I had never heard the expression “Spooky Season” until this segment from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight“–but apparently it is a thing, at least among television newscasters! However, the Jack o’ lanterns and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, and the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING (I had pumpkin spice Cheerios for breakfast this morning!) all presage the approach of Halloween–after Christmas, the biggest commercial holiday of the year.
In the church, however, this season is leading us up to an important, although little celebrated or even recognized, day in the Christian year. It is especially sad that United Methodists may let this day pass unheralded, as it was a particular favorite of John Wesley! Joe Iovino writes:
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”
Halloween is called “Hallow E’en” for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.” October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve. All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609. Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.
So, why do we celebrate All-Saint’s Day on November 1? The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en;” called El Dia de Los Muertos [the Day of the Dead] in Spain), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.
When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared. Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms, that
God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.
Still, because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences. I disagree. I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter! As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”
In fact, in this year of pandemic, when conventional trick-or-treating has become dangerous, Hallowe’en has become a window of opportunity for our churches to minister to our neighbors. Many churches had already begun the practice of “trunk or treat” in their parking lots. This year, when little children cannot come to the doors of our homes to receive our offerings of sweets, perhaps our churches can fill that role, sweetly sharing the love of Jesus and the promise of his resurrection!
This is my favorite All-Saint’s Day hymn, composed by William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, and usually sung to a stirring tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams.
October 31 is also the birthday of the best saint I know: my Dad, Bernard Tuell. Happy birthday, Daddy!
Every year on or around my birthday, October 3, I try to find as many opportunities as I can to share this bit of wonderful nonsense from Theodore Geisel–better known as Dr. Suess. Under the silliness, it carries a deep affirmation of self-worth, which reminds me of the fundamental philosophy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s best-known alumnus, Mr. Fred Rogers. Every day on his television program, Mr. Rogers told every little child watching, “You are special, just for being you.”
The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison. I can’t help but remember and am depressed. I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.
Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness. I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.
The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him. It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.
The hope in Dr. Suess’ poem seems to echo the hope in this passage of Scripture–but does it? After all, Lamentations (found just after Jeremiah in our Old Testament) is a grim collection of five poems mourning the fall of Judah, written in the ruins of Jerusalem’s temple. There is only one hopeful word in this entire book, and this is it! Therefore, some would say that to single out this passage is dishonest, as it is not representative of the book as a whole. In fact, since this passage is swallowed up by the poems of despair surrounding it, the point could be that these words proved ineffectual–that they provided no lasting healing or hope.
Certainly, Mr. Rogers took some flack for his message of self-affirmation. One television panel claimed that this message was “ruining kids”:
Well here’s the problem [that] gets lost in that whole self business, and the idea that being hard and having high issues for yourself, discounted. Mr. Rogers’ message was, “You’re special because you’re you.” He didn’t say, “If you want to be special, you’re going to have to work hard,” and now all these kids are growing up and they’re realizing, “Hey wait a minute, Mr. Rogers lied to me, I’m not special”
The panel decried the damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them. And what he says that instead of telling them, “You’re special, you’re great,” why didn’t he just say, “You know what, there’s a lot of improvement, keep working on yourself.”
The television panel’s critique may seem to some more reflective of Christian faith (and certainly more true to the overall tone of Lamentations) than Mr. Rogers’ or Dr. Suess’ message of affirmation. I grew up in the sawdust-trail revivalist tradition of Christianity, in which the point of preaching often seems to be bringing its hearers to such a state of fear and guilt and self-loathing that they will run to the altar to be saved from judgment, hell, sin, and themselves: repentance as the child of despair.
But this is not the only way that Christian tradition has spoken about humanity, or about our relationship with God. In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, 5, Christian mystic St. John Climacus writes, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.” Repentance is not born out of despair, but is the child of hope, and indeed the denial of despair!
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (The Inner Kingdom [St. Vladimir Press, 2000], 45) unpacks St. John’s teaching on repentance:
It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.
I think that it is no accident that those words of hope in Lamentations have been placed in the center of the book, in the middle of its longest poem. The point is that, yes, for this community devastated by Babylonian armies, things are bad–as bad as they could possible be. In these days, when after 200,000 deaths, the pandemic still rages; when climate change has turned our West Coast into a tinderbox, and wildfires rage; when racial justice often seems as distant a dream to us as it did to Dr. Martin Luther King, or indeed to Frederick Douglass; when political differences readily harden into hatred; we may well think the same of our times. But what saved them–and saves us–from despair is knowing that we are loved, and that God is faithful:
Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness (Lam 3:22-23).
The point is not optimism, but rather hope. Optimism says it will all be okay; that nothing really bad is going to happen. However, hope affirms that no matter what happens, all will be well. It was that hope that caused Jews being marched to the gas chambers in the Nazi holocaust to recite, from the creed of Moses Maimonides, “I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith, I believe that Messiah will come, and though he tarry, I will expect him daily.”
Friends, I believe that it is consistent with the heart of the Gospel to claim our created goodness, and our standing as people God loves, and for whom Christ died. Looking upward to God’s love, forward with trust, we may go forth by God’s grace, transformed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be the people we were created to be.
I can shout with Dr. Suess, and invite you to shout with me: “I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be. If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”
October is also the birth month of my father. That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo. I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord. So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy. God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.
Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001. On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square. I was among those asked to speak. As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19. Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians. He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy. The shock and horror we felt then, Habakkuk knew well.
I am once again reprinting the sermon I preached on that day. It is heartbreaking to realize how fully the fears I had then were realized; that today, nineteen years later, we have in our fear and mistrust given so much voice and power to racism and xenophobia. But I remain hopeful–perhaps more hopeful than any time this past decade–that we are at last ready to confront our national sins, to repent, and to allow God’s spirit of justice to move us, following what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.
What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens? That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack. But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.
What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens? While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question. The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed. He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village. He saw homes in flames. He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon. Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12) Surely, surely, you will not let us die. “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13) Habakkuk is in shock. He can’t accept what he sees and hears. “I hear, and I tremble within. My lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16) We know how that feels, don’t we? Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels. Who could believe it? Who can believe it now?
From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger. “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17) We know how that feels too, don’t we? Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land. We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger. But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we. If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal. We will never move on to wholeness and new life.
Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are! We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man. If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won. They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.
A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees. He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place. Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened. Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this. Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this. In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.
So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens? Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18) Oh God, this is as bad as it gets! How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).
The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright. Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here. We were wrong. But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling. Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.
The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.
“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19) A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain. It can mount up impossible precipices. The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this! But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.” May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times! God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.
We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord. We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service. God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world. But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands. No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Today, August 18th, marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It was a victory that had been a long time coming, following decades of protests, civil disobedience, and “unladylike” behavior.
This pamphlet from the time illustrates the attitudes of those opposing the amendment. Inside were household cleaning tips, interspersed with caustic anti-suffrage rhetoric:
Sadly, the Nineteenth Amendment was not an unalloyed victory: women of color continue to face obstacles to their voting rights a hundred years on. All of which makes Vice-President Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate of historic importance.
The nomination of Ms. Harris as a candidate for the vice-presidency has been greeted by sadly predictable questions, concerning her citizenship and her character, that clearly have far more to do with her gender and her race. In an interview with Fox Business network anchor Maria Bartiromo, Mr. Trump said:
“And now, you have — a sort of — a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told Bartiromo. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group and they were all angry. … These are seriously ill people.” He was referring to Harris’ pointed questioning toward Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, after sexual assault allegations from a professor, Christine Blasey Ford, surfaced.
The “mad woman” remarks followed comments Trump made to White House pool reporters the day before. Trump called Harris a “nasty” woman and said she was “probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden” during the Democratic debates, referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
When then-candidate Trump referred to his opponent Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” in 2016, female activists across America took up that insult as a badge of honor, proud to be known as “nasty women”!
This brings us to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Exodus 1:8–2:10! Strong, confident, “nasty women” play an extraordinary, central role in the story of Moses and of Israel’s deliverance. From the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to Moses’ here-unnamed mother and sister, to the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaids, women act boldly to undo the hateful plans of Pharaoh, and to carry out the will of God.
Ominously, the passage begins with the emergence of a new pharaoh, “who didn’t know Joseph.” This new monarch not only casts aside the memory of Joseph’s preservation of Egypt in lean times, but actively turns on Joseph’s people:
“The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are.Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work (Exod 1:9-10).
It is important for us to call this what it is. Pharaoh’s fears, and the Egyptians’ dread, were not in any way realistic. There was no indication that the Israelites had any intention to side with Egypt’s enemies in a conflict. The Israelites posed no threat: indeed, Joseph—an Israelite!—had recently been Egypt’s savior (see Genesis 41). But this Pharaoh has no memory: he “did not know Joseph.” His cruelty and oppression toward an ethnic minority in his kingdom responds to an imaginary crisis. This is racism, pure and simple.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people [pictured above] attending a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In his statement taken following this horrific crime, Mr. Roof said that he had to do this, in retaliation for black-on-white crime. This is another imaginary crisis, based on fake news from the internet rather than actual crime statistics. Sadly, the escalation of hate crimes in the last four years demonstrates that many others who “feel threatened” by African-Americans, by Latinos and Latinas, by Arabs and Muslims, now feel empowered to express these feelings openly by their words and actions. We must have the courage to call this too what it is: racism pure and simple. We must oppose it wherever we encounter it, and let ethnic and religious minorities know that the church is with them.
Harsh servitude did not succeed in reducing the Hebrew population; indeed, “the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread” (Exod 1:12). So Pharaoh decides upon a slow genocide. He enlists Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, in his obscene plot, ordering them to kill every Hebrew boy at birth. The midwives at first agree—but then, they disobey Pharaoh’s command because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17, NRSV; a better translation of the Hebrew than the CEB “respected God”)–the first mention of God in this book!
Pharaoh of course realizes this—there are still lots of Hebrew boys toddling about, after all—and calls the midwives in to explain themselves. What follows is a masterpiece of subversion. Playing on Pharaoh’s racist beliefs and fears, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie he will be likely to believe: the Hebrew women, they say, aren’t delicate and civilized like Egyptian women; they are strong and vigorous, like animals, and give birth before we can arrive! Their plan works.
Pharaoh does not give up on his genocidal designs; ultimately, he will enlist his entire population, ordering all Egyptians to drown Hebrew baby boys (Exodus 1:22). But for a while at least, the courage and ingenuity of Shiphrah and Puah have saved their people. Israel continues to prosper, even in bondage.
As for Shiphrah and Puah, the NRSV reads, “because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Exod 1:21). This, however, is far too weak a translation, and the CEB “God gave them households of their own” is only a little better. The Hebrew is wayya’as lahem battim: God “made for them houses”—that is, God established them as clans. This passage claims that there were families in ancient Israel that traced their descent, not from a man, but from a woman: from Shiphrah or Puah.
One of the little boys who lived because of the midwives’ courage was the child of a man and women of the priestly tribe of Levi. Neither is named here (although later, in Exodus 6:20, we learn that they are Amram and Jochebed); nor, as Liddy Barlow observes (“Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary, ” Christian Century 137 [August 12, 2020]: 20), are we told the child’s birth name–although he will come to be called Moses. His birth was a great risk. Pharaoh had sentenced all Hebrew baby boys to death by drowning in the Nile. His parents hide him as long as they can, but when he is three months old, they surrender to the inevitable, and Moses’ mother and sister take him to the river themselves. But instead of drowning the baby, they place him in a tebat (rendered in the CEB as “reed basket”) and set him afloat—hoping against hope that someone will find him and raise him in safety.
The word tebat isnot, strictly speaking, a Hebrew word: it is a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.” It appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: twice in Exodus 2: 3, 5 to describe the reed basket in which baby Moses was placed, and 26 times in Genesis 6—8 to describe the boxy structure Noah built. Both Moses’ little tebat and Noah’s enormous tebat are coated inside and out with pitch (Genesis 6:14; Exodus 2:3) in order to make them water-tight. When they read of Moses’ ark, then, careful readers of Scripture recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures in their ark, and know that as grim as Moses’ future seems at that moment to be, this baby, like Noah, will be saved through water.
After Moses’ mother places her son in his tiny ark, trusting him into the hands of God, Moses’ sister (later we learn that her name is Miriam) follows along on the shore, “to see what would happen to him” (Exodus 2:4). What she sees must have horrified her. In what is surely the worst possible outcome, the little basket floats into the Egyptian princess and her attendants, who are bathing in the Nile.
Remember, Pharaoh himself had commanded that any Egyptian who finds a Hebrew baby boy is to drown the child in the Nile—and surely, if anyone can be expected to obey Pharaoh’s edicts, it is his own daughter! But instead, even though she knows that this child “must be one of the Hebrews’ children” (Exod 2:6), she decides to keep him and raise him as her own—in defiance of her father. It is she who gives him the Egyptian name by which he will be known: Moses. Miriam is then able to step up with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby: Moses’ own mother. As a result, Moses grows up aware of his heritage. In turn, according to Jewish tradition, Pharaoh’s daughter became known as Bithiah, “daughter of the LORD”; in 1 Chronicles 4:18, we learn that “Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter” married into Judah’s line, becoming herself by marriage an Israelite.
Friends, what a story! Praise God, who calls and saves us–and particularly, on this centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, praise God who calls outspoken, courageous, “nasty women” to speak God’s word of grace, love, and justice. My friend and colleague in ministry Liddy Barlow expresses, I am persuaded, the heart of this passage:
Jochebed’s children still make their perilous journeys today, armed with little but their mama’s fierce love. And Bithiahs aplenty sunbathe by the riverside, capable of casual cruelty but also–at our best–able to subvert the systems that sustain us. God calls us into holy conspiracy and invites us into one tangled family, for the sake of the most vulnerable. For God’s own sake.
I just saw this image on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Facebook page–along with a thank you to Master of Divinity student Caryn Doege for “sharing this beautiful photo and reminder of God’s love.” The seminary paired this image with a familiar passage from Genesis:
“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13, NRSV).
We need to think about what is happening in this verse. Just what is it that God has placed in the clouds? We may respond, immediately, “A rainbow, of course!” But what is a rainbow? Our thoughts may go to sentimental whimsy
or to the science of optics
or, perhaps to the politics of inclusion (the PTS student organization supporting LGBTQ+ persons is appropriately called “The Rainbow Covenant”).
The Hebrew word used in Genesis 9:13-16 is qeshet, which does mean “rainbow” in Ezekiel 1:28. However, Ezekiel’s vision pretty explicitly alludes back to the Genesis flood story:
Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared.
Otherwise, we have to go to late Hebrew (Sirach 43:11; 50:7) to find qeshet meaning “rainbow.”
Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, qeshet refers to the bow as a weapon, whether in the hands of a hunter (for example, Genesis 27:3) or a warrior (for example, Zechariah 9:10). So here, the rainbow is the LORD’s war bow (Habakkuk 3:9; Psalm 18:14), which God sets aside, placing it in the clouds.
Remember, God had just finished destroying the world with a flood, returning the cosmos to pre-creation chaos. It was an action taken in sorrow and regret, to put an end to the violence and corruption that threatened God’s ordered world–but nonetheless, it had been done. Now, as life begins again on the renewed earth, the unavoidable question for the reader has got to be, what if this happens again?
God promises that it will never happen again: “I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11). Then, to underscore and seal that promise, God disarms Godself:
I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth.When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.”God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth” (Genesis 9:13-17).
“Covenant” is not an everyday word–mostly, we encounter it in the sanctified vocabulary of the Bible or the church. When you see this word, think “treaty,” or “binding contract.” In the final form of the Torah, the priestly editors have tied the text together with a chain of these contracts, binding and committing God to the world, and the world to God.
This is the first covenant in that chain: one made, not merely with Noah, or his kin, or even with the entire human family, but rather with “with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you” (Gen 9:10). The others are the covenant with Abraham, promising him land and descendants (Gen 17:1-8); and the covenant with all Israel established through Moses on Sinai (Exod 31:16-18). Each of the three is called a berit ‘olam: an enduring, everlasting, or eternal covenant. Each is sealed and memorialized by a sign: sabbath for the Sinai covenant, circumcision for the covenant with Abraham, and for this first covenant in the chain, the LORD’s bow in the cloud. By setting God’s bow aside, God declares that, henceforth, God will not come against the earth and its people as an enemy, armed for battle.
Of course, other texts in Scripture view matters differently. The prophets sometimes describe the LORD’s judgment on Israel in such stark terms that God appears as the enemy of God’s own people (for example, Ezekiel 6:1-14). Apocalyptic texts famously speak of another, final end of the world, despite the promise in Genesis 9. The African American spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep” (here, by Mississippi John Hurt; first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers) cleverly gets around this conflict: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time”!
But the fact that other texts follow a different path should not draw our attention from what is happening here. Indeed, God laying aside God’s bow, and rejecting the role of warrior, marks the beginning of a pronounced trajectory through Scripture, leading from Genesis through Hosea 11:8-9
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [towns destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah] My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.
and leading, by Jesus’ humble road, from Bethlehem to Calvary to the empty tomb and beyond; to, finally, the Elder’s profound statement of who and what God is:
Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8).
There are of course other trajectories through Scripture, friends. But particularly in these conflict-ridden days, we should not ignore this one, which begins and ends with God coming in peace.
I am a long-time fan of the television quiz show “Jeopardy.” Many categories throw me completely (pop culture, sports, and geography in particular), but usually I can hold my own. I particularly enjoy Bible questions, which often completely throw the on-screen contestants. Last week, I was tickled when the Final Jeopardy question was in the category “Old Testament Books.” So, after the commercial break, I was a bit thrown when the clue was, “By Hebrew word count, the longest book bears this name that led to a word for a long complaint or rant.” The reference to “jeremiad” made the answer they were looking for clear, but I thought (and said out loud to the television screen) “Jeremiah isn’t the longest book!”
Jeopardy has gotten it wrong before. Usually, they get it right in the end–often, before the final credits roll. But this past year, one question with a wrong answer was not corrected. The clue, under the category “Where’s that Church?”, was, “Built in the 300s A.D., the Church of the Nativity.”
[Katie] Needle, a retail supervisor from Brooklyn, responded it was in Palestine but was told her answer was wrong. One of the other two contestants, Jack McGuire, then buzzed in with the reply “Israel”, which host Alex Trebek accepted as correct.
As it happens, I have been to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem in the West Bank. I know people who live and work in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is not in the state of Israel: you must pass through a security checkpoint at the border between Israel and the West Bank to get there.
As the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera accurately reported,
The Church of Nativity, declared a world heritage site, is located in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which is internationally-recognised as part of Palestine.
Particularly as Israel continues to annex Palestinian land, displacing families, many of them Christian, who have lived in the land for generations, it is tragic that this error has still not, to my knowledge, been corrected.
At any rate–knowing, as I did, that the longest book in the Bible is the book of Psalms, I was confident that Jeopardy had erred again. But my old friend from graduate school, fellow United Methodist minister Frank Norris, set me straight. He posted on Facebook a link to an article by Justin Taylor in “The Gospel Coalition” titled “What Is the Longest Book in the Bible? (Hint: It’s Not the Psalms).”
The article cited the work of David J. Reimer, a fellow Ezekiel scholar. The book of Psalms is certainly the longest by chapter divisions (there are 150 Psalms, after all; no other biblical book gets out of double digits!), or by verse count (2,527 in the Psalms). But Dr. Reimer recognized that verse or chapter count wasn’t the best approach, as these divisions are mostly late, and not generally included in the biblical texts until the Middle Ages. He proposed three other criteria for length:
“Graphic units” counts the number of Hebrew words in a particular book using BibleWorks (e.g., there are seven “graphic units” in Genesis 1:1).
“Morphological units” was found according to the Groves-Wheeler Westminster Morphological database (which separates prefixed elements, but not pronominal suffixes; e.g., there are eleven “morphological units” in Genesis 1:1).
The “Bytes” figure calculates the length of the Hebrew book in ASCII format (i.e., so there is no interference from extraneous word-processor code).
Placing the top ten in a chart:
# Verses in Book
So–Jeopardy DID get it right: by Hebrew word count, Jeremiah is the longest book. Psalms is not even the second-longest book–by Hebrew word count, that would be Genesis. I was wrong–and happy to learn something new! The Bible does this to me all the time, I find.
The trivial question of the relative length of biblical books opens onto other, more interesting questions–specifically with regard to Psalms and Jeremiah. The Greek text of the Psalms differs in many ways from the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) from which our Old Testament is translated. More of the Psalms are given titles in the Greek text, and more of those titles ascribe the poems they introduce to David. Most notably, however, the Greek text contains an additional, 151st Psalm.
I was small among my brothers, and the youngest in my father’s house; I tended my father’s sheep.
My hands made a harp; my fingers fashioned a lyre.
And who will tell my Lord? The Lord himself; it is he who hears.
It was he who sent his messenger and took me from my father’s sheep, and anointed me with his anointing oil.
My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them.
I went out to meet the Philistine, and he cursed me by his idols.
But I drew his own sword; I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.
This psalm is found in Hebrew in 11QPsa (the Great Psalms Scroll, one of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls”), a manuscript of the Psalter from Qumran dating to around the time of Jesus. Although not used in Western churches, Psalm 151 is included in the Bibles of many Eastern Orthodox communities, including Greek and Slavonic Orthodox Churches. So the length of the book of Psalms may well depend on where you worship.
Similarly, the text of Jeremiah in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) differs significantly from the Hebrew MT–but this time, the Greek text is shorter (by about an eighth), and its chapters are differently arranged: chapters 46–51 (the prophet’s oracles against foreign nations) in our Old Testament appears instead following Jer 25:13a: “I will unleash upon that land everything I decreed, all that is written in this scroll.” Then, in the LXX, the material in our Jer 25:13b–46:5 resumes, followed by our Jer 52. In this case, the finds from Qumran are particularly intriguing.
4QJera from before 200 BCE, and 2QJer, which on the basis of paleography (that is, the form of ancient writing used) dates roughly to the first century CE, place the oracles against the nations at the end of the book, and otherwise generally preserve the textual tradition of the MT. However, portions of Jer 9:21–10:21, written in Hebrew, were found in a fragment, 4QJerb, that looks more like the LXX. The fact that old Hebrew texts relating to both the LXX and the MT of Jeremiah were found at Qumran shows that ancient communities of faith treasured and studied both versions of Jeremiah. So it makes little sense in this case to ask whether the “real”–the best, most ancient, or original–book of Jeremiah is the shorter or the longer version!
We need to know that there is not just one, pristine original Hebrew version of Psalms, or Jeremiah, or indeed of ANY biblical book. Therefore Bible translators do not begin with how best and most faithfully to render the biblical languages into clear and understandable English. The prior question is which ancient version of a text to translate. Addressing text critical questions requires expert knowledge–and even experts may disagree as to their resolution. However, every reader of Scripture needs to be aware that these questions exist. Otherwise, we are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misinterpretation–and even to deliberate attempts to deceive.
For example: just this morning, a friend shared this meme, and asked me if there was anything to it (spoiler alert: there is NOT–and I have not included the poster or the address so as not to give them another platform to spread this deception).
VERY CRITICAL ALERT!!! NIV was published by Zondervan but is now OWNED by Harper Collins, who also publishes the Satanic Bible and The Joy of Gay Sex. •The NIV and ESV has now removed 64,575 words from the Bible including Jehovah, Calvary, Holy Ghost and omnipotent to name but a few… •The NIV and ESV has also now removed 45 complete verses. Most of us have the Bible on our devices and phones especially “OLIVE TREE BIBLE STUDY APP.” •Try and find these scriptures in NIV and ESV on your computer, phone or device right now if you are in doubt: Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46; Luke 17:36, 23:17; John 5:4; Acts 8:37. …you will not believe your eyes. •Refuse to be blinded by Satan, and do not act like you just don’t care. Let’s not forget what the Lord Jesus said in John 10:10 (King James Version). There is a crusade geared towards altering the Bible as we know it; NIV, ESV and many more versions are affected. •THE SOLUTION: If you must use the NIV and ESV, BUY and KEEP AN EARLIER VERSION OF the BIBLE. A Hard Copy cannot be updated. All these changes occur when they ask you to update the app. On your phone or laptop etc. Please spread the word…
To address the first claim made above: it is true that Zondervan is owned by HarperCollins. But they purchased Zondervan over thirty years ago, in 1988. You can, if you wish, still access the NIV from 1984 online and compare it with later editions, made after 1988. When you do so, you will discover that the two passages cited in this meme read no differently in the 1984 NIV than in its post-1988 revisions.
So, first of all, the fundamental claim in this meme, that the NIV has been corrupted by “godless” editors from HarperCollins, is simply false. Refusing to update the NIV on your phone or computer, as this post recommends, makes no sense–again, the differences with the KJV that this post decries were already there over thirty years ago. Also, for the record, I highly recommend the HarperCollins Study Bible, which I have used in my Bible classes for years, as well as the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and Bible Commentary. All three were prepared under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature, and should be on every pastor’s bookshelf.
However, the meme is certainly correct that the words cited here from the KJV do not appear in the NIV of those same passages, either before or after 1988. Not only the NIV, but the NRSV, the CEB, the ESV, and most other modern translations skip these sentences–although they are sometimes given in footnotes. That is because these words are not found in the oldest and best Greek texts of the Gospels.
The KJV translators in 1611 did not have access to as many texts as we do, and often included in their version very late additions and expansions to the biblical texts they were translating. Luke 9:56 and Matthew 8:11 are but two examples. Others include the Lord’s Prayer doxology in Matthew 6:13; the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7-8, which is not found in any Greek text of 1 John from before the 16th century, and the inclusion of Erasmus’ explanatory expansion, “of them which are saved,” in Revelation 21:24.
These translators are not part of some imaginary “crusade geared towards altering the Bible as we know it.” To the contrary: they have decided to use the oldest and best texts available to yield the best translation of the Bible, rather than simply aping traditional language. We do not need to know the biblical languages or the ins and outs of text criticism to be faithful readers of Scripture, friends. However, we do need to be aware of these issues if we are to avoid senseless controversies (1 Timothy 6:20), and to read the Bible responsibly, comparing and selecting among translations, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).
Merriam-Webster has decided that “irregardless” will be included in the next edition of their dictionary. A number of old and dear friends have greeted this news with alarm and dismay. In response to the brouhaha prompted by their decision, the dictionary’s staff wrote in their “Words of the Week” roundup:
Irregardless is included in our dictionary because it has been in widespread and near-constant use since 1795. We do not make the English language, we merely record it.
Please don’t misunderstand me: “irregardless” is an ugly and unnecessary word, birthed from a misunderstanding of what “regardless” means (much as the execrable “flammable” came about through a misunderstanding of “inflammable”). I will not use it, and will also encourage my students not to do so. Still, the people at Merriam-Webster are right about how language works. Language is a living thing. Old words pass out of use and new ones emerge continually. Likewise, the meanings of words are not carved in stone, but depend upon how they are used.
Sometimes, our language debates are a source of pain and controversy far beyond the “irregardless” fracas. The word “they,” our English third person plural pronoun, has for some time been emerging as the gender-neutral singular pronoun our language lacks. Many transgender and gender-fluid folk prefer “they” to the rigidly binary “he/she.” This use of the pronoun irritates and angers some, and even prompts hostility and ridicule. But we cannot pretend that English grammar is so rigid as to disallow this use. Much like the despised “irregardless,” the singular use of “they” has deep roots in the English language, going back to 1300, and including such notaries as Emily Dickinson, who wrote in an 1881 letter, “Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [theletter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself.”
The flexibilities and peculiarities of language become heightened when one language is translated into another–particularly, when the translated text carries the cultural and religious weight that the Bible does. Consider the translation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In the CEB, this passage reads:
Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good (compare KJV and NRSV of these verses).
The phrase in bold print is a single word in Greek: theopneustos. Here the CEB follows other English translations, including the NRSV and the venerable KJV, in rendering theopneustos as “inspired by God.”
But the New International Version famously renders this verse “All Scripture is God-breathed.” That is, literally, what theopneustos (combining the Greek words for “God” and “breath”) would seem to mean. This reading of theopneustos is followed in the ESV, and in Eugene Petersen’s popular paraphrase The Message. Christians who insist upon the Bible’s inerrancy–that is, its absolute and infallible authority–often cite this passage. Surely, if the Bible is God-breathed, that must mean that its words are God’s very words, as perfect and infallible as God is, and carrying God’s own authority.
But the derivation of a word is not necessarily a reliable guide to its meaning. For example, the “literal” meaning of the word “sarcophagus,” derived from Greek words meaning “flesh” and “eat,” would be “carnivore”–which of course is not what the word means at all. Surely, a better guide to what theopneustos meant to the author of 2 Timothy would be how the word is actually used.
Unfortunately, this word is uncommon: it appears nowhere else in the New Testament; nor is it used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint. Outside of the Bible, the term is no less obscure. In the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a first-century Jewish philosopher, theopneustos is used to distinguish wisdom from God from human wisdom (Sentences 129). However, as P. W. van der Horst observes, “This line, in clumsy [Greek], is probably inauthentic. It is lacking in some important textual witnesses” (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985], 579). Placita Philosophorum is a compendium of the teachings of the philosophers, ascribed to the first-century historian Plutarch (but almost certainly from after Plutarch’s time). In the chapter on the source of dreams, the teaching of Herophilus is cited:
dreams which are caused by divine instinct [theopneustos in Greek] have a necessary cause; but dreams which have their origin from a natural cause arise from the soul’s forming within itself the images of those things which are convenient for it, and which will happen (Placita Philosophorum 5. 2. 3).
Perhaps, then, characterizing the Bible as theopneustos likewise means that unlike ordinary books, the Bible is a holy book–a book inspired by God.
What then does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired by God? Another way into this question would to ask what we usually mean when we speak of inspiration (a word also related to breath). Methodist theologian William Abraham considers what we mean when we say that a teacher is inspiring, or that a teacher’s students have been inspired:
. . . there is no question of students being passive while they are being inspired. On the contrary: their natural abilities will be used to the full extent, and as a result they will show great differences in style, content and vocabulary. Their native intelligence and talent will be greatly enhanced and enriched but in no way obliterated or passed over. . . . there need be no surprise if, from the point of view of the teacher, they make mistakes (William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture [Oxford: Oxford University, 1981], 63-64).
Applying this analogy of classroom inspiration to Scripture, Abraham concludes that the writers of the Bible, likewise, should not be understood as inerrant automata, mechanically transmitting the actual words of the Divine. He writes:
We must allow a genuine freedom to God as he inspires his chosen witnesses, knowing that what he does will be adequate for his saving and sanctifying purposes for our lives. In so doing we escape the tension and artificiality of those theories that have staked everything on the perfectionist and utopian hopes that stem from a theology of Scripture that substitutes divine speaking [i.e., “the Bible is the actual, literal word of God”] for divine inspiration without biblical or rational warrant (Abraham, Inspiration, 69-70).
While Abraham’s statement that the Bible is “adequate” to God’s saving purposes may seem to us far too weak, it is not much different than the claim that the writer of 2 Timothy makes. This passage affirms that God-inspired Scripture is ophelimos–a word also not found in the Septuagint, and found in the NT only in 2 Timothy and Titus, but relatively common in Greek literature. It means “useful”–not infallible, not inerrant, not even authoritative, but “useful.” In particular, this passage says, Scripture is
useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
Reformed theologian Daniel Migliore draws an important distinction: “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.” However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50). The Bible is not “God-breathed”: inerrant and infallible. But the Bible is a sufficient, Divinely inspired means to a glorious end!
As a Bible teacher, Willie Abraham’s classroom illustration resonates strongly with me. I do indeed hope that I inspire my students. But by that, I certainly do not mean that I expect them to repeat my own words by rote, or even that I expect them to think just as I do. I do hope that they will love the Bible as I do, and that through their study they will be led into a deeper and deeper relationship with the God of Scripture–which is the Bible’s purpose.
The alternate Hebrew Bible text for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary is Zechariah 9:9-12: the only passage from the book of Zechariah found in the lectionary. Curiously, as I have noted before in these blogs, this passage is not one of the readings for Palm Sunday, although it is quoted in the accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, and alluded to in Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 as well (both use the Greek word polon, “colt,” found in the Septuagint of Zech 9:9):
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey (Zech 9:9, CEB).
Like the CEB, most English translations read “victorious” here, following the Septuagint. But the Hebrew text has nosha’--literally, “one who is saved.” Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary on this text, propose that here it is God, not the king, who “is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127). This is a very different idea of kingship, grounded not in the king’s victories as a warrior, but in God’s empowerment and deliverance (compare Zech 4:6).
The humble mount in Zechariah 9:9 derives from a long tradition in the ancient Middle East of processions where the king rode on an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129). This Bible passage catches the point of that tradition: by riding on an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace. But the prophet dreams of a king who is not a warrior–who not merely claims to come in peace, but who really comes to end war:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:10).
No wonder Jesus’ first followers recognized his mission in these ancient words!
Yet curiously, Jesus’ modern American followers have moved in the opposite direction, embracing in our “law and order” rhetoric the language of war. In a seventeen-minute video appeal to his fellow Evangelicals, Phil Vischer, creator of the wonderful Veggie Tales series, briefly summarizes the history of race in America, and why Black Americans continue to face injustice today. In particular, Mr. Vischer points to the warfare language–specifically, the War on Crime and the War on Drugs–used by past administrations, Democrats and Republicans alike, to militarize our police, and to criminalize and incarcerate an entire generation of Black and Brown Americans.
Tara O’Neill Hayes, the Director of Human Welfare Policy at the American Action Forum, has the sobering statistics:
There are currently an estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. The incarceration rate is now more than 4.3 times what it was nearly 50 years ago. This increase has led to the United States having the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, 37 percent greater than that of Cuba and 69 percent greater than Russia. This high incarceration rate is not because crime has increased; in fact, crime rates have declined since the 1990s. Rather, the arrest rate increased dramatically, while sentences—particularly for drug crimes—have gotten longer. These policy changes have disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations, who now make up roughly three-fifths and two-thirds of the prison population, respectively.
In the wake of the very public, brutal murder of African American George Floyd by a white police officer, worldwide protests today call for justice and reform–including calls, specifically, to “Defund the Police.” Indeed, in Minneapolis where this horrific crime happened, a majority of the city council has pledged to “dismantle” that city’s police force. According to Minneapolis council president Lisa Bender,
“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe. Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.” Bender went on to say she and the eight other council members that joined the rally are committed to ending the city’s relationship with the police force and “to end policing as we know it and recreate systems that actually keep us safe.”
Some cities have already pursued this strategy, successfully. For example, Camden, NJ, which in 2013 had one of the highest murder rates in the country, “dismantled the entire police department, starting a community policing approach.”
The department un-hired, then hired back most veteran officers and then 150 new officers — 50% of officers are now minorities. . . . The new force has more officers on the streets out of their cars, having conversations and mostly listening. They go through de-escalation training. . . they are trained to use their words, and guns are a last resort.
Retired Chief Scott Thompson, who helped start the new program, describes the difference like this: “from day one. . . our officers would be guardians and not warriors.”
Of course many have (perhaps deliberately) misunderstood these calls to change how we think about crime and policing as calls to eliminate the police altogether. For example, PA Representative Guy Reschenthaler objected to police reform legislation in the House, claiming “The Democrats want to defund, dismantle and abolish the police.” Some have warned that if protesters are heeded, the result will be rampant crime and anarchy. For example, the president, in his June 20 rally in Tulsa, said
“If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control” . . . They want to dismantle police, he said, while freeing vicious MS-13 gang members, and he said that they want “rioters” and “looters” to “have more rights than law-abiding citizens.” “The silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Trump said, declaring the Republican Party “the party of Lincoln” and “law and order.”
However, in Camden, after the police changed their techniques to be “guardians and not warriors,” shootings and murders went down by 50% in two years.
Reflecting on Mr. Trump’s evocation of Lincoln, and re-reading these ancient words from Zechariah, I find myself remembering what Abraham Lincoln said to a fiery old woman who urged her President to regard Southerners as enemies to be destroyed: “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
At the National Prayer Breakfast five years ago, then-President Barak Obama called for humility and a commitment to peace from people of all faiths:
. . . Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
Without doubt, the imagery of warfare and struggle is part of the biblical witness. But Scripture also, in many places, subverts that imagery, transforming it unexpectedly into imagery of peace–as in Sunday’s reading from Zechariah. What would happen if we listened to those texts, rather than focusing on the others? What would happen if we listened to one another, and engaged in conversation, rather than physical and verbal assaults? What might happen if we all opened ourselves up to become, as Chief Thompson said, “guardians and not warriors”–instruments, as St. Francis prayed, of God’s peace?
June 19th has long been a famous day in the African-American community, where it is remembered and celebrated as “Juneteenth.” In recent days, more and more white Americans have been brought to realize the significance of this day, as tragic events have brought forcefully and painfully to our national attention America’s original sin of racism and injustice.
Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.
General Granger issued General Order Number 3, which began:
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that freedom came so late to Galveston. After all, while the decades following the Civil War saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and equality, they also saw the betrayal of that promise, as with at best the indifference, and at worst the connivance of the federal government, the rights that the Constitution conveyed to all Americans were denied.
Whatever the Constitution said, the social norms of white supremacy were codified in Jim Crow laws, and enforced by horrific violence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama honors the memory of more than 4,400 black people lynched in the United States–hanged, burned, murdered, tortured to death– between 1877 and 1950.
That legacy of violence is not past. Just in this last month, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and most of all, the horrific videos of George Floyd‘s public murder by a Minneapolis police officer, have prompted not only a national, but a world-wide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality.
Some readers of this blog may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Bible, which is after all the subject of this blog. That, as it happens, is a very good question. It is no accident that nineteenth-century abolitionists did not base their arguments on Scripture. The bulk of the biblical witness seemed to be on the opposite side of the issue–indeed, African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds. After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).
While I was studying for my doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, my library carrel was for a time near a tall shelf of books written by Bible scholars teaching and writing at that distinguished Southern school in the years prior to the Civil War. Their books noted, rightly, that the Bible never challenges the institution of slavery. Indeed, some argued that slavery had been a boon for the African people, civilizing these savages and introducing them to the Christian gospel.
What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but new African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Somehow those distinguished Bible scholars could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free. Sadly, it still remains possible for us to read the Bible from cover to cover and somehow miss the passion for justice that runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation. Similarly, in white America, racism remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or cannot–see it, over 150 years after that first Juneteenth.
Community and equality, cooperation and justice, mutual respect and mutual regard are biblical principles. Far from being unreachable ideals, they are the only way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator, who is in Godself a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When any culture elevates one person, class, or race over another, and exalts taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down. No wonder our economy, our world, and our church are in trouble!
The photograph at the head of this blog is from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” an on-line gallery linked to the lectionary, managed by The Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. The image comes from The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, April 1939. The sculpture by Augusta Savage (1892-1962) appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is called “Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp,” and was inspired by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice:” sometimes called the African American national anthem.
In the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, Jesus’ followers were waiting together in Jerusalem as he had commanded them, praying in an upper room, when “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak” (Acts 2:4). Boiling out of that room and into the streets, they met Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world, who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. These visitors discovered, to their astonishment, that they could understand Jesus’ Galilean followers perfectly:
Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages! (Acts 2:7-11).
As many readers of this passage have realized, Luke’s account of Pentecost alludes to the Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9. Traditional readings of the Tower of Babel story see it as a warning against unchecked ambition, or hubris. The sin of Babel is the tower, with which they sought to reach the heavens on their own. It is to halt this prideful ambition that God curses them by confusing their languages, stopping the construction and forcing them to divide into language groups and scatter. We sometimes refer to the profusion of the world’s languages and the scattering of humanity as the “curse of Babel,” and so to the Spirit’s gift of tongues at Pentecost as undoing that curse.
But as Theodore Hiebert has observed (“The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 : 29-58), that traditional reading misses the reason the text of Genesis itself gives for building the city and the tower:
Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth (Gen 11:4)
Sure enough, when God decides to act (Gen 11:5-7), God says nothing about the tower, or hubris—or indeed, about punishment. God acts because the people are about to succeed in their goal of remaining “one people” with “one language,” so that “all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” This is neither a story condemning the sin of unchecked ambition, nor an account of divine punishment for that sin. It is about God stepping in to ensure difference and diversity, just as humans are about to succeed in enforcing sameness.
Why does God do this? Perhaps because, as Argentinian Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino wrote,
God’s intention is a diverse humanity that can find its unity not in the domination of one city, one tower, or one language but in the ‘blessing for all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3)” (“Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American Perspective,” in Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 15-16).
Racial and cultural diversity is not a problem to be overcome. It is a gift of God, to be celebrated and embraced. By squelching difference, the people of Babel were standing in the way of the diversity of expression that is God’s intent for human beings.
In 1956, Rev. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—at that time the largest Baptist church in the world—was invited to address the General Assembly of the South Carolina legislature on the subject of racial segregation. In his cringingly self-revealing remarks, Criswell condemned
scantling good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and good old Southern Baptists. . . . Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision. . . to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. . . Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends (cited in Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016], 167).
Rev. Criswell could just as well have spoken for the First Church of Babel. The denizens of that place built their city and their tower to ensure that they would stay together homogeneously: “so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth” (Genesis 11:4). But being “dispersed over all the earth” was exactly what God intended for humanity! The old priestly traditions in Genesis state this plainly. The priestly accounts of creation and flood alike declare that humanity was to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). As the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 concretely describes, this meant not only being geographically scattered, but ethnically and culturally diverse. The real curse of Babel is not being scattered abroad. It is staying where we are comfortable and unchallenged, in “my church,” “my school,” with “my friends.” Babel itself, in its safe, comfortable, stultifying sameness, is the curse.
Please notice that Luke does not say that the people all started speaking the same language—that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone. The Spirit does not return them to “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). Instead, each group hears God’s praise in its own language.
She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. . . . My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
We should not be surprised that the members of the Pentecost crowd all hear the Gospel in their own languages. The entire Bible warns us against, and models for us how to escape, the danger of the single story. Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything! At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world: one in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, and another in Genesis 2:4b-25. Our New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Scripture itself calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices. Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace. Friends, may we honor the Spirit’s gift of Pentecost by welcoming one another, and listening to one another, in all our diversity.