The Hatred of God

Sunday, Jennifer and I worshiped at First Immanuel Lutheran, a historic African American Lutheran church located at the corner of Roosevelt and Ashland here in Chicago. It was great worship experience, especially since Pastor John Nunes preached and led worship. Given the events of the last few days, I wasn’t sure I was going to be up to worship this Sunday. But it was good to be there.

(It was less African American than Bethel Evangelical, in West Garfield Park, where Jennifer and I have worshiped regularly for the last few years. Worship there is a lot more gospel, and last more than two hours!)

At any rate, First Immanuel is Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation. Jennifer grew up in the LCMS, and it is a more conservative church body theologically and socially. (I’m not so sure the LCMS is all that more culturally conservative than the ELCA, and at some point, I will explain why I think that.) But they didn’t appear, at least based on what I’ve been able to dig-up online, to follow the LCMS lectionary. Rather, they were using the revised common lectionary readings that the ELCA (and a number of churches use).

So they were using the same Romans reading from last week, from Romans 9. But they didn’t stop at the fifth verse, as the RCL does, but went all the way through to end of verse 13. It’s a passage that speaks of election, and it struck me when Pastor Nunes read it. I’ll post the last seven verses here:

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13 ESV)

“Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.” (Τὸν Ἰακὼβ ἠγάπησα, τὸν δὲ Ἠσαῦ ἐμίσησα.) Strong words. Here, Paul is quoting from Malachai, who says the following at the beginning of his very short book (the last one of the Christian Bible, but not in the Tanakh):

2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert. (Malachi 1:2-3 ESV)

Or, possibly better:

2 I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all–declares the Lord–Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob 3 and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory [a home for beasts]* of the desert. (Malachai 1:2-3 JPS Tanakh) 

I wish my Theological Dictionaries weren’t packed away in boxes, so I could spend some time looking at Greek and Hebrew phrases here when the LXX says καὶ ἠγάπησα τὸν Ιακωβ, 3τὸν δὲ Ησαυ ἐμίσησα and the Tanakh says וָאֹהַב אֶת–יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת–עֵשָׁו שָנֵאתִי. They key words here are שׁנא in Hebrew and μισω in Greek, and I’d love to spend some time exploring what they mean. Some other day, I think.

Instead, I’ll just have to look what “hate” might mean in the context of scripture.

First, there is the context of Malachai, where God originally speaks the phrase. It is spoken to Edom, a nearby people who are descendants of Isaac from Esau, Isaac’s oldest son. Thus, they are Israel’s close cousins. Through verse five, the vision condemns Edom, and God tells Malachai:

4 If Edom thinks, “Though crushed, we can build the ruins again,” thus says the Lord of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned [זָעַם] forever by the Lord. 5 Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!” (JPS Tanakh)

Before going any farther, according to the notes for the ESV Study Bible, Malachai is generally believed to be a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. That puts the oracle of verses 4-5 into a context. Ezra and Nehemiah are all about the return of the exiled leadership of Judah from Babylon following Babylon’s conquest by Persia, the rebuilding of the temple and the re-establishment of regular worship in an Israelite polity that was a part of the Persian empire. This means that Israel is rebuilding too, and quite possibly Edom has suffered just as mightily from war (maybe at the hands of the Persians). So, both peoples are dealing with wreckage, carnage and destruction. Both are struggling to rebuild.

The difference here, apparently, is Edom is not rebuilding either with the help or the permission of God. The Tanakh ends with Chronicles, and the final words of Chronicles are the proclamation of King Cyrus of Persia: “The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you all of His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:23 JPS Tanakh). The Book of Ezra begins with a nearly identical (though expanded) proclamation. So, God is using the power of the Persian Empire to judge Babylon (as promised by God through the prophets) and fulfill the promise of redemption, regathering God’s people and restoring them to their patrimony.

But the returned remnant, measuring walls for new stones and gates for new doors, ought not to get complacent. Because the rest of Malachai is an indictment of sloppy, even thoughtless, worship. Of the failure, or even refusal, to off the best to God as a sacrifice. To take sacrifice seriously, to honor God in worship that matters. And God threatens another curse on Israel — remember, God ALWAYS saves the worst of God’s judgement for God’s people:

1 And now, O priests, this charge is for you: 2 Unless you obey and unless you lay it to heart, and do honor to My name–said the Lord of Hosts–I will send a curse and turn your blessings into curses. (Indeed, I have turned them into curses, because you do not lay it to heart.) I will [put your seed under a ban]* and will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices, and shall be carried out to its [heap] (Malachai 2:1-3, JPS Tanakh, last set of brackets in the text)

Consider for a minute. God loves Jacob. God loves Israel. And that love did not stop God from judging Israel with war and pestilence, with suffering and with exile. And here God is promising more, to cast Israel into a giant shitpile, for its corruption of and failure to keep the covenant, even after Israel has been restored from exile, a time when the temple is being rebuilt and worship being renewed.

There is the promise of “My messenger” (מַלְאָכִי) at the beginning of chapter 3, an allusion to the coming of Jesus who “shall come to His Temple suddenly.” And Malachai ends much the same way, with God promising to send “the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord” (Malachai 3:23 JPS Tanakh) with a promise of reconciliation. But first, God will judge Israel, and judge Israel harshly.

Remember, this is all God’s love in action.

Paul quotes the phrase about loving Jacob and hating Esau in the context of election, and what it means to be an heir to the promise of God to Abraham. “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.'” (Romans 9:7 ESV) Again, Paul is pulling from Genesis. Not all physical of children are “children of Abraham” for purposes of the promise. A point I will return to later.

So, God hates Esau. What does that mean in scripture where Esau actually appears? Apparently, Isaac’s wife Rebekah had a difficult pregnancy, and so she asked God what was happening in her womb, and was told:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
 the one shall be stronger than the other,
 the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23 ESV)

Esau (also called Edom, according to Gen. 25:30) was born first, and was thus the oldest son. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28 ESV) Esau was strong, athletic, a hunter, while Jacob (whose name means “he grabs by the heel” or “he cheats,” which describes how Jacob gets ahead for much of his life) is something of a quite young man who spends his time indoors. (Much of Genesis can be described as the triumph of the nerds or the sissies, depending on how you want to look at it.) Jacob convinced Esau to “sell his birthright,” his rights as the firstborn son, for a pot of lentils, and then arranges (with the help of his mother — another interesting family dynamic in a book full of really awful families) to steal his dying father’s blessing (which includes a repeat of the Genesis 12 formula, “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you”).

Esau is angry enough to kill his brother, but Rebekah sends Jacob away before Esau can act on his urges. Esau, seeing how much his father hates Canaanite woman, eventually goes to Ishmael (remember him?) and marries one of his daughters. (Yay! Cousin marriage!) And then we don’t hear of Esau for a while. The story focuses on Jacob’s adventures.

Esau never actually serves his brother in scripture. Edom is eventually conquered and ruled by Israel, and that may explain “serving,” but the Edomites are no more enslaved that the Israelites are themselves by the time of Solomon’s empire.

And it appears at the Jabbok, where Jacob wrestles with the mysterious stranger and gets a new name, that his life — all that cheating — finally catches up with Jacob. It’s been a long time since he’s seen Esau, but they are preparing to meet, and Jacob is scared. He fears the worst. He is ready to beg Esau for mercy, and he prays to God, “[p]lease deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me, the mothers with the children.” (Gen. 32:11 ESV)

Instead, it’s a magnanimous and even loving meeting. “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen. 33:4 ESV) Esau is no longer angry, and he initially refuses the peace offering Jacob had prepared. Whatever anger Esau may have had, he has made a life for himself in which he has enough. Whatever blessing might mean here, Esau is content with his life. He has material goods in abundance, and he takes the offerings from Jacob only after the younger brother insisted. And they part, and at least in the text, they never see each other again.

Edom — that other name for Esau — appears occasionally in scripture after that, but as a bit player. Coming back to Malachai, we have a devastated Edom, and Edom struggling to rebuild after some kind of calamity, but struggling to rebuild without God. At least that seems to be the assumption.

So, what then exactly might it mean when God says, Jacob I love, but Esau I have hated.

Because we have Edom as long as we have Israel. Edom does not disappear off the face of the earth. God does not smite Edom with plagues, pestilence, war, death, and destruction — at least no more than God smites Israel, and certainly not much in scripture (if at all). God does not command the earth to open up and swallow Edom. While Israel’s history has not been pleasant. The love God shows for Jacob doesn’t prevent much death, destruction, war, pestilence, death, and whatnot. It doesn’t prevent the conquest and exile. It does not prevent judgement.

So, what might love and hate mean here?

Well, let’s go back to Paul and his understanding of election. God’s promises to Abraham are specific — children, patrimony, blessing. But they are given to a very specific people, and not the entire world. Israel is a very specific people, and they are recipients of this very specific promise. Ishmael and his descendants are not the recipients of that promise. Nor is Esau. The hatred of God here means, then, that Esau is simply not the person God “chose” to receive and convey the promise. And that’s all it means.

To be hated by God, then, doesn’t mean Hell, or damnation, or exclusion, or anything even remotely resembling that.

And we might want to consider what love means while we’re at it. To be beloved of God here means to belong to the people who have received the promise of God to Abraham and who convey that promise to the next generation. And that’s all that means too. It’s not a grant of land, or permission to do as one pleases to one’s unchosen or unbeloved neighbors. If anything, to be beloved of God means you get all the extra-special attention from God that those God doesn’t much care about don’t get.

Because God saves God’s harshest judgements for God’s people. And for God’s people alone.

Now, to further confuse things, all of the promises made to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, made to Israel through David and the prophets, are resolved in Jesus Christ, who becomes faithful Israel (he is both north and south, lost Ephraim and conquered Judah). He is promise and fulfillment. This is what it means that Jesus fulfills the law. He becomes Israel. All of Israel. As all of Israel, he is the keeper of the covenant we cannot keep, and in being baptized into his life, death, and resurrection, we who are gentiles inherit the promises of God to Abraham — promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham — and become part of that promise.

What this means is that you can no more earn the hatred of God through actions — or inaction — then you can earn the love of God. God chooses. But in Jesus Christ, who fulfill the law in faithfulness, we are all invited to become part of the redeeming and reconciling love of God. To be inheritors of the promise to Abraham. And to convey that promise to the whole world, to another generation, to those who come after us.

All are welcome. Even Esau.

* * *

*According to the JPS Tanakh, the meaning of the bracketed phrase is uncertain in the Hebrew.

Who Is God Really Talking To?

The folks at CUFI, Christians United for Israel, are at it again:

“I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.”

Hagee, of course, is not alone in taking these handful of words from Genesis (chapter 12, verse 3, to be exact) as a reason for its unquestioning supporting the State of Israel. Bill Clinton did too, in a speech I remember him giving sometime in the mid-1990s, and I suppose if most American Christians gave a biblical reason for supporting Israel, this would be it.

It does seem to be the go-to passage in scripture for the matter.

So, what exactly is being said here? And, more importantly, who is it being said to?

Well, as I noted in a previous blog entry, Genesis 12 is where the action — and more importantly, the real story — of the Bible begins. Abram is minding his own business when God calls him:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from qHaran.  And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:1-6, ESV)

So, Abraham is called to leave his home in Haran — not Ur, as the last few verses of Genesis 11 note that Terah, Abram’s father, had already packed up the family and left Ur. Abram gets the call of God while already on the road, a sojourner in another land. (A land named, oddly enough, after Abram’s dead brother, Haran, Lot’s dead father.)

God makes Abram three promises here — God tells Abram to leave to a “land that I will show you,” that “I will make of you a great nation,” and that God “will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה

All of the uses of “you” here are singular, not plural. When God says “I will show you,” God is speaking directly to Abram. So, when God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you” (Gen. 12:3, JPS Tannish), God continues to use the singular form of “you.” God is speaking directly, and specifically, to Abram.

Now, along the way, Abram wanders around. He seeks refuge with Pharaoh, passing his wife Sarai off as his sister (and profiting hugely from the matter). Going to rescue his nephew Lot, who had the misfortune of getting himself captured during a war in the Dead Sea Valley, Abram is blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who presents Abram with wine and bread, and to whom Abram gives a portion of the spoils. (But the King of Sodom, who Abram is avenging in his campaign to recapture Lot, gets none.) Abram later entertains three mysterious strangers who forecast Isaac’s birth, gets another name, argues with God to rescue Sodom, and pawns Sarah off as his sister to Abimelech (she apparently really is his half-sister), tries to solve the heir problem with a mistress (at the wife’s urging), throws the mistress and her son out (again at the wife’s urging), make and alliance and settles a dispute with Abimelech, and then is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. At which point, the story passes from Abraham. The next we hear of him, he has taken another wife (and concubines, though it doesn’t say how many), has had a whole mess of children, and then, after 175 years of life, Abraham breathes his last, with Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father.

I recapitulate the events of the story because I’m looking for evidence of the blessing and curse of Genesis 12:3 in action. I don’t see either. Melchizedek the priest of God Most High at Salem blesses Abram, and what exactly he gets out of it is not stated. It’s not clear what or where Salem is, and we never hear from or of Melchizedek again. (Well, until the author of Hebrews decided he really mattered a lot.) If anyone ought to be cursed, it’s Pharaoh and Abimelech, who fancy Sarai for their very own. Abimelech is warned in a dream, while Pharaoh is afflicted with great plagues. THAT could be a curse, according to Genesis 12:3, and it seems to end when Pharaoh gets what’s going on, and sends Abram and Sarai on their way. But it also suggests that Abram is something a grifter playing Pharaoh, selling his wife to him as a bride until God pours out God’s wrath, at which point, Pharaoh gets wise. According to scripture, it was very profitable for Abram.

And that’s it. There’s not much in scripture in the blessing and curse department if God is speaking only to Abraham.

Now, a larger argument could be that God is speaking to all Israel, the decedents of Abraham by way of the covenant. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Ishmael and Nebaioth, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Esau, or the God of Abraham, Jokshan and Sheba. (Look it all up.) There is a school of theology,a fairly modern one (17th century, I think, coming out of Calvinism) which examines history and sees that God judges the “nations” (the people who are not Israel) on the basis of how they treat Israel. Nations that oppress or wage war on Israel are eventually destroyed (as polities) and suffer conquest and destruction themselves. The goal, then, is to be the nation that is on the right side of history — the side of Israel.

And to be honest, it is no stretch to read scripture this way. Especially given the fates of Assyria and Babylonia — the two great empires that were God’s earthly judgement on God’s faithless people both themselves were judged, and eventually perished, even as they were God’s tools. But any reader of scripture must remember that God reserves his harshest judgment for God’s people, and not the enemies of God’s people.

This is where Hagee is coming from, I think. (This view has been common for a long time, and was in fundamentalist circles when I wandered around in them briefly in high school.) He reads this passage as spoken to Israel through Abraham. One can only be born to Israel. It is scripture spoken about everyone who isn’t Israel. And that includes the church. We aren’t Israel.

“Be good to God’s people or else God will get you!” In this scheme, Israel is a kind-of magic lamp you rub for a wish, a machine into which you drop a coin and out comes a wonderful surprise. And I suspect the nature of that blessing has to be seen in terms of the covenantal relationship many American Christians view the United States of America as having with God. Again, God “blesses” America because it acts correctly, and fails to “bless” America because it acts sinfully. (For as long as I can remember, allowing abortion and homosexuality mean that America is in breach of the covenant, and is open to judgement at any point because of this.) I suspect unconditional support for the State of Israel is also part of this “national covenant,” this desire to seek a blessing and avoid the curse, the judgment of God.

If this is the case, Hagee is just seeking the country’s well-being. Who knows what God will do to us if we stop sending Israel money, weapons, and our constant well-wishes.

But I take issue with this understanding of the promises of Genesis 12:3. What does St. Paul say about the matter? Because he actually spills a lot of ink on the subject of Abraham in his letter to the Galatians and his letter to the Romans.

7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:7-9, ESV)

And later

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16, ESV)

Christ is the one to whom the promise is made, and in whom the promise fulfilled. That promise — land, descendants, blessing — are made to and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

But Paul goes on:

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29, ESV)

In Romans, Paul refers to Abraham as “the father of us all.” The promise to Abraham “that he would heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13, ESV). Abraham’s faith in the promise of God — faith in things he did not see, and never would, faith in the promise that he would have a place to live, have many descendants, and would be a blessing to the entire world — is our faith too. “And he believed the Lord,” the writer of Genesis says in chapter 15, “and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6, ESV)

(The JPS Tanakh renders that passage as, “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.”)

These words are very important to Paul. For if Abraham is righteous in his faith, in his trust in the unseen promise of God, so are we who are not Israel become part of Israel as we come to trust the same promise made in and through Jesus Christ.

20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

There is no distinction here between Israel and the church. They are not two different peoples, or two different communities, with two different sets of promises. There is one people — the called out people of God — who are inheritors of the promise.

The promises God made to God’s people through Abraham, through David, and through the prophets, are all brought together in and through Jesus Christ. They are realized and fulfilled in him. There are no promises left over, flopping around unrealized, no one set of fulfillments given to those who accepted Jesus as Son of God and Israel’s messiah and another to those who rejected him.

(I am still working on a theology of the State of Israel. But I will say the nation-state of Israel is NOT the fulfillment of anything resembling Biblical prophesy.)

Where Hagee, and many Christians who read Genesis 12:3 this way ignore, is that passage isn’t about us — it’s spoken to us. We, the church, are part of that fulfillment, and so we can read the passage not hoping to rub the lamp that is the modern state of Israel, make a wish and hope God gives us a toy surprise (or doesn’t smite us with hurricane, earthquake or pestilence), but knowing that we the church are the very means that God uses to bless (and yes, curse) the world. How does the world treat the church, especially a powerless, vulnerable, suffering body of Christ in the world? (Well, how did it treat Christ?) I think Matthew 25 can easily be read as describing a day of judgement in which how the world treated the followers of Jesus — “the least of these” — determines just how the “nations” (the peoples who are not Israel-church) of world might be judged by God. The kindness of the world toward the church, toward Israel, toward the people of God matters.

The people of God, in our weakness, matter far more than in our strength and righteousness.

It may be a stretch to read Matthew 25 that way, but I gotta tell you, a cup of water for the thirsty or a stitch of clothing to the naked beat bombs, tanks, and fighter jets any day.

* * *

NOTE: We have our own problems in reading Matthew 25, and my reading depends on the church as seeing itself as powerless in a way it hasn’t been (and doesn’t want to be). The reading from power — that we who follow Jesus are to do all these things — is good, and prompts much charity and kindness. But I think a reading from powerlessness, in which we are to welcome these things when they come to us, is valid too.

A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

My sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran in Westchester, Illinois. This is more or less what I preached, though I did some improvising as well.

* * *

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Israelites a prayer they are to pray when they make their first offering to God after a settling — after planting and harvesting — in the land of promise.

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.

“A wandering Aramean.” That’s Abraham, the father of us all. Yes, that includes us too, as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Galatia,

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

A wandering Aramean was my father. I am his son, the son of a wanderer.

Bear with me, but let’s hear that first reading again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And so Abram — he has not yet been given his new name Abraham — leaves. He leaves everything. And for what? A handful of promises. And vapor, all of them. A land that I will show you, God says. You won’t know it’s the place until I tell you. As for the rest of it, those are promises made to Abraham, but they aren’t for him. He will never realize any of them. They are made to his descendants. People he will never meet. People he will never know.

There’s a couple of ways to think about this. And I don’t want you to think in terms of either/or, but rather, both/and. Like we, in God’s eyes, are both sinners and saints.

We are the people God makes the promises for. We have received the promise. We are the blessing to the world, we reside in the land that God has given to his people. That this land — maybe it’s the physical earth upon which we live, it’s Westchester, it’s this very ground, the United States of america — and maybe this land that flows with milk and honey is the church. Not just Grace, but the ELCA, the whole of Christ’s church, this body that we have become in the world.

We are, after all, a settled people. We have roots here. Oh, we may move from time to time, as the situation requires. But this is our land. Yes, our ancestors took flight and crossed an ocean and some part of a continent. But that was like Israel wandering in the wilderness. It’s over now, and this is the place.

We are the multitude, countless as grains of sand, as stars in the sky. (And not the bright Chicago sky, either.) We are the promise. Paul says so. We are Abraham’s children, through Jesus.

(But consider for a minute — a land flowing with milk and honey is a phrase used in scripture only to describe the promise. Once Israel actually gets there, the land is never described that way.)

And maybe, just maybe, we too are Abram, there in his home in what is now southern Iraq. And these are promises made to us. But they aren’t for us. We are wandering Arameans too.

What does it mean to be given a promise you will never realize? To grab hold and trust in something you know you will likely never see?

Let’s look again at those promises God gives. I will make you a great nation through which the whole earth will be blessed? What does that mean when you’re just a handful, and you have so little? What does blessing even mean? And how will I, will we, be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse. That means there will be dishonor. Perhaps a great deal. God isn’t going to save us from it, just merely get even for us when it happens.

But that also means people who are strangers, who don’t share in this promise, will bless us. Will be kind, will care, will do us good.

Where is this place God will show us? How far away is it? What does it look like? Or must we wander, aimless, until God finally says, “Here, and no farther.”

As part of the first-call process, I’ve been interviewing a lot recently with churches looking for a pastor. Congregations where people are anxious, careful, wondering, places where they’ve been wounded by strife and division and where they mourn loss. I too wonder, and I too am anxious, who will call me to shepherd them? How much longer must I wait before someone decides, before the Spirit of God blows as she will through hearts and souls, and some people are inspired to say, “he shall lead us.”

All of us, wandering, aimless, knowing that God is guiding but not to where. Having a promise. Knowing only that God will show us when we get there. Here, and no further.

Promises given, held tight to.

And that’s the funny thing about a promise from God. The promise itself is as good as whatever is promised. Because God does not lie. I shall be blessed? Then I am blessed! I shall be a great nation? Then no matter how small I am, I am a great nation. Because God has promised. It is as real now as it will be for anyone who might actually inherit generations from now.

Do you know what eternal life is? What the Kingdom of God is? I don’t. I know we have it. I know, brothers and sisters, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but I have no idea what it is. I don’t. Jesus promises eternal life in him. That’s enough. I don’t need to know what it is to know it’s real, it’s true, and it’s God’s gift. I don’t.

Lent reminds that we are a wandering people. Really, we are. For all our settledness, we are exiles. Grumbling, angry, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, anxious, and filled with sorrow. Exiles, carrying all we have with us. For the journey.

And then we meet Jesus. Minding our own business, we come across him, or he comes across us, and he invites us to come and see, to follow him, to feed his sheep, claims us as his own, because he knows us far better than we will ever know ourselves.

We follow Jesus because he calls. We follow, without really knowing what we’re following, only that it’s good news and we know Good News when it falls on our ears and fills up our hearts. We see signs and wonders and hear incredible things — we must be born again, with water and spirit, or we shall never enter the Kingdom of God! But how is that possible? What does it even mean?

And yet, every day, I get up, gather the manna that God has scattered as my daily bread on the ground, roll up my tent, and start walking, knowing God is there, that Jesus leads and guides and protects, pillar of cloud and fire. When Jesus tells me, be born of spirit and water and come into the Kingdom, I say, “see, here is water! What’s stopping us?”

When he tells me that the Son of Man must lifted up, and that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life, I gaze upon the glory of God crucified on that cross, the ultimate great deed of terror, and I say, “My Lord and My God!”

And I don’t understand. I follow, I believe, I trust, and it’s true, but I do not understand.

Abraham wandered his entire life. He never settled down. He never had a home. Sometimes, he was weak and vulnerable, and had to pretend his wife was his sister in order to save himself and those he cared for. And sometimes, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even went toe to toe with God in order to save a handful of righteous people in the sinful and inhospitable city of Sodom.

But he never had a home. He never had ground to call his own. And when his wife Sarah died, he had to bargain with a Hittite for a place to bury her.

It’s easier for some of us to imagine that life than others, I suspect. I find it easy. But then I’m a wanderer. Home is wherever I can pound a tent-peg in, water and graze my animals, snuggle with Jennifer, and maybe even rest for a few days.

But none of it matters. Because our real homes are not made of wood, or brick. The ground upon which we build, and live, and work, and love, bear our children and bury our dead, is not soil underneath our feet. All of it is Jesus. All of are wanderers because God’s people are wanderers. And all of us are home because we belong to Jesus, who lived with us, died with us, and rises, so that we may have everlasting life.

Amen.

On Being Told By God

I have been receiving of late weekly Bible commentaries from the Aleph Institute (the link to the institute itself is broken), a Jewish chaplaincy outfit based in Florida that specializes in military and prison chaplaincy as well as “family ministry.” (I put that in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. I’m not suspicious — I like just about everything I get from these folks — I just don’t know what “family ministry” is.) And I get these because I have befriended Dr. Joel Dreyer, a former employer of mine who is currently in Federal Prison.

He’d been sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty to drug offenses, but his sentence was tossed out more then a year ago, and now he’s doing indeterminate time until a federal court judge rules on whether he is competent enough to assist in his own defense.

Aleph is associated with the Chabad Lubavitcher, and Doc Dreyer recently sent me a couple of a Lubavitcher pamphlets — Geulah (literally, “Redemption,” though it refers specifically to the coming of Messiah) published by the Chabad World Center to Greet Moshiach, and a little thing called “Reflections of Redemption: Essays on the Weekly Torah Reading and Moshiach, Based on the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menacham M. Schneerson” and published by Moshiach Awareness Center, an operation of Enlightenment for the Blind.

Before I quote what I want to quote, a couple of things. It’s interesting just how much these Jewish pamphlets reminds me of a certain kind of Islamic publication I saw a lot of long ago when I was Muslim. (I’m thinking specifically of some of the material that came out of South Africa.) It’s very heavy in Hebrew cognates, so much so, that parts of don’t really feel written in English. This is very true of the “Reflections on Redemption,” which has the following sentence:

[T]he Shabbos of Re’eh is also Shabbos Mevarchim — the Shabbos on which is recited the blessing for the new month.

Not so bad, except that the use of the transliterated Hebrew words is something of a stumbling block. There’s a lot of that in this short essay, mostly because the essay deals with a word-by-word examination of a particular Hebrew phrase from the Torah, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse,” though the pamphlet leaves off the curse bit of the verse. (As an aside, I wrote a song on this passage.) Still, there are a lot of Hebrew transliterations in the essay, and I find myself wondering what value something like really is to someone who doesn’t already have some understanding of Hebrew. There were Muslim publications that used so many Arabic transliterations that there was almost no point in their being written in English.

But this is all so beside the point. This comes from the “Point of Light” essay in Geulah. There is no date, but the number on the upper corner says “469” it lists candle lighting times for Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Montreal for the week of October 11, 2013 (7 Cheshvan 5774). No author is noted, but there is a picture of what appears to be the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. And this is what sticks out for me in the essay:

Our forefather Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

“Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home, toward the land that I will show.” G-d command Abraham to forsake anything that is comfortable and familiar to him, and set out on a harsh journey, with no clear idea of his final destination. 

Abraham had already established himself in Ur Kasidim. In one moment, G-d appeared to him and commanded him to leave everything that he had built up, and move to a strange land. Before sending him on this journey, G-d blesses Abraham: “I will make you a great nation.” 

At that moment, who was in control? Was Abraham taking control of his life, or relinquishing it? Abraham realized that while he might have been living a successful, conventional life, there was something missing. He was grounded in the habits of his land, his birthplace, his father’s home. By choosing to follow that Divine voice, Abraham willingly and consciously let go of his past. He opened himself to live a life without boundaries, without limitations, without expectations. And is doing so, he made himself a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings, to become a great nation. 

I’m inclined to quibbled with some of the wording here. I’m not sure Abraham really chose to follow. Could he have said no? Or did God go trolling Ur, commanding many until one — Abram — said yes? We don’t know. The biblical story we have says God spoke, and Abraham followed. I don’t believe he could have said no. Not really. No more than Mary could have.

Again, besides the point. The Rebbe’s essential point here is important — Abraham was not asked. He was told. 

In our democratic modernity, we have made an idol of choosing. We choose what we will do. Wo we will be. Who we will love. Where we will live. We choose what we consume. We can even, at the edges, choose how to consume. But we choose. Choosing is what we do. Choosing, and the ability to choose, has become the essence of human freedom in Enlightenment Modernity. Someone who can choose is free. Someone who cannot choose is a slave.

The church is no stranger to this ideology of choice. Of giving people choices. Of believing God gives us choices. After all, in that Deuteronomy passage discussed above, God gives Israel a choice — life or death, good or evil. So, God gives us choices. Choices to follow. Choices to believe. Choices to be grateful.

Except I’m not so sure. Abraham was not asked. He was told. Our best stories of Jesus in the New Testament shows a God incarnate who chooses, who calls disciples. And not by saying, “whoever wants to follow me can follow.” But by telling — “Follow me.” “You shall be fishers of men.” “Feed my sheep.” “Baptize and teach and make disciples of all nations.” Not a “please?” or “would you like to?” in the whole bunch. Commands. All of them.

The one time that comes to mind when someone actually asked Jesus “What do I have to do to earn eternal life?” Jesus answers his questioner in such a way that he walks away, despondent. Jesus gives ambiguous answers to all those who ask. And maybe a lot of people saw what he was doing, what his disciples did, and actively choose to follow.

But not the disciples. They experienced what Abraham in the Rebbe’s account experienced — the overwhelming call of God. They were not asked, they were told. And there is no saying no to God. To be a disciple, as opposed to one who merely follows, is to know there is no choice, no choosing, no options, no alternative. Just the overwhelming presence of God to which “no” is not an answer. Here’s where I love the two short verses which are the call of Levi-Matthew (this is the Luke account):

After this he went out and saw ca tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There’s so much story that just isn’t there. Like the Good Rebbe, we can fill some things in with our imaginations. I suspect Levi had watched Jesus and his disciples doing their thing for weeks. Perhaps he was curious, interested, perhaps he even admired them. But I suspect he also watched them as they worked and concluded, “they will not end well.” And yet he knows when Jesus walks into his life, and command him to follow, he cannot say no. There is no “no.” Not anymore. Just the yes of God, which tore his life to shreds and left him with absolutely nothing save for the promise of God.

Whatever happened, both Luke and Matthew say the tax collector got up and followed, leaving everything he had. Everything. He. Had.

This is hard experience to speak of in our day and age. It is unreasonable, and Enlightenment Modernity disdains unreason. It sees the call of God as compulsion, and compulsion may be necessary, but we’ve done everything we can to remove raw power from compulsion, hiding it or burying it in social structures that seem to (or sometimes even really do) offer choice. It sees the call of God as overwhelming, and aside from sexual passion, we have banished the overwhelming from our lives.

Abraham was not asked. He was told. “Follow me.” He left everything. And followed.

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac.