Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Roller Coaster of Trusting God

I want to tie my reflection from this weeks hangout into this weeks blog post. We’re going to look at trust and which ancestral stories relate to trust of divine promises and how that trust looks in these stories and changes over time. 

As it was the focus of the hangout reflection we will begin with Abram and Sarai. At the very beginning of their story together Abram is called by God to leave his homeland and settle in Canaan. Abram obeys God’s call, putting his trust that they will survive. However, due to a famine they end up traveling down to Egypt where Abram tells everybody that Sarai is his sister and not his wife. Here, Abram, who had initially trusted God, stops believing that God will take care of him. He believes that the Egyptians will kill him to marry his wife, so he lies to them and they marry her anyway. Once they learn what he did they kick Abram and Sarai out of Egypt for what they did in calling each other siblings so that in the end his life wasn’t in jeopardy at all. (Gen. 12) This movement from trust in God’s promises to disbelief will be continued throughout their story.

Later, God makes a covenant with Abram to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Gen. 15) Immediately after God makes this covenant Sarai tells Abram to sleep with Hagar so that she may have a child for him since Sarai was barren. (Gen 16) This is often attributed to her lack of faith in God’s promise but God’s covenant did not say that Abram would have children with Sarai, just that his descendants would be numerous. With this considered it is possible that it is because of Sarai’s faith in God that she tries to help God’s plan along by having Hagar bear Abram’s children. 

Once God renames Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah three men appear and tell Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son. Unlike last time when Sarai was willing to believe and do what she thought she should to help this take place, this time, Sarah laughs in disbelief. (Gen. 18)

The next story with Abraham and Sarah involves them traveling to Gerar where Abraham’s faith fails once again. Despite Sarah’s last failure of trusting in God Abraham’s faith is no better. The fact that Sarah has not yet had a child means that Abraham will remain safe until that time unless God has lied. Yet, while in Gerar, Abraham once again tells people that Sarah is his sister because he’s worried once again that people will kill him for her. (Gen 20) His lack of trust in God is almost certainly at the lowest it will ever be. In the last two stories both Abraham and Sarah have failed to trust God’s word and yet, after Abraham learns of his failing, God fulfills the promise to them and Sarah gives birth to Isaac. (Gen 21:1-7)

Finally, God tells Abraham to go and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham, having so recently in the story failed to trust in God’s promise of having descendants, takes his son, in whom that promise was borne out, and prepares to sacrifice him. (Gen 22:1-19) Abraham’s faith reaches a level which it had never been at before. He fully trusts in God despite that it looks like God is going back on God’s promise. This is the highest point of Abraham’s faith. The back and forth between trusting in God and lacking faith ends with Abraham showing that he trusts God fully, so close in the narrative after he failed so horribly. You can see in this story how the people Israel will trust in God. They will be like Abraham and their faith will not remain strong and steadfast. It will rise and fall over time but God’s faithfulness to them will not fail just as it did not fail for Abraham. 

This is a pattern we see with the ancestors of Israel. Isaac mirrors his father’s faith. When he goes down to Gerar, just like Abraham did, he, just like Abraham, tells them that his wife, Rebekah, is his sister. As Abraham’s failing in Gerar was his lowest point, Isaac’s failing is even worse. Isaac fails immediately after God reinforces the covenant to Isaac that was made with Abraham. Isaac’s story is fairly short, and mostly revolves around his children, Esau and Jacob, but after Isaac leaves Gerar he is successful and is once approached by the king, his advisor, and the commander of the army. Instead of fearing for his life, Isaac greets them, hears them out, and has a feast prepared for them. (Gen 26) It’s not a revolutionary of a change as Abraham, but his faith, in the end, returned. 

The ancestral stories reflect this struggle with trusting God’s promise despite the overwhelming evidence that God is faithful. If the ancestors struggle as much as they do, then surely the people Israel will struggle in their faith. In fact, when Jacob is renamed Israel it is for this very purpose. They are to be the people who struggle with God. However, God’s faithfulness endures through their doubts and failings and their faith and trust always returns in the end.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Lack of Faith or Buying into the Vision: Google Hangout Reflection

(Warning: there’s a discussion about sexual violence in Genesis in this blog)

In our Google Hangout for this week Dr. Lester and Dr. Koenig continued our discussion about the Pentateuch. What I found particularly interesting was their discussion of the matriarchs and other women in the Pentateuch and how they are classically treated compared to the men. 

The question was raised whether Sarai truly displays a lack of faith when she has Abram sleep with Hagar so that she may have a child with him. (Gen. 16) Could it be that Sarai knew of the promise God had just made with Abram and, knowing herself to be barren, did what she had to so that God’s promise would be fulfilled? This is a possibility, although when she then gets upset and drives Hagar into the wilderness we see something else. I’m not willing to say that she was or wasn’t trying to be an active participant in God’s plan because of that though. People are complicated beings and letting your husband sleep with another woman would certainly not have been incredibly easy.

Sarai/Sarah’s story is countered with the two occasions when Abram/Abraham passes her off as his sister and not as his wife. These stories take place both before and after Sarai sends Abram to sleep with Hagar. Just as Sarai had her spouse sleep with somebody else Abram’s declaration of Sarai as his sister is done knowing that she will be taken by other men and be forced to sleep with them (although the second time the man who takes her, Abimelech, doesn’t sleep with her). 

Let’s be clear, Sarai does offer her slave to Abram, and even if she does do it out of a lack of faith, it is Abram who then rapes Hagar. But it is Abram/Abraham who concocts plan to call Sarai /Sarah his sister so that other men will take her and rape her. The first time Sarai is taken by Pharaoh who sleeps with her and as mentioned the second time Abimelech takes her but doesn’t sleep with her.(Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20) In both occasions it is either mentioned or implied that Abram/Abraham does this because he’s afraid people would kill him out of jealousy if they knew Sarai/Sarah was his wife so he protects himself and allows violence to come against her. Yet it is Sarai who is treated as not having faith, not Abram/Abraham who expects God would not keep him safe.

It’s worth mentioning that Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, seems to have learned this trick from his father. (Gen. 26:1-11) When God sends Isaac to live in Gerar he tells everybody that his wife is his sister because he has the same fears Abraham did. When the king finds out he’s upset, but luckily nobody had taken Isaac’s wife yet. Funnily enough, the king in question is Abimelech who I imagine is tired of Abraham and his son’s ridiculous fear and the risk it puts them all in. In modern times I image he’d say something along the lines of “what is this? I can’t even…” Putting up with the line of Abraham was not the easiest thing to do.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the hangout. While discussing the possibility to see the actions of women in the Old Testament in a new light Dr. Lester said, “women act in the ways that are available to them and they are not the same ways that are available to men. And so what often looks kind of like sneaky, deceptive, conniving behavior, if you look at… the constricted and warped shape of the social space in which women live… their actions, which look like corkscrews, are a straight line in the space in which they live.” We shouldn’t read the Old Testament as if women were allowed to take the same actions as men. We should read their stories as if they have to act and behave differently if they want to achieve their goals.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Divine Council

This week we get to look at the divine council. I personally love the image of the divine council since it forces us to seriously consider monotheism and the ancient Israelites beliefs about YHWH and other gods. 

There are multiple references to the divine council throughout the Hebrew Bible. These explicit references to either the “divine council” or the “sons of God” appear in Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Job, the Psalms, and Isaiah. This concept isn’t limited to one author or redactor of the Bible. It is a long held tradition which deserves to be examined. 

Many of these references to the divine council are ambiguous about what the nature of the beings on the council. The quick, monotheistic interpretation, is that they are the angels in heaven. However, Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘you are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;” and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 speaks of God dividing up the nations according to the number of the gods. With two explicit examples naming these beings as gods it is not so easy to just call them angels. Though this interpretation is not impossible, but it deserves a bit more thought than a quick write off. Another interesting possibility is the satan (or the accuser) being a member of the divine council. Although the two examples in Job where the satan is present with God and the council does seem to also single the satan out as being separate from the council. While still being in the heavenly realm, the satan may not be on the divine council which leaves open the possibility that being a heavenly being doesn’t mean automatic inclusion in the council.

Whether made up of angels, gods, or both, the divine council has very specific roles. In relation to that text from Deuteronomy, the divine council keeps watch over the world. Each member has a specific people they are assigned to. The divine council also does not remain gathered together at all times. The passages from Job speak about the council coming together at specific times. This would be like what you would see in a royal court, where the advisors are out doing their jobs and report back to the king on how things are going from time to time. The This imagery of the royal court is useful for imagining the divine council. There are also examples throughout the Hebrew Bible where God asks a question of the council and a member of the council (or in one case, Isaiah) gives God answers to that question. In 1 Kings 22:20-22 God asks a question and many of the council members answer until one finally gives an answer that God chooses. They advise God on what God should do based on what God wants help on. 

This is all well and good, and at the end of this post I will put the nine examples of the divine council that were given in the prompting for this weeks blog if you want to read them for yourself. However, this post is about more than those nine references to the divine council. There are three times in the book of Genesis where God says “we” or “us” instead of “I”. Those examples are Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7. For this exercise we will consider what changes in our interpretation of these three verses if we read them as an address to the divine council as is suggested to be the most likely explanation by Bandstra.

The first example from 1:26 says, “ the God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”” Bandstra suggests that the creation of humanity is so important that God calls together the divine council and asks for their approval (43). This also can have some very interesting effects on our interpretation of what this passage is saying. Is this God making humanity in the image of YHWH, or in the image of the divine council? Certainly, since YHWH is the one saying these words YHWH is included in this image. But is humanity made in the image that is shared between YHWH and the rest of the council or just YHWH? If God’s plan is to make us like the divine council then it makes sense to consult with them first. After all, if they are created by God earlier and then later on God wants to create beings who are similar to them it is only fair and wise of God to bring it before them first. 

The second example from 3:22 says, “Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil;”” This adds an interesting wrinkle to the previous example. If we are made in the image of God and share that with the divine council, but are made not knowing of good and evil like the divine council, then what is it the image that we share with the council? With these two examples put together we are not made equal to the divine council as we are to lack knowledge that they hold. Perhaps it is in the rest of 1:26 which speaks of the dominion given to humanity over the earth. Just as the divine council shares in dominion, so too does humanity. However, humanity oversteps the bounds of this shared dominion and attempts to become even more like the divine council.

The last example is 11:7 says, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” This comes from the story of the tower of Babel. Once again humanity is trying to become like the divine council by building a tower that reaches into heavens giving humanity the ability to directly access the council itself. So God calls on the council to help disburse and confuse the people so that humanity will not overstep its bounds once again.

Each of these three stories is related to one another. First, God and the council work together to create humanity in the likeness shared between God and the council. Then, God and the council work together to punish humanity for seeking to become even more like the council and God. Finally, they work together a third time to stop humanity from overstepping their bounds again in their quest to become even more like God and the divine council. Unlike the divine council which God consults and works with in creating humanity, humanity is shown to not be content with the role assigned to them and instead seeks to become more the God and the divine council.  

What are your thoughts about the divine council and the we/us statements in Genesis?

Here are the nine scriptures referencing the divine council:
Deuteronomy 32:8-9
1 Kings 22:19-22
Job 1:6
Job 2:1
Job 38:7
Psalm 29:1-2
Psalm 82
Psalm 89:6-7

Isaiah 6:8

Mythological Creatures

In this weeks hangout our group of scholars discussed the numerous interesting things related to the Pentateuch. One of the more fascinating things they talked about was material found inside the Old Testament that is frankly a little weird. Not all of this comes out of the Pentateuch but it is certainly worth looking at. These stories aren’t just weird to us today either, brought up in the discussion are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees which are extra-canonical books that deal with, in part, these stories found within the canon. 

The first these stories that is brought up is from Genesis 6:1-4 in which “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gen. 6:4). Next, we leave the Pentateuch and head over to Daniel 4:13-23 in which celestial beings known as “the watchers” are referenced. 

Both of these stories hint at the idea of a divine council which is explicitly named in numerous other places in the Old Testament. The divine council is the court of the gods in which, in the Hebrew tradition, YHWH sits at the head of. These gods can be interpreted as not truly being gods, but angels, but that is something to wrestle with. Of course the first story also deals with these members of the divine council sleeping with humans and having children who are neither gods nor human called the Nephilim. Odds are, this isn’t going to be preached about on Sunday morning. 

Personally I am fascinated by these brief mentions of the Nephilim and the watchers, along with any mention of the cherubim or the seraphim in the scriptures. These figures are usually interpreted as being different types of angels (although the Nephilim don’t really fit into this category). But I think it’s amazing and should be embraced that our scriptures have references to things similar to other ancient traditions. In other traditions we would call them mythological creatures like the Titans in Greek mythology. We see these repeatedly in scripture from all the above mentioned creatures to leviathan and Rahab (not the person), as well as the numerous mentions of dragons that come up in scripture. I won’t tell anybody how to interpret these different creatures. But I find them fascinating and wish we could talk about them more.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hangout on Ice Cream

In this weeks hangout Dr. Lester pushed back against a fairly commonly held idea that the God of the Old Testament was violent and lacked grace, while the God of the New Testament is full of grace and peaceful (or as a God who is a big meanie and a God who takes people out for ice cream). Part of this discussion had to deal with intentionally reading the grace found in the Old Testament (like the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt before the Law was given) and acknowledging the images of a Christ standing in the blood of his adversaries found in the New Testament Book of Revelation. 

However, there is an obvious reason why this thought is so prevalent. The violence in the Old Testament is plentiful and real and in contrast to the prophetic violence found in Revelation. Perhaps it is cynical of me, but with all texts one must be cautious of author biases. When Israel conquers a people and kills everybody in the city and burns it all is this really God’s command or is this the people’s understanding of what God wants? Basically, do the people read God into their own actions when things work out in their favor, and read reasons for God’s punishment into their failures? 

Perhaps this is a mixed bag of answers. From literary techniques to make certain points long after events actually happened, to God’s actual ordaining of events and actions. No matter what you believe, we must struggle with both Testaments and ask hard questions about why the authors wrote what they did. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Difficult stories

This week we're looking at a story that is not one you will likely hear preached on Sunday morning. It feels odd to post about this on Easter Sunday. Before we begin I must give a trigger warning. Be aware that this story contains acts of sexual violence and brutality.

This story takes place from Judges 19:1-21:25. It describes a story of a levite and his nameless concubine who are on a journey home from her father's house. Because of her father's hospitality they leave late and are unable to make it home before nightfall. The levite decides to press on until they reach the city of Gibeah where nobody in the town will take them in for the night. A man who is staying in the town comes and invites them to stay the night at his residence once again showing hospitality. However, once they are inside the men of the city come an demand the levite come out so that he may be raped. The man sheltering the pair refused and instead offered the concubine as well as his own daughter for rape instead. Ultimately, only the concubine is mentioned as being forced outside where she is raped throughout the night. In the morning she is found by the levite who tells her to get up because they are leaving, but she is dead so he puts her on a donkey, takes her home, and dismembers her and sends the parts of her body around Israel.

This is only the set up to the story. The rest of the story revolves around all of Israel coming together in response to this vicious act of rape. All, except for the tribe of Benjamin that is for it was in a city of Benjamin that the rape occurred. The rest of Israel goes to war against Gibeah and the tribe of Benjamin comes out to defend it. After multiple days in which Benjamin has been winning the rest of Israel finally traps the Benjamin army and defeats them. From there Israel slaughters the remaining Benjaminites except for 600 men who escape into the wilderness. Israel, not willing to let the tribe of Benjamin die off, try to gain wives for these 600 men in the wilderness but they won't allow any of their daughters to marry them do to an oath they gave. So they found a city that did not come out in support of the war and they abducted women from that city so that they could force them to marry the remaining Benjaminites except they are either unable to get enough women this way. So Israel has the Benjaminites lay in wait for a festival to YHWH in which women from another city will leave the safety of the city at which point the Benjaminites abduct those women and force them into marriage so that the tribe does not die off.

This story is the final story contained within the book of Judges and it ends with the rather ominous sounding phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25). This story leads right into the story of how Israel got a king in 1 Samuel. While Samuel warns the people against having a king the book of Judges seems to reinforce the absolute need for a king because atrocities are being committed by the people when they rule themselves. This story has many atrocities, from the rape, to the slaughter of the Benjaminites, to the abduction of the women to force them into marriage which brings us right back to rape. This story is a justification for the need of a king and to remind Israel of how they can easily fall into acting in such a way.

Today, virtually every element of this story is offensive to us. The way the woman is treated by the levite, the way the man offers up his daughter and the woman to the men of Gibeah, and the desire to rape and the actual rape and murder of the woman. The genocide of the Benjaminites and the multiple abductions of women to force into marriage. All of this is offensive today and is a real point of struggle to read about.

For the ancient Israelites, these elements are more of a mixed bag. The desire of the men in Gibeah to rape the Levite and the subsequent offering of the women to the men alludes to the earlier story of Lot where the men of Sodom wish to rape the two strangers he is housing while Lot offers his daughters to them instead. Unlike in this earlier story where the strangers end up being angels who protect the family from the town, here no such protection is found. This seems to indicate just how far everybody in Israel has fallen from righteousness. Lot was considered righteous and he is spared and protected for that. The people of Israel have fallen so far that there is no protection anymore. In fact they are the ones committing these acts. At no point in the story does Israel act justly. Even in the war against those that raped and murdered the other Israelites are defeated time and again despite consulting God first about what they should do. Even when compared to the Benjaminites the other Israelites are not considered righteous and given easy victory.

The leadership of this pre-monarchical seems incredibly democratic with the people (men) in masse deciding what to do against the tribe of Benjamin and how to handle obtaining wives for the remaining Benjaminites. Instead of one person taking responsibility for the actions of all there is more of a mob rule mentality where the decisions are not carefully thought through and considered. Ultimately, I see no doubt that this text is the perfect ending for the book of Judges in that justifies so thoroughly why a king was needed over Israel despite Samuel's insistence that a king would not be good.

This is a text for us to struggle with today and it is important to read it as an awful story that was used as a justification for later action. None of the actions found within it are to be considered good. Instead, we should see that the ancient Israelites would have seen just how far they had fallen in this story and used that to support a kingship over themselves as a way of saving them from their own brokenness. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hangout Reflection: Revising History

This week the hangout centered pretty heavily on the Deteronomistic revision of history. 

Like Dr. Lester, I too am far more comfortable with a revisionist history being presented in the Bible than I am with modern attempts at revisionist history. At least this remains true when the modern revisers are the ones who already hold power. I am withholding examples to avoid turning this into a political blog. 

That being said, Dr. Junior brought up a great example of modern day revision of history, particularly around the Bible of this discussion. Dr. Junior mentioned the feminist movement and critique of scripture as being a revisionist movement. Now, unlike the Deteronomist writer, the feminist movement hasn’t altered or added to the scriptures that we have. What they have done, however, is change what questions we ask about scripture and from what perspective we read scripture from. This is, at its core, very similar to what the Deteronomist does. 

The Deteronomist changes history for a variety of reasons. Dr. Lester talked about how the Deteronomist alters history to provide a perfect example for how Israel should act in contrast to how they actually end up acting. Similarly, Dr. Junior talked about how feminists pushed for us to look at women in scripture as being independently important characters and not just as the wife of some patriarch. Both of these attempt to say something about the current situation that they live in and both see that current situation as being fundamentally flawed. The end action of the Deteronomist and the feminist may be different, but ultimately they both see something wrong in their respective present day that needs to change so they look back at history and use that history to make a case for that change.

So I guess Dr. Junior made me realize that I can be comfortable with modern day revisions to history. So long as those revisions are not to support the status quo, but instead show what’s wrong with the status quo.