Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 3

Let me preface what follows by acknowledging that the uniqueness of the Hebrew creation story is not everywhere agreed upon. There are those who see very little that is truly unique when compared to the surrounding creation stories. Some of this is covered in THE LIBERATING IMAGE and I don’t feel the need to cover it here. It’s my impression that even a simple reading of the stories offers some obvious differences that reveal a different view of God, humanity and the world. Walter Brueggeman has written in his book THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION that “we are indeed made in the image of some God. And perhaps we have no more important theological investigation than to discern in whose image we have been made.” Again, it seems clear to me that the Hebrew creation story offers a unique perspective on the character of God, the vocation of humanity, and the place of creation.

First, there are obvious differences in the character of God as we explore Genesis 1 and even the following chapters. The first thing to note is that, while God does order the chaos, God creates out of nothing. There is no violent combat, no spilling of blood that results in the formations of humanity. It seems that God is enjoying this task of creation and its result, commenting again and again how good it seems to be. Perhaps one way to say this is that the God of the Hebrew story seems self-giving, while the gods of competing stories come across very self-centered. Drawing the story out a little further illustrates the point.

In Genesis 6, humanity is making their fair share of noise. In fact, they are violent and corrupt in all their ways. As opposed to the other creation stories in which the gods become annoyed, the God of the Hebrew Bible is grieved; sorry that he had made creation in the first place. In other words, God’s motivation for sending the flood is different. In the Hebrew Bible, God is a suffering god verses the vindictive gods of the other stories. The method of creation (out of nothing) and the reason for flooding it (eruption of violence) portray God as one who is opposed to death and destruction and resorts to the flood only out of deep pain and loss; grieving the corruption of humanity whom he has invited to join him creating the world. That point brings us to the next unique aspect of the Hebrew story.

Humanity is seen in a much greater light and, therefore, held to a much higher standard in the Hebrew story. Rather than being made after the lesser gods to slave over the structures of civilization, they are made a little lower than the gods and invited to join in creating the structures of civilization. This is true of male and female alike. While it may be valid to point to Genesis as a model for relationships, when comparing it with surrounding cultures, the main point seems to be to emphasize the equal place of the female gender. Any distinction or subservience seems to be the result of the fall that doesn’t come until chapter 3. The Hebrew creation story begins with a much more democratic and gender-equal perspective. That is, the image of God is found, not just in the king nor simply in men, but in all people, male and female. That same story moves forward with humanity playing a much more prominent role relative to the other myths.

In the creation stories of surrounding cultures, civilization is passed down to humanity by the gods and through the king. It is a way of keeping the humans in check and making sure they follow through on their task of keeping the gods fed. In contrast, civilization in the Hebrew story is never prescribed and always attributed to different individuals. The first city, arts and crafts, agriculture and animals, music, the first vineyard are all “discovered” in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. None of them are commanded by God. All of them come across as an expression of the creative work of those creatures whom God has set apart to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “subdue the earth.” In other words, the civilizations that humans build on top of the foundation that is the earth are actually a faithful response to God’s invitation and concrete expressions of what it means to live in the image of God. This final idea will be especially helpful in forming a definition of justice. We can pursue this further in the next post.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Health Care for All

Next Tuesday, November 2nd, Dr. John Cavacece and Dr. David Van Dyke, will lead the conversation on "the Christian thing to do" when it comes to health care. This event is free and open to the public. It will begin at 7pm.

Following the event, Pastor Peter TeWinkle will continue a conversation on "Finding Justice in the Bible" from 8:15-9:00pm.

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 2

The creation story in the Hebrew Bible is not the only creation story that history has passed down to us. That fact is often overlooked or merely goes unnoticed. A simple search shows that Israel wasn’t the only nation to consider how the world began and their distinctive place in that world. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and others all recorded their own views about the foundation of the earth. Many of them served to solidify current social practices in the creation of the world. It was done as if to say, “We are the way we are because this is the way our god created things to be.” If you’re a slave, it’s because that’s the way the gods intended it to be. If you’re the king, it’s because that’s the way the gods intended it to be. If my nations overtakes yours, it’s because my god is superior to yours and has ordained that we should be superior to you. Many of the creation stories of surrounding nations offer a decidedly different view of things than does the Hebrew creation story.

In reading THE LIBERATING IMAGE by J. Richard Middleton, competing stories such as the “Atrahasis Epic,” “Enki,” and “Ninmah,” were mentioned as some of the more well-known of the day. These three share a similar plot. A brief and simplified summary would go something like this: The greater gods exist together in various ways. Feeling the need to have someone else serve their needs, they create lesser gods to do the manual labor of maintain irrigation, cultivating crops, and building on the earth. Much of this labor is meant to satisfy the needs of the greater gods for food. Eventually, the lesser gods go on strike. Out of the conflict, the blood of one of the lesser gods is spilled resulting in the creation of humanity. However, it’s not long after their creation that the gods are annoyed at the prevalence and noise of the humans. They decide to do away with them.

Much can be said about the character of the gods in this story and the reason for being that is ascribed to humanity. Undoubtedly, the small nation of Israel would have been aware of these surrounding stories to one degree or another. It could be that that myth with which they were most familiar was the “Enuma Elish.” This was the creation story of Babylon, the nation in which some of the tribes of Israel would find themselves in exile. Some scholars suggest that the Hebrew people would have become very familiar with this creation story and would have found it to be a story that justified their exile and Babylon’s right to rule over them. It is also suggested that the Hebrew creation story was finalized in direct protest to those very ideas. Babylon’s creation story can be summarized as follows.

Apsu and Tiamat, order and chaos, male and female, are present together in the beginning. Together they create a new generation of gods; children so to speak. In this case, it is these younger gods who become rambunctious and annoy their “parents.” Apsu and Tiamat plan to do away with their offspring, but word gets back to one of the younger gods. They go on the offensive and kill their father before he can carry out his plan. This leave Tiamat to exact revenge for the slaying. Out of the ranks comes Marduk (god of Babylon) to say that if the other gods will make him supreme over the rest, he will certainly slay Tiamat. They agree. He does. Ruling over Tiamat (chaos), the female god, Marduk slices her open and stretches out her skin to make the earth. Humanity is born out of the blood of another slain god on the opposing side of the conflict. So, the world begins with divine violence.

Clearly, these stories are meant to assert one nation’s prominence over the rest and they are meant to root that superiority in the foundation of the world. Other implications include that creation is the result of violent conflict and that women are to be associated with chaos and brought to order by men. It is also true that we can see how surrounding nations also viewed humanity as made in the image of the gods. In these instances, humanity serves as a replacement for the lesser gods. In other words, humanity exists as laborers for the gods and the satisfaction of their pleasures. Or, as in the latter story, are created out of the opposition and can be viewed as rebellious.

Alongside these stories, we find examples in art and other aspects of civilization that reveal how the image of God was used. In its simplest form, to be made in the image of a god means to be a copy of that god. That could mean lesser gods of labor or the supreme god who rules heaven and earth. Many of the surrounding nations attributed that latter privilege solely to their kings. To be made in the image of a god would solidify the kings right to rule and the necessity to obey his every word and move. He, and it was always he, spoke the very words of god. An affront to the king was seen as an affront to the gods or, more specifically, to the supreme god. When we consider these competing myths and the illustrations from civilization, we find the Hebrew creation story to be a very compelling alternative to the surrounding myths. It is decidedly different. To read how, you’ll have to go to the next post.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Advocacy Groups meet Tuesday, October 19th.

We're looking forward to another gathering of The Micah Center's Advocacy Groups. Remember that there is a light meal beginning at 5:40pm. A video on restorative justice will be shown at 6pm and the groups will be meeting at 7pm.

One note: Finding Justice in the Bible will not be meeting because the leader has an incredibly long, incredibly boring church meeting to attend. Our apologies for the inconvenience.

Finding Justice in the Bible

Recently, we began a conversation at Hope Reformed Church regarding justice. Turning through the pages of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, we sought to find a definition of justice that was theological rather ideological; a definition that was faithful to God's hope for the world. As a pastor I learned a lot in the time it took to study and put the outlines together. These posts will serve not only as a reference for the congregation, but as a reference for me. I hope to summarize over various posts what was covered in the class. The Bible was my main source, but here are some others that were especially helpful:

Old Testament - THE LIBERATING IMAGE, by J. Richard Middleton; THE PROPHETS, by Abraham J. Heschel; THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, by Walter Brueggemann.

New Testament - ENGAGING THE POWERS, by Walter Wink; THE WORD ON THE STREET, by Stanley Saunders & Charles Campbell; CALVIN'S FIRST CATECHISM, by I. John Hesselink; THE UNAFFORDABLE NATION, by Jeffrey D. Jones

It's always helpful to begin any conversation about "what the Bible says about..." at the beginning of the Bible. The conversation concerning justice is no different. In fact, much of what the Bible means about justice is rooted in creation and, more specifically, in the image of God. At Genesis 1:26-28, we find God saying, "‘Let us make humankind in our image…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.’ Whatever the image of God is, it is applied only to human beings in a way that sets them apart from the rest of creation. There are very few references in the rest of the Hebrew Bible that offer much more help to understanding what God means and how it informs justice.

The next reference is in Genesis 5:1-2 where the descendants of Adam are being introduced. “When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them.” We find repeated here a connection of the image to “male and female.” It could be said that the image has something to do with the interaction of both genders (more on this later). A further reference is found in Genesis 9:6-7, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” As in Genesis 1, this passage highlights God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” offering further clues as to what it might mean to say that humans are made in the image of God. The context of this verse is important in understanding more of its meaning, but we’ll return to that later as well.

Another reference in the Hebrew Bible is found in Psalm 8 where the Psalmists speaks of God making humanity “a little lower than the gods,” crowning them with “glory and honor,” and giving them “dominion.” We find here a very high view of humanity and, as in Genesis 1, the notion that God has given humans dominion over the animals of the land and sea. So, from these few references we have some clues as to what it means to be made in the image of God. First, it is somehow connected to “male and female.” Second, the image of God is related to the command “be fruitful and multiply.” Finally, the image of God sets humanity apart from creation and gives them “dominion.” The Christian tradition has done much with the image of God, but not all of it has been helpful.

More often than not, the image of God has been taken to mean that we share some sort of substance or inner quality with God. Whether it be conscience, reason, immortality, or a soul, many Christians have offered this possibility. St. Augustine, for example, considered God in Trinitarian form and related the human capacities for memory, intellect, and will to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Helpful as these ideas are, many of them are overly influenced by philosophy and take little consideration of the Bible itself. Many of them also neglect the role that our bodies play in the image of God. Beginning with the Reformation, some theologians began considering the image as human behavior or as our capacity for relationship. Still, while more faithful to our bodies, they still lack connection to the creation story itself.

In his book THE LIBERATING IMAGE, J. Richard Middleton, defines the image of God as designating “the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.” In other words, the image of God has to do with our function here on earth, the reason that God has placed us in this creation. If God created the world by ordering the chaos and bringing forth beauty on the earth, we are called to join him by continuing that creation. It turns out that God has put us here, “male and female”, to act as his representatives by “being fruitful and multiplying” in the earth, to have “dominion” by bringing order and beauty to the earth. When compared with competing notions of humanity’s place in the world it turns out to be a revolutionary revelation of justice. But that’s for another post.