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Latest Discussion - Genesis 46-47 - Big Move, Troubling Legacy with Dr. Raymond Roberts

Genesis 46:1-30

Joseph’s family moves to Egypt. The consequences of decisions and actions we make often lie far in the future, beyond our knowing. Israel moved because of the promise of food and God’s blessing. Would they have moved if they had foreseen the possibility of slavery? Would the larger story of God’s redemptive work make it worthwhile? It has God’s blessing; that is, God will preserve God’s people and fulfill the promise to make them a great nation. As we move through the uncertainties of life, we can find comfort that God’s redemptive purpose will ultimately determine the meaning of lesser events.

Genesis 46:31-47:12 - Settling in Goshen

It is a testament of Joseph’s power that they move before they are introduced to Pharaoh. We have the intersection of two very different cultures. Remember Joseph shaved his head when he went before Pharaoh. Shaving heads was likely a clear marker between Egyptians and everyone else. Also remember that the Egyptians detested eating with Hebrews. We aren’t sure why. In this passage, Joseph tells his family to be opaque as to their shepherding, as Egyptians look down on shepherds as Egyptians cannot stand shepherds (46:33). Were nomadic shepherds a threat to the stable Egyptian agrarian economy? One wonders how these differences contributed to the slavery that described in Exodus. 

Still it appears that they settle in good land, and their needs are taken care of. And Joseph has the power to make it happen.

Genesis 47:13-26 – Joseph enslaves the Egyptians

Yes. You read that correctly. This passage tells how Joseph and Pharaoh fared after they stored grain during the “fat” years. When the famine hit Pharaoh, the grain market cornered. Pharaoh had Joseph leverage his monopoly to buy all the land, so that, “The land became Pharaoh’s and the people became slaves from one end of Egypt to the other”(Genesis 47:20b-21).

When people no longer owned land (the means of production), they were vulnerable. Some people were forced into cities. Others became sharecroppers. And Joseph has his fingerprints all over it. 

This episode connects to a prominent theme that runs through the Bible that connects ownership and freedom. Leviticus 25 mandates a year of Jubilee every 50 years, allowing people to return to the lands of their inheritance that their parents or grandparents may have lost during the intervening years. These laws prevented what Pharaoh did from happening in Israel; that is, it prevented the wealthy from consolidating too much territory and ensured that, over time, the land would remain relatively equally distributed among free individuals and tribes. The justification for these laws rested on God’s insistence, “the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23).

These land laws (and the egalitarianism they protected) lie behind every discussion of land in the Bible. They lie behind directives to leave a portion of the harvest in the fields for the poor to glean (Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24: 20,21). They lie behind restrictions that prohibit daughters who possess land from marrying outside the tribe (Numbers 36). They are the reason Naboth refused to sell his vineyard and why Elijah condemned of Ahab for taking it (I Kings 21). They undergird prophetic denunciations of those who “join house to house and field to field” (Isaiah 5.8). They inspired prophetic visions of land redistribution that would allow everyone is to live under “his or her own vine and fig tree” (Isaiah 36:13, Micah 4:4). They lie behind the complaint arising from the children of Israel who had recently returned from exile in Babylon: that they were losing their land during another famine and being sold into slavery and forced into prostitution (Nehemiah 5). These laws provide the background for Joseph and Mary’s going to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2) and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

Eric Nelson in his book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, notes that Reformed thinkers took the Bible seriously and that they drew on this strand of Biblical thinking to challenge European agrarian laws. These texts were why the founders thought that some economic equality was important for democracy and led them to fear that an aristocracy would arise.

Let us be clear: Biblical texts that mandate land redistribution are not interested in eliminating ownership like the Marxists. Indeed, if Pharaoh was the government, the consolidation of his landholdings provides a cautionary tale. Rather, these texts are interested in ensuring that ownership was justly and broadly distributed among the people. It guaranteed that everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labor and live in sufficiency. By regularly redistributing the land, the laws of jubilee prevented preventing intergenerational poverty from developing into a permanent underclass or caste system. It forestalled the development of the sort of two-tier citizenship we see in most ancient (and some modern) societies. It did not foster dependency, but empowered people. In contrast to slavery, owning land encouraged virtues of stewardship and initiative. What this means for today I have yet to fully work out.

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People of the Book - Latest Discussion - Genesis 42-45: Family Matters

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People of the Book - Latest Discussion - Genesis 42-45: Family Matters

Genesis 42 – Guess Who Is Coming for Dinner with Dr. Raymond Roberts

Like recessions, depressions, and other economic dislocations, famine forces people to move. This is why humans occupy every habitable region of the world – and even places whose extreme temperatures I consider uninhabitable!  In an age where travel is easy, migration is making an increasingly interconnected world.  It is estimated that 244 migrants today or 3.3% of the world’s population.

This passage reminds us that migrants are vulnerable and, relatively, powerless. They don’t belong. They may not speak the language (they are using an interpreter to speak with Joseph and don’t understand that he can understand them).  They don’t have rights. Joseph can, on a whim, make accusations and lock them up. This is instructive for those of us who follow the one whose power was made perfect in weakness.

When Joseph’s brothers show up he recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. On the one hand, their inability to recognize him is understandable: Joseph had deliberately shed his Hebrew identity. He shaved his head and beard (he no longer sports the wild-man look). He wears makeup and chic Egyptian threads. He swears by Pharaoh (v. 15), playing the part. And of course, most importantly, he is out of context. They cannot imagine that this powerful Egyptian is their brother. On the other hand, their failure to recognize that Joseph is their brother is yet another instance in a long line of failures. 

In recognizing his brothers Joseph revisits his own identity. He is filled with contradictory emotions: Sweet revenge for the violence done to him. Vindication, as Joseph remembered the dream that got him into such trouble is precisely fulfilled as his brothers bow before him (v.6).  Anger – evidence by his harsh tone toward them. And tears, which cause him to turn away. Could he even be glad to see him? What emotions may be in play?  

Joseph accuses them of spying. The ten brothers literally reply in Hebrew, “Twelve brothers your servants are… and one is no more” (v. 13).  Ironically the one they view/claim as dead is their accuser.

What do you make of Joseph’s “playing” with his brothers? Is it revenge or a test? The guilt the brothers confess before Joseph suggests that Joseph has achieved the desired result (v. 21,22). Notice that the narrator tells us how Joseph pleaded with his brothers for his life, a detail that was not revealed earlier. Notice also that the guilt is collective. Reuben who tried to stop them does not absolve himself from what they perceive as collective punishment.

The return of the silver (v. 25) mirrors the silver the brothers received from the Ishmaelites for Joseph. What do we make of the second discovery of silver in verse 35?  Is this a second tradition or are the brothers acting this discovery out in front of their father?

V. 38 – Jacob’s favoritism continues to stun sensitive readers. He refuses to allow them to take Benjamin, Joseph’s brother through Rachel, for “He alone remains.” What are the rest of the brothers, who are all sons of Leah? Apparently… nothing… It is the sort of disinheritance that caused them to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place.

Genesis 43 – A Second Journey

Poor Simeon. They did not rush back to spring him from prison. Jacob seems willing to sacrifice him in order to protect Benjamin. 

But with time the grain is eaten and hunger returns. Judah confronts Jacob and puts the issue forcibly, either we risk Benjamin or we all (including our children) will die. He even takes personal responsibility, whereas Reuben promised the sacrifice his two sons, the next generation. Some believe that in this speech, he replaces Reuben as head of the family, the First Born.

For a second time Joseph breaks into tears. Like many powerful men and so as not to give up the ruse, Joseph takes leave and weeps alone. He washes to remove any evidence and then commands a supper.

The Egyptians would not eat with Hebrews. It is not entirely clear why. Some think it is because the Hebrews ate lamb, which is also described as detestable (Genesis 46:34). Others think there religious reasons may lie behind this. But the end result is that Egyptians, the brothers (seated by age) and Joseph eat at different tables. Benjamin is treated with favoritism (5x more food) but shares with his brothers.

Genesis 44 – Framing Benjamin

One wonders whether Joseph intended to rebuild his family with Benjamin, his blood (by both father and mother) brother.  Again, Judah speaks directly, having replace Reuben about the consequences of not returning with Benjamin. Notice Judah is concerned less about what will happen to him than the grief would cause his father.

Genesis 45 – The Great Reveal

Joseph reveals himself. His brothers are terrified. and he is overcome by grief. 

But notice how Joseph frames the terrible events in terms of God’s redemptive purpose. We cannot always see God’s redemptive purpose in this life, but the notion that God redeems and can bring good out of tragedy and evil, is a central claim of the gospel. It is the message of the cross. 

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Week 1: Genesis 38-41 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 1: Genesis 38-41 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

The Joseph stories in Genesis show us a man of contradictions – more contradictions than most Christians remember. Jacob was always a trickster, from birth. Joseph is more complicated; in turns, morally virtuous and foolish, long-suffering and braggadocios, insightful and conniving, wise and totally corrupt in ways that will bite the Hebrew people hard. It is a fantastic story.

The story of Joseph began in our last reading. Joseph is favored, son of favored wife, Rachel. His siblings, most of whom were older, were sons of the less favored wife, Leah. Joseph, unlike his brothers, does not work the fields and hangs around the house. He is given an extravagant coat of many colors, which none of the other brothers receive. All of this is classic bad parenting and suggests the sorts of problems that naturally attend to polygamy and showing favoritism that can find its way into ordinary families.

Not only is Joseph favored; he is clueless. He does not recognize the favoritism or how it provokes jealousy among his brothers. Joseph is self-absorbed. He is young. This life is the only life he’s known. For him, things just are the way they are.

His favored position in the family sets him up to dream that he will rule over his brothers, a dream that will eventually come to pass. His privilege makes him unable to anticipate his brothers’ reactions when he informs them of their future servitude.

All of this reminds me how many problems are driven by a failure to imagine how our actions and privileges impact others. The privileged tend to be clueless as to others’ struggles. The powerful often assert dominance in ways that provoke resentment. Is any of us capable of seeing our privileges objectively? I think our nation and world would be much better off if we humbly acknowledge that some of us maybe haven’t earned everything that has come our way; if we listened and did a better job at counting our blessings.

Genesis 38 – We Interrupt this Story…

The Joseph narrative is interrupted for a disturbing story about Judah and Tamar. This is a story we don’t tell the kids and for good reason. Like a lot of the Bible, it is not a “go and do likewise” sort of story. But, that said, it is a rich study in hypocrisy that contains lessons that would benefit us “adults.”

Why interrupt the Joseph story to tell us this? Joseph, the favored one, was sold into slavery (presumed by his father to be dead). Reuben, the eldest, messed with his father’s concubines and showed himself to be inept at protecting Joseph. Simeon and Levi, who led the assault on Schechem, are hotheads. That leaves... Judah, the one who saved Joseph’s life – by selling him into slavery! He is the presumptive heir of the covenant. And this is his story.

The story begins with Judah leaving his brothers. In doing this he carries out in spirit, the very act his brothers committed to Joseph. He also takes a local, Canaanite woman for his wife. Tragedy strikes the family. Onan’s sin is not coitus interruptus, but his unwillingness to fulfill his brotherly duty. He takes pleasure of Tamar but doesn’t want to raise the seed of his dead brother (yeah… this is not how we’d handle this or view this today). After Onan dies, Judah is unwilling to risk any other sons and asks Tamar to live as a widow. By doing this, Judah denies Tamar a child – one of the chief purposes of marriage (along with companionship). Tamar is unwilling to accept this. 

With his wife now deceased, Judah reconnects with his friend (Hira) first mentioned in 38:1, and now again in 38:12. Friendship can make for a substitute family. While on his way to sheering sheep, Judah pays for sex with a person he thinks is a Canaanite temple prostitute. Temple prostitution was common in ancient religions and can even be seen today in India. Do not begin to enumerate all the taboos that are broken in this act.

When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he hastily demands that she be burned to death. She is only saved when she produces irrefutable proof that Judah is the father. From a certain perspective Tamar is only taking what she’s got coming to her, the child she wanted and deserved. Children Judah denied her and, ironically, gave her. She refused the wage of a young goat, so she’s not exactly been a harlot. In Hebrew the words that she confronted Judah with (38:25) must have cut doubly deep as they are the same as the brother’s words when they presented Jacob with Joseph’s multicolored coat and said, “Recognize I pray.” (37:32).

Judah is outted and confesses that Tamar is “more righteous than I.”  My sense is that the world would be spared a lot of self-righteous harm if more of us were familiar with this story. Tamar bears twins… she is doubly blessed. She is the ancestor to King David and, as Matthew tells us in his genealogy in Chapter One, this Canaanite woman is one of a couple of questionable women ancestors to Jesus, whose story includes us all.

Genesis 39 – Potiphar’s Wife

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Joseph resists Potiphar’s wife and next thing you know, she’s managed to have him thrown in prison. Joseph is a stranger in a strange land, far away from his family, cut off from the moral supports of family, religious taboo, and familiarity. My point I’m leading to is that temptation is not simply about the strength of our inner character, it also involves external circumstances. In this regard what do we make of Joseph going into Potiphar's house alone? Was he aware of her desire? Was he flying close to the flame? Is he entirely innocent here? 

Still, in the moment, he does the right thing, which more than you could say about Reuben or Judah, both of whom indulge their sexual appetites. But how was his refusal heard? Notice how when she reports the incident to the other servants he relies on their solidarity as Egyptian solidarity and their superiority over the Hebrews (39:14-15). Were the terms of his rejection impolitic, deepening the insult of being rejected by a Hebrew slave?  Compare this with his desire to fit in with Pharaoh later.

As Joseph was lying in that small room with the strong vertical accents, he likely doubted that he lived in a moral universe. His brothers sold him out, why shouldn’t he sell out too? In explaining his refusal he had professed faith in God, but later may have entertained the notion that a bit of immorality might have spared him considerable pain and trouble.

One wonders whether he appreciated that “the Lord was with him” (verse 39:21), especially with all he’d gone through/was going through. Usually, this is the sort of knowledge that you see more clearly in retrospect. Think how surprised Jacob was at Bethel when, after dreaming of angels ascending and descending, he declared, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”

The Bible says that “the Lord gave Joseph success in whatever he did” (39:23). From where you sit today living in prison probably does not look successful. Maybe our vision of success is at once too big and too small: too big to notice the small graces of life and too small to imagine what God has in store for us. Perhaps the key to trusting that the Lord is with us is to notice the small things (the kindness and trust the prison ward showed him) and to remember the big picture.

Genesis 40 – Dreams of the Kitchen and Wait Staff

In this chapter we see Joseph’s interpreting dreams. What are we to make of this in light of Joseph’s professed principle for interpreting dreams, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8). Does he possess divine wisdom… or cunning? Given that Egyptian religion reserved esoteric knowledge available only to priests, perhaps the point of these stories is to show that Joseph is able to move and work in the highest circles of power. A modern parallel might be cultural literacy, an ability to pick up on and properly interpret casual references from literature, history and manners among the American elite. If you don’t know why the table has two sizes of forks, you will be marked as an outsider.

Notice verse 40:20 – Pharaoh’s birthday is the only Egyptian holiday mentioned in the Bible. This was a hugely important day. And both servants would have been brought into Pharaoh’s presence. An innocent person would rejoice in it and a guilty person would fear it. Joseph recognizes the optimism of the cupbearer’s dream, his desire to return to service. When the baker sees that Joseph has given the dream a favorable interpretation, he asks for insight for his dream. Joseph recognizes that the baker dreams a guilty dream.

Joseph addresses the cupbearer as one wrongly accused innocent man to another and asks him to remember him to Pharaoh. He tries to play on a sense of gratitude. Sadly, the cupbearer does not remember Joseph. Like many of us, we roll along, distracted. Or, perhaps, his experience in prison makes him unwilling to risk his position for a prisoner whose word may be suspect.

Genesis 41:1-40  – Cannibalistic Cows

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Pharaoh dreams about cannibalistic cows and grain. The Egyptian sages are unable to discern the dreams’ meaning. Are they able to see the bad news in Pharaoh’s dream (he views them as one) but unable to tell him for they cannot see a remedy? If you provoke Pharaoh to anger, he may view you as the problem. We saw what happened to the baker. Sometimes very powerful people are actually very weak.  

Fortunately, the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He has nothing to lose. If Joseph gets the dream, Pharaoh will be grateful.  If he misses it, the blame will fall on Joseph the Hebrew.

Joseph reiterates interpreting dreams should be left to God (41:16) but then says that Pharaoh’s dream indicates seven years of abundance and famine. He immediately and wisely solves the problem he has raised and advises Pharaoh to put a wise person in charge of storing food for the years of famine. This was an exceptionally clever move. For only Joseph has been wise enough to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph has written his own job description. Pharaoh is delighted, not so much with the prophecy, but with the plan.

Genesis 41:41-57 – Clothes, Power, and Cornering the Market

Apparently Joseph knows the saying, “The clothes make the man.” Joseph prepares to meet Pharaoh by changing his clothes. In so doing he changes custom. And there is more: Egyptians were the only ancient middle easterners who shaved their beards and their heads. This likely helped reduce vermin and ensured the Egyptians were immediately distinguishable from others. Joseph, knowing this, goes all in and shaves his head too. He’s got one chance and he’s not going into Pharaoh looking like some foreigner.

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Later, Pharaoh vests Joseph with symbols of power: rings, gold chains, fine linen clothes, a sleek chariot, and an entourage who will clear the streets. Pharaoh gives Joseph a mouthful, of a name: Zaphenath-Paneah. ZP for short? Pharaoh arranges a marriage with a fine family. Her father Poti-phera (“he whom Re has given”) serves as a priest of the sun god, Re, worshipped in Heliopolis. He is only 30. Joseph has made a home, an Egyptian home. Joseph’s naming of his sons gives us a window into his mind. His first son, Manasseh (meaning “he who causes to forget” – what a lot Joseph has to forget and put behind him) and Ephraim (from “fertile land” whose fruits make his life possible). Joseph seems to want to put the past behind him. That will soon be hard to do.

If you thought Pharaoh was a benevolent monarch who viewed food storage as a public works project to feed the people or that he saw international grain trade as a way to benefit the Egyptian farmers and its economy, think again. Joseph is helping Pharaoh consolidate power. Unlike a republic (in Latin, respublica (a “thing of the public”) where the power and authority rests with the people, authority and power rest with Pharaoh. Joseph helped Pharaoh corner the grain market, and Pharaoh is using his position to enrich HIMSELF. In the process he makes the countryside dependent on the cities (where the granaries are located). Later (in Chapter 47) we see how Joseph helped Pharaoh leveraged his advantage to strengthen his power.

Upcoming Readings

Genesis 42-45

Genesis 46-47

Genesis 48-50

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Week 4: Genesis 34-37 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 4: Genesis 34-37 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

Genesis 34 – Dinah’s Rape and the Revenge

The story begins with Dinah (Her name means “Judgment,” which foreshadows future events) initiating contact with the local people. She goes out on her own to meet the women – literally “the daughters of the earth.” One can appreciate why she might want to meet some other women her age, when you consider that everyone else her age in the family is a brother.

Schechem rapes Dinah. The Bible emphasizes Schechem’s “taking.” It also says he “loved” her. This deserves explanation, if only because I never anticipated how many people I would counsel who have been raped than I ever anticipated. With each new victim I am horrified anew at how common this is in our society. Rape is an act of violence, not an act of love.

Yet Shechem professes love for “the girl” and asks for his father’s help in getting her as his wife – in Hebrew her youth and vulnerability are noted. Here “love” means a lust to take, to possess, and to dominate. The line about speaking tenderly to an innocent child is chilling. Smooth talk cannot conceal the vicious act.

Hamor and Shechem come to Jacob to ask for Dinah in marriage. Hamor seems to approve of the rape.

Jacob’s family hears about the rape. Given how active Jacob is in nearly every story, why is he silent here? Is he astonished, guilty over having not protected Dinah, is he leaving this to the next generation to sort out, or is he enraged, yet unwilling to show their hand? We don’t know.

Shechem says that no price is too dear for him to pay. Are daughters (or sex) a commodity to trade and sell?

The sons reply by laying a trap. They demand that the other men become circumcised and later, while all the men are “still in pain,” two brothers come along and kill all the men – including Hamon and Schechem. The other brothers follow and plunder everything, including their women and children. Take. 

Jacob senses that justice is harsh and excessive, even for so violent a crime as the rape of his daughter. The brothers’ revenge will likely set off another round of bloodletting. This is how cycles of violence work: People who have been wronged become inspired by their own victimhood to respond forcefully enough to inspire yet more retaliation. Everyone justifies their own excess – as the sons do here. 

They throw “our sister” back at Jacob. Is this because Jacob expressed his concern that their retribution will provoke retaliation entirely in terms of himself?

“You have brought trouble on me…”

How frequently we see people in powerful positions of responsibility think solely in terms of how something impacts them!

Was Jacob silent because in the world of Canaanites, which is always where we live, perfect justice cannot be found? Was he, unlike his sons, willing to settle – so he could settle? The Bible does not settle all the questions the rape and revenge raise. Do the sons have the last word? Is that the author’s point? I doubt it. I think we must read passages such as this through the lens of Jesus, who is the Word made flesh.

Genesis 35:1-15 – The Move to Jacob’s Dream Home

God offers timely direction, and Jacob’s family pulls up stakes and heads to Bethel. The move occasions a spiritual purification. Apparently the people have lived among the Canaanites long enough that they are worshipping other gods alongside the living God, in the literature is called syncretism  (see last week’s commentary on God and the gods). 

When he arrives at Bethel – where he had the dream and the encounter with God, Jacob builds an altar. It is important, I think, to occasionally make a pilgrimage, if only in our imagination, to those places in our lives where God has shown up, where God’s grace was heard and decisions were made.

Here Jacob gets a new name, Israel – one who wrestled with God. How has your identity changed over the years? Have you “wrestled with God?” Or would you describe your relationship differently? Wondered. Tried hard. Frequently forgiven? Blessed? Does the new name – from “Trickster” to “Wrestled with God” –suggest an acquisition of wisdom?

Israel is getting up in age. When Reuben sleeps with one of his concubines, he hears of it, but apparently does nothing.

This chapter is marked by the story of three deaths: Deborah, Rachel, and Isaac. We aren’t told of the events surrounding Deborah’s passing. The naming Allon Becuth – “oaks of weeping” can only suggest that her death impacted people. Rachel dies in childbirth. And Isaac dies of old age. 

Genesis 36 – Genealogies

The Genealogies here signal that we are about to enter a transition in our story. In their own way they wrap up loose ends. At the end of Chapter 35, we got Jacob’s 12 sons. At the beginning of Chapter 36, we get Esau’s family accounted for. Though the Bible is more interested in Jacob’s line, Esau’s line is notably more fertile, even without his father’s blessing. We then get political genealogy of the Kings of Canaan, which is remarkably free from any sense that they might own the Abrahamic Covenant. They are politically successful, but religiously adrift.

Genesis 37:1-11 – Joseph Dreams, Family Dynamics

When the story picks up again, we don’t get an account of all of Jacob/Israel’s sons – only Rachel’s son. His story will occupy most of the rest of Genesis. 

Given Leah and Rachel’s rivalry, we aren’t surprised that sibling dynamics cause problems. Joseph, like is mother, is the obvious favorite, which infuriates the rest of the sons. Joseph has several dreams, likely inspired by the favoritism he has received. He also has the bad judgment, tone deafness, and temerity to tell it to his siblings. It doesn’t help family relations. He earns his father’s rebuke.

Genesis 37:12-36 – Joseph Is Sold

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The near killing of Joseph is hardly surprising given how his brothers avenged Dinah’s rape. Reuben – the one who slept with his father’s concubine – saves Joseph’s life by having him thrown in cistern, from which he hopes to later rescue him. 

The other brothers sell him to the Ismaelites (yes, the sons of Ismael, Isaac’s half-brother). They later sell Joseph and then deceive old Jacob, the way he once deceived his father. That Joseph knows slavery and its vulnerabilities first hand will be important information for evaluating how he helped Pharaoh enslave the Egyptians. But we get ahead of ourselves.

The first line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reads,

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

This is not a happy family.

Upcoming Readings

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50

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Week 3 - Genesis 29-33 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 3 - Genesis 29-33 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

29:1-14 – Family Reunion

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Jacob, fresh from having the blessing at Bethel, reunites at the old family well. Lest you think that Esau was the strong one (and Jacob the citified weakling), he moves the stone on the well. In Hebrew, there is a play on words. When Jacob kisses Rachel, he literally in Hebrew, “watered her lips.” It is love at first sight. It is a bold move, perhaps in our age of “me too,” more than bold. We are once again dealing with Laban as we were in Chapter 24.

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29:15-30 – The Trickster is Tricked

Leah means “cow.” Rachel means “lamb of God.” Leah has nice eyes. Rachel is easy on the eyes. I believe this is called, “Lookism.”

Jacob and Laban make a deal that Jacob will work for seven years and marry Rachel. It must have been quite a wedding party, and I guess, with veils and considerable wine. Perhaps sharp-eyed Jacob is blinded by lust, by having wanted someone for so long, and by expectation. The upshot is that Jacob doesn’t figure out that Laban has switched brides until day-break. Jacob works another seven years –a considerable engagement. One only wonders what Leah thought about all this.

29:31-30:24 – Children and Family Drama

The double marriage has rocky points. Jacob plays favorites. Rachael is jealous. In some ways the sisters wrestle as much as Jacob and Esau. God has pity on Leah, giving her so many children. Finally, Rachel has Joseph. The competition between the sisters foreshadows some rocky sibling interactions in the future.

30:25-43 – Jacob Gets His Comeuppance

Jacob engages in some genetic engineering to relieve Laban of his flocks. Jacob is still looking out for himself.

31:1-21 – Jacob Flees Again

Laban’s sons aren’t happy with Jacob’s breeding program, as they’ve been materially hurt by it. Fortunately, for the first time in a while, God speaks and tells Jacob to head home. 

It is interesting that Rachel steals the household gods. In scripture we see two approaches to God and the gods. One view is monotheism: there is one God, and all others are fake and weak. See Isaiah 46.

The other is henotheism: there are lots of gods. These gods symbolize or personify the powers of life on which we depend; such as fertility, conquest in battle, weather, etc. Think Mars, Mammon, Eros, Dionysus, etc. According to henotheism, the gods are real, but the living God must come first, as in the first of the 10 commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.” See Exodus 20:3.

I’m not commending Rachel, but giving some perspective. It is not unusual for Christian monotheism to move into a culture and co-exist with native religions for several generations.

31:22-55 – Caught

Laban and his sons don’t take Jacob’s sharp dealing lying down. They hunt him down. Perhaps the lesson is that a good leaving is worth something.

Laban and Jacob reconcile by “cutting” a covenant. They set up a pillar and pile rocks in a heap. This pile of rocks will serve as a witness that ensures that they keep the covenant.

32:1-31 - Nerves

Jacob is nervous as he prepares to meet Esau.  He can imagine this going badly and divides the flocks lest Esau go on the warpath.

Alone, in the middle of the night, Jacob wrestles the stranger. Although they wrestle to a standstill, the stranger touches his hip and cripples him – as if the power was always overwhelming. As if Jacob’s wrestling through life was in some ways a wrestling with God. Jacob can’t overpower the stranger and won’t let go until he gets the blessing of new name.

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33 – Jacob and Esau Meet

Despite Jacob’s severe trepidation and plans for worst-case scenarios, Esau welcomes Jacob and weeps. In his face, Jacob sees God’s face and favor. It is a truly touching scene.

Upcoming Readings

March 26 - April 1: Genesis 34 – 37

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50

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Week 2: Genesis 24 -28 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 2: Genesis 24 -28 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

Genesis 24 – Isaac gets a Wife

In this chapter we are far from 21st Century conventions! First, the oath - putting a hand on the “thigh” (near the genitals) is a practice found in many cultures. Not ours (thankfully).

Second, sending a servant to fetch Isaac a wife is far from the modern practice. Again, arranged marriage has been practiced in many cultures and used to be common in Western culture. The best argument I’ve ever heard for it is that “young adults have no idea what marriage is about, so how can you trust them with such a big decision. Maybe people who’ve been married are better positioned.” It is true that few who take the vows of marriage understand the momentousness of the promises they take. But count me skeptical that every parent understands either. Plus, in the history of arranged marriages, we’ve seen lots of other motivations besides the happiness of the couple frequently enter into arrangements.

We don’t have arranged marriages in the West because, starting about the 11th Century, Natural Law Theologians arose. They took Romans 2 14-15 as a starting point:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

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Natural Law Theologians read these verses and concluded that everyone has a conscience. In other words, you don’t need the 10 Commandments to know right from wrong. It followed from this that women ought to decide whom to marry, not their parents. On this basis, Natural Law Theologians campaigned against arranged marriage.  It was a radical idea at the time. For some today, the idea that women are capable of making decisions about the things that impact their lives is still radical.

BTW: These verses lay the groundwork for theologians to appreciate the wisdom of pagan philosophers (such as Aristotle and others). Also, it was a short step from the idea that people can use reason to discern God’s moral law to the idea that people can use reason to discern the laws of nature (notice that the idea of law was retained!).

In this story, which is told in considerable detail, Rebecca has more say than Isaac!

Genesis 25:1-18 – Abraham Remarries, Dies, Genealogies

After Sarah’s passing, Abraham takes a wife, Katurah. Although the Genesis narrative will follow Isaac, here the loose ends are wrapped up and their genealogies preserved. One wonders what it meant for the original author and the community formed by the creation of the Bible. Did these stories explain the world in which they lived? Are they a reminder that God also cares about the “non-chosen”? 

Genesis 25:19-34 – Sibling Rivalry

We now turn to the Jacob cycle, whose stories occupy half of Genesis. Before we turn to Jacob, notice that we don’t have many Isaac stories. Isaac appears as either son (preparing his own funeral pyre) or father (duped by his son and wife into bestowing blessing). Indeed, Rebecca plays a bigger part in the story. God reveals the divine plan to her (v. 23) and she will deceive Isaac to divert succession to Jacob. I suppose history books will not pay much notice to use either. Isaac is always the supporting actor. God’s got plans for us too!

Themes of the Jacob cycle include sibling rivalry. Of course, we saw Cain and Abel’s rivalry escalated to lethality. Lots of geographical place names are explained. There are also themes of wandering, barrenness, and visions. God works through human actions to accomplish the divine purpose. Jacob, whose name can be translated “heel sneak” becomes “Israel” (“one who fights God”) suggesting that his struggles with Esau, Rachel’s father, reflect a wrestling with God.

Jacob and Esau are rivals before they are born. One writer has said that children are like limbs on an apple tree, each grows in a unique direction, each seeking its own sunlight. Esau shops at Cabela's and Jacob… Brooks Brothers. The former sought his father’s approval, the latter his mother’s.  Esau sells his birthright. Perhaps, he thought that the action or the birthright itself was insignificant. 

Genesis 26 – History Repeats Itself

There is a lot of famine in the Bible. I think of it as similar to an economic recession. Then and now, it moves people around the map, from state to state and country to country. This time Isaac is instructed not to go Egypt. Economic refugees, even if they stay put, are vulnerable. This vulnerability is played out again when Isaac, out of fear, repeats his father’s ruse of playing his wife off as his sister. How often does fear cause us to do the wrong thing?

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Genesis 27-28:9 – Isaac’s Blessing

The story of Jacob tricking his father into giving him the blessing is described in considerable detail. Rebecca is the mastermind and softens him up by preparing a delicious meal, but Jacob is aware that they aren’t going to be able to pull the wool over the old man’s eyes, if the father discovers that he isn’t hairy like his brother. While he is suspicious that his voice is Jacob’s, the goatskin is enough.  

Esau is furious and begs for a blessing. It is worth considering what counts as blessing in families and how competitive siblings can get in attaining the blessing. Is it heirlooms? Money? Favor? Time? Bragging rights? A lawyer friend says that the worst thing you can do to a happy family is put a large pot of money in the middle of the room.

In verse 36, Esau asks why Jacob is Jacob (heel sneak) and in verse 41, vows to kill his brother. Rebecca hears of it and intercedes with Isaac to send Jacob out of town on a search for a wife to allow Esau to cool off. How many terrible things happen because people are unable to find a way to cool off.

Genesis 28:10-20 – Bethel

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Alone. Fleeing for his life and traveling through unfamiliar territory, Jacob grows weary and sleeps. And while he sleeps, he dreams. And what a dream! Angels. God on the throne and God’s blessing and promise. It turns out that Jacob is not alone in this world.

You have God’s blessing too. True, it isn’t Jacob’s blessing. His calling is different than yours or mine (you can thank God for that!), but we have God’s promise to be with us through this life. We can trust that nothing in this life, not even death, can separate us from God’s love. God’s promise lifts the fear and anxiety that often accompany us on lonely journeys and when we face an uncertain future.

The place he stopped is only referred to as a “certain place” (verse 11). It is unremarkable. It was the place where the day ended. Only later does Jacob see that God is in this place and he did not know it. How often we fail to recognize that God is with us until later. Sometimes we realize how God has blessed our lives when we look back.

Upcoming Readings

March 12 – 18: Genesis 24 - 28

March 19 – 25: Genesis 29 – 33

March 26 - April 1: Genesis 34 – 37

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50

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Week 1: Genesis 20-23 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 1: Genesis 20-23 with Dr. Raymond Roberts

Genesis 20 - Abimelech

The Bible never engages in hagiography: it does not clean up our ancestors in faith and turn them into saints. From the beginning to end, the Bible depicts real people, with faults, doubts, and humanity. Moses had a Temper. David had an affair. The Psalmist sometimes feels forgotten and other times enraged. Jeremiah feels that his prophetic calling is a burden. But it also means that many Biblical stories are not meant to suggest, “go and do likewise” (from the story of the Good Samaritan – Luke 10:37).  Rather, they are intended to help us see deeper into the human predicament.

I write this because I wonder why Abraham and Sarah’s “sister act” is happening again.  Why isn’t Abraham shooting straight? Does he have a perennial character flaw? Is it because the world of the patriarchs is so unequal and misogynistic that beautiful women wind up in the harems of Pharaoh and now Abimelech, and husbands are virtually powerless to speak up?

Interestingly God goes directly to Abimelech, just in case you thought God only communicates with the chosen. (God communicates with whomever God chooses: remember God also communicated with the Magi through a dream and sent them home by another way.)

Genesis 21:1-20 – The Promised Child Arrives – Joy and Sadness

Finally, Isaac is born. Isaac means laughter.  Some see this as a reference to Sarah’s laugher in Genesis 18. Or perhaps his name is a statement about the absurdity of it all – their advanced age (at this point 90 and 100), the crazy, decades-long wait, or, perhaps, that God was faithful and gracious and finally did come through on the promise after all.  What strikes you as humorous?

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Sarah sings in verses 6-7.  In the Bible, people are frequently moved to song. When was the last time your heart felt like singing? What sort of song was it? Joy? Sadness? Gratitude? Longing? Abraham celebrates with a feast.  Ishmael joins in the laughter, which is the occasion for Sarah to insist that Abraham send him and his mother away.

Hagar’s story is heartbreaking. I cannot help but think that she just got a raw deal. First she is marshaled into being a surrogate mother. She was a servant from Egypt and did not have many options. Sarah wants to be rid of her, and God seems to agree – as Isaac will bear the promise of blessing. Fortunately, God does not forget Hagar and promises her that Ishmael will also become a great nation.

Notice that sending Ishmael away constituted a sacrifice for Abraham. Consider how this likely intensified the grief he experienced when he was asked to also sacrifice Isaac.

Genesis 21:21-34 – Well, Well

With his family sort of straightened out, Abraham straightens out his relationships with his neighbors. Abraham cuts (the terminology) a covenant (which means both “to bind” and “to separate”) with his neighbors, as God did with him. Biblical covenanting calls attention to the social dimension of human nature. It also provides a positive basis for respectful, constructive engagement with people of different cultures and religions, as well as a model for federated political structures (“federation” comes from the Latin, foedus, which was frequently used to translate the Hebrew word for covenant, brit).

Genesis 22 – Abraham Tested

Yikes. This story is one of the most mysterious, troubling, and horrifying in the Bible or in any literature. It comes just as God’s promise finally seems on track. When God calls Abraham, he does it personally and by his new name, Avraham, “Father of Multitudes.”

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Why God demands Isaac is inscrutable to me. Some hypothesize that God demands Isaac to test Abraham’s obedience. Would Abraham be completely compliant? If this is the test, Abraham passes it. He reveres God more than his family. He is willing to render to God that which is God’s. At the same time, because I have known mentally ill people who thought God was calling them to strange and dangerous things, I am reluctant to ratify irrational, unloving obedience.

Others hypothesize that the purpose of this story is to outlaw child sacrifice. We know that other cultures have practiced child sacrifice. Human sacrifice was common in Ancient Mesoamerican cultures, for example. So maybe. At the same time, the request is for a child sacrifice.

Still others differentiate between a demand and a request. They say the word na is too infrequently translated and that a better translation would be “take please [in Hebrew, na] your son…”(Genesis 22.2).  Thus, what God is requesting is less a command and more an invitation. I don’t know if this really helps me. Does it help you?

The great Old Testament theologian, Gerhard Von Rad, offers the only explanation that I find plausible. His view fits with the observation that parents tend to view “their children” as “their own.” They even find their identity in their children. More than for most people, for the “Father of Multitudes” to kill Isaac is to destroy himself. Von Rad’s conclusion is that by demanding that Abraham give him back, he must learn that the child and his identity are a gift from God. 

John Claypool, a once prominent Baptist turned Episcopal Preacher, said that after the death of his daughter to leukemia, Von Rad’s interpretation of this terrifying passage was the only thing that could comfort him. His daughter was a gift. Giving her back was heart-rending. Yet in the vortex of emotions, grief, and anger that accompanied her death, there could also be gratitude for the joy and laughter she had brought: for to have had her at all was a gift that he had never deserved nor earned.

When parents get their children baptized, I remind them that one meaning of baptism is that their children belong to God in life and in death. As terrible as it is for any parent to contemplate, there is comfort in knowing that we really do belong to God, and nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The story unfolds in surreal, slow motion – particularly compared with the fast paced narrative of Genesis up to this point. Isaac’s question about the lamb (Genesis 22:7) suggests that he’s seen sacrifices before. Abraham’s response, “God will provide” is a statement of profound faith.

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Genesis 23 – Sarah’s Death and Burial

In Genesis 23, we have the story of the last thing that Abraham must do, which is to purchase a burial plot. I’ve been to Hebron to the Mosque (and also used as a Synagogue) built over Abraham and Sarah’s tomb. Their graves are the only land that Abraham and Sarah ever own.

Upcoming Readings

March 12 – 18: Genesis 24 - 28

March 19 – 25: Genesis 29 – 33

March 26 - April 1: Genesis 34 – 37

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50

 

 

 

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Week 4: Genesis 12-19 (New People, New Beginning) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 4: Genesis 12-19 (New People, New Beginning) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

We have more reading and less commentary this week.

Verses 12:1 – 9 – God Covenants with Abram and Sari, Part One

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Genesis tells of two beginnings: the beginning of the world and the beginning of a people. In calling Abram and Sari, God is doing a new thing: creating a people. Both are unlikely candidates for what God wants to do. They are both aged and barren. The only thing they have going for them is that God has decided to bless them. God’s promises have the power to define our reality.

In order to understand the significance of God’s call, it is important to recall the context: creation has gone off the rails, most recently with the failure of the city and civilization in Babel. Abram and Sari will found an alternative community that bears the possibility of God’s blessing for the world. When we, as followers of Christ, consider our own election (Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-10), we should remember that we carry similar blessing for the world. That is, the blessing is not for us alone.

Notice that God’s people will exist for a long time (centuries) before the community takes political form (with the coronation of King Saul). Prior to this time, the chosen people exist as family and later as a tribal society. In a time when people fear the church is losing power, we do well to consider that God has plans and is able to work through a remnant (Isaiah 10:20). That God is even able to work through such an unpromising (from a human perspective) couple as Abram and Sari reminds us that our confidence is in God. This faith is why we remember them as blessed.

If you are into numbers, Noah was the 10th Generation after Adam, and Abraham is the 10th Generation after Noah.

Verses 12: 10 – 20 – Egyptian Troubles, Part One

It is hard to understand how Abram and Sari allow themselves to get in marital trouble in Egypt – and this is not the only time. Does this speak to the vulnerability of refugees? Are they learning (albeit slowly) about the meaning of family? Were the sicknesses passed around Pharaoh’s house connected with the couple’s inability to conceive (scarring of the fallopian tubes?). In this story, Abram and Sari act in a way that threatens the promise. Or are the plagues God’s attempt to rescue the couple and, hence, the promise?

Chapters 13 – 14 – Lot and Abram, Part One

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Abram and his nephew, Lot, separate. In the words of Frederick Buechner: Lot got the fruitful Jordan Valley, and Abram got “Deadwood Gulch.” Lot’s prosperity is short-lived, as he is immediately caught up in a war between invading Babylonian kings against Canaanite Kings and captured. Upon hearing this Abram rescues him. One wonders if Lot had filled a spot in his heart that Isaac will eventually fill.

Abram refuses the spoils of war, trusting in God alone.

Notice Melchizedek – he becomes a type of priest, contrasted with the Aaronic Priesthood, who is compared to Jesus in the book of Hebrews. (See Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:6-10; 6:20; 7:1-21; and Hebrews 8:1.)

Chapter 15 – God Covenants with Abram and Sari, Part Three

This is God’s third promise to Abram and Sari (the second is in 13:14-17). Part of the Biblical wisdom about covenants is that, from time to time, they need to be renewed. Perhaps we forget the promise of the relationships. Perhaps we drift or are inattentive. One can see why continued barrenness would be a challenge to the people of promise. One also sees that Abram is courageous and honest to voice his doubt and say that he’s made arrangements in his will for Eliezer of Damascus. Also notice, though, in verse 15:6, that Abram believes. Paul takes up in Romans 4.

One lesson that we learn from Abram and Sari is that some promises can take a long time to come to fruition or realization. Even generations. This passage and the Bible itself never flinches from this truth.

The chief addition in this covenant is the additional promise of land. They will have a place in this world.

Chapter 16 – Abram and Sari take history into their own hands.

Is it doubt that causes Abram and Sari to find a surrogate mother? Is it any surprise that the surrogate is a servant, someone powerless? When you consider what happens to her, both in this passage and later in Genesis 21:8-21, it is heartbreaking. I think of friend of mine, a former church member, whose African American grandmother moved in with a wealthy white planter in Louisiana after his wife died. When the old man died, she and her young child (his father) were sent away without a thing. Yet, God makes promises to her. God does not write off anyone.

Chapter 17 – 18:15 – God Covenants with Abram and Sari, Part Four

This covenant is the most formal of them all. It looks like someone took a Bronze-age Legal Zoom document and adapted it to the divine human relationship. It identifies the parties, it recounts what God (the superior party) has done by making Abram a father, and it lists the promises and obligations of the covenant.

Abraham laughs. Does he laugh because of the good news or the absurdity of the promise? I am reminded where Paul tells the Corinthians the cross is “foolishness to the Greeks.”

Three visitors come, and this time Sarah will laugh, though she denies it. Fearful at having been caught, she denies laughing.

Chapter 18:16 – 19:38 – A Lot of Sketchy Things

The Lord informs Abraham what he’s going to do in Sodom, and Abraham pleads with him to spare the city. The attempted gang rape of the visiting angels illustrates the city’s wickedness. I confess that I do not understand Lot’s willingness to offer his daughters, and I do not understand what his daughters do after they escape. There are several passages in Genesis that are clearly not intended to get us to “go and do likewise.” Yet, in light of the confusion and violence of the world, this comes across as breathtakingly realistic.

Upcoming Readings

March 4 – 11: Genesis 20 - 23

March 12 – 18: Genesis 24 - 28

March 19 – 25: Genesis 29 – 33

March 26 - April 1: Genesis 34 – 37

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50

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Week 3: Genesis 6-9 (Beautiful Daughters, Flood, and Confusion) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 3: Genesis 6-9 (Beautiful Daughters, Flood, and Confusion) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

6:1-13 – Lots of confusion and none of it good.
Who are “the sons of God”? Some think this is mythologically confusing – Greek mythology has gods mate with women. Monotheism does not. Others think these are angelic members of God’s court. Still others think this refers to a merging of the lines of Cain and Seth (scholars disagree which line represents the sons of God: is it Seth because his line "walks with God"). Still others think of Jewish purity laws that look down on mixed things and think that a half god and half human would be unclean. The casual attitude the sons exhibit in pursuing the “beautiful daughters” is grounds for God to shorten their lives. Does God shorten lifespans because there is mischief when men live for hundreds of years?

The identity of the Nephilim is also confusing. Some think the term means “fallen ones,” others think they are Giants, and still others semi-divine offspring of the sons of God and the beautiful daughters. Some think they die in the flood and others that we spy them again in Numbers. Passages such as this remind me that the Bible comes from a different world and that it is hard to bridge the gap. It keeps me humble. Likely verses 1-5 are meant to be an example of the wickedness that gives God regrets.

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6 – 7 – Regrets and Flood
You may or may not know there are other Mesopotamian flood stories. What’s interesting is how they differ. In the other flood stories, the gods capriciously destroy the earth (in one account noisy humans interrupted their sleep) and, just as capriciously, save one. Here God exercises righteous judgment to punish evil behavior and rescue Noah (who, as was noted last week, is the first person born with knowledge of human morality). Noah does not design his own ship but executes God’s design. Nothing is made of Noah’s skill as captain. In other stories, the gods are terrified by the forces of nature they unleash. Here God rules over nature. Noah does not just save civilization; he saves life in its great diversity. Other stories end with the gods famished for burnt offerings, but here God smells the fragrance that the flames consume. It is very likely these differences are central to the point Genesis is trying to convey. God rules creation, and Noah is an obedient servant.

When we read the story of the flood in light of what has come before, it is terrifying. God smashes the separations of the waters and the waters and the dry land. Creation literally is torn apart at the seams. Did you know that one of the most common Christian symbols for Christ in the early church was Noah?

 Picture of Noah from the Catacombs

Picture of Noah from the Catacombs

9:1-7 – Original Vegetarianism?
Humans are given the okay for eating animals after the flood.

“Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” (vs. 9:3).

Many consider this a new development. They believe Genesis teaches an original vegetarianism. In Genesis 1:29-30, God gives herbs, grass, fruit, and seeds. Similarly, the first humans are given the fruit of all the trees (except one). “All flesh” in verses 6:11-12 (your translation may say “all people”) suggests that the animals have gone to eating one another, which would justify the judgment that falls on the animals as well.

There are counter indicators to the vegetarian drift. In 3:21, God makes garments of animal skins. (Is this okay because God does it?) Abel keeps flocks, though since flocks provide fleece and milk, this does not necessarily mean he is eating them. Abel makes the pleasing offering to the Lord (Is this okay because he is making an offering to the God of life?) Of course, we also have Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9).

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
     the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
     and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
     their young shall lie down together;
     and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
     and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
     as the waters cover the sea.

What did the animals eat on the ark? Did the lion and ox share straw? Was it possible that there could be a new creation without violence? How does the story read if you think about the raven as omnivorous and the dove as herbivorous? Was the raven's delayed return mean that it was still looking for meat?

9:6-17 – Covenant and Law
Is Noah responding to the terrible flood by trying to appease God with a sacrifice? Do you think God is or is not happy with a sacrifice that he did not command? Upon smelling Noah’s sacrifice, God responds by issuing a law. Notice that the law and the covenant apply to all creatures, all people, even of the animals. Blood is forbidden because it symbolizes/is life.

On first blush, the command not to kill seems pretty limited (and suggests that killing was the problem that the Flood was supposed to solve). In Reformed Theology, God’s commands are typically 1) expanded, 2) turned inward, and 3) considered positively.

Consider these three questions from the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

105. Q. What does God require in the sixth commandment?

A. I am not to dishonor, hate, injure, or kill my neighbor by thoughts, words, or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another; rather, I am to put away all desire of revenge. Moreover, I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself.  Therefore, also, the government bears the sword to prevent murder. 

106. Q. But does this commandment speak only of killing?

A. By forbidding murder, God teaches us that he hates the root of murder, such as envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge and that he regards all these as murder. 

107. Q. Is it enough, then, that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?

A. No. When God condemns envy, hatred, and anger, he commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him, to protect him from harm as much as we can and to do good even to our enemies. 

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This is the first mention of covenant in the Bible. God puts a bow in the sky (turned away from the earth) as a reminder to God. How do you remind yourself of God’s covenant?

9:18- 10:32 – Family Matters
Noah is a kind of second Adam. The first thing he does is plant a vineyard, and the next thing you know, we have a drunken sailor. No one has figured out exactly what Ham has done to Noah to curse the whole line. Notice how Canaan replaces Ham. This story, retold in Genesis 10, was likely used to justify taking the Promised Land.

11 – Babel
The story of Babel is the last chapter in the universal human story. After this, God will choose to work with one nation. In some ways this is a confounding story: aren’t building a city and a tower worthy projects? Is the tower for defense? (See last week’s take on Cain’s city.) Protection against a future flood? A temple to reach the heavens? Or is it mere self aggrandizement? Where do we see pride and the temptations of collective pride at work today?

I normally read this story in light of Pentecost and view the confusion as simply bad and view Pentecost as hope that we can overcome this failure of communication. But as I read it this time, I think the story portrays communication (speech) as ambiguous. It can do good (the Pentecost promise, so to speak) but apparently harm as well. Speech doesn't just name the world; it also conveys interests. Speech can allow collaboration on unworthy projects.

As I read this, I think of a line from the song, Laughter, by Bruce Cockburn.

Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
Who thinks he can make things work
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
And ended up with New York.

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Week 2: Genesis 3-5 (The Fall and the First Generation) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

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Week 2: Genesis 3-5 (The Fall and the First Generation) with Dr. Raymond Roberts

I am offering more commentary than usual this week. This is because these chapters contain so much that is easily missed, and they have been foundational for theology and ethics.

Christians generally interpret Genesis 3 as a story of “the fall” from innocence into sin. By contrast, Muslims interpret this story as humans coming of age and view this as a step in human development or maturity. Should we view the first man and woman as primordial (less than a full state of development) or child-like? What did they learn?

20th Century Protestant theologians who lived through WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the terrors of communism, and the struggles of the civil rights movement claimed that optimistic views of human nature were insufficient to the human problem. They believed that sunny ideas of progress or that education could easily overcome the selfishness of individuals and groups was naïve. They argued that Christian faith, which views human nature in light of creation, the fall, and redemption offers a more profound and realistic portrait of human nature. The doctrine of original sin names the truth that, while sin is not necessary, it is inevitable. It names the human fault without losing sight of human dignity of all people and avoids scapegoating societal ills on a particular group of “evil people” (French royalty, capitalists, or some other group of “them” who causes our problems, etc.). Even the guilty bear the divine image. Even we bear the fault. The wisdom of the Christian view of human nature continues to speak as we consider the importance of checks and balances on power (within society, resisting totalitarianism) and within the branches of government.

The Tree, Knowledge, and the Sexes

Review God’s command about the tree (2:16). The fact that the tree is in the middle of the garden suggests that temptation was always at hand. That God issued a command regarding the tree suggests something about the scope of human freedom, our capacity for obedience as well as our capacity to turn from God. It also suggests that the law is not simply a remedy for sin (to restrain evil). Even before the fall, humans needed the law to guide them. This has provided Reformed Christians with theological reasons to view the state and its laws more positively than some of our Christian brothers and sisters.

What do we make of the fact that once the first humans eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (remember, the distinction is broader than simple moral evil), they immediately recognize their nakedness? Do they view nakedness as a defect? Why do they hide?  Some think that covering their nakedness means that they have discovered their sexual differentiation. Others think that genitalia points to their mortality. Still others think that the man and woman discover they are embodied, not divine. Notice the blaming. Why does this sound so familiar? Notice, just after they conceal their deficiency, they hear “the voice of the Lord God” (verse 18). Their neediness moves them to attend to higher possibilities.

In Reformed Theology verses 3:14-15 are sometimes considered the “Adamic Covenant,” in which God promises to be on their side against evil. This happens AFTER the fall!  We will talk more about this in our Lenten sermon series, Promises, Promises.  It is worth pondering how this covenant includes all people.

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Feminists protest how Genesis has been used to justify treating women as second-class humans. They particularly object to the notion men are the first and, perhaps, superior sex; that women are derivative, supportive helpers; and that men are given a right to “rule” over women. In my own reading, I notice that the Bible is clear that both men and women bear the divine image. One may also ask, in light of the observation that “it is not good to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), whether just the man needs help, or whether the need for help is common to all. It is worth noting that the “rule” of men over women is part of the curse and not part of God’s creative plan. 

We should not overlook more positive, pro-woman aspects of the story: when Genesis says, “a man should leave his father and mother to cleave unto his wife” (2:24), this is unique among ancient texts. In every other long-standing cultural or religious tradition, women leave their families to join the man’s family. Also note that when the woman is finally named, in verse 20, “Eve” is not derived from Hebrew word for man (“the man” or Adam is made from “the dust,” Adamah).

In verse 17, the woman is referred to as the man’s wife. We now have a family (after the blaming is over!). This family is far from perfect. Indeed, as you read Genesis, consider whether any family it describes models the family values to which you aspire. The Bible has little time for airbrushed “history.”

Life Outside the Garden

Life outside the garden does not start off as terrible as the curse promised. It begins with the joyous birth of two brothers. Your Bible may give the Hebrew etymology for Cain as “brought forth,” but provides none for Abel. “Abel” appears nowhere else in the Bible. However, in Hebrew it sounds like “vanishing breath” and may foretell his death.

Birth order studies suggest that the order, gender, and spacing of siblings impact a child’s emerging sense of self. Cain’s birth is celebrated by his mother. Abel’s… not so much. The elder brother becomes a farmer, a vocation that requires initiative, labor, skill, and the working of a particular piece of land. Remembering the curse of Genesis 3:17-19, does Cain takes over the family business? Abel, by contrast, chooses another, an easy life of following the herd. Does he choose a different vocation to avoid competing with his brother? Cain initiates sacrifice to God (God does not demand it here). Abel joins in. One wonders why God accepts one sacrifice but not the other. Cain viewed God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice as a terrible, frustrating reversal of the natural order, an injustice. The rivalry between the first brothers points to the competition that we find even within happy individual families (Genesis is full of sibling rivalry: Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers) as well as the larger human family.

Cain seemed to find the non-acceptance of his offering as irrational (I cannot explain it myself). Sometimes life and God seem unfair to us. God counsels Cain not to view the non-acceptance as rejection and to contain his rage. Despite the fact that the LORD God speaks to Cain (and only Cain), Cain’s rage anger is not quieted.

The body is buried. There is another cover up. Cain offers an evasion of responsibility, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God considers it a confession! Although Cain has killed Abel, God's punishment seems excessively light and hardly executed. Cain gets a second chance. His mark is not punishment but protection. He is condemned to wander and heads to the land of “Nod” or “wandering.” Yet, despite this punishment, Cain settles down and founds the first city.

The Hebrew word for “city” comes from a word that means “to watch.” It suggests that this city has less to do with a market or cultural center (say a temple) but a watchtower for common defense.

Notice that Cain finds a woman to marry and encounters potential enemies. The presence of other humans was not first noticed by the 19th Century cultured despisers of religion but has been commented on for centuries. It reminds us that Genesis was never meant to be science. (See the commentary on the relationship between faith and science in the previous post.)

The Bible turns its attention to Lamech who takes two wives (the first suggestively named “ornament” and the second “protector”). Lamech’s children give us music, large animal husbandry, and metallurgy. In verses 23 – 24, Lamech brags (it is a poem) about killing a man. His boast, that his vengeance is orders of magnitude greater than Cain’s, points to a rather nasty truth we often deny: civilization is not only rooted in ennobling cultural and technical developments, but also rivalry, pride, violence, and domination (one thinks of Augustine’s libido dominandi or “lust for power”). These continue to stain every civilization.

Seth and Enosh almost seem to give us a new start. After them, people begin calling out to God. John Calvin claimed that knowledge of God and knowledge of the self are intertwined. In this connection, he noted the link between knowledge of God’s glory and human sin. When we grasp God’s holiness, we see how far we’ve fallen. The reverse is also true: when we confront our wretchedness, we sense that we have fallen from something better – God’s glory. Perhaps Lamech’s remorseless, murderous boast is sufficiently horrifying that it leads humans to call on the God of life.

Genesis 5 gives us a third, almost wholly human creation story, in the form of a genealogy.  (BTW – Psalm 104 is the greatest meditation on creation outside of Genesis.) This genealogy focuses on a new line of humans, 10 generations from Seth to Noah. Why are Cain and his seven generations ignored? Is it their violence and bloodshed? Is this “generations of Adam” a new beginning? Does it represent the airbrushing of history?

Notice that this genealogy traces through the men. I sense that the focus on the men is to lead us to Noah. It tells us how old the father was when the next generation was born and how old they were when they died. They lived a long time. If you do the math regarding births, Noah is the first man born into the world after Adam that finally died, suffering the curse of death promised in Genesis 2. Given the reality of death, Noah’s name appropriately means both “lament” and “comfort.”

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Week 1: Genesis 1-2 (Creation)

Notice that there are two stories of creation. The first goes from 1:1 – 2:3. Notice that the first story is a liturgy or a poem. (It may be set out this way in your Bible.) Also notice that the two stories address God differently. The first story talks about “God” (in Hebrew, Elohim), while the second story talks about the “LORD God” (in Hebrew, Yahweh Elohim). These two stories and the two names gave rise to the documentary hypothesis – the idea that the final editor of Genesis and other books possibly drew upon other documents in writing the Bible. When this hypothesis was new, exploration of it constituted a substantial part of the Old Testament curriculum in seminaries. If you are interested in the differences scholars find in their points of view, look up Jahwist (or Yahwist) and Elohist on Wikipedia.

Since St. Augustine, most Western Christians have thought that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo. Indeed, there is some evidence that this was the settled view by the time of the writing of the New Testament. Yet a fair reading of Genesis 1:1-2 will raise questions: What does “formless and void” mean? In Hebrew it is tohu wabohu, which only occurs in two later biblical texts that allude to this one.  By itself tohu means “futility.”  What are “the waters” or “the face of the deep”?

If you call something formless doesn’t that mean there is something already there? Process Theologians interpret this to mean that some thing co-exists with God and that God creates by speaking and bringing order out of the chaos.

While I’m in the creation ex nihilo camp, I get that Genesis 1:1-2 raises questions. Still, I think we have God as creator, the fashioner of the world.  We also have a statement about God’s great power.

Notice how God creates by speaking. Genesis 1 is strikingly different from other extra-Biblical, near-eastern creation stories. These talk about creation as a result of sexuality and birth. Or they say creation arose out of a violent uprising of the gods or as a subduing of female waters or sea monsters. Doubtless the ancient Hebrews ran up against such stories. But here God speaks; Creation is. And the creation is distinguished from God.

Notice the separations.  God separates 1) light from dark, 2) waters from above and below, creating the vault, 3) terrestrial waters producing dry land and plants into their kind, 4) the lights in the heavens, 5) non-terrestrial fish and birds into their kinds, and 6) terrestrial animals into their kinds, and humans after the image of God. Is there a correlation between speech (which makes distinctions) and the separations?

This invites questions: How is there light before there is a sun?  How are there plants before the sun?  How are there days before there is a sun and a moon?  Are the sun, moon, and stars intentionally downplayed to contrast with Egyptian sun worship (the worship of Aten) or the Babylonian worship of the heavens? Some Jewish thought believes that the author has arranged the days of creation by increasing freedom of movement, though to my mind birds arguably have more freedom of movement than I do.

Notice God’s judgment on creation. It is “good” and “very good.” This is an extremely important claim, worth considering. What does it means to say that something is good before God? Not every religion views creation as good. Some view it as flawed. Others view it as a Monism (I am thinking of Hinduism) where life is part of death and evil the flip side of good. The claim that creation is good helps us interpret unjust suffering as an aberration. It also prevents us from losing sight of the humanity of those who do evil. 

God’s pronouncement that creation is good, suggests that God’s creation has value before God. The Greek Philosopher Protagoras claimed, “man is the measure of all things.” That is, we assign value to things in life and determine their goodness, often based on their utility to us. What does God’s determination of creation’s goodness say about God as judge?  How might the understanding of God’s judgment affect how we understand the value of creation?

Why is there a second creation story in Chapter 2? How to they compliment one another? How do they differ? God created Adam from the adamah (dust, earth).  This suggests that God uses secondary causes and points to how we receive life from God through the biosphere.

What does it mean to say that God planted a garden? Notice the garden’s provision and the human vocation. What does it mean about the human vocation?  How does this (as well as our dustiness) support creation care?

The knowledge symbolized in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not limited to moral knowledge. The Hebrew terms are broader, more like good and bad. As in: pain, hunger and sickness are bad. That God seeks to prevent the man from forfeiting his simple, innocent happiness shows that the source of trouble is already at hand. We will have more to say about the tree later.

In the story we have the development of speech. How is the man’s speech like and different from God’s creative speech in Chapter One? How is the man’s aloneness not good? What does the man say when God brings the woman. How is there sameness within otherness? Did you notice that the man’s words are set apart in the text? The woman inspires poetry!

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Overview of Genesis - February through April - Dr. Raymond roberts

Over the next three months, People of the Book (the River Road Presbyterian Church Bible reading group) will be reading Genesis. I imagine that some stories, like the story of creation and Noah’s ark, will be familiar. Other stories, like the story of Tamar, may be unfamiliar. But a lot of Genesis, even the familiar stories we think we know, when read without the filter of well-meaning Children’s editors, will be startling!

I am hearing that groups of people around the country are reading the Bible with us. With this in mind, I invite you to share this series on your Facebook page and through Social Media. As we progress, we hope to include live video interaction and other ways for us to explore the Bible together. Please feel free to ask questions and share insights in the comments section.

Introduction to Genesis

In Hebrew the title for this book is, bereshith. It is taken from the first word of the text and means, literally, “in the beginning.” (There are other ways to translate this passage and the Hebrew does not have a definite article, “the.”) 3 Centuries before Christ, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This translation was called the “Septuagint.” At that time the first book of the Hebrew Bible was given the Greek title, “Genesis,” which comes from the root gene and means “to beget,” “origin,” or “creation.” The title (and the word itself) has come through Latin into English.

Genesis is really, really old. We don’t know a lot about the prehistory of Genesis, that is, how it came it be. There are a couple of things worth noting. First, most scholars believe that before Genesis was put to text, significant parts of it were transmitted orally as part of tribal lore.

Also, parts of Genesis are similar to other ancient Near Eastern texts. Important and suggestive as the similarities are, the differences are more illuminating because they give us insight into the author(s?) purpose for telling the story.

It is also important to note that Genesis is part of the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. Famous Old Testament Theologian (my Old Testament professor), Walter Bruggemann, says that the Pentateuch served as “the disclosure of binding.”  This part of the Bible codified the community’s faith. Other parts of the Bible served other purposes. For example: Wisdom literature explored creation’s order in light of experience. The Prophets criticize consensus interpretations that subverted justice. The Psalms tuned the heart for obedience.  (See Walter Bruggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education.)

Genesis and Science

Genesis is a book about the origins. Because of this, some believers – particularly since the publication of Darwin’s, Origin of the Species – have seen conflicts between science and religion. Given how much attention this debate received, we should make a couple of observations. First, theologians have long thought that God used secondary causes (God working through one thing to do another) without thinking God’s agency was put in doubt. For example, Augustine (4th Century) talked about how God endowed creation with “seed-principles” for further development.  The idea that God could use evolution to create fits this thought.

Second, when Darwin’s Origin of the Species was first published, some of Darwin’s earliest defenders were churchmen who were on the forefront of scientific investigation (I’ll return to this later.) Believers, such as Asa Gray at Harvard, promoted old earth theories well before Darwin. Some leading theologians and heroes of “conservative Protestantism” (I use quotes because the binary “conservative” and “liberal” is slippery and often misleading.). Some years ago I visited Westminster Seminary and saw posters for a debate on whether J. Gresham Machen, the founder of the Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, could be ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church today (which has become creationist). Dogmatic young earth creationism is a recent development driven by a number of factors that are beyond the scope of this essay.

Third, John Calvin, articulated a very important principle for interpretation when it comes to science.

“…in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.15)

Fourth, while it is tempting for enlightened Christians to scorn folks who have resisted evolution, we should acknowledge that some did so out of fear that Darwinism (which expands evolution beyond the study of the development of life to making it a metaphysical principle) poses challenges to Christian morality. William Jennings Bryan, the Presbyterian who unsuccessfully argued the Scopes Monkey Trial, was afraid that “the survival of the fittest” would foster racism, eugenics, and an elitist ethic that would undermine a central pillar of democracy – “that all people are created equal.” To understand Bryan’s concern one can read his chief critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s distain for the blacks, Jews, and other stupid people he deemed beneath him is rooted in a sense of his own superiority and a Nietzschean distain for Christian love ethic, which he dismissed as a “herd instinct” that subverted natural competition and holds great people back. One does not have to agree with Bryan’s science to find Mencken repulsive. (Mencken is entertaining for readers who fancy themselves equally superior to the hoi polloi.) We see similar self-satisfied knowingness among some of the so-called “Neo-Darwinists” who take evolution is a religious myth and flatter their followers as “the Brights.”

I am leading to two points. The first is that, with Calvin, we ought to view faith and science as compatible. That some don’t is ironic. Particularly since students of the history of ideas believe science arose in the Christian West due to a number of factors, including beliefs about the nature of reality: creation is ordered, creation is not God (so experiments and dissection are okay), the human capacity to reason about the moral law outlined in Romans 2:14 extends to reasoning about the laws of nature. The Puritans spurred on the rise of science, believing that studying the Book of Nature glorified the Creator and the findings could serve others. This is why so many clergy were the first to read Darwin. (See Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, and Robert Merton, The Puritan Spur to Science.)

Second, we ought to read Genesis in a certain way. Leon Kass helpfully sums it up: “Adam and Eve are not just the first, but the paradigmatic man and woman, Cain and Abel are paradigmatic brothers. Babel is the quintessential city. By means of such paradigmatic stores, the beginning of Genesis shows us not so much what happened as what always happens.” (Emphasis mine.) Genesis contains stories that invite us to consider God’s relationship with world, human nature, and its predicament. Thoughtful reflection on the Bible provides a type of practical wisdom. (See Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.)

Plan for Reading:

February: Genesis 1-11

March: Genesis 12-36

April: Genesis 36-50

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Some General Comments on Scripture by Ray Roberts

We Believe:

  • Scripture is the supreme authority. Sola scriptura.
  • The Bible is a library of different types of documents (history, poetry, law, hymns, a love song, letters, wisdom literature, genealogy, prophetic editorials), written by different people (such as Amos, Jeremiah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, and Peter) in different times and places.
  • The Bible was written to bear testimony to God’s way with the world in Israel and in Jesus Christ. Unlike esoteric scriptures of other religious traditions, they seek to communicate clearly to the uninitiated.
  • The scriptures can be translated; indeed, the Gospels were not written in the language of Jesus and his first followers (Aramaic) but in the common language of the Mediterranean world, Koine Greek. This suggests a divine affirmation of human cultures.
  • The Holy Spirit inspired scripture and inspires us when we correctly interpret it
  • Scripture functions as revelation because it sheds light on God and all things in relationship with God. That is, when we view the many things of this life in relationship with God, we see them differently.

We Understand the Bible by Interpreting Scripture:

  • In light of the context of its author, time, place, and literary genre.
  • In light of the whole Biblical witness: scripture interprets scripture.
  • In light of Jesus Christ, “the Word made flesh.” Jesus Christ is the center of Scripture. God’s redemptive activity is central to the entire Bible. Keeping Christ at the center helps us evaluate the significance of the problems and controversies that always persist in the vigorous historical life of the church.
  • In light of the “the rule of love,” we interpret scripture in ways that increase the love of God and neighbor.
  • In light of “the rule of faith.” We listen to the doctrinal consensus of the church in the belief that insights as to how Christians in other times and places thought/think scripture meant will help our own readings of scripture to be less distorted by our sinful interests and the limitations of our place in the world and time.
  • In light of the insights of physical and social sciences, since God is the source of all truth.

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Week 5: Mark 13-16

Scholars are divided over when Mark was written. Some think the gospel was after the temple’s destruction in 70 AD by a Roman Army. Some think it was written before. It was one of the largest public buildings in the Ancient World, much larger than the Acropolis, for example. If you go to the Wailing Wall, you can see the massive foundation stones that so impressed the disciples. (I am leading a trip this year!)

The Temple dominated the landscape and the religious imagination of the people. You can see evidence of this in all the Psalms that mention the Temple. (Psalms 120-134, for example, were written to be sung on the way to the Temple.) Put crudely, the idea was that some Jews at the time believed that God inhabited the Temple and would protect the city and the people. A Rabbi I love once taught me that modern Judaism (he was a Reformed Jew) traces back to a rethinking of Judaism following the destruction of the second temple (Solomon built the first and Herod the second). There has been additional development of Jewish thought since the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

Anyway, given the Temple’s importance, Jesus’ prediction of its destruction likely caused a stir. Some believe it encouraged early believers to flee the Roman siege (the abomination). Given that Temple dominated the religious imagination of the people, Jesus instruction that this is not the end has special relevance to the first readers of the gospel. Perhaps we can learn that just because the big things in our lives are torn down does not mean God is finished.

John Calvin claimed that Mark’s gospel emphasizes Jesus as prophet (whereas Matthew and Luke emphasize Jesus as King and Priest). We saw this at the beginning with the prophet Isaiah’s commentary on the prophet John. We saw it with the angel’s provision for Jesus in the wilderness (similar to God’s provision for Elijah). We saw it in Jesus’ transfiguration, where Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.

Did the affront of Jesus’ prophecy about the temple prompt the abuse in Mark 14:26, where people blindfolded, struck him, and demanded that Jesus prophesy? Notice that immediately afterwards, Mark tells us that Jesus’ prophesy about Peter comes to pass.

Scholars have wondered about the Mark’s abrupt ending. So did the early church, which is why your translation probably includes an ending that is identified as not original and later. Skeptics have seized on the short ending to claim that the resurrection tradition developed later. This is surely not the case given how, from the beginning, the disciples made extraordinary claims about Jesus (Son of God) and made extraordinary sacrifices to follow him.

There are other possible ways to read Mark’s ending. One that I find persuasive is that the ends of scrolls were fragile and Mark’s ending is lost. Some scholars suggest that at this point we can turn to Matthew and find Matthew’s embellished version of what was Mark’s original. Maybe. Or maybe not. We don’t know.

The ending we do have (whether intended or not) is suggestive. Mark ends with the risen Jesus’ promising to meet everyone in Galilee. A rendezvous in Galilee would overturn Jesus’ crucifixion and signal a resumption of Jesus’ kingdom ministry. That the closing line tells us that the women fled in fear, invites us to imagine what happened next and their obvious faithfulness (because we have the gospel!). It invites us to consider how we might respond to such good news.

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Week 4: Mark 11-12

Ministry in Jerusalem

The reading this week is shorter to encourage rereading and contemplation. I invite you to notice a couple of things – first notice how the people welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem on a charger to impose his authority on others, but a young, unbroken colt. He initiates conflict on behalf of the people, claiming that the religious authorities have turned God’s house into a “den of thieves” and criticizes the religious leaders and their practice at the end of Chapter 12, lifting up a widow as an example of faithfulness. He identifies with the people, and they identify with him.

As we read these events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, particularly the ways the religious authorities try to entrap Jesus, recall that we live in a world full of crosses where the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty. Think of refugees who didn’t start the war, people whose lives were destroyed by dioxins dumped at Love Canal, or miners who died because the coal operator didn’t maintain safe working conditions, or… The list of undeserved suffering is long. Some look at the world’s suffering and see God’s indifference. We look at the world’s suffering in light of the cross and are reminded of God’s passion. As Jesus heads to Jerusalem, fully aware of what will happen, he develops a bond with what my friend Roger Gench calls, “the ‘crucified class’ of his day.” Indeed, this is why the religious and political authorities found him dangerous.

One final thing, in Mark 11:11, notice the references to Bethany. It is about a mile and a half out of Jerusalem. That’s a fair piece of walking.

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Week 3: Mark 7-10

When Jesus heals the blind man at Bethsaida, he makes mud. Does this signal new creation (as when God created Adam from the earth)?  Does it tell us that God can use secondary causes (such as medicine) to fulfill God’s healing purpose?

Is there a connection between Jesus’ healing the blind man and Peter’s confession of faith? What do we learn from the fact that the blind man’s healing was not immediate, but passed through stages?

The disciples' misunderstanding is a theme throughout Mark. It is especially prevalent in this section. In Mark 6, Jesus fed the 5,000. In Mark 8, he feeds the 4,000 and shortly thereafter, the disciples are concerned that they have no bread. The disciples argue about who is greatest, and later, the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus. Sometimes the disciples’ misunderstanding follows immediately upon great revelation and insight, such as Peter’s confession (Mark 8) and the transfiguration (Mark 9).

Mark told readers who Jesus is in the very first verse (Mark 1:1). We watch the disciples’ struggle and misunderstand, but we know? What is Mark’s purpose: Is he trying to comfort? Warn? What are we to make of the fact that insight into Jesus’ identity is so often accompanied by misunderstanding? How is this like the man born blind?

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Week 2: Mark 4-6

In Chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus introduces a series of parables: the Parable of the Sower, the Lamp on a Stand, and Parables of the growing seeds. Parables have multiple meanings and invite meditation. One might ponder: Does Jesus’ reliance on parables (instead of, say, propositional statements) tell us anything about the nature of the truth he sought to communicate? What does the fact that so much of the sower’s seed appears to be sown for naught teach us about trusting God for the increase? Does the disciples’ incomprehension and lack of faith (as when Jesus’ calms the storm, Mark 4:35-41) fit the Parable of the Sower? Do other parables explain it better?

In Chapter 5, he gives us an extended story about Jesus’ crossing into Gentile country and casting out demons. Mark’s gospel is notorious for Jesus instructing people not to tell anyone (see Mark 8:30). This theme is sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret.” But here Jesus tells the healed man to tell what the Lord had done for him. Why would Jesus tell some to keep quiet and others to spread the word?

Mark frequently tells stories within stories. In Chapter 5, Jesus’ trip to heal Jairus’ daughter is interrupted. How do you think Jairus felt? Jesus’ words to his daughter are some of just a few of Jesus’ words in Aramaic recorded in the Greek New Testament (Mark 15:14 contains others). Why would these words be remembered?

In Chapter 6, Jesus sending out the 12 Disciples provides an occasion for Mark to finish telling us about the John the Baptist. Some think these sendings explain how the gospel spread so quickly.

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Week 1: Mark 1-3

It is easy to read the opening chapter of Mark's gospel and be struck by what's missing, namely a birth narrative. There are no angels. No Joseph. No Mary. No genealogy. Yet, pay attention to what is there. In his own way, like every other gospel, Mark starts by trying to tell us who Jesus is: The Christ, the Son of God. Sometimes Mark puts Jesus' identity into the mouths of others: Isaiah, the Holy Spirit at Baptism, the evil spirit, the reaction of the amazed congregation. Other times, Mark doesn't tell; he shows: through Jesus' ability to resist temptation, call disciples, teach, cast out evil, and heal.

Notice that by Chapter Two, Jesus is having conflict with religious authorities and his family. The conflict stories foreshadow events yet to come, but they, too, clarify who Jesus is and what he is about.

  • What portrait of Jesus emerges from what people say about Jesus?
  • What do we learn from his actions and the conflict?

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Encouragement to Join People of the Book from Dr. Roberts

The Christian Education Ministry of River Road Presbyterian Church is kicking off a new program, People of the Book. During 2018, you and your friends are invited to join a book club and read parts of the Bible together. Materials will be online and shareable on your Facebook page.

Why read the Bible?
John Calvin, the 16th Century reformer, claimed the Bible provides the “spectacles of faith.” The metaphor of spectacles suggests that the Bible offers corrective vision to help us see the world aright. Reading the Bible grinds the lenses of faith by:

  • Helping us see Jesus, who is the clue to making sense of life.
  • Providing a vocabulary (words such as creation, sin, redemption, neighbor, gift, etc.) that helps us attend to realities in our lives.
  • Setting our lives, as well as history, and even natural history in the larger drama of God’s work of creation and salvation.
  • Correcting sinful, human traditions that inevitably grow up in the church, as demonstrated by the Reformation.

Why Mark?
We are starting with Mark because it is the oldest gospel. Plus in January Andrew Whitehead and I are preaching a series of sermons based on Mark’s first chapter.

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January - The Gospel of Mark with Dr. Raymond R. Roberts

Background:

We don't know much about the history of the Gospel of Mark. Scholars believe Mark was written just before or just after the fall of Jerusalem (70 C. E.), 30+ years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. A lot of other information we would like to know is lost to the mists of history:

  • the identity of the author,
  • the location of the writing, and 
  • the issues roiling church and culture that prompted the writer to remember these particular events in Jesus' life or that shaped how they were told.

Many have filled in the gaps with rank speculation and educated guesses. Maybe Mark was written in Syria. Maybe Rome. Maybe Mark is the author. Maybe Peter supplied the eyewitness account. Maybe.

People speculate as to whether Mark’s primitive Greek indicates that the author was uneducated or non-native speaker. Mark’s inferior Greek along with the fact that he provides the story line and theological scaffolding for Matthew and Luke have led scholars through the centuries to ignore Mark in favor of the other gospels. As a result Mark’s gospel has inspired far, far fewer commentaries. In fact, only in the past couple of centuries have scholars moved beyond mistakenly viewing Mark as a crude abridgement or (more correctly) a primitive first draft, improved on by others, to appreciate Mark’s unique vision of Jesus.

Considered as literature, the Gospel of Mark is an original in the ancient world. It tells the story of a great man, but it is more than a biography in that it is anything but objective and dispassionate. Mark writes with a mission: he wants to inspire people (Yes, you!) to respond to Jesus/ life and to follow in his way. Mark is an evangelist. He wrote a gospel.

Gregory Hays, a classics scholar at the University of Virginia, recently observed in a book review, "To read a translation is like looking at a photo of a sculpture. It shows the thing but not from every angle." For this reason, I encourage you to read several Biblical translations and paraphrases. The New Revised Standard, the New International Version, Eugene Peterson's The Message, or David Bently Hart's The New Testament (which communicates nuances from the Greek without attending to readability), each bring out some features of the original more clearly than others.

We modern Christians tend to read small bits of the Bible and focus on linguistic minutia, word studies and such. This has value, but I hope you read larger sections at a time. This can help you grasp how Mark’s themes flow from story to story. This, in turn, may also help you appreciate Mark’s genius and message.

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