Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said [this one thing]…but I say unto you [this other thing].” Y’all, Jesus is changing the bible! Not that there was a bible in his day or later when the gospels were being written, but there were scriptures: loose, separate scrolls, a very few with more than one book on them, and not necessarily all the books we have today. Plus they were reading some books as scripture that are not even in our Episcopal bible—which already has more books in it than Protestant bibles. Today’s lessons demonstrate that in more ways than one, Jesus’s understanding of scripture is different than ours and it just might be worth our while to figure out how so.
For example, it does not appear that Jesus took the bible literally, at least not all the time. Very Episcopalian of him. He doesn’t understand himself to be limited to or constrained by the words on the page. Jesus’s basic understanding of scripture here is that the scriptures are flexible and open to reinterpretation. He treats the scriptures as a living word to be read and interpreted anew. And he’s not alone in that. Heaven knows Paul and those writing in his name did the same thing, but that is an entirely different sermon. Sometimes I think the church has become so fixed on the words of scripture that we have lost sight of the models of if biblical interpretation in them.
Sometimes Jesus says something entirely contradictory to the text. Mostly he seems to be making it harder to do the right thing and some of what he says just seems flat out impossible. In the passages he reinterprets in our gospel today, Jesus accepts the basic meaning but recrafts them to say surprisingly more than they previously said. Jesus takes biblical interpretation to a whole other level.
Jesus quotes the commandment: ‘You shall not murder’ and then quotes something that is not in the bible with the authority of scripture: ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ What the Torah says was the same in his time as in ours: Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. No need for judgment, the sentence was already established. Taking it further, Jesus adds to the text: But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…
He does it again and again:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…
These are some serious upgrades. What on earth is Jesus doing? I have an idea about that.
Jesus is teaching us how to read and interpret the scriptures.
Jesus is our example in all things. He is out teacher, our rabbi. We are to do what he did to the best of our ability. In this case, that means we are to wrestle with scripture, wrestle with the meaning, and when necessary, wrestle a blessing out of it, which means wrestling with those bruising passages that have been used to hurt us and so many others. That includes some of today’s lesson, verses of which have been used to keep folk in unsafe marriages, or ostracize other marriages, even in church.
It is tempting to say that these verses mean what Jesus said they mean for all time. But I believe that would miss the point of Jesus’s lesson here. Jesus is showing us, not just telling us—he understands pedagogy—Jesus is showing is that the scriptures are to be interpreted and reinterpreted in the context of their readers and hearers. His context wasn’t the same as what was already “in ancient times” by his time. And our context is not the same as his. In order to interpret the text, you have to know it. That means we’ve got to wade deeply into it and sometimes wrestle with it.
The bible is a complex text, actually it is a series of complex texts and it requires multiple reading strategies. Jesus calls us into a deep and mature faith and a deep and thoughtful relationship with the scriptures.
Again, Jesus is our exemplar. Jesus knew scripture. They were his scriptures and the scriptures of his people. They were in his language. He knew the inside jokes and cultural customs. Yes, Jesus embodied scripture, but don’t get hung up on him being the Son of God. For a moment, focus on the parts of Jesus’ life and example that we can emulate. Let’s not use his divinity as an excuse not to delve deeply into scripture. Jesus, Jesus, studied scripture. He taught scripture. And we are to be like him.
We need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures. Not just the ones we like, or the lectionary, but even the ones we don’t like or understand. Jesus doesn’t change scripture willy-nilly. His reinterpretations get to the heart of the text and go deeper. In all honesty he makes it harder.
Most of us can say I’ve never murdered anyone. But who on this earth has never been angry, never insulted anyone? That’s not possible. Jesus knows that. His revision of the text is not literal. But wait! What about murder? Shouldn’t we take that bit literally? Yes. But he’s mixing literal and non-literal readings. We can’t do that. Yes we can. He did and so can we.
The scriptures need to be interpreted and reinterpreted, continually. What’s more, we are to do the same thing, read and reread, interpret and reinterpret the scriptures in light of our context which is not the same as his, just as the first century wasn’t the same as the Middle Bronze Age in which so much of the bible is set.
So what about what Jesus says in the gospel? What are we to do with that? We are not to imagine that because we are not axe murderers that we are above reproach. Jesus is calling us to think seriously about more than what we do, but also about what we say and how we even think about other people. Whether in a killing rage or a shouting match, if we dehumanize another person and devalue their life in any way God will hold us accountable. Whether you understand the lake of fire to be a rhetorical device or an eternal destination, Jesus is trying to get our attention.
It matters how we treat people. It matters how we speak to them or about them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what religion they follow, what language they speak, whether they have documentation or not, who they love, or how their bodies are shaped or function.
He’s also saying that sin, moral and ethical failures are not about crossing a particular sharply etched line in the sand. When he speaks of marriage and adultery here he’s saying that an affair doesn’t have to be physical to be a violation. He’s also saying that the ties of marriage run deep, are and should be difficult to break and can linger even when one party marries another.
He’s calling people to integrity, to honor vows and commitments, to not make a vow you can’t keep and keep the vows you make. And, if you say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, you won’t have to make elaborate promises or take extravagant oaths.
What happens when follow Jesus’s example and reinterpret his words in our time? If we take seriously Jesus’s model of biblical interpretation, we might say, “You have heard that it was said, whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire. But I say unto you your words matter. But the intent behind them matters more. Your words reveal whether you truly love your neighbor as yourself and recognize them as your sisters and brothers, as children of God.”
Not bad. But one of my students interprets the gospel this way:
You have heard that it was said, “Do not call black people the n-word” and whoever discriminates based on race shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you stay silent in the wake of violence against black bodies, you will be liable to judgment; and if you suggest that the black men and women had it coming, you will be liable to their families; and if you say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, you will be liable to the hell of fire.
The same God who holds us as accountable for angry and ugly words as for lethal violence is calling us into the scriptures and into deeper relationship with God and each other. God is calling us to love one another deeply and faithfully, in word and deed. We are the children of God who is love. Let us live and love like it. Amen.
Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:
2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)
These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.
[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet this] Black women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.
And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.
That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet this] We said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.
We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.
Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet this] Those founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet this] And for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.
In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.
Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.
The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.
Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.
God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.
David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.
[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.
To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. It’s good to be king and I will be the mother of kings.”
I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies – four of them – in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.
In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.
Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet this] David and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.
Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.
[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.
As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.
It was my pleasure to be interviewed for Rachel Held Evans’ Ask A… series. Please visit her site for the conversation.
…So Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding… they read from the scroll, from the Teaching of God, making it plain. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
This morning, on your Scholarship Sunday our topic is bible study in the bible. And if this bible study on bible study in the bible had a title, it would be Making It Plain. Let us pray: Open our eyes, so that we may behold wondrous things out of your word. Amen.
On this Scholarship Sunday, my goal is to make it plain. That is one of the heart scriptures of womanists. A womanist is a sister who has the good sense who know who she is in God, to know that God made her in God’s good image, who values the radiant blackness of her creation [click to tweet] and community and sees them at the center of God’s love. A womanist is a feminist – yes, she believes women and men are equally created in the image of God and equally called to serve. A womanist loves herself, loves her folk including the brothers, and has a special love for her sisters without reservation, desperately needed in these days the world continues to teach is that a womanist’s work is never done.
The extravagance of violence against women that has erupted far beyond its normal catastrophic levels this week and this month makes it plain that the work of womanizes, along with those who love and care for us, partner us, live with us and are raising the next generation of womanizes with or without us, is not done and will not be done until girls and women can walk down the street in safety, learn to read and write and raise themselves and their people out of poverty without being kidnapped, sold, raped into marriage and forcibly impregnated, wear anything they want and say no to sex without being beaten or raped and say yes to sex without being slut-shamed, [tweet this] raped later on or treated like they are anything but a child of God. A womanist’s work is never done.
And now that Mother Maya has gone to her rest we must not let her work go unfinished. There are too many little girls whose bodies are broken into by grown men [tweet quote], too many women selling their bodies to make ends meet – often not even their own ends but those of the men and women who profit off of them, too many beautiful black girls and women told that their blackness is not beautiful, too many caged birds who have lost their song for us to do anything but cherish every human child of God [tweet!] and raise our voices when anyone threatens any one. Mother Maya: Our feet cannot fit your shoes. But you did not call us to your work but to our own. Our feet fit our shoes. We walk with your memory guiding us as we too do the work.
Now I know that not all women are womanists or even feminists and, the women in scripture didn’t necessarily look at the world the way we do, so I’m not going to say they were womanists. I’m just going to suggest they had some womanist ways. And perhaps some of you do too. And brothers, while there is no small amount of academic debate on the topic of whether a brother can be a womanist or not, there is no doubt that our brother allies are partners on the journey, supported and supporting. We’re making it plain this morning.
That’s what our lesson is about, making it plain. The scripture says Ezra brought the Teaching of God, the scriptures before the assembly, both women and men. Now some of you will see the word “Law,” when you read this in your own bibles. But that’s not a complete translation because the word of God includes more than Law. The word torah comes from a root that means everything God rains down on the earth from revelation to rain. Torah includes story and song, judgment and law, prayer and praise and all for our edification, our study. So I follow the tradition of the rabbis and translate Torah as “Teaching.” Making it plain for those who think the Torah or even the First Testament is just about rules. I often say there is torah in the Torah but not all Torah is torah. But on the other hand the entire scripture is considered to be torah.
Now that we’ve sorted that out, let us return to the torah, the teaching, of Ezra. Ezra is set in the Iron Age and it was the expectation that women and men participate together fully in the study of the word in the Iron Age. (Somebody needs to tell the Hampton Ministers Conference that they ought to be at least as inclusive as our ancestors were at this moment in time the Iron Age.) That’s what I mean by they had womanist ways – sometimes – in ancient Israel. Other times their Iron Age ways were best left back in the Iron Age.
Our scripture lesson also says, women and men and all who could hear with understanding. Now let me tell you as a biblical scholar, the Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of childhood. Most of the verses you know about parents and children are actually speaking to adult children because households were multigenerational and there is no small amount of conflict when there are multiple sets of grown folks under the same roof. I think it’s a blessing that the bible understand that not everybody can live with mama and ‘em without some difficulty, sometimes. But in this case, when the word of God is being shared in the beloved community, children are welcome and intentionally included. Any child who was mature enough to attend to the scriptures was welcome. There was no age of maturity specified because children mature at different ages. Children are part of the household of God and God has a word for them. [tweet]
Think about this: if the grown women and grown men and growing-up and half-grown girls and boys were there, where do you think the babies, toddlers and young children who didn’t know what all was going on were? A womanist’s work is never done. It was the Iron Age and the work of nurturing baby Bellas fell primarily on mamas. The sisters were nursing and carrying babies, wrasslin’ and wrangling toddlers, all while studying the word. I have no doubt that at least some of the menfolk shared in parenting. They were all there together, everyone but the sick and shut in and incarcerated.
This passage is making it plain that all of us women and men and all who can hear with understanding are called to the study of the word, to wade in the waters of the word. It’s not just for pastors and seminarians and biblical scholars. All of us are called to the study of the word, not just in private, but together, in community. And the little ones ought to be about underfoot so that they can grow up and into the word as a regular and familiar part of life.
But Ezra’s bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the congregation where the pastor or designated teacher teaches or preaches, or everybody reads a verse and says what it means to them. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the classroom where masters and doctoral students study the word in its original words: Hebrew words, Aramaic words, Greek words, a couple of Persian words, Egyptian words. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to where you find only a fraction of the saints in study you see on Sunday morning in bible study on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night – though I don’t imagine anybody at St. Paul’s knows what I’m talking about.
In addition to involving nearly everybody and their mama, this bible study differs from the bible studies I see most often in that it was a long service. I mean a long service; it lasted from first light until midday. That’s about six hours. (I don’t plan to be before you that long, but I might be here a minute.) They read the bible in Hebrew. I like that. But the people didn’t understand Hebrew anymore. So the clergy, the Levites, who did understand Hebrew came down off the bema, the pulpit, went out among the people and translated the scriptures into Aramaic, the language people spoke and understood. But translating the scriptures into the people’s language wasn’t enough, so interpreted it, they gave the sense, in other words, they made it plain. The clergy went down, among the people and talked to them, one on one or in small groups. They waded in the waters of the word together.
You see, the teaching team was prepared; they were trained in the word in its original words and able to translate it into the people’s languages: Foreign languages, common language, slang language, street language, hip-hop language, play language, country language, city language, old school language, children’s language, ethical language, philosophical language, black church language, sadiddy language, grandmother’s language. Hebrew literate and Hebrew illiterate, clergy and lay, we are all called to be biblical scholars and wade in the waters of the word. [tweet!]
I’d love it if you all studied Hebrew – or even Greek. But that’s not necessarily what the text is teaching us. I don’t know how Ezra’s clergy staff was educated, but I do know they were able to translate and interpret the scriptures, making it plain because they were trained to do so and their community supported their training. On this Scholarship Sunday someone here has a call to prepare to make it plain and wade in the waters of the word at a different depth. Someone here has a call to support a seminarian or a doctoral student or a seminary or institution of higher education. Virtually all of the universities in the West were built by church folk. Black church folk built some of the finest colleges and universities, seminaries, medical and law schools in the world. [tweet!] And some of us were blessed to be their beneficiaries.
The last point about this Bible study that I want us to take note of today is that this bible study was not in the sanctuary or even a private home, it was in the street. It was worship without walls. I love a beautiful sanctuary. I love church architecture. I love a gorgeous cathedral brushing the outskirts of heaven with its spires. But I don’t need walls to worship. Sometimes we get so attached to the walls we lose sight of the work. The story of Israel is a reminder that the walls will not always be there. Walls can fall, walls can crumble, walls can be broken down. Enemy forces can break through walls and saboteurs can undermine and weaken walls, leaving them vulnerable to attack. And some folk worship their walls.
Let me tell you the story of the walls of Jerusalem. From the Stone Age, more than 1000 years before Abraham, more than 3500 years before Jesus, more than five thousand, five hundred and fourteen years before you and me here today, the City of Peace, Ir Shalom, Yerushalayim, has been encircled by walls from before from the time Hebrew was written in picture form like hieroglyphics. And from those days until the present day the walls of Jerusalem have been built and torn down, rebuilt and broken through, rebuilt and bombed, rebuilt and remain a center of conflict. [tweet this]
When David and his troops captured Jerusalem and built new walls, the city was more than 2500 years old. I’m sure it seemed like those walls would always be there. The walls of Jerusalem grew with the city as it grew across the ages: 12 acres when David got there, 15 by the time he died, Solomon built to 32 acres and God moved into its walls. God dwelled within the walls of Jerusalem. Surely those walls wound never fall. The psalmist was sure they were invincible: Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. The united monarchy crumbled in the hands of Solomon’s son but the walls held. Who could ever imagine the walls of Zion, Jerusalem, falling or failing?
In Hezekiah’s time as the city and its walls expanded to 125 acres, that theory was put to the test. The Assyrians were boiling across the land to crush Egypt and Israel and Judah were in their path. They swarmed Israel and the twelve tribes were no more. All that was left was Judah and a little piece of Benjamin with some Simeonites in their midst. They sent Hezekiah a letter telling him what they would do once they broke through the walls of Jerusalem and his folk begged them to stop speaking in a language the people could understand to avoid a full fledged panic because they knew that all of Israel to the north had been shipped off and put to work share cropping for the Assyrians. (The languages were reversed then, the people understood Hebrew but not Aramaic. In Ezra’s time they understood Aramaic but not Hebrew. Preachers, teachers and scholars are you keeping up with what the people are speaking? One day your expensive seminary education will be out of date and what are you going to do then? [tweet!] Scholarship Sunday is for you too. Never stop learning, never stop studying.)
The walls in Israel north of Judah hadn’t protected them. Hezekiah also knew that the Assyrians were vicious. They would skin folk alive, cut them in pieces and put bodies and parts on poles around the cities they ran to keep folk in line. Hezekiah took that Assyrian letter and spread it out before God inside the walls of Jerusalem and the walls held. Not only did they hold, but the Assyrians turned around without slinging so much as a stone and never came back. It was a miracle. Historians and scholars to this day cannot explain why the Assyrians broke off and never returned. Hezekiah and his people were sure. God’s house was within those walls. God was within those walls. And God held the walls of Jerusalem in safety.
But let me make it plain for your this morning. Ezra and his people were worshipping outside the walls because no wall on earth will stand forever. Some time after Hezekiah went to his grave, Nebuchadnezzar came. And the walls held again. The Babylonians were picking up where the Assyrians left off. They were going to rule the world. They were going to go to and through Egypt and Judah was a speed bump on their way. But then the walls began to fall. The king of Judah held onto his throne and what was left of his walls by bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar. Then Nebuchadnezzar got distracted and Judah asked Egypt to help save its walls. Some folk are so invested in the walls that they will do anything to preserve them, no matter what it costs. Somebody in Judah was willing to go back to the land of slavery if it would help them hang onto those walls a little while longer.
Sometimes people change. Sometimes they really do. But Egypt hadn’t become Israel’s deliverer. I don’t know if they set them up, but I do know that they didn’t come through with the back up. Egypt stayed within their walls, Judah rebelled against Babylon and got caught up with no back up and Nebuchadnezzar came back to the walls of Jerusalem. And the walls held again. But this was no divine deliverance. There was no need for Nebuchadnezzar to break down the walls of Jerusalem, this time. The king opened the gates and surrendered. He didn’t just surrender himself. He surrendered er’body, including mama ‘n ‘em: he surrendered his army, he surrendered his officers, he surrendered his servants, he surrendered his palace officials and he surrendered his mother, the Queen Mother. By the way, marrying a king didn’t make you a queen in the Judean system but giving birth to one did. (That’s another bible study.)
We’re talking about the story of the walls of Jerusalem. We’re talking about the people gathered to hear and study the word of God in the book of Ezra outside of the temple complex where they would regularly have had services. We are talking about what the bible teaches us about bible study: That you have to go deep in the text, that you have to go through more than one text to understand what is happening in the text you are studying. We are making it plain this morning.
In Ezra the community was in an open square on the east side of the city by the Water Gate. If you’re going to do good bible study you have to know geography. [tweet!] They were south of the temple and its layers of walls and gates. They were out in the open with no defensive walls, no sanctuary walls. They understood that they could no longer rely on the walls of Jerusalem to protect them because of what happened when Nebuchadnezzar came back the second time.
Their walls fell. The city walls fell. The palace walls fell. The temple walls fell. They were defenseless. They were defeated. They were decimated. They were deported. They were for all intents and purposes enslaved again. They couldn’t go home or anywhere else. They could be forced to serve as soldiers or farmers, have their children taken, their religion forbidden. Exile doesn’t do it justice.
The walls didn’t just fall, they were demolished. Psalm 74 describes the Babylonians destroying the temple:
Psalm 74:4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground…
The walls of Jerusalem were demolished. The folk certainly didn’t have any walls in captivity. But they had the word. They had the spoken word. When the Babylonians said that their god, Marduk was king and tore down Jerusalem’s walls, the Israelites said and wrote, In the beginning God… Then they had the written word. The Israelites had begun writing down the stories their ancestors and prophets told them about God before the devastation, but in exile they kicked it into high gear. The truth is, it’s easier to find ourselves in the word when the world is against us. [tweet that]
The exiled Israelites waded in the waters of the word here in their worship outside the walls. They read the word and heard the word, taught the word and interpreted the word. This community of reconstituted exiles didn’t just wade in the waters of the word, they waded into the deep waters of the word and stayed there awhile. At one level, this is a text about bible study. At other levels it’s about so such more. As Ezra and the clergy staff helped the people get past superficial understandings of the scriptures, they offer us a model for our own scripture study. My charge to you as you go forward in your biblical scholarship, whatever form it takes is to make it plain, remembering a womanist’s work is never done, worship beyond the walls and wade in the waters of the word. Amen.
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.
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.
“Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Jewish and Christian Scripture and, Chair of the Biblical Area at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: You’re fired.” Let us pray. (Click here for sermon audio.)
Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has chosen faithful prophets to speak words of truth. Blessed are you, Faithful One, for the revelation of Torah, for your servants Miriam and Moses, for your people Israel and for prophets of truth and righteousness. Amen.
Jer 31:33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Holy One of Sinai: I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One of Old; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer. Gafney translation
God has given me notice. And Fr. Shaw too. Every priest, pastor and professor of religion, rabbis and rabbits too – rabbis-in-training, have been informed that our service will no longer be required. One day. One day, things will be different. The world will be different. Folk will be different. Folk will act like they have sense because they will have sense; uncommon sense will be common sense because we all will have it. God will put it in us. All of us who are born into or adopted into Israel – that’s where we come in – God will put God’s Torah in our midst (again) and in our hearts. We will know everything we need to know about everything. If I were preaching this sermon in the seminary there might be a rash of book burning and class cancelling. Who needs seminary or synagogue or bible study or church if God is going to zap us with all knowledge? Who needs the Christian life if God is just going to… “Poof!” and make it all better. Why, I might as well sit down and wait… [I left the pulpit and sat down for a while waiting for God to zap me.]
Hindsight is 20/20. We are some two thousand, four hundred years from the time of Jeremiah and have figured a few things out reading the stories of our spiritual ancestors’ wait for God. And that’s why we have the scriptures, the scriptures that Paul writes to Timothy are: God-breathed and beneficial for teaching truth from error, for correction, for correcting faults and for instruction in righteousness (which is justice). You do know that Paul and Timothy were reading the OT, right? The Only Testament.
Have you ever heard people talking about the bible like there’s an old covenant that is no longer valid and a new covenant that supersedes and replaces it? That’s not how God works. That’s why we as a church read, teach, preach and pray all of the scriptures. We pray the Ten Commandments in Lent because we know they are still binding on us and a worthy and appropriate place to begin our season of self-reflection and penance. We even may do so in Advent, our little Lent as well, for when we reflect on the gift of Jesus, the Word of God – the Torah of God – made flesh, we don’t throw out any of the covenants or promises that led to him, that he still teaches, preaches and prays through the Holy Spirit.
Think about that the next time someone says we don’t need the Old Testament, that’s the old covenant, God has given us a new covenant in Christ Jesus. Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant and it’s not in the back of our pews. That new covenant is a new beginning in an old relationship. It is God’s active, guiding, accompanying, leading presence on our journey but we haven’t arrived yet. We are not yet where we shall be but we are on our way. We are also not where we were. We have moved forward. And we are still on our journey.
You see God plays the long game. The revelation of God is ongoing. It is not “Zap!” or “Poof!” Jeremiah speaks of a new or perhaps better, another covenant, but the truth is there were more than two. God made a covenant with Noah and his wife and their children and their families. God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai and their children for all time. God made a covenant with the children of Israel in the wilderness; the tablets with the Ten Commandments were the notarized copy. God made a covenant with David. Through prophets like Isaiah and his disciples, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, God made new and renewed covenants with Israel and the earth and even its wild animals so that the lion would be contractually obligated to one day lie down with the lamb.
We Gentiles are also creatures of earth and God’s spirit, beneficiaries of and partners with God. Jesus brought us into the family. The child presented his friends – even his faithless friends to his parent and said they’re part of the family now, ‘kay? And God adopted us because of Jesus. We are heirs to the covenants but must never forget that we are here by grace. And we should be grateful that each of these covenants built on the one before without breaking a single promise, without canceling, nullifying of rejecting the previous covenant because God is trustworthy. God is faithful and just. So we can trust God not to abandon or reject of because God has never abandoned or rejected God’s people – even when holding them at a distance for a while – God has always returned and pursued God’s people like a broken-hearted lover.
For with each covenant God reveals and gives God’s heart, God’s self. That is what Torah is, the heart of God. To say Torah is just Law is to strip it of all its color, texture, detail and fragrance. Torah is most simply the revelation of God. It is all and everything God reveals – teaching, instruction, revelation and yes, law, are all appropriate translations; no single one encompasses all that is Torah. Some of what God reveals is law, but God also reveals relationship and riddles, story and song, genealogy and generosity. Even the first five books of the bible called capital-T Torah have more than law in them. God reveals Godself in the words and Word of Torah. That is why the Torah scroll is the holiest object in Judaism; one that human hands are not fit to touch directly.
So the new covenant and Torah God promises through Jeremiah is more than a scroll or book; it is the presence of God within us:
…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will place my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy On of Sinai; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will not remember any longer.
After those days… Our lesson is in the middle of a chapter made all the more complicated by the fact that the book of Jeremiah isn’t remotely in chronological order. It is a jumbled mass of emotion like Jeremiah himself. It is probably made worse by the fact that Jeremiah was illiterate and needed Baruch to write for him. Jeremiah lived through the apocalypse, not the zombie apocalypse but an apocalypse all the same. An apocalypse is devastating destruction on a world-changing, world-ending scale after which things can never be the same. “Those days” were filled with death and destruction, swords and axes, rape and murder, soldiers and mercenaries, burning and slashing. The government and its forces toppled and swept away; the temple toppled and its rubble picked through. Psalm 74 describes the looting of the temple: hatchets and axes splintering the woodwork, the stonework hacked and defaced, the chalices and censors, incense shovels – not spoons – all the vessels and vestments taken as trophies and desecrated.
Look around this sanctuary and imagine. Or remember when the city of Philadelphia bombed its own people. Imagine, remember, the devastation. See, hear, smell the flames engulfing the sanctuary and our homes and schools and businesses and the courts and the government. The police and military dead in the streets, imprisoned, deported. All the educated, literate citizens, business owners and artists and most workers in slave camps in another country. A few like Jeremiah, smuggled into Egypt, the place their ancestors prayed so long – four hundred and thirty years – for them to be delivered from. And here they are, back in Egypt, voluntarily.
After those days… Jeremiah’s prophecy is for after those days. The new covenant is a new start, a do over. It is a promise that the God who brought their ancestors to a good land delivering them from slavery is still their faithful, promise-keeping God. God makes the covenant with them in their days, that they might know that they are still God’s partners; God has not forgotten or abandoned them. God will work with them to bring them home again and restore them.
As before, their community will be governed by their covenant with God, Torah. This time God’s Torah will not be vulnerable to predation, unlike the Ark of the Covenant bearing the tablets inscribed by the finger of God which disappeared during the Babylonian conflagration. This time the Israelites would not be dependent on scrolls that could be burned, desecrated or stolen. God is preparing Israel for the world in which they would live, one which would not be free of conflict, but one in which God would always be with them and God’s word, God’s Torah would always be available to them.
And for those who were blaming themselves or others in their communities for the catastrophes, God promised forgiveness of sin, forgiveness and forgetting. No generational curses here. Even if their ancestors sinned and they did, even if they sinned and they did, God forgives and forgets. Folk like to say “God knows my heart,” usually to explain away something ungodly. But God says you shall know my heart. I will change who you are at your very heart so that you will be more like me.
God says, “I will.” But sometimes “I will” in Hebrew is really “I am.”
I am placing my Torah in their midst and on their hearts I am writing it; and I am their God, and they are my people… I do forgive their iniquity, and their sin I have already forgotten.
Jeremiah’s words are to his people in his time but they speak to us as well. Look at the devastation and destruction in our days, cities like Detroit and broken systems like the Philadelphia school system. Look at bodies lying in the street, rape and murder, theft and corruption in homes and schools and sometimes houses of worship. People keep saying we have to go back to the old ways, the old religion. Some folk want to go all the way back, to plantations, to a time when we weren’t priests and professors and presidents. Some folk want to go back to a time when women were property and men could do anything they wanted to women and children. Some want to go back to a time when black and brown folk weren’t so visible, so numerous, knew their place, when they didn’t have to hear Spanish spoken daily. But God says, that’s not the way. I am the way and I am going forward with you in a new covenant that responds to world you live in with all its complexity and promise. God has already begun writing over the brokenness in our hearts and in the world. God has already written us into the book of everlasting life. God has already written God’s name in our hearts. And God is still writing, teaching, revealing, guiding, correcting.
God didn’t stop speaking after Jeremiah’s pronouncement. God continued and continues to reveal Godself, through scripture, through Jesus Christ, in the world around us and in our own hearts. God is here, with us, in us already. We are not meant to wait around for the world to change, but like Jeremiah serve God by serving God’s people. There are communities of broken, traumatized people who need to know that they have been written into God’s story. There are devastated communities that need rebuilding. There are folk who have been driven far from home who need to be gathered in.
Father Shaw and I have not been fired just quite yet, but we have been given our notice. The time will come when God does not need us or anyone to teach anyone about God for we will all know God for ourselves because each one of God’s covenant partners, you and you and you and I will have fulfilled our contractual, covenantal obligation to walk with God, welcoming home the hurting and the hopeless, the guilty and the innocent, the wolf, the lion and the lamb, the serpent and the bear, neighbor and stranger to the family of God.
Blessed are you, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the universe, Rock of all creation, Righteous One of all generations, the faithful God whose word is deed, whose every command is just and true. For the Torah, for the privilege of worship, for the prophets: we thank and bless you. May your Name be blessed for ever by every living being.
My first experience with hevruta, a companion in learning with whom to study Hebrew and Aramaic biblical and rabbinic texts was in graduate school. When I joined the faculty at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia I was delighted to be able introduce my students to the concept and be able to partner with Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and Melissa Heller of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College to offer a co-taught hevruta class between the two seminaries paring Jewish and Christian seminarians. I write about that class and its continuing impact on my teaching for the Wabash Center’s teaching blog here. All of out students were greatly enriched, the LTSP community is especially grateful for the lessons learned from rabbis – classical and traditional – and rabbits, rabbis-in-training.
With the prophet I say:
Habakkuk 1:2 How long, Holy One, shall I howl for help, and you will not hear?
Cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity and compel me to look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; litigation and contention arise.
4 So the Torah becomes weak and justice never emerges.
The wicked surround the righteous; that is why judgment comes out perverted.
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
How long Holy One? How long? How long shall I, shall we, howl for help and you will not, do not, hear us? How can you not hear? The screams of the hurting, hungry, hopeless, desperate and dying drown out my own screams of frustration, impotence and rage. The world is drowning in a sea of violence that you must hear through the choruses of angelic choirs: Syria, Chicago, Iraq, Detroit, Afghanistan, Philadelphia, Camden, Washington DC. How much longer?
Like Habakkuk and Job I cry out to God about God. That I am not alone in this is scant comfort. That God hears in spite of all evidence to the contrary is some comfort. Comfort which I grasp like a drowning woman clinging to the broken pieces of what used to be a world that made sense.
Habakkuk was likewise clinging to a frail support in a sea of violence. Hamas. That is the Hebrew word for violence in this text. Biblical hamas and its modern Arabic counterpart share the same root. Violence. The violence Habakkuk envisioned has long been presumed by many to refer to the Babylonian invasion but there is no time stamp in the book, no way to relate it to that or any other crisis. The truth is that violence is so epidemic in the broken world from the moment of the first sin, Cain’s murder of Abel – according to the text that is the first sin – violence is so epidemic in our world that it doesn’t matter whether we know what Habakkuk saw because we can all envision violence that makes us cry out to God. It’s also true that when you are surrounded by violence, whether a single act that forever changes your life or a larger conflagration whose borders you can’t even see, your experience is all-consuming and breathtaking whether on the international or individual scales.
We know next to nothing about Habakkuk, neither provenance nor patrimony, or for that matter matrimony. His prophetic identity is articulated as a matter of fact, the visions God sends him recorded in this little scroll seem not to be the first. They have a relationship and he has a vocation in the background of this brief text. Habakkuk’s cry reveals the expectations he has about God: he believes in a God who is or is supposed to be responsive. He expects God to do something about the state of the world. And he expects God to respond to his cries. He cannot fathom what is taking God so long to act. But he is sure that a response is coming.
He’s also sure that what he is seeing all around him is inconsistent with what he knows about the world. Torah, the embodiment of God in the world, God’s revelation, instruction, teaching that comes down from the heavens like the yoreh, early rain with which it shares a root, has been perverted, twisted, weakened, paralyzed, desensitized, rendered numb and insensitive. It’s hard to know how to translate tafug, the state of Torah in Habakkuk’s visionary experience; she is as stunned as Israel was upon hearing that his long lost son Joseph was still alive and practically Egyptian royalty (Gen 45:26), as crushed as David was when he realized he had a sexually transmitted infection in Ps 38:8 and the opposite of the endurance of the psalmist’s hands stretched out in prayer, refusing to weaken or yield in Ps 77:2. Something horrible has happened to God’s holy Torah: Justice has lost the battle and the judgments being rendered as Torah are crooked, perverse, perverted. Torah is Torah in name only and the justice system is unjust. How is such a thing possible and how long until God does something about it?
Are we still talking about Habakkuk’s time? Or are we talking about our own? I can no longer tell. (And yes I know I’m the one doing the talking.) Those entrusted with the work of Torah, the work of justice towards citizen and alien, neighbor and stranger have betrayed their sacred trust. Our public ethic of the social good is based on and drawn from the ideals of the very Torah Habakkuk aches for. But something has happened to those who should be its servants and guardians. Oh the words of scripture are often on their lips, but their hips and hindparts are dug into policies that are the anti-Torah as they mutter about the anti-christ of their fondest dreams. How long Holy One?
Why do you let me see things like this? No, not “let,” “make.” The verb is Hiphil, causative. The prophet couldn’t turn away even if he wanted to. And he may have wanted to. God knows I don’t want to see what I see in the world, not just on the TV and internet, but in our own city, sometimes in our own community, even in my own family. God makes the prophet look and see. See and envision. That is part of the calling. Opening our eyes and having God open them even further for you. Seeing the world as it really is in all of its ugliness and brokenness. We can’t look away. Our very gaze is prophetic.
Too many folk are caught up in prophetic performances of one sort or another. They garner attention and feedback and can launch you into the notice of the public square. But seeing the world for what it is and carrying that awareness with you is just as prophetic as giving voice to it. And let’s face it, many so-called and wannabe prophets are speaking about what they don’t know because they haven’t truly seen, they haven’t been shown by God the world behind the world. They’re just moving from one soundbyte to the next.
It is all too much. Enough! It is well past time for God to do something about the world, whether the whole world or just Habakkuk’s little corner, or even my little corner of the world. So Habakkuk demands of God, “What are you waiting for?” Habakkuk says his piece and God listens. God listens! God does hear his howls. God is right there all the time. God sees what the prophet sees and more. God has given Habakkuk a glimpse of the horror God sees all the time, from which there is no respite for the Divine.
And God tells Habakkuk that God has already responded, but that even the prophet who knows something about the ways of God would not believe it if God told him all that God has in store. It is simply incredible, incomprehensible, for a mere mortal. Now for some reason the lectionary framers leave out God’s response to Habakkuk. They present a mangled monologue, eliminating the dialogue and totally missing the point. So today’s readings restore the back and forth between the prophet and his God. Habakkuk’s conversation with God, his challenge to God, occur in the context of his relationship with God.
We are not alone in the horror engulfing the world, the waves of violence, shooting after shooting, massacre after massacre, bombing after bombing. God is active in the midst of the world’s fracture. God is here with us. God is here for us. And according to God in Habakkuk two thousand years and an unknown number of centuries ago, the healing has begun but we can’t see it yet, not even with our prophetic vision. It is beyond us but it is there.
God bless Habakkuk; he has seen too much horror to be satisfied with glib responses and clichés, even from God. Habakkuk says, ‘OK. God. I’ll trust that you are turning the world around. But I will stand on my prophetic perch and verify.’ He needs to see something from God. And God doesn’t flinch or shrink in the face of scrutiny. God can handle Habakkuk’s weary wounded caution. God says this transformation is so certain that you can write it down and check it later, adding predictive prophecy to prophetic vision, lament, and passionate invocation of God, all prophetic gifts and tools. By the end of the book he will offer a psalm as a prophetic performance. Habakkuk was no one trick pony.
In response to Habakkuk’s question “What are you waiting for?” God promises that a change is going to come. It will come, no matter how long it takes. It won’t be late, no matter how long it takes. God will heal the world. God will heal Habakkuk’s piece of the world. But God is apparently playing the long game; both traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation see in these words a prophecy of the messiah and understand that Habakkuk will not live to see the change. Those who saw the messiah in their days saw the world begin to turn towards repair and restoration, but maddeningly, that turn is not complete in our days. We, like Habakkuk, may not live to see the complete transformation of the world for which we ache and long, work and pray. Yet we will live, sometimes in full sight of the hurt and the horror. How are we to live in this reeling, sin-drunk broken world? Faithfully.
In Hab 2:4 the faithfulness of the righteous person at the end of the verse is in direct opposition to the self-inflated life of the guilty person at the beginning of the verse. The righteous person shall live in, through, her faithfulness: Amunah, the sure, the reliable, the trustworthy, the “amen” – coming from the same root is that faithfulness. Faithfulness is not “belief” in the sense of intellectual assent or creedal affirmation; those aspects will be added when Hebrew amunah is translated with Greek pistis in a context shaped by philosophical discourse. Here in Habakkuk, faithfulness is more a matter of heart and hand than head and heart. I know it’s not very Lutheran or even Pauline, but none of that exists in this text.
What does exist in the world of the text, the world of the Gospels, the world of the Epistles and in our world is the intoxicating array of opportunities to wander away from the one who has been so faithful to us. Do not be distracted by wine and wealth or even by worry. God is working a work, begun on the watch of previous generations for which I will take my turn watching and waiting, putting my frail hands to the work of faithfulness.
How long Holy One? I will keep asking until I see. Amen.
We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew… It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the sense of community which Israel held with God… The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord. (Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. pp 15-16, 1949)
The Church has struggled with Jesus’ Jewish identity, sometimes violently, sometimes lethally at the expense of the lives and property of Jews. One of those responses has been anti-Judaism – related to, but distinct from, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism minimalizes, trivializes, demonizes and/or declares Judaism incomplete, invalid or insufficient. This is sometimes called supercessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces and completes Judaism. However, the Christians who hold to this theology vehemently disagree with the same notion in Islam.
The History Channel’s blockbuster production of the bible sadly perpetuates the Christian heresy of anti-Judaism in its depiction of Jesus. First, the producers erased Jesus’ ethnic identity by refusing to cast an actor who shares Jesus semitic ancestry and looks like the semitic peoples of the world in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. They cast a European for Jesus and for most of the ancient Israelites (see my previous commentaries here and here) and for most of Jesus’ disciples. However, they cast semitic-looking actors for the Pharisees and a Moroccan for Satan (for more on that click here). This identifies the Israelites, Jesus and his immediate followers with whiteness over and against the Jews. The construct of whiteness is a thoroughly modern one from which Jews have been excluded and to which they have been included as their social and political fortunes wax and wane with regard to the dominant culture.
Second, Jesus’ religious Jewishness is erased in the production. Jesus is a Torah-observant Jew who wears tzit-tzit, the holy fringe on his garments. (See Num 15:38–39; Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44) He does not wear it in the production contrary to the Gospels – not even in the synagogue! Likewise the History Channel Jesus does not cover his head in public or even when teaching. As an observant fringe-wearing Jew and Torah teacher Jesus would cover his head – and not with a pashmina as he does that one time in the synagogue scene (see image above immediately following synagogue service).
The synagogue service (taken from Luke 4:16-30, greatly abridged) perversely misrepresents Jewish liturgy, worship and tradition. There is a cantor chanting in a lovely trope (musical intonation). But what is he chanting? Well, he starts with:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And Moses spoke to the Israelites…This is the beginning of a couple of verses in the Torah, Lev 24:23; Num 9:4; 17:6) but the cantor does not chant Torah. He chants part of a medieval hymn,
לכה דודי לקראת כלה פני שבת נקבלה
Come my beloved, to greet the bride, and welcome Shabbat. That song would not be composed for more than a thousand years yet and would be sung on Friday night as Shabbat breaks, not afterwards on Saturday as depicted. Jesus is called to the bema to read from the scroll of Isaiah with the words “y’amod Jesus.” However, his Hebrew name includes his father’s name. No Jew is called to the bema or Torah without a full name – naming practices vary contemporarily with regard to including mothers but in the first century Jesus would have been called up as “Yeshua ben Yosef.” Omitting his father’s name is tantamount to calling him a bastard. While there are scenes in the gospels in which Jesus’ paternity is questioned and challenged, this is not one of them.
The lethal legacy of anti-Judaism means that Christians cannot be cavalier about misrepresentations of Judaism with any ethical integrity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes convictingly in the preface to her 2005 Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, “After Auschwitz” Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian “teaching of contempt” for Judaisam and the Jews. (p xviii)
Theologically speaking, Jesus was and is still a Jew – from the perspective of a confessing Christian who believes that he is very much alive. Jesus’ Judaism is manifest in his teaching and preaching, and in his love of God and for scripture. Historically speaking, the processes by which the followers of Jesus became known as Christians, distinct from Jews and primarily Gentile took centuries and included many reversals and struggles.
Emptying Jesus of Nazareth of his ethnic and religious identity and their markers leaves a hollow shell that can be filled with anything at all – insert dominant culture here – and devalues and denies the specificity of the Incarnation.
[I prepared this meditation for the Logan Legacy Prayer Breakfast, celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Wilson Stearly Logan, the longest lived priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church who died at the age of 100, at the request of the committee who assigned me the theme of “Engendering Prophecy” from the story of Deborah.]
One of my favorite stories about Father Tom was how he lived long enough to change his mind about women in ministry – and it wasn’t a last minute deathbed conversion either. He lived long enough to hear from God and see God at work in women priests, pastors and preachers who I will call today the daughters of Deborah, who was herself a daughter of Miriam, the Mother of Prophets.
The committee asked me to talk about Engendering the Prophetic from Deborah’s story. It’s an easy topic because God engendered the prophetic in women and men like Anna and Amos, Miriam and Moses, Huldah and Hosea, Noadiah and Nehemiah.
Today we are going to hear from Deborah:
Judges 5:6 “In the days of Shamgar ben Anath,
in the days of Yael, caravans ceased
and travelers kept to the byways.
7 Then the peasantry prospered in Israel,
they grew fat on plunder,
because I, Deborah, arose,
I arose as a mother in Israel.
As the hip-hop heads say, Deborah went H.A.M.: Hard as a Mother (in Israel). Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
Judges chapter 5 is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, describing events more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. That makes our Scripture lesson over three thousand years old. Older even than Fr. Tom of blessed memory, may his name and legacy endure as long.
Deborah was the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to Deborah. Unlike women preachers today who are regularly called by some folk only to give a “women’s message” Deborah governed the whole people and commanded the whole army in which she was the chief warrior as well. Her word was law and she proclaimed from a throne near a large palm tree between Beth-El and Ramah. That is, when she wasn’t kicking Philistine and Canaanite butt that sorely needed kicking. Deborah was H.A.M. – hard as a mother.
When God appointed Deborah to lead the nation, eighty years of peace and prosperity had just come to a crashing halt under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. Then for twenty long years the Philistines ground the Israelites into the very ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines single handedly when they joined the Canaanites to double team Israel, but it wasn’t enough. And then he died.
And Deborah suffered with her people. You see a prophet is of the people and for the people. A prophet loves the people and leads the people. A prophet weeps with and for the people and when necessary, bleeds with and for the people. There are a whole lot of folk calling themselves “prophet” and “prophetess” in this day and age. Some of them have it printed right on their business cards.
Well, Deborah didn’t have a business card. She had a sword – and I believe a good right hook. Because you can lose your weapon in a battle, but when your body is your weapon, an extension of your will, then fists and fingers become the weapons of your warfare when you run out of rocks and sharp, pointed sticks. Any other veterans in the house know what I’m talking about? Deborah was hard and hardcore. That was the context of her ministry.
You see Deborah’s people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is he didn’t and they had to figure out how to get along together, and they still do. Killing everybody on one side or the other wasn’t the answer in the Iron Age and it’s not the answer today. Deborah helped her people live in the real world after Joshua and his war stories were laid to rest. She didn’t go looking for trouble. But when it found her, Deborah went in and went in hard, hard as a mother, in Israel. I believe the motto on her coat of arms if she had one would have been: “Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. But if you start it, I will finish it.”
The big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day. And Deborah was there between the lines of the text. She was there in good times and bad. She was there for births and deaths, weddings and funerals, accidents and illness, good harvests and famine. She was there when folk acted a fool and had to be locked up and when the whole people of God worshipped on one accord. She didn’t just show up when there was a press conference. She was there on the front lines when it was time to go to war calling the shots – she was the shot-caller. Those of us who have served our country know that we cannot expect our soldiers to go where we are unwilling to lead them. Deborah led her people from peril to prosperity.
There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when the Israelites had carved out a little space and paid for their peace in the blood of their fallen, within four generations they were overrun. Canaanite oppression was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. They lived through hard times. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today. People were hurting. And they took their pain to God.
Deborah’s people cried out to God. She cried out with them and for them. That’s what a prophet does. She speaks to and for God, praying, preaching and when necessary, weeping, wailing, shrieking, shouting and cursing. And Deborah cursed – she cursed the tribes who didn’t show up for battle because they had it good and weren’t concerned about their sisters and brothers. One of those tribes, Machir, has never been heard from since. Deborah cursed them right out of this world.
Deborah prayed. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And so to God who created the warrior-prophet in her own image and the quintessential churchman, priest and canon in his image we give thanks and we pray:
God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Continue to raise up faithful servants from among your people to lead and inspire your people, to speak truth to power, to stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds, to serve you by serving your people. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.
Keep up us in peace that our prophets and people no longer have to learn the ways of war. Teach us to live together in mutual respect with all of the peoples of the earth at home and abroad. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer.
We give you thanks for the life and legacy of the Rev. Canon Thomas Stearly Wilson Logan and we give you thanks for all of those women prophets and priests who welcomed him into glory, Sarah, Rebekah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, Noadiah, Esther, Anna, Junia the Apostle to Florence Li-Tim O, the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion. God of prophets, priests and praying people everywhere, hear our prayer. Amen.
One thing for sure, the History Channel's mini-series has people watching, talking and blogging. But are people reading the bible? Some are I think. I hope that this series leads to deeper and richer conversations with and about the text than are possible in any multi-media production. I'd like to see folk read the narratives that were shown in the series to see how they compare to the production and read stories which were left on the cutting room floor. I'd like to offer a list of characters, an A-Z (as much as is possible translating, transcribing and transliterating Semitic names into English) of just some of the biblical characaters and their stories yet to be told by the History Channel.
Here is a list of just some of my favorite biblical women missing in action, erased from the History Channel's abridged Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:
The Abigails (one David's wife, one his sister),
Abishag (David's last woman),
Basemath (Esau's wife),
Bilhah (slave-mother of the Israelite people),
Cozbi (murdered by Aaron for marrying an Israelite like Moses and both of his wives),
Dinah (one of Jacob's daughters),
Deborah (both of them),
Elisheba (Aaron's wife),
Ephrath (Caleb's wife),
Gomer (the woman, not the man of the same name),
Hannah (who becomes a prophet in Jewish tradition),
Hammutal (one of the last Queen-Mothers of Judah),
HaSophereth (the female scribe who served in the time of Solomon),
Hoglah (one of the sisters for whom God changed the Torah),
Iscah (neice of Sarah & Abraham whose daughter married their uncle in the incestuous first family),
Jael (avenger of raped women),
Judith (both of them),
Jemimah (not the slave-era distortion),
Keren-happuch (beautiful, wealthy sister of Jemimah & Keziah),
Keziah (along with her sisters above shared her name with many enslaved African women),
Keturah (Abraham's other, other woman),
Lillith (the one Isaiah knew about),
Maacah (all five of them),
Mahalath (both of them),
Mahlah (both of them),
Milcah (both of them),
Noah (the woman, not the dude),
Nehushta (the last of the Queen-Mothers marking the end of an era),
Noadiah (the prophet who led all of the prophets of Jerusalem),
Penninah (who lived with a man who loved another woman but kept sleeping with her),
Puah (one of the deliverers who delivered Moses),
Rizpah (her body was used by men but she used her body to teach a king or two a thing or two),
Serach (daughter of a patriarch whose stories extend far beyond scripture),
Sheerah (who built three cities, naming one of them after herself),
Shelomith (all four of them),
Tamar (all three of them),
Zillah (the first woman dragged into polygamy),
Zeruiah (David's other sister),
Zilpah (the other slave-mother of the Israelite people), and
Zipporah (Moses' wife).
For a reminder of what the History Channel focused on instead, see the twitter archives below:
Twitter Stream on The Bible, March 17 episode #3
Many viewers of the History Channel's Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.
Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce.
I can't say whether the resemblance between the Satan character is intentional or not, or present or not if it is not visible to some viewers. I can say that the casting of this actor for this role was an intentional one. He looked the part to someone. Whether that was because of a resemblance to the President of the United States in full makeup or because he is a North African is equally problematic.
I say as a biblical scholar that the casting of this series is unhistorical as it pertains to the Afro-Asiatic world of the bible with one or two critical exceptions. At the same time, the treatment of race by these producers reproduces the racist history of Christianity in the West, particularly in the Americas where it supported and benefited from the Atlantic slavetrade.
The choice to make Samson a big black man with a sexual appetite for white women was an intentional one. The choice to erase Samson's father from the narrative so that his black mother was single mother was an intentional one. The choice to cast essentially every other biblical character from lands corresponding to those from Egypt to Iraq with white actors, including some with Scottish and British accents was intentional. The choice to portray the creation of the first human as a white man emerging from sandy white soil rather than a black or brown person arising from the red-brown soil of the region was an intentional one.
The History Channel's production is aimed at an American audience – in addition to a global one – at a time when the first African American President of the United States is subject to repeated insults and regular disrespect from public and political figures. This production with its whitewashing of the people of God on whom colonizing settlers modeled themselves as they exterminated Native Americans like Canaanites and enslaved Africans like Gibeonites is contributing to the racial discourse at the present moment. And what it is contributing is a distortion of beloved biblical history and fodder for white-supremacist ideologies based on racist interpretations of the bible.
It might all be the working of a collective unconscious. Yet even on that level it is intentional, real, present and destructive.
The third episode of the History Channel's ratings-shattering series, The Bible, moves from the Israelite scriptures of Judaism and Christianity to the New Testament added by Christians to the canon we share with Judaism. I have previously responded to some of the issues of the series here and here and here. Today I'd like to reflect on some of the differences between the scriptures that Jesus knew and preached and the ones presented and, to some degree, created by the History Channel. (That the scriptures of Jesus were set in Africa – Egypt and West Asia – ancient Israel and Canaan and not Europe as their casting claims, must be repeated.)
To begin with, there was not a single collection of bound scripture in the time of Jesus. (Not that HC claims that there was.) There were collections of vellum (leather) scrolls – not papyrus as shown in tonight's episode. And, all of the scrolls that would become biblical books were not yet in the canon, that is on an authorized table of contents. This passage from Luke identifies the bible as Jesus knew it (or as the author of the gospel knew it, or both):
Luke 24:44 Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Jesus is describing the tripartite canon of Judaism in which the Torah (Pentateuch in Greek) is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Prophets are the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – the latter two being single, double books, the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve, (Hosea – Malachi) and, the Writings beginning with the Psalms. (Curiously, the rest of the Writings seem to be in flux: Proverbs, Job, the Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel – not a prophet in Jewish tradition, the double books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.) Notice all of the scripture from the third division that has not yet made it into the canon by the time of Jesus – nothing other than Psalms.
The iconic scholar-saint, preacher-pastor, mystic and mentor, Howard Thurman, wrote of the "religion of Jesus" including the scriptures of Jesus in his groundbreaking volume Jesus and the Disinherited. That book shaped my own vocation as a biblical scholar. The scriptures of Jesus were the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (including those of the Aramaic Targums and perhaps to some degree those translated into Greek, the Septuagint.) Christians have problematically traditionally referred to the scriptures of Jesus as the "Old" Testament or Covenant, in part because of language in Jeremiah and other places that God would do something new in the world including a "new covenant." As a result, Christians have struggled to articulate the relationship between the two testaments. Some have completely rejected the First Testament, except perhaps for the book of Psalms, and have been rejected by the Church as heretics, frequently called "Marcionites" after a bishop infamous for his rejection of the texts that were the scriptures of the same Jesus he confessed as Lord. Others look to the scriptures of the First Testament as a series of predictions – sometimes coded – pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, serving little other purpose. Others receive them as fully scripture, inspired and authoritative as are the newer texts in the collection.
As a Hebrew Bible scholar who loves the Hebrew (and Aramaic and Greek) scriptures of the First Testament, I am always troubled when they are given short shrift, whether by preachers in Lectionary traditions who think preaching the gospel means preaching (nearly if not completely exclusively) from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or representations of the biblical narrative in print and other media like the History Channel's production that reduce the First Testament to a mere prologue to the "real" story. I am mindful that Jesus preached the gospel without the lectionary, and he did so from the scriptures of Israel, the scriptures of Judaism.
The History Channel begins the Jesus story midway through the third of five episodes. Yet anyone whose ever held – let alone read – a Christian bible knows that the pagination of the First Testament is more than double the Second. There are 23,261 verses in the shorter version of the First Testament used by most Protestants in the 66-book bible and 7941 verses in the New Testament. By the way, the Protestant Bible is the shortest and newest of Christian bibles and used by the fewest number of Christians around the world, yet its adherents – particularly in the American context – are the loudest. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal bibles like the original 1611 King James Version of the bible, Martin Luther's revolutionary translation and the earliest manuscript with both testaments, Codex Sinaticus, have 72 to 80 books or more and are read by the vast majority of Christians on the planet, more than a billion and a half people. There is perhaps the most diversity among the Orthodox with Ethiopian Orthodox including Jubilees and the Books of Enoch and some Slav churches including all four Esdrases. There are 29,474 verses in longer versions of the First Testament, including the Deutero-canonical (or Apocryphal Books). Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.
In other words, 75% of the bible we have is the bible of Jesus and of his people, the foundation of his ministry; 25% of Christian bibles tell and interpret the story of Jesus. The History Channel has ignored those proportions. To be sure, they are entitled to tell the story however they choose. But their choices are doing nothing to counter the rampant biblical illiteracy in this country.
For example, after watching the most recent episode will viewers understand the context and content of the Immanuel prophecy? That it was of a child who had already been conceived in Isaiah's time? That before that child learned how to tell good from bad the kings arrayed against Ahaz would be gone? For Christians, those verses also prophecy of Jesus, but they never lose their original meaning in their original context.
Is 7:14 …Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
The History Channel debuted the first episode of its 10-part series on the bible on 3/3/13. It was widely watched and reported as the ratings winner for its time slot. As a biblical scholar and seminary professor (who had been called early in the production but did not work on the project) I tuned in eagerly to see this latest construction of the bible in the public square. I was, in a word, disappointed. The Afro-Asiatic Israelites were portrayed nearly universally by people of European descent who occasionally appeared light brown with what looked like dirt on their faces. (I understand that Samson will be portrayed by a black man – associating blackness with brute strenght is not a redeeming decision by any means. I live tweeted the episode. You can peruse the conversation below.
View the Twitter Stream in interactive PDF format twitterstream03032013
Great Balls of Fire!
There is a single piece of text that directly connects Jewish and Christian liturgy:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, is the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3 is not only part of weekly Shabbat and Sunday liturgies in addition to festivals, but it also comes up in the assigned reading of each tradition. In Judaism, Isaiah 6 is the haftarah for Parshat Yitro. In Christianity, it is the First Lesson for Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Christian Pentecost, just over 40 days past Easter. Isaiah, Yeshayahu, whom I call Yeshua’s, Jesus’s, patron saint had an experience that was…well…let me put it this way:
It was a set-up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple not of this world – although it was the original reflected in the one below. He couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the veil and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. And it seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.
Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because רַגְלָיִם, (the Hebrew word for “legs,”) includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.
I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that MyIkDaVlAm, (messengers in Hebrew) includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact, הִנֵּה, (usually translated as “lo” or “behold”) – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”
And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species not to be interchanged. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Surely only Moshe got to see God – It’s not entirely clear that Yeshayahu or his community had a copy of the Torah; they knew many of it’s stories and traditions but may not have had the Torah we have. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? More recently, the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar with his eyes screwed shut as though his life depended on it. But then he peeks…
So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה (They say to one another):
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like thunder and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!
And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוֹי־לִי, Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sovereign of all the Worlds, the Commander of heaven’s armies!
And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.
The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is “e” going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.
The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year: וְחַטָּאתְךָ תְּכֻפָּר, “your sin has been covered, atoned for.” Then God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.
God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.
In Christian teaching, prophetic commissions become paradigms for clergy vocations; we are called by God and some of those calls have supernatural components. But how do Jews, liberal, progressive, not necessarily theistic Jews, understand Isaiah’s call? How do we understand Isaiah’s heavenly visit? What moral, ethical or socially just teaching does it inspire? And our society – including highly educated clergy, seminarians and rabbits – does not always take folk who have visions of God seriously, even as we celebrate our holy ancestors who have done so. Mystics and visionaries are often executed first and canonized later. Yet in New Age and Renewal iterations of our traditions many seek visions and mystical experiences of God. What are the lessons of this text for rational, modern peoples? And has anybody had a vision of God that they’d be willing to share?
Adapting the Apostle Paul: 2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a woman in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.
I know a woman who has seen visions of God and saints in heaven. And I know from the ordination boards on which I have served and with which I have worked that this would have rendered her unfit for ordination in the eyes of many. In the eyes of some, psychological evaluation and medication may have been deemed essential.
But the dreams, ah the visions!
A waterfall of molten metal, flashing gold and silver and reflecting a light dazzling and warm as far as the eye could see, straight up and to each side. The sound of thunder and crashing waves. She knew it was speech yet could not understand the words. And behind the curtain of undulating metal there was… The dizzying assaults of visual and auditory stimuli stilled just enough to interpret them. Not a curtain, but a hem. And above and behind the hem…
I saw the Living God sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's gown filled the temple of my sight. Shabbat shalom.
Rape is at the forefront of our civil discourse in ways it has not been in my memory or experience: A young woman raped to the point of death in India has been the focus of international media. During the run up to the presidential election Rep. Todd Akin articulated his belief in legitimate and illegitimate rape as medical certainty proved by whether or not a woman conceived as evidence that women lie about being raped to get abortions. There were so many egregious GOP statements about rape that many conservative women and some men are horrified that their party has become lampooned as the "party of rape." But rape is not a Republican problem, an American problem, an Indian, Darfurian or Congolese problem. It is a human problem, and because many humans are religious, it is also a religious problem.
Rape is normative in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The texts in which women are raped are legion: Num 31:15-18; Deut 21:10-14; Judg 19:22-26. Shockingly, for many religious readers, God, Moses and the Torah call for the rape of women (and killing of their infants) as a normative practice in war. (I present at some length on sanctioned rape in the scriptures here.) Perhaps most shocking of all is that the God of the text – who for many readers is their God – uses the language of rape normatively to describe his [in this case I yield to tradition] justified punishment of Israel, positioning himself as the rapist of his errant and deserving wife. Dr. Kate Blanchard expresses the horror of the unsuspecting reader:
Quick – which famous religious personality voiced this angry tirade: “Remove your veil, take off the skirt, uncover the thigh… Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance”? Or this: “It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you suffer violence… I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen”? Or this: “She did not give up her whorings… in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, for whom she lusted. They uncovered her nakedness… and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women”?
Yep, you guessed it: The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 13, and Ezekiel 23). The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I’m angry and you’re going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You’re a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women.
Dr. Blanchard's blog, Rape is God's Problem Too, points to the ways assumptions about the right of males (human and divine) to do whatever they want to the bodies of women – no feminine divines here – especially in the name of "love" is deeply embedded in our civil and religious cultures.
How and why does it matter that rape-language is used in the bible for God? (It's just metaphorical, right?) In Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson tells the story of a young woman, who when confronted with rape-narratives in her scriptures says, "This is the word of God. If it says slavery is okay, slavery is okay. If it says rape is okay, rape is okay." The authority of the bible – accorded and wielded – mean that biblical gender norms, however patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious are presumed to divinely articulated and intended and not the product of an Iron Age patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious society engaged in Stone Age theology.
What has helped me as a religious reader for whom these texts are scripture is understanding how and why this violent rhetoric was deployed. Seeing that language as a tool of persuasion and not a divine articulation of right relationships between women and men has been liberating for me. The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems' classic exposition of the rhetoric of rape in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets ably demonstrates how the Hebrew prophets took the normative violence against women and turned it against men in ancient Israel casting them in the role of the sex-crazed disobedient wife whose physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband (God) is justified.
While we as women and men decry rape and rape culture in civil society, we must not neglect its roots in our sacred texts and the ways in which it contributes to theologies of the human person, gender and God. It is clear to me that biblical tradents were not able to envision a world in which rape was not normative. Fortunately, I can.
This Epiphany as we reflect on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah is revealed I celebrate that his life giving Body and Blood were consubstantiated in the Virgin's womb and that he is Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. While hailed as the Son of David, Jesus is also the Son of Ruth, the only woman who figures in both his and David's genealogy.
Ironically, most of the women in biblical genealogies are erased even as their reproductive labor and child-nurture perpetuate and preserve their people. The genealogy below reclaims women whose names are given in the scriptures and re-inserts them in Matthew's genealogy.
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam, the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,
Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.
Then the deportation of Babylon took place.
After the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is there: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.
“A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.
Let us pray:
Come thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
and cause us in Her ways to go. Amen.
It was for the author of the gospel attributed to John as if time had stopped and started all over again. Or been rewound. Or spiraled back on itself. This new beginning was another beginning, not the same beginning. But it changed everything. I know the “in the beginning” language is beloved, traditional and familiar, but grammatically it’s more like “when beginning…”
John 1:1 When beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being. That which has come into being 4 in the Word was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
God begins with a word, the logos, in the Gospel. God begins with the Aramaic word for word, Memra, in the mystical tradition of Judaism on which Yochannan whom you know as John is drawing – if he indeed wrote the gospel penned in his name – just as God began with the d’var, the Hebrew word for word when beginning all things in Genesis. When beginning each time, each beginning was a word, a divine word, a holy word, a spoken but not yet written word, perhaps a word whispered in a still small voice.
That word was light and life; it was more than alive; it was life itself. The word was the God of life and the life of God to be breathed, poured, into humanity giving us life in the image of God. This eternal living light cannot be extinguished and shines forever as God lives forever, as we too will one day live forever. This living light has been infused into and through creation and we – and the whole of creation – are suffused with it. But that light coexists with darkness.
The light is shining in the darkness. The darkness cannot overcome, overwhelm, diminish or suppress the light. Yet what John does not say (in verse five) is that the light does not overcome the darkness. The darkness and light co-exist. There is always shadow. The world is filled with shadow. We have seen those shadows recently. Friday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children and babies murdered on Herod’s orders as he sought kill the Virgin’s miraculous child. And we remember the innocents of all generations who have been slaughtered for every reason and no reason: in the Crusades, during ocean-crossing of the Atlantic slave trade, the native peoples of North, South and Central America, in the Holocaust, those who have been murdered at the hands of parents, neighbors and strangers including those in Newtown CT and every day since then in Philadelphia, Palestine, Chicago, Congo, around this nation and around this world.
I didn’t tell you the title of the sermon because it might have seemed too dark without some introduction. Today’s sermon is “When the Shadow of Death Touches Christmas.” The juxtaposition of the first Sunday of Christmas with the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is intentional in our calendar. The sweet little Jesus child, holy infant so tender and mild, was born into a dark world, in which children were murdered for financial and political gain. And, every year at Christmas families grieve the loss of loved ones who were there the Christmas before but are not here this Christmas. Some will die doing the holiday season. Others will fall ill; there will be fires and accidents and other tragedies. Christmas has always been touched by, attended by, the shadow of death. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
And in many places the church keeps saying, “Merry Christmas!” and ignoring the shadows. We light our candles, wreathe our homes with light, wrap our trees in light and bask in glow of our fireplaces, but there remain shadows in the corners of our rooms, in the corners of our eyes and in the corners of our hearts.
Death is everywhere, in the darkness and in the light. This is the scandal of the Incarnation, God descended into shadow, even into Shadow-Valley Death and walked its lonely yet crowded pathways. Perhaps even more scandalous is how God did it: The scandal of the Incarnation is the scandal of the human body, a woman’s body and all of its ins and outs. The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation: human flesh and blood, the secret places of a woman’s peculiar biology.
For it is through human bodies that shadows are deepened in and lengthened on the world. And while there are evil forces at work as well, encouraging, facilitating, instigating; the old claim “the devil made me do it,” does not account for all of the evil in the world. We humans have done more than our fair share.
So God became human, woman-born. Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth: mortal, frail, embodied, human. To be human is to be carnal, fleshly, to dwell in shadow. The child conceived in holy mystery, whose tiny human heart beat underneath his mother’s heart emerged from his mother’s womb in blood and water as did we all. The Gospels remind us continually that the Messiah was fully human: He was woman-born, his body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion and pain and death. Even his post-resurrection body was tangible and capable of digestion along with walking on water and through walls. To be human is also to be in relationship as God is in relationship within Godself.
The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua, Jesus, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman, Child of Earth. He was like us and we are like him. We are human. We are mortal, frail, embodied, humans. We ache for human companionship. We worry about our parents as we come to grips with our own mortality. In our desperate pain we search for a familiar comforting face. And we pray that when it comes our time to die, we won’t have to face it alone.
We do not walk alone among the shadows of earth because God is Immanu El, God with us. In our brokenness, in our fullness, God is with us. God is with us when the bullets are flying, when the ground is shaking, when the planes are crashing, when the waters are rising, when the ship is sinking, when the winds are howling, when death is knocking, when the shadow of death stretches out and touches even Christmas – God is with us! God is with us when we are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. God is with us when we are raped and tortured and murdered. God is with us when our children, our precious children, are stolen from us. God is with them in their fear and horror! God is with us in our rage and sorrow and grief! God is with us! God is with the suffering and the dying, comforting and accompanying through that valley of death that we cannot yet enter. This is the Gospel, not that we’re untouchable, not that we’re inviolable, for even the Son of God was violated. But that we are never alone, never forsaken, never absent from the Divine presence is the Gospel of light and life.
This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many.
This is the season of hope and peace and joy and light. One of the reasons Christmas was placed at this point on the calendar is because the days are getting longer; light is literally filling the world (our side of it anyway). The Twelve Days of Christmas are days of light. The Feast of Epiphany is a feast of light.
(For) What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
When beginning in Genesis, the first thing God created was light. When Mary’s boy child was born, even more light flooded the world. Each of us has become a light-bearer through our professions and confessions of faith and in the water of our baptisms. The light of God lives with and in us; we are the light of God. And there is no darkness, no shadow, that cannot be overcome by the holy light of God.
How bright is your light? How do you kindle, nurture and stoke its flame? How often do you join your flame with the flames of your sisters and brothers in prayer and worship and at the table? Let the light of Christ shine in and through you to the ends of the earth, with all of its nooks, crannies, corners, crevices and crevasses and even that Shadow-Valley, Death.
This light will shine through the ages; it cannot be overcome and one day it will banish all darkness. One day when the shadow of death extends itself to the Christmas season its touch will be rebuffed; it will fade in the light of Christ. Whether we join God in heaven or God and heaven join us on earth, the whole of creation will be transformed by that holy light. For where God dwells, there is no darkness or shadow at all.
Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. 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.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd
East Falls Philadelphia
30 December 2012
As I have listened to folk talking about "the right to bear arms," it has struck me that they are treeating those words (and the Constitution) as scripture. What would happen if we applied the principles of sound biblical exegesis to the Second Amendment? For starters we'd have to take seriously the contexts – literary, social, cultural, political – of the text in its formation and of the interpreters. I do that exegesis here in conversation with my colleague, Jon Pahl.
I spent much of the summer of 2010 in Israel. I also spent some of that summer in Palestine, in Bethlehem in particular. Now in 2012, in the aftermath of the Gaza War and failure of Israel and Palestine to return to the negotiating table and work out a just peace for both nations, I have been thinking about the little, occupied town of Bethlehem again. This Advent, Chanukah, and Christmas I pray for a just and lasting peace and two secure homelands, for the security and prosperity of those who live in each and generous hospitality for neighbor and stranger. I keep wondering if the Incarnation happened today whether the Blessed pregnant Virgin would have had to scale the wall to give birth in Bethlehem or if she would have given birth at a checkpoint like so many Palestinian women, some of whom have had their babies die at the checkpoints.
You could say I was following a star. As they say, it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem. The beautiful art in the newest building of the Bethlehem Bible College portrays the signal moment in Bethlehem’s – and some say the world’s – history. But a few things have changed since then.
“Security” is tighter. And of course, one woman’s security is another woman’s occupation. The icon of both is the wall, the so-called “security fence.” According to Dr. Alex Awad, Dean of Students, local pastor and United Methodist missionary, 80% of the security wall was built on Palestinian land. The wall looms over Bethlehem and cast its shadow over my visit.
In order to enter Bethlehem I had to walk through the checkpoint and its cattleshoots made of bars and razorwire.
The wall has become a site of resistance. One primary form of that resistance is art. Here is some of the art on the wall: