May 7, 2017
I distrusted, throughout this book, every account available to us of the historical Jesus, and I have been unable to locate much of an identity between the Jew from Nazareth and the theological God Jesus Christ. The human being Jesus and the all-too-human God Yahweh are more compatible (to me) than either is with Jesus the Christ and God the Father. I cannot regard that as a happy conclusion, and am all too aware of how unacceptable to believing Christians this must be. Yet I neither trust in the Covenant nor in Freud nor in Sam Harris’s reductive opposition of “the future of reason” to religious terror. The need (or craving) for transcendence may well be a great unwisdom, but without it we tend to become mere engines of entropy. Yahweh, present and absent, has more to do with the end of trust than with the end of faith. Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?
–Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh
At the Time of Peony Blossoming Robert Bly
When I come near the red peony flower
I tremble as water does near thunder,
As the well does when the plates of earth move,
Or the tree when fifty birds leave at once.
The peony says that we have been given a gift,
And it is not the gift of this world.
Behind the leaves of the peony
There is a world still darker, that feeds many.
Esau’s Letter Aharon Amir
Thus Esau despised his birthright. Genesis 25:34
He calls himself a simple tent-dweller,
no? the crook, the heel! So be it.
Happy is she who bore him. I’ve nothing to gain griping
against him. After all, don’t I know the double-talker
inside-out, like the young of my goats.
I’m familiar with his simple resourcefulness in public relations,
I know his type of mythomaniacs’ compulsive
fretting over their place in the Book and Chronicles. I know
and even take a momentary pleasure (why not)
In my own way. Coolheadedly.
I don’t mean to sound stuck up, but at least my voice
and hands match. I’m your average man, perhaps, who doesn’t presume
to struggle with angels, who hasn’t any time to chase Gods
and erect new-fangled altars—who’s at peace, I believe,
with his own nature and fate, and whose conscience is clear
(if there is such a thing) and more precious than pearls.
My word! I don’t envy him. Didn’t he show me his mettle.
He can have what’s his, birthright and blessing.
I felt their worth in my own flesh and haven’t the slightest desire
for them—no thank you. He, his sons, the whole sickening
utopian family can rejoice. His father can rejoice in him
all he wants—he doesn’t know his left from his right,
and my his righteous slick-as-olive-oil mother rejoice too.
As for me, I like it here in the fields of Edom,
on this good mountain, Mt. Seir, with my quarry,
my hunters, and with the shepherds of my flock-
My women, the daughters of Ishmael, the Hivite and Hittite,
are better to me than the daughters of Laban the Aramaean
and his maidservants—
and I love the lentil stew
they stuff me with
at all times—
oh, the red,
the red, red
Isaac called in Jacob, then gave him a blessing, and said:
Don’t marry any of those Canaanite women. 2 Go at once to your mother’s father Bethuel in northern Syria and choose a wife from one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. 3 I pray that God All-Powerful will bless you with many descendants and let you become a great nation. 4 May he bless you with the land he gave Abraham, so that you will take over this land where we now live as foreigners.
5 Isaac then sent Jacob to stay with Rebekah’s brother Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean.
6 Esau found out that his father Isaac had blessed Jacob and had warned him not to marry any of the Canaanite women. He also learned that Jacob had been sent to find a wife in northern Syria 7 and that he had obeyed his father and mother. 8 Esau already had several wives, but he realized at last how much his father hated the Canaanite women. 9 So he married Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath, who was the sister of Nebaioth and the granddaughter of Abraham.
10 Jacob left the town of Beersheba and started out for Haran. 11 At sunset he stopped for the night and went to sleep, resting his head on a large rock. 12 In a dream he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, and God’s angels were going up and down on it.
13 The Lord was standing beside the ladder and said:
I am the Lord God who was worshiped by Abraham and Isaac. I will give to you and your family the land on which you are now sleeping. 14 Your descendants will spread over the earth in all directions and will become as numerous as the specks of dust. Your family will be a blessing to all people. 15 Wherever you go, I will watch over you, then later I will bring you back to this land. I won’t leave you—I will do all I have promised.
16 Jacob woke up suddenly and thought, “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.” 17 Then Jacob became frightened and said, “This is a fearsome place! It must be the house of God and the ladder to heaven.”
18 When Jacob got up early the next morning, he took the rock that he had used for a pillow and stood it up for a place of worship. Then he poured olive oil on the rock to dedicate it to God, 19 and he named the place Bethel. Before that it had been named Luz.
20 Jacob solemnly promised God, “If you go with me and watch over me as I travel, and if you give me food and clothes 21 and bring me safely home again, you will be my God. 22 This rock will be your house, and I will give back to you a tenth of everything you give me.”
We are reading the Bible cover to cover in 2017. I have made a schedule for it with quizzes at Bible and Jive dot Blogspot dot com. Turn in a quiz each month. Earn a fabulous prize. There are also going to be discussion opportunities for talking about what we have read. Once per month after worship, we will spend about 45 minutes or so having conversation about it. The first discussion will be May 21st following worship. In addition to that, I am going to use the worship services as an opportunity to use sermons and liturgy to offer perspectives on the Bible readings.
Today, I am going to start from the beginning and spend four weeks on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The idea here is that even if you haven’t read any of the Bible this will be entertaining, I hope, and if you have read it, this will offer some context and reflection on what you have read.
For each sermon I am going to offer some technical stuff including historical background and literary structure. I will also include theological reflection. But my theological reflection won’t be about “God” whatever that means, exactly. This is going to come up often. There is a literary character in this book who is called “God” or “the Lord” or “Yahweh,” or “Elohim.” This character did not write or cause humans to write the books of the Bible. This is a character created by the storytellers, although perhaps not consciously. Yahweh or Elohim is a character inherited by and shaped by the biblical storytellers. My theological reflection is not about the character, God, as much as on how this literature reveals and conceals the myths that drive us.
I had a conversation with Arthur Dewey of the Jesus Seminar. He said that moderns, that is us, lack a language for describing what is happening to us. The ancients had the language of myth. We are listening in on conversations these ancients had between themselves. These conversations are difficult to understand, even when we think it is clear. We will find much of it boring, much of it offensive to our sensibilities, and I hope once in a while, we might say, “Aha, that helps to explain what is happening in our world.”
The interesting thing, in my opinion, about the Bible, is not that it is a supernatural book, a word of god, or a guide for living, or any of that. It has, instead, shaped western consciousness, even for those who have never read it. I am hoping that reading it critically will remove some of the mystique that surrounds it. I am hoping that reading it critically will liberate us from it even as reading it may help us to understand what makes us tick.
The Bible is in a sense, a family history. For those who have done some genealogy, you may have run across characters in your family tree that help explain how you or other family members are the way they are. I learned a lot about me by uncovering the story of my great-grandfather. The Bible sometimes can be like that. We are learning about one branch and a very prominent branch of our family tree. We may find uncomfortable truths about ourselves within the Bible: patriarchy and sexual control, manifest destiny and exceptionalism, war and violence, racism and intolerance. We may find inspiring truths in unexpected places: compassion and altruism, possibility for the underdog, and courageous truth-telling to the powers that be.
This first month is on the Torah and this first week is on the book of Genesis, and in particular, the story of Jacob who receives a new name, Israel.
What is the plot of the Genesis?
It begins with the creation of the world by Elohim who is also known as Yahweh. Yahweh creates the first humans, Adam and Eve, who discover their limits, ultimately mortality, and thus begins humanity’s quest for home, for a name, for purpose, for immortality. Yahweh likes to make deals. After he (and I am sorry regarding all the work we have done on inclusive language), Yahweh is a he. This is the religion of patriarchy and I don’t think it is liberating to deny that by trying to call Yahweh a She. Now if divinity is important to you, then divine images and stories of feminine characters are important to find. Sadly, not a lot of them are found in the Bible. There are some notable exceptions. But if we want feminine images for God, we will likely have to go outside the Bible for the most part. The Bible is patriarchal. And if we seek liberation from patriarchy we can’t deny that the problem is within the text itself.
Anyway, Yahweh is a deal-maker, a covenant-maker. The Torah is all about making deals. Yahweh makes a deal with Eve and Adam. You get the garden and all the produce except the fruit from this one tree, the tree of moral agency, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yahweh doesn’t realize who he is dealing with. These human beings have self-consciousness and intelligence. They are curious and they are not satisfied by being placed in gardens. So they break the deal. They eat the forbidden fruit and Yahweh banishes them because Yahweh is afraid of them. They might, eat from the tree of life, become immortal, and compete with him. So he limits their lifespans, invents childbirth, male dominance, and sends them East of Eden.
One day, Yahweh looks down from his perch in the dome of the sky and sees that humans, in his view, are behaving badly. So he destroys the entire planet, humans, animals, everything with a flood, except for one family, and representatives of each species of animals. Noah and his family, his wife, three sons, three daughters-in law, and all the critters board the ark and are saved. When the ark lands, Yahweh becomes self-reflective. That didn’t help matters, he thinks. Humans are still bad. So he makes a deal. He makes a covenant with Noah that he will not destroy the earth again no matter how bad humans get. When he gets a hankering to do so, he will remember not to do it, because he will look at the rainbow and remember. The rainbow is for Yahweh to remember. So when humans see the rainbow, they can say to themselves. “Yahweh sees it, too. Because of that, he won’t wipe us out. Remember that, Yahweh!”
That is the first covenant. It is a universal covenant, for all humans, not just a select group, and it is a perpetual covenant. It is not conditional on human beings keeping their part of the bargain. Yahweh will not destroy the human race no matter how bad we get. So does that mean we can trash the place and Yahweh will always save us in the end? Some people might interpret this deal in that way. Sometimes this covenant is interpreted alongside the Christian covenant, the new covenant, the new testament, that Yahweh who at that point morphed into God the Father makes with humanity through His Son Jesus the Messiah or Jesus the Christ. In that covenant, Jesus Christ returns and makes a new heaven and earth. Those who make the deal will live with Jesus and the Father forever. Some have thought that means we don’t have to care about the long-term survival of humanity and future generations on earth because Jesus is coming back soon and Yahweh promised not to destroy us until then. Do some people really believe that? Yes. According to polls about 40% of Americans believe that Christ will return in their own lifetimes. Where do these beliefs come from? The Bible. The Bible read uncritically.
It is more dangerous when people in power, whether in government or industry believe that or at least use that as a justification for their destructive energy and environmental policies. God won’t destroy humanity no matter what the global warming Cassandras tell us. Let’s dig it out and burn it up! And when the party’s over, “Come Lord Jesus.”
I am getting ahead of myself. We have more covenants to deal with in Genesis before the day is done. Noah’s children have children and humanity spreads out on the earth. But they all speak the same language.
One day, Yahweh looks down and sees humans building a tower to heaven. Heaven is another word for sky or the dome or firmament above.
So as it seems silly to us, one can imagine within that ancient view of the universe, that it could be done. Yahweh is not happy, not because they are silly, but because they might do it. That would be bad to have humans knocking at Yahweh’s gate, like Jack climbing the beanstalk and sneaking into the Giant’s castle. So Yahweh messes up their ability to communicate. No tower gets built. The result is that human beings speak all kinds of different languages and are divided and scattered across earth still to this day.
They have no way to get to heaven. No way to get to Yahweh. Yahweh is lonely. Yahweh wants some kind of relationship with humans, but on his terms, not theirs. So Yahweh decides to make a deal with a single individual, Abram, who Yahweh renames Abraham. Yahweh summons Abraham and says here is the deal. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the beach. And I will give you a piece of property. You get a name for yourself. You don’t need to build a tower to heaven to get immortality. You get it by having a legacy. Land and descendants. You will be a blessing to the whole world. I am on your side. I will curse those who curse you and bless those who bless you. Here is the text:
Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Yahweh makes the covenant again with Abraham a couple of more times, promising a son, requiring on Abraham’s part trust in Yahweh. The covenant is particular, to Abraham, not to all of humanity. Or we might say, to all of humanity through Abraham. The covenant is also unconditional for the most part. Abraham does need to trust, but Yahweh will do what Yahweh wants anyway. Abraham doesn’t need to do anything in particular except to trust Yahweh.
Thus we are introduced to exceptionalism. There are people who are chosen and people who are not chosen. People who have special favor with Yahweh, who believe they are divinely entitled to stuff (ie. land) and those who are not. Exceptionalism plays a big part in Western history and in particular the history and self-understanding of European-Americans as well as the modern state of Israel. We will be coming back to this on our quest through the Bible.
Long story short. Abraham does have children. A lot of them, eventually. But two of them of interest. Ishmael, son of Abraham and Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. But Yahweh’s deal is not with Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah have a son Isaac. Abraham proves his faithfulness to Yahweh by attempting to kill him. We have now the legacy of patriarchy. Sarah never gets a say in regards to Abraham’s attempted murder of her son. Patriarchy means that Abraham’s seed is planted in the ground of Sarah. The seed belongs to Abraham. We will be coming back to that on our quest through the Bible as this will provide the ancient understanding of biology that allowed for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. We also have the legacy of violence, duty, and sacrifice of fathers upon sons.
Isaac survives the ordeal and marries Rebekah and has two sons Esau and Jacob, twins. Jacob is born second, clinging to the heel of his brother, so goes the tale. Jacob is a heel and he tricks his brother out of his birthright and needs to get out of town. He goes to sleep and dreams of a ladder ascending to heaven. Remember the tower that never made it to heaven? Jacob’s ladder does get there. Jacob wakes up from the dream and thinks he is pretty special. He is, despite himself.
Is this dream from Yahweh or is this Jacob’s dream? In the dream, Yahweh makes the same deal he made with Isaac and Abraham—land and descendants. Jacob is inspired to make his own deal with Yahweh. He wakes up, packs his bag, makes an altar from a rock and says:
“If you go with me and watch over me as I travel, and if you give me food and clothes 21 and bring me safely home again, you will be my God. 22 This rock will be your house, and I will give back to you a tenth of everything you give me.”
Jacob makes the covenant with Yahweh and sets the terms. Jacob reminds me of Donald Trump.
“I am going to make a deal. I am building a ladder all the way to heaven and Yahweh’s going to pay for it”
Yahweh is silent. Yahweh does not agree nor disagree to Jacob’s terms. We are introduced to another ongoing theme in the Bible. The power struggle between Israel and Yahweh. Jacob spends fourteen years working for his uncle Laban and gets two wives, Leah and Rachel. Between the two wives and their two handmaidens, Joseph has one daughter and twelve sons. When he is ready to leave Yahweh wrestles him at the River Jabbok, wounds Jacob and gives him a new name, Israel, one who struggles or fights with God. That will be the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel—a struggle.
When we read in the Bible phrases like “the house of Jacob” that means Israel. Jacob’s character, a schemer, a deal-maker, and a fighter, is just the kind of character with whom Yahweh can do something. Jacob has personality and ambition, and Yahweh seems to think that he can work with that. Jacob is the persona of Israel itself and a model for the kind of trust that will define it and those who also claim ancient Israel as an ancestor. Trust is a struggle. It is an ongoing wrestling match, a fight with Yahweh.
Robert Frost: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Life is a struggle, a competition, a wrestling match, a lover’s quarrel between light and dark, yin and yang, male and female, life and death, mortality and immortality, Jacob and Yahweh.
Jacob’s twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his other brothers. He lands in Egypt, makes good, and eventually is the one who brings the clan to Egypt. There Jacob dies. Joseph also dies and all of his brothers. Time passes. A pharaoh arises that according to the text, “did not know Joseph”, that is did not know the deal the Hebrew people, Israel, made with the previous Pharoah, and the Hebrew people become slaves. That is next week’s story in the book of Exodus.
Covenant is the word for the day. Deals between Yahweh and humans. I will close with Harold Bloom’s last sentence in his book Jesus and Yahweh, the Names Divine. Bloom is speaking of Yahweh, both present and absent. Bloom reflects on the human need for transcendence. Perhaps needing it is unwise, he says. But, it is what keeps us from entropy. But can we trust it? Can we trust Yahweh and Jesus and their deals? After holocausts and the modern cosmos, violence, inequality, the end of fossil fuels, nuclear weapons, global warming, and Jesus not seeming to return, says Bloom:
Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?
Welcome to the strange world of the Bible.