Thursday, May 21, 2015

Today you are Three

Today, you are three. Today, and not tomorrow. At no point down the road will you ever again be three.

You will be so many other wonderful things! You'll be four, five, six, and seven. You'll be in school and with friends; you'll be tall and so strong.

But you will not be three. Today, and today only, you are three.

Today you have soft blond hair that shines in sun. It gets tangled, and you hate when I brush it, so it gets more tangled still. Today you have soft sweet skin, with a trace of round baby cuteness that I can't help but kiss. Today you have a loud sweet voice that calls to me, croons with love and shouts with anger and shrieks with excitement and pouts with despair.

Today you want to be with me, always near me, close close close...as you have for three years and three hundred and sixty-four days.

Tomorrow I will love you just as much.

But today, you are three.



Thursday, May 29, 2014

Towers, Geneologies, and a Plan: Genesis 9-11

There is a tremendous amount to unpack in Genesis 1-11. Each individual story is rich in ancient theological meaning and nuance, obscured by our modern day perspective but there none the less. The stories taken together form a stunning cycle - God’s good plan, our rebellion, and God’s faithful redemptive response.

Since forming function out of chaos in Genesis 1, Yahweh has seen his “very good” creation turn away again and again. After the destruction of the great flood, it is clear that even this was not sufficient to turn mankind’s bent from wickedness, and Yahweh forms, in essence, a new world with a new strategy. What this is has yet to be unveiled but this we know - he will never destroy his creatures.

There is one final story - the tower of Babel. Through two lists of descendants we watch as Noah’s children repopulate the earth. Speaking all one language, they build a massive city and tower. Why this is unacceptable is not entirely clear, but it is alarming to God, who confuses their language and the people scatter across the earth.

One of the basic functions of these passages is to lead us from the stories of “pre-history” to the world as we know it within history, and where we meet Abram in Genesis 12. A bridge is needed from one man and his children to a world full of people in every corner, each with their own language and customs. The focus of these lists are the actual social/political situations of the known world in (at that time) the present day.

As the nations are laid out in these pages, the stage is being set for the biggest event yet. Though the world the Hebrews knew was diverse and wicked, in these pre-history genealogies and stories we learn that they are also united by ancient family ties, part of God’s blessed, rebellious, and beloved Creation. What happens next is not against this Creation, but for this Creation. If we miss this point, so carefully and repetitively laid out in these early chapters, we will miss the good news itself.

We have seen God’s commitment to bless the earth, and mankind’s commitment to disobedience. Through Noah, God has come to terms with man’s utter unwillingness or inability for lasting change and is formulating a brand new thing - the calling of Abram and the creation of Israel.

The ending of Genesis 11 wraps up the first calling, the first creation. Its final verses end with a mention of Terah, his son Abram and wife Sarai. What they begin is woefully incomplete - Terah heads out with his family to Canaan but doesn't finish the journey; Abram and Sarai are married, but have no children. Sarai is pronounced barron.

And with this pronouncement, God’s great redemptive act is about to begin. Instead of a few chapters, the telling of it will require the rest of the Hebrew Bible...and time itself.
Are you coming with me? We have traveled a long way, but we are just getting started. 

This series has been influenced by dozens of books and authors/scholars, but I tip my hat as always to Walter Brueggemann and Rabbi Telushkin for their many insights.

If you're interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Noah's Flood: God Changes His Mind

(Continuing my series on the Hebrew Scriptures)

The story of the Great Flood has had an incredibly long run. It was a wildly popular story in several ancient cultures well before the dawn of recorded history, and it clearly remains a blockbuster to this day.

The story line as we find it in Genesis is well known. Once again, mankind is failing to live up to God’s good plan for creation and finally God has had it. He decides to bring an end to the unrelenting corruption and violence by making an end of mankind itself. But Noah and his family are to be spared.

There is some powerful foreshadowing right before the story gets going which we tend to miss. At the end of the genealogy that bridges Adam and Noah, we find Lamach naming his son Noah and saying “Out of the ground the LORD (YWHW) has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29)

The name “Noah” means “to comfort” or “rest” and in this overlooked baby naming we have foreshadowing for the story and a key to the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality - out of the sin-cursed ground there will come relief, and out of the death and destruction of the flood and the consequences of our broken choices there will come life.

With this juicy piece of foreshadowing on the table, the narrative turns to the story as we know it. Other ancient versions of the flood share many common components, but the meaning of the Genesis story is very unique. Once again, the Biblical writers focus on communicating something very important about the Creator, humanity, and the relationship between them.

In preparation for the coming deluge, Noah is instructed to build his ark, then gather the animals and his family. The rains come, then go, and eventually they are set free, beginning life anew on the earth. To the ancient understanding and imagination, the “blotting out” with water is a return to chaos. In the original creation story, God shaped beautiful, useful function from watery chaos; here the process is reversed. Life on earth is not so much drowned (though that is clearly indicated), but taken over by the forces of chaos in order to be recreated into beautiful, useful function once again.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the new creation and first family is just as broken, rebellious, and flawed as the original set. So what has this all been about? What was the point of ending life on the earth if things are to continue on as badly as they began? And how is Lamech’s prediction to be fulfilled? How does Noah’s life and story bring relief, comfort or rest, much less redemption?

The answer to this comes from the real main character of the story - Yahweh. While we tend to focus on Noah, the ark, the water, or the animals, the really interesting action is happening within God himself.

At the outset of the story, the Bible tells us that God is sending this flood to blot out life from the earth because of the incurable wickedness of mankind. Then at the end of the story God places his bow in the sky, vowing never again to strike down all living things. The reason he gives for this promise? Because “the intentions of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  

In other words, in a shocking twist God’s strategy towards mankind takes an entire 180 degree turn. Humanity remains the same but God’s response changes forever from “therefore, I will destroy them” to “therefore, I will never destroy them.”

There is no human repentance, promise, or evidence of change in this story - quite the opposite. What changes is God and his approach to humanity and his rebellious creation. We looked earlier at Genesis 1-11 as a series of stories that outline the tension between a loving, faithful Creator, and an uncooperative creation. The Biblical version of the flood story is setting up the final resolution: Creation will not fall into line as intended so God changes his strategy. He will not give up his plan for a good creation even in light of this grievous reality. Mankind has proven hopeless, hence hope must come only from God.  Placing his bow in the sky, God commits to be faithful because mankind will always and only prove utterly unfaithful.

In this decision, and throughout the story, we see the heart of God not as an angry tyrant, but as a grieved parent. There are phrases such as “the LORD regretted…” and “it grieved him to his heart.” His choices and actions toward creation stem, the authors show us, not from disinterest but deep, pained, broken relationship. The consequences of this pain he here and finally resolves to put upon himself.

This is how we find comfort, rest, relief, and redemption in Noah's life and story. This is where we find the key to understanding the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality - God has made an irrevocable covenant with all living things and all generations, knowing full well who we are and how we will fail. He will be faithful, even when - and because - we are unfaithful. He will love and nurture even when - and because - we have hated and killed. He will rebuild even when - and because - we have destroyed.

And with this in mind we turn the page. Where will this incredible, surprising story lead next?

If you'd like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned!

This series has been influenced by dozens of books and authors/scholars, but I tip my hat as always to Walter Brueggemann and Rabbi Telushkin for their many insights.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Cain & Abel, and the Crouching Predator


After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, their story continues into the next generation. Two sons are born to the couple, first Cain and then Abel. Abel becomes a shepherd, while Cain farms the ground. Each brings an offering of their labors to YHWH, but the Lord is pleased only with Abel’s and not with Cain’s.

Once again, the story is sparse, hinging on information not given. What was unsatisfactory about Cain’s offering? We cannot know. Once again, there are boundaries around the characters’ lives and actions regarding which they have no say, and for reasons which we do not understand.

Cain is faced with an (apparently) un-requested difficulty and the question is again is on the table - how will he handle living under someone else's terms?

Cain becomes angry at the situation and YHWH warns him: “If you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.

Sin here is described as a wild animal, a predator hunting with an eye on Cain.  His instructions are not to blindly follow a list of rules, but to gain mastery over a stalker. The assumption given by God is that it is fully possible to summon the strength to succeed.

Cain does not heed the warning, however. He rises in strength not against the crouching predator of temptation but against his brother, killing him. As the rest of the story unfolds, two things are clear - Abel’s life is destroyed literally, but Cain’s life is destroyed as well.

As he did for Adam and Eve, God offers protection and provision along with discipline. Cain’s headstrong behavior, as his parents’ before him, carries a consequence of death. Yet the consequence given is, as was his parents', less than a death sentence. The ground that took in the blood of Abel will no longer partner with this brother-betraying farmer, and Cain is exiled - again, as his parents were before him. But his life will also be protected. Once more, God is true to the boundaries he has laid, but merciful.

The image of sin as a crouching predator is a powerful one. Cain is warned that he is being stalked by a hungry creature desiring him, yet he is given hope - even an imperative - that he can and must defeat this powerful foe. When he does not, both victim and perpetrator are destroyed. And so here in the story, even more than in Adam and Eve’s story, we are introduced to one of the main characters we meet with in life - sin.

In our current language and conversations, we’re suspicious of the word ‘sin.’ It has been so misused it can hardly be used at all. We tend instead to speak more in terms of brokenness, and there is good reason for this. Yet here in Genesis 4 we find a valuable description of our situation. Sin in this narrative is not the breaking of an arbitrary list of rules as we often speak of it, but a hunter poised to consume us who can and must be defeated. When we give way to this crouching animal it destroys both ourselves and our own victims.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov seems to understand this as he gives his first confession: "Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever." He has given in to what hunted him, and not only his victim but he too is destroyed.

I can see the truth of this, in my own life, and in the world around me. There is no need to commit murder to see that when we are stalked by temptation, giving in (to anger, self-centeredness, greed, desire, or whatever) destroys both ourselves and those around us.

I appreciate both the warning and the empowerment - sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for me, but I must rule over it. This hunter is lethal to both perpetrator and victim, but victory is possible.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s insolent retort when cornered by YHWH in his guilt. Rabbi Telushkin* suggests that the rest of the Bible is spent answering a resounding “Yes” to that question. 

If you'd like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned. I'm taking a break for Lent, but I'll be back! Consider subscribing by email or feed so you don't miss it.

*Biblical Literacy, pg 12
As always, h/t to Brueggemann's Genesis for so many good insights

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Adam & Eve and the Unexplained Boundaries

Right on the heels of the Beautiful Song we turn in Genesis 2-3 to the story of Adam and Eve. As with any good story, it is rich and many layered, best understood not by dissection, but by telling and listening.


The setting is quite different from the previous chapter. Instead of a watery void we are in a desert. YHWH is again busy creating the world, but this time the man (Adam) is formed before the plants and animals, rather than after. And instead of being made together, Eve is created later when no other land creature proves a suitable helper for Adam.  The text itself indicates that this is a different (though related) story, with a different (though related) message.


The main character is the Gardener, who lovingly, personally, and relationally forms a man by hand from the dust of the ground, breathing his own life into his lungs. The Gardener then sows his garden and gives it to the man to care for, both plant and animal. YHWH the Gardener is obviously a hands-on sort of God, and he remains intimately and passionately involved in the nurture of the garden and its inhabitants. He walks among them and talks intimately to them throughout.


The human pair have a job to do, sharing in God’s gardening work. They are permitted to meet their needs within the garden, but they also have a rule to follow - no eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann sees here an archetype for the reality of human nature: we live in a world where God has given us vocation, permission, and prohibition.* The foil of Adam and Eve’s story is “how will these first humans live in the balance of these three?” Likewise, this is the test in all of our lives. How will we respond and balance the vocation, permission, and prohibition given us by God? Can we find the discipline and trust to manage the boundaries and realities, both good and bad, which we encounter?


The plot thickens. As the story reads “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field...and he said to the woman “Did God actually say ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” This, of course, is not at all what God has said, but it is a good trap to get Eve talking and thinking. One thing leads to another and soon both Eve and Adam are hiding in shame.


Christian interpreters traditionally see this narrative as the foundation for the rest of scripture and reality - the cause of sin, the cause of death, and the introduction of Satan in the role of the serpent.


Jewish interpreters have traditionally read it differently. There is no Jewish doctrine of “original sin” and they do not see here the story of a “fall” or the introduction of evil, death, or Satan. Instead, most Jewish scholars and theologians believe that men and women sin and die as Adam and Eve did, not because Adam and Eve did. +


Not surprisingly, the Hebrew books - the Genesis text and the Old Testament as a whole - supports the Jewish view. The story itself does not name the snake, nor offer any explanation or analysis. The story is not referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, much less as the all-pervading source of the ups and downs of humanity and Israel’s attempts at faithful, righteous living. Though the New Testament does make further theological use of Adam and Eve, Christian scholar Brueggeman warns us that the Old Testament itself is never interested in abstract issues such as explaining the origins of evil or death. Instead, the Old Testament has a pastoral focus, addressing our “faithful responses” to the evil and trials we encounter.**


What then is the pastoral message of this deeply descriptive account? As mentioned above, Bruggemann suggests that Adam and Eve’s story asks: What does it mean for humans to live in God’s world on God’s terms? How does mankind live out the balance between vocation, permission, and prohibition?


To begin with, this most certainly is God’s garden, and they are his terms - not only are the human pair not allowed input, they are not given explanation. Why the forbidden tree? The story does not tell us why the tree is there at all. As Brueggemann writes “one might wish for a garden without such dangerous trees. But that is not given to us.” ** Adam and Eve must live and work in the garden, following the terms without understanding them. Their foundation for thriving here must be trust, and mutual investment in the relationship God has initiated with them. The unexplained nature of the boundaries is exactly what the snake exploits.


It is fascinating to this theology lover that the conversation with the serpent is the first instance of theology in the Bible. Eve and the snake are not talking to God or with God, but about God. This might not be a problem in and of itself, but for Eve it subtly begins to take the place of obedience. Her thirst for knowledge begins to corrode the life giving power of relational trust.
Whether we take the Jewish or Christian interpretation of this narrative, there is a powerful message here regarding trust, limitations, and anxiety. Adam and Eve grow discontent with the limits upon them, which leads to doubt in the character of the sovereign God. They trade their peaceful, intimate relationships with each other and the Gardener for a life filled with shame and its inevitable partner, strife. The trust that made uncertainty bearable, and framed their boundary lines as life-giving rather than stifling has dissolved, and been replaced by anxiety and questions.


Whether because they did or as they did, there is no question that we too chafe against the boundaries and limits placed on our lives and understanding, raging against mortal limits and unsolvable riddles rather than accepting them inside a relationship of trust. We too fill our relationships with conflict rather than sweet, intimate work and rest.


The first chapter of Genesis declares that the world belongs to a good, intimate, relational God who presides over all with a plan of hope. The second and third chapters show us what our posture and role before this Creator must be - and what difficulty we inevitably have in remaining there.

I started out saying that a story is best listened to - so head to Genesis 2-3 and give it a read. What do you find there of interest? 

If you'd like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!

* Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 46ff
+ Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, pg 10
**Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg pg 41-45

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Order From Chaos: New Year’s Cleaning and Genesis One

I originally wrote this for Abingdon's blog, where it appeared last month here.  I'm posting it today because it fits with the Genesis series...and because it is one of my favorites. 


Each New Year I crave organization. Something powerful overtakes me and I find myself overhauling rooms and cupboards, cleaning out and clearing away.

Corners and pockets of my house - previously rendered useless due to clutter or wear and tear - are cleaned up and tuned up and made right again. Entire rooms fall under the sway of my intent; dust bunnies, outgrown clothes, and plastic toys are recycled or re-purposed and I find myself with a functional, tidy home once more. Whether the impetus is a fresh new start for the New Year, an extension of packing up Christmas, or simply being home bound in the cold, I can’t say. But each January finds me searching for order in the midst of chaos.

My reasons for this whirlwind of activity are certainly not theologically driven in the least, but when I take a moment to rest my feet and back I’m cheered by the reminder that this is God-work. Making order out of chaos is his signature move.

The opening chapter of Genesis is a beautiful song in which we find the Creator hovering over the waters. The author observes that “the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” In the ancient near-eastern minds that first heard this story, these Hebrew words indicate that what was had no purpose, function, or order. It was useless and needing to be arranged into something useful. In God’s hands all this changes. The word we translate as “create” is rich in Hebrew with meaning that connotes filling up and giving purpose - as one would create a home. Suddenly the Creator is forming day and night, rearranging water and land to produce sky, sea, and dry ground. From chaos has come wonderful, wonderful function, beauty and life.

When I’m in the middle of ordering the chaos of my home, it can take days, long days that spill into the night. Frequently, it appears that the situation is getting worse instead of better - when I’m re-purposing a bedroom or cleaning out a closet the contents are spread everywhere, making the house more filthy and cluttered than it ever did before I began this gargantuan task. My children gingerly step over boxes of light bulbs, shoe polishing kits, and stacks of paper looking for their toys and books. It is tempting to throw my hands up in the air and let the clutter take over, but I never do. I've set myself to this project, and I won’t give it up until I’m done.

The ancient Biblical hope, held still today by Christians around the world, is not that God will give this Creation up as a bad job and get a few of us out of here. The Biblical, Jewish, and now Christian hope - announced since that first song in Genesis - is that the Creator will not give up on the project he started. That even if the chaos on this earth seems to be gaining ground against beauty and goodness, it is simply because He is not yet finished with the job of creating and redeeming. He has promised to see his Creation through. He has placed his name, his character and reputation, and his Son on the table as collateral against this promise as guarantee. No matter how it may look to us right now in the middle, the Good News we hold to is that under no circumstances will God abandon or give up his Creative project. He will see it through to full function, full beauty, full order - full redemption.

And we have the opportunity to join him, to do our part to bring comfort where there is pain, provision where there is need, love where there is hate, joy where there is fear, peace where there is conflict. Function, order, and beauty where there is chaos.

As I look through my dusty windows at the cold piles of snow, I pick up another stack of papers to sort with gratitude. He is making all things new. And in our own ways, we are invited to do the same.

Next week we're going to meet Adam and Eve! Stay tuned, and if you're interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.


Monday, February 17, 2014

My Neighbor as Myself

I originally wrote and posted this a few years back after moving into my community, but am re-posting today after reading Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.

What we want out of life has a lot to do with what we expect from life.

What we expect has a lot to do with how life has gone for the people around us.

Those to whom much is given, much will be required.

I am talking to my new friend, "Rosa."  I am sitting in her apartment, eating her food, listening to her story.  Already I know her smile and her facial expressions.  But she is telling me how, five years ago, she left her two daughters behind and traveled to a new country - my country - so that she could earn enough money to care for their most basic needs.  The journey was horrible, threatening (and nearly taking) her life. She works now, longer hours than I ever have, harder work than I have ever done, for less money than I have ever earned. She can think of no way that she will realistically ever see her daughters again, but because of the couple hundred dollars she sends back each moth, they survive. 

It is one thing to read this story and quite another to hear it while looking at her eyes and sharing her food, calling her my friend.  My children are now the exact ages hers were when she left.  For one horrible moment I try to imagine myself in a position where my children lacked even basic food, water, shelter, and education; where they could survive only if I left them behind forever and moved to a foreign land where I had nothing and no one.  In all the worst-case scenarios that always run through my head, this one has never, ever, come up.  It is unthinkable.

Living with roaches and no washing machine is nothing by comparison.

I am around Rosa and others like her all the time now.  Their lives and losses are each unique, but all within the same magnitude. I am beginning to feel that my standard of living, which recently took a nose dive, is quite opulent.  I consider how many people she shares her tiny apartment with and wonder what I could do to get by on less than I have now; if someone else could somehow have more if I was willing to have less.

At the same time, I also enter a very different world each day. A world that feels "normal" and increasingly not normal at all.  A world in which people are paid all the money they have earned; a world where education can be had; where skin color, language, clothing, and mannerisms invisibly open doors, not slam them shut; a world where we talk about needing a bigger house if a baby's on the way, or a smart phone, or a vacation abroad, or a PhD.  I participate in these conversations pretending like its normal but I'm choking back something between a laugh of irony and a sob of pain. Because I want all these things too but it sounds so, so funny to me now. 

Forget asking which world is normal.  Forget asking even which world is right.  I'm consumed with the question: which world is mine? The one I see everyday, the one who's injustices and pain call to me more passionately and compellingly each day?  Or the one that made me, the one I have always know and by which I have been known? 

Or a third option, as A will always find - living as a bridge between the two.  An endless loop of culture shock and re-entry shock, not daily but several times per day.  And then, where do I learn what to expect?  From the life I have always lived or the life I am surrounded by now?  As my expectations change, so too my worldview and my theology and my understanding of blessing and of responsibility and good news and on and on....

You are the ultimate of love and beauty, yet you lived and suffered with us.  Teach me, please.  Gently.


When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. - The Bible

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and...love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these. - The Bible

I re-posted this, inspired by the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.  Ladydi grew up in rural Mexico, where being a girl is a dangerous thing.She and other girls were “made ugly” to keep protect them from drug traffickers and criminal groups. Join From Left to Write on February 18 we discuss Prayers for the Stolen. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Beautiful Song - Genesis 1


In many creation stories of the ancient near east, the capricious, self-absorbed, quarreling bands of gods and goddesses make our world and humankind almost as an afterthought - a byproduct of the tricks they are up to, or as slaves to do the work for which they themselves are too lazy. With this as a foundation for reality and human identity, we're not left which much room to hope.


Genesis 1, by contrast, is a beautiful song. Written in a poetic, liturgical style it tells a lovely and subversive story. The opening chapter of the Bible claims that the world is not made and ruled by the forces of nature or the all-intimidating Babylonian or Near Eastern gods, but by Israel’s God. He, the story declares, is the true and ultimate God, who creates not out of whim or weakness but as part of a powerful and wonderful plan.

The song tells of a loving, rejoicing, intimate Creator who is proclaiming and creating; who takes the chaos and forms it into something functional, beautiful, and life giving. It tells of a relationship that under-girds reality: power belongs to the Creator, and we are not merely nature but creation. This idea imbibes everything with purpose, hope, and possibility.

For the Israelites in the ancient near east, this creation song was a subversive political and theological statement - a small and relatively powerless nation claiming an identity and reality which the invading powers could not touch. The song beautifully insists that we exist not by accident or by the whim of lazy, quarreling gods, but are called forth by a loving Creator with a long term plan for relationship, goodness, and life. We are not (ultimately) under the thumb of the gods and rulers of Babylon or Egypt, but image bearers of the Creator who has not for a moment lost track of his creative, redemptive plan.

The song ends with the Creator resting on the seventh day. This rest implies not exhaustion after much work, but a deity or king 'coming to rest' in the place where he will dwell and reign. In other words, what the Creator has made is not only a good home for His creation, but for Himself as well, and he is present here in a permanent sense.

Today we are so far removed from the questions and assumptions of this ancient world that we see little of this political and theological stake in the ground when we read chapter 1 of Genesis. We bring our own questions and needs to the text, assuming it is written with them in mind, and confused when they are not addressed.

When Old Testament scholar John Walton teaches on Genesis 1 he tells the story of building a house. He discusses blueprints and foundations, framework, plumbing, and wiring. He talks about the construction contracts and legal codes. It is quite boring, to be honest. All true no doubt, important and necessary, but factual rather than poetic.

But then he tells a second story, a story about a home. It takes place in the same physical space as the first story, but this is about a family moving in, years after the building itself was constructed. We imagine furniture and decorations being arranged, children making sure their favorite blankets and bears are in place, meals being eaten together, memories being made, a new family identity being formed.

Both stories are about the same building. The first, about the origin details of a house. The second, about the creation of a home. Likewise, Walton says, Genesis 1 is not about the scientific details of the origins of the universe, but the creation of a home that God forms within it. And more shocking still - a home in which he intends to dwell with us. Yes, God is the ultimate cause of all we see and know but the revolutionary message of Genesis 1 is theological - God has taken the house and given it a sacred function for both creation and Creator, a home in which he will dwell with us. 

As modern readers of these ancient texts, it can be difficult and even impossible to see and hear what an ancient listener, reader, speaker, or writer would have seen and heard. But Genesis 1 is a beautiful, hopeful story that sets the tone for the book of Genesis, the Tanakh or Old Testament, and finally the Gospel itself. In this first chapter of the first book we hear a powerful proclamation of Good News - it is the God of beauty, order, purpose, function, hope, intimacy, and relationship who has charge of the universe.  It is His - and so are we.

If you're interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!

Thursday, February 06, 2014

What This Story is All About: A Pattern of Grace in Genesis 1-11

These days, the book of Genesis is locked in a full blown identity crisis. The one thing debaters on both sides agree on is that it is either a modern scientific document, or it has no value whatsoever. 

However, if you read Genesis as the original, ancient authors and audience would have done, there are better options available. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman calls Genesis 1-11 a “remarkable intellectual achievement of faith seeking understanding.”* What we find in the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific description or an argument, but a poem; a song proclaiming something incredible about the character of God. Waiting for the reader in these sacred scriptures is a beautiful story of tremendous theological significance. 

I invite you to take another look at these well known chapters, from the standpoint of a story. A story told by ancient followers of YHWH, about the surprising God whom they have encountered and found working in their midst. It is a powerful, beautiful, deeply true story. 

There is much to learn from each individual element, but if we look at them all together a forest emerges which we easily miss while studying only the trees. The elements themselves - creation, flood, building a tower to the heavens, etc - have precedent in the literature and oral tradition of the ancient near east and Babylon, the cultural air that ancient Israel breathed. Yet here the well known stories are told and oriented towards a unique and profound point - the God of Israel is the One who has originated all this, His great plan is underlying our experience, and whatever threat our own errors bring to this plan, we have assurance that God himself is determined to carry it to completion. 

The story begins, of course, at the beginning: Israel’s God YHWH forms creation out of chaos, places it in the care of man and woman, and calls it good. But right on the tail of this divine provision his chosen couple mess things up with literally epic proportions. God is angered, and discipline is needed - expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. But God is also merciful and protective, clothing their nakedness and shame, protecting them from access to the tree of life lest they continue in this shameful state for all eternity. 

In other words, human foolishness has destroyed the very good “Plan A” God had devised. But even as he disciplines, the Creator provides a link from the mess we have made into a new future.  Adam and Eve therefore move forward to “Plan B,” having lost the goodness of God’s created intentions but nevertheless re-established in God’s plan and protection. 

The narrative continues with their first offspring, Cain and Abel. When Cain murders his brother we see further rebellion against the good plan of creation. God’s response is again discipline, but again also mercy and protection. Cain too is sent away, but divinely marked for safekeeping lest he in turn be murdered. Another man-made mess, another providential plan encompassing both discipline and grace.

As the story goes on, generations pass and mankind continues to hurl itself away from God’s good intentions for us. This goes on to such an extent the God eventually becomes sorry he created humans at all and, heartbroken, resolves to bring this experiment to an end. Yet even in these drastic measures there is again grace and provision - God remembers Noah, who is chosen to launch a new beginning. God places his bow in the sky with a promise to never again destroy the world with a flood. 

Each of these narratives are linked together in cycles - God’s grace and provision, followed by creation’s response towards self-destruction, evoking God’s anger and discipline, but also further grace and provision. Each account turns over into the next as the pattern weaves us from story to story. 

Finally, the narrative takes us to the tower of Babel. Even after the flood and God’s provision for continued life, mankind has continued its bent towards obstinance. We find in this narrative again the now oh-so-familiar pattern, but this time with a shocking twist: after our stubborn, selfish error comes God’s discipline through confusion and dispersal of the people but then….nothing. 

The tower of Babel story ends without a whisper of grace or provision, no link to a future hope.

These stories were certainly passed down by oral tradition for generations before being put to parchment. Can you imagine yourself around an ancient bonfire, listening yet again to the stories of YHWH’s work in our world, in our people; hearing the steady rhythm of provision, rebellion, discipline, then back full circle to provision through story after story...only to reach the end of the Babel account, hanging on the edge of our seats. We reach the pregnant pause that ends Genesis chapter 11 with baited breath. 

And then, with this magnificent set-up the storyteller continues. On the very next page we are introduced to a man named Abram. We listen as he is called by God to leave his father’s country, to walk into covenant with God Almighty himself, to start a nation through whom the entire world will be blessed. This then - the nation of Israel herself (and for the Christian reader, ultimately Israel’s Messiah Jesus) - is the act of divine grace and provision that comes in response to mankind’s continued rebellion and discipline. 

Tell me that is not an amazing, stunning, beautiful story, one of profound theological and literary power. 

For ancient Israel listening in exile, this was a promise that went deep into their most vulnerable questions and doubts - even in the darkest hours, even when the darkness is of our own making, God is faithful to his covenant with Creation and Israel. He will see this through, no matter how badly we mess it up. The ancient Israelites who formed these Scriptures took the well worn tales and used them as a stunning entrance to their national history, the interpretive frame for their entire witness of God’s character and role in creation. 

Brueggemann writes “The sum of these narrative parts constitutes a remarkable theological statement. What may have been various “myths of origin” is now transposed into a theological statement of divine judgement and divine rescue...the text is an attestation to the main themes of Israel's faith in God.”

The main message here is not how or when the universe historically and scientifically began, but the character and trustworthiness of the author and sustainer of the story. 

In other words, we have here a powerful assurance in the face of the darkest day - God himself is determined to carry the world’s story to its redemptive conclusion, and no amount of our blind pigheadedness is going to stand in his way. 

And that, the ancient Israelites tell us, is what this story - the story of Genesis, but more, the story of reality - is all about. 

And that is a story worth telling.

If you're interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.

*Quotes taken from: Brueggeman, Interpretation: Genesis, pg 14 and Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 33