Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Promise and Who Will Be Spared?

It has been some time since I updated the Bible Surfing blog. I view it as an opportunity to contemplate the scripture and think and reason about it. But in my own journey I've had a few surges in the rapids to negotiate. I had surgery for prostate cancer in June. I call it the "attack of the robots" because it was robotic surgery and as a techie I thought that was pretty neat. Then with all the confusion and chaos in the political arena (see my POLITICAL BLOG) I've been rather distracted.
Returning to Abraham I find Chapter 18 a little bit confusing. Let's see why. In verses 1 through 6 we find the encounter Abraham has with the Lord near the great trees of Mamre. The questions that pop into my head are: 1) How does Abraham so easily recognize the Lord?, and 2) What are the "great trees of Mamre"? I can't really answer the first question. The passage says (verse 2) "Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby." and it isn't quite clear if this is the Lord and two men or a separate event of three men just after the Lord has appeared to Abraham. I suppose it could be either. The passage doesn't make it at all clear which. The number three of course, due to later associations, puts me in mind of the Trinity. So are these three all manifestations of the Lord, or are they the Lord and two angels, or is the Lord separate and there are three men or angels associated with the Lord. Since this passage is contiguous with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah we will see more of these "men."
In wondering about the significance of the "trees of Mamre" I did some googling around which is my wont. I am not a deep researcher when I'm thinking about these things. I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm a techie geek scientist who loves writing and poetry and metaphor but not literature research so much. But I did stumble upon this reflection on the tree of Mamre which I think worth reading. It isn't clear why the trees of Mamre are mentioned except perhaps as a land mark. As I read various posts I found that the tree believed to be related at least as a descendant of the tree of Mamre was an oak that is now dead that is itself only some 300 years (another site says it is over 5000 years old) old and so not, of course, the original tree of Mamre. Perhaps it is just that trees are rare in the desert that made it a landmark. There seems to also be traditions linked to the tree: "A long-standing tradition is that the Oak of Abraham will die before the appearance of the Anti-Christ. The oak has been dead since 1996." So there are confusing elements of story about the symbol of the tree.
Verse three tends to make me more comfortable with the idea that there may be a Trinitarian link here — but one has to be careful with translations. Still notice that Abraham extends hospitality of water to wash their feet and rest and goes (verse 6) to have Sarah bake bread and then has a servant kill a choice tender calf. So we have some rather extravagant hospitality and to the request that the Lord stay, the verse says "they (i.e. collectively) answered" which I suppose is a small point, but tends to support the idea that "Lord" is being applied collectively.

The Promise

Then they ask after Sarah who is in the tent. There is the prophecy that Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs since she and Abraham are old. Despite her age she refers to having a child as a pleasure. I liked that since it is so at odds with our current culture of death which sees children only as burdens and something to be limited or avoided. Finally Sarah laughs at the thought and there is here a somewhat peculiar exchange. The Lord asks why Sarah laughed and Sarah is afraid and lies, saying "I did not laugh" and the Lord corrects her. It's a little detail and a slightly odd one. One might reasonably ask I think, "Why was Sarah afraid?" I don't know the answer. Perhaps it was wrong to correct strangers in her culture. Perhaps she too recognized the Lord and was in awe and concerned that her laugh would be miscontrued. Just a little detail: "Sarah laughed." And of course the prophecy was fulfilled.

Abraham negotiates

Then comes one of the more interesting passages in scripture when Abraham negotiates with God for the survival of Sodom and Gomorrah. The crux of the matter is whether the righteous should suffer for the sins of the rest? It is a matter of justice. Abraham takes the part of a defense attorney pleading for the rights of the righteous not to suffer the same fate as the guilty. He negotiates from fifty righteous down to ten righteous before the Lord goes on. Each time the Lord promises to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous even if there are only ten. The towering lesson here is that the wicked are spared punishment for the sake of the righteous. If there are no righteous men, perhaps all will be destroyed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Thoughts: Revelation as a Conversation with God

I have been traveling through Genesis slowly. This work is a process of slow and continuing reflection on each passage. I don't have any grand design except to try to understand without any preconceptions. For that reason I'm not drawing on many outside resources or even trying particularly to be authoritative or to appeal to authority beyond common sense.

My general presumption is that with which anyone might approach a sacred book, that of respect and a spirit of acceptance. I don't have a settled theory of revelation beyond what might be called a conversational theory. Such a theory presumes that there is a God and that He is capable of communicating with man, but does so rather as another might communicate, conversationally, but with some capacity to communicate power and grandeur so that His communications are accepted as what they are, authoritative from a divine being.

In such a communication God would find those He converses with limited by their own understandings. God doesn't turn a man or woman from a man or woman of their time to a man or woman of another time. Their cosmology and general understanding of the universe is a given. Any communication has to work in that context.

If we, who come so much later, are to understand revelation in this way, we have to first understand the likely mind of the people to whom God is communicating. They appear to be nomadic tribespeople. They live in a polytheistic world filled with a sense that spirits are in all living things. The lifeforce is literally in the blood of living things. We have to tread with light feet and try to suspend our own judgments which are themselves rooted in a lived reality so very different. Whenever we encounter something that seems a little strange, we probably should inquire about what it might have meant to people who lived so long ago.

It is also important to remember that we read in translation. This too means that a lens of interpretation, that of the translator, separates us from the original writers who may themselves have been redacted. Little is certain except that a great gulf of years and cultural shifts and sensibilities separate us from the original conversation. Such is my understanding of revelation assumed here as a background as we contemplate continuing through Genesis.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Covenant of the Circumcision

Chapter 17 continues with the Covenant of the Circumcision:
9 Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
In the New Covenant of Christianity we will see a new sign of the covenant which replaces circumcision, the sign of Baptism. This sign of the covenant and this action of sealing the covenant is no less significant in Christianity. Notice that Abram, now Abraham, is instructed to circumcise all those born in his household. Later when we see entire households entering into Christianity we have to see this in the light of the new circumcision. The early Church found this significance of Baptism as the new circumcision to be the warrant for infant baptism.
The point is that the covenant is not the culmination of an intellectual argument of assent, but a commitment of faithful servitude as servants and as Mary says "handmaidens" of the Lord. We are instructed to follow and be part of a saved people, a household of the Lord.

The Covenant (continued)

I was reflecting on Genesis 15:12-21

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates- 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."

It is apparent from the text that the covenant and the visitation by the Lord came in a dream. During this entire sequence Abraham is in a deep sleep. It begins when he falls into a deep sleep as the sun sets and the dream continues without any indication that Abraham awoke.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Covenant and the promise ...

The Lord makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 promising that he will have a son.
13 Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."
In addition to the promise of descendants Abram is promised the land. ... "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates- 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."
In chapter 16 we find the story of Hagar, Sarai, Abram's wife's, Egyptian maidservant, who Sarai gives to Abram as a concubine and bears him a son, Ishmael, when he is 86.
The whole story is fascinating if somewhat implausible at least to modern ears. We have no exposure to the marginal life of a herdsman in an arid land. Nor do we have direct experience of the social conventions of that far off time. The importance of heirs and children loomed much larger then perhaps. Abram clearly has a dramatic encounter with God, but the way God's promise will work out remains a mystery for him. Note too the prophecy of the Egyptian bondage and the fact that the Amorites will only be displaced when their sin has reached its full measure.
God is making dramatic and difficult promises to Abram, but note that the promises are in some way contingent on justice. The Israelites will only displace the Amorites when the sin of the Amorites has reached full measure. We have the promise of a true lineage, the prophecy of a four hundred year exile, and a restoration and displacement into a promised land.
This is a retrotext of course. Traditionally Genesis is part of the Torah and tradition says it was authored by Moses. Scholars dispute this today, but note that if it were written by Moses at least the first part of this would be history and not prophecy, although recounted as if it were tradition.
I really don't have a view myself of the authorship or the degree to which Moses was simply retrotelling the known history back into an earlier time as opposed to recounted a story of a tradition, a prophecy now fulfilled and one yet to come. Then again it may be the work of a later author for which all was history. We don't really know, and it really doesn't matter to the story only to its historicity. I is incumbent upon us to reflect on the fact that historicity is not necessarily important, nor is a story false because it is told after the fact instead of before the fact. Events can be interpreted in either way. Ancient texts are difficult enough without demanding that we know everything about their authorship, a demand that is both unreasonable because it is impossible. All we have are the texts and our own conjectures.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Abram Meets Melchizedek
Figure of Eternal Priesthood

In Genesis 13 Lot and Abram decide to go their separate ways and Lot settles in the Jordan plain and Abram to Canaan which the Lord gives to Abram. Genesis 13:14-16 [14 The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. ]
After this in chapter 14 we find Abram saving Lot who has been carried off by a coalition of four kings who had attacked a combined force of five kings. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled and their cities were looted and Lot and his possessions were also seized because he was living in Sodom.
Abram comes to Lot's rescue with a force of 381 trained men. The small size of this force puts the whole account into some perspective.
In Genesis 14:18-20 we find the mysterious figure of Melchizedek
[ Then Melchizedek king of Salem [i.e. Jerusalem] brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
"Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.

20 And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand."
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.]

There are only ten references to Melchizedek in the bible. This one, one in Psalm 110:4, and the eight references in the epistle to the Hebrews.

Psalm 110 of David

1 The LORD says to my Lord:
"Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet."

2 The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion;
you will rule in the midst of your enemies.

3 Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy majesty,
from the womb of the dawn
you will receive the dew of your youth.

4 The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind:
"You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek."

5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.

7 He will drink from a brook beside the way ;
therefore he will lift up his head.

The figure of Melchizedek appears to be eschatological since his name is associated with eternity. The epistle to the Hebrews will associate this mysterious figure with Christ and the sacrifice of bread and wine offered in Jerusalem by Melchizedek becomes a prefigurement of the Eucharist and Christ the eternal high priest.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Infancy Narratives

As I mentioned there is much ado about nothing in the scholarly treatment of the infancy narratives because of the fact that the two evangelists, Matthew and Luke handle the story so differently. However there are no real conflicts in the two stories especially when you realize that that stay at Bethlehem could easily have extended over a period as long as two years prior to the flight into Egypt.

In reading the two treatments a direct harmonization can be accomplished in the following fashion:
Lk 1:26-38 The Account of the Annunciation and Mary is told that Elizabeth is pregnant.
Lk 1:39-56 Mary Visits Elizabeth staying about 3 months (Mary 3+ months pregnant)
Mt 1:18-25 The Birth of Jesus Christ (Matthew's account up to Joseph accepting Mary into his house)
Lk2:1-7 Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census and the birth of Jesus

Note that here we have the first apparent conflict between the two accounts. Luke begins in Nazareth and sends Mary to Elizabeth back to Nazareth thence to Bethlehem for the census. Matthew by contrast seems to begin in Bethlehem and stay there. He is actually silent about their location until after the birth of the child.

Lk 2:8- 20 The Shepherds and the Angels (Matthew is silent about this)
Lk 2:21-38 Jesus Presented in the Temple (Birth + 8 Days) (Matthew is silent about this and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna)
Mt 2:1-12 The Visit of the Magi (Birth +|- up to two years probably a year)

To reconcile the two accounts one only has to assume that Joseph and Mary stayed on in Bethlehem which is near Jerusalem for a year or so while the child was small. This is certainly reasonable since one does not like to make long journeys with an infant if one doesn't have to, especially on foot. Since Herod ordered male children up to 2 years of age killed it is clear some time had passed since the Magi had seen the star and Herod was uncertain of the child's age.

Mt 2:13-18 The Escape to Egypt (Joseph in accord with an angelic visitation in a dream flees with Mary and the child to Egypt) by now the child is between one and two and likely can walk.
Mt 2:19-21 The Return to Nazareth ( Circa 4 BC when Herod Died) and finally we can conclude with the passage from Luke:

Lk 2:39 39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

It is reasonable to ask where the difficulty is? There are several usually cited. One is the dating of Quirinius as governor of Syria when this first census took place. I won't bother with that, but Quirinius was in the area in the proper time frame and it is not difficult to harmonize all the dates. The only other questions involve the silence in Luke about the Magi, Herod's attack and the flight into Egypt. Some of these fit Matthew's plan and ideas about what is significant more than Luke's. Luke is writing to Gentiles who don't care much about Jewish customs and ways while Matthew is writing earlier and trying to link Jesus to prophecy. He may know about their original home in Nazareth and yet also know they had lived a significant time in Bethlehem and the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem of Judea. It may be as simple as that.

So there are not very many problems. I heartily recommend the book The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament by John McHugh for those who seek more reading on the general subject.