust in him.  But as we all know from our own experiences, testing and quarreling are not easy things to leave behind.

Stopping point: Exodus 18

Afraid to Trust

"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?"  That's what the Hebrews following Moses ask him when they see the army of Pharaoh nipping at their heels.  That's an understandable question.  How are laborers and artisans, pinned between a sea and an army, supposed to fight the Pharaoh's elite?  The simple answer, the one the Hebrews quickly come to, is that they can't, and so they rile against their impending doom...

Except that ignores how they got pinned between an army and a sea to begin with.  What does it take to develop trust?  Changing water to blood?  A plague of frogs or gnats or boils?  How about the worst hail storm in knowable history?  What about every first born thing in a nation dropping dead overnight, except the Hebrew first born.  The Hebrews would have stood by and watched all of those things happening to their Egyptian neighbors, untouched by any of it themselves.  Would knowing that God was doing all of this for you, to free you, to provide for you, develop within you a sense of trust, that God would not have gone to that much trouble only to let you die?  I would imagine so, and yet that's not what we see from the Hebrews.  They're terrified.  They don't even seem to see the pillar of fire by night and cloud of smoke by day, the very presence of God, that had been traveling with them.  The miracles they had witnessed, well those happened yesterday, last week, last month...not today, and today is when the Pharaoh's army caught up.  Frankly, yesterday is long gone, and so is the trust that it fostered.

Now don't misunderstand me.  I'm not meaning to bash on the Hebrews.  The fact of the matter is, most people (if not all people) are afraid to trust.  It doesn't matter how many bills I'm able to pay, I'm always worried I wont be able to cover the next one.  I just got off the phone with my insurance company yesterday, and now that Kalyn and Shepherd are going to be on my insurance, my insurance is going to increase $370 per month.  That's after talking them down from a $410 increase.  I don't know how I'm going to ever pay that.

This past Sunday I announced that I'll be stepping down from my position as minister for the congregation.  How we all got to that point is a long, messy story, and a blog is not the place to vent my frustration, but needless to say, I'm scared.  I have a three month old son, a house to sell, a new ministry position to find, a major move on the horizon, and in the mean time, to repeat myself, I don't know how I'm going to pay my bills.  I know that God has always provided for me and my family in the past, but truth be told, that was yesterday.  Trust today is harder to come by.  So I sympathize with the Hebrews; I find myself afraid to trust.

But I find hope in this: God provided for the Hebrews in spite of their lack of trust.  God is faithful.  I know in our American Christianized culture that statement is beyond cliche, but that is who God revealed himself to be in the Hebrews' time of need.  He is the God of Faithfulness in a tight spot, and so, it's time for me to grow a backbone, step out, and trust.

Stopping point: Exodus 15

God's First, Post Exodus Command

It strikes me as significant that the very first command God gives the Israelites as they're leaving Egypt is to hold a festival.  Most people think of God in the Old Testament as a rule loving overlord ready to zap people for minor infringements, but what do we find here?  Oh, sure, there's a "rule," but if the rule is: every year I want you to throw a huge, week long festival; don't work the first day and last day of that festival; take some time to remember that I am a God who loves you enough to battle all the powers that be to free you; oh, and don't forget to have a gigantic meal you get to share with friends and family...sign me up for that rule.

Think about what just happened for the Israelites.  When something great happens, something truly good, it's hard to contain it.  We get excited about one-handed touchdown passes.  The Jews just witnessed Egypt brought to its knees.  When the Hebrews left Egypt, the Egyptians practically threw gold, silver, and clothing at them to hurry them along.  The Hebrews went from poor to rich, slave to free, literally overnight, so when God says, "tell your children," that 'command' doesn't seem like a very difficult one to follow.  Why wouldn't you tell your children?

One last thing about the command to observe the Passover.  God doesn't tell the Hebrews to observe the Passover so that they learn he is a God of ridged order and unflinching expectations.  God gives the Hebrews the Passover so that why will not forget who he really is: a God of love and protection, a God that will face the enemies too large for them to face, and in so doing bring them life and freedom and celebration.  That's what God showed the Jews through the Exodus, and that's what he wants them to learn/remember in the Passover.

The same goes for the consecration of the firstborn.  The consecration of the firstborn isn't about sacrifices and following rules; it's about the trust and reliance that people develop when they're continually reminded that they can trust and rely on God.  He has shown himself trustworthy and reliable.  So why should the Hebrews redeem their firstborn?  Simple, because God battled against Egypt's firstborn to set the Hebrews free.  God redeemed the Hebrew's firstborn.  He will do so again if he needs to.  That is a thing worth remembering.

Stopping Point: Exodus 13

Friday, January 21, 2011

Get Out and Bless Me

When Pharaoh finally has enough, or more accurately, when he finally realizes that if he doesn't let the Hebrews leave there won't be an Egypt left for them to  leave, he tells Moses and Aaron to grab the Hebrew men, women, children, and livestock and be gone.  There is, however, an interesting little blip of a sentence right after that statement, "And bring a blessing on me too!"  What a strange thing for Pharaoh to say....  One interpretation of this is that Pharaoh has finally realized God is God and he is not.  That being the case, the only hope Pharaoh has for the survival of his country is for God to bless him.  There is some merit to this interpretation of what Pharaoh says.  I wonder, however, if there is a much simpler way to approach this.

So far God has blessed, protected, and provided for the Hebrews over and over and over again.  In contrast he has basically flattened Egypt economically, agriculturally, and politically.  What Pharaoh could be saying is, "God has given you blessing after blessing after blessing, so just get out of here.  Let us have some peace and quiet.  It's about time we get a blessing, and that's blessing enough for us."  I wonder if this statement by Pharaoh is just a confirmation that he has finally had as much as he can take.  "Just go," he says, "that's all the blessing I need."  Who knows....

Along another, entirely different train of thought, God didn't just free the descendants of Jacob from Egypt.  Exodus states that a mixed crowd also went with them.  These Egyptians then became members of the Israelite nation.  Some people seem to think that God plays favorites, that he chooses one group of people over another, at random.  That is not what God is up to in the Old Testament, and especially not in Genesis and Exodus.  God uses one group to bring healing and freedom to others, not to bless them over others.  Through the exodus experience, many Egyptians are freed from the tyranny of Egypt, and once freed are allowed to become members of God's people.  As God says, "There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you."  When God says, "He's/she's mine," the rest of us don't have much say in the matter, but that's not language of favoritism.  It's language of blessing.

Stopping point: Exodus 12

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Nature of Happiness and Congregational Discontent

Dr. Richard Beck has been writing a series on what he is calling the the impossibility of happiness.  I find the discussion fascinating.  His second post in the series has to do with the fact that we often times want the wrong thing.  At the end of that post he linked to the video that I have copied here.  The gist of this video is that the more choices we have, the less happy we are because we're unwilling to commit to what we have and are therefore discontent with it.

The application of what Dr. Gilbert says is pretty wide, but as a minister, I think it is especially enlightening to the issue of why congregations are so often discontent with their ministers.  Especially in my religious tribe, where congregations have the final say over who is or is not their minister, if a congregation does not like their minister, it simply fires him.  The assumption when hiring a new minister is, "Well, if this one doesn't work out, we'll find another."  The problem is that without commitment to sticking with a minister, a congregation guarantees a negative outcome.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This also creates an environment of perpetual adolescence.  Maturity requires disorientation.  Another way of saying this is we, as humans, tend not to grow up unless we have to.  This happens with individuals and communities.  If a congregation simply removes tension from its midst, it never has to learn how to deal with it, and therefore it never grows up.

We live in a country that thinks more is always better, and not just in the area of having more stuff.  We want more choices in regards to what stuff we even want.  Ironically, that very mentality has backed us into a corner of unhappiness and discontent.  This has effected the Church as much as anything else, and I fear that it will only get worse before it gets better.  In the mean time there are going to be more and more ministers leaving the ministry, and more and more congregations that shut their doors.  I find the whole cycle deeply depressing.

"This Is The Finger Of God": True Power and its Immitation

A few thoughts from my reading today...

First, are the Pharaoh's magicians stupid?  Seriously...  Aaron's staff is turned into a snake, so the magicians do the same to show they have the same power as Moses' and Aaron's god.  Okay, pretty cool trick, granted.  But the first plague is a bit more severe, Aaron stretches his staff over the waters of Egypt, and they turn to blood.  The magicians, not wanting to be shown up, also turn some of Egypt's water to blood.  Think about that for a moment.  It seems to me that if the magicians wanted to show their power they would have turned the blood back to water.  "Plague our land?  We'll show you.  We'll plague our land too!!!" doesn't seem like a wise response, at least to me.  Then the second plague arrives.  Frogs rush out of the Nile, infesting homes, hopping in bed, swimming in the stored water.  "That's not impressive," the magicians say, and they summon more frogs.  Why not get rid of the frogs?  When all those frogs died, Exodus says the whole land stank.  Well duh, the magicians made it worse.  The third plague, turning dust into gnats, stumps the magicians.  They can't copy the plague.  "This is the finger of God," they exclaim, but again, from the outside looking in, I have to scratch my head and ask, "Why would you want to copy that?"  The magicians might have power, but they don't seem to be all that bright about using it.

The second thing that stood out to me from today's reading was Aaron.  It's Aaron's staff that is turned into a snake.  It is Aaron who stretches that same staff over the Nile, turning the water to blood.  It is Aaron who stretches his hand over the waters of Egypt a second time to call the frogs forth.  It is Aaron who strikes the dust on the ground with his staff, turning that dust into a swarm of gnats.  Technically, I knew this before, but it's hard to filter out all the movies and pictures that have Moses doing all this.  Here's my question: why is it important for Aaron to do all this?  Aaron was sent to be Moses' mouth, but Moses could have been doing everything else.  Why did God tell Moses to tell Aaron to perform all the signs?

I don't know if I have a good answer for that, but here's what I'm thinking as of now.  This contest between God on one side, and the Pharaoh and his magicians on the other, is really a dispute over where power truly lies.  Pharaoh thinks power lies with himself, his magicians simply being a reflection of his power, but things are different with Moses.  Moses isn't battling the Pharaoh; God is.  I'm wondering if this isn't just important for the Pharaoh to know, but also for Moses and Aaron to know.  By having Aaron perform the miracles, Moses knows the power God shows has nothing to do with himself.  Aaron would certainly know the same.  By performing the miracles as he does, God sets up a system of humility among his new chosen leaders of the Hebrews.  Moses and Aaron, once the Hebrews were freed and became a people of their own, would be very different leaders then the ones the Hebrews had become accustomed to.  There's little room for arrogance or narcissism when you know you're really not doing anything.

One last idea of note: God has a sense of irony.  The sixth plague is the plague of boils.  It begins when Moses throws a handful of soot into the air, which spreads throughout the Egyptian lands causing the boils.  Here's the irony.  Where does God tell Moses to get the soot?  From the kiln.  And what do you make in a kiln?  Bricks.  God takes the one sign of Pharaoh's abuse and makes it a source of justice.  That's irony.

Stopping point: Exodus 9

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

If God Can't, Who Can?

When God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, he sends them with a pretty specific message, "Let my people go," but then God immediately tells Moses and Aaron that he will harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go.  Many readers immediately cry "foul" at this point.  What type of god forces a man to make a decision that will condemn himself?  When people read this passage they immediately pick up on the hypocrisy of a god who seems to value free will taking free will away.  This is an understandable read, and therefore an understandable complaint, considering we, as Westerners and specifically Americans, value the rights of the individual to a fault.  If I were Pharaoh I wouldn't want God treating me like that.  And if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, how do I know he isn't hardening my heart.  And if God is hardening my heart without my knowledge, how dare he condemn me to eternal punishment?  That's unfair; that's unjust.  Why would someone worship such a god?  Why would God do such a thing?  Atheists have a ready answer.  There is no God.  The Bible is made up.  Trash it and move on.  As a Christian, I think there is a better solution.

This passage is a perfect example of how reading our own issues into a text backs us into a corner.  If this story is about the rights of an individual, then we have a problem.  If however, this story is about tyranny, oppression, corruption, and whether there is any hope of things ever changing, of dictators ever being held accountable, well then, this is a pretty good story.

The Pharaoh of this story isn't a kind ruler, a good family man just minding his own business that God decides to single to and make an example of.  This Pharaoh uses all the tools of his trade, that trade being the ruling of an oppressive regime built on the broken spirits of its own citizens.  When Moses and Aaron ask the Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to have three days to worship God, what is the Pharaoh's response?  "Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want  them to stop working!"  In other words: you want to give our largest work force three days off?  That costs money!  Production will drop!  Do you know how much paper work that will cause in Human Resources!  And of course, that's all people were to the Pharaoh and his cronies, resources to be used, and when they dropped dead, well, there were always more "citizens" to press into the labor force.

"Lazy," the Pharaoh cries, "lazy!"  Three days off...only lazy people need breaks.  So what does the Pharaoh do?  He not only refuses to allow them time to worship God, he forces them to gather their own raw materials.  That'll teach 'em!  And then when, predictably, the Hebrews overseers (who have been living in Egypt as Egyptians for 400 years) come before Pharaoh and say, "Why do you treat your servants like this?  You are unjust to your own people," how does he respond?  He responds with, "See, proof!  You are lazy.  Lazy I say!  Now go back to work."

We know this Pharaoh well.  This is the fear monger on national television.  This is the sleazy union leader lining his own pockets while supposedly "helping" his union.  This is the professional politician who cries, "Tax breaks for the rich!" while making sure minimum wage never moves.  This is the queen who says, as her people starve, "Let them eat cake!"  But, in the Pharaoh's defense, the problem in Egypt is much bigger than the man sitting on the throne.  Egypt, as a country, as a super power, had systemic problems that were bigger than any one individual.  Moses and Aaron weren't just butting heads with Pharaoh; they were butting heads with all he represented, a specific way of seeing the world and a specific way of doing things that those who had any influence assumed was the only way of doing things, and who could do anything about that?

God can.  That is what this story is about.  Why does God harden Pharaoh's heart?  Because someone has to bring this circus to an end.  Someone has to say to the oppressive establishment, "You can't do this anymore."  The Hebrews weren't going to accomplish that, neither were any other common Egyptian (looking ahead, many Egyptians leave with the Hebrews.  God wasn't only freeing the Hebrews from the Pharaoh; he was giving an opportunity for the Egyptians to find freedom also.).  Some things are bigger than us.  Poverty, tyranny, half truths told by those whom we cannot hold accountable, what can we do about these things?  Most people are just trying to manage their own specific issues.  They're trying to make bricks and find straw.  How will things ever change?  Here, at the beginning of Exodus, God steps into Moses' and Aaron's life and says, "I will change this."  It's not surprising that the Hebrews don't believe it, (honestly, how many of us believe our own nation's problems will ever really change?), but God would do it anyway.

This story isn't about God taking away free will.  This story is about the fact that we live in a corrupt, fallen world, and we want that to change but don't have the power to make it so.  Banks tank our economy, and then when they're bailed out, refuse to make loans to the people who gave them the money.  Companies with no long term vision, only short term greed, continue to give huge bonuses while cutting jobs and shaving salaries.  I'm not going to do anything about that, and most likely, neither are you, but God can.  God will.  He will not put up with oppression forever.  He will give people and communities time to change their ways, but eventually enough is enough.  God will bring the mighty low and lift the lowly high.  We have a word for this: justice.  God is not manipulating Pharaoh.  God is not playing unfair.  God is bringing justice into a land that has forgotten its meaning.  Is this not what we want to begin with, justice to flow down like rivers of water?

Stopping point: Exodus 6

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shiphrah and Puah

The story of Shiphrah and Puah is an often overlooked story, but without Shiphrah and Puah the Bible as we know it does not exist; the Jews never become a people; Jesus never lives.  The story of Shiphrah and Puah is a story about the abuse of power, the abuse of fear, the abuse of a people, and the quiet courage it takes to stand up to it all.

On one side of the story we find that a new type of Pharaoh has come to power, the type that has forgotten old promises, the type of Pharaoh who believes it is better to preemptively strike then face possible opposition.  This, as is always the case, only serves to create the opposition the Pharaoh feared.  We, today, are still very familiar with these types of Pharaohs.  These are the Pharaohs who rule by economic and social stratification.  These are the Pharaohs who maintain the appearance of peace through the use of might.  These are the Pharaohs who garner support through the spreading of fear.  To question these Pharaohs is to be unpatriotic, disloyal, a traitor, and so these Pharaohs' evils go unchecked and unchallenged.  No one is immune from the temptation of becoming such a Pharaoh.  This Pharaoh is, after all, merely the product of power that has taken a narcissistic turn.  I heard a phrase on a television show that went something like this, "Do you know what they call it when a government always breaks its own laws because an emergency demands it?  A dictatorship."  A Pharaoh like the one that arose over Egypt is the natural outcome of power only thinking about itself.

How does one stand up to such Pharaohs?  What can one possibly do against such odds?  Shiphrah and Puah can tell us.  Two simple midwives, Shiprah and Puah refuse to do as the Pharaoh commands.  They fear God more than they fear the Pharaoh, and so when the Hebrew women have little squalling boys, Shiprah and Puah let them live.  And when the Pharaoh demands an answer for such blatant disobedience, what is it the midwives say?  They say, "Oh, but Pharaoh, we're trying.  The Hebrew women, they're just to strong.  By the time we arrive, the Hebrews have already had their children.  Our hands are tied!"  This is, of course, a blatant lie, a courageous lie.  It's not everyone that has the guts to thumb their noses at the one who has the power to separate head from shoulders.

We have a few recent examples of this type of courage: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr.  I'm sure there are others, but those come to mind.  This is not the type of courage that says, "I will use your own oppression and manipulation and fear to fight," or in other words a courage that fights death with death.  This is a courage that fights death with life.  This is a courage that quietly goes about delivering healthy baby boys.  This is not a courage that can take Pharaoh off the thrown, but it can steadily go about the work of empowering an oppressed minority.

Midwives, who would have thought that midwives could topple kingdoms?  They in no way intended to topple Egypt, but by finding the courage and developing the character to not go along with the political winds of their time, that is precisely what they accomplished.

Moses is of course the hero who leads the Hebrews out of their land of bondage, but without Shiphrah and Puah, there is no Moses to begin with.

Stopping point: Exodus 3

The End of Gensis

Well, we've come to the end of Genesis, and here are a few things that stand out to me from the last few chapters:

1) Building off of my reflections from the last post, Jacob blesses Ephraim over Manasseh, yet another reversal of top to bottom/bottom to top.

2) Jacob ends his life happy.  Jacob had faced quite a bit of diversity in his 130 years (Egyptians saw dying at 110 as a sign that an individual had lived a perfect life and died at a perfect age.  So in the end, Jacob, the Hebrew shepherd, was greater than all the Egyptians, even the Pharaoh himself.).  He fled from home afraid for his life.  He didn't want to marry his first wife but was tricked into it.  His daughter had been raped, his son supposedly killed, and then two others thrown into prison, but now at then end, he can not only look upon his lost son but upon his lost son's sons.  God has been faithful to Jacob.

3) It may not seem like it at the time, but consequences have a funny way of sneaking up on you and biting you on the butt.  Remember when Reuben tried to lay claim to one of Jacob's wives and Jacob didn't say anything about it?  He does on his death bed.  Reuben, the firstborn, will no longer lead this family.  Simeon and Levi, the two brothers that slaughtered an entire city of men in retaliation for the prince raping their sister...their descendants will live by violence and be scattered among the rest of their people.  The sons of Jacob (other than Joseph and Benjamin) have gotten through on their "get out of jail free" cards up until this point.  With Joseph's dying breath, he brings an end to the delusion that how they have chosen to live their lives didn't really matter.

4) Joseph's brothers are schemers till the very end.  They keep lying to Joseph after their father passes away, even after all Joseph has done for them, and how does Joseph respond?  He forgives them again.  Joseph has truly become the transitional figure for this family.  Without him, they have no redeeming qualities.

5) Joseph died at 110, in the Egyptian mind, the perfect age to die.  In spite of all he had been through, in spite of all the wrongs committed against him, he rose above them all; although it must be acknowledged, not by his own power.  God truly was with Joseph through it all, and even at his death he was a witness to everyone around him of what it meant to live a good, faithful life.

Stopping point: Genesis 50

Upside Down Kingdom

In my circle, a popular way to refer to the Kingdom of God is as the Upside Down Kingdom.  This is largely based off of the teachings of Jesus (The first shall be last; the last shall be first.  The one who wants to be master must be servant.  I did not come to be served, but to serve, etc.).  However, we make a mistake when we think of the teachings of Jesus as new ideas to God.  In our Reading Through the Bible in a Year reading group, there has been some confusion over why God and other main characters in Genesis keep giving blessing to the second born instead of the first.  What is the purpose of that?  Well, the purpose is that God is a god who takes those who have nothing, who are at the bottom, and lifts them up.  We see this with Abraham's family in general, who are aliens and wanderers in a foreign land, and yet, God keeps blessing them and providing for them.  During Joseph's conversations with his family as he is moving them down to Egypt, we see this playing itself out on an even grander scale.

When Joseph eats a meal with his brothers, the Egyptians refuse to dine with the Hebrews.  The Hebrews were beneath them.  Egyptians mixing with Hebrews was considered an abomination.  Later, when Joseph instructs his family on how to ask for land, he makes sure to tell them that they need to emphasize the fact that they are shepherds, because shepherds were abhorrent to Egyptians also.  Joseph was guarantying that his family would be left alone.  Joseph's family, as both Hebrew and shepherds, were doubly disgraced in the eyes of the Egyptians.

There has been much debate over the origin of the title "Hebrew" given to Abraham's family.  Many believe it is somehow connected to the Mesopotamian word Habiru or the Egyptian equivalent Apiru.  I won't go into the nature of that controversy now, but I think it likely that the title "Hebrew" is somehow connected to these other words.  If so, that is important.  To be called a Habiru or Apiru was not a compliment.  It's similar to the slang "dumb redneck" in our culture.  The Habiru/Apiru were uncultured, unsophisticated, unintelligent, trouble making nomads.  The Egyptians thought of the Habiru/Apiru much like some people have thought of the Gypsies.  So, if the Hebrews received their name by being associated with the Habiru/Apiru, the Egyptians really did see them as the least of the least.

But not God...  God takes the least family, and the least children among that family, and makes his presence known on earth through them.  God's kingdom is an upside down kingdom.  It has always been that way.  When Jesus, as the incarnation of God, walked among humanity, he did not come with a new message.  He came so that we could all look God in the face and be called back to who he truly was and what he truly wanted for us.  God has always worked through "the least of these."  We don't have to wait until the gospel of Matthew to see this.  We see it already in Genesis.

Stopping point: Genesis 47

When God Interprets

While Joseph is in prison he makes the statement, "Do not interpretations belong to God?"  I've been thinking about that statement a bit more since reading it, and as I've done so I had an idea pop into my head.  Interpretation implies the valuing of some things and the devaluing of others.  Interpretation implies providing a sense of purpose.  When Joseph allows God to be the god who interprets, he also allows God to be the god who gives meaning, a God who brings order out of the chaos of life.  We begin to see this with Joseph as he interacts with his brothers.  At a surface level the story is about Joseph and his brothers, but underneath much more is going on.  Underneath the family interactions is the question of whether anyone in Joseph's family will survive the famine.  Underneath the family interactions is the question: Will God be able to keep his promise to Abraham and help his family thrive?  Beyond that is the question of whether God will be able to use this family to work against the broken machinery of Genesis chapter three.  That is the meaning we can see imparted to Joseph because of his willingness to let God interpret his life and use him for God's purposes.  When we allow God to interpret without forcing our own perceptions and limitations on our lives, it seems God can provide quite a meaning.  When God interprets, prepare to be surprised.

Stopping point: Genesis 45

Friday, January 14, 2011

Manasseh and Ephraim

One of the things I regret since finishing my graduate degree is letting my Greek and Hebrew fall by the way side.  I keep intending to go buy some index cards to turn into flash cards for myself.  Plus, I want my son to learn Greek and Hebrew (and yes, I realize this will doom him to a life of oddity.  Then again, he is my son.  He's doomed no matter what I do.), and how can I teach him if I've forgotten my vocabulary?  Anyhow, one of the things I appreciate about Hebrew is it's simple approach to titles.  Hebrew has a relatively small vocabulary, and I think that is why ancient Hebrews tended to call things like they saw them.  Up to this point in Genesis we've seen this often.  Jacob sees the face of God as he wrestles with him, so he names the place of the event Peniel, "Face of God."  When Jacob and Rebekah's firstborn son came into this world hairy, they named Esau, or "hairy."  When Jacob had a vision of angels ascending and descending from the dwelling place of God, he called the place Bethel, "House of God."  I'm no expert on Native American language, but ancient Hebrew and their names remind me of Native Americans and their names, such as Sitting Bull or Red Cloud.  You name it as you see it.

Joseph names his sons Manasseh and Ephraim, and those names tell us something very important about how Joseph sees his life.  He has been rejected by his family.  He has been an outcast.  He has been a slave.  He has been falsely convicted of a crime and thrown in prison, but events have performed a full about-face.  Now he answers to no one but the Pharaoh himself.  He is married, to a powerful family on top of that.  His wife bears him two sons, just like Joseph's mother had two sons.  Life is good.  There is cause to be grateful, and so Joseph names his firstborn Manasseh, something like, "Making to forget."  God has given him a reason to put all his past behind him and find joy in the present.  For someone who has had a life like Joseph, that is no small thing.  His next son he calls "Fruitful."  Abundance has overflowed in the desert.  This is who Joseph discovers God to be, not a god who abandons him to misfortune and victimization, but a God who turns fasting into feast and sorrow into celebration.  God brings Joseph happiness, and considering the four generations of family sorry and dysfunction we've seen so far, I feel a sense of elation for Joseph.  I am happy for him.

Stopping point: Genesis 42

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Do Not Interpretations Belong to God?

Before I write about what I want to focus on, here's an aside.  The Bible is full of warped sexual relationships.  So far in Genesis fallen angels have had relations with the daughters of humanity (I realize this is a controversial interpretation of Genesis 6.).  Ham rapes his father Noah while he's passed out drunk.  Abraham allows his wife to be taken as the lover of not one, but two men.  All the men of Sodom want to rape two guests who are staying in their village.  Lot's daughters get him drunk and then sleep with him, and out of that incest two nations are born.  Jacob's oldest son, Reuben, sleeps with his mother-in-law after his other mother-in-law dies during childbirth.  Jacob's daughter is raped and the men of an entire city are slaughtered in revenge, and then there's Tamar who pretends to be a prostitute so she can get pregnant by her father-in-law.  Throw the sin of Onan in there and you have a very full basket of sexual dysfunction.  Here's the thing, sex in the Bible is usually read through a prudish, Elizabethan era lens.  In other words, many people, when they read the Bible, already approach it with the preconceived notion that sex is basically bad to begin with.  If it's not bad, it's at least uncomfortable.  We then read our own biases into these stories.  We want to say that the point of the sex in these stories is the sex, and therefore what God gets angry at in these stories is the sex.  I disagree.  The point of the sex in these stories is the misuse of sex.  That may seem like nothing more than semantics, but I think it's more than that.  Tamar is actually the hero of her story.  She does the right thing by taking advantage of her father-in-law's loose ethics.  It is her father-in-law who is in the wrong by not providing her with children.  I say all that to say this, God is much more angry with how we abuse our power and authority over others than what we do with sex.  Our misuse of sex is just a symptom of a much larger problem.

But I don't really want to talk about that....  By Genesis 39, the book has officially refocused on the character of Joseph, Jacob's 11th son, and here's what stands out to me the way Genesis frames his story.  Joseph's story begins with family tension.  This comes as no surprise considering the family to which he belongs.  Anyway, Joseph's brothers throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  At this point, Genesis throws in a little third person narrative.  As Joseph begins his new life as a slave in the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, Genesis states that the Lord was with him.  I don't know about you, but I wouldn't define betrayal, abuse, and slavery as proof of favor.  We tend to assume that if God is with us things will go well, but that is far from Genesis' assumption.

Joseph's story then continues with the attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife.  Over and over and over again she attempts to get Joseph to sleep with her, but he repeatedly refuses.  Finally, she corners him, grabs his cloak, and presses him once again for sex.  His only way out of the situation is to run for it, but Potiphar's wife has a good grip on his clothing, and as he flees his clothes stay behind.  Potiphar's wife now has the chance to make this obstinate Hebrew pay.  She accuses him of attempted rape and uses his garments as evidence.  Whose story are you going to believe, the wife of the captain of the guard or a slave?  Potiphar sides with his wife and throws Joseph in prison.  As a side note, I wonder if Potiphar knew his wife was making a false accusation but had to side with her to save face.  The reason I wonder this is because even though he arrests Joseph, he allows Joseph to be put in charge of his other prisoners.  That seems a strange thing to do to someone who supposedly tried to rape your wife.  Anyhow, God's part in all of this has been strangely absent, until again, as Joseph is being thrown into prison, the narrator tells us that the Lord was with Joseph.  This seems like a very strange commentary considering that from an outside perspective Joseph seems to be living a very unprotected life.

Up to this point in the story, Joseph has kept his opinion about all this to himself, but while in prison Potiphar places two important prisoners in his custody.  One is the Pharaoh's cupbearer, the other the Pharaoh's baker.  Both of them have troubling dreams, which they tell Joseph about.  Joseph's response to their anxiety over not knowing what these dreams mean fascinates me.  He tells them, "Do not interpretations belong to God."  Now, specifically he's talking about dream interpretation, but statements like that are usually supported by broader, deeper beliefs.  I think Joseph can say what he says about God to the other prisoners because Joseph is willing to allow God to interpret his life in general.  If you were in Joseph's position, how would you make sense of your life?  We humans, we like to understand what is going on in our lives.  We like to be able to wrap our minds around our situations.  We create frameworks to help us do this.  Our values, our sense of ethics and fairness, our spoken and unspoken rules, they all help us make sense of things...but what do you do when your life doesn't fit any of those frameworks.  That is what Joseph's life has been like.  He was a good son who did what his father asked him to do.  He might have been a cheeky brother, but he never tried to usurp anyone's position in the family.  He served his master to the best of his ability as a slave, even refusing to sleep with his master's very willing wife.  And where did that get him?  In jail, torn from his family, with no way out.  How would you respond?  Well, Joseph's response surprises me.  There's no outrage, not anger, not lust for vengeance, only a willingness to let God make of life what he will.  I guess we could see this as a sign that Joseph had given up, but I don't think so.  This statement isn't based on despair; it's based on trust.  That impresses me.

Stopping point: Genesis 40

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jacob's Family

"This is the story of the family of Jacob," so begins chapter 37.  Of course, we've been reading the story of Jacob's family already, but there are a few new twists and turns with today's reading.  First, Rachel has died giving birth to Jacob's youngest child, Benjamin.  Technically he was fist called Benoni (Son of Sorrow), and it tells us something about Jacob's frame of mind that he decides to change his son's name to Benjamin (The Favored Son or Son of my Right Hand).  I find this part of Jacob's story a real tragedy, although I guess you could make the case that his whole life has been tragic.  What is the one thing Jacob has ever truly loved in life?  His sons?  His wealth?  His wives?  No, only Rachel.  In spite of unlawfully being married to Rachel's sister, in spite of the bitter rivalry that caused within his family, in spite of a father-in-law who would much rather kill Jacob then let his daughters go with him, in spite of murderous, violent sons, Jacob had always maintained his love for Rachel, and now she was gone forever.  All he has left of her is memories and a child.  At her death he goes off to be by himself, a temporary hermitage beyond the Tower of Eder.  While he's gone, Rueben (Jacob's oldest son) claims one of Jacob's wives as his own, sleeping with her, and Jacob doesn't even seem to care.  We could read this as a sign of Jacob's weakness, but Jacob isn't the weak type.  He's the wrestle with God and never let go type.  I think what's going on here is that Jacob is absolutely heart broken.  He has fallen into a deep depression.  The Bible doesn't tell us that, but I wonder.

Well, after another genealogy bridge (genealogies in the Old Testament usually act as transitions between main story lines), the story of Jacob continues on, but now the focus is on his children, and it begins with a retelling of the Cain and Abel story.  God places his blessing on a younger son, in this case Joseph, and the older son, in this case ten of them, decides to hill him.  Luckily this time around Reuben holds back the full force of his brothers' hatred and keeps Joseph alive.  However, someone has to watch the flocks, and while he's away they sell Joseph into slavery.  Did he end up like Abel, dead in a field?  No, which makes a very big difference in how this story will unfold, but the brothers tell Jacob he's dead all the same.  For Jacob this is the last straw.  He just lost his wife and now he has lost one of her two sons.  He falls into a depression again, saying that he's on his way to meet his son in death, mourning all the way.

Depressing isn't it, but there is a silver lining among all the clouds.  A few posts back I talked about transitional figures within families and how often times they appear every three or four generations.  Joseph is the fourth generation since God called Abraham, and he is the transitional figure for this family.  By the time his part in this narrative is over, this family will be ostracized aliens no longer.  His dreams will come true.

Stopping point: Genesis 37

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

He Who Wrestles with God and Family Justice

It's a common occurrence in the Bible for God to rename people.  We've already seen this with Abram and Sarai, who become Abraham and Sarah.  Well it happens again with Jacob.  God changes his name to Israel.  It means something like "the one who struggles/strives/wrestles with God."  Some might think that is a bad name, but I like it.  I've spent my whole life in the Church, so I've seen all sorts of Christians.  Some Christians seem to have an easy go of it.  Their relationship with God is what I would call a peaches and cream relationship, where everything is sweet and smooth.  I would not place my relationship with God in that class.  My relationship with God is more of the "I don't like this.  I'll tell you I don't like this.  I'm going to fight it until I get knocked up the head with a two-by-four, and then I'll accept it" type of relationship.  I'm glad to say that has gotten a bit better as the years have passed, but I have a feeling I will always be one who struggles with God.  So, I'm glad God seems to appreciate Jacob wrestling with him and not giving up.

We tend not to appreciate that attitude.  Topics like doubt, struggle, and lament are seldom discussed in our corporate worship, let alone discussed in a positive light.  Growth and maturity cannot occur without questioning, wrestling, and sorrow.  Maybe that's why so many people come to church for decades and never really grow.  Now, Jacob as a man is a very flawed and fallible character all throughout his life.  He shows favoritism among his wives and his children.  He's not even willing to hold the man who raped his daughter accountable.  However, Jacob's night of wrestling with God seems to represent a turning point in his life.  Before that point he seems to be living life by accident, not really having an identity of his own, always running from his past and his present.  But after wrestling with God, it seems that Jacob finally becomes a man, an adult, his own person.  Maybe I'm reading too much into that, but for some reason on this read-through, that's the impression I got.

That having been said, how could he not stand up for his daughter, Dinah?  He'd seen first hand with his two wives how mistreatment by men can totally derail a woman's life, and yet he's so afraid of the Hivites that he won't protect her.  Maybe I get so upset by this story because of how personal the idea of rape is to me.  Many of the girls I grew up with, who where close, childhood friends of mine, were raped.  I find it very difficult to see rapists as human.  As a Christian, I feel I am called to, but it is no simple task.  When two of Jacob's sons enter the Hivite capital and kill all the men inside, I think, "Man, that's ruthless, a little over-zealous."  At the same time, I can completely understand Jacob's sons' anger when they confront their father with, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"  I wonder how much of their anger over their sister was passed on to them by their mothers and how they had been treated by Laban?  Who knows, but I also wonder how much disaster could have been averted had Jacob stood up for his daughter.

Stopping point: Genesis 34

Monday, January 10, 2011

Keep It In The Family

"You must sleep with me.  I paid for you with my son's fruit."  If I ever heard some major sweet talkin' between spouses, that's it.  I'd love to see what a family counselor would do to try and help these people.  As our daily reading continues, the dysfunction just ramps up from there.  Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, tries desperately to keep his son destitute, only to have it backfire and make him rich.  Jacob decides to run away without telling Laban, which you'd think would be a problem, but when he tells his wives, they both say, "Our father treats us like dirt.  He's squandered every penny of our inheritance.  He practically sold us like slaves.  Everything that was our father's now seems to be yours, so what do we care?  Let's go."  So they do.

But then Laban catches up and accuses Jacob of dealing poorly with him.  Ah, the irony.  An added twist to the story is that Rachel steals Laban's household idols.  Maybe this was because she didn't believe in Jacob's God, which would mean this detail adds another layer of division within Jacob's family.  That very well may be the case, but I wonder whether this is really just one, last, passive aggressive lashing out from a daughter who hates her father.  Eventually Laban and Jacob come to terms and set up a boundary between each other.  They agree that they will not cross into each other's territory "for harm," and I wonder, at this point, why else would they cross into each other's territory?

This chapter in this family's life ends in tragedy.  Laban will never again see his daughters.  Laban will never again see his grandchildren.  Laban will never again be blessed through his son-in-law's hard work, and all that is because of a simple, little, character flaw called greed.

Stopping point: Genesis 31

Feeling Sorry

I feel sorry for Esau.  He's a moron, no doubt about it, but the poor guy just can't seem to catch a break.  Now I don't have much sympathy for Esau selling his own birthright for a bowl of stew. That's just foolish, but if he would have returned from hunting five minutes earlier he wouldn't have lost his blessing.  And then in chapter 28 he learns that his father doesn't approve of Canaanite women.  This is a problem because Esau is already married to two of them.  He learns this because Isaac sends Esau's brother, Jacob, away to find a non-Canaanite wife.  Esau then marries a third wife, the daughter of his uncle (and yes, that would make her his first cousin.  His dad married his first cousin.  His brother was told to go marry his first cousin.  His grandfather married his half sister.  Things have changed in a few millennia).  Here's the thing.  Why didn't Isaac make it a point to tell Esau that before he married his wives?  I understand that cultural norms change over time, but apparently bad parenting is timeless.

Following the theme of feeling sorry...I feel sorry for Leah.  Her story just makes me sick.  She's taken advantage of by her father, who unlawfully gives her away as a bride.  As a side note, I was always told growing up that Leah was ugly.  If you read closely, the Bible never says that.  All it says is that she had delicate eyes.  I'd have to go to the Hebrew to double check this, but at least in English, delicate and ugly are two very different things.  The point of this part of the story isn't that Jacob doesn't love her because she's ugly.  Jacob doesn't love her because he's in love with her sister.  That's it.  Jacob isn't the shallow loser here.  He's as much of a victim as Leah is.  Laban is the bad guy in this story, Leah the powerless woman.

What really breaks my heart, however, is how desperately she wants Jacob to love her.  Did they get married for reasons we would value?  Certainly not, but she seems to care for him never-the-less.  With each child she bears (all sons up to this point in the story) she hopes that Jacob will finally value her.  He never does, and by the time she has her last son she names him Judah ( which means something like "Praise God").  At first glance it looks like she is thanking God, but flip the coin and we find something else.  She's giving up on her marriage.  "I might as well turn to God since my husband will never notice me," is what she seems to be saying.  Leah's story is a sad, sad story, and it's all because of a greedy father.  Once again, bad parenting is timeless.

Stopping point: Genesis 29

Like Father Like Son

Well, as I predicted, I didn't do well on the whole posting over the weekend thing, so today you get multiple posts.  On a side note, Kalyn just passed me a bag of butter toffee peanuts.  I think this needs to become a new blogging tradition.  Anyway, back to Genesis.

I once had a psychologist tell me that family dysfunctions usually last three to four generations.  I don't remember the technical term for this anymore, but I do remember him saying that at the end of the three to four generations a family has a transitional figure.  This doesn't necessarily mean that change will occur, just that it finally can occur.  Well Isaac, Abraham's son, is not that transitional figure.  In Genesis 26 we find Isaac all grown up and married.  And what adult decision does he make?  When people ask about his wife he tells them that she is his sister, and why not?  That's what dad did.  Except there's one main difference between Isaac and Abraham.  Abraham committed to the lie.  It was only when God let the Pharaoh and Abimelech discover the truth of Sarah that they found out.  Isaac, on the other hand, gets caught fondling his "sister."  Abraham should have told his son that when you pretend your wife is your sister, don't try to fool around.  That might have been good, fatherly advice...

Stopping point: Genesis 26

Friday, January 7, 2011

Impotence and Trust

The "Almost Sacrifice of Isaac" story is one of the most troubling in the Bible, at least in my opinion.  The fact that God would use the slaughter of a man's son by his own hand as a test is deeply disturbing.  This morning before I came into work I had a few minutes to play with my son, Shepherd.  He can't do a whole lot yet.  Play time mostly consists of grunts, smiles, and kicking (not necessarily all his).  He is a joy in my life.  I honestly didn't know if I would have children.  I struggle with epically low self-esteem, which in ages past has showed itself most in my atrocious choices for girlfriends.  It was a vicious cycle.  I had low self-esteem so I dated girls with low-self esteem, but they treated me like dirt, which lowered my self-esteem even more, ad nauseam.  I doubted whether I would ever get married, let along have children.  Luckily, during my graduate work I met my wife, who miraculously has really good self-esteem, hardly any baggage, and makes me feel better about myself.  Not to sound selfish, but she's good for me.  Anyhow, when we first got married we wanted to wait a few years to have children.  We did, but then when we started trying to have children we hit a few road bumps.  The first time we found out Kalyn was pregnant, she had a miscarriage within a week.  After that we learned Kalyn had a thyroid problem that was disrupting her ovulation cycle.  It was easily treated with medication, but it still took a long time for things to even out.  Month after month after month came, along with the feeling of disappointment that was becoming a regularly scheduled monthly event of its own when she wasn't pregnant.  But on Valentine's Day 2009 we got a shock.  That crazy, little pee stick said positive!  I was going to be a father.  Now, almost a year later, I stand amazed at how much gas a 13 pound body can produce.  I know how much Shepherd means to me after waiting a few years for him to join our family.  I'm 31.  I can't image how much Isaac would mean to Abraham after waiting decades at the age of 100.  I say all that to say, I take my commitment to following Jesus seriously, but if he asked me to kill my own son, that might very well be a deal breaker.  I'm amazed Abraham didn't throw in the towel right then.

There is another detail in this part of Abraham and Isaac's story that I find twisted.  As Abraham and Isaac are headed toward the place Abraham will sacrifice his son, Abraham makes Isaac carry the wood for the burnt offering.  In the past I've read that detail and thought, "That's just warped," but this time I had a different thought.  Abraham is over 100 years old.  Now I don't know anyone over 100, but I know a few people in their nineties.  They don't carry much of anything, let alone a heavy bundle of wood.  Did Isaac have to carry the wood because Abraham couldn't?  And if that's the case, how powerless must it have made Abraham feel to watch Isaac carry that wood?  Here he was, caught in a terrible catch 22 with no way out, and he can't even carry his own stupid wood.  When I look at Shepherd I can feel pretty powerless, but Abraham's situation seems to be the definition of personal impotence.  Being told to sacrifice your own son...that's gotta make you want to hide under a rock.  Not even being able to carry the wood for that sacrifice...stick a fork in me; I'm done.

I feel sorry for Abraham's predicament in this story, which makes his faith that God would find a solution for the problem all the more impressive to me.  The worse things become the harder it is to trust.  Abraham refuses to give up on God, maybe to believe that God really intended for him to sacrifice his son at all.  After all, the whole child sacrifice thing is counter the nature of God.  At the same time, my Bible has Abraham saying, "Here I am" when the angel calls to him to stop the sacrifice.  That seems a little calm for the situation.  I can easily hear Abraham saying something more along the lines of, "Thank God!" and breaking down in tears.  That's what I would do, but then again, I'm not a very manly man, so who knows.

Impotence and trust, isn't that usually the situation most of us find ourselves in at some level?

Stopping point: Genesis 24

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Necessity of Vulnerability

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on across." -Philippians 2:5-8

Here's an interesting video I came across the other day.  It's about the necessity of vulnerability.  In Philippians Paul shares a song about the incarnation, and the incarnation is all about God's willingness to be vulnerable with us.  I hope you find this video as thought provoking as I did.  Be warned, there's one curse word dropped in her speech.  So if you find that offensive, you may not want to watch.

My favorite soundbite of Dr. Brown's is, "Blame is a way to discharge pain and discomfort."  In our cultural climate that should make us think.

Homosexuality, Hospitality, and Women's Rights

Today's reading begins with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The story begins by two angels of the Lord walking into Sodom where they are greeted by Lot.  Lot convinces them to stay the night with his family in his home.  After dinner all the men of the city, both young and old, surround Lot's house and demand that Lot send out his guests to be raped.  This text is one of the premiere Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality.  Although I believe the Bible does condemn homosexuality (and remember, it also condemns greed, gluttony, and causing divisions between people), that's not what this text is really about.  This story is about hospitality and how we treat outsiders.  The comparison in this story is not a comparison between Lot's heterosexuality versus the Sodomite's homosexual desire.  The comparison being made is between Lot's immediate effort to provide for and protect the traveling strangers and Sodom's desire to abuse and take advantage of the strangers.  Sodom's evil is not primarily shown in homosexual behavior but in its desire to do harm to undeserving strangers (in this case rape them).  That is the focus of this story.

What intrigues me about all this is how many people in my religious tribe (Churches of Christ) are deeply angered and offended by this interpretation of the Lot and Sodom story.  Some get so upset that they practically accuse people who don't believe the focus in this story is homosexuality of being unscriptural heretics.  Reading through the story today I started wondering why that is, and I have a theory.  In my experience, the people who are most outspoken in their disgust toward homosexuals don't know any.  Therefore, homosexuals are easy to demonize.  Also, I'm not a homosexual, so if I make homosexuality the focus of this story I can write it off, pat myself on the back, and tell myself, "Phew, I'm glad I'm nothing like those Sodomites."  However, if we allow this story to be about how we treat outsiders (the powerless, those on the fringe, you fill in the blank...), then we have a problem.  We don't always treat outsiders well (especially if they happen to be homosexual).  In fact, sometimes we can be downright nasty.  That means we can be just like Sodom, and Sodom was destroyed.  So, we don't want this story to be about hospitality because we're all guilty of being inhospitable at times, some more than others.

One last reflection from today's reading.  Many people are bias against the Bible (and therefore anyone who reads and believes it) because they think the Bible is against women's rights.  In my opinion, that attitude fails to take into account how old the Bible is.  For example, in Genesis chapter 20 Abraham gives his wife Sarah to Abimelech (strike two for the whole not selling your wife thing).  Sarah, of course has no say in this.  The fact that this story is in the Bible does not mean the Bible condones abusing women.  It means 3000 years ago men saw women as property.  What is interesting to me in this story is that it ends by Abimelech paying 1000 pieces of silver as a way of saying Sarah was innocent.  That money is not meant to vindicate Abraham, but Sarah.  This story actually values and upholds women's rights by condemning what was done to Sarah.

Stopping point: Genesis 21

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Apophatic and Kataphatic Theology: Can God Change His Mind?

Abram, Sarai and Hagar...what is it with saints and their families?  When I was in middle school I became obsessed with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I know...normal reading for a 12 to 13 year old.  Anyhow, I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for their beliefs and accomplishments.  However, I'm not one to smooth over people's darker attributes just because I respect them.  In fact, I respect Gandhi and MLK, Jr. all the more because they are a mixture of accomplishments and failures.  Gandhi was a horrible father and husband.  MLK, Jr. was unfaithful to his wife.  Both were very flawed men.  They were human.  I can relate to that.  It does strike me as odd, though, how so many great men and women, who can be remarkably selfless and self-sacrificing, can be absolutely atrocious with their own families.

That having been said, I want to talk a bit about apophatic and kataphatic theology.   Both of these terms are Greek in origin.  Apo in Greek can be translated "away from," and kata as "according to."  Apophatic theology is the attempt to understand God by seeing how he is different then the people and objects around us.  It is describing God in a negative relationship to existence.  So, for example, my moods (largely dependent on caffeine, sleep, how my day at work went, whether my dog got into Shepherd's diapers again, etc.) can be all over the place.  God, since he is not like me, must not be moody.  In comparison, kataphatic theology attempts to understand God by looking for similarities between God and the people and objects around us.  It describes God in a positive relationship to existence.  So, the universe is an ordered place that functions by rules, therefore God must be a God of order.  If I can love others, God must also be able to love others.  At a fundamental level, apophatic and kataphatic theology are pretty simple.

However, I think apophatic and kataphatic theology can oversimplify things.  Theology is, after all, an attempt to put into tangible terms something that is not tangible.  One area this has played itself out is in the misunderstanding that God cannot change his mind.  We humans change our minds all the time.  When viewed negatively, this means we can break promises, fail in our commitments, and lie through our teeth.  Apophatic theology would argue that God cannot be like that, and therefore must not be able to change his mind.  The problem with that line of reasoning is that changing our minds isn't always a sign of unfaithfulness.  Sometimes its a sign that our situation has changed and we need to change accordingly.  Changing our mind shows that we aren't stiff-necked and stubborn.

Many unknowingly carry all this apophatic and kataphatic baggage with them when they read Genesis 18.  Some people read this passage with the preconceived notion that God cannot change his mind, therefore he intended for Abraham to talk him down.  God never intended to act on what he first told Abraham.  It was just an empty threat, but Genesis doesn't say that.  Genesis tells us that Abraham changed God's mind, and I'm glad it does.  If God can change his mind, he can change his mind about me.  He can change his mind about us.  Isn't that what we want?  Everyone who is a self-aware, decent person with a conscience has done something terrible that they knew deserved punishment, be it in regard to another person or to God.  A god who cannot change his mind is stuck giving us punishment because forgiveness requires a change in direction.  Instead, what we find is a God who wants to change his mind, who wants to forgive, and who wants to provide us with a chance to live a different, better life.  I'm glad Abraham changed God's mind.  I'm glad God can change his mind, period.  It means there is hope for me yet.

So, apophatic and kataphatic theology.  They're helpful in finding ways to understand and describe God, but they aren't perfect.  I'm glad about that, otherwise I might be in a pretty tight situation.

Stopping Point: Genesis 18