Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for May, 2011

Shabbat Bechukotai (My Statutes)

Somehow I’m in Leviticus again. I didn’t do it on purpose. This time. I know I’ve drashed this parsha before, but according to my files it was in a year that B’har and B’chukotai were together and I scrolled to the B’har side of the Torah. Today we are plumb in B’chukotai which I would like to sum up as:

If…then…If you…then I will…If you don’t…then I won’t…

Some of you may know that in the next phase of my sabbatical sojourn I will journey “up” as the saying goes, לישראל. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place and the land and how much it means to so many and at what cost. The recent speech by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response frame (some of) the issues once again. There are passionate feelings, opinions, hopes, schemes, dreams, and demands at play on all sides.

The Torah preserves the passion for the land enflamed by despair at its loss, stoked by hopes of reentry, reoccupation and more than that, domination by those who collected, edited and preserved the Torah. And for some, the Torah shapes current conversations about the land, all of its occupants and their collective and/or separate futures. The Judean exiles spread from Egypt to Babylon, even with a re-entrenched outpost around a not-quite-Solomonic temple could have hardly expected to occupy every inch of the land they had previously claimed at the height of the golden age of David and Solomon. Surely they did not expect to murder every man and man-child with blood of other peoples in their veins living in the land. They could not have sought to rape every woman and girl-child into bearing children who would be counted as Israelites so as to eradicate their own peoples. No matter what the Torah says in some of its most troubling texts. A text without a context is a pretext. The post-exilic context of the editing of the Torah helps me with some of these texts. 

When I teach difficult texts at the seminary I invite the students to employ a number of creative writing strategies to experience the text differently: how would it read as a newscast or newspaper article, as a social worker’s report, as an infomercial? What happens when one reverses the texts: trade insiders for outsiders, favored status among the nations, with reviled ancient enemy, reverse slave and slaveholder, swap monotheism for polytheism, reverse the genders of the characters and/or God? 

I’d like to reframe Leviticus 26:3-13 by reversing the “if…then…” that frames the passage. One could read the text as, if we, or the ancient Israelites or even current day Israelis do something, God will do something else. But today let’s look at the things that the Torah says God will do and see if God has ever done them and what there might be for us to think about in the “if…then…”

Leviticus 26:3 If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, 4 I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

Well, it was raining when I wrote this. For the most part it rains when it should in Israel, and even in the United States. Sometimes we get too much, sometimes too little, but the seasons turn more or less as they should – global warming aside. The respective farm belts produce enough food to feed their peoples and arguably the rest of the world. In modernity our food scarcity problem seems to be one of distribution and, well, will. I am the Wil, but not that will. So we may conlude by the seasons of rain and other weather at the approriate time and the production of foodstuffs that Israel and even the United States are full of faithful commandment-keepers.

The rest of this should be a piece of cake.

5 Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.

And cake it is, bread and booze. No lack of carbs in the US or Israel. Check. Wait, what was that last part?

… and live securely in your land. 6 And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.

Something of a hiccup here. There are real security issues in the United States and Israel and Palestine and everywhere else that I have ever heard of. I’ve never heard of a land or country in which no one was afraid. A number of animals, including predators, have disappeared from their natural habitats, due to extinction; we tend to think of that as a bad thing. A land without swords – may we say acts of violence? Has there ever been such since Qayin murdered Hevel west of Eden?

7 You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 

Well, Israel has world-renouned military abilities. And the United States is still a super power, in spite of the changes in global and national economies. But there has never been an empire on the face of the earth that did not fall. Did the Israelites envision perpetual supremacy or that it just might be their turn again? (Egypt and Babylon each had multiple turns running the known world.)

9 I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.

Modernity has seen human reproduction and life-expectancies soar. Even in parts of the world in which women regularly die in childbirth and only a fraction of children survive into adulthood, the whole people is not endangered. 

10 You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new.

Back to the carbs. Americans have elevated storage to a hight art: basements, attics, pantries, freezers in basements and garages, storage units, and an entire industry represented by The Container Store.

11 I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

A few have claimed that God is in their midst and that they are the beloved of God. More than a few have feld abhored by God. The first of my questions for us: What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah or Tanak or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? 

13 I am the Holy One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk with straightened spines.

There is a particular rhetoric of salvation in some black churches: It is not enough to say what you are saved from – for example, slavery – but what is it that you are saved for?

 Leviticus 26:14 But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, 16 I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you…

The terror the text goes on to describe parallels accounts of the fall of Judah and   destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and includes a mention of the exile. Perhaps the “if…then…” of this parsha has already been applied.


The book of Leviticus ends with the words: Leviticus 27:34 These are the commandments that the Holy One of Old gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Who are the Israelites? The Torah teaches that Abraham and Sarah were from the land that biblical folk would come to cla Babel, the home of Babylon, that we call Iraq. They had an incestuaous sibling marriage and their descendents inner-married nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews and cousins. And their descendents also intermarried with the peoples around them: Tamar with whom Hudah had children was not from the family. Other patriarchs also intermarried: Simeon married a Canaanite woman, and Joseph married Asenat, an Egyptian making two of the twelve tribes half Egyptian. And, an unknown number of peoples from unknown national contexts left Egypt with the Israelites and integrated to one degree or another. So then “Israelite” is more of a cultural, social and religious designation than it is an ethnic one.

What does it mean to claim that the God of Torah, Tanak, Bible or ancient Israel is our God? What does it mean to be or call one’s people or nation the people of God? What do these things mean in light of this text and what has and hasn’t happened in the world? Is the “if…then…” of this parsha ethically or theologically binding on us or anyone else? What does God’s behavior (past and present) teach us about this covenant? What does this Torah say to you?  

Lastly, in a Jewish Bible, the last words of Leviticus or any other book in the Torah are not actually the last words. Rabbinic bibles have a refrain: חזק חזק ונתחזק. The congregational response to the end of a book of Torah, “from strength, to strength and may we be strengthened” represents the work of interpretation. When necessary, add words to the Torah herself, even if you have to write on her pages. The rabbis and volumes of interprters have modeled the ongoing work of midrash for us. חזק חזק ונתחזק!


17 Iyar 5771

21 May 2011

Dorshei Derekh Minyan

Germantown Jewish Center

Philadelphia PA


Osama bin Laden and the Image of God

Yesterday I preached a sermon on the image of God. The death of Osama bin Laden provides an opportunity for me to practice what I preach and proclaim that even he, the mastermind of terrorist attacks on Spain, the United States, Tanzania, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and places that we may never know, responsible for the murders of thousands – more than three thousand on 9/11 alone – even Osama bin Laden was a bearer of the Divine image having been created in the image of God. And the notion of human beings as the Divine image is one shared by Muslims Christians and Jews. I offer a revision of that sermon below, explicitly naming bin Laden and reflecting on his life and his death in places. It is not the same sermon, but it proclaims and wrestles with the same truth.

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule with fish in the sea, and fowl of the heavens, and with the herd-animal – the whole earth, and with every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.

We are created in the image of God. I am created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. (You, and you, and you, are created in the image of God.) The image of God is female. The image of God is male. The image of God is black. The image of God is brown. The image of God is tan. The image of God is beige. The image of God is peachy-pink and, the image of God is white. The image of God is old, young, strong, weak, pregnant, infertile, nursing, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, straight and crooked, saint and sinner. The image of God has dredlocks, an afro, a jerri curl, a weave, hair that has turned gray and hair that has turned loose. The image of God wears a wig. The image of God is wearing a Sunday-go-to-meeting church hat. The image of God is disabled. The image of God is imprisoned. The image of God is suffering. The image of God is homeless. The image of God is hungry. The image of God is poor. The image of God is wealthy and stingy. The image of God is wealthy and generous. Donald Trump is the image of God. Barak Obama is the image of God. Michelle Obama and Michelle Bachman are the image of God. Osama bin Laden and every person he murdered is the image of the same God. The image of God is a babe in arms, a toddler who refuses to be civilized, a child who wants to do it all herself, her way, a teen who keeps you up at night. The image of God is that woman or man who lied to you, left you, cheated on you, stole from you, hurt you. I am the image of God. You are the image of God. Every violent criminal, felon and terrorist is the image of God. We are the image of God. And we are  good, very good in God’s sight in spite of what we do, our creation reflects the goodness of God. And we were created to rule with – not over – the rest of creation, but that’s another sermon. We are the spitting image of God. And yet, God is more than the assembly of all our images.

God reveals Godself in human language in Genesis. But language, even my beloved Biblical Hebrew, is incapable of fully capturing, disclosing, describing or revealing God. My Systematic Theology professor, Kelly Brown Douglas says that using human language to describe God is like trying to drive a nail with a scewdriver; you can make it work but you have to turn it this way and that way, you might make a mess, you might not even hit the nail on the head. The God in whose image we are created is ultimately beyond words. If we take all of the words, all of the descriptions, all of the word-images in the scriptures and the writings of the theologians, scholars, poets and plainfolk who think on God, we will come short of God. God is more than we can image, imagine, dream or articulate.
In the divine self-articulation within the shared Jewish and Christian scriptures, God used the four categories of Biblical Hebrew – masculine, feminine, singular and plural – to reveal Godself and in the process, collapsed and exploded those categories and categorizations so that God cannot be put in a box, or reduced to a single image. For a single image of God is not God, and to worship that which is not God is to commit idolatry. A false image of God is as much a false god as is anything else with which we replace God.
Genesis starts with a familiar image of God, masculine and singular: In beginning, He, God, created the heavens and the earth. In Hebrew gender is disclosed by verbs primarily and nouns secondarily. The first verb of the bible is ברא, “he created,” that is God, אלהים – subjects usually follow their verbs in Biblical Hebrew. But God cannot be put in a box; God will not be confined to a single image. We are all the image of God: So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.
In the first verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be masculine. In the second verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be feminine: The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God, fluttered over the face of the waters. The second verb used in the scripture is מרחפת, “she fluttered,” that is the Spirit, רוח. In the first two verses of scripture God reveals Godself as male and female and then in verse 27 when God creates us in God’s own image we are, male and female, just like God. In fact the adam  that God first created means both all of humanity and a single being. And in the case of creation, the adam  – the “the” means that it is not Adam, a man’s name – the adam was one being with feminine and masculine attributes split down the middle to make two persons, male and female. The word that is mistranslated as “rib," צלע actually means “side” and is used throughtout the bible but never again translated as “rib.”
It may be a surprise to some, that in the bible God’s Spirit is feminine. It may be a surprise to those who read scripture in translation to languages like English because unlike Hebrew (and some other languages) you cannot tell gender in English from verbs or most nouns. The way to identify gender in English is to use a subject pronoun in place of the subject. (Where are my educators and fellow grammarians in the house?) If you go from here and say that preacher preached – or didn’t preach – people who weren’t here will not know what flavor preacher you have today. But if you say she preached, or she didn’t say anything to me, then everyone will know what flavor preacher you had.
Every time God’s Spirit shows up in Hebrew in the First Testament, and even in the Second Testaments written in Hebrew for Hebrew-speaking people – every time the Spirit shows up She is feminine and She is God. There is not a single place in the bible in its original Hebrew and Greek languages where the Spirit is male or takes a masculine verb. That holds true for the New Testament as well. There the New Testament writers chose to use the neuter, “it.” The masculine, “he” was not applied to the Spirit of God until Jerome got his hands on her four hundred years after the time of Christ and preformed a gender-reassignment surgery on the scripture in his translation which endures in your English bibles even though that’s not what the earliest bibles say.
 If you look at every verse in which the Spirit of God appears in the Hebrew Bible – in what you may call the Old Testament – in any translation, you will always see “the spirit (with or without a capital ‘s’) did such and such.” You will never see “he” because the previous generation of translators knew what every first year Hebrew student, and every Jewish child who learns Hebrew in kindergarten know, that She is feminine. In ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the history of the church, the communities who have preserved, translated, taught and preached the scriptures have been overwhelming male. And the god whom they have communicated, has been presented nearly exclusively in their own image. Translation matters, and as I explained to your pastor when we discussed my visit, that is why I translate the scriptures myself and teach my students to read Hebrew and translate for themselves.
Scripture is full of diverse descriptive images of God; many are masculine images: The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is king, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is God. God is a righteous judge. God is not a man or the son of man who lies.
Other images combine masculine grammar with images and objects that don’t necessarily have gender in our English-speaking world: the Lord is my banner, the Lord is peace, the Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, the Lord is a stronghold, the Lord is my light and my salvation, the Lord is my strength and my shield, God is a devouring fire. Deuteronomy 32:18 puts it this way, The rock who birthed you, you neglected, and the God who writhed-in-labor with you, you forgot. Here both rock and God are masculine but they use traditionally female birth-giving verbs.
The scriptures are also pregnant with feminine imagery for God: The scriptures talk about God’s body parts: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, right arm – have you ever noticed that God doesn’t have a left arm in the bible? – God has hands, feet and a reproductive system. When God asks Job in 38:8 how he imagines the universe came to be, God asks, Who closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth out of the womb? How would you answer God? From whose womb do you think the sea came? God also asks Job later in 38:28, Who gave birth to the frost of heaven? The answer is of course, God gave birth to the frost of heaven just as God closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth from Her womb. Interestingly, God does not have male reproductive parts in the scriptures. When God fathered Jesus of Nazareth, God did so completely different than human fathers father their children.
And then there is the love of God. There are several words for love in Hebrew, one particular word that God uses over and over. The verb, רחם, expresses the feelings of the womb, רחם. The literal translation is “womb-love,” “mother-love” or “maternal love.” The standard translations produced by brother-translators, “compassion” and “pity” are not specific to the womb, and erase God’s maternal love. Imagine a headache without the head, or a heartache without the heart. The place from which the pain emmanates is included in the word. So too is the mothering-place, the womb, רחם, included in the word רחם, mother-love. Listen to some of the places where the bible speaks of mother-love:
[Solomon and the sex-workers] 1 Kings 3:26 The woman whose son was alive said to the king – because her mother-love for her son burned within her – “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; do not kill him!” The other woman said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; cut-him-in-two!

Isaiah 49:15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no mother-love for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.


Hosea 1:6 Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One of Old said to Hosea, “Name her No Mother-Love, for I will no longer have mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7 But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God…”


Micah 7:19 God will again have mother-love upon us;
God will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

Psalm 25:6 Be mindful of your mother-love, Holy One,
and of your faithful love, for they have been from of old

Psalm 51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your faithful love;
according to your abundant mother-love blot out my transgressions.

And then there is Jesus… Jesus also uses masculine and feminine language to describe God. He tells a familiar parable about God’s desire for the salvation of lost souls in Luke 15. Jesus tells the parable twice. In the first telling God is a male shepherd, human beings are sheep, ninety-nine are safe, one sheep-soul is lost and God the Shepherd of our souls searches for the lost one until He finds it. Then God calls all the neighbors and throws a party to celebrate the restoration of the lost soul.
In the second telling immediately after the first telling, God is a female house-holder, human beings are precious coins, nine precious souls are safe, one is lost and God our Mother searches for Her lost precious one and when She finds Her lost precious one, She calls all of Her girlfriends and neighbor-women, in Greek everyone at that party is a woman.
This is not the only place that Jesus uses feminine imagery for God. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus said, “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.” God is the creator, the planter of heaven, and here God is male. In the next verse, Jesus says, “The realm of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Here, God the creator is Baker-Woman God in Her kitchen just like Big Mamma.
And, in Luke 7:35, when the ministry of John the Baptist is being demeaned, Jesus says, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” He’s not talking about John’s birth-mother, Jesus is talking about Mother God. As a rabbi and master of the sacred texts, Jesus knew that God is referred to in feminine and masculine terms throughout the scriptures. And his hearers, particularly his Hebrew-speaking audience knew this as well. The Epistles speak of desiring the milk of the gospel, in those days there was no formula, gospel milk is mother’s milk.
We who are created in the image of God are created in the image of a God who reveals Godself as female and male. Yet God is so much more. The late, great theologian Mary Daly put it this way, “God is more than a Ken doll and a Barbie doll scotch-taped together.” This morning I just came by to remind you that God is more than we can imagine or understand and we are all made in God’s image.
In our text God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Not only does God reveal Godself to be male and female, but God also reveals Godself to be one and many. No single category can contain God. I’m going to suggest to you today that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is not the Trinity, because the Trinity is a post-biblical theological concept – but it can be the Trinity for you you like. I suggest that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is the plurality of God-images in the scriptures. God is a rock who gives birth and we are made in Her image. God is a mighty warrior who fights our battles and we are made in His image. God is One and more than One and we are made in God’s image.
Our images of ourselves are as revelatory as are the biblical images of God; they tell us not only what we think of ourselves, but what we think of God. Would we continue to condemn ourselves and hang on to our mistakes and misdeeds if we truly accepted that we are made in the image of God and that shapes who we are and who we will be?

There is a huge space between who we are and what our image is. The images we have in our heads and the images in the minds of those around us may have little or no anchor in reality. We may be stuck in a time warp. We may think we are who we were when we had a full head of hair, when we had our youthful figure, before we had kids, before we saw that first wrinkle. It works the other way too, we may think we are who we were when we were the most frightened, vulnerable, powerless, victimized. Our own images of who we are, are related to who we are but are not who we really are.

Our creation and indeed the whole creation tells us and the world something about the God whose image we reflect.  What we think and say about ourselves and each other is a direct reflection on God, for we are all God’s handiwork, manifesting and reflecting the image of God. When we criticize and demean ourselves we are criticiizng and demeaning the image of God. When we insult and abuse others, we are insulting and demeaning the image of God. When men disrespect women, they are disrespecting the image of God. When women disrespect men, they are disrespecting the image of God. When straight folk disrespect gay folk, they are disrespecting the image of God. When gay folk disrespect straight folk, they are disrespecting the image of God.
There is no one who is not created in the image of God. No not one. Not Hitler, not bin Laden. Yet, at the same time, we the imago Dei, the image of God, are called to be the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, reminding us that there is an even greater space between who we are and who God is. And none of us have loved each other so much that we threaten the security of earthly kingdoms and are condemned to death because of the disruption we present to the present order. Our discipleship is just not that serious. Our love is just not that world-changing.
But what would happen if we took seriously the image of God in ourselves and others? What would the world look like? Would every child be a wanted, welcome child? Would children no longer make up the largest percentage of the homeless in America? Would we even have a homeless population? Would we take in our folk, provide for our folk and help our folk provide for themselves starting with our own relatives? And if there is someone out there who doesn’t have any people, would we be their family?
Would there be an end to sexual assault if we saw each person as a reflection of God’s image? Would it no longer be the case that one in four girls and women and one in six boys and men are sexually assaulted in the church and out, by men and sometimes women who are themselves in the church and out, in the pastorate, in our families? Would there be an end to domestic violence? Would murder no longer be the primary cause of death for pregnant women? Would there be an end to terror and terrorism?
 How would our language change if we took seriously that what we say about each other and ourselves we say to and about God? How would we talk to children? Would we make jokes about beating children within an inch of their lives and inflicting violence on them to teach them a lesson because that’s how we were raised? Would we humiliate children for our own entertainment? Would we stand by as sombody’s child is bullied to death because we think he’s kind of funny and there’s not enough room in our limited understanding of the image of God for children like that?

When we fail to recognize the image of God in one another or ourselves we can justify doing anything to each other or even ourselves. Osama bin Laden was not alone in willfully denying the image of God in his sisters and brothers in creation and even in his own Muslim community. We are the image of God, and sometimes we reject God's image in other souls. Yet, because love is a two-way street, a feedback loop between the lover and beloved, God put on human flesh and reconfigured Godself in our image. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus Mary’s baby from Nazareth, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. He was like us from the womb to the tomb and we are like him.

I’d like to suggest one more thing – before I take my seat – that the crowd included people who cheered the execution of another person created in the image of God that Friday two thousand years ago lost sight of the image of God in him and in themselves, in spite of his living and loving, in spite of his preaching and teaching, in spite of his touching and healing. There were people there watching the Roman spectacle because Jesus had opened their eyes. There were people there listening to the shouts and cries because Jesus opened their ears. There were people there able to cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” because he had loosened their tongues. There were people there walking the Way of Sorrows along with him because he had healed their bodies, straightened out their spines, reversed their paralysis, and lifted them off of their sick beds. There were people there listening to him beg for water who had been wined and dined by him. There were mothers there clutching the children that he had raised from the dead for them, wondering who would do the same for his mother. And all the time, their eyes were watching God.
They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God. They didn’t know that they had been co-opted by their own religious authorities to participate in their own oppression by trying to liquidate their liberator. They didn’t know that when then they told Pilate to give them Yeshua Bar-abba, Jesus Barabbas whose name meant “son of the father,” they were asking for the wrong Jesus, the wrong son of the wrong father. They didn’t know that calling on the name of Yeshua Bar-abba would only set him free but calling on the Name of Yeshua l’Natzaret would set them all free. They didn’t know that encouraging police brutality was an invitation to their own eventual brutalization. They didn’t know that they were murdering the Messiah. They didn’t know that they were crucifying the Christ. They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God because Jesus looked just like one of them, and they had apparently forgotten that they were the very image of God.

Holy God, Mother to the motherless and father to the fatherless, your concern for the woman-born was manifested in becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself as Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for everyone created in the image of God. Amen.