Sunday, November 1, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 9: Abraham Saga (Part II) in Genesis 15-18:15, 21-25:18

For EfM purposes, Part II of the Abraham Saga consists of these elements.

  • Two covenant accounts: the first by the Yahwist writer where God binds Godself to the covenant by passing through the animal carcasses as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch but requires nothing of Abraham; the second by the Priestly writer where God requires circumcision of Abraham
  • Name change: Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, inserting the Hebrew letter Hay, which represents the insertion of God's name into the names Abraham and Sarah
  • Circumcising all Abraham's males
  • Visitation of Yahweh to Abraham and Sarah and birth of Isaac
  • Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael
  • Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac
  • Sarah's death and Abraham's purchase of the Cave at Machpelah
  • Abraham's old age and death

These are some of my thoughts upon working with this part of the Abraham Saga.

MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM ET FASCINANS (RUDOLF OTTO). The course materials say that Rudolf Otto describes the holy as "the mystery which both attracts with its fascination and terrifies with its overwhelming power." (Page 124) The course materials also say that, according to Otto, both elements are necessary: "An experience which simply overwhelms in a purely negative way could not be an experience of the divine but only of the demonic; one which attracts without striking fear would be merely sentimental." (Page 124)

I cannot imagine where Otto got this idea that any encounter with God has to both attract and terrify. I know that Catherine Marshall describes a time of great difficulty in her life during which she experienced the presence of God as a deep calming loving utterly peaceful presence--no terror at all. I think, too, of people who, during prayer, experience ecstasy and deep joy--no terror. I think of myself and how I have heard God simply as a quiet thought in my mind--no terror.

CIRCUMCISION. One wonders where this off-the-wall idea came from. The course materials suggest that circumcision may have originally been part of a marriage rite. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps it helped in keeping the penis clean in a desert, where water was scarce. Certainly it isn't necessary today.

It's also pretty clear that only the males rated having a sign in their flesh of their covenant with God. But then would we really want God to prescribe female circumcision as well, which I understand is quite awful.

I think that the penis is best left alone in its natural state.

It's interesting to consider what the mark of a Christian is. It's a life of love. People are to know who is a Christian by the love demonstrated in the Christian's life. I guess, though, that you could say this of any valid religion: a practitioner's life would be characterized by love.

HOSPITALITY. This was essential in the nomadic life of the desert. It was crucial to keep hospitality alive. Everyone's life depended upon hospitality at one time or another, and by offering hospitality, everyone ensured that hospitality remained active.

This leads me to think about hospitality today. Hospitality is essential today for spiritual sustenance. Opening our homes to each other for nourishment, refreshment, and soul enrichment keeps human connections alive.

ABRAHAM'S NEAR-SACRIFICE OF ISAAC. The course materials suggest that radical obedience to God may include obedience even when God commands something that is wrong according to usual moral sensibility. I say no. I will not obey if "God" commands something that I believe is wrong. My responsibility is to listen to my own inner knowing, not to some outer "God."

I can only imagine what this incident did to destroy Isaac's trust in his father and in God.

CHESED. Chesed, according to the course materials, includes the meaning of being true to one's nature. I think of God being true to God's nature of compassion. This helps me, somehow, in relating to very painful times in my childhood--times of terror and shame. I may at some point say more about this in my blog, but for now, further thoughts on this are best kept in my journal.

EfM Year 1 Chapter 8: Abraham Saga (Part I) in Genesis 11:10-14:24, 18:16-20:18

For EfM purposes, Part I of the Abraham Saga consists of these elements.

  • Abraham's call to leave his father's house and go to the land which God would show him, along with God's promise to make Abraham a great nation and to bless all nations and peoples through Abraham
  • Abraham's entrance into Canaan and his building of altars at Shechem and at Bethel, along with God's promise of the land
  • Abraham's sojourn in Egypt during a famine and his deception of Pharaoh by telling Pharaoh that Sarah was Abraham's sister instead of his wife
  • Lot's departure for the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah and God's contract of the land with Abraham
  • Abraham's rescue of Lot from capture by neighboring kings and Abraham's encounter with the King and High Priest Melchizedek of Salem, who worshiped God Most High
  • Abraham's pleading with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous were found there and Abraham's gazing over the smoking plains of Sodom and Gomorrah the next day
  • Abraham's sojourn in Gerar and his deception of King Abimelech by telling Abimelech that Sarah was Abraham's sister instead of his wife

These are some of my thoughts upon studying this part of the Abraham Saga.

GOD'S WAY OF FAITH. The EfM course materials point out that, after the story of the Tower of Babel, we don't have a statement of God's continuing care, as we do after the fall of Adam and Eve, after Cain's murder of Abel, and after the flood. Instead, say the course materials, the Abraham Saga and actually the whole rest of the Bible is the statement of God's continuing care after the Tower of Babel and indeed after the whole sweep of spreading sin in Genesis 1-11. The course materials say that human initiative simply doesn't cut it in maintaining a relationship with God: humans are not able to sustain the goodness of being created in God's image nor to attain the righteous behavior of Noah. Instead, say the course materials, once sin entered the world, it spread and spread until sin ruled in human hearts. Given this state of sin, salvation simply cannot come from human efforts--I guess because the sinfulness of the human heart will subvert any effort to be good. Therefore, God has to take the initiative, and our role is to respond to God in faith as Abraham did. Even after responding in faith to God, God's chosen people of Israel keep falling away and God continues to extend grace. So that's where we are with the course materials.

Now, here's what I think. Yes, of course God's chosen people of Israel continue to fall away time and again. Why? Probably because they are obeying commands from an outside God authority that they haven't fully bought into. They have to follow what God wants all the time, and this makes them grumpy--just as it made me grumpy to have Jesus on the throne of my heart always telling me what he wanted me to do. Being good will never work if goodness is someone else's idea--even God's idea--imposed from outside. Being good will only work when it comes from one's own God-place within, when it emerges as one's own deepest desire.

Even when we do deeply desire to change, we usually find that change is a process, not something that happens overnight. We may make a decision to change and yet still find ourselves enacting our old thought and behavior patterns. This is because our old thoughts and behavior have become ingrained. To un-ingrain these patterns and replace them with new patterns, we need to recognize when we slip into old patterns, acknowledge what has happened, reaffirm our commitment to the new patterns, and, to the extent possible, reverse what we have thought or said or done.

We can take racism as an example. I may consciously reject racism, but it's also true that I was raised in a heavily racist society, so sometimes I may say something that reveals latent racism. When I notice that this has happened, I can say, "Ah, what I just said comes from the racism I was raised with. My automatic response shows me that I still have the remnants of racism within me. Now that I see what just happened, I consciously reject what I just said. Here is what I believe instead."

It takes regular conscious work to replace old ingrained thought and behavior patterns with new ones. As we see the old patterns continuing to surface, this doesn't mean that the thoughts of our hearts are only evil continually. It just means that change is a process that occurs over time, even a whole lifetime of time.

Finally, I wonder how the idea of the sinfulness of all human hearts squares with the response of some native people groups to Christian missionaries. These native peoples say something like this: "Jesus came for Western people, but he didn't need to come for us because we have never strayed from the way God laid down for us in the beginning." There are groups of Native Australians who live in harmony with nature and each other and God, who wake up in gratitude for God's many blessings each morning, who pursue peaceful and fulfilling lives. They do not experience that the thoughts of their hearts are only evil continually. Quite the contrary.

ALLEVIATION OF ANXIETY ONLY THROUGH FAITH IN GOD NOT THROUGH HUMAN INVENTIVENESS. Yes, I can see this. A major source of human anxiety is not being able to get our basic needs met--and to get our needs met in our society, we need money. So we have retirement plans based on the stock market, which has a tendency to plummet. We have failed financial institution after failed financial institution, with the accompanying credit crunches and home foreclosures. We had Enron not long ago, with its creative financing (posting profits based on projected, not realized, income) and the subsequent loss of retirement funds by employees who were heavily invested in Enron stock when the company tanked. We have health insurance programs based on for-profit insurance companies who of course don't want to pay premiums because it's bad for their bottom line. Human inventiveness to alleviate financial anxiety seems only to produce more financial anxiety.

I would say that, whenever we find ourselves acting frantically to be secure, we're relying on human inventiveness in what we know deep down is a fallen world.

So what does it look like to rely on faith in God? Actually, I'm not sure I would word it quite like that, since this implies an outside God entity. We really need to come from the God-place within. Coming from the God-place within, I would say that we do need to be wise in doing what we can to provide for our own financial stability and that, when things are tight, we need to go to that deep God-place to find solutions. I do wonder what it would look like if wise leaders throughout the world would come together, go to the inner God-place together, and share their wisdom. In any case, it's clear that we are not doing this, and we are paying the consequences for grasping toward what we hope will lead to financial security, all based on human inventiveness--and these inventive humans are steeped in a fallen world.

ABRAHAM'S ALTARS. The course materials say this about Abraham's altars at Shechem (the Oak of Moreh) and at Bethel: "These verses show Abram coming to the shrines of the Canaanites and building altars to YHWH. The oak of Moreh was such a shrine, as was the mountain between Bethel and Ai (vv. 6, 8). In calling on the name of YHWH (v. 8), Abram claims these sites for YHWH against Canaanite gods. This is the first example of the opposition between Yahwism and the baalism (fertility worship) of the Canaanites; it will occur again and again." (Page 115)

If Abraham was really putting up his altars to YHWH in opposition to the Canaanites' gods, then I find this highly disrespectful. It also does not escape my notice that Abraham's altars apparently did not bother the Canaanites, who had no problem with other gods. They were happy to respect Abraham's altars next to theirs. (Neither does it escape my attention that the EfM course materials capitalize 'Yahwism" but not "baalism.")

ISRAEL'S MESSIANIC PURPOSE. Apparently, God called Abraham in order to have Abraham's descendants become God's special people who would bring God's blessing to the whole world. This is something to remember. As Jews or Christians, our purpose is to bring God's blessing to the world. Not to convert the world to our way of believing, but to bring God's blessing to the world.

In addition, I would extend this idea to all religions. All religions have a messianic purpose. Each religion has a special blessing from God to bring to the world. Jews bless the world in one way, Christians in another, Muslims in another, Buddhists in another, Hindus in another, Pagans in another. Yes, even the Baalists.

ABRAHAM'S PLEADING WITH GOD FOR SODOM AND GOMORRAH. The course materials make a wonderful point. The materials say that the ancient law of mass blood revenge required that the whole community suffer for the sins of the one or the few, that the later law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth limited revenge to the specific offense and the specific offender, and that Jesus asked us even to forego revenge. But Abraham takes a different view. If, under the law of mass blood revenge, the many so often suffer for the sins of the few, why shouldn't the many be extended grace for the righteousness of the few? Thus, Abraham pleads with God to spare all of Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous souls are found there.

This is a wonderful idea! It certainly fits with the idea that once a certain number of people live into a new paradigm, that paradigm suddenly tips, and nearly everyone starts living it out. It also fits with the idea of putting good energy into the world. It makes me excited about trying to be one who contributes to bringing compassion into the world.

ABRAHAM'S GAZE UPON THE SMOKING PLAINS OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH. Genesis 19:27-28 says, "Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace."

I find this heart-wrenching. Abraham had pled with God, God had promised to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous people there, and not even ten righteous had been found. Abraham gazes out over the smoking plain, utterly destroyed, reduced to ashes.