Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 4

As a way to conclude the previous post and to begin this one, I’d like to clarify the role of the earth in all of this. Again, when compared to surrounding creation stories the creation receives a much more prominent role. It is not an afterthought. In fact, with such detail through every day of creation it’s almost as if a celebration is going on. Of course, God’s creative work culminates in the creation of humanity after which God looks at the whole thing and considers it “very good.” God loves the world we might say at this point. So, while the sun and stars, fields and mountains, fish and cattle are all creatures, they are very good creatures whom God cherishes all of which God has given to humanity. The question is, for what?

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” That’s a phrase we understand well. But we find other references to the earth as the foundations of a building and as a footstool for God’s throne. In Isaiah 24:18 we read, “For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.” In this passage, the earth serves as the foundation for God’s creation and built on top of that foundation is heaven. In a sense, the Hebrew Bible views creation as a building with heaven and earth serving as a house for God. In Isaiah 66:1 we find the Lord saying, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.” From there God goes on to describe the kind of worship that is to take place in his “house.” We often think of God’s house as a building, but the Hebrew Bible looks at the whole of the heavens and the earth as God’s sanctuary. What does that mean for how we worship the Lord?

When God placed humanity on the earth he told them to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion.” In other words, it might mean that we worship the Lord by filling and decorating his house. These days most people think of worship as a set of rituals that take place within a special building. I’m suggesting that we consider worship to be more earthy, that building the building is worship, that paving roads, doing art, making music, is worship. I’m suggesting that anything we do in the sanctuary of the earth is meant to be worship. God has invited us into his house and asked us to make it our home, to honor him by creating things for ourselves. What’s most striking about this is that God is the ultimate in hospitality. At this point in the story God has not yet prescribed anything for humans (aside from the fruit) except to create. We find examples of this in the next chapters.

In chapter 4, Able keeps sheep and Cain tills the ground. Later in that same chapter Cain builds a city. Later still, Jabal and his ancestors live in tents and keep livestock, Jubal makes music with the lyre and pipe (apparently creating the instruments as well), and Tubal-Cain makes all kinds of bronze and iron tools. Later in Genesis 9, we find that Noah was a man of the soil and was the first to plant a vineyard. Then, in Genesis 10, vv. 8-11, highlight Nimrod who was a mighty warrior and hunter who founded kingdoms in Babel and founded the great city of Ninevah in Assyria. All of this work done by these various humans is good and creative work, faithful to the reason that God put us here. It is not something done in addition to worship. These trades are the very acts of worship in the world. There is a problem, however.

Eventually Cain kills Abel. In Genesis 6, we find that violence has erupted on the earth. Noah will get drunk on his own wine. Nimrod’s Babel will build a tower to make a name for themselves, Ninevah will be threatened by Jonah, and eventually Babylon and Assyria will over take the tribes of Israel. The picture is quite clear already in the first few chapters of the Hebrew Bible. For all of the good that humans are doing, they cannot escape the fall. All of their creative work is tarnished by destruction. Humans have corrupted the earth with violence. The warning of Genesis 9 is not meant to be a justification for capital punishment, but a statement against violence in the first place. To be clear, Genesis 9:6 is a response to Genesis 6:11. God is looking for co-creators, not co-destroyers. While the gods of other cultures were violent in their creation and toward one another, to live in the image of God means to be non-violent creators as God was when he created the heavens and the earth. God helps us to that end.

This is where the Spirit of God enters the equation. That phrase, “Spirit of God,” is found only twice in the first 5 book of the Bible. The first is right before God creates the earth. The second is just before the creation of the tent of meeting in Exodus 31. This creation could not be corrupted by the fall, it could not be tarnished by violence. So God fills two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, with the Spirit of God, “with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” Notice how “earthy” the work of God’s Spirit is here. The Spirit of God is filling these two men so that they might build and craft. The Spirit of God is equipping them to do work. This will be important when we begin discussing justice from a New Testament perspective.

For now we can say that all people, male and female, are made in the image of God. That image has a lot to do with joining the creative process that God began when he laid the foundation of the earth. In other words, God has called all of us to use our talents to bring order and beauty to the world. A just world is one in which everyone is afforded that dignity. When some people are made to be slaves, exploited for cheap labor, or denied the right to work then the image of God has been denied in them. This is the way of the pagan gods who only want to be fed, but it not the way of the Hebrew God who has given us freedom to build as we see fit. Injustice is anything that prevents someone from joining in the creative process that God began in the beginning. Injustice is something that God and the Hebrew prophets railed against. We’ll listen to them next.

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