Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It’s one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It is an entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit – She! – was the Father.
I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I’d like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It’s also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn’t lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam’s crazy [@$$] story – and let’s not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense – even if he believed her, his family and his boys wouldn’t. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with a girl that played him so badly, so publicly.
Yo doesn’t get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn’t need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.
To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn’t touch her, for a while – a long while. I can’t believe that he didn’t feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.
Although he is absent from the Epiphany story. Where was he? Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (The perverse interpretation of the scriptures denies them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality is blasphemy.)
But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.
Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was arrested; Yo wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was executed; Joseph wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn’t there.
José didn’t come back when people started saying that her son – not his – had risen from the grave. Joseph didn’t gather in Yerushalyim to see if her son – not his – would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he hadheard from God in his dreams.
The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph’s absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus’ life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?
But if he left, left God’s son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?
I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, “Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know.”
Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.
St. Joseph’s disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God’s family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God’s behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world by her [d@mn] self. And we learn that children from single-parent homes may be a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God’s gifts and graces.
St. Joseph, I’m not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I’m just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
God has filled the hungry with good things,
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
The Magnificat properly belongs at the Visitation, traditionally 31 May – an unspecified amount of time after the Annunciation, observed on 25 March (often in Lent, occasionally on Good Friday) – In those days Miryam, Mary, set out… Luke 1:39. It is “repeated” in Advent, though many missed it earlier.
*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)
Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.
I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?
Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.
Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.
South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)
Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.
Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:
It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:
לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק
שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח
Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq
shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach
A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.
The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?
The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.) “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, the kohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.
The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:
The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.
Bringing us back to today’s parsha, Bereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as Germani: Everywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.
Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.
Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.
My questions are about identity:
Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?
Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?
So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?
Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.
From Isaiah: Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. From Matthew: The Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.
Let us pray: Brukhah at Yah HaShekhinah eloheteinu Malkat HaOlam she’astah nisim le’imoteynu vela’avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh. Blessed are You Holy One our God, Sovereign of Eternity, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this season. V’imru, let us say: Amen.
I began with one of the traditional prayers of Hanukkah because Hanukkah like Advent is a season of light. Light infuses and perfuses our sacred stories, from the moment of creation to the moment of redemption and every saving moment in between. Holy light lights our way on all our journeys and our lessons today are full of those journeys, full of comings and goings:
Longed for days shall come. Peoples from all nations shall go to Mt. Sinai, whether that is their ancestral mountain or not. Torah, God’s revelation, teaching, instruction and law, all of these and more, comes from Mt. Zion as the presence of God from the new Sinai to all the world. The word of God comes from Jerusalem just as the first torah came from Sinai. All peoples will go from Mt. Zion walking in the light of God. In the Psalm the tribes dispersed in Isaiah’s time shall reunite and return to Jerusalem, to the temple destroyed once between Isaiah and the gospel and destroyed again between the gospel and epistle. And, the gospel ends dramatically promising the coming of the Son of Woman.
The Son of Woman. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth is and was the Son of Woman. That’s the part of the story everyone agrees on. It’s that bit about his daddy that is a matter of faith or controversy. Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child is a child of anthropological human flesh, woman-born, mortal according to the Greek term (huios tou anthrōpou) poorly translated “son of man.” Using the corresponding Hebrew term, (ben adam) God called Ezekiel “earth-child” to remind him of his mortality. In Daniel the Hebrew boys Hannaiah, Mishael and Azariah, who folk insist on calling by their slave names Shadrach, Meshach and Aved-Nego saw divine deliverance in human form and said this one too was somehow a child of earth, (using the Aramaic bar enosh). And Jesus took the title for himself as a woman-born, mortal child of earth and as one who held the power of God in a human form. I know some folk still prefer the old “son of man” translation – even though the Greek anthropos means more “human” than “man” but I can’t get past the truth of Sojourner Truth:
Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
Our wait for the return of this the Son of Woman makes the whole of existence from the Ascension to the present moment one long season of Advent. We are waiting. And while we are waiting, we have work to do and journeys to undertake. The world like our lessons is full comings and goings, especially in this season. Advent is the season of the comings of Christ, first as miracle, next in majesty. And we seem to travel more to mark his coming than at any other time. Folk are coming and going by planes, trains, automobiles and Mega and Bolt buses. If we’re not leaving town we are coming and going to work and malls and the grocery store. Even if we’re not camped out for Black Friday, maybe we’re running in a Turkey Trot or dashing off to get more batteries or a few more presents – and are we out of cereal again? And, most of us are working, coming and going from a full – or almost full – time job, perhaps then to a part time one or two. We’re taking children to school and volunteering, others are coming and going to job fairs, employment centers, job interviews. Some are going back and forth to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the bedside of a loved one. And folk are coming and going to see us, if they can catch us at home or in our office, if we can spare a minute to greet a co-worker, look her in the eye, smile at him and just say hello. Maybe ask how are you and mean it, and wait for an answer. We are busy. And as far as the places we are too busy to go to or are too far away, we send electronic extensions of ourselves, text messages and and emails, coming and going. And did I mention church? Services and rehearsals and committee meetings and decorating parties and, and, and…
We are busy, coming and going. But where are we going as a people? As church? As the Church? As a congregation? As a nation? As humanity? Where are we going and why? Who is leading us? Who are we following? With whom are we walking, keeping company on our way? What are the sights and sounds of our journey? What are our traveling songs? What shall we do when we get there? To us, running on cosmic treadmills in every direction but seemingly going nowhere, Isaiah says, Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God.
How is it that an Iron Age Israelite prophet speaks across time and space and place to us? We Christians are quick to claim these texts as ours, forgetting that they are at best shared texts and that we were late to the party. We forget that we were adopted into a large family of beloved children and we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. But there is another way that these ancient texts speak to us and everyone else whether you believe in Jesus, celebrate his first Advent while waiting for his next or not, whether these are holy days to you or a daze of frenzied holiday consumption – food, drink and consumerism. Isaiah speaks of and to all the nations. All. And that is good news.
In Isaiah’s world there was good reason to look inward, to think only of yourself, to claim God was your god and loved or cared for no one else other than your people. Isaiah lived through the greatest catastrophe of his people in their existence until that time, the fall of the northern monarchy. The division between the two monarchies and even war between them did not break the ties that bind. They were together the tribes and people of Israel; they worshipped the same God, sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in the old sanctuaries. They married each other and traded with each other and sometimes joined together to fight off common enemies – when they were not fighting each other. They were one people in two nations. And then the Assyrians came.
The Assyrians swept across West Asia gobbling up nations and peoples. They were vicious: parading the heads and body parts of the dead on spears, peeling the skin off their victims, piercing the lips of their captives and attaching leashes to them. When they invaded the northern monarchy, there is no reason to think they changed their ways. The biblical authors won’t say how bad it was but nine and a half tribes of Israel simply ceased to exist. Of those who survived the Assyrians, nearly thirty thousand were deported and survivors of other Assyrian conquests were imported to work the fields. The poorest Israelite survivors and the conquered peoples in the former capital city, Samaria, merged and became the Samaritans. Their descendants were reviled as non-Jews because of the differences between Samaritan Judaism and Judean Judaism and because of their multiethnic heritage.
Isaiah would have witnessed all of this and had no reason to talk about the love of God for all peoples, including the Assyrians, except… He had a vision from God. He saw a new world. A world in which the violent and the vicious will walk with those they have victimized, but not as victors. Isaiah saw a vision of peoples coming and going in peace, every bit as unimaginable as prophesying an end to the Syrian civil war – the Syrians are the descendants of the Assyrians and the ancient empire included what is now Iraq and Iran. Even the psalmist seems to think we can pray for the peace of Jerusalem and make a difference. What are we to make of these impossible visions that have now become our visions because these scriptures have become our scriptures?
One day, things will be different. One day, folk on this planet will no longer be seemingly perpetually at each other’s throats. One day a rocky hill, too short to be a mountain if you’ve seen the Rockies, Adirondacks or Alps, but a mountain if you live in a desert land – one day that mountain and it’s God will draw folk, all kinds of folk to a new world characterized by the justice of God founded on the word and words of God. One day. Isaiah doesn’t tell us when but assures us it’s coming.
Isaiah saw all the world turning to his God, his temple, his mountain. His is a stunning ecumenical and interfaith vision. He sees a joyful liturgy of procession to the God he proclaims as inviting, welcoming and transforming. It’s a beautiful vision but let’s reality-check Isaiah: Can we see it? A free Palestine? Israel at peace with the Arab nations. Jerusalem open to all who love her? Peace in and between Iran and Iraq and other nations? An end to anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and Europe? An end to every kind of religious oppression? An end to all violence, all war, everywhere? See the vision, don’t just hear it, see it:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Can we see it? Do we believe it? Do we believe God can, God will, change the world? Again and again if necessary? Isaiah and Micah, one of them quoting the other or perhaps both of them quoting another prophet: one day there will be no more war, ever. Against all the evidence around him Isaiah prophesied and I believe he believed, even though he wouldn’t see it in his day, even though there has been no end to war since his day. Truth is things got so bad one day that the prophet Joel saw another vision turning this vision and its prophecy upside down and inside out, reversing the word and words of God to and through Isaiah and Micah:
Joel 3:9 Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war, stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Yet the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah endures. The days are coming. Christ is coming. We are waiting. Someone once asked me why I bothered praying for peace when the world was full of violent and vicious thugs from street corners to presidential palaces. My response was:
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.
Isaiah envisioned this new world in spite of the world he lived in. The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to this new world nearly eight hundred years later. The coming of Jesus, his life, his teaching, his example, his love, his compassion, his power, his suffering, his death and his resurrection lay the foundation for this new world. And we, we are to build upon it. Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. We have work to do. We have love to give. We have people to feed, clothe, house and for whom to care. We have children to nourish and nurture. We have lonely elders to comfort and offer the gift of our company and companionship. We have estranged relatives to reconcile. We have broken systems to renew, repair and restore. We have peace treaties to negotiate. We have plagues and diseases to cure and heal. We have a planet to tend and heal. We have a gospel to preach and the same gospel to live. We have prayers and praise to raise, offerings to offer and gifts to give. We have neighbors and strangers to welcome.
Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. Amen.