Nehemiah, Netanyahu, and the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

The Old Testament Daily Common Lectionary reading for Sat, Oct 31 comes from Nehemiah. I suspect it’s a text that will make most modern people uneasy. Nehemiah is leading the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. The local people, what we might call the native Palestinians, are not happy. This is their land. They were born here and have lived here for generations. Now the Persian king just gives away their land to a group of people who have lived in Persia for generations. The Persian King is essentially forcing them off their land into a sort of local exile so these outsiders can come in and take over.

In Nehemiah 4:7-9, the local reaction is recorded as follows:

But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and the gaps were beginning to be closed, they were very angry, and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.

The arc of the book is that God is bringing the faithful remnant back to the Promised Land. Nehemiah and his band of settlers have both a divine right and royal authority to seize the city of Jerusalem and, from what the story implies, create settlements all around the city throughout Palestinian land.

On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and with him the seeming death of the peace process in Israel, this text is powerful evidence (for those who want to read it this way) that Rabin was wrong while hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu is right in allowing ongoing Jewish settlement of Palestinian lands.

It leads to that uncomfortable question of how we (either Christian or Jew) deal with the hard texts of scripture. One way is to do as the Daily Common Lectionary committee has done. Rather than deal with the hard text at all, they offer up an alternative Old Testament reading (Lamentations 5) and give the reader the option of ignoring the problem.

A second alternative — the “What Would Jesus Do?” alternative — is to apply the text directly to modern situation and do the same thing. This might be called the Benjamin Netayahu or Likud Party solution.This alternative saves the person from any nuanced thinking about the ethics of the issue.

I myself would argue for a third option. That option, in a nutshell, is that while God’s ultimate truth does not change, the world has changed a great deal. As a result our perception of the truth has developed and changed over time. Heb. 1:1 says, “In many and various ways God spoke to our fathers …” Revelation wasn’t just a one shot deal dropped out of heaven. Given what they knew in the world that they lived, Nehemiah figured that this was a pretty good option. As the faithful Jewish scribes wrote the incident down they recognized God’s hand in events.

But some of us see things differently now. Running people out of their homes and villages for the sole purpose of creating an ethnically pure place where I can now live instead of them runs counter to the themes that Jesus taught, such as “love your neighbor as yourself” (in the context of “who is your neighbor?”), “turn the other cheek,” etc.

What do we then do with a text like Nehemiah 4? The Fathers believed that these texts were most wisely interpreted in an allegorical manner, just as Paul did with Hagar and Sarah in Romans. Humans are notoriously mixed up. There are certain sentiments that are holy and just, but they live side by side with sentiments and actions that are quite evil. Allegory allows us to harvest the good and cull the bad, like wheat and chaff, and in that manner use the lives of our forebears as examples to spur us on to holiness.

At the outset of the following anecdote let me make it clear that I don’t believe Bibi Netanyahu had anything to do with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. This anecdote is simply part of the sitz im leben that have led to the various conspiracy theories surrounding his death. But in the seconds after Rabin’s death in 1995, the crowd began to chant, “Bibi, Bibi.” When you hear the audio you can’t help but believe that the crowd thought Netanyahu was responsible. My take away from this incident is that the Israelis, even the hardliners who make up the core support of the Likud Party recognize the inherent violence of the cause. If they are willing to displace Palestinians, stealing their homes and means of living … well, assassination is not that far away.

There is a great deal of violence in the Old Testament. As we read and study these texts, do we assume that we too should be violent in the same way? Maybe set up a Christian Caliphate of our own? Or do we believe that the violence we are called upon to do is a violence against sinful self as we seek to overcome sin and death in our own lives (what peaceful Muslims call “spiritual Jihad”). On the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, and with it, the demise of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and on the day when the predecessor story of building settlements in Palestinian land is the Old Testament text in the lectionary, it’s worth struggling with these issues in our own hearts.

Pilgrims and Tourists

This is an essay that I had originally submitted to a couple of literary journals. As is the norm in the publishing industry, I was rejected by both of them. I still like this essay a lot and decided to post it here. I suppose some might find it a bit pretentious, but I was reading Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris at the time. Although unconscious of it then, I suspect it is a poor attempt at emulating their style.

Markdown (the html flavor that WordPress uses) doesn’t lend itself to footnoting. I will therefore put the footnotes here. I referenced four works:
– Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
– Wendell Berry, Standing on Earth: Selected Essays, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1991), p. 22.
– The Berry quote was found in John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, 2nd ed., Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.
– Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives (2006) on the v2 label, Track 7, “The Tourist” and Track 9, “The Getaway.”

rock top land

This time we entered Capitol Reef by wending our way down the Grand Staircase toward the Fremont River. I was looking forward to this return trip to the largely undiscovered Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah because I had been utterly captivated by this land on a previous trip. It is neither as photogenic as Bryce Canyon nor as dramatic as Zion farther southwest, but this meant fewer people. It was as much the forgottenness as the beauty that drew me. This time we were extending our exploration from Capitol Reef into the Escalante, or Grand Staircase—a massive rock up-thrust of a magnitude that is simply incomprehensible. The combination of the lonely grandeur of the desert and the geologic mystery of this region were irresistible to one who had discovered the power of the desert several years before.

I had grown up in the semi-arid region of northeast Montana where cactus and yucca captured tumbleweeds in their thorns and competed with sagebrush to survive. I lived along one of those endless ribbons of cottonwood trees that marked the occasional rivers in the region, but I spent my days, both at work and at play, in the barren Larb Hills or riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me. Back then I took it all for granted.

Much later, having moved to Kentucky for school and then to the lush Flint Hills of Kansas for work, I recognized a yearning to return to the happy solitude of that emptiness. It was in this memory of childhood that I began to realize the empty quarters were spiritually powerful. I began to wonder if I were not a lesser person for having forsaken those quarters.

My youngest years – just on the edge of memory – were spent in Sheridan, Wyoming. Sheridan lies in the transitional area between the barren and arid plains stretching past Gillette to the east and the Bighorn Mountains to the west. As I cultivated the memory of that happy solitude of emptiness, an idea revealed itself. I had also spent some time at a Crozier monastery in Nebraska and there discovered the spiritual discipline of rigorous fasting, particularly water-only fasts, which some of the monks practiced as part of their discipline. But fasting in the temptatious city, full of billboards, glorious smells wafting from restaurants, and candy bars at every gas station counter, proved beyond my weak-willed ability. My new idea was to spend a week in the Bighorn Mountains with only a tent and sleeping bag, a prayer book, water – lots of water – and a camp stove for brewing herbal tea.

Much of the Bighorn range is arid and the tree line – that elevation above which trees can no longer grow – lies at a fairly low elevation because of the arid conditions. Much later I learned that Belden Lane calls such places “grotesque” and “wild” terrain, a sort of “vertical edge” to civilization in much the same way that a traditional desert creates a horizontal edge for the civilized world. At this stage of my life I knew little of the language of purgation, nor of the theology of what some have called the indifference of God that can only be discovered in an indifferent and hostile environment. My early spiritual tradition equated mountaintops with spiritual ecstasy. But what I experienced in the Bighorns was a glorious divine indifference that eroded my ego down to a more appropriate size and contoured my soul into a shape that was prepared to collect droplets and dew of divine presence rather than the expected rushing winds of ecstasy.

Such seeming divine indifference requires attentiveness to discern the almost invisible presence that is there. The magnificent solitude of the empty quarters calls for a different perception. This was not David dancing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, nor was it the not-yet-Apostle, still called Saul, blinded by the overwhelming divine light. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:11). This command stands in stark contrast to the shattering of the spear and the breaking of the chariots that occurs in the previous verse. This is Moses in the cleft of the rock, bereft because the storm, the wind, the lightning were all agnostic ecstasy. But Moses waited. He needed balance and steadfastness before he finally heard the Silence.

By this time in my life I had just begun to read the darkness of St. John of the Cross and brightness St. Gregory Palamas. On the grotesque and wild, but exceedingly empty yet expansive mountaintop, I glimpsed that they were saying the same thing. I also knew beyond anything to which I could put words that this was The Word, there from the beginning. I knew that grotesque was the correct description and that “grotesque” was precisely the same thing as “beautiful” in the same manner that blinding darkness was the same thing as the eternal brightness of day … and I knew that this silence was very good.

Capitol Reef

At this point in my life I had no idea so many other people heard that same mystical whisper. From the days of the “desert fathers” to the latter wanderers from Sinai to Sedona, otherwise well-adjusted people sought out these inhospitable lands; people were drawn to the emptiness. These were lands full of brutal summer heat, bitter winter cold, and piercing wind that could divide bone and marrow while eroding the very soul to its unpretentious essence. It never occurred to me that civilized people who had grown up in civilized places would hear that same lonely call which I remembered from my uncivilized childhood and now experienced powerfully on the barren northern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. And not knowing this great tradition, afterwards the experience remained but a dull ache of memory.

Eventually I became more conversant with desert spirituality and that old dull ache of a memory began to turn into a longing to experience the desert, not just as “comfort food”—a return to the familiarity of childhood memories—but as spiritual nourishment. My sister-in-law taught school in the Navajo Nation and on a trip to see her we decided to spend some in Utah. It was a wide-ranging expedition in which we day-hiked everywhere from Capitol Reef to Glen Canyon to El Malpais, just west of Albuquerque. With textbooks, prayer books, and knapsacks in hand, it became wonderful exercise for both the body and the soul.

Specifically, the time in the wilderness was expansive. Specifically, for the first time I was able to parse the openness of the wilderness that I had experienced riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me when I was in high school. The empty spaces didn’t stretch a person thin, as did the expectations of job, church, and society; rather, they beckoned one to unravel the tangled threads of a life whose strands had been turned this way and that. And because it was expansive in this manner, it was liberating.

And here I was again—here we were again—wending our way from the mountains down into the Utah desert to once again unravel the tangled threads of our life. The arid, empty quarters were no longer just my childhood memory, a thing of the past; they were a wayside rest to prepare me for whatever may lay ahead. Toward that end Brenda was reading John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image. And as we followed the lonely road into the heart of the Escalante National Monument, she read out loud a passage from Wendell Berry that Chryssavgis had quoted:

Apparently with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness—which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.” Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadside. We became viewers of “views.” And because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domesticity. We forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness, that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered. Modern civilization has been built largely in this forgetfulness.

She meant well, but that brief recitation ruined any hope of this trip being a spiritual pilgrimage … that is, unless, a pilgrimage is merely a tourist vacation dressed up in a camel hair cloak. Now I could only sit back in the breeze of the air conditioning and enjoy the view. The mystical had evaporated as surely as the soda flat that lay to the left of highway.

rock top land

Brenda shared the quote because she didn’t hear Wendell Berry in the same way I heard him. She was in a place not unlike Lucy Pevensie transported to Narnia, and just as Lucy heard that she could not tame the lion, so Brenda heard that we could not tame nature. Just as Lucy recognized that a tame lion is no real lion at all, so Brenda recognized that domesticated nature is not nature at all, just an extension of the back yard. After reading Chryssavgis, she was ready to cross the fence out of the manicured back yard and try to find the Wilderness.

But I didn’t hear Lucy Pevensie when I heard Berry; rather, it was Ray Davies ringing in my ear. Davies, founding member of The Kinks, and now pursuing a successful solo musical career, is one of the best observers of life unvarnished among contemporary song writers. His song, The Tourist is a biting look at the rootlessness of modern life, and how we, ignorant of place but full of hubris, bang about the world as if we own and understand it: “The Empire State is so very tall / And the Taj Mahal has a pretty dome / And everywhere that I go I say / I want to make it my home.”

And yet, in spite all the urbanity of Ray Davies’ tourist, the song is deeply melancholy. The tourist wants to make everywhere his home, but because he is merely passing through, nowhere manages to be the place where he fits best.

Davies puts his finger on one of the failings of modern society: with such a life we have no home, never attaching ourselves to the joys of place and neighbor nor buckling down to deal with the associated troubles. It’s easier to just move on (or to make our “great escape” as Davies says a couple of tracks later in the song, The Getaway). Rather than people on a pilgrimage, we moderns have become pilgrims with no place—in other words, tourists. And, to bring this back to the point Berry made, we bring our “place” with us. Our place is located with our mp3 player, cup holder, cooler, and change of clothes in the trunk. As long as the A/C is working, the cooler is stocked with water and food, and we are within 100 miles of a gas station, we can make anywhere, no matter how natively inhospitable, our “place,” only to move on in the next few days.

And if this is the case, this condition begs the question, “What is the desert?” In the time when desert and an active or even militant spiritual life went hand in hand, the desert was a spiritual tool because it was the habitation of all that stood opposed to The Garden. It’s not that it wasn’t cultivated—and it certainly wasn’t—but rather, it was beyond the possibility of cultivation or any human management. It was the abode of jackals and demons. But with our technology we no longer fear jackals and with our education we no longer believe in demons.

So let’s reframe the question. Rather than focus on the desert, let’s ask what stands in opposition to all the good that God has given us. St. Anthony went to the land of jackals to battle the demons that stood between him and the fullness of God. Where is our land of jackals? What stands between us and the fullness of God?

Of course the answer to that question is as varied as the persons who ask it. That was the case in St. Anthony’s time as much as it is today. But I am asking this question in the comfort of my air conditioned car, traveling forty miles per hour across a very well maintained gravel road that cuts straight and true, with few surprises (and no real obstacles!) right through the heart of the arid Escalante uplift. From St. Anthony’s perspective (sans road), this is every bit the forsaken desert as the Sinai. From my perspective (comfortably on the road), it’s both as curious and glorious as the “Empire State which is so very tall and the Taj Mahal with a pretty dome …”

What stands between us and the fullness of God? Possibly it’s the automobile itself. Possibly it’s the ability, because of the rise of industry “to romanticize the wilderness” to “institutionalize the concept of ‘scenic’” (to frame the question in Wendell Berry’s words), and finally to escape the responsibilities of place, community, annoying neighbors, and the dullness of making a living day after day in a neighborhood that is not nearly as romantic as a ski lodge in Park City, nor as scenic as the red sandstone cliffs of Sedona, nor as urbane as Santa Fe.

If I would have never left Montana and was still working in the arid and empty Larb Hills north of Fort Peck Reservoir, then possibly the arid and empty places would have been my desert where I struggled against jackals and demons in search of the fullness of God. Instead, I packed up my automobile and moved to Kentucky, and to Kansas, then to Alaska, and on to Nebraska … How can a wanderer such as that make a pilgrimage? For while I still have so many places which to go, I no longer have a specific place from which I come.

When Brenda read Wendell Berry in the midst of the massive rock stair steps of the Escalante, I realized that I am no St. Anthony. I cannot make pilgrimage into the desert to fight my demons when I am so accustomed to traveling to the desert to escape the demons with which I am so familiar.

Jim - Malpais

If I’m going to be a tourist, I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, I ought to fight tooth and claw, to embrace the wild fullness of God in the domesticated world where I live (in contrast to the wild world where I vacation). Such a stay-put pilgrimage is not nearly as romantic as southern Utah or the Bighorn Mountains, but it is in tune with my life. I have seen the “grotesque and wild.” I have clambered up to “the vertical edge.” And for me they’re not scary, but scenic. Now it is time to come home, to stay home, until I can find divine fullness here in this noisy, busy place. In the midst of the noise of society, the potential of the quiet stillness of God remains as profound as it did for Moses on the mountain, for St. Anthony in his hut, and for the monks on the Holy Mountain.

Genesis 1 – It’s Almost Poetry

I became acquainted with the Angolan novelist Ondjaki in an interview not long after he won the Jose Saramago prize in 2013. The interviewer asked if the stories in the earlier Good Morning Comrades, and the award winning Gramma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret were true. Ondjaki carefully didn’t answer the question. Later when reading the books I came to understand how complicated the question and answer was. Truth and facticity are not the same things. “Just the facts” don’t always convey the truth because reality is more complicated than just the facts as we can grasp them. Listen to any politician and you quickly realize that facts are frequently used to avoid, obscure, and even obliterate the truth. Listen to a poet and you understand that what is true often transcends the events that convey the truth.

Similarly, the “facts” of Genesis 1 can easily get in the way of its truth. More often than not a presupposition of what the truth of the matter must be is imposed on the text and the text is then molded to fit into the particular version of the truth the reader wants to find. Consider three words in Genesis 1: 11, 20, 24, in which God tells the earth and sea to bring forth living creatures. “Let the earth bring forth grass …” (v 11). “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the living creatures” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after his kind.”

I’ve always found it amusing to point these three verses out to Christians who assume they adhere to a very literal interpretation of scripture. The KJV (quoted above) sounds very friendly to evolutionary theory because it attributes the direct agency of creation to the land and sea and only indirect agency to God. This is not to say that the earth is Creator; that is always applied to God. With this interplay in mind, let’s look at Gen 1:24-25 again, this time from the NRSV:

[24] And God Said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. [25] God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Note that in this translation (which is typical of English translations) the origination of creation is clearly attributed to God while the agency of creation is attributed to the earth, not of its own volition, or by chance, but according to God’s command. But is this translation an accurate rendering of the text?

The first extant translation of Hebrew scripture into another language is a translation into Greek, called the Septuagint three or so centuries before the birth of Christ. This is especially valuable because Hebrew, being a Semitic language, is radically different both in structure and thought process, to languages that grow out of the Greek and Latin lines, such as English. Rather than tense and mood, the force of verbs is expressed through something called stems and verb forces. This system is utterly disconnected from how we typically parse verbs. The Septuagint offers us an invaluable insight into how Semitic scholars translated their own language into Western form.

I will assume that my readers do not read Greek, so I will not quote the Septuagint directly. Rather I will quote a contemporary English Language version called “The Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint, which is a very literal translation into English. “Let the earth bring forth (blastao) the herb of grass …” (Gen. 1:11). “Let the waters bring forth (exagageto) creatures having life …” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth (exagageto) the living creature according to its kind …” (1:24). If one wanted to quibble, it might be argued that the first word, blastao, would be better translated “sprout” or “produce.” But again, the command is not given to the plants, but to the earth itself. “Let the earth produce or sprout plants …”

So we find that the translation is correct. But what does it mean? The answer to that question depends on what sort of literature Genesis 1 was intended to be in the first place. In the previous essay I noted that Augustine rejected the idea of interpreting Gen. 1 literally. A century before Gregory of Nyssa similarly didn’t treat it as a literal description of what happened but rather believed it was an allegory. Neither give a precise explanation of why they didn’t believe it was to be taken literally. That is interesting in itself. The fact that they didn’t feel the need to defend their position implies that it was obvious to them that it should not be read literally. Their opinions likely have something to do with its literary structure.

It would be a stretch to call Gen. 1 a poem but it does have a Semitic poetic structure. The opening words are no doubt familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters …” (Gen 1:1f, NRSV) This is the initial creation, creation in an instant, creation in a Word. For whatever reason God chose not to make a beautiful, complete, well-formed, and static creation. Rather God’s initial creation was a “formless void” about which his Spirit (ruach, which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit) blows. The rest of Gen. 1 then describes, in a highly formalized way, using the categories of “separation” and “filling” how this formless void was ordered and became “very good.”

Realm Separation Population
Heavens Day 1
Light and Dark
Day 4
Sun, moon, and stars
Waters Day 2
Firmament/Waters
Day 5
Fish and birds
Land Day 3
Sea/Dry Land
Day 6
Land animals

Day six also includes the creation of man. Genesis never explains or defends its own structure, but we can assume that this part of creation is described separately because man is unique. While formed from the earth man is created directly by God (rather than being brought forth by the earth). Second, the Divine Wind (ruach) is breathed into him whereas in v. 1 the Divine Wind (the two uses of ruach in this chapter) blows over the formless void.

The sparse, impersonal character of the first chapter also brings attention to this poetic structure. Genesis 1 is declarative while Gen. 2 is narrative. The first chapter is impersonal, referring to God with the impersonal and generic title, “Elohim,” and the first created person with the equally impersonal “the earth creature.” The second chapter, on the other hand, describes creation through characters: God has a name (Yahweh — God’s personal name that contemporary religious Jews never say out loud). Adam and Eve are sympathetic characters in the second story. The serpent serves as a memorable and villainous foil who interacts subtly with Eve. While the first chapter is tightly crafted in its poetic structure, chapter two is a rambling narrative. The first paints the backdrop, the second assumes the backdrop (in the form of the Garden) and offers us the first human drama. Both are creation stories, but with fundamentally different interests and scope.

At this point I also point out that the cosmology of Gen. 1 is not only different, but simply incompatible, with what we know about the universe. It was assumed by early Semitic cultures that there was a hard dome over the earth. Scholars committed to a treating Gen. 1 as a text completely compatible with observational science have tried to soften or change this understanding of the firmament, but Paul H. Seely, in a monograph that appeared in the ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Journal [53 (1991) 227-240] demonstrates quite conclusively that the firmament (Hebrew: raqia) was conceived in the ancient biblical world as a hard dome. The sun, moon, and stars were either lights that slid across the bottom of the dome, or holes in the dome. And, in the Genesis account, the waters were divided above and below the dome. Below the dome they formed the seas, lakes and rivers; above the dome were the “storehouses of heaven” (i.e. Mal. 3:10) where rain was kept.

A second somewhat related point, is the close connection of sky and sea in the ancient Hebrew world. Although the sea is portrayed as part of the ordered universe in Gen. 1, the Hebrews never trusted it. Sky, and to an even greater extent, sea, if not the embodiment of chaos, were on the very outer edges of order. “Leviathan,” the great sea monster, was not so much an embodiment of evil as it was the embodiment of chaos and the unknown. Given that Hebrews were very much people of the land, and the belief that the firmament was a dome, the idea of three realms, all created, ordered, and populated by God — the land (where we live), the heavens (God’s abode), and the sea and sky (that unknown, still seemingly chaotic and certainly frightening place that existed between the land and the heavens) — was a powerful theological statement as to the ultimate power and authority of God.

And a third and final point: Grass, shrubs, and trees were not conceived as living in quite the same manner as the fish and animals. They are not creatures, per se, and thus are not created on the sixth day along with the land animals. Rather they are a part of the earth. God tells the earth to bring them forth on the third day.

In summary, although Gen. 1 offers a picture of an orderly creation with everything in its place, and ultimately “very good,” it is not a summary that matches what we know nor is it a conception of the world with which we are familiar, beyond the clear and unambiguous statement that God is ultimately the creator of everything. If you want to nit pick, it doesn’t even quite match the order of events in Gen. 2.

This is a reminder that we need to allow scripture to speak on its own terms. We should never try to force it into our framework. It is accurate in what it is trying to say, but not necessarily in line with what we might want it to say. This is more apparent to us in the Psalms, for instance, where it is more obvious that the text is poetry, and thus we more naturally allow for poetic license. Even the strictest literalist does not believe that trees have hands, much less clap them on a regular basis (Isaiah 55:12, another bit of biblical poetry). And yet anyone with the least bit of poetic sense realizes just how true a description of reality that is. So it is with Gen. 1. We need to allow this text, which is clearly structured in the popular parallel poetic fashion of the Semitic world, to be what it is trying to be rather than force it into a style (in this case, scientific rationalism) which is utterly foreign to it. That does violence to the trueness and literalness of scripture in a profound way because it forces scripture into our tarnished image and opinion of the day rather than allow it to reflect God’s image.

When we allow it to be what it is, what we find is a remarkably powerful affirmation of the power of God over everything. This power of God over everything, was in doubt, after all, among those who wanted to relegate the oceans to an utterly chaotic existence. Gen. 1 says that is not the case. Even the sea is ordered by God. That, given the context, is an amazing statement of faith in an all-powerful God.

When I taught confirmation class to Junior High kids they would often enter into the process as adversaries to the church and the faith. (Isn’t that what Junior Highers are supposed to start doing? Reject everything their parents stand for and begin to create an identity for themselves?) All my pastorates but one were in the Midwest and the other was in interior Alaska which might be even more conservative than the Midwest. Even though six day, young earth creationism is not the norm out there in the world, the parishioners I served seemed to assume that this was what the Church believed in. My Junior High catechumens were no different. It was inevitably one of the issues on which they would take a stand when they explained that they weren’t sure they believed all this church stuff.

I took great delight in saying, with all the gravitas I could muster, that the creation story of Genesis 1 actually taught evolution. I would pull out a King James pew Bible (not so much because of the translation, but rather because it was old and dusty with a slightly musty smell — nothing said, old-and-out-of-date-church like an ancient King James Version pew Bible) and have one of them read Gen. 1:24. Then I would ask them, “According to this verse, what brought forth the animals? God or the earth?” Of course someone would inevitably say, “God!” because that’s always the right answer in church. But I would have them read it again until the sense of it finally began to sink in.

That moment often changed the dynamic of confirmation class. With that secret knowledge (that even their parents didn’t know) that just maybe the Bible taught evolution, we could begin to have a serious conversation about living God who is active in our world instead of what they had come to perceive as old, musty, and dead religion.

But does Genesis 1 actually teach evolution?

Hardly!

Genesis 1 can be legitimately used as a defense of evolutionism to same degree as it can be used to support creationism. This text is an enigmatic description of Creation that has almost nothing to do with modern Rationalism and Enlightenment Rationalism’s two warring children, Atheistic Evolutionism and Biblical Creationism.

On the other hand, the character of Gen. 1 described above is why Gregory and then Augustine, both living long before the existence of modern evolutionary theory, were convinced that Gen. 1 was not literally true in the way we use that term today. It is profoundly true in so many different ways; it is a multifaceted gem that describes the majestic Creator in all his awesome glory. To try to turn it into a science text is to turn it into a macabre caricature of isolated modern man peering out into what he mistakenly assumes is the great emptiness of space and time. I encourage all of us to not do that. God is majestic. This text is majestic. Let’s keep them that way.

Creationism: We’re Still Arguing About This?

One would think the creationism/evolutionism debate would just go away, but it hasn’t. I have been surprised at how many staunch creationists still exist. They’re not noisy for the most part, but when they find out I used to be a pastor, they assume that I must be a creationist also. Because of the persistence of this old nineteenth century war between the two siblings of the Enlightenment (Rationalistic Fundamentalism and Rationalistic Scientism), I find myself revisiting again the question of creationism and the Bible.

This essay is a look back at a couple of notable approaches to Genesis 1 in the early church. I also explore a possible reason why the ancient approach to Gen. 1 was so different than it is today. In the next essay I’ll consider the first creation story specifically.

There is a notable difference in the focus of interpretation of Gen. 1 before and after the Enlightenment. In the current approach, there is an attempt to defend scripture. The earlier interpretations, on the other hand, were attempts to describe the majesty of God.

I’ll start with Augustine as someone who neither shared our modern presuppositions nor those of the very ancient Middle East. He was a Biblical scholar, churchman (Bishop of Hippo, a coastal city in the area that would be modern Algeria, in the 5th century) and devout Christian. Today he is best remembered for his little volume called Confessions.

Augustine struggled with the early chapters of Genesis his whole career and wrote about Genesis 1 at least four different times. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book which I have not read, although I’ve read at it — it’s an impossibly dense neo-platonic tome) Augustine emphasizes that Genesis 1 cannot be read in isolation. For instance, Psalm 33 seems to describe an instantaneous creation not unlike Gen. 1:1. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth … For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (vv 6, 9). But Augustine compares this with John 5:17 (a text we may not necessarily associate with creation). “My father is still working, and I am also working.” From this Augustine observes that God is still active in creation. Adding these texts together, he argues that creation is dynamic and not static. Looking at the instantaneous creation in isolation would tend to reduce it to a static thing which God put in place long ago. Although his argument goes into a great deal more depth, his conclusion is that he rejects the idea of a literal six day creation, largely because of his dynamic view of creation. The text is not describing what happened, but rather is categorizing creation. It provides a framework so that God (the actual subject of Gen. 1) can be better understood in view of the various pieces of creation and parts of the story.

Far to the east in Turkey and Syria and a century prior to Augustine, the burning question was whether the material world was eternal alongside God (or the gods), as in Greek philosophy, or whether the material world was created by God, and thus subject to him. Closely tied to this question was whether the Son of God, who was “eternally begotten of the Father,” was “very God of very God” or on the same side of the divide as the supposedly eternal material world. (This is the philosophical background of the Arian heresy.)

One of the key debaters in this controversy, Gregory of Nyssa, had quite a lot to say about the nature of creation as he defended the divinity of the Son. He rejected the idea that Gen. 1 could be treated literally (in the sense that conservative Christians use that term today). Rather, he implied that we simply have no idea how it all actually got started. Genesis 1 is not a description of the beginning, it is an allegorical reflection explaining how the immaterial God could bring about the material world.

What we see with both Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers (of whom Gregory is representative) is a common method of interpreting Gen. 1 shaped to meet the needs and challenges of the day. Until modern times the creation stories were used primarily to say something constructive about the true majesty of God in the face of non-Christian systems of thought that either reduced God to manageable dimensions or elevated the material world to something outside of God’s control.

The contemporary creationism/evolutionism debate is rooted in similar challenge, but the creationism side has focused, not on a proclamation of God and his majesty, but on the defense of scripture itself. Scripture has become the object of interest rather than a tool in the battle to maintain a proper view of God. The perspective has changed, becoming increasingly Bible centered and less God centered.

This reflects the epistemology of post-Enlightenment Protestant Christianity (a subject I chew upon in these pages frequently). In the Protestant West, nous is the mind or intellect. [Rom. 1:28, where it is translated “mind,” is typical.] In the Orthodox East, the intellect is part of the problematic passions (along side the will and emotions). In contrast, the nous is the deepest inner being with which God can communicate directly. (This, by the way, was the attitude of both Augustine and Gregory.) If, as most Protestants assume, the nous is the mind, then scripture is the heart and soul of our link with God; its defense is paramount. If the nous is the deep heart, then it is God’s quiet voice of stillness that matters, scripture being a tool in that quest.

Of course, all of this “deep thought” stuff has no place around the water cooler (… yes, my place of employment still has a water cooler! It’s just under the coffee pot …) or even the weekly men’s Bible Study. Instead, when the subject of creationism/evolutionism comes up, I sometimes treat the conversationalist like my Jr High kids in confirmation class many years ago. More about that in my next post.

The Reality of the Kingdom of God

I’ve been reading the parables and one thing that surprises me is how difficult a time I have fully accepting the here-and-now reality of the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven. I went to a college steeped in dualism and one aspect of the expression of that dualism was the doctrine that the Kingdom of God was something in the future, distinct from the Church (which is now).  The reality of the Church was brought about by the Spirit (who is from up there) coming down here and indwelling believers. In contrast, the reality of the Kingdom of God will be achieved when God exerts control over the created order and brings believers up there where we will then dwell with him.

There are two facets of that doctrine that are worth noting. First, is the sense that the spiritual world is somehow less real or real in a very different sense than the physical world. Even though the college railed against the reductionist scientific secularism of this age, it had inadvertently bought into it by making such a stark distinction between the spiritual and the physical, by describing the two realities in such a distinct manner, and by inadvertently putting the Kingdom of God either “up there” or “out there” (as in a future reality vs a present reality).

Jürgen Moltmann, East German theologian, following his mentor, Karl Barth, was most eloquent on this point, talking about the future kingdom breaking into the here and now. Of course this theme was not limited to the Barthians, it was and is a common theme contemporary Protestant theology, often identified with the very structure of the church year, where the future reality of the Christmas and Easter cycles break into the contemporary reality of Common Time. Moltmann’s classic description of this supposed reality was his concept of the God of the future who we worship here and now.

But reading the parables I am struck dumb with the fact that the Kingdom of God is every bit as real and every bit here and now as anything else. Certainly we are blinded to the Kingdom of God by our sin and selfishness. The apocalyptic perspective so common in Mark’s Gospel as well as Paul’s early writings and the Apocalypse speak of a tearing open of everyday reality (the rending of the heavens) and the Kingdom pouring into our tiny reality through the tear. But the tear that is being spoken of is not a rip in space-time, or a rip in two separate realities, it more akin to the tearing of a burial shroud, so that the dead inside can see the light and life on the outside.

Moltmann was fond of saying that the Kingdom of God is more real than the space-time continuum in which we live. But I have come to see that this too is a false dichotomy, a dualistic way of thinking. Certainly there is a distinction between Creator and created, between that which is circumscribed and that which is limitless and eternal; one might even say that the Kingdom of God is a more dense reality, but that is far from saying that it is somehow more real than our lives here and now. To use a musical analogy, life here and now is like a two or three part harmony, but as the veil is torn open and we begin to hear more of reality that was already there; in this new life we can begin to hear the symphony.

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The other facet of the dualistic doctrine of the Kingdom of God has to do with control. The belief that God was  in control or sovereign was not only acknowledged, it was taken to the extreme of Dutch Calvinist version of predestination – our salvation was not our choice but God’s choice alone. But in spite of that overarching framework of divine sovereignty, there was also a belief that this world was a foreign place to God, a place where God had little domination. Because of how salvation worked in the divine plan, God had willingly ceded control of the world to Satan. The real reason the Kingdom of God was in heaven and in the future is because the present Kingdom of Earth was firmly in Satan’s control.

This is a view of control and domination that is strangely antithetical to the parables as I read them now. The Kingdom is hidden (like the pearl), it is patient, not demanding its way but allowing things to work out as they will (like the prodigal son), it is mysterious and makes little logical sense (like the unjust judge). It is seemingly overwhelmed by evil (like the wheat field full of tares). But all those perceptions grow out of our perverted sense of reality that has overtaken us by sin.

The whole idea of control and domination (the hallmark of the future, heavenly Kingdom of God, as I learned about it long ago), are actually antithetical to God and are in truth hallmarks of the satanic lie. God told the Israelite prophets that a Messiah would come and would accomplish a glorious victory. All the prophets could conceive of was battle, domination, and the utter destruction or submission of the enemy. That’s how the prophets framed God’s good promise. The reality of that victory couldn’t be more antithetical to what the prophets imagined. God’s great victory was accomplished through the utter rejection and crucifixion of God’s Son come in flesh, Jesus the Messiah. True victory often looks like defeat.

Similarly, the eternal kingdom of God is promised by God to be a complete and glorious victory of God over evil and a consequent marriage (ie union of two parties: human and God) and eternal banquet. The prophets imagine that as a violent war between heaven and earth in which Satan and the harlot are violently cast into the eternal flame of Jerusalem’s garbage dump (for that is what Gehenna literally was).

But God’s tactics were so magnificently successful at Calvary, why would God change his skin and do something utterly different and foreign to how he had done things before in the formation of the Eternal Kingdom? From the parables I am reminded that God wouldn’t do that. He is God and his love and purpose remain unchangeable and unchanging. Those who look for that sort of violent final overthrow and victory have fallen prey to Satan’s lie.

I’m not even going to try to sort out exactly how the end of days will look; I will wait for the denouement of this grand story. But I am confident that the Kingdom is here and very real for those who have been given the eyes and ears to sense and embrace it. Thanks be to God.