Thursday, July 28, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 7

The central premise of this series of articles that I’ve been writing the last several weeks is that Genesis 1-11 lays out the Big Problem—what I’ve been calling the Original Sins—that plagues humanity and all creation.  It sets the table for the rest of the Bible as we see how humans struggle fruitlessly to find a solution, and how God ultimately provides it in Christ.  We are now to the final episode in the prologue, the story that has come to be called The Tower of Babel.
Immediately preceding that, however, is another genealogy, that of the sons of Noah.  This one is different than the preceding ones in that it’s less a family tree than a national/political one.  The descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth are listed by the nations that were formed from them rather by the individual names.  Among the nations mentioned are Egypt, Canaan, and Caphtorim “from which the Philistines come” (10:14), and Assyria.  This sets the stage for the final episode.
That this episode has come to known for the tower that was built is unfortunate in that it draws attention away from the real issue, of which the tower is just a part.  The people build more than a tower; they build an entire city.  The tower reaching into the heavens is just the most prominent structure, like the St. Louis Arch, the Washington Monument, or the Seattle Space Needle.  The reason they build a city, we are told, is because they want to make a name for themselves, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  (11:4)  But this is exactly what God has been telling the humans to do from the beginning.  "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth ,” he told them in Genesis 1:28.  After the Flood he repeats the command to Noah in 9:7: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
But to say that their sin was disobeying God is too generic and doesn’t address the heart of the problem.  It’s repeating the interpretive mistake we make with Genesis 3 when we say that Original Sin was the introduction of sin, any sin, into a perfect world, when in fact the sin has a very specific focus.  It’s not just that they disobey God’s command to scatter and fill the earth; the problem is why they congregate, consolidate, and converge: Power. 
Resources that are dissipated are weak, but concentrated they become powerful.  Ten gallons of water flows gently through a 10” pipe, but pushed through a 1/64” diameter nozzle it’s powerful enough to cut rock.   The humans build a city to “make a name for themselves.”  How many of you have heard of the country of Djibouti?  How about Niue?  Svalbard?  But how many people can you find anywhere who have never heard of the United States?  We’re big, powerful, and influential, a nation of consequence.  We’ve made a name for ourselves.
This is what the humans are doing.  They are becoming powerful; they are building an empire.  It’s not coincidental that the name of this city becomes Babel, precursor to Babylon, the empire that destroyed Jerusalem and with it Solomon’s Temple, then exiled a large portion of the population of Judah.  And now we see the significance of the national/political genealogy that precedes the account; the writer of Genesis is pointing to the beginning of the rise of empires.  This is not insignificant.  In many ways the history of ancient Israel is the history of the empires that controlled or sought control of the Mediterranean area; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.  Even Solomon’s expansion can be seen as the effort to build an empire.
And the Bible is definitely anti-empire, for a number of reasons.  Empires are like black holes for resources.  The emperor and his supporting structure need a lot of resources in order to have all the trappings of the office, and these resources come from the poor.  Well, maybe not initially, but when most people in the Ancient Near East generally just had enough to support their immediate family, living harvest to harvest, paycheck to paycheck, then taking just a little of  that away is a hardship; taking more than a little imposes poverty on them.  So the rich need a lot to maintain their extravagant lifestyle, and it comes from the poor.  And God is consistently against that in Scripture. 
But it’s never enough, so the Empire must expand, moving into other lands, conquering other nations in order to exact more tribute, and even if done peacefully, it’s an act of violence.  But it’s rarely done peacefully, it’s always done at the tip of a sword.  The Original Sin, humans killing humans, is not only multiplied in an Empire, it’s multiplied exponentially, and it’s intensified.  Person-on-person violence is usually rather simple—Cain killed Abel.  But it takes an empire to nail a person to a cross.  Crucifixion wasn’t just about killing a person—there were better, more efficient ways of doing that.  Crucifixion was about sending a message, a warning, a threat.  The Assyrians would attack a city and impale the bodies of some of the victims on large, tall stakes, leaving them there for all to see until the birds picked the flesh clean.  It was a message: don’t tread on me.
So empires enrich a few at the expense of the many, their hunger and need for new lands and new tribute is insatiable, and they are exponentially violent.  Perhaps most significantly, they demand absolute allegiance.  If you are a citizen of an empire, you enjoy certain rights, but you are expected to pay your taxes without complaint, you are expected to serve the empire without grumbling, you are expected to defend the empire without reservation, and you are even expected to give your life for the empire without question.
And no one can be trusted with this kind of allegiance except God.  Only God can be trusted not to be greedy for more, more, more.  Only God can be trusted to take care of the poor in such a way that maybe there aren’t any poor—no one has more than they need, and no one has less than they need (think manna).  Only God can be trusted to truly be just and to mete out justice fairly.  Only God can be trusted to know when a person needs to die, and how that person needs to die.  And only God can be trusted to know when—and if—violence is necessary.
And maybe if God, and not anything else, is given our allegiance, we will be able to see other people and other nations not as allies, threats, or sources of income, but as children of God, created in his image and likeness.  
 Like it was in the Beginning.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 6

The Flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 teaches us that the violence of humans is the problem God is seeking a solution to, and that violence itself cannot be a solution to violence.  Something else is needed.  The story even teaches us that God himself has forsaken violence as a means of ridding the world of violence, and if God, who alone is able to see into and understand the human heart, has forsaken it, how can we take it up, we who so quickly yet so poorly judge the human heart?  Part of the problem that Genesis 1-11 presents us is not only that humans keep trying to take for ourselves responsibilities,  rights, and actions that rightly belong only to God, but also that we refuse to forsake those rights and actions that even God has forsaken.  We are really some messed up dudes.
That’s part of the story of the Flood as well.  Who among us are really righteous?  God thought he had found a righteous man in Noah.  To be fair, the text says that Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord, not that he was righteous.   But coming on the heels of stating the wickedness and evil of humankind and God determining to destroy them all, the implication is clear: Noah was somehow innocent of the wickedness and evil that characterized everyone else.
There’s a brief episode after the Flood that often gets passed over, but it’s an integral part of the story.  After God makes a covenant with him, we are told that Noah, being a man of the soil, plants a vineyard.  And one day, Noah drinks some of the wine from his vineyard.  OK, more than some of the wine, he drinks a lot.  He gets drunk, so drunk that he passes out in his tent.  I don’t know a lot about getting drunk, but I know that if you drink so much that you pass out, that’s pretty drunk.
Noah, the one righteous man on the earth, is also the earth’s first drunk.  The gap between the two is apparently not that large.
But Noah is a closet drunk.  He doesn’t get drunk out in the open where everyone can see him.  Out in the open Noah is the Righteous Dude, the One God Found Favor With, the Holy Remnant and New Father of Humanity.  If Noah were to get drunk out in the open, he’d no longer be the Righteous Dude, he’d be the Drunk Dude.
So Noah goes into his tent and gets drunk.  His tent is dark.  His tent is private.  No one can see what goes on in his tent.  He’s safe to do whatever he wants in his tent.  In his tent, he doesn’t have to be anything to anyone; he doesn’t represent anything.  He’s not Righteous Dude or Favored One or Father of Humanity.  He’s just plain ol’ Noah.
Noah with a secret.  This wine stuff is good, and lots of wine is even better; and once he starts, he can’t stop.  He only stops when he passes out.  Oh, and he’s naked also.  Got drunk, took off his clothes, and passed out before he could get his jammies on.
Well, at least it only happens in the tent, in the dark, where nobody can see, and no one will know.  In the morning, when the light comes, he’ll wake up, shake the cobwebs out of his head, put some clean clothes on, and emerge once again as Noah, Favored One.
But one of Noah’s sons, Ham, goes into Noah’s tent and finds him lying there, drunk and naked.  Don’t know why Ham went in Noah’s tent.  Maybe Noah had overslept and Ham was worried about him.  Maybe he had never heard his dad snore so loud and went to see what was going on.  But he goes in and discovers his father’s little secret.
We all have tents, those dark, private places where we do things we don’t want anyone else to see.  Of course, our families tend to be able to see into our tents; it’s hard to keep things from our families.  Our kids in particular seem to be able to sniff things out.  So there is a code: no one talks.  Families stick together.  We keep each other’s secrets.  In fact, we don’t talk about each others secrets.  We act like they aren’t there.  It’s just better that way.
Ham talks.  He goes out and says to his brothers Shem and Japheth, “Hey, Dad’s naked and passed out in there.  Think we ought to do something?”  Well, Shem and Japheth do something all right; they honor the code.  In a classic portrayal of the denial of co-dependency, they grab a blanket, hold it between them, walk backwards into the tent and lay the blanket over their naked father.  Then they walk out.  Probably never speak of it to each other.  Act like it didn’t happen.
Noah wakes up, and somehow through the fog realizes what has happened.  And curses his son.  Consigns him to be a slave to his brothers.  Because he talked, and they didn’t.  Because he stated, clearly and honestly, “Um, I think we have a problem,” while Shem and Japheth participated in a conspiracy of denial along with their father.  The Righteous One.
There are none of us righteous enough to pass judgment on another.  None of us are righteous enough to decide what is right and what is wrong, who is right and who is wrong, who deserves to be free and who deserves to be a slave, who deserves to live, who deserves to die.  Most times when we do it, we mess it up pretty badly.  Noah did; you think you would do any better?
Only God is righteous enough.  And what he refuses to do, we should refuse to do.  That’s the message of the Flood narrative.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 5

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  This is how the Flood narrative begins in Genesis 6; it’s important to remember that, because God is going to do something about it, and to judge the effectiveness of his solution we need to remember what the before “picture” looks like so we can compare it with the “after” picture.
We need to remember what the problem is.  The wickedness and evil that is on the hearts of the human is not some general wickedness and evil; it’s not that they are adulterous or idolatrous or covetous, though all of those things are bad.  But Genesis has thus far emphasized that there is one big sin that is causing all the problems, and that is that the humans are violent.  These other sins may be symptomatic of this Original sin, but this is the one that has God so upset.  Just to remove any doubt the writer of Genesis makes this explicit in verse 11: “Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”
So how is God going to solve the problem of violence?  With violence.  That’s natural.  There is a longstanding belief, almost universally accepted among humans in all cultures, lands, and all epochs that violence can solve the problem of violence.  Kill the people who kill people.  If we kill all the murderers, all the rapists, all the terrorists, all the Nazis, all the torturers, all the abusers, all the perpetrators of genocide, etc., then all that will be left will be the non-violent people, people who love peace.  People like, well, Noah.  He was righteous.  He found favor with God.
So God decides that he is going to kill everyone except Noah and his family.  Flood the entire earth and drown everyone and everything.  Not just all the people, but all the animals as well.  The fish will get along swimmingly, but all the mammals, all the reptiles, even the birds—I mean, they can’t fly around indefinitely—are going to have to die as well.  God will perpetuate each species by putting one male and one female of each on the ark; and that’s nice.  But if you’re not one of the two, well, sorry.  (If you’re a clean animal, you get a better chance; there were seven pairs of them on the ark because, as Mom always told us, cleanliness is next to godliness.)
How bad does the violence have to be for God to resort to it himself?  How widespread?  How much evil can there be that God could only find one guy worth preserving?  That’s pretty bad.  So the issue at stake here isn’t whether or not such mass killing to an extent never before or since witnessed was justified.  Apparently it was.  No, the issue is, did it work?  Did violence cure the problem of violence?  If you have a problem calling what God did violence, then OK, call it whatever you want, but the question remains: did it work?  Did God killing everything actually change anything?
The answer comes at the end of chapter 8.  After Noah, his family, and all the animals disembark from the ark, Noah sacrifices to God, and God says in his heart—he says it to himself, not as a promise to anyone but as a resolution in his own mind—"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
There’s the “after” picture.  After all this, and “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”  Now, compare it to the “before” picture: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  Look pretty much the same.  No, exactly the same.
Nothing has changed.  God wanted to solve the problem of the Original Sin, and it didn’t work.  That’s pretty much what he says.  “Well, I’m never doing that again!  It didn’t do a thing!  Look at them!  Their hearts are inclined to evil just as bad as before!  I’m going to have to try something else.”
So, one flood, three chapters, all that hassle, and nothing changed.  Except one thing: God learned that violence isn’t a cure for violence.  Something else is needed.  If the concept of God learning bothers you, well, deal with it; there it is.  The fact is that all our language about God is phrased in anthropomorphisms—we talk about God being human-like.  He walks, he talks, he smells aromas, he feels human emotions, etc.  So why can’t learning be one of the ways we talk about God?  Furthermore, the idea that God is immutable or unchanging comes from Greek philosophy that is foreign to the ways of thinking of the ancient Hebrew.
The real issue isn’t whether or not God in the Flood narrative learned that violence cannot solve violence; the issue is whether we will learn it.  Think about it: if all the righteous people rose up and killed all the evil people, we’d be left with a world of righteous killers.  Violence would remain a vital part of the world’s structure. 
We are willing to try the ways of peace, but we hold on to violence as a necessary last resort.  Jesus leads us to another way—he lived the way of peace, and held on to sacrificial dying as a last resort.
What else can the way of the cross mean?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 4

When Cain murdered Abel, violence was introduced into a violence-free world.  But violence is like a cancer; its nature is to multiply exponentially, to spread and attack other healthy organs, to dominate its host even if such domination leads to the death of the host—and, ironically, its own demise as well.
Cain’s crime deserves capital punishment, but God is merciful.  If Cain can’t live with others as a settled farmer, then he must become a wanderer, estranged from all relationships.  He won’t be a part of any family, any tribe, or any clan, those relationships that provide both nurture and protection.  Cain realizes this; he knows he will be fair game to anyone and everyone. “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me."
So God, ever merciful, promises to protect him.  "’Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.”  Now here is an important point: vengeance in the hands of God is protective, not retributive.  Vengeance is a terrible tool, and only God, who alone is supposed to be the giver and taker of life, is capable of utilizing it properly.  God puts a mark on Cain that tells others to back off, and backing off is what God wants; he does not want to have to actually avenge Cain’s death.  He just wants Cain to be protected.
Immediately following this story is a short genealogy beginning with Cain, and five generations in Lamech is born.  There is an interruption in the droning pattern of the genealogy—the writer’s way of saying, “Pay attention, this is the important part.”  “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.’”  Vengeance in the hands of humans is not merely protective, but retributive, excessive, and escalating.  The escalation is two-fold: first, Lamech promises that his revenge will be seventy-seven times greater than the offense, not the mere seven times that God will avenge Cain.  Second, while God promises to avenge Cain’s death, Lamech kills a man just for wounding him.  This is not an eye for an eye; it’s rather a life for an eye. 
Hit me, I’ll kill you.  This is an eleven-fold acceleration of the downward spiral of violence, spanning five generations but compressed over just a couple of verses to impress upon us the severity of the regressive cycle.
What is interesting is that this truncated genealogy of Cain and Lamech is followed by the expanded genealogy of chapter five.  This genealogy, however, doesn’t flow from Adam through Cain and his descendants, but from Adam and his third son, Seth.  In this genealogy the people live extraordinarily long lives:  912 years, 815 years, 962 years, capped off by Methuselah, who lived 969 years.  And there is no pattern; there isn’t a slow degradation in the human condition in which men live shorter and shorter lives as the list progresses, signifying the degrading effects of sin.  No, they all live long lives, some longer than others, but it varies.  Methuselah actually appears toward the end of the list.
So what?  Well, it would appear that the writer of Genesis is making the point that the way of murderous Cain and vengeful Lamech does not and cannot lead to life.  It is the genealogy of death and degradation.  The genealogy of life must pass through another son and another way.
So this way is always present, always available, but it is not the way that prevails.  The way of violence seems to prevail, and violence not only leads to more violence, it leads to worse violence, from sevenfold to seventy-sevenfold.  Always.  It just keeps getting worse until you can’t stand it anymore.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”  The change is radical, from an earth void of violence to an earth filled with violence.  It metastasized, affecting not only the humans, but the earth itself.  The earth itself became corrupt; all creation suffers when humans unleash their violence upon each other.  This is self-evident when one simply looks at pictures of the landscapes of battlefields days after the fighting has ended.  The barrenness of the earth is clear to see.  Or go to neighborhoods ravaged by drug and gang violence and see the lack of life and beauty that is left.  Violence attacks any healthy organ and brings desolation.  The earth itself becomes collateral damage, and regardless of what any human will say, to God there is no acceptable level of collateral damage.
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
God was sorry.  He regretted ever making the humans.  He repented of his decision to make these violence-addicted creatures.  That ought to make you pause.  Of all the sins that you and I could commit, this is the one that makes God repent, makes him question his own decision, makes him want to go back, hit rewind, and start all over again.
This alone is evidence that the violence that humans perpetrate, tolerate, accept as tolerable, even necessary, maybe even, on a certain level claim as redemptive—this is our Original Sin.  This is what we need to be saved from.
And then, in a great ironic twist, to solve the problem God himself commits the greatest and most comprehensive act of violence the world has ever known.  We'll see how that turned out.