Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for May, 2014

Evolution of Hell

Apocalyptic DesktopBy request, repost of 2008 blog (now defunct) on literary evolution of Hell in the bible:

In the synoptic Gospels, Hell is usually described as a realm of fire, a place that seemingly judges and punishes at the same time, (Matthew 5:22, 29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). The most commonly used word for “hell” in the scriptures is the Aramaic word “Gehenna” that passed directly into Greek. Gehenna literally means “Valley of Hinnom” (In Hebrew, “Geh Hinnom”). The Valley of Hinnom was originally a piece of the Promised Land, a lowland (now to the southeast of Jerusalem’s Old City), given to the Hinnom family after whom it was named (Joshua 15:8 and 18:16).

In light of passages that speak of the judgment upon Israel’s enemies in a valley near Jerusalem (Isaiah 30:29–33; 66:24; Joel 3:2, 12, 14) and the worship of Molech in the Valley of Hinnom, the valley became known as a fiery place of judgment. Gehenna was both a place of eschatological judgment in the environs of Jerusalem and an otherworldly place of judgment for the wicked.

So, how does a piece of the Promised Land become hell on earth, “where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”? (Mark 9:48) The short answer is that we did it. Human beings transformed God’s good creation into hell. Let me say now that I am not concerned with the issue as to whether or not hell exists, or will exist, in a metaphysical sense. I am exploring the evolution of hell as a literary metaphor in the bible. It helps me to make sense of what I see as current manifestations of hell on earth in Darfur and Congo [originally in 2008. Today I think of all the placed trafficked women and girls are being abused, especially Chad and Nigeria].

Jeremiah (7:31) tells us that people burned their children alive in the Valley of Hinnom – the first mention of fire associated with the infamous valley. Even Judean kings, Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:3) and Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:6), immolated their children there. Human beings committed atrocities against the most vulnerable among us. Women and men murdered children, their own children.

In the rest of the scriptures and intertestamental literature – Judith, 2 Esdras, Enoch and the Gospels – Gehenna, hell, is a by-word. The biblical writers use Gehenna/hell the way many used place-names like Auschwitz, Beirut, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Rwanda years ago, and the way in which some invoke Darfur and Congo contemporarily.

A concept of the afterlife was developed during the Hellenistic Period, including the notion of a fiery judgment (1 Enoch 10:13; 48:8–10; 100:7–9; 108:4–7; Judith 16:17; 2 Baruch 85:13), a judgment usually in a fiery lake or abyss (1 Enoch 18:9–16; 90:24–27; 103:7–8; 2 Enoch 40:12; 2 Baruch 59:5–12; and in Qumran, in the Thanksgiving Scroll, 1QH 3). The Valley of Hinnom, often referred to simply as “the accursed valley” or “abyss,” eventually came to represent the place of eschatological judgment of the wicked by fire (1 Enoch 26–27; 54:1–6; 56:1–4; 90:24–27).

By at least the 1st century C.E. Gehenna was understood metaphorically as the place of judgment by fire for all wicked everywhere (Sibylline Oracles 1.100–103; 2.283–312). The judgment of the wicked occurred either as a casting of their soul in Gehenna immediately upon death or as a casting of the reunited body and soul into Gehenna after the resurrection and last judgment (2 Esdras 7:26–38/4 Ezra 7:26–38; Ascent of Isaiah 4:14–18; Sibylline Oracles 4.179–91). This key understanding separated Gehenna from its geographical location, but retained its fiery nature. Gehenna had become hell as we know it.

The biblical, literary, trajectory of the Valley of Hinnom from a piece of the Promised Land to a place of perpetual punishment is instructive. It offers the possibility that Hell is not a preordained construct created by God, but a human construction. The Hinnom Valley was created along with all other dry ground, and its vegetation sprouted on the third day of creation with the rest of earth, and presumably, it too was ‘good’ (Genesis 1:10-13). It was given to the Hinnom family as part of the divine promise. (No mention was made of previous inhabitants.) And some five hundred years later, monarchs burned their children alive in acts they understood as religious devotion. It is likely that unknown numbers of unknown Israelites and Canaanites also sacrificed their children there, and sent their children to a hell of their own making, but the chronicles of Israel are not the chronicles of ordinary folk, so we do not know their stories.

In rabbinic thought, as early as the 1st century, Gehenna was understood as both an intermediate place of punishment for the souls of the wicked between death and resurrection to final judgment, and as the place of final judgment for the reunited body and soul of the wicked (Midrash Tehillim 31.3). According to this reasoning, most Jews would be spared Gehenna completely, and most of those who do enter it in the intermediate state would be released from it, with the exception of historic reprobates, adulterers, or those who shame or vilify others (b. Rosh HaShannah 16b–17a). It was a fiery purgatory for those Jews whose merits and transgressions balanced one another (t. Sanhedrin 13.3) who would afterward be admitted to Paradise. Often the punishment of Gehenna was restricted to 12 months (m. {Eduyyoth 2.10; S. {Olam Rab. 3; b. Qiddushin 31b). However, the punishment for Gentiles in Gehenna was eternal. The epithet “child of Gehenna” is used in the Talmud (b Rosh HaShannah 17b) as it is in Matthew 23:15.

It occurs to me, that we as human beings have not finished making hell. In the decades and centuries to come, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Darfur and Congo may well replace Gehenna in public discourse as designations for hell; in many ways, they already have. And I suggest, that the gates of Jerusalem may be understood as the very gates of hell. For just as the ancient walls of Jerusalem opened to the Valley of Hinnom, so too does the new wall (a.k.a. ‘security barrier’) dividing Israelis and Palestinians circumscribe not just the geographicalGeh Hinnom/Gehenna, but also a living hell for both the Palestinian and Israeli people –living today in the same small land whose geography, culture and theology once gave birth to Christian notions of hell.

The burning children of Canaan, ancient and contemporary Israel, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Darfur, Congoand Palestine are calling us who stand outside the fires of hell to do “tikkun olam,” the rabbinic expression for “repairing the world,” and usher in the reign of God.

In the Lukan Gospel (17:21), Jesus says, “in fact, the dominion of God is among you.” I believe that the inverse is also true; the dominion of hell is among us. If it is true that human evil ushered hell into this world, does it not lie within us to transform the most hellish places on earth into arable valleys and suburbs?

Lastly, I want to comment on my use of “we” and “us.” I don’t think that anyone reading this column perpetrated atrocities in any of the places that I have named. But I do believe that we as human beings are responsible for each other: we are our sisters’ keeper and we are our brothers’ keeper. It is not enough for us to proclaim that our hands are clean of the blood – and ashes – of the innocent. This world is given into our care. Now, what are we going to do about it?


When Mother is the Hardest Word

Mother of Sorrows

My ancestors passed down this lament:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless chile,
A long way from home.

Sometimes mother is the hardest word.
Sometimes mother is a curse word ~
not the object of a profane expression, but the subject.

For some the pain of Mother’s Day is unbearable:

Those who have lost children
Those who have lost beloved mothers
Those who have been left unexpectedly to become single mothers
Those who have been forced into motherhood
Those who have been raped into motherhood
Those for whom mother was abuser
Those who long for motherhood denied by an uncooperative or betraying body or by lack of a partner and possibility.

Many will weep on Mother’s Day.
Few of those tears will be joyful.
Some are long past tears.

Mother’s Day with its crass commercialization and virtual sanctification may yet be redeemed, if we use it to reflect on the state of mothers, mothering and motherhood in the world.

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many women and girls die in childbirth around the world including in these United States?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many infants are born dead because of maternal hunger, lack of or access to health care?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many mothers have lost daughters and sons to trafficking?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many girls and women are raped into motherhood as regular and recurring tactics of warfare?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many girl-children, some as young as eight, are sold, bartered and traded into marriage with grown men, often as old as their fathers and grandfathers?

On this Mother’s Day, do you know how many women are forced to bring unwanted pregnancies to term because of the cultural, religious and political values of men and sometimes women who control their sexuality and fertility?

On this Mother’s Day I am reminded of the risk inherent in being a girl or woman on display in particular ways in parts of the world that seem distant but are connected to me by ties of blood and faith and humanity.

For all of those women who have chosen motherhood and mothered the children of their hearts and wombs and streets and those they have embraced from near and far with or without papers, I give thanks.

For all of the men who have loved and nurtured with exquisite tenderness in the absence of any other mothering, I give thanks.

With all the motherless children, and for those for whom it would have been better to be motherless, I weep.

And for the daughters of Nigeria and all other trafficked girls and the mothers who are fighting for their return, I pray and I work.

The American Mother’s Day industry seems willfully and uncaringly blind to the lives, struggles and deaths of most of the world’s mothers and their children. Perhaps now you understand why I cannot say “Happy Mother’s Day” to anyone and have not been able to do so for a very long time.


A Lamentation For Our Daughters

This is a wailing; and it shall be wailed.
The women of the world shall wail it.
Over Nubia and all its nations they shall wail it,
says the SOVEREIGN God.
Ezekiel 32:16

My Lament

My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are raped.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are sold.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are bartered.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are stolen.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are illiterate.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are unemployed.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who don’t have health care.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who can’t feed their children.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are did not consent to their marriages.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who were the child brides of adult men.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who live in a world, culture or society that treats them as less than human.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who did not choose their motherhood.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are going hungry.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are selling themselves.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who hate their own bodies.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who are dying of HIV/AIDS.
My eyes grieve continually for the souls of all the daughters who were killed by someone who should have loved them.

Some days that’s all I know how to do.


Who Gives This Woman? Patriarchal Marriage

For many, marriage is a sacrament or a covenant given by God, an institution that is rooted in love and gives rise to more love through the interweaving of families and sometimes the nurture of children. For many of my conversation partners in the past three weeks, the notion that trafficked girls could be sold into marriage was incomprehensible. Some of my work in the past three weeks has been to go back to biblical texts that call for, permit, assume and regulate the abduction and rape of girls and women into marriage. I have done this work not to proclaim these rape marriages as normative or even consistent with my understanding of God but to expose the deep and ancient roots of the erasure of the humanity of women and to identify those sentiments in holy Scripture.

Abduction marriages represent the most extreme form of patriarchal marriage. But they are not its sole expression. Whenever marriage is recognized without the consent of the woman or, when the bride is not even a woman but a child, that is also patriarchal marriage. The marriage of little girls, whether pubescent or prepubescent, is patriarchal. Structures in cultures in which a man, usually a father, gives his daughter to another man are patriarchal. The language “who gives this woman to be married?” Is a continuing remnant of patriarchal marriage that is part of many civil and religious ceremonies.

Patriarchy is not confined to antiquity, to texts with their origin in antiquity, “other” religions, cultures or foreign places. Patriarchy, like racism, undergirds our culture.


Trafficked into Marriage

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Today black women in the United States and perhaps some of our allies are wearing geles, traditional West African head wraps like those worn in Nigeria to call attention to the hundreds of our daughters, kidnapped and sold like the Israelite daughters at Shiloh more than three thousand years ago. Some folk still have not figured out that women and girls are neither property nor breeding stock. I often refer to that kind of thinking as Iron Age theology. In truth, all Iron Age theology is not so heinous. There are powerful, vibrant transformative religious communities in the world, including this one because of Iron Age theology. The Torah which we study offers some of the best and worst of the theology of our ancestors.

Among the worst is the reduction of girls and women to salable objects. There is renewed focus on the trafficking of women and girls (and boys and men) in sex-service industries. But as the world was horribly reminded on the 16th of April, girls have been stolen and sold into marriage for thousands of years. This story is particularly heinous to me as the descendant of trafficked peoples. The mothers of my people, were raped and bred like cattle.

To my horror as a Christian, my own scriptures commend the abduction and rape of women and girls as war booty. Nothing has caused me to wrestle with God, scripture and my understanding of the authority of scripture than the sanctioned abuse and marginalization of women in the scripture. My recent post on rape marriage in the scriptures in light of the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schools girls can be found here at Religion Dispatches.

In 2oo8 I wrote about the problematic notion of biblical marriage, polygamy, rape and incest being overlooked to invoke biblical authority on heterosexual unions to the exclusion of all others without acknowledging the reality of all forms of marriage acceptable according to the text:

Rape-marriage was a socially acceptable conjugal union in the worldview of the authors and editors of the biblical text and endures to this day in some parts of the world. While there are less vicious forms of biblical marriage, the construct cannot be invoked without sanctifying the abduction and rape of teen and pre-teen girls.

The ongoing abduction of girls and women in Ethiopia in Christian and Muslim communities and the abduction of as many as 70,000 women and girls by Hindu and Muslim communities during the partition of Pakistan from India that this on-going savagery transcends time, culture, and scripture. And there are accounts of Buddist citizens of Burma/Myanmar and Hmong Vietnamese in the U.S. abducting brides according to their ancestral traditions.

Today, there are contemporary prophetic voices crying out against the continued deployment of biblical marriage as normative social and religious construct. Challenging religious leaders or would-be religious leaders about what kinds of unions are divinely sanctioned, even biblical, is dangerous subversive work. They may call you names, they may even invoke the name of God, but your name will be written in the book of life and will never be forgotten.

It is well past time for all of us to raise our voices.

Will you use all of your resources to bring pressure to bear on our government and the Nigerian government to pursue and rescue the nearly 300 abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and to provide safe haven for them if and when they are rescued?