Jun
2013

Stay Tuned!

AN EXPLANATION, AND AN APOLOGY:

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I was in the middle of a series on Bible translations, which will recommence next week.  This week, I have had the blessing to be the preacher at the Summer Leadership Conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  This afternoon, I head for Grove City, PA, where I will teach a Bible study tonight and tomorrow morning called “Opening Doors in Christian Hospitality to All” for Reconciling Ministries, as part of the Lay Academy of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Plus, grades were due Tuesday.  It is all good (well, apart from the grading. . .), but it means that I have not been able to complete my regular weekly blog.

Instead, I would like to share with you the sermon I preached this morning, on Isaiah 50:4-11 (I preached from the NRSV, but I invite you to compare with the CEB in particular), which deals, as it happens, with the issue of translation.  The title was, “Whose Tongue?”

 

A curious translation problem confronts us in the first verse of this  passage.  The problem is not with the text itself, which seems well-preserved, nor with the word in question, which is fairly common.  Instead, translators seem unable to say, straightforwardly, what the text says!  The major English translations vary broadly on their reading of leshon limmudim, the gift the Lord has given to the Servant.  Leshon means “tongue”–no problem there–but, whose tongue?  Is it the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)?  Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy:  “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear, to listen as those who are taught [kallimmudim].”  Surely, the same word in the same context should be translated the same way both times.  The Servant says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.”

Perhaps the problem is that Bible translators are usually Bible professors.  We believe that teachers talk, and students listen: that teachers should speak from authority.  But, is that really so? My own experience as a teacher has taught me that my teaching is most effective when I am most engaged in the material myself: learners teach best!  So, too, students learn more when they are actively involved in the process, through discussion, dialogue, projects, and presentations—when, in short, the teacher surrenders authority.  The Servant says that the Lord’s gift was given “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4).  Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively not from one who stands above me, but from one who kneels beside me: who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In the wake of recent tragedies, from the human-spawned horrors of the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing to the devastation wrought by massive tornadoes in Oklahoma, a quote from Fred Rogers has surfaced again and again, going viral on the Web: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In this Song, the Servant appears as a helper.  He does not claim authority, but is responsive and obedient:

The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward (50:5).

Far from standing above and apart, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting (50:6).

How do you do that?  The Servant declares, “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced. . . Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:7-9). The strength and validation of the Servant comes not from himself, or from the world, but from the Lord.  This passage is the appointed reading for the Wednesday of Holy Week.  But in the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading ends with verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties! The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy.  Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

and has no light,

yet trusts in the name of the LORD

and relies upon his God (50:10).

When the way is unclear, trust is hard to give.  The temptation in dark places is to make our own light, kindle our own torches, become our own guides.  But, the Servant warns all “kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands” who “[w]alk in the flame of your fire:”

This is what you shall have from my hand:

you shall lie down in torment. (50:11).

If we play with fire, we will get burned.

In his book The Crucifixion of Ministry, my friend and colleague Andrew Purves considers the all too common situation of ministers in mid-career, facing a sense of despair, exhaustion, and loss of purpose; what we call “burn-out.”  The root problem in our ministry, Purves suggests, is that we think of it as our ministry, not as Christ’s. Only when “our” ministry is crucified, as it must be, can Christ’s ministry flourish in and through us.  Only then, as we surrender authority and control, can we join the helpers!  Only then can we  teach with “the tongue of those who are taught.”

 

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 2

The explosion of translations in recent years presents a real challenge to thoughtful readers.  In our next two (or three!) posts, we will consider several translations: today’s post will look at the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version.  For each translation, I will say a little about its motivations and history, talk about its strengths and weaknesses (with examples), and for comparative purposes, give you the same passage in each: the last verse of Psalm 23.  In the King James Version (see the previous post, “Which Bible?”), this reads “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

But first, a word about that word “LORD.”  The translators of the KJV chose to use this word, in all capitals, to represent the Name of God in Hebrew:

in English letters, Yhwh.  By ancient tradition, the Name is not pronounced: in synagogue, when you come to the Name, you say Adonai: that is, “my Lord.”  Hebrew scribes, both to insure that the Name would not be pronounced accidentally and to remind the reader what was supposed to be said, wrote the Name with the vowels of Adonai.  European translators ignorant of this convention came up with the pronunciation “Jehovah,” which is used seven times in the KJV, usually where the context seemed to require a name rather than a title  (see Genesis 22:14; Exodus 6:3; 17:15; Judges 6:24; Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2; 26:4).  While some modern translations have gone against this convention (notably the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible which, following the prevailing view of biblical scholarship, renders the name as “Yahweh”), most follow the KJV and use LORD in all capitals to represent the holy Name.

The Revised Standard Version (1952) is so called because it was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  This revision of the ASV was undertaken by a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the bodies that led to the National  Council of Churches).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

In the RSV, Ps 23:6 reads exactly as it does in the KJV.  However, there are several translator’s notes, recognizing other (and in some cases, better) possibilities for translating the Hebrew: “surely” could also be read as “only” (the Hebrew ‘aoften has that meaning), “mercy” could also be read as “kindness” (a much better rendering of the Hebrew word khesed; better still would be “steadfast love” or “loyalty”), and “for ever” could also be read as “as long as I live” (again, much better; the Hebrew literally means “for length of days”).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee, formed by the National Council of Churches, chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man” (see the post from May 11, 2013, “Women in the Bible”).  The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not an accurate translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities (again, see “Women in the Bible”).

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators have paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the footnotes), making this, in my view, the best scholarly translation of the Bible available, especially for the Old Testament.

For example: in 1 Samuel 11, the story of Nahash the Ammonite has always seemed very strange: who is this man?  Why is he laying siege to Jabesh-Gilead, a city far to the north of Ammon?  Most of all, why, when the people of the city offer to surrender, does he instead insist, “’I will make a treaty with you on one condition: that everyone’s right eye be gouged out! . . . That’s how I bring humiliation on all Israel.’” (1 Samuel 11:2, CEB).  Scholars had long known that the Jewish historian Josephus had a longer story about Nahash in Antiquities VI.5.1, but they did not know if that story had any ancient basis in a biblical text.

With the publication of a fragmentary text from Cave 4 at Qumran (called 4QSam a), we now know that this story was part of the text of Samuel: a paragraph that fell out of the text in the course of its copying and recopying over generations.  The NRSV of the end of 1 Samuel 10 reads:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.

The translators’ footnote on this addition says (my explanations are in brackets), “Q Ms [referring to the manuscripts from Qumran] Compare Josephus, Antiquities VI.v.1 (68–71): MT [for “Masoretic text,” the Hebrew text on which our Old Testament is based] lacks Now Nahash . . . entered Jabesh-gilead.”  

In the NRSV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Clearly, this is very similar to the RSV for this passage, with the same footnotes, except for the last phrase, which has now been more accurately rendered, and where the footnote observes the literal meaning of the Hebrew, “for length of days.”

I recommend the NRSV for serious study, and especially the HarperCollins Study Bible,  edited by Harold W. Attridge. This edition of the NRSV has lots of maps, charts, and other helps, but the best part is the extended introductions to each book of the Bible, and the footnotes: a third or more of every page, providing cross-references, further information pertaining to the history back of the text, and in many cases, additional insight into the translation.  These introductions and footnotes are written by scholars doing cutting-edge research in the books on which they comment.  In fact, in some cases, the author of the notes is the person primarily responsible for the translation of the book in question (for example, S. Dean McBride in Deuteronomy), so that you can get straight from the horse’s mouth the reasons behind the choices made.

The problem with the NRSV is that it can be hard to read.  Often, the language clanks and clatters–clearly, the work of scholars rather than poets!  Further, the NRSV assumes a college-age reading level, a major barrier to many readers.  Finally, while the NRSV, and the HarperCollins Study Bible in particular, are excellent for academic work, they are harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.

Next time, we will consider some other popular translations, comparing them to the NRSV in particular.

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy salutes the recent graduates from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Look out, church–they are a great batch, filled with the Spirit and raring to go!

 

May
2013

Which Bible?

When I was a child, the question of which Bible I should read never arose.  So far as I knew, there was only one Bible: the King James Version.  I still hear in the back of my head the language of the King James in deeply familiar texts, and those passages which I have memorized are, as likely as not, recalled from this version.

Certainly, this common reference point had many advantages.  English-speaking Christians (or at least, English-speaking Protestants!) all had and used the same Bible, so when I heard a preacher read or quote from Scripture, what he (and yes, in those days it was nearly always a “he”) said matched what I saw on the pages of my own Bible.

Of course, that is not so today!  Go to any bookstore, and you will find dozens of different Bibles–not just different in binding or study notes, but different in content.  How could that be?

We know, of course, that the Bible was not written in English.  The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, was written in Hebrew, primarily–the language of ancient Israel.  Some parts, however, are written in another ancient language commonly used in the ancient Middle East: two words from Genesis 31:47, one verse from Jeremiah (10:11); the middle chapters of Daniel (2:4b–7:28); and some ancient documents cited in Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) are written in Aramaic, the language of commerce and diplomacy in the ancient world, particularly in the Persian Period (539-333 BC).

The conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC) spread Greek language and culture throughout the ancient Middle East.  In the first and second centuries AD, when the books of our New Testament were written, Greek was the language used when cultures met, particularly for trade; as a result, nearly everyone spoke at least some Greek, in addition to their native language.

The Septuagint, a translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek, was written in the second and first centuries BC, in Egypt.  The New Testament too was written in Greek–not the Greek of the poets and philosophers, but koine, or common, Greek: what we might call street Greek!  In first-century Palestine, the native language was Aramaic (not, intriguingly, Hebrew, which had become the language of the synagogue and of scholars rather than the everyday language of the people), and there are some words and phrases of that language preserved in the New Testament as well.  When Scripture was read aloud in synagogue, the reading would be followed by a Targum: a translation of the passage into Aramaic.  In time, these too were written down and circulated among the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community.

Christians also translated the Bible into their native languages.  The Vulgate, for example, put the Bible into the common or “vulgar” language of the Roman Empire, Latin.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was translated in 1611; it has just celebrated its 400th birthday!  We can scarcely overstate the importance of this translation for English language and culture.  Together with the plays of Shakespeare, the KJV helped standardize rules for English spelling and usage, and gave English its basic, common vocabulary.

However, the English language has changed a lot since 1611.  Not only are the “thees” and “thous” gone, but the meaning of some words has changed.  For example, the KJV of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous Love Chapter, reads “charity” rather than “love” for the Greek agape: appropriate then, but misleading now, when “charity” has taken on a more narrow and restricted meaning.  A more jarring is example is Mark 10:14, which in the KJV reads, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”!  Jesus meant, of course, that the disciples should allow the children to come; “suffer” no longer means all that it did in 1611.

Further, we know more about language and translation than we did in 1611, and translators today have access to far more texts than they did (including, for many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea discoveries).  One of many places where this makes a difference is 1 John 5:6-8.  Here, the author of 1 John, referring to Jewish law requiring two or three witnesses for conviction (see Deuteronomy 17:6), declares that the testimony concerning Jesus is confirmed by three witnesses: the Spirit of God, the water (likely a reference to Jesus’ birth) and the blood (Jesus’ death on the cross).  The KJV of 1 John 5:7-8 reads, however, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”  This reference to the Trinity is not found in any Greek text of 1 John from before the 16th century, though it does appear in late texts of the Latin Vulgate.  Almost certainly, this sentence does not belong to 1 John, but rather reflects later Christian reflection on the text.

It was for these reasons and more that Christians saw the need for new translations of the Bible into English.  Next week, we will look at several English translations of the Bible, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.

 

May
2013

Talking Trinity

This Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday–which, sadly, is unlikely to prompt tremendous enthusiasm either on the part of preachers, reluctant to preach on this difficult concept, or their congregations, who have to listen to those sermons!  Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.

It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this; we need to talk about it!  However, the Trinity is not a logic puzzle for us to solve.  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible, as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him: hence, the New Testament’s language of the Father and the Son.  We come to the language of Trinity because the shape of our experience of God drives us to it.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”

While it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas in the classical creeds of the church, we can already hear the seeds of this idea in the pages of our New Testament.  For example, in John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is.  1 John 4:8 affirms, “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is Lover, and Beloved, and the Love that binds them.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

The early Christians were not the first to realize this.  The sages of ancient Israel looked for a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other intimately involved and engaged with the world.  They described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (hokmah) is feminine.

Lady Wisdom  says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.  Christian readers will be reminded of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God, through whom the world was made (compare Genesis 1).  It is a way of talking about Christ (that is, a Christology) drawn from Proverbs 8!

Lady Wisdom, describing her role in God’s creation, says:

I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Proverbs 8:30-31).

The Wisdom teachers of Proverbs are clear on the role of humanity in such a world, made in such a way by such a God: we are beloved!  God delights in us.  This is a very exalted view of humanity—the sages have no time for any “I’m only human” nonsense.  Being human is our glory, and our joy.

How are we to live with such a God, in such a world?  The role of the church is to build a community in the human family reflecting God’s own identity, and God’s will manifest in creation.  It is a daunting task.  But we are not on our own!  Remember the promise of God’s Spirit in John 16:14-15, to communicate to us all that Jesus has and is, which is in turn all that the Father has and is.

As strange, complicated, and paradoxical as the Trinity is, we believe it because it’s true to our experience of God in Christ, true to the witness of the Spirit in our world, true to our best hopes and dreams and insights into what the world can and should be—and in the deepest and truest sense, already is.

Community, interrelationship, mutual respect and regard are more than good ideas—they are the way the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator.  When we forget this, when we elevate the self above the other, when we exalt taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down.  But the gospel for this day is that God, who in Wisdom had the first word, also has the last word.  God calls us to share God’s very life in Christ Jesus, and by the gift of God’s Spirit empowers and renews us today live our lives in love.  We can dare to believe this, and to act on this belief, because it is true.

AFTERWORD:

The image of community at work above comes from Oklahoma City, in the wake of the recent devastating tornadoes there.  Please pray for this community.

A great way to help is to give to the United Methodist Committee on Relief: 100% of your gift designated for tornado relief will go to aid for hurting people in this region.

May
2013

Ghost Story

Want to hear a good ghost story?  Read Ezekiel 37:1-14.  If you have never heard this one before, you are likely to wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?”  It is a scene out of a horror movie, or a Stephen King novel.  

First, the prophet is taken in a vision by the hand of the Lord to a valley, filled with dry, dusty, disjointed bones.  

God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (37:3).  The obvious answer is no—there is no life, and no possibility of life, in this place!  The bodies strewn across the valley are not only dead, they are long dead (37:2)–there is no point in calling 911!  But since his call, Ezekiel has seen (see 1—3 and 8—11) and done (see 4—5; 12:1-20; 24:15-27; as well as 37:15-28) some very odd things in the Lord’s service.  So he answers, simply “Lord God, only you know” (37:3).

Now, God commands the prophet, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!” (37:4).  As Ezekiel delivers God’s promise of life to the dead bones, he hears “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (37:7, NRSV).  He watches as, in accordance with the word he had proclaimed (37:5), the bones are joined by tendons and covered over with flesh.  Now, instead of a valley full of dry bones, the prophet is standing in a valley filled with corpses.

Again God speaks: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (37:9).  Hebrew writers love puns.  A pun on the different meanings of the Hebrew word ruakh (“breath” in the 37:8-9) runs through this story.  First, this word can mean “breath:” so, to say that there was no ruakh in the bodies (37:8) simply means that they were not breathing.  Related to this meaning is the use of ruakh for “wind” (37:9).  In keeping with the invisible force of the wind and the life-giving power of the breath is a third meaning. Ruakh can be rendered as “spirit”—that is, the empowering, enlivening agency of people, and in particular, of God (more on that one shortly).   So, as Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (ruakh), breath (ruakh) entered the bodies, and “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (37:10)–not, please note, this

but this:

What does this vision mean?  In 37:11-14, God explains.  The dry bones are Ezekiel’s community, the house of Israel: exiled, and in despair.  They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.” (37:11)–and they are right!  Jerusalem is destroyed, the king is in chains, the temple is gone, and the people are scattered, in hiding or in exile.

But, deliverance is promised–a resurrection for dead Israel.  The Lord declares, “I will put my breath [there’s that third meaning of ruakh–God’s spirit, God’s very life]  in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says” (37:14).  Hope for the future, Ezekiel was convinced, would come from God and God alone, through the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit.

Another ghost story will be told in churches around the world on Sunday.  It comes from Acts 2 in the New Testament, but it builds on the same ideas and images Ezekiel used.  Jesus had told his followers, “Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:49).  So they had remained in Jerusalem; as our story begins, they have been there, waiting and praying, ever since Jesus’ resurrection.  It is now Pentecost, the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover.

Suddenly, the room where they are praying is filled with wind and flame, and each person gathered in that room is filled with an overpowering urge to speak!  They pour out into the street, praising God, and discover to their astonishment and delight that everyone in that crowd, Pentecost pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman world, understands perfectly what they are saying: “we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:11).

Ezekiel’s ghost story reminds us of the beginning–of how God had created the first human from the ground, breathing into him life.

Luke’s ghost story in Acts also takes us back to Genesis–this time, to the tower of Babel and the curse that confused human languages and divided the human community.

Just as in Ezekiel, God’s Spirit undoes the curse of exile, and brings those who had thought themselves as good as dead back to their homeland, so on Pentecost God’s Spirit undoes the curse of Babel, and restores all humanity to oneness.

Perhaps, like Ezekiel’s community, we have experienced abandonment and despair.  Certainly, the curse of Babel has stricken deeply into our community, even into our families, bringing division and confusion.  The solution, for us as for them, is God’s Spirit, the Holy Ghost!

That may be hard for us to hear.  Ghosts are scary, after all; why should we let go of what seems so solid and real?  Why exchange the visible and tangible for the invisible, mysterious world of God’s spirit?  Quite simply, because we must.  We need God’s spirit because we do not have the answers we seek, and we cannot find them.  We need the gift of God’s spirit to empower and enliven us, to renew and reunite us.

W. Sibley Towner puts it this way: “We need all the energy and effort we can muster to concentrate on the whisperings of the only ghost that matters, whose name is Holy.  This spirit who proceeds from God doesn’t rock in chairs or frighten dogs, but plants winsome words in the human heart that yield great fruit if the heart is supple and ready.”

So may it be for you and yours this day.  God bless you–and Happy Pentecost!

May
2013

Women in the Bible

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.  For me, it is a day of joyous celebration–an opportunity to honor my own mother, Mary, for the love and blessing she has poured into my life (that’s my father Bernard on the right),

1

as well as my wife Wendy, mother to our three wonderful sons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you–I do not know who I would be today without your love and wisdom.

familyathebeach

But sadly, Scripture is not kind to women.  To take an example particularly relevant to Mother’s Day, childbirth was regarded by the priests as a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8).  This is not surprising: in the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, so that blood belonged exclusively to God.  Childbirth being a bloody process, it is little wonder that the priests regarded it as defiling.  Still, the period of uncleanness is not the same with every birth, but depends upon the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby is female!

Broadly speaking, in the patriarchal (that is, male-centered) societies out of which both our Old and New Testaments emerged, a woman was regarded as the property of a man: first her father, later her husband.  In the priestly version of the Ten Commandments,  Exodus 20:17 states, “Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”  Here, the wife, like the household servants, domestic animals, and everything else included in a man’s “house,” is regarded as property.

In the New Testament, then, it is no surprise to find passages restricting women’s role in the church.  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead, an argument made on the basis of the creation story: “Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived” (1 Tim 2:14; a rather biased reading of Genesis 3, where the man and the woman alike are held accountable).

Still, this is just what we would expect to find in a text that comes, as the Bible does, out of a patriarchal culture.   In biblical studies, what we do not find can prove as interesting and significant as what we do; surprises and exceptions take on a particular significance.

First of all, let’s consider the very beginning of the Bible.  While the traditional reading of Genesis 1:26 has God say, “Let us make man” (see the King James Version), the Common English Bible has “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not, as some might think, political correctness.  It is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ‘ish. But the word used here is ‘adam, which means “humanity.”  Human being is set apart from everything else in creation by something not mentioned.  There are “kinds” of plants, birds, fish, and animals (see Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25).  However, there are no “kinds” of people. This is not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations, African and Asian; Jews regularly encountered people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations.  Instead, there is just ‘adam: one single human family. It is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism.

It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state:

“God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.”

Both masculinity and femininity, both maleness and femaleness, are reflections of God in this text. There is no basis here for placing women under men. To be sure, Israel’s traditions were not always equal to this insight!  Yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible.  Sexism, like racism, is denied any place in God’s rightly ordered world.  

Another surprise comes in the second version of the Ten Commandments, in the book of Deuteronomy (which in Greek means “second law”).  Deuteronomy 5:21 reads:

“Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”

Both the break in the middle of this verse, and the different words used with regard to the neighbor’s wife and the neighbor’s property, are features of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomony.  While in the Exodus 20 version, women are included in the neighbors “house” as property, the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy make a clear distinction between the wife and the house: women are not property, here!

The Old Testament is filled with surprising stories about strong women taking the lead.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a prophet (see Micah 6:4, which describes Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron as leading the Israelites to freedom). The prophet Deborah (Judges 4-5) unites the tribes of Israel against their enemies. Ruth, a poor Moabite widow, takes the first step in proclaiming her love to Boaz, and becomes the ancestress of King David.  Esther risks her position and her life to stand up for her persecuted people.

In the Gospels, Jesus continually demonstrates concern for women (see the discussion of Jesus’ position on divorce in my earlier blog, “HWJR?”).  John’s gospel describes the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well, talks with him, and becomes the first missionary! Jesus’ movement was supported by women (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, even when his disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In the letters of Paul, everywhere that the apostle offers personal greetings, he mentions women, by name.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples: Paul greets Phoebe, who he calls a deacon (the CEB reads “servant,” but notice that this is the same Greek title given in Acts to male leaders like Philip and Stephen), Prisca and Aquila (a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca, first), Mary, and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia, another husband and wife team who are “prominent among the apostles”–Paul refers to Junia here as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction between women and men.  Still, this passage presupposes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so respectfully!

Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28: “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.”  Since, for Paul, all of us have access to God through Jesus and Jesus alone, every earthly hierarchy has been overthrown.  All of us approach God on an equal footing, women and men alike.

Viewed in the context of the whole of Scripture, then, we can understand the attitudes expressed in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without feeling bound by them. In my tradition, for nearly as long as the Methodist movement has been in existence, women have been preaching.  In 1787, John Wesley himself gave permission for Sarah Mallet to preach, holding her to standards no different than those expected of all Methodist lay preachers.  However, it was a move severely criticized.

Many regarded women preachers as little more than a novelty; Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of women preaching in the Quaker movement, said, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

The powerful preaching of women evangelists such as Jarena Lee

and Phoebe Palmer

gave the lie to such condescending nonsense.  But still, though women were recognized as evangelists or local pastors, they were mostly barred from ordination in the various denominations that would form the United Methodist Church (the former United Brethren being an occasional exception).  Not until 1956, the year I was born, were women ordained in the former Methodist Church, a right expressly continued in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches joined to form the United Methodist Church.

Tragically, still today, women in ministry face resistance and rejection.  Rather like the eleven in Luke 24:11, who considered the women’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection “nonsense,” too many of us refuse to hear the good news when proclaimed by a woman.  But by refusing to hear God’s word proclaimed in a female voice, we close ourselves off from God.  May the Lord open our minds and hearts and ears, to receive with joy the witness to our Lord’s death and resurrection that faithful women continue to bring.

AFTERWORD:

I apologize for the missed post last week–a cold and flu intervened.  I will endeavor to post weekly. Thank you for staying with me through this brief hiatus.

 

Apr
2013

“H.W.J.R.?”

Not too long ago, these four letters were everywhere: on bracelets, on tee shirts,

on bumper stickers,

even, heaven help us, on tattoos.

But today, I want us to consider a different question: HWJR?  How would Jesus read?  First, though, a qualifier: “read” is perhaps not the best term for what Jesus was doing. Jesus did not have a Bible of his own to read and study—in fact, no one in the first century owned a Bible.  The Bible as we know it did not yet exist.  The various books of Jewish Scripture were written on separate scrolls, which were held by synagogues and schools.

Only a very few, very wealthy people owned scrolls of their own.  Jesus would have experienced Scripture by hearing it read aloud in worship, and by singing and chanting its words along with the congregation.  He would have learned his Bible by heart.

While it takes an act of the imagination to consider what Jesus would do if he was cut off in traffic, say, or if his internet provider went down, we do not have to imagine how Jesus read.  Matthew 5:21-48 provides us several examples of Jesus reading, and interpreting, Scripture.

Six times in this passage, Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say.”  Jesus places his own words on a par with Scripture—and not just any Scripture, but the Torah (that is, the Law: the first five books of the Bible, still central to Jewish faith and identity) and even the words of the Ten CommandmentsIn part, this is what it means to speak of Jesus coming to fulfill the law and the prophets: he is himself the Word of God, made flesh (John 1:14).  But Christian readers should not be too quick to conclude that Jesus sets the Torah aside: after all, Jesus said, “I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality” (Matthew 5:18).  Jesus’ reading of Scripture is faithful to the tradition, not contemptuous of it.  However, Jesus reads these texts for what they mean, within the whole body of Scripture—not merely for what they say.

For example: the Ten Commandments say, “Do not kill” (see Exodus 20:13).  But that does not mean that any act of violence short of murder is fine.  Jesus knows that violence begins in the heart, in the attitude that demeans and dehumanizes the other.

Words of contempt issuing from such a heart not only lead all too readily to acts of violence, they are themselves already acts of violence.  Rather than narrowing the text to the letter of the law, Jesus’ reading broadens and deepens the text, seeking its spirit.

So too, though the commandment says only, “Do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) this surely does not mean that anything short of adultery is okay!  Adultery too begins in the heart, with the lustful attitude that reduces the other to an object for my own gratification.

Like violence, then, unfaithfulness begins by denying the humanity of the other—by refusing empathy.  By reading the Bible this way, not narrowing and restricting the texts but broadening and deepening them, Jesus reads like the rabbis before and after him.

On the other hand, the Torah permits divorce.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states that if a man finds “something inappropriate about her” (Deut 24:1 NRSV; the Hebrew is ‘erwah dabar, that is “a shameful thing”), he may divorce his wife.  The rabbis debate what “something objectionable” means.  For example, Rabbi Shammai concludes that ‘erwah dabar means adultery, while Rabbi Hillel says, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her.”  Still, all the rabbis accept the legitimacy of divorce.

But Jesus thinks differently.  In first-century Palestine, women could not own property.  Divorced women could then be left homeless and hungry, unable to care for themselves or for their children.  Jesus recognizes that what is permissible is not necessarily good—let alone God’s best.  He therefore rejects divorce, except (like his near-contemporary Rabbi Shammai) when the relationship is already broken by unfaithfulness.

What does this mean for our own time?  Does Jesus’ rejection of divorce and remarriage hold for us today?  My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, recognizes divorce, and permits clergy to perform marriages for divorced persons.  Is this wrong? I have many dear friends and members of my family who are divorced and have remarried; some are pastors themselves.  Should I tell them that their marriages are invalid, or their children are illegitimate?

I don’t think so. Why should we read Jesus’ words narrowly and legalistically, when he himself did not read Scripture in that way?  If we are to read as Jesus read, we will look for how best to live out Jesus’ affirmation of faithfulness and commitment in marriage in our own context, rather than applying to his own words a legalism that Jesus rejects.

A story is told of comedian W.C. Fields on his death bed.  Friends visiting Fields in his hospital room found him thumbing through a Bible—something he had never been known to do before.  When they asked him what he was doing, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A narrow, legalistic approach to Scripture leads to that kind of reading:  we look for ways around the Bible’s more difficult teachings when they  bind us, while applying to others the full force of judgment and condemnation.  But this is not the way that Jesus reads!  In each case we have considered, Jesus reads the specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously—and so must we.

May we learn to read Scripture as Jesus does: not like prosecuting attorneys looking for evidence to convict one another, or like hostile combatants looking for weapons to wield against one another, but as genuine seekers, desiring to know God and to live as God would have us live.  Only then will we hear the Word of God among the words of Scripture.  Only then can we be changed by what God has to say to us.

 

Apr
2013

When the worst thing that can happen, happens

God help us.

Once again, evil breaks out in our world, and lives are shattered by its violence.  Two bombs, loaded with pellets and nails, exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; three people–one an eight year old boy–are dead, and over a hundred are injured, some greviously.  We are stunned, confused, heartbroken, and angry.  In our pain, we turn to God, to our faith, to Scripture, and to one another for comfort and guidance.

But sadly, in our anger, we also turn on one another–so that violence prompts more violence, in word or deed, and hatred breeds hatred.  Word that a “person of interest” was a Saudi prompted the New York Post to trumpet that he was a suspect, in custody.  In truth, he was a witness, himself injured in the attack.  Another columnist and television commentator tweeted the following:

We do not yet know who perpetrated this assault.  But we do know that it was not carried out by a race, or by a religion.  It was an act of people–sick, deluded, evil people.  Whether they prove to be white or brown, foreign or native-born; whether they claim to be Christian or Muslim or of any or no faith, we play into their delusions if we think that they are, as they may believe themselves to be, “representatives” of any people or ideal.  They represent no one, they stand for nothing but carnage, they work for no cause save chaos and evil.  We must not let their racism turn us into racists, or their fanaticism make us into fanatics.

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind 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,  a prophet who saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  Habakkuk knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and feel again in the wake of this fresh tragedy, Habakkuk knew well.

I am printing below the sermon I preached then.  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.

Text:  Habakkuk 3.16-19

“What Do You Do When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens?”

            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.

 

Apr
2013

Whose Land? (Part two)

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me

to bring good news to the poor,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim release for captives,

and liberation for prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and a day of vindication for our God,

to comfort all who mourn

For this prophet, “the year of the Lord’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.

Apr
2013

Whose Land? (Part 1)

Until 2010, I had never been to the Holy Land.  Despite a career spent studying the Hebrew Scriptures, I had never seen the hills and valleys and deserts and lakes of the land where many of these texts were written.  That year, for the first time, I took this pilgrimage, together with students from the seminary and Christians from the Pittsburgh area, as part of PTS’s World Mission Initiative.  It was a life-changing experience.  I returned with another group last year, and plan to go again in 2015. 

As a Bible scholar, to stand at Qumran and look out at the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered,

and to sit in the ruins there in the room that Roland de Vaux called the Scriptorium, where many scholars believe those ancient manuscripts were copied,

was for me an indescribable experience!

To stand on the mountaintop at Masada and look down on the outlines of the Roman camps and the still-visible remnant of Titus’ massive siege ramp (top right in the picture above) sent chills down my spine.  And of course, no Christian can look on the stones of the old Roman street that runs past Caiaphas’ house from Gethsemane into Jerusalem, a road that Jesus certainly trod,

or follow the Via Dolorosa through the Old City

from Pilate’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, without being profoundly moved.

Yet on each visit, it has been the people who have moved me most, not the places.  Our trips, organized in cooperation with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, have as their express purpose not only to encounter the land of David and of Jesus, but also to offer support for the struggling church in Israel and Palestine.  The hospitality of Palestinian Christians, who opened their homes to us and worshipped with us; the laughter and smiles of children, the commitment of young people determined to remain in their homeland despite enormous political and economic pressure to leave—all were inspiring.

But when I tell this story to people here at home, I am often met with puzzlement.  Many American Christians do not seem aware that the church has survived in the land of its birth for two thousand years.  It is a surprise to them even to hear the phrase “Palestinian Christian”: the word they expect to hear after “Palestinian” is “terrorist.”  They are surprised to learn that we felt in no danger walking the streets of Bethlehem, or indeed anyplace we visited in the West Bank.  Many friends, Christians and Jews alike, seemed not only surprised but even offended by my critical statements concerning Israeli policy, particularly the separation wall that now snakes around and well into the West Bank,

the numerous checkpoints barring travel through as well as into and out of the West Bank, and the Jewish settlements that sprout like mushrooms, swallowing up ever more and more land.

After all, isn’t this the land that God promised to the Jewish people?  Aren’t the Arabs—the so-called “Palestinians”—really interlopers, with no real claim on the land?   Don’t the Jews have a right to defend themselves, by whatever means prove necessary?

These questions have been posed for me forcefully in this past week from several directions.  First, I saw this disturbing picture of Israeli soldiers surrounding the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

This picture reminded me of stories I had heard from Arab Christians, of being denied access to Christian holy sites.  Friends asked me if it were not possible that these soldiers were there to protect Christians, and I acknowledge that this may be the case (though in that case, I wonder why they were blocking access to the 13th Station of the Cross).  

Then I learned that, once again this year, many Christians from the West Bank were denied permission to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week or Easter.  According to the Catholic News Service, “the Israeli government said it rejected only 192 of the 19,000 requests it had received — because of security reasons.”  But many Christian parishes in the West Bank reported that only 30-40% of their requests for passes were honored this year.  Ashraf Khatib, who took part in the Palm Sunday procession this year and last year, observed a significant decline: “Last year we had buses from all the parishes, around 17 to 18. This year only eight buses came. Some places, like Jenin, did not get any permits and while we had four buses last year from Bethlehem, there was only one this year.”  Further complicating matters for Palestinian Christians longing to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem, Khatib claimed, is the policy of issuing permits to some family members but not to others, so that a family cannot make the pilgrimage together.   

I read this article after seeing  a comment on an earlier blog from Rick, who asked, “Can you provide a historical background for the current land claims of the different groups: Jew, Christian & Muslim?”  So–it became clear to me that this is a topic that I must address.

Please understand from the outset that I do not in any way question the right of Israel to exist, disparage the enormous accomplishments of this modern nation, or question the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own, where they can live in security.  Nor do I claim that two trips and less than a month total in Israel/Palestine have made me any kind of expert on the current crisis.  But I do know a bit about the Bible, and it is from that perspective that I intend, in my next blog (or two, perhaps) to address the issue of this land that three faiths call Holy, and to whom it belongs.   Pray for me, and with me, please.