Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for August, 2011

Parshat Eqev – Neighbors and Strangers

Parshat Eqev 5771

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Ya‘aqov ben Yosef, (also known as James), the brother of Yeshua ben Miryam, (also known as Jesus), once asked a she’elah: Does the same spring pour forth bitter and sweet water? The answer to his she’elah in his writings is “no,” but that principle does not always hold true for me. The Torah is a fountain of living water and like this parshah, is in turns bitter and sweet and bittersweet to me.

The bitter: Having just returned from Yerushalayim where literal interpretations of toroth such as those appointed for today have lethal consequences, I was really disheartened to read among the opening verses of the parshah:

Deut 7:16 You shall devour all the peoples that the Holy One your God is giving over to you, showing them לא-תחס, no compassion… 

 

Frankly the world doesn’t need any less compassion. We don’t need religious texts, religious traditions and religious leaders telling us in the name of God, the ancestors or the tradition to withhold compassion from anyone for any reason. One might understand the dispossession to be that claimed in Joshua’s conquest, or the more historical Assyrian and Babylonian conquests which dispossessed Israel as well, giving birth to revisionist history and aspirations. However, even a full exploration of the context that produced this text and its entirely comprehensible xenophobia doesn’t help. At least, it doesn’t help me in this present moment.

Then the sweet: I read near the end of the parshah:

Deut 10:17 For the Holy One your God is God of gods and Sovereign of sovereigns, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

 

And I thought, I can drash this part. After all Rav Yeshua ben Miryam the infamous brother of Ya‘aqov ben Yosef offered the world a famous drash on “Who is my neighbor” whose ethical teaching transcends religious identity.

 The גר is the stranger, sometimes called a sojourner, an alien, a resident alien. The גר is a person who lives in the midst of a people who are not her own. Because the גר lives in another community, he has some obligation to the ethical standards of that community even if they, like the religion of the community, are not his own. This a Toraic – is there such a word? – definition. For the rabbis, the גרים are converts. I’d like to resist the rabbinic reading and leave the גרים וגרות with their religious and cultural otherness and distinctions in tact. The Torah describes the participation of the sojourners in the religious life of ancient Israel, from observing shabbat and celebrating Pesach to offering their own offerings. There are also limits, many of the toroth that apply to the Israelites also apply to those who live in their communities: neither Israelites nor resident aliens can eat blood, for example.

So in the spirit of Rabbi Yeshua, who is the stranger? Who are the גרים? Solomon counted 153,600 resident aliens in his day. (2 Chr 2:17) Are there any limits on who can be a גר? Are there some folk who due to one aspect of their identity or another could not be welcomed in the Israelite community? Are some folk destined to be regarded as enemies, never welcome in Israelite communities? Can sojourners come from the peoples of whom today’s text also says:

Deut 7:22 The Holy One your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the Holy One your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 God will hand their monarchs over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. 

Deut 9:5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Holy One your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Holy One made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deut 11:22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Holy One your God, walking in all God’s ways, and holding fast to God, 23 then the Holy One will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.

 

In short, what is the difference between a sojourning stranger and an enemy stranger? I’d like to suggest that there are no ethnic, national, cultural or religious differences between the people reckoned as acceptable strangers in the community and those reckoned as unacceptable strangers outside the community. The Israelites have been individually and collectively sojourners in foreign lands and there are people from virtually every known nation who live as גרים in ancient Israel. Kings tells us that even an Amalekite was a sojourner in Israel in the time of David and Saul, serving in the Israelite army. (2 Sam 1:13) And the Amalekites were the most despised of enemy nations by most accounts, with regular calls in the Torah for their annihilation, extinction, genocide, what we call today ethnic cleansing. So then, it appears that sojourners are Amalekite, Canaanite, Jebusite, Amorite, Hittite, Hivite, Perizzite and every other “-ite” you can imagine. 

So how does an individual from a people whom the Torah says are wicked, have no longer any right to their own land, are to be faulted for following their own religion and culture, can have their women and girls abducted in to Israelite forced marriages, can have their men and boys – even – infants slaughtered and exterminated become a resident alien accepted into Israelite society, protected to some degree under the shelter of the Torah-tree of life?

One at a time. Perhaps even one family at a time. One relationship at a time. The sojourners are individuals who become known to their host community, and through that knowing become a part of the community themselves. Their unknown kinfolk remain the villains in sacred and secular stories alike, literary characters to be dispensed with at will. But they  who are known occupy a liminal, fertile space between stranger and neighbor.

It strikes me that the lack of knowing on an individual basis makes it possible for the stereotypes of xenophobia to blossom into the toxic blooms of violent rhetoric and rhetoric-fueled violence. When no one knows any of “them” it is easy to believe every horror story and consent to the most inhumane practices in the name of self-preservation. But when one person knows another person from the outsider-stranger community then it’s no longer possible to talk about all of them as a collective.

Every place that I experienced hope about the future of Palestinians and Israelis living in justice and peace was a space in which individual Israelis and Palestinians were in contact and conversation – not necessarily agreement, in fact, they were often in disagreement on many issues. But those who knew each other because they saw each other and spoke to each other, cared for each other and rejected the radical cries of לא-תחס, no compassion, for them from their own communities. Likewise, the spaces in which I grieved the most for the future were the spaces in which members from each group called for the annihilation of the other beyond the wall – literal as well as metaphorical walls – the other a stranger whom they’d never met in person, whose children, lovers, elders, hopes and dreams were mythical creatures to be written out of the story. 

 

Questions:

Who is the stranger?

Are there any people to whom we as Torah-readers-and-keepers do not have any ethical obligations?

What is the sweetness of Torah to you?

What is the bitterness of Torah to you?

How and where is the Torah bittersweet to you? 

 

Finally the bittersweet from today’s parshah: 

Deut 7:12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Holy One your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that God swore to your ancestors; 13 God will love you, bless you, and multiply you; God will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that God swore to your mothers and fathers to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The Holy One will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, God will not inflict on you, but God will lay them on all who hate you.

 

This is what I call incantational religion. If you do it just right you’ll get just what you want. If you don’t get what you want, it’s because you didn’t do it right. Anyone struggling with illness or infertility or economic losses is responsible for not dotting the I’s, crossing the t’s or curling the yuds in the Torah. Yet beneath this cause-and-effect religion is an image of a God who cares for, nurtures and provides for God’s people, extending that care to the strangers within their gates. And that’s not a bad thing. Especially from where I sit in this community. שבת שלם

 

 


Giving God a Piece of Your Mind

Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Sometimes I’m almost level to the ground. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.

Sometimes, I want to do like Hezekiah, and take my stuff – my hopes and my hurts – to God in person, or at least as close as a mortal woman can get. Sometimes like Job, I want to give God a piece of my mind, and not even a sanctified piece. This morning, I’d like to invite you to tell God how you really feel because God already knows and God can take it. God can handle it. God can work it out. God can. God is able. Giving God a Piece of Your Mind.

Let us pray:

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and let us hear the soft, still voice. Amen.

Some things in this world just aren’t right: Children die. Babies are brutally murdered. They are shot while playing in their front yards or run down by drunk, distracted or texting drivers who don’t even have the decency to stop or call for help. Children are brutalized by the people who should love and care for them, their own parents. It’s not right.

There is so much violence in our world, in our streets, in our schools, in our homes. Pregnant women are more likely to die at the hands of some man beating on them than any biological complication from pregnancy or childbirth. One in four women and girls and one in five men and boys have been sexually assaulted and live with the trauma and after-effects, rarely receiving the help they need or even seeing justice in their days. It’s just not right.

People suffer terribly all over the world. Crops fail. Jobs disappear. Economies collapse. Hard work and education seem to mean nothing. The only thing that endures is the bills, bills, bills. Our own bodies betray us, dissolving into sickness, disability and unexpected, unwelcome and untimely death. It’s not right God.

The ones we love betray us even more. I learned in seminary that hurt people hurt people. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Some things in this life just aren’t fair. People work hard, pay their bills and lose their jobs and their homes because of someone else’s accounting tricks. People invest in their children’s upbringing and education and watch them chase after all that they tried to protect them from, or see them cut down as an innocent bystander while they were doing the right thing. So many of our young men and women are locked up, locked down and locked out.

And there is war and terrorism on every continent in the world. The drug war in Mexico regularly crosses the border. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, neighbors and strangers are fighting, killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places around the world. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that not even the morning commute can be taken for granted – may we never see another day like that one in which airplanes became guided missiles and three thousand people left this life, some in agony burning alive while others choked to death, and yet others jumped to their deaths.

There is real evil in this world, much of it at the hands of other people. You know, sometimes it seems that this world would be a much better place if it weren’t full of all those other folk. I’m talking about me right now; you may have never felt like this. Or perhaps you have. Sometimes it seems like what is needed is for someone to just tell God all about it. Not because we doubt that God knows, but perhaps because it seems that God is so busy birthing new galaxies and stars, keeping all of the planets aligned in their courses, maintaining the moon’s proper orbit, keeping the sun from burning out or burning us up, sending the rain – and snow and sleet and hail, stirring the storms and calming the seas, blowing the evening breeze and trade winds across the Caribbean and Pacific, raising life from the dead husks of buried seeds entombed in the womb of the earth, feeding the birds and the bees, painting the flowers and the trees that it feels like God needs to be reminded that we need some help right here, right now.

We may know that God is attending to us every moment of every day, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, counting our hairs, freckles and wrinkles, but sometimes it feels like we’re out here all on our own, when life gives us lemons and we don’t have honey or sugar with which to make lemonade, especially when other folk start messing with us – hurting our feelings, hurting our hearts, hurting our families, messing with our livelihoods. And as much as we might like to see it, the earth does not open up her mouth and swallow them whole, no fire from heaven comes down and smites them, we don’t even hear voices saying, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.” (And if we do hear voices, no one else hears them with us.)

Sometimes we need to call on God, to call God’s attention to our immediate circumstances in a particular way. Whether we believe that God is already actively, intimately involved with the details of our lives or think that God is so busy we need to cry out, “Come see about us!” there are ancestral stories passed down in the scriptures that speak to us about giving God a piece of our minds. Pray with me as I tell you the truth this morning: Sometimes I Feel Like Giving God a Piece of My Mind.

The first lesson, from the book of Kings is one such story. Seven hundred and twenty some-odd years before the scandalous birth of a Palestinian Jew with questionable parentage, Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child, the world as Hezekiah knew it changed for all time. The Northern Monarchy, the largest realm in the divided Israel was decimated and depopulated by King Shalmaneser of Assyria. He spent three years marching from the north: the peoples and produce, military and materiel of the tribe of Naphtali – gone, the peoples and possessions of the tribe of Issachar – gone, the citizens of the tribe of Manasseh and all their stuff, including the capital city of Samaria – gone. Burned to the ground and their people marched off and resettled as essentially slave labor in the Assyrian empire. And in their wake, unburied corpses, raped women, murdered children, hunger, desolation, grief, rage and cries to heaven.

Refugees from the other tribal lands poured into Benjamin, Judah and what was left of Simeon. There was no one left to govern in the north, even if the Assyrians didn’t march on every town and village, they irrevocably broke the Israelite monarchy, government and society in the tribal lands of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon and Issachar, and Gad, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan. On the local level it was sheer anarchy; on the national level it was a return to foreign bondage. And Hezekiah watched it happen from his perilous perch on his own tottering throne.

And to make sure that there would be no one to rise up against him, Shalmaneser depopulated Israel of all its royal and military power, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artisans and most skilled craftswomen and craftsmen. Then to keep the economy going and funneled into his coffers, he repopulated Israel with people he had taken captive and forced off their lands in other battles in other nations. The new inhabitants of Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Hamath, Avva and Sepharvaim. They made what lives they could with the peoples who were considered too useless to deport. Their descendants became known as the Samaritans – as distinct from the former Samarians – the Samaritans were despised, not because their religion differed some from the religion in Judah, (and it did), but also because they were multicultural, multiethnic, multinational and living proof of the fall of Israel. That is why the Samaritans were considered impure.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Who and what were the Israelites to talk about ethnic and national purity? (Remember race did not exist as a concept until less than five hundred years ago.) The founding parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah were incestuous Chaldeans or proto-Babylonians; today they’d be Iraqis. They came from a family where incest was accepted; they were sister and brother from the same father; then their brother Nahor married their other brother, Haran’s daughter, Milcah, his own niece. She was the grandmother of Rebekah who married her cousin Isaac. Milcah was also the sister of Lot who claims to have been abused by his daughters – even though we know that many abusers blame their victims. Incest was common and inner-family marriage was the norm in the founding family of what would become Israel – a familial and religious designation, not an ethnic identity. One of the mothers of Israel, Rebekah and her brother Laban were Arameans, and Rebekah required her son Jacob to marry one of her nieces – he married both, but that’s another story. Jacob’s twelve leading sons – he had more and many daughters but that’s another sermon – Jacob’s sons and their women became the ancestors of Israel:

Judah had children with Tamar who was not from the founding family; she was a local Canaanite girl who had married into his family; she was his daughter-in-law. Simeon also had children with a Canaanite woman. And Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman so that two of the latter tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half-Egyptian, half-African. Even Moses married Midianite and Nubian women. So the claim from later generations of Israelites that the Samaritans were “impure” is something like the pot calling the kettle black. And all of that stems from the events Hezekiah watched unfold around him.

I say that Hezekiah was perilously perched on his throne because four years after Hezekiah was placed upon it, Shalmaneser and his army came back down from the north and this time, there was no Israelite army to slow them down. This time he pushed into Judah and took all of Hezekiah’s fortified towns, killing, maiming, raping and looting as he went. The Judean army was broken. There was nothing to keep Shalmaneser from ransacking and ravaging Judah. Nothing, but God.

But was God even paying attention? God did not intervene when Shalmaneser destroyed Israel. You know God does not intervene every time disaster befalls us. At least not in my life. I have had heartache and grief. I have watched folk I love cut down in their prime or linger in affliction savaged by disease. And like Hezekiah I have tried to do the right thing in my own life, and sometimes I have even managed to do so. But there was always someone around pointing fingers at every setback and tragedy, blaming me for my own misfortunes just as the Judeans blamed the Israelites for their devastation.

The Judeans comforted themselves by blaming the Israelites. Surely they were sinful and brought the disaster on themselves. Nothing like that could happen around here. We are God’s people. God is on our side. And there were plenty of prophets who agreed with them. But there were some prophets who said that Judah had their own issues with sin. And the surviving Israelites told the Judeans, just wait; your turn is coming. And to Hezekiah, this was more than an academic question; was God going to let Shalmaneser destroy Judah too?

Hezekiah prayed. He more than prayed, he gave God a piece of his mind. Hezekiah went to the house of God and literally laid his petition before God. You see the Assyrian military commander had presented Hezekiah with a letter detailing everything that he was going to do to him and his people, and naming all of the peoples and gods he had already come through to get to his front door. And as far as the commander was concerned, Hezekiah and his god was one more obstacle before dinner.

Hezekiah wanted God to see the disrespect of the Assyrian commander with God’s own eyes. Hezekiah took the letter dissing God and showed it to God: Look what they are saying about you! Look what they say they will do to your people. Look what they say they will do to your house. Look what they say they will do to the place where your name and your glory abide. Look at this mess! Every time they have sent somebody one of these letters, they have destroyed them and their gods – know I know there’s a big difference between you and their gods, but they don’t know you like I know you! Save us I pray, not for our sake alone – although we’d appreciate it. Show them who you are and whose we are.”

Hezekiah’s story has a happy ending, a miraculous ending. God heard his prayer and answered his prayer affirmatively. There was a rumor about an African monarch, Tirhaka, assaulting the Assyrians on another side. They left to face his formidable threat and never came back. They could have and should have turned back around and continued their siege. But they didn’t. There was no earthly reason for the Assyrians to refrain from attacking Judah. It was a miracle. Hezekiah gave God a piece of his mind and God listened to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah’s story isn’t the only story in the bible. He’s not the only person standing in the need of prayer. Some of you may be Hezekiah, come to church, say your prayers and everything works out all right. But me, I’m Job. Every once in a while God and I have issues. We need to work some stuff out. And like Job, if I knew where to find God, I’d give God a piece of my mind. It’s all right. God can handle it. God knows what I’m thinking anyway. I might as well get it off my chest. And who knows, God just might come to see about me. That’s what Job thought.

The book of Job is the story of a man who sues God. His name Iyov, means “enemy.” And it sure feels like God is his enemy. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, social security and Medicare rolled up in one. His slaves are people and he has made it his business to treat them as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of his children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – those precious lives have been destroyed in a fit of violence.

And God did nothing. God permitted it. And if Job knew what we know – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children to prove a point. But Job does know that God is and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right.

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. The basis of Job’s suit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his all of children to be butchered, him to be afflicted with a disfiguring disease and all of his possessions to be stolen or destroyed. He knows that none of this is his fault, no matter what the saints, aints and his fair-weather friends say. Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. He also knows that the prevailing theology of the day is that if bad things happen to you, it’s your own fault, you deserve whatever you get and you get whatever you deserve. But that’s not working for Job. Job knows that he is a good man. He knows that he does not deserve his misfortune and neither do his children. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Job 23 could be translated,

Job 23:3 Who will grant that I might know where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode? [And serve God a subpoena]

4 I would set my [legal] case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with [legal] arguments.

5 I might know what God would answer me, [under oath]

and understand what God would say to me [from the witness stand].

6 Would God counter-sue me in the greatness of God’s power?

Ah, no! God would make space for me [to have my day in court].

7 There an upright person could be found to be right with God [to be acquitted],

and I would be delivered for all time by my judge.

Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!”

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of your children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. Why is there evil in the world? Because God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, the satan – lower case, he has not yet evolved in biblical literature into the capital “S” embodiment of evil – God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?…” One of the biblical answers to the problem of suffering is that God did it.

The book of Job is in the bible to bear witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Ah, God. God is in the book of Job. God is behind the book of Job. God is underneath the book of Job. Belief in God in the face of the unbelievable and insurmountable pervades the book of Job. God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in God’s life. God changed Job.

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? I’m going to tell God. Women are being raped to death in Congo. Tell God. Children are being slaughtered with machetes in Darfur. Tell God all about it. The city of brother love and sisterly affection has been turned into Kill-a-delphia. Children and young folk who know better are running wild in the streets. Tell God. London is burning. Tell God. People who work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week are losing their homes through no fault of their own. Tell God all about it. There are people without running water and electricity in the United States of America. Children are starving to death while others throw food away. Tell God. Our country is going deeper into debt while the rich are getting richer and paying fewer taxes if they pay any at all. Tell God. Our president is under assault because of who he is and what he looks like. People are threatening his life. People are threatening his wife. People are even threatening their children. Tell God. It’s not always safe in the church for children or adults. Tell God all about it. Give God a piece of your mind.

If I knew where God was I’d sue. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right? Surely there is one who will take my case. I know that I have a living advocate to plead my cause. Somewhere there is a goel for me, a redeeming relative; some kin to help me save my skin. If I could just get God into court, I know I could get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but if I could just have my day in court, if I could just have my say, if I could just give God a piece of my mind, then I’d know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe. If I could just see God.

God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. God was hidden from Hezekiah by the veil between the holy place and the most holy place. God appeared to a virgin girl named Miriam, called Mary in the flesh and blood of her own body.  God appeared to prophets and kings, shepherds, philosophers and astrologers as a baby in the stench of a stable. God appeared to the people of Israel as a rabbi who couldn’t keep his more 5000-member congregation together. And God appeared to the world on a cross-shaped lynching tree. God appeared to the women, Mary and Salome and Johanna and the other Mary who were the apostles to the apostles. And I’m here to tell you that God still appears. Not in the body that walked the earth two thousand years ago – although I hear it’s making a comeback – but God appears in the bodies and lives and ministries of God’s servants. God is here. Right now. And in the presence of God, all of our brokenness is welcome, redeemed and transformed. Tell God all about it. And if you can’t say a mumbling word. That’s all right too.

In the Name of God, the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen


Joseph and Family Values

My commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 for WorkingPreacher.org.
The story of Joseph's reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.

His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They "settled" for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.

And now, in today's lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.

The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.

The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh's other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh's idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.

Today's lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.

Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel's father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.

Joseph's complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph's story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).

Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today's lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.

One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph "enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other." Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.

 


Elijah, You’re Fired!

My commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18 for WorkingPreacher.com.
Elijah has had a good run, literally and figuratively.

He has decimated Queen Jezebel's religious community by personally executing her four hundred prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:40. That he neither executed nor challenged her four hundred and fifty prophets of Asherah, (see verse 19ff), points to a broader acceptance of the Asherah tradition.

While the prophets uniformly condemn the worship of Baal, many are silent on the worship of Asherah regarded as complimentary to and not as competitive with the God of Israel. Isaiah only has two references to her, while Jeremiah and Micah have just one reference each. (Compare that to Jeremiah's ten references against Baal worship.) Hosea and Zephaniah both mention Baal worship, but not Asherah worship. The prophets who do not condemn the worship of Asherah at all include Ezekiel, who condemns the worship of other deities in the temple, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

As a result Elijah's actions, to mix metaphors, Jezebel has demanded Elijah's head on a platter. Elijah has fled to where he imagines he will be beyond Jezebel's grasp. He is safe for the moment, but he is anything but secure. God has provided him divine comfort and companionship along his journey and actual, edible food and potable water with supernatural benefits, (1 Kings 19:5-8). Elijah is sustained by his meal(s) for an unimaginably long time. ("Forty days and forty nights" is a euphemism for "a really long time." It is no more a mathematical formula than is "a month of Sundays.")

Passing through Beer-Sheba, as the crow flies, the Kishon wadi, (the site of the execution) is some 300 miles northwest of the mountain range home to the "mountain of God" called Sinai in some traditions and Horeb in this story. Traveling twenty miles or so a day (or night) and avoiding anyone who might have turned him in would have taken weeks — two at breakneck speed, likely more at his pace. Elijah's pace would also have been affected by whether or not he was mounted for all or part of the journey; the text suggests but does not specify that he was not. No mount is mentioned.

Sometime after Elijah falls asleep, God speaks to him, questioning him. What is he doing here? God is not always omniscient in the bible; that is a later theological claim. (God asks Adam, where he is and who told him he was naked and had he been eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis 2. In other places God knows what is in the human heart, see Genesis 6:5; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 44:21, etc.) As Elijah catches God up on recent events from his perspective, it is not immediately clear whether God's questions are informational or rhetorical. What Elijah does not say is that he is hiding from Jezebel or that he has come to seek God's help and protection.

God responds to Elijah's self-assessment with self-revelation. First God displayed historic and traditional signs of God's presence, a windstorm, an earthquake and fire (from heaven?). But God was not present among the usual suspects. Then there was a qol dammah daqah, a sound (or voice) of a fine silence. And that is where Elijah encountered God.

While Elijah encountered God-in-silence on a revered mountain, it strikes me that the setting was not necessary for the encounter. That was where Elijah was at the time. The divine appearance was not dependant on an indigenous feature, such as the bush that burned and was not consumed. Perhaps Elijah could have encountered God-in-silence at any point along his journey and even without taking a single step.

After his epiphany, God asks Elijah the same question that God asked him before. Now it is clear that this is a rhetorical question. Elijah gives essentially the same answer. His experience with God has not changed him. I think this is an important observation for contemporary readers and hearers of the scriptures who would like to imagine ourselves in the sacred stories. I know that I have thought how different my own faith story would have been had I been able to see, hear and experience what my spiritual ancestors saw, heard and experienced.

The story of Elijah says, not so fast. Elijah saw, heard and experienced God in fantastic ways. The power of God flowed through him to work miracles that were unequalled by anyone before him. Yet Elijah was essentially unchanged by this incredible encounter with God. And so God fired him, or at least announced his retirement. It is hard to know how Elijah heard the command to anoint another prophet to take his place in verse 16. It may have been quite troubling because the monarchs whom God was firing/retiring/replacing, Ben-Hadad of Aram and Ahab of Israel (who are not named in the text) were to be killed. There was no other retirement plan for kings.

God's last words to Elijah are that God does not need Elijah; God has untold thousands-upon-thousands (seven thousand is a figurative number) of faithful servants on whom God can depend. What is missing from the assigned lesson is Elijah's response. He accepts his assignment from God, knowing that his time as God's prophet is drawing to an end, not knowing what that end will be.

Elijah faithfully calls Elisha whom God has designated as his successor in the verses following the lesson. Hazael will assassinate Ben-Hadad in 2 Kings 8:15 and succeed him; it is not clear if Elijah (or Elisha) ever actually anointed him. And Elisha will complete Elijah's work and anoint Jehu in 2 Kings 9. (Ahab dies in battle, 1 Kings 22:20ff.) And along the way, God reveals a spectacular retirement plan for Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11, towards which Elijah journeys faithfully, not knowing the outcome.

 


A Bruising Blessing

My commentary on Genesis 32:22-31 from WorkingPreacher.com
In Genesis 32, Jacob and his family have finally left the homestead of his father-in-law Laban who is responsible for much of Jacob's present circumstances:

Laban had deceived him into marrying sisters, Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves whom he dutifully impregnated upon command. (For estimates of the total number of children fathered by Jacob see Genesis 46:15 and 46:26.) Laban is also responsible for Jacob's wealth, indirectly, he agreed to give Jacob all of his spotted and speckled livestock not knowing that Jacob would use magical means to multiply them while suppressing the fertility of the solidly colored stock (Genesis 30:32ff).

As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau reported to him by their mother Rebekah was that Esau intended to kill for taking his birthright. (See Genesis 27:41-45.) First Jacob sends word to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favor in his brother's sight in Genesis 32:3-5. The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified, he prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands by setting aside a significant portion of his holdings and sending them ahead as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21).

All of this happens before our lesson begins. It is with a very real fear that Esau will kill him for taking his birthright that we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31. He has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his riders — without him in verse 23. (NB: there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and English verse numbers; I am using the English versification in the NRSV.)

Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. A person or personage he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. There is a pun in verse 24: the verb "wrestle" has the same letters as a word for dust, (abaq, in Exodus 9:9; Deuteronomy 28:24; Is 5:24, etc.). Jacob gave as good as he got. There was a stalemate. And then, the person did something to Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. Because the same verb means "touch," "strike," or "plague," it is not clear if it was a great violent blow or a gentle touch with more-than-human strength and/or abilities behind it.

Jacob the Heel whose name in Hebrew, (Yaaqov), is a reminder that he came into this world with his chubby baby fist wrapped around his brother's heel, (aqev), now finds his own heels under assault. He can no longer balance on them quite so easily. His injury and its imposition are revelatory. Jacob knows he wrestles with one whose blessing matters. The one with whom he wrestles knows that even wounded Jacob is tenacious. The mysterious wrestler reveals a concern for the coming dawn. Is the wrestler concerned about what the sunlight will reveal? Does it matter whether or not Jacob can see his assailant's face? The wrestler demands freedom.

Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob has decided that he will not let go of the wrestler whose power he knows is more than his own and, the wrestler who wounds with a touch has neither destroyed nor rejected him. He may just get his blessings if he holds on long enough. The wrestler asks Jacob's name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, "Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel."

Then the wrestler grants him with a new name: "God-wrestler — Israel." Once again Jacob asks the name of the wrestler. Once again the wrestler refuses to answer. Now the wrestler (formally) blesses him in the text. In the literary context of the scriptures, the blessing would have been spoken. Yet the whole struggling, questioning, name-changing encounter can be read as a blessing, albeit a bruising one.

The reader, like Jacob, seeks to unfold the mystery of the wrestler whose departure before the dawn breaks is not described. There are tantalizing hints with which the reader must wrestle: The text says "a person/a man" in verse 24 and the wrestler tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God in verse 28 to which Jacob assents in verse 30. Jacob says that he saw God "face to face" in verse 30. Was he granted a glimpse of the wrestler's face in the pre-dawn light in the space between verses 29 and 30, between the blessing and the parting?

By following these clues and assembling them into a coherent picture the reader like Jacob comes to the conclusion that the wrestler is God. The injunction of Exodus 33:19, that "no one can see God and live" is either unknown or non-binding to the authors and editors of this text. God appears on earth (sometimes disguised as a messenger called "the angel of the Lord" in many translations who speaks as God in the first person and perhaps as Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18ff) frequently in Genesis. See Genesis 3:8; 11:5; 16:10-13; 17:1; 18:1; Genesis 26:2, 24. In the rest of the Torah, God will hide from the people in smoke and fire, but God will later appear to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5 and 9:2.

In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away from site of his transformation. He will never be the same again. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.

 


Love Triangle: Leah, Rachel and Jacob

My commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 from WorkingPreacher.com.
This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother's brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).

Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob's grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob's aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents' requirements.

In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father's flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah's son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac's son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah's mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.

In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob's perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel's or Leah's lives or experience of those years. Rachel's feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as "loving" anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even "love" in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.

This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother's marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban's claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?

Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah's eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah's circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate "knowing."

Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban's deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob's time and attentions.

This story demonstrates that "love is not enough." Even if Jacob's love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.

In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah's eyes.

Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.