I pay attention to the peopling of the world in the vision filmmakers. I want to know if there are people like me in their worlds, people of African descent, people of color. In Darren Aronofsky’s vision of Noah and his world I do not exist. People like me do not exist. Black, brown and beige people do not exist even though the story is the story of the destruction and re-peopling of the whole Earth. Noah and his family and all of his ancestors and even all the lost, dying, drowning people are white people. Adam and Eve glow with the light of innocence in their white skins. Ham, the ancestor of African peoples – at least according to the biblical text –has white skin and as a little boy, dark blue eyes. And that matters to me as a biblical scholar and seminary professor and, as a person of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, whose enslavement was justified in part on readings of the Scriptures that emerge from ancient Israel because these texts are also my scriptures.
As an origin story, the story of Noah and his sons and their descendants purports to tell the story of human diversity, many peoples of differing ethnicities descended from a single family, a common ancestor. There is an evolutionary equivalent. However on this planet, the first humans were African, all others derivative. Without other genetic material, the offspring of black and brown people can be lighter than their parents, but it doesn’t work the other way around.
Expecting an origin story, even a mythological one, to make some sense and correspond in some way to the world from which it emerges is not confusing scripture with science. While they are not incompatible, they are not the same. As a biblical scholar I want to remind readers and viewers that Genesis is a collection of sacred stories in the larger collection of Israel’s sacred stories including ancestral, origin and cosmological stories. Those texts and their stories were neither scientific methodologies – how to make a world in seven easy days if you don’t define a day as the earth’s 24 hour rotation because they thought the earth was flat and… – nor are they historical archives.
As a seminary professor I ask my students how the text is true. These mythological lifespans do not correspond with what we know about human beings, the archaeological or scientific record. They did not correspond to what the Israelites knew about their flat-earth world either. (The prelude to the Noah story in Genesis chapters 6-9 says that Noah is 500 years old when he fathers his sons. Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.) As origin stories the stories in Genesis preserved the cultural heritage of the people who would become Israelites, heritage that converged with and diverged from other ancient near eastern peoples with their own impossibly long-lived ancestors and their own flood stories.
The movie is an interpretation of the biblical narrative as are all readings, whether on film or not – including those that claim to be literal readings. As such, the movie is a midrash, in the tradition of classical Jewish exegesis. One aspect of midrash is filling in the spaces in the stories. We all do that to some degree. Putting the text on the screen requires filling out the story. Darren Aronofsky’s choices create a new interpretation of the story and that is neither a good nor a bad thing. That is the work of meaning making. And we all do it. For those fixated on the truth of the text, proving or disapproving the existence of Noah, the flood or God, I can’t help you. I’m not arguing either case. Nor, I think, is the movie. (Aronofsky speaks about his vision of the film here.) It is telling a story, a story of Noah, based of the biblical text.
The reduction of truth to literally true or not at all is a contemporary notion, like limiting biblical interpretation to literal readings (except maybe for parables). The truth is the biblical text uses a variety of genres, rhetoric and literary devices to communicate the truths of its messages (plural) through the lenses of its original speakers, writers, editors and those who preserved it. Beyond that, religious readers see the hand of God at work in differing ways. Some understand the text to have been dictated and copied unerringly and find their favorite English translation to be an exact rendering. Others find the hand – better breath – of God at work in each phase of the process including among those who hear, read and interpret as much as with those who spoke, remembered, repeated, recorded and translated.
The truth of the text is not in or limited to its literal reading even on the cases where the text is literally true. As a Christian the paradigm that helps me understand the richness and complexity of the text is the nature of Jesus, human and divine. The text is human and divine. The text is not, cannot be, more divine than Jesus. And like Jesus, the human parts cannot be easily listed as separate and distinct from the divine parts. To say that Jesus’ physical hunger was exclusively human is to reify the old dualism in which the body and all of its processes are somehow lower and lesser than the spirit and its processes. God becoming human, embodied, enfleshed, sanctifies our humanity, including our human bodies.
My black, woman’s body is a human body but it is not represented in Darren Aronofsky’s movie. No one in the whole wide world that he has created is black like me.
My review of the movie’s content in relation to the content of the books of Genesis and Enoch is available here.
A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39
Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)
It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.
All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.
When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְהוָה׃ וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃
God spoke to Moshe, and said to him: I am YHWH.
I was seen (va'era) by Avraham, by Yitzhak, and by Yaakov as God Shaddai,
but by my name YHWH I was not known to them. Exodus 6:2
The last time I drashed this parshah was the first Shabbat after the Inauguration of our forty-fourth President, Barack Hussein Obama. I thought about how his election wrote and rewrote history which led me to thinking about other radical re-writes, to the Constitution and even to some of our religious traditions. I decided to use an approach that I had assigned to my students for their mid-term examination, to read a passage, reversing elements of the narrative, I did some of this previously as well:
In a parallel universe in Parshat Va’era, God appears to Miryam HaNeviah, preferring her company and designating her as the prototypical and archetypal prophet. In yet another universe, God appears to Miryam and Moshe together. In other universes, God appears to Aharon, and to all the people together, eliminating hierarchy.
In one of these appearances, God declares, “I am the LADY” – as one of my students wrote in all capital letters signifying the holy four letters. GOD-WHOSE-NAME-IS-TOO-HOLY-TO-BE-PRONOUNCED – my preferred designation for the Most Holy Name – She spoke to her prophet (or prophets or people) and said:
I appeared to Hagar, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah as God who cradles and nurses the world at her breast, but by Most Holy Name, I was not known.
God told her prophets and people, “Go and tell the Her Majesty the King of Egypt” – here I imagine the gender-bending Hatshepsut who changed her public gender from female to male – “tell her to let my people go.” And she did. And she asked, “May I go with you? Can we worship at the mountain of the One together? Can we be God’s people too?”
In the alternate universes in my head, it’s a much shorter story. In these versions, God does not harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish and kill him for being hard-hearted. In these versions, God does not hurt or kill the Egyptians created in her image; God does not inflict pain and suffering on the animals into whom she also blew the breath of life; God does not afflict the earth that she hand-crafted.
This alternative Torah comes with an alternative haftarah by the prophet Yechezqelet:
So says She Who Is the Sovereign GOD: “When I gather the house of Israel along with the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them all in the sight of the nations, then they all shall settle on their own soil that I gave to all of my servants, the daughters of Chava and their children, including the daughters of Hagar, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah and all of their children. They shall all live in safety in it, and shall all build houses and plant vineyards. They shall all live in safety, when I bring justice to all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt and been treated with contempt themselves in turn. And they shall all know that I am the ONE, their God.”
Can anything be learned from rewriting the Torah? What happens when folk whose story is not the story of the Torah take that story for themselves? What happens when these parallel universes are not just in my head?
In one universe, some American Christians used the stories in this torah to exterminate as many of inhabitants of this land as possible. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. In yet another universe, some German Christians, claiming allegiance to the God of this torah burned the Torahs that tell this story and the bodies of those who cherished Torah along with other undesirables. They did not see themselves as Pharaoh, but others did. Some of those who have rewritten this torah in their image have wreaked havoc on this world.
But they are not the only readers with an active imagination. In another universe, there were other readers, or perhaps hearers – most were not literate – who shared African ancestry with the Egyptians, and some with the Afro-Asiatic Israelites, but they knew they were not Pharaoh. They knew that they too were Israel, not because of the supercessionist Christianity that says God has replaced the Jews with Christians, but because they knew that they were God’s children. And they were slaves. And they knew that God would deliver them from bondage. Some of them may have known that they were farther from Egypt in slavery than their ancestors were in freedom. But they knew they were in Egypt. And God sent another Moses, and oh boy, oh girl, wasn’t she a sight to see.
Their children’s children’s children, kept reading themselves into other people’s stories. “All men are created equal,” but they were valued as 3/5 of a person, and their women – like the dominant culture women – didn’t count. Feminist women and queer folk seeking justice have read themselves into this story, whether or not they had an ethnic or religious claim on the Torah.
One more set of radical re-writes for your consideration: All women and men and children are created equal. What is rather than being counted as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution, black folk were entitled to 3/5 of the wealth generated by their ancestors? And what if we changed the haftarah for today from Yechezqelet to Yeshayahah? A text that is all the more intriguing because it is not in the lectionary or haftarah readings for any Jewish or Christian community that I could find: Isaiah 19:24-25, as it is written, “One day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the center of the earth, whom the COMMANDER of angel armies has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”
What’s the worst that can happen if we take this unauthorized haftarah seriously? Reconciliation between Africans and Assyrians, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Egypt? The US isn’t part of the geography of that holy land, but we could follow or even set an holy example. Dream a little dream with me as we discuss these questions:
1) The Torah is Israel’s story, yet they are accompanied out of Egypt by a mixed multitude – whom the rabbis don’t like too much and blame for nearly everything that goes wrong. Who’s in that mixed multitude today and what are they doing in this world?
2) What texts would you add in to the reading cycle? What texts come alive for you when you read them?
3) Can midrash change the world?
Shabbat shalom שבת שלם
Exodus 1:1 These are the names (shemoth) of the sons of Yisra’el who came into Egypt with Ya‘akov…
Baniym can of course mean "sons" or "children" and usually I err on the side of inclusion. But in this text, it is clear that only male progeny are indicated, demonstrated by the list of names that follow. These are the names of Israel’s sons, but what about his daughters?
5 So it was that all the souls, the ones who went out from Ya‘akov’s loin, יוצאי ירך יעקב, were seventy souls.
“The ones who exited, went out” – dare I say “squirted out”? – of Jacob’s singular loin, a euphemism for the specific male organ rather than “genitals” in general usually indicated by the plural or “thigh” when ירך is singular in other contexts, were seventy souls. There are twelve names given for those sons in v 1 and seventy souls altogether in v 5. Perhaps then, Jacob had fifty-eight daughters with Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah – the text being clear that Rachel had only Benjamin and died giving birth to him. Who were these fifty-eight benei-or perhaps better-banoth-Ya‘akov? We know Dinah’s name. What about the other fifty-seven? Were they all daughters or were there lesser sons deemed insignificant by the authors of the text?
Today I’d like to reflect on the stories of Shemoth from the perspective of Jacob’s daughters, daughters-in-law and the other women whose stories become intertwined with those of Israel: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, an African princess, nearly invisible servant girls, Zipporah and her seven shepherding sisters – and their mother along with the daughters of Israel…
In response to this prompt the Dorshei Derekh Minyan engaged with me in some contemporary midrash – not bound to the rules of the classical schools – but allowing ourselves to retell the sacred stories in order to ask questions of and answer questions left by the Torah.
Here are some of the fruits of our sanctified imaginations (to use the language of the Black Church):
- Were Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women or women who provided midwifery services for the Hebrew people? (The Hebrew is ambiguous.) Their names are Semitic: Shiphrah’s name is sh-ph-r, “to be beautiful” in Hebrew and “to be pleasing” in Aramaic; perhaps sapphire. Puah’s name might be Ugaritic for “girl-child,” like Nina in Spanish and Walidah in Arabic.
- What does it mean that Pharoah spoke to Shiphrah and Puah in person? Did he know them? How did he know them or know of them? What did it mean for them to speak to a man who was a living god in their world?
- Was the Egyptian princess who became Moshe's adoptive mother infertile? (Was she even married?) Did Moses grow up alone, a child among adults in a palatial home?
- Did Yocheved, Moshe's mother, arrange for him to be taught the ways of his people aftershe weaned him? Did she recommend a tutor? Did she and the princess collaborate in raising him? Did she send Miryam in to be his teacher? Did Miryam send herself in to be Moshe's teacher? (How many years were there between Miryam and Moshe? – enough that Miryam was old enough to watch over her baby brother: 5, 10, more?)
- How did Yocheved's experience growing up in Egypt watching things go from bad to worse after one Pharoah with whom her people had good relations was replced by one who would seek to anihilate them all affect her choices? It strikes me that Yocheved prefigures European Holocaust victims, watching the governments and people they knew turn into monsters whom they no longer knew or recognized. Then Yocheved became an agent of resistance: the very decision to give birth was an act of defiance.
- Yocheved’s experience, trying to maintain family unity as a slave-woman – albeit one with a beneficent mistress – was comparable to the experiences of enslaved African women in the American south, regularly separated from spouses and children, even if they labored on the same plantation. Indeed the experience of Moshe having more than one mother has ongoing corollaries in many African diasporic contexts where mothering is not limited to women who give birth. Many black churches in the Americas celebrate birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, heart-mothers, other-mothers and single fathers on Mother’s Day.
- What happened in Moshe's life in exile that prepared him for his encounter with the Burning Bush and for leadership. How did the hotheaded murderer become patient enough to observe that the Burning Bush was not being consumed?
- What effect did Zipporah's worship of the God whose Name Moshe did not know have in preparing Moshe to fulfill his vocation? What on earth is going on when God later tries to kill Moshe – I call it a Divine Drive-By – and Zipporah has to stave God off with a penile blood offering.
- What's going on in Moshe's family that he sends his wife Zipporah away – divorcing her – takes them back when her father brings them back to him but doesn't speak to them again in the text? Why are the biblical authors unclear about how to spell the name of Moshe's younder son? Why does their family virtually disappear from the pages of scripture?
- When the tribes are arrayed before the Presence of God with the tents of Aaron and Moshe in the fromt, in the vanguard of the tents of Levi, where is Miryam's tent? Isn't she in the vangard with them?
Today, Shabbat Shemoth, Sabbath of the Names, we remembered that not all names are named in the scriptures. We looked for their stories if not their names in the text, behind the text and in the spaces in and between the words in the text. And when necessay, we named them ourselves. Shabbat shalom. שבת שלם