Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for 2013

History Channel’s Satan and President Obama

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.


Jesus’ Bible and the History Channel’s Bible

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.

Howard ThurmanThe 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.

1611 KJV ToCThe 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. 


Habemus Papam ~ The World Has a Pope

Habemus Papam! We have a Pope! 

Pope FrancisDoes that we include me? I argue yes. Not that Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Pontiff is my Pope or even Pope of the world. He is certainly not the world's only Pope. Pope Tawadros II, the beloved Coptic Pope is Francis' rare peer. 

Yet Pope Francis is in some sense the world's Pope. His stature is secured by the size and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, their work and witness in the world. 

I am an Episcopal priest in the Anglican Communion in the broad Anglo-Catholic tradition that shares a common origin with Roman Catholics. We are kin, but we are not the same. We are all Christian and I believe in our sometimes very different ways struggling to different degrees to be disciples of Christ as we understand him and that discipleship.

I rejoice with and for my Roman Catholic kin and friends in the selection of their new Holy Father, Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ. And I am hopeful for the future into which he will lead the Roman Catholic Church and how that will impact the world we share.

I do not expect Pope Francis to call a Third Vatican Council to overturn the celibacy requirement for priests – even though the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges it only adopted that rule to keep married pontiffs like the first thirty-nine popes from passing down the See of Peter like an ordinary kingdom. I do not expect Pope Francis to return the Roman Catholic Church to the tradition of women deacons in the scriptures or pave the way for women's ordination to every office. I do not expect the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis to change long-standing Roman Catholic doctrines on birth-control, abortion or human sexuality. All of those changes would be welcome and I do not rule out the possibility…

My hope and prayer for Pope Francis is that he would listen to the voice of God and shepherd the church faithfully. If he is faithful in all things, then I believe the church cannot but help to change its ways. If Pope Francis truly shifts the perspective of the church to that of, with and for the poor as he has promised in his first words and by choosing the name of St. Francis of Assisi then he will – with God's help as we say in the Anglican Communion – change the world. 

If at every opportunity Pope Francis continues to reject opulence for the sake of opulence and moves beyond that to the eradication of poverty, hunger and disease and, use of the vast wealth of the Roman Catholic Church to for the relief of the poor he will have embodied the Gospel on a scale the world has never seen.

And, I hope, Pope Francis will signal a new era for the Roman Catholic Church in one other way. I hope and pray he would release from holy orders all clergy and religious guilty of and implicated in the sexual abuse of children and adults and covering it up from their vows, authority, employment and benefits and hand over all accusations of misconduct to law enforcement agencies around the world for investigation and prosecutions when warranted – as determined by legal authorities. If he did this he would restore the integrity of the badly damaged and tarnished church.

Whatever path he takes, I pray for and with him and with and for those who love and follow him.


icanhasgozpel, race, gender & me

Pastor Chris Tiedeman discusses the History Channel’s much ballyhooed miniseries on the Bible, its constructions of race and gender and my take on it.


Response to Bible Series Sermons

[Update: Their final response to which I will not respond further.]

I have been responding to the History Channel's The Bible mini-series. Much of that response has been in the form of critique here and on twitter. One series of tweets and my most recent blog post generated a response from Rodney Sampson, Executive Producer of Bible Series Word, which produces sermons to accompany the series. I was critical of the apparent corporate sponsorship of sermons, particularly by a black male preacher given the racialized treatment of the biblical narrative by the series.

As is so often the case on twitter, we exchanged a couple of tweets with escalating rhetoric. Bishop Sampson has posted a blog addressing me directly and my response follows:

You are correct that "[a]uthentic relationships are built over time." I understand this quote was in reference to the Burnett-Downey team and not to me, but it is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree and is the spirit of my response to you.

I encourage you and your production in the pursuit of "truth, open and transparent dialog regarding Biblical antiquity." The viewing public, whether religious or not, Christian or not would benefit from such an approach to the Bible and its narratives. As for the rest of your post, you claim that I made a false statement but do not clarify what it is or offer any evidence to counter it. You then begin to assail me. That is not dialog. I won't respond in that vein. You claim, "ignorance and verbal abuse will not be tolerated at all," however your letter belies that.  

I will address one aspect of the tortuous logic in your piece, that because I critiqued your production I should resign as a priest in order to fund an alternate vision. No. Such an assertion is quite frankly bizarre. 

However, after the verbal assault and creative thinking you made an interesting claim that was new to me:

Now, rather than to simply ignore the lack of color and representation of women in the mini-series, we created the conversation and dialog directly with the executive producers (Roma Downey and Mark Burnett). We also sought permission to create an official sermon series inspired by the mini-series in order to create an opportunity for faith leaders of color and beyond to add a complimentary voice to the epic mini-series that millions have watched to date and will potentially engage for decades to come.

I appreciate your awareness of the limitations of this series. This is the first time I'm hearing anyone associated with the project make this acknowledgement. 

I appreciate your sharing your understanding of the scripture and its interpretation in the following portion of your missive. We share a concern for the liberating aspect of the scripture but in very different ways, with very different assumptions and interpretive practices. Lastly, I want to affirm your final words, "we welcome intelligent and meaningful dialog and conversation." If that is indeed the case, then I invite you to respond in a meaningful way to my blog post, Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel. I have chosen to look beyond the personal attack on me in the response that you entitled "dialogue". But I will not tolerate any further disrespect. I am willing to have an actual dialog with you.

Grace and peace to you.


Black Samson & White Women on the History Channel

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The History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible is a ratings blockbuster. The Bible is an incredibly important text in the history and culture of the United States and Western world, and has its roots in the Eastern world. One would think that the media outlet that entitled itself the “History Channel” would be concerned about those roots. One might even think that the History Channel would endeavor to expose and explore those roots. But last night on episode two, the ill-named History Channel offered us a modern day Mandingo fairy tale.

The choice to cast Nonso Anozie (a black man in a bad dreadlock wig) as Samson as is in no way an attempt to demonstrate the visual and ethnic diversity of the ancient Near East in which this story is set, specifically the West Asian, East and North African context of the scriptures. The absence of characters of African descent up to this point makes that clear. (Just as the use of Black and Asian actors for angels makes them wholly “other” in the cast and not legitimate human bodies.)

That Samson is a big black man with brutish strength and a predilection for white women is no accident in this casting or production. One of the hallmarks of Rona Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s vision of the Bible is the erasure of the Afro-Asiatic Israelite ethnic identity and its replacement with a white, American fundamentalist Christian identity. They do this in several ways.

1) Casting: they cast an abundance of white American and European actors and occasionally paint some dirt on their faces to make them look a little brown. Consider the creation of humanity, told in a flashback. Humanity was created from the humus, an earthling from the earth, in Hebrew an adam from the adamah. Instead of the rich brown-red soil native to Israel, Palestine and the Great Rift Valley which descends from the Holy Land down into Kenya and Tanzania, the producers use sandy white soil from which springs a sandy white man. However, Satan is played by a Middle Mastern man, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni. While widely advertising a “Hispanic” Jesus, the producers actually cast a Portugese actor, Diogo Morgado, with white skin as Jesus. His skin has to be white since Roma Downey (of Touched By An Angel fame, part of the powerhouse team along with Mark Burnett behind this anachronistic whitewash of the bible) cast herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary – shades of Mel Gibson casting a white Jesus so he could insert his own feet into certain shots.

2) The second way the production replaces authentic Israelite identity with a white American fundamentalist and evangelical construction is in the use of quintessentially American race motifs like that of the big black buck or Mandingo, the brutishly strong, bestial black man and his preferential taste for white women. By transforming all of the Afro-Asiatic Israelites into white people, “simply” casting an Afro-British actor as Samson stages a lynching propaganda piece that the Klan would be proud of under the cover of the bible and “diversity.”

3) The third re-writing strategy of the team involves gender. The bible is an androcentric and patriarchal text. It is also a text that has many women’s narratives, including those of strong women wielding power and authority in spite of their patriarchal and androcentric context. There is no room in the Burnett-Downey recreation of the bible in their own image – right down to their own skin tones – for strong biblical women so they simply exclude them. A partial list of the women who have been cut from the narrative include: Yocheved, Moses’ mother and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Zipporah, Moses’ wife and her sisters so that Moses is not the product of a strong community of women all of whom save his life in different episodes, but a lone ranger, a man who became a hero on his own. Hoglah, Milcah, Maacah, Noah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who are mentioned in more biblical books than there are Gospels, for whom God changed inheritance laws in the Torah that women might receive an inheritance – not worthy of attention. The great woman-warrior, Prophet and Judge (sharing those titles with Moses and Samuel and no one else, not even Joshua) Deborah, who ruled the nation – excised. Hannah, the theological revolutionary who taught the priesthood how to pray – unnecessary.

There is a final whitewashing, silencing strategy employed by these producers. That is sanitizing genocide, slavery – when the Israelites are the slavers, sexual violence and heterodox theologies. The bible is a wonderfully rich, complicated, challenging, illuminating, revelatory text. It is also horrifically violent and does not say what we want the way we want it to. We must take it in its entirety seriously as a cultural and historical artifact and as scripture – if that is our confession. But this series erases the texts in which Joshua and the Israelites slaughter babies, kill their mothers, fathers and brothers and take their sisters as war-brides as long as they haven’t had sex – prepubescent girl-children – on the orders of Moses and God. They ignore the texts in which God calls for the enslavement of non-Israelites and their children in perpetuity – the scriptural and theological basis for the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavocracy. They ignore the texts in which entire ethnic groups are exterminated by divine command. And they even ignore the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls within Israel: Lot’s offer of his daughters to be raped by a mob, Israelite fathers selling their daughters into sexual slavery with the permission of God and Moses, a Judge of Israel sacrificing his daughter like an animal and celebrated as a hero of faith in the New Testament, abduction, rape, forced pregnancy used repeatedly as tools of war. Bathsheba’s abduction and rape recast as consensual adultery.

In the American context when rape is being redefined while male bible-thumping legislatures require physicians to forcibly insert instruments into women’s vaginas one day and deny them access to legal medical procedures the next, it matters that and how the bible is being distorted in primetime. Whereas evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis watched with “great delight,” I watched with horror.

In the American context the Israelite identity has been claimed by Christians and particularly by Western, European Christians who were also constructing the categories of white into which they placed themselves and the Afro-Asiatic Israelites. And, the United States was viewed, claimed and seized as a new Canaan for the new Israelites to conquer and subdue, hosting the reincarnation and reenactment of biblical slavery painted in black and white. This is why the whitewash of the bible on the History Channel is so pernicious. It is a continuation of slave-holding racist exegesis. And they ought to be ashamed.

Twitter Stream from Dr. Gafney:

View and download in interactive pdf format

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History Channel (Whitewashes) The Bible – Day 1 (3/3/2013)

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

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Say My Name: Quvenzhané Wallis

(I inadvertantly mispelled Quvenzhané in the earlier version of this post affecting the text in the link. I have corrected it in the post I sincerly apologize to her and to her family.)

A black girl-child must be the most fearsome thing in the world based on how hard so many adults in the juggernaut of Hollywood Hollywierd are working to demean and debase her. Whether it's reporters who can't or won't learn to say her name – "Can I call you Annie?" No. "My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané." (I am not naming the offenders. I refuse to call their names.) Can you imagine a reporter not bothering to learn the name of a world leader because it makes demands on her articulation? Yet some want to call her uppity for insisting on the dignity of her own name. We've seen that before: Grown black women called "Gal," never "Mrs."

And then there was the person and organization who thought it was ok to call a nine year-old baby girl carrying a stuffed dog a vaginal slur.

I am reminded of the prophetic and prescient bell hooks and her continually relevant essay "Selling Hot Pussy." Black women and girls and our brown sisters are commodities from plantations to picture shows reduced to our urogenital orifices. (Bootylicious anyone?) The claim of comedic license would be a joke if it were not so feeble and so deadly. The law of this land not so very long ago was that black women and girls could not be raped because we had no ownership of our own bodies, no right to withhold consent or access from any white man or any black man to which he wanted to breed us. A black woman or girl who defended herself and her womb against violation and pollution was beyond uppity; she was a criminal.

White privilege and its daughter, White Ladihood, cover white child-actressess from Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore to Dakota Fanning in its embrace. They were not and would not be called filth and out of their names on their big night. The actions of these journalists reveal their belief that Miss Quvenzhané Wallis is not deserving of the protections afforded white ladihood, not even at the tender age of nine. Like a slave, she is not afforded the luxury of a childhood. 

No baby, we haven't come a long way. Some have never left the plantation. Others are trying desperately to recreate it and impose it on the rest of us. We are not a post-racial society. We are a society in which a few people of color have made extraordinary accomplishments and are then used as shields to defend against claims of racism. We also live in a world in which violence against women and girls is epidemic and cataclysmic. Little Quvenzhané lives at the intersection of black and female and is doubly impacted, doubly marginalized, doubly vulnerable. 

That the writer who called Quvenzhané Wallis a word no nine year-old should hear, know or have to be shielded from should be held professionally accountable and lose his (or her) job must be said. That so many in the twitterverse an on other social media platforms are outraged is a hopeful sign. But that the media outlet which posted that comment and later took it down without apology has not taken responsibility for its vicious act of sexualized (verbal) violence against a child is reprehensible. That the people who work there don't understand that they feel entitled to treat Quvenzhené they way they are because she is black is the point and the problem.

Quvenzhané, I say your name with pride and respect. You are a gift to this world. You are brilliant and beautiful, made in the image of a loving God whom many cannot or will not recognize because she is a black girl flowering into womanhood. And the world that lynched a Jewish single mother's child simply can't handle God in black female body. (See Janet McKenzie's iconic image of Jesus using a black woman as Christ/a.)

Jesus of the People by Janet McKenzie


Beyoncé & Absalom Jones: Love on Top, Not on Lock

Baby, I need you to hold this for me.

Baby, just say that it's yours.

Baby, you got my love on lock.

Here, "locked" equals "locked down." And for far too many women that means being locked up.

Baby, I can't go back there.

Baby, I've already got three strikes.

Baby, women's prison is soft time.

Baby, if I go back to jail I'll die in there.

Baby, I need you to do this time for me.

You love me, right?

There are so many women in jail because they love a man or a woman somewhere. So many women and girls are caught up in stuff that they never would have been caught up in on their own if it were not for that man that they love. Our society is full of romantic notions about love, sacrificing for love, even your life or freedom. But if it's love as I understand love and as I argue, the Bible understands love, then that love ought to be liberating and not incarcerating. 

I'm thinking here of Ephesians 5:25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. This stands in sharp contrast with a man who asks a woman to do his time for him.

Liberating love has been a regular Valentine's reflection for me. It is my practice to reflect on the life and legacy of the Rev. Father Absalom Jones for Valentine's Day. His Feast Day is 13 February.

Fr. Absalom JonesFather Absalom is the first Anglican priest of African descent and the founder of my congregation, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Before he was a priest, he was a slave. And when he was enslaved, his master rented him out and beneficently – in his own eyes – permitted him to keep some of his earnings. Father Absalom managed to save enough money to purchase himself from bondage. But he did not. Because his wife Mary (King) was also a slave. He would not risk losing her as he had his mother and six siblings whom his master had already sold away.

Father Absalom did not have enough money to purchase freedom for both of them. So he purchased his wife's freedom, setting her free, redemming her from slavery, literally, not metaphorically, just as Christ did for the Church – and as countless unnamed black men did for their families during slavery. In so doing he insured that their children would be born free no matter what happened to him. He remained a slave, not knowing whether he would ever have a second chance, enough money or the opportunity to purchase his own freedom. As it turns out, he would be able to purchase his own freedom, land and property and provide a good living for his family even before he was ordained a deacon and a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. But he didn't know that when he sacrificed his freedom for his wife's.

There are so many distortions of and misrepresentations of black love in the media. There is a subgenre of hip-hop produced for and consumed by the dominant culture in which black folk, especially black women, are pathologized. 

And, the commercialization of Valentine's Day seems to me to be marketed primarily towards women. So, for those women seeking a valentine, especially black women, I lift up Absalom and Mary. Choose a liberating love and not an incarcerating one. A liberating love puts your love on top, not on lock.

Which brings me to Beyoncé:

Baby it's you.
You're the one I love.
You're the one I need.
You're the only one I see.
Come on baby it's you.
You're the one that gives your all.
You're the one I can always call.
When I need you make everything stop.
Finally you put my love on top.

 

 


Mardis Gras on the Mountaintop: The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28 … Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. [Audio link to sermon available here]

Now, let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after saying, “23…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 (About eight days after saying) For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 (About eight days after saying) What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 (About eight days after saying) Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Woman will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of my Father and of the holy angels. 27 (And about eight days after saying) But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the reign of God,” ­– about eight days after saying these things, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll. It’s Mardi Gras, Carnival, time. It was Mardi Gras on the mountaintop. Peter, James and John had stumbled into one heck of a party. There were strobe lights and sound effects and VIP gatecrashers. Perhaps there was even the sound of a heavenly brass band. And Peter didn’t want the party to stop. He didn’t want to come down from that mountain. He didn’t want to go back into the world below, that cold, hard, ugly world from which he came. He wanted to stay in the rarefied air of that little mountain. Perhaps, looking out over the Nazareth Valley in Galilee he recalled when Moses looked out over Canaan from Mount Nebo. I bet, he thought to himself, Moses didn’t want to come down from his mountain either. Because Moses wasn’t going into the Promised Land; in fact, he died on his mountain. It’s Mardi Gras when people live life at a frenetic pace because we remember that life is attended by death. Somewhere in the carnival crowds Baron Samedi and the angel of death await.

It’s also Black History Month. It’s time to commemorate and celebrate mountaintops and their vistas. In this Black History Month on the heels of the birthday and commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many remember that mellifluous baritone intoning:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

We play that clip over and over again, marveling at the prescient prophecy. But are we less likely to dwell on what was going on at the base of that metaphorical mountain in Memphis from which Blessed Martin saw into eternity? Most folk don’t remember that in that very same sermon Martin also said:

…in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.

We don’t play that clip so much. In fact, it's hard to find an audio recording of the whole sermon. It is too easy to fix our sight on the man and his memorials. And now we have a new one that we can visit instead of doing the work that he called us to at the base of the mountain. It is much easier to look up to the top of the mountain than look down into the valley. There in Memphis the mountain of soaring oratory towered over the street protests of sanitation workers; civil servants, the poor peoples’ campaign and their integrated, interracial, multicultural allies fighting City Hall for an honest contract and more than that, fighting for recognition of the sacred worth of all human persons and the dignity of honest labor.

There are city workers and other unions all over our nation and some in our own city locked in a new generation of struggle with City Hall. And while so much has changed, in many of those struggles the basic issue of human dignity is as much at stake as it was in Martin’s day. And there are other issues. But perhaps we’d rather look to the man on the mountaintop in our memories than wrestle with the competing claims of today’s contestants when people of color can be found on both sides of the social, political and economic battle lines, some in the right and some in the wrong. And it’s not that easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys at the foot of our mountain, without the fire hoses and the German shepherds.

Besides, if we stay on the mountain with Martin and Jesus we don’t have to deal with the violence in our streets, homes and schools, black on black crime: Black men and boys shooting other black men and boys down like dogs in the street. Black men beating and raping and killing black women and children. Black women and men neglecting and abusing their children and, neglecting and abusing their elders. We don’t have to deal with the failure of our public schools, we don’t have to deal with our crumbling physical infrastructure, we don’t have to deal with the miseducation and criminalization of black boys and hypersexualization of black girls by those inside and outside of our communities. We don’t have to deal with unemployment rates and net financial worth in inverse proportions. If we just remember Martin on his mountaintop we won’t ever go down into those valleys. We could stay in that moment of perpetual celebration, Mardi Gras in Memphis, Mardi Gras on the mountaintop, just like Jesus’s disciples in the Gospel on Deborah’s mountain.

For more than a thousand years Christians in the Holy Land have identified Mt. Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration. While Peter is planning on continuing his Mardis Gras on the mountain, he is standing on the dust and bones of his ancestors and those of the Canaanites they defeated while following the command of the prophet Deborah, theocratic head of the confederated Israelite tribes. When Deborah and her ride-or-die chick Ya’el finished cleaning house, there was forty years of Mardi Gras in Israel after her death.

 The holy ground of Mt. Tabor that Deborah purchased in blood has been made holier still by the appearance of two archetypal prophets from each end of the spectrum in Israel: Moses the Law-Giver represents proclamation prophecy; Elijah the Wonder-Worker represents performance prophecy and Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s Child is the inheritor of both their mantles.

Who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop with them? I know I wish I were there. Moshe Rabbenu, I’ve got a few questions for you: How much does the Torah passed down in your name reflect what you actually said and did and experienced? And now that you have crossed over to the other side, how much space is there between your experience and articulation of God and the God whom you now know in eternity? Why couldn’t you find a woman from your own folk you could stand long enough to marry? And is the bias against women in the Bible directly related to your domestic issues? And Elijah, I have a couple of questions for you too: how does being taken bodily up into heaven in a chariot of fire actually work? Does your body phase in and out of solid matter cohesion like in a transporter beam? Is heaven on the other side of a wormhole? When you killed the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal but not the four hundred prophets of Asherah was it because you really didn’t mind a little goddess worship on the side? Are we feminists right in saying that Asherah was just the Canaanite articulation of the Holy Spirit and not really another God? Those are just some of my questions. I don’t know if Peter had questions or if he just wanted to be in the presence of his holy and revered spiritual ancestors.

It was Mardi Gras up on that mountain and Peter wants the good times to roll on, he doesn’t want the party to stop. If he and James and John can stay up on that mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah there’s no telling who – or what – else might just stop by. And even if the prophets Miriam, Deborah and Huldah don’t show up, even if Isaiah and his Baby Mama don’t stop by – yeah, he had one, at least one; Peter is in the presence of the company of heaven: with prophets, apostles and martyrs – though none of them know it yet. There has never been a Mardi Gras celebration quite like this. And there never will be again, not on this side of eternity. They need to savor this moment while it lasts.

Besides, the way Jesus is going, he is going to get himself killed before he does all the things he’s been talking about. How can he usher in the reign of God if he is executed, crucified, lynched by the Romans? Jesus needs a time out. That’s it. Peter is doing this for him. Jesus needs a retreat; he needs to get away. Jesus needs time to be reminded who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. Peter is just helping. Jesus needs to focus. Somebody’s got to take charge of this thing.

And so Peter lays the groundwork for building an institutional church on the top of the mountain, the Mardi Gras Mission. He’s already working on its architectural plans and interior design. It won’t be very big because he’s not planning on any new members; there is no evangelism in his future. Outsiders need not apply, or if they do show up, if they do take it upon themselves to climb that mountain, they will be welcome as long as they don’t disturb things too much.

But Mardi Gras doesn’t last forever. Ash Wednesday is close behind. Only a split second separates them. And so, between one breath and the next, Moses and Elijah return to glory. And Jesus leads Peter, James and John back down that mountain. Peter doesn’t want to go down into the valley of Lenten discipline and depravation. There is death and self-denial at the foot of that mountain. There is disease and demonic possession at the foot of the mountain. There’s just too much need. Too many folk and too little time. And they all want to cut in on his time with Jesus. If they just stayed on the mountaintop a little while longer they might just forget there was anybody else outside their little privileged circle, hungry, hoping, desperate, dreaming, waiting for them to come down and live the gospel.

But when they come down from that mountain, they don’t tell anyone what they have seen. They don’t tell anyone about the power and presence of God that they have experienced. They don’t tell anyone that they have seen Jesus in a completely new light. They keep their Epiphany to themselves. And when they encounter the people of God with all their needs, they do nothing, say nothing. It is as though the Mardi Gras on the mountaintop has had no effect on them. Jesus has to do it all, all by himself.

And there, at the base of the mountain, Jesus gives them another glimpse of God. He shows them God in service. God revealed in the glory of the cloud, attended by the holy ancestors is also God who ministers to the desperately ill. Jesus came down from that mountain because his sisters and brothers needed him. I needed him. You needed him. The world needed him. We need him. And Peter and James and John needed to learn how to be the church in the valley, in the field, in the streets and in the trenches. As we descend into the Lenten valley from the mountaintop of Epiphany, may we be the ones to meet the needs we encounter.

Jesus also came down from that mountain, because there was a waiting cross at the foot of that mountain, just out of sight, attending his way like Baron Samedi and the angel of death. May we follow that cross from Mardi Gras to Lent and back again, through Shadow-Valley Death to the other side where les bon temps, the good times, rouler, roll on, for eternity in that Mardi Gras without end. Amen.


Great Balls of Fire: Parshat Yitro, Haftarah

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?

 

Conclusion:

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.


Blessed Martin, Pastor Prophet

 

Blessed Martin, Pastor Prophet

Westminster Abbey

1. Holy God, you raise up prophets,
Praise and honor do we sing.
For your faithful, humble servant,
Doctor Martin Luther King.

Refrain: Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet,
You the mountaintop did see;
Blessed Martin, holy martyr:
Pray that we may all be free.

2. Moral conscience of his nation,
Reconciling black and white,
Dreamed he of a just society,
We must carry on his fight.

3. Teacher of Christ-like non-violence
To the outcast, poor and meek;
Greater weapon 'gainst oppression
Is to turn the other cheek.

4. Preacher of Christ's love for neighbor,
He won Nobel's prize for peace;
Peoples, beat your swords to plough shares,
Wars 'twixt nations all shall cease.

5. Champion of oppressed humanity
Suff'ring throughout all the world;
He offered pride and dignity
Let Christ's banner be unfurled!

6. So, when felled by sniper?s bullet,
Under heavens overcast,
He could cry, "Thank God Almighty,
I am free, I'm free at last."

Music by Carl Haywood
Words by Harold T. Lewis

Lift Ev'ry Voice & Sing Hymnal, The Episcopal Church


Rape Culture, God and the Bible

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 21:10-14Judg 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.

(Also available on the Huffington Post)


Shabbat Va’era: (Re)Writing Torah and History

‏ 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

 

 


Yeshua ben Miryam, the Son of Woman

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.


Shabbat Shemoth

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