Sep
2013

What a Wonderful World! Part 2

Last week, we discussed the first two days of creation as depicting the beginning of time and space.  The separation of light from darkness (Day One) and the waters above from waters below (Day Two) is followed on Day Three by a third act of separation:

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:9, CEB).

The land emerges from the water: picture a flat disc of land floating on the waters below, with the waters above held back by the dome.

Of, course, this is not our world view!  We know that, just as the sky is not a solid bowl overhead, the earth is not a disk floating on the waters below, but a sphere, drifting through empty space.

Still, Genesis 1:9 presents a commonsensical worldview. I know there is water up there, beyond the sky, because sometimes it comes down, as rain.  I know there is water down there, under the earth, because sometimes it bubbles up, in springs and streams, and if I dig at the right place, I may hit it!

Day Three involves two distinct acts of creation. After calling forth the dry land from the waters, God empowers the emerging world to take part in its own coming into being:

God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:11).

God invites the earth to participate in its own creation, by putting forth (literally, sprouting) green plants.  Further, the plants themselves, each bearing “fruit with seeds inside it,” hold within them the possibility of continuing God’s creation, carrying life forward into the future.  God creates a world capable of continuous regeneration.

Just as a consonance can be observed between God’s creation of space-time and contemporary physics, surely we can see here a consonance between God empowering the world to bring forth life and contemporary biology.

Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1:11 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.

With the separation of land from water and the emergence of the plants, we might say that geography comes into being. Three days into creation, we have a world that we can recognize: sky overhead, seas, lakes, rivers, forests, savannas, deserts, mountains, plains. But though this is recognizably the place where we live, we do not live there yet.  In fact, no one lives there!  It is still empty. But in the next three days, God populates this world–beginning with its empty sky.

In the ordered priestly conception of Genesis 1:1—2:4a, each of the second three days in sequence is parallel to one of the first three days, in sequence.  So, while on Day One God created light (Hebrew ‘or), on Day Four (first of the second three days, paralleling day one; cf. Gen 1:14-19), God creates the me’orot: that is, the lights. A big light now rules the sky at day, while a little light and a generous scattering of tiny lights adorn the heavens at night. The previously blank dome of the heavens is now “populated” with lights.

From our twenty-first century scientific and technological perspective, this makes no sense at all!  We know that we live on a ball spinning in space. When our side of the ball turns toward the sun, we experience what seems to us to be the sunrise. As the ball turns, we experience what seems from our perspective to be the sun moving across the sky. When our side of the ball moves into the shadow on the far side, so that we face away from the sun, we experience night.

How, then, could three days have gone by, and the sun come into being only now, on the fourth day?  The simple answer is that, while we know the reasons for night and day, the people who wrote this text did not. From their perspective, light and darkness, day and night, were direct creations of the Divine.  The sun, the moon, and the stars were lights, fixed to the dome of the sky. Their motion marked the passage of the days and nights and the sequence of the seasons (see Gen 1:14), but they did not cause them.

By contrast, in the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma elish, the sun and moon are gods, and the constellations are the astral images of the gods.  The Babylonians invented astrology based on this idea.  If you understand the motion of the heavens, you know what the gods are doing, and can plan your own life accordingly.

But Genesis 1:14-19 simply calls the heavenly bodies “lights.”  They are objects, not persons! For the priests in Genesis 1, the sun is not a god, the moon is not a god, the stars are not gods and goddesses; all are merely lights in the sky.  By concentrating divinity solely in God, Genesis 1 disenchants the world.  The storm, the earthquake, fire, and fertility are not gods and goddesses, but natural forces. Objects in the world are simply objects.

In many ways, we do not, and cannot, share the worldview of this text.  Our earth is not a flat disk; our sky is not a solid dome; we know that the sun, moon, and stars are not lights fastened to the sky.  The disenchantment of the world described in Genesis 1:14-19, however, makes our scientific and technological world possible.

As long as I believe in an enchanted world, a world haunted by gods and demons in which every rock, stone or tree is possessed by a spirit, I can neither formulate laws to render the behavior of my world meaningful, nor make predictions based on those laws.  The interaction of objects in the world will be due to the capricious decisions that those various spirits might make in their interactions with one another.

But once I understand that the sun is an object, like a lamp; that the moon and the stars too are lights—in short, once my world is disenchanted—I can attempt to understand the interrelationships among the objects in the world. By observation and experiment, I can begin to formulate hypotheses and test them; I can make predictions about what my world will do. The ancient Israelite priests who wrote Genesis 1 were not scientists, but the step that they took in Genesis 1:14-19 makes science happen.

 

Sep
2013

What a Wonderful World!

716px-Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom

From 1820 until his death in 1849, the Quaker preacher and artist Edward Hicks painted about a hundred different depictions of this same scene—likely you have seen one or more of them.  In each painting, children stand unafraid among lions, wolves, and bears, accompanied by sheep and cattle.  Every face, human and animal, gazes calmly out of the canvas, meeting our eyes in serene invitation.  To each painting, Hicks gave the same title: “The Peaceable Kingdom.”  

Hicks’ imagery is drawn directly from the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed together,
    and a little child will lead them (Isa 11:6).

But Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, charmingly reflected in Hicks’ paintings, is itself drawn from Genesis 1:29-30 (CEB):

Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened.

Genesis 1:1—2:4a depicts a peaceful, ordered world, in which conflict has no place.  But as we have seen, that ordered world emerges out of disorder: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).

storm at sea

Before creation, there was chaos: imagined here as formless, shapeless water.  Israel shared this notion of the world emerging out of watery chaos with its ancient neighbors.

enumaelish

The Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish opens with these words:

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name,
Naught by primordial Apsu, their begetter
(And) Mummu-Tiamat, who bore them all.

In Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians, apsu refers to the waters under the earth, the fresh water reservoir out of which all streams and springs emerge. Our word “abyss” comes (by way of the Greek abyssos) from this Akkadian root: apsu is the deep, the fresh-water abyss. The counterpart to the male Apsu is the female Tiamat, which in Akkadian means “salt water.”  Tiamat is, quite literally, the sea monster.

According to the Enuma Elish, out of this merging of fresh water and salt water, the union of Apsu and Tiamat, the gods were born. Soon thereafter, their father Apsu tired of the gods and decided to destroy them. But the gods found out about Apsu’s plan, and advised by Ea, the god of wisdom, they killed their father.  In wrath their mother, Tiamat, swore to destroy her children. Tiamat is imagined as a dragon: an invulnerable serpent thing armored with scales. The gods realize that they cannot prevail against her separately, and so they elect one of their number as king over the gods, and pour all of their power into that one chosen champion.  Marduk, patron god of Babylon, was elected king and, suffused with the power of the other gods, succeeded in confronting and defeating the monster of chaos.

marduk and tiamat

But Genesis 1 imagines the beginning in a very different way. Here, there is no combat. Chaos has no will to oppose to God’s. 

In serene, sovereign majesty God speaks the universe into existence: “God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.” (Gen 1:3).

The creation of light is described as an act of separation: “God separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4).  As Claus Westermann (Genesis: A Practical Commentary, trans. David Green [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987], pp. 8-9) observed, the first three days of creation all involve acts of separation: light from darkness; waters above from waters below; dry land from water. The Hebrew word used here, hibdil, is important in priestly vocabulary.  One of the primary tasks of priests in ancient Israel was to teach their people to keep the holy separate from the common, the clean from the unclean (Lev 10:10).  As separation (hibdil) was a priestly concept in ancient Israel, it seems likely that we are dealing in Genesis 1:1—2:4a with a priestly worldview.

God not only separates the light from the darkness, but also gives them both familiar, and significant, names:

God named the light Day and the darkness Night.  There was evening and there was morning: the first day (Gen 1:5).

It is not that God created light on the first day, then, but rather that by creating light and separating it from the darkness, God created the first day.  To put this another way, God brings time into being.

Now that there has been a first day, there can be a second, and a third, and a fourth, and so on, through all the days that will follow.  With the creation of light, the cosmic clock begins ticking.  In this priestly composition, God stands outside of time itself, and calls it into being.

Day two is also an act of separation:

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.”  God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way.  God named the dome Sky.  There was evening and there was morning: the second day (Gen 1:6-8).

The Hebrew word for the sky dome is raqiya’, which means literally “something beaten out:” much as, in the ancient world, a bronze bowl was beaten out of a sheet of bronze.

The King James translation “firmament” captures this notion very well. The sky is a solid object!  God takes this dome and inserts it into the waters of chaos, much as we might plop a bowl upside-down into the sink while washing the dishes. Of course, when you take a bowl and stick it in the water, a bubble of air can be trapped inside. Just so, when God inserts the sky dome into the waters of chaos, there is water is above the dome and water below, but inside the dome there is an open space where creation can take place.

In the Enuma Elish, after Marduk defeated Tiamat,

Then the lord paused to view her dead body,

That he might divide the form and do artful works.

He split her like a shellfish into two parts:

Half of her he set up as a covering for heaven,

Pulled down the bar and posted guards.

He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.

While the connection between Genesis 1:6-8 and the Enuma elish is apparent, there is also a clear distinction between the worldview of Israel’s priests and that of ancient Babylon.  The violence in the account of creation through primordial combat is entirely absent from Genesis 1.  God simply speaks an ordered world into being!

If day one, with the creation of light and the separation of light from darkness, marked the creation of time, day two marks the creation of space. Now there is up and down, right and left, back and forth. Order is beginning to emerge out of the chaos.

The notion that time and space have a beginning is certainly not obvious.  Many world religions and philosophies assert that the universe has always existed, and indeed until the mid-twentieth century, this was the common assumption of science as well.  But Genesis 1 asserts that God stands outside of both time and space, and calls them into being.

The priestly assertion that space and time have a beginning is consonant with the insights of contemporary physics.  Based on observations of the expansion of the universe, astrophysicists extrapolate backwards to a moment when our universe was compacted into a point, called a singularity.  Observation and measurement of a residual background radiation, detectable in every direction, suggests that our universe exploded out of that singularity in what is prosaically referred to as the “Big Bang.”

With that cataclysmic explosion, space came into being.  Our universe is not expanding into something; rather, space comes into being as the universe expands.  This concept is difficult enough to grasp. 

However, Einstein demonstrated that time is not an absolute quantity apart from space, but is itself a “direction” or dimension, related to movement through space: the faster we go, the slower time passes.  This is why contemporary physics refers not to space and time, but to space-time.  The Big Bang marks, then, not only the beginning of space, but the beginning of time as well.   As Israel’s ancient priests affirmed, there was indeed a first day.

This does not mean that the priests were doing science.  After all, we know that the sky is not, and has never been, a solid bowl!  Still, the consonance between contemporary cosmology’s discovery of a beginning to space-time and the theological assertion in Genesis 1 that God created time and space shows that these two ways of understanding our world are not at odds with one another.  Christians need not choose between science and faith; nor do we need to invent our own uniquely Christian ways of doing science, in competition with “secular” science. Points of consonance such as the Big Bang remind us that there is after all one world, described by science and faith alike, which we all inhabit and attempt to understand.

Next week we will continue to consider the beauty of creation as presented in the first chapters of Genesis, beginning with the third day.

 

Sep
2013

Which Creation?

Close readers of Scripture recognized early on that God creates woman twice in the opening chapters of Genesis.  The first creation of woman is described in Genesis 1:27 (CEB):

God created humanity [Hebrew ‘adam] in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

The second account of the creation of woman is the familiar story of Eve in Genesis 2:21-23, where God causes a deep sleep to come upon Adam, performs major surgery, crafts the woman from the man’s flesh, and brings her to him.

Traditional Jewish interpreters made sense of this tension by proposing that God created not one but two wives for Adam.  According to Jewish legend, the first wife, whose creation is described in Genesis 1, was called Lilith.

The legend says that Lilith was beautiful, but willful and vain, refusing to submit to the authority either of God or of Adam.  So, she was booted out of the garden.

God then created Eve: a second, presumably more pliant wife, made from Adam’s own stuff – hence, the story of the creation of woman in Genesis 2.  As for Lilith, she became a creature of the night: a seductress who tempts holy men in their dreams and gives birth to demons and monsters.

Though the story of Lilith is of course a legend, it points us to the tension within these chapters: clearly, something odd is going on in the opening pages of Genesis!

Genesis 1 begins, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).  The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is repeated in Genesis 2:4a, in what sounds like a summary statement:  “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”   Immediately after this apparent summary, we read, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky . . .” (Gen 2:4b)—the same expression, but flipped on its head.  Another account of beginnings appears to follow (Gen 2:4b-25).

Is it possible, then, that in the first two chapters of Genesis we have two distinct accounts of creation, one in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a and a second in Genesis 2:4b—25?  For millennia, we have read the text as though Genesis presented us with a single account of beginnings: one creation story.  But could it be that we have not one creation story, but two?

We can assess this idea, and explore how these texts relate to one another, by posing to these two passages a series of questions.

First, How is the Divine addressed in each passage?  In the English translation of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, the creator is called simply “God.”

The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, which literally means “gods.”  In Hebrew, however, the plural can be a way of indicating majesty.  So, while ‘elohim does mean “gods” sometimes, it is commonly used as shorthand for “God of gods” or “God above all gods.”  In Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, this is consistently the way the divine creator is addressed.

But in Genesis 2:4b—25, we find not only “God” (again, ‘elohim), but also the expression “LORD,” in all capitals.  That is the way that most English translations represent the personal Name of God, YHWH.

Like the repetition of “the heavens and the earth” bracketing 1:1—2:4a, the two different names used for the Divine in our passages are suggestive.  But we can push further to ask about the “stuff” of creation: What does the Creator make things out of?

This may seem an odd question.  Haven’t we been taught that God creates out of nothing?  Later Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers talk about creation in this way because of their high view of God. If God is indeed God, then God is not an object in the world of time and space: certainly, then, God must have called all that is into being. Therefore, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians alike talk about Creatio ex nihilo: that is, God creating the world “out of nothing.”   

However, that is not what Genesis 1—2 is about. The question posed by these chapters is not, “Where did the world come from?” Ancient people really did not care how the world began.

What they wanted, and needed, to know was something more immediate and pressing: is there a meaningful order to reality?  Can I plant my crops and know that the rain will fall, the sun will rise, the seed will sprout and germinate, and the harvest will come?

Ancient people knew all about solstices and equinoxes.  Though they did not understand how this happened, they were fully aware that every year, when the autumnal equinox rolls around, the day and the night are of equal length (hence, “equinox:” that is, “equal night”).  But every night after that the nights get longer and longer, and every day after that the days get shorter and shorter, until finally we come to the winter solstice: the longest night and shortest day of the year.

Every human culture in the world recognizes the equinoxes and the solstices, and for a very important reason. After all, how can we know that this time around, the nights won’t just keep getting longer and longer and longer until everything is swallowed up in night? How can we know that this time around the air won’t just continue to get colder and colder and colder until everything is swallowed up in an endless winter of darkness and death?

Can we be certain that the wheel will turn and that the cycle will continue?  In short: does the world make sense?

The opening verses of Genesis record, ““When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form” (Hebrew tohu wabohu; Gen 1:1-2).  This “formless void” (the NRSV rendering of the verse) is further described as “the deep sea” (Hebrew tehom) and “the waters” (Hebrew hammayim; Gen 1:2).  In Genesis 1:1-2, then, the state of things when God began creating was chaos, without order or pattern, represented as tossing, shifting, formless water.

Picture yourself floating in the ocean.  There is no land in sight.  It is night: the sky is overcast, so that there is no moon and no starlight.  All you can see, all you can imagine, is the endless rise and fall of the water, the tossing of the waves, and the wind blowing over the deep. That is the way Israel’s ancient priests imagined the beginning of things.

It all begins with shapeless, formless water.  But God imposes order on that chaos. The implicit question in Genesis 1, then, is not, how did the world begin, but rather, does the world make sense?  God establishes order and meaning in place of disorder and meaninglessness.

When we turn to Genesis 2, we find a different image.  Here the heavens and the earth are presupposed; God has already created them, offstage.  This account begins, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky—before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the LORD God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land. . .” (Gen 2:4b-5).  Here, the earth is like a dry field, with nothing growing and no rain. 

But God permits water to bubble up from beneath the earth, and moisten the surface of the ground (Gen 2:6).  What happens next is the chemical reaction that every two year old learns: water plus dirt equals mud. 

Out of the mud, the LORD begins to create: “the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Gen 2:7).  The LORD God forms the human (Hebrew ‘adam) out of “the fertile land” (Hebrew ‘adamah).  Similarly, the LORD forms “all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” out of the ground (Gen 2:19).  The Hebrew term ‘adamah, means “soil” or “arable land:” ground you can till and plant (“fertile land,” as the CEB renders it).  The very close similarity in sound between Adam, the human, and ‘adamah, the soil, is no accident: Hebrew loves puns!  Adam is the mud man, formed from the ground.  So while Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins with water, in Genesis 2:4b-25 the LORD forms the human and the animals from the ground.

This leads us directly into a third question to pose to these two passages: How does the Divine create?  In Genesis 1:3, we read, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

Again in verse 6, we read, “God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.’”  This pattern continues throughout the chapter (compare Gen 1:9, 11, 14, 20, 24). In this passage, clearly, God speaks the world into being.

But when we turn to Genesis 2:4b-25, we find a different way of thinking about the means by which the Lord creates.  In Genesis 2:7, the Lord God formed the human from the ground. 

Likewise in 2:19, “the LORD God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky”  The verb translated “formed” in the CEB is the Hebrew word yatsar: the term used for what a potter does (see Jeremiah 18:11). 

In Genesis 2, the LORD is like a potter, forming the human, the animals, and the birds from the ground: getting the Divine hands dirty, and fashioning intimately and directly what the LORD creates.

The fourth and final question we will pose to these two passages is, What is the order of creation?  The first thing that God makes in Genesis 1 is light (Gen 1:3-5). God calls light into being by pronouncing its name: God says, “Let there be light”—in Hebrew, yehi ‘or; that is, “Light, be!”—and light is.

Genesis 1:1—2:4a imagines creation as taking place over the span of a single week.  Light is created on Day One, and everything else that comes into being is made over the course of six days.  The last creative act of God, performed at the end of the sixth day, is the creation of human beings (Gen 1:26-31).  In Genesis 1:1—2:4a, humanity is the climax of creation.

However, if Day Six marks the climax of creation, Day Seven is its culmination: the Sabbath, the day of rest, of worship, and of study. In Genesis 2:1-4a, even God rests on the Sabbath day!   According to Genesis 1:1—2:4a, then, creation itself has a sabbatical logic.  Sabbath is part of the structure of reality, woven into the warp and woof of the cosmos.

Now consider the sequence of creation imagined in Genesis 2:4b-25. Here, the first expressly described creative act of the LORD is the forming of the human.  We are expressly told that this took place, “On the day the LORD God made earth and sky,” and “before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew” (Gen 2:4b-5).  In Genesis 2:5, then, we are expressly told that there were no plants when the human was created.

In Genesis 1, plants are created at the end of Day Three, while humans are created at the end of Day Six.  But in Genesis 2, plants are created later, as the story unfolds, for the human: the LORD God plants a garden in Eden in order to provide food, a place of dwelling, and meaningful work (Gen 2:8-15).

Although the human seems to have in the garden everything required for life, something more after all is necessary: “Then the LORD God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him [Hebrew ‘ezer kenegedo]” (Gen 2:18). The LORD at first sets out to make an ‘ezer kenegedo for the human,  “a helper that is perfect for him,”  by going back to the drawing board–or more accurately, to the mud pile!  “So the LORD God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name” (Gen 2:19).  By giving the animals their names, the human completed their creation.

In Genesis 1, birds and fish are created on Day Five (Gen 1:20-23).  The land animals, both the wild and domestic animals and the “crawling things” (the Hebrew remes refers to those things that either have too many legs or not enough: what we used to call “creepy crawlies” when I was a boy), are made on the morning of Day Six (Gen 1:24-25).  Humans are made at the end of the sixth day, as the climax of creation.  But in Genesis 2, the human is created before the animals.  Indeed the animals, like the plants, are created for the human, in the quest to find an ‘ezer kenegedo.

But none of the animals can fill the role of ‘ezer kenegedo: “a helper that is perfect for him.”  The human is still alone.  Recognizing that more extreme action is called for,

the LORD God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. With the rib taken from the human, the LORD God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being (Gen 2:21-22).

When he sees her, the delighted man says,

This one finally is bone from my bones
        and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman [Hebrew ‘ishah]
        because from a man [Hebrew ‘ish] she was taken (Gen 2:23).

The creation of humanity brackets Genesis 2: God’s first creative act is to fashion the human (Hebrew ‘adam) from the ground, and God’s last creative act is to fashion the woman (Hebrew ‘ishah) from the man (Hebrew ‘ish).

When we listen closely and carefully to Genesis 1 and 2, it becomes evident that we really are looking not at one story of creation, but at two. One account, in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, imagines creation over the span of a single week.  God speaks the world into being, and humanity is the climax of creation, the last thing made.  In the second, in Genesis 2:4b-25, the LORD fashions the human, and fashions the animals and birds, forming them like a potter, from the soil.  The human is the first thing that the LORD makes; everything else is made for the human. The creation of humanity, male and female, brackets the story: the man as the first creative act of the LORD God, the woman as the last.

If we try to collapse these two passages into a single account, the text resists us.  One common attempt to harmonize the passages is to suggest that Genesis 2:4b-25 is a detailed expansion of the thumbnail description of Day Six from Genesis 1.  But even setting aside the different ways of referring to the creator and the different ways of describing God’s creative activity in these chapters, the sequence does not work: Genesis 2 explicitly says that there were no plants when the human was made, and that the animals were made after the human.  Collapsing the stories doesn’t solve our problems; it only creates different problems.

If we come to Genesis 1–2 seeking answers to our questions about how the world began, we will go away frustrated. Since there are two different, distinct, and separate accounts of creation in these chapters, they cannot both be factual depictions of how the world began.  If I say, “I believe the Genesis creation account,” the next question must be, “Which creation: the first account, or the second?”  But of course, we don’t have the leisure of choosing one or the other: there they both are, right at the front of our Bibles, presented to us in our canonical text of Genesis.  The biblical text itself will not let us read Genesis 1–2 as a factual account of the beginning of the world.

Once we understand that Genesis 1:1—2:4a and 2:4b-25 are two different stories, however, we can consider how they relate to one another positively and creatively: not through some kind of artificial harmonization, but by seeing how these two accounts echo and resonate with one another.

William Carl, president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is a gifted preacher and a trained musician who understands the value of dissonance, in music and in Scripture.  When music is all consonance, Carl observes, it is boring, even irritating (think of the sugary bubble-gum pop songs that, in spite of yourself, stick in your head and drive you up the wall)!  Good composers know that to create texture, you need discord to enrich and accentuate the harmonies. It is surely no accident that right at the very beginning of Scripture we find not only consonance, but also dissonance: two different ways of thinking about who God is; two different ways of thinking about our world and about who we are.

 

 

 

Sep
2013

Remembering the Sabbath

In Genesis 2:1-3, the Sabbath is the climax of creation.  The first six days of God’s creation unfold in Genesis 1 in a carefully ordered, three by three pattern. Day One (1:3-5), the creation of light (Hebrew ‘or) parallels Day Four (1:14-19), the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, called lights (Hebrew me’orot) in the sky.  Day Two, the creation of the sky dome, leaving the waters of the sea under the heavens (1:6-8), parallels Day Five, when God creates birds to fly in the air and fish to swim in the sea (1:20-23).  God’s two creative acts on Day Three, the creation of dry land (1:9-10) and the creation of plants (1:11-13) parallel God’s two acts 0n Day Six: the creation of land animals, both wild and domestic (1:24-25), and the creation of human beings (1:26-31).  Day Seven thus stands apart, as a day without parallel.

We could conclude from this structure that the Sabbath comes after creation is finished (see Exod 20:11).  The Samaritan Pentateuch (a version of the first five books of the Bible used by the Samaritans), the Greek Septuagint, and the Syriac all say that God completed God’s work on the sixth day, a reading that the CEB follows (see Genesis 2:2).  But I believe that it is better to stay with the Hebrew text here, as the NRSV does, and to see the Sabbath as the day when creation is completed.  For the priests who wrote Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath was part of the very structure of reality, woven into the warp and woof of the cosmos.

When God creates the world in Genesis 1, God calls into being something new: something that is not God.  Some religions have seen the world itself as divine.

Indeed, the Semitic words for Sun,

Moon,

and even the stars

were also the names of gods and goddesses–which is likely why those terms are not used in Genesis 1:14-19.  The priests of ancient Israel insisted that the world is authentically distinct and separate from God.  The sun and moon are not gods, and the stars are not goddesses.  They are merely lights in the sky.  This is a long way from astronomy, but the “disenchantment” of the natural world that it represents would make science possible.

As theologian and particle physicist John Polkinghorne observes, in Genesis 1 God endows the universe “with the power of true becoming” (The Faith of a Physicist [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994], 81): that is, God enables the world to participate in its own creation!  So, the earth brings forth plant (1:11) and animal life (1:24), and the waters bring forth “swarms of living creatures” (1:20).  This too is a long way from biology, but it is a view of the world consistent with the ideas of evolution and genetics.  Further, provision is made for the continual recreation and renewal of God’s world (1:11-12, 22, 28), so that it can sustain itself.

Calling an autonomous universe into being “involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other” (Polkinghorne, 81).  But the God of Genesis is not anxious or controlling.  God loves the world God makes!  Again and again through the first six days, God celebrates the beauty and wholeness of God’s world, calling the creation “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).  Then, on the seventh day, God stops working, and rests: a profound expression of confidence in the world that God has made.  God trusts God’s creation enough to declare it finished, and to rest.

The renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann affirms,

The day of cessation from work declares that God’s creation is, at root, an unanxious environment for life that is not defined by energetic productivity or self-preoccupied consumption, but is defined by the peaceableness that has confidence in the reliability of the world as God’s creation without excessive exertion on the part of God or of humankind (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination [Louisville: Westminster-John Knox, 2003], 35-36).

Creation is not abandoned by God, and left to its own devices.  The God of Genesis is certainly not the clockmaker god of the Deists, who sets the universe running and then departs.

But neither is the God we meet in Genesis some cosmic puppet master, the lone real actor in the cosmic drama. Genesis 2:1-3 affirms rather that God rests, and in love and confidence lets the world go.

John Wesley, who urged his preachers never to be “triflingly employed,” has a great deal to answer for!  “Letting go” is especially hard for clergy.  Resting seems lazy and unproductive–and certainly, in the church there is always more to do!  But our feverish need to be busy may show, not zeal for our Father’s business, but anxiety!   Our drive to be involved in everything may actually reflect our desire to be in control.

Our obsession with effectiveness and efficiency, however, is neither effective nor efficient!  Our most productive periods often come when we are not working, when in stillness and calm we open ourselves to new insights, through the moving of the Spirit–when we follow God’s example, and embrace Sabbath rest.

Genesis 2:3 declares that “God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.”  In Exodus 20:8-11, God’s rest, together with God’s blessing on and sanctification of that rest, is the reason that we are to remember and sanctify the Sabbath day.

Still today, pious Jews chant Genesis 2:1-3 before praying the kiddush, the prayer over wine to sanctify the Sabbath.  Sabbath observance has long been a distinguishing mark of people Israel–which is why Jesus’ apparent disregard of the Sabbath brought such a strong response from the religious leaders of his day.  But Jesus’ insistence on healing on the Sabbath shows, not disrespect for the Sabbath, but a desire to reclaim the Sabbath.  Jesus said,

The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath    (Mark 2:27-28).  

What better time to set people free than the seventh day, when God completed God’s creation, and celebrated by setting the world free?

AFTERWORD:

The Bible Guy welcomes the incoming class of students to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and also welcomes a great crop of new faculty!  Pray for us, please, as together we pursue Christ’s call!

Sep
2013

Immanuel, Part 2

In Matthew’s gospel, two names are applied to the Christ before he is even born: Jesus and Emmanuel.  Both names figure prominently in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.  

With many students of Scripture, I believe that the best explanation of both the similarities and the differences among the first three gospels (commonly called the Synoptic Gospels due to their parallel structures) is that Mark was the earliest gospel, and was used as a source in both Matthew and Luke.  This makes the differences between Mark and Matthew’s versions particularly significant for understanding Matthew’s particular emphases.

In Matthew, as in Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  Matthew’s version follows Mark’s, with one important addition.  In Matthew as in Mark, Jesus blesses the bread, and breaking it shares it with his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (26:26).  He then takes the cup, gives thanks, and shares it with them:  “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, (just what Mark says) which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (26:27-28).  That last phrase, only Matthew has.  Remember that the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  But, how?  Only now do we begin to see.  Somehow, in his death, Jesus takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin.  

Now we come to the cross.  In Matthew, the death of Jesus is described in more detail than in Mark’s gospel.  In particular, Matthew has a sequence of three groups of people who mock Jesus as he is hanging on the cross.  Their words are important (look particularly at the words in italics).  First there were the passers-by (27:39-40), who said,  “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself!”  (Remember the name Yeshua, “the Savior”)  “If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”  (Remember the name Immanuel, “God with us”).

Next the religious leaders, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders   mock him, too:  “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son’” (27:42-43).

Finally, the bandits crucified on either side of Jesus “insulted him in the same way” (27:44).  Of course, the powerful irony is  that he is on the cross because he is Yeshua.  He will not save himself because he is the savior,  enduring in full the ugliness of human evil and sin.  “Come down from the cross if you are the son of God?”  It is because he is the son of God that he remains on the cross.  That is why he, Immanuel, is here.  He is God with us–God with us even here, even at death’s door, even in the depths of human ugliness and depravity.

As in Mark, so in Matthew, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?” (27:46)–combined Hebrew and Aramaic (see the May 28th blog) for “My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?” (Psalm 22:1).  But the mocking crowd misunderstands him (Matt 27:47-49).  Someone says, “He’s calling Elijah;” someone else says  “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”  But no one will save him, because he is determined to save everyone.  It is by his death that he brings salvation.

Matthew has one more scene to set before us. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus addresses the disciples one last time:

I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age  (Matt 28:18-20).

From the very beginning of his life, Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin and given the name Immanuel:  God with us.  Jesus is the obedient son of his Father in all things.  In Matthew’s gospel, the cross is the ultimate act of Christ’s obedience.   At the cross, Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us, the obedient son of God.  Yet in Matthew, the cross is also the means of our salvation; at the cross, he is Yeshua, Jesus, Savior.  Somehow, his death and resurrection takes up our death and our disobedience, and does away with it.

The apostle Paul puts it this way:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, the gap between humanity and divinity is bridged: we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

 

St. Gregory of Nazianzus expressed this idea quite well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton ho de henotai totheu, touto kai sozetai).  By his life, Christ as Immanuel brings God to us and us to God.  By his death, Christ as Yeshua enters our death and evil and abolishes its power forever.  By his resurrection and ascension, Christ completes the meaning of both his names.  He is Jesus, our Savior, who destroys our death.  He is Immanuel, God with us, who makes us fully “at one” with God.  He is our atonement.

AFTERWORD:

I owe the insight into the names in Matthew’s gospel that I have shared here to my colleague John Blumenstein, who completed his Ph. D. in New Testament while I was working on mine in Hebrew Bible.  The Blumensteins were our neighbors in campus housing, and our dear friends–in fact, it was John who prompted me to apply for my first teaching job, and started me down this trajectory that my ministry has followed for going on 25 years.  Wherever you are today, John, and whatever you are up to–thank you!

Aug
2013

Immanuel

For the last few weeks, we have been thinking about the Jesus’ death on the cross, and what his death means for us.  As a young Christian, the only way of understanding the cross I knew was penal substitution: that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven.  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood,” and “Jesus Paid It All.”  However, like many believers, I have come to be dissatisfied with that model.  I am disturbed by what it says about God, that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son.   I am concerned that this approach, focused solely on the death of Jesus, seems to make his life and teaching irrelevant.  In my August 6 blog, I wrote:

There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

This week and next, I am going to unpack that statement.  Today, we will pursue the origin and meaning of the name “Immanuel.”  Next week, we will consider how identifying Jesus as God With Us constitutes a way of understanding the atonement.

Matthew 1:18-24 provides the background for a Child ballad (no. 54) still sung in Appalachia, a Christmas carol called “The Cherry Tree.”   This strange little story never makes it into the Christmas pageants–probably because of its mature language and themes!

Mary, Joseph’s fiancee, is pregnant.  Joseph reaches the obvious, natural conclusion: Mary must have been unfaithful to him.  Certainly, the engagement was off, but in that culture, at that time, more could have–indeed many would have thought, should have–happened.  Mary’s actions had brought shame upon Joseph, as well as upon her own family.  At the least, she should have been exposed to public shame.  At the worst, with the evidence of her pregnancy to confirm her faithlessness, Mary could have been stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:13-28, especially 20-21 and 23-27). In some parts of the world, such “honor killings” still occur today.

 

But Joseph wanted nothing to do with any of this:

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly (Matt 1:19, CEB).

Before Joseph could act on his decision, however, an angel appeared in a dream, to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness.  Her pregnancy was a miracle; her child “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20, CEB)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

The name Jesus (Greek Iesous; Aramaic Yeshua) is a form of the name “Joshua,” derived like that name from the Semitic word for “salvation,” yeshuah.  He is to be named this because of his life’s work: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

A second name is also given to the child, however–not by Joseph, but by the writer of this gospel, for the eyes and ears of its readers and hearers (Matt 1:22-23, CEB):

Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 

One characteristic feature of Matthew’s gospel is the quotation of Scriptures that foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry.  Here, he is quoting from Isaiah 7:10-16.

Before we think about how Matthew reads this passage, we need to see it in its context.  In the middle of the eighth century BC, Jerusalem was under siege: the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, Pekah, and the king of Syria, Rezin, had forged an alliance against the superpower of their day, Assyria.  When Ahaz of Judah refused to join their alliance, they decided to take from him by force the resources he would not yield voluntarily.  Bible scholars call this the Syro-Ephraimite War.

Ahaz is faced with a serious dilemma.  So far as he can see, he has only two choices: he can surrender to the Syro-Ephraimite alliance, or he can surrender to the advancing Assyrian armies.  The prophet Isaiah presents a third option: wait, and trust in God to deliver God’s city.

As we can imagine, the prophet’s option doesn’t hold much attraction for a realistic-minded politician like Ahaz!  So, speaking in the name of the Lord, the prophet makes an offer:

Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave [Hebrew Sheol: the underworld,  or the place of the dead] or as high as heaven (Isa 7:10).

The king responds, with pompous piety: “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord” (Isa 7:12; compare Deuteronomy 6:16).  Of course, since it is God who is offering a sign to the king, Ahaz is just blowing smoke.  The exasperated prophet responds:

Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God?  Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel (Isa 7:13-14).

Isaiah does not say to whom this child will be born.  Since elsewhere in Isaiah 7-8, Isaiah gives his own children symbolic names, this may refer to Isaiah’s own child.  Immanuel is mentioned elsewhere in this book, however (see Isa 8:8, NRSV), in a way that sounds as though this is a royal name: perhaps referring to Ahaz’ own son, Hezekiah.

The significance of the sign, however, lies not in who the child is, but in the meaning of his symbolic name, and in the timing of his birth.  In Hebrew, ‘immanu ‘El means “God is with us.”  Ahaz does not need to fear Pekah and Rezin: Judah has a more powerful ally than any earthly army!  The child Immanuel, whose birth is imminent, will by the time that he is weaned (early toddlerhood, when he begins to be able to “reject evil and choose good”) be able to eat “butter and honey” (CEB; perhaps the NRSV “curds and honey” is better): products of the countryside, not available in a city under siege.  In other words, the siege will not last much more than a year or two: “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned” (Isa 7:16).

To understand Matthew’s use of this passage, we need to remember, first, that Matthew believes that the Scriptures of Israel point toward Christ–how could they not?  Reading the Scriptures through Christian lenses, alert for passages that prefigure Jesus’ coming, Matthew would of course have hit upon this passage in Isaiah.  His own experience of God through Christ had taught him that all that God is was present, powerfully, in the person of Jesus.  Jesus is God–God in our midst, God with us!  Who else could “Immanuel” possibly be?

Second, we need to remember that Matthew was probably reading Isaiah, not in Hebrew, but in the Greek of the Septuagint (see the Bible Guy blog for May 28, 2013).  Isaiah says that “The young woman is pregnant” (Isa 7:14); in Hebrew, the word he uses for “young woman” is ‘almah: a term for a young woman of marriageable age, implying nothing about her virginity or lack thereof.  In the Septuagint, this word is translated by the Greek parthenos.  Probably in the second century BC when that translation was done, parthenos could have the same implications as the Hebrew ‘almah.  But it could also mean–and certainly by Matthew’s time primarily meant–virgin.  For example, the famous temple in Athens to Athena, the virgin goddess, was called the Parthenon.

Matthew’s tradition told him (as Luke’s told him; cf. Luke 1:26-38) that Jesus’ birth was a miracle, as his mother was a virgin.  This detail would, in his mind, have clinched the identification: Jesus was Immanuel!

Later in Matthew’s gospel, these two names–Jesus and Emmanuel–will recur, specifically in connection with Jesus’ passion, resurrection, and ascension.  Between them, they express briefly and powerfully what it means for Matthew to acclaim Jesus as the Christ.

AFTERWORD:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Bible Guy is off this weekend to The Gathering, a festival of folk, traditional, and old-time music in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, hosted and organized by my brother-in-law Steve Parker and my sister Tammy.  I will be preaching at the worship service on Sunday.  This is always a highlight of my year–I invite you all to come, if you can!

Aug
2013

Atonement

I have heard more responses, both in the form of comments and in the form of Facebook posts and conversation, on my blog from the first week of August, “‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?” than from any other post since I began this blog in February!  For those just joining us, this post dealt in part with the decision not to include “In Christ Alone” in the new PCUSA hymnal, after the authors insisted on keeping the line

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.

In a blog at Patheos’ Evangelical Portal, called “Christianity Without the Atonement” Gene Edward Veith concludes that, for the hymnal committee, “What was objectionable is the doctrine of the atonement.”

I don’t understand Mr. Veith’s conclusion at all.  Indeed, knowing people involved in this decision, and having team-taught a course with one of them (called, ironically, “Models of the Atonement”!), I know that the committee did not object to the Christian doctrine of the atonement.  Mr. Veith rightly asks,

What is the point of Christianity without the atonement?  It becomes turned into another religion.  I suppose the attraction is that it gives us another religion of law, which people somehow prefer to a religion that says they are sinners in need of forgiveness and, yes, atonement.

The question, however, is not, and has never been, whether we believe in the atonement or not.  The cross is not at issue.  The love of Jesus, and his suffering for us; the grace of God; the realization that God’s power, love, and grace are communicated by the cross; the fact that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves–none of this is at issue.  The only question is, what happens on the cross?  What does it mean to say, as Christians have said from the very first, that Jesus died for us?

The verb “atone” and the noun “atonement” are  only about 500 years old.  The Oxford Dictionary dates them to the early 16th century, when they were coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”).  The word was used particularly in Christian circles to talk about the unification of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

In particular, “make atonement” was used in the KJV to translate the Hebrew verb kipper, particularly as it is used in Leviticus 16 in connection with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  While this word apparently had the original meaning “cover,” it came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.  In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.

The CEB appropriately translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation.”  In modern Judaism, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, self-examination and repentance that concludes the ten Days of Awe with which the Jewish year begins.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khatat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat is Azazel’s.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group who are blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the Lord, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.

In the shrines of neighboring people, built on a similar plan to Israel’s shrine, this inner room contained the image of the god.  But in Israel’s temple, this inner chamber held not an image, but a golden box, usually called the Ark (though the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).  The lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.

The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a seat–a cherub throne, as the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” indicates (for example, 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 80:1).  The Ark served as the Lord’s footstool, the place where the divine feet touch the earth.  Hence, the ark was the intersection of divine and human worlds, and the place of the Lord’s special presence.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, the Ark was where Moses and Aaron encountered the Lord (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; sometimes translated as “mercy seat,” but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

What does this have to do with the cross?  In several places in the New Testament, sacrificial language is used for the cross.  In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul writes:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  This same Greek word is used in Leviticus 16, not for the sacrifice, but for the kapporet.  Better, then, is the CEB translation, “place of sacrifice,” though even that may be misleading.  Paul’s point is that the cross is where atonement happens: just as, in the ancient rites on Yom Kippur, the lid of the Ark was the place where the damage done by a year of uncleanness was undone.

Scripture provides numerous models for thinking about what happens on the cross: indeed, in these three short verses, Paul offers two: an economic model (our freedom is purchased, that is, we are redeemed, by Christ’s death), and a ritual model (Jesus as our hilasterion).  The point of his ritual metaphor is that the cross is where the gap between God and humanity is undone.

Later Christian thinkers offered still more models, including John Calvin’s proposal that Jesus took on himself the punishment due us for our sin–a model called “penal substitution.”  This is the model reflected in the statement that God’s wrath was satisfied by Jesus’ death.  Atonement does not mean “penal substitution,” however.  That model has nothing to do with Yom Kippur: Leviticus does not say that the sacrifices take the place of the people who offer them, and neither does Paul.

There is more to say, of course.  My only point, in this blog, is that atonement is a bigger idea than any single model.  We can have questions and reservations about Calvin’s explanation of the atonement without denying the reality of the atonement.  However we wrap our heads around this truth, we can confess unwaveringly what the very earliest church discovered: that in the person of Jesus, and particularly in his suffering and death, the gap between humanity and divinity has been overcome.  Through Jesus, we are made “at one” with God.

Aug
2013

Loving God With All Your Mind

The Gospel account of Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment is found in Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ on small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert.  In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest.  The Torah hangs not on one, but on two essential prescriptions: love for God, and love for neighbor.

The second “great commandment” is fairly straightforward.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

One could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?”  But we know, as he certainly must have known, that this is a worthless question.  The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love for our neighbors?  These United Methodist youth, helping with flood cleanup in Dubois, PA, certainly get it!

The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  While many interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be the intent of the passage in Deuteronomy.  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can.  To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God with every aspect of one’s being.  The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  The heart (Greek kardia) is in Greek as in Hebrew the center of the self, or the will–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person.  The soul (Greek psyche) can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to the immaterial, spiritual part of the person.  One’s might (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self.  Which leaves the Greek word dianoia, referring to thoughts and intentions, commonly translated as “mind.”

What might it mean to love God with all one’s mind?  At the opening of his theological treatise ProslogiumSaint Anselm of Canterbury prays,

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand.

Indeed, Anselm writes, he had at first intended to title this theological work “Faith Seeking Understanding.”

In a comment on last week’s blog (“‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?,” August 6. 2013), one person wrote in part:

This is the main paradox of theology. The attempt to explain something only leads to further confusion. The simplicity of the faith is destroyed by a series of complex negotiations with the truth in order to produce a palatable, watered down version of an AMAZING gift of grace which is freely given (not coerced).  So many want to say what the Gospel isn’t to make it more tolerable so that we can get people to buy in on that soft marginal basis. 

St. Anselm would say amen to part of this.  We come to know and love God first through God’s love and grace showered on us, freely and without regard to our worthiness.  God loves us first.  As a Christian believer, I came to know that love of God through my experience of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.  No one is every argued into the kingdom: all of us are loved in.  The experience of God’s grace through faith in Christ comes first.  When I forget that essential order, I trust that you all will join in reminding me.

But that said, having experienced God, we seek to talk meaningfully and intelligibly about what has happened to us.  Our experience is not rational–that is, it cannot be reduced to reason.  But it is surely not irrational, either.

God created the universe, which though vast and mysterious is yet comprehensible and knowable: so much so that the intelligibility of the universe, which is describable by mathematics, is one strong demonstration of the reasonableness of faith in God.

God comes to meet us in Scripture: in words, in texts, in songs and stories and proverbs and parables that engage our intellect.  Surely such a God is not offended by our questions about God’s own will and nature –ultimately and finally unknowable and indescribable as God is.

In Anselm’s language, we do not believe because we understand; however, believing, we strive to understand: faith seeks understanding.  Theology and Bible study can be tools of human arrogance, attempting to water down or control the uncontrollable, inexpressible being of God–but they need not be.  They may also be a way of loving God, as Christ commands us to do, with all our minds.

 

Aug
2013

“The wrath of God was satisfied”?

In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is certainly one of the most popular contemporary Christian songs in American churches today.  I have often been in worship services where this song was sung–most recently, in one of the services of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.  It is a beautiful, powerful, hymn, and I have no problem singing along–except for one line in the second verse:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Whenever I am in a worship service and this song is sung, I do not sing the bold-faced line.

I have learned that I am not alone in my reluctance.  A YouTube video of Kristian Stanfill from Passion 2013 skips this entire verse–something for which he is taken to task in numerous comments on this video.

Similarly, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes,

 We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.

The committee charged with compiling a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (including my good friend and colleague, systematic theologian Edwin van Driel) asked the composers of this hymn if they could alter this line to “the love of God was magnified.”  When the composers refused to agree to this alteration, the committee decided not to include the hymn.

The response to this decision has been very intriguing.  In an article in the conservative Christian journal First Things, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, numbers the hymnal committee with    “[t]hose who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns.”  He recalls H. Richard Niebuhr’s condemnation of  “liberal Protestant theology, which was called ‘modernism’ in those days, in these famous words: ‘A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.'”  Another response, from Glenn Beck’s website, quotes Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College: “At the end of the day, the cross itself is the stumbling block, and that is why the PCUSA cannot abide this hymn.”

Please note: the new PCUSA Hymnal does not ignore the cross, the wrath of God, or even the teaching of Reformer John Calvin that the cross involves Jesus taking on himself God’s punishment for our sin: an idea called “penal substitution.” There will be, in the new Hymnal, ample witnesses to these images and ideas (for examples, see Adam Copeland‘s blog, or check out the new hymnal for yourself).

Despite the extreme responses cited above, there are two separate issues here.  One issue is how we are to understand the cross.  Like N. T. Wright and many other Christians, I am persuaded that penal substitution is neither the only, nor the best, approach to the death of Jesus.  What does it say about God if God’s wrath toward human sin is so great that it cannot be assuaged, but must be poured out on someone?  Further, in the logic of the hymn we are discussing, if “the wrath of God” is “satisfied” by the death of Jesus, is Jesus “Scorned by the ones he came to save,”  or by his heavenly Father?  There are other biblical models for understanding the cross–most powerfully, I propose, the notion of Jesus as Immanuel (God with us) who expresses God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

Another issue altogether is the wrath of God.  I have been writing recently on the Old Testament book of Zephaniah, whose theme is the wrath of God (see Zephaniah 1:17-18).   Of course, we could say, with lay theologians and Ghost Busters Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, that the “real wrath of God type stuff” is, like Zephaniah, Old Testament!  But we cannot take refuge in “Old Testament  wrath/New  Testament love” nonsense unless we manage our Bible reading very carefully.  

There is in plenty of wrath in the NT as well—indeed, Revelation 16:1-20 features BOWLS of it!

When we consider the context and content of Zephaniah and Revelation, there are plenty of surprises to be found.  Zephaniah 2:1-15 is a collection of oracles directed against the nations surrounding Judah, including Assyria–which could prompt us to think that God’s wrath is directed outward, at the nations.  But the audience for these words of judgment isn’t the nations, but Zephaniah’s own people in Judah (see Zephaniah 2:1-3).  Judah is called a goy (the Hebrew word commonly used for foreign nations) in 2:1.  Further, 2:3 is expressly directed to the righteous: “all you humble of the land who practice his justice.”  For Zephaniah, God’s wrath serves as a warning for the faithful, more than as a condemnation of outsiders.

The judgment in Revelation 16, on the other hand, certainly seems outer-directed: the bowls of wrath are poured out on those marked by the beast (Revelation 16:2).  Yet again and again in this chapter (see Revelation 16:9 and 11), we are told that those punished did not repent–suggesting that repentance, not punishment, is God’s desire.

So too in Zephaniah 2:1-3, the community of the faithful is urged:

Gather together and assemble yourselves, shameless nation,
before the decision is made—the day vanishes like chaff—
before the burning anger of the Lord comes against you,
before the day of the Lord’s anger comes against you.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land who practice his justice;
seek righteousness;
seek humility.
Maybe you will be hidden on the day of the Lord’s anger.

Perhaps the biblical message of God’s wrath is aimed at affecting change within the community—as God’s response to our unresponsiveness.

Too often, those who preach the wrath of God are all too certain of the mind of God, and of those against whom God’s wrath is directed.  The message of God’s wrath far too easily becomes a message of self-vindication, used to justify rejection of and even violence towards those we deem outsiders. But what if instead, as in Zephaniah, the wrath of God is a call to the community to come together: to gather, and to change?

God’s wrath is not after all opposed to God’s love. God’s wrath is directed against injustice because God loves justice.  God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.  God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love

May the wrath of God call us, then, not to division, but to union: to a passionate commitment to Christ, a zealous devotion to Christ’s church, and a determined stand against the hatred and self-righteousness that keep the church scattered and divided, rather than gathered together in grace.

 

 

Aug
2013

God’s Song

In C. S. Lewis’ novel The Magician’s Nephew, the lion Aslan, Lewis’ Christ figure, sings the world of Narnia into being:

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing… Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise ever heard… The eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose.

This is a beautiful, powerful image.  But it also prompts an intriguing question.

Lewis, of course, was a Christian thinker, who invited his readers to think about the world and their lives in terms of the Christian faith.  Certainly, his description of Narnia’s beginnings calls to mind powerful images of creation from the Bible, particularly Genesis 1:1–2:4a, where God speaks the world into being (see also John 1:1-18).

But, does the God of Scripture ever sing?

While the Bible is filled with songs sung to God, I can think of only two places in the Hebrew Bible where a song is sung by God.  First, in Isaiah 5:1, the prophet, speaking for God, says,”Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard” (CEB).

In ancient Israel, love songs used vines and vineyards as scenes for romance and as symbols of erotic love and fertility (see Psalm 128:3Song of Songs 1:6, 14; 2:13; 7:8, 12). It is little wonder, then, that the Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard (for example, Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1; 14:7).  Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33–43) and the description of Christ and the church as the true vine and its branches (John 15:1–17) both play on this image.

Still, the poem that follows (Isa 5:1-7) doesn’t sound much like a love song!  God condemns God’s people for faithlessness, violence and injustice:

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isaiah 5:7).

Isaiah 5:1-7, despite its romantic setting, turns out to be a lament rather than a love song.

The second place where God sings in Scripture is Zephaniah 3:17 (CEB):

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing.

Here, God joins in Zion’s song of joy (Zephaniah 3:14-15), restoring even the weak and lame (Zephaniah 3:19)!  In Hebrew, the word used in Zephaniah for God’s singing is different from the word used in Isaiah–not shir (the usual term for singing), but rinnah.  This word may be onomatopoeic (like, for example, English words such as “thump” or “zing”), meant to represent the joyous, triumphant sound of ululation, still heard in the Middle East today at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations!  

Edith Humphrey observes that while there are few biblical references to God singing, “[A]ll songs are inspired by that One. . . . he promised by the prophet Zephaniah (3:17) to utter his rinnah, his ululation or great cry of triumph, when we his people are renewed” (Grand Entrance : Worship on Earth as in Heaven  [Grand Rapids, MI : Brazos Press, 2011], 197).


 

Perhaps all our singing is an echo of God’s song, as all creation is caught up in God’s exultant joy.  As Gregory of Nazianzus prayed,

All things breathe you a prayer,

A silent hymn of your own composing.

Folk singer and songwriter Bill Staines surely knew what he was singing about: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir”!