Wednesday, October 19, 2011

God Calls; We Obey

George Fox University Chapel Oct 19 2011

As I was thinking and praying about chapel today, I heard that there are students who are so opposed to a woman speaking from this podium that they will not attend, and that on occasion, students will walk out if someone says they believe God calls women to do just what I’m doing today—preaching. I wanted to be able to construct the chapel address that would convince everyone once and for all that this belief limits God’s sovereignty and hurts the church. Then I realized that these folks are probably not even here today, and even if they are, one chapel address by a woman will not be convincing.

This realization clarified my understanding of God’s purpose for me today. I want to speak to those who have a sense that God may be calling them to publicly witness to who Jesus Christ is, and what he came to do for human beings and the entire planet. I want to speak to the group that is unsure of how to answer God’s call. You may be unsure because you are shy, because you are into math, because you don’t feel particularly charismatic, because you’re afraid, or because you’re a woman. I also want to speak to the group that feels so sure of a call that the possibility you will not be allowed to fulfill it is a slow poison in your relationship with God and the church.

The good news, the Gospel, is this: we are all called to share what we have witnessed about who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do, and the sure sign we are set free to share in public is that the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit lives in us and we live, as Jesus did, in obedience to God every day.

Humans are in love with status. We cannot get over wanting to be singled out to have a higher status than other people. It is hard for us to disentangle our need to be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s call from a desire to be recognized by other human beings as called. We want some calls to be more special than the ordinary person’s call. And if there’s an in-group, we want to be in it and wear its sign of specialness.

In our story for today, this special sign was male circumcision, the sign God gave the patriarchs. The question being debated was this: Would it be necessary for Gentile men to cut themselves and obey the Jewish law in order to be completely “in”? The answer the Jerusalem church came up with, after a long time of talking and listening and being silent was this: NO.

Peter says, we Jews ourselves have been unable to keep the Law. Besides this, God showed me in a special vision that Gentiles are no longer unclean, and then God gave the signs of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles without any such induction into Judaism. So it is pretty clear that we will anger God if we set up extra barriers before we acknowledge that Gentiles are equally acceptable to God.

James, the brother of Jesus, agreed with Peter: the Jewish did not apply to Gentile believers, so he and the Jerusalem church asked instead that Gentiles refrain from the behaviors that would most sicken and alienate Jewish Christians: eating blood, and scandalous sexual misconduct, and being involved with worship of idols, including the sexual rituals. Avoid these things.

Today the rule about eating blood has disappeared from Christian worries, as we eat gravy, rare steaks, and, in some parts of the Christian world, blood pudding and blood sausage. We still are trying to conduct our sexuality in obedience to God and to avoid scandal, and we don’t pay enough attention to how idolatry pervades the surrounding culture and infiltrates our own lives.

But back to the story; I want to direct your attention to one verse that describes how important this was to the Gentiles. Verse 31: When the Gentiles read this and heard the message, they were consoled.

What this means is that the debate had hurt them, had made them question the universal love of God for humanity, had made them feel like second-class Christians. They didn’t become Christians in order to become Jews but because of their convincement that Jesus made a way for all human beings to know God directly and hear from God directly. By becoming Christians, they had already signaled their intention of obeying the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus did. They were humble enough to wait for the older part of the church to come to a decision, but their hearts were sore as they waited.

Women’s hearts are sometimes sore. On the one hand, we read that we are God’s children, just like our brothers, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, just like our brothers, and our hearts rise to the challenge and joy of bearing public witness to the love of God, and then we find that we are not allowed by the traditions of the church. We suffer in between the “yes” of God and the “no” of our religious culture.

Women have coped with this for centuries, following God’s call as they can within the culture. Some have entered convents, some have written books, some have written hymns, some have become teachers, some have gone to other countries as missionaries, some have taught children’s Sunday School or Women’s Bible Study. Some have been stealth leaders, governing the church from behind the scenes. Some have been so hurt they have left the church., even though they still love Jesus.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we do not find anywhere that he limited women’s role. Women were among his followers and the Gospels tell us some of their names. Jesus commissioned women to carry the gospel to others. He affirmed women’s faith, and he held them accountable for their actions.

We believers customarily take the words of Jesus as applying to all of us. If one wants to argue that Jesus said these things only to his first named male disciples, all of us are outside. Probably the most important thing he said that turns upside down his own religious culture and ours is this: Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:31).

As I read you what Jesus said, I will ask you, “Is Jesus talking to you?” If you are comfortable participating, say this: “Jesus is talking to me.”

Hear the words of Jesus. No one can come to me unless the Father permits it. You did not choose me, but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness because I am the light of the world.

Is Jesus talking to you?

Repent, and believe the good news. I forgive your sins. I choose to make you clean. Do not fear, only believe. Be reborn in the Spirit. You do not know where the wind comes from, nor where it goes; it blows where it chooses; so it is with those born of the Spirit.

Is Jesus talking to you?

Take up your cross and follow me. Give everything you have to God. It’s not enough to avoid actively harming others, you must take steps to do active good to others also. Go tell your friends how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you. I give more to those who share the good news, but those who hoard the good news will lose it. Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole world. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

Is Jesus talking to you?

Do not be afraid; take heart. Set your mind on divine things, not human things. All things can be done for the one who believes. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever wishes to be great must be the servant of all. Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Let the children come to me—in fact you yourselves must receive God’s kingdom as a little child. When you pray, do not doubt God.

Is Jesus talking to you?

God loved the world and gave his only son to make it possible for those who believe to have eternal life. God sent his son not to condemn, but to save the world. The greatest command is to love God wholly, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Also, when you pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone else. Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Let God do the refining work and be at peace with each other. Trust what I say; it is eternal. I am giving my body and my blood to seal this new covenant with you. Stay awake and watch for me.

Is Jesus talking to you?

The Father seeks people who will worship in spirit and truth. If you continue to obey me, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.

Is Jesus talking to you?

I will ask my Father and he will give you the Spirit of truth, who will abide with you and be in you. The Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

Is Jesus talking to you?

Jesus left warnings, too.
Don’t be led astray by people who play on your fears. Don’t let politics distract you from God. Don’t waste your time with people who refuse to hear you. Don’t copy those who like lots of attention for being religious. Remember that your enemies may be family. If you entice another to sin or make it hard for someone to trust me, you would be better off drowned. If you have parts of yourself that cause you to sin or mistrust me, cut them off, hand, foot, eye or whatever. Nothing you eat defiles you, but the evil you think and do defiles you. How can you tell what is right and wrong when you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? Whoever attributes the work of the Holy Spirit to the devil is a blasphemer. God chooses the stone that the builders rejected to be the cornerstone. Do not reject the commandment of God in order to preserve tradition.

Is Jesus talking to you?

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:31).

Peter, who stood up for the Gentiles in this meeting, also stood up for women at Pentecost. When God’s Holy Spirit rushed over believers and entered their hearts, they were moved and empowered to speak in the languages of those around them. These believers included both men and women.

Peter said, this is exactly what the prophet Joel foresaw: a day when men and women would be filled with God’s spirit and prophesy: I will pour out my spirit even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2: 17-18). (In the Old Testament, women were prophets: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife.) The word prophesy means to speak what God inspires; to declare something which God has revealed; to speak praise of God; to teach, refute, reprove, admonish, comfort others (Strong’s Concordance).

Women have been carrying the Gospel, the good news, to others since Anna prophesied over the baby Jesus. Paul himself identified women as co-builders of the church.
[SLIDE] So when we read what Paul wrote restricting women’s actions in some 1st century congregations, we have to ask— are these words equivalent to the prohibition against “eating blood”; are these words to help prevent us from scandalous sexual behavior? Or are they to help us avoid idolatry in our times? Are we substituting law for the grace of God, for justification by faith, for the presence of the guiding Holy Spirit in the hearts of committed believers?

Today, if you accept that God sent Jesus to save the world, that the price was Jesus’s death and the seal of victory his resurrection, and you have given your whole self to following Jesus, Jesus promises to give you the Spirit of truth, the Spirit that guides you into truth. Trust the massively inclusive love of God. Obey what the Spirit tells you in everyday things and in life-changing things. Be Jesus’s brother or sister.

Lord, speak to me that I may speak In living echoes of Thy tone;
As Thou hast sought, so let me seek Thy erring children lost and lone.
O lead me, Lord, that I may lead The wandering and the wavering feet;
O feed me, Lord, that I may feed The hungering ones with manna sweet.
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words that they may reach The hidden depths of many a heart.
O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord, Until my very heart o'erflow
In kindling thought and glowing word, Thy love to tell, Thy praise to show.
O use me, Lord, use even me, Just as Thou wilt, and when, and where,
Until Thy blessed face I see--Thy rest, Thy joy, Thy glory share.

Frances Ridley Havergal, 1836-1879.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Myth of Innocence

Years ago, my Sunday school class read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert called Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World, in which she referred to the myth of innocence. (Turns out she got this idea from reading The Fall by Albert Camus—a good thing for an English teacher to hear.) This was a very useful concept to me and helped me experience the grace of God, so I want to share it with you.

I’ll start with the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves and went into the woods to hide from God. There is something deeply sad about their wanting to hide from the divine lover. All their previous relationship of trust and dependence dissipates into fear and shame. But who can win a game of hide and seek with omniscience? The first principle to remember is that God already knows.

Second, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. It was not my fault, it was the fault of something else. Specifically, God, it was the fault of something or someone else YOU made. Implicitly, it is God’s fault. He, she, or it, is to blame for what I did; and ultimately You, God, are to blame. God doesn’t argue with any of these, just goes over the consequences. "Here’s what the world is like when you don’t trust God’s love enough to obey." The world becomes inhospitable and painful, and hostility and power mar every relationship. The second principle is that blaming other people poisons our lives.

Now I want to jump to the story in John 4 about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Embodied love in Jesus meets a woman with a checkered past. Also, she is used to being socially snubbed by the Jews, and expects the same from Jesus. In fact, when Jesus asks her for water, she says, “Why are you even talking to me? You’re a Jew.” Jesus said, “You have no idea who I am because if you did, you’d ask me for living water.” She replies, “Really? You don’t even have a cup to collect water in. You act like you’re greater than our founder Jacob who dug this well.” (Don’t be deceived by the “sir.”) Jesus replies to her, “And will this water satisfy your deepest thirst? No, of course not, it only temporarily satisfies your superficial thirst. But if you, for example, were to drink of the water I offer, you will be satisfied and a source of living water yourself.” She says, “Ok, then, give some of this to me, so I won’t have to come here to the well.”

Put into Eden’s terms, God in human form shows up to a woman hiding in broad daylight. She fences with him until she finally admits she is thirsty. The third principle is to admit that our defences have trapped us and we actually would like some freedom.

Then Jesus challenges her with a form of the question God asked in Eden, “Why are you hiding?” He says, “Go get your husband and bring him back with you.” “I don’t have a husband,” she says, and it’s true. Jesus adds to the truth: “In fact, you’ve had five husbands, and now you are not even married to the man you’re with.” An aside here—one contextual bit of information: divorce was hotly debated at Jesus’s time and widely practiced; in one school of thought, a man who was dissatisfied with a wife for any reason could write her a certificate of divorce and put her out of his house. The other view was that divorce required some conditions, namely neglect, abandonment, abuse, and unfaithfulness, and Moses set it up to protect women as much as men. Though it is comfortable to view her as a victim, it just may be that she was a part of the problem.

She certainly doesn’t cave, just because she’s been slapped with fact. She diverts the discussion onto theology: What about the right place to worship, o prophet.

Jesus tells her, “The place isn’t important; what’s important is worship in spirit and truth.” Ma’am, with all due respect, you need to get more right than the place in order to worship.

Her last gasp: “The Messiah will tell us what is correct.”

And Jesus: “I am Messiah—I’m telling you.”

She went back to her village and said, “Come see this man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Can he be the one we’ve been waiting for?”

She stays in hiding until the gracious person of Jesus helps her face the truth—the truth about herself and the Truth in physical form. Look at me, Jesus says, I am Truth. You can be true, too, you can tell truth and know truth.

Interestingly, it is the exposure of her own personal history that tips her over into belief and evangelistic zeal. She does not confess in any obvious sense, but she admits that Jesus knows everything she has ever done, her shame and her sin. Even if she is a victim, she is not innocent, and she doesn’t say Jesus knows everything people have done to me.

The story of the woman taken in adultery has a similar moment. She certainly has no need to confess, since she was taken in the act, and the preservation of her life depends on Jesus facing her accusers with their own personal truth—they have sinned also, they also are ashamed, and likely their shame fuels their anger at her. And Jesus says to her, “Go and sin no more.” She is both victim and sinner.

The myth of innocence for me went like a Life in Hell (Matt Groening)comic strip: I’m innocent for 11 frames, and then finally, ok, I’m guilty as hell. The protestations of innocence were accurate enough for a particular set of events that victimized me, but I was not without sin myself. Even as a small child, I knew enough to recognize that I was deliberately unkind to someone smaller and weaker than myself. For some reason, admitting my own sin against a weaker person helped set me free from needing to insist on being a victim.

The fourth principle is this: Admit it. Let the consciousness of what you have done against conscience or truth see the light of day—maybe just to God, maybe to a spiritual friend and to God. Let Jesus tell you everything you’ve ever done. It isn’t easy, but it is the way grace breaks through our fence, our defence. And sets us free. The truth sets us free, and the spirit of God guides us into all truth.

Thoughts on Exodus 12: 1-14

This passage instituting the Passover resonates both backward into its own history and forward into the Christian understanding of what Jesus accomplished and how we ourselves fit into the big story of God’s purposes for human beings.

Two things to frame my thoughts: “None of us are free, none of us are free, none of us are free if one of us is chained, none of us are free” (sung by Solomon Burke) and the story of Elsa, a lion born in captivity who had to be taught how to live like a lion in the wild. We need to recognize that our being free depends on everyone’s being free, and that we have to learn how to live free.

A review of the context for this passage:
1) The Egyptians attempt to diminish and destroy Hebrews by enslaving them
2) Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all boy babies as they are delivered; the midwives evade the order with their wits
3) Pharaoh orders all his people to throw boy babies in the water

Moses, technically thrown in the water, is rescued by his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into Pharaoh’s household

This is called irony.

4) Moses returns to Egypt with the mission of leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and slavery
5) Pharaoh ignores 9 plagues prior to this one—9 experiences of being struck by God’s hand (plague means striking)
6) Moses warns Pharaoh specifically about the deaths of firstborns; Pharaoh ignores him
7) This final striking is for the firstborn males—not even yet an eye for an eye, since Egyptians were supposed to throw all male babies into the Nile
8) The striking is for everyone unwilling to follow the commands of God, so not just ethnic Egyptians (Hebrews 11:28 ”by faith he kept the Passover”—anyone who kept Passover was protected.)

What happens to those willing to profit from others’ enslavement or death?

Let My People Go

Thus saith the Lord bold Moses said,
Let my people go
If not I’ll smite thy firstborn dead
Let my people go

The world is built on the idea that might makes right. Whoever is strongest makes the rules, and the weak obey or suffer or both. However, God’s cosmos is built on an spiritual extension of one of the laws of physics—every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. Thus the systematic oppression of one person or of a people builds up a spiritual and cosmic tension that is fearsome to behold. Abraham Lincoln referred to this in his Second Inaugural Address, given in the middle of the Civil War in this country.

“Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

It just may be that every act of oppression sets up the energy which will rebound to the hurt of the oppressor, perhaps to the oppressor’s children, since such energy is undiscriminating. Oppression begets violence. And certainly it is accurate to say that both North and South had profited from the blood of slaves, and both paid blood drop for blood drop, if Lincoln is right.

The dead firstborn sons of Egypt provide a graphic picture of who often pays for the sins of the fathers. Those willing to enslave others may lose what they most value

Deut: 12:29-31
When the LORD your God has cut down before you the nations that you are about to enter and dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their land, beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their Gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.” You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. (Jewish Study Bible, quoted throughout)

So much to comment on here with the sacrifice of children. Remember Isaac the firstborn of Sarah, nearly sacrificed but God provided a substitute.

God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, then provided Isaac’s redemption with a ram. God did not require a child sacrifice, not like fertility gods, or we might call them now prosperity gods.

God does not approve of any person sacrificing another to increase prosperity and protect the future.

Look at all the sacrificed children across the Bible—the Canaanites, who made burnt offerings of their sons and daughters to the god Molech; the Egyptians, who drowned the babies of the Hebrews; Herod, who murdered all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem,. Think of the systematic oppression and sacrifice of children in today’s world. Think about the less systematic abuse that makes it difficult for children to trust God.

How does a person learn to live free?

Have faith and make a break for it.

God asked for a fine lamb to be killed, and a symbolic obedience to be enacted, the blood on the doorposts, followed by the grilled lamb dinner—what an interesting picture of God’s grace—give up something you value to God and get your whole life and your child’s life back and a feast to boot; notice that sacrifice precedes freedom but what God requires is less than the retribution the Egyptians stored up for themselves.

Note also that the Hebrews had to be ready to run the minute the door of opportunity opened.

A freed person must remember.

God tells Moses that the plagues with which he is striking the Egyptians are to be signs for the Hebrew people to rehearse forever the story of how God intervened to set them free from slavery and fulfill his promises to Abraham. Here are some psalms that rehearse the story, including Psalm 136.

Psalm 78:51, 105:36, 135:8, 136:10
To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn, for his mercy endureth forever.

What an troubling juxtaposition of judgment and mercy in this passage. It causes us to think about the fact that God gets to judge, not us, and God gets to decide how to administer justice.

God says to us that vengeance belongs to God; when we are oppressed, we do not retaliate in kind but offload the responsibility to God. Why? Because retaliation turns us into oppressors. Being an oppressor is bad for the soul and bad for the children.

A freed person must trust the character of God.

He’s got the whole world in His hands—the sun and the moon, the brothers and the sisters, the tiny little baby. African-American slaves sang this spiritual, which astonishingly affirms faith the care of Almighty God for them and their beloveds. In the face of contrary circumstantial evidence, they believed in the lovingkindness of God. God cares for every child sacrificed, every Canaanite child, every Egyptian child, every Bethlehem child, every enslaved child, God’s own child. No one is outside the care of God. It is not in God’s character to send these children anywhere but into his eternal love.

A freed person must be not become an enslaver. He or she must be generous to the vulnerable.

God expects the Hebrews to remember God’s intervention and therefore to treat the aliens and strangers settled among the Hebrews graciously.

Deut 10:12-22 And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it. … Cut away, therefore the thickening around your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and lord Supreme, the great, the mighty, the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing—You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You must revere the Lord your God; only Him shall you worship, to Him shall you hold fast, and by His name shall you swear. He is your glory and He is your God, who wrought for you those marvelous, awesome deeds that you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep his charge, His laws, His rules, and His commandments.

A freed person has responsibility for others.

The prophet Jeremiah (ch. 31) speaks these words of sorrow: “a bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she cannot be comforted because they are not.”
Matthew 2 tells of another “striking”—Herod’s order to kill all male babies under the age of two, recalling Jeremiah’s words, and the one child who escaped to Egypt—out of Egypt I have called my son. Did Jesus feel it a burden to be the survivor? Did he think how he could make up for being the one saved out of the striking?

It is hard to think that God took from the Egyptians their most valued children. But we know how God feels about children. The incarnate God said, permit the children to come to me, and don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of Heaven is made for such as these. Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven, God’s kingdom, right here among us. Woe to the one who makes it hard for one of these little ones to trust in God. It would be better for that one to have a stone around his or her neck and be drowned in the ocean. Children are the ultimate weak ones in our world, and God cares infinitely for the weak.

Without God’s intervention in history, the story of redemption does not exist. The story of redemption is a story of sacrifice and sorrow—from the garden of Eden to the hill of Golgotha. It takes enormous energy to break the cycle of oppression and violence, of sin and death.

Jesus the firstborn of Mary, the firstborn among many children, the firstborn from the dead; God gave him up to death to redeem us from sin and death. God sacrificed God’s only begotten son to redeem the world, including us—a sacrifice willingly entered into by Jesus, who is very God of very God—God sacrificed someone beloved and God sacrificed God’s very self to save us.

A freed person recognizes that God sees the world as bigger than “us and them.”

Abraham’s first born was Ishmael the son of an Egyptian mother; Joseph’s sons are half Egyptian. Us and them is just not tidy.

Throughout the time of the Patriarchs, Egypt was the place to go for food when drought happened because the Nile kept water coming almost all the time. That’s how the Hebrews came to Egypt in the first place. However, it became both a place of plenty and of slavery—in fact enslavement to the plenty (in the wilderness, the Hebrews lusted for the varied food of Egypt)—They would sell their souls and their relationship with the Almighty God for the predictability and plenty of Egypt.

God’s story is about hope for all. Isaiah 19 speaks about God’s intentions for Egypt:

First, God will bring Egypt under oppression, until they are trembling and terrified. God will break their pride and their idolatry. “In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt…so that when the Egyptians cry out to the Lord against oppressors, He will send them a savior and a champion to deliver them. For the Lord will make Himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will acknowledge the Lord in that day…The Lord will first afflict and then heal the Egyptians; when they turn back to the Lord, he will respond to their entreaties and heal them.”

A freed person obeys God’s spirit and does not judge.

God sees those who sold their children, those who sacrificed them in fire, and those who lost them to others’ violence, and God sees the children those parents once were, right back to the beginning. God does indeed have the whole world in his hands. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground but your heavenly Father knows.

And for us today, God carries us as well. God knows when we are willingly complicit in oppressive structures, how we lord it over others in our daily lives, God knows when we struggle against those structures and our own desire to dominate, God knows what we are willing to sacrifice our souls’ best interests for, what we are willing to sacrifice our children to. God knows what we fear.

God also knows when we try to be fair and even merciful, when we try to put others’ interests ahead of our own, when we try to give our children the best we have. God knows we are out of our depth, and God promises us help. This help is most likely to be simple everyday guidance. My 19th century mentor George MacDonald said, “Think of something you ought to do and go to do it, if it be the sweeping of the room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend.” When we are confused about how to live, we can ask God for help, and do what God moves us to do.

God disciplines us to help free us to walk along the path of love. God wants us to be like children who, when disciplined, run into the arms of our father or mother where we can know the love that both corrects and nurtures. Then we can go about our lives as free human beings in obedience to the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Three Phoenician Women

Three Phoenician Women in the Story of Faith

I want to think for a bit about two women from outside Israel who show up in the same place in the book of 1 Kings: one is a queen and the other a poverty-stricken widow. Neither is part of Israel, and their inclusion in the Bible shows again that the big story of God’s involvement with human beings includes all peoples.

The Queen
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take up a lot of space in the book of 1 Kings—six chapters or so. When Ahab married this foreign Phoenician princess, she brought her religion with her, and Ahab became a big promoter of the fertility cult of Baal. Although Ahab may have married other women (he has 70 sons or grandsons), Jezebel had a lot of power. Together, they were evil rulers over Israel.

Ahab’s reign included both Elijah and Elisha, famed prophets of Israel who spoke against the worship of Baal and the abuse of kingly and queenly power embodied in Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah confronted Ahab and announced a three-year drought because of the idolatry. Worship a fertility god, Elijah said, and the true God will dry up your land. Then Elijah ran for his life. He hid for a while by a river, where ravens brought him bread and meat, and then, when the river dried up, God sent him to Zarephath in Sidon, the homeland of Queen Jezebel.

Two women, then, neither belonging to Israel, side by side in the Bible. The contrast between the queen and the widow and the way God deals with each fits right in with the large theme of the Bible that God is on the side of the weak and humble and fights against the powerful and proud.

Sidon was in the part of the Middle East we now call Lebanon. It was a Phoenician city-state. Ahab likely married Jezebel as part of a political alliance. She had two passions—her religion and her husband’s status. The first passion is evident after Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18): Baal sends no fire for the offering but Israel’s God sends fire that burns up even the altar stones and the water in the trench around it. Then the rains come back after a three-year drought. Jezebel immediately sends a message to Elijah: “May the gods kill me if you aren’t dead by tomorrow.” So Elijah runs for his life again.

The second passion shows up in the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s vineyard, and Naboth refuses to sell. When Ahab sulks, Jezebel says, essentially, “Who is the king in Israel, anyway? I’ll get you the vineyard.” Jezebel covertly arranges to have Naboth accused of blasphemy and treason and executed. No one is going to tell her husband no.

Elijah confronts Ahab at the vineyard. “Where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up yours,” Elijah tells him, “and the dogs will eat Jezebel’s remains, too.” After Ahab dies in battle, Jezebel lives long enough to hear about the assassination of her grandson. She meets her doom with fresh eyeliner and mascara and perfect hair. Her servants throw her out of a window, and the dogs leave nothing but her skull, hands, and feet (2 Kings 9).

Jezebel’s life was defined by status, privilege, and power, all of which she misused. Her inclusion in the Bible demonstrates that women are not given a bye. The prophets require all to lay aside such idolatries, which are more pernicious to the soul than is worship of a pole or bull or fish.

The Widow
The other Phoenician woman in this story is a widow. She lived south of Sidon in a town called Zarephath. When Elijah meets her, she is gathering sticks to cook a last meal for her son and herself. He asks her for a little water and bread, and she responds out of deep despair and need. “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing…just enough for one last meal.” The drought has reduced her to near starvation, and with her, many others.

Intriguingly, she acknowledges herself to be outside of the faith of Israel (your God) and at the same time swears by “your God” that she is telling the truth. Elijah challenges her to have faith in his God. “If you feed me a little cake first, the God of Israel will make sure you have food clear through this famine. Don’t be afraid.” She has little to lose and everything to gain, and she takes the challenge and feeds the prophet. After that, she never runs out of meal or oil until rain falls again.

But what she fears most (don’t be afraid) happens anyway. Her son sickens and dies. She comes to Elijah and accuses him of causing the death of her son because of her sin. “But he said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him out upon his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying? … O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again’” (1 Kings 17:20-22, NRSV).

The Lord sends life back into the child, resurrects him, and Elijah takes him downstairs to his mother. “Now I know for sure that you belong to God and that you speak God’s truth,” she says.

The stories of these two women are so opposite. This Phoenician widow, probably a Baal worshipper, down to her last oil and meal, acts in hospitality to a stranger. And not only a stranger but one with a rival God. God honors her faith and generosity with God’s own faithfulness and generosity. When tragedy strikes, she goes right to the prophet with her sorrow, and when her son is resurrected, she responds with a statement of belief.

Her life is defined by loss, fear, and poverty. Nonetheless, she uses what she has to bless another person. Her inclusion in the Bible affirms that outsiders who live up to the best light they have are able to act faithfully and recognize God’s truth. Jesus refers to her as a rebuke to his hometown: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow in Zarephath in Sidon” (Luke 4:24-26). Don’t miss this, he says, because God will send the truth to those who will hear it. Your ancestry and your proximity count for nothing. Jesus’s neighbors wanted to kill him because of these words.

If this story included only Jezebel, the Bible would confirm our prejudices against outsiders to faith: she was killed in a coup and the dogs ate her just as predicted. However, we might miss the fact that though she was arrogant, passionate, cruel, and true to her origins, she lived a long, unrepentant, influential life. Why did judgment wait so long? In Israel’s story, Jezebel is a villain, but in her own story, a person whom God loves. Her stubbornness ensures the fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecy, while Ahab’s repentance earned him a reprieve (1 Kings 21:27).

The inclusion of her humble countrywoman as an example of faith requires us to realize that God’s love includes the outsiders, that God may even single out an outsider for particular blessing when there are plenty of worthy insiders. This inclusive love of God infuriates the chosen people. It’s better not to mention that God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust, that God has sheep from other pastures. The prophet Amos must have shocked his audiences when, in the middle of prophecies of judgment for the surrounding nations as well as Israel, he said, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). These were the enemies of Israel, and God cares for them. Do we think God cares only for one group of people? God’s care is over the whole of humanity, and God’s redemptive purpose includes us all.

The Mother

When Jesus travels in this very region of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28), a woman from that region, a Gentile, finds him and begs him to cast the unclean spirit out of her daughter. He says to her, so mysteriously distant, “The children must eat first; it isn’t fair to take their food and give it to the dogs.” (This is the same Jesus who reminded his neighbors that God favored a Phoenician woman over the widows of Israel during Elijah’s time.) She does not give up: “Lord, even the dogs are allowed the children’s crumbs.” Jesus praises her desperate faith (Matthew 15:28) and perhaps admires her quick wit and sends her home to a healed daughter.

I see this as an acted parable. Jesus begins by taking on the role his disciples expect—the Messiah for Israel. He says what they are thinking. But he leads them to the place where he says to this outsider, “Great is your faith!” Like Elijah’s widow, the mother has enough desperation to give her confidence to ask for help. And she sees enough of God’s love in Jesus to insist that the leftovers of that love will heal her daughter. There are enough leftovers of God’s love to satisfy every human being; when everyone gets enough, there will still be love left over.

God holds insiders and outsiders, men and women accountable for the ways they use what they have, whether it is great power, a little food, or a nimble mind. When they live up to the light they have, it counts, and God includes them in the community of faith. And even when they persist unrepentant and arrogant to the end of life, God still loves them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

God, Human Beings, and History: Deborah and Jael

Deborah, Barak, Jael, and Sisera

I love the stories in the Book of Judges. When I was a child, they were like superhero stories in the comics. The heroes had ordinary identities, and then when God empowered them, they did amazing things to set their people free. I think I missed many of the nuances of the stories—Samson’s sexual wanderings, for example. To me, the good guys beat the bad guys, and often with derring-do and flair. Simplifying history to one people’s viewpoint suited me fine. Now I think about context and culture, and understanding how God works in history is more complicated. Nonetheless, among my favorites was and is this story of Deborah and Barak going to war and Jael pounding a tent peg through the head of General Sisera. We can see that the heroes of Israel include women, one of them a woman living outside Israel whose husband was friends with the enemy.

The Story with Comments
In the Book of Judges, God’s people Israel repeatedly cycle through idolatry, domination by non-Israelites, armed resistance and victory, freedom, peace, and repeat. During one of these cycles, Deborah is the prophet and a judge. Right off, I like the female prophet. She is wise and hears directly from God, and her people respect her and listen to her. What’s not to like?

One day she hears from God that it is time to rebel against King Jabin, a Canaanite, even though King Jabin has the latest in military technology, the iron chariot, and he has nine hundred of them. The Israelites have farm implements and swords. Deborah sends for Barak (which means “Lightning Bolt” for the superhero fans) and tells him, “God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers and fight against General Sisera of King Jabin’s army by the Kishon River. God promises you will win.”

Let me preface Barak’s response with these verses from Hebrews 11: “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (verses 32-34, NRSV). I notice that the two women in Barak’s story are not mentioned. And I wonder why Barak is there rather than Deborah, who was the actual judge.

If I look to the story in Judges 4, I find that Barak was, in fact, a man of faith, and that one aspect of that faithfulness was his recognition of Deborah’s spiritual authority. He said to her, “I will go to this battle if you go with me, but I will not go if you don’t.” So Deborah (the story says this twice) went up to the battle with Barak. She told him when the time was right to attack, and she celebrated with him in song after the victory.

After he insists she accompany him, Deborah tells Barak that, at the end, a woman will have the fame for killing Sisera. This will be particularly shameful for Sisera (c.f. The Jewish Study Bible, 519n.). Though some think this will be embarrassing also for Barak, he seems to be ok with it.

In the battle, the army of King Jabin panics and confusion reigns. The story attributes this directly to the intervention of God. General Sisera dismounts from his chariot and runs away on foot. In his absence, his army is slaughtered.

The story teaches us first that Deborah was right: it was the time to strike for freedom, and Barak was the right person to lead the troops. She did speak God’s truth to Barak: the Israelites destroyed a well-equipped army. Let’s pause and think about this for a bit. Israel (a patriarchy) and Barak (a male warrior) respected the word of God from Deborah (a woman), and the result for Israel was peace and freedom for forty years.

The story teaches us second that Barak was right: it was a good idea to bring Deborah to the battle. She had an eye for timing and the gift of inspiring the troops. Barak showed good judgment even though he might lose face. Winning the battle was more crucial than being the hero.

Meanwhile, there is Jael, a stay-at-tent wife. She is neither a prophet nor a judge. She may not even be an Israelite. Her husband’s clan is at peace with King Jabin, despite a sort of in-law relationship to Moses and Israel. Sisera has no fear that she is any danger to him. She sees him running, recognizes him, invites him into her tent, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with a blanket. He tells her, with no reason to expect anything but strict obedience, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if anyone asks you if someone is here, you say ‘No.’”

Jael takes a hammer and a tent peg and crushes the peg through the temple of Sisera. Whoa! What a swing she must have had! Imagine if she had fumbled and he had awakened to find her with peg and hammer in hand.

When Barak shows up in pursuit of Sisera, Jael meets him and says, “I have something here that will interest you.”

Motivation is not explored much in the Book of Judges. People just do what they do, and we have to imagine why they did it. Why did Jael kill Sisera? This question cannot be answered from the story. What we know is that with a mighty swing of her hammer, she drove a tent peg through a man’s head into the ground beneath. And as a result, the Victory Song of Deborah and Barak includes Jael and blesses her as a hero for the Israelites.

The Victory Song
The victory song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5) celebrates the victory of the weak over the strong, the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor. This is a common theme in the whole Bible. The song also lists the allies of God in this work, the enemies of God, and those who stood aside and watched. It rehearses the assassination of Sisera with poetic flair that includes his waiting mother. Here’s a summary.

Bless the Lord for those who offer themselves willingly to God. All nature reverences the Lord.
When Israel worshiped new gods, they lost wars and were disarmed. The peasants fled the countryside and the main roads were deserted. Then Deborah arose as a mother in Israel.
My heart goes out to the leaders of Israel who offered themselves willingly. Bless the Lord. Tell of the triumphs of God and his peasants. Down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.
Awake, Deborah! Awake and sing! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives. The remnants of the nobles marched against the oppressor. Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, Naphtali came to fight. Where were the others? Why did they stay at home? Curse those who did not come to help the Lord against the mighty. Even the stars in their courses fought against Sisera, and the Kishon River swept the enemy away.
Oh, my soul, you have trampled on the strong.
You are most blessed of women, Jael, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. He asked for water, and she brought him milk in a bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the hammer; she struck Sisera a blow, crushed his head, shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.
His mother waited for him, watched through the window for him, but Sisera was late. “Are they not dividing the spoil, dividing up the young girls, the embroidered cloths, the scarves I will wear around my neck?”
So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may those who love you rise like the sun and share the sun’s strength.

I looked up the word for blessed in Strong’s Concordance online. It is pronounced “barack,” short “a” like in cat; Barak’s name is pronounced “barock”; I think a little punning is going on. Certainly, Sisera was struck down decisively, almost as if struck by lightning. And also certainly, Barak shared in the blessing of freedom and peace.

Most intriguingly, the blessing for Jael resembles the announcement to Mary in Luke 1. “Hail, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” And Mary offers herself willingly to God, like the warriors of Israel. Mary’s song, like Deborah’s, gives thanks to God for singling her out for great things, for showing mercy to those who reverence him. She praises his strength that scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. She recalls that God has remembered mercy and helped Israel according to the ancient promises to Abraham.

We learn from these two songs and the story of Deborah that it is blessed to offer ourselves willingly to God, like Deborah and Mary; that our doing so places us on the side of those who reverence God, who are humble and lowly. We learn that we need to show up to help God against the mighty, in order to fill the hungry with good things and see justice done. And sometimes, we need to take decisive action. A part of the mystery of God’s work in history is that it almost entirely carried out by human beings—all human beings. We need to be listening and willing to obey.

Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Hero and the Villain

Rahab and Delilah (Joshua 2, 6; Judges 16)

I want to compare two women from “the enemies” of the Israelites: Rahab and Delilah. Rahab betrayed her city and Delilah protected her city; Rahab became an ancestor of Jesus and a hero of faith, and Delilah became a cultural byword for deceit and faithlessness. Hmmm.

Rahab is a Canaanite woman in the city of Jericho. As the story goes, the Israelites are camping on the doorstep of Canaan, after being led out of Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years. Joshua, the leader, sends spies into Jericho, a walled city. They spend the night at Rahab’s house. Rahab is a prostitute; do they enter her house because so many people go in and out that no one will notice them? Or do they choose her house because she is a prostitute whose services they intend to employ? Or is her occupation innkeeper between seasonal sexual rituals? Whatever the case, she gives house room to Israelite spies.

When the king of Jericho sends to her to ask her to give up the spies, she hides them instead and lies to the king’s representatives. “They left before the gates closed,” she says. “If you hurry, you can catch them.” Then she says to the Israelites, “I know that your God has given you this land. It is clear that your God is more powerful than ours because your God dried up the Red Sea so you could cross and then destroyed the most powerful kings in the area. In this town, our courage has melted away because of your God, who is indeed God of heaven above and earth below.”

Rahab shows spiritual insight beyond the other citizens of Jericho, and she puts her own livelihood and life at risk to save the true God’s representatives. She also covenants with them for her life and the lives of her family when, as she sees it, their irresistible invasion will destroy Jericho. They agree she will be safe/saved if she hangs a crimson cord in the window of her house.

Some time later, after the Israelites have crossed the Jordan on dry land, have brought their circumcisions up to date (a ritual that clearly separated all the Israelite men from the Canaanite men), and have celebrated the Passover, Joshua and his priests and warriors circle Jericho silently once a day for six days and on the seventh march around it seven times, blowing their trumpets and shouting at the end of the seventh lap. The fall of the walls cements God’s reputation in Canaan, showing that the God worshiped by Israel is more powerful than the local warrior and fertility pantheon. Every time around the wall, the Israelites can see the crimson cord hanging from Rahab’s window. When the walls come down, Joshua spares her family’s lives, brings them out of Jericho, and settles them on the outside of the camp.

It is worth thinking about how this story introduces some ambiguity into the story of Israel. In Exodus 34:11-16, God told Moses that Israel is to make no covenants with the Canaanites; instead they are to destroy the Canaanites and wipe out their religious practices, including ritual prostitution. However, here in practice, Israelites make a covenant with a Canaanite prostitute. She lives outside the camp at the start because she and all her household are ritually unclean. However, at some point she is fully adopted into the Israelites: she marries Salmon, gives birth to Boaz (who marries Ruth) and becomes the great-great-grandmother of King David. And in the long run, she is one of four women named as an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

It is worth noting that Rahab did not so much reject her previous gods as embrace a better one. Because God validated the covenant with Rahab and included her in Israel despite quite clear prohibitions in the Law, we too need to acknowledge the ambiguity introduced into dogma by narrative. Rahab’s inclusion in the line of the Messiah requires all Bible-believing Christians to be more careful in how we apply the Old Testament.

While thinking about Rahab, who betrayed her own people in order to be saved by the God of Israel, I began also thinking of Delilah. She is far more famous outside the Bible than is Rahab, partly because of John Milton, partly because she is evidence to justify misogyny. Here is her story.

Sometime between Rahab and King David, Israel was a collection of tribes. The pattern set out in the book of Judges is that Israel would settle into Canaanite culture; then, to discipline and recover them, God would send other peoples to raid and rule them; the Israelites would then moan to God and repent, and God would send them a “judge” to free them from oppression and help them find their way back to worship of the true God. Some of these judges show up in Hebrews 11 as heroes of faith, including the judge Samson, who loved Delilah.

In the story, God raised Samson from a child to be the champion of Israel against the Philistines. However (and surprisingly), Samson’s first marriage was to an unnamed Philistine woman who wheedled the answer to a riddle out of him and betrayed it to her relatives, causing Samson to lose a bet for which he killed 30 Philistine men. He left her for betraying him, so her father gave her to Samson’s best man as a wife. So Samson took revenge on the whole village by burning their crops. Then the Philistines themselves tried to pacify Samson by burning the woman and her father. Samson slaughtered a great number of them in reprisal. I will skip his visit to the Philistine prostitute in Gaza, and will come to the meat of the story.

Samson fell in love with Delilah. When the Philistine lords knew of this, they offered her an enormous amount of money to find out the secret of his strength. It’s a well-told story of how she asked three times and he gave her bogus answers, and then each time she tested him, he broke all the ropes. Finally, she wore him down: “How can you say you love me if you won’t tell me your secret?” He was fatigued to death by her constant pressure, and he told her the truth. The story says that when he fell asleep in her lap, she called a man to shave him bald, and, sure enough, he was no stronger than a natural man. The Philistine lords paid Delilah off, gouged out Samson’s eyes, and made him a slave turning a millstone.

I always thought Delilah the lowest of the low, betraying a man who loved her; this shows I didn’t read the whole story very carefully. Then I read Samson Agonistes by John Milton. Milton makes her Samson’s wife, and, since this is a play, she gets some lines. After Samson repulses her offer to take him home and care for him, she asserts that she was led to betray him by powerful people who convinced her that public good is more important than private relationships; she further asserts that she is a hero to other Philistines for saving them from Samson.

Though he allows her to justify her actions, Milton is no friend to Delilah. The chorus generalizes from her to the flaws of women in general. God gave them beauty but no judgment of what is right and wrong; they have too much self-love and too little persistence in love. They seem at first malleable but when married turn out to be “a thorn intestine…a cleaving mischief” that prevents men from virtue and leads them into shame. “Therefore God’s universal law/Gave to the man despotic power over his female.” If he does not maintain the upper hand, she will usurp his power and he will live a life of dismay. And Milton is not the only Christian man to move from Delilah to a general condemnation of women.

What is wrong with this picture? It seems clear enough that Delilah was a Philistine hero, and as such of course an enemy to Israelites. But the Bible says almost nothing judgmental about her, draws no conclusions about women from her behavior. Why has she been used across centuries of Christianity as a reason to oppress and suppress women in general?

Suppose Milton had also written a play called Joshua Victorious. In this play, his chorus might generalize that God gives women insight into right and wrong; they risk their lives for truth, and they keep their promises. Women’s courage inspires men to live up to their best selves. Therefore, God gives both man and woman the responsibility in marriage to submit to the other. A believing wife is a means of grace for an unbelieving husband. Milton could have learned from Rahab to respect and value women in general.

Misuse of the Bible to diminish women has poisoned the well for all Christians. We need to come to Jesus and receive the living water he offered first to a woman who was additionally an ethnic and social outsider. “The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up into eternal life” (John 4:14). Rahab's inclusion in Jesus’s genealogy is a witness to the power of God to recruit from among the ranks of the ritually unclean, the dangerous outsiders, and redeem them. It reminds me that God meant for Israel to be a light to the nations, teaching them the way to the true God. What makes Rahab a hero of faith is that she believed that Israel’s God was the only God who matters, and she staked her life on that faith. She reminds me of the heroism of converts throughout history, women and men, who were and are willing to risk everything to be on God’s side because of God’s living water in them, gushing up into eternal life.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Ethiopian Eunuch and the Priesthood of All Believers

I’ll begin with the beautiful words from 1 Peter 2:4, 9, 10: Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
We need to fully grasp how radical this is for each one of us and for our community of faith: God has chosen us, made us holy, made us royal, made us priests for the purpose of proclaiming how much he has done in calling us out of darkness into light. Each one of us, each community of faith. Holy, Royal, Priestly.

In order for us to appreciate what this really means, we have to go back to a famous story of evangelism from Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and get under its skin.

Philip was one of the administrators along with Stephen that the original disciples chose to take care of details while they preached. Then Stephen was martyred, and within weeks, Philip is off in Samaria preaching and working wonders, leaving the tables to wait on themselves. Philip may have been the first besides Jesus to preach the gospel to the Samaritans. While there, God directed Philip to go out on a road through the wilderness toward the south, where he met a man in a chariot reading. (Apparently someone else was driving.) Again prompted by God’s Spirit, Philip ran over to the chariot and heard the man read aloud from the book of Isaiah. This man worked for the Queen of Ethiopia as a highly placed official. He had been to Jerusalem to worship and was going home. He was also a eunuch.

Think about this. Somehow, this man’s hunger for God was so strong that he had come many days journey to worship in the temple of God. Think also about this: in this temple, people like him were not eligible to present the offerings in the holy place. Any priest who presented an offering was required to be physically unblemished, whether the blemish was temporary or permanent. The list in Lev. 21:16-20 includes a number of physical imperfections that disqualified a member of the priestly tribe from making the offerings. The one with a blemish could not “come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, [so] that he may not profane my sanctuaries.” I don’t know why this law was given to Israel. Perhaps the priest was a gift to God, like other offerings, and it was irreverent to give God a blemished gift. Perhaps the priest symbolized God to the people, and an unblemished person better symbolized a perfect God. These blemished priests were, however, allowed eat the offerings other priests ate, and to perform tasks around the temple, just not the central ones. Because humans are what we are, this undoubtedly created a sense of hierarchy, something like this: unblemished priests, offering sacrifices, eligible to be high priest; blemished priests, sweeping up and keeping order; and everyone else.

It is possible to see a similar hierarchical pattern emerge in the early Church. The original disciples are praying and preaching, doing signs and wonders, and representing the Spirit of Jesus everywhere. They were like the unblemished priests, eligible by their previous closeness to Jesus to be the top of any social heap of holiness. So when the common believers complained about unfair treatment, the apostles said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait tables.” So they named some non-apostles to wait tables. These were like the blemished priests, not quite as holy. Philip was one of these. Beautifully, God brings the waiter to talk with the eunuch. Both have the experience of being designated as second-tier.

But there’s more to the story here. In the cultures around the Mediterranean and into northern Africa, young boys were captured or chosen and turned into eunuchs for the purposes of making them loyal and hard-working civil servants. They had no descendants for whom they had to provide, they had no spouse with ambitions for them. Because they lost the possibility of a lineage, a legacy, children, they had, literally, only their jobs to live for. Their high positions were entirely at the will of the rulers. And if they were Jewish or converts to Judaism, they were outsiders in worship also. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

The wonderful thing about the Bible is how it talks to itself, and when we pay attention, we can get a fuller picture of the heart of God. Now that we know how little place there was for a eunuch in temple worship, we can hear just how redemptive and healing are these words from Isaiah 56:3-5: “do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’” The heart of God revealed through the prophet includes the believing eunuch in worship and promises him a legacy.

And later Jesus says to disciples dismayed that they cannot walk away from their wives and who think then it might be better not to marry: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, there are eunuchs who have been made so by others, and there are eunuchs have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19: 10-12). Undoubtedly, this was even more horrifying to the disciples than permanent marriage. But it is a statement that widens their understanding of who can be holy, who can be in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven includes more than unblemished men; it includes women, children, and eunuchs.

Unsurprisingly, because we are human, the church has often taken this as a statement that those who choose celibacy for the kingdom of heaven are holier than others. We are absolutely incorrigible; we need to know which group is closer to God, which group gets to speak for God, which group gets to represent us to God. We are simply not comfortable with the idea that we ordinary folks are close to God, we speak for God, we carry the world to God. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are.

But wait, there’s more. The Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah 53. He hasn’t yet gotten to the passage that gives him full standing among God’s people, but he has come to the heart of the matter. He is reading this passage: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with disease and sorrow; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…by a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. It pleased the Lord to crush him … When you, God, make him the offering for sin, he will see his descendants.” Who is this referring to, he asks Philip, the prophet or someone else? And Philip tells him the good news of Jesus.

What is the good news? Hebrews 4:14 tells us that we have a great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, able to sympathize with our weaknesses, in every respect tested as we are, yet without sin. He was chosen by God, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and he was made perfect. Now he is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. He is a priest outside the Law—not from the line of Aaron, but from Judah—signaling the introduction of a better hope through which we approach God and guaranteeing a better covenant (Hebrews 7:19). He is the only high priest we will ever need; he holds office permanently, continuously able to save those who approach God through him, living always to intercede for us.

Here’s the good news: no more are we under a law that specifies the physical attributes of those who can approach God and represent God in worship. We have a permanent high priest, a priest who entered the holy places bruised, crushed, marred, bleeding, mangled—a priest who did not measure up to the physical standard of the Law, a priest who still carries the wounds that plead for us, who remains physically marred while glorified.

What this means is that we are all eligible, we are all called to “be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We ordinary believers in Jesus Christ are close to God, we speak for God, we carry the world to God. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Three Rich Men and Jesus

Taking a little break from the stories of women to look at three encounters with Jesus by rich men: Nicodemus, The Rich Young Ruler, and Zaccheus--These stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives—but they are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. Jesus walks among the churches, we read in Revelation, and he has something to say to each congregation, each denomination, the whole of Christianity.

These individuals were all rich. Two of them had the approval of society, influence and spiritual authority. One had coercive power over others, backed up by the government, but was despised. When Jesus met each of them, he didn’t say the same thing. To the first, he said you must be born again; to the second, he said sell everything you have and give it to the poor; to the third, he said today I must stay at your house

What can we learn from these differences?
We can see that
1) Jesus speaks particular truth to particular individuals or groups.
2) We can see that if we want to have Jesus come to our house, we need to set aside the ways we protect ourselves from what Jesus brings to us, a life at the mercy of the Spirit of God.
3) And we need to quit caring about being approved of by our culture or cultures. Jesus cares more about openness to truth than about approval by others
4) And we show we’re serious about Jesus by being generous and by repenting of what we’ve done wrong and making it right.

Nicodemus came by night. He was a man of position and influence and a Pharisee. His coming by night suggests caution and care about appearances.

He is polite, even complimentary: Rabbi, he says to Jesus, we know you have come from God as a teacher because no one could do what you have done unless God is with him. Nicodemus states that he approves of Jesus’s ministry in a quiet way. He finds out that Jesus doesn’t care about approval. Jesus cares about something else—Nicodemus himself.

Jesus replies, no one can see the kingdom of God unless that person is born again.

Nicodemus says, “how can an old man be born again when he is old?” What I hear in this question is self-defense. What does it mean to be reborn? I think it means I need to make a completely new start, without the protection and mask of influence and position—complete vulnerability, complete dependence, complete openness. It confronts my fear of change.

Jesus makes it even worse for the cautious: This new life is based in the Spirit, and it is not predictable or safe. It is like being the wind, without boundaries, without excuses. A person who is born of the spirit will not seek Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus speaks repeatedly in the passage that follows in John 3 about openness, the public nature of God’s kingdom and the daylight redemption for those who believe in God’s Son.

He warns Nicodemus about preferring the darkness, and he suggests to Nicodemus that such a preference means that he fears that his sinfulness will be exposed. It’s not that the darkness that defines night is outside of God’s love; but Nicodemus takes cover behind influence, power, age, privilege; this state of his heart is revealed when Nicodemus bestows on Jesus his “seal of approval.” Approving of Jesus allows Nicodemus to keep his distance from the new life Jesus brings.

Jesus says to Nicodemus: Set all that down in order to see God’s kingdom with newborn eyes and be one with the wind of God’s spirit sweeping across the countryside.

Second story:
The (nearly) Perfect Young Man

This story is prefaced in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with Jesus blessing the children and saying that whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child won’t enter it at all. This intriguingly echoes the “born again” advice given to Nicodemus above.

In fact, the youthfulness and openness of this nearly perfect man sets him apart from Nicodemus, though like Nicodemus, he is a ruler. To all appearances, he has the courage of his curiosity, and he approaches Jesus in broad daylight. “Good Teacher (or rabbi),” he says, “what good thing shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus in Mark and Luke; “Why are you asking me about what is good?” reports Matthew. Jesus reacts to the man bestowing his approval on Jesus with the word good. Jesus pulls him up short. “You know only God is good.” Don’t try to flatter Jesus.

I notice that Jesus resists flattery. I wish I always did that, also. When someone comes up to me and identifies me as a somehow superior being, I have a hard time finding fault with that person, particularly if he or she is from a position of influence. Oh, I say to myself, I have the seal of approval. I am now ok. I will be careful not to lose that standing.

Suppose I were Jesus; I would see flattery for the temptation it is, the temptation to compare myself with other people to my advantage which is based on the weakness of thinking I am not really ok.

This applies to churches, too. Do churches compare themselves with others? And why do they do so? Are churches open to flattery? Can whole churches and denominations be manipulated to buy into the dominant culture or to prove they are counter-cultural?

Why can Jesus resist this temptation and call out the tempters? Jesus finds his identity in obedience to God. Whatever God tells me to say and do, that’s what I say and do, he says repeatedly. Put down your burden and be in this kind of relationship with me; just like oxen in a yoke, you and I will obey God together.

Back to our story: Jesus meets the perfect young man where he is, measuring himself by the law; Jesus says to him, “do the commandments given by God who is good. “

Now the nearly perfect young man’s façade cracks just a bit: he asks, “which ones? “ This young man is not stupid. He knows he can’t obey all the commandments. As St. Paul said, the law exposes our need for grace; Paul’s own particular downfall was the “do not covet” commandment which went past appearances into the heart. This young man already knows he hasn’t kept ALL the commandments.

The list in Luke are these:
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Honor your father and mother

Mark adds: do not defraud; again, the young man can check this off.

Matthew adds: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I don’t know why these lists are not identical. But I can tell you that the perfection façade cracks wide open with this last commandment. And we know it has broken open when Jesus says, “Give everything you have to the poor—your neighbors—and follow me.” Suddenly that emotional word love has real dimensions—generosity. Generosity outside the family, generosity to the beggar and the undeserving. Be gracious, Jesus tells him. Don’t be legalistic.

So we’ve seen Jesus confront the heart issues of two men of influence and position. Give it up, Jesus says. Lay it down. Give it away. Just you, come follow me with just you. The kingdom is open to those who just drop everything and run into it. The kingdom is being seized violently, he said, urgently, by those with nothing to lose and nowhere else to turn.

Third story:
One more rich man, but this time a tax-gatherer. I’m sure you know that the tax system under Rome was filled with corruption, that a tax-gatherer could collect much more than was actually required by Rome. Tax-gatherers were beneath contempt, collaborators with the occupying army, not admirable people at all, certainly not in the moral class of the other two rich men.

This particular tax-gatherer, Zaccheus, is a short man. I sympathize with him. He can’t see through a crowd, and so when Jesus comes through town, Zaccheus climbs a tree because he is trying to see who Jesus is. Well, so much for dignity, so much for status; a grown-up throwing aside his fancy clothes, climbing a tree and perching on a limb. That sounds like something a child would do.

And Jesus stops right below the tree, looks up, and says, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Surprise! Jesus wants to see who Zaccheus is, too. Tumbling out of the tree, Zaccheus receives Jesus gladly. Imagine how he beams, sheer pleasure lighting up his face.

He stands right there in public in his under-tunic, and says to Jesus, “I will give half of everything I own to the poor, and I will repay four times any fraud I’ve committed.” Jesus doesn’t say to him, “Sell everything and give it all away.” He doesn’t need to. He sees how much Zaccheus wants to see who Jesus is. Zaccheus knows what God wants him to do and he rushes to do it. Even if he remains rich, he will be a new person.

What makes this story different from the other two? Zaccheus’s energetic determination to see who Jesus is and the delightful discovery that Jesus knows him by name and by heart. Zaccheus is like a little child, tumbling into the kingdom without dignity, influence, position, wealth, or even most of his clothes.

As I said at the beginning, these stories are parables of individuals—we can apply them to our own spiritual lives; one hearer remarked that she can see herself in each of these at different points in her life. These are also parables of churches, denominations, the church universal. The same questions can be asked of individuals, congregations, denominations: Do we come to Jesus after cover of darkness because we are afraid of change? Do we come to him with the list of everything we’ve done right because we are unwilling to admit our need for grace? Or do we do whatever we can to see who Jesus is, and then out of sheer joy, turn to make life easier for our neighbors and to make things right with those we’ve wronged?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tamar and Immortality

One of the signs that the Bible depicts continuing revelation is the institution of levirate marriage among the early Hebrews. The only kind of immortality these people believed in was found in having children who carried on their father’s patrimony. So the practice, which was written into the Law later, was that if a man died without fathering a child, a brother or the nearest male relative must father a child with the widow, and that child would be the dead man’s child. (Barren women were considered to be failures, and their failure to produce children legitimized polygamy.) We don't do this nowadays because we no longer believe it to be God's plan--thus, continuing revelation.

This is the context for the story of Tamar—a Canaanite woman, by the way—from from the book of Genesis, chapter 38. Tamar was married to Er, eldest son of the famous patriarch Judah (by his Canaanite wife Shuah). Er died without any children, so Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. Onan was selfish and cared nothing for his duty to his brother, so when he had sex with Tamar, he interrupted coitus and spilled his semen on the ground. God struck him dead.

One misreading of this story is that birth control is wrong. Subsequent understanding of reproduction tells us that “pulling out” is not a sure method of birth control, so Tamar could have been impregnated by Onan despite his stinginess. Further, semen has millions of sperm in it, only one of which is not “wasted” if pregnancy results. Natural reproduction for humans is immensely wasteful of the potential for life contained in sperm and ova, particularly if we add in the number of spontaneous miscarriages, many of which occur before women have any idea they are pregnant.

Another misreading of this story is that masturbation is wrong. In fact, masturbation doesn’t appear in it at all. The only possible Biblical reference is in Leviticus where “nocturnal emissions” make a man unclean the following day. More about uncleanness laws another time. If anything, Onan’s selfish action is sexual fraud, and we can see how God feels about that.

Judah blamed Tamar. Something about her had killed two of his sons (his own hope for immortality, by the way). He sent her back to her own family. This was a huge disgrace for her, and it is obvious that she felt it as such. Her duty—a sacred duty—was to provide a child to carry on her husband’s patrimony. Before God she felt bound to do this work. She waited for Judah to carry out his promise to give her to his youngest son, but it became clear over the years that Judah did not intend to do so. She was stuck in childless widowhood with no way out.

Because Tamar’s duty to her dead husband is so embedded in and infected with patriarchal values, it is hard to see how she is an example of the inclusion of women in the love and plan of God. However, note that she represents a woman who put her own sense of right and wrong ahead of propriety or fear. If having a baby for her husband was her sacred calling, she was determined to fulfill it.

The rest of the story is a wonderful trickster tale. Tamar hears that Judah is coming into her part of the country. She dresses up like a Canaanite religious prostitute and waits for him by the road. He does not recognize her behind her veil, and he takes advantage of her availability to have sex with her. (No one takes him to task for sex with a supposed idolater, or for sex outside his marriages. This is another evidence of the profound stranglehold patriarchalism had on this culture.) He is short on cash, so he gives her his ring and walking stick in pledge. When he sends money to redeem these items, no one knows that religious prostitute, so he keeps his money and keeps his mouth shut.

Tamar goes home to her father. In a few months, someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law has turned up pregnant. “Bring her out and burn her to death,” he rages. Now this is interesting; it is apparently the case that she was not free of her marriage despite being a widow, at least until she birthed a child who could be legally attributed to her dead husband. Judah is angry because she has not fulfilled her sacred duty to his household, but at the same time he has made it impossible for her to do so. What a double or triple bind she is in.

But Tamar speaks up on her own behalf: “The man who owns this ring and walking stick made me pregnant.” “Oops, those are mine,” says Judah. “Never mind that stuff I said about burning her. God has taught me a big lesson here; Tamar was doing what she could to fulfill what she thought God wanted of her.”

Some of this story is infuriating—the culture that required Tamar to make herself vulnerable to the opportunism of a sexual exploiter like Onan; the culture that allowed Judah to have sex with a prostitute and then to require his pregnant widowed daughter-in-law to be burned for adultery.

More of this story is inspiring—a Canaanite woman does what she believes is her religious duty, even though she risks death, and she lives to tell about it. Some of the story is empowering—God validates Tamar by including her and her children in the line of the Messiah, and the record is there for all time in both Old and New Testaments. Some of the story is simply deeply satisfying—the powerless person tricks the powerful person, and the outcome is comedy.

It is interesting to think ahead to Mary, whose baby could be attributed to no human male. Like Tamar, Mary chooses for herself. She chooses to accept God’s will for her, which involves scandal and humiliation and potential death by stoning. As it turns out, through Mary’s son, no single male became immortal, no one family or clan continued its existence, but instead all humanity is invited into eternal life, starting now and continuing through death.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Bible, Inclusion, and Sarah and Hagar

Because the Bible came out of patriarchal culture, whenever women's stories are told it is unexpected. In fact, I've come to see these women as signs of inclusion at many points in the Bible. Inclusion often involves some sort of conflict or trouble, which may cause people to consider women as causes of trouble rather than signs that trouble is implicit in the cultural norms.

Recently I looked into various marriages in the Bible, starting with Abraham and Sarah, because St. Peter refers to Sarah as a model for all wives in her submission to her husband, calling him, “Lord.” So I went to read the story. There are two places where Sarah joins Abraham in lying about their relationship, acquiescing to being known as his sister (which is apparently half-true, showing again that this culture is not the same as ours). First, before they are known as Abraham and Sarah—before God renames them—they take refuge from famine in Egypt. Sarai is barren, so it is easy for them to mislead the Egyptians. Because Sarai is beautiful, Pharaoh takes her into his house and gives Abram gifts, perhaps even the slave-girl Hagar. God sends plagues, Pharaoh wises up, sends Sarai back to Abram, and complains about being deceived. Much later, Abraham asks Sarah again to join him in his half-truth in the land of King Abimelech; again, the king takes Sarah; this time, God warns him in a dream that Sarah is married. (As an aside, this shows God speaking directly to a Canaanite king and the king’s immediate obedience.) So two times, Sarah follows Abraham’s lead in misrepresenting their relationship.

In the rest of the story, her submission is less obvious. When she can’t conceive, she decides to help God fulfill God’s promise by offering Abram her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a surrogate; Abram listens to Sarai and has sex with Hagar, who becomes pregnant. Sarai accuses Hagar of having contempt for Sarai and treats her so harshly Hagar runs away.

God meets the pregnant girl in the wilderness and speaks directly to her. Think about this: not only does God reveal God’s self to the chosen man Abram, he also speaks to a Canaanite king and to an Egyptian slave-girl. God tells her to go back to Sarai and be respectful, and God promises that her son will be the father of multitudes too numerous to count. She names her son Ishmael—“God hears”—and names God as “the God of seeing,” marveling that she really saw God and remained alive. Remember this—a runaway Egyptian slave-girl saw God, received a command which she obeyed, received a promise like the one given to Abram, and lived to tell about it.

In the past, some may have read this passage as defining the duty of slaves to be submissive and respectful to their owners. We wouldn’t do that nowadays, now that we know slavery is wrong. But we don’t hear the rest of the amazing truth in this passage. God meets Hagar face to face and reminds her that he is taking care of her and her unborn son. (I want to write it this way: God. Meets. Hagar. Face. To. Face.) He also confronts her with her contempt for Sarai. Hagar affirms her human dignity by choosing to obey God.

Fourteen years later, Isaac was born to Sarah. When Sarah saw Ishmael and Isaac together, she said to Abraham, “Cast out the slave woman and her son.” Really Sarah is saying, “Cast out your son who is not my son.” Abraham loves Ishmael; he doesn’t want to send him away. God says, “Don’t worry about Ishmael and Hagar; I will make a nation of his descendants also. Do whatever Sarah says because Isaac is the one I promised you and intend to work through.” God can say this because God is the one taking care of Hagar and Ishmael. So in the morning, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness with a canteen of water and some bread.

When they run out of water, she places Ishmael under a bush and goes far enough away that she cannot see him. She does not want to watch him die, and she weeps aloud. God hears Ishmael, who must also be moaning, and God’s messenger says to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard Ishmael’s moans. Go raise him up and hold his hand. Remember that I will make a great nation of him.” Then God shows her a well of water. They live in the wilderness, Ishmael learns to hunt, and eventually his Egyptian mother finds him a wife from Egypt.

Notice this: God again communicates supernaturally with Hagar. God cares for her again in the wilderness. God makes sure she and her son (and Abraham’s son) do not die. God does not berate her for forgetting his promise. God treats her tenderly and rescues them. God includes the father of the Arabs in his care, knowing full well that there will be enmity and war between the descendents of Abraham, just as there has been enmity between the mothers.

The lessons from this are so challenging: God is the God of Hebrew and Arab. Indeed, with all the attention paid to the supernatural nature of Isaac’s birth, it is easy to overlook the supernatural care given to Hagar and Ishmael. God includes them. This ought to challenge Christians who see Zionism as the will of God, and it ought to challenge Christians who see patriarchy and sexism as the will of God as well.

It has to be noted that Hagar’s worst enemy is not Abraham but Sarah; yet the grounds of their animosity is in the patriarchal system that values women because they give birth. Barrenness is shameful to a woman for the same reason a woman must have a child on behalf of a dead husband; the important achievement is to provide the man with immortality through descendants. Sarah wants a child for Abraham for reasons Tamar will understand. In a patriarchal system, women compete with women to be valuable to men. If what men want is a son to carry on the patrimony, women will value themselves as they are able to produce that son.

However, Sarah, who somewhere in her life called her brother/husband “Lord,” has intrinsic value before God. It isn’t enough that Ishmael was born on her knees, symbolically her child. She wants her own child. She cannot reconcile herself to the legal fiction that makes Ishmael her child. Sarah also wants to birth a child for her own sake, and her jealousy of Hagar has to do with Sarah’s own hunger for immortality. When she went through menopause, she must have despaired. No wonder she laughs bitterly when she overhears God’s messengers repeating the promise to Abraham that Sarah herself will bear a child. No wonder she laughs with joy when Isaac is born. The gift of Isaac, the gift of laughter, the gift of immortality comes courtesy of God only, not from the legal fictions of human beings. No wonder the child of Hagar is an intolerable intruder on this gift as Sarah sees it. Sarah behaves cruelly to Hagar; God does not punish this cruelty, perhaps because God knows that patriarchy has crippled Sarah’s understanding of what gives a woman value.

A few generations later, Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, compete to give Jacob sons. Leah is far more fertile, producing three sons; so to compete, Rachel gives Jacob her servant girl Bilhah as a surrogate; those two sons count for Rachel. When Leah quits having children, she gives Jacob another servant girl Zilpah as surrogate; those two sons count for Leah, who leads five to two. When Leah’s son brings her mandrakes, which supposedly help make women fertile, Rachel begs for the mandrakes. In exchange, she sends Jacob in to sleep with Leah. Leah had two more sons and a daughter.

When God opens Rachel’s womb, as the Bible puts it, she has a son. Significantly, she rejoices by saying, “God has taken away my reproach.” What is reproachful about being barren? In this culture, the wife has failed in her main duty to her husband—the duty to make sure his line does not die out. Much later, Rachel dies birthing her second son, whom she names “son of my sorrow.” Her sorrow is not just the hard labor, but the sorrow of being unable to measure up to others. Despite being genuinely loved by her husband, she values herself for her fertility, and Jacob’s willingness to go elsewhere sexually in order to have children shows that he too believes a wife’s barrenness requires the remedy of more sexual partners to ensure descendants.

Women are primarily property in these times. Adultery is a property crime in a culture that permits polygamy. It isn’t having sex with more than one woman that is a crime; it is having sex with someone else’s wife. If a wife has more than one sexual partner, who knows which man’s descendant the child is—who has gained immortality thereby? So the response, as seen in the story of Tamar (which will be for another day), is to kill the woman. This ostensibly will reinforce the faithfulness of women so that husbands can be sure the children are theirs. Comically, it is after her sojourn in the house of King Abimelech that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. This seems to me to be a small divine joke at the expense of patriarchal anxieties.

It makes me sad that because of the mistaken use of the Bible to perpetuate patriarchy, people who know in their hearts that God doesn't favor men over women and patriarchy is wrong have felt that they must stop respecting the Bible as an authority for faith and practice. They dismiss and devalue a text that is an enormous resource for understanding the relationship between God and humanity—that tells us over and over that even at our worst, God loves us and is committed to making us whole and holy. They don’t get to know the historical Jesus with his tender heart and tough mind, his focused obedience to his Father, his full humanity in such unimaginable tension with divinity. How sad to know little to nothing of how God has touched the lives of humans in one small tribal group, how God has insisted that other tribal groups matter to God also, how God has entered the circle God drew, as William Blake challenged him (William Blake: "To God/ If you have formed a Circle to go into/Go into it yourself & see how you would do."), and how God has made available to all a new way of living in this world and a hope for joy after death.