Updated for Trinity Sunday 2016. (These were the lessons in 2012 when I preached the sermon.)
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
It was a set-up. Yeshayahu, Isaiah was 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 that was not entirely of this world – 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 – which was a theoretical throne – inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. The temple 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 the Hebrew word for “feet” or “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 “angels” for lack of a better word – 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 the word that is 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 and doesn’t interchange their titles. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Sure 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. 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? 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 as though his life depended on it.
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. They say to one another:
קדוש קדוש קדוש יהוה צבאות מלא כל-הארץ כבודו
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like the thunder in our Psalm 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: אוי-לי, 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 One-Who-Rules, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-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 he 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. And 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: הנני שלחני, 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.
But we do know that Isaiah told his story. He told it and people were affected by it whether they believed it or not. And in the days when all they had were the stories of their people and the stories of their God, someone said this story is important. We have to remember this story and tell it to our children. We have to teach them to teach their children and those who come after them so that they will know who we were and who our God is.
Some 740-odd years later, Isaiah and his story, vision, experience, sending and embrace of his commission have been written into the scriptures of his people. They will become the scriptures of peoples beyond his people, in addition to his people because of one person: Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s child.
Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus, shared a naming tradition, rooted in the word for salvation in their native Hebrew – we have German to thank for the “J” in Jesus and Latin for the “I” in Isaiah, but they both begin with the same letter in Hebrew, a yud, a “y.” Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus also shared elements of a divine commission. They were each sent. They were each sent to bear a message for and from God. They both preached and prophesied their messages. But Yeshua, Jesus, was also the message that he preached:
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We celebrate the relationship between Jesus and his God and Father who sent him into this world, to us, today on Trinity Sunday. Jesus speaks of God as his Father, of himself as the Son of Woman – I know your translations say “Son of Man” but the Greek can mean either and we shall shortly affirm in the Creed that Jesus got his humanity on his mother’s side. And Jesus speaks of the Spirit who gives birth to us. Throughout the gospels Jesus speaks of God by many names, inviting us to do the same: Wisdom who is justified by her deeds and her children, the male farmer who plants the mustard seed, the baker-woman who kneads yeast into her loaf, the male shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep; the woman house-holder who sweeps her house looking for her precious lost coin; the Advocate and the Comforter and many, many more.
Isaiah named God as “Lord,” and LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies, and then as the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies. First Isaiah calls God “lord” with lower case letters; something like “honored sir,” a human title shared by Moses and other important men. Then Isaiah calls God something like “LORD” with capital letters, representing God’s Most Holy Name that cannot be pronounced by human tongues and is related to the verb “I AM;” LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies or “hosts.” God is not throwing a party – not yet – God’s hosts are brigades or battalions of heavenly warriors. And lastly Isaiah calls God “the King” or “the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies.”
The church has largely settled on one way of naming God to our great poverty. The blessed, holy Trinity is one way and only one way of naming the God of many names, the God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God. It is not the only way and it is not my way. If you know me you are not surprised by that. I once famously – or perhaps infamously – responded to a question during a job interview about the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible by saying I didn’t believe the Trinity. There’s a reason some preachers call Trinity Sunday Heresy Sunday.
God is beyond numbering and naming. The scriptures use many more than three names or images to describe God and do not limit us to any. And the scriptures do not mention the Trinity at all. Three names make a nice poetic flourish. But God is not bound or limited by our limitations. God is One, and Two – Incarnate and Incorporeal, and Three and Seven (the “seven spirits of God” in Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and God is Many and Ineffable.
But since today is Trinity Sunday, Let’s name God in Threes:
Author, Word and Translator;
Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Majesty, Mercy and Mystery;
Creator, Christ, and Compassion;
Parent, Partner, and Friend;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
God who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God.
The God of many names is our God, Isaiah’s God and the God of Jesus the Messiah. How do you name God?
warrior, king, mother, father, righteous judge,
shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation,
strength and shield,
I had recently discovered the Game of Thrones series of books when I first wrote this sermon. In one of the realms of the books there is a religion based on the Seven: Mother, Father, Maid, Warrior, Crone, Smith and Stranger. Sometimes the Seven speak to me as a more complete metaphor for God than do the Three. And there are the two religions in Lois Bujold’s Curse of Challion. The religion is either Quadrene (Four) or Quintarian (Five) depending on which you believe is orthodox rendering the other heterodox or downright heretical. The agreed upon Four are the Mother, Daughter, Father and Son. The disputed fifth is the Bastard – ask Job about that one, that’s another sermon.
However you name God, the Many-Named God transcends and defies our attempts to number and name. Instead, God conspires. To conspire is con spiro, to breathe together, not just deceitful or treacherous planning. God breathes with us, breathes in us, breathes through us in this Pentecost season to change the world through the Church.
We like Isaiah have been set up. We like Isaiah and Jesus have been sent. We have been commissioned to tell the story of the God who loves us, who is Love and bids us love one another, world without end. Amen.
Listen to the recording (mp3 file)
Hosea 11:3 I, I taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
yet they did not know that I healed them.
4 I pulled them along with humane restraint,
with ties of love.
And I was to them
like those who lift babies to their cheeks,
I reached to them and fed them.
Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
For the last few years I have been engaging in the work of public theology in social media. I do so because I am often frustrated with and disgusted by the misrepresentations of my God and my scriptures in the public square. I am an evangelical Episcopalian, like our Archbishop of Canterbury who is so evangelical he speaks in tongues; I want to share the love of God in and through the scriptures. I’m active on social media in part because I want people to know the loving faithful God of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament – and all the books in between – and not just a few carefully curated verses reflecting Iron Age, flat-earth theology.
This morning’s First Lesson holds one of my favorite images of God, that I’d like to share with you and with the world, one whom I’m in desperate need of, a tender, loving, mothering God. I don’t know about you, but this has been a summer of sorrows, for me and for people about whom I care. It has been sorrowful for people in our neighborhoods, nation and around the world. It has been sorrowful for people who look like me and my little brother and my nephews. Sometimes random tragedies and natural disasters leave sorrow in their wake. But all too often sorrow is caused by human beings, intentionally inflicting great harm and pain on other people.
Hosea may seem like a strange place in which to find a tender loving mothering God, especially if you heard or read last week’s First Lesson option from Hosea chapter 1. Hosea claims God told him to marry a woman of prostitution. I say “claims” because, come on… We’re trained to hear these texts religiously which is not always a good thing. Imagine if your rector came back and said God told him to marry a porn star and his next sermon series will be based on their children so he needs to get busy making those babies and is doing all of this as a sermon example so you can see God in him and in his wife who’s going to go back to her porn-making ways and eventually he’s going to have to buy out her contract. I can’t say Hosea didn’t hear the voice of God. I can say the story provides us an opportunity to explore how we know what we are hearing, thinking or imagining is or is not the voice of God. But that was last week.
Now about this week… I’m guessing this is not the sermon you thought you were getting. Perhaps equally unexpected are the ways, plural, in which Hosea thought about and named God in what has become scripture for us. Whatever you make of the marry-and-impregnate-a-woman-who-sells-herself-and-will-return-to-selling-herself-so-you-will-have-to-buy-her-back-story of the beginning of the book, it paints a particular, familiar, traditional, image of God. God is Israel’s long-suffering, betrayed, jealous husband, who loves his – I said his – wife in spite of how she has treated him and will take her back. This image of God has its problems; God is often a violent, abusive husband in these Iron Age theological portraits, particularly in the prophets, which assume that jealous men beat their wives and have every right to do so, and worse.
We should be honest about the limitations and danger of that image and language. All of our language and imagery falls short when we speak of God, for human language is woefully inadequate for the task. Even our most familiar and beloved God-language can become an idol – that which is not God but which we treat as though it were. For some, masculine god-language is an idol; it is a limited, finite, incomplete articulation of who God is in and beyond the scriptures treated and worshipped as though it were God. God is not our language about God, even our most cherished and traditional language, father language, Trinitarian language, falls short of who God is. We need multiple images of God, more than one set of words, like Hosea. In most of Hosea God is Israel’s husband but in chapter 11 she is Israel’s mother.
God says: I, I taught Ephraim how to walk – using a double subject in Hebrew for emphasis. Imagine God holding out her fingers for her toddling child to grasp as he teeters and totters.
God says: I lifted them up in my arms. Imagine God holding her child in her arms, not just one, but all of them at the same time. No matter how many, no matter how wriggly, there is room in God’s lap for all of her children.
God says: I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks. The way I cared for them – the nation who is my child – was like when you hold a baby up to your face and rub his soft, plump little cheek against your own.
God says: I reached to them and fed them. I fed my babies as all mothers have from the founding of the world until some of you all figured out how to bottle milk. I nursed my babies at my own breast; I didn’t farm them out to a milk-nurse. The image of God as mother is older than Hosea and endures into the New Testament and earliest theology of the Church. Feminists didn’t start it; we are Janies-come-lately.
The Spirit who is always feminine in Hebrew and never male in any biblical text, was the mother hen of all creation in Genesis. In Exodus, at the founding of the nation, God gave birth to Israel becoming their mother. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for the womb from whose violent contractions Israel was delivered. The passage through the Sea is the passage through the birth canal, complete with blood and water. In Numbers 11 while arguing with God, Moses complains that he did not give birth to Israel and is unable to nurse them and tells her – Moses uses a feminine pronoun for God – Moses tells her to nurse her own babies because he doesn’t have the equipment to do so. He then quits as God’s nanny but they make up and he goes back to work. Then God whips up a batch of chicken and biscuits for her ungrateful children. (That’s the manna and quails for the literalists among you.)
Deuteronomy 32:18 charges the ancient Israelites, and us: The Rock who gave birth to you, you have neglected; and you have forgotten the God who writhed in labor with you. 1 Peter 2:2 urges new Christians to desire the milk of the gospel; the gospel is mother’s milk and God is our mother. Julian of Norwich, that great mystic of the Church wrote of the motherhood and fatherhood of God and repeatedly of “Christ our Mother” who feeds us in the Sacrament from his own body as a mother from her breast.
Hosea preached of the tender mothering love of God as he preached about a second Exodus, a do-over. Anybody else want to turn back the hands of time and start over? Israel was going to get one, but it wouldn’t be like they thought. God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand and erase all of their problems and the consequences of their decisions, choices, actions and inactions. But God would accompany them on their journey, through and beyond their sorrows, no matter where they led or how long it took.
Hosea 11 with its tender portrait of Mother God has a tragic, reverse Exodus:
Hosea 11:5 …return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to repent.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their divisions,
devouring because of their schemes…
Israel will go back to Egypt. Juxtaposed with the Assyrian invasion and defeat of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Monarchy, resulting in the decimation of nine and a half of the twelve tribes, God announces that Israel – meaning the North, not the whole – will return to Egypt. This is unimaginable, going back to the place of slavery.
Perhaps it is not so unimaginable. Violence rages in our cities too, violence from a time we thought long past all. The legal right to kill based on your feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in racism. Are we going back in time? Perhaps not going back to the days of slavery, but are we going back to pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voting Rights Amendment America? Are we going back to the time when my daddy wore the uniform of the United States Army and didn’t have the right to vote? We can’t go back! Surely God won’t send us back there.
Are we going back to a time when women didn’t have any control over our own bodies, medical or other decisions, couldn’t walk down the street without a male escort to avoid being seen as one of those women – the kind who can be taken off the street, used and abused and held for a decade? Well, maybe no one but the predators thinks that’s acceptable anymore but one in five women are raped and only three percent of rapes lead to convictions and rape victims and survivors still have to prove they were really raped. We’ve made so little progress here. We can’t go back! But it looks like we’re going anyway. For once we want Mama to say, “I will turn this car around…” But this time she won’t. Israel is going back to Egypt and we are backtracking too. But how far back are we going to go?
After four hundred years of bondage, it took the Israelites another forty years to reach Canaan, and everyone who started the journey with them did not make it. A whole generation died on the way, a whole generation of dreamers. American chattel slavery lasted four hundred sixty years. Its aftermath gave birth to generations of dreamers and their dreams; one dream marched on Washington fifty years ago this month. Will we let the fabric of their dreams be unraveled?
We have done so much since then, learned so much, built so much, changed so much. Are we going to lose it all? Civil Rights and women’s rights and the dignity of every human person, gay, straight, and crooked, cis, trans and in transition, able-bodied and varying abilities, documented and undocumented, wealthy, comfortable, struggling, working poor, deeply and desperately impoverished… I imagine Hosea’s congregation reflecting on their own history.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fought their way into Canaan, when they were not fighting the indigenous population who understandably objected to what they experienced as illegal immigration, they were fighting the land. We will continue to fight against the dreams of a new generation of dreamers? Are we willing to offer the stranger welcome to this nation built on bones and broken promises and the sad history of cutting off many of its First Nations from the same promises?
Now, the prophet says God will let the Assyrians invade them as they themselves invaded Canaan. Yet this is not an easy decision for God. God laments:
8 How can I give you away Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel?
How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboiim?
[cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]
My heart turns within me; kindling my tenderness and heart together.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. No!
But you will go back to Egypt. God, we can’t go back there! We can’t go back in time here in America. But it looks like we too are going back to Egypt. And God promises us as God promised Israel, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it looks, no matter how bad it gets, not to destroy us, not to abandon us, to accompany us wherever we go and when necessary to bring us home, again and again.
But this time it will be different trip. We and Egypt have changed – and I’m not even talking about the most recent changes in Egypt. Those who go to Egypt as Hosea prophesies will not be enslaved; their former oppressors have become welcoming neighbors – for a while. Those who seek refuge in Egypt will be saved from Babylonian annihilation. More than one hundred and fifty years later, the prophet Jeremiah was forcibly taken to Egypt and he and an entire community of Jews escaped the Babylonian invasion. They built a thriving community in North Africa. They learned Greek and translated the scriptures. Many generations later that community welcomed the Holy Family into their midst when they too went back to Egypt in response to the dream of a new generation, giving new meaning to God’s words to Hosea: Out of Egypt have I called my son… And the gospel in which Hosea was quoted was written in Greek because of the influence of that community and their descendants.
Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians and deported to Egypt and to Assyria, but God will bring them home again, in a second Exodus.
Hosea 11:10 They shall follow the God Who Is Mother and Husband,
who roars like a lion; for when God roars–
God’s children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes,
says the Mothering God.
Sometimes we go back to go forward. And wherever we go, our Mothering God goes with us. That’s Iron Age theology that still works in the digital age. In the words of Ps 107:43, Let those who are wise give heed to these things…
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design. Amen.
Shabbat B’ha’alotkha 25 May 2013/16 Sivan 5773
בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ “When you set up (the stuff)…” There’s a lot of stuff in this parsha.
The purpose of this setting up in 8:1 is to give light, so too I hope will this drash. Let’s shine the light on some of the stuff in the text. First there is the consecration of the Levites who are frequently invoked as a trope for contemporary clergy in Judaism and Christianity. As chance would have it, seminarians at RRC and LTSP are in graduation and ordination season (less closely linked for Christians). Some may well turn to these texts for inspiration, for contemplation, for liturgical innovation. But I don’t think any will turn to Numbers 8:7 and shave their entire body in preparation.
Another place for illumination in this parsha is הֶעָנָן, the cloud in 9:15. This is one of my favorite articulations of God in the text: God is present. God is visible. God accompanies God’s people. Technically God leads God’s people but when they won’t follow, God comes back for them, waits for them, attends them. That’s what happens in ch 11, the reason I asked for this parsha although I guess there wasn’t much of a bidding war.
This is one of my favorite stories about Moshe Rabbenu. And I like Moshe – even though I critique him severely for failing to give Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah their inheritance as commanded by God, going to his death in disobedience on that score – I like Moses; I do.
I love that when he was on the run from a murder beef and had every reason to think about himself to the exclusion of all others, hi risked his own life and freedom for women he didn’t know because they needed help. And in the wilderness wandering, Moses interceded with God for the Israelites over and over again, even when they were cussing him and blaming him. Honestly, if I had been Moses that time God said, “Move over there. I’m going to kill them all and start over.” I’d have said, “Here good?” I would not have gotten between God and the folk while God was in a smiting mood waving incense in God’s invisible nose – how did he know which way God was facing? – hoping to calm (sedate?) God as Moshe did in 16:43.
Moses models an aggressive form of intercession: Going toe-to-(invisible)toe with God. Getting in God’s face – or at least her space. And She is she in this text, perhaps more so than in any other text.
Numbers 11 begins with the people grumbling to themselves as indicated by the hitpaal. (This text offers plenty of light for my fellow Hebrew grammar nerds.) Even though they are grumbling to themselves, God hears them and fries them. God is in a smiting mood. And Moses intercedes. Then the people grumble (again), this time craving-a-craving and weeping. And Mother God feeds her babies – more like toddlers. But they don’t want what she cooked – מָה נָא, what is this? מָה, the “what,” was not what they wanted. They wanted what they used eat for free – except it wasn’t free – before they were forced on this family road trip – except they weren’t forced.
Then God gets burning hot (again), וַיִּחַר־אַף. Literally, God’s nose was on fire.
I imagine smoke pouring out of God’s nostrils because that snorting bull image is never far away since an aleph in paleo-Hebrew is a bull’s head meaning every time someone wrote el or elohiym before the adoption of the Assyrian square script, they started with a bull (you can also see the origin of our “A”).
(You don’t know how happy I am to have found a free True Type paleo-Hebrew font that works on a Mac!) Or maybe God is just red in the invisible face. And it was in the sight of Moses, רָע, bad, wicked, evil, naughty.
Moses standing in judgment of God? That messes with my Christian sensibilities. But what I love about Job is his gumption to sue God – as a Gentile no less. So, OK, Moses is not pleased with the sight of God’s anger. Question 1) What does it look like when God is angry? Some decidedly unchristian folk say that natural disasters are what it looks like when God is angry. Ancient folk without malice thought that too. What does it look like when God is angry? What did Moses see?
In v 11 Moses has had enough – of whatever: Why are you doing me dirty? That’s how I translate it when רע)ע) is a verb. Verse 12 (follow along): Did I conceive these people? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Did I give birth to them? No you did. I don’t have the parts! Because you said to me, carry them in your bosom like a milk-nurse. I don’t have bosoms! You know what, I have had it with your whiny brats. JPS translates בכה, weep, in v 13 as “whine.” I tell you what Lady, if you are going to treat me like this kill me now.
In v 15 Moshe uses the feminine pronoun אַתְּ rather than the masculine one, אַתָּה, for God. There is an obscure point of Biblical Hebrew grammar in which the second person masculine singular takes on the form of the second person feminine singular, generally at the midpoint (atnachta) or end of a pasuq. Allegedly because of a change in inflection. I’ve always been suspicious of it because it doesn’t affect any other forms. Even if that rule is valid, it doesn’t apply here. The pronoun in question is not at the middle or end of the verse. Moses has called God a woman, or better contextually, a mother, one who needs to come get her kids.
Moses talks about being God’s unwilling male-nanny but not having the parts for the job. Question 2) What is Moses’ role in the analogy he crafts? Is he Israel’s nanny? Or Israel’s step-father? What is his relationship to God in the analogy?
Finally, what about God’s parts – and bosoms? According to Job 38:29 God does have a womb and give birth to ice and snow among other things. In Deuteronomy 32:18 Moshe will later say – or at least the torah will say he said – that God writhed in labor with us and gave birth to us. The divine Name Shaddai is rooted in “breastedness,” – see Gen 49:25 when Shaddai provides the blessings of breast (shad) and womb. Perhaps the source of all those “taste and see verses” and the Christian injunction to consume “spiritual milk” in 1 Pet 2:2.
Question 3) What if anything does gendered language in Biblical Hebrew mean? Is there a relationship between grammatical and ideological or functional gender?
The last chapter, 12, in the parsha is the one in which Miryam HaNeviah challenges Moshe and perhaps God on the perception that Moses is the only prophet in Israel while he is scandalizing the nation with his new Nubian wife, having abandoned Zipporah back in Exodus 18:2. It get’s pretty ugly. There’s some yelling and some more smiting. And Miriam was struck with a disease, צָרַעַת, (and according to me in Daughters of Miriam and Rabbi Akiva in b. Shabbat 97a, Aaron as well). Miriam was banished to what I call “the camp beyond the camp” in my current work, the place where those who were טָמֵא waiting to be pronounced טָהוֹר stayed. The text says that the people did not move until the “gathering,” הֵאָסֵף, of Miryam. I like to imagine that the illuminating cloud got up to leave but the people would not follow without Miryam. Or perhaps God herself refused to move without her daughter. The family squabble was over. For now.
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.
Yesterday I preached a sermon on the image of God. The death of Osama bin Laden provides an opportunity for me to practice what I preach and proclaim that even he, the mastermind of terrorist attacks on Spain, the United States, Tanzania, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and places that we may never know, responsible for the murders of thousands – more than three thousand on 9/11 alone – even Osama bin Laden was a bearer of the Divine image having been created in the image of God. And the notion of human beings as the Divine image is one shared by Muslims Christians and Jews. I offer a revision of that sermon below, explicitly naming bin Laden and reflecting on his life and his death in places. It is not the same sermon, but it proclaims and wrestles with the same truth.
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule with fish in the sea, and fowl of the heavens, and with the herd-animal – the whole earth, and with every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.
We are created in the image of God. I am created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. (You, and you, and you, are created in the image of God.) The image of God is female. The image of God is male. The image of God is black. The image of God is brown. The image of God is tan. The image of God is beige. The image of God is peachy-pink and, the image of God is white. The image of God is old, young, strong, weak, pregnant, infertile, nursing, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, straight and crooked, saint and sinner. The image of God has dredlocks, an afro, a jerri curl, a weave, hair that has turned gray and hair that has turned loose. The image of God wears a wig. The image of God is wearing a Sunday-go-to-meeting church hat. The image of God is disabled. The image of God is imprisoned. The image of God is suffering. The image of God is homeless. The image of God is hungry. The image of God is poor. The image of God is wealthy and stingy. The image of God is wealthy and generous. Donald Trump is the image of God. Barak Obama is the image of God. Michelle Obama and Michelle Bachman are the image of God. Osama bin Laden and every person he murdered is the image of the same God. The image of God is a babe in arms, a toddler who refuses to be civilized, a child who wants to do it all herself, her way, a teen who keeps you up at night. The image of God is that woman or man who lied to you, left you, cheated on you, stole from you, hurt you. I am the image of God. You are the image of God. Every violent criminal, felon and terrorist is the image of God. We are the image of God. And we are good, very good in God’s sight in spite of what we do, our creation reflects the goodness of God. And we were created to rule with – not over – the rest of creation, but that’s another sermon. We are the spitting image of God. And yet, God is more than the assembly of all our images.
God reveals Godself in human language in Genesis. But language, even my beloved Biblical Hebrew, is incapable of fully capturing, disclosing, describing or revealing God. My Systematic Theology professor, Kelly Brown Douglas says that using human language to describe God is like trying to drive a nail with a scewdriver; you can make it work but you have to turn it this way and that way, you might make a mess, you might not even hit the nail on the head. The God in whose image we are created is ultimately beyond words. If we take all of the words, all of the descriptions, all of the word-images in the scriptures and the writings of the theologians, scholars, poets and plainfolk who think on God, we will come short of God. God is more than we can image, imagine, dream or articulate.
In the divine self-articulation within the shared Jewish and Christian scriptures, God used the four categories of Biblical Hebrew – masculine, feminine, singular and plural – to reveal Godself and in the process, collapsed and exploded those categories and categorizations so that God cannot be put in a box, or reduced to a single image. For a single image of God is not God, and to worship that which is not God is to commit idolatry. A false image of God is as much a false god as is anything else with which we replace God.
Genesis starts with a familiar image of God, masculine and singular: In beginning, He, God, created the heavens and the earth. In Hebrew gender is disclosed by verbs primarily and nouns secondarily. The first verb of the bible is ברא, “he created,” that is God, אלהים – subjects usually follow their verbs in Biblical Hebrew. But God cannot be put in a box; God will not be confined to a single image. We are all the image of God: So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created humankind; male and female God created them.
In the first verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be masculine. In the second verse in scripture, God reveals Godself to be feminine: The earth was formless and shapeless and darkness covered the face of the deep, while She, the Spirit of God, fluttered over the face of the waters. The second verb used in the scripture is מרחפת, “she fluttered,” that is the Spirit, רוח. In the first two verses of scripture God reveals Godself as male and female and then in verse 27 when God creates us in God’s own image we are, male and female, just like God. In fact the adam that God first created means both all of humanity and a single being. And in the case of creation, the adam – the “the” means that it is not Adam, a man’s name – the adam was one being with feminine and masculine attributes split down the middle to make two persons, male and female. The word that is mistranslated as “rib," צלע actually means “side” and is used throughtout the bible but never again translated as “rib.”
It may be a surprise to some, that in the bible God’s Spirit is feminine. It may be a surprise to those who read scripture in translation to languages like English because unlike Hebrew (and some other languages) you cannot tell gender in English from verbs or most nouns. The way to identify gender in English is to use a subject pronoun in place of the subject. (Where are my educators and fellow grammarians in the house?) If you go from here and say that preacher preached – or didn’t preach – people who weren’t here will not know what flavor preacher you have today. But if you say she preached, or she didn’t say anything to me, then everyone will know what flavor preacher you had.
Every time God’s Spirit shows up in Hebrew in the First Testament, and even in the Second Testaments written in Hebrew for Hebrew-speaking people – every time the Spirit shows up She is feminine and She is God. There is not a single place in the bible in its original Hebrew and Greek languages where the Spirit is male or takes a masculine verb. That holds true for the New Testament as well. There the New Testament writers chose to use the neuter, “it.” The masculine, “he” was not applied to the Spirit of God until Jerome got his hands on her four hundred years after the time of Christ and preformed a gender-reassignment surgery on the scripture in his translation which endures in your English bibles even though that’s not what the earliest bibles say.
If you look at every verse in which the Spirit of God appears in the Hebrew Bible – in what you may call the Old Testament – in any translation, you will always see “the spirit (with or without a capital ‘s’) did such and such.” You will never see “he” because the previous generation of translators knew what every first year Hebrew student, and every Jewish child who learns Hebrew in kindergarten know, that She is feminine. In ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the history of the church, the communities who have preserved, translated, taught and preached the scriptures have been overwhelming male. And the god whom they have communicated, has been presented nearly exclusively in their own image. Translation matters, and as I explained to your pastor when we discussed my visit, that is why I translate the scriptures myself and teach my students to read Hebrew and translate for themselves.
Scripture is full of diverse descriptive images of God; many are masculine images: The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is king, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is God. God is a righteous judge. God is not a man or the son of man who lies.
Other images combine masculine grammar with images and objects that don’t necessarily have gender in our English-speaking world: the Lord is my banner, the Lord is peace, the Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, the Lord is a stronghold, the Lord is my light and my salvation, the Lord is my strength and my shield, God is a devouring fire. Deuteronomy 32:18 puts it this way, The rock who birthed you, you neglected, and the God who writhed-in-labor with you, you forgot. Here both rock and God are masculine but they use traditionally female birth-giving verbs.
The scriptures are also pregnant with feminine imagery for God: The scriptures talk about God’s body parts: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, right arm – have you ever noticed that God doesn’t have a left arm in the bible? – God has hands, feet and a reproductive system. When God asks Job in 38:8 how he imagines the universe came to be, God asks, Who closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth out of the womb? How would you answer God? From whose womb do you think the sea came? God also asks Job later in 38:28, Who gave birth to the frost of heaven? The answer is of course, God gave birth to the frost of heaven just as God closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth from Her womb. Interestingly, God does not have male reproductive parts in the scriptures. When God fathered Jesus of Nazareth, God did so completely different than human fathers father their children.
And then there is the love of God. There are several words for love in Hebrew, one particular word that God uses over and over. The verb, רחם, expresses the feelings of the womb, רחם. The literal translation is “womb-love,” “mother-love” or “maternal love.” The standard translations produced by brother-translators, “compassion” and “pity” are not specific to the womb, and erase God’s maternal love. Imagine a headache without the head, or a heartache without the heart. The place from which the pain emmanates is included in the word. So too is the mothering-place, the womb, רחם, included in the word רחם, mother-love. Listen to some of the places where the bible speaks of mother-love:
[Solomon and the sex-workers] 1 Kings 3:26 The woman whose son was alive said to the king – because her mother-love for her son burned within her – “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; do not kill him!” The other woman said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; cut-him-in-two!”
Isaiah 49:15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no mother-love for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Hosea 1:6 Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Holy One of Old said to Hosea, “Name her No Mother-Love, for I will no longer have mother-love the house of Israel or forgive them. 7 But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Holy One their God…”
Micah 7:19 God will again have mother-love upon us;
God will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
Psalm 25:6 Be mindful of your mother-love, Holy One,
and of your faithful love, for they have been from of old.
Psalm 51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your faithful love;
according to your abundant mother-love blot out my transgressions.
And then there is Jesus… Jesus also uses masculine and feminine language to describe God. He tells a familiar parable about God’s desire for the salvation of lost souls in Luke 15. Jesus tells the parable twice. In the first telling God is a male shepherd, human beings are sheep, ninety-nine are safe, one sheep-soul is lost and God the Shepherd of our souls searches for the lost one until He finds it. Then God calls all the neighbors and throws a party to celebrate the restoration of the lost soul.
In the second telling immediately after the first telling, God is a female house-holder, human beings are precious coins, nine precious souls are safe, one is lost and God our Mother searches for Her lost precious one and when She finds Her lost precious one, She calls all of Her girlfriends and neighbor-women, in Greek everyone at that party is a woman.
This is not the only place that Jesus uses feminine imagery for God. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus said, “The realm of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.” God is the creator, the planter of heaven, and here God is male. In the next verse, Jesus says, “The realm of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Here, God the creator is Baker-Woman God in Her kitchen just like Big Mamma.
And, in Luke 7:35, when the ministry of John the Baptist is being demeaned, Jesus says, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” He’s not talking about John’s birth-mother, Jesus is talking about Mother God. As a rabbi and master of the sacred texts, Jesus knew that God is referred to in feminine and masculine terms throughout the scriptures. And his hearers, particularly his Hebrew-speaking audience knew this as well. The Epistles speak of desiring the milk of the gospel, in those days there was no formula, gospel milk is mother’s milk.
We who are created in the image of God are created in the image of a God who reveals Godself as female and male. Yet God is so much more. The late, great theologian Mary Daly put it this way, “God is more than a Ken doll and a Barbie doll scotch-taped together.” This morning I just came by to remind you that God is more than we can imagine or understand and we are all made in God’s image.
In our text God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Not only does God reveal Godself to be male and female, but God also reveals Godself to be one and many. No single category can contain God. I’m going to suggest to you today that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is not the Trinity, because the Trinity is a post-biblical theological concept – but it can be the Trinity for you you like. I suggest that the “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26 is the plurality of God-images in the scriptures. God is a rock who gives birth and we are made in Her image. God is a mighty warrior who fights our battles and we are made in His image. God is One and more than One and we are made in God’s image.
Our images of ourselves are as revelatory as are the biblical images of God; they tell us not only what we think of ourselves, but what we think of God. Would we continue to condemn ourselves and hang on to our mistakes and misdeeds if we truly accepted that we are made in the image of God and that shapes who we are and who we will be?
There is a huge space between who we are and what our image is. The images we have in our heads and the images in the minds of those around us may have little or no anchor in reality. We may be stuck in a time warp. We may think we are who we were when we had a full head of hair, when we had our youthful figure, before we had kids, before we saw that first wrinkle. It works the other way too, we may think we are who we were when we were the most frightened, vulnerable, powerless, victimized. Our own images of who we are, are related to who we are but are not who we really are.
Our creation and indeed the whole creation tells us and the world something about the God whose image we reflect. What we think and say about ourselves and each other is a direct reflection on God, for we are all God’s handiwork, manifesting and reflecting the image of God. When we criticize and demean ourselves we are criticiizng and demeaning the image of God. When we insult and abuse others, we are insulting and demeaning the image of God. When men disrespect women, they are disrespecting the image of God. When women disrespect men, they are disrespecting the image of God. When straight folk disrespect gay folk, they are disrespecting the image of God. When gay folk disrespect straight folk, they are disrespecting the image of God.
There is no one who is not created in the image of God. No not one. Not Hitler, not bin Laden. Yet, at the same time, we the imago Dei, the image of God, are called to be the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, reminding us that there is an even greater space between who we are and who God is. And none of us have loved each other so much that we threaten the security of earthly kingdoms and are condemned to death because of the disruption we present to the present order. Our discipleship is just not that serious. Our love is just not that world-changing.
But what would happen if we took seriously the image of God in ourselves and others? What would the world look like? Would every child be a wanted, welcome child? Would children no longer make up the largest percentage of the homeless in America? Would we even have a homeless population? Would we take in our folk, provide for our folk and help our folk provide for themselves starting with our own relatives? And if there is someone out there who doesn’t have any people, would we be their family?
Would there be an end to sexual assault if we saw each person as a reflection of God’s image? Would it no longer be the case that one in four girls and women and one in six boys and men are sexually assaulted in the church and out, by men and sometimes women who are themselves in the church and out, in the pastorate, in our families? Would there be an end to domestic violence? Would murder no longer be the primary cause of death for pregnant women? Would there be an end to terror and terrorism?
How would our language change if we took seriously that what we say about each other and ourselves we say to and about God? How would we talk to children? Would we make jokes about beating children within an inch of their lives and inflicting violence on them to teach them a lesson because that’s how we were raised? Would we humiliate children for our own entertainment? Would we stand by as sombody’s child is bullied to death because we think he’s kind of funny and there’s not enough room in our limited understanding of the image of God for children like that?
When we fail to recognize the image of God in one another or ourselves we can justify doing anything to each other or even ourselves. Osama bin Laden was not alone in willfully denying the image of God in his sisters and brothers in creation and even in his own Muslim community. We are the image of God, and sometimes we reject God's image in other souls. Yet, because love is a two-way street, a feedback loop between the lover and beloved, God put on human flesh and reconfigured Godself in our image. God became flesh and dwelled among us as Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus Mary’s baby from Nazareth, the mortal immortal, Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. He was like us from the womb to the tomb and we are like him.
I’d like to suggest one more thing – before I take my seat – that the crowd included people who cheered the execution of another person created in the image of God that Friday two thousand years ago lost sight of the image of God in him and in themselves, in spite of his living and loving, in spite of his preaching and teaching, in spite of his touching and healing. There were people there watching the Roman spectacle because Jesus had opened their eyes. There were people there listening to the shouts and cries because Jesus opened their ears. There were people there able to cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” because he had loosened their tongues. There were people there walking the Way of Sorrows along with him because he had healed their bodies, straightened out their spines, reversed their paralysis, and lifted them off of their sick beds. There were people there listening to him beg for water who had been wined and dined by him. There were mothers there clutching the children that he had raised from the dead for them, wondering who would do the same for his mother. And all the time, their eyes were watching God.
They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God. They didn’t know that they had been co-opted by their own religious authorities to participate in their own oppression by trying to liquidate their liberator. They didn’t know that when then they told Pilate to give them Yeshua Bar-abba, Jesus Barabbas whose name meant “son of the father,” they were asking for the wrong Jesus, the wrong son of the wrong father. They didn’t know that calling on the name of Yeshua Bar-abba would only set him free but calling on the Name of Yeshua l’Natzaret would set them all free. They didn’t know that encouraging police brutality was an invitation to their own eventual brutalization. They didn’t know that they were murdering the Messiah. They didn’t know that they were crucifying the Christ. They didn’t know that their eyes were watching God because Jesus looked just like one of them, and they had apparently forgotten that they were the very image of God.
Holy God, Mother to the motherless and father to the fatherless, your concern for the woman-born was manifested in becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself as Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for everyone created in the image of God. Amen.