Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for March, 2014

Noah in Genesis, Enoch & White Imagination

Using sources in Genesis, the books of Enoch – which are scriptural in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – and his own interpretive imagination, Darren Aronofsky has given the world a new vision of the Noah story. His vision is eclipsed by its blinding whiteness, (see my take on his white savior saving a world full of white people and repopulating it in his image here, and picture of Eve’s hand above). Some will care that the movie deviates from the biblical narrative:

  • Noah is not 600 and his sons are not 100. Noah is 500 when he fathers his sons (all at the same time? in the same year? Perhaps with different women) in Gen 5:32; Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.
  • The sons of God or godlings, semi-divine God-like beings who come down from heaven to mate with human women in Gen 6:1-4 as the last straw before God floods the world do not do so in the movie. Their Enochic counterparts, the Watchers fall from heaven to earth, become encased in soil and rock and become walking, talking piles of rock with glowing, explosive inner cores.
  • The Watchers supply the bulk of the manual labor to build the ark.
  • Noah’s sons are not all adult, married men when they enter the ark (Gen 7:7). The lack of wives for the boy on the cusp of manhood and the much younger boy-child are plot devices.
  • When Noah gets drunk and is discovered and covered by his sons he does not curse his grandson Canaan – he doesn’t exist in the movie.) I went to see the movie in part to see how he would handle this portion because this text known as the curse of Ham, Canaan’s father, is deeply implicated in the American slave trade.)

What he adds to the story is truly fascinating. I discuss that in the company of other scholars on floodofnoah.com.


Black Like Me: Erased from the Noah Movie

I pay attention to the peopling of the world in the vision filmmakers. I want to know if there are people like me in their worlds, people of African descent, people of color. In Darren Aronofsky’s vision of Noah and his world I do not exist. People like me do not exist. Black, brown and beige people do not exist even though the story is the story of the destruction and re-peopling of the whole Earth. Noah and his family and all of his ancestors and even all the lost, dying, drowning people are white people. Adam and Eve glow with the light of innocence in their white skins. Ham, the ancestor of African peoples – at least according to the biblical text –has white skin and as a little boy, dark blue eyes. And that matters to me as a biblical scholar and seminary professor and, as a person of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, whose enslavement was justified in part on readings of the Scriptures that emerge from ancient Israel because these texts are also my scriptures.

As an origin story, the story of Noah and his sons and their descendants purports to tell the story of human diversity, many peoples of differing ethnicities descended from a single family, a common ancestor. There is an evolutionary equivalent. However on this planet, the first humans were African, all others derivative. Without other genetic material, the offspring of black and brown people can be lighter than their parents, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Expecting an origin story, even a mythological one, to make some sense and correspond in some way to the world from which it emerges is not confusing scripture with science. While they are not incompatible, they are not the same. As a biblical scholar I want to remind readers and viewers that Genesis is a collection of sacred stories in the larger collection of Israel’s sacred stories including ancestral, origin and cosmological stories. Those texts and their stories were neither scientific methodologies – how to make a world in seven easy days if you don’t define a day as the earth’s 24 hour rotation because they thought the earth was flat and… – nor are they historical archives.

As a seminary professor I ask my students how the text is true. These mythological lifespans do not correspond with what we know about human beings, the archaeological or scientific record. They did not correspond to what the Israelites knew about their flat-earth world either. (The prelude to the Noah story in Genesis chapters 6-9 says that Noah is 500 years old when he fathers his sons. Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.) As origin stories the stories in Genesis preserved the cultural heritage of the people who would become Israelites, heritage that converged with and diverged from other ancient near eastern peoples with their own impossibly long-lived ancestors and their own flood stories.

The movie is an interpretation of the biblical narrative as are all readings, whether on film or not – including those that claim to be literal readings. As such, the movie is a midrash, in the tradition of classical Jewish exegesis. One aspect of midrash is filling in the spaces in the stories. We all do that to some degree. Putting the text on the screen requires filling out the story. Darren Aronofsky’s choices create a new interpretation of the story and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. That is the work of meaning making. And we all do it. For those fixated on the truth of the text, proving or disapproving the existence of Noah, the flood or God, I can’t help you. I’m not arguing either case. Nor, I think, is the movie. (Aronofsky speaks about his vision of the film here.) It is telling a story, a story of Noah, based of the biblical text.

The reduction of truth to literally true or not at all is a contemporary notion, like limiting biblical interpretation to literal readings (except maybe for parables). The truth is the biblical text uses a variety of genres, rhetoric and literary devices to communicate the truths of its messages (plural) through the lenses of its original speakers, writers, editors and those who preserved it. Beyond that, religious readers see the hand of God at work in differing ways. Some understand the text to have been dictated and copied unerringly and find their favorite English translation to be an exact rendering. Others find the hand – better breath – of God at work in each phase of the process including among those who hear, read and interpret as much as with those who spoke, remembered, repeated, recorded and translated.

The truth of the text is not in or limited to its literal reading even on the cases where the text is literally true. As a Christian the paradigm that helps me understand the richness and complexity of the text is the nature of Jesus, human and divine. The text is human and divine. The text is not, cannot be, more divine than Jesus. And like Jesus, the human parts cannot be easily listed as separate and distinct from the divine parts. To say that Jesus’ physical hunger was exclusively human is to reify the old dualism in which the body and all of its processes are somehow lower and lesser than the spirit and its processes. God becoming human, embodied, enfleshed, sanctifies our humanity, including our human bodies.

My black, woman’s body is a human body but it is not represented in Darren Aronofsky’s movie. No one in the whole wide world that he has created is black like me.

My review of the movie’s content in relation to the content of the books of Genesis and Enoch is available here.


Shalom Miryam, Hail Mary

A miracle happened today. We will see it in nine months on Christmas Day. In reflection an Annunciation sermon (from 2004).

[On this day when people are arguing for the right to prevent women from accessing health services under the rubric of birth control (and abortion) because of their own religious biases, I am mindful that God does not share their fear of women’s bodies, in spite of what they say in Her name.]

For many centuries most European countries took 25 March, not 1 January, as the day when the number of the year changed, so that 24 March 1203 was followed by 25 March 1204. If you had asked a Christian of that time why the calendar year changed so oddly in the middle a month, she might have said: “This is the beginning of a new year in the Christian era, which began a thousand years ago today when God was made human, when God took upon Godself a carnal body and human nature in the womb of the Virgin.”
I like to imagine that Mary was praying the scriptures. Perhaps she was praying Psalm 46 which describes:
4 …the holy tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:
God will help her, when the morning dawns…
8 Come, behold the works of the Holy One…
10 Be still, and know that I am God!…
11 The Sovereign-Commander of celestial armies is with us; the God of Jacob
[and Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah] is our refuge.
Perhaps she prayed the prophet Zephanyah, Zephaniah, chapter 3:
15 …The Sovereign of the Heavens and Earth,
is in your midst daughter;
you shall fear disaster no more daughter…
16 Fear not daughter, O daughter of Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak daughter.
17 The Ever-Present One, your God, is in your midst daughter,
a warrior who gives victory;
Who will rejoice over you with gladness daughter,
and will renew you in love daughter;
Who will exult over you daughter with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you daughter,
so that you will not bear reproach for this daughter.
I imagine that since Miryam did not suffer from our masculinist translations, that she would remember those texts with all of their girl-God-talk to the Daughter of Zion. She too was God’s daughter. And God sent God’s messenger to this daughter of Zion.
The angel said, “Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. If as a member of an oral, aural culture Miryam recognized those words, she might not have felt well at all. The old Benjaminite householder in Judges 19 greeted the wife of the traveling Levite with those very words: Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. That night he stood by as her husband forced her out of the house and into the clutching grasp of the men who raped and murdered her, leaving her to die on the doorstep of the man who greeted her with peace.
These words were also put to the Shunnamite woman on Elisha’s behalf in question form: Is it shalom to you woman? Is it shalom to your husband woman? Is it shalom to your child woman? She said ‘It is shalom.’ But her child was dead. Yet her child would live again. But how often could that happen? No wonder Miryam was deeply troubled by Gavri’el’s, Gabriel’s, words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Then Miryam was greeted with a ‘Fear-not.’ (The standard greeting in angelic discourse.) Once upon a time, to the woman who received the first angelic annunciation there was “Fear not Hagar…” More recently there was “Fear not, Zecharyah, Zechariah,: for your prayer has been heard; and your wife Elisheva, Elisabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will name him Yochanon, John.” There would be “Fear not Yosef (Joseph) ben David, take Miryam as your wife…” “Fear not, shepherds. Look! I am bringing you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people.” And one day there would be to her again, this time with her sister-friends: “Fear not women: for I know that you seek Yeshua, Jesus, who was crucified…”
The word of the divine messenger was ‘fear not’ because God is with you. Already. Before the spirit of God transubstantiates the flesh and blood of your womb into the body and blood of the Messiah. God is with you now, in your ordinary-extraordinary first century, Iron Age life. In the midst of the Roman occupation, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Samaria, God is with you. During the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. While God is breathing life into the dead womb of Elisheva, God is with you. Here. Now.
The word of the divine messenger was not that God would be Immanu-El, with all of us, but that God was with her. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. When the fabric of space and time collapse into the secret spaces of her body, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if her spouse were to drag her down to the temple by her hair so her cousin could intone the malediction of the sotach – the woman suspected of adultery, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if she were forced to drink the bitter waters of cursing, cursing her body and its secret places – she whose own name meant bitter-water-woman. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.
Because God had been with her, was with her and continues to be with her, God is with us also. Immanu-El. As we continue our Lenten and annual liturgical journeys, let us reflect on the expansion of Immanu-El within us. I would like to invite you to grow with God in a Marion year.
On Palm Sunday, feel the neonatal Gospel quickening deep within you. During Pesach, Passover, including Good Friday and Easter, imagine nibbling on matzah to quell burgeoning waves of nausea as morning sickness comes morning or noon or night or all of the above. On Pentecost as faithful Jews celebrate the First Fruits hear Elisheva’s benediction “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” ‘Your first fruit.’  Imagine Ordinary Time transformed into Extraordinary Time as Miryam’s womb, now the Ark of Throbbing Promises expanded to encompass the ineffable. Imagine Advent waiting to see what on earth, what under the heavens he will look like. Will he have 10 fingers and 10 toes? Imagine Christmas as Frances Croake Frank envisions it:
‘Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?’
The fusion of divinity and humanity in the dark softness of womb-space has forever changed both of us. God’s knowledge of being human is experiential. Our experience of God-being is being human. The Incarnation provides a glimpse of God’s anthropology: It is just possible that human beings are capable of nurturing and protecting the most precious gift ever conceived. There is hope for us.
In this Women’s History Month, the Incarnation also provides a glimpse of God’s gynecology: Women, our bodies and their possibilities, our intimate relationships, our family ties, our calls and our confessions are God-space.
But in our world, women are the poorest people on the planet – their children are often poorer, but regularly shorter-lived. Women and girls are the most frequent victims of physical violence and sexual abuse. Palestinian women give birth to dying babies at Israeli checkpoints. Iraqi women and girls are more likely to be kidnapped if venturing outside of their homes after Operation Iraqi Freedom than before it. More women in the Armed Forces of the United States haven been raped by their comrades-in-arms than by the designated enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait – where there are presumably only allies. Professional sex-workers serve as recruiting sub-contractors for colleges and universities with billion-dollar endowments. A father murders his daughters and their children, some of whom are also his children. A prison guard reports of the two weeks she was held hostage by inmates “Fortunately the sexual assaults didn’t happen very often.” The broken body of girl-child is stuffed behind a toilet in a library whose shelves offer story of the Annunciation and Incarnation.
Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. God is with you. In your brokenness, in your fullness, God is with you. How can this be? The power of the Holy Spirit, She covers you, She enfolds you, She transforms you inside and out, and She is transforming the world through you – one man at a time.
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design
Amen.

 


Women of the Word: Women Prophets

2014 Susan Draper White Lectures at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN. The talk is based on my book Daughters of Miriam and previews the approach in my forthcoming book Womanist Midrash.

 


Having A Holy, Cranky, Lent

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection…I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word…

I usually take the invitation to the observance of Lent in the Book of Common Prayer as an adjuration to have a holy Lent and bear it with me through the season. I don’t know if I shall have a holy Lent this season. I am too busy having a cranky Lent and we are barely 15 hours into it.

It started in the last couple of weeks when folk on social media started talking about what they would do. Some made reference to those post a picture a day for Lent projects and my skin just crawled. I suffered through them last year and tried to figure out how many folk I would have to block or mute this year. Apparently I had a somewhat cranky Lent last year too.

Then I saw all of those “Ashes2Go” pictures today and I got grumpier. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea – and practice – of offering ashes to those who cannot come to church in the morning. We are dependent on each other’s labor and I honor those who work hours that I have the privilege to avoid. It was all the posts of folk doing that ministry that rubbed me the wrong way.

Now let me be clear, I am not judging anyone, individual or church. The title of the post is about me having a cranky Lent not anyone else having an inappropriate Lent. I am doing the work of self-reflection and have discerned that I am cranky. Perhaps it is because I have wrestled mightily in my soul and with my spiritual director about what I do and don’t do for Lent, what works, at what I feel like a failure, what brings grace and freedom. I do know about myself that my practices need to be private at this phase in my life – it was not always so and need not be so for anyone else.

Confronted with everyone else’s notion of what is a holy Lent I am tempted to compare and second guess and perhaps compete. I’m also aware that I am doing the work of self-examination, one way respond to the gracious invitation (or solemn adjuration) to have a holy Lent. Looking at my inner crankiness is holy work, holy, cranky, work. I am having a holy Lent. A holy, (wholly) cranky Lent.

And now, having blogged about it, I think I’ll tweet and Facebook my post because I didn’t give up social media for Lent. But before I do, I will pray the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday collect:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…

No matter how cranky I am, God loves me. Amen.