Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Story as Torah": Genesis, Judges, God's Peace

I like to find books about the Bible and take notes of interesting insights. A few years ago I attended a religious studies meeting of some sort and purchased Gordon J. Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000). As the title suggests, Old Testament stories do function as “torah” (instruction) about ethics and ethical choices, as do of course the legal codes of the Pentateuch. He highlights Genesis and Judges as narratives that give positive and negative insights into human choices and behavior.  

He makes many fascinating points.  Just a few:

1. Wenham identifies virtues illustrated in the Genesis stories, such as piety (prayerfulness and dependence upon God), strength but without meanness and aggression, generosity, loyalty, truthfulness. A righteous person does express a range of emotions but also is ready to forgive. Also, the righteous person isn’t necessarily ascetic (p. 100).

2. Another aspect of the Genesis account: Wenham notes that, “[i]n modern popular thought piety is often associated with gentleness, if not weakness or even effeminacy,” but the stories of Jacob wrestling with the angel, as well as Abram’s routing of the four northern kings (Gen. 14) link the relationship with God to a certain amount of strength and fortitude, and a lack of timidity. Nevertheless, the narratives condemn wanton violence, such as Jacob’s condemnation of Levi and Simeon (Gen. 49:6), as well as the violent nature of Lamech in Gen. 4:23-27. (pp. 90-91)

3. A unifying theme of these virtues in the biblical stories is blessing. Wenham notes that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy describe the blessings of righteousness such as good crops, many children, peace, and well being (Lev. 26, Deut. 28:1-4, and also Ps. 15, 24, 42, 122, 127, 128, Job 31, Prov. 31). The concept of peace in Genesis has to do with “the blessings of the nations through Abraham’s offspring,” while Deuteronomy describes peace as the defeat of Israel’s enemies (p. 102).

4. Still another unifying theme in biblical narratives----an integrating ethnical principle---is “the imitation of God.” Discussing again the virtues communicated implicitly in the stories of the biblical people, Wenham notes, “[t]hese virtues...cannot be defined by law: rather the stories offer paradigms of behaviour that apply in various situations. They certainly imply that usually the patriarchs acted much better than merely abiding by the letter of the law” (p. 104).

What are divine qualities which we should imitate? Wenham quotes several writers to show that God’s actions and God’s very life are models for human conduct, in creation, in justice, and mercy. Citing passages like Deut. 10:17-19, 14:28-29, Job 29:12-17 and Ps. 72 that call upon monarchs and common people alike to care and seek justice for the poor, Wenham writes, “Fidelity, love, generosity, and forgiveness and displayed in God’s dealings with mankind, and men should treat their fellow human beings in similar fashion” (p. 105).

Of course, the law Leviticus 19:18 stipulates love of neighbor and forgiveness of others, which is reflected in God’s own actions toward human beings. A narrative that illustrates this virtue is Gen. 32, where Esau displays God-like forgiveness and generosity in forgiving Jacob. Another example is Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers (p. 106).

5. If written during the years of the Israelite kingdom, Genesis provides a model of Israel’s life in Canaan. “Genesis is not simply a justification for Israel’s occupation of Canaan, it embodies a practical appeal as well. It urges brothers to make peace with each other and to forgive past wrongs. It insists that Israelites should live peaceably with their relatives, with fellow countrymen of different ethnic origins, and implies that as a nation it should not be afraid to make agreements with surrounding nations when they seek peace.” (p. 39) Thus Wenham finds evidence of the origin of the Genesis account during the united monarchy (p. 42).

7. In some of my earlier posts when I thought about the books of my professor, Brevard Childs, and I found interesting the speculation that passages in 1 and 2 Samuel showed evident of “pro-monarchical” and “anti-monarchical” sources. Wenham sees evidence of “anti-Saul” and “pro-David” writings.  For instance, chapters 19-21 are sharply critical of the Benjaminites, in particular the towns of Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead.  But according to 1 Sam. 11:4, 31:11-13, these are Saul’s hometown and burial place, respectively. He notes that other places in Judges could be “anti-Saul polemic,” and the more praising depiction of the tribe of Judah as well as the story of Othniel seem more pro-David (p. 70).  And the horrifying brutality and with which Judges ends can be read as an illustration of why Israel needs a new kind of leadership and a new way of life in Canaan (p. 69).

8. The author considers how the Old Testament stories ethics continue into the New Testament (p. 134).  He spends some time discussing the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness in the Torah laws, and the distinctions made.  For instance, you’re not supposed to eat a camel, because it is unclean to eat, but you can touch a camel, whereas you shouldn’t touch a corpse. When we get to the New Testament, Jesus shifts the emphasis of uncleanness to the heart (Mark 7:15, 20-23), as well as the epistles (Eph. 5:3, etc.), and Jesus‘ interactions with lepers, corpses, and other sources of uncleanness are actions that reflect his words. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is the next step in the abolition of food laws for Gentile Christians (p. 143).

These, plus Jesus‘ attitudes toward marriage and divorce, illustrate how Jesus goes back before the legal codes to the creation stories of Genesis, and in turn “The kingdom of God inaugurates a new era in which God’s intentions for his creation will be realized” (p 145).

The author argues “that where the New Testament is apparently abrogating Old Testament laws on impurity and marriage, it is more accurately read as affirming the creator’s ideals or his creation” (p. 147). The same can be said for Jesus‘ (and the early Christians‘) attitudes toward violence. In fact, he says, Deuteronomy---”the most militant book of the law”----contains such a vision of God’s desire for peace and wholeness, rooted in God’s original actions and will in creation (Deut. 33:28-29).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Hidden with Christ in God," Col. 3:1-4

Here's something I wrote last spring for a manuscript which I'm circulating among potential publishers. My mother's death in September makes me appreciate again the truths that I tried to affirm and describe:

Following the monthly communion service at our church, I turned to a passage that, although not specifically Eucharistic, connects to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Col. 3:1-4)

I've cited this favorite passage elsewhere, especially verse 3, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

"Hidden with Christ in God" makes me think of being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ----even a small, tenuous faith, a dimly burning wick (Isa. 42:3)----then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil.

How have we “died” if we’re still alive?  Our physical lives will last a while but are temporary, ephemeral.  But meanwhile, we participate in the reality of Christ's death and resurrection---a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago----so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God.  Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Roman 6:3-11).

You have to draw a parallel between being covered in a certain amount of water, and being covered with dirt.  There are different modes of being baptized, and there are different ways by which our dead bodies are respectfully disposed of.  But the main idea is that we are "covered" (hidden) by the power found in Christ's death and then our true lives are lasting and eternal and live with God's life (that is, we are united with him in his resurrection).

We also participate in Christ’s death in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  In the language Jesus used in John chapter 6----off-putting language because it sounds so cannibalistic, and contrary to Jewish respect for life by, for instance, never ingesting animals’ blood----the life force of Jesus’ own blood and physical body become powerful forces for our own lives, both the lives we live now and the eternal, infinite life that is Christ’s own life, given to us.  But in a related way to the sacrament of baptism, that life force is given to us as we share in Christ’s death---in this case, his blood and body surrendered for our benefit by his execution.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Each time we share the bread and wine, we’re “preaching.”  We’re witnessing to the fact that our lives---and anybody’s----are hidden away and safeguarded by God.  Our very lives are tucked away and protected, so to speak, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ.  Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak.  If we’re already dead and interred in Christ’s own death, then of course we have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

We Gentile Christians don’t think too much about the Jewish purity laws, other than Deuteronomy 21:23, which Paul quotes in Gal. 3:13-14 to show how Christ took the curse of the law for us.  But any dead body, not just an executed person, conveys uncleanness if touched, and God’s Torah provided means by which persons could be purified from that uncleanness (Lev. 21:1-4, Num. 5:1-4, 19:1-21, 31:17-24). God incarnate in Christ died a human death: God took on that impurity, that uncleanness!  This, too, is a way that Christ embraced fully the tragedy of human nature---our mortality, the horror of death---so that Christ’s life sustains and redeems us, now and forever.