Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Effects of the Fall (Genesis 3:7-24)

Before we get to what happened after the first sin, I want to bring to mind something that was said when everything was still perfect:

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed"

"Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves."  (3:7 - directly after they eat of the fruit)

Sin is the violation of a command of God, and this is the working definition in the first books of Genesis. But sin and wrongdoing are not identical sets of actions: things can be wrong without being sin, it seems, because although the first thing (as we shall see) that the first pair does when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is cover themselves up, because they thought it was wrong, they were naked beforehand. So it cannot be the case that what is wrong is necessarily sin, or it would have been sin to be naked. No no, sin requires there to be a law against it, as St Paul says in his epistle to the Romans (which will be commented on in about seven months).

 "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’"(vv. 8-13)

This depiction of God is highly anthropomorphic, and I suggest that we are meant to consider this in an allegorical sense because of this - not robbing it of truth, but not sending out archaeologists to try and find "the God footprints" either.

When God asks where the man is, he answers with fear. Why is the man afraid? Part of this anthropomorphic nature of this depiction of God is that he does not strike fear into the hearts of humans, as happens in other sections of the Scriptures. The man was not afraid of God before he ate from the fruit - but now something has changed. Man is is afraid, because now, man is guilty. Man is guilty because now he feels shame at being naked - and this raises the question: "who told you you were naked?", or in other words "how did you find out it was wrong to be naked?" The next question asked by God is not completely rhetorical, in that I think God is asking the man with some degree of sincerity - but the important bit is how then the man responds, and it illustrates one of the more common themes of sin in human history: blaming someone else. In my opinion, there are few things that separate us from God quite as much as our inability to accept that our wrongdoings really are ours. Objections to Christian doctrines that take the form "how can God blame me for this?" or "if God had done this for me, I would not have done that wrong" have root in the same problem, which is our recurring inability to say "I did wrong - and perhaps there were some factors involved that did not help, but I am at fault here."These separate us from God because we cannot be reconciled without forgiveness, and we cannot accept forgiveness unless we admit that we require it.

This "blaming of other" is in its fullest form here, because the man blames God for giving the woman in saying "This woman whom you gave to be with me" (v. 12), and then the woman for being the active cause in saying "she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." (v. 12). Notice that the man does indeed admit that he ate - but he seems to try and exempt himself from guilt by pointing out that it was brought about by something over which he had no control, and so others are at fault, really. As I said, this lies at the heart of the problems that face us all in reconciliation.

Though that was said of the man, the woman did much the same, so I will not comment on it. Instead, I shall proceed to the more long-lasting consequences of their sin:

The Lord God said to the serpent,

‘Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.’

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.’
And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    “You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.’
(vv. 14-19)

This has been commented on extensively, so I urge you readers to look up a commentary, specially one of a church father. I want to make a few points, but these will be more things to consider:

1. The traditionally Christian interpretation of the serpent as the devil is odd in this section, because in talking about the serpent's descendants, the implication is that the consequences will reach far beyond the death of the serpent. Even if we ignore this clear implication (it's also implied of the woman, which is true enough), then it is still unclear who exactly the descendants of the devil are. Are they demons? How were they conceived? And many more like these. It is furthermore unclear how the curse of going on the belly translates to the devil, as well as a few others.

2. The man's curses come from him listening to his wife. As a practical application, we are therefore divinely advised against this (I am joking on this point). I think this verse should be understood as listening to one's wife above and before God - which is a reasonable thing to be against.

3. These curses, to first degree and broadly speaking, can be thought of as the breakdown of relationships: between woman and nature, between man and nature, between woman and man, and between humans and the divine. There's more to it that that, and the childbearing one does not fit naturally into that categorization, but it is certainly of note that with sin, these relationships are broken.

"The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who live. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." (vv. 20-21)

The naming is interesting here for a few reasons: man had already been naming things for a while now (it was his first job, whilst he searched for a companion), so it is curious that it took so long to find her a name (a proper name - ie, a personal one). Second, and perhaps to nuance that point, she was named before: "woman", in chapter 2. So why a second naming? Third, she is named mother of all who live, even though St Paul will say millennia later that Adam brought death[1]. This is not a contradiction, of course, but an interesting contrast between the supposed result of sin and the name "Eve", which sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for "living."[2] 
Leaving the issue of the naming, it is also interesting to see God's providence in the clothing of this couple. I may be horribly wrong, but I suspect there is some symbolic meaning to it which eludes me - could it be that "before they were clothed with glory, now they are clothed with skins", as some have said? Is it merely a symbol of God caring for even the banished sinners? I am not sure.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (v. 22)

The best I can muster right now to understand this verse, and it seems legitimate, is to say that God could not, in good conscience, give immortality to a flawed moral agent such as this first couple. He will be saving humanity - but he would only be damning humanity to eternal fallen-ness if he let them have life everlasting now.


Overall, I want to make renewed note of how formulaic this sin has been: it had all the key aspects to the temptation, it showcases the effects and it displays the behaviour that follows from the sin (which is similar but not the same as the more general term "effects of sin"). I think this is particularly fitting to how I interpret this passage in light of the whole of Genesis: the writer has to explain why the good world that God has created does not seem good, and the answer he gives is "humans sin". The role of this narrative is to explain why God cannot be blamed for the corruptness of creation, and we will see in weeks to come how other ancient near Eastern stories are going to be adapted to fit this theme, in particular, how Noah's flood explains natural catastrophe in terms of God's just anger with human evil - at least, a particular mega-flood of which there were many legends, many attributing it to capriciousness on behalf of the gods. The point of this section, therefore, is to explain how creation got bad when it was made good by a good God.

And to this effect, noting also how generic and general the committed sin is, I think that this man and woman are really symbols of us. Whether they were real people or not is, at this point, unclear, because the point can be made if they are figureheads of us or actual people. In terms of what the Bible says, how later writers of Scripture use Adam and Eve is going to shed far more light on the issue than this passage here. Nonetheless, we should think of this couple as if they were us, because if this story says anything, it says "the reason we can't have nice things is that humans commit wrongdoings," and insofar as we are humans, it is our fault that the world is the way it is. There is nobody else to blame.

[1] Adam is the word for man in Hebrew - the NRSV translators decided to use "man" throughout Genesis 2-3, but after many centuries this man is going to be spoken of as if he had a personal name "Adam." This usage is similar to saying Eve's name was "Woman."
[2] The writer of Genesis was brilliant both at naming his characters and subtly changing the names so that it only sounded like the thing being punned with.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Sin of the Fall (Genesis 3:1-7)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (vv. 1-6)

This passage raises a set of questions that is only explained years and years later, and that is, who is this serpent? Does he know what he is doing? Did God make him this way? Although I'm inconsistent with this rule, I'll avoid trying to make speculations right now, because the text does not give this information.

The serpent opens with a simple enough question as to what exactly it was God had commanded. Some translations add "really", and make it sound like this question is made to raise doubt - but although it is possible that this effect is produced, the text does not read that way. The doubt will come from the lie that the serpent tells the woman, enticing her to desire the fruit, since the question really only makes the woman reaffirm what was God said...roughly.

One thing interesting about the woman's response is that it is not quite right. She has given herself a rule that is stricter than what God actually said, as far as we know, that only prohibits eating. A pastoral note can be made from this, in advising people against taking the commands of God beyond their scope, in any way. For instance, though Jesus is clear that lust is equivalent to adultery of the heart, it does not follow that admiring the beauty of another is forbidden. There may be a fine line between admiring and then twisting that admiration to an inordinate desire of a sexual nature, but it is also the fine line between sin and not sin. It must be clear to us that every time one thinks of someone else "woah, they have great eyes!", one is by no means being unfaithful to one's spouse. It is only when one then goes on to desire that person for oneself that it has lustful overtones. This is crucial if we are to avoid despair, and indeed, retain confidence that God's sanctifying grace really is at work.

Even so, the woman's response is roughly correct. Death is to follow from eating of the fruit, and here comes the lie: the serpent coaxes her in saying "there will be no punishment, it is no big deal. In fact, look how desirable it is! What gains it would bring if you ate! God only said that because he does not want the best for you." This mirrors temptation exactly, I think. In essence, we sin because we think that there will be no punishment, or not that big a punishment. We sin because we desire what is forbidden, and we think it will bring us something we lack and need. Finally, and here is the theological aspect to it, we sin because although we know that a good God would find it reprehensible, we become convinced that God is somehow withholding something from us, and that we would be better off disobeying. No sin is ever committed when we truly believe that we will be worse off when we sin, no sin is ever committed for something unappealing. Some have suggested that the essence of sin is mistrust of God, but though this is a useful generalization, these three aspects on which the serpent lie more fully spell out the root of all sin.

The Second Creation Account (Genesis 2)

Although for the ancient Israelites Adam and Eve are not particularly prominent figures, Christian theology values them enormously. We value them because in Adam we see a type[1] of Christ, a parallel drawn in particular by St Paul in the epistle to the Romans, chapter 5. I will not for now discuss that passage in Romans - I will get to it in due time, but the typological parallels that are relevant will be drawn. I will also only note the differences with Genesis 1 where relevant.[2]

"Then the LORD God formed man [Hebrew adam] from the dust of the ground [Hebrew adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." (v. 7)

The author is using a play on words here between "adam" and "adamah", the word for "man" and the word for "ground." This is a sort of humbling message, specially after Genesis 1 where we get the importance of being in the image of God and having dominion over the earth. This foundational truth[3] is important to grasp, and we are reminded of it every year on Ash Wednesday when we have the priest draw the cross in ashes on our foreheads and say much the thing that is said in this verse. 
 "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (vv. 15-17)

Having established that God is in no way indebted to man, we see that still God gives to him everything he needs - he asks only that man refrains from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for his own sake. If man eats from the tree, then on that very day, he will die. This is a losing of the divine life, not of the earthly life - for us creatures, to have the divine life requires the earthly life, the biological life, but it is certainly distinct. It is completely false to transpose the statement and say that biological life means one has divine life. St John's gospel uses the word life in this way, as the divine life, since even those condemned still have life, in some sense.

Summary of verses 18-22: The man names all the animals, but none are quite a suitable partner, so God makes woman from the man's rib. Then we read:

"Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." (vv. 23-24)

God continues in his providence, having already given man everything he needs physically, he makes woman, the companion of man, who together can be mutually fulfilling. An incredible mystery is found here, because St Paul (or whoever wrote the epistle to the Ephesians) is going to take this and make it apply to the relationship between Christ and the Church. Let us make one point very clear: this relationship sets up the mystery, but it is not in itself part of the mysterious oneness of the body in marriage - the man and the woman here were the same flesh beforehand also.

"And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." (v. 25)

I think this verse has some key information about the nature of sin, too, and also helps us understand what St Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans about the law and sin. I will comment on this, however, in relation to what happens after they eat of the fruit, when I comment on Genesis 2.

A take home point:

So far, everything is written so as to be thought of as perfect. This is, quite literally, paradise, the garden of Eden. In the context of the book of Genesis, we are meant to think of it this way - but we're also meant to have a problem. We, as human beings that live in the real world, have absolutely no experience of God in this way, or of the perfection of paradise. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 have problems which the Enuma Elish, the epic of Gilgamesh, Sumerian myths and any other number of creation (and soon, flood) stories avoid easily: we have a perfect God, yet the world seems far from perfect. Throughout the next 10 chapters in particular, but throughout Genesis as a whole, the writer is going to have to treat the problem of evil in a way no previous religions had to. The reason for evil is going to have to be something other than God himself - and we shall get to what the writer says in Genesis 3.

[1] I use type in the typological sense.

[2] Differences abound, but since Genesis 1-11 does not attempt to write history in the conventional sense, it is not a matter of particular importance.

[3] I don't wish to poke too much fun at my young Earth creationist brethren, but they seem to miss that humans were made from the ground if and when they say things like "evolution destroys the dignity of humans by making them a product of the natural world." The theory of evolution may not be found explicitly in the Bible, but the idea that we are made from the most earthly of things - literally, the earth of the ground, certainly is.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Temptations in the Widerness (Matthew 4:1-11)

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (which, if you have ever been to Palestine, you know is really a desert) is an exceedingly symbolic passage. I say this because it takes the form of a sort of dialogue between the devil and Jesus, and each of the three issues on which Satan tempts Jesus is highly loaded, in an almost allegorical sense.

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (v. 1)

This could be overlooked as a connecting sentence into the next section, but I claim it has more importance than that. Three points can be made:

     1. Jesus was led by the Spirit, which means, God took him to be tempted. We will see that elsewhere in the New Testament, God promises to never give a temptation that we could not resist, but here we can clearly see that God still takes us into temptation.

     2. Jesus was led into the wilderness, that is, Jesus was alone - almost. Although Jesus was not with any other person, the Spirit was there with him, and obviously, the devil will appear soon. This makes it clear that whether or not Jesus resists the temptations, he will do it for the sake of God alone, not because other people are there urging him to be a good person. He could succumb, and if he did, then nobody would know. Hence, this temptation is distilled in that no other factors come into play.

     3. Jesus was led to be tempted, in other words, Jesus can be tempted too! And since Jesus has no sin, we must then infer that being tempted is not in itself sinful. This is more of a pastoral note, since we can often find ourselves guilty for having a wayward desire. We will see in the passage that Jesus never shows signs of giving in, or being troubled, and so I would contend that a real want for something illicit is indicative of sinfulness, yet still I affirm that it is not itself sin.

"The tempter came and said to him "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,
        'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"" (vv. 3-4)

We have just seen God "christen" Jesus as Son of God, and this time in the wilderness is going to test that. The first test is one of relieving suffering, of earthly indulgence. The devil essentially asks Jesus "since you're the Son of God, you could totally just make those stones into bread, and eat, and so fill your belly. Food is not bad, is it?" Jesus response follows as if it were said to what I take to the devil's words, and he essentially replies: "No, because although food is good, it is not enough. Man cannot live by only this earthly food, but instead by what flows from the mouth of God" We could misinterpret that to mean that we could subside only by means of reading the Scriptures, but from the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (my commentary on which you can find here), the words of God are endowed with a special meaning, because unlike the words of any creature, when God utters a word, things are made. So Jesus is not saying "I shan't eat food, because I can live off reading the Bible", but instead "I shan't succumb to my desire to make my own solution to hunger, because I must live of what proceeds from God."

""If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (vv. 6-7)

This is an interesting one, because upon reading it, I find myself thinking "Jesus is saying 'do not make falsifiable claims about God,'" but that reading is anachronistic and theologically poor. Yet understanding this passage has profound pastoral importance - for instance, if a priest says to you, "go to Iraq to share the gospel, God will protect you, because you are his child" (I use Iraq because I imagine it has a fairly hostile attitude towards Christian things), should you respond "Do not put the Lord your God to the test"? There seems to be something terribly wrong with that. Maybe it is because throwing oneself onto rocks is not in any sense "for" God, whereas my scenario is. I put forward that what is characteristic about this is that here, Satan asks Jesus to do something that is really only expressing the attitude "do this for me", and Jesus responds by saying "I act unconditionally - I do not say "do this for me", as if I was testing God." So we certainly may have boldness that comes only from the knowledge of God's care and protection - but not because we demand things for the sake of demanding them. That would be equivalent to testing God.

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

 Part of the irony of the previous temptation is that Satan is doing exactly what he knows not to: he is testing the Son of God, seeing if he really is God's Son. This last temptation does away with the formula "If you are the Son of God...", and in one last attempt to subdue Jesus, offers him absolutely everything of desirable nature in the world. Anybody that has been educated in the past five hundred or so years knows that there is no possible way in which one can go up a mountain and see all the kingdoms of the world - at best, you can observe half the planet, from an infinitely tall mountain. Perhaps all the kingdoms are conveniently placed on one hemisphere, and the rest of the world has civilizations which are not kingdoms, but such a reading seems completely bankrupt theologically.Still, the point is clear that Jesus is offered anything and everything he could possibly want in the whole world - if he would only renounces all he actually does want, not of this world. So true to his Sonship, Jesus says "no!, I will worship only the Lord!" This is an expression of the virtue of religion.

These temptations, though important in their own right, have higher meanings also. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes "Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly mattes in human life."[1]  It is also exceedingly important to see that these three show the underlying temptation to trust anything other than God himself.

In the scheme of the book of Matthew, however, probably the most important thing is how this mirrors "Jesus as the true Israel". This has been hinted at in quoting Hosea ("out of Egypt I called my son"), and here we see how where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.[2] In this way, Jesus, the true Son, comes out of his 40 day period spotless, and ready to begin his ministry, just as Israel was meant to do after the 40 years in the wilderness.

[1] Jesus of Nazareth, page 28.
[2] Israel doubted God's providence (Exodus 16:3), put God to the test (Exodus 17:1) and abandoned God for idolatry (Exodus 32).

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The First Creation Narrative (Genesis 1)

I considered using the text of Genesis 1 to make my point about science-and-the-Bible (here), but upon reading it carefully, I decided against it. A thoughtful study of this text alone seems to indicate that the task of the writer is not so much to give an account of how stuff came about, since we are not really told what happened. Nor should we expect to find an ancient document concerned chiefly with material origins, because this is simply not the most prominent issue. The ancient near East has many examples of creation myths, so it is not quite right to say that "why there is something rather than nothing" is a completely irrelevant question - but nonetheless, the focus seems to be rather different. In this text, we have a story which tells more about God and his attributes, over and above something seemingly irrelevant to the text, such as "where was the light from if the sun is made on day three, but night and day are separated on the first day?", or "did Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, hit his head on the dome of verse 6?" These are very silly questions once we begin to realize the kind of things that the text tries to tell us - and conversely, those that it does not.

Genesis 1 was written in a time where the first listeners would have been versed in another creation story, the Babylonian "Enuma Elish". The highly memorable beginning of the first verse of Genesis 1, "In the beginning", echoes the beginning of the Enuma Elish, which opens similarly (with "enuma elish", from whence the story gets its name). The imagery and the motifs, the structure and expressions all find a parallel in the Enuma Elish. To some extent, this is where the similarities end, because the writer of Genesis 1 is going to take these ideals and apply them in a radically different way - this literary polemical tactic is going to inform us of what exactly the author is trying to say. I have read the Enuma Elish, and so am able to understand the incredible contrast that is made - within the same literary structures, just to make the point clearer.

With this in mind, let us begin, but first with the beginning to the Enuma Elish:

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven.

This sounds a bit like the start to Genesis 1, which goes:

In the beginning when God created ["began to create"] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God [or "while the Spirit of God"] swept over the face of the waters.

The first thing to say is, if we want to get a doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we better go somewhere else in the Bible, such as the epistle to the Hebrews. Genesis 1 reads more like it is saying "at the start", in the original language. The next thing which becomes very clear from this parallel reading is that God does not come into existence. The Enuma Elish has more of a theogony, a story of how the gods came into existence, with the created world around us being a side-product. But although Apsu and Tiamat are not gods, rather mere personifications of fresh water and salt water respectively, one might still wish to say that these stories are fundamentally similar, up until now. I think this is actually the point - we shall start from common ground, author and reader, storyteller and audience. From here on, the stories are going to diverge massively in theology.

In Genesis, God speaks, and things are made. In the Enuma Elish, the gods fight and things are produced. In Genesis, God makes purposefully, according to his good pleasure, and then he says as much in declaring it "good". In the Enuma Elish, violence is fundamental to creation, and reality is not really of a good or bad nature, it just is, and poor ones are those who get stuck in it!

Genesis 1 has a rhythmic nature, with every day having this structure of God speaking, it being so, God seeing that it was good - evening, morning, the nth day. It has a structure, of making and filling. As a polemic piece, its structure is both similar in terms of things being created in stages, but extremely different in regards to what happens in each one. 

But if we only got that out of Genesis 1, then we would have missed the biggest point. Yes, our ancient Israelite mindsets (since we are placing ourselves in their shoes) are being dramatically overthrown as our polytheistic conflict-beginnings are being replaced by a transcendent and ultimate one God, who speaks to make - no violence, no catastrophe, just a word, and it is so. Yet the most profound thing that is said in this piece is, in a sense, about us.

In the Enuma Elish, we humans also come in near the end, but we come in to serve the gods because they got lazy of doing all the work themselves. We are divinely made slaves to relieve the gods of their labours. In Genesis 1, even were all the sanctity, the purposefulness and the goodness of God's creation to be completely ignored, we would still learn something phenomenally new about ourselves: we were made for our own sake - God lacks nothing, yet makes us, and gives first not orders but blessings. Then, our task is not an arduous job, but some might argue another blessing: "be fruitful and increase in number." (v. 28) God makes provision for us, giving us "every seed-bearing plant which is on the face of the earth, and every tree that bears fruit with seed." (I do not think this means humans were made to be vegetarians, but such an interpretation is at least plausible.) God has made humankind in the image of God, endowing us with a sanctity and inviolable nature; this matter of fundamental importance, the image of God, is to be the reason why killing another human is wrong, "for in the image of God has God made mankind" (Genesis 9:6).

Here is the thing to take away from this: the way God wants things, is very good. We shall see why exactly it is not so now in the chapters to come.

Preliminaries to the Study of the Pentateuch

There are about a thousand different issues that need to be thought through in the texts of the first five books of the Bible, and they start popping up from the very first verse. Christians in particular can have a really difficult time going through the Old Testament because we are exceedingly unaccustomed to the kind of literature it has - narrative, not didactic material.We try to get the text to answer the question "how does this apply to me?" and can get into some knots, jumping over flaming hoops backwards to try and get an "application." That's not to say there is no application question to be asked - it is simply going to be found in a manner quite different to how one would find "what St Paul is telling us," were we to read a Pauline epistle.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible are traditionally ascribed to Moses, although scholars mostly agree now that this idea of authorship is somewhat outdated [1], and other theories have taken its place. The most prominent of these is a four-source theory, that says that the Pentateuch is made up of four sources labelled J, E, P, and D. I do not speak ancient Hebrew (in any of its forms), I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and so I cannot truly comment on the merits of this theory. Nonetheless, I wish to point out that the final editors of these texts (according to one version of the theory, the writers of the priestly source were the ultimate redactors) had a theological point to make, and that these texts do not read as a poorly made collage of different sources. Instead of trying to pick apart which source is which, it is of far more benefit to Christians to understand the richly textured world of the final product - all the while understanding that there is not one author. This point is readily understood, since we are accustomed to saying things like "John and Paul use that word differently" or "James means something different by 'justified'" - we know that words can be built up to have different meanings in materials from different authors, and it is this point I wish to emphasize from the JEPD theory. We will understand the text differently -ultimately, more fully - if we grasp that passages where the Hebrew word "YHWH" denotes God, and others where it is "Elohim" that is used for him, really do have a subtly different focus. Yet although we distinguish between Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, and all the rest of them, we Christians ought not fall into the trap of saying "I am a Pauline Christian", or others "I am a Johannine Christian", or even "I am a Jesus Christian" (meaning they adhere strongly to one or more of the gospel accounts, or epistles). To do so would be to have picked apart the Bible too much for any spiritual use. Such a fragmented Bible may be of interest to the scholars, but to the Christian, it profits little.

So those two vital points must be made before considering the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch in particular - that it is of a genre largely unused in the New Testament, and that, for the Pentateuch, one person's pen did not write the whole. One last point which seems at times forgotten is that these books are written in a historical and cultural context which is entirely different to ours. Some of the ideas which to them appeared self-evident will be exceedingly difficult for us to grasp, their questions will be totally distinct to those we might ask. So the last point is this: we must ask the text what information it wishes to convey, and not demand it tell us what it does not contain. To do so, we ought to consider the audience, the culture, the time and the place of its writing. Armed with these preliminaries, we may now go on to Genesis.

[1] Not to say all old things are wrong, which seems to be the implication of this expression. I mean simply that uniquely Mosaic authorship is the traditionally held dogma which is now viewed with as having a certain naïveté these days, now that we know significantly more. This still does not rule out Mosaic authorship, particularly as it is sometimes seen as heroic to doubt religious things which rest on much stronger evidence than more secular beliefs.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 3)

(Text: Gospel according to St Matthew (NRSV) )

In the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew, John the Baptist is introduced. Before I begin writing down my thoughts on this passage, I want to say a few words on how I am writing these blog posts: as I posted yesterday, I am going through a set reading plan, and I plan to write down my thoughts on the passages I read as I go along. Sometimes it is crucial to get some context to understand a passage, and this might be one of them, but I do not wish to expound a whole theology of baptism before I have gotten to a passage where baptism is in any sense clearly explained. If baptism has to do with repentance, why does Jesus get baptized? If baptism has to do with becoming part of the church...then what in the world is going on here? If, as St Paul says, through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death (see Colossians 2:12 - although I am undecided about Pauline authorship), then how can this possibly happen before Jesus dies, and still the question is asked, why does Jesus get baptized? When we get to later sections dealing with baptism, in particular the right part of the catechism, we may be fit to discuss these problems better. For now, the passage:

John the Baptist appears as a very impoverished man, in his living arrangements (v. 1), his clothes and his food (v. 4). He explains his purpose by quoting Isaiah - I take that verse (v. 3) to mean that John believes he is a sort of herald. This interpretation fits beautifully with how St Matthew has been building up his conception of Jesus: royal bloodline, royal homages, and now, a royal herald.

John's ministry is one of baptism, but it appears to be a baptism distinct to the baptism of nowadays - this is just a baptism of water for repentance, yet reference is made to one different from this, utilizing the Holy Spirit and fire (v. 11). Baptism also appears to involve confession, as seen in verse 6. Now, how does John react to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism? Christians know full well that Jesus and Pharisees did not get along well - but for a first century Jew, these sections of Judaism were among the strictest and most respected. St Matthew has just done some serious juxtaposition in saying that John the Baptist is meant to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v.3), but then rejects the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What charges are made against this religious establishment? First, they are under wrath, although the question "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v.7) implies that this is not a particular anger at them. They should bear fruit worthy of repentance - John is saying the equivalent of "repentance without works is dead". The term "worthy" should stick out a bit, because being worthy of repentance is an odd concept - how do you become worthy of turning away from wrongdoing? Although it is a bit of a cop out answer, I suspect St Matthew is just saying in a pointed way "you have repented? Then show it." Again, repentance without works is dead.

John goes on to say "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Let us not confuse this with the converse: John does not say "every tree that bears good fruit will be saved." There is no salvation merely by bearing good fruit - but John does assert that there is no salvation unless there is good fruit involved. We are dealing with good works as necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions.

Finally, we get to the odd bit I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus' baptism. It seems like John has a similar concern to me, but Jesus just responds in what I take to be "this will do - this must be done to fulfil all righteousness." What righteousness he speaks of, I am unsure. The Greek word is dikaiosune, and it often refers to the uprightness and faithfulness of God and his people to the covenant - as such, it is a word associated deeply with the covenant between God and Israel. This sheds, as far as I can tell, no light on the matter, since there is no requirement for baptism at the time. The best I can do is to suggest that Jesus trod the path that we should tread, so it is "proper" (in the NRSV translation that I read, it uses this word and not "right") to do so, for our sake.

One special note: baptism is clearly important. Over this year, I know for certain (largely because I've read large chunks of the Bible already) that baptism is going to be assumed as a thing of the past a lot of the time, and perhaps here we see why; I suspect most people got baptised straight away, just like Jesus gets baptised before he preaches a single word.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Reading Plan for the Year

I will be posting within the week reflections on an odd variety of passages from Scripture and the catechism, so I think it is fair to give due warning. I am following, for this year, one of those "Read the Bible in a year" plans, including deuterocanonicals and the catechism. So do not be confused when tomorrow I post my reflections on some of Genesis, or the first twenty or so statements in the catechism.

The reading plan, for those interested, is:

Furthermore, the books I will probably get through this year include (note: read ones will be crossed out):

- What St Paul Really Said (Tom Wright)
- Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton)
- Our Lady and the Church (Hugo Rahner)
- Evangelicals and Catholics Towards a Common Mission Together (various)
- St Paul the Apostle (collected from writings of Pope Benedict XVI)
- Gift and Mystery (Pope John Paul II)
- Between Heaven and Mirth (James Martin)
- The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (James Martin)
- Is Religion Irrational? (Keith Ward)
- The Catholic Church (Hans Küng)
- Nothing in my hand I bring (Ray Galea)
- Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism to the Transfiguration (Pope Benedict XVI)
- Documents of Vatican II (various)
- The Dawkins Delusion? (Alister McGrath)
- Belief Today (Karl Rahner)

- The Republic (Plato)
- Mediations (René Descartes)
  The Prince (Nicolo Machiavelli)
- Beyond Good and Evil (Friedrich Nietzsche)

- The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)

- A universe from nothing (Lawrence Krauss)
- Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne)

- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
- The Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde)
- Animal Farm (George Orwell)
- The Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis)
  Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift)

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Part 2)

If anybody does not think that Matthew 1 presented Jesus as king, then they might have a bit of a tough time understanding why the wise men come to Jerusalem asking "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" (v. 2)

Now, there are two ways (at least) we can understand the literary effect of including the wise men in the narrative. First, we could view them as being St Matthew's way of introducing Herod and the role he plays. Though a valid understanding, since these men do not have any kind of role after chapter 2, I contend that this gives us a very shallow view. The second seems more likely:

Matthew 1 is about King Jesus, finally come, the true son of David, here to save his people from their sins. Now, even in this chapter, we begin to see the role the book of Isaiah is going to play in how Jesus understands and explains his ministry. Since St Matthew gives no reference to Isaiah other than saying "the prophet", I think it fit to infer that the audience in question would have had a decent grasp of the Old Testament (although he makes reference to Jeremiah explicitly in 2:17 before quoting him). I believe St Matthew has passages such as Isaiah 60 in mind, or perhaps Isaiah 49, where the message of salvation finally goes out to the nations. The wise men here represent the first of these peoples who will flock to Jerusalem, flock to the holy mount Zion and hear the word of God. Right now, these men pay homage to the king of the Jews...but why? I think St Matthew is foreshadowing here the inclusion of the gentiles. Perhaps he is even saying "look, even the pagans pay homage!" before he shows us how the Jews themselves will react to Jesus and his teachings. In that sense, he foreshadows also the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

Herod also appears only in this section in St Matthew's gospel, and his reaction to the wise men is interesting: verse 3 reads "When king Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him." Herod is scared because he knows very well that the Jews are awaiting a king from the line of David, and he can be no such king. Herod has a sort of paranoia that some more active Israelite will plunge a knife in his back or slip something in his drink - so clearly, he is not happy when somebody comes to ask for the king of the Jews. This needs to be dealt with.

Before getting to how Herod deals with this, however, I should comment on the second half of the verse - why is Jerusalem frightened?An anachronistic answer might be that they fear the Messiah will rebuke them, and so they fear his coming. I think it far more likely that Jerusalem is more scared of what Herod will do with this information. Indeed, it is not pretty. Herod tells the wise men to inform him of Jesus' location, and deviously plans to kill him. This is not strictly stated in the text, but Herod is not being very open about this ("Herod secretly called for the wise men..."), and also it is reasonable to infer from what Herod does when this first plan is thwarted - more on that in a moment.

The wise men come to the child Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from their treasure chests, all with joy. I contend, although there is much room for disagreement, that these gifts are meant to be reminiscent of Solomon, the man with the most gold, and frankincense/myrrh only appear together, to the best of my knowledge, in the Songs of Solomon (see 3:6, 4:6, 4:14). This interpretation fits well with St Matthew's royal portrayal of Jesus, and how the wise men treat him as king, yet the reference may well be obscure. Others have suggested that gold symbolizes his kingship, whereas frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his Passion and death. as myrrh was sometimes used with as a burial ointment (see John 19:39). This was the interpretation of St Irenaeus, and his allegorical interpretation is sound doctrinally, so I have no problem with it. [1]

The most memorable thing that Herod does within the Bible is the massacre of the innocents, but because of no extra-biblical evidence for such a horrific act, some scholars have suggested that it never happened. From a literary standpoint, it is not senseless to have this story here, since one of the the images that St Matthew takes from the Old Testament and applies to Jesus is Jesus as the New Moses (which we shall get to in particular with the sermon on the mount, which reminisces of Mount Sinai). Moses also lives in a time where the authorities are killing children, and Moses also escapes (this is narrated in the book of Exodus). Although more historical evidence would be preferable to properly establish its occurrence, we must understand that Bethlehem is not a very large village, and so the number of children killed would most likely be very small, and it is completely possible that such an event was not newsworthy to later historians, through whom we have no record of it. Herod's evildoings were numerous enough and much more notable in other instances, that this particular one may well have passed under the radar.

One final comment should be made on typology in this passage, because the Isaiah passage earlier and the Hosea passage of verse 15 both seem to be taken wildly out of context if we suppose that St Matthew is using them as proof-texts, or prophecies yet to be fulfilled that come to fruition in Jesus. The verse from Isaiah, in context, seems to be referring to king Hezekiah, who does appear to rescue Israel from various evils (see 2 Kings 18, in particular verses 1-6). The Hosea passage, in turn, refers to the already accomplished (even by the time of Hosea) calling of Israel (God's first born son, Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt. How then, does Jesus fulfil these finished prophecies? The answer is typology. King Hezekiah indeed rescued Israel from various evils, and King Jesus does all the more. Hezekiah is "God With Us", and Jesus, so much more! Jesus is therefore a "type of King Hezekiah", but an ultimate type - ie, the fulfilment of that prophecy. Hosea is not even being prophetic in the quoted verse, and yet just as Israel was called out of Egypt, so too the true and eternal first-born son of God, Jesus, is called out of Egypt. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus makes them come true in the sense that they were still open-ended - nor must we forget that Jesus really is the king that rescues us from evil, that he is "God with us" and that he is the Son of God.

[1] At some point in church history distinctions began to be made between different levels on which the text spoke, and each level gave rise to a way of understanding it. One of these was the allegorical, which does not mean that St Irenaeus was a liberal theologian, simply that he was not reading it as simple history, but also as a literary work. The distinctions were not entirely exact, but in broad strokes some medieval theologians would have a four level system: the literal sense, the allegorical sense, anagogical sense and the moral sense. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mathean Infancy Narrative (Part 1)

The gospel according to St Matthew is one of the two gospels with an infancy narrative, and the Pope Emeritus published some (reportedly) excellent scholarship on it. Since I have not read it and I doubt I could top it, my reflections on this passage will be mostly things that stick out to me, and bits of background information I found illuminating.


"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."

It is common for very important people (kings and emperors, in particular) in the ancient world to have miraculous birth narratives told of them, and so St Matthew tells of a miraculous birth at the onset of his gospel. From a literary perspective, I think the goal is to elevate this figure Jesus, whom he has already called the Messiah/Christ thrice, to this status of leader, of King. Just because something is a literary device, however, does not mean Jesus was not born of a virgin - indeed, the reference in verse 23 seems to indicate that St Matthew believes this to be an actual event. I personally embrace wholeheartedly the idea that Jesus was born to Mary, the Mother of God - but this is something taken from a richer theological framework, from a broader theology of Scripture and revelation. Nonetheless, that is what the text says: that Jesus, the Messiah, was born of the Virgin Mary.

What about the role of St Joseph? He appears as a rather quiet figure. He is spoken to, but he does not say anything. Similarly, the Church has regarded St Joseph as the quiet father figure, giving him a certain nobility and humility of character. In support of this, the text refers to him as "a righteous man" (v. 19).

Other than his title, the Christ, and his genealogy (being the son of David), we do not know much of Jesus until verse 20. Here we learn that his origin, though Davidic, is also divine: "the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." We also learn in the same verse of his mission, or at least, one of his objectives: "he will save his people from their sins."

When we, as Christians, read this "mission statement" given to Jesus by the angel, we might suddenly envisage the cross, and if we reflect on that image in the context of the annunciation, we may be lead to thinking this is a sad passage; the angel announces Jesus' death even before he is born. This image, though accurate, is not the message I think was trying to be made. Instead, I believe we should try and see this section as the birth of the child of the covenant, the promised son of David who would bring to fulfilment God's plan of salvation that had been begun with Abraham. Here is the person who would set things straight in God's plan, dealing decisively with injustice and evil-doings - that is, putting an end to sin. Notice the wording of the text is not "pay the price for people's sins" or "he will be a propitiation for their sins", but a message of salvation. For the moment, St Matthew is feeding our excitement at how the child Jesus is affirming Messianic expectations - it shan't be long before they are subverted, but not quite yet.

Matthew 1:1-17: The Coming of the King

Genealogies are dull, right?

Well, perhaps to us, and if so, then Matthew 1 is mostly quite dull too. Whatever may be said about inspiration, the gospel of Matthew displays some solid literary skill, though, so it seems like a rather odd oversight to put such a boring passage right at the beginning, whilst trying to capture the audience's attention. I would like to give some back-story to this opening to show why this genealogy is probably the most interesting in the whole New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible. So to do that, some history:

Long before the first century AD, Israel had been formed from the patriarchs, and to Abraham had been given the first covenant promises - a nation through him, and the promised land (corresponding to modern day Palestine). The Israelites had managed to conquer the promised land, and lived there for quite a few generations. In this period another covenant was made, one with king David, that there would always be a king from the line of David. The Son of David would reign Israel forever, the prophecy said. This dynasty lasted for an enormously long time - but not forever. Disaster came.

The nation of Israel was exiled, and no king was on the throne. A few centuries later, Israel returns, but her king is not Davidic. The Maccabees took back Judea from the Seleucids, setting up the Hasmonean dynasty...but they were not the real deal. They were not from the line of David. Their kingdom could not last if God's prophecy was to be fulfilled, if God's Messiah would reign - for he had to be of the line of David.

As exciting as the return from exile was, there was no true king on the throne. Herod is enthroned by Rome, but when he concocts his genealogy attempting to show Davidic descent, nobody believes him. This causes him a great deal of paranoia, as we shall see in the next bit of the infancy narrative of Matthew, however now it suffices to say that still, the king was not on the throne.

Were was the king? Who was to be God's anointed one, the Christ? Had God forgotten his promises to Abraham and David?

This is the atmosphere into which Matthew writes his opening genealogy:

"This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1, NET)

Picture yourself in the first century, despaired by God's seeming absence. You hear someone excitedly opening up a scroll, there is some news to be heard! And this news opens up saying "here is the lineage of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Not just any of the descendents of David, of which there are many. Here is Jesus, the Christ, the true son of David. The King has come.

The Historical Argument Against the Bible

Before I commence this post, I think it prudent to make clear two crucial things. First, I am a follower of Christ Jesus because I looked into history to try and show that he did not rise from the dead, and found that I was wrong. Secondly, I want to affirm the role that Biblical documents have played in history - from discovering monuments in Siloam, the pool of Bethesda or any other number of matters in history, many of these documents have helped historians better understand the ancient world.

So, having said that, I now want to try and formulate a historical argument against it. There are, I think, at least two ways of doing this: first, pointing out that historically, two things that are described in the Bible could not both have happened, and secondly, that what the Bible says disagrees with what happened in reality.

Both of these are possible, but the latter is more difficult to do in a blog post, and I would say that it is far less convincing, since it is difficult to know things with certainty when they happened so long ago. Without further ado, I want to mention two bits of evidence of the former sort:

  • The differing accounts of the conversation with Pilate.
  • The differing accounts of the apostle Paul's journeys after conversion.
The first one I believe is quite simple, because in three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic gospels, there is not very much talking, yet in bet. See Mark 15:1-6, for instance, where the only words Jesus says are "You say so." Matthew 27:11-14 records a similar encounter.  Luke 23:1-7 seems to suggest that there is a bit more conversation, since the previous two said quite clearly that Jesus gave no more replies, but when Pilate asks Jesus if he was a Galilean, it appears Jesus may have responded. Perhaps - the text does not say Jesus speaks, but only that Pilate "learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction."

John's gospel has a bit more of a to-and-fro between Pilate and Jesus, captured in John 18:28-38. Here, Jesus is much more talkative, saying such memorable lines as "my kingdom is not from here," and here he admits more clearly who he is: "You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." to which Pilate responds, equally memorably: "What is truth?".

So which one is it? Now, what is interesting is that these are actually two independent sources (because the synoptic gospels are related in some way, but John is distinct) that there really was a sort of sentencing by Pilate, and indeed, there exists at least one extra-biblical document that corroborates this. Historically speaking, this means that this encounter probably occurred in some form - but which? This is not a question with an easy answer, at least not from a historian's point of view.

Next, and for me more crucially, is the missionary movements of Paul and the discrepancies between Acts of the Apostles and Galatians. Here, I struggle to find some story that could magically tie them together, and even if I could, it would probably have to be more complicated than accepting one account or the other. I shall let you, the reader, attempt to figure this out. The relevant passages are Galatians 1:15-22 and Acts 9 (and onwards, but the point can be made just from Acts 9) - check for yourself.

Very simple, the modus ponens into which I have been putting the arguments is this:

1.If the Bible contradicts itself (or contradicts with reality), then it is errant.
2. The Bible does contradict itself.
3. Therefore, it is errant.

I feel pretty unorthodox writing that, but I think the premises are true and the argument is valid, so I cannot do otherwise.

Finally, then I have come to an argument which I think is quite solid. If the Bible contradicts itself, by the way, it follows that at most one of the events could have occurred, so it is also in dis-accord with reality. What can I say to that? One thing to do could be say that one ought not to believe a word of it. Another thing one might do is limit the scope of the Bible to some smaller range of topics, such as "matters relevant to salvation". However, I would want to say something else, improving on the latter option:

The Sacred Scriptures are not quite the same as a history book, or a scientific manual, and it is crucial to the study of the Bible to realize that. So when one author makes a point in one way and another makes a similar point that seems to contradict (such as "where did Paul really go?, "what did Jesus really say?" or any number of other ones). What difference does it make where Paul went, really? The divine truths are equally accessible to us either way, and if Acts gets some of the journey details chronologically out of order, then so be it! [It could be the case that Galatians gets it wrong, but since that is a Pauline epistle, one would then have to infer Paul had gone senile, or was lying.]

To end, I quote the relevant bit of Dei Verbum:

"the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."