Monday, October 22, 2012

Pharoah's Hardened Heart?

AT THE “BIBLE IN ONE YEAR” Adult Study on October 21st my colleague, Beth Taylor, reflected out loud about the passages in Exodus where the text says that God “hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” What’s this about? Why would God deliberately make things difficult for Moses to accomplish the task this very same God had given him, namely, the liberation of the Hebrew slaves?
The Reverend Beth offered no tidy solution to this scriptural dilemma, except to say “Maybe our conception of right and wrong is too small. Maybe our conception of God is too small.”
Another point she made had to do with where we might look for the presence of God in these ancient stories.  Oh, there are the obvious epiphanies such as the burning bush, but what about the less obvious ones, the epiphanies that are accessible to us because we have the advantage of 3000+ years of hindsight regarding these sacred texts? Beth mentioned the little Hebrew boys who Pharaoh commanded be killed by the same midwives who had just seen them safely into this world, newborns who evoke in us a comparison to the infant Jesus, born into an inhospitable world and sought with murderous intent by a ruthless king. I would carry it a step further, and venture to suggest that God was with those Egyptian families, mourning over the deaths of their firstborn sons. I can also see God revealed in those unlucky Egyptian soldiers, following orders to pursue the escaping Hebrews slaves into the menacing waters of the Red Sea. From Jesus, we have learned to look for God wherever there is suffering, vulnerability, and loss.
So whose side is God on, anyway?  In the unfolding drama of salvation, I have no doubt that God was being revealed in the story of Israel, but the “official” Israelite conception of God was always too small. The same goes for us, as we ponder these sacred events anew.
To me, the picture of God sitting up in heaven and “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” with lightning bolts of invisible cholesterol is just as troubling as the picture of God sending down plagues of frogs and gnats upon Egyptian peasants. At the same time, I am aware of the way my own experience of God has emerged from the struggle between health and dysfunction, courage and fear, success and failure, blessing and curse.  Without Pharaoh’s hardened heart, the escape of the Hebrew slaves might scarcely have been noticed. If Pharaoh had simply said to Moses, “Let your people go? Why certainly! Ta Ta,” what kind of a story would that make? As it is, Pharaoh became a co-conspirator with Moses in the salvation of the world.
 Running throughout the Bible, and culminating in the new Testament, is the theme of  reconciliation. In the kingdom of God, Pharaoh’s drowned soldiers join with the other gnat-bitten, frog-beset enemies of God in a big, rowdy wedding-festival where Jesus provides wine, and music is provided by Moses’ sister Miriam who sings, as always, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider has he thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21) At least that’s how I see it.      

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mana, Medad, Eldad, and My Talking Stick

                                                               My "Talking Stick"

EXODUS 16 & 17/ NUMBERS 11…  
Preparing for “Bible in One Year” presentation on September 28, which means reading about the mana, the “fine flaky substance, as fine as frost upon the ground…and the taste…like wafers made from honey.” A strange story indeed, its strangeness acknowledged by the very word “mana,” which translates literally from the Hebrew as “what is it?” When the fugitive Hebrew slaves asked this question, Moses rushed in to fill the epistemological void: “it is the bread God has given you to eat.”
 What else was he going to say? Confronted by a crowd of hungry people, he took a wild guess and it worked. “Try eating that stuff,” he said, in effect, and it turned out to be edible dew. Who knew?
We do much the same thing every Sunday. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” is placed in the hands of God’s pilgrim people, these latter-day fugitives from latter-day slavery. Occasionally, one of the very young communicants will look up at their parent and ask, “what is it?” The parent usually looks over toward me with an embarrassed smile, and I expect they would like to ask the same question themselves: “just exactly what is this supposed to be, anyway?”  I have an assortment of little sound-bite answers to such questions, but what I should say to this particular question (if it were to be vocalized) would be, “it is mana.”
In other words, “what is it?” Which is not only a smart---ed play on ancient Hebrew words, but also an affirmation of a strange and astonishing truth, that is, that we too are fed, refreshed, and sustained by this “fine flaky substance,“ this “bread God has given us to eat.” Thomas Merton writes, “…the act of faith is like a passage through the Red Sea and a journey, nourished by miraculous food, through the blighted heart of a land without vegetation.” (Bread in the Wilderness, p. 36.)
Also In these chapters Moses utilizes a Magical Staff to produce water from a rock, and also to control the course of a battle. “Whenever Moses held up his hand [the hand with the magic stick in it], Israel prevailed [in the battle]; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed .” (Exodus 17:11) To win the battle, Moses had to have two of his acolytes stand beside him and hold up his arms, because they were getting tired.  Another reason not to miss acolyte practice, right?
I have no Magical Staff, but I do have a “Talking Stick” carved for me by a wise and good friend. No, the stick does not literally talk, but it does communicate. It is covered with intricate carvings that symbolize my passionate interests, such as fish and fishermen who “cast their nets in Galilee,” deer, woods, a church, and a sacred book illuminated by a single candle. I have never tried to use my Talking Stick to produce water from a rock, but it does help in daily battles against my personal demons, idols, and self-deceptions. My Talking Stick evokes for me, on a modest scale, the same kind of spiritual power that Moses’ staff did for him, and I hope you have symbolic items that function in similar fashion for you.
If any of our children had been twins I would have militated for them to be named Eldad and Medad, after the two nonconformist prophets in Numbers 11:26-30 who overslept church when Moses was, in effect, ordaining 70 “elders of the people” to “bear the burden of the people along with” him. When, during the “service”,  the 70 began to “prophesy” (which, I suppose, meant going into some kind of a trance and making sacred noises), Eldad and Medad started to exhibit symptoms of prophetic possession on their own, even though they were not present with the group, but still back at the camp. “My lord Moses, please stop them,” was the plea from Moses’ official circle, but their plea went unheard. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” said Moses.
Church authorities would have done well to pay attention to Moses’ example, but most often we have not.  John Wesley, Martin Luther, and countless others might not have felt compelled to “prophesy outside the camp” if bishops and emperors had been less paranoid about preserving their monopoly over the Holy Spirit’s activities.
Anyway, since I have no twins to name (or propose to name) among my children, I will have to wait until God sends us two kittens to care for, or two possums, or two skunks. The names “Eldad” and “Medad” are too good not to use on something.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Abba Jonathan spoke of a conversation he and Abba Bob overheard in a tavern many years ago. "Here's what I really believe," said a man to the woman sitting beside him at the bar, "if you can't trust yourself and everybody else, who can you trust?"
Abba Jonathan was asked about the significance of this experience. "In twos these always come," replied the sage. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Joseph and His Bad Brothers :Good Questions from Participants in “The Bible in One Year”

1.       Not a “question” so much as an observation: one person found it easier to understand the dissension among Joseph’s many brothers when she remembered that their father Jacob begat some of them by his wife Leah, some by his wife Rachel, and others of them by their respective maids. Sort of like an episode of “Sister Wives,”right? Jacob’s favoritism toward wife Rachel and her sons (Joseph and Benjamin), combined with Joseph’s spoiled-brat mentality, set the stage for the “Joseph Saga” to unfold. No wonder they couldn’t seem to get along.
2.       Another person pointed out that the attribution of super-long lifetimes to such figures as Abraham (175 years), and Sarah (127 years), makes the Genesis stories seem incredibly far-fetched. I agree, but don’t think such folk-tale elaborations are essential to the basic truths revealed in these ancient stories. These traditions were passed on by word of mouth for many generations before anyone thought to write them down, and they cannot be regarded as “historical” in the same way as we think of history, that is, as an “objective” account of events. My analogy for this comes from my youth, when I went many times to Deer Camp with my grandfather and his old-fashioned brothers and nephews. Every year they told and retold the same hunting stories, and each time there would be variations in detail, but not in terms of what the stories were supposed to mean. The prehistoric stories in Genesis contain many inaccuracies in detail, but the core message is consistent: the God of Abraham and Sarah can be trusted to fulfill the divine promise of blessing.
I know this central Biblical theme to bed true, because we ( who are among their spiritual descendants) are still being reliably blessed after these thousands of years. When in Genesis 12:3, God tells Abraham “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” it was you and I that God had in mind. I trust that promise and that blessing with all my being, and that trust has nothing to do with how old Abraham was when he died.  On the other hand, I can never regard these stories as purely imaginary inventions, like “Paul Bunyon”, or “Lord of the Rings.” How do I know that? Because I have been to Deer Camp, and I know the difference between a tall tale and a hunting story.  How’s that for a scholarly observation?
One last observation:  the “Joseph Saga” is a fairly down-to-earth narrative, with the supernatural element  limited to dream-interpretation and a sense of a divine purpose working itself out through ordinary events. Joseph and his brothers come across as if they could be guests on a “Dr. Phil” episode, or some of my Great-Uncles at a Pennsylvania Deer Camp. What’s more, when Joseph died he was a mere 110 years old! (Genesis 50:26). A spring chicken! As the  narrative moves forward in time, the Biblical authors seem to moderate their estimation of patriarchal lifetimes. For me, that constitutes a welcome development, since the Bible’s authority proceeds as much from its earthy human-ness as it does from its unprecedented surprises.
We will encounter plenty of both as we read on. I look forward to it.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Gothic Role Models?

I have recently been reminded an “Arian” church that existed in much of Europe during the chaotic period, roughly 400-700 C.E., when “barbarian” tribes  from the east fought with the Byzantine Empire, and with each other, for control of what had been the old Roman Empire in the west. Those barbarians, with some exceptions, were Christians of the Arian variety, having been converted by a missionary named Ulfila, whose accomplishments included the translation of the Scriptures into Gothic.
There was a Gothic Language? If so, were other things written in it? How did those “Arian” Christians worship, and in what language? Assumedly, if they recited any version of the Nicene Creed, they would have said that the Second Person of the Trinity was of “like being” to the Father, rather than (as “orthodox” believers like us say) of “one being” with “Him.” If this were the case, how might those subtle distinctions have been expressed in Gothic?
It would be surprising if the only difference between the “Arian” churches and their “Catholic” neighbors were this bit of linguistic fine-tuning, but whatever footprint those barbarian invaders may have left has been obscured by their total assimilation with the Latin-speaking people they conquered and then joined. The last vestige of a parallel church organization in the part of western Europe controlled by barbarians disappeared about 660. All that’s left of them are words in our vocabulary like “vandalism,” “Goth,” “gothic,” and “frank.”
Unless… there is something about their approach to Christianity that has continued, unnoticed and behind the scenes, and, having come to light in our own chaotic times, may serve to inform our own sense of identity and calling.
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but what if the uncharacteristic tolerance of the Arian conquerors toward their Catholic subjects were not just a matter of expediency or indifference, but of conviction?  Perhaps there is an entire tradition of Christian belief and practice that has said, in effect, “who cares if they say the creed a little differently? It’s just words, after all…”. And, what if the Arian church was less hierarchical, less centralized, and less insistent upon uniformity of belief? What if their response to the breakdown of imperial authority (caused, at least in part, by them) was a greater trust in the anarchic teachings of a non-imperial Christ? Perhaps they distrusted the secular power they saw being wielded by the Catholic bishops of their acquaintance, especially by the occupants of the Roman See. Perhaps they maintained their separate (though apostolic) succession of itinerant bishops because they saw the alliance of Gospel with Empire as a contradiction .
As a theological position, “Arianism” long ago lost whatever allure it may once have had. The original followers of Arius in were not “Unitarians,” or “upholders of a more ‘Jewish’ form” of Christianity. They were Hellenistic nitpickers, whose need for (what we would call) academic credibility led them far into a realm of metaphysical speculation, and could be said to have forced the church to define its faith in terms that lose much of their meaning outside their original context. What I admire in the Gothic, Lombard, and Vandal churches is not their Arianism, but their theological humility, a virtue for which their Athanasian opponents, the “winners” in the ecclesiastical power struggle of the 4th Century, were not then, or ever, to be known.