Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Torah of the Earth

Ecowomanism by Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris

It is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected… 2 Esdras 8:50

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Western discourses of wisdom often situate wisdom in the head and identify it with maleness, intentionally in opposition to femaleness. Yet in spite of crushing waves of Hellenism colonizing Israel and its scriptures and, the near deification of Greek philosophy and its philosophers, the scriptures of Israel and, those of the Jewish Jesus movement and early church, are an Eastern canon. There, wisdom is not a matter of the head but, of heart and hand.

Consider Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and, with all your might. When Jesus taught it, he had to add the category of “mind” to make it contemporary and relevant in a world in conversation with those philosophers. He said: You shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and, with all your might. (Mark 12:30) Today he might say You shall love the Holy One your God with all your DNA and your quarks and quirks, your baryons, mesons, hadrons and protons – depending on the scientific literacy of his audience.

More than head knowledge, Hebrew wisdom is heart knowledge, the kind of knowledge one gets from study and contemplation, not as an academic exercise, but as a lifepath to seek and study the One who reveals herself that she might be found, studied, apprehended, comprehended. In Hebrew, wisdom, hokhmah, and understanding, binah, rhyme with torah; they are each grammatically feminine and each used as synonyms for the other. The way to wisdom is to study and learn torah – God’s revelation, God’s teaching and only perhaps thirdly “law” which is an insufficient translation on its own. Such study produces a wise heart, in the world of the scriptures a wise heart is one that is motivated to act in accordance with God’s revelation to and through her prophets, to and through her word and words, and to and through her world and its wonders.

We would do well to regain the notion of the heart as the seat of the soul, consciousness, wisdom and, volition. To stop thinking we can think our way out of the brokenness, disfunction and inequities of the world. We need wise and discerning hearts nurtured on God’s revelation of her vision for the world and for us. A wise heart is an understanding heart and a willing heart. It is more than euphemistically connected to a sage and skilled hand.

One of the most overlooked aspects of wisdom in the world of the scriptures was its skill component. To be wise of hand – an artisan like those who crafted the tabernacle and temple – is every bit as valued in the world of the text as setting one’s heart to torah. This too we need to regain, to see the wisdom of the sculptor’s hands on par with the scientist’s hypothesis. To see the knitter and the painter and the tinkerer as we see musicians whose handicraft we already value well. Wisdom’s well is wide and deep.

It is with these understandings that I invite your attention to Baruch, Jeremiah’s partner in ministry and ultimately in life, sharing his conquest by Babylon, then later, his abduction to Egypt, disappearing in and from the text along with Jeremiah. The setting of our reading is the immediate aftermath of the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and, the temple. The people who were left, a mere fraction of the nation itself a fraction of once united Israel, barely survived a blood drenched invasion and conquest. Those who were able were force marched past the unburied dead, the weak, the infirm, the aged, the pregnant, infants, small children – anyone who would hinder them – brutally dispatched or simply abandoned. The poor and unskilled left behind to eke out a harvest from the blood-soaked soil and scorched earth to feed the insatiable empire while those with wisdom and skill had their hearts and hands brought into the service of the empire to embellish and declare their glory.

The conditions under which the people lived were brutal, inhumane. An earlier chapter tells of cannibalism. Reckoned a prophet in Judaism, Baruch’s writings differ from others who promised miraculous deliverance like that of Miriam and Moses at the Red Sea. Baruch like Jeremiah has a different response, a pastoral response, prepare to stay. Bow the head, bend the neck, and bend your shoulders and knees, even in the presence of their gods, just say in your heart, “It is you O God whom we serve.” (Letter of Jeremiah vv 3-6) The wisdom of Baruch is a survival strategy for life under occupation and subjugation. Wisdom’s well is practical.

In the portion of Baruch set aside for our hearing today the prose of his prayers for his people gives way to the poetry of preaching as he calls his people back to the ways of wisdom, ways he saw neglected as Israel’s own tiny would-be empire spiraled out of control. He calls them to the study of the torah of the earth. Torah is all that God reveals and by extension, all that reveals God, the work of her heart and hands, She Who Is Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Ages, the Wisdom of the Worlds, worlds her hands have made, in wisdom, with wisdom, by wisdom. Baruch (3:14-18) calls us to:

14 Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding,
so that you may at that moment know
where there is length of days and life,
where there is light for the eyes and peace.
15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

Baruch’s questions are designed to remind his audience that might doesn’t make right, that the trappings of the empire are fool’s gold. Baruch speaks of a wisdom that is accessible to an occupied and oppressed people, an understanding that there is length of days and life and, light for the eyes and peace in the midst of the depredations and degradations of war. Those treasures are not located in the power and predations of the empire but in the heart of the wise; a wisdom not dependent on rolls of scrolls piled up in the libraries of the rich. Rather, a storehouse of treasures long left abandoned by those who seek only power and control of everything from the birds of the heavens to the fish of the sea and every one and every nation in between. Baruch knows that empires fall and tyrants topple. So he directs his people to that which does not change, the revelation of God in the world.

The heavens and the earth are God’s torah, God’s revelation, God’s teaching. They show us God in the world when she might be hard to see in our circumstances, a God in the world who is bigger, greater, grander than any gold-plated tyrant. The splendor of the skies puts to shame the trappings of tyrants. The chorus of the clouds silences the braying of battle hymns. The trumpets of thunder shame the hootings of the horns of war. The migration and susurration of the birds of heaven overshadow the mechanical maneuverings of military marches. Even as the empire grinds his people under, Baruch denies them their power and their legacy.

We who read the scriptures of Israel in our time must ask ourselves where we might find ourselves in them. Where their characters, editors and authors might place us once they get over their shock at an entire new set of continents on the other side of a world that is not quite flat. This nation is more conqueror than conquered. Its citizens as much a part of this empire as those who chart its course, benefitting from stolen land, plundered labor, ill-gotten gains, blood-soaked privilege built on a white supremacist foundation. And at the same time some of us enjoy the diminishing privileges of citizenship which can be nullified by legalized militias and a contemporary version of slave patrols executing us in the streets or our very homes for having been made monstrous by them for having been made in blackly radiant image of God.

Who are you in Baruch’s story? Are you being ripped from your land – a land to which Israel had at best a contested claim – or are you enjoying the fruits of a land that is not yours? If you found your very humanity denied by the empire that commodifies your life can you look beyond the temporality of their works to behold and study the torah of the earth?

Baruch’s reflection on wisdom and call to her embrace with heart and hand occurs in a context where common wisdom might say surrender. But he knows there is a wisdom in the revelation of God in all of her texts, wind and wing, sea and sky, mountain and meadow. Using my sanctified imagination in the preaching tradition of my people I imagine Baruch in conversation with Job.

16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who wield dominion over the animals on earth?
17 Those who toy with the birds of the air,
and who hoard silver and gold
in which people put their trust [where are they]?
There is no end to their getting.
18 [Where are] those who schemed to get silver and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works?

And I hear Job say in response:

Job 12:7 Now then, ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will expound to you.

Written in a completely different context, Job’s words send us to the torah of the earth for her wisdom. Indeed, the very words for teaching in this text are the word torah in verb form. There is a wisdom in the earth that many have neglected along with her care. But Baruch and Job remind us that earth and her creatures are a sacred scroll. Were we to listen more closely to the wisdom and torah of the earth, we might seek to mend rather than master, for empires devastate flora and fauna as much as they do flesh.

There is one other model of wisdom that I wish to leave with you, wisdom as the mother of the living and enduring word that is Jesus. Jesus of God, Jesus of Mary, Jesus of the Holy Spirit, Jesus of Wisdom. When folk questioned the wisdom of Jesus hanging with those who feasted and partied and drank and got drunk and sold their bodies and were abused, and were disdained, his response was nevertheless – in other words, yes, all that is true – yet nevertheless Wisdom is vindicated by her children. (Luke 7:35) For, a wisdom that does not speak to the despised is no wisdom at all.

Jesus, the one of wisdom calls us to those who are being ground down by the ravages of imperial violence, to the powerless, to those who survive when they cannot thrive and thrive in what they should not survive, for there too is wisdom. Jesus who also preached from the torah of the earth stands with those relegated to oppression, subjugation and, degradation. What we do to others we do to him. And for those of us who find ourselves more colonized than colonizer, Jesus is with us and what they do to us they do to him. We are accompanied and surrounded by wisdom, within and without.

The wisdom of God is all around us, including under our very feet. And when God completes the redemption of the world and all her creatures, she will redeem and renew the earth herself. The wisdom of the earth, the torah of the earth, is the richness and wideness of God’s love for each soul, each life, each plant, each critter, each clod of dirt, a love that in expressed in her great gifts to us from creation to Christ. Amen.

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