And the Word became flesh and tented among us–Further Reflections on John 1

I’ve been thinking about John 1 and the image of the tent or tabernacle. The Greek verb that is translated as “dwelt” in “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” derives from the word for tent. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the same word is used for tabernacle, the place in which God was present during the Hebrews’ sojourn in the wilderness.

It’s a rich image, evocative of the temporary nature of the flesh in which the Incarnate Word resided and also because of the resonance with the Hebrew Bible, the author of John’s gospel was making a revolutionary statement about God’s presence in the world.

I thought about the image of “tent” earlier last week as I reflected on Paul’s words in II Corinthians while preparing a funeral homily. Paul uses “tent” to refer the flesh:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—

We tend not to think of flesh or body in these terms, perhaps because “tent” no longer has a ubiquitous presence in our culture. Tents are for camping, not for living, or dwelling.

Still, there is one way in which that image might take on new power in the contemporary context. One alternative translation is: “And he set up his tent in our midst.” Jim Keane, SJ, sees in this idea a parallel with the Occupy movements.

The ABC on the KJV

There was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version in Westminster Abbey this past week. Queen Elizabeth was in attendance. Rowan Williams preached a sermon that is worth reading.

He alludes to the problems inherent in translation and the importance of interpretation but he is much more interested in the role of the text in the life of the community:

But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started.

 

it was meant to be read aloud. And that means that it was meant to be part of an event, a shared experience. Gathered as a Christian community, the parish would listen, in the context of praise, reflection and instruction, to scripture being read: it provided the picture of a whole renewed universe within which all the other activities made sense. It would not be immediately intelligible by any means, but it marked out the territory of God’s work of grace.

 

The Guardian’s report on the celebration is here.

Williams reminds us of the open and unfinished nature of translation, to use other language, that translation always involves interpretation. That means scripture always eludes our efforts to capture and contain it, to define and fix its meaning. More importantly, he also urges us to take seriously our obligation to devote our lives to engaging the text, wrestling with its meanings. As Williams puts it, scripture invites us “to a pilgrimage further and further into the mysteries of [God’s] mind and love.”

Lectionary Reflections: Proper 28 Year A

The Hebrew Bible reading for Proper 28 in the semi-continuous reading is Judges 4:1-7. I was surprised to learn that this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. That means some of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible might not be encountered by ordinary churchgoers–the Samson cycle, for example, or the story of Gideon.

Judges belongs to a larger historical work that spans the books of Joshua through II Kings (not including Ruth). They’ve given it the tongue-twisting name of the Deuteronomic History, because it tells the history of Israel and Judah from the conquest to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in the 6th century BCE. It was written during the Exile to explain why the Exile happened.

Judges plays a central role in this story. It’s a collection of stories, some of them stories of heroes, others occasionally seeming like folktales. Each episode follows a similar pattern. A judge dies (judges are as much military rulers as judges in the contemporary sense) and the land falls into chaos with the Israelites suffering from foreign invasion and abandoning the worship of God. They cry out and God raises up a new judge who defeats the enemy and establishes a period of peace; but when he (or she) dies, the cycle repeats itself. The book helps to explain why monarchy was needed, but there is also something of a critique of the Israelites, had they been faithful to God, they would not have needed the strong hand of a monarch. The last verse in Judges expresses it well: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).

So the question becomes, why of all the possible stories in Judges, is this one included? That’s a puzzle of its own, for it really isn’t a story at all, but the beginning of a story involving two women, both of them also involving military victory. Deborah is a judge and prophetess, who leads the Israelites (with Barak) into battle. Interestingly, of all the judges mentioned in the book, it is only Deborah who is shown actually “judging:” “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (4:4)

Nestled between this scene and the actual battle is another story–the assassination of the Canaanite general Sisera by Jael a woman who, after offering him hospitality, kills him with a tent peg. The Deborah story concludes with what may be the oldest part of the Bible, the Song of Deborah (5:2-31). In it, Deborah is called “mother of Israel.” The story concludes with the observation that “the land had rest forty years” (5:31).

No doubt, this story is included in the lectionary because it shows a powerful and important woman, Deborah, a judge and prophetess, and calls us to remember that God calls both men and women to leadership roles. The nature and exercise of authority is a theme that has run through the Hebrew Bible readings from the story of Moses to this point and it will continue to dominate the history of the Israelites throughout the monarchy.

It’s an issue for contemporary Christians as well. Shaped by our culture and historical context, models of authority from politics and the corporate world contribute to our notions of the proper exercise of authority in the church. On the other hand, in the gospels, Jesus offers a very different model of authority: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27).

Choose you this day whom you will serve: Lectionary reflections on Proper 27, Year A

This Sunday, we will be observing All Saints, so our scripture readings will not be a continuation of the texts we’ve been reading. That’s a shame, because all three of them are rich. Both I Thessalonians and the Gospel reading have to do with the Second Coming, while the reading from Joshua 24 is the culmination of that book. All of the readings are available here.

I can’t read Joshua’s speech without thinking of our house in South Carolina.

We purchased our house from fundamentalists. Even though we liked the location, the layout, etc, there was one detail that almost broke the deal. On one of the living room walls was stenciled in large letters: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Now you may think there’s nothing problematic about that verse, that it is a worthy sentiment. But think about it for a moment. Joshua has given the Israelites an ultimatum: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And to buck them up, to set an example, he continues, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Do you get it yet? He is making that decision, not just for himself, but for everyone who lives with him—his wife and children, and any slaves. A worthy sentiment? Perhaps, but only if you think the only views that matter are those of the senior adult male.

The first thing we did after closing was paint over that stenciled verse; it took two coats, and still Corrie really wanted me to perform an exorcism on the entire property. After all, underneath that paint, those words remained. Our discomfort with them wass no accident, not just an example of the centuries and the cultural changes that separate us from the book of Joshua. For in their original setting, they were meant to bring discomfort to those who heard them first.

Joshua is largely unfamiliar to us today and the primary reason is that it tells a story that is deeply disturbing to many twenty-first century Christians. It records a version of the conquest of the promised land—with gory details of battles, and perhaps even worse, it records God taking initiative in those battles and demanding the complete destruction of the native population. It resonates uncomfortably with our own nation’s history of settling the continent of North America, defeating and destroying native populations in response to a belief that this land, like Canaan was given us by God. It also raises uncomfortable questions about waging war in the belief that God is on our side.

In fact, there is much more to the book of Joshua than the conquest, and even there the story it tells is much more complex than a quick skimming would suggest. The Israelites did not succeed in displacing the native population, as the later books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings relate, throughout the period of the monarchy, Israel lived among other peoples, and probably over time assimilated many of those people into their nation.

In these last verses of Joshua, we have the culmination of that story of conquest and settlement. This reading is extracted from a larger story, a dramatic covenant ceremony. Much of what was omitted was a recounting of the history of the Israelites—from Abraham and Jacob, through their slavery in Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan. After recounting those mighty acts of Yahweh, Joshua presents the people with an ultimatum: choose to serve Yahweh, or the gods of Mesopotamia, or the gods of the Canaanites. This story hearkens back to the events at Sinai, when Yahweh appeared to the Israelites and gave them the law.

In a way, it’s an odd story, because it implies that the Israelites’ commitment to Yahweh was less than total. In fact, it suggests that it is only now, after entering into and possessing the promised land, that Yahweh demands they give up their allegiance to other gods. But on another level, it is a reaffirmation of that faith, coming about at the end of a lengthy struggle, and centuries of unfulfilled promise. Yahweh had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they would possess this land; Yahweh had promised Moses and the Israelites as they suffered under Egyptian oppression, that they would be given a land flowing with milk and honey, and now finally, it was theirs.

The authors and editors of Joshua were writing the history of Israel from a vantage point hundreds of years after the fact, and hundreds of miles removed from the promised land. They were writing in Babylon, exiled after the destruction of their homeland, and they were trying to understand those events and to reflect on them theologically. So they developed a theology of promise and fulfillment, of a covenant made at Sinai, reaffirmed here at Shechem, but broken by centuries of unfaithfulness. Yet they hoped for a return to Jerusalem, their faith in Yahweh allowed them to imagine a future back in a restored kingdom.

Lectionary reflections on Proper 26, Year A: Entering the Promised Land

This week’s readings are here.

We’ve been using the semi-continuous readings from the RCL this summer, which have taken us from God’s promise to Abraham that he would possess the promised land, up to now, Joshua 3, when the Israelites finally cross the Jordan and enter the land. I’ve not had the opportunity to do much more than allude to the readings from the Hebrew Bible in my sermons over the past few months. I won’t be preaching on Sunday, and if I were, I probably wouldn’t say much about Joshua, but this dramatic scene, and the one which precedes it, deserve attention.

In last week’s reading from the last verses of Deuteronomy, we heard of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Nebo, his first and only sight of the Promised Land, and his death. It’s impossible for me to read this text and not think about the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before his assassination.

The book of Joshua carries the story forward. In this week’s reading, the Israelites cross the Jordan River. At the same time, it resonates deeply with earlier stories, especially the crossing of the Red Sea. There are thematic and linguistic parallels–the rare Hebrew word used in v. 13 describing the waters as standing “in a single heap” is also used in the Exodus account of the Red Sea, to give just one example.

Joshua is a problematic text on many levels. It tells the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and of God’s ruthless demands that the Israelites utterly destroy their enemies (and God’s punishment when they don’t). It has been used over the centuries to rationalize other conquests, such as the American conquest of Native Americans (witness the number of place names from Joshua used by settlers for towns in the US). The story, however, is more complex than that, for in fact the Israelites did not utterly destroy and displace all of the land’s inhabitants. Many survived and thrived, and the book of Judges offers evidence of the continuing presence of non-Israelites in the land. Still, it is worth pondering the influence of Joshua’s portrayal of the Promised Land and Holy War on the American psyche.

There are other important theological themes present in Joshua, among them the succession of authority from Moses to Joshua, that provide food for thought for contemporary Christians.

Debating the principles of Biblical interpretation with Atheists

Trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

Mark Shea asks: “Does Evolutionary Science disprove the Faith?

Jerry Coyne takes issue: “Catholics claim that lies are truer than truth

Ross Douthat chimes in.

Coyne’s response to Douthat.

Andrew Sullivan’s comments here and here.

Coyne assumes that readers of the Bible are completely arbitrary in their approach to scripture; that they decide randomly, what to take as “literal fact” and what to take as metaphorical. While that may be the case for many fundamentalists, it is not for those readers who have any theological education, and that is true whether one is talking about 21st century Christians or 5th century Christians. Certain texts are problematic, although the problems are very often quite different in different historical or cultural contexts. Thus, the Fathers had great difficulty in the Exodus text that will be read on Sunday in many churches, a text that references “the backside of God.”

Many atheists are fundamentalists in that they assert the only possible reading of a text is its “literal” interpretation, whatever that may be. Interpreters since Philo, at least, have sought deeper meaning in biblical texts that were problematic in a literal reading. Augustine went so far as to say that any possible interpretation of a text that was plausible given the words on the page, was perhaps a legitimate interpretation. Coyne would find Augustine’s “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 nonsense. The point is that for thoughtful readers of Scripture, a literal reading in many cases, perhaps in most, is nonsensical.

Jacob was a good Christian man–not! A Sermon for Proper 11, Year A

July 17, 2011

I have college professor friends who amuse themselves and us by keeping track of the most outrageous things students write on essay papers and exams. I never did such things, in large part, because writing such things down took time away from grading. So only a few such statements stand out in my fifteen years of teaching. And perhaps the most outrageous, absolutely, incorrect things I ever read was the opening sentence of an essay exam, “Jacob was a good Christian man.” Continue reading