Thursday, November 10, 2011

She Started It

When arbitrating fights between myself and my brother, my mother frequently heard the accusation, "She/he started it!"  Her response was always the same.  "I don't care who started it, I want you to stop it!"

The Biblical story in Genesis 16 gives us an interesting perspective on the "who started it" question: the which came first, the offense or the victimization, the chicken or the egg?  We're shown a domestic disturbance in the privacy of the home of Abram and Sarai.  Sarai, unable to bear children, offers Abram a surrogate in her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar.  When Hagar successfully conceives a son, friction grows between Hagar and Sarai.  Hagar shows contempt, Sarai responds with abuse.

On the small scale, Abram hears the accusations and mutual blame between the women.  On the grander scale the Hebrew people record an incidence of abuse, the abuse of an Egyptian slave, generations prior to their own enslavement by the Egyptian people.

I'm fascinated by the honesty of this passage.  Even the patriarchs and matriarchs had their Jerry Springer moments, their family drama.  More startling, here is an admission, an open sharing of the fact that when the roles are reversed, the Hebrew people and the Egyptian people make equally brutal slavemasters of one another.  Perhaps I am overstating it, comparing one family's squabble to the enslavement of a nation.  But I believe the story is included for that very reason. 

Many modern people find these ancient stories unworthy of the Christian tradition: too brutal, too violent.  But they are part of the family tree, part of our family history, and I believe we would benefit from owning them.  These ancient people passed along the stories of their faith and their bravery.  But they also passed along the stories of their faults and their failures.  I admire them for the fullness of their tale.

Hagar's son,Ishmael, became the father of nations, nations that continue to fight and war with the children of Sarai.  Perhaps we should remember as we call out our blame and accusations that we are just as capable of base behavior and inhumanity as our distant cousins.  Instead of wreaking revenge, perhaps we should look inside, at our own history and our own violence, our own envy and brutality.  Instead of casting blame on the other, perhaps we should take the first step to stop the cycle, to initiate the unprecedented behavior of peace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Beyond Imagination

Genesis 15.  Abram cries out to God in despair of descendants.  All that he has gained, all that he has built, and no heir, not even one.  Instead, Eliezer of Damascus, no relative, not even a local boy, is set to inherit at the time of Abram's death.  In a society that seeks eternal life not through heaven but through grandchildren, Abram despairs a fate worse than death.

God replies with ridiculous promises.  No heir?  Your heirs will number more than the stars in the sky.  Abram, bless him, believes God despite the wild exaggeration of the promise.  At least he maybe believes the part about the stars.  There are still questions.  "How will I know that the real estate part will work out?"

God's response is a ritual, very ancient, very profound.  A covenant of great bloody drama of the sort usually reserved for covenants between kings and nations.  The reference books tell us that ancient rulers would make covenant this way.  Modern folk prefer a pen and paper, or perhaps a computerized contract, but cutting animals in half and passing between them certainly creates a certain memorable and messy flair. 

After all, you can write down a grocery list as easily as a covenant.  The important covenants need a little extra fanfare.

The text spirals into the future after the covenant ceremony.  God almost mocks Abram's despair over his heir.  "You think you're hopeless?  Your descendants will give new definition to hopeless.  They will live in slavery for four centuries.  If that doesn't kill hope dead, I don't know what else could."

Why should a childless old man be able to imagine grandchildren numbered like the stars of the sky (prior to the modern phenomenon of light pollution that reduces visible stars to single digit numbers).  Why should people in slavery for year after year and century after century believe that one day they will be free?

Why did Martin Luther King, Jr. believe his dream?  It was beyond belief in his time.  In an era of separate bathrooms, separate sections of bus seating, separate water fountains, separate schools--a time of lynchings and fire hoses and dogs and guns--why could MLK talk about us living in peace and prosperity together?

Martin was one of the stars in the sky over Abram's head, a descendant of faith, a descendant of Abram's story and his promise.

Genesis 15, like so many passages of the Bible, spirals the time zones of the story together, so that one person's despair is linked to the despair of thousands.  More importantly, the time spirals so that one person's hope represents the hope of us all.

Part of the wondrous crazy of religious thought is the challenge to look beyond the evidence at hand, to hope for things not only to get a little better, but to go through utter transformation.

This week another black man spoke to a hurting nation, offering words of comfort and words of challenge.  He encouraged us to put aside the vitriol that divides us and to work together for a better future.  From his role as President he again picked up the ancient tradition of believing in a future not indicated by present evidence.

How can we believe in a future at all?

Even in the midst of the darkest hours, a light passes between the broken pieces of our lives.  The covenant lives.  The stars shine.  There is hope.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Abraham ... "On How to Deal with Loot."

If you were indeed making a movie about the rescue of Lot, there would be a whole bunch of action and old fashioned fighting. BAM! POW! WHAM! Abraham pursued the kings who had nabbed nephew Lot with three hundred and eighteen fighting men. Such a specific number...always an evocative question when the Bible, so big on symbolic numbers, names a particular figure.

I've got no clue on this one. 318. Any guesses?

But still, big action scene. Three hundred and eighteen caped crusaders, fighting four kings and their fighting dudes, winning the battle and freeing Lot. And Lot's stuff. And apparently, other people's stuff as well.

Two things then happen at the end of chapter 14...two things that probably wouldn't make good action movie, but that I find very significant.

First, the king of Salem, a dude named Melchizedek, demonstrates that he is priest as well as king. He blesses Abraham, and he breaks out the bread and wine in the earliest recorded celebration of communion. Before you chide me for calling it communion yea these thousand and more years before Jesus invents the tradition, remember that Melchizedek gets an honorable mention in the New Testament in Hebrews 7, where Christ is described as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Mel's name even means "king of righteousness" and Salem means "peace" or "wholeness."

So perhaps he is a symbolic figure.

But the interesting piece to me comes when Abraham offers Mel a tenth of, well, "everything." Mel gives Abraham a blessing, and Abraham offers him a tenth of his loot.

It would appear that it is Abe's own personal loot he is tithing, because Abraham flat refuses a share in the loot from the adventure. The king of Sodom, another king entirely, offers Abraham a share of the loot they've captured--and Abraham refuses. He accepts reimbursement for expenses incurred and nothing more.

The Bible is a wacky book, no doubt, but this is one of the wackier spots. What kind of person takes a pass on perfectly good loot? A nutcase who is already trying to GIVE AWAY one tenth of what he's got?

For Abraham, there are things more important than continuing to accumulate. He's already successful. After all, the 318 action figures were from his own household. But he knows when to tithe to a righteous priest, and he knows that accepting loot is sometimes too pricey in relational cost.

What do we do when the loot is fresh before us? Do we know when to walk away?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rescue Me

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we live as community, especially in terms of economics. Issues of taxes, healthcare, education and the role of government in business have been plastered all over the headlines, day after day.

I'm reminded of the time I lived in a retirement community, and people would occasionally say to me, "I shouldn't have to pay taxes to run the schools. I don't have any children in school."

I would begin to think of how these current school children were the ones who would soon be supplying our food, our medical care, selling us cars, running our water treatment plants, fixing our electrical infrastructure. I wanted them smart and educated.

I'm also a big believer in health insurance. The money of the many pays for the tremendously expensive needs of the few. Then those people, having been saved sometimes from death and certainly many times from financial disaster, turn around and help us in other ways. I think of the countless people who have profoundly touched my life after surviving major surgery or receiving medicines for chronic illness.

In chapter 14 of Genesis there is a delightfully violent little story about Abram's nephew, Lot, getting captured in a local war. Nine kings of small kingdoms began to skirmish, four kings against five, in rebellion and counterstrike, battling from the hill country to the desert. In the midst of it Lot, seemingly minding his own business, gets carried off, along with all his possessions.

(There is a graphic little piece in 14:10 where the marching into battle turns into fleeing for life, and in the midst of the fleeing, a bunch of people fall into tar pits. It is this kind of detail that certain people enjoy...if you don't believe me, look to Hollywood. People have not changed much in many thousand years. Running, terrified people falling in tar pits makes for "good" film.)

Anyway, Abram, hanging out under the trees of Mamre, hears of his nephew's capture. He could have just stayed under the trees, but he forms a rescue party. During the night he divides his trained men for attack and routs the enemy. Great word, rout.

He gets back all the men, women, loot and possessions of Lot and his company.

There is something very Star Trek about going back for the captured friend. I have watched episode after episode across the years in which the crew members leave their own relative safety to risk their lives to go bring another crew member home.

Most of the time in real life this happens in quiet ways behind the scenes, and no one ever knows the cost. Every day I visit hospice patients and I see the ways in which the family and friends who care for them sacrifice their time, their energy, their sleep, their sanity and sometimes their own health to give needed care for the sick and dying member of their community.

If you look down the street in your suburban neighborhood, in all likelyhood one of those houses has this drama playing out even now. You would never know it from the curb.

We sacrifice and risk for members of our family, for members of our crew. Sometimes in very hands on ways, sometimes in the flow of money to taxes and insurance premiums. But in each case, we are living out the model of Abram. How can one sit in comfortable shade when another is in mortal danger?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Staying Alive

In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai and their traveling band flee starvation during a famine by heading towards Egypt...a story that will repeat on a grand scale later on, eventually leading to the whole Moses phenomenon. Here in chapter 12, we run into another repeating story, the "if they know you are my wife they will kill me to get to you, so just pretend you're my sister, okay?" story. A story important enough to tell over again with other characters in a few chapters, but odd enough that most preachers don't use it as a Sunday morning text.

What to do with this subterfuge and handing over to haremdom? (Not to mention the uncomfortable detail that Sarai doesn't have to entirely lie when she says she is Abram's sister...they hadn't yet discovered the genetic woes of inbreeding.)

Perhaps it is as basic as taking the story at face value. Abram says it plainly. "I know you are beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will kill me. Say you are my sister, that it may go better for me, and that my life will be spared on your account."

This was no trip down the interstate to Disney World. Travel was risk.

For perspective, here is an excerpt from Volume 1, Number 2 of the National Geographic Magazine, published in 1889. In this excerpt, the President of the National Geographic Society, Gardiner G. Hubbard, writes about Europeans exploring Africa.

" in ever-increasing numbers have entered Africa on every side. Some who have entered...have been lost in its wilds and two or three years after have emerged on the opposite coast; others have passed from the coast, and have never been heard from...."
"Stanley started from Zanzibar on his search for Livingstone with two white men, but returned alone. Cameron set out by the same path with two companions, but upon reaching the lake region, he was alone..."
"Probably every second man, stricken down by fever or accident, has left his bones to bleach along the road."

When God said, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you," it was no simple journey.

Lives were constantly at stake.

Sarai was very beautiful. And for her sake, Pharoah dealt well with Abram.

One less set of bones bleaching along the roadside.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Haran Haran

Late in Genesis 11, after a bunch of begatting and geneaology, we meet Terah. Terah was the father of three sons: (1) Abram, who will later become Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, (2) Nahor, who was named after his granddaddy, and (3) Haran.

Today, let us ponder number three son, Haran. Haran was the father of Lot. Lot will become famous for traveling with his uncle Abraham and for living in Somom and Gommorrah, for losing his wife to saltdom, for sleeping with his daughters and becoming the ancestor of enemy nations. Many cool things.

Haran becomes famous for nothing, which is to say, not famous at all. But here at the end of chapter 11, his name pops up with odd regularity. Haran is the son of Terah. Haran is the name of Nahor's (number two son) father-in-law. Haran is the name of the town where papa Terah dies. For a small number of verses, everything comes up Haran. Haran Haran Haran.

I'm struck by the pain in verse 11:28. "Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans." Maybe it is because I've seen too often the pain of parents outliving their children. Maybe it is because he died before they ever left to see the world. But it strikes me as so deeply sad.

Perhaps when they did travel, they named the place they first settled after this lost son and brother and father. They took his memory with them. The place became Haran.

The invisible character, the memory that makes the journey. The grief between the lines.

Haran, Haran, Haran. Someone remembered him.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Bible Baby Name Book

Genesis 10

Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.
Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.
Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim and Dodanim.
Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.
Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteca.
Sheba and Dedan.
Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim and Caphtorim.
Sidon, Heth and a bunch of ___ites.
Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud and Aram.
Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.
Peleg, Joktan.
Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah and Jobab.

In conclusion, I plan to write a musical comedy about Noah's grandsons, the sons of Japheth, because they have simply the best names in the bunch:
Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.
The brothers Uz, Hul, Gether and Mash come in a close second.