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.

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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.

God Said to Noah….

I’m working on a song — a children’s song, no less — about the Genesis story of Noah and the flood. (Genesis 6-10, more or less, if one includes all the genealogy of which people are descended from which sons of Noah.) And I’m always still a little shocked at how we sanitize scripture for our children. A story of God destroying the world becomes a series of cute drawing of a man with a beard, a bunch of animals (the kind you might find painted on a nursery wall), a great big boat, and a rainbow.

God being sorry for human wickedness and vowing to eradicate it all becomes the animals went in two-by-two.

We don’t just do this for our children, either. This sanitizing of scripture becomes something we as adults do, too. There’s a lot of violence in scripture. God does a lot of violence in scripture. To God’s people. God threatens, cajoles, throws tantrums. God is at God’s utmost worst in Numbers, behaving much like an abusive parent who you dare not offend or annoy lest you get struck down with plague or by an angry, deputized Levite wielding a sword.

I try not to shy away from this. Whatever the nature of God, the human experience of God, as related in scripture, at time is a very violent one. That is, we understand God to be violent or we understand God in violence. I do not quite know why we have sanitized scripture. I like to blame the bourgeoise sentimentality of modernity for such sanitizing, and maybe there’s something to that. Bourgeoise moderns like to believe they are civilized and non-violent, but really, most have exported and abstracted their violence to the state, where it becomes bureaucratic and impersonal — drone strikes, mutually assured destruction, the fine grinding violence of systems of administration, law and so forth that destroy those who cannot or will not conform. None of this, however, is the point of this essay.

So, as I have been trying to find a hook for this song, I have been asking myself — what is the meaning of the Noah story in scripture? Why is it there?

And I think I have found it. The story explains why there is evil in the world.

Let’s start at Genesis 6, which begins with some strange allusions to Sons of God making babies with “daughters of man” and creating “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”* The authors/editors of Genesis outline the situation this way:

(5) The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6) And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (7) So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (8) But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8, ESV)

God is sorry. God is angry. God regrets all this creation that was, only six chapters earlier, “good” (טוב). God tells Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,” which is clearly a lie, since God is saving Noah and his family and gives explicit (though confused — two of every sort or seven of the sacrificial things, “clean animals,” which have not been specified because it isn’t Leviticus yet?) instructions on how to be saved. God is going to destroy the world, and make an end of most flesh. But not all of it.

And it rains. And rains. And rains. And everyone and everything dies. (La la la la la!) This you know. God eventually remembers Noah, and finds a place for the great big boat to land. And once the waters subside enough, Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering to the Lord. (God and the Lord are not interchangeable terms, and seeing where a one is used to the exclusion of the other can help you figure out where scripture was edited.) At that point, the authors/editors of Genesis 8 write:

(21) And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (22) While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)

This, so far as I can tell is the point of the story. God is sorry for having created, and now God seems to realize that God acted in haste and anger in destroying everything. God’s actions here changed nothing. People are evil from their earliest days. And so, knowing this, God promises so long as there is time, as there are seasons, as long as the earth remains, God will tolerate evil. Because the Good God moved to rid the world all of evil was the same Good God who was moved to regret having done just that. And moved to regret by the smell of a burnt offering, no less. God would later protest God didn’t need burnt offerings. But on this day, God needed the smoke of a barbecue.

No apologies and no explanation from God. Just a promise. “I will never again curse the ground because of man … neither will I ever strike down every living creature as I have done.” And that is why there is evil in the world. God made a promise. So far, it appears to have been kept.
Now, I suppose someone could argue: God is all-powerful, and could strike the evil people down without destroying those who found favor. (As in the Noah story, or the story of Lot and Abraham in the unwelcoming cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.) As a matter of reason, sure, why not? Zap the wicked, leave the good standing. Or rapture the good away, and leave the wicked to suffer. But as a matter of experience, as relayed in scripture, God’s power seems not so tightly focused. It seems to catch the good and evil up in its midst at the same time. It’s a big jawbone and we all get smoted with it.
Or maybe there aren’t that many good people to rapture. There was just Noah, after all. His family seems to have been saved merely on his account.

* And leaving aside for now the fact that Genesis 10:8 says: “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.” Consistency is not one of scripture’s virtues.

On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

* * *

NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.